The Kuna believe that a violent storm is a being that has lost its way, blundering about blindly, desperate to get its bearings once more.
Beautiful Storm: Finding the hidden remedies in our troubled selves
One night some 16 years ago, while on a writing assignment in Central America, I got caught by a violent storm in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The fronds of the palm trees along the shore were breaking apart and bending double like seaweed in a powerful tide. The beach was one long seethe of white spume, and the wind was filled with flying debris and a smoke of sand.
The airport closed down. I jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a modest hotel, and we soon pulled up on a narrow street of colonial houses in the old town, outside the Hotel Milano. It was a small, charming place, with a narrow sliver of a view from my room down to the harbor. But it was already late, with the whole town battened down, and there was nothing to do but rest and listen to the furious panting of the wind outside.
I was on my way home from a coral atoll off Panama, where I had just spent a week in the autonomous territory of the Kuna Indians. The Kuna believe that a violent storm is a being that has lost its way, blundering about blindly, desperate to get its bearings once more. When a storm comes near, they go down to the beach with their pots and pans and bang them together as loudly as they can and shout out over the water, hoping the storm will hear them and find its way again and not stumble through their coconut-thatch dwellings. They say this always works and that hurricanes are unknown in Kuna Yala, their ancestral archipelago.
Here in the colonial streets of San Juan, several hundred miles to the north, you could hear shutters banging, and now and then some distant unidentified crash. The storm was indeed like a lost soul, raging and chaotic, all order gone. But like all raging things, the storm consumed its own passion and eventually wore itself out. By morning it was gone. The next day, I sat up on the rooftop terrace of the little hotel, sipping coffee in a hesitant dawn sun. The dewy, battered city was busy picking itself up again, and people called out to one another down in the street to compare notes on damage sustained. During the night, I had found in my hotel room a curious document, which I now opened.
It was a self-published book, Dear Children, by a man called Juan San Emeterio. A note explained that a copy of the text had been left in every room, in case guests wanted to take a look. I flipped through it while drinking my coffee, and soon figured out that it was loosely modeled on Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: a book of wisdom, composed in short passages of reflection on life’s challenges and how to surrender ourselves gracefully to the frustrations and sorrows that inevitably assail us. The writer was a father and had written it for the benefit of his children. He was also the owner of the hotel.
I was soon to be a father myself. I really had no idea what to make of that. Sometimes I was aware of a vague, radiant hopefulness at the prospect, other times of harrowing unease. The thought of the pain my wife would go through was terrible, and I was deeply concerned about my own readiness. Was I mature enough to set aside my own hungers and yearnings in the interests of the child? Actually, I couldn’t avoid the clear answer to that: no, I was not.
But this book, Dear Children, acted like a tonic. It was forgiving of human frailty; it encouraged patience with ourselves. A shadow fell across my page. “Ah, you are reading my book,” came a voice from behind my shoulder.
I turned, squinting into the morning sun, and came face to face with San Emeterio himself, a handsome, silver-haired man with deep, patient eyes. He joined me for coffee, and that morning was to be the start of a lasting friendship.
By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2014 Issue
Image: Lightening Storm, by osgoodcs0, CC0 Public Domain, at Pixabay.com