Listening Post: Gawking at the abyss

I left work a few minutes early on Tuesday to arrive in Potsdam, my home town, about 30 minutes after the storm. Pulling in on Rt 11, the devastation to trees on the Clarkson Hill campus first caught my eye, and then the flooded intersection below. Yikes! So I hurried home, which was closely surrounded by bigger and sicker trees than those that now lay all over the ground. And found no power, no internet–but no damage. Whew!

But I couldn’t stay home. Not having heard about the state of emergency, I drove into the village to, to–well–gawk. Evans and White in the river and  my only approved pizza joint on the planet peeled open like a zip-top. Trees on roofs, yellow-vests directing traffic, random debris, caution tape and flashing emergency vehicles galore, and plenty of fellow gawkers.

And I was excited, almost elated. The familiar was transformed, made new, albeit ruinously. Those with damaged businesses, homes and cars of course saw it differently. And fortunately, there were no seriously injured to see it even more differently. While I would like to think my first thoughts would be with those who suffered loss, my reaction as one of the unscathed was instinctive and common, if one can judge by old sayings. Like this one quoted (metaphorically, I presume) by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “I love peace, but I adore a riot.”

The primal message of random disaster is that “anything can happen.” But the corollary is “so anything is possible.” And that’s immensely liberating. The certainties of life are reassuring, but also confining, and brittle. When one certainty is shaken, all are cast in doubt. We gawk in amaze with new eyes. We come alive to new possibility. Here’s an old poem of mine–about 40 years old–that carries something of the feeling:

These Things Happen

When the wind blows east,
the trees sometimes rip up
their roots and topple.

And sometimes, the roofs
of trailers fly off, despite
the bald and peeling retreads
that weigh them down.

And half a village will vanish
in the ground as caverns
collapse beneath it.

So kiss me under this streetlamp,
and in the hallway of your house,
and halfway up the stair.

Though I’m well past looking for pick-up lines–which my older eyes now see this is–there is something about peeking over the edge of one’s life. It’s the juice that drives daredevils and war correspondents, I think. It’s very sweet, as long as the railing holds.


9 Comments on “Listening Post: Gawking at the abyss”

  1. Robin says:

    I think it’s a lovely poem and if it’s a pickup line then it’s in august company.
    Robin Williamson expressed much the same sentiment (albeit without the overtones of disaster) in “This Moment” back in the day when he was with the Incredible String Band.

  2. Sunshine says:

    You may want to try Josie’s in Canton…my local favorite with Sergi’s a close second.

  3. Lucy Martin says:

    Just change “your house” to “our house” and it’s no pick-up line.

    It’s a nod to the uncertainty of events – a reminder to appreciate being alive (with someone to kiss!) right here, right now.

  4. Dale Hobson says:

    Hi Lucy–

    That’s true, but would makes the poem untrue to the somewhat callow youth who wrote it.


  5. Larry says:

    Nice post – love it Dale – keep doing it

  6. Julie Miller says:

    Well said, Dale!

  7. Chelle Lindahl says:

    One of your better dispatches, Dale, and I generally enjoy them all. I came home to find it that way, rather than going there knowing how bad it was (why are these people so concerned about a storm in Potsdam, I wondered at the Common Ground Alliance gathering — I had not had the radio on, obviously!) but still felt some of that same giddiness of wonder and possibility, with a little shared excuse for commonality with other folks thrown in for good measure. My house escaped entirely unscathed, thankfully — Teds’ place is just down at my corner and my block of Main Street was a tangle, to be sure. Now the lights are back up and we’ll all move on…until the next time we have an excuse to experience such bated breath!

  8. Michael Greer says:

    All of my neighbors came out of their houses after the storm. Some ventured down to see the wreckage, returning home to wave their arms and share stories. With no power, there was no television and no internet to suck up our attention, we relied on each other for entertainment, and stayed out way past our usual bedtimes.

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