November 4, 2012

North Cairn: Life's storms give way to peace

I knew the storm was hard upon us when the last rose of fall was broken.

I had retreated from the press of weather coverage on television, had snapped the radio to "off" and decided to forego the preparatory hysteria about the possibility of a hurricane. My own resolve couldn't stop the phone from ringing, though, and calls came in for two days or more before this last "hurricane that never happened" surged onto the beaches, high tides higher than ever, the full moon throwing its weight around, the trees bowing under the authority and whim of gravity and the shattering surf.

But I had done my time in meteorological high drama many times before, and I confess I have evolved into less than wholehearted patience with pre-storm fervor. I didn't go online to discover the virtual reality of actual catastrophe in New York and New Jersey or how the wind and waves were pummeling the coast all the way to Maine.

I mostly sat absolutely still in the eye of my own storm. I was trying to get my sea legs back after ankle surgery that had already leveled me, and I didn't need a hurricane or nor'easter to remind me how puny the physical form of a human is when contrasted with nature's way of working things out. In the cedar-shingled cottage where I was recuperating, nature had already whispered its superiority in a gentler but equally persuasive way by sending tendrils of ivy through the siding and the frame of the front door.

Coming and going, leaping or limping, you could not cross the threshold without being reminded that something else was ceding control of the property only briefly to allow you to linger for a while as though you belonged. But it was all pretense: You would never really have anything more than the illusion of the upper hand, while silent and unnoticed, the vines like jute and the leathery green leaves inched their way indoors through cracks in mortar and along corridors in insulation soft as spring soil. Other forces were at work, and little you knew of them, or noticed.

A lone rose bloomed, fully, at the apex of the little porch roof, a cluster of velvety crimson petals unfurling a bit each day, 'til they had opened to the size of a teacup and then a sauce dish, and finally a flattened circle the circumference of a butter plate. As the petals laid themselves open to the gusts gathering strength, they became small flags, then a snarl of tiny sails. And as the storm peaked, the whole boat of the blossom was rent apart by the winds and the vessel split into a suggestion of ruptured wood and a wrecker's dream.

I watched from indoors, safely, while the fury of the storm ran like a rage that began with a wail and seemed to never end. The "height" of the blast was always a few hours off, the front moving slowly and catastrophically along the coastline, heading north, incessantly just about to make landfall. In the end, I gave up on it altogether and went to bed, figuring that any real tragedy would rouse me.

I woke the next morning to stillness in the near landscape. Tatters of leaves, even ones the size of elephants' ears, were strewn across the yard. There was no real flooding, and the marsh seemed oddly to have been carried a bit farther off, rather than closer, by the battering surf. The sun made a feeble effort at rising before backsliding into a full day of misty rain, but it held on long enough to leave a rainbow arcing in the west over the bay.

A friend stopped by with muffins, pumpkin and blueberry, covering the preferences of both summer and autumn in one fell swoop. We sat, sipping coffee and swapping fictions about the storm: The yacht club had not lost a building to the surge, as had been rumored the night before. It was a boat house, it turned out, one built on pilings, that had already been in the water before the tide rose and positioned it, where it had always been, offshore.

One tree in the neighborhood had been snapped off about 10 feet up the trunk, but the toppling branches had missed the nearest house. A single rooftop had been damaged slightly as though it were the flap of an envelope someone had tried to pry open at one corner.

But mostly the community remained more or less unscathed, and as the day wore on, things returned to whatever it is that passes for normal on an ordinary day: A landscaping crew was on the job by 8 a.m., using leaf blowers to clear a yard. Down the road, someone was playing poor odds on the weather, pinning laundry on a clothesline stretched across an open view of the bay. A woman with a dog walked by, skirting the edges of scant traffic. In what was left of a canopy torn to bits, the birds started to sing.

It was over before it began, we told each other, while clouds of steaming coffee drifted in the morning air, the only fog to negotiate in the light of a new and settled day. The next wave of trouble -- already on the horizon -- seemed slight enough, an incursion of field mice in the cellar. That would be a longer storm, I knew, but like the one just passed, it too would recede in time.

By then, we would have endured snow and ice and troubles we couldn't prepare for or plan on. Life's small victories still seemed much larger than its lesser trials, a fair balance in the aftermath of a storm. We have survived.

 

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-63215 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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