Swifty’s Notebook: Rain

Words/Images by Heidi Swift

I was born at the end of August in 1977, four weeks late. They didn’t induce in those days and I was reluctant to make an appearance, so everyone just had to sit and wait. My mother, for her part, was over it. She spent those final, agonizing weeks lying in a plastic lawn chair in the backyard, drinking root beer floats prepared for her by my repentant father.

Here’s a recipe for making sure your baby stays in your belly as long as possible: lounge in the warm late-summer sun and feed it sugary, creamy things. I was no idiot — I held out as long as possible. And when I finally appeared, I weighed just half an ounce shy of 10 pounds and resembled a hairless shar-pei puppy. Skin rolls, stumpy limbs, bald. They had to pull the skin around my eyes apart with their fingers to make sure that I had functioning eyeballs buried somewhere under all that flesh. I was nothing short of grotesque.

Nonetheless, they taped a pink ribbon to the top of my head and had photos taken, which they distributed in wallet-size prints to family members who hopefully tucked them into some memory book where they never actually had to look at them again.

It was sweltering when I came into the world. Those dog days, even (or maybe especially) in Seattle, press against you hard. I was a fat kid in a hot world — and I was not happy about it. Which is one of my theories about why I love the rain so much. At two months old, October’s downpour must have been a respite. That’s the way I figure it, anyway.

*

“You’re your father’s child,” my mother used to say. She was talking about the rain. My dad and I couldn’t get enough of it.

“She was born with webbed feet,” my father would reply. Even as it made me self-conscious, this comment always endeared me to him. Me and dad were made from rain and mud and sticks and tough stuff. Mom was a sun goddess, a being from another planet — we couldn’t understand her. We didn’t even try.

I picked up soccer because it served as a great excuse to run around in the mud. Mom used to make me a “waterproof base layer” by cutting the bottom off a plastic grocery bag, turning it into a kind of tank top (arms through the handle holes!), which she would put underneath my soccer uniform. When I moved it made a crunching sound that was impossible to hide. I didn’t pay much attention to the sound until the tall, blond boy that I had a crush on turned to me during one of our home games and asked if I was wearing a diaper.

*

In high school I found special pleasure running in the rain. We wore cotton then. It was the early ’90s so I’m sure someone somewhere was making technical fabrics, but we certainly couldn’t afford them and merino wool was not yet back in vogue for the sporty set. The cotton got heavy and cold in the November storms. It pressed against your skin. It wrapped you up in rain.

Every Saturday, we went long, running 11 to 13 miles or thereabouts. On the weekday workouts we ran in bunches, but on Saturdays we strung out along the course, alone and lonely, lost in thought. In a heavy rain, the drops would accumulate on my arms until they formed rivulets that raced downwards, finding the path next to the veins on the top of my hands. The droplets eventually shot off the end of my fingertips and sprayed out in front of me as I pushed forward.

Races were on Fridays and if it was raining I would look around the start line and know with relative certainty that 85 percent of the field was already beaten. I wasn’t a great runner, but I specialized in the psychological warfare of embracing discomfort. Cold and miserable always made me faster.

*

In my early-20s I moved to the Bay Area and started riding bikes. I quickly learned that a forecast of rain translates into an automatic “rest day” — why ride in the rain today when you can wait for the sun to come back out tomorrow? This began to make me soft, and my father noticed.

I was there long enough that when we eventually relocated to Portland, I no longer owned any rain gear of quality. When I arrived in town, it was March and positively pissing down. I spent my first paycheck on a wardrobe of waterproof-breathable garments and then decided to do a solo backpacking trip over the weekend. There was a storm warning which I emphatically ignored — after seven years in San Francisco I’d learned to disregard dramatic weathermen.

It wasn’t until I was 4 miles in that I realized I might actually have a problem. Turns out the Chicken Little meteorologist was right and the sky actually was falling. Or at least, it seemed, all of the water in western Oregon was falling out of it onto me. It was also cold. Just barely above freezing point. By the time I reached my campsite, I could no longer use my hands (I’d neglected to purchase waterproof gloves on my welcome-to-Portland shopping spree).

It took the better part of 45 minutes to set up a tent that normally takes five. Once inside, I dug the flask out of my pack and took a long pull of whiskey. Then I boiled water for soup.

None of this worked, of course, because I’d already gotten too cold. In the middle of the night when I realized my sleeping bag was not making me any warmer, I decided to hike out in the dark. Heat up the muscles. Keep moving. Stay alive.

Once dismantled, the tent was a wad of fabric and poles in my pack. I didn’t even have the “mindspace” to roll it up. It was not a technical trail, but it was a moonless night and the tree cover was dense so the going was slow. Despite my new gear, every square inch of my skin was wet. Beads of water caught in my eyelashes and hung from the tips of my hair. After I’d warmed up enough to think straight, I looked up into the stream of liquid coming out of the sky, let my eye sockets fill up with rain and thought, “Welcome home.”

*

Ten years later and I’m still here. It’s longer than I thought I’d make it. Portland’s interesting, but despite the belonging sensations that I experienced in the Columbia River Gorge that night while the sky unleashed on me, my nomadic heart refuses to actually claim a home. This is a long stopover by any count.

It’s true what they say about the weather in Oregon, but I can tell you that the darkness of winter is far worse than the dampness of winter. I’ve become a virtual witch doctor of mid-January, depression-dodging practices — vitamin D supplements, sun lamps, aromatherapy treatment, fireside yoga practice. But the only drugs that actually work are called endorphins.

The word endorphin combines “endogenous,” which means “naturally occurring within the body,” and “morphine.” Scientists discovered them when they were trying to figure out why morphine is so effective at reducing pain. Turns out endorphins interact with pain receptors in a way that is similar to morphine.

When I learned that my body could essentially produce an on-demand stream of opiates, I set out immediately to find out how to make as many as possible. Ironically, this meant riding in the rain — going straight out into the weather in order to counter the negative psychological effects of said weather. A beautiful paradox!

Cycling in the rain proves to be not quite as romantic as running in the rain. The gritty road shoulders, the spray from some asshole’s fenderless back tire in your teeth, the sloshing of water in your shoes, the mountains of brown-gray laundry, the train tracks now even more dangerous under your tires….

I ride through the weather with a junkie’s determination. I cannot not ride. I’ll suffer anything to ride. I need my fix. I need the high. Rest weeks become problematic and complicated; rather than enjoy the well-earned rest, I find myself staring at my bikes, twitching to throw a leg over and pedal away so I can stop the lumbering discontent of withdrawal.

Rain riding is quiet riding, thoughtful riding. The exuberance of bare-armed summer rollabouts is buried under three layers of merino wool. It will come out later. For now we tuck in, keep a spare pair of gloves in our pockets, find eyewear that tints the gray world rosy.

But, similar to life, the relative challenges of riding in the rain only cause the effect of the related conciliatory rewards to amplify. The mid-ride coffee stop becomes not just a refueling exercise, but a haven of warmth and shelter. The traditional post-ride shower and accompanying beer takes on near-orgasmic qualities: hot water on red skin, eyes closed in a long exhale. Napping becomes a kind of short-term hibernation: deep, sound sleep and cocoon-like swaddling of blankets. All this intensified by the swift and satisfying rush of endorphins.

And as fast as the high begins to subside, thoughts turn to where and when to score next. The craving is an irrepressible urge, as needy as a child’s. Never satisfied, always calling…drawing me back out into the rain. My father’s child.

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