With the past few weeks of heavy and light downpour here in California, I’ve been hearing repeated conversations. There’s been talk about how the drought is ending, how bad the streets are flooding, how heavy the rain can get, how bad the traffic is and how bad the drivers are during the storm. People demonstrate how out of touch they are with mother nature and how fast they can bring it back into focus. Typically before the storm, we have this feeling that as long as we keep doing what we’re doing, I don’t have to worry about how bad mother nature can turn against us.
As a prime example, the rain has delayed construction of a brick pathway to the house I’m renting. My landlord could not foresee the bad weather. When the rain started, there was little concern it would last. But weeks past, and the halt proved more worrisome. We would like to continue next week but now we understand how unpredictable the weather is and we can’t be certain. We aren’t complaining heavily since it’s something we have absolutely no control over, but we’re all anxious because the construction blocks our driveway, and there’s the unsettling feeling of being incomplete every time I get home from work.
I’ve tried something new this week. I stop myself from fueling the fire to complain about the bad weather and think about the teachings of the Stoics. Seneca once practiced the art of thinking about the worst so he can brace himself if something bad happened. Instead of freezing up, Seneca would be able to face the perils because he’s already primed himself with it. Someone who doesn’t prepare mentally is more prone to be shocked and find themselves blocked. As an example, last week, my friend asked me, “What is there really to do on a rainy day? Nothing!”
As I sit at a cafe, sipping my hot cocoa by the fireplace, I think back to some memories of rainy days. I remember gray skies drooped over Berkeley on any typical week day. It felt morbid and unsettling because you were in transition between sunlight and rain. In elementary school, this weather had no effect for the children playing in the yard during recess. We got used to this slumber weather, and that became the norm. On those rainy days, we had a sigh of relief because it finally felt like the weather wasn’t fooling us with that gray drape. But that limited outdoor play and we would have to stay indoors and play adult supervised games. For the first few times, it would be great playing board games, heads-up 7-up, or some other interactive game. But there wasn’t much variety to the selection of games, so some kids would get bored. And a bored mind tends to produce unsettling behavior, like screaming, whining, or pacing about the room. As kids, we’re expected to have the ability to run amuck and transfer that gulp of energy into physical activity. But when it rains, and there’s nothing else to do, we’ll exhibit the same behavior in closed quarters. We woke up with the expectation on this day to be able to have our outside time, and now the rules are changed on us.
Santa Cruz has this tradition called first rain. Many call it the naked run, and when it rains for the first time during the autumn season, students would rush out and streak. The first instance of first rain began in the fall of 1989, weeks after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Students were afraid to stay in the dorms at Porter College, not to far away from the UC Santa Cruz campus, and slept outside. On some dares, a few students ran around naked, and thus began the tradition. Over the years, the naked run, as it was called, happened spontaneously during the first heavy rain. But people wanted to create structure for the chaos, and meetings were held to discuss the rules of first rain. Something as unpredictable as when the first heavy rainstorm has been transformed into its own spontaneous social event.
I studied abroad in Germany a few years ago for a summer. I hadn’t packed an umbrella or rain gear and was completely helpless to the flash rains that would pour for a few hours at a time. The first time it happened, I got soaked while carrying my camera. Needless to say, the camera broke and I had to purchase a new one. With this new camera, I was able to photograph another incident where it was raining and a group of my friends wanted to take a photo in front of a fountain. We stood there looking very soaked and a group of tourists joined in on our fun. It was laughable at first, but more and more strangers were rushing in to the photo. For the next three minutes, I was confused by the crowd, but also invigorated by the enthusiasm of everyone around me. Suddenly, I forgot where I was, and the rain didn’t matter.
Sometimes, we forget the destructive power of the rain. On a family vacation in Florida, my father drove us on a day trip through Key West. The weather report that day said there would be a storm that night and that we should expect high winds. We limited our time we there and left by mid-afternoon. But the weather report was wrong, and it began storming an hour after we left. We sped through the two-lane highway and my father made some risky decisions passing up drivers with our rented all-wheel drive SUV. The palm trees were blowing fiercely, and I was worried they may fall on the road. Visibility was terribly low, and it felt as if this was it. But my father got us through it, and we made it back in one piece without crashing into a ditch.
This summer, after a long road trip from San Francisco to Chicago, I was ready to meet my roommate at a place I subleased. As I would find out at the apartment building, this rental was a scam. This roommate had their identity stolen and I wired money to the scam artist. Having felt the rug pulled under my feet as I thought about what to do while eating at a Panera Bread, it started raining hard. Someone mentioned to me this rain would last all night. Unprepared, I went across the street to a drug store to purchase an umbrella. I panicked; I had no idea where I was going to sleep and I was going to get severely wet. I didn’t know how to handle these changes, and it felt like my world was crumbling. But a friend of mine came through; I stayed with a friend of a friend to recuperate. When I got there, I took my wet clothes off and stared out of the window to the lake and felt a calming sensation. “It’s not so bad,” I thought. “I’ll figure this out just as I’ve worked other things out.” I found another apartment the next day and was able to make it to my first day at Dev Bootcamp.
A few months later near the end of my Chicago experience, I thought it would be great to go to Hot Dougs before it closed for good. I enlisted a friend to wait in line with me, and all seemed good. There was a two hour wait and it was just blistering hot. About the hour and a half point, the skies turn to a shade of gray. The storm was coming, and it was going to be huge. There was a choice to make: wait it out for another thirty minutes and get soaked, or forfeit and get something else to eat. Choosing to wait, my friend and I were soaked from top to bottom wearing a shirt and shorts. My wallet and phone made it through, but everything else was miserable. We were shivering, my shirt had shrunk, and my socks were mushy. I got into the store taking in the warm, sausage ladened air and thought, “this better be worth it.”
The rain doesn’t have emotions, doesn’t care whether its going to rain hard or lightly. We have no way of bending the rain or nature to our will. And inevitably, the rain passes, and we are left with this faint odor. Scientists call it petrichor; I like to call it hope.