Thoughts on a Windy Day

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This is a photo of a greeting card by Pamela J. Zagarenski, ©2012

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                                    Wind shook the windows all night long

                                    And I was still awake at 3:00.

                                    I tried to imagine God singing a song

                                    When wind shook the windows all night long,

                                    But I kept recalling all the things I’ve done wrong

                                    (Which is almost everything, it seems to me),

                                    While wind shook the windows all night long

                                    And I was still awake at 3:00.

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Either because of Divine Providence or coincidence, I’ve just run across this poem (some people write haikus; I play with triolets) I wrote last year while on retreat in Arizona. And today I’m rereading it after we’ve just lost power and winds are expected to gust to 60 miles per hour.

I’m also watching the wind bend the big maple tree in our front yard towards our house, and thinking that until today the one comforting thing about living in this time of Covid-Crud has been my home, and now even that’s under attack.

Maybe the apocalypse really is upon us.

I find myself remembering Hurricane Carol, which swept through Maine in 1953. Back then, I thought hurricanes were pretty neat. The thunder-sound of the river down the hill mingled with the roar of the wind, the way the house shook, was like some big carnival ride. I couldn’t understand why my father was chain-smoking and pacing back and forth in front of the living room window, muttering, “I hope that goddamned tree doesn’t fall on us.”

These days, I understand his fear. While there are the times I still enjoy the wind—the sound of wind chimes on a summer evening, a cooling breeze on a hot day, the smells of the wind off the ocean— more and more, wind makes me nervous and apprehensive. Besides being potentially dangerous, wind is beyond my control. Wind tends to bring disorder, even chaos. Wind seems to make my anxieties more intense.

Is that true? Can the wind affect our behavior? When in doubt, ask Siri. Yes, in parts of the Mediterranean, a warm humid wind called the “Sirocco” has such an impact on behavior that people convicted of murder were once given shorter sentences if the crime was committed while the wind was blowing. In other words, turbulence in the air can lead to turbulence in the mind.

As long as I’ve got my iPhone out, what causes wind, anyway? Okay, it says here that wind results from pressure caused when warm air rises and then is pushed back down by colder air aloft, where the air then then spreads out in the form of wind. I think of my forest fire fighting days, of learning that the intense heat from wildfires can create its own wind. Some, called fire whirls, can be like tornadoes that speed the fire along from treetop to treetop. I think of the night in Wyoming I saw flames hundreds of feet high racing across the tops of the trees, sounding like a locomotive roaring down a track—one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had.

But while the principle may be the same, I see a difference between the winds from a hurricane or forest fires and the winds of anxiety that I’m feeling these days. Not about when we might get our power back or if that maple tree is going to fall on the house, but about what kind of world my grandchildren are going to live in. As bad as the devastation from a hurricane or wildfire may be, the fear of these disasters is relatively short-lived. Yes, it may take years to rebuild from such calamities, but the anxiety over what will happen ends when the hurricane passes or the forest fire goes out. Perhaps a hundred years from now, people will look back on the time when the Coronavirus blew through our world as being relatively short, but from where I’m sitting there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. No end of worrying about my health, about people who are struggling to make ends meet, about friends who work in hospitals, about my stepsons who are trying to home-school their children, about my grandchildren and the scars they will carry from all this.

My rector recently sent Mary Lee and me a blog called “Why am I so Tired?” by the Parasol Wellness Collaborative. The author pointed out that deep in the temporal lobe of our brains, just above the brain stem, is a small structure called the “amygdala,” known as the fear center of our brain. It directs the nervous system to protect us. Our heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid and glucose is pumped into the bloodstream, all of which helps us in either our “fight or flight” response. The amygdala, however, cannot distinguish between actual and imagined danger. Its response is automatic—outside our control. (Sort of like the wind, come to think of it, but then, most of the important things in life, I’m finding, are outside of my control.) This is why uncertainty is the most stressful condition our bodies undergo. The amygdala keeps stops working, which is what is tiring so many of us out these days.

The blog suggests that the way to deal with this tiring anxiety is not to make it worse by berating ourselves. Take it easy, lower expectations of ourselves, get exercise, ask for help.

Good advice. I look again at my poem from a year ago, and notice how easy it is to blame myself when anything goes wrong. I suppose it’s a control thing: if it’s my fault when I can’t sleep and the wind blows, at least I’ve got a reason for it. I also think of how often in my life I’ve voluntarily taken the blame for something just to smooth things over, whether it’s a family situation or the weather.

And yes, it’s time to ask for help from that God-of-my-not-Understanding I tend to forget about until the going gets tough. More and more, I’m coming to understand why some of my 12-Step buddies refer to “God” as “Gift of Desperation.” So many of us come to our Higher Power only because of a crisis. I know I certainly wouldn’t have the faith I have—would have no idea of God’s Grace—if my daughter hadn’t died from cancer. It’s taken me a while accept the gift of Grace—I’d much rather have Laurie back—but it’s helped me get through the last thirty years. And If I can, with God’s help, survive that, I can survive, if not this virus (who knows?) but the fear of it.

So, it’s time to stop trying to buck these winds and pray for help in riding them out, letting them blow me wherever they will.

Well, look at that. The power’s back.

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My friend Ann”s prayer flags blowing in the wind.

 

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Driftwood in the Time of Coronavirus

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On what would be the last day of Maine’s state parks being open to the public, Mary Lee and I walked down over the rocks to the beach at Reid State Park at the south end of Georgetown Island. It was just past high tide. Waves rose into the air, crested in green and white waves before throwing a blanket of bubbling white foam over the beach and then receding, leaving a skim of white to disappear into the sand just as the next wave frothed in.

We walked to the waterline and headed up the beach, often having to veer away as the water rushed at us. Along this threshold between sea and land, I walked, as I often do these days, on the verge between past and present. Somewhere in an old family album upstairs, I have a picture of me here on this beach. I’m probably seven or eight years old running from a wave that towers over me. In a more recent album, I have a picture of Mary Lee, her two sons, and my daughter, Laurie, jumping in the waves. I remembered that day, throwing myself into the water, feeling myself lifted and carried backwards, experiencing a moment of panic before being dashed against the sand.

Thanks to working a couple of twelve-step programs, they don’t happen as often, but I still have moments of terror when I don’t feel I’m in control, whether it’s being buffeted by waves, keeping my daughter from dying of cancer, or—these days—controlling the spread of coronavirus.

Maybe that’s why I come here. The beach is like an inoculation, in which I’m given a small amount of whatever I need healing from: in this case, the fear of being helpless.

At the end of the beach, waves broke over a rocky point of land, spuming into the air.

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A small cove in front of the rocks was strewn with driftwood—some of it eight, ten, even twelve feet long and over a foot in diameter. Logs, in other words, many bleached almost paper-white by sun and sea and salt. Carried in by the power of these waves, they now rested in nests of dried seaweed. Some smaller pieces of wood had been driven into the sand as if thrown by some giant; some lay broken on the beach.

It was hard not to think of bones or bodies, especially in this time of rampant disease. I recalled my grandmother telling me of waiting at the Marlboro Massachusetts railroad station for a train during the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Behind her on the platform, she said, caskets were stacked like chords of wood. (It’s possible that she was pregnant with my father then. Dad was born in August of 1919 and named for his uncle, who’d died of the flu in January of that year.)

Saying a prayer that my grandchildren would not have similar memories, I sat down on a driftwood log, leaned back, and felt the sun on my neck. I picked up a broken stick of driftwood, split, cracked, and deeply lined, jagged at both ends. One of my writing mentors, Barbara Hurd, in her book Walking the Wrack Line, defined a wrack line—that point where the high tide deposits organic matter and other debris—as the boundary between the broken and the whole. That’s a line I’ve not so much walked along as been blown back and forth across, one day feeling whole and healed, the next day feeling wounded and broken.

I ran my hands over the stick. It was satin-smooth, its grain highlighted by the sun. I’m not entirely sure why, but I find beauty in broken things. Maybe because of the different ways things can be broken. For example, the deep cracks, the gnarls, the crags, the ragged ends, the sheen, the colors of driftwood come from its friction with the world through long travel. From its pilgrimage, if you will. Looking over at the driftwood around me, I saw that none of them was the same; they had assumed an individuality they never had when they were growing as part of the dark line of trees I could see on the horizon.

I think the same is true of people. For me, faces get more interesting and more beautiful as they age. And it’s the different ways we are broken that gives us individuality, makes us as Mister Rogers used to say, “special.” Which gives me hope that while we may be broken by—and yes, die from—this disease that is sweeping the world, we as a world will go on and become more beautiful than ever.

But as I looked down the beach, my optimism was swept away by a wave of people rolling towards me. When Mary Lee and I had arrived, the beach was almost deserted. Now, people seemed to be flowing from the parking lot, many of them young, none of them observing any kind of six- foot distancing, laughing, pushing, kicking, or throwing seaweed at one another. Yes, I hope that after this disease passes there will a tidal shift in consciousness, that we will learn to live together, that since the disease is not intimidated by wealth and power, we will see that we’re all in this together and we need to share our resources more equitable, that since so many people are now isolating themselves in order to protect not only their own loved ones but people they don’t know, we will expand our vision of “community” to include the whole world.

But how do I know that coronavirus hasn’t just increased the wealth of the 1% and that when it’s over things will return to normal—that this virus will have no more effect on the way we live in this country than the school shootings have had on our gun control policies? Or worse, that the world will come to resemble those apocalyptic movies like The Road, The Book of Eli, or Mad Max?

As the young people streamed past, I turned away and looked behind me, and saw the number of neat things people had created out of the driftwood. Suspended by old twine from a teepee of driftwood, a faded and pitted lobster buoy gently swayed in the wind.

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There were several teepees and lean-tos. Someone had made a giant chair. I recalled that at home, I had a walking stick that I’d fashioned a couple of years ago from driftwood from this beach.

A reminder that as long as there are people, people will create. They will build shelters; they will make art. With whatever they have.

I felt better again. I may be helpless against the disease, but I’m not powerless over my response to it.

It was time to leave while I was ahead, while I could believe that no matter what riptides or rocks, waves or storms I run into, no matter how else I am broken, I will eventually be borne into a cove of serenity.

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