It is just 6 a.m., nine minutes after. Half an hour or so ago I was awakened by the sound of pouring rain—thrumming into the creek that flows outside our thick-stone-walled room, onto the skylight, onto the dirt paths and golden hillsides surrounding Tassajara. Mary was leaning out the back door taking it in; I went to the front, stepped onto the flagstone stoop: and there was that magic smell of a first rain, which I love has its own name—petrichor. It’s one of my favorite words: from the Greek petra, meaning stone + ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. And certainly one of my favorite experiences, to breathe that beautiful smell in deeply.
Just now there was lightning, and the thunder a second or two behind. This was the third clap since the rain started. At the first flash of lightning, the thunder followed by many seconds. So: the center of the storm is getting closer.
Okay: and another flash, followed immediately by loud thunder. It’s arrived!
And another, with the thunder now off to the left, moving away.
In the midst of all this downpour, I heard the slow beating of the drum as the zen practitioners were called to sit in the zendo.
Eleven years ago, I went to India to work for a week as a dental assistant with a relief organization. One of the dentists volunteering his services, Dr. Tom Grams, spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. I remember him describing the wild joy that people experienced there at the first rain. I innocently remarked that I understood: it’s just as wonderful for us Californians. I still recall the look of . . . it wasn’t quite scorn, but close, when he explained about Afghans and abject poverty and rain being close to a miracle in that bone-dry place for people relying on dirt-scrape farming.
He was right that I don’t need the rain, not the same way poor Afghans do. But then again, part of my soul does feel revived by it. And the first rain seems close enough to a miracle to me too, if for different reasons. (And, yeah, actually, even Californians need rain.)
Dr. Tom Grams was murdered five years ago with nine others, in Afghanistan while on a relief mission, by the Taliban. I heard the news on NPR while driving to Carmel to a yoga class. I did not know him well, but I had various strong impressions of him from our week working together: Gentle humor as he assessed fearless young children who had never been to a dentist before. Generosity: I bought an Afghan rug in India, and he offered to pick more up for me on his next trip to Afghanistan. Selflessness. He went into semiretirement in his forties specifically so he could travel to some of the poorest countries in the world and help people. He had a big, beautiful heart.
A videographer who was on that trip to India, a close friend of Tom's, made a short film about him from our time there. It's worth a look.
At every first rain here in California, I think of Tom and feel a loss, co-mingling with the joy of petrichor. Bittersweet.
And now, it's 6:45 and the rain's all over, though there is the renewed sound of the drum beating. The day has begun.