Saturday, May 31, 2003

Rain Walker

I just submitted this at Portland Stories, a local community blog for posting stories of our shared experience here in Stumptown. I am copying it here for my own records.


Summer, 1991. My mate and I spent a month on the road, seeking a new home. Each day we trundled our poor little hatchback, heavily laden with all of our possessions, farther north, farther west. We'd never seen so much green... the trees were green (we didn't know that they left strips of trees alongside the roads when they clearcut, to maintain the illusion of forests), the mountains were green, hell even the rocks were green, there was moss growing on the frickin *asphalt*... we felt like we'd stumbled into some crazy Dr Seuss terraforming project. We actually pulled over at one point to photograph a ten-inch-diameter mushroom (which I later learned was a 'boletus edulis'), because we knew nobody back home would believe us that such a thing existed.

We'd left behind the deserts of Utah (the geographic desert of the southern half of the state, and the cultural desert of the north), following some internal compass that had been compelling us northwesterly for years... we spent a few months in Los Angeles visiting family, then wound our way up the coast. When we got to Portland, the car decided that our journey was over, so here we stayed.

I remember walking around in the rain, shoulders ineffectually hunched, head bent low... thinking: this isn't rain, this incessant pissing trickling drizzling haze... this is *not* rain. The drops don't even really fall to the ground, they just hang in the air, waiting for you to walk into them so they can cling to you, eventually gathering enough droplets together to form little rivulets of frigid fluid that drip down your back and into your underwear.

To add insult to injury, every time I read the paper or watched the news I heard them talking about the 'drought'. Drought? Drought?!?!? It rained like 150 days that year, and they said it was a drought? In Utah, in 1976, we had a drought... people *died*, crops just crumbled to dust, a real plague-of-locusts summer in the Holy Land, with wackos who wouldn't shut up about the similarities between the weather and certain doom-filled passages from Revelations. If Oregon was going to call that mushy moldiness a drought, I wondered what it would take for them to name something a 'flood'. (Turns out I didn't have long to wait for an answer to that one.)

Walking downtown in my characteristic hunch, I passed one of Portland's famed coffee-houses, where the brave denizens of the city were actually sitting outside in the rain, hip and unaffected. One conversation stopped as I walked by, and two pairs of eyes turned to watch me pass... out of the corner of my eye I saw that the fellow on the right had wrapped his arms around himself and hunched up his shoulders, comically chattering his teeth and trembling in imitation of me, as the fellow on the left laughed, shook his head, and scornfully said 'fucking tourists'.

I made a few friends at the university, and I told one of them about this experience. He was very matter-of-fact about the whole thing: hunching up your shoulders just adds shoulder ache to dampness and misery, and is a definite indicator of non-native status. He hesitantly suggested that the time I had spent in Los Angeles was quite a black mark (evidently qualifying me as a 'Californian here to raise the property values and take all the jobs'), and that I should make some effort to remove the more obvious signs of my tainted past.

While the social implications of his comments didn't really faze me, the practical implications did: I really was quite uncomfortable walking around in the rain. The locals made it look easy, as though they were unaware that it was raining. I decided that I too needed to have this zen-like ability to walk unaffected through the drizzle, so each time it rained (this is back before El Neener and global warming had negated most of the weather) I set aside some time to practice walking in the rain.

When my friends asked what I was doing, and I was foolish enough to tell them, they all looked at me a bit strangely, but they let me do my thing, watching from under sheltering eaves as I practiced: stand up straight, relax the shoulders... put your chin up, and s*l*o*w*l*y walk forward. That was the real trick... too fast and you look like you are trying to get out of the rain, and that blows the whole 'unaffected' scene... so take it slow, very mellow. Before too long I was making it look easy, and I found that it really was much more comfortable than my previous mode of walking in the rain.

Now, years later, I actually enjoy going for walks in the rain. I like the feel of the watery sheen the rain leaves on my face, and the kaleidoscopic glints that shine from the droplets that cling to my eyelashes. Walking through Laurelhurst Park, watching the patterns the rain makes on the surface of the pond, I feel very relaxed, very at home.

Now when I'm out walking, I like to watch the other people around me: some of them, like me, walk with the Buddha Nature, just soaking it all in... while others scurry about, wielding umbrellas or newspapers, trudging along in jaw-clenched hunch-backed defiance of the elements.

Fucking tourists.