Since the weekend, like the rest of America and a lot of the world, I've been watching the stories unfold from the awful tornadoes in Missouri and the rest of the Twister Belt. My heart goes out to all those brave people. I'm awed by their almost collective optimism and courage in the face of losing so much in just the blink of an eye.
I grew up in Illinois and used to watch tornadoes chew their way across the cornfields behind the house. No twister touched down in Briggsville for over fifty years until just a few weeks before I left to come back to New York. An F3 hopped through the town, miraculously killing no one but yanking a Casey's gas station up off its foundations and blending it to scrap in midair. An antique store, many houses and farm equipment were thrown about like so many Tonka toys. My mom's house was undamaged, but I'd had to crawl under fallen branches to get out the back door. Her yard extends to the barbecue pit with acres of cornfield just behind it. The corn, ten feet tall by this time, was all bent sideways from the wind. I thought we'd dodged the bullet, that it hadn't passed too closely, until I stood up on the barbecue pit to survey the field. Then I gasped. There were only two rows of corn left, directly behind the pit. Then there was no corn anywhere. The tornado had taken the entire gigantic field. Not even stalks were anywhere. It was just dirt with a grim confetti of leaves and tassel.
On the news regarding the Joplin tornado, they described multiple funnels. I'd been driving back to Briggsville when our big one hit, through the most blinding rain I'd ever experienced. Half a mile before the Briggsville exit, the rain stopped, like somebody flipping a switch. And I saw it. It was so big, my mind couldn't wrap around what it was at first. I saw the multiple funnels and the sheer wedge-shaped mass of the thing directly in front of me, but I couldn't grasp what it was. I said aloud, "Is that...is that trying to form tornadoes?" not realizing the whole horizon stretching mass was the tornado. Two motorcyclists ahead of me were yanked off their bikes and thrown. The local Walmart was destroyed but all the customers and staff saved by a quick-thinking manager who got them into the giant walk-in refrigerator, over two hundred people in all. Oak trees that lined the boulevard downtown had their tops snapped off like dandelion heads, and cars were sucked up and found a mile away. That tornado was by far the largest and most terrifying one I'd ever seen with my own eyes. The one in Joplin was far bigger. Our Big Girl, as the locals call it now, hopped. That's what saved lives. The Joplin one simply stayed on the ground and devoured everything.
The thing I want to write about is the miracle of all those people in Joplin and their optimism. From the lady searching for her mother's doll collection, scattered throughout the debris, to the mother searching for her missing son, to the National Guardsman who took refuge in a bathtub, grabbing the faucet to prevent the twister from pulling him to his death; they are all symbols of everything good in the human race. We have our Wall Street greed pigs and our Libyan scumballs, our sicko drug lords and our repulsive lobbyists, but we also have the people of Joplin, Missouri. We have our Nelson Mandelas and Mother Theresas, our Harvey Milks and our Angelina Jolies, our charity groups and self-help supporters, our brave military and self-sacrificing, though rare, good politicians. They are the pearls beyond price we all strive to emulate. Given any past, our memories can make or break us. They can become a soul destroying gravity that pins us to the ground or they can be experience that lifts us higher than we ever dreamt we could go. It's all up to us, what we do with the cards we're dealt. I've been both pinned to the ground and lifted high in my time. You don't have to remain one or the other just because that's where you are now. As they say, If Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And if Life gives you a steaming shitpile of misery, turn it, seed it, and grow a garden. You can do it. Roses are lovely this time of year. Even something thorny can be beautiful.