Lillian Schneider — “Help Me See Clear: Reflections on Rain”

In the Pacific Northwest the rain on the rooftop is as constant as any kind of love you could wish for. When the fall rains begin, you know they will not leave you; they will keep this corner of the planet green and fragrant for you, so that in summer, when they depart for the ocean, you step out into a new damp world abundant, and welcoming, sagging with berries and fruit. As a child I was a night-owl bound to the daytime schedule of school and society, and lying there awake in the darkness, I was never alone. There were ditches in my neighborhood, a pond the size of a four-square court in my backyard, and when the water ran the frogs went crazy, singing their own kind of storm. I drifted into sleep trusting the rain not to stop in the night the same way you have no choice but to trust your heart to your body. If I woke and the rain was gone, I knew it would be back soon. The Northwest can’t speak English, but speaks many dialects of wind and rain, and I interpret how I please—it doesn’t feel like interpretation to me, though. More like plain listening. Just as love feels inevitable when it comes. (Perhaps later I will wonder what I was thinking.) The rain will come and come and come, and I like the kind of faith you can touch and listen to. I like the kind of confirmation that pours down on your whole world.

Rain’s biggest detractors criticize it because it is wet. But what, really, is so distasteful about being wet every now and then, and usually for not so long a time, for ten minutes or a hundred out of a whole lifetime of regular dryness? Comfort has no stories to tell. Umbrellas are a fine invention, but how silly they make us look, like taxidermied frogs with cocktail umbrellas pasted at the hand, scuttling mushroom people, people with shields up against an earth that is only trying to help, and doesn’t care about you or your umbrella anyway. How I love a bouquet of wind-busted umbrellas bunched inside a trashcan on a street corner. How I love to see people, who try so hard, bless them, to appear always smooth and correct, now totally undone and disheveled by the weather. This is how we look at the most dramatic moments of our lives: in sex, in birth, in sickness, in despair, in fevers of unrestrained joy. I like when everyone on the street has been rained on and we are all a little more worn down than usual, bristling, frowning like newborns in reverse, inwardly screaming to stay dry against a world where wet appears for now to be the rule. It’s true, we are worn down, we are malleable, we are powerless and we don’t quite understand what is happening to us. Our lips are not really Double Daiquiri Pink and our eyelids should never be purple; our coats are not true protections—just pretty things with sleeves and pockets for all the things we will lose someday.

My father worked for the city of Seattle, a ferry ride away from the island in Puget Sound where we lived, water around us, water above us, water within. It was his job to regulate the reservoirs, to make sure they didn’t overfill or go dry or cause, in their fluctuations, even more salmon to die. During droughts he stayed late at work and came home harried, then clogged up the landline with boring phone calls to men with boring names. He’d interrupt my online chats to check the water levels, then the weather. When he found good news he’d get excited, running in and out of the house every few minutes to peer at the sky. And I’d know when the first few drops came because I’d hear him crow triumphantly, “Aah!” and I’d run out to join him where he stood with his arms out like the wings of a totem pole, his face tilted upwards. I don’t know what he was thinking—maybe only that he’d have an easier week at work—but he looked like a man giving thanks.

When it rains in the forest everything makes sense. Alone, walking among the trees, the mind is soothingly boggled. How can it all be so beautiful? How can all these different leaves exist? How do the flowers know to grow, and to grow into this shape, this color, which catches our own blooming breaths in our throats? Each raindrop is a clue—I can touch the clean clear water and know that this is a part of everything. The same every time. Repeat, repeat, repeat, like meditation. Then, too, in forest, all the best smells emerge, smells that were there all along, which the animals could smell but we could not, yet, until rain aided us. Rich cedar, spicy plants, papery bark, funky fungus, sweet peas and wild roses and rhododendrons and blackberry bushes in various states of decay. River stones are as shocking-bright as rainbow trout under water, bland when you take them home, exciting again when you wet them with your spit, smeared with a thumb. You can drink water from leaves.

It’s different in the city, which is engineered against the elements, where rain and snow and blazing sun and animals are kept at bay, blocked, shoveled, poisoned, drained into dirty rivers to mingle with oozing, killing stuffs. In the city the rain is an uncomfortable new skin wrinkling in the corners, the joints of the city, running into the open faces of tennis and basketball courts and canceling games, chattering over the lips of the curbs where people will step in and swear, pockmarked in the puddles where new drops fall, where coffee cup lids and sleeves fall, where pennies fall, receipts, candy wrappers, used-up train tickets. I understand the vents to gush it away so cars don’t accidently become ill-fated boats; I understand awnings, and may have used them myself in certain rains, the most powerful ones that come down in muscled sheets. People crowd together when it rains, under awnings, , and then, they may even speak to each other. They may remark that this rain is ruining their day. I was going to pick up lemons, they will say, and now the salmon is going to be so bland, and we’ll have to poach it, we cannot grill. The rain is powerful to the people who don’t like it as much as the people who do. Drops the size of your pupil, and we are dismayed, and we run away.

There’s a beachside cliff back home where I like to stand and look out at Seattle across the Puget Sound. When everything on the horizon is a shade of grey I can let myself make it make sense, as if it were all formed by and for one system, as if the skyline is simply a compressed, more geometrically ordered version of the sky. On certain days, in a certain grey light, the water is like rippling steel. Surely men made Seattle from this water, pulled it right from the bay in great spools to cable the buildings together. Other days, darker days, when there’s a certain mineral-scented wind that shivers like the timbers of a great ship going somewhere fast without you and the skyscrapers look like columns of lead, it’s not hard to imagine that centuries of churning storm clouds pressurized the buildings into existence, like crystals, over time. I know that the core of the earth is melted and moving at its core but I won’t ever see it. I use what I have to see it. I imagine it sort of like an orange version of a rainy sky, spitting drops, boiling, blooming, thick.

I acknowledge it is difficult to picnic in the rain.

For all of childhood I was the slowest runner on my soccer team. Ten minutes of game time meant a mottled red face which revealed my inferiority to everyone.  But in the rain I was refreshed and ran better; my cleats dug into the wet dirt in a meaty way that felt good. When I switched to goalie in the second half the ball would hiccup to a stop in puddles in front of the goal, easy for me to snatch. At the end of the game I‘d be covered in the proof of my determination, the proof of the past two hours of my life: mud.

You can never be too intimate with mud. There are so many kinds of mud to meet. I am acquainted with many of the northwest kinds: grassy grainy soccer field mud, runny black and fragrant garden mud, the sand-mud of baseball fields, the flaky pencil-smelling mud of recently turned dirt, the squelchy shoe-eating monster mud that is the best kind to play with. In Israel I plastered my hands with eraser-grey clay mud from the hills; in Georgia, during a summer thunderstorm, I watched the penny-red clay of exposed river banks melt into a water like rusted milk. In high school, running barefoot, throwing dirt clods on a soccer field, I turned and my ankle, stuck in mud, stayed stuck.

That was it, the pain we avoid most of the time, the real help me oh my god pain. Not later but now. Not maybe but yes. I was wheeled through the clinic howling, soaked, the mud all splashed across me like I was a swamp creature pulled from the murk. If you want the world to see your suffering, cover yourself in mud. No one will make the egregious and frequent mistake of assuming that you’re all right.

When the doctor took the x-ray she had to press my broken ankle flat on the table. Dirt and grass and water were all over the table when they pulled me off.  When your body is breaking and your mind, unhinged by pain, starts shooting off panic rockets from the emergency “I’m Dying” supply, it simply feels good to make a mark. It feels good to make a mess. We can snap like twigs! Just like that! We will die before the skyscrapers! We are caught in an unstoppable river! Don’t just stand there, move, dance, sound the gong, make a mess, love right now and cry about it, because it hurts!

Of course I love the feeling of the sun on my skin.  But between sweat and rainwater, I’ll take the one you can collect in a barrel and drink.

There’s enough death and terror in the world to provide tear-fodder for many lifetimes, right? I could sit around and cry about it, but I don’t have time and sometimes lack the spirit. Being a citizen of the global world is not easy. We were not evolved to monitor and respond to the heartbreak of thousands, thousands of miles away, but this is what we must do. When it rains I feel not absolved, but offered a companion. At least someone is crying. I’m not sure who the someone is. Perhaps loving rain is only a coping measure, some end result of an early unconscious realization that my life in the Northwest would be a lot more enjoyable if I did.

I have hated rain once, just one day. My mother’s funeral. Stop, go back, rain, suck yourself back up into the clouds and let this whole thing stop. The circle of life was an abomination for a long time after. Pain was everywhere. Grief was a chronic dampness of the spirit that could not be dried off. Screw you, world. Screw you, rain. Screw you, fresh little sapling drinking up the drops—don’t you know the world’s going to eat you up?

Of course I want the answers. I don’t expect to find them, for I am not a child. I am grateful that I have been given some time to try. For now and probably forever, rain, which fogs the windows and blocks the sun, helps me see clear. All my blood is not mine. It was once picked up in clouds and taken across the world and it carved canyons and grew asparagus and zoomed through a pterodactyl’s veins and was honey and was piss and was snow on an empty mountain. And between all these things, it was rain.

Lilly Schneider holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Willow Springs, Green Mountains Review, Hobart, december, Briar Cliff Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from the damp, green Pacific Northwest, she currently splits her time between Laramie, Wyoming and Denali National Park, Alaska.