I can remember four times this summer when a clear skies forecast left me unprepared for a dumping thunderstorm, and at least four other times when I went out wearing full rain gear, only for the projected storms to hold back, leaving a humid thickness that made you learn all the places you could sweat.
I can tell you right now which was worse: being prepared. Sweating in my boots, plastic rain jacket tugging on the skin of my waist, digging underneath a t-shirt. And I like summer. I thrive in the heat. I don’t mind a little sweat. It’s the rain. The rain that I spend so much time avoiding, and worrying about, and planning around. Not that I have much to plan these days. Just when I want to go on walks, and whether I’ll do yoga instead of a run. But those few times I didn’t think of rain, and the rain came anyway, were summer highlights. Of course, I’d be nervous about my phone and wrap it up under my shirt, cradling it like a baby. But it was always fine. And the rain, well. At first I’d find a tree and wait, a temporary canopy reprieve until the leaves soaked through. And I’d wonder how long it would last. And I’d stand there, and the more time I spent standing there, getting wetter and wetter, the more I enjoyed standing there, in a loop that could get me stuck in time until—I ran home.
I like this time of year. It’s not so hot that the sky lashes out. The rain is more predictable. I can put on my rain gear and feel cozy, not sticky. There’s something nice about being in a plastic cave outside as you’re pelted by rain, like the sound of being in a tent, but it’s your head. I even like how my hands get sore with cold. Every time I breathe hot air into them, I’m reminded of the powerhouse of a body. Warm bodies walk past each other on cool forest trails, dripping with dew.
This also just happens to be the holiest time of year for Judaism. The ten days of repentance or the ten days of awe, depending on what you name it, where you pray and apologize and hope the big man listens. You put all your sins into little seeds and throw them into the ocean deep—or the pond-sized lake two blocks away. I remember when I was little and my brothers and I would apologize for pinching each other’s noses.
“But you haven’t pinched my nose—”
So here’s a seed from me. I apologize for not writing this newsletter in a month. There’s nothing the matter; I simply didn’t feel like writing it one weekend, nor the next, and now here I am. I’m busy, we’re all busy, etc etc. But actually there’s a silly reason for it. I wanted to write something, I started to write it, but I couldn’t finish it because it made me feel like crap.
It was about starlings and strangers. I had just finished reading a book I hated. Or I hated what it did to me. Technically it was good, but in it, everyone was terrible, and the main takeaway I had was that people are terrible. So I walked around the neighborhood, grumpily. The sun was beginning to set. Do your best, I thought. Can a sunset make a miserable-me better?
The sunset was fine but then came the starlings.
There were a thousand of them, had to be. More than I’d ever seen. You’ve probably seen the videos of starling murmurations. It really is something else to see them in person. The term for this event has nothing to do with sight. It’s about sound. Murmuration. A thousand wings beat at once, creating murmurs—not murmuring themselves, but breathing life into separate, detached murmurs, with their own lifespans, flying down to the ears of passersby. Murmuration: a distinct entity, emergent from and bigger than the birds that create it. The cloud shifts too suddenly for the eyes to keep up. Suddenly, a black wall forms, and just as quickly, disappears. The murmuration moves as quick as a storm, bursting in one place over and over.
It stopped me in my tracks, and for ten minutes, maybe twenty, I watched the starlings.
Then I moved on.
And later, when I was nearly home, something else happened. There were three women walking on the sidewalk towards me. Leaving no room for me to pass. They clearly saw me, yet didn't move to give me room. I kept walking, waiting for someone to give way. But they didn’t. I was just one person, they were three. I had a right to be on the sidewalk without stepping into the street. We approached one another like a slow-moving car crash. I was already picturing what it would feel like to ram my shoulder into this woman. I would hold strong. If my youth hockey training had prepared me for anything, it was this.
At the last second, the woman in front of me tilted her shoulder back, just as I instinctually tilted back mine, with just enough room to avoid a collision.
The whole experience left me feeling just as grumpy as before, if not more. So what do I have to say about that? There’s something I wanted to write about how we move around one another instinctually and how beautiful that can be. But I didn’t feel like I could make a lovely point about anything. I was just annoyed.
So I stopped writing and then two more weeks passed. And I felt a freedom in the fact that I could just… stop. Sometimes you can end things and it’s… fine. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but why? This is the life I have.
But don’t worry. This isn’t a newsletter breakup letter. I kept thinking about all the ways people move around one another. How huge groups of people can converge in a crosswalk and go through each other like schools of fish. And when music plays outdoors and we crowd carefully to come close, but never so close as to touch. And the way, now that it’s autumn, the storms come and go more slowly, in a gentle wave. Starlings in a murmuration follow their seven closest neighbors for guidance, and their neighbors follow their own seven neighbors, and so on. When one starling switches directions, the rest of them follow. The information waves through them all almost simultaneously.
I throw a seed to the starling murmuration, watch them all respond at once, a starling storm.
I throw a seed to the woman I almost bumped. Sorry I fantasized about shouldering you off your feet.
I throw a seed to you, for my delay.
I throw a seed to myself, for reneging on my commitment. These things tend to cascade. So please take a seed, and pass it on to your neighbors, to see what information will emerge from the ways we interact. Our murmurations are bigger than us.
PS: I recently interviewed the author and folklorist GennaRose Nethercott on her debut novel, Thistlefoot, which is a fun modern-day reinterpretation of the Baba Yaga myth. She had a lot of really fascinating things to say about folktales and folklore. It was published by The Creative Independent, one of my favorite websites about the creative process (they recently interviewed Regina Spektor!). Click here to read my interview with GennaRose Nethercott:
PPS: Sleeping cats respond to nothing