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It is an hour or less before the setting of the sun, a shadowless moment already greyed out, with an evenness of tone across the landscape, and it has begun raining, a heavy downpour, a late summer evening drenching. I first hear it, and drawn to the door, I look out and watch.

It is not just the rain, coming down in parallel lines across the trees, but the sudden humidity, a thickness in the air, and a kind of cool warmth — the air being cooler than the daytime, but the mugginess felt as summer heat. The drops splatter on the pavement outside the house and bounce up as they explode, making a kind of haze above the ground. 

It is a multi-sensory event: the hiss of the rain, the sight of the shower diagonal against the trees, the feel on the skin and the damp in the nostrils. As the weather develops, there is distant thunder. It rolls rather than claps. 

And the presence at my door cannot help but expand beyond this afternoon and its downpour. I am 70, and there are seven decades of familiarity to the rain. This moment and the emotion I feel watching is a palimpsest of all those years — each time it has rained, overlapped one on the other to make not a single day’s weather, but a book of pages, each another storm, bound in morocco to make a life. 

As a boy, growing up in what was then rural New Jersey, a brook ran through our yard and when it rained, it would flood, rushing down its channel the color of chocolate milk.

As a Boy Scout, there were camping trips in tents made from heavy oiled canvas duck, with no floors, and in the rain, the heavy drops would splatter through the weave and spray us as we tried to sleep with a mist. 

Later, in summer camp and living in large tents on wooden platforms, the rain would make a sizzle on the canvas that was pleasantly soporific. 

In my 20s, trying to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, rain would sometimes keep us sheltered in a lean-to to wait out the weather, and after a night of downfall, we would wake up to a glazed world with leaves dripping, wet and clean, into the earth below and the long curved stamens of the rhodora flower weighted with a single bead on each tip. 

In Oslo, Norway, it rained every day in the summer at 4 p.m. You could almost set your clock by it. The downpour lasted perhaps 15 minutes and then it stopped, leaving streets running and the sound dampened by the humidity.

Eshowe

In South Africa, we were almost stranded on our way to Eshowe in Natal Province in 1987, when heavy rains washed out the John Ross bridge over the Tugela River. Eventually, our bus crossed the river on a railway bridge a few miles north. 

And, of course, I lived in Seattle for a while. The city is famous for its rain, but unless it was a gully-washer, no one even noticed. The constant winter mizzle was considered by most of the populace as fair weather. Or fair enough, anyway. 

Once, traveling across the continent, my wife and I were camping in Shamrock, Texas. In the middle of the night, a storm and tornado struck. First, our tent began floating as the drainwater created a flash flood, and then, when we abandoned the tent to find more secure shelter, the wind grabbed the tent like a kite, and I stood there, lit by the lightning, holding onto the airborne canvas trying to keep it from blowing off to the next county. I managed to get it caught under the tin roof of a picnic table and was able to dismantle it in the torrent. 

These and a thousand other pages in my morocco bound memory come to mind. But it isn’t merely the personal that maintains this resonance. Rain animates some of our best and most beautiful art, from Chaucer’s “shoures soote” to Lear’s “Blow winds, crack  your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes.” (When I watch Lear in the theater, I cannot help thinking of Shamrock, Texas). “Hey, Ho, for the wind and the rain. … For the rain, it raineth every day.”

There’s the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the wind machine in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude. 

There’s the downpour that begins Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the hurricane in John Huston’s Key Largo. The shower in The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart ducks out of the rain into the bookstore with Dorothy Malone — when I first saw the film on television as an adolescent, the scene counted as pretty racy stuff. 

Looking out my door now, the trees across the road are a grey mass, not a boring cardboard grey, but a rich, charcoal and velvet grey, a grey made up not of a lack of color, but of all the colors veiled over each other. 

The visual poet of such rich greys in the rain is the Japanese woodblock artist, Ando Hiroshige. In so many of his Ukiyo-e images, the rain has dulled the contrast of the trees, leaving them a blank wash of charcoal or slate. It is what I see across the road — the overlapping of ever lighter greys as the landscape recedes. 

In 20 minutes, it is over. The street is flowing with runoff, more leaves have blown from the trees and collect in the wash along the curb. Fall is not too far off. The sky is barely brighter than the silhouetted trees; night will be here in another 10 minutes. 

Aprill with his shoures soote cannot match the end of summer and its late afternoon drenches. Trees all leafed out are ready to give up and let go. A certain exhaustion can be felt in the air; we have pushed so hard into the growth and flowering, and in seed time, we recognize our day is over. 

I close the door; the rain is forgot. I am remembering it now — emotion recollected in tranquility. I recall to mind the humidity on my skin, the sound in my ear, the riot of greys and the street wash. 

I love the rain; it is infinitely more beautiful than sunshine, which blares and obscures in shadow. The forms of things are revealed in sunless weather that are obliterated by sunlight. You see the world the way it truly is, not split into a manichean dichotomy of bright and dark — of Ahriman and Ormazd. 

It is the middle of August. I write this with some trepidation, remembering a warning by Sylvia Plath, who wrote: “It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: ‘After a heavy rainfall, poems titled Rain pour in from across the nation.’ ” 

Detroit 1967

Detroit 1967

beatles-1967-avedonIt was 1967 and 10,000 people gather in New York City for the Central Park “Be-In,” the oil tanker Torrey Canyon runs aground off the coast of Britain, Charles Manson is released from prison (although he requested to allowed to stay), Israel fights the Six Day War, anti-war rallies and protests are held around the country, Elvis and Priscilla are married, anti-miscegenation laws are declared unconstitutional, China tests its hydrogen bomb, there are riots in Newark, NJ, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Washington DC (many people die), Che Guevara is captured and killed, Allen Ginsberg attempts to “levitate” the Pentagon, Sen. Eugene McCarthy announces his candidacy for president, challenging LBJ — who is counting “how many kids” he killed today. And the Beatles release Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the single, All You Need is Love.

It was 1967, the “Summer of Love.” The Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded that year.

Be-in

Be-in

It was 1967 and I was young and idealistic, that is to say, an idiot, and I had a warm relationship with the dean of my college. Warm is perhaps the wrong word. Heated is more precise; I despised him. Do I need to say I was a sophomore?

che guevara deadI was an activist student. I protested the Vietnam War, I published the underground newspaper (the “KMRIA Journal,” named after a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses), I rankled under many of the restrictions placed by the college on its students. Why was there only a single African-American student and no African-American faculty, when the dining-hall staff was almost entirely Black? It was a Quaker college, after all, and should be more progressive.

I spent many an hour in the dean’s office making demands. There was so much wrong with the world and with the college, and I and my generation knew how to fix things. It was time to end the core curriculum, I told my dean. Who needs to learn a foreign language? Why should I be forced to take a math course when I was an English major?

Then, there was the school’s responsibility in loco parentis. We were all adults, I averred, why should the school prohibit women from traveling off campus unaccompanied? Why should they be forced to wear dresses to dinner, and the men suits and ties? Women were not allowed to smoke “in transit,” meaning, they could puff a ciggie in the parlor, or when standing still outside, but not walking. Who makes this stuff up? The rules seemed especially peculiar for women.

One young woman had been expelled for spending the weekend with her basketball star boyfriend. He, on the other hand, was merely scolded. “Double standard!” I yelled at the poor dean. And what was wrong with the two of them taking a trip together? Hypocrisy, I claimed. Hypocrisy. (I had some self-interest here, having spent some time away on trips with my college girlfriend. The difference: We hadn’t been caught).

Me, "the freak years"

Me, “the freak years”

And then, there was Jerry. A class younger than me, Jerry was a charismatic young hippie who bought Romilar cough syrup by the six-pack. A small group of students, including me, were “freaks” on campus, with long hair, bell-bottom jeans, and an uncontained contempt for the buzz-cut, patriotic, church-going straight-arrows of the campus.

For a time in my sophomore year, we became a foursome: my girlfriend, KC, and me; and Jerry and his pan-pneumatic girlfriend, Carol the Barrel. There was cough syrup, marijuana, and gin and Sprite, drunk in the Quaker graveyard, where we poured libations to the grave slab of poet Randall Jarrell.

Jerry had lived a terrible life, he said. His father was a retired Army colonel and now belonged to a religious cult. His father and his brother regularly beat Jerry and sometimes locked him in his room, for up to a week at a time. His mother was also beaten, he said. Getting away to college was salvation. Jerry told us stories about the cult, which wasn’t exactly a Christian sect, but some offshoot, that glorified patriarchal power and the dominion of fatherhood over all his family. Paterfamilias, he called it, modeled on the ancient Roman family structure. “Power of life and death over all of them,” Jerry said.

One day, in his dorm room, Jerry showed me his needle. “I shoot heroin,” he told me. “Don’t let anyone know.” The hypodermic syringe was one of the old-fashioned sort, made from glass and stainless steel, and kept in a velvet-lined box. I wasn’t ready to dive into narcotics.

There was this sliver of time when drug-taking was not merely recreational, at least for the more serious among us. Beer was recreational. Alcohol was the drug for getting a buzz. But smoking weed was — again, for this brief time — sacral. Under the influence of Timothy Leary, drugs were to be used to uncover “alternative realities,” and discover the secrets of the universe. To use drugs simply to get high seemed shallow and unworthy. (We were serious prigs, in our own way.)

hypodemic syringeThe idea of heroin seemed beyond that. It was dangerous. It was criminal in a way we would never consider marijuana. Jerry was the first junkie I ever knew.

One day, Jerry came to my room with a frightened eyes. “My brother is coming,” he said. “They are going to take me and force me back to the cult. I need to hide.”

I told him he could stay in my room for the while. I went to see the dean. I explained Jerry’s situation to him and asked for help. The dean looked disturbed but told me, everything was OK. There was no problem. “Yes,” I said. “There is.”

For the next several weeks, Jerry had the look of a deer in the headlights, and there were phone calls from his father, and I made more visits to the dean. He had to do something, I told him. At each visit, the dean told me to stop worrying. It began to feel as if the dean were part of the conspiracy.

Between moving Jerry from room to room, avoiding calls, hiding out in the woods one day when Jerry’s brother came to get him (he eventually left without Jerry), and my expostulating with the dean and finding new hideouts for Jerry, my schoolwork was suffering, and we were all a little jittery. This felt big.

It came to a climax when I went to the dean’s office and threatened to call the police. The dean — who held cards I knew nothing about — sat me down and said, “There are things I shouldn’t tell you. It’s illegal to discuss another student. There are privacy issues. But you need to understand Jerry is a very disturbed young man.”

“But, his father wants to kidnap him,” I said.

“No, his father is coming to take him back to the hospital.”

“What hospital?”

1967 Artist Bob Masse. Grateful Dead“Jerry was here provisionally; he had been committed to Butner for several years. They thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t.”

“What do you mean?” I was sideswiped. You mean Jerry had been lying? Making it all up? He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic after an episode in high school. (It was a popular diagnosis back then; nowadays, he would more likely have been called bipolar. That is our popular diagnosis.)

The dean showed me a manila folder with medical records. Physicians’ notices, letters back and forth, even a note from his high school principal.

“What about the needle?”

“Jerry is diabetic,” the dean said. “He takes insulin.”

There is nothing so deflating as punctured indignation. My high horse was a rocking horse. I was flashing cap pistols.

I met Jerry’s brother, who came to take him back home. He seemed as reasonable a human as I could imagine.

“Thank you for caring about Jerry,” he said. “We love Jerry, but he needs help.” There was no cult; there was no abuse.

Later that day, I watched Jerry get in the car with his brother and drive off. I never saw him again.

alexandria-quartetA few years later, I had the glint of recognition when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The first of four books tells of a doomed love affair as told by an British writer, Darley. The second tells the same story from the point of view of a friend, in possession of more information, so we learn that Darley completely misunderstood everything that has happened to him. The third volume retells the story from the omniscient point of view and we discover that both the previous books were wrong and everything we had come to understand was partial, often totally misguided, and dark with ignorance. (The fourth book, Clea, takes the story past the narrative of the first three books).

The four novels hit me with the force of a brick to the parietal bone: I recognized the syndrome.

Soon after reading the novels, I went through a tortured relationship with a woman I was crazy about (“The only thing blonder than your hair is the sun,” I told her). She ran hot and cold in a way I could never understand, sometimes libidinous, sometimes antsy and standoffish. She finally broke it off with me. I moved away from the city to hibernate (not unlike Darley in Justine), and only found out when I accidentally bumped into her decades later that she had been sexually assaulted by a boss at work, and had gone through a difficult and traumatic trial and had been unable to come to terms with love or sex for years afterward. I did not know what drama had played out behind the scenes of our stumbling courtship.

Rashomon posterOne could liken it to Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, except that the movie tells each version of the single story through the self-interest of the parties doing the telling. It is not merely a case of the reality being larger than the parts, but of each person lying to make himself (and herself) look good.

What I am talking about, instead, is the fact that we can never know the wider context, the whole story. We can see some sliver of the world through the chink in our psyches called our senses.

And I am not concerned here with conspiracy theories: That someone is withholding the key facts we need to know and balefully controlling the course of history. If we don’t know the full story of the Kennedy assassination, it isn’t because some cabal is secretly pulling the strings, but because reality is too complex, too messy, too variegated and too ornery to stuff neatly into a poke. If there were a cabal, even they wouldn’t have all the facts.

We are each in a dark hole, with only a little light from above. We peer out at the daylight and can see a few people staring down from the rim. We make relationships, we imagine the world, we tell ourselves stories. But we never have a sure grasp on the whole. The dark whole.

It is why the scariest thing I know is the profession of certainty. Only the ignorant make such a claim.

jacob-bronowski-bbcI am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the evils of certainty.

After an explanation of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom muddy with the ashes of those killed there.

For Bronowski, the uncertainty is not merely about electrons, but about all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility, he said; certainty breeds arrogance.

“Look for yourself,” he wrote. “This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

That test in reality means that all knowledge is provisional. And there is always some data that we don’t yet know. Every wife, every girlfriend, every husband, son, confederate, colleague, nemesis, enemy, is a world contained, filled with complexities we will never fully know.

Humility is the only sane response.