Karen Rivers

the things you now know about lightning.

Karen Rivers

(This blog post was temporarily unavailable as part of the terms of publication in The Globe and Mail.)  

Here is what you know now that you didn't know eight hours ago:  

 When you are on the beach, collecting shells with your kids in the rain, and thunder rolls, you should run.   

Here's a better one:  

 When you are on the beach, collecting shells with your kids in the rain, and thunder rolls, and their hair (and yours) stands on end, you should not laugh and take photos.

Here's what it means when your hair stands on end during a thunderstorm:  

 You are most likely about to be hit by lightning.


In the last two weeks, lightning has come up again and again in conversation.  Why?  

It is your birthday dinner at your parents place.  Your nephew shows up in the middle.  Rowing practice was cancelled due to threat of thunderstorms.  Why?  The kids want to know.  Why?

Because of lightning, he says.  He explains about the metal boat.  How the lightning would seek him on the water, in his metal boat.  Grandad explains about conduction.   

The Bun worries about it later.  What if? What if? WHAT IF?

It's not going to happen, you say.  It's like winning the lottery.  Your odds are so remote.

I'm scared now, he says.

Don't be, you say.

You meant it to be reassuring.  Then the weather makes you a liar.


Every year, the middle weekend of June means a small holiday.  A particular hotel, a specific routine.  On the first day: checking in, swimming in the pool, a walk on the beach.  The second is mini golf, bumper boats, the park.  The third is the water park, building the island and waiting for the tide to come up.  On the fourth: check-out, Smitty's, the arcade, the other beach.  

This year, everything went wrong.  

This year, it was an exercise in you keeping your panic at bay, which was a bit like corralling cats into a carrier.  Just keep it together, you whispered to yourself.  Suck it up.

The hotel pool was closed for health reasons.  The hotel network was down, so no movies in bed.  The hotel elevator was taken out of service, with you on the 8th floor.   The Bun's foot was sliced open on a broken shell.  He fell and sprained his ankle on the other foot.  The Birdy coughed and pretended not to be sick.  The tides worked in reverse, coming in when you wanted them out, going out when you needed them to come in to make your island.

You ate ice cream.  The crows ate the french fries in vinegar.   You stayed up too late.  You found sand dollars, shells, and things that were funny.


The big beach is the last big adventure.  You take donuts and frozen drinks, buckets and shovels.   The sun skitters behind a black cloud.   It starts to rain.

But there are shells to be found.  It's a tradition, after all. 

The thunder claps and The Birdy says, "We are brave, aren't we Mummy?  We don't care if we get WET."

Yes, we are, my darling girl.  We are so brave.  We are the bravest.

Sure, you say.  We'll dry off in the car.


When The Birdy's hair started to rise, you all laughed.  You took a picture.  It pulled free of her braid and reached up towards the thunderhead.

"Look at her HAIR!" said The Bun.  "LOOK at it."

"Look at YOURS," she said.  

They bent over, laughing.  "Look at MUMMY!"  

You have the longest hair, not tied back.  You could feel it waving over your head like antennae.  Of course it looked funny.  You made a face.  They howled with laughter.

Theirs was static, you had thought, from the playground slide.  

You stopped laughing.

You weren't on the playground slide.

Which, regardless, was made of metal not plastic.

Then something electrical snaked up your legs, a feeling, like dread sneaking in the wrong way.  The hair on your arms prickled sharply.

"We have to get back to the car," you said.  Panic got out of its carrier.  The Bun wanted to find one specific kind of shell.  You willed yourself to not throw up.  Or scream.  What you felt like doing was screaming.  What you knew you should do was...

Well, you had no idea.

You weren't even sure that this wasn't just panic.  The old fashioned kind, feline and predictable.

"NOW," you said.  "MY CAMERA IS GETTING WET."  Which is the first, most immediate thing you could thing of that wouldn't scare them to death but might motivate them to move.

You didn't say "RUN".  

Why didn't you say "RUN"?  

You will sit on the couch much later, asking yourself this.

You knew it wasn't right, what was happening.

But you didn't say it.

It's because you weren't sure.  Not 100%.  

All you knew was that your hair should not be doing this and neither should theirs.   And a warning bell was going off somewhere deep in the recesses of the places where instinct hides.

"HURRY," you said.   In your mad voice, which is your most powerful tool in your Mummy-arsenal.  "RIGHT NOW OR SO HELP ME."   

"Right now?"  they said, mid-laugh.   Their hands hovering in the cloud of hair above them.


"Everything?" they hesitated.

"Please?" you said.

It took forever or ten minutes.  

You made it to the car.

The Bun spilled his drink.

The thunder crashed so intensely, you could feel it in your jaw.

You texted your ex.  "What does it mean," you type.  "When your hair stands up in a thunderstorm?"

"GET INSIDE," he texted back.  "NOW."

You stepped on the gas like you were making a getaway.  Which of course you were.  

You did.

And how lucky are you, anyway?

Several miles down the road, you call your mum.  "Well, maybe you should buy a lottery ticket," she says.

"I think I just used up all the luck," you say, your heart still pounding like something battling to break free, hammering on your sternum like it's a door that may still open.

Not today, you tell it.  Today, we had a miracle.

"Who was the goddess of lightning?" your mum asks.

"I don't know," you say.  "I have no idea.  Why?" 

"I don't know," she says.  "It just seemed important."


When you get home, finally, hours later, you Google it.  Goddess of lightning.

 (Astrape, in case you ever need to know.  Who has ever heard of Astrape?)

But now you are on the internet, and even though you don't really want to, you type:  Hair standing up thunderstorm.  

That's when you find the picture of the two boys, laughing, their hair standing up.  Right before the lightning struck them.

Then, going through your own pictures, you find the one of The Birdy, laughing, hair everywhere.

And you feel sick.   Of course, you feel sick.  

Your knees still buzzing strangely, from adrenalin or electricity. 




The things you now know about lightning: 

The Goddess of Lightning is Astrape.

If your hair stands on end, you better move fast.   Get inside.   

If you can't get inside, crouch down on the balls of your feet with your feet close together. Keep your hands on your knees and lower your head. Get as low as possible without touching your hands or knees to the ground.(From the New York State Department of Health website.)

And sometimes -- rarely, but sometimes -- lightning lets you get away.

Be grateful, for that.