“We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” –Joseph Campbell
I assume that the morning of May 20th, 2013 for the citizens of Moore, Oklahoma began just as it did for me. For the sake of argument, I’m going to say that it did. Of course it did. Most of us start our mornings similarly. Six hours later, as heaps of semester-concluding work piled on the far corner of my desk, my gaze remained curiously fixed on Facebook. Daredevil storm chaser Reed Timmer was keeping his followers–already exceedingly aloft in anticipation–nervously biting what was left of our fingernails. For spring storm enthusiasts such as myself, his website, TVNweather.com, is the hottest ticket in town. It’s a hodgepodge of severe weather chasers intent on live streaming the action they encounter first hand. I found Reed’s stream as quickly as I could, minutes after he’d made a Facebook status update detailing the detection of a giant wedge tornado headed straight for Oklahoma City’s southernmost suburb.
Quickly, almost urgently, this became less about witnessing the thrills and chills of mother nature’s fury firsthand, and more about something inexplicable and impervious to rationalization. This was different. My stomach turned over. Something felt peculiarly, distressfully amiss. I frantically searched for local coverage in my browser and, once I did, anchored smack dab in the middle of Oklahoma City’s News9.com’s live stream was the most widely-recognized emblem for nature’s hellacious furor: a pulsating tornado almost as wide as it was tall. It churned like a whirlpool of billowing smoke, sometimes stagnant, always mind-boggling, remorseless in bulldozing everything within its unpredictable path.
Bulldozing. Dismantling. Obliterating. Every action done, all of them irreversible. It could have been you. Or me. Perhaps both of us. People died.
Walking my dog past the middle school football game at the stadium a quarter mile from my home yesterday evening, the passing faces of buoyant exuberance left me with the feeling of intoxicating nostalgia. Here are 6th, 7th and 8th graders blind to the abstruseness of an unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving world. I remember being that age. On Saturday mornings, my dad would get me out of bed before the weekly house cleaning. He’d lean four vinyl records against the right floor speaker. Easeful yellow sunbeams slanted through the living room windows, illuminating the dust scattering frantically off of the oak armoire.
Sliding the first record out of the sleeve, he would would toss it onto the player. First, the popping and scratching, then the opening chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” It was a problemless paradise safe from the hidden dangers of the world. I was encased in the safety of that Joshua St. house. The lush Saint Augustine grass in the backyard always felt softest in the shade, especially in the summer. I remember eating crisp Granny Smith apples smothered in peanut butter. They were a delicacy to me then, just as they are today. When I think of these moments, it warms me. They were moments–passing in time–as all moments do.
The children that passed away Monday in Moore experienced these moments, too. Maybe their father, too played their favorite classic rock albums for them the last Saturday before they were taken. Maybe their moms, too fed them peanut butter apples. Perhaps it was the last thing they ever tasted. For these children they were moments passing in time, too. Little did they know that they would be their last. It’s a shame that, unlike me, they won’t be able to think back on the moments that made them feel warmest. To call this “tragic” is a vast and unworthy understatement. Any attempts at rationalization are futile. Only one truism remains: it just doesn’t fit sensibly inside our thoughts.
Two days ago, a picture surfaced of a man holding, of all things, a DVD of the movie “Twister” that he’d found buried beneath the rubble of his once standing home. This mustered one of the few smiles I’ve had since Monday afternoon. It’s simultaneously uplifting and telling for two reasons: here is a man–one day removed from the unexpected destruction of his home–able to find humorous irony in his temporary lot. I hope that, when thinking back on what happened in this place ten years from now, this picture will stand as a testament to the human spirit. Unexpected disasters are forces of boundless sorrow. The unfortunate fact of the matter is, not everyone will have their chance to remember peanut butter smothered apples, or the pop and crackle of a vinyl record as the needle moves between songs.
Somehow we, time and time again–after 9/11, Katrina, Boston, May 20th and all other unpredictable tragedies–with our subconscious forklift, have continued to stow away our affecting experiences in places hidden from the most accessible recesses of our memory in an inflexible attempt to move forward. We have to. It is, for better or for worse, the only way. It’s the only way that we, as a collective, coexistent people, know how.
Veteran storm chasers Heidi Farrar and Dave Demko documented the unreal: