As I tap on my keyboard, rain pounds the skylights. Moments ago, the intolerable South Carolina heat melted into a torrential downpour. Lightning frizzes the afternoon sky; the heavens grumble as gods clear their voice. This is a summer gift — wrapped in heavy dark clouds and delivered at the end of a searing day — an afternoon thunder storm, and in its glorious wake, ion-smelling air rinsed clean of humidity, if only for a little while.
I love the unpredictable pyrotechnics of summer storms, the moodiness of a cumulus ceiling. An afternoon thunderstorm commands me to stay inside, unplug the computer and curl up with a book — forget about going to the grocery store. In the thralls of a storm, my girls, who typically retreat to their rooms to shroud themselves in Facebook, come out and huddle close to me, as if I were a grounding rod. I love feeling safe in my home, and love, too, the threat that lurks outside. A rousting bout of thunder is ironically comforting, even as it puts me on edge.
Thunderstorms remind me not to take Mother Nature lightly, as if this lesson needs much reinforcement in the post-Katrina, post-Haiti-earthquake world. My home is in prime hurricane territory, and so atmospheric antennae stay tuned from June 1 till mid-November. The ocean already has percolated to its preferable brewing temperature, which bodes well for a rambunctious fall. This season is supposed to be particularly bountiful, say the official hurricane predictors, who at first portended some 23 named storms, but just this week downgraded that to 20. We’re already at number 3, “Colin,” who sounds like a Sex & the City guy you might not mind blowing through the neighborhood.
My husband follows this stuff closely — my own personal meteorologist. As a surfer, he has a vested interested in the off-shore swirls that might turn into swells. Doppler radar and NOAA’s satellite images are his version of Internet porn. A hovering low pressure system is the ticket; his excitement rises as the barometer falls. I, on the other hand, let Al Roker and Jim Cantore, the brash, bald guy on the Weather Channel, chart the latest coordinates and do the storm tracking; I’ve got gusty teens with unpredictable paths to track. Even so, I can be easily mesmerized by the amorphous batik of hot reds and startling yellows on the color-coded water temperature map over the Atlantic. I am curious about the slow choreography of cold fronts, and the way that we’re all at weather’s whim. We earthly beings, despite living in climate-controlled homes and weather-stripped cars, are atmospherically bound — with everything from our outlooks to our outfits affected by air masses and pressure systems far from our control. And yet we forecast and predict and plan our days around probabilities that often hold very little water.
When we speak of climate change from a macro, policy angle, the word “change” is what we fear, what we must guard against by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, our carbon footprint. But on the personal front, I long for climate change on a micro scale. From April through October it’s pretty straightforward and static here — the highs are too high and the lows not low enough. I live for the day in early fall when that shifts, when I wake up in the morning and my windows are no longer drenched in water droplets, and the sky is cloudless azure blue, as if someone has taken the lid off the world. I also, perversely enough, am drawn to the drama of a tropical storm stirring off the coast of Africa, dark energy tumbling off the Dark Continent, and while I certainly don’t want it to make landfall, there’s nothing like rushing out to stock up on batteries and bottled water to nudge me out of complacency. Climate change wakes us up.
I think I may understand why some people can watch the Weather Channel for hours on end. It’s the highs and lows of the human story played out on a simple, familiar backdrop, the home-sweet-home map of the world that our grade school teacher would pull down like a movie screen. A high pressure system hovering up here and over there; warm, moist updrafts clashing with cold air and whammo, all hail breaks loose. The plot is so predictable, and familiar. We know the turbulence that results when our personal or professional pressure systems butt up against one another, and we struggle with our own periods of spiritual drought or emotional flood. How comforting it is to watch the attractive weather person gracefully sweep her arm across the northern plains and proclaim that a cold front is moving in. How assuring it is to be told that This Is What Tomorrow Will Be Like.
But I know better, and my compact yellow umbrella is never far away. For I know that what I hope and plan for tomorrow may have little bearing on what may actually precipitate. I know that moments before I set out for a bike ride the sky can unleash its fury. I know that my children are now out driving and navigating an uncertain world that can turn dangerous and stormy in a flash. I know that what just a year ago was a sunny outlook for my mother has turned overcast and grim with a Lou Gehrig’s disease diagnosis. Instead of speculating on long-range forecasts, we’re taking it one clear day, one cloudy one, at a time. Which of course, is all any of us can do, whether we embrace the elements or not. We will likely, at some point, get drenched, or sunburned, or snowed in. And if we’re lucky, may we also be dazzled by rainbows, humbled by hurricane warnings, shaken to the core by the deep roll of thunder, the brilliant splash of lightning across an open sky.