(from the 2006 FirstMorning newsletter)
It’s July in Texas. The heat is like a horsehair blanket laid across the land- it has its own disabling and dense weight; it slows us down to a ragged crawl as we make our way through it, when we must. It even itches like a blanket; the heat penetrates our skin, our eyes, our hair. We feel like we are in the first stages of the ancient Chinese torture “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” We are slowly cooking, like slices of beef turning into jerky, drying up from the outside, inward.
The grass turns crisp- the color of fried pork rinds. The leaves of trees and even weeds, droop in derisive mockery of our own sagging shoulders and squinting, downcast eyes. It’s too hot under this immovable blanket even to breathe without the heat clawing its way down our throats and into our chests. The only sounds against the stillness outside are the cicadas, high in the treetops, hotly buzzing their reproductive siren songs. Even they, though, despite their newly uncurled wings and their few days of freedom to fly before dying, stay strangely still on their tiny branch landscapes, unwilling to move any more than they must to to effect their own perpetuating instincts.
Each year at this time, I ask myself why, how..why for God’s sake, how in God’s name.. did people dismount from their horses, their wagons, their stage coaches or railroad cars and, setting down their bags, say to themselves, “Let’s live here”? Perhaps when the artificially cooled air of air conditioning was not a possible-to-consider option; perhaps because the horses themselves were too exhausted to take a single step more; perhaps because they had heard about and believed the stories of deep, undisturbed topsoil covered by springtime’s flowers; perhaps those were among the reasons they stopped here to plant and establish homes.
Or maybe they were just absolutely, flat-out nuts.
I must admit there is- despite the obliterating, withering, relentless nature of Texas in July- there is a certain shared community charm to this place which metamorphosizes from a Garden of Eden every April into a summer hell. The heat holds all of us in its grip; it respects nothing about our bank accounts, skin color, age, status, politics, or our need to breathe. The climate has a universal, non-discriminatory grasp on us. None of us is able to stand up oak-like to it; we are all pansies against its onslaught.
The heat slows us down. To walk fast through this heat is to increase the abrasive friction of hot oxygen against flesh. Walking slowly allows a perfect balance to be achieved between the production of sweat and the evaporation of same, thus allowing one to stay alive. Moving slowly also makes it possible to perceive, so slightly, the tiny breezes that waft our way, however intermittently, however weakly. Summertime, and the living is all in sloooooow motion. Lest we die.
I remember when I lived in Ohio. Every summer, some local Youngstown reporter would, on one of the many slow summer news days, crack an egg on the sidewalk so we could watch it fry in the day’s “bristling” 85° heat. It never did. Here in Texas, in July, I could fry that same egg on my head. I made the mistake of leaning against a metal flagpole yesterday and branded myself.
I know some preachers would use this description of the heat to crank the discussion up a notch or two and begin warning about the fiery bowels of eternal hell. Let them. It’s too hot to think about hell right now. There is already something worse than July in Texas to think about, anyway: