Filed in Zen (Chan)

Beautiful Storm

Finding the hidden remedies in our troubled selvesHenry Shukman

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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.

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