I had an argument with the rain this morning. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t say anything out loud. I was inside, safely dry and warm, with my breakfast and a newspaper on a small table. I looked up from the newspaper and stared at the droplets clinging to the kitchen windows.
I must confess that I have learned that it is best not to pick fights with that vast combination of forces and phenomenon called “nature.” It’s not that nature always wins. It’s more that, after a while, you feel really foolish having directed your animosity at a target that can so rapidly change its shape and character that you can’t help but give in.
Consider shoveling snow. I used to do this with great gusto, rushing out after the last flakes fell with an overpriced snow shovel that I had bought, like those umbrellas you find at convenience stores positioned just inside the front door as soon as the clouds go dark, just before the storm hit. I confronted the suddenly quiet, whitened topology, noticing how the cold touched the skin on my wrists and ankles that wasn’t quite covered by my winter gear. I momentarily contemplated my dumbed down version of Bertrand Russell’s paradox: what’s greater, the set of all things, or the set of all things that are not quite?
Then I’d put the blade of the shovel into freshly fallen powder and, with a scraping sound loud enough to alert the neighborhood that, while everybody else was inside, comfortably couched in front of a football game, quaffing microbrews, gobbling microwaved leftovers, accidently dribbling “special sauce” on their pajamas, I was pushing back against the chaos, restoring the freedom of movement to the stretch of (not to mention the wall thrown up at the end of the driveway by the snowplow) in front of my home-sweet-home.
With heroic scrapes, hoists and dumps, I’d reveal the sidewalk. When I was finished, I’d ignore my aching back and hips, exhale a steamy breath, thrust the blade of the shovel down into one of the larger piles and gaze upon the result of deontological effort. I’d feel eminently superior to those whom I just KNEW would merely threw table salt in front of their doors, or, worst that those, the folks who decide they’ll only remove one shovel-blade’s width, reducing the sidewalks broad width to a narrow chasm fit for knock-kneed squirrels.
Until I looked up at the winter sky and saw a new flurry of snow swirling down from above. In less than an hour, the sidewalk was buried again.
Nature wins. The joke is on me. In the cosmic game of tag, I’m “it.”
Having had two heart attacks (none while doing anything physical), I’m forbidden from shoveling snow again. So I have to wait for the neighbor’s kid, or entrust the task to strange beings from other worlds who bang on the front door and demand scandalously high fees.
And I wonder, was it “nature” that blessed my parents and me with a genetically determined proclivity for heart disease? Was it all that cheese I ate when I thought that avoiding meat would be healthier?
Most curious of all, where do I end, and nature begin? Where’s the part of me that is so hideously human that, if not for a finer appreciation of natural splendor, I’d be on a couch somewhere watching sports and consuming solids and liquids filled with chemicals that make me want to consume even more?
I asked that question again as I noticed the rain on the window. The droplets had arrayed themselves in rows and columns that were not quite uniform (Russell’s paradox again!). They reminded me of the spangled glimmer of sunlight on open water when there is just enough breeze to ruffle the surface. The light was not only fascinating to see but luminescent of the blinking electro-zits on the front of old science fiction movie computers that signified that something profound was going inside the machine.
I see the same blinking diodes on the edge of the gadgets the cable company has “rented” to me so that I can access the Internet and watch TV. They flicker at rates that appear to be not quite random, but not even enough to form a recognizable rhythm.
What else, I asked myself, does that? What else appears to the uninitiated as a series of indications, or markings that don’t quite resemble a recognizable image?
My eyes went back to my newspaper, with its headlines and photos dramatizing the latest outrage in our nation’s capital. I don’t especially read a newspaper to be riled up about the workings of institutions that are wealthier and more powerful. As a former journalist, I’m addicted to that buzz you get from finding out about things that are interesting or merely cool. The buzz is similar to the feeling that derives from climbing a trail up on to a mountain, turning around and seeing the view through the break in the trees.
Similar, but not quite.
I looked at the black and white markings on the page, not as letters that form words that form sentences and clump up into paragraphs that should flow together sufficiently so you turn the page and see a few advertisements that pay for it all, but as areas of light and dark, and you get something that is similar to the light playing on the droplets on my kitchen window.
Similar, but not quite.
I thought of all those poems I’d read in high school and college and, later, from a big collection of zen writings, about gravestones in churchyards, a Grecian urn, the landscape of Britain’s Lake District, moonlight on water and a frog sitting motionlessly on lily pads and a sudden water splash.
And I asked the rain (silently, of course–I didn’t want my dog assuming I was nuts, though, I suspect, my dog already realizes this and is just being polite when I insist on picking up her poo with a plastic newspaper wrapper and depositing the contents in dedicated recepticals) if it was trying to tell my something, if it was offering information, if it was about to help me find out something that I would not find on the thin, broad, dry pages of a newspaper.
The rain said nothing and I went back to the newspaper for about thirty seconds. I saw black and white, light and dark, patterns that almost cohered.
No, I wasn’t having a stroke or mental difficulty. I was slightly caffeinated. I hadn’t taken anything alcoholic, or hallucinogenic. I was just looking at my newspaper differently.
That’s when I had my argument with the rain. Was it possible, as some zen people (not to mention the English Romantics, cf. John Keats and his urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”) claim, that all the information we truly need is contained in what we may perceive from nature? Thomas Hobbes looked at an idealized “state of nature” and determined it was infamously filled with “continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” But, then again, Hobbes grew up during the English Civil War, which was very much that (although not quite as short as it could have been).
I demanded (silently, of course) to know what information the rain had for me. If it was trying to tell me something that was better than what was in the newspaper, would it tell me right now?
I waited. The rain had stopped. The dog wanted to go outside. The vibration from the kitchen door opening and closing made most of the the droplets fall off the window.
Most, but not all.