Symbolic Delays

Weather affects more than the Psalms, of course.  With all the hype of the latest winter storm things were closed or delayed before any accumulation even started.  Now I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of snow days; we dutifully trudge to our desk jobs as if we’re doing something vital when many of us are really just trying to make money for the man.  A snow day’s a little unplanned levity in our lives when staying off the roads seems like a good idea.  It’s one of life’s guilty pleasures.  Of course, the dreaded delayed opening brings its own set of issues.  You can’t sleep in unless it’s announced the night before, and once you’re up your mind heads to work anyway.  Working remotely, alas, means you have no excuse, no matter what the weather.

Snow is a great symbol.  I don’t mean its whiteness and purity—there are plenty of white things that aren’t pure.  No, I mean it’s a great symbol in its ability to control people.  We don’t like rain, although we understand its necessity.  Snow, however, fills us with a childlike wonder.  Anticipation.  Unlike a winter rain, it can be fun to play in.  It covers everything.  The suggestion of a blanket ironically makes us feel warm, even as the temperature dips below freezing.  But for me the most potent symbol is light.  I awake early, even on snow days.  As I make my way downstairs in the dark, it’s immediately evident when snow covers everything because the sky is lighter than it should be this time of day.  Whatever light’s trapped below the clouds reflects off the snow creating a luminosity that’s almost otherworldly in its calm.  It doesn’t last too long for the sun is rising earlier, at least it is until our pointless time change, but for a few hours we’re in the midst of an unnatural light.

Darkness is far too prevalent.  We know that someday even our mighty sun will use up all its fuel.  We crave the light for it’s limited.  Days are noticeably longer now than they were at the start of December.  Those few moments of serenity before the sun comes up, when the snow produces what seems like its own light, are among the most tranquil of life.  Before the plows begin scraping metal against asphalt, hoping for a snow day while wrapped in a fleece throw, face clouding the chilly window before it.  Yes, it’s a powerful symbol.  Even if the internet means work awaits just as usual.  

Tempestuous Wind

There was quite a windstorm that blew through here yesterday.  It reminded me rather forcefully of Weathering the Psalms.  Firstly, it blew loudly enough to wake me up a few times in the night.  When I finally climbed out of bed, listening to the blustery concussions beating the house, I remembered that the first chapter of Weathering was about the willful wind.  That’s not just a poetic phrase—according to the Psalter, the wind does the will of God.  Like much of the weather, it’s weaponized by the Bible.  Seeing what the wind can do, the reasons for this should be obvious.  Hurricanes are tremendous windstorms (although unknown in the land of the Bible), but they are also known for their tremendous rain.  Tornadoes, however, are pure wind and are among the most destructive forces on the planet.  (Before people came along, anyway.)  Wind commands respect.  We’re a very long way from taming it.

When thinking of meteorology, it’s easy to forget wind.  Rain and snow are pretty obvious.  Even desert heat is impossible to ignore.  The wind, invisible and powerful, is perhaps the most godlike of weather’s many features.  To the ancient way of thought, it was also inexplicable.  We understand the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials between water and land and the uneven heating between the surface of the ground and air aloft.  The ancients understood it more to be a pure act of God.  The wind certainly can seem spiteful.  It’s not difficult to attribute agency to it.  Such things go through my mind when the howling is loud enough to wake me.

Invisibility suggests power.  It wasn’t so much the “monotheism” of Israel that made it distinctive as it was the inability to see its deity.  That lack of visual confirmation not only necessitates a kind of faith, but it also veils a threat.  We humans tend to be visually focused.  We fear the dark.  Foggy, misty settings can give a story an atmosphere of foreboding.  Placing the divine out of site only enhances supernatural powers.  So it is with the wind.  As is to be expected, the windstorm has mostly blown itself out by now—moving on to another location until the temperature differentials even out and its howl becomes more of a whimper.  It will have done its work, however, for even as it passed through it brought to mind the proper respect for that which cannot be seen.  

The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

Mastering the Elements

First time home ownership is best left to younger people.  And perhaps younger houses.  The constant onslaught of things falling apart, or falling off (it has been an extreme weather year) has soured me on the idea.  You get set in your ways, you see.  The move from apartment to house didn’t come with a raise that would cover all the repairs invisible to a home inspector’s eye.  Although our house has stood for over 120 years, the last owners let lots of things go with a lick and a promise and we, the naive middle-aged first-time buyers in a seller’s market, bit.  I thought there would be repairs to make, but not all at once.  The royalties from books like Holy Horror don’t make even a small dent in the contractor’s fees.  We should maybe have bought a house in Jericho instead.  One right on the city wall.

The shake-down voyage of a ship reveals the problems, so the theory goes.  It stands to reason that people have to go through a shake-down year as well.  I’ve got the roofer on speed-dial, and I keep a wary eye on a garage that has more love than actual care poured into it.  All I want to do is read and write (which I could do just fine as a renter, thank you) in a place dry and not too cold.  The weather, however, has been unforgiving.  Rain and more rain.  There’s something primal about all this—an element of having to struggle against nature in order to survive.  In the modern world we’ve taken for granted our ability to keep the beasts and weather at bay.  Storm systems like the one that has just blown through serve to remind our species that there are things that will forever remain beyond our control.

The lament is the most numerous genre of psalm

Something like this was going through my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  (We didn’t own our house at Nashotah House, though.  Whose house?  Nashotah’s house.)  Living in the Midwest gave me a new appreciation for the weather.  Some of the storms we witnessed were nothing short of theophanic.  Global warming has a way of bringing the weather front and center.  Elements of this element, however, are within our control.  We understand at least the human-driven elements of global warming.  We deny they exist to scrape together a few more pennies at the end of the day.  Meanwhile those who buy houses need to do their homework.  If need a roofer too, I’ve got one on speed-dial.

Shut up or Shut down?

So the government’s shut down over a presidential temper tantrum.  Like most people, I suspect, I haven’t really noticed.  Except for two things.  When I drove up to Ithaca over the holidays, some of the highway rest stops were closed.  It seems our government wants to share the misery of not being able to relieve itself.  Secondly, the NOAA weather forecasts are no longer updated as frequently as they should be.  I’m no expert on the weather—I did write a book on meteorotheology, which took quite a bit of research on weather in ancient times, but I know that doesn’t qualify.  Still, I rely on weather forecasts to get daily business done.  In particular, we were expecting a winter storm around here that had been predicted, by NOAA, to arrive around 11 p.m.

Okay, I thought, people will be off the roads by then, and crews will be out to treat the icy conditions by morning.  Seven hours early, around 4 p.m., I noticed a rain, sleet, snow mix falling.  The ice particles looked quite a lot like salt crystals, but I was pretty sure that the government doesn’t have that kind of pull.  In any case, when weather catches me unawares, I turn to NOAA since our government is apparently God’s own chosen one, figuring that the Almighty might know a thing or two about what goes on upstairs.  The current conditions, NOAA said, were “unknown precipitation.”  Apparently the government isn’t even allowed to look out the window during a shut-down.  Maybe it was salt after all.

So, among those of the “God of the gaps” crowd, the weather is perhaps the last refuge of a dying theology.  Their cheery refrain of “science can’t explain” has grown somewhat foreshortened these last few decades, but when unknown precipitation is falling outside all bets are off.  Come to think of it, Weathering the Psalms could’ve been titled Unknown Precipitation, but it’s a little late for that now.  A creature long of habit, I awoke just after 3 a.m.  Hastily dressing against the chill of the nighttime thermostat setting, I wandered to the window, wondering whether there would be a snow day.  It’s dark this time of night, as I well know, but in the streetlights’ glow it seemed as if no weather event had happened at all.  It’s just like our shut-down government to get such basic things wrong.  As long as I’m up, I might as well get to work on my current book on horror.  It’s only fitting.

Flight Home

Although I was not looking forward to the long, late flight home scheduled for tonight, I can’t help but think there was something almost prophetic in the weather that prevented my trip.  I awoke in Newark only to confirm with many other stranded passengers that this was not a lot of snow.  I’ve had to commute into New York when much higher amounts were in the forecast.  Many of us, meteorologists included, were asking why this storm was so devastating to travel.  Part of the answer comes down to belief.  Nobody believed we could have this kind of nor’easter in November.  Even now nobody seems to want to discuss the elephant in the igloo.  Global warming, we’ve known for decades, will make erratic weather patterns.  We need to think about weather differently than we have before.

One of the motivations behind writing Weathering the Psalms was that for all of our technology, we still don’t understand, or appreciate, the weather.  Driven by dollars in great collectives, businesses are reluctant to allow employees a “day off,” even when many of them have work laptops at home.  We believe in money, supposing the weather to be only a minor nuisance.  Having bought a house, though, has revealed something to me.  Home and hearth are all about staying safe from the weather.  (Well, and in keeping out wild animals too, but we’ll just drive them extinct.)  A house is a place to keep the water and wind out.  We want to keep dry and to prevent the wind from chasing away our body heat.  Homes are our places to keep the weather outside because we instinctively fear it.  Reverence it.  Weather may well be the origins of at least some religious thought.

Ancient peoples and modern religious fundamentalists believe(d) in gods literally in the sky.  They looked up when wanting to understand matters beyond their control.  Yes, predators attacked, but you could fight back.  Against the sky there’s no recourse.   Weather can kill, and can do so in many ways.  Building shelter helps, but we’ve all seen enough hurricane footage to know that even our structures are subject to the wind.  Computer models were suggesting that this storm might have been pulling back for a real roundhouse punch but our conservative views on the weather (such things don’t happen in November, right, Edmund Fitzgerald?) prevail.  The official stance of our current government is this is all a myth anyway.  It’s only when myths interfere with money that we start to pay attention.

Last Call

The alarm that wakes you in the middle of the night.  There’s something primal, something visceral about that.  We humans, at least since our ancestors climbed down from the trees, have felt vulnerable at night.  If our sleep is constantly interrupted we don’t think clearly.  We build secure houses. Lock our windows and doors at night.  Say our prayers before we go to sleep.  Last night I discovered that the homeowner has even greater concerns than the humble renter.  While 11:30 may not be the middle of the night for some, for early risers it is.  And there’s nothing to strike terror into the heart of a homeowner like a tornado warning.  Especially here—our realtor laconically told us that they never have tornadoes in eastern Pennsylvania.  The weather warning system disagreed with him last night.

Getting up as early as I do, first light is hours away.  Hours before I might check for damage with the light of old Sol.  My wife had to work, no less, at a venue some distance away and we both had to rise early and wonder what the damage might be.  We knew, of course, that the pointless ritual of changing our clocks would occur tonight, but that does alleviate concerns about whether the roof was still on the house or not.  You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continuity of time.  Thus my thoughts returned to Weathering the Psalms.

Severe weather led to that book.  If I were to rewrite it now it would come out quite differently, of course.  No one would write the same book the same way after a decade and a half.  Still, there may have been some things I got right in it.  The weather is a cause of awe and fear.  The sound of the wind roaring last night was impressively terrifying, even in a technological world.  Especially in a technological world that relies on an unwavering power grid and constant connectivity.  In the midst of a wakeful night, alone with thoughts too haunting for the day, the weather has a power with which we’re foolish to trifle.  Global warming is a myth if it gets in the way of profits.  Then darkness falls and we realize just how very small we are.  In the light of dawn, the damage was not too bad.  A frightened car meeping its mewling alert.  And a strange justification that perhaps my book contained some truth after all.