Into The Storm: A Hurricane Hanna Tale

“Phooey,” I replied as I stood in the torrent. And then I laughed. I laughed out loud and I snapped photos and I dug my bare toes into the wet sand. It was no coincidence that the storm had a feminine name this time and I met Hanna head on and ready to be filled with feminine strength. What I didn’t expect was the joy, the sheer joy that her wind-and-water-dance would engender in me.”

Sometimes the big life lessons, the ones that alter your perception, the ones that are like the tiniest shift in the tube of a kaleidoscope leading to the unfolding of a fresh worldview, happen in unexpected places. Maybe it’s a change of scenery that can knock us out of the stupor of automatic living. That happened to me this week, on the south Texas Gulf Coast. In a hurricane.

My husband and I had this trip planned for about a month. By planned, I mean I had simply booked a bungalow for a week and let a friend who lives in the area know we would be in town. There was no agenda, which is unusual for us. When we travel, we typically have each day scheduled with trips to museums, cathedrals, and theatres; our vacations are never restful. But Covid has forced a new kind of getaway for us, that of little plan, lots of naps. We had been looking forward to the trip, we really needed some quiet time, what with two babies (and their parents) living with us, with bonus grandkids visiting as well. There’s been a lot of joyful noise at our house.

A few days before our scheduled departure, a tropical depression popped up in the Gulf; within a day it had been upgraded to a tropical storm. I contacted our hostess to see if we could delay our trip by a couple of days to give the storm time to play itself out. Unfortunately, the bungalow was booked for check in just a few hours after our check-out. So we loaded up the SUV with a beach umbrella, ice chest, a DVD player and our new boxed set of “The Office,” and headed south. Just a few minutes before we crossed the tall bridge over the bay, my phone buzzed with a weather alert: the storm was now expected to hit landfall as a hurricane. We contemplated turning around and going home, but the bungalow was paid for. On the advice of my local friend, we continued to our destination to assess if it felt safe, with an invitation to hunker down at her heavily fortified hurricane-proof place if needed until the storm passed.

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When we arrived, we found a cabin that has stood since the 1940s, its deep pink stucco walls surrounded by live oak trees of such girth that the house is ensconced in a sort of protective shell. We unloaded our belongings and settled in, getting a feel for the history of the place as our hostess, Juli, chatted at length about her own life as caretaker of the home. The smooth, timeworn floors are the original pine, tinted in a seafoam green wash that lets the natural patina of the wood peek through, and I slipped off my flip flops to walk on warm wooden floors that simply can’t be replicated by modern materials.

Then I headed outside, where I immediately wrapped my arms around the enormous bent limb of the largest of the great lady trees; I told her hello and asked her to protect us in the storm ahead. I descended the grassy lawn to the water’s edge to snap photos and sit on the wooden picnic tables that are mounted on stilts just where the tide can ruffle one’s dangling toes as it repeats its perpetual dance, advance and retreat, advance again, retreat again. When I went to bed that night, it was a challenge to sleep deeply, I rose several times to look outside and see if the storm was arriving.

Hurricanes travel in large circling bands of wind and rain, there is always a precedent as the outer bands of the system make landfall, and overnight, the waves at the shore splashed higher, the strengthening wind was made evident in the movement of the trees. When morning came, we made a quick trip to the store for rain ponchos, then I put the phone in a waterproof sleeve and headed outside.

I was drawn to the storm, compelled to stand in it. Throughout the day, as the storm made landfall, I continued to run outside, staggering a little in the buffeting wind, getting soaked with rain, sprayed with salty seawater, and feeling utterly alive and completely defiant.

“Stay inside where it’s safe!” I could hear the voices speak to me. “You can’t take a risk- too many people need you (which is patently untrue these days, I have never felt less relevant in my own life, but we’re sort of programmed that way as women- to assume we’re needed to do the laundry or some such chore). What if a tree limb blows and hits you in the head? What if a sheet of rusty tin slices into your gut? What if the water swallows you up?”

“Phooey,” I replied as I stood in the torrent. And then I laughed. I laughed out loud and I snapped photos and I dug my bare toes into the wet sand. As the storm progressed, I stopped taking photos and moved about 15 feet back from the shoreline, far enough from the waves to avoid being blown into the surf (hurricane winds have that power) but close enough to feel, really feel, the force of Hanna. It was no coincidence that the storm had a feminine name this time. Hurricanes alternate between male and female names, and I met this one, a lady, head on and ready to be filled with feminine strength. What I didn’t expect was the joy, the sheer joy that her wind-and-water-dance would engender in me.

I’ve lived an adult life of safety. My family of origin was turbulent. My mother was an abuser. I married very young, intent on creating a new home, a new life that was reliably secure. Its certainty has been challenged a few times, that’s for sure. And under all that, under the suburban idyll, the sweet hubby, the three kids with cute snaggle-toothed smiles and the dogs and the baseball bats and ballet shoes, my spirit ran restless. I made the mistake of confiding it to my mother-in-law once, this desire I had to move our family to a new place, simply for the experience of being somewhere new. “You can’t go somewhere new just for the sake of it, Kim,” she said. “You’re a mom. You owe your children stability. Safety. No, put that dream away,” she said.

Hers was the voice I heard behind me as I turned my face to the rain. I don’t fault her, not at all. She was right in the sense that it was not the right time to go adventuring. We didn’t have a financial safety net that would protect our kids while we gadded about; I had grown up with the spectre of poverty and wouldn’t inflict that on my kids. So I did it. The safety.

But now, I am hungry for something new. Something dangerous. A thunder of the spirit, a wind-shaking of the foundations. I sense it in my friends, too. In so many of the women of my generation whose moms may have marched in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s or who sat at home folding diapers and watching the bra burnings on tiny televisions but ultimately settled for the safer path and encouraged that for their daughters as well.

I think women have too long been denied this restless hunger. We’ve been told to play it safe, to care for our families, our communities, our churches. We’ve ignored the calls of the Feminine Divine to practice radical, risky love in favor of feathering safe little nests. There is a place for those nests, to be sure. But they are not our only calling. We are called to challenge injustice, to heal old wounds, to speak Universal Truth, to form circles of protection and friendship with other women, with bands unfurling and extending into the world to love men and nurture kids. Think of the good that can happen when women stand in the surf and shout their moxie!

If we will but avail ourselves of the wild love of Goddess and each other, if we will learn to listen to the inner voice who teases us into dancing, if we will look around us for the adventures waiting to be had, our lives will grow as powerful as the storm, and as gorgeous as the calm which follows it.

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Clarity, Closeness, and Chihuly

In Seattle, the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum showcases the Wonderland-worthy creations of master glass artist Dale Chihuly. Glass is my favorite art medium, and so I wandered the halls and gardens like a spellbound Alice, transported and awestruck, photographing nearly every corner of the place.

At my favorite indoor exhibit, the glass, beautifully lit as it seemingly floated in a narrow wooden canoe, its texture a contrast to the slick glass and mirrored floor, called to my heart. The vibrant color juxtaposed against the sea and walls of black, the sparkle and sheen of the glass, I loved it. It felt so clear, so clean.

Glass is heated to a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit so that the artist can shape it, whether into orbs, spirals, or vases. Only in extreme heat can the master artisan mold beauty. Here lately, I’ve felt the fire of stress and isolation, inertia and closeness torching the lies I tell myself about who I really am. I’ve endured a couple of rough patches as anxiety and the constant close quarters of seven humans in my formerly serene home do a number on my mental health. I talk a big talk about peace, serenity, and loving one’s self. But circumstances and the people I love, who love me too, are burning away the filters, impurities, the need to self-flagellate, the pattern of lies I tell myself.

It’s impossible, apparently, to be quarantined together for six weeks without some truths floating to the surface.

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So, moving forward, I am going to write my truth. Perhaps poetic, hopefully crafted beautifully, poignant truth about walking the path of restoration from trauma. I’ve come to that place in my journey, that fork-in-the-river where I decide: do I follow the stream I know, the one made clear by my damaged family history, or do I choose the uncharted? I’m ready to climb into my own canoe, surround myself with clarity and reflection, and do the work of making art of my soul.

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Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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