Last year, summer began in Seattle at the end of April; this year, I find myself saying, we are paying for that.
And yet, record-breakingly gloomy as it still is, I can hardly believe I’m really saying such a thing. True, I say it half-jokingly, but that’s the problem — at least half is serious. What do I mean by “paying for it”? Am I implying there’s some kind of divine retribution at work, biblically cruel and vengeful?
In fact I’m not sure if I think of this strange weather as a matter of divine intervention, or climate change, or simply the way of the world. But I do suspect I’m subject to some kind of hangover from childhood — an almost superstitious way of thinking in which one needs to be aware that every good may be balanced by bad, and nothing good can be taken for granted.
I was reminded of this by something in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book ‘Nomad‘ — an unpleasant read as it dawns on you just how reactionary her views are, starting with her constant harping on “the Muslim mind” (replace the word Muslim with male, female, Jewish, black, gay, or any other category, and you’ll see how gross such a generalization is, let alone how absurd). At one point, she fumes at her sister’s constantly adding “Insh-Allah” to the end of any sentence about something planned for the future. In Hirsi Ali’s newly atheist and devoutly anti-Muslim eyes, her sister is a believing fool.
I found this fuming particularly grating because my father, a deeply observant Jew, used to do the same as Hirsi Ali’s sister, employing the identical phrase in English: “God willing.”
Even as a child, I registered this less as a profession of faith than as one of deep insecurity. For all his religiousness, my father clearly doubted the benignity of God’s will, as any thinking person inevitably must. It was as though to plan for good could only tempt fate and invite the possibility of bad. But then his own childhood — an almost Dickensian one of beatings and abandonment — had given him good reasons to mistrust the world’s capacity for kindness, let alone God’s.
Once, not long before he died, he asked me very seriously if I thought that God really exists, and the way he asked made me realize that he must have put this question to each in the series of rabbis who’d presided over the Reading Hebrew Congregation over the years, and never with any satisfactory answer.
I wish I’d said simply “I don’t know.” Perhaps we all wish too late for greater kindness to our parents. Instead, I ran on about the idea of God and the nature of belief and the human need for mystery — an evasive, intellectual answer that could only disappoint him. I didn’t actually say that I thought his question simplistic, even child-like, but I must certainly have implied it.
Perhaps I was right, but so what? In these gloomy Seattle days, I find myself adopting my father’s outlook despite myself. God or the gods or fate is not willing. I didn’t propitiate them. I made the mistake of taking summer for granted.
So I find myself longing for kindness — for a kinder idea of God, a kinder childhood and a kinder daughter for my father, and right now, the kindness of summer: the gift of warmth and sunshine and the simple enjoyment of what is. Free. like a child, of all sense of consequence.