I haven’t lost enough to earn these blues
In 2013 I lived in a small rural village on Panay in the Philippine Islands. While there, I experienced the unique pleasure and pain of wet season in the tropics. Up close. For much of that time, we had no power, no refrigeration, lights, aircon, no floors or buildings, no transport and no internet. We lived in tents and under marquees that provided a pretence of protection from the environment and flimsy attempts at shade. Plastic barriers regularly yielded to the daily deluge from the sky. 38 degrees celsius Monday to Sunday punctuated by brief and intense rainstorms. Before the rain, heat would build and build and I’d be sucked into a desperate mental pounding and screaming for solace, helpless against the raging tide of ever-increasing physical discomfort. Inescapable, oppressive, so much humidity it felt like drowning on solid land, pushing through air like it was water, trying to swim. If I stood still long enough in the hot damp, mould would grow on my clothes and in the soft places between my toes. Don’t even ask about the futility of our laundry efforts.
Then, the moment. Sudden as a stone falling, the temperature dropped like the sun dropped into the ocean at night. The hair on my body would stand up. A pulsing excitement in my belly. Skinny, roaming dogs would cringe and make themselves smaller as the sky darkened and thunder opened its mouth. The light shifted golden orange. A blessed wind would move against my hot skin. A haloed wind would rearrange palm fronds and set trunks swaying and bamboo leaves whispering. And the rain would come. Sweet release as the sky opened.
I often cried with relief at these times. I wasn’t quite myself in the Philippines. The heat baked my brain and I had limited access to my usual defences, rational explanations and hard-earned justifications for how I was feeling on any given day.
I met Ruby at our volunteer camp. A blue-eyed, wavy-haired powerhouse with a tough and dark aura. Her career as a costume-designer in film took her all over the world and she knew how to work hard and play hard. She was there on sabbatical putting her love of permaculture into practice and her hands in the earth. We bonded over a mutual distrust of sticky rice (something about the texture). Ruby told me when she was five years old, a semi-trailer ploughed into her outer-suburbs-of-Sydney home, killing her mother and driving her father into depression and alcoholism. She then picked up a shovel and went back to work.
I cried a lot in the Philippines.
The place wrung out of me every tear I’d ever pushed down, stored up, flung away or denied because it was inconvenient. I stumbled around feeling hamburger raw and ripped open. Always vulnerable and floppy-souled, crushed by the heat, brain boiled soft and sloppy, thoughts sedated into slow-moving jumbles. Every day, I fought against the sun and the physical labour of living. I lay around under trees sipping air in and out in supposedly cooling yogic breaths. I tried to believe I still had access to my usual coping mechanisms, that I was still myself, but no. The unscalable dam walls surrounding my heart at home became spongy, the foundations sinking into wet earth and water spilling over the lip of tired tear ducts too sodden and weakened by environmental stress to hold anything back. There was no reason for my tears, I literally couldn’t stop them. I found this somewhat alarming. Also beautiful. The heat melted me into liquid form, reshaped and poured me out into whatever new mould life needed filled.
After the rain, a warm breeze would come and kiss my soggy skin. If I was lucky, goosebumps would break out and I’d find myself shivering, a dizzy delight on my face at the novelty of feeling cold. After the rain, the world became quiet again, the only sound, a dripping of water off large-leaved plants in the forest. In these brief minutes, I’d watch waves of mist rolling down the sides of mountains. And later, when the sun returned with a bang and condensation boiled up from wet bodies and steam rose from the surface of the road and sweat pooled anywhere it could and sneakers squelched in black mud, I’d start waiting for the heat to build again.
Back home, the triple reinforced steel walls around my heart sprang up overnight. Unlike me, Ruby had a reason to cry and I had only a fairly charmed life and “first-world problems'' with insignificant woes, self-conscious and leaden with excess sensitivity. Back home, tears were complex psychological responses to be controlled, nervous system traumas and issues to be fixed, healed, avoided or otherwise processed into subservience. I longed for permission to cry beckoned forth and granted by the natural world. I wanted to lay my body down on the altar of scalding sun and be pummelled into submission by torrents from the sky. My tears, a natural phenomenon brought about by equatorial proximity. No need to track the path of causality or define the suffering. Sweet rain falls without reason, or at least without reason I could ever hope to influence. I wonder if tears are like that too.