Tornado Lessons

I was running around in a heavy raincoat in a pigpen with my friend Josh as hail the size of quarters pummeled both of us and the large black sow that we were trying to maneuver into a shed. She was reluctantly backing towards the structure as we blocked her way back out into the mud. Finally she scuttled inside and we closed the gate behind her, picking up her soaked piglets and depositing them inside with her. We stood there breathing heavily as the maelstrom continued around us.

“I’m glad you were here to help,” I told my friend. He nodded and we climbed over the fence to make our way back into the warm and dry house. We shed our wet coats on the covered porch and I grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge.

“Boy this weather is crazy, I wonder what’s happening on my farm,” Josh commented. His farm lay about twenty miles to the west of mine.

The day had been windy, but I hadn’t noticed any significant indications of severe weather until now. Usually I checked on the weather hourly or so, a habit I developed growing vegetables as my living for a handful of years. Now I was just a pig farmer, and weather wasn’t as big a deal to me unless it was really extreme, like what was happening right then. Only twenty minutes after Josh had shown up in his white Chevy pickup the sky had turned greenish yellow and a mix of rain and sleet had started to come down from the skies in earnest. That was when I remembered my sow and her new piglets, who were sitting out in the pigpen with seemingly little interest in taking shelter. I didn’t want her or her piglets getting soaked and cold.

As we sipped our beers after that wet and muddy experience, my girlfriend drove up the driveway, announced by my Blue Heeler’s shrill barking. I was puzzled because I knew she still had a couple hours left of work to do at her shop. I met her in the doorway, gave her a kiss, and asked what was going on.

“Power’s out at the shop, so we had to call it a day.”

A tattoo shop certainly needs power to perform it’s functions. My girlfriend looked more frazzled then that somewhat common issue accounted for, so I asked her what was wrong.

“Dad says there’s a tornado warning near our cabin in Chetek. I hope everything is okay there.”

A few minutes earlier Josh and I had just been joking that whenever we got together to have a beer and relax, the weather turned to shit. I reassured my girlfriend that everything was going to be fine, and that most likely there would be some minor tree damage and probably that was all.

We sat around for while chatting until Josh grabbed his coat to head for home and join his wife putting their two kids to bed. Michelle and I decided to drive up to Chetek to check up on the cabin. I was nonchalant about the situation. To me it didn’t seem likely that we got much more then a bit of hail and some strong wind, here, at Josh’s farm, or at the cabin. I could tell that Michelle was nervous, so I tried to make light of the situation.

“This will be an interesting first trip to your cabin, dear.” I smiled like an idiot. She humored me as we locked the dogs in the house and got in the car.

The shadows were getting long. We thought it would take about 45 minutes to get to the cabin. After about fifteen minutes of driving up Highway 25 we noticed some serious wind damage; a steel roof torn off a barn, exposing dozens of haybales to the elements.

“Oh shit.” I said. Then I started to get worried.

We drove past more damage from heavy winds; small sheds torn apart, trees knocked over, campers flipped onto their sides. Finally we came to a road block with a lone cop car flashing his lights, no more then five miles from the cabin.

“Dammit,” I muttered. We decided to drive down a side road to try to get around the road block, but we ended up driving in a large loop right back to the same spot. Switching plans, we headed up to Highway 8, looped around and headed back south down Highway SS. We joined what seemed to be a motorcade of cars and trucks probably doing about what we were doing, and finally came to a street that led right to the cabin. It was completely blocked off with downed trees, chainsaws were buzzing, electric lines were strewn across the road, and neighbors were milling about and talking with each other. The last of the sunlight was fading on the scene and my heart sank into my stomach. Michelle took some video of the carnage as we tried to get the lay of the land from a neighbor in pink sweatpants standing in the middle of the road.

Apparently a tornado had touched down nearby and had gone directly through the small Prairie Lakes neighborhood where the cabin stood, totally devastating a nearby trailer park and causing severe damage along it’s path. Michelle’s cabin was right in the middle of all this destruction and we couldn’t get to it. She called her folks and told them what was going on. Everyone’s voices were louder and higher then normal as adrenalin filled our systems. I didn’t have my chainsaw, proper clothing, or any other gear so we decided to go back home and try to get to the cabin the next afternoon.

On the way home I apologized for the nonchalant attitude I had earlier.

“Usually it is all turns out fine, but this time I was wrong.”

Most days, we float through life. Sometimes, when something big happens, like a divorce, death, or tornado, then we are called back into the present moment. We float along the river of life for awhile until we find ourselves in a rapids and then ask, how did I get here? Frantically we paddle this way and that way trying to extricate ourselves from our predicaments. The reality is that we ended up there for whatever reason and it’s up to us to do something about it. Woulda, coulda, and shoulda mean nothing at this point.

There is only one tool to tackle these situations and that tool is mindfulness. Mindfulness, or consciousness, can help us understand what is really going on as well as help us figure out the next steps to take in order to get ourselves out of the situation. Sometimes there is no avoiding the rapids, such as when a real live tornado sweeps through our neighborhood, but other times we can use mindfulness to avoid the turbulent water.

Mindfulness has served as the main tool that has helped me to grow up. Whatever circumstance I find myself in, as soon as I can quell the fight and flight response, the adrenalin kick and cortisol bump, I turn inward to try to find my way forward. Before discovering mindfulness back in my teens, I was turning outward and being a punk – rebelling, acting irresponsible, doing drugs, or causing mischief. These things gave me some sort of peace of mind, in that I was doing something in the face of an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I was demonstrating my power over the world around me. But in retrospect, I was actually harming myself and others by being destructive and and not taking responsibility for my actions. When I turned away from being a punk, I went too far the other way and became withdrawn for many years. It took the untimely death of a friend to light a spark under my ass that ultimately led me forward out of that isolation, and to seek out community.

Regardless of the jubilation we feel after finding our heart’s path again after losing it for a long period of time, we need to respect that the highs and lows will still keep coming. I retain a certain level of stoicism these days because I do know that good things do happen some days, for instance I was able to buy a wonderful property, but that doesn’t mean that some unforeseen events many cause me to lose everything dear to me. Probably not, but my mind is aware of the possibilities. Literally anything can happen, and that is the lesson of the tornado.

The next afternoon we headed back to Chetek, hoping that we could at least get down the road, even on foot, in order to see what kind of damage we were dealing with. On the way we again joined a long line of traffic, some folks gawking at the destruction and damage strewn across the landscape, such as a flea market wiped off the map. It was hard not to gawk alongside them. Fire engines, line workers, and tree cutting services were all out in force going full bore. We were finally able to make our way to the cabin in the car, carefully driving around workers and downed lines. Before we got to her property, my girlfriend looked around in shock.

“I can’t believe it, all the trees are gone. “

It did appear that all the trees had been blown over, except for a lucky few The sun shone down on us as the whine and stink of chainsaws filled the air. We finally made it to the cabin to find that, for the most part, it was intact – it had some damage to the roof and a tree on the lakeside had fallen into the lake, taking a large portion of the dock steps and underlying ground supporting that side of the cabin with it. We stood there taking it all in for a second and looked each other in the eyes.

“I gotta go check on my neighbor,” Michelle said.

“I’ll stay here and start cutting up these downed trees.” I took my chainsaw out of the trunk as Michelle crossed the street to her neighbor’s house, and walked over to where a tree had plummeted down onto a picnic table, bashing it into a U shape.

The amazing thing about a chainsaw is that even a small one in the right hands can take down a big tree, one thoughtful cut at a time. I thought about all the damage that had occurred in that area in just a short amount of time, now being cleaned up one small action at a time, hearts being mended by one small kindness at a time, and I began to make my cut.

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