The mixture of life

Yesterday was my brother’s birthday. He turned 24. He had a party in the Stupe after the college orchestra concert (which was really good, by the way), but in his invitation e-mail he didn’t tell people it was his birthday–on purpose! We were supposedly just celebrating April 22. People could come to celebrate–and I quote:

– a fine night of symphonic music
– the upcoming end of the semester
– Earth Day
– the passage of the Coinage Act (1864), placing the words “In God
We Trust” on all US coins
– or, any other April 22 event of your choice

But most of the people knew it was his birthday by the time they got there. 😉 The cake was a clue. I had a good time meeting and talking with his friends, and I stayed for a while even after he left. Ah, if only I could do more of that kind of thing, just go places and hang out with interesting people.

As I was leaving my apartment to go to the concert, my neighbors were standing outside as if they were waiting to go somewhere. I thought maybe they or someone was grilling dinner, as the people here sometimes do, because I smelled smoke. But as I came out of the side walkway of our building, I saw the smoke floating past in billows overhead, and my eyes followed it back across the courtyard of the building next door, where I saw flames licking the door and window frames of the upstairs corner apartment. Fire engines were already sitting at the curb, and other tenants were standing outside watching. I stood there with my mouth open for a few seconds, but since there was nothing really for me to do, I continued to my car. A woman walked past me weeping. I figured she must have lived there.

As I drove away, I thought about how devastated and helpless the family must feel. Having your home and possessions destroyed must cause a sense of loss on many personal levels, but it has to be bewildering even from a purely logistical point of view. I mean, you suddenly don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight or how long you’ll have to wear the clothes you’re in now, and after the immediate concerns, huge waves of life-rebuilding details are waiting to surge over you. I felt helpless in December when my car wouldn’t start in the in the library parking lot. It was during a really bad snow storm, I don’t have a cell phone, and the library was closing. And that problem was a relatively simple one that was eventually solved after I got over my initial paralysis. It must be a thousand times worse when your home has just been consumed.

And I thought about the fact that I was driving off to enjoy a concert and a birthday party. What a contrast. Here I was going on with my everyday plans while other people were experiencing tragedy at that very moment. I didn’t really feel guilty about it. If I had been needed at the time, I probably would have stayed. I knew I would be helping later because this kind of thing had happened last year, and the apartment office had collected food and clothes, etc., for the victims.

What I thought more about was the remarkable fact that when tragedy strikes, the whole world doesn’t stop because of it. Those who are close to the tragedy deal with it, while the complex wider world of goes about its life, most of it (such as all the people at the concert) not even aware that something terrible has happened in one small corner. I don’t think this is bad really. It’s important for people to help each other, but if everyone dropped everything all at once to help only one small group, that would really be a disaster. So yes, life goes on because it pretty much has no choice. And various pockets of it pause to restore order and health whenever its needed, and then those parts continue on their way, and other parts are given the job when problems arise somewhere else. I’m on the edge of this one, so it’s my turn to help out a bit.

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