tragic beauty

It wasn’t the best decision I’ve ever made – running so soon after the rain on the river path toward the lake – but it felt like a good decision when I started out.

The first few blocks confirmed it, like my feet had been waiting to pound pavement all day long. When I got to the bridge, the sky was speaking of the storm that had just rumbled through.

The river rushed by just underneath the bridge, the sun streaked through the gray overhead, and the path stretched empty in front of me. I got emotional, there by the river that was breaking its boundaries and threatening flood.

What is it about the stillness after the storm?

Storms feel destructive and powerful and foreboding… at least in tornado season, or hurricane season, or after a tsunami. Storms can be a cold violence, but then those bright rays peek through the gray and the air is quiet. The settled stillness is peaceful – like two rowdy men in a back alley brawl called a truce and the alley is full of empty again. All the punches have already been thrown and resolution stretches to fill the silence with peace.

I saw the mountain of debris in between my strides – tree limbs, plastic bags, and bits of unidentified things trapped between a bridge and a bank. Debris is one of those words that sounds more beautiful than what it defines (maybe that is many words in French?). “The remains of something broken down or destroyed,” doesn’t sound beautiful. It sounds like ruin. The debris that gathered under the bridge didn’t make sense together – the massive pile of natural and unnatural odds and ends were not supposed to be blocking the river the way they were.

I realized I had slowed my pace and was taking a mental picture of the floating mass. I was thinking about Oklahoma and trying to imagine what a town would look like after being leveled in an instant.

Isn’t there a mysterious sort of beauty after a storm has passed? When the stillness swallows up the storm’s screeching and the gray clouds let the light back in.

Maybe I’m making little sense. But we often use the phrases “tragic beauty” and “beautiful scandal” in a way that assumes they make sense. In literature and movies and conversation and news stories, we all recognize there is beauty within and around and in between the debris of tragedy.

I kept running while my brain ran to find reasons debris could be beautiful. The path was deserted – just a solitary man on a bike crossed in front of my running feet. When I got to Gray’s Lake and had run halfway around it, I realized the reason the paths were empty: it was closed due to flooding. The ducks could not figure out whether to swim in the streets or the river. They didn’t even move when I passed. And then in the middle of the bridge (that runs across the lake), I found myself running inside a storm.

That’s when I thought it was a stupid idea to be on a run, but you can’t do much but run when you are halfway across the bridge in a downpour and a couple miles from home. I laughed a little bit, prayed a little bit that I wouldn’t get struck by lightning, and thought a little bit about how peaceful it had seemed moments before.

The rain died down and I navigated the flooded paths while wondering if I could get arrested for going around wood barricades. The lake returned to its placid state and the stillness swallowed up the last of the storm’s brawl. The park looked like a photoshop creation, with all the green hues and perfect dew drops on perfect blooms.

I ran back past the mass of debris trapped underneath the bridge by 5th Street and thought about all the natural disasters with all their masses of debris that sometimes stretch the length of a city. How can we call that beautiful? That stillness after the storm?

I was in middle school when a very powerful windstorm hit our rural area. Everyone was in a productive panic (I think rural areas are especially good at this) and the children were all sent home from school early. We arrived at home and my oldest brother looked out on our property (with several less roofs on buildings, as they had been flung into the fields) and said, “Wow. God is awesome!”

The post-storm calmness had claimed the horizon and what my brother saw when he looked out from our front porch was God’s awesomeness.

It doesn’t make any sense. How can something destructive uncover something beautiful?

Sometimes things just don’t make sense. Sometimes they are swallowed up into the greater mystery of a world beyond us, a reality beyond this, and an eternity that is beyond the reach of disaster.

Sometimes what is unsteady and unpredictable in the world is at its brightest contrast to what is forever and true.

Is that how beauty peeks through with rays of sunlight when the storm settles down? Does tragedy in this world somehow shake us from temporary sight to see something eternal?

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