Sunday, June 26, 2011


I am ten degrees above the equator, in a jungle, with salt spray from the surf waves mingling with the vapor rising from rotting and prolific enormous plants. It is now well into the rainy season. Clockwork downpours greet us at 11 am, sunset (6 pm), and 2 am, with occasional additional rain at mid-afternoon. This rain is the rain of the tropics, of myth, not the mere sprinkles we get in New England. Picture the hardest cats-and-dogs downpour you have ever seen. You cannot imagine it raining harder than that memory. Now imagine the entire sky as God’s showerhead, and She turns up the water: the entire sky is now the end of an effusive garden hose: you grin for a few minutes at the exuberance of the water’s profusion: She turns it up (just like with a handle, one second on one rain setting, then a surge and three seconds later a whole new type of rain): the entire expanse of the sky is now a firehose, a continually upended bucket: exhileration turns to worry: Will the tin roof withstand the beating, the weight of the water? Will the hillside on which this building sits wash away? The waves’ volume increases with the storm. Conversation becomes difficult. Roads do wash away, prehistoric trees become undermined and fall, solid columns of water establish themselves from the gutters. When the sun reappears, the world is revealed to be Wet, and there is only a brief window of pleasant rain-cooled air before the mist-making heating begins, and the world is humid.

I mean Humid. Try putting a blanket over yourself like a little tent, and breathe out, and breathe out again, until it is suffocating and sweat beads your lip and your temples and the air seems to slide liquid down your throat. Then make that air an almost physical presence over all your skin, even under your clothes. Make your clothes, all of them, bra and underwear and shirt and pants, warm and fully wet with sweat. Make that sweat slowly trickle down your spine, pool in your bellybutton, dribble into your eyes. Stand in a steamy room after a shower, and dry off with a damp towel, and before you’ve finished drying feel the sweat pinprickle emerging on your skin again, so you are never dry. Make the steamy air tactile so you feel covered in lotion, breathed on by a close animal, covered in a film of plastic or wet hot felt. The air smells of plant, of mud, of sweet flowers (frangipani/ plumeria/ something akin to Japanese witchhazel), cut papaya, mown lawn, mulch and rot, of candle wax and varnish and compost, of salt and green and sap. Now actually cover your skin with greasy suntan lotion and oily bug spray, so the sweat struggles to ooze out, and when it does it tickles in its slide down your greasy skin.

To sleep, you lie as naked as possible on sheets that are damper than your skin and cooler, wet from the air of the day. The coolness of the wet sheets is soothing but cloying, and soon turns to mildew and must. The air around your bed feels like a blanket, like a soft silk blanket laying perfectly draped on every part of your exposed skin. The feeling of slight weight on every pore induces the slightest amount of vertigo, not just with up and down but with inside and outside of your body; all of you feels like a mucus membrane, your skin feels like your mouth, the air in your lungs moist from your mouth feels like the air on your hand, the air on your thighs feels like it may be exhaling from between your legs, all over as if there is a bed partner hovering attentively inches above your body.

I enjoyed this description in the book I’m currently reading (Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, pg 4) of the heat of another tropical monsoon place: “The next thing I noticed was the heat. I stood in airport queues, not five minutes from the conditioned air of the plane, and my clothes clung to sudden sweat. My heart thumped under the command of the new climate. Each breath was an angry little victory. I came to know that it never stops, the jungle sweat, because the heat that makes it, night and day, is a wet heat. The choking humidity makes amphibians of us all, breathing water in air; you learn to live with it, and you learn to like it, or you leave.”

The humidity of the hot tropics is unsettling, intimate, tactile, and to me, familiar.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why I like being not-in-the-city

I consciously choose to entitle this post “Why I like being not-in-the-city” rather than “Why I like not being in the city”, because the later, while more grammatically typical, is indicative of precisely of what I despair: not-being, in the city: a state of nonexistence (in a deadening nullifying way rather than a bodhi way) coming from being surrounded by so much frission, so many stresses, so much unhealthiness, so many forces negating all that is me, that the self retreats, retreats, retreats until it is hardly recognizably there: not-being, in the city. And, rather, when I am not-in-the-city, I swiftly emerge into myself: being.

I have lived in big cities (Boston, Melbourne, Bangkok, New York) since graduating college. I have never wanted to live in any city, but the job/transportation/social opportunities they present have lured me in during each move, and my wife is both charismatically convincing and a city girl, so I haven’t stood a chance. I also do truly enjoy the short commutes, the ability to walk or bike everywhere, the lack of gas money and car maintenance, the compact and efficient living, the diversity of people and food, the access to and profusion of cultural and musical events, and the vantage point on the grit of the human experiment. But it is like poking something dead with a stick, or watching a film, or acting in a play, or picking a scab: while interesting and satisfying for a short time, at some point shortly you have to stop and walk away and resume more meaningfully and completely living.

Then I return home. I feel a homecoming when I step into a green place, when I breathe deep not only to fill my lungs but to taste the sweet liquid pungency of the air, even if the greens are from plants unknown to me and the smells are new and mysterious. My chest expands, my shoulders press back, I stand taller and more firmly, more loose in my knees and more agile. My eyes open wider, my jaw unclenches, and my neck becomes exercised and stretched as I gaze around at many angles, down to my feet and around to my surroundings and up at the lofty heights and above to the skies. I become less hungry, need less sleep, sleep more deeply. My body/mind has more positive challenges expected of it (scaling steep little hills, not-slipping on slick mud, gazing into sun-glinting water, being aware of the wind and clouds, remembering the earlier rain, being aware of the critters and our appropriate relations to them, from awe to run-away) rather than being rattled with repeated identical steps on concrete, gazing always at eye level. Instead of shutting everything out, I become open, soaking it all in, feeling immersed and imbued and saturated, filled up, satiated.

The cabinets of my interests open their doors when I am not-in-the-city (and I say not-in-the-city rather than “in the country” or “in nature” because the city is the aberration, the object, while that which is not-city is to vast and pervasive, the context in which all things exist, that we cannot responsibly designate it as a place). My experiences burnish their accolades, my skills tools sharpen their edges, my memories dust themselves off for contemplation. I become relevant. I become respected, respectable, rather than out of place and an oddity misunderstood. When not in the city, I feel complete and proud, smiling, relaxed. (I dread my departure.)

"Where I live as myself is to others a wilderness. But to me it is home." -Ursula Le Guinn