“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living
It is incredibly hot, I am sweating profusely, and I am afraid. My muscles are taut and my back aches from the strain. The sweet little dog in my lap senses my anxiety and stares at me with a knowing look. Our storm shelter is very crowded but eerily quiet; all the adults are praying. The fear is palpable.
I’ve been in this shelter built under our garage floor before, but this time is different. This time the sweetie is with me, his first time to be in the shelter. Typically he is working twenty seven miles away so I tackle the ice storms, blizzards, earthquakes, 80 mph straight-line winds, destructive hail storms, and the horrific tornadoes that wreak havoc in central Oklahoma.
Another reason this time is different is because this tornado is two blocks from our home, and we can hear it howl.
You gain new respect for your own personal space when you are in a metal box underground with three other adults, four children under the age of ten, (two of whom are crying) an 80 pound Labrador retriever, a 24 pound terrier who has left a gift on the floor, a trembling Chihuahua, and one very nervous cat. Did I mention she still has claws?
It was not our turn this time, but tornadoes strike so often here you feel that sooner or later your number will be up. Tornadoes have begun their yearly rampage through my state; it’s practically a rite of passage. This is something I loathe, dread, and take damn seriously.
Oklahoma City is the epicenter of “tornado alley” in this country. Yep, just south of OKC, in Norman, the Oklahoma University School of Meteorology and the National Storms Laboratory pioneered state of the art tornado forecasting and tracking.
We have storm chasers reporting with moment to moment updates like nowhere in the world. When I was in England I met a man from Spain who asked where I was from. When I said Oklahoma he replied “Oh, you have big spinning wind?” Yes, that would be us.
May is different here. We huddle in front of the TV frequently in the spring; glued to the screen waiting, watching, and listening for news of a new mesocyclone descending with the potential to leave devastation in its wake.
We totally get the meteorology lingo; we know what the “dry line” is, what “PDS” means, what a “sink drain” refers to, and the difference between an F-2 and an F-5. We surely know a wall cloud when we see one and we keep an eye out for circulation.
And, we know precisely what that moment feels like when you must make a decision about what you will do, where you will go. You have about fifteen minutes to gather yourself, your family, and pets. It is not a drill; it is the worst reality. We central Oklahomans do this over and over again in the spring.
The meteorologist points to a graphic showing that at 6:30 the tornado will be four miles away, at 6:45 it will be three blocks way, and at 7:00 the stupiddamnshitty thing will be on top of you! So you gather the pets, wallet, water, boots, bike helmets, blanket, iPhone, iPad, flashlights, and head for a windowless room to put as many walls as you can between you and the funnel.
Before we got the storm shelter I would announce (despite Sweetie’s protests) that we were packing it up and heading to Baptist Hospital. Under Baptist there is a long underground tunnel locals take shelter in during tornadoes. There you’ll find people of all ages and their pets lining the halls, waiting, listening and wondering what will be left of the life they have built when they emerge. Just a typical spring day in Oklahoma City.
These non-relenting tornado strikes are like episodes of atrial fibrillation that keep knocking the breath out of you time after time. Folks show the stress; they now have that post-tornado face. Locals know the look; these are the faces of grave loss, whose lives are forever changed. They go through their days unable to come to grips with what has blown their lives to bits. Whether or not your home is hit, the big wind opens a wound of uncertainty in your spirit.
We never dreamed that horrific 1999 scenario would be repeated May 20th, 2013 to practically the same degree, same location, and same sad path. In-ground shelters are selling like hand warmers in the tundra. And, the brand new neighbors who just moved here from Hawaii and shared our storm shelter last Sunday—-they have already installed their own underground shelter.
“…I’d been caught up in some wild cyclone, like Dorothy throw into Oz, with not a good witch in sight to save me.” ― Sarah Dessen, Keeping the Moon
That relentless Oklahoma City wind brought a dark cold cloud last week. Those who refer to Chicago as the windy city sure never spent a winter here! This time of year I begin to feel a familiar feeling of dread and an overwhelming desire to flee the bitter weather that is inching toward me. As I drive through my neighborhood I see golden leaves shimmer in the sunlight and know the next couple days will turn them to shriveled brown memories. A chill comes over me that generally does not cease till spring. I am not a fan of winter. In fact, winter scares me a bit. I spent the first eight years of my life in South Dakota and I know how frigid air can change your life or end it. As soon as the cold hits I undergo a transformation. I feel an ache in every part of my body, I become stiff, my muscles grow tight, I become grumpy, and poof- I am Estelle Getty complete with attitude. Summer on the other hand makes me come alive! I can walk in the park at eight o’clock at night, open the door early in the morning and not get chilled, enjoy an extra range of motion in my limbs and sit on the patio and read-just a few of the things I will not be able to do soon.
I was thinking of summer today and how few I may have left, maybe just 20 to 25. That gets your attention doesn’t it? More and more I feel such a sense of urgency about my life. I don’t want to waste the time I have left on lower things that steal my time, my energy, my peace, and my clarity of thought. I worked for a publishing house in the 1980’s and had the summers off. I used to turn the television off all summer, do volunteer work, read, write and walk. I could do without most of the television programs shown now. I don’t want to fill my head and distract my spirit with vulgar mindless prattle. The same goes for loud talking people who rattle on incessantly (regardless of what they are rattling about). I also have grown weary of those extra violent moves, and I never need to see another Transformer as long as I live. Is this how we are choosing to define our lives?
I do not think this is what God had in mind for us. That path leads to unsatisfied lives and fatigued souls. What God has in mind for us is to focus on higher things, fill our lives with books that teach and inspire, programs that both entertain and enlighten, and people who nurture their best selves and encourage us to do the same. The thing that actually matters most in this life people miss completely, doing the work of the soul. This is why we are here my friends.
I read everything I can get my hands on written by Sue Monk Kidd (author of “The Secret Life Of Bees”) who started out as a nurse and had the privilege of being present for the last moments of some of her patients’ lives. From reading her stories, their regrets were not of things they had done, but of things they had not done, of forgiving words not spoken, trips not taken, time not spent with children, and deeds not done for those in need. Marianne Williamson tells the story of a Jewish man named Arlan who dies and meets God. The man is afraid God will ask him why he was not Abraham or why he was not Joshua, but what God asked him was “Why were you not Arlan?” The strongest regret of all is for not living authentically, for not having the courage to express who we are.
Many of us fail to show ourselves, because at the end of the day we feel that cold winter wind come over us and hear that old “Not Good Enough” song playing. I’ve heard it, put it to bed and then felt it wake again. It happens to us all, but what we should remember is that we need to do absolutely nothing to be worthy. We simply are worthy just as we are and we are treasured by a loving God who sees us fully and is our biggest fan. The highest, strongest desires of our hearts are there because God placed them there and wants us to live them out. When we fall short, act like fools, cuss the dog, drop the ball at work, say hurtful things to loved ones, forget who we are, and hate ourselves for it; God is there with us and sad with us. Grace is a wonderful thing; it assures us that tomorrow we can count on God’s renewal to warm our cold tired bodies and assure our spirits that another summer is just around the corner.
Exactly when did I become thick in the middle? I wasn’t thick six months ago; I was mushy in the middle but not thick. Mushy I understand; I’ll be 60 this month and for 22 of those years I’ve taken Prednisone for Lupus. And although I launched a hostile take-over to get my body back five months ago, I am a senior citizen, according to AARP at least. So, I have earned the mushy. I don’t necessarily think thick comes with age, but I have seen some changes in my friends the past few years. Come to think of it, most of them are thick! Up to now I have avoided thick, it is clearly not working for me. I suppose thick is just one more in that multitude of things I will add to the joys of turning 60.
In truth, there is much to be grateful for at this “senior” threshold. Most of my parts still function really well, I pass most folks walking the trail at the park. This is in part because I inherited my Dad’s long stilt-like legs which look fine on him but ill-proportioned on me. They do however enable me to make great time on the walking trail. And, in spite of living with Lupus, Fibromyalgia and a few more autoimmune conditions-I am out there. This is not a “walk in the park” for me. Well literally it is, but not so much figuratively. Walking is always painful, sometimes very painful. Just pick a joint, go ahead any of them, yep it hurts. Or pick a muscle, yep that hurts too. I don’t saunter along either; I walk as hard and as quickly as I can for the aerobic value. I am emmensly grateful that I can walk.
I am grateful for the years I had before I turned 38, before the pain started. So many people are diagnosed with painful conditions much earlier, many in childhood. They will never know what it is like to walk 20 miles a week with no pain, or ride horseback 16 miles and feel great when you stop. I also have work that provides a livelihood which is something at this age, discrimination is alive and well and I don’t take it for granted. I am in a loving marriage with someone I look forward to seeing and who still makes me laugh each day. And I do have world class friends; I’ve never seen a more engaged, intelligent, caring, resourceful and creative group. (most of them are thick)
A huge blessing in my life at 60 is that my parents are still on this earth. I am able to see them fairly often and hope I make a difference in their lives as they go through these last difficult years. I am also grateful that inspite of all the pain and difficulties that have come my way God is still constant, my desire to know God is still constant and the renewal that affords me is priceless. I can live with the thick.