Things I Learned in the Storm

 Sandy was as bad as advertised. Here in South Jersey, we got our butts kicked. It wasn’t too bad around my neighborhood, but it was bad enough. Power was out, which meant we also lost water since we’re on a well. Trees were down in the area and took wires with them, but none hit our house, and that’s as much as I could hope for. Since I’ve been blogging fairly lightly (first because we had Confirmations, and then storm), here are some thoughts in no particular order.

1. Most people are good. I’m a hardened pessimist and a semi-professional hermit, and this realization was a long time coming. I’m still not all that comfortable being around people, but I like living in a place where people have your back. When the lights went out, we kept tabs on each other. One neighbor drove his generator up and down the street giving people an hour of juice to keep their fridges cold and charge their phones. People with working fireplaces invited over those without to get warm. A friend with power let my wife run her nebulizer when she couldn’t go any longer without a treatment. People with gas ranges heated food or water for people with electric. People offered to share food and water and power and anything else we had.

2. A few people aren’t good. I do believe my experience is the common one, but it’s certainly not the case everywhere, and there are places where the lights going out are an excuse to loot or prey on the weak. I’ve seen the looting photos and the entitled pricks who believe “the man” (most likely a hard-working middle-class immigrant, like the Indian convenience store owners Joe Biden likes to mock) owes them something. I try to be a nice, peaceful Christian, but dudes looting TV sets need to realize they’ll be shot on sight, not because a TV is worth more than a human life, but because a civil society and peace for all is important, and no one deserves to live in fear or see their life’s work stripped from them. Even more reprehensible, some people without power have had their generators or their gas cans stolen.

3. Gadgets are way down on the list of priorities. I can do just dandy without TV, music, games, and other expendables. When the power went out, I wasn’t missing my Xbox or my PC or my TV. I missed my refrigerator and my water-pump.

4. Speaking of which, let’s hear it for running water! We filled the tub with water for cleaning, sterilized all our containers and filled them with water for drinking, and filled pots with water for cooking. We never ran out, but it was a pain in the keister making it all work. I’ve camped plenty of times without any of these things, but I miss it every time.

5. And while we’re at it: woo-hoo, refrigeration! I’d trade every TV, sound system, computer, and iDevice in the house for a functioning refrigerator. We have plenty of canned and dry foods, the chickens produce self-contained protein delivery ovoids, and we can good last a good long time without meat or other cold items, but when it comes down to keeping your butter firm or your beer cold, well … these are the hard choices a man must make.

6. And speaking of chickens … they don’t like storms. I brought them into the library and set up a cage so I didn’t have to worry about a branch taking out their coop, but they didn’t like it at all when the lights suddenly went out. They stopped laying, and still seem to have a wicked case of eggstipation. Birds can get stressed pretty easily, and these are hand-raised pet chickens.

7. Rock beats paper, and Twitter beats Facebook. Facebook and news apps on 3G were useless (and major drains of vital phone charge). Slow to load and hard to use. Meanwhile, my wife got a constant stream of info, fast and easy, through mobile Twitter (she followed some news and hurricane/weather feeds before Sandy hit). Facebook fail. Twitter win. And, in the end, plain old FM radio always wins the day.

8. Boardgames don’t need batteries. True fact. Look it up.

How I imagine my trees

9. Trees are frigging terrifying. I live on a heavily wooded lot. I like it. It’s nice and shady and ruralish even though it’s still a small town. But once or twice a year, I spend a good 24 hours in a cold sweat when a storm kicks up and threatens to flatten my house. I get a hint of what Saruman must have felt when the Ents marched on Isengard. Trees are raw energy waiting to be unleashed: that’s why they burn so well. And crush so effectively. It makes me want to drop every tree in a 100-foot radius around my house. But that would just make the Ents angry. And you wouldn’t like an angry Ent.

10. I miss reading fiction. I haven’t read any in a year because of work on my masters, but I decided to just sit out the power loss by the window and read this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because nothing says “I’m a book you should read while sitting out a world-ending storm” like a novel about 19th century Anglican Church finance reform.

Actually, it was quite good, and I went straight into the second Barsetshire novel, the more famous Barchester Towers, featuring a character named Obadiah Slope, played in the mini-series by a familiar face:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does all this have to do with Hurricane Sandy? Not a blessed thing, so let’s move on to more important subjects, like …

11. We need to do a better job cultivating boredom in children. One thing my kids never, ever say is “I’m bored.” They know better by now. Before their lips even finish forming the “b” in “bored” I’ll have them reading Waverly, or sorting cans, or de-linting the dog’s navel. They live in a palace of knowledge crammed to the rafters with media which contain the wisdom and beauty of the ages. I will not tolerate boredom.

A generation that has to fill every second with stimulation–that cannot endure the quiet moments–is a doomed generation. Only those who learn how to be bored can find the quiet self-mastery required for greatness.

My son was getting a little punchy without his electronics when he wandered into the library and came across James Lileks’ books. As Sandy bore down upon us, he curled up on the couch, a reading light attached to his head, and read through one after another throughout the storm and into the night. He finally had to bury his face in a pillow to keep from waking everyone with his laughter. That, my friends, is how you get through a storm.

And later, I just found him with his book set aside, sitting quietly in a chair. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Thinking,” he said. Score!

12. Kids are more frightened than they let on. My daughter was nervous and jittery, and my son was a twitching bundle of energy. Neither was crying or panicked or huddling in corners, but they vacillated between edgy and giddy. They picked on each other in ways they never do.  They know that however much mom and dad may be able to protect them from monsters and brigands, they’re powerless in the face of nature. We camped out downstairs in the event of Ent attack on our roof, and when I got fed up with the fold-out bed stabbing me in the back and said I was considering going up to my own bed, they flipped. Full-on freakout. All that tension they’d tried to tamp down and channel into other forms bubbled to the surface, and they were just scared kids again. Needless to say, I tolerated the pull-out bed until the storm passed by.

13. Victorian novelty house builders made their elephants to last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14. Politics don’t matter. I don’t really think it’s wholly an accident that a country torn by the worst partisan political fighting of my lifetime is allowed to see, on the cusp of a major election, that political divisions are meaningless. Democrats and Republicans didn’t lose their homes and lives. Americans did.

15. Prayer works.

16. Everything ends. “I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

 

The Lord Was Not in the Wind

In the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

Prayer works.

No, I don’t mean “I prayed fer The Lord ta spare mah family/life/house/pets/car and bah gum He did! Not a branch scratcht a so much as a winder!”

That’s not what I’m talking about. Because, you know, these folks prayed too:

Did they not say the proper words in the proper order to the proper God in the proper way, and thus their prayers did not save them from the mighty wrath of a vengeful Lord?

It doesn’t work that way. The “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no” line that gets trotted out is a facile evasion. God doesn’t answer all prayers. He’s not a heavenly Santa with a kid on his lap who, instead of saying, “Ho ho ho-no, Timmy, you can’t have a pony! Where would you keep it?” says “Ho ho ho-no, Timmy, I can’t cure your mother of cancer! I need her here to keep the angels company!”

That’s not it at all. Prayer isn’t a wish list. It’s a turning to God. It’s a reconfiguration of ourselves in the light of God’s love and omnipotence. Certainly, we request things in our intentions and petitions. We request them not because he needs to know what we want, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” We request them so that we can know what we want, and that, in knowing, we realize all we have is dependent upon God.

Go ahead and assume that God knows you don’t want your house flattened by a hurricane or your children killed by a falling tree. Every person who lost a home or a loved one during Hurricane Sandy prayed for mercy and protection. When those didn’t come, they asked God to give them back their child and take them instead. They prayed that it was a dream and they’d wake up and things would be the way they were, but it never is. We don’t store up good deeds and prayers and then cash them in, like Green Stamps, for an intention. I wish you could, but you can’t. God doesn’t owe us. He already gave us all creation and our lives, transitory and volatile as that creation may be, and brief as those lives certainly are.

If my house had been destroyed or my child harmed would I be cursing God right now for ignoring my prayers? I hope not, but no one knows until they find themselves there. I’ve seen enough people dignified and faithful in the face of utter ruin and soul crushing tragedy to know that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, some of us hold fast to God and find a kind of peace in tragedy. Why that grace, so good and powerful, is not granted to all is a cruel mystery I’ll ponder till my dying day.

But this I do know: suffering can bring growth, and wisdom does not come without pain. In Edith Hamilton’s famous mistranslation of the Agamemnon by Aeschylus, we read that “He who learns must suffer / Drop, drop– in our sleep, upon the heart / sorrow falls, memory’s pain, / and to us, though against our very will, / even in our own despite, / comes wisdom, / by the awful grace of God.”

You can pick up an infant and not be able to tell if she’ll be pretty or homely, a success or failure, married or spinster, happy or sad, blessed or cursed. But one thing you can know for sure: she will die. Hopefully later, possibly sooner, but it comes for all of us, as does pain, and sorrow, and suffering. “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering,” writes St. Augustine. We take the good as our due, and the bad as some horrible glitch in the plan, yet as Job wisely asked, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”

I’ve written before about a passage in Luke 13 that haunts me, about the people killed when the tower fell at Siloam. Random violence, unexpected death, sudden tragedy. None of it’s new. But what does Jesus tell us about it? He tells us there is the death that takes life, and this comes for us all. This death is not a judgment and is not to be feared. The cross shows us as much. Worse is the death that claims the soul. Tragedy has a tendency to turn our eyes back toward the Lord. Pain is God’s way of getting our attention. And as St. Augustine writes, it is not without meaning:

Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor. (City of God, I.8)

Watch the news and see the people rising to help one another. See the self-sacrifice. See the people huddled a little closer and remembering what really matters. Know that sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to draw our gaze back to Him, and that sometimes a whole nation is allowed to witness devastation and suffering to remind us that what holds us together in fellowship is far more important than what divides us in ideology.

Some ignorant people are saying that the storm was God’s judgment on this or that, but those people aren’t Christians. The Bible tells us that God was not in the storm. He wasn’t in the earthquake. He wasn’t in the fire.

He was in the silence that ensued. And sometimes we need to pass through the storm, and the earthquake, and the fire–and, yes, death itself–in order to reach the silence where the still small voice can speak to us.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.