How’s the weather? That’s what we ask. Like, how’s Mom, or how’s the baby. The weather is like a close relative, something or someone we care about. Indeed, sometimes we feel embraced by this ‘relative’. Love affairs happen in sun, rain, hail, the hush of no wind, the roar of a tornado, heat waves, cold snaps, fog, smog, flood, drought, ice storms, dust storms, solar storms. The weather can prevent us from eating, working, sleeping—and suddenly that relative friend becomes a foe of sorts. Every one of Earth’s seven billion people was born on a day when the weather was busy doing something.
That’s why we relate immediately to a story that begins with what the weather is doing. Weather conditions are a universal part of the human condition.
I love the opening half page of Michael’s Ondaatje’s memoir (he calls it a portrait) Running in the Family. He has returned to Sri Lanka to make sense of his childhood, after 25 years away.
“Drought since December.
All across the city men roll carts with ice clothed in sawdust.” One night he has a nightmare that thorn trees in the garden send their roots underground towards the house and climb through windows so they can “drink sweat off his body, steal the last of the saliva off his tongue.”
He snaps on the electricity just before daybreak … then it’s dawn and “the delicate light is allowed only a brief moment of the day. In ten minutes the garden will be a blaze of heat, frantic with noise and butterflies.”
Half a page, he comments while writing, and already the morning is ancient.
Feeling the heat?
Simply put, story is a person in a place with a problem. Ondaatje’s details of the drought are the parched place, and they pose a problem for the person telling the story. In Sri Lanka, the two seasons, wet and dry, control human activities, even their dreams. It therefore makes perfect sense to begin the story of his childhood with these inescapable facts.
Some people found Angela’s Ashes depressing, but I’m not one of them. I beg you, please read, or reread, the first two pages. With outstanding choice of words and historical details, Frank McCourt has created a dark beauty that has touches of humour. It’s the gallant determination to reach for humour that raises the misery to elegance. It’s real, it’s wet and he immerses us in all the glorious ugly dampness. Take this one short passage:
“Above all—we were wet. Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. … The rain drove us into the church—our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.”
The thing about reading a memoir that opens with rich details of the weather is that we are instantly transported from the coziness of our soft chair to elsewhere. And that’s why we read. As writers, these same details take us viscerally back into our memories so we can recreate them on the page.
How has your life been shaped by the weather?
Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write.