April 25th, 2019


Rain in summer

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published July 18, 2016

Just in the nick of time, as a heat wave engulfed the state, there came a rain. A heavy, drenching, overwhelming cascade. Complete the way a great symphony is -- from overture to crescendo to reprise. Beethoven could have written this masterpiece. All day long the skies had been darkening, the air clearing, the whole state anticipating as the temperature fell and fell and fell. It must have dropped 20 degrees within a few hours. And the storm couldn't have come at a better time -- in the middle of July just as the state was girding for Arkansas' unbearable August when....

Long before nightfall the rain was coming down in torrents, filling the horizon with welcome clouds. The coffee pot was on, the newspapers had been long read and the world was being held at bay for once. A watery recess had been declared as all the day's preoccupations were set aside.

There are two kinds of people in the world, a common enough division when it comes to describing reactions to all kinds of things. Count me among the pro-rain faction. Because it clears the air, eases allergies and slows time. It was a Sunday the way Sundays should be: a sabbath that redeems the workaday week.

But what is a rainy-day holiday for some is a headache for all the people who have to deal with flash floods and other watery hazards, bless them all. Sandbags had to be placed, alarms sounded, warnings sent. But aside from all the work that has to be done in preparation for a great storm, for some of us there is just the drama, the romance of it. It's hard to think of stormy weather without recalling Thomas Merton's tribute to the hard, driving, pure delight of a great rainstorm, for the man was not only a monk but something of a poet:

"I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence and rumor.

Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligent, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows. Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen."

Sunday a lot of us were listening all across the state. Soon the soup was on and the stage set for a long rainy day that might as well have been forever. Even those Arkansans who were housebound suddenly felt themselves free and footloose. And it was all as free of charge as God's grace. It was like getting a rain check for the big game, or cashing in a rainy-day fund.

The volumes filling the bookshelves begged to be read, especially those that had been read and relished before. For what's the good of reading and savoring a book only once? Maybe you've missed something. Gibbon's saga detailing the fall and decline of the Roman Empire called out to be read again. So did Henry Adams' chronicle of his education. And the republic's. There is a peculiar charm to decadence that cannot be denied. Maybe that's because the earlier crises are now safely over. But now the country is still is in the throes of a battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Scylla and Charybdis of our current confused politics.

Rainy days were made for quiet reflection, not noisy elections. To sit quietly, listen to the rolling thunder and flashes of lightning, and thumb through the pages of a favorite volume, pausing only to think back on absent friends and toast their memory. Is there a safer harbor from the stormy present? The emails could wait and so could everything else. The rain, and savoring it, came first. It was hard not to wish it would go on forever. Which is just what it felt like it was going to do. Rain, rain, don't go away. Come again another day.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.