Ebb and Flow

Posted on April 24, 2012

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I hate talking about the weather. And that’s a problem, because where I live, what’s happening in the atmosphere tends to form the basis for most conversation. The temperature, the lack of rainfall, the blueness of the sky, the level of frost in the ground — it’s incessant, and for me, somewhat bewildering. For one thing, I never know what the correct response is. But I keep trying:

“Yes, it sure is warm.”

“We do need the rain. I agree.”

“It’s the bluest sky I’ve ever seen!”

“There’s too much frost? Oh, there’s not enough! Really?”

Most people here seem to use weather-related observations to display their cheeriness and positive outlook. If the sun is shining, they’ll say, “Beautiful day!” somehow managing to overlook that it’s thirty below, with a wind chill of minus forty-five. If we get two feet of snow, they’ll talk about how much worse that storm was back in ’87, when the kids had to duck under the telephone wires as they were pulled to school on toboggans. And in the middle of the most scorching summer, they’re back to “It’s a beautiful day,” despite the fact that everyone’s car is melting and all of the trees are dead.

As I said, I hate talking about the weather. But it’s the end of April, and it’s still cold.

My mind is forgetful, and in a stubborn way, so that every year I’m taken by surprise when each day of spring isn’t just a little bit warmer than the day before. Because that’s how I perceive reality, and no matter how many times the truth reveals itself to me, I wipe the slate clean and revert to my delusions. The Earth orbits the sun. Science seems pretty sure about this. And because the planet is tilted, March 21st begins the season in which the Northern Hemisphere tips more and more toward the sun’s direct rays. It should logically follow, then, that things gradually heat up from one day to the next, just as the amount of daylight increases at a predictable rate, and the Moon waxes and wanes steadily from night to night.

But this is not what happens. The month of March, according to the old saying, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Well, maybe. Then April arrives, neither lion nor lamb, but like some confused forest creature whose habitat has been taken over by condominiums. It wanders around, unsure where to find its next meal, luring tulips and daffodils out of the frost-free soil with warm afternoons, then freeze-drying their delicate leaves in a sudden and unannounced return to sub-zero temperatures. Somehow, it’s colder now than it was almost three months ago, when the groundhog forecast six more weeks of winter.

Where, then, is the flaw in the reasoning? I’ll tell you, not because I think you need to be enlightened, but because I do. Change doesn’t occur in smooth and equally-spaced increments. It lurches forward and back, producing a general trend, but one that includes tiny reversals too numerous to count. I noticed this phenomenon a few years ago, at the beach. The sea swells and shrinks in an endless rhythmic cycle. And while it’s true that precise times for high and low tides can be easily found in nautical charts, what happens in between those extremes is a chaotic clashing of motion. If you sit at the shore and scratch a line in the sand, the water may approach that line, coming within twenty inches before withdrawing. The next wave may come within eighteen inches of the line. You might assume that the one after that will close the gap to about fifteen inches, but no, it gets no closer than twenty-five. Is the tide coming in or going out? The next wave may go right past the line, causing you to think the tide is coming in, after all, and really fast. But the follow-up wave may again retreat to within no more than two feet of the mark. Eventually, of course, the line in the sand will disappear, covered by the ocean’s relentless approach. But at any given moment, there’s no telling how far a single wave will reach.

Change is like that. This is a simple fact that I can’t seem to remember. Maybe it’s an unconscious need I have for harmony and order. In my mind, all roads are either parallel or perpendicular, which explains why I often get lost just going around the block. All shopping malls are rectangles to me, regardless of how many sides they have or how oddly-shaped. This is why I’ll walk past the food court twelve times from nine different directions, and why, by the time I find that clothing store I was looking for, it’s gone out of business. If a movie has too many flashbacks, I can actually feel my brain jerking around inside my skull.

Heavy traffic on the highway behaves in ways similar to the tides. It builds to a standstill, but then gradually starts to thin out, and disappears. Back up to the speed limit, we just as suddenly find ourselves slowing down, and again we’re sitting still for minutes at a time, for no apparent reason.

Recuperation from illness is the same process. If I’m sick for a while and then begin to feel better, I believe I’ll keep getting healthier, and will recover completely by tomorrow. But no. Within an hour the room has resumed its spinning, tonight I feel good enough to eat dinner, and in the morning I’m back in bed, soaked in a cold sweat. And surprised. Always surprised. “I was okay there for a while,” I’ll think, misled once more by my insistence that change must be steady and predictable. In more dire examples, we’ve all suffered along with loved ones who have gone into the hospital with a fatal illness; they take us with them on an emotional ride filled with steep drops, sporadic improvements, bursts of hope, and the inevitable decline.

The pattern has repeated itself throughout my life. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, I expect personal relationships to continually strengthen and grow. I imagine professional connections will only multiply and endure. I wonder why something I understood yesterday has already been forgotten. In fact, I’ve learned this lesson about the nature of change more times than I care to admit. Occasional reminders would be useful, I suppose. It would surely help if I could go to the beach, draw a line in the sand, and watch the waves as they tease, overwhelm, and recede again. And I’ll do that soon. But it’s too cold today. It’s April, and it’s still cold.

I hate talking about the weather.

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