Living in the Aftermath

March 13, 2009

If you stand at our third floor window and look down towards town you’ll see the Golden Dome and Camel’s Hump and the green hillside of Hubbard Park. At night, in the winter, when the leaves are down you can watch the red light switch to flash yellow at Bailey and River. It flashes all night, whether anyone is watching or driving or not . If you look down Guernsey you’ll see cars parked in driveways, visitors’ cars along the curb. Cars leave and are replaced. People move away and their cars go with them. Marriages flourish and produce. Babies become children become teenagers start driving and cars bloom along the curb. Used cars, loud cars, adolescent cars. Marriages falter. Houses change hands, change color. Relationships form. Cars stay over for the night, silent in the street. Snowplows. Oil deliveries. Trash. Tow trucks. Ambulances, silent, flashing angels of death arrive and sit parked in front of this house or that one. Sits there and sits there as more and more of us come to the window to look and wonder. Another trip to the hospital? What is happening? Has it already happened? Has someone passed on?

Last week, last Tuesday, when the Big Storm whipped through, flashing lights appeared at the intersection 100 yards away, blocking both Tremont and Guernsey. All I could think of was my neighbor who had survived a heart attack last year. Had he been striken again? But his car was not in his driveway and the flashing vehicle was not at his door but in the road, intentionally blocking traffic. Looking closer I saw that it was not an ambulance but a Fire Department pickup truck. Electrical damage. Wind. The storm. It must be the storm.

Having a date with the compost crew down at the community garden I ventured forth and rolled to the intersection to find the flashing truck empty and an ambulance parked 30 yards down Tremont with three firefighters standing in the road all looking up at a mass of summer green that had fallen across power lines. One saw me, smiled and waved me on as I threaded my way between the truck and the curb. Branches down, he said, landed on the power line. They were waiting for a tree cutting crew to come remove it.

If you stand at that same third floor window and reach directly up your hand will fall on a 1913 edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary once owned by the Lyndon Institute. Published before World War II, before The Great War, before so many new and terrifying words and meanings entered our vocabulary. And if you’ve heard the word aftermath once too often, the storm and its aftermath, the aftermath of the invasion, the aftermath of 9/11; you just might look it up. And what do you find but a five word phrase: “the second cutting of hay.” That is all. Nothing suggestive. Nothing calamitous or catastrophic. The second cutting of hay. The after-mowing, the one that comes after the first, the math and the aftermath.
(The math of mathematics is unrelated. That root is Greek and means learning, learned. Hence polymath, someone who is multi-learned.) The Germanic root of math also yielded mow and meadow, the field that gets mowed. Aftermath has now come to mean what comes after, consequence: the effects of the storm, the damage done, the lives cut down. Blowdown. Windfall.

It seems to me that if we have ever needed to understand aftermath, consequence, perhaps now is the time. Misbegotten wars. Shattered lives of veterans. A shattered Iraq. A boiling Middle East. A heating planet spinning out storm after storm, in a fever, shifting, adjusting itself to cope with the humanity’s perpetual mowing. The seas, the forests, the oil buried deep to keep our cars and firetrucks and ambulances running and our cold wintry houses warm. We are recreating the world and unintentional consequences are piling up, aftermath after aftermath. Do we have the intelligence and commitment to see what we are doing and change our behavior? Will such a change make a difference in our lifetimes? Can we persevere anyway? Out of love for this existence, for these grasses that feed us and feed our fellow species. How big is this storm that is coming?

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