Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) US “essayist, poet, naturalist”
A line of ragged and raging thunderstorms moved across New Jersey this morning, turning the sky a rather alarming shade of greenish, purplish, charcoal. I went around the house unplugging everything. Then I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to read Zoli, by Colm McCann (a wonderful book if ever there was one), a little battery-operated lamp at the ready in case the power went out. A boom and a crack and bolt of white light. Some long, long, LONG, rumbles, and a lot of water. I had moved to the living room, since my office has sky lights and it didn’t seem prudent to sit beneath them, given the lightning. Outside the window, the dogwood tree was all wet, making it look even more beautiful — black trunk and leaves as green as hope itself. I could have happily spent the day like that. It didn’t last long, in fact, not long enough. It was such a wonderful excuse not to work. Still, the storm also made me edgy.
I used to love thunderstorms, I mean REALLY love them, being one of those fools who run to the window to watch the lightning strikes, who sit out on the porch under the flimsy awning, and so forth. But then, last summer, during a particularly Gothic storm, the huge silver maple right near the back of the house, next to the kitchen and the den, got hit by a mammoth bolt. It exploded in a concussion that damn near blew out the window, and did blow out a lot of other stuff, like my computer, our washing machine, the television and so forth.
Witnessing, at such proximity, such a mighty act of nature is profoundly humbling, hence the fact I now sit away from windows, don’t talk on the phone, unplug anything electrical I care about, and drink soothing tea in a comfy chair, rather than go running about like a lightning rod. Let’s call it learning from my mistakes.
Thunderstorms are the stuff that myths are made of. Romans thought they were battles waged by Jupiter, who hurled great bolts of energy created on Vulcan’s forge. A Seneca myth says that in a cave behind the Great Niagara Falls, lives The Thunderer, the great chief of clouds and rain. Other First Nations people tell myths about the Thunderbirds and the Thunderbeings. The Germanic/Nordic god of thunder, Thor had a hammer, Mjolnir, which had the ability to throw lightning. My mother used to tell me it was the elves, bowling.
We are living in an time of stupendous weather events. Of course, there have been other such times in the history of the world (the ice age comes to mind, and Krakatoa, and the great flood which appears in so many scared myths), but that doesn’t diminish the way it affects us here and now.
I remember, some years ago, living in rural France. At night, we were often awoken with the cries of some animal or other and rose in the morning to find the evidence of one creature’s dinner, and and one creature’s demise. It was entirely more red-of-tooth-and-claw than us city folk were used to. It got me thinking. If the world is, as I believe it is, an emanation from the mind of the Great Ineffable, and if each thing in it (including me) is a metaphor, a method of communication, a Word, if you will, designed to bring us closer to the sacred, then what on earth (pun intended) is the The Great Ineffable trying to tell us through the metaphor of, literally, dog-eat-dog? Or fox eat chicken? If The Great Ineffable, as I also believe, is Love in its purest form, then all metaphors must point to that Love.
So, if I love the antelope, must I not also love the lion who rips out its throat? Hmmm. Not quite so easy, that one. Although perhaps we got some direction on how to do just that in that nice Jewish boy’s Sermon on the Mount.
I talked to a friend, the wonderful artist, Helen Pynor, about this. I asked if she thought we were being asked to love the lion in spite of its ability to rip out our throats (identifying, as I did with the antelope!). She paused for a moment and said, “Lauren, I think we’re being asked to love the lion not in spite of its being able to rip our throats out, but because of it.”
Oh. Really? Really? And then I pondered. Hmm… I think she’s right. Because it is in the act of loving, even that, yes, even that (whatever horrible thing you’re thinking of right now), that we are, perhaps, if we’re lucky, taught the lesson-of-all-lessons — that the power of love really does transcend all, even our own deaths. Maybe there’s something else there in the teachings of that nice Jewish boy who lived a couple of thousand years ago, that touches on this as well.
But, back to the thunderstorm. What, I have to ask, might we be invited to learn from the great weather upheavals of the past few years, and doubtless the years to come? What did I learn from the Great Lightning Strike of ’07? Well, humility, for one thing. And vulnerability. And fragility, and the power of randomness. We tend to think that if we eat the right thing, go to the right church, exercise properly, go to the right schools, etc… that nothing back will ever happen. And then Blam!! Lightning. And we’re right back to being tiny specks of lint in the universe — largely inconsequential, and yet improbably precious as part of the vast weft and weave of creation. It can all end to quickly. And how treasured is that fleeting instant, the fleeting instant of our lives. We are being asked to love the thunderstorm, perhaps, in the same way we’re being asked to love the lion — because it reminds of who we are, how tiny and fragile we are, and where we are: held even then, with the lion at our throat, in the middle of the random bolt, in the palm of creation, whatever that Great Ineffable thing may be.
Of course, a gentle lesson would be fine as well, I think, and perhaps to that end we might consider taking better care of this Great Metaphor of The Great Ineffable so it doesn’t have to go to such extreme lengths to get our attention, you know?