Which is the most exciting phase of a Northeastern storm, such as the one that was inflicted on us a few days ago? Is it the preparation for (and approach of) the calamity? Or the actual storm itself? Or is it the aftermath as we try to get out of the mess, opening little pathways in the snow, getting the car cleaned, and returning back to normalcy?
The question may seem an odd one, given that the minute the whole thing is over and we return to our ways, we want to forget the storm and its relative severity. But while they last, storms have a strange, eerie way of taking us to the edge of things and then tossing us back into the thick of life. (I say this as someone who knew nothing of storms and nature’s other ferocities until my mid-twenties. My first experience of the fury of nature was a tornado, in Iowa City, in the summer; it scared the daylights out of me!)
While they last, we are in the grip of something mysterious, harsh, and sometimes beautiful–from stealthy beginning to triumphant conclusion. And although we may be sheltered from their ferocity behind snow-laced windows, although we may be mere onlookers to what seems to be unfolding in front of our eyes, storms are the stuff of turbulence. Life seems suspended, airports are closed, roads are impassable. Traffic halts to a crawl. Inside, we are diminished, made small by the enormity of the occasion.
Storms touch the very marrow of our being. I am not sure why this is so, but each time a storm hits our shores, I am seized by the same messy bundle of contradictory emotions, at whose heart is the act of waiting–waiting for the snow to start pouring down, waiting for the fall to end, waiting for the roads and driveways to be cleared, waiting for the temperature to rise again, waiting for the snow to melt. Nothing, nothing taxes our patience like a good, long storm. Nothing throws us back on ourselves like a storm. That is why the minute we can go out and begin shoveling the snow, we try to strike up a conversation with our invisible neighbors; we go out of our way to help a stranded car whose driver is stuck in the screech of spinning wheels, or a neighbor who needs an extra pair of strong arms. We seek togetherness and community because we have known its other.
Waiting. Nothing beats the approach of a storm, and that is why, for me, this is the most exciting phase. It harnesses all the senses, heightens them, intensifies them, sharpens them. The sky begins to turn opaque; silence begins to descend on things; the world becomes something strange and alien. We wait with bated breaths for the first flakes to fall. We wait. And then it begins, like a little miracle out of nowhere, the snow begins to fall, accumulate, turn things white.
We wait. There’s food in the fridge, firewood for the fireplace, videos and games. We wait. It may take a few hours, or a whole day, or even more for the heavens to spread their white stuff on the world. We have no say in its trajectory. Time is suspended, stretched out and on. Nothing moves save the flickers of an occasional car’s headlights.
Storms of the sort we just had seem extraordinary events because in our daily life, we have little patience for this kind of thing. But, really, we spend a lot of time waiting though we would be caught dead admitting this to ourselves. It takes a snowstorm to make us see the obvious. We wait–for the bus, for the subway. We wait in lines–at the grocery store and the movie theatre and the airport terminal. We wait–for the letters that do not arrive or arrive too late, for the phone calls, for the UPS package, for the answer to a question or a plea for help or simply for the joy of another person’s voice and presence. We wait for love which has turned wayward or turned on itself.
We spend so much time waiting, though we often do it kicking and screaming. It takes a snowstorm or a tornado to bring us back to ourselves, to what we always knew to be so. And nothing is as vital as the stormy kind of waiting, which, again, tells us what we always knew in the depths of our hearts–that waiting is our condition, our way of becoming intimate with time’s slow drop.
In Uruguay, off the beaten track, in a spot overlooking the ocean, Anthony Bourdain sits down to break bread with a former urban chef who has turned his back on the glitter of international fame and chosen, instead, ingredients native to the region and indigenous methods of cooking food. It is a beautiful scene of tranquility from Bourdain’s travel show, No Reservations, full of good company and tasty food. Reflecting on the essence of what he does and how he lives, the chef says that he is in a state of waiting as he looks ahead at the ocean. “I wait,” he says, and then rattles off a small list of subjects for whom and which he waits. It is a passing moment, one among many which Bourdain choreographs so well in his wanderings around the world, but the chef’s words contain a bounty of truths which stretch from the shores of South America to those closer, here, in the Northeast where we are getting out of another snowstorm: The elements–they are our intimates and our adversaries, our tutors and our charge. Wise is the person who knows the guises and masks in which they come to us, ambush us into their web, return us to ourselves but also change us in some way.