Echo of the Ephemeral

There’s a wonderful scene in a Chevy Chase movie where a family has just completed a journey across America to see the Grand Canyon. Having finally arrived, the family gets out of the station wagon, walks to the edge of the abyss and, with their arms around each other, they collectively heave a great, appreciative sigh, then shrug their shoulders and get back into the car to go home. The moment is great comedy because who can’t relate? When something is too overwhelming for words—too intangible, out of reach—even when it is right there in front of us, there is no way to capture it; no amount of drinking it in that can solidify the experience or make it more real. You just can’t eat it. There it is. Time to get back in the car.

There are some images that can just not be described with words alone—the giant gumdrop of a California sunset as it melts into the Pacific Ocean; the smell of Georgia pines after a rain storm; the life and energy of Times Square after the theaters let out; wisps of hair on your shoulder on the first warm day of the year. In trying to describe the ineffable, one relies upon the reader’s own history to fill in the blanks.

Likewise, there are experiences that are so utterly subjective that one can never truly share their worth. And there is always the difficulty of a culture-gap. Manhattan is a concept which is so totally alien to my relatives in rural Texas that, after feebly suggesting various stretches of their imaginations, I often end my explanations with the tired phrase, “You’d have to be there to understand…” I have the same problem explaining the beauty of listening to country music while driving all night down an old, dusty, two lane highway to folks from New York City …They just can’t get it. There’s no point of reference, and the experience is too elusive to capture with mere language.

What I’d most like to capture and be able to recreate in a way that would resonate for the universal reader is the sensation of a Southern thunderstorm. In attempting to define such an experience, words can only wrap their way around the invisible forces of nature—outlining in the sketchiest, loosest way what is transient and filled with power. Words can describe the warm, salty taste of a gulf breeze, but they cannot convey the electric thrill that every Texan knows when that breeze begins to cartwheel across the shore, damp and full of potential and warning. I can tell you in words of the clouds—rich, blue and gold—slowly gathering into larger, heavier and deeper blue-black and silver groups, crowding each other into cauliflower bunches across the steel-gray sky, rumbling and growling with intensity and a promise of force. But I cannot make you feel the spark of fire that catches when the first flashes of lightning explode inside the clouds and illuminate their edges. I can’t truly capture the sound of those first heavy drops of rain as they land on the windshield of a van or the rhythmic hissing as the wind blows the downpour across the roof. I mean, I can tell you, but if you have no shared context, the images may not come to life for you—no matter how true-to-life.

I can tell you what it’s like to be drenched to the bone, but I cannot reproduce the sensation of wet feet inside of wet shoes, or the smell—warm and weedy. For me, the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of a Texas thunderstorm are co-mingled things, inseparable, incapable of true translation. The oil in the Gulf of Mexico lends the air a thick brownness, salty and flavorful. The wind carries silvery currents back and forth across the road. There are times when it is impossible to see anything beyond the beating streams of water on the windshield. Traffic stops. Gutters overflow into the streets and barefoot children scream at the thunderclaps and run to catch crawdads in the overflowing ditches.

The storms can last from a few seconds to a day or more. When they leave, the air is crisp; the ground is littered in pine needles and leaves. The flood waters run off into the bayous and rivers, and the birds come out of hiding to celebrate the sunshine.

Inside homes, people turn from the Weather Channel back to their soaps and realty shows. The watches and warnings have moved on to another part of the county and life—for a while filled with danger and noise—returns to routine. One neighbor might call another to ask if any trees were downed in the storm or to share the story about the thunderclap that like to give her a dadblaned heart attack.

A Texas thunderstorm is a miracle that for me, as a writer, remains elusive and breezy. Unless one already has a point of reference—a similar memory of salt and wind and sound—there is no way to convey it with mere words. It is a living thing, vibrant, explosive, willful and majestic. It can be tasted. But no matter how hard you try, you just can’t eat it.

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