Hard rain

If you march against war, your shoes might get wet, but maybe fewer people will die in Iraq.

Published January 3, 2003 8:10PM (EST)

Everyone had a hard time with life this December; not with all of it, just the waking hours. Being awake is the one real fly in the ointment -- but it is also when solutions come to us. So many friends died or got sick this year, or lost a lot of their money. One out of five women in Marin County, Calif., is getting breast cancer -- I can't even wrap my mind around that -- and three of our four animals died this year, but on top of it all, like a dental X-ray apron, is the daily depression of life under this government. (Now I finally know how sickening it was for Republicans when Clinton was president.) "It's all hopeless," my boyfriend mutters from time to time, which I kind of like in a guy, and which I almost believe to be true: Nearly every time I hear the news of impending war with Iraq, I think of the old New Yorker cartoon of the two prisoners chained high above the walls of a prison cell, one saying to the other, "Okay, here's my plan." One of the savviest political and spiritual people I know said, after the midterm elections, "We are going to war in Iraq. It's that simple. Resistance is futile." But I think it's only nearly impossible, and I'll take nearly impossible over futile any day.

Our pastor said, in a recent sermon, that you can keep bees in jars without lids, because they'll walk around on the glass floor, imprisoned by the glass surrounding them, when all they'd have to do is to look up, and they could fly away. So, I thought gamely, we'll look up, we'll get off our asses, or if we are like bees, off our glasses. But my friend, who is usually a crabby optimist like me, is terrorized. She's not worried about Catastrophic War-Lite in the Middle East, she is trying to imagine the end of life as we now know it, under an endless, paranoid right-wing government.

She is talking about life in shelters, and caves.

Now, this would not work for me. Shelters would be bad enough -- a dinner party is a real stretch for me -- but I don't even remotely have the right personality for cave dwelling. I need privacy and silence most of the time. Also, I hate stalactites. It's like Damocles goes cave-camping.

Like everyone I know, I stepped up my do-good efforts as the dread threatened to overwhelm -- I spoke out against the war, went to demonstrations, sent money to environmental groups, signed petitions, went to visit old people in convalescent homes, flirted with old people on the street, read the Nation and Salon, sent more money to the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, Clowns without Borders, Middle Eastern Children's Alliance, the Global Aids Interfaith Alliance, to anyone who will help kids and poor people. And I planted bulbs, which is a form of prayer.

But the jungle drums of December grew louder, and nothing seemed to help. What will? God only knows. But in any case, we should try to stay on Her good side. It's not hard. God has extremely low standards. Pray, take care of people, be actively grateful for your blessings, give away your money -- you're cool. You're in. Nice room in heaven, flossing no longer required -- which is what will make it heaven for me. Oh, I mean that, and Jesus.

By mid-December, when North Korea's stinky madman started making nuclear threats against us, and the administration wouldn't even admit it was a crisis, everyone I know felt like Alice on the other side of the looking glass. Wait, it wasn't a crisis? It looked pretty crisis-y to me. But it seemed to freak Bush out, because the North Korean made it ever so slightly less likely that he'd get to bomb Iraq. It threw them, Bush and his uncles, because they can only hold one resentment at a time. You could see in Bush's face: It was deeply confusing that two things could be in the same space at the same time -- Iraq, where they tried to shoot his dad, and may have nuclear arms someday, and North Korea, where they already do, and where the leader won't bathe, or brush his teeth.

So there was a terrible new threat -- a real and immediate threat -- and it suddenly seemed possible that war with Iraq would have to be put on the back burner. Before, the world had to let Bush have a war in Iraq, or everyone was going to pay through the nose. It's like the kids song by Tina deVaron, "If Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy." There was no out, until the Korean threat. Suddenly it was no longer certain that Bush was going to get to do all the saluting that he'd been looking forward to. Poppy got to do all that saluting during his war, so it didn't seem fair that George Junior might not get to, too.

As the threats from Korea mounted, I rented the movie "Independence Day." I wanted to see what it takes to mount an effective resistance against an alien takeover, because this is what the current administration feels like to me, a hostile alien government. And according to the movie, it turns out that we who oppose the war in Iraq have everything we already need. We have a great cause -- world peace and freedom. We've had a break or two -- the Landrieu victory over Bush in Louisiana. And we caught one alien -- Trent Lott. He handed over the racist codes; he took the lid off the stew pot so we could all peek in at how the aliens think. It was a big catch, and I started to feel hope again, that because we had all these things in place -- a cause, a break, a big catch -- now all we needed was to get back to work. Maybe goodness would prevail, maybe not, but as Molly Ivins wrote years ago, freedom fighters don't always win, but they are always right.

And then, a few days before the solstice, the storms of winter began.

At first I welcomed the rain, because I was so tired and stressed, and, like everyone I knew, was ready to rest and stay dry. The scents of rain were fresh and earthy, clean and woolly, smelling of leaves and dirt, wet dogs. We got whiffs of our animal smells, of feet, sweat and the secret smells of the earth, which she often keeps to herself. It gave us something back that was stolen away, a whole dimension we'd been missing -- our body, and our soul. Your mind can't give you these. Your sick worried mind can't heal your sick worried mind. Well, maybe your mind is lovely and pastoral and you do not have paranoia, hypochondria, a bad attitude and delusions of victimized grandeur. That is very nice, but we don't want you in our cave after the bombs fall, because you are going to annoy us to death.

It poured.

Hard rain makes a mess, but it also fills in all that space we usually walk through without even noticing. It makes the stuff we can't usually see -- air, and wind -- visible, and a lot of what we can see catches light. We get wet and cold, and then we get to dry off, and get warm again. But then the power started going off and on, and food went bad, and black grosgrain ribbons of ants arrived, and more and more troops were deployed to the Persian Gulf, and the winds picked up, and suddenly everything was whapping at us.

The storms made life feel like a cyclotron; everyone was mildewing and emotionally ragged and war was breathing down our necks. Then I heard at church that the Marin Interfaith Council was sponsoring a peace march on the solstice. But, at this point, it was hard to imagine going outside to the store, let alone into the rain to protest war in Iraq. The universe was pulling out all the stops -- torrential rains and power outages for days -- and it made me crazy, especially when acquaintances would enthuse about how they were enjoying the lack of electricity, how close together it was bringing their family. (Hey, thank you for sharing; you can't be in our cave either. You and your family will have to be in solitary, with your little board games.)

It didn't stop raining, and the wind didn't stop blowing, as if there were too many flies and they were beginning to bother the skin of the universe. The universe was flinching and flailing. And what was true was that you couldn't fix anything. All you could do was to help people out. You could set up M.A.S.H. units in your own life, and tend to people through the sacrament of cocoa and videos, or you could send money, and pray. Things were taking their course -- I hate that! But you had to let them. The angriest, craziest people waved their little flags encouragingly, and worked on assault preparations for Christmas. (If the devil can't get you to sin, he'll keep you busy: old Indian saying.) I tried to slow down and take the sadness of the world in. I needed to nap so often that I decided I had leukemia. We all had such worry and muffled tension for so long, and the exhaustion of held breath, and I felt rashy and overwhelmed, like Harvey Fierstein with poison oak.

The Marin peace march, and the candlelight vigil that night, were scheduled for the day I had to take a shift wrapping presents to raise money for my son's school. I decided to go if it stopped raining. It rained harder, like the universe was sobbing. When I was done gift wrapping, I was frantic to be alone and asleep. Besides, I didn't think anyone would show up, just the loyal leaders of Marin's churches and temples and mosques, putting feet to their prayers.

But then the rain began to slow down while I was gift wrapping, and eventually I noticed through the windows of the store that it was barely raining and the wind had died down. Some shafts of sun trickled through. This cheered me somewhat. What shall I do? I asked no one in particular. I pulled into a parking space. I parked and prayed at the Park N' Pray.

The rain stopped. I could see people gather for the march -- old and young, middle-aged people with whom my brothers and I went to school, who marched against Vietnam and cleaned up the oil spills in Bolinas; there were babies in strollers, dogs wearing rain gear with slogans like "No Oil for War" and "Bush Is the Rally Monkey." That did it: "Get out of the damn car," I heard -- God in Her Big Mama guise. Walk with these people awhile.

I desperately wanted to go home, and get it together first. Is that so much to ask? But here's what the pastor said during the sermon on bees: God doesn't want or expect you to get it together before you come along, because you can't get it together until you come along. You have to be in a community. You can be alone, and rest, and hide and read, too; but you have to be in service, in community.

So I got out of the car and walked toward the crowd. The grass was wet and my shoes got wet, but I'd forgotten -- you can get wet, and it's OK. Our parents said, "Don't go out in the rain, you'll catch your death of cold!" like you'd catch Dreaded Japanese River Fever if your feet got wet. But our parents lied. If you march against war when the war is for shitty reasons -- oil and reelection and profit -- your shoes might get wet, but maybe fewer people will die in Iraq. Somebody handed me a candle. I found an old schoolmate, friends of my parents. I found my pastor, and my church.

It didn't rain again until the march was over. Two thousand of us gathered, and we milled around together until night began to fall. Then we lit our candles and began to march, and talk and sing. I said I was hungry, and someone gave me a hard butterscotch candy. This is so biblical, I can hardly bear it. I couldn't see the front of the line, it was so far away, and I couldn't see the back. It looked like a Dylan concert. The march was quiet and somber and joyful. We made plans to meet again on Jan. 18, in San Francisco, a day of mass national demonstrations. It was the happiest I'd felt in all of December. Later that night it started to rain again, the soft slow silvery rain that feeds the crops, but I was back home by then, warm and dry, and in the morning when the sun came out, the light was like a flute.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Anne Lamott

Related Topics ------------------------------------------