Spirit Matters: When natural disasters elsewhere hit close to home

This week, while more than 200 million Americans were impacted by serious winter weather, the media focus turned to Texas, where millions of people were without electricity, water, and other basic essentials.

In response, the rest of the nation, worn out by a year-long pandemic, and digging out from their own rush of snow and ice, watched wearily as their fellow humans in The Lonestar State faced this crisis for which they were ill prepared.

As has been the case the last few years, every news story, regardless of what it is, somehow turns political.

And in cases like this, where there are questions about the capability of the state’s infrastructure to respond to events like these, those who are responsible for making laws governing the infrastructure development, should be at the very least, required to directly address the problem, rather than point fingers at each other.

But, just for a moment, I for one – please – would like to approach an issue from a humanitarian standpoint rather than a political one.

As I write this column on Thursday evening, it is right after I have read news reports that power is being quickly restored to millions of households in Texas, perhaps sooner than expected.

That is good news.

As I’ve seen photos and videos in my newsfeed of icicles hanging from a ceiling fan, and at least dozens of people lined up at a spigot to fill water jugs, as well as anecdotal stories about individual and collective suffering AND the human response to that suffering, I could, in a very minor way, relate.

When I was 15 years old, I babysat one weeknight for my cousins, Chris and Brian in rural Toluca. As my aunt picked me up after her shift at St. Mary’s Hospital, and we drove to their house, the weather forecaster on the radio talked of the potential for 12 inches or more of snow to fall that night. At the time, the ground was clear of any snow, and my aunt and I smirked and joked about whether it would really happen.

Well, it did.

And the power in their country home went out overnight around 1 or 2 a.m.

And remained out for the next 22 hours.

As their water was provided by a well, there was no running water in the house either, which meant no flushable toilets, and no water for bathing, much less drinking.

Throughout the next day, we huddled around the kerosene heater in the kitchen, bundled up in blankets, as it heated up leftovers from Mona’s for us to eat. A battery-operated AM/FM radio kept us apprised of what was going on in the world outside our little abode.

My aunt and uncle live on a highway, and yet, with so much snow, it remained unplowed and inaccessible, so my uncle drove his snowmobile the roughly three miles to town to check on a few things.

The boys, my aunt and I spent the daylight playing cards and other games.

Around 5:30 p.m, with everything pitch black, the only thing left for us to do was hunker down for the night. The five of us made a fort on the living room floor and the couches, bundled up in our clothes and multiple blankets and pillows, while Chris regaled us with shaggy dog stories.

The next morning, power had been restored and our lives began to return to normal. My aunt returned to work, and took me along with her to return to school at Streator High, where I was a sophomore.

The drive from their house to Streator, which normally takes 25 to 30 minutes, took nearly two hours as we crept along the highways covered in sheets of ice.

In the 33 years that have elapsed since that night, my aunt and uncle have often laughed as we remember that experience, and how this “city” girl handled the consequences of a rural winter storm. For me, the hardest thing as a 15-year-old girl, was the idea that we could not flush the toilet, and that I could not take a shower.

But, as we reminisce about that night, I also look back on it fondly.

We had secure shelter. We had food. We had blankets and pillows and a kerosene heater. We had a radio. We had each other. We held on to our senses of humor.

We made the most of an uncomfortable situation.

And, we survived.

Just a few years later, my cousin Chris would die in a tragic hit-and-run car accident not far from their home. As I worked through the grieving process, I held on to memories of that snowy, power-less night, and the grace-filled memories it provided to comfort me. I remembered Chris, who was around 10 years old at the time, taking great joy in making us – and himself – laugh at his shaggy dog stories lit up under his blanket by a lone flash light.

And my heart smiled.

My aunt and uncle now have a generator, so when storms such as this move through central Illinois, life isn’t like living on the frontier, as it seemed to be that night, all those years – those decades - ago.

During times like these, when our fellow humans in other parts of the country or world suffer due to natural disasters, it helps if we can muster up a little empathy, either based on our own similar experiences, or just our ability to imagine what it must be like to endure such difficult circumstances.

For those who might not have realized it yet, planet Earth is really now a global village, especially in an age where we are easily connected in cyberspace…and, where we all are experiencing the effects of a global pandemic.

What impacts those in Texas or Thailand or Turkey, in some way, impacts us, even when we try to ignore it.

So, when we see troubling events like these, seemingly far away from our personal existence, let us look beyond the television or computer or smartphone screen, and see real people, really hurting, and respond with a genuinely compassionate heart.

· SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column that examines spirituality. Contact Jerrilyn Zavada at jzblue33@yahoo.com to share how you engage your spirit in your life and in your community.