May 19, 2007
“So, what are your plans for next year?” By the time I was wrapping up my senior year in college, I was tired of that question. So I made what seemed to me the obvious decision. I was off to the Caribbean island of St. Croix to spend a year as a snorkel guide.
While I was waiting in line for the small plane that would carry me from San Juan to St. Croix, they announced that this was to be the last flight of the day due to bad weather. It seemed that a hurricane was headed our way. To say the least, I found this to be distressing news, but surprisingly no one reacted. A few people acted perturbed that their flight was to be delayed, but no one seemed to bat an eye at this potentially devastating weather system headed our way.
My flight landed safely on St. Croix where I was met by some distant friends of my parents who had agreed to let me stay with them until I could get work. I anxiously greeted my host and asked immediately about the hurricane. He chuckled at my naïve reaction to the news and explained that hurricane warnings were a regular occurrence in the area. Only the eye of the hurricane is dangerous, he told me, and that’s relatively small (geographically speaking). The rest of the storm would seem to me to be little more than a strong thunderstorm. Only marginally reassured, I crawled into bed pondering the concept of the tropical breeze.
The wind intensified over the night and I woke to the sounds of my host taking a few last minute precautions with the home. As he screwed in the last piece of plywood over a window, he again expressed no concern and chalked up this early morning activity to a “better safe than sorry” personal philosophy. After I’d helped batten down a few hatches myself, I went to the guestroom to call my parents and tell them that I’d arrived safely.
Not surprisingly, my parents were quite distressed about the hurricane headed for the Virgin Islands. I, of course, chuckled at their naïve reaction to the news. I explained to them that hurricanes are only bad if you get hit by the eye of the storm. As I was finishing my little meteorological tutorial, a fantastic wind smacked the side of the house and I saw the roof rise from the top of the wall about half an inch and slam back down. “What was that?” my father asked. “Oh, it was just some wind hitting the house, raising the roof and slamming it back down.” Somehow articulating what had just happened made real the gravity of the situation. I said good-bye to my parents telling them I loved them, and asking them not to worry. I then hung up the phone and ran, whimpering, to find my hosts.
We made our way to a shelter which was an industrial garage built into the side of a hill. Safe behind two rolling steel garage doors, we prepared to wait out the storm. As the night unfolded we became as curious as we were foolish, and made the decision to roll up one of the doors to watch the storm. That steel curtain lifted, and the images of that devastating show will never leave me. I watched store front signs fly by. Telephone poles wobbled as if made of rubber. And the rain — buckets of it — blew horizontally across my limited field of vision.
Then something amazing happened. The screaming winds grew instantly silent. The telephone poles stood sturdy, if slightly askew. The rains were gone. We walked outside and looked up at an awe-inspiring starlit sky. The devastating storm had vanished, leaving us a calm and beautiful tropical evening.
But as many of you may have guessed, the winds returned as quickly as they had left. If anything, their intensity increased. The garage door which had remained closed suddenly blew into the garage. The massive steel door stayed attached only at the ceiling — flapping around like a flag unfurled in the wind. As we scampered inside, I looked back at the storm and noticed something odd. The debris, the poles and the rain were all blowing in the opposite direction to what they had been before.
What I learned that night was that what is commonly referred to as the “eye” of the storm (a singular entity) actually encompasses two very different weather patterns. The eye wall, or the outer rim of the eye carries with it the highest and potentially most devastating winds of the entire hurricane. By contrast, the center part, the eye, is commonly characterized by calm, clear conditions. In an organized storm, the eye wall completely encircles the eye. As such, one is not likely to ever experience the eye of the storm without also experiencing the eye wall.
The calm interlude I described above was the eye of that storm. To me it seemed a pleasant respite. To those who understood hurricanes, however, that respite confirmed the fact that St. Croix was experiencing the full brunt of that awful storm.
Sadly, when we returned, we discovered that their house had suffered major damage. The roof had blown off. Most of the windows were shattered. Artwork and family photos lay soaking in pools of water. There was no electrical power, nor would there be for some six weeks to come. I barely knew these people, and I was standing in their living room as they wept at the destruction.
I didn’t know what to say. I found a broom lying nearby so I picked it up and began to sweep. Effectively that broom or some other tool of clean-up or reconstruction didn’t leave my hands for over a month. Our days were simple. There were few decisions to make. Each day we picked up where we had left off the day before. The winds were calm.
Not only were the winds calm and the island peaceful, but on a much grander scale, the funneling winds of decisions, goals, and transitions that had defined my life as a student and recent college graduate, for the first time in a very long time, were quiet as well. And although the circumstances were unfortunate and uncomfortable, there was something profoundly satisfying about that time in my life.
I knew exactly who I was, and what I was supposed to be doing. There were no thoughts of going back to the drawing board, no thoughts of abandoning the island in search of new adventure or (God forbid) a “real” job. I had a part to play in the reconstruction of a home. For my efforts, I was given shelter, food, and a tremendous sense of purpose. I was centered. I was whole. I was in the eye of the storm.
Winds of transition swirl around each of you today. The winds are strong now, yes. But they are not likely to leave you. Whether working toward goals you’ve set for yourselves, or working toward goals set for you by others, these winds animate each of our days.
Life’s winds are not always destructive, like a hurricane. The winds of theses, finals and even commencement weekend will have their eye when you are able to sit quietly and reflect on your accomplishments and the opportunities before you. Perhaps some day the hectic winds of preparing for a wedding or commitment ceremony will have an eye when you steal a kiss from your partner without the pinging of glasses asking you do so. And maybe you’ll come to know the anticipatory winds of preparing to become a parent which have an eye in the first magical moment you hold your child.
When I landed on the island, I had been told that the storm was only dangerous if the eye gets you. This, of course, is true when you understand the brutal nature of the eye wall. But the eye of the storm — the very center — is not a place to be avoided. It’s a place to be sought.
This journey into the eye of the storm is, I believe, a spiritual one. It is the gentle reprieve in the midst of the chaos that surrounds it. It is a moment of clarity, tranquility. It is a place to listen, to ask big questions. In the eye of the storm, you don’t fight to keep your balance. You are steady on your feet. When in the eye of the storm, you know exactly where you are. When in the eye of the storm, you know that you are not entirely in control of your destiny, and as terrifying as that sounds, there is something profoundly liberating about it as well. In the eye of the storm you are silent, you are aware. In the eye of the storm you take a deep breath and prepare for what comes next.