Jazzing Through the Drought


Who knows if it’s over? Like a coolly forward promise, rain has been flirting with the drought. Little has fallen, but seepage in the sky is dampening the surface of the dried-out earth. In a lot of places the ground feels like brick, as if nothing but a pickaxe could break it. This rainless condition isn’t new; it’s been with us for several years. When things like this happen and the heat keeps rising, one starts thinking about Kiowa lore, the story they told about this place where I live near the Oklahoma border. The people from southern Indian Territory did not like it. They did not think that the area where our city is now was habitable. Some of them even said that God did not live in the place. They made their encampments elsewhere.

For some reason, rain often skirts this region. It can storm and pour all around us, but often that does us little good. The world—and certainly this portion of it—seems given to extremes, and extremes prompt foolish questions. In an oddly grasping form of desperation one’s attention drifts from our own rainlessness to the Middle East, a larger and globally more serious place than ours. At least three great and lasting religions developed in the desert there: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. And influences from another one, Zoroastri-anism, still affect all three, and usually unhappily. Chaos and madness and cries for inelegant simplicity seem a lot more prominent than vision. There are too many nuts among us.

Is there some kind of (mysterious? predictable? avoidable?) force behind what’s happening? Likely not. I keep saying that. I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe it’s a shame our experience hasn’t led us to animism. But like the Kiowas before us, we don’t really identify with numerous portions of our world—no matter how vigorously we sometimes lay claim to them.

We do, however, sustain sources of pride: past tornadic disasters, for example—getting through them. In spite of (or because of) that, we seem mainly interested in trying to protect ourselves from the ferocities of cold, heat, and wind. We do so with electrical switches. We’re disinclined to think that the nature of our place names us or describes us, for we’re better than our place—or so we assume. Intimacies suggested by animism don’t apply. That might also be true of other anthropomorphic models. Are we wasting our time with prayer? Not because there’s anything wrong or necessarily empty in reverence. We’d do well to be more meditative. I doubt, however, that we’re knowledgeable about valid ways to pray. I doubt that we know how to pray any better than many of us know how to live. We’ve never gotten weaned from the barter system: I’ll give you X, if you, Dear (Lord or other), will give me (or lighten up on) Y. On the other hand, with some independence even, we sustain our drives toward violence, but there’s nothing peculiar in that. We’ve always had a gift for the rowdy.

We are not worse-behaved than people in balmier climes or previous times, and despite our failures we have not, it seems, given up on discovering a sensible order for ourselves. There are many god-enthused believers about, and their rhetoric is often infectious. Godtalk is often compelling, and even entertaining, whether it’s intended to be or not. Still, there are many among us who don’t believe in gods that turn whimsical or loving or critical glances our way, or in any other direction either. That’s always been true. A lot of the pioneer stock in our culture had little taste for religion or art. They were brilliant, though, with gadgetry and improvisation. (Let’s not exaggerate. Some of them were.) Others abandoned their stuff—land, tools, remnants of family—and, getting wilder- and more hollow-eyed, moved on. That’s been true, of course, in many settings. Our time and place aren’t really unusual. We just need more rain—or more illusions to cushion us against its absence. The questions, however, don’t stop. Have we become exhausted? Have we lost imagination? Are we desperate in ways we don’t even know? Do we need to learn forms of thinking we’re not using? Are there serious differences between the ones we do use? Have our imaginations ever sailed beyond us? What are we really dealing with here in this rain-teased dry land?

I suspect we’re not dealing with anything. I suspect we’ve become passive, or blind, or simply non-vigilant in terms of cosmic matters—and the personal often eludes us, too. The rain I’ve referred to is not a matter of metaphor. There’s something truly pressing here. It’s rained little in the last three years. Water tables are down, frighteningly so, and lakes near and well beyond here are seriously diminished. One even wonders where the evaporation goes. It’s not returning to its source. Cities and towns have gone to water rationing; many of them have discovered that they should have started the process long before they did.

For the last three days, however, rain has come daily, though lightly. There’s a celebrative sense of moisture today in our air. Silly with encouragement, we—some of us—think of the dampness as a sign of sensual ripeness, primitive evidence that there truly is a life force independent of our will and our vanity. My own thoughts turn that way, but then I’m pretty thoroughly pagan when I consider the world. I tell myself that the drive to life is kicking in, and as I laugh at the notion I say that we and nature are gonna get down.

Could our luck be changing? Or should we even ask that question? Posing a notion might chase away the answer, make nature forgo the condition we want. Wait. If that’s true, we think (or hope) that something outside us is listening to us. Of course, we’re skittish, not to mention superstitious. That’s okay. That’s perhaps the tendency that keeps us in balance; it’s probably also the tendency that keeps us distant from deep understanding.

We might slide away from concepts of God; but we don’t let superstitions drift too far. We may even have grown far beyond the need for organized religion, but we do like our horoscopes and fortune cookies. And whether it’s limited to the past, our religion—no matter how earnest we are (or were)—probably rarely rises (or rose) beyond superstition. Few of us during times of crisis have been able to stay sentiently responsible with Job in his understanding that religion as barter simply makes no sense, not anymore. Evil deeds are not necessarily punished, and goodness does not necessarily succeed. In fact, in the middle of the book Job tells the elders (who are actually his juniors) that if they had had any sense of observation they would have noticed long ago that not only do the evil prosper, they often live to see their children and grandchildren prosper. Theology demands levels of energy and alertness and subtlety of thought that are liable to wear us out.

As long as we’re comfortable, the idea that bartering with God is illegitimate sounds right. A bit of mayhem in our situation, however, turns us desperately back to the primitive. When that happens, we get wildly interested in codes, secret messages in the holy texts, personal messages in the stars. We glorify the primitive; in fact, we mask it with illusions of intricate, predictive codes. We credit all sorts of people—often politicians—with virtues they can’t be depended upon to embody. We say that primitive people were inclined to husband the earth a lot better than they actually were. Rejecting our own religious traditions, we drool all over ourselves as we praise exotic connections with earth and sky and all forms of life. In truth, a lot of natives and other ancient folk were as messy and wasteful and greedy and crazily warlike and rude as we are. They set big fires to drive back their prey. They likely drove a number of species extinct. They were no smarter about the sacred than we are. They may have even been more irresponsible—and cruel.

Each morning lately I’ve had to cough my lungs clear, and my sinuses feel swollen. My eyes now often look puffy. Breathing requires more effort than I like to put into it; I don’t think that’s because I’m lazy. I also seem to get tired more easily than I used to. But the situation is worse north of here. Is that because we’re oxygen-deprived? Or is a strain of depression settling in? If so, that means, as I understand it, outward desires are being forced inward. Are the fires and their smoke doing that? Are the promises of rain and the stingy deliverance doing that?

Whatever the politics of our internal systems are, whatever desires are being thwarted or redirected—if in truth they are—the tensions and contradictions are often called metaphors for anger; and that may make sense. My main complaint, however, is that a fine rain has not yet arrived, and we want one. I certainly do. I’d love a cloudburst. I would also love voluptuously long, soaking showers that would keep us inside and ripe with imagination—or, if we had to be out in the wet mayhem, brave with adventure.

James Hoggard’s latest book is Patterns of Illusion: Stories & A Novella. He’s the Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.