A few years ago, I met a man with a phrase tattooed on his forearm in typeface. On the surface we had little in common. He was nearing sixty, a Hollywood screen writer who had never known anything but wealth, though he’d carried more than his share of tragedy and pain. For a decade he ditched the U.S. in favor of South America over political issues I couldn’t relate to and as a gay man who had been “out” for a long time he lead a very different life than I. But that tattoo fascinated me. He only had one. It said, “Right Now, It’s This Way”.
We talked at length about that tattoo and where it came from. He said it reminded him to be present in the moment; to accept the world as it is and then work to change what he could, as he could. He said it’s not that you can’t change the world, or at least your piece of it, but that you have to truly understand it as it is first. He talked about meditation and mindfulness, the practice of being fully in the moment and understanding what the resulting awareness of your own body can tell you. It was the first time I ever had such a conversation without dismissing it as New Age garbage, a fact attributable to his very practical, grounded demeanor.
As we talked, I realized we had some fundamental experiences in common. I told him about being a member of the all-volunteer military in my second decade of forever war; about attending too many funerals and memorial ceremonies for men who didn’t live to see thirty; and how it often feels like the rest of America is living in an entirely different country from service members and families who have been living deployment to deployment for seventeen years. I told him how it only deepens that sense of isolation as we begin to hand the wars off to the very children of whom we said; “I’m fighting now so my kids don’t have to later”.
He replied with his experiences during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. How he buried a friend, sometimes two or three, every week for three years; so fast he barely had time to put a guy in the ground before it was time to go to another funeral. He said that the rest of America not only didn’t care, but made it clear it was their own fault; that they weren’t even deserving of sympathy, much less help. He said he emerged from that with a deep sense of the importance of being present in the moment and understanding what things are beyond his control. He came to understand that things will change over time with effort but “Right Now, It’s This Way” and it’s better to accept it and work within reality than struggle against things we cannot change, while probably missing the things we can.
Now I live in Washington, DC. I’ve been here more than two years but cannot conceive of ever calling it home. It’s been a week since Hurricane Florence made landfall in my adopted hometown of Wilmington, NC. Wilmington is where my family lived for four years, where we will return in nine months, where my child calls home, and where she will grow up if things go as planned. Florence raged across the Atlantic, heralded by predictions she would come ashore in a historic fury. She lost power at the last minute but decided to stay awhile, like an insurgent trading on persistence to make up for lack of combat power. Projected to be a suicide bomber with a nuke strapped to her chest, Flo was more akin to a drunk with an angle grinder kicking in the front door, slinging all the houseplants around, and randomly attacking floor, furniture, and walls before knocking holes in the water pipes, plugging all the drains, and then refusing to leave for three days.
My friends and family and hundreds of thousands of other people now survey the damage, calculating plans to move forward as they wait for the waters to recede. Some towns are still under water and it seems like the projections for when it will crest continue to move back another day. People now return to homes that look whole from the outside but are uninhabitable due to water damage rendered by the sheer force and volume of water Florence brought. Some people still can’t return. Their homes remain flooded outright. Accessibility is limited by roads flooded or collapsed into sink holes. One friend referred to the cascade of blown insulation that followed his collapsed ceiling into his living room as a “North Carolina snow storm”. Loss estimates are in the billions.
I am fortunate. My neighborhood on the banks of a tidal creek suffered almost no flooding. From my neighbor’s reports, my house was spared any real damage beyond downed trees but I haven’t seen it yet so I don’t really know. It could be a swamp inside. A neighbor thought her home had been hit by one of the tornados that followed the initial onslaught. It ripped holes in her roof two acres away from my own. Her husband ended up in the hospital. Thirty-five miles north of my house, the island upon which our condominium sits opened to returning residents today. Authorities ask that we stay out unless absolutely necessary so emergency survey crews and utility companies can evaluate all the properties for safety concerns. The condo may be untouched or it may be completely eviscerated like one in a picture I saw. I don’t know. It’s all just hurricane roulette.
I thought I’d head south the Sunday after the storm. Then I pushed that to tomorrow. Today I backed that up for another week. No one expected I-40 to become a river. No one anticipated that the city where my home stands would become an island or that gas and water would possibly be in short supply for weeks. I don’t want to contribute to the problem by clogging the roads or using the gas I will need to get back to DC when some people are still relying on generators. 60,000 people in North Carolina are still without electricity as of this writing. There’s a lot to be done.
I feel like I am shirking some duty. I should be helping, but the Corps sent me here. I haven’t felt this way since November 2004 when I was 200 miles west of Fallujah as friends and colleagues seized it from insurgents who had months to prepare for them. I asked to go there and was told to hold in place, that I was needed where I was. So as we did then, we wait, along with hundreds of thousands of people because, “Right Now, It’s This Way”. I am present in this moment, much less so than the people there, but I’m aware. And I have nothing to complain about. My daughter is in school while my neighbors in Wilmington are getting ready to start a second week of closed schools. I’m dry and my air conditioning works while good friends desperately need “sunshine, a dumpster, and time”. All the food in my refrigerator is good and there is plenty of it. Others rely on food brought in by helicopter.
But every day people are working to get life back in order. Stores are opening. People are opening their homes to the displaced. Electricians and carpenters are working long, long hours. People are driving in supplies. I’m taking a truck load down next week. The list of places to donate is growing. “Right Now, It’s This Way”. Every minute is a choice to either say, “This is not good enough” and wallow in our difficulties or say, “This is getting better” and take the next small step to make it so. “Right Now, It’s This Way”. Be present and adjust to that reality. Later it’ll be different. It’ll be the way it is then. It will be better. Because we will all work to make it so.
Russell Worth Parker is a retired Marine Corps Special Operations Officer. He likes barely making the cut-offs in ultra-marathon events, sport eating, and complaining about losing the genetic lottery.