What Surviving A Tornado Taught Me About Life

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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Buy This May Be the Closest Photograph Ever Taken of a Tornado by Carsten Peter“Get down into the basement!”

The employees at my client’s office were filing down into the damp, dark, spider-web laced basement, not normally a place where one would choose to hang out. But the weather maps showed that the tornadoes were headed right for us, glowing bright red on the maps of Western Massachusetts.

The skies were black and the rains torrential, the trees shaking. So it seemed believable.

And yet utterly surreal.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Dorothy!

After all, this was Western Massachusetts, not Kansas, and we don’t get tornadoes in Western Massachusetts – do we? What exactly was happening, here?

I had planned to leave the office early that day to drive to a gym on Columbus Street in downtown Springfield. My goal was to be there at about 4:30, get a good workout in, then meet my family for dinner afterwards.

But the chief financial officer of the company heard a news blast about tornado warnings, turned on the TV news and warned us to stay off the roads. Otherwise, I would likely have been driving right into the path of the tornado when it hit the gym where I was planning to work out.

Saved by Grace?

My mom and sister were also driving, and got a phone call from my dad warning them off the roads. They also would have driven into the path of an oncoming tornado, but thankfully got off the roads and camped out in a giant Costco superstore until it passed.

For my family, these tornadoes hit way too close to home. We would have been driving straight into the devastation were it not for cell phones, news reports and people who care about us.

Makes you extra-thankful for the power, speed and reach of modern technology!

Taking Toll of the Devastation

More than 200 buildings were destroyed by the tornadoes, including homes and businesses. The roof was ripped off my rival high school, Cathedral, which may not open again.

Thankfully, only four people died, despite trees falling on cars and buildings, roofs being ripped off homes, and trucks rolling over on cars, but that’s still four people too many.

This is Western Massachusetts. I grew up here. We’re used to winter storms, snow, and ice. But tornadoes?

No way. Foreign to us. Unbelievable.

The last time a tornado hit the area was apparently in the 1950s. It is not a reality that people live with here, and therefore everyone was unprepared. It was shocking.

Child in Tornado Western Massachusetts

Feeling Lucky

The fact that the tornadoes blew through West Springfield and Springfield, hitting downtown and the South End, but not traveling as far as the neighboring suburb of Longmeadow, where my parents now live, frankly just feels like good luck. Lucky for my parents, who are fine, and whose home is fine. Not so lucky for other families.

I bumped into a Red Cross worker at Starbucks in downtown Springfield who told me that there were currently 400 people sleeping in the shelter they had created in the Civic Center. I thanked the worker, who had driven in from Philadelphia to help.

“I’ve got the easy job,” he said. “These people have to rebuild their lives.”

Indeed. Just witnessing the devastation driving through the areas that were hit afterwards – trees down, roads blocked – showed that there would be a long way to go before things were “back to normal” for many people.

What Is It Like To Live Through a Tornado?

Since I’ve never experienced a tornado before, all that comes with it was new to me. Thunderstorms, lightning, hail, torrential downpours, black skies, 50+ mile per hour winds. The skies go crazy just before a tornado hits.

It feels so unpredictable, because you don’t really know where it will hit. We were shepherded into the basement, and then 1/2 hour later the skies had calmed, we hadn’t been hit, and everything seemed fine.

So I drove to the gym where I’d intended to head to one hour before. They said that the tornado had blown right over the roof, sucking the doors of the gym open when it passed. It blew through the parking lot, as gawking spectators snapped cell phone pictures of the black funnel cloud.

I’m not sure I would have wanted to be close enough to snap a picture!

While I was at the gym, there was another tornado warning. “Stay inside,” they said. There was another one coming.

Saved by Grace, Again

It never came. We were lucky once again.

It was wild to imagine people living with this kind of uncertainty in the tornado-alleys of the United States. Apparently, in those tornado-zones, the weather and warning systems are far more advanced, and people know what to do when a tornado is coming.

Those of us in Western Massachusetts were not used to this, and the warning systems were not in place. My family and I just got lucky that someone heard the news, that someone called.

Letting Go of Control

Having a tornado hit so close to home, literally within a mile of my mom and sister and right where I’d intended to be driving, was a bit of a wake-up call.

It reminded me how little control we actually have over our environment.

We like to think we are in control, because it feels safe and comforting to feel like we can control what is happening in the world around us. The reality is that we only truly have control over our own thoughts, words and actions. We are not in control of the universe.

Mother Nature going wild is a powerful reminder of this.

Writer Leo Babauta of the popular blog ZenHabits wrote about this recently —

It’s amazing how often we think we’re in control of something when really we aren’t.

Control is an illusion, as I’ve said many times before.

We constantly make plans that never actually turn out the way we envisioned. ‘If you want to make God laugh, make a plan,’ an old saying goes.

We have been trained to set goals, and then work on the actions that lead to those goals … and yet how often do those goals fail? How often are we trying to control a future that we cannot predict?

Did you know five years ago that the world would turn out as it has – that Obama would be president, that the stock markets would have crashed, that we’d be deep into a recession, that earthquakes and tsunamis would hit, that you’d be doing exactly what you’re doing today?

Of course not. We don’t know the future, much less control it. We like to think we do, but that never turns out to be true.

And yet we continue to believe in the illusion of control. We face a chaotic and complex world, and seek to control it however we can.

So how do we live in such a world?

Flowing with Life

Babauta suggests:

  • We stop setting goals, and instead do what excites us.
  • We stop planning, and just do.
  • We stop looking at the future, and live in the moment.
  • We stop trying to control others, and focus instead on being kind to them.

This may seem like a radical way to live, especially for those of us in a Western, goal-oriented culture. In my own life, and here at 8womendream, I teach others how to map out their dream visions for their lives, and to be in action to achieve those dreams.

Yet having the wrath of Mother Nature hit so close to home was a visceral reminder of how little control we really have over what happens in the world around us.

What Surviving a Tornado Taught Me About Life

As a result of the tragic events I witnessed so close to home recently, here are my revised thoughts on how to live in this world:

  1. Create clear goals, but hold them loosely.
    Know that life may deliver “this or something better” to you at any time.
  2. Cherish the moment.
    We like to think that we know how life will go and how much time we have on this planet, but we never really know. Embrace the moment and the gift of time with those you love.
  3. Be flexible.
    The Taoist philosophy stresses bending with life. We never know what life will require of us next.
  4. Be kind.
    I love Leo Babauta’s words about not controlling people but being kind to them.

The truth is, we never know what’s coming next. I certainly didn’t expect to be right in the middle of the tornado zone while in Western Massachusetts last week.

It is a reminder to treasure the moment. To live with love. To be kind.

Pursue your dreams with passion, while holding your visions in this world, lightly.


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  • Ben Lorento

    That is a fitting picture.

  • Lisa – I will take earthquakes over tornadoes any day.

    I have the “this or something better” statement worked into every one of my goals. You never know what could be headed your way, so flexibility helps!

    Thanks – H

  • Barb

    Amazing story, but I am a little confused as to how it helps with dreaming……..

  • My ex-husband thinks I missed my calling of being a weather chaser because when the weather is wild and we have gale-force winds, I go outside to be in the middle of it. It excites me and I love it. I am famous for laying on the ground and watching the sky, going for walks in hail-storms and opening all the windows when we have hurricane force wind and rain. My son and I wake each other up during lighting storms, open the drapes and sit and watch the flashes across the sky. Once, a lighting strike happened up the freeway from me. It started a grass fire and I pulled over near it so I could see what the air felt like near where lighting strikes. It crackled with this amazing energy. See… I am crazy ;-)

    I love this –

    “We stop setting goals, and instead do what excites us.
    We stop planning, and just do.
    We stop looking at the future, and live in the moment.
    We stop trying to control others, and focus instead on being kind to them.”

    I’m trying, I’m trying!

    I am glad you are okay. Very glad. – Cath

  • Lisa

    Thanks Remy! <3 the weather is just wild lately… What's UP, Mother Nature?!? It is definitely a reminder just to live our lives fully and treasure each moment, since we truly *don't* know what's coming next… while still pursuing our goals, just because it's fun. :) Thanks for the kind words, so thankful that we were all fine despite the "close calls"!

    Lots of love,

  • Remy Gervais, Top Photographer

    Great post. We’ve had afew here in Northern Ca which is strange…I stay here because Id rather live thru earthquakes than deal with wind! Like you said, let go of the need to control. Sometimes it just wont happen. Glad everyone is ok xo Rem