Thursday, July 29, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jill Kolongowski, Atmospheric River

 We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


Atmospheric River

Jill Kolongowski


This pandemic winter (my tenth one in California), while time feels untethered, I’m thinking about how we use weather to tell time. 

Hartland, Michigan, 2000—Moderate rain: 

In Michigan, thanks to the huge surface area of the Great Lakes, the weather is unstable. In the midway seasons, spring and fall, one day might be 40 degrees, and the next 70. The forecast calls for rain and the rain gauges stay dusty, or the forecast says sunny and dark clouds pile up like mountains over the flat land. The rain comes in many forms—drizzle, downpour, steady—and you can leave with an umbrella or raincoat or not, but Midwesterners all have stories of getting caught in the rain.

My favorite: my family is on vacation in the upper peninsula of Michigan, near Tahquamenon Falls, and we’ve taken a silver metal rowboat over to an island to explore. The forecast said the day was perfect for it, but as we hiked around, the sky got darker and darker and we realized too late that rain was coming. We rushed back to the rowboat and my father started rowing furiously, his arms spinning like a cartoon. The clouds built, not unlike ash from a volcano eruption. 

Winters in the Midwest are very gray, with low-hanging clouds a perpetual ceiling blocking the sun. Summer rainclouds are different; they are vibrant, dark, inverses of their white cotton-ball good-day counterparts. Sometimes they can pass overhead, ominous as anything, and not lose a drop of rain, saving it for somewhere, somewhen else. Sometimes it seems to rain from white clouds too. In any case, we can only watch, leave an umbrella in the car, get soaked sometimes anyway.

On the lake in the rowboat, the clouds did not wait, but instead fell in buckets. It’s a cliché, buckets of rain, but what else could it be, the drops thick and fast, so much they don’t feel like individual drops at all, but fall in a soaking sheet. Next, thunder and lightning tore from the sky and the fact that we were in a metal rowboat, a perfect conduit for electricity, tore into my mind too. Across the lake we went—my mother praying, father rowing for his life, me attempting to make jokes—water on water, ants in a flood, the rain singing against the metal hull, rain perhaps the most intimate of all weathers, as it soaked through to the skin.

A few hours later, the sun returned. The grass was green, green, green, happy. When our California friends came to Michigan for our wedding, they were astounded at how green the summers were—summer rain a luxury that California does not have. 

I remember rain this way, in flashes, though I’m sure there were weeks when it rained day after day. All rain in my memory seems moderate, in the middle, hard to pin down, near impossible to predict or name. 

San Mateo, California, 2020—FLOOD ALERT:

In California there are only two seasons: summer and rain. California natives swear there are four, but I have yet to feel them all. Every year without a snowy winter, I get confused about time. Growing up in the cold of Michigan winters, the snow has settled somewhere deep in my bones and my body seems to remember and miss it. Here in California, the winter is green from the rainfall, and in a good year, the rainfall down here at sea level means many feet of snow up in the Sierra Nevadas. We depend on a deep snowpack for our drinking water, and year after year, that snowpack gets shallower, the water supply contracted. Some rivers that used to flow all year round slow to a trickle, or to nothing, a shallow ditch, in the summer, and return in the winter. Some rivers, though, leave and never return again.

For many months it does not rain at all. You forget where your umbrellas are. Every day feels the same, where I live—some a little hotter than others—until it doesn’t. Growing up in one of the cloudiest states, I never thought I’d get sick of the sun, but here in California, I check the calendar and count the days, waiting for a break of clouds, of rain.

And then the rain comes all at once. Days, weeks straight of rain, rain so much we wonder where it can all possibly come from, how the earth can hold this rain, and whether it can take the rain back up again. The rainy days feel somehow colder here than in the Midwest, though it rarely gets below 40 degrees Fahrenheit here. Is it something about the proximity to the ocean that keeps the air humid and makes that rain feel even colder? Is it that our houses here aren’t built to withstand cold, like the fortresses in the Midwest? (My neighbor tells me her house has no insulation at all—“it’s just a box,” she says.) Or is it, maybe, that we’ve waited so long for the rain that the contrast strikes us, like so many contrasts do, as more than it actually is, because we’ve missed it for so long?

I’m thankful, most rainy winters, for the chance to sit inside. In the sunshine of the rest of the year, sitting inside in the perfect weather feels wrong, though of course some days require you to ignore the weather and stay inside. The rain feels like a kind of permission to rest. 

Though of course, this rest is an illusion. Heavy, sudden rains after long seasons of drought often bring danger: floods and mudslides. Even though California should be used to this kind of wet year, it always seems unprepared. The heavy rains are sometimes called atmospheric rivers which carry an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The first time it rains, roads flood and the highways wail all day with sirens on their way to car accidents on the slick roads. Even though every day the forecast calls for the possibility of rain, I often still forget my umbrella. The earth itself feels unprepared. Almost every year there’s a flood of some kind: flat suburban streets flood as the gutters fill up with dead leaves, water pools on the interstate, underpasses become canals. One year people brought their kayaks to an empty grocery store parking lot and paddled around in their brand-new lake.

But perhaps the flooding isn’t destructive—or the destruction is the point. Just like wildfires are part of the climate, part of the season here, flooding is too. Here the weather feels predictable, even the most extreme weather—but even that illusion of knowledge is a kind of gift. It is wonderful to feel you know what is coming. After all the drought of summer, we know we can expect a flood: a kind of abundance. And soon, people get tired of the days of rain, and wish for the summer again. Like people everywhere, we have trouble being where we are, and always long for the next. Borne along like a river, the rains are ahead, and the sunshine too.

Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of the collection of essays Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017), and other essays are published or forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Waxwing Magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. She is at work on a new essay collection about anxiety and disaster. Find her tweeting about tornadoes @jillkolongowski.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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