At first, I thought it was nighttime roadworks. Or an ambulance pulled in by the side of the street, its lights flashing. Largely, I’d pushed the flickering to the back of my mind, dismissing it as some sort of strobe lighting outside. That was until I heard the BOOM! Then I knew it was the storm that had been forecast and I turned off all the lights, went to a window, and watched and listened. I didn’t want to miss a moment, not knowing, at this stage, that it would go on for hours, this terrible beauty. No wonder ancient civilisations built stories around thunderstorms, attributed motive and cause to the sky when it heaved in glorious agony. Some heard Thor wield his hammer; others imagined Zeus using fork lightning as a weapon; and the Navajo saw the lightning bolt as a wink in the Thunderbird’s eye. On Tuesday night, I could easily believe we were being judged, roared at, sentenced.
Powerful, dramatic, destructive, I could not stop looking out. All day, I had been feeling like a sick sloth and suddenly – at ten o’clock at night – I was energised. The super-charged atmosphere had jump started me. Just one night after I had climbed Calton Hill to see a manmade light show, nature’s light show was showing its unrehearsed mettle. Both were beautiful, but tonight’s held me transfixed in all its uninhibited, frenzied, reckless power. Some people fear the unpredictability of a thunderstorm, but I think many more are drawn to them; to the volatility of the sky cracking in capricious destruction causing us to wonder about the stability of anything. It wakes something in us, something primordial that we understand but bury: we are tiny in this universe; we are insignificant and defenceless.
The rain was a power-shower. If there is such a thing as a punishment cleansing this was it; the streets, footpaths and rooftops were being excoriated. Don’t step out – I heard Zeus say – you’ll be scoured too (that or born anew). I’m not one for scary rides in a funfair, but this brought up similar feelings of awesome dread in me; a reawakened excitement that comes from walking too close to a precipice.
Last night, the night after the storm, I walked up Calton Hill in the darkness and it was hard to imagine how it might have been there twenty-four hours earlier. Everything was cleansed, fresh, and the night was clear. Across in Fife, a huge orange flare from the Mossmorroan petrochemical plant (lit because the thunderstorm had hit the plant) burned like a beacon for Scotland, like a sun that didn’t want to set, an elemental truth. Another terrible beauty shining into the night.
Nights like these teach us something profound about beauty and fear and loss and love. But putting that lesson into words is difficult; so, I will lean on someone else’s words. On my dear John McGahern, and some lines from his book, Memoir: “We grow into an understanding of the world gradually. Much of what we come to know is far from comforting, that each day brings us closer to the inevitable hour when all will be darkness again, but even that knowledge is power and all understanding is joy, even in the face of dread, and cannot be taken from us until everything is. We grow into a love of the world, a love that is all the more precious and poignant because of the great glory of which we are but a particle is lost almost as soon as it is gathered.”