Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fifteen minutes

I will never understand the devastation in this world; how winds can lift up your life and throw it down again in a tangled mess upon the earth; how your boards and cinder blocks can stretch for miles and miles across open land while neighbors’ houses are perfectly intact.
A friend and I went to help the neighbors of a professor sift through what used to be their house until a tornado barreled over it. They were trying to find their heirlooms and photographs and proof of appliances for insurance’s sake. As we drove into the neighborhood, we were taken aback by the trail of wreckage strewn between and over houses and over a ridge into another neighborhood. Half of a barn, a roof where a house used to be…
We pulled up to the address marked by a cardboard sign. The only intact piece of the house was the cement floor of a two car garage. The two cars had been lifted by the storm and tossed into trees before falling into what might have been the living room. It looked like an angry child had smashed a dollhouse. The floor plan of several rooms lay a little ways away where the outline of walls and bits of carpet or tile marked separate rooms. Our professor introduced us to the family. The father nodded to acknowledge us but had little to say. I didn’t know whether to smile to try and cheer him up or to apologize for his loss. Neither seemed fitting and neither would make much of a difference coming from a stranger who still had everything while he had nothing but his life. That however, was a miracle in itself.
 The family had been sitting in their living room during the storms, believing much like I did until last week that it was just a bad thunder storm. Tornados didn’t hit east Tennessee. We have mountains that protect us. Suddenly, the family felt the pressure in the room drop. They ran to the cement storage area in their basement. As they opened the door, it flew off its hinges and into the air. The entire house was pulled by the storm off its foundation and dismantled by the winds while they were in it.
Unfortunately, only fifteen minutes after we arrived, it began to rain. All I did for the family was move a pile of cardboard boxes. I have no money to ease their financial loss. I have no home to offer them. I have no words of wisdom or comfort that will change their outlook. And my one tiny effort of helping sift through the rubble only lasted fifteen minutes. So what do you do with an experience like this? Add it to your collection of experiences, filed away until you need the memory to help you empathize with others facing a similar devastation? Write about it and post it on a blog?
And why do we read stories like this? To give us perspective on life and teach us to appreciate what we have or because like in cars on an interstate, we all want to turn and look at the wreck as we drive by? Why do we make movies about violence and destruction to watch in plush air-conditioned theaters when there is so much of it already in the world? Our culture is so rich that we are nearly isolated from true devastation and like curious kids, we’re drawn to accounts of it. But to those who have experienced devastation like losing a house or surviving war and genocide, when all you have left is your life, these accounts seem sick and detestable. So why am I writing this? Would the family I just met want to read a young girl’s thoughts on the destruction she only saw for fifteen minutes?
I don’t know. I don't know quite how to react but I feel that there are just as many questions to ask of an experience like this as there are lessons to be learned from it, and the more familiar we are with devastation, the more we will know how to react and how to help. I guess if nothing else, those fifteen minutes helps to put things into perspective and is a reminder not to make mountains out of mole hills.

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