Today we had a tornado warning. Yes, mid-south in January. Aren’t we supposed to be in the middle of winter? I am endlessly fascinated by storms. Having lived through a tornado that hit my house, you would think I’d be the exact opposite. Instead it fed into my fascination with all things weather and how powerless we are to it.
I’d like to think it was my continuous research on weather that saved mine and my daughter’s life the day the tornado hit. There was no warning at all and we were playing in our above ground pool. Nat was a baby, not even a year yet and she loved floating in the water. It was not storming, the sky was blue and it was a typical hot southern summer day. It wasn’t until the birds stopped singing did I think something was wrong. It just became eerily still. Not a sound.
I grabbed Nat, wrapped her in a towel and was climbing off the deck to the pool when suddenly there were clouds in my yard. Not ominous clouds, but white fluffy clouds gliding through the yard. I raced toward the house, leaving the sliding glass door open behind me, remembering all those school drills when we had to open windows to create a through draft. I’m not sure how I knew for certain it was a tornado. I just knew as I grabbed pillows off the couch and ran into the spare bedroom closet with my baby just as the tornado hit the house.
I’ve seen all the movies, and Twister was one that most accurately portrayed what it’s like to be in a building as a tornado ravages outside. But what they don’t portray is the whistling of the wind as it tears through the house and sweeps along every board. It does sound like a freight train, and I could hear the boards being ripped from the frame and the roar as pieces of the roof were being thrown asunder. There was creaking and Nat was screaming, not understanding why we were huddled in this small, hot closet with pillows over our head. It sounded like it lasted forever, but it was only moments. Then it was gone. And the stillness and quiet were once again there.
I crawled out of the closet, Nat clinging to my hip and thanked whatever it was that needed to be thanked for sparing us. A wall was missing in the room we were in, pieces of the roof were gone and rain was now pouring into the room. I stumbled out into the living room and there was a tree crashed through the front door. I chose to go out the back sliding glass door and stopped in shock as the pool we had just been playing in was gone. Vanished.
We were lucky. There was some structural damage and the concrete block garage looked as if someone had picked up the upper half and moved it over a foot. Every tree in the yard and there were several, were either gone or on the ground. One of them was propelled onto my car and it dented the hood to the seats and flattened all four tires. The tornado changed my perception of things in my life. It was the catalyst for ending my marriage. I left my highly stressful and demanding job and moved away to raise my daughter.
When I moved back to my hometown, I remembered the endless sirens of Spring. Every storm had the potential to spawn a tornadic cloud. But today, as I videotaped the gray low moving clouds that brought with them the potential for destruction, I shrugged off the danger. I had lived through a tornado. What’s the likelihood I will have to live through another one. Of course this rationale isn’t the most intelligent one, but it does help me sleep securely. At least until the sirens start blaring.
Yesterday was warm, almost like Spring was just around the corner waiting to surprise me. This morning, it was bitter cold and the flurries were like white confetti from the sky. Now, the wind is blowing hard again, but the sun is shining as if it were forcing its very will upon the cold. It’s not time yet, the sun seems to be saying. Just a little more time until the grayness permeates the sky.
I should not complain about impending Winter. It will, as it always has, occur every year for those of us in the areas blessed with four seasons. Although the trees are barren and the grass meekly clinging to the last vestiges of green, the landscape of Winter can be beautiful. The purity of falling snow, ice like glass hanging from tree limbs making them look like twinkling chandeliers in the winter sunlight. The puff of breath, visible only in the coldness, and the night sky revealing more of the worlds that lay beyond. Winter is bleak, yet such a disarmingly simple palate can be exquisite.
Of course there’s a metaphor in the harshness of winter. The trials one must endure always knowing there is a promise of ease from the unrelenting cold. Hang on, we tell ourselves, the sudden blossoming of trees, the sudden warmth in the air, is there in the distance. We can enjoy the delicate ice and snow, knowing there is the burst of life we need to sustain us in the future. And there it is. The promise of something better to come, if we just see our way through the nights that darken too early and the cold that sends us shivering to the sanctity of our beds.
When I lived in New England, I would begrudgingly endure the winters. I rarely left the house except for an occasional bout of playfulness in the snow. It was beautiful, intoxicating, but after mere minutes out in it, my feet wet, my nose painfully cold, I would retreat back into the warmth. My winters are milder in the South, yet my body is conditioned for hibernating when the first cold snap rears its ugly head.
In keeping with the metaphor of the seasons, I decided this year maybe I am meant to see something else in the winter. Maybe it’s not to just be endured, but to see something useful in its existence. Having been self-reflective for quite a while now, I believe there is something to be gained, even in the harshest of conditions. The last year was not always easy, yet there were so many wonderful moments. Each of them beautiful and unique like the snowflakes that are destined to fall soon.
Maybe this year, I’ll stand outside with my feet wet and my nose cold and look up at the sky devoid of any color but gray, and I’ll inhale deeply the crisp air and I’ll be grateful for it all. Even that which has caused the most pain. Because my gratitude for the first buds on the trees or a Robin hopping in the ever green grass, will be that much more. There is a lesson in it all, maybe I just have to be smart enough to study it.
How warm it is today
The bluster of a far away wind
Bringing with it smells from elsewhere
Winter held at bay
Ushering in the new year
With the promise that Spring
Is not so far away
Is there any sadness that can
ruin the beauty of this day?
Despite pain, there is indeed wonder
Look in the mirror and smile
You are part of it all
I had forgotten how balmy spring nights can be in the south. The hint of moisture in the air, the heavy hang of clouds, but still no rain falls. But it is there looming on the horizon. In the distance there is a rumble of thunder that will bring with it the torrents, not needed this spring. You can stand outside and smell the soil and the hint of far off places where the clouds have traveled from.
As a child I would stand in the grass, smelling of the sticky heat of the day, my legs painted with clear fingernail polish to ward off the chigger bugs that would leave behind red bite marks. There would be the scent of the honeysuckle, not yet bloomed and the mimosa tree blossoms not yet open and I would search the bushes and the trees for the first flicker of light. A lightning bug meant summer was imminent and the nights would be as hot as the midday.
But the spring meant the storms would be fierce, the wind would howl and there was always a threat of tornadoes. The air crackled with the electricity of danger and everywhere else seemed very far off. I would count the caterpillars nesting in the tree and then worry for them as the rain sluiced great waterfalls against every surface.
After a rain, late at night when the breeze still managed to cool, I would step out onto the wet grass, my toes sinking into the mud and stare at the stars. Later, in college, when I took astronomy during the winter months, I would wish I could have seen those same spring stars and understood more what I had seen as a child. But then, I was just in awe of the dots of glittering somethings.
Life was not simple or uncomplicated then. I was not unfazed by pain or disappointment, whether it was in something or in someone. I was just a girl, waiting for the storms to pass, waiting for the flowers to bloom, waiting for whatever lay ahead. Sometimes I would try to will a future in existence, but it looks nothing like what I saw as a child. I am not living anything that resembles the life I would wish upon the stars for.
Tonight when I stood outside and I complained I didn’t remember so many bugs when I was a child, I stopped for a moment. I listened to the steady sound of whatever insect it was in the trees that hummed like downed power lines. I looked at the stars, barely visible behind what were bright billowy clouds during the day, but were like discarded crumpled wads of paper now blocking the light. I smelled the rain that will fall later when I’m asleep.
I am an adult now. Not unfazed by pain or disappointment, whether it is in something or someone. I’m just a woman, waiting for the storms to pass, waiting for the flowers to bloom again, waiting for whatever lays ahead. Waiting in the balmy spring night.
Chick did not know ducks could be so sad. First, the gaggle of giggling geese had arrived one breezy afternoon and they had not left the pond where all the ducks would lazily float. Now the water splashed with goose gadabout and the honking pierced the quiet that use to be. The geese gorged on bugs and gobbled water as Chick stood on the bank of the pond helpless to the greed of those grouchy geese.
On top of everything it was raining. Had been for what ducks thought were days and the ground was cold and damp and Chick’s feathers were always wet. She shivered and she shook but nothing dried the down she was beginning to shed. Chick ducked into her new home, a battered and discarded mailbox the gopher had tired of carrying and left it at the pond.
There the rain tap tap tapped on the metal roof and in a better mood, she would have found it soothing. Instead, she moped and moaned, staring forlornly at the hill where Badger and Badger’s tree lived. Chick clucked and sighed, unable to express her sadness in any other way.
Badger had been in his hole again since the rain and the geese fell from the sky. There were days when he would be sitting on a root at the base of the tree and he was animated and talkative and Chick felt the rays of his attention and affection. Then he would be busy burrowing or chasing a squirrel from his hive of honey and he would barely grunt a hello. Chick would sit in the grass and wonder if Badger still thought of her as he did on the sunny days.
After she had moved into her mailbox home, she had asked him to venture down the hill and visit her. His mood darkened and he harrumphed his displeasure.
“I can’t leave my hole.” Was his latest excuse. “The way this works is you come visit me.”
“Friends have give and take. Even if it makes you scared, you should try to come see my new house. You should try to do things friends do.”
“Then find a friend who does those things.” Badger had grumbled more than any geese could.
Chick had huffed away, for what felt like the hundredth time, but the next morning she was back at the tree sharing honey and trying to figure out what she meant to Badger.
All of this kept her very occupied until the geese garnered her attention. Even in the rain that created puddles in the grass she had to float across, she made her way to Badger’s hole and descended into the dankness that was the world he lived in.
“You never knock.” Badger groused.
“Friends shouldn’t have to.” Chick fluffed her feathers at him and saw even in all his grouchy, he badger smiled. “The ducks have been gabbling and we are leaving the pond. The geese have made everyone miserable and grief stricken. The new pond is too far to walk here every morning.”
“Come with me.” Chick felt her throat all heart lumpy. “There’s a tree there, and probably bees and it’s even prettier than this one.”
“You keep talking about leaving. You’re always talking about other ponds and other meadows.” She could feel Badger’s anger. “I want to stay here. I don’t like change and I don’t like friends who try to change me.”
Suddenly the hole seemed so much smaller and Chick’s heart seemed so much more broken. “I thought we were best friends and always would be. That means we try to change together so we stay like this forever.”
“Badgers don’t change for anyone.”
Chick felt the last piece of her heart shatter and splinter. She wanted to stand there arguing with him as she had ever other time. She wanted to remind him of the mornings when they ate honey and everything felt so perfect and they were so happy. But standing there, seeing his cold badger eyes, she knew reminding him would not change anything. He had to want those mornings again, and he no longer did.
With all the cheerlessness of the entire world resting on her shoulders, Chick walked away from the friend she had loved more than she even loved herself. She waddled her way back to the duck pond where the mallards were haughtily discussing their impending move. Chick turned to the hill where Badger would live without seeing her every day. He didn’t care she was moving to another pond or even another world.
Chick toddled into her mailbox house and sat down on the flowers she had fashioned into a sweet smelling bed fit for even a swan. Over the gossiping geese, she listened to the rain trop trop tropping onto the roof and felt the rain leak from her eyes. Such a sad duck indeed.
Badger was in only one word that could possibly describe him at that very moment, despondent. He sat in the dankness of his hovel, his stomach rumbling as he had eaten the last of his honey and clovers the night before. He had been hiding for days from Chick, who showed up every morning for breakfast and every morning he peeked out of the burrow to watch her waddle away, her beak ducked sadly.
For days they had been the best of friends and the fizzy feeling in his badger stomach had made him fall asleep with a smile only a badger could manage. He didn’t think he would like having a friend who poked and prodded his feelings so much. He didn’t think he would like having a friend who could talk about the color green or a dandelion she had sat watching. But he did. He looked forward to when he would hear Chick humming as she walked and the little fluff of her feathers she did when she saw him. She thought he didn’t notice, but he noticed everything about her.
She taught him about ducks and he taught her about badgers. When they walked along the creek, she floated in the mirror of the water and would look at her reflection and think there is one all the other animals know, and then there is the real Chick I know. In return, he let her see the real him behind the fur and the growling exterior.
He knew in his heart Chick’s heart was full of the us that was. Yet, sometimes, they would sit on a patch of grass and the bees buzzed and the birds flew and she would ask him to tell her something important and the words would get stuck in the fizz of his stomach. He would get grumpy when he became tongue tied and twitchy when she poked a certain feeling too hard. He had not known ducks were so sensitive and Chick would drop her wings in a sad way and he would feel the change between them.
One morning, when Chick had huffed away having only asked him what his favorite flower was and he wanted to tell her it was not really a flower, but the honeysuckle bush that tasted as sweet as honey but smelled so much sweeter, but the words jumbled on his tongue. What did she think? He was a badger after all. Badger’s had certain behaviors and who was she to huff about them?
“Friendship is impossible.” Bear, the squirrel who lived above the honey hive, said as he piled acorns in a pyramid against the root of the tree.
Badger harumphed and watched the field to see if Chick would make the trek across the dew dotted grass that morning to yet again be turned away.
Bear clucked his tongue and shook his tail. “I know badgers are stupider than squirrels, but you Badger are the stupidest of them all.”
Badger growled and snapped his jaws. “Leave me alone, Bear.”
“Squirrels know a lot about love, Badger.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“The world is big, Badger.” Bear continued, balancing another acorn on top of an already lopsided and wobbily pile. “I was up in my tree and I heard her chirping about other ponds. You’re afraid she’ll go away to another pond and you’re afraid all these things about you that make her huff away will mean she will never come back.”
“Why can’t she just let me be me?” Badger sighed, no longer interested in arguing with Bear. Squirrels were smarter than badgers after all.
“Because one day she’ll have to move to another pond, and she is afraid too.” Bear clucked his tongue again. “And she’s afraid you’re so comfortable hiding in your hole you won’t want to venture to other ponds with her.”
“Why can’t she just stay in one pond and things never change between us?”
Bear walked over to Badger and patted his shoulder. “Just like the seasons, we change Badger. If we don’t change everything would always be the same and we would never meet ducks named Chick or see snow on the tree limbs or seas of flowers.”
“I make her huff and I think I hurt her feelings.”
“She makes you harumph and she hurts your feelings, but does that mean you don’t want to be her friends?”
Badger sniffled. “It never does.”
“Squirrels are smart.” Bear tossed an acorn over his shoulder and his entire pyramid of the nuts collapsed and rolled into the leaves. Bear shrugged. “Things fall down and you get a chance to rebuild it. Every time you make it a little stronger and a lot sturdier until you get it figured out.”
At that moment, Badger knew squirrels named Bear were the smartest of squirrels. He moved closer to the edge of the hill so he could look down and see it all stretched out before him. He could see Chick then, her black and yellow feathers lit by the sun as she made her way toward him, stopping to sniff a flower to watch a bug. But she was coming toward him.
Instead of hiding, he sighed heavily and waved sheepishly. At least he thought he waved the way a sheep would. Chick fluffed her feathers then and he knew no matter about the huff or the harumph, she still wanted to tell him about green and dandelions.
“I’m sorry I don’t always understand you.” She said as she sat down next to him.
“I’m sorry sometimes I stop trying.”
“I saw a grasshopper with dark green wings.”
Badger smiled and the fizzy feeling in his stomach made him feel warmer than the sun ever could.
I’m sloughing off winter
Cold to the bone
Ready for the sun to heat my skin again
Ready for the smell of soil
The sound of birds
The feel of warm rain plopping on my head
I’m ready to thaw
Even my heart
Bursting at the seams with what will be
Stretching my arms toward
The smile entirely your fault
Knowing even though the bitter is outside howling
It is spring between us
Not dampened by distance
or the boulders we must climb
Joy just because it is
Waiting for you
To stomp in the shallow puddles
With our wellies
and laugh at it all