Ok, so I have another few posts waiting in the wings and I’ll get them up on the site in the next few weeks. I’ll talk about post-show depression and new GTTP members – new projects and the life of a small independent theater company and everything will return to normal but before I do that I wanted to just say something about this whole natural disaster thing.
First off, I want to say that thankfully GTTP is fine. We’ve weathered the weather with limited damage to property and no damage to the people in the Tahiti circle. I also got word from Richard Mazda, the owner of The Secret Theatre, and, despite it being near the Hurricane Sandy flood zone, our unofficial home is also fine. No damage to any of the three theater spaces there so we are very thankful to the storm gods for that. Our community is safe. However, as I’m sure you’re all well aware, the Eastern Seaboard, particularly New Jersey and New York, were not so lucky. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all of those affected by the storm who recently got slammed again by this little nor’easter that blew through last night.
“We hear you Jess, but we saw the title of this post, what on earth does this have to do with sports?” you ask. Good question. I’m getting there. Some of you already know this but for those who don’t, I am a sometimes runner. In 2006 I ran (actually after mile 14 it was mainly walking) the Chicago Marathon and I was scheduled to run (I was hoping to make at least mile 20 before walking this time) the NY Marathon last Sunday…And as many of you also know, in the wake of the storm, the NY Marathon was cancelled. Let me just say here, this post is not about the controversy surrounding either the original decision to have the marathon or the eventual decision to cancel it. (For those of you who want to know my opinion, just for the record, I agree that canceling it was the right decision, though a part of me was still disappointed not to be able to run and hope to run it next year. But, as I said, that’s not what this post is about.)
What this post is about is Arts and Sports and the things they share. I know that from an 80′s high school movie standpoint arts and sports have nothing in common. There are jocks and there are drama kids and never the twain shall meet. But, as a lover of sports movies, I’ve never understood that totally black and white view of either high school or, honestly, the world. Sometimes the drama kids are athletic. Sometimes the athletes can sing…You get my drift, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about either.
What I wanted to talk about here is the thing that I think sport and art most have in common and that is their power to create a community who might not share anything else in common but they all like “this” whatever this happens to be. In this instance, when I say art I mean theater (because, of course, that’s what I do) but it applies to all of the arts: music, or painting, sculpture, or photography – you name it – they can all connect you with others. And, when I say sport, because I’m about to talk about running, in this instance that’s the sport I’m referring to but anyone who has cheered on his or her team during the world series, or the world cup – anyone who has cried over his horse’s defeat at the Kentucky Derby or her team’s defeat in a high school championship knows that any sport can bring people together. Because sports and the arts, they are more than just sport and art, they are ideas. Ideas we believe in. Ideas we share with others. And both sport and art create these little tribes, these little families that believe in the same thing. It might be the only thing they agree on but on that idea they are united.
I’ve spent the last week, both when I thought the marathon was happening and then after it was cancelled, looking at my feelings about the race. I was conflicted about running had it gone ahead. Don’t get me wrong, if the city decided to do the race, I would have run it – I had trained too hard for too long not to run, but I was conflicted and I realized one of the reasons for my conflict was that to me the NY Marathon – hell, any marathon but particularly New York – is an idea. And a grand one at that. It’s about pushing yourself to the limit. It’s not just a 26.2 mile run. For every runner who does a marathon (or who trains for a marathon) it’s about setting yourself a goal and then either accomplishing it or not but learning about yourself during the struggle. It’s about looking at this crazy distance and saying, “no way. I can’t do it.” And then doing it anyway. For the NY Marathon, it’s about a whole city lining the streets and cheering for you even though they don’t know you – coming together to help you because in the end it’s about looking into the abyss and knowing the abyss is looking back at you, steely eyed, and pissed off, and then choosing to jump into it anyway, and to be honest, you need all the help you can get. It’s dramatic and it’s moving and no matter how alone you might be when you train, when you line up with thousands of other people to run, and when you run through streets lined with thousands of other people cheering you on – well, you ain’t alone anymore. Because that’s what the marathon is about – setting goals and challenging yourself and getting through hard stuff with the help of your community. And though you show up with strangers, you soon make friends as you struggle and suffer together. And though you’re cheered on by strangers, you find your friends along the route. And for one day – for one moment in time, this enormous, isolating city, filled with millions of people, becomes this community of people all in it together.
But this year, as the true extent of Hurricane Sandy’s damage started to register and the thought that resources might be diverted from relief efforts for the race…it stopped being about everyone coming together. The city was broken, and the marathon couldn’t be the band-aid that fixed it. So it was cancelled. And it was the right call, but it didn’t change the fact that there were a bunch of people who wanted to run. (Do you see how I’m setting the scene here?)
So a bunch of people wanted to run…and a bunch of people on Staten Island (the starting point for the marathon) needed help. And in stepped New York Runners In Support of Staten Island. Organized by a group of runners who were planning to do the marathon, (and they put this together in about 24 hours, folks), the group urged hundreds of would be marathoners to spend the Saturday before the marathon buying relief supplies and readying backpacks instead of resting up and carb loading for the following day’s 26.2. And, on Sunday morning, as planned, we loaded onto the Staten Island Ferry and took a ride. The idea was that we’d all put on something orange (the race’s color), we’d put the supplies in backpacks and we’d run the supplies out to people on the island who needed them most. Along the way we’d pitch in and help, however we could, but most importantly, we’d go door to door – we’d hand out supplies, we’d help clear debris, we’d listen to stories the folks needed to tell, we’d cry with them or hug them or be with them – whatever they needed. We were told to be flexible and ready for anything. And instead of running away from Staten Island, we’d run right to the heart of it.
It was expected to be about two hundred people. Thirteen hundred showed up instead. It started with 5 different groups separated by distances: 6-8 miles, 8-10 miles, 10-12 miles, 12-14 miles, 14+ miles. It turned out there were at least 2 groups for each distance. For me, I knew I could do a full 26.2 but with 20 pounds of relief supplies on my back? With my old thick-soled sneakers instead of my barefoot shoes (there was a lot of debris still on the streets)? Without bathrooms or water breaks or aid stations? I decided I’d opt for the 8-10 mile route.
So Sunday morning, we arrive on Staten Island and a bunch of groups, clad in orange hats or tops or pants or all three take off to points south and west of the terminal. My
group, scheduled to go 8-10 miles, gathers around our leader to confirm our route and get ready to head out. Then the leader makes an announcement. It turns out that they’ve talked to FEMA and discovered that the people who really need our help are a bit further out. So instead of 8-10 miles it looks like where the help is really needed on our route is a round trip distance closer to 14 miles (4-6 miles farther than expected). So our leader makes the announcement – it’ll be 14 miles not 8, but that’s where the help is most needed. “So,” she says, “we can either stick with the original plan or we can scrap it and go where they most need us. Why don’t we take a vote? Let me get a show of hands for everyone who wants to do the original 8 mile route.” And then she looks out at the crowd. And do you know what she saw? Not a collection of individuals but a community with a single idea – Not one hand was raised…not one.
And it wasn’t peer pressure. It wasn’t like everyone looked around and noticed that no one else was raising a hand and so thought, “oh, I can’t be the only one to raise a hand.” Because, the thing is – nobody even turned their heads. No one shuffled, no one looked at their neighbors, no one hesitated or even considered raising a hand. It was as if 35 people collectively and silently decided – “we go. We go where we’re needed.”
And did I mention these people were mostly strangers. I mean there were little pockets – 2 people together here, 3 there – but as a group, we hadn’t met before we showed up to run. We didn’t know each other, we just came together because we shared this thing – this idea. This wish to challenge ourselves, but also to help. This wish to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. To be a part of this group. And in this case, our little community could help a bigger one. So that’s what we did.
We ran out to the FEMA station and along the way we stopped to hand out supplies – “who needs garbage bags?” “Do you need food and water?” “How about soap and shampoo, I’ve got soap and shampoo here?” We helped carry debris. We listened. One woman, standing in front of a pile of debris that a week earlier had been the contents of her brother’s home, hugged me and cried and said she just needed to know they weren’t alone. She didn’t need anything in my backpack but in that moment she seemed to need me. Just to know that they weren’t alone. That they weren’t forgotten. That was what she seemed to need most of all.
In the end it was a long, hard, wonderful, awful day. The devastation is unbelievable – and my group didn’t even get to the worst of it. Houses that are piles of debris. Cars that have been washed onto embankments. Sinkholes where once there were sidewalks or fields. One of the other runners kept saying to me, “how do you come back from this? How do you ever get back to normal after this?” And all I kept thinking was, “you don’t do it alone, that’s how.” So, in the end, I think sport and art have the power to move, to make a difference. And hopefully, in some small way, the power to heal. But their greatest power, is the power to bring us together.
In the weeks and months to come, as the temperature drops and more storms roll through areas with weakened (or in some cases obliterated) infrastructure, my heart goes out to everyone who is trying to come back from this. And, I want to say – you’re not alone. Because, it turns out, a run is a lot like a play — it is a statement — an idea — of strength and community, of coming together, of not being alone.
The folks in Staten Island and other parts of New York and New Jersey still need your help. Please join our community. Please help.
Like the facebook page and get involved – you don’t even have to run: