forces of nature

Some thirty years ago, around the time I converted to the Catholic faith, I had one of those dreams which stay with you for years, unpacking their significance over time.  I was in the garden of a house—not my own—with a group of people. I had become aware of some impending disaster, but was unable to communicate the urgency of the situation to my companions. Then all hell broke loose. The sky darkened, rent with thunder and lightning, and the ground shook beneath my feet.  Everyone else seemed to disappear, and I was on my own. Terrified, I dropped to the ground and prostrated myself.

I was reminded of this a few years ago when we were holidaying in the Maremma, southern Tuscany, with family and friends. In the middle of a supper on the terrace to celebrate the 50th birthday of my sister-in-law, a spectacular storm gathered on the mountainside opposite us. Forked lightning rained down and thunder-claps roared around the landscape. I would have freaked out, except for the fact that Rachel was thrilled. “I love thunderstorms,” she whooped, “this is the best birthday present ever!” So we sat under the awning, protected from the rain which eventually came, and nursed her other birthday present (Brunello di Montalcino) in a mood of mild hysteria.

This year, on another holiday with our growing family, I was in northern Tuscany, in the mountains of the Garfagnana. I was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, feeling low about the fact that my husband’s cancer treatment had been mis-timed so as to prevent him from joining us after a conference in Italy, when the ground literally rocked beneath my feet. It occurred to me for a moment that I was having some sort of attack. Yet one look at my daughter’s and her husband’s faces told me that it was not I having the seizure, but the earth. Only the day before, I had commented that the tree covered mountains around us looked for all the world like a living beast of gigantic proportions. I imagined a Miyazake animation in which these creatures valiantly strove to keep as still as possible so as not to disturb the tiny human settlements dotted about their limbs. Occasionally though, one of them would be unable to suppress a sneeze, and hence we get earthquakes.

I am inclined to panic when such things occur, hence (and because of) my earlier dream. And yet something caught my slightly fazed attention as the tremors continued, more mildly, over the next few hours, as I thought about priorities should we have to leave the house. This was the fact that my daughter is expecting her first baby. The little one is exactly mid-way through his or her gestation, and we have been enjoying the sensation of small but distinct movements from the newcomer within. When the earth trembled in that untoward way, it reminded me of this. But I was also reminded of the wonder of the first scan, when the baby was just eleven weeks old, and I saw how this tiny womb had already formed within her body, invisible to the naked eye, to protect and nurture the child whose limbs and skull and backbone were already formed, and whose tiny, tiny heart beat at the pace of a restless pony.

We are all afraid of the elements, the forces of nature. As a culture, we have grown afraid of her power within our own bodies too, the force that gives life, whether invited or not. For much of the time we live in circumstances which give us the illusion that we can control everything about our lives. Until something beyond our control, something we cannot stop strikes us. The cancer which multiplied itself in my husband’s body while the doctors messed around with pain-killers for ‘chronic backache’, which so many of his male friends have beaten, with the help of drugs, yet he has not, is a malign example of this. The baby which has come into our lives through the love of our adored girl and her adorable boy, is a benign example. The earth which currently teases me with its shivers even as I write this (the birds are still chanting their litanies in the trees around us, there is nothing much to worry about, surely?) encompasses both. Sometimes this becomes more than teasing: sometimes, as in the Abruzzi, or even more recently Emilia Romagna, the earth seems to exact a terrible price. “We live in the Appenines,” a young Italian said to me just now, with a smiling shrug. “It is a seismic area, what can you do?”

The truth of it is that life is a seismic area. This would be a terrible thing, if it were not for the fact that we are not just pilgrims on the face of a planet, but children of God encompassed in a most secure womb. I look at the landscape around me, “shot through with the grandeur of God”, and breathe the air of the mountains which Hopkins most aptly compared to the young woman of Nazareth who put her hand in that of an angel and said “I do”. And I know that, however hard my heart pounds, and however fierce my anger and fear, there is an atmosphere in which I can continue to breathe, as can we all. This air is what will enable us to survive, and survive together, even separated by time, distance or death. This air is the air that I took into my lungs at the end of my dream all those years ago, as I heard in my head a strange sweet voice, which told me: “But only Love will overcome…”

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