February 2nd, 2016 marks five years since category 5 cyclone Yasi ripped through the quiet beach town of Mission Beach, making a giant mess of our World Heritage listed rainforest, our homes, gardens and lives.
It was a picture perfect day, when out of the blue a friend showed up and told me to drop everything and begin preparations for a monster cyclone. “You’ll loose the roof. No point putting things up high,” he said. “Then again, the ocean will wash right through your house, so maybe just grab what you can’t loose.” “Are you joking?,” I asked, but he had already run off.
My house was a cluttered mess and I had no idea where to start. So I opted for a good spring clean. Shredding decade-old bills and getting rid of non-essential stuff in the face of a natural disaster made me feel calm and in control. That is, until my good pal Shivani dropped around and put an end to my madness.
“There is no time for that now,” she said. “Just grab what you can’t loose, the rest let it go, it’s just stuff!” “Got it,” I said and began to pack my husband’s suitcase. His medicines, his favourite shirts, his diary. Then my mother rang from Germany to remind me that he wouldn’t be needing his medicines anymore. He had died 4 weeks earlier and he hadn’t been able to take anything with him. Not his favourite books, nor his beloved Harley.
But I was alive and I needed to take everything I could. I rode the Harley to safety and I heaved boxes with my favourite books into a friend’s cyclone proof garage. I took my favourite paintings off the walls. I was madly holding on to stuff. I wasn’t ready to let go of the tv or the box with freshly washed linen. I hesitated whether to take the toaster.
I had seen my neighbour, the artist from down the road, take her toaster to safety. She was worried about not having enough content insurance to replace the essentials. I watched her gracefully pack up an entire shop and house, showing no sign of sweating under her wig, the support glove wrapped tight around her arm where the lymph nodes had been removed.
As it turned out, both my neighbour and I were lucky and our homes escaped relatively unharmed.This was not her first cyclone and she was philosophical about it. “The trees will grow back,” she said to calm me down. The denuded landscape looked like a war zone. I was hysterical. “Someone will come to this town and fall in love with it again. Give it a few years,” she said. Sadly, she never saw the trees grow back. Her cancer claimed her less than six months after Yasi.
What I’ve learned from cyclone Yasi:
1. It’s just stuff and we are only a blink in the universe
Five years on, I too can be philosophical about it. Yes, it is just stuff. Most of the things we worry about can be replaced. Many of us even came out on top with renovated kitchens and new roofs. The cyclone made us all aware of our own insignificance. In the scheme of things we are just a blink in the universe, as another cyclone-seasoned neighbour of mine is fond of saying. What is important is not the stuff we accumulate and manage to cart around with us, but how we choose to spend that nano-second we have on this planet.
2. Know what is essential
My neighbour, the artist, knew what was essential to her, faced as she was with her own mortality. She evacuated everything, because she didn’t have the time, money and energy to replace the toaster and the mattress.
My friend who’d helpfully pointed out that I’d loose the roof, on the other hand, forgot to securely store what turned out to be essential to him. Old baby photos, the things that can’t be replaced. “I’ve got none left, all the memories gone,” he said devastated. The box with his photos had simply been washed away from the open storage area under his house.
All the things I had considered worth carting to a cyclone proof garage proved to be inessential (apart from the photos and paintings). I recently chucked out the boxes with cds I’d considered worth saving. But at the time of grief for the loss of a loved one, I had considered it essential to hold on to everything in my possession. I had just suffered a major loss. I wasn’t prepared to loose anything else.
3.We need few belongings to feel happy
5 years after Yasi, I still have too much stuff, but it’s going out the door as I write this. I feel like I am on a never ending spring clean that began when I packed up my Sydney home to give my life a new direction by moving up to the Far North of Australia. I have lost count of the number of wheely bins I have filled with junk, the number of boxes and bags I have taken to charity bins. I am sure I could fill a whole truck with stuff I once thought of as essential.
I have reduced my stuff to a few plastic boxes that contain the essentials that can’t be replaced, like photos from the pre-digital era and important documents.
I used to think of my clothes as important. Several seasons in the wet tropics have left them mouldy and smelling like wet nappies. I now love pre-loved clothes from second hand stores. If they go, no big deal. In fact, I love my new-found minimalism so much, I’ve cleared the house of most personal things so that I can rent it out to strangers and roam the world with a minimalist pack. Right now, happiness means being free of too many possessions.
4.We crave order when confronted with chaos
It’s a human instinct to deal with a natural disaster by creating order where we can. The morning after the biggest cyclone in Australia’s living memory had raged through our town, you could hear chainsaws fire up to clear the debris, then the first lawnmowers.
A friend’s husband spent the first couple of hours of the morning after the cyclone mowing the lawn. Once he’d created a patch of order, he was ready to confront the mess the house had been reduced to.
Another woman told me how she’d mopped the entire house the evening before the cyclone. “I know it’s crazy,” she said, “but I needed to approach the chaos of a monster cyclone with a clean house.” I had felt the same urge to clear my entire garage of clutter. Except my friend Shivani made sure I focussed on more essential tasks. It took me another couple of years to clear that bloody garage, but I think I am finally there!
5.Things change. Everything is impermanent
Cyclones are part of the cycle of life. They’ve always been part of the weather pattern of the Wet Tropics. Seasons come and go, plants die and grow. My garden has re-grown. People come into our lives and create great joy. People leave, sometimes forever, and we experience deep sadness. Grief is part of life. Sadness for the loss of a partner can feel just as strong as the sadness a whole community felt when we awoke to find our environment and infrastructure destroyed. But in time things grow again, wounds heal, pain goes away, joy returns to our lives.
I’d been fascinated by the stoic calm with which my artist neighbour had confronted the cyclone. Now I understand, that having lived through several disasters and being faced with her own mortality, she had accepted the fundamental truth that things change. That nothing is permanent, including our nano-second appearance on planet earth.
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