Essay: Finding Sunshine in the Storm
in a time of incivility and anger, we can fulfill our need to connect with others
It was a dark and stormy night, which seemed to fit the mood, or at least my mood as I drove east through the storm toward Fall Creek. I was directing a writing residency there, and – after watching the Doppler radar screen darken from my office in Eau Claire – I figured I’d do the responsible thing to see how the writers were holding up.
Not that driving through a storm is necessarily a “responsible thing,” but it seemed like the thing to do. And so, begrudgingly, I buckled up, gripped the wheel right, and headed into the maelstrom.
My mood darkened along with the storm clouds – not as a result of the weather, but of the talk radio show I listened to along the way, one that amplified the screeds of one blustering commentator after the next. For weeks, every time I entered the car I kept the radio dial right where it was, held captive by the incessant fist-shaking indignation that glutted the airwaves. They hollered about bathrooms and the need to build walls, about email servers and superbugs. It was an endless parade of one frothing-mouthed politician after another, each seemingly committed to riling their listeners into frenzy. And judging by the callers, they were good at it.
For weeks, every time I entered the car I kept the radio dial right where it was, held captive by the incessant fist-shaking indignation that glutted the airwaves. They hollered about bathrooms and the need to build walls, about email servers and superbugs. It was an endless parade of one frothing-mouthed politician after another, each seemingly committed to riling their listeners into frenzy.
This, I imagine, was the reason for my dark mood; I’d simply grown weary of the shouting. And weary, too, of a world that allowed wide platforms for such low forms of communication. Though I didn’t expect outright civility from these radio shows, I admit I hoped for a bit of common ground – not much, but a small slice that I could call home.
As I drove through the hail and the pounding rain, all those commentators’ fears were confirmed: The world, it seemed, was ending after all. The end times were apparently here. Proof of which I saw out my car window as the wind humbled the trees along the roadside, bending them just a few degrees shy of breaking. The road construction signs flopped to the asphalt, while the accompanying orange barrels teetered perilously close to rolling away in the wind.
Upon arriving at the lodge, the writers were, of course, safe and sound – reveling in the spirited storm and calling it inspiration. They broke from their workshop to watch the clouds come in, rolling the windows tight to keep out the rain. Here there were no screeds, no shouts, not even a mumble of complaint as a result of the sticky heat. They were simply happy to be in each other’s company, and I was happy to be with them.
Finally, I thought, people like me. People I can connect with.
Later that night I returned home to a house without power, though not even the lack of electricity could revert me to my former mood. I was enlivened again, rejuvenated. My son Henry and I tried to make the most of our powerless predicament by walking the dog, chatting with neighbors, and splashing in every puddle we passed. Then, to buy my wife some time to put the baby to bed, we hopped in the van, at which point Henry directed me where to go. Left, right, left – the destination didn’t much matter.
Eventually, we wound up downtown just as the sun was setting. We entered a local coffee shop, ordered a hot chocolate, and enjoyed our rare indulgence.
We were soon joined by an elderly man who appeared to be down on his luck. It was clear he wanted to talk so we did, my son regaling him with his life story – all four years of it. The man listened and laughed, enjoying it thoroughly, and asked a few follow-up questions. I watched as they leaned forward in conversation, realizing that though this man and my son likely didn’t share much in common, they shared this night, that moment. And with it, the dignity that comes when two people talk to one another without pretense, or agenda, or a need to confirm a range of commonalities before engaging in conversation.
Any last remnant of my grumbly mood immediately dissipated. I was reminded of how devastatingly lucky I was, reminded, too, of the perils of allowing punditry to warp the world into something it isn’t.
As their conversation wound down, Henry waved goodbye to the man, a wide smile brimming across his face.
Together, the two of us wandered into the Eau Claire evening, which was so breathtakingly beautiful I couldn’t help but reach for my phone to try to capture it as best I could. I centered the city block in my screen and … click.
“Let me see,” Henry said, tugging at my arm.
I showed him.
“Yes!” he fist-pumped upon examining the shot. “Now we’ve got a piece of the world forever!”
Suddenly I was newly desperate for the biggest piece I could get.