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Elder Wisdom

Blow Off The Stink

2:07 PM EDT on March 19, 2023

a bolt of lightning
Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s unseasonably hot. I'm late for no good reason but I can’t hurry because I'll show up even sweatier than I already am. The heat makes everyone slow anyhow. It took a guy on the bus four tries to swipe his fare card. The only thing I can do with any haste is gulp my beer because if I don’t, I'll reach for it and find, from one sip to the next, it’s warmed to an undrinkable degree. It’s a night where my forearms stick to the table and my hair sticks to my neck and my thighs stick to each other. The air is steamy. Then we hear something. Someone’s stomach rumbling? I should remember to eat before I drink beer on a night this hot. We hear the growl again and cock our heads and nod to the sky and ask, Was that thunder? It’s more of a plea. 

It’s the first crack of thunder reverberating in my chest that shakes something loose. It makes me jump and then laugh, delighted by the small thrill and the absurdity of whatever residual evolutionary reflex makes a human, who knows she's safe and understands how storms work, startle at Loud Noise. A violet strobe light flickers behind the clouds.

Here’s a scene I recall with clarity: I’m sitting next to my sister on the table in screened-in porch picking the least-squished blueberries out of a green cardboard carton, our bare feet getting splashed by the rain making puddles on the sagging planks, oohing and ahhing at the lightning like it's the 4th of July. The brightest bolts remind me of the roots of the weeds we’d pull from the garden, one main vein reaching down and down and sprouting thinner, crooked tendrils in every direction. We're perched there, eating the blueberries, discussing matter-of-factly what it would feel like to get struck by lightning. Your hair would stand straight up and you might catch on fire, we agreed knowingly. People live to talk about it.

When I was a kid and I was holed up inside reading for too long or lying on the kitchen floor, ruminating grumpily on the tedium of existence, my exasperated mom would invoke an expression from somewhere or other and lovingly direct me: Go outside and blow off the stink! Stink, here, is a state of mind. It’s stagnation, frustration, inaction, dissatisfaction. It's a flurry of unwelcome thoughts, but they're all just unspeakably dull. An emotional inertia so uninteresting it would be flattered to be called a "bad mood." The stink is not chronic or acute; it just descends sometimes and hangs around until something dislodges it.

Now the wind’s picking up and people are tipping back drinks and checking their phones. A few fat raindrops streak our cheeks like tears of laughter. We shriek and scramble to grab our things, but there's contentment in the immediacy of the moment. As the sidewalk speckles, we might hunker down in the bar or a doorway, in cahoots with the strangers next to us all doing the same thing. Or I'll try and beat it home, peeking at the weather app again before taking off at a sprint in a lopsided race against the entire sky. I might make it and settle into the chair by the window. Or I might let myself get caught and hum the line about piña coladas, and I won’t be able to tell where the sweat ends and the rain begins.

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