On Hurricanes, Writing, And Translation: Volunteering With National Guard

An Essay for a MOOC Course

…Sinister. Sinister feel in the air. Chill gusts of the wind. Strong. Stronger… The air infused with tiny splashes of sea water. Crashing water. More water above. A heavy blanket of clouds. Dazzling sun. Clouds again. Seagull creaks. Massive ocean out there. Massive…

A couple of days later, piles of rubbish, debris, and dumped, laying in heaps belongings array the road, thrown over the backdrop of the devastated cityscape—the view from my bus window. That school bus, going through Far Rockaways, Queens, New York, a couple of days since the ocean retreated, has been lively and bouncing a moment ago, now turned hushed and vigilant. We, a bunch of volunteers, are just a small yellow pebble in the vast of the ocean of the work ahead of us. There are other buses too, though, coming from all different parts of the City to this small devastated community and to others alike—people willing to come and give their help to complete strangers. It is enormously inspiring, isn’t it? But, still that means just a bunch of pebbles in the ocean. Massive ocean.

How many more city dwellers would have jumped on such a volunteer bus those days, had they been pointed the way? Or, if they had been inspired by a story...

Speaking of writing.

I am a volunteer, hardly a writer. But, we all need to tell stories. It is, in fact, the purpose for becoming a writer. And I strongly believe that, when helping a stranger, really we are helping ourselves. Months since I returned from that trip to a city dweller’s routine, I had a strong motivating feeling, a feeling of self-content. And still do. That feeling is what gets you through. How many more people would have gotten on a similar volunteer project, if they shared this thought?

Back to my story.

That sinister view as I was standing on the southern tip of Manhattan, hours before the hurricane’s landfall, is very vivid in my memory even now. It was foreboding, though beautiful. 

We have carried out our small mission back then.

In a preparation to writing this essay, I have read a number of other students’ essays in the discussion forums. Some are really strong pieces of writing. It is certain that, in the beginning of each story, there is always something a writer feels the need to convey, or something that sparks the storytelling.

For me, it was that menacing look of the ocean and the doomy feeling coming with it what helped to make the first keystrokes today. For one another student from Brazil, it was the urge to "fill the blank white walls of her toys room with writings of some sort." She could not help but fill in the void surrounding her and create, what now she calls, her “first book.”

Back to writing.

I am a musician, hardly a writer. Pressing the right keys at right points in time is much like making keystrokes, typing word after word—spinning out a narrative. Simplified. In those terms any composer is a writer. A sonic writer? Speaking in those terms I have already added a few short stories to my writer’s portfolio, musical pieces, however simple they might be.

I have seen that so many students in this course have really professional aspirations, and many are working on making writing their career. For one person from Russia writing was really transformative: She met her future husband through common interest in writing. They met online and kept communicating online for a couple of years before actually meeting in person and living together ever since.

Another student showcased her strong character to me. She faced a professional dilemma: Whether or not to forgo her hard-earned personal writing style in favor of successfully defending her Ph.D. thesis, since she adored the labored, evocative language of non-technical writing and hated the dry and succinct academic language. One feedback post suggested that she made two versions of her paper: one conforming to the academic norms, another one—an edited-down copy to help her maintain self-consciousness in writing.

I have a higher goal here as well. No, it is not about putting an end to corporate greed and austerity in our society nor bringing more justice into this world. A more mundane and personal one: I hope this writing course will boost my translating skills and language proficiency, as English is not my first language.

Back again.

I am not a writer. I am a translator-wannabe.


         by me, on a kitchen table and my lap, in Brooklyn, NY, May 2013