The first two weeks of October, I was on the road A LOT, offering my heart and receiving so much heart in return.
When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, I struggled from afar for half a dozen reasons, part of which involved immense empathy and understanding for my Keys island family, having lived through a CAT 4 storm myself.
As the days ticked by, I found myself becoming increasingly more anxious to step foot in my old stomping grounds. I was antsy out of excitement, nerves, and fear.
Without consciously planning it this way, the timing of my trip proved to be quite serendipitous. I boarded a red eye on September 30, the two-year anniversary of the day a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean that might hit the remote Bahamian island I was living on. I landed on October 1, two years to the day I woke up to a CAT 4 historic hurricane on top of me.
But the second I walked out of Miami International Airport and into the arms of my Bahamian island parents who drove from Naples just to see me, my anxiety melted away. My island parents hug like no other–strong, sturdy, genuine. Their embrace needs no words to tell how they feel about you, about life, because their assuring physical touch says it all.
They drove me down to Florida City after a quick jaunt at Cracker Barrel (a restaurant I haven’t seen or visited in years–Amurrica!). I then waited excitedly in a Starbucks to reunite with my friend Kris who left the Keys nearly five years ago. I was SO excited that, in sending a flurry of texts and phone calls sharing my whereabouts and ETA to Keys folk, my palpable joy started putting smiles on faces of the coffee shop’s caffeine-infused customers.
I expected to hold back tears as we entered Key Largo, creeping south toward Marathon in the Middle Keys. Memorable and iconic local hot spots were strewn about; towering piles of debris lined the roads. But mostly, I had a smile on my face, because I knew I was about to see my island family.
In the short week that I spent in the Keys, I had limited time to help: ripping off moldy, sodden baseboards, tearing down dry wall, and digging through sand. My friends are exhausted; cleaning up the aftermath of a hurricane is a daunting task. Many of my friends are now homeless and/or jobless.
But they still have so much love to give.
I spent the evenings attempting to organize gatherings–relief from the hurricane relief. I knew one week wasn’t much time for me to make a dent in the clean-up and construction, but aside from putting my set-building skills to use, I also have my joy, love, and comedy to offer.
Before my trip to the Keys, I was struggling to process it all. I called one of my closest friends who knows the long version of what I’ve been dealing with the past couple years. He asked me to recall the first time I laughed after Hurricane Joaquin.
I really, really had to think about that. Due to my isolated situation following the storm, it was two weeks before I could get out into the community. I had no one to talk to about the fear I’d experienced or the apocalyptic aftermath that kept me awake and inappetent. Two isolated weeks following a traumatic experience is like two years.
But I thought hard, and then I started laughing. I remembered someone lending me some gasoline so I could drive the truck down south and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the now homeless, alongside the hot dogs my friends cooked. (Read more about the incredible perspective I gained from this trip south here.)
Bahamians like their meat, and they don’t eat PBJs. (It’s largely an American thing.) I made somewhere between 50 to 100 PBJs… but I had to practically beg the locals to take the sandwiches from me once we ran out of hot dogs. I remember laughing at my efforts to help and seeing how people can still be opinionated in the hardest of times. It reminded me that no matter what life throws at us, we’re still human.
Even if I am covered in sweat and dirt and my muscles are sore, I am still me. Even if my heart is broken and I can’t imagine tomorrow, I am still me. I will always have the gift of crazy, uninhibited, Energizer-Bunny energy, and I tried my hardest to share that with my island family then and now.
Another aspect of my healing process that was missing post-Joaquin was human contact. Studies show that supportive physical touch–a simple hug–actually results in incredible physiological changes within the body, including decreasing stress.
I hugged often and I hugged hard when I was in the Keys, because I’m a hugger, and I know how much I’ve missed and needed that in my life. My Keys friends are huggers, too, and they have a way of making me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt before.
Mother Nature can turn lives upside down in an instant, but she cannot destroy our human nature, that indelible mortal connection. Laughter and physical touch bring joy and hope that have a healing power all their own.
The Keys will recover just like Long Island, Bahamas recovered, and it happens with love, joy, and a little bit of laughter.
To anyone experiencing hardship: hug & laugh, more & often.