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Rain Falls

It’s never quieter in my Pittsburgh neighborhood than after a summer morning thunderstorm, when moments move in dribs and drabs. Maybe a rumbling thunder in the distance, but here only the splish of tire tread splitting wet streets, then a few songbirds reemerging after sheltering in place. As if the rain has pressed other cityscape sounds to the impervious ground, like it does dust to country roads in August. This after those hard, vertical cascades poured forth, but then stopped.

I want the quiet to remain, forever. I want something, anything, to remain how this quiet feels.

But a shift comes, eventually. I hear more birds and cars and now voices and construction trucks, and the day saunters in with a new attitude, a touch self-aware, but also a touch bad ass — not the quietude of that morning rain, but neither the aggression of yesterday’s heat. I can’t quite, in the end, put a finger on this attitude, but I know that with enough days like this and sunshine cleaning up after the rains, vines can take down entire buildings.

I know so much has been written about rain, but so little comes to mind, in these moments. I thought that famous passage in Ecclesiastes — the one later rewritten by Pete Seeger, then sung by the Byrds — had rain in it, though there, too, my memory fails. It doesn’t mention rain at all.

But I’ll forgive myself the oversight: Well-schooled scholars used to think King Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, but now they’re not so sure. And everything ever written under the sun is so derivative, anyway, so who’s to say?

Still, if rain doesn’t appear in that passage, why does it now come to mind?

I looked it up. Rain does appear later in the book, in chapter 11:

 If clouds are full of water,  they pour rain on the earth.  Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,  in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

I learned all this in grade school — the water cycle, the cycle of life, and “a season for every activity under the heavens.” A time for trees to grow. A time for trees to fall.

I do recall one author’s take on rain, and I refind the passage. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton calls rain a festival, this in an essay entitled “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” part of his 1965 book Raids on the Unspeakable. Rain is gratuitous, he says, though he warns of those “who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real.” I’ve long thought of this passage every time I pick up bottled water — 12 ounces of 100% Natural Spring Water shipped hundreds of miles in a receptacle that will take 450 years to decompose, but only after it joins other waste in cannibalizing the earth, all for my convenience — or when I hear news about private companies courting municipal water systems.

In his hermitage, toasting bread and listening to the rhythms of rain upon his roof, Merton writes: “The time will come when they will sell you even the rain.” And, of course, they have.

Merton also laments that when it rains city dwellers do not see “that the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in skies to catch a bus or a taxi …” And, of course, I usually don’t.

The same year that Merton published these words, John Lewis and hundreds of other civil rights protestors gathered in Selma and then, on their way to Montgomery, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, so much more than a means of crossing over running water. There state troopers beat them with billy clubs and sprayed them with tear gas.

In interviews later, Lewis said he was carrying a Thomas Merton book in his knapsack that day, though I’ve still not found an account of which title. Police in Selma would have done well to have read some Merton: he points to the rain as a reminder “again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize.” By what rhythms did they swing those billy clubs?

Those who’ve refused to hear rain as a festival will never listen to Merton, much less those rain rhythms. The ownership of rain, too, has led to violence and murder.

In my neighborhood, I witness rain’s dribs and drabs running and washing and gathering together, coursing in rivulets down garden beds and sidewalks and along street curbs and roiling into gutters, collectively more powerful, and even violent, as water ascends to low points — always always to the low points, according to the same universe that accounts for those falling trees in Ecclesiastes — until, eventually, the rain is no longer rain but flooding finding its way into the rivers, reunited there to help form the mystery that is earth, which science can only explain on a surface level. Rain would be nowhere without gravity.

It’s a myth that water can become stagnant. By its nature, water is always rolling, but it also vaporizes. What looks like stagnancy is just one state, before the next.

The rain has stopped, but I want more. I check the forecast online, like when I was a kid, and I’d check the newspaper’s TV listings, laid out in rows — an hourly forecast for NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS (and then all those other channels we never watched) — tracing each row with a forefinger until landing upon an hour with a favorite show. Then I’d wait for that time to arrive. While Ecclesiastes is silent on the topic of TV listings, you could always anticipate shows releasing new seasons. They still do, even as they stream.

Apparently, what will not be televised is The Revolution, and there’s certainly no forecasting it. Or maybe it’s already being aired, and I’m just not tuned in. Lewis said, “You have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened.”

I admit it: I don’t understand Lewis’s faith and how he endured “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot …”

But the summer morning thunderstorm and its ensuing silence murmur something to me about Lewis’s long view. And about the difference between having the freedom to playfully wade through water and then the danger of drowning in it, determined at times by a matter of mere moments. Or else entire seasons. Or exactly when the rain falls. And where. And on whom.


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