field notes from the wake of a tornado

For the past four days, I have volunteered in the central northern Colorado town of Windsor, which was visited by a devastating tornado less than a week ago. I don’t know any one in Windsor and had never even been there before. The town, founded in 1882 and populated by about 18,700 people, is 50 miles up the very same Interstate that I historically have done my best to avoid. However, there I was, pretty much throughout the three-day Memorial Day weekend and again today, and I plan to be there again tomorrow and beyond. I’m not sure why, except that I feel called to do so…

* * * * * *

Today I am taken to “Ground Zero” by a woman with the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services. The neighborhood of modest homes has a surreal quality, as though we have entered a Picasso painting. A home has been picked up off the ground and placed a foot away. A young girl’s 2nd-floor bedroom is stripped of its walls and sits exposed to the sky. Bright blue tarps lie flat on roofless structures with plywood windows. Roof eaves jut off at irregular and unexpected angles. Neatly raked debris sits atop a green lawn: splintered wood, a white board with a list of things to do, a bike that isn’t going anywhere soon, gutters and siding and pieces of carpet and trees and lives. There are houses and people working and cars parked here and there, but something is drastically askew. There’s a nakedness — a juxtaposition that the eyes and the mind are not accustomed to processing. I look, but I’m not certain I’m actually seeing anything…

* * * * * *

I am working with others who I have never met at a donation distribution center being set up by the (7th-Day) Adventists Community Services Disaster Response group. The elementary-school cafeteria is already filled to overflowing, and the trucks keep arriving. At one end, a TV news team is filming a husband and wife who are there to get blankets, toothbrushes and toothpaste, paper towels, and some clothing. I am folding jeans and a visibly shaken woman is near tears. “I am tired of being on television,” she says. “I don’t want them to put me on camera…we are not –” She struggles to find the right word, and does not mind when I complete her sentence by saying “entertainment.”  I tell her I will shield her, and if the cameraman approaches, I will turn him back. I keep my eyes on the cameraman and the agitated woman so that their paths do not cross; every so often, I sidle up next to her and remind her I am there. It calms her down a bit, and gives me the gift of being a guardian angel, if only for a brief moment in time…

* * * * * *

The Salvation Army has set up a canteen in the parking lot of a middle school, and provides three hot meals a day plus snacks and drinks to anyone who shows up – no questions asked. The day before, they fed 2,000 people. I opt to be out front of the tiny kitchen-on-wheels, embracing the role of asphalt hostess and order-taker and table restocker. The lunch stream is steady: firemen from across the street and the police chief, and National Guardsmen and women, utility workers, displaced families, and other volunteers. We go through apples and bananas and burritos with green chili sauce; gatorade and water and bags of chips and cans of soda; and endless rounds of “Thank you! No, thank YOU!” A local woman with her son in the car and her husband’s payday still days away, is hesitant to take more than her share as I encourage her to fill up a bag with snacks. “I don’t want to take more than I need,” she says. “There are others.” I direct her gaze to the semi-trailer parked next to us. “Look at that truck,” I tell her. “It’s filled with food, and you can take as much as you want.” She turns her eyes to me and says, “I’m not used to this…” I tell her I know that, and when she moves toward me, I respond with a big, long hug. Nourishment comes in lots of flavors…

* * * * *

I am touched and energized over and over by the giving and the receiving. I know that the upheavals and “disasters” going on around the planet are teaching humanity extraordinary lessons about unity and open-hearted generosity. Even so, I look forward to the time when we can all be equally caring and loving without a cataclysmic event to get us going. In the meantime, however, every small kindness moves us in the right direction…

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