During a recent conversation with David Black, the author and family friend shared the essential ingredient for any successful story – mythology. He was reflecting on his own work, but was also commenting on the overall decline of storytelling, where myth has been replaced by supernatural fantasy and horrific violence. The Digital Age promised that mankind would become more informed and connected, but has given rise to the rapidly shrinking attention span instead. Celebrities now occupy the space that used to be reserved for Gods, mythological creatures, and renowned spiritual leaders.
These new and transient stewards of the American psyche come in a few shapes – actor, musician, lifestyle guru, power brokers, political pundits, and the latest technological invention, social media Influencer. Florence + the Machine concerts are the closest I have come to worshiping at the altar of popular culture, as Florence Welch is the only Heavenly Body out of this new breed that has inspired me to join the huddled mass. This past Mother’s Day, with my own mother’s blessing, I made the journey to Brooklyn to see her in the flesh.
Florence + the Machine, Barclays Center, 6.14.16
To share an amphitheater with an anointed rock goddess like Florence Welch requires devotion, time and a credit card, preferably American Express. The patience and stamina it takes to acquire concert tickets will always weed out the casual listener. Tickets were released at 10am on a Friday morning, and my friends and I spent two hours texting each other as we waited in the digital queue. As a result of a glitch in BAM’s website, we could only get two tickets at a time and on the night of her first sold out show, eight of us were scattered throughout the audience in pairs. I was sitting in the balcony with my friend Marlena who was eight months pregnant with her second child. The concert was her Mother’s Day present from her husband, a final outing amongst grownups.
There is a tangible quality to Florence’s voice that doesn’t fully translate into canned MP3s, and for those brief flickering moments, the audience can feel the vibration coming off her vocal chords, like a baptism by sonic wave. Marlena could feel her unborn son kicking to the beat as she belted out “Dog Days Are Over.” The song, which was her first hit off her debut album, is a rallying cry for diehard fans who remember her birth as a supernova, the angelic voice with the tortured soul and lungs of a machine. Florence ricocheted back and forth across the stage, her feet bare and limbs outstretched. As she neared the end of “Dog Days,” she invited the audience to jump high and fast, to let go of old wounds and become part of the emotional catharsis. There were supersized bouquets of flowers decorating the stage, and given that her hair was the color of pomegranates, she reminded me of Persephone, reluctant Goddess of the Underworld and harbinger of Spring.
In Greek mythology, Persephone was abducted by Hades, God of the Underworld. Demeter, her mother, was the Goddess of Agriculture, and she promised famine until Persephone’s return, which was devastating for mankind. Unfortunately, Persephone was tricked into eating the seeds of a pomegranate, which meant that she was trapped in the Underworld for eternity. But Zeus was softened by the hungry cries of Man and orchestrated a compromise – Persephone would be returned to her mother, but she would have to spend six months of every year with her kidnapper and spurned mate. And upon her return to the earth’s surface each spring, the land would be rejuvenated.
With a set list that included songs like “Hunger” and “What Kind of Man,” Florence embodied the restless energy of a woman who had just escaped a long winter in the realm of shadows, and was shaking off its demons. Draped in a diaphanous ivory gown with fluttering sleeves, her voice was soft and pliable one minute, like a sacrificial lamb, and then crescendoed with surprising strength mid-verse. Given the fact that it was Mother’s Day and Spring had just arrived, it was fitting that she also gave a powerful rendition of “Mother,” which is essentially her plea to Gaia for any kind of earthly transformation.
“Mother, make me a big tall tree, so I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me. Mother, make me a big grey cloud, so I can rain on you things I can’t say out loud.”
Florence + the Machine, BAM, Mother’s Day 2018
Florence also performed a few new songs, including “Sky Full of Song.” When she was asked about the lyrics in an interview, the description she gave reminded me of an outstretched funnel cloud.
“Sometimes when you are performing you get so high, it’s hard to know how to come down. There is this feeling of being cracked open, rushing endlessly outwards and upwards, and wanting somebody to hold you still, bring you back to yourself. It’s an incredible, celestial, but somehow lonely feeling.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the tension between sky and earth would be a recurring theme for me throughout the week.
When I woke up on Tuesday, the sky was no longer full of song, but of pollen, and I felt as though someone had rubbed my face in it. My eyes were swollen and itchy and around lunchtime is when the familiar pain in my stomach kicked in. There are many cruel and unusual punishments involved in being a woman, and once a month, I feel as though I’m being stabbed from the inside. At work, I was doubled over at my desk, suffering in silence as I waited anxiously for the moment that I could go home and crawl into the fetal position. I was completely oblivious to a powerful shift that had just occurred in the daytime sky, of Uranus entering Taurus and ushering in the beginning of a new 7-8 year cycle. The seventh planet from the sun may be slow moving, but it is also wildly unpredictable. According to Ancient Greek Mythology, Uranus was a terrible father, and was ultimately castrated by Saturn for the crimes he committed against his children.
Uranus was the first of the sky gods of ancient mythology… Uranus was more of an abstraction force like thought, not composed of matter. When he had children with Gaia, they were all monstrous. In fact so hideous, like the Cyclops, Uranus shoved them back into her womb. Since she was Earth, they wound up in the bowls of Hades, imprisoned and never to see the light of day. This is symbolic of how Uranus will spawn “creations” of thoughts, concepts, and ideas, give life to them, and then in a brutal way reject them and let others, like mother Gaia, mourn the consequences, clean up the mess, or pay the price. The myth of Uranus reveals a great deal of the energies he is capable of unleashing during his transits.
As I stared at the floor, thankful it was a slow day at the office, I didn’t notice the sky turn from a light blue to deep charcoal. Time felt like it was standing still and when I looked at the clock, it was only 3:30pm.
Meanwhile, in the Hudson Valley, my mom was in the midst of a critical writing and mentoring session with one of her clients, who has also become a good friend, Dr. Lynn West. Upon finishing their session, as always, Lynn felt energized and suggested that they go out and do something interesting, like visit a farm stand. They had only been in the car for a few minutes when a nervous Michael Rabin called, begging his wife to return. “But I’m just going on a little outing,” my mom said dismissively, as my father had already given her what her gastroenterologist, Dr. Markowitz calls a “Jewish stomach.” Despite his best efforts to remain self-contained, my father will periodically project his anxiety outwards, where it typically lands on the nerve endings of the nearest person, usually his wife. “No, come home now,” he insisted. “There is a tornado warning, and it is supposed to hit in ten minutes.”
Heeding the advice, the two ladies headed home, and as soon as they pulled into the driveway, the sky opened up. There was no music or pollen, but a funnel cloud on an apocalyptic rant. I didn’t even know that tornadoes were possible in New York but apparently they can appear at any time, at any place, and with little warning. All that is required is a supercell thunderstorm, and an unfortunate collision between cool dry air and warm moisture. This tornado happened so quickly, it was as if Uranus himself had aimed the screaming vortex directly at our house. It landed with frightening precision, rattling windows, spewing water through air-conditioning vents and toppling about twenty trees that were at least a century old. The floor-to-ceiling glass doors in the kitchen blew open, and forgetting his age, my 80 year old dad pressed the full weight of his body against the furious wind, which he guessed lasted for 20 minutes. Made by stonemasons in the 1830’s, the walls of the house could rival that of any Civil War era fortress. As trees toppled, the house withstood the assault, but the layer of tar that was responsible for repelling the water from above, simply peeled off, as if it were a useless skin. The massive sheet of black rubber broke into hundreds of pieces and rained upon the back yard, while a deluge of water overtook the insulation and wood beams in an attic that was already overflowing with memorabilia – photos, clothing, magazines dating back to the seventies, books of upholstery swatches, antique toys, paintings, furniture, and my old ballet costumes made of spandex and tulle.
The twister continued its violent tantrum down the road, a path of destruction that took down more venerated trees, trapped a family of three inside their home, and claimed the life of one woman who was in her car when a tree fell on top of it. Power lines snapped, utility poles broke, and the entire town plunged into darkness. The roads leading to the house were suddenly impassable, with dismembered tree limbs and live wires strewn haphazardly in the streets. At 4:30 pm, my father, mother, and Lynn emerged from the house and gasped at the drastically altered landscape. While there were vast root systems dangling mid-air, other trees had splintered like toothpicks, their jagged edges cutting into the sky like confused punctuation marks.
As they surveyed the damage, my mom called to tell me the news. “A tornado just hit the house,” she exclaimed. I grunted through the sharp pains that had me fully incapacitated at this point. “I’m sorry, what?!” I could not have possibly heard her correctly. She repeated herself and I could tell from the tone in her voice that she did not yet believe it either. “It’s a disaster!” She exclaimed as much for her own benefit as for mine. “It looks like Puerto Rico!”
I looked out the window and noticed the sudden appearance of a dark and stormy sky, the absentee parent of the whirling beast.
The MTA suspended train service along the Hudson River, and so I went to stay with my cousin Lacey. I had already promised her that I would go to the luncheon for her graduation from grad school the next day, where she would finally earn her doctorate in physical therapy. I arrived at her apartment, tired and slightly delirious. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would mark the beginning of a new sleep pattern. For the next month and beyond, anxiety would propel me through my days, where I have been exceptionally productive at times, until I would eventually run out of steam and then pass out from exhaustion. But you would never know the inner turmoil just by looking at me, as I have been told.
Over the years, various friends have explained to me that my face only registers three expressions – mischief, disdain and indifference.
But contrary to what my face implies, I experience a broad range of feelings. Opacity does have its benefits, however, especially in a society that considers unbridled emotion to be unsavory. I have always regarded my own emotions with suspicion, as if they were a band of wild orphans who have somehow earned a life of seclusion in a large and immovable house, with walls to separate them and doorways to keep them contained. But an unforeseen side effect of the storm was that it had not only torn the roof from my house, but condensed every feeling I’ve ever experienced into one awful Super Emotion. And now that some time has passed, I’m starting to think that my emotional Fort Knox is governed by the same rules as Pandora’s Box – the doors can only shut once.
At 3am Wednesday morning, I woke up and was startled by the sudden realization of disaster. Unable to go back to sleep, I looked at the weather app on my phone, and the forecast said rain for the next four days. The Jewish part of my DNA kicked in, which anticipates problems before they can fully manifest. This type of foresight can be useful in avoiding many preventable catastrophes, but when coupled with a latent maternal instinct, a kind of worry that knows no bounds, a full blown panic took hold. I envisioned rain pouring through the ceilings, creating the ideal conditions for mold and threatening the integrity of the house. I could think of nothing else until late that morning when my mom called to say that the roof had been secured with a tarp.
Driving home from the Beacon train station later that day was surreal. Everything looked the same at first, but when I crossed the Hudson River, I began to see effects of the damaging wind. Random traffic lights were blacked out and the only building with electricity was a grocery store. There were a few fallen trees and some ruptured electrical wires, but it was nothing compared to what I saw when I pulled up to my street.
By the time I arrived, my dad had found someone to clear a path through the tangled mess, for the long driveway was rendered useless by a seventy foot spruce tree that had been shoved to the side. It looked as though an angry giant had stomped through the yard kicking and screaming, knocking down every obstacle in its path.
Miraculously, none of the cars were touched. It was 5pm and without electricity, it was already dark, making the large rooms feel haunted and cavernous. The stone house on the hill has been one of my few constants over the years. During breaks from prep school in the nineties, I would spend hours in the dark room my dad had installed in the attic. Now, the photo lab is like the rest of the house, filled with antiques. Among the artifacts are plastic trays that were once used to hold chemical baths during the print developing phase, and have been repurposed to collect the rainwater that periodically drips from a fissure in both the roof and tarp.
We all know on an intellectual level that we’re hopelessly addicted to technology, sharing information at the speed of thought, but I didn’t realize how utterly helpless I am without electricity. I can stay up all night on a creative binge, so I felt handicapped once the sun disappeared over the horizon. Apple is always figuring out a new way to repackage the iPhone, even “fixing” features that don’t need to be improved – wireless earphones are as useless to me as a three legged jumpsuit. But in the event of a blackout, the only feature that really matters is battery life, and my iPhone charge drops 20% if I so much as look at it the wrong way. I dusted off my discman, another relic from my pre-digital youth, and was thankful that it still works, since it will play for hours on AA Duracell. It had only been two days since the concert, but it felt like a distant memory from another life. So when the light made its final shift from a dusky charcoal to pitch black, I listened to music.
I stayed home from work the following day and when I woke up, saw the full extent of the damage for the first time. Tornados are notoriously unpredictable – scalping one piece of earth while leaving another perfectly unscathed – so it is fitting that the bastard children of the extreme weather family don’t have names. When I read astrologer Judith Auora Ryan’s description of what to expect during the “Uranus in Taurus” transit, it was as if she had foreseen the disaster…
Since Taurus rules one’s possessions, Uranus will rudely awaken us to the fact that we don’t have ownership of things we took for granted we did…Because Taurus rules buildings and homes, expect Uranus to be a busy boy with the roof over your head. Materials used in construction may deem to be flawed. This can render many of them uninhabitable…Unless immediate steps are taken to repair and replace the United States power grid, expect to experience startling power outages on massive levels. Uranus rules electricity and he won’t tolerate us treating his gifts so badly.
There was a sense of urgency for the yard cleanup because on Saturday, June 9th, my mother and I hosted a literary salon for roughly thirty people. We had asked our guests to read the novel “Like Father” by David Black, which is essentially a manifesto on male rage.
The main character Dennis seems to think that all men are predisposed towards destruction, “fathers have to choose between destroying their children or being destroyed by them.” Dennis’ macabre view of fatherhood was also his rationale for not wanting children of his own, and I will always associate this deep-dive into the male psyche with the destruction of my yard, just as Dennis’ father Moses ripped up his vegetable garden in a fit of unprovoked anger, “dragging up pole beans, kicking over cabbages, tearing down tomato plants.”
As a result of the massive tree carnage, the men who normally cut the grass were unable to enter the twisted driveway for two weeks . Neighbors with fewer trees took care of their lawns right away and so chainsaws became part of the local soundscape, periodically interrupting the soft melodic chirping of birds with the whizzing of steel slicing through wood. One of our fallen trees had its root system still connected to the soil and made a spectacle of its last bloom – the intricate maze of sideways branches bursting with delicate white flowers.
The rest were not as lucky, and had started to wither the moment their spinal chords were severed from their roots. Limbs full of crisp coppery leaves and shorn tree stumps became the unwelcome focal point of those early Spring days. Bureaucracy never sleeps and so we had to plan our clean up around the schedules of various traveling insurance adjusters.
By the time we could start picking up debris, the grass had reached my knees and the pieces of tar that were strewn about looked like black dandruff. Underneath each makeshift scab, the green had turned a sallow brown color as the shattered roof had provided an accidental shield from the incessant rain. The rain did stop eventually, and one hot and sunny afternoon over Memorial Day weekend, I waded through the tall grass in rubber galoshes, wary of ticks and poison ivy. According to the post mortem by the National Weather Service, the tornado only traveled .62 miles, and dissipated as quickly as it formed, but it was still alive and well in my spinning thoughts.
As I shifted gears between my full time job, storm recovery and event planning, I considered the similarities between the actual tornado and the emotional wounds inflicted by the men in “Like Father.” On the surface, both seemed to be senseless acts of brute male aggression, but according to Black, the journey for the awakened man is to learn how to channel his rage.
“It’s all right to be in a rage. If I hadn’t been in a rage, I never would have gone to college, and I’m glad I went… But save the rage for something worthwhile, because you can use it up on worthless things; and when you need it for something important, it’s gone.”
The men in the novel are married, but there isn’t an ounce of romanticism in Black’s portrayal of relationships, where fidelity is a promise that goes unfulfilled by all three generations – son, father and grandfather. Dennis, the adult son, struggles with the reality of domestic partnership. He is resentful of the innate connection his wife seems to share with their farm, and yet that seems to be part of his continued attraction – it keeps him tethered to the earth and therefore all of creation.
“Every time a woman spreads her thighs to give birth, her womb becomes a tunnel, leading back to the first shiver, which sent life barreling through the centuries.”
The book was written in the seventies when gender roles were more clearly defined, but with the rise of gender fluidity in recent years, it would seem that we are more than our biology . Jung believed that we all possess aspects of both Uranus and Gaia, referring to the “animus as the unconscious masculine side of a woman, and the anima as the unconscious feminine side of a man.”
If this is the case, then the cycle of creation and destruction isn’t just a physical process, but an internal one as well.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, when I think of all the transformative moments in my life, they were usually rooted in some type of trauma. Some moments are permanently seared, cemented into memory because of how they seemed to break me apart, shattering naïve misconceptions with the ease of a funnel cloud that’s rotating with frightening speed. I have walked in a daze for weeks and months after a soul splitting event, struggling to reconfigure myself, but through the shock have also discovered the opportunity to evolve, to recreate myself in some way.
THE NEW LANDSCAPE
When I think back on the last few years, it was actually a traumatic experience that caused me to move out of the city in the first place.
For five years, I lived in a duplex apartment on the Upper East Side, where I had three roommates. I enjoyed the constant activity for a while, but a revolving door of drama ultimately prevailed. Too many strong willed and opinionated women should never be confined to a space, even if it does come with a working fireplace and a split level balcony.
An epic fight started when one roommate decided to sublet her room, but didn’t tell anyone else until she had already lined up appointments. When the first stranger arrived, the floodgates opened, the name calling turned vicious, and the apartment turned into a war zone of unresolved issues and mean girl antics. My phone also turned into a torture device, as the drama continued to unfold via e-mail and text messages throughout the days and weeks of an entire summer. After one roommate called the police on another roommate, I realized that the toxicity had reached its saturation point, and I fled the war torn penthouse with the remains of my sanity. With the help of my parents and brother, who had watched every episode of the made-for-reality-tv drama, we hired a mover and got me the hell out of dodge.
While I initially couldn’t see beyond my own anger, frustration and general feeling of helplessness, I eventually realized that I had made two positive breakthroughs. As a result of the dramatic tension, I discovered my assertive voice. In the past, the only tool I had to express my irritation was a scowl, but as I mentioned earlier, my happy face and annoyed face are pretty much the same ambiguous expression.
I have always hated confrontation, and having grown up in a creative and peaceful home, I never had to develop tools for dealing with it. But by navigating the murky waters of a single ongoing heated argument with completely irrational human beings, I learned that the only way to continue to grow as a person was to stay tethered to reason. In a world that seems to have devolved into complete madness, the self confidence I now possess keeps me grounded through the various storms, both literal and figurative.
The other positive change was that I had a newfound appreciation for my childhood home, and it’s spacious rooms filled with art and antiques.
The decor is an eclectic assemblage of fifty years worth of my mother’s artistic foraging and collecting of ancient artifacts, as well as my dad’s artwork – encaustic portraits in vibrant hues and sculptures forged of reclaimed welded steel. It was my homecoming that led to a peaceful reclaiming of my nature, reignited my love for design, and gave birth to my line of accessories, Gilded-Mane.
While I am happiest when immersed in a creative project, the recent storm has made me realize that creativity is about more than just making decorative objects, but of manifesting order from chaos. When I was working out the design for my Shield Necklace, I wanted to utilize materials in a way that would reduce waste, and found what I was looking for by a chance encounter with LLoree Dawn Dickens, a Native American moccasin designer. Our connection led to her sending me deerskin scraps, and the supple leather not only forms the foundation of each design, but also acts like a frame for the finished works. It also means that her leftover pieces of leather don’t end up in a landfill. Looking around the house, I realize that my father did the same thing with his steel sculptures, as I have vague memories of going to actual junk yards with him as a kid. What makes the house special is the fact that it is priceless – no amount of money could ever duplicate it. It reflects the styles and personalities of not only my parents, but of every person who has ever loved and lived in this house. It may be old, but it has never been static. The house was first created in the imagination of a ship builder who picked out the ideal spot and then built layer upon a layer of stone in the 1830’s. When the house was occupied by nuns, they added the adjoining duplex apartment, my beloved porch was commissioned by a Southern Belle who was married to a senator, and about ten years ago, my dad installed a new floor in the dining room that is made of three different types of marble. Even the abundance of trees demonstrates conscious decisions that span nearly two centuries, including a black mulberry tree I planted as a kid. So in spite of all the restlessness and anxiety I continue to feel, there is also gratitude. We live in a society that doesn’t place much monetary value on creativity, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other skill because without it, life would be a dull and empty march to the grave. And as far as what personal transformation I can expect in the aftermath of the tornado? Only time will tell.
4 thoughts on “Once Upon a Tornado”
Thank you, Dear Ashley—-a lot to take in and digest….I will do it a bit at a time….but looks and feels beautiful……Love and hugs to all….JB
Your blog posts are such a gift. I really appreciate the experience I have reading them. These are soul food.
i should have known….could not stop reading over and over making funny little noises that came out of me at times and finding myself crying without knowing it at others…..thank you..im so glad you included me in your world…bryn
Reading the blog while listening to Florence and the Machine on Spotify…great backdrop for a brilliant (once again) essay.