Who doesn’t feel a frisson of excitement and aliveness when a great clap of thunder cracks right overhead?

An incredible storm struck Georgian Bay just hours before we were supposed to leave the cottage.  It started with the low rumble of distant thunder and an ominous mass of cloud in the west.  Still, I watched the clouds bank without concern:  they were far enough away that I figured I still had plenty of time to pack and go for a swim before anything happened.  Then I went outside to shake sand out of a towel and my jaw dropped when I saw the tower of black clouds right overhead, and stretching as far into the south as I could see.  So much for an early departure:  the storm had its own agenda.

I scurried inside and shut the south-facing windows.  As I did so, the mass of clouds passed in front of the sun and in seconds it was so dark it might as well have been night time.  There was a gentle growl from the heavens, and then BOOM, thunder cracked so loudly it made the house shake.  We happily gave in to the storm, pulling the heavy dining table chairs over to windows to get a front row seat as the storm rolled through the small bay.  Next the rain let loose, and the horizon disappeared into a blur of grey lake and sky.  The rain fell so heavily that it bounced off the water, creating a sense that the lake itself was alive.

This was no one hit wonder:  cell after cell rolled over us.  Finally, there was a bit of a break in the thunder, and I realized that if I had any chance of a swim, this was it.  I looked at the sky;  I looked at the lake.  I wanted that lake like you wouldn’t believe:  the last swim of summer!  But I didn’t fancy getting electrocuted.  Not a good example of smart-thinking to leave behind for my children, plus…I’d be dead.   I hurriedly got into my bathing suit, then stepped outside into the still pouring rain and tried to hear if there was hint of thunder.  I didn’t hear anything, but then it was hard to hear anything over the rain.

Had to chance it.  Heart racing, I made my way over the wet rock and down to the beach.  I thought the water might feel warm compared to the cold rain, but not a chance:  it was freezing.  I started laughing to myself.  It was so great!  I dove in and sliced through the cold water, feeling totally alive.  I came up, exhilarated, and was peppered by rain.  I felt like I could stay in forever, but knew that I ought to get out before the next cell hit in earnest.  Rolling over in the water, I figured I’d swim to the dock, which was a decent, but not self-indulgent, distance.

I was halfway there when I heard thunder again.  It sounded pretty far away, but it was clearly not the time to be in the water after all.  I’d come too far to go back, so swam on as fast as I could.  I reached the ladder safely, inhaled the smell of the wet cedar, and hauled myself out with no small amount of regret.

Watching the storm, and even briefly tasting it with my rainy swim, made me feel totally alive.  An hour later, when the sun was out and the only remains of the storm were a few puddles in the smooth rocks, it felt like the whole thing had been a dream, yet that current of excitement and life lasted in me for hours.

Afterwards, I was thinking why storms are such an assured way of creating this feeling.  After all, they can be a complete pain too.  I’ve been snowed into places and snowed out of places;  I’ve had umpteen flights cancelled or delayed leaving me longing for home while stuck on tarmacs, in lounges or in crummy airport hotels;  I’ve had terrifying drives where visibility was so bad I could only follow the taillights of the person in front of me and hope for the best; I’ve lost power for hours and sweltered in awful heat; and, when I was General Manager for the Freewill Shakespeare Festival in Edmonton, we even had to cancel a show due to a tornado!  And of course these really just amount to inconveniences:  storms can be truly devastating and even fatal, as we’ve seen so brutally around the globe in the last several years and even just this week.

And yet the storms themselves are exciting.  The mindset most of us live with is framed by a technological paradigm in which we expect to predict and control most of the things that happen to us:  if I flick this switch, I will get electric light; if I take this pill, my blood cholesterol will be lowered; if I press these buttons, my food will be hot.  Storms unsettle all that certainty.  We can see them coming, even predict their routes, but other than that, there’s not much we can do about them save run away or ride them out.  We are dramatically, even violently, reminded that prediction and control take us only so far.  And it’s thrilling to see the power on the other side of it.

In fact, it’s more than thrilling:  it might just be a key to happiness.  In his wonderful and witty book Stumbling Upon Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that our feelings about uncertainty are paradoxical:  “Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness, thus we might expect people to cherish it.  In fact, the opposite is generally the case.  [In two separate studies], students chose certainty and clarity over mystery – despite the fact that in both cases clarity and certainty had been shown to diminish happiness.”  In this case, Gilbert is referring specifically to our craving for explanations.  However, I think it’s reasonable to speculate that we also crave a degree of uncertainty in the flow of daily life, some variation or possibility of the extraordinary that lies utterly beyond our control.  This quality of uncertainty is usually painfully dulled by the reality of, as Albert Borgmann puts it, the character of technology in contemporary life, but storms briefly and beautifully illuminate it.

At the same time, storms also make us feel a part of nature, wherever we are, and whether we want to or not.  They are city/country agnostic, roaring in with the elements with equal ferocity whether we’re in Georgian Bay or downtown Toronto, or as we’ve seen this week, even Manhattan.  At the same time, they’re absolutely specific to the place and season:  a monsoonal storm in Bangkok is a distinct event that grounds you there, in that season, just as a blizzard is a core part of the Canadian winter experience.  We might do our best to create cities and interiors that replicate sameness, but the weather grounds us – sometimes forcefully – in season, time and place.

Storm Gathering, Georgian Bay 2011

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