Don and I went to lunch today. Leaving the restaurant, we noticed dark skies to the west — so off we drove to a coffee shop to sit outside and watch the storm sweep in.
It came over the mountains around two o’clock, and it turned them into purple and blue shadows. While the rain was still far off, the air rose and swirled around the patio of the coffee shop. But the winds weren’t yet strong enough to drive the sparrows to shelter. They fluffed and went back to hunting insects on the wooden deck.
By that time, I was thinking of how difficult it is not to see the approach of a storm as an unfolding story.
Story telling is universal to our species. It is merely human to see events as progressive, as moving towards some outcome or climax. We do it all the time. But storms especially lend themselves to story telling, and the brain easily makes a story out of a storm. Yet not everything in life is so much like a story as a storm.
At times it seems to me that an acquaintance of mine turns her entire life into a story. It can be subtle the way she does it. When you ask her how she is doing, she never simply says, “good”, or “fine”, or “bad”. Instead she always ties her present into her past or into her future to make a continuum. She says, “I’m better than I was yesterday. Things are finally improving.” Or she says, “Things have gotten worse for me.” Or, in some other way she creates a narrative out of how she’s feeling.
It becomes more evident as you get to know her. This woman has themes that run through her life like the themes of a novel. She doesn’t tell you much about herself she can’t tie into one or another of those omnipresent themes. For instance, suppose her car gets a flat tire that day. A different person might tell you about the flat, what they did to resolve it, and the immediate consequences of having the flat. But she will focus her narrative on how her flat tire fits into one of her themes — say for example, her financial problems:
A Different Person: “I scraped a curb with my right front tire while turning a corner today. It made such an awful sound that I immediately pulled over to take a look. Lo and behold! The tire was flat. The worse part of it was the bolts were rusted, and merciless to get off. But I finally got them off and the tire changed. Of course, by that time I was late to my doctor’s appointment.”
My Acquaintance: “Today, I got a flat tire on the way to my doctor. There’s just no hope of my affording a new tire now with money tight and all the other bills I can’t pay.”
The tendency to see events as part of a story is very human and most likely present in all of us, but in some of us it is taken to an extreme. I’ve gathered during the months I’ve known her that when something happens to my acquaintance which she can’t properly fit into one of her themes, she simply ignores it as if it didn’t happen at all. She often gives me the eerie sense she is more aware of her themes than of the world around her.
For some reason, storms often lead me to think of how difficult it is to live in the present moment. Consciousness is pretty much a commentary on things, don’t you think? Either a commentary on things in the future that are coming, or a commentary on things in the past that are going. To some extent, it’s a natural story-teller.
Sometimes the past is only an instant past when our consciousness notices it — so we might think then we are living in the present. But there is always that lag, no matter how short, between the event and our conscious awareness of it. The only part of consciousness that lives in the present is consciousness itself.
Assuming all that is true, it is sometimes best not to think too much about the things we wish to experience as they are in the present — experience without the intervention of consciousness and its tendency to impose interpretation and meaning on things.
When the rain began this afternoon, it first came to us wind-blown at a slant in small, warm drops. That surprised me because the storm looked so violent from a distance, I had formed half an expectation the rain would pour down at once. That is, I’d been looking forward, as I might look forward when reading a novel, to what would happen next.
Don and I sat in the light rain for a while. Gray clouds raced overhead, lower than the mountains, and the sparrows were gone by then. I recall we discussed the future of humanity. Perhaps we did that to distract our consciousness from turning the storm into something too meaningful.