It rained all day yesterday, and not just a little Oregonian drizzle or consistent pitter-patter, but an all-consuming, floodgate-opening deluge for hours on end. The sky cracked periodically with flashes and booms and the streets filled and eddied and we huddled against our office computers and ordered food in and watched the cars struggle against the torrents outside.
Rain feels different in New Orleans and it has nothing to do with the actual sensation of getting soaked here as opposed to somewhere else. Though it certainly is warmer than in most climes, reminiscent of the humid summer rains of Washington DC that felt more like the showers I refused to take in 1987 than the harsh reprimand of rain in the West. No, the rain is different here for psychological reasons, for the memories that drift up and spin like leaves in the downpour-induced lake. You can’t drive by the little roadside waterway that people call a bayou here (I guess technically correct, though it’s weird to look at a “bayou” that isn’t teeming with gators and covered with Spanish moss – and reminds me more of an Albuquerque ditch that moved up in the world) competing against its soft flimsy banks, threatening to spill water into the roads, without remembering a time you weren’t even here, ten years gone, when all flood broke loose and almost refused to ever relinquish the city back to terrestrial habitation.
More rain is predicted for today, taking us through 24 hours of a flood watch, then periodically the rest of the week. Alex tells me that lots of people don’t bother coming to school when it rains – the city is surprisingly allergic to airborne water for a place that routinely gets so much of it. Maybe it’s that already-becoming-familiar New Orleans sensation of only doing what you want when you want to. Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe every time water collects and pools and runs down the roadways, it’s just not worth even going outside to look, to feel, to remember.
There is another side to this gloomy reminiscence, to this rainy remembrance. Rain in quantities this high becomes almost like snow, that kind of sweeping overwhelm, nature’s little reminder of who is in charge around here after all. Covering all the blemishes and holes in the roads, replacing it with a smooth but roiling surface that impedes the progress of human events and will. Cars so quickly become useless in the face of such weather and the thoughtful among us who can table our frustration for a moment are reminded of the fragility of our machinery, the vulnerability of our accomplished but dominoed technological framework. Human building, human industry, human population and expansion is all a negotiation with the planet, not a dictation of terms, no matter how powerful or unsinkable we feel. Those who paid the price for this in Katrina were surely our meekest to begin with, and thus least deserving, but the holistic lesson for the species is a harbinger of warnings we simply need to heed. We may borrow the Earth from our children, but we pay rent to the sphere below on a daily basis, serving at the pleasure of forces we have long imagined the hubris to crush and bend.
Water may be the most powerful force in the known world. Its will to move, to seek, to gather and flow could power the imaginings of ten thousand civilizations. By offering no resistance, it absorbs all the energy of what’s around it, reaching all the way to the moon for strength, impervious to efforts to tame and control it except in the smallest quantities. And yet we depend on it to exist, to subsist, to maintain, let alone grow. Like fire, we adore it at levels that we can contain, but the line between containment and being dominated is thin and flexible.
The lesson of water is that resistance is not always what is strongest. Much like the yoga classes I’ve been soaking up like so much hydration, water shows us that bending beats breaking every time, that making the best of the surroundings that are given and pooling that energy leads to the most powerful outcomes. No matter how strong we think we are, there are forces beyond our control. And accepting those forces, working with them, bending to the current and letting it flow, this is the only way to avoid the worst of our pains.
Which is not to say that we should just flow with the injustice, violence, betrayal, and torment of the world around us, any more than we should just ride out a hurricane and hope the waters don’t get us. But we must do the best with what we are given and not pretend that we can manufacture something more. It is in recognition of the shortfalls of our power than we can find strength and work with our environment as it is. Reach your hand out, feel the rain, let it swirl around your feet as it gathers. Tip your head back, embrace the rising storm.