November 17, 2020

How the Storm Taught Me to Abide.

I’m not sure if it is the hum of the machine or the ringing in my ears as I watch the turntable of the microwave spin four cups around, three with extra black tea bags.

I note to myself that I have to tell my son that he doesn’t need an extra tea bag in the cups. He simply needs to give the bag more time sitting in the cup.

It will be ready in time. My weather radio screams me out of sleep: flooding and a tornado warning in the southern part of the county, with high seas causing rip currents. There weren’t four cups of tea in the microwave. I don’t need to tell my son anything.

When I had gone to bed, Eta was blowing out to the west where she was supposed to fade away. Somewhere in the night, she shifted. She originally had been forecast to take a sudden zig or zag, but none of us wanted to believe that would happen. We thought we’d left the cone and that the zig, or the zag, was preposterous.

There is a list of things to be done for this situation, tasks of preparation, tasks that fill the time while a storm approaches. Tasks take on their own form of waiting, often waiting in lines. For a hurricane, however, this was short notice.

I don’t think I am alone in having ignored Eta. The persistence of COVID-19, murder hornets, the election, the pathetic arguing about the election. So many distractions, all relevant, all in the moment, sitting in the air like the black exhaust of a truck burning oil in traffic. We want to avoid it, but we have to go through it and breathe it in. We hope to pass it quickly, maybe holding our breath, or to try to get around the truck seeking that moment, that gap in traffic, to put it behind us.

COVID-19 is real, but it’s also really routine now. The novelty is gone. Go out, mask up, wash hands, don’t shake hands, don’t rub your eyes. It isn’t difficult after a week of practice—just annoying. Annoying because you have to think about everyday things for months now. Things that you took for granted before and want to take for granted again. We all know that somehow we will adapt. We all know how we can reduce its spread. We don’t know when we will do either. We wait.

The election was like an infernal buzzing. In sky filled desolate places, with miles and miles of grassland, like the rolling hills of the Dakotas, or the plains beneath the Sangre de Cristo mountains, there are times, weeks in a row, where the winds simply blow without relief. The sound has a tone of lament, and if unprepared, can lead one to madness. The constant howls and taunts during the last year were like this wind as they droned across the electronic ether of our daily lives. There was no turning it off. Shouting, flag-waving, honking, posters, and billboards permeated what the electronics didn’t cover. We all know it can stop. We all know it can be stopped. We don’t know when it will stop.

I knew Eta had been dangerous. It had killed 100 people in Central America with its winds and torrential rains. I also knew much of the rage of Eta had faded, and she was wavering between hurricane one and tropical storm. Neither of these is pleasant. Either one can cause flooding and blow a few roofs away.

Having lived 26 years here in Florida, I’ve been through a few storms. I know the drill. Experience has also taught me not to have expectations—but to simply prepare. At times like this, the motto of my ancestors runs through my head, “Nunquam Non-Paratus”—always prepared.

The upside of COVID-19 and concern that white supremacists would suddenly be running wild was that the house had been kept stocked. There wasn’t a need to purchase many of the usual hurricane prep supplies, like water, paper towels, cleaning supplies, various batteries, candles—which some people are against because of the open flame—and fuel.

I left for the grocery without a second cup of coffee. Fortunately, it was also a holiday, Veteran’s day, so I had it off and was able to get what little we needed before there were lines anywhere.

The house has withstood category one winds (sustained winds in the 80s) and gusts much higher than that. The roof is new. I wasn’t concerned about it blowing away and having water pour in with Eta.

I was a bit concerned about power. I don’t have a generator. Probably we should have a generator. The power company didn’t have much warning about Eta’s change of plans. Like me, they were hoping that the sudden shift east was ridiculous—although it happened—and so the tree limbs around the county hadn’t gotten the extra trimming attention that they usually get before a storm. Some of us will lose power. I hoped it wouldn’t be me.

Hurricanes come with thick, hot, dank air. They dampen any fabrics and soften any of the wallboards of the house if they get inside, giving rise to mildew and black mold. Skin glistens with a slight sheen, but there are no towels that aren’t damp. There’s no drying off—people don’t see this part in the news stories.

I received calls from the office telling me we would be off Thursday. On Wednesday, shelters around the county would open at 1:00 p.m. School buildings would be closed in case they need to be used as shelters. We all know the routine.

Rain fell like waves. Intermittent downpours, rising up on a gust and then crashing down so hard that it tears the leaves from branches, floods the streets, and litters the ground with detritus. The weather radio screamed another alarm about tornados to the south and more flooding. Local reporters scrambled to the beaches to look out for surge.

My sons were excited to be able to help if something were to go wrong. My youngest was stranded with us after his dorms closed in the spring due to the Coronavirus. He had to graduate online. My other son and his girlfriend work virtually, so they had made a trip down here to pick up his car.

Eta followed our lead; our lack of fear had left her with confidence. My wife, after a quick review of things, returned to her telehealth work and made plans for some Netflix movies later, “Hopefully the power will hold, and the cable won’t go out.”

We watched the news and waited.

This sort of wait has its own weight. It’s palpable. It’s not like being in line or expecting a phone call. Bands of winds and rain announce her inevitable arrival, but there is no knowing how the visit will be when she actually arrives—or how long she will stay beyond knowing hours will pass.

At times like these, my mind, probably like most minds, begins to wander. Experience has shown me that nature always wins. It could all turn out fine, or it could be the sort of cataclysmic series of events that lead to loss and tears. We hedge our bets that we will be fine, that Eta’s most unpredictable moment was her shift, and it is likely we will simply get wet. Times like these, in retrospect, are good times to take a moment and breathe. I need to learn to take my own advice.

I don’t know where I go when my mind’s not here. There is plenty to hold my attention, but it seems it simply doesn’t want to be here. It screams to go to dark places and hide bits of itself, flotsam and jetsam, among the various crags and rocks of memories, distorting and twisting current experiences, blurring now with whatever may have been bothering me then—I find myself on edge.

What do I do? What have I done? Where could I go? Why should I go? Where have I gone? Have I missed anything?

The irony is that being here, being there at that moment, provides a confidence, a peace, a stillness that allows for an appreciation of what is going on. There is a beauty in the power of a storm.

The sky was gray for the day, and the rain fell steadily. The radio screamed on numerous occasions. The boys (men really) laughed at my consternation.

“The Alafia River is flooding to the south,” I told them. My wife said something to my sons about my not turning off the weather radio. My oldest son suggested I unplug it and take out the batteries to get some sleep.

“I don’t think I can do that,“ I said.

“Of course, you can,” he replied.

He was right.



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