Seek Shelter

So yesterday I had to hide from a tornado—that was fun.

I was off doing a round of shopping and couponing at CVS, Walgreens, and HEB while Thomas studied and Drew napped; in one hour, the weather went from mildly drizzly to rain, thunder, lightning and gusts of wind. 

As Thom and I were putting the groceries away and I was about to get in the shower, we heard the tornado siren. Sure enough, we’d gotten texts telling us that there was a tornado warning until 3:00 and we should “seek shelter immediately.” I groaned, told Thom to get Drew out of bed, and grabbed a stack of blankets. We all sat down on the floor of the windowless bathroom, propped a groggy Andrew up on his dad’s knee, turned on Zootopia, and waited for forty-five minutes.

When you’re sheltering in place, it’s impossible to keep your mind from wandering, even if you’re not that scared. The radar said that the storm in question was moving past us and was practically in Dallas, but I’ve seen too many informational films and Weather Channel specials to argue with texts from the National Weather Service. I looked around the familiar bathroom from an unfamiliar angle, wondered for the millionth time why Texans don’t have basements when it seems like we SHOULD, and suddenly imagined the walls and ceiling gone. I wondered what the bathroom would look like if a deadly storm blew the walls away and carried off the ceiling. Would it be like one of those construction sites where you can walk between metal beams or would it be like a ruin? How much of our stuff would remain? Where could I sit or stand so Andrew was safest? Should I have brought something else in there with us?

I remembered this one time when I was little in Dallas—the tornado siren woke us up at midnight (it sounds like a train, in case you’re wondering), and suddenly Mom was in the doorway telling us in a panicked tone to get to the bathroom and sit in the tub. 

Maybe it’s the weird, unnatural feeling of sitting in an empty bathtub with your clothes on that makes this scene memorable. Maybe it’s the calmness that reigned in that little tiled room once there was nothing more we could do—I remember Mom, no longer visibly agitated, telling Ginni to tell the story of Esther or Cinderella to pass the time. I remember my blue-green nightgown. I remember being too terrified to be annoyed with Ginni. That’s a terror I’ve outgrown and almost forgotten, until we talk to kids about tornadoes.

Every year, we have tornado drills at school. Little kids line the hallways, kneel on the ground with their faces to the wall, and cover their heads with their hands. All you see are dozens of little bowed backs. They’re always silent—even the most rambunctious kindergartener somehow doesn’t need to be reminded to put a lid on it during a tornado drill. And they’re scared. Even if you tell them that nothing is happening and it’s just a drill, they’re scared. Little kids know what tornadoes mean. They know what natural disasters are about—blowing everything away.

I’ve never been in a hurricane, but I’ve seen all those images on tv of people leaving their houses to get into boats, their streets unnaturally flooded, their possessions floating away. All of a sudden, it’s about the souls around you—your car is underwater and your beautifully-decorated home is little more than matchwood. 

I grew up with older people in Massachusetts telling stories about where they were during the Blizzard of ‘78—the one that blew in so unexpectedly that people froze in their cars on the highway. A friend told me about her front door being torn off—my mother-in-law was student teaching and got home just in time, in obedience to the voice on the school’s intercom that ordered “everyone leave now”. Their voices when they tell these stories are relieved—and still contain wonder. We humans should be more scared of disasters, but we never are until they appear and make themselves as scary as possible. 

After the 45 minutes of tornado warnings, the facebook pictures appeared—where everyone was when they got the order to “seek shelter”: families reading books, friends hanging out at home, kids out shopping. It was all abandoned, and everyone found the windowless bathrooms and safe spots in hallways. Kids crammed together in dry bathtubs. A bride getting her hair done in a basement. A sleepy toddler watching Zootopia on the iPad. All our plans—my shower, that movie people were going to turn on, that cup of coffee they were getting ready to order—all our next five minutes were abandoned as we took ourselves somewhere safe and sat with our people.

And I got this weird feeling as I looked at those pictures: is this what it’s going to be like when Jesus comes again? The Bible makes it seem like it. All of a sudden, whatever you’re doing will be forgotten and forever left undone. CS Lewis says it better, of course, but it stuck with me all day. Those pictures were a weird preview of the Last Day. I’m not as scared of tornadoes as I used to be, but one scarier than a tornado could show up at any moment and we’d see “the whole physical universe melting away” (CS Lewis). No wonder kids are scared—“disaster” is something they get and we don’t.

There’s this Jars of Clay song I like called “I Need You”, and it contains the line, “Do I want shelter from the rain or the rain to wash me away?” I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it makes me think of this idea. People who lose everything in hurricanes thank God for sparing them, and I thanked God for sparing us in that bathroom during the warning. Because God is our shelter. And the only thing keeping us all from being blown to kingdom come at any minute is his preservation. I’m sorry this isn’t smarter or more eloquent; I know this post doesn’t hang together very well. It’s just a picture in my head that I’m trying to paint—a picture of children lined up against the wall, scared to death, praying that they will be spared. Many kids in Texas experience God’s bigness and power in those hallways, myself included. I still remember lowering my head and commending my spirit into his hands. I’ve never seen a funnel cloud. I’ve never had the ceiling lifted off me. But I’ve had those silent drills where I wondered what the clouds would look like being rolled back like a scroll.

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