There’s a Ray Bradbury story—I can’t recall the title, but with the Internet that’s just a lame excuse—where explorers on Venus are being driven insane by the constant tapping of rain on their helmets.They try to concentrate on discovery, but the distraction becomes too much for them.Living in Pennsylvania has been a bit like that.I grew up in the state and I knew it rained a lot.Here in the eastern end we’ve hardly since the sun since March.And when you’ve got a leak in your roof that only compounds the problem.If I were weathering the Psalms, mine would be a lament, I’m afraid.You see, the ground’s squishy around here.Mud all over the place.Rivers have been running so high that they’re thinking about changing their courses.And still it rains.
There’s a lesson to be taken away from all this.The fact that we use water for our own ends sometimes masks the fact that it’s extremely powerful.Not tame.The persistence of water to reach the lowest point contributes to erosion of mountains and valleys.Its ease of transport which defines fluidity means that slowly, over time, all obstacles can be erased.It’s a lesson in which we could stand to be schooled from time to time.Rain is an artist, even if it’s making its way through the poorly done roofing job previous occupants put into place.Would we want to live in a world without valleys and pleasant streams?And even raging rivers?
There’s no denying that some of us are impacted by too much cloudiness.When denied the sun it becomes easy to understand why so many ancient people worshipped it.Around here the temperatures have plummeted with this current nor-easter and the heat kicked back on.Still, it’s good to be reminded that mother nature’s in control.Our high officials have decided global warming’s just alright with them, and we’re warned that things will grow much more erratic than this.As I hear the rain tapping on my roof all day long, for days at a time, I think of Bradbury’s Venus.Okay, so the story’s appropriately called “The Long Rain” (I looked it up).Meanwhile tectonic forces beneath our feet are creating new mountains to add to the scene.Nature is indeed an artist, whether or not our species is here to appreciate it.If it is, it might help to bring an umbrella this time around.
Things look pretty Stormy in DC. I suspect my Republican background is showing when I say I don’t condemn sex workers. If they’re not exploited and they like what they do, hey, a job’s a job. The evidence, of course is that Trump had an affair with Stormy Daniels when his wife was recovering from the birth of their son. And hush money was paid right before the election. This is public knowledge. What I find interesting are the responses that Republic congressmen have been giving journalists. In a recent story in the Washington Post, various congressional leaders of the GOP were asked if Obama had been caught in such a situation would they have pursued impeachment. “Of course,” they answered. When asked why this didn’t apply to Trump, they simply shrugged. There’s a word for that.
Hypocrisy may seem like an old-fashioned notion these days. Indeed, when I was growing up I frequently heard it from Fundamentalist pulpits. It was considered, along with lying, to be about one of the worst sins possible. Now Fundamentalists are lined up behind Trump (who’s lined up behind Stormy apparently) and saying all of this is just fine. The Lord’s will is being done. Moderate Evangelicals are scrambling to find a new label for themselves, for their vaunted title has been taken by a party that will condone anything as long as rich white men benefit. Cheat on your wife while she recovering from giving birth? That’s the new Fundamentalist way! Congressmen, it seems, don’t want people to look too closely into such things. My, there’ve been a spate of recent retirements lately, haven’t there?
I grew up and grew away from Fundamentalism. Although it seems counterintuitive, this sharped my moral sense considerably. Poll after poll shows that actual morality, according to Fundie standards, is more often lived by liberals than conservatives. Divorce rates are lower, for example, and we tend not to own guns. So, even when the skies over the Potomac are growing stormy, the elected officials of God’s Own Party smirk and say, “Doesn’t the Bible command you ‘Love thy neighbor’?” They take it literally, of course. And it’s just fine that the leader of the free world exploits women. Many of these same people gathered to condemn Bill Clinton for loving his neighbor in the blue dress. Hypocrisy was a bad thing back then. “I did not have sex with that woman,” became a mark of national shame. Now presidents brag of grabbing women by their private parts and the Republican Party claps its hands and says, “Hypocrisy? Never heard of it.” Does it look like another storm to you?
While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.
The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.
Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.
As the northeast coast digs out from yesterday’s nor’easter at least we can thank God that no business days were lost. At least none based on the status of New York City schools. Some NYC businesses base their decision on whether an adult snow day is in effect or not on the decision of whether or not to close the public schools. If kids are expected to make it to school, well, pull your socks up, thrash through the snow, and get some work done. I was fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the event that began like a snoreaster. By the time I would’ve usually been on the bus it wasn’t snowing. Roads were wet, but it seemed like a normal day. So it continued until about 10:00 a.m. Then it really did snow.
I’ve commuted long enough to know that, as grueling as getting up early and trying to get to the city may be, the evening commute is always worse. It may seem hard to believe that there are traffic jams before 7:00 a.m. most days, but around 5:00 p.m. all bets are off. The news vendors were lamenting the fate of those who had to find their way home in a foot of snow, even as it was still coming down swiftly. Nature doesn’t abide by our work schedules. Many companies don’t care if you can’t get out—you chose to work in the city. If it takes you three hours to get home, that’s not a work problem. It’s a personal thing. On personal time. Choose wisely.
All of this makes me reflect on the way we think of work these days. Commuting into the city shouldn’t be a dangerous job like being on an Alaskan fishing boat is. Chances are the actual daily work consists of sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen. Eye strain, carpal-tunnel syndrome, and boredom are the only real dangers here. Unless you’re taking the George Washington Bridge, carpool tunnel is a far more sinister threat. If you make it home in time to come back in tomorrow, then it’s all good. We do this so that we can earn money to spend, mostly online. We haven’t quite got to the point yet where we can wire our physical bodies to the internet so that we can stay at home and work 24/7. But it’s coming, just like the next nor’easter. In the meantime, I have a bus to catch.
The dangers of prognostication were well known in antiquity. Most prophets, who didn’t so much tell the future as warn about probable outcomes, weren’t the most popular of people. They knew that feeling of walking into a crowded room and announcing their career had something to do with religion only to have the place fall silent. Cricket chirps. We all have our secret sins we’d rather not have some stranger judge. So it is with the weather. Something like this must’ve been in the back of my mind as I was trying to write Weathering the Psalms. I lived in Wisconsin in the days before Paul Ryan and, like said Ryan, tornados could strike at any time, unannounced. My family and I spent an anxious afternoon or two in the spider-infested basement based on the inherently uncertain predictions of how a nearby tornado might move.
Those of us in the northwest are sitting here wondering about this monster nor’easter. It’s been in the making for several days and the forecasters, unlike the prophets of old, have been hedging their bets. If this massive cold front from the midwest fails to meet up with the intense storm off the east coast we could end up with only a smattering of snow. If the two collide, well, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel together can’t help us. It’ll be like the book of Revelation. Only colder and with far more snow. Oh to be able to predict the future! It would certainly help when it comes to deciding whether to climb onto that bus or not. I mean a simple rainstorm can add two hours to the homeward commute without the threat of a meteorological Trump coming our way. I thought Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow.
Although predicting the future wasn’t really what prophets did, it didn’t take long before people thought that’s what they were up to. People have always wanted to have the advantage of being able to see disasters before they arrived. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to know the results of 11/9 before Thurston Howell the President was elected? We could’ve bought our Russian grammars and dictionaries before there was a run on the local Barnes and Noble. At the same time I politely dispute the saying that hindsight is 20/20. If we could see anything that clearly we would be such Untied States at the moment. Right now the glass seems to be falling and the wind’s picking up from the northeast. What does it mean? Nobody really knows.
Ownership is an odd concept for mortal creatures. With limited time to spend on a finite planet, we devise rules that give exclusive rights to some while denying access to others. I have never owned property (tellingly called “real estate”)—the life of those who stumble into higher education doesn’t really lend lenders any confidence of one’s ability to repay debts. I spent too much income, I guess, on my education. In any case, the concept of ownership seems to be endemically human. In most societies we want that thing that we found, that we picked up and moved with us, to remain where we put it so that we can access it again. That particular stick or stone that caught our eye for utility or beauty—it is that we wish to own. Soon humans are building vacation homes in the regions of stunning natural beauty that dot an industrialized landscape, vacation homes where they can get away from it all. Humans owning nature.
Recently I read a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger about beachfront property “owners” in New Jersey suing over beach reclamation. Now before bursting out into peals of laughter, please be aware that those who claim New Jersey lacks natural beauty have never visited the state in the spring. Once outside the urban sprawl surrounding New York City, Jersey is, for the most part, very pleasant. Many of the beaches are pristine. Of course, pristinity invites affluence. The wealthy like to settle where the views are nice. And so when the state tried to prevent beach erosion by building dunes the rich cried foul and began to sue. It looks like the state will have to pay out. The very state that I, along with countless others who can’t afford a single house, support by our taxes. That money is now being piped into the pockets of those whose summer homes now have a slightly diminished view. My heart bleeds.
One of the facts of life on the Atlantic coast is hurricanes. Another is nor’easters. Both of these storms erode beaches at a terrifying rate. And when the beach is gone, whose house will be in the ocean? Those who wanted the dunes removed. Money is just distilled ownership. Those flimsy pieces of paper have no inherent value. It is difficult even to believe in money when you never see it. Electrons zipping through the Internet are the only sign that I’ve been paid. Yet we value it above all else. I’m not sure how this fits in with a gospel that condemns money and a Jesus who suggests the only way to heaven is to give it all away. Well, maybe it all fits, as long as you don’t block my view of the ocean. After all, owning part of a planet entitles you to some feeling of self-importance. Or so I suppose.
With all of the hype and anxiety of the current Nor’easter dumping snow on the East Coast, a guy from northwestern Pennsylvania can’t help but shrug his shoulders. What’s all the fuss about? Growing up in the snow belt of Lake Erie, I was accustomed to forgetting the color of the ground between December and April. School seldom closed with under a foot of snow. And I had to walk a literal mile to catch the bus, but it was uphill only one way.
The truly fascinating aspect of this storm is the creation of biblically charged words to describe it, as if the American vocabulary has run out of appropriate adjectives. “Snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon” both appeared in this morning’s paper. The late biblical concepts of apocalypse and Armageddon indicate a devastating turn of the era when a new world is ushered in. All I saw out my front door was a bunch of snow. Peaceful, white, and pretty.
I lament the farming of the otherwise underused Bible for images that cheapen the visceral fear and dread that accompanied ancient outlooks. Once while at Nashotah House in Wisconsin, when the temperature plunged to 38 degrees below zero (air temperature, not wind-chill) and the tired snow was being blown about by unforgiving winds, we were required to make the trek to Milwaukee for a day long spiritual retreat. Just about all human institution had shut down, with the sole remaining exception of a church eager to revitalize its aging congregation. As the ice on the window of the bus refroze immediately after being scraped off, I came close to thinking apocalyptic thoughts I admit. The weather, I guess, has always had a divine connection in our primitive minds after all.