Before the Storm

Hurricanes can be fun. I learned this at a young age. In the early eighties, I was living with my family in Connecticut in a house where only the main road and a creepy old graveyard, with a gate too hard to operate without pinching tiny fingers, lay between the Long Island Sound and the beginning of our property line. Reports came in that a hurricane was making its way up the eastern coastline. Our family watched the news, which was only on a few times a day then. We listened to the radio, and then we made a plan. My folks decided we would evacuate.

Now, I want to be clear about what evacuation meant in Connecticut in the early eighties. We gathered our pajamas, our sleeping bags, and our toothbrushes, and we ventured about five miles in the station wagon to the next town to stay with my parents’ good friends who had kids we liked a lot. My parents’ friends were in fact the friends who introduced my parents to one another, so the eldest daughter, who is two years older than I am, and who is still one of my best friends today, likes to tell people that we have been friends since I was negative two.

So we might not have been evacuating in the ways we see sometimes on the television news, but being away from the coastline and from our house with a lot of trees overhead made sense. Our friends’ mom was really creative and fun. She had plans for all of the kids to help with. I remember doing things, like collecting candles, finding all the flashlights and all the batteries. I’m sure we saved some water, too. But when all the chores were done, more of what I remember is waiting for things to stop working, you know? I remember wanting to see the electricity to go out, to see some trees tossed to the ground, to see the roads turned to channels for streams of water that weren’t there before. I wanted to see a little chaos, a little destruction. I felt a kind of awe in the presence of something so powerful that it could make the lights go out, make the trees sway past breaking, and make water run through the streets of town. And I was going to get to see it all happen.

Now that I am older and can reflect on that day, three things strike me. First, the fun of coming together to help protect each other is really something beautiful. In the face of danger, being together made us all less afraid. And that is really one of the most important parts of that entire experience for me. Second, this early experience with nature and its power is one that has stayed with me. Nature is one of the great reminders that we are in fact human, and we are mostly powerless over winds that might fell trees and snap power lines, not to mention floods that might overflow ancient graveyards to reach my front door. And third, children, at least this child, at times, are the most adorable, enigmatic, little psychopaths we might ever meet. Who else sits and waits for destruction to happen around them?

Now, I do not mean to poke fun. Psychopathy is not a laughing matter. But even experts in this field acknowledge that many of the traits associated with psychopaths survive in small measure in many adults to lesser degrees. In an article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in The Atlantic a few years ago, she explained that “certain psychopathic traits have survived because they’re useful in small doses: the cool dispassion of a surgeon, the tunnel vision of an Olympic athlete, the ambitious narcissism of many a politician.”[1] Odd that she doesn’t mention the curious second grader who just wants to see the lights go out and the trees come down, but I bet that’s in there, too. I think something else was going on through that storm though.

In the years I’ve lived since second grade, like many of us, and especially in a place that has experienced truly land altering weather and geologic changes, we understand the difference between the storms we see coming and the storms we don’t. The storms we see coming are communal events in many ways. We would wait and wait to see if school will be closed. We gather canned goods, bottled water, and cash. We talk with each other about all about our preparations to withstand the storm. And then in many cases, not a whole lot happens, but we are together in the preparation, sleeping bags, toothbrushes, and pajamas at the ready. We are ready for those storms we see coming. But what about those storms we don’t?

With satellites streaming Doppler and other tools, the discipline of predicting weather has changed. More or less we know when things will be rolling in. Sometimes we get a surprise, but we usually get a warning to evacuate these days, that is if you don’t live on, say, an island. But weather does not hold the only storms we face together. There are other storms in our lives.

Someone snakes the spot we are angling for at Costco. Someone makes that terrible entrance from University on to H-1 East a lot closer than is comfortable. Someone bumps into us on the sidewalk because they are looking at their phone and trying to walk. I am just listing things that happened to me this week here, I confess. But when things like this happen, another kind of storm gathers strength. And I’m not only speaking metaphorically. Some psychologists call what happens at these times a limbic storm, when the amygdala lights up and we respond to threats or danger in a range of ways, perhaps with a dignified “Excuse me” or maybe with a less dignified response while safely encased in the hermetic seal of our car at Costco. However they pop up, these little thunder bursts, these storms, are a part of our daily lives, especially in a place where people drive like they do here.

But psychologists, along with the rest of the world, are also concerned with what happens when larger, more dangerous storms rage through people. This week, the nation of New Zealand joined the siblinghood of places where attacks on people singled out for their religious beliefs lay waste to the lives of the innocent for too many and to the innocence of life for everyone else. But sadly, tragically, events like the attack on two mosques in Christchurch are not new. You don’t have to read very far in the Hebrew Scriptures to find a man in a rage who kills his brother. There are a lot of other terrible things that happen in those books that men—and to be clear, in those books, like today, it is mostly men—but there are terrible things that people blame on some kind of emotion that took over them, like a storm that they could not tame. And the same is true in many, many cultures.

There is the story of Kahalaopuna from the first Hawaiian faith, who was a direct ancestor of the Manoa ridge back and the red lehua trees. Kahalaopuna was engaged to Kahui of the powerful family that ran what is now Waikiki. And some of their male associates thought it fun to suggest to Kahui that they had enjoyed the company of Kahalaopuna in the past. Kauhi became so enraged that he violently killed Kahalaopuna. But after he buried her body near Kaala, the tallest mountain on the island, her spirit floated to the top of the lehua tree to tell her tale to passersby. And when her parents learned of this violence, they located their daughter’s grave and restored her to life.[2]

Sadly there is scarcely a culture that does not have stories like these. Of course, when something is only a story, it has the wonderful potential to teach those who seek to learn a way of living that is restorative and meaningful. History is different, of course. Though we can learn from history, the tragedy of so many instances when the storms of emotion overcome people is that real people, ancestors of our humanity, lose their safety, their security, or even their lives because of it. And like so many of the facts of our own history, our own existence, these same themes seem to be echoing out from our history. As Mark Twain is often credited with saying: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”[3]

Today we hear real news of storms raging worse and worse across the globe, more catastrophically impacting the lives of us here on this planet, and most catastrophically impacting the lives of the global poor on this planet. And yet we have political leaders who deny that there is anything we can do about it, before the storm. They seem to want to wait by the window like a strange child who wonders what will happen rather than doing anything to help. And again this week we have the real news of the destruction by so many males—and again, it is usually males—that comes from rage breaking forth like clouds rolling over a mountain and ravaging lives amid the thunderclap of firearms, becoming all too familiar in the lives of humans who seek to practice their faith in peace. And yet too many political leaders fail, fail, and fail again to take action before the storm, even though it’s a storm we all see coming. And these are not the only kinds of storms we know. They are only the ones whose destruction is so direct and obvious.

I have a friend who talks often of his love for the sound of lightly falling rain outside his window. He even plays recordings of light rainfall to help him relax. And it’s not too far a leap to learn about those times when he suffers with bouts of depression, when the light rainfall settles into his own soul for a while. And there are so many other ways that the lighting that flashes, neuron to neuron, leaping the distance across synapses in our bodies, in our brains, racing, raging, through our mostly liquid water forms, bring crashes of thunder to our inner selves, where literally a storm brews in our own minds. It comes sometimes as rage, sure. But the storm comes as embarrassment, shame, and longing. It comes as loss, disappointment, and want. There are times when thinking of what goes on in my head, as weather systems we see before us, makes more sense to me than centuries of psychology science has ever explained. And on this I know I’m not alone.

Because roaring through the pages of history and literature and religion are story after story after story of the storms we all have known. The oldest preserved piece of written literature pretty much anywhere, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, contains some very human storms in the lives of the heroes of that story. But a massive flood, a deluge, eerily, if not intentionally, similar to the one Noah had to navigate, drives much of the climax of the story. And stories of storms are about as common in religion and literature as just about any other motif. But like so, so, so many of the stories, it’s not the storm that matters at all. It’s what happened before the storm that counts.

Do you gather round you those closest to you, or at least the animals, two-by-two? Do you seek out the ways to see, even if the lights all go out? Do you find or build a shelter safe from the storm? Do you plan to make cookies and just decide to eat the dough when the electricity fails? Sorry, I was just having a flashback to that hurricane in my childhood.

We heard from Michael today about Hawaii Men’s Shed and the ways that his group navigates the uncharted waters of so many whose lives seem to change overnight.

Way over yonder
Is a place that I know
Where I can find shelter
From a hunger and cold.

And we talked about those ways that storms gather in our own souls.

When the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines of me
Shine on till tomorrow
Let it be, let it be.

And we wonder together at the ways that we as children can see our way in the storm, keep away from the trees that can’t stand any more, and stay safe from the flood cresting the banks below the ancient graveyard and stretching across the street to our front door.

Make channels for the streams of love.

Because here’s the thing. In this month of balance, when we consider what it means to be pono, in right relationship. when we look that the sense of kaulike and balance what we need in our lives to be able to weather all that we face, we can learn so much from the natural world we inhabit, that with the right community gathered together, with the right preparations made together, and with shelter that can withstand the storm together, lightning that drives through the waters to rumble out a thunderous clap, need not lay waste to entire communities.

Pain, the storms in our minds and bodies, which might hurt to hold inside, need not lay waste to any more lives. We can honor more fully the wonder of nature, the universal experience of human pain, when, and really only when, we have done all, all, all, we can before the storm, to be sure that our siblings around the world, and in our shared community, and under our very roof, gathered together through he storm, are safe, are protected, are loved.

Then, and really only then, the storms we know can pour out blessings upon this earth we share.

And may it always be so.

[1] Barbara Bradley Hagerty, “When Your Child Is a Psychopath,” The Atlantic, June, 2017.

[2] Martha Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1970), p. 152. University of Hawaii reprinted this text from its original publication in 1940 by Yale University Press for Vassar College.

[3] Investigators of attribution cannot actually locate a place where Twain said this.

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