In the shrine room at the Tampa Dzogchen Buddhist Center, all is familiar and quotidian: dull strain in my low back, noted and dismissed; stinging ache in my hips and knees, a warning I’ve sat too long and will pay with sharp pain when I get up. The pitted pale surface of walls I helped the sangha repaint several years ago remains blank except for dusty sets of framed tangkhas under mildew-spotted glass. The permanent scent of the Center—citrus mold, candle wax, resinous Bhutanese red incense, and dust—envelopes me. Veils of spider web drape the unreachable uppermost corners of the building, once a Cuban dance studio, its still-lustrous hardwood floors a testament to better times in this inner-city neighborhood now griped by dereliction and violence.
On the other side of the stuccoed cinderblock walls, the unfamiliar howls: a hurricane, the first of four—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—that will maul Florida during the summer of 2004. Charley’s Category 4 winds grind on the roof like a pestle, the sound a turbine roar punctuated with booms and thumps when higher-speed gusts punch the building and shake its bricks. Only through thin oblongs of window flush with the ceiling on two walls can I see outdoors: a sky more green than black, and the nearly stripped tops of three palm trees canted hard left. The dirty glass is wet from horizontal rain driven so fast it can be seen only after it hits, and the windows leak humid hot air.
Thumbing beads, counting, sweating in semi-darkness—the power blinked off hours ago—I chant mantra. I work at paying attention to what I’m saying and why, because it’s what I’m supposed to do when I pray but also because the effort to concentrate pacifies me. I am grateful to have something to do when there’s nothing I can do, waiting out this storm, alone but for the family cat. She cowers silently beneath the several tables that crowd the front of the room, draped in red and heaped with scriptures, candles, and fruit offerings. Her name is Karma, christened by my children years ago when we pulled her from a cage at the shelter. She lacks formal initiation into this refuge, but fleeing in the last hour before the storm slammed down, I had no way to protect this sentient being except to take her with me. My teacher, I reasoned, would approve my motivation if not the result.
The run-down house I own, two blocks from sea-walled Hillsborough Bay, at the fringe of a toney South Tampa neighborhood, stands seven feet above sea level. Storm surge in that area is predicted at fourteen feet. The Center lies inland, at near peak elevation for the Tampa Bay area: eighteen feet. Evacuation maps, published in each season’s Hurricane Preparedness insert in the local paper, band the peninsular city in concentric uvular zones. Once a hurricane watch turns to twenty-four-hour warning of its imminent arrival, the media announce police-mandated evacuation orders by zone. I knew the drill. You buy water and batteries before the pre-storm run that empties the shelves, sometimes for weeks at a time. You keep gas in your car; you keep the Weather Channel on. When the red funnel of projected-path indicates your home lies in the cross-hairs a few days hence, you decide whether to stay or flee. Can you afford to miss several days’ work, cancel crucial appointments, and live somewhere else in a motel—all for naught if the storm track shifts? Is there someone within a day’s drive who will take you in—for days, or weeks or months if need be? If you wait for the probability of a hit to rise toward certainty, are you willing to risk riding out the storm trapped in your gas-less vehicle on a gridlocked freeway?
Anyone who’s ever lived in a hurricane alley knows that running from a monster storm is less possible, for very practical reasons, often economic ones, than it sounds on television. People who have ridden out a hurricane on an island—where there is literally nowhere to run—understand a truth as pragmatic as it is metaphysical: the most realistic response to a hurricane on the horizon may well be to sit tight, stay low, and—if you can—pray hard.
When Hurricane Dean struck Bermuda on the night of my daughter J’s fourth birthday in 1989, I was eight months pregnant with her brother B. We’d lived on the island for less than six weeks. Our family energies during the days preceding the storm centered on the problem of the party she expected when we knew almost no one to invite. Her dad and I cornered some parents at the nursery she attended and begged shamelessly; acquired balloons, ice cream cake, and some hideously messy but exciting craft projects involving paint and glitter; and had almost pulled off the event to her satisfaction when the parents began to arrive early to pick up their children, pointing out with baleful British acerbity that the sky had turned distinctly bilious, the wind gusted already above forty knots, and we had maybe two hours to do whatever we were going to do to prepare for the hit.
We lived in a rented house on a cliff on the island’s southwest side, the most exposed and most likely place for a hurricane to make landfall. I had lived all my life to that point hundreds of miles from any coast and had only a bookish familiarity with giant sea-storms. I looked at the chaos of paint and glitter, cups and cake, paper and ribbons and glue stuck to the floor, the counters, the kitchen table. I looked at J, contentedly grooming her newest My Little Pony. I glanced at her dad, who asked me what I thought we should do. I took in my watermelon belly, my sprung navel visible through a thin summer dress, my ankles swollen thick as fence posts. My pelvic floor ached as it did all day every day in the island’s soupy heat. I found a roll of masking tape, criss-crossed the windows on the sea side of the house and opened the ones on the lee side, following instructions I’d read in the island’s daily paper. Then I sat down, heavily and with relief, to read to my preschooler her favorite books.
The three of us would spend the next twenty-four hours hunkered down in the spare bedroom on the house’s northeast corner, the one most sheltered by the cliff. Minute by minute the world grew smaller, darker, more fetidly humid, and brutishly louder—100-mph gusts set the wrought iron porch rail whining at high pitch and the windows clattered like a never-passing freight train in their aluminum tracks. As the hours slowly elapsed, J shifted from innocently oblivious to agitatedly fretful as her father and I sank further and further into exhausted, incredulous wakefulness. I kept on reading aloud, turning the pages of Goodnight Moon and A Giant Treasury of Mother Goose. I did not pray; I felt no right to petition some divine force to save me and mine from a great force of nature threatening everyone in its path. But sing-songing familiar words, chanting out rhyme and meter known by heart since childhood—the effort to concentrate gave me something to do, a tether for my anxious mind while we waited and waited to find out if the roof would come off or the windows blow out, if we’d be fine or be injured or die.
It would turn out we were lucky. Dean remained a Category 1 hurricane, large and teeth-grindingly slow-moving, but ultimately causing more inconvenience than havoc. When it lumbered off to sea, it left the island slick with a mash of pulverized leaves and sea water, and the power stayed off for over a week, leaving us with no lights, no air conditioning or refrigeration, and only buckets to draw water from our cistern to bathe and flush the toilets. Miserable conditions for an enormously pregnant woman alone all day with a small child, but not oppressive enough, not really, to justify the rage I choked on long after those conditions were relieved. The second time a hurricane drew a bead on Bermuda during our three-year sojourn there, my children’s father was in London on business. By that time we’d been through several false alarms: dire warnings cancelled when the hurricane abruptly dissipated or veered toward open sea. He phoned me—an unusual gesture—to ask if I wanted him to come home because of the storm. Fury boiled up my throat; I knew the island’s airport had already closed and I was on my own with whatever was going to happen. “I don’t see how you could get here,” I said tartly. He agreed it was in fact impossible for him to come home. I asked bitterly why he’d offered help he could not provide. He had no answer to that, and I could not prevent myself from saying out loud the undecorated truth of our position: “It will hit us or it won’t.”
From Bermuda we moved eventually to Tampa, where I’d live for fourteen years, weathering many tropical storms and tropical storm warnings, as well as some destructive and unannounced winter gales. Each year, I spent August through October, the peak hurricane months, on edge. Addicted to weather reports, pushing at the calendar to turn its pages faster, and furious that geography and life circumstance made me a sitting duck for the random possibility of destruction. I may or may not have understood in those days that the annual threat of hurricanes made me angry because it forced me to reckon with the helplessness of being mortal. It would turn out, ironically, given the scale of my fear, that my first hurricane, Dean in Bermuda, would be the only one I’d experience for a decade-and-a-half—until the “Four of ’04” hit Florida.
Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—the teacher, the teaching, and the community of practitioners. Sometimes it is said that the Buddha is the doctor, the dharma the medicine, and the sangha the nurse. In essence, “taking refuge” is conscious recognition that death is inevitable and its timing unpredictable, and that nothing worldly offers any shelter from the trauma of that truth. The various traditions have formal ceremonies for accomplishing the taking of refuge, but I never had one. I stumbled into Buddhism in the early days of my divorce through the odd luck of my divorcing husband’s unintended steer.
He’d somehow found the Center and some solace there; weeks later he went abroad and asked me to take the children to the Center’s Sunday morning sessions in his stead. I did, and immediately and helplessly took refuge even though I had no idea that was what I was doing. Despite the strangeness of the place and the people there, I felt ballast—and therefore the possibility of finding balance—the moment I stepped through the door. First the children and then their father lost interest in going but I returned regularly because in the midst of that two-year unending storm of loss and blame and culpability, of physical and financial terror, only the cushion I sat on and the effort I devoted to speaking prayers gave me a single instant of calm.
I spoke the Tibetan chants haltingly at first. My tongue would not form the foreign sounds easily, and I couldn’t keep up with the blistering pace set by those with long hours of practice behind them. The rituals—Tibetan Buddhism is full of smells and bells—baffled me. But I persevered. For ten years—divorcing and single-parenting, struggling to stay afloat with an ever-shifting mix of part-time teaching, writing and editing, child support, a few years’ alimony, gifts from my mother and then an inheritance after her death—I kept coming to the Center, sitting down, and chanting, twice and sometimes three times a week. I made a shrine room in my house and sat there on my cushion for two hours or more, every day without fail. Sometimes while I did all this my heart raced and tears coursed down my face from terror and dread at my life circumstances. Other times I felt a measure of acceptance about the intractable disaster I was caught in.
At home and very often at the Center, I sat and chanted alone. Among the sangha members, large and small dramas erupted; some people left for good, others came and went in accordance with the tides of their ambivalence. Spiritual tourists drifted in, sat awhile, asked questions, grew impatient with answers that suggested right effort is as good as it gets, and drifted elsewhere in pursuit of easier and more abundant bliss. The teacher was almost always absent, at other centers or in India, sometimes for a year or more. I kept at it because I’d vowed I would but mostly because the self-imposed requirement to do the practice daily gave me something to do and someone—my own mind’s calmly abiding awareness—to keep me company through years that were desolatingly lonely, empty, difficult. Sitting and singing prayers, I could let the pages of my life turn while I waited to find out if the soul storm that had seized me would ever let up.
Praying through a hurricane nine years into my Buddhist commitment, I understand I am practicing being okay with what is, no matter how I feel about it. Again and again, I lead my wandering attention back to the attempt to make peace with my inability to direct my fate in any way beyond maintaining order in my mind. My heart gallumps, my stomach knots, and other times I am simply so exhausted and bored and physically uncomfortable from the stuffy heat and the posture of sitting that I have no energy for fear. I eat from time to time; I’ve brought fruit and peanut butter and bread from home. I feed Karma, change her water, and scoop her litter box each time she uses it because its presence in the Center is an offense. I turn on the radio at judicious, battery-conserving intervals hoping to hear that Hurricane Charley is leaving town. For a long time, there is no news. The authorities are battened down in shelters like everyone else; communications towers and power lines are down; neither news nor news gatherers are traveling. Fortunately, the telephone land lines never go out, and I call my children at their father’s house, across town, on the sheltered, lee side of this storm. They are restless and hot, but okay.
Later my teacher phones me from her home in New Jersey. I am surprised and delighted; I’d asked permission to ride out the storm in the Center but did not expect individual notice of my situation. She issues instructions—which prayers, and how many—in her familiar rapid-fire idiosyncratic English. She does not promise to save me nor tell me I’ll be fine, since no one could guarantee that. She wishes me good luck. I feel guilty that I do not tell her I’ve brought Karma with me, and I feel comforted, too. I know what her “good luck” means: she sincerely wishes that I will indeed be fine, and for the meantime she’s given me what she can to help with that: a reminder to stay focused, remain calm, and repeat the prayers that aspire to beneficent outcome for all sentient beings.
During the darkest nighttime hours, I lie down on the sleeping bag I’ve brought and try without much success to sleep. The damp dark that presses my eyelids is the weight of the anxiety that will not let up. When a weak daylight returns, I sit up, sweaty, bleary-eyed and aching in every joint; I am much too old to sleep on the floor. Right effort at prayer is harder this second day; I want too much to go home. Assuming home is still standing. The air in the Center is stale and hot. The pages I turn are limp. By late morning, I decide—judging by the sound of the wind—that its speed is diminishing. The light at the narrow windows seems less green. Because I now have some inkling of how this particular scrape with fate will turn out, I lose patience with waiting. I fling aside my effort to concentrate and give in to irritable striving to have things go my way: I want to get on with living since death is not, after all, happening today.
Cautiously I ease the back door open a few inches, less anxious about the weather on the other side than the people I might encounter. The neighborhood surrounding the Center is a blasted place the well-off drive through fast, a refuge to crack houses, registered sex offenders, the mentally-ill homeless, and the truly desperate poor. Anything remotely pawn-able left visible in a car parked in the Center’s sandy lot invites a smashed window or punched out lock, and I once answered a knock on the front door to find two big boys with baseball bats investigating the possibility of robbery. They turned away without comment when I told them they were visiting a church. This time what greets me is a cloudy but clearing sky streaked with innocent blue, and an astonishing number of lid-less trash cans rolling loose in the street. A gusty, sodden breeze pushes at my face. The air smells of salt and bruised vegetation. Door step, sidewalk, and pavement all wear a slip of pulverized palm fronds, live-oak leaves, and sand. A decoupage of paper and plastic litter pastes the sagging picket fence dividing the Center from the decaying bungalow next door.
The couple who live there sit on their porch stairs smoking cigarettes. The man, barefoot and florid in a dirty undershirt, low-slung boxers, and the thick gold chain of an alpha thug, calls out a friendly hello. The woman, ever stone-faced and occasionally visibly battered, watches him impassively. Usually my neighbor eyes me coldly as I enter and exit the Center, and because I respect his hostility—sangha members’ cars, clothes, and skin color cannot but make us either marks or antagonists in the eyes of this neighborhood’s disadvantaged denizens—I usually make my way from outside to inside in the urban safe-passage mode: brisk steps, alert demeanor, and no eye contact. But this morning this normally sullen man with no prospects is glad to be alive. Spared by a killer storm by what must be his very own good luck, he’s enjoying his life, and, feeling likewise, I meet his wide-eyed expansiveness with some of my own. I smile and ask if he’s come through the storm all right, and he asks me if I’ve got enough bottled water, because he’s just heard on the radio that we’re supposed to boil what comes out of the tap. I thank him for the news and wish him more good fortune. Then I load my parcels and my cat into my car and drive home slowly through deserted streets that look just like the movie aftermath of a natural disaster—standing water, uprooted trees, and runaway shopping carts blocking the city thoroughfares; chunks of roof, broken drywall, and lawn furniture making obstacle courses of the residential lanes.
I am yolky. Scared and new. I understand I have learned something from what did not happen—although I have no words to label it. I know I ought to be ready to start my life over, with greater clarity and resolve. I have, after all, taken refuge and been spared. But all I really feel is wonder: my own open-ended amazement about how much we can’t predict, how surprising life is, what happens, and what doesn’t.
Christine Hale’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Spry, Still, Saw Palm, and Prime Number, among other journals. Her debut novel Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press 2009) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ms. Hale teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, NC. Her just-completed memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, is set in southern Appalachia where she and her parents grew up.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Lee and Chantelle McArthur