“We never get around to it. It’s not that we lack the will. We have the will. We lack the money and the follow-through. Real life is always in the way. But somewhere an island is dancing in the sun, waiting for us to get our act together.”
Puerto Rico did not inspire these words from the memoir What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas; but, when I read the book a few weeks ago, Puerto Rico immediately came into my mind.
Puerto Rico is an island “dancing in the sun, waiting for us to get our act together.” Eight months after Hurricane Maria, the tropical U.S. territory is still struggling. Nature itself remains unsettled and the future is uncertain.
Mireya Navarro, a reporter for The New York Times who was born in San Juan, wrote after her return to the island earlier this year: “The ebullient tropical flora that forever feeds the nostalgia of those of us who leave for good — a paradise of flower beds in backyards and brilliant green forests on mountainsides, the skyline of towering fruit and palm trees — was in a state of distress, almost a kind of paralyzed melancholy, not unlike some of the people.”
Her description of Puerto Rico in a state of “paralyzed melancholy” shook me. I know from personal experience that melancholy and paralysis can stand in the way of proper healing.
I visited Puerto Rico only once, in 2014. It was my first vacation as a widow. Traveling with family and friends, I went in search of more than leisure and recreation. I needed a healing experience. I found it at El Yunque.
When I entered the only tropical rain forest in the United States, I was weak and worried that I could not keep up with my active companions. I decided to sit down in a pleasant spot and wait while the rest of my group climbed higher, treked deeper into their own adventures.
After a short time, my nephews, Quintin and Colin, returned to urge me out of my comfort zone. They would not allow me to miss the opportunity to experience the beauty they had already found in the mountains above us.
“We’ll get you there, Aunt LayLay,” they promised. One took my hand and led the way. The other followed close behind me. With their help, I scaled the high, mud-covered path and reached a breathtaking waterfall. The joy of that journey still brings me to tears.
I shed tears again reading Navarro’s description of the lingering effects of Maria on rain forest: “The hurricane uprooted so many trees that visitors to El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s famous rain forest, were now treated to newly opened vistas of the ocean. We visited on a Sunday morning and found most of the national park closed, still ailing from landslides and wobbly trees that park workers told us were still falling and shutting down trails and roads.”
Trees still falling. Landslides continuing. The devastation did not stop when the television news cameras went away. We may have gone on to worry about other world events, but Puerto Rico is still in crisis.
If, as Mireya Navarro writes, Puerto Rico is suffering from paralyzing melancholy brought on by the tremendous distress of Hurricane Maria, then our nation must reach out and offer helping hands in this recovery. Recovering the island’s beauty is good for our world and important for each of us.
Paradise for everyone may be just a few steps away, if we are willing to act. I know that if my nephews had not put their concerns for me into action, I would have remained alone at the base of the mountain while the restorative beauty of El Yunque was just a short climb away.
Puerto Rico – the island that is waiting – reminds me that every disaster we face offers us an opportunity to stand up, climb higher, and be part of the recovery that will bring healing to others and to ourselves.
It comes as no surprise that among the primary healers on the ground in Puerto Rico today are its teachers. PBS recently recognized Glenda Lozado, a fourth grade teacher in Puerto Rico, for her actions in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“Glenda worked around the clock to bring a sense of normalcy and safety to her students. With help from PBS, she purchased generators and school supplies to keep her students learning and connected while her community worked to rebuild. Even though her students and their families have faced many hardships this year, she has remained a constant light, keeping her students engaged, learning, and encouraged throughout the most difficult of circumstances.”
As educators and individuals who support public education, we understand the important role Glenda plays in bringing hope to her students and their families. Even in the most challenging circumstances, we can make a difference when we are willing to reach out and encourage others.
The Working Class documentary series seeks to inspire active classrooms and promote hands-on activities. Episodes including Working Class: Build & Grow Green feature career opportunities that support a healthy planet and a prosperous future for the next generation.