A letter to Eli on his 13th birthday

Do you remember the day we watched a tornado go past our place? You must have been about 8 when you and your family came to stay with us for a few months that spring.

I believe my family was in school the day of the threatening sky. The storm clouds became dark and menacing after lunch. As I was heading out to work in the garden, I saw a funnel cloud forming over the oak trees – to the northwest of our land – and it was moving our way. I called to your mom and dad – telling them to bring you and your brothers to our basement. Fortunately everybody was near by. When we were all inside, I paused for a moment at the doorway. The funnel veered to the north and out of sight behind the trees. I was relieved and yet fascinated by this bit of prairie weather. I wanted to see more of it.

I called to your parents to tell them the ‘coast was clear’ and to ask them if they were interested in jumping into a vehicle to go to a place where we could watch the tornado. To my surprise they agreed to the adventure – so off we went into the unsettled air. As I remember, you weren’t too keen to do such an unwise thing as following a tornado. After all, we had just been running and ducking for cover from this thing and now we were supposed to be excited about following it? I was apprehensive as well, especially when it came to driving down our treed lane. We couldn’t see where the tornado had gone. What was stopping it from veering back and catching us unawares?

We left the Turtle Mountain bush land behind as we crested the hill on the main road. The broad Whitewater Marsh basin opened in front of us and we could see we were no longer in danger. The funnel had traveled quickly and was now about seven miles to the northwest. Our feelings of uncertainty changed to awe at the raw and beautiful power of the thing and then to concern for the people in its path. We watched the graceful, shimmering thread slither and bounce across the flat farmland below us. It was a slow-motion drama with only one actor dressed in white against a blue-black angry sky. We knew we were part of a rare experience. You boys watched with wide-eyed wonder and at the same time sought comfort from your parents. You were picking up on our worry. We knew there were many farms along its path and it seemed to be heading straight for Boissevain, our nearest small town. We could see the dust explode every half mile or so as the funnel touched down. Fortunately it petered out just south of town and later we heard that only one barn roof had been damaged.

I wonder what you remember of that afternoon. What feelings do you get when you realize the risk we were taking? I relearned something about myself that day – that being so close to danger is exhilarating for me. The experience with the tornado also gave me a more intimate connection with this prairie landscape. I am honored to have had that experience with you and your family. It has added to our friendship and to the stories we have to tell of each other.

For me, taking risks is part of learning to be a man. I am not foolhardy – I hope – because I also take my role as ‘protector’ seriously. I feel the two roles: ‘protector’ and ‘explorer’ are partners. Both roles ask that I be totally alert to the possible dangers while remaining alert to the possible expressions of beauty around me. Perhaps this goes back to the days when men went out to hunt for our families – sometimes as a group and sometimes alone. There used to be more animals that considered us their prey and so there was potential danger around every corner. I don’t imagine the chronic daydreamers lasted too long. I feel the same alertness when listening to a well-told story. I’m on the edge of my seat, the hair on the back of my neck is bristling and I am attentive to, and even anticipating, every detail of the story.

This, I believe, is part of becoming a man – always exploring and protecting, exploring and protecting – taking mostly calculated risks to advance our family and our community within a context of beauty and danger. I wish you well as you discover your place on this good earth. I believe we – your family and your community – have prepared you well to make the choices coming your way. Thank-you for giving me your wondering eyes, your playful spirit and your attentive friendship. Along with everyone dear to you, we wish you a life full of learning, that you regard kindly everyone and everything that shapes you and that you draw from the pool of power and love we have in common.

Love,  David – along with Maggie, Kholi, Ezra, Teyana, Jonah and the big – and most often friendly – prairie sky