Tornadic

With apologies to Colbert, I ask: April: Cruel month or cruellest month?

I wonder if ol’ T.S. ever saw himself a tornado.

My first Spring in the South, I sat hunched in front of the television, rocking myself as the violent red cartoon funnels marched across the screen and the newscasters called out the names of towns I didn’t know. Rain pelted the windows, sirens wailed in the wind. These storms can move. In the West, the summer monsoon brings fierce storms, sure, but they wander in like old dogs, blundering in from the edge of the desert and then let go in brief bursts. Not Southern storms. They’re all souped-up engines, dirty-gas clouds and racetrack speeds. I set up camp in our house’s flimsy inner hallway: water, cellphone, blankets, flashlight, raisins (raisins! I hate raisins). I hunkered in wait.  Five and half years later, I can sense it before it arrives: the steamy days that grow too hot, too fast, the thick silence and fast clouds. Tornado weather. I dream of funnel clouds skipping across rivers, of flying through the sky on my sofa.

This past Friday, the threat of tornadoes shut down the university on the day we were hosting our annual literary festival. After several months of planning and getting everyone in one place, we had to make the call: cancel the whole shebang or move off campus to our local coffeehouse/bar, which graciously offered up its space. We decided to move. We lugged coolers and mike stands and rearranged furniture and pressed on with the rest of the readings and a dinner. The sirens went off during the keynote poet’s reading, and we paused, tittered, check our phones. We moved away from windows. The plan: jump behind the bar if you hear anything like a train. We kept going. We were giddy, probably a little drunk, certainly heady in the face of this danger and our recklessness, this risk that seemed somehow synonymous with the creative act.

It worked out for us this time. The storm moved north, but not before tornadoes touched down in several counties. They caused plenty of destruction and tragedy for others not listening to good poetry or eating heaps of food. We celebrated while others grieved. We joked about how upheaval and uncertainty seemed apropos to the writing life, a kind of theme for the night. Elsewhere, people searched the wreckage of their homes, perhaps searched for missing loved ones, tried to piece together what was left.

I started out here wanting to concoct some great metaphor about the tornadic nature of writing, but in writing I’ve discovered that the real truth and terror about these storms for me is the nature of chance. It’s the randomness that adds an extra touch of cruelty. Chance, not luck. We weren’t lucky. Luck implies, wrongly, that the “unlucky” ones were somehow not favored, somehow had not earned that blessed smile of fortune. Bullshit. They were just going through their days and lives the same way we all are. In the wake of storms, people tell stories of funnels demolishing one or two houses while the others stand untouched. Cars and rooftops are flung about like chewtoys while some jackass films the whole thing on the balcony of a Super 8. People hoist their glasses at a literary festival while others hunt in the mud.

We offer condolences and money and clothing. We turn away from the images, click away from the headline. We hold on and wait for May.

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