On Thursday morning March 31, 2011, the day that would eventually conclude the second wettest March in Newport since instruments have measured depressing records of this kind, I peered out the window of my Newport High School classroom, saw rain falling for the 31st day in a row, and immediately thought of one Ken Kesey's immortal riffs about rain from Sometimes a Great Notion, set on the Oregon Coast, undoubtedly the greatest novel about rain in the history of world literature:
...there is solace and certain stoical peace in blaming everything on the rain, and then blaming something as uncontrollable as the rain on something as indifferent as the Arm of the Lord.
Amen! Has any writer ever written a truer sentence about the rain than that? For those of us who have lived on the Pacific Northwest Coast for several years, and "made it through a winter to understand" to paraphrase Kesey in Sometimes a Great Notion, we know how to use the rain for our own excuses, machinations, and narratives. If you don't, you end up defeated by the rain, desperate to leave. And leaving is what so many newcomers to the coast eventually do, back to the Willamette Valley and other far flung drier places. They couldn't hack it, but maybe they didn't know how.
That morning in the classroom, my patience with the rain hung by the thinnest of cobwebs. As I stared out the window, I schemed how to motivate my listless and intellectually waterlogged students. Soon, they would start streaming in, with pale, vacant faces resembling prisoners of war and moisture visibly evaporating from their clothing.
I was particularly concerned with the photography class. They hadn't gone outside in a month to shoot photographs and were sick of learning new Photoshop tricks. I suspected they were going insane in precisely the same tortuously languid way Meriwether Lewis went insane on his winter visit to the Pacific Northwest a little over 200 years ago. It rained practically every day during his damp residence in Fort Clatsop and the formerly prolific writer wrote barely a word in his journal. Stasis had gripped him tight and threatened to do the same to us at Newport High. I thought to myself: We've got to move. So we did, into the deluge.
In my 14 years residing at the Oregon Coast, which means I've endured roughly 720 inches of rain, I've learned a thing or two about the rain and how to master it for my own unique purposes, ranging from the romantic to the creative to the curricular to the spiritual. What follows is my survival guide. Feel free to tweak as you see fit to preserve your sanity. I used a combination of number one and five on that wet day in March.
Matt Love's Rules for Surviving a Winter of Pacific Northwest Coast Rain
1. Get out into it! Take it on! And never use an umbrella because who doesn't want to feel rain on your face, or better yet, see it run down the face of someone you love.
2. When a big storm hits and the hard rain slants in six different directions, go to the beach with the dog and watch the collisions into ocean. I find it one of the most primal scenes a person can experience and typically never encounter another human whom might taint the awesome privacy of the moment. Bringing a partner or date along is acceptable.
3. During a rainy day, make a mix tape, CD, or playlist of your favorite rain songs (my number one is Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain"). According to a fantastic web site called Rain Songs, there are "almost 800 song titles relating to rain and rainy things, including over 50 named just 'Rain.'" Then open a bottle of decent red wine, turn up the music, and watch the rain fall.
4. Read Sometimes a Great Notion and memorize all the great rain lines. For example, "He hears the rain on the roof, like soft nails being driven into the rotten wood. It has commenced, all right. And it'll go on now for six months." Read any of Don Berry's wonderful trio of novels set in Pioneer Oregon, Trask, Moontrap, or To Build a Ship, and marvel at some of his wonderful sentences about rain, such as, "In Oregon after two days of rain it seems as though it has been raining since the world began, and you cannot remember the last time you saw the sun." Read the lost Pacific Northwest literary classic Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter set in seedy Portland in the late 1940s, and observe how this neglected author magically weaves rain into the milieu of the novel.
5. Grab a waterproof camera or wrap one in plastic and make art. Rain has an astonishingly simple and moving beauty that truly comes alive when captured on film. I never really considered gray a beautiful color until I started photographing rain. You don't even have to go outside and get wet to do this. I love shooting photographs of rain smashing onto my skylights.
6. Run naked in the rain down the beach and dive in the ocean. I guarantee it will rate as the best ablution you've ever had. No guilt either.
Fourth period rolled around and in trudged the photography students. I told them to gather around the whiteboard where I wrote the fatal statistics: 14 inches of rain during the last 30 days, double the average amount, a record for March. Four inches had fallen in the last several days. They groaned and looked not so discreetly to their cell phones for deliverance.
"We are going to war against the rain," I said. "We are hard core Oregonians, so get me the best rain shots in the history of photography. I've got 20 bucks for the best image. I want spouts, gutters, puddles, drops, hair, windows, dogs, feet. I don't care. I want to see rain like I've never seen before. Teach me about it!"
"Now get your cameras and hit the rain!" I yelled. The students roared in delight and geared up in seconds. I probably should have cranked up Eric Clapton's "Let it Rain" to send us into battle, but I was the first one out the door, with two cameras slung around my neck and one stuffed in my pocket.
Thirty minutes later, we sat soaked in my darkened musty classroom, watching a slide show of stunning and wholly original black and white photographs taken around campus. Lily earned first prize with a self portrait shot of rain drops dangling off her fingers. I'll never forget this image as long as I live.
We beat the rain. You can too. You need only to confront it.
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Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain