A stoic response to disasters in places called ‘home’

Scene from the devastation of the Campfire in Paradise, California, taken by the LA Times.

In the span of one month, two cities where I have lived and worked during the last 25 years have been struck by disasters.

The sobering thought that my fate can determined by factors completely out of my control has left me pondering how I am living my life and if I am living it the way I should. Those thoughts have also turned me to the writings of Stoic philosophers from 2,000 years ago, who wisely pondered the best course for living life and confronting misfortune.

The Stoics painfully remind all of us that bad luck is part of our shared human existence, as inevitable as death itself.

“You could leave life right now,” wrote the former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a frequently quoted Stoic, influenced by earlier Greek thinkers. “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

So what would it be like if my life ended tomorrow and all I had were today to life it? What if I confronted calamity and had to start from scratch?

In November, these thoughts were not abstract mind games, but deeply personal stories I watched from afar on my computer and through conversations with friends and relatives who witnessed these large natural disasters. They also forced me to have deep periods of reflection about my life and the years I have to live it.

Paradise destroyed: a fire engulfs my former home city in California

This photo by Josh Edelson of AFPGetty Images, captures the devastation of the fire the first day it broke out in Paradise.

On Nov. 8, a wildfire ripped through the lower Sierra foothills above Chico, California and nearly completely destroyed the city of Paradise, just up the hill.

I used to live and work in Paradise as a reporter for the Paradise Post in late 1993 and early 1994. As of Nov. 26, California authorities report the blaze that destroyed more than 13,000 homes and many businesses in the hillside city. The conflagration had killed 88 people, with 203 confirmed missing. Many believe the number of unaccounted residents who failed to escape the inferno is much higher. Media report the entire town of 26,000 persons had to evacuate, and nearly all were left homeless.

A photo by the Mercury News shows an aerial view of the fire’s nearly total devastation of all homes.

When I worked as a reporter there, I frequently covered how vulnerable the community was to this very type of catastrophe that incinerated it in less than 24 hours.

There are only two ways out of town when that terrible moment came, and residents were forced to flee with almost no notice only to find themselves stuck in a traffic jam and then having to flee on foot if they were able-bodied and could do so. My cousin, who was working for a field surveying team and who went in five days after the blaze, described what he saw as a war zone. He was sure many cars he saw burned out had scorched, human remains of those caught in the fire’s path. I felt tremendous grief for strangers I did not know. I also kept wondering, what if that had been me.

Next up: the Anchorage 7.0 earthquake

With the Campfire blaze in Paradise just contained after Thanksgiving, I witnessed yet another natural disaster in another city where I lived, Anchorage, Alaska.

This image was shared globally the morning of the Anchorage earthquake, on Nov. 30.

At around 8:35 a.m. Alaska time, on Thursday, Nov. 30, a massive 7.0 temblor shook the Cook Inlet region, including Alaska’s most populous city. The epicenter was 8.5 miles from downtown Anchorage, where I worked for six years at the Consulate of Canada. My home was just 1 mile away, built on soil that I had learned was likely prone to liquefaction during a major earthquake. I immediately thought of who might be in that apartment now and if they were OK.

The KTVA newsroom was heavily damaged by the temblor; this shot was taken shortly after the first earthquake, and many more aftershocks followed.

Like many, I was glued to the footage of roadways broken apart like twigs, cellphone videos of buildings shaking as if  freight trains were plowing through them, and the terror and panic in people’s voices as the feared their lives would end at those very moments.

I began seeing messages on Facebook, where colleagues had checked in to tell their family and friends they were alive and well. I contacted Alaskans I knew out-of-state, and as far away as Tacoma, Maryland, and Hawaii. All reported damage to their homes, but not to the ones they loved.

A shot of the Seward Highway, south of Anchorage, after the temblor. The highway was closed due to landslides and damage.

I wrote this to share with my colleagues: “I just heard from an Anchorage friend how powerful the quake was. Power is out for her/home. She described the house shaking like it was dancing on stilts. Reportedly 911 in Anchorage is operational. The good news for Anchorage is people plan for this, they have a world-class emergency ops center, a robust plan, and a major military base next-door that can also provide logistical support, which happened during the Good Friday Earthquake in ’64, one of the biggest ever in North America.”

My other concerns in life today seemed completely inconsequential to these distant human connections.

CNN fed video from the destroyed newsroom of KTVA and covered the many breaking stories of schools closing and some homes having small fires. NBC compiled video footage as well, showing how people reacted in their homes, at school, on roadways, and at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The New York Times compiled a summary shared with me by my Alaska friends.

Remarkably no one appears to have died, even with more than 15 aftershocks, according to CNN, some as strong as 5.8 on the Richter scale.

The Municipality of Anchorage was reporting more than 10,000 without power, which can be a severe and life-threatening hazard, with temperatures of wintry Alaska at 20 Fahrenheit and colder this time of year. It is remarkable there weren’t gas line explosions or other fires sparked by downed lines and combustible materials being ignited in many damaged structures.

Critical facilities like airports were damaged during the initial temblor.

The earthquake’s effects will be lasting. There likely is severe structural damage to countless buildings and homes. It is not clear if the critical infrastructure, like the Port of Alaska, where most food supplies are delivered by container ship from Tacoma, has any significant damage. The airport was reportedly operating by the end of the day. It had sustained damaged like many other pieces of critical infrastructure.

Later in the day, I shared this with friends on my Facebook feed: “Sending all of my Alaska friends goods thoughts as you recover and deal with aftershocks. I have every one of you in my thoughts, even if we haven’t spoken in years!”

As I was writing this short summary, a friend who I have not seen in years took time to reply to my email earlier in the day that expressed my concern for her and her family. Her words capture of the meaning of these tragedies poignantly: “The upside of the earthquake is hearing from old friends. … I went to Victoria yesterday for a long weekend. My husband … was at home. The house is a mess, but there appears to be no structural damage and the utilities are all working (many people in Anchorage have no power so we are lucky.”

The Anchorage area experienced damage to many roads and buildings.

All of my friends who were there or away report the exact same response. When I chimed in with comments that may have seemed flippant that I was simply happy they were alive, they did not turn to sarcasm. They gave me a thumbs up and seemed genuinely positive they were able to enjoy another day alive with the ones they loved. They were cleaning up and, I imagine, counting their blessings.

Making sense of misfortune and using that opportunity wisely

As I look back at this month, the theme connecting me to the tragedies impacting thousands in my former communities is that our lives, and all we plan for them, may be incredibly temporal exercises in futility. A single day and a single event can change anything. Perhaps that’s why the Stoics from two millennia ago urged their peers to contemplate purposeful living in the moment, focused on living virtuously and with the full power of one’s mental energies.

Ryan Holiday, a writer and promoter of Stoicism who I follow online, runs a website called the Daily Stoic.

A section of his writings seems particularly meaningful to me today as I exchanged my short, but touching emails with friends who I care about but no longer see or share words with.

Bust believed to be a copy of Roman Stoic Seneca

To introduce newcomers to this school of thought, Holiday provides learning lessons. His first essay concerns misfortune. He quotes the famous Roman stoic Seneca, and then offers some sage advice and urges his readers to consider the Stoic virtue of practicing misfortune as a tool to strengthen one’s capacity to focus on what really matters:

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” -Seneca

Seneca … suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”

It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a rhetorical device. He doesn’t mean “think about” misfortune, he means live it. Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you cannot just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.

Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

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Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

Back to where it all began

In early June, I visited Michigan, my birth state. I made a four-day whirlwind visit to promote my new book and advocate for changes to Michigan’s outdated adoption laws that deny Michigan-born adoptees their original birth records.

Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1930 (from the National Florence Crittenton Mission).

During the two days I was in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally returned to the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.

The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.

Decay was visible everywhere near the old Crittenton General Hospital site, off of Rose Parks Boulevard.

Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home on Woodrow Wilson is now the home of Cass Community Social Services. The former home used to house single mothers before they gave birth next door at the former Crittenton General Hospital, from the the 1950s through the 1970s.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.

I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”

I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.

Rudy Owens at the site of the former Crittenton General Hospital, where he was born and relinquished into foster care in the mid-1960s, and then adopted at five and a half weeks after his birth.

Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origin. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.

This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.

And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.

Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already

Maintaining Balance in Life: A Daily Practice

(Click on both photos to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Balance is an important element in finding purpose and meaning, and perhaps pleasure—but that is not as important for me. In my case, working on big things, in my daily practice with everyone I meet and myself, and in my life’s trajectory, give me the ability to keep things upright and tall, when it seems like life can just topple things down. Also, you can always re-stack things when they tumble. Life teaches this lesson all of the time, and we should embed this memory into our subconscious, as our reservoir of strength.

The stack on the right of the color image above fell the day I took this. It was restored shortly after by someone, and so was balance.