“Weathering the Storms of Life _ Together,” column for Oct. 30, 2012

For more than 20 years, it has been my job and my privilege to write about life and whatever comes along. More or less. When asked how I keep finding things to write about, I say that part is easy. The hard part is staying alive and paying attention. If you stay alive and pay attention, like it or not, things will keep coming along.

Sometimes a lot of things come along all at once, so the question becomes not “what” to write about, but “which.” This is a “which” kind of day.

My husband’s grown children and 1-year-old granddaughter Charlotte are visiting us for a few days from California. We don’t see them often, so we try to make the best of it. Mostly we eat and talk and play with Charlotte. My kind of visit. They understand that we have jobs (they’re grownups now with jobs of their own) and are glad to entertain themselves.

So this morning, after my husband left for work, I told them to make themselves at home. If they needed me, I’d be in my office working on a column. This led to a brief, but thoughtful discussion of topics. No, I said, I wasn’t sure yet what to write about. There were lots of possibilities.

I could, for example, describe the feeling of family, how much their visit means to us, to know they’re safe under our roof.

I could write about the Halloween party we all went to on Saturday, where my husband wore a caveman costume and played bass in the band. The kids went as Scooby-Doo and the Gang. Charlotte was Velma. I went as, well, never mind.

I could recall how on Sunday, we sat glued to the TV, pulling for the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series.

I could write about Charlotte, how one little person can be, all at once, an endless source of joy, delight and exhaustion.

And if all that wasn’t enough material, I could write about next week’s presidential election _ try to find 700 persuasive words to say one profoundly important thing: Vote.

The problem was I couldn’t seem to focus on any of those things. I was too busy checking the news and weather reports.

A “superstorm” _ by some accounts like nothing we’d ever seen _ was bearing down on the East Coast, thousands of miles away. By nightfall, millions of people from North Carolina to Maine would be without power, or worse, would lose their homes or even their lives.

There was absolutely nothing I could do about it. And not a lot to be said about it yet. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

It is hard to write _ to put your heart in one place when it wants to go somewhere else. I tried to explain that to the kids. They seemed to understand.

Joe (Charlotte’s dad) said I should write about all storms _ in nature and in life _ and what it’s like to live with the threat of them looming overhead.

Juli (Charlotte’s mom) suggested I should write on the way disasters seem to bring out the best in us, make us forget about our differences and draw us together as one.

Sam (Charlotte’s uncle) said, “Just write about the Giants.”

Charlotte didn’t offer an opinion. But she kept pulling bottled water out of a cabinet as if to say, “Write about emergency preparedness!”

Great ideas, all of them.

Life often seems a little out of focus, a blur of work, obligations and endless distractions. It makes it hard to define, to put a finger on exactly how we feel.

But when the lives and homes of thousands are threatened, the focus sharpens and suddenly we see clearly all that truly matters.

So we wait and pray and stand ready to help ease the suffering of people we’ve never met.

Hard times turn strangers into family.

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