Clouds Got in My Way

It’s cloudy again here in the Pacific Northwest today. That’s why I moved here– to escape sunburn and heat stroke. Part of me is jubilant. Still, I would like more days when the sun is shining on me but isn’t too hot — as if God put one of those light dimmer switches on a tree, and I pushed it down to a low setting.

What a delight it was to move here from the suffocatingly hot climate of the Southern U.S. But then I blew past the honeymoon stage, and began to descend deep into culture shock. While walking in my suburban neighborhood, the realization hit me right smack in the heart– that there were big differences between walking here and walking in New Orleans, where I grew up.

I came across other walkers, but most didn’t make eye contact. If I spoke, most did not respond. Back home, I looked at myself in the mirror. Was my fly open on my jeans, revealing my underwear? No. Was my nose running? No. What was it? Why wouldn’t these people return my “Hello” and my eye contact, like almost all New Orleanians used to do?

When I asked people at my church about this, I heard responses like “People are the same everywhere”– an interesting attitude held by many folks who have lived in the same place for decades.

We can’t see a culture if we are inside of it. Our own culture seems as natural as the sun rising in the morning– or, in the case of the Northwest, the sun NOT rising in the morning because it’s hidden behind thick layers of clouds. Oh, sure, people in Seattle are aware of the “Winter Blues.” Everyone knows someone ELSE who has it, but no one thinks THEY have it themselves. They say “The lack of sun doesn’t bother me. I feel all right.”

So I turned to other outsiders– for a view of Seattle culture from outside of it. On an airplane I met a guy who had grown up in Seattle, but then moved to Arizona. He said “You never realize how much it affects you when you don’t see the sun for months on end; I feel so much more alive now in Arizona.” He said this, looking straight at me, with emotion in his voice and a friendly smile on his face, just as if he were from New Orleans.

A business colleague of mine from the Mid-West announced excitedly one day “I finally figured out this culture. “Socializing is a means to an end here. It isn’t something enjoyable that you would do for its OWN sake.”

So what’s the solution to these Winter Blues? Well, for starters, people avoid other people. After all, many of us have sad eyes, expressionless faces, negative thinking patterns, and non-appreciative responses to even good events. This was somewhat new to me. Having grown up with hot weather, I had gotten more accustomed to the irritability caused by heat. Scorcher summers had helped me to understand a character in Camus’ novel The Stranger. When asked why he murdered a man, he replied “It was hot.”

What else do people do about the Winter Blues? Some vacation in Hawaii. Others can only afford to paint their walls yellow, to remind them what color the sun was, the last time they saw it. Many folks drink gallons of coffee daily to speed themselves along. Seattleites strongly believe that “Thou shalt keep busy every waking minute of thy life.” People ask “How are you? Are you keeping busy?” Busyness can push away depressing feelings– at least for a while.

People read a lot here. Me too. I communicate on line with folks in sunny climes– people who, if they were here with me, I’m sure would make eye contact, smile and speak warmly.

At times I find myself wondering whether I would feel better overall, if I still lived in a place where I was passing out from heat stroke every time I went outdoors. Sometimes I think that all of us in Seattle should form a big chorus to sing that Joni Mitchell song– you know, the one that goes “So many things I would have done. But clouds got in my way.”

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