Saturday, July 20, 2013

Danger of Violent Thunderstorms

A big chunk of the Northeast has been under a static dome of high pressure for over a week.  The humidity's through the roof. The sun beats down like a schoolyard bully. Our cat stalks lethargically from her water dish in the living room to the relative coolness of the shade under a bush, and then back again half an hour later, sounding as cranky as I feel.

For the last two days, the forecasts in the New York Times have promised relief sometime today. A powerful cold front is lumbering toward us from the northwest, pushing more hot air in front of it, but promising rain behind that. I keep looking at the sky for the first harbingers of all this, wondering if each toss of a branch is the beginning of the weather system, grateful for the prospect of relief, and apprehensive of what the "thunderstorms, sometimes violent" of the Times report portend for my train trip up the Hudson Valley this afternoon to assist at a weeklong retreat. Two years ago, I was headed for Easton Mountain on the same route when a deluge brought down trees across the tracks and delayed us for eight hours.
Checking the web for alternative, perhaps more up-to-the-hour reports of what to expect is an exercise in self-perpetuating anxiety. The weather websites stoke their hit counters on hype, and so instead of "thunderstorms, sometimes violent," offers "danger of violent thunderstorms," with additional links, in case you're not yet anxious enough, to features on how best to prepare for the contingency. The weather is a threat, and the response to our lack of control is to pretend that we have some.
Part of the powerful mythology of my mother's family was my maternal grandmother's deep connection to nature and the earth. She planted trees at the house she moved into as a young wife and mother, the house where she would live nearly the rest of her life, the way most young couples place furniture. She raised foundling birds the way she invited stray human children as well to her already overextended kitchen table in the midst of the Depression. My mother habitually rehearsed a description of the rest of the family cowering in the house, in the midst of Indiana summer storms, while my grandmother stood at the back door, looking up into the wind and lightning and laughing in delight. I never saw my grandmother do this. Though I was blessed to know her for a few precious years, she was elderly, disabled, and sliding steadily into dementia from the early years of my childhood. But I'm grateful to my mother for passing this memory on, vividly enough that it's become my own.
I don't imagine my grandmother being foolhardy about the danger. I think she just didn't really give a shit about it--that she'd  decided  the possibility of getting hit by a falling limb, or electrocuted, was the acceptable price of seeing a wonder she wouldn't miss for the world.
This wild abandon seems to me all the more miraculous when I think about how she started her life. The abused stepdaughter of a woman who broke my grandmother's hip when she was nine, she fled the house four years later and dropped out of school to work in a greenhouse and live with the family who owned it. I think she was about twenty when she became pregnant by my grandfather, and they married, to the disapproval of his lace-curtain German immigrant family. That first child died in infancy. I imagine going through all that in your first twenty-one years might make you hold on to safety even more tightly. But my grandmother went the other way. She would never have used such language, but I imagine her thinking, fuck it, death by lightning strike would be a glorious romp next to what I've already been through.
I bless the memory of this woman. I breathe in gratitude that her blood runs in my veins, and I pray that I may have inherited some small portion of her spirit. I pray I'll be ready to look up into high winds exploding with ineffable sound and light the next time I have the chance, instead of cowering against a perceived threat.
 I think of the two dozen amazingly adventurous and spirited souls with whom I'm about to spend a week  at the Body Electric School's Erotic Temple retreat. I think of the journeys that have brought us all to this improbable rendezvous. I think of the courage it takes to bring our wounded histories, our longing to heal the rift between the sexual and the spiritual in our lives as queer men, our anxieties about being fully seen, our fears about what we can't quite yet face down in ourselves. I think of how easy it would be to scan the horizon for thunderstorms, sometimes violent, and seize up in an effort to brace against their danger.
And I pray that my grandmother will send her spirit upon us all.

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