Life As We Knew It

It’s Friday, Nov 5, 2010. A warm bright day in Jakarta. As I usually do, after waking I called folks back home, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to check e-mail. As it usually does, my e-mail brought some good stuff, and some issues for me to grumble about. Then I read the news:

“Eruptions at Mount Merapi are still continuing and with increasing intensity. And it would seem that the recent earthquake off West Sumatra may have also contributed to increased activity of other volcanoes – with some 19 out of 68 volcanoes in Indonesia having been given yellow status – that is, a heightened level of alert due to escalating activity – including Anak Krakatau. Authorities in response have declared a no-go zone within 2 kilometers of Anak Krakatau. Meanwhile relief efforts have been hindered at the Mentawai Islands, West Sumatra due to bad weather.”

Here I am focusing on my petty issues when a few hundred miles away—the distance from San Diego to LA or New Orleans to Houston—volcanoes, poisonous gas billowing, lava, rock and ash spewing volcanoes are erupting. The caretaker of the mountains spirit is dead, along with at least 92 others.  A friend who lives about 40 km from Merapi said "the ash is falling like snow."

As events  often do, they brought to mind a book: Life As We Knew It by Susan Pfeiffer. This book, with its tsunamis, rising water, erupting volcanoes, storms, devastation and deaths did to me what Orson Wells’ broadcast of War of the Worlds must have done to listeners during its day. It terrified me—and captivated me—and is still haunting me—more with every day’s news. Written as Pennsylvania teen Miranda’s diary, this futuristic-cautionary tale is a real-time account of Miranda and her family’s struggle to survive after an asteroid knocks the moon off course. Pfeiffer’s Miranda makes my bitch, moan, and complaining feel normal. Even after these worlds collide,  Miranda sweats the small stuff, fights with her mom, longs for romance. I like that in her.

News like this, books like this, make it hard for me to go about my business. It might be different if I were a health service provider or provided a service. But I’m not and I don’t. I write. And when I’m not writing I plant flowers, make frivolous hats, organize parties, or go, as I am scheduled to today, for a mani-pedi and cream bath. It’s difficult to carry-on with such blatantly hedonistic pursuits in the midst of so much horror. It makes me feel like Nero.

So, instead of doing what I usually do, I wandered around the house wondering: what should I be doing?

Should we change who we are because what we are isn't noble or necessary? Should a cat stop being a cat?

Then I remembered the 2001 holiday season. Some society maven (maybe the breakfast cereal heiress?) was thrashed by the media for holding her annual holiday fete that year. Popular opinion dictated that in the Wake of the 911 Twin Tower attacks no one should make merry—especially not to the tune of U.S. millions. Her response (I paraphrase): You give your way; I give mine.” She then published an itemized bill for the party and suggested critics consider how many people she is employing and how, by throwing the party, she was doing her part to bolster the suffering economy.

She had a point. Maybe the best thing I can do, especially considering what I do, is follow her example. And, as Sam told the radio talk show host when she asked how he was going to get over the death of his wife, Maggie:

“[I’m going to]get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out all day.

And after a while I won't have to remind myself to do it.

And then after a while I won't remember how perfect things were." -  script from Sleepless In Seattle