How do I feel one year after Hurricane Sandy? I feel lucky.
Before the storm, I was a seething, depressed mess. I felt I was entitled to having the finer things in life, but I didn’t want to work hard to get them. I resented my more successful friends and their jobs that paid adult salaries. It was as if everyone else in my life was getting ahead just fine, but an invisible wall kept me from keeping up.
I thought about travel — or more accurately, about escape — all of the time. I wanted to leave my boyfriend, who was so content with our boring life on Long Island’s South Shore. I wanted to leave my family, who lived in denial that my sister had a serious personality disorder and weren’t getting her the treatment she deserved. I wanted to leave my shitty friends, who only cared about themselves and the guys they screwed and getting drunk and stoned every day of the week.
And then, Sandy came. She filled my seaside apartment with four feet of water, and left me homeless for about four months. I became a nomad against my will, crashing on couches, finding solace and comfort in air mattresses, wearing other peoples’ clothing, and working side jobs while my company sat without power for almost a month. It fucking sucked, but I’m happy it happened — because Sandy helped me stop being a shitty person, and start appreciating the life I had.
I pretty much lost everything. Seriously. I lost my furniture, my clothing, my job, my home. I sobbed uncontrollably while gingerly placing my travel journals, destroyed by mud, saltwater, and mold, into Hefty garbage bags. I was most upset about losing those — the “stuff” I could replace, but my memories of traveling through London, Ghana, Eastern Europe? It hurt me more than anything. Those were some of my first travel moments, where I realized my adoration for the world. I’d never be able to recreate those feelings again.
But that’s the funny part about losing everything — you literally have nothing else to lose. You can only go up. And that’s exactly what happened. Tom and I found a bigger, nicer apartment in the middle of Long Island (far from any bodies of water or large trees), and I focused on making my writing into a career. It led to a better job, with a bigger salary, and I could finally afford adult furniture to replace the childhood stuff I took with me for my first apartment.
I became less concerned about traveling the world, and more appreciative of the new home I had to build up. I wasn’t concerned about “going out” every weekend just to not seem like a loser who liked sitting home on a Saturday night watching old episodes of Sherlock. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to escape. I wanted to discover what Long Island was all about — where I could get the best sushi, what kinds of microbreweries we had, where the most haunted house was, and what Jones Beach looked like after almost sinking into the Atlantic for good.
Hurricane Sandy woke me up and helped me realize how good I really have it. At a laundromat in Massapequa (the only one on the Island that had electricity, and heat, three days after the storm), I stopped stuffing the paltry amount of clothing I now owned into the washing machine as I listened to a man from Lindenhurst telecast his own Storm Story.
“The last thing I remember doing,” he starts, “is putting my laptop above my dryer. I figured that the water couldn’t possibly rise high enough to destroy that. When we came back the next day, our entire home was gone. It had been swallowed up by the tide, completely collapsed, and fell into the canal. We came back to a dirty foundation and some driftwood where our home used to be.”
That put things into perspective for me. I wasn’t a homeowner — I was an apartment renter. And while I lost a lot of the things that make a house a home, we still had our mattress, some clothes, a few kitchen items, our computers — basically anything we could fit into our cars and keep at my family’s house. We didn’t deal with insurance nightmares, breaking down our walls to spray for mold, or random people looting our unguarded rooms.
We actually made money off of the deal — FEMA gave us relocation money for two months, and while we tried hard to find an apartment that worked in that time, ultimately it was easier to stay at home and save what we could.
I stopped complaining, and I stopped comparing myself to other people. I started helping others, whether it was delivering blankets to neighbors still without power, making hot meals for the volunteers dealing with November’s freak snowstorm, donating money to local charities, or watching peoples’ kids while they looked for new jobs. It really feels awesome to wake up every day grateful to have a roof over my head, grateful to have a shower with hot water and a stove and a refrigerator that work. To have a car that still runs, and new friends who were there for me when I needed them the most.
I think Americans lose sight of important things like that. We’re so consumed with perfection, with being the best at everything, that we let jealousy overtake our personalities and we make everything into a race. “I need to work out more than him so I can get the girl.” “I need to be smarter than her so I can get the job.” “I need to be more successful than everyone because I have low self-esteem, and I need to show people I’m worth something.”
None of that matters in the long run. And that’s why I feel so lucky — because I’m beyond all of those feelings now. The American dream shouldn’t make you feel “better” than everyone else. The American dream should make you feel proud to live in a country where people come together in times of crisis, to get shit done.