Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Fine Time

 Is it strange to know you’re hungry and have zero appetite? To look through the fridge, the pantry, and see nothing you would even consider eating, not even ice cream?

It certainly is for me.

But this has been a strange year for us, so far.

We’ve had our vaccinations against Covid, which allows a loosening of anxiety on that front. Just in time for a starburst of worry on another.

At the moment, I’m sitting in our second re-purposed room. The first was our bedroom, serving parttime as a ZOOM studio.

I’m in our living room, now fitted out with a hospital bed and attendant paraphernalia. Rolling bedside table, bottles of medicine and so on.

LH is in that bed and presently he is commenting on the wall of bookshelves beside me. They’re a patchwork quilt of color in our beige room, and we both find their presence comforting, even on ordinary days.

“If you want to look at one of the books close-up and handle it,” I say, “I’ll bring it to you.”

I am sitting at the extended leaf of a small side table situated at the foot of his bed, typing the words you’re reading.

“That’s all right,” he says. “I’m already touching them.”

And of course he is, with his eyes. A very literary, Leon Hale, thing to say.

Outside the window by the fireplace, our pear tree is flush with white bloom. In recent years, the bloom has been fleeting, over quickly in February, or even January. This time it looks determined to stick around.

When I sat in my mother’s hospital room as she lay dying, I could see a magnolia tree outside, littered with blossoms like a passing helicopter had dropped handkerchiefs on the boughs.

Late April. Every year the magnolia’s decoration is a reminder of her passing.

The fantasy that sustained us through the year of Covid isolation—that two writers could assemble and see published two books, then promote them virtually, did not allow for the present sorrowful situation.

But, in a way, the denial conveyed a blessing to us both. An older couple, devoted for years, were isolating in reasonably good health in their favorite place while positively engaged in a productive, absorbing activity. Will I look back on that awful year of anxiety and stress as one of our finest times?

It is possible.

When my mother lay dying in that hospital, I was in graduate school, working on a thesis. I sat in a corner of the room, scribbling away, while she slept.

For years I castigated myself for fleeing from sorrow in that way into words, into fiction, actually. My guilt accompanied that manuscript into the drawer, or storage box, where it currently resides--not that I could find it, if I tried.

But now I think I was wrong to heap such rebuke upon myself. When a young person makes a mistake, the error looms over them in a monstrous way. Such vivid proof of their human weakness can seem overwhelming.

By the time a few decades have passed, however, the mistakes a person has made accumulate like abrasions on the skin that turn into calluses.

We deal with sorrow as best we can, each in our own way. Writing about this today, while he sleeps nearby, is mine.

The Year of Fragility

We’re accustomed, as Texans, to relying on ourselves. We take pride in being tough.

For most of us, though, that rugged individuality is enabled by the distribution networks we live within. Networks that deliver food and medicine to our stores, gasoline to our filling stations, mail to our businesses, light and heat to our homes.

Think of what we could count on back in 2019: Toilet paper, Lysol, paper towels, Clorox—as much of these as we needed, when we needed them. The bread and butter we liked. The sweet treats we liked.

So many small, important things we had barely noticed until they were gone.

The pandemic brought an excess of worry (or denial) into our lives, followed by loss—too many friends were ill; too many of our fellow Americans died. Embers of grief were banked wherever we went.

And the ground we had walked on, thoughtlessly, all our lives, wobbled.

Vaccines were promised and arrived, but there weren’t enough. Those who could have them varied by state, and even more by practice. The oldest old who lived at home were overlooked. Some of the front line workers most at risk refused them.

That wobbling ground, founded on reasonable expectation, undermined trust.

Turn the faucet, water will pour out. Flick the switch, lights will come on.

Nothing is more fragile than trust.

Except maybe self-regard.

How much of a rugged individual can anyone be, shivering without heat and water in poorly insulated houses during an 8 degree cold snap?

How secure can anyone be if a winter storm, well predicted by weather forecast services, brings us to so much misery, damage and loss of life?

I, personally, played the ostrich role.

Our old house is largely uninsulated. Our fireplace is not usable, and we have no propane service. A loss of power at 8 degrees would likely result in hypothermia for the ancient, frail husband who is cold all the time even at 75 degrees.

The fact of our fragility rose to full blooded presence in the room, but it was too late to remedy the situation. Too late to run away, and where could we have gone?

Our mistake was in thinking the present would persist. But it doesn’t. The present is neither the future nor the past, and we should not live like it is either of these.

Because this Great Freeze was more than a natural disaster and a human failure. It was a societal failure.

Many of those houses were under-insulated to save a buck. Why insulate against winter, when winter is normally absent? Why insulate and update our electrical power grid, so independent and proudly Texan, when winters are mild and winterizing costs so much? And when there is no law or rule mandating the highly competitive providers to do so.

This was a failure of what we call the “free market,” because the free market rewards low cost, temporary solutions. And we believe it will correct itself, eventually—even if not on a scale of time that will help those who have suffered and died during the disaster. They’ve been sacrificed, it seems, to a theory that cares nothing about human pain—and to the elected representatives empowered by it.

The cumulative institutional failures of this year have undermined our sense of personal security, whether we admit it or not. Small wonder tears find us at the oddest times.

They have made our fragility tangible. Human strength has never been in one person, standing alone. It lies in our capacity for community, for helping each other and building team responses to crises.

Now is the time.

 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Memory Pictures

 

I’ve been thinking about memory lately, about how slippery it is at its best. Even the strongest memory, the one you think will be the most indelible begins to slide away so quickly. The more you want to hold it close, the faster it seems to reduce into elements, abstract itself into anecdote. “Do you remember that time when he…” And so on.

The most powerful memories for me, however, survive more as still images than narratives. The Christmas I was pregnant with my son I wore a forest green velvet maternity dress, long, with a lace collar. There is no photo, but I have a clear memory-picture of sitting on a chintz sofa in that dress feeling a kind of domestic bliss that was too perfect to be true.

Photographs, valuable as they are, have an odd habit of replacing memory as time passes. Is my recall of the tricycle under the tree when I was three actually a photograph I’ve seen?

More maddening, however, is the way one mental picture will come to stand for a group of memories like the title on the tab of a folder, but you can no longer access the content.

Maybe this is one reason the whole holiday season blends joy and sadness into a cocktail bearing a particularly potent hangover.

It’s a lot like grief.

You can know something is over, irrecoverable. Your children will never be four again, gazing in awe at the array of gifts under the sparkling tree. You can know this in the way you know a birth date, in the front of your mind where it is protected somewhat from welling emotion.

That knowledge has a sweetness with sorrowful undertones that hint at what grief might be, but it’s not grief, as long as the child is continuing to grow into the fullness of maturity. Recognition of the vanished four-year-old is generative, open-ended, and that softens the effect.

If the child died young, however, grief strides in and takes over. And grief is as cruel as it is necessary.

Proceeding through the stages of grief, they say, is central to a successful life beyond it. No doubt this is true.

But what about the “forethought of grief” that taxes human lives (Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”)? What about incremental grief, far in advance of a loved one’s death?

Lately, I’ve been making a video about Hale’s and my life here, for use in promotion of our two books coming out in March. This video focuses on him and utilizes photographs from over the years. I was doing fairly well with it—more or less like a professional editor with pleasant material. I didn’t think of it as sad, in any way.

Then, yesterday, I added music. Cheerful music pulled from the video program’s list of selections.

And the music undid me.

Here in my rough homemade video was the reality of all that cannot be recovered—the life, the person at every earlier age—it all hit me at once.

I was sorrowful throughout the afternoon. Then today, I was driving to Round Top for groceries, making a turn I’ve made hundreds of times—with Hale so many of those times—and a vivid picture came to me. He was driving his truck, his large hands on the wheel, his face scanning the landscape with a far-seeing expression I love. And, like a blow, I realized that I would never be seeing that expression again, in life.

The loss was like a death.

Yet, the man himself is still with us, still writing and talking and walking. Still himself, in his 99-year-old form. As I am in my 70-odd-year old form.

I had known the people we were existed no longer, but I hadn’t felt it fully until that moment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Such a Year

 Such a year it has been. And yet, we are thankful.

The days, the months, pass in a haze of Zoom meetings. Is it Thursday again, already? Time wobbles, wraps itself in the slower rhythms of seasonal change—noticeable by the color and crispness of leaves, nodding seed heads in the pasture, the clarity of air and angle of sunlight.

We give thanks for the crystalline shards of October light, even though they now come in November.

How simple it is, however, to be thankful. To name and number every grace, every reprieve.

We give thanks for the living members of our family, even as we grieve for the ones who have left us.

So many have left us. Perhaps it is a measure of our own aging. We knew the pace of that before, but this year has given it a face, a name. Many names.

Our children grow up; as do our grandchildren—more to be thankful for, although in isolation we miss so many precious moments. Suddenly my grandson is eight and running for class office. Suddenly my granddaughter is scoring goals in five-year-old soccer. They were babies only last year, weren’t they?

Some families bear the separation with minimal harm to the spirit. But some truly suffer, and fling themselves away from isolation with determined optimism. They gather their loved ones from far flung towns and cities. They take selfies bathed in each other’s breath.

We give thanks for those who, doing so, cause no harm to themselves or others.

I’m writing this at the beginning of Thanksgiving week as my son and his family begin their car trip to the home of the New York grandparents. In other years, they would be trekking to Texas for a few days of closeness and connection. I am thankful, though, that the grandchildren’s Nana and Pop-Pop have been within car distance through this awful Covid Time, their home a refuge when Manhattan shut down, and a familiar, loved place to visit for a holiday that is so sad for so many, just now.

We hear that a vaccine may deliver us next year from our solitude. If they prioritize the oldest Americans, surely my husband, at 99, would qualify. I suspect, however, that the oldest old who remain at home, as he does, instead of in a facility, will find vaccination difficult to arrange.

Besides, there are others at high risk, by reason of work primarily. They should have primacy.

So our personal race, his and mine, continues. A race against entropy. The pace as slow as the spinning Earth can make it.

This slow: The golden garden spider (Argiope aurantia) appears at the entrance to our porch. Every morning she is hanging there, producing her egg cases. And this morning, she is gone. The egg cases remain.

Redbirds, eager customers, disappear from the feeders. And then we turn onto a path across the unmown pasture and flush twelve of them, busy in the process of diversifying their diet.

We are thankful for them, and for the paling broad leaves of American Beautyberry that brighten stretches of our woods. And for the tips of daffodils that poke up in the rose bed like asparagus.

In this difficult year, we go small in our embrace of life. Our intensity expands.


(Appeared during Thanksgiving week in the Fayette County Record)

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Whale of a Day

In many ways, climbing into bed has become the high point of my day. That’s when I stream the Billy Collins show, broadcast earlier on Facebook Live.

What’s that? Who’s that?

It’s a guy sitting in his living room with his wife, talking. Both of them talking. He’s the star, presumably, because the camera (an iPhone) is focused on him, but that doesn’t prevent a kind of irrepressible banter from interrupting fairly often.

It’s like you’re there in the room with them. He fumbles for his mic, flips through papers, and books. Plays his favorite music at the beginning and end—sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes Bebop or even the Everly Brothers. Surprisingly often Facebook shuts them down for a contravention of musical replay rules, whatever those are.

He’s always shocked and surprised by this.

He begins by reading comments from listeners, all around the world. Then it’s on to the main event. That consists of him reading out loud and then talking briefly about what he just read.

That will be a poem, in fact, but don’t worry, because this is Billy Collins, former two-time US Poet Laureate, called in the NY Times “the most popular poet in America.”

Billy, as we who listen most days call him, writes in the language we all speak, and his subject matter ranges broadly and usually begins by observing something we think of as ordinary. He’s the poetry version of Leon Hale, so maybe that’s why I like him so much.

Billy has a dry wit, so the broadcasts are funny, poignant, and every poem has a turn toward the end that makes you notice.

He reads the work of many other people, as well. Recently he read several poems by Mary Oliver. And Seamus Heaney is a favorite.

Each poem takes only a moment or two to read, in his soothing voice and you’re never far from a surprising remark.

Billy and his wife Susannah began these homely broadcasts when the Coronavirus lockdowns started in March, and he was required to cancel a busy international travel schedule. He needed something to do that provided relief from all the bad news.

And so we have these low key afternoons. She is the “hair, lighting and makeup” director and he is the man behind the desk, rummaging for the poem he thinks will most interest his viewers.

A free-form half hour or so ensues, punctuated every so often by the thunder of a Florida rainstorm.

The written comments flow as the show proceeds, and if you’re watching it live, you can chime in, always understanding that both of them will see what you have written. Kinda fun.

At the end of last month, he launched his new collection, WHALE DAY, with a virtual reading. You can read all about it on his Facebook page where the last five broadcasts are available for viewing.

It’s such a welcome contrast to the strident conversations that have popped up lately on Facebook. There’s never a political reference, by design, because the broadcast is intended to address the need for a quiet, calm interlude in our increasingly fraught lives.

We get that. It’s one reason why our little publishing company is bringing out two new books next spring, one by Leon Hale and one by yours truly (a short story collection) that we, also, will be chatting about on Facebook, and other social media. So there are oases of tranquility present online, if one looks for them. https://www.facebook.com/BillyCollinsPoetry https://www.facebook.com/winedalebooks https://www.winedalebooks.com


Monday, September 21, 2020

What's Empathy?

 Empathy. Been hearing that word a lot, recently.

Most of us assume we have empathy for other people, when what we mean is sympathy.

When a friend loses her job, we feel sympathy. We understand that our friend must be in distress. And we can still express all the support and comfort needed.

The emotion becomes empathy, though, if we feel her fear and worry as our own.

Or, following an explosion, we see a woman wail over the body of her child. We’re an ocean away, watching this horrible moment on a flat screen. Most of us will feel sympathy—we understand that losing a child is a heartbreak almost without equal.

If we tear up at the sight, taking that loss to heart as if it were our own child, we are feeling empathy.

The ability to empathize can be inborn or developed, but it is never comfortable. Often when we feel the urge, we shut it down as being too demanding of our energies.

Or we try to shut it down until something happens that breaks through.

On 9/11, for example, as the second tower was hit and the full meaning of the attack became clear, people across the country suddenly choked up. And when the small dark objects began to fall from the highest floors of the burning building, we sobbed. They weren’t our children, husbands, fathers, mothers, but we were with them and their families. We felt it.

Empathy.

Empathy is considered a high distinguishing quality of humanity, one that warrants cultivating.

In Christianity, the great commandment reads, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” That last bit is also known as the Golden Rule. It finds its place in all the major religions.

Empathy.

The divisiveness of recent politics allows very little room for fellow feeling. Our social media increasingly selects only like-minded opinions to show us. It reinforces outrage.  

The clash of policy and idea in politics generates fringe elements, on the left and the right. Human nature can be contrary, and as we all know, some folks enjoy contrariness more than others.

This process isn’t new. American history is full of odd movements and noisy combative voices, going back to the beginnings of the 19th century. Hucksters sold their patent medicines or outlandish theories from the back of a Conestoga or other wagon. From there, they could do limited harm.

Today, they have the internet. They have social media.

Bizarre theories, conspiracies and outright lies go viral in a time of worldwide fear and uncertainty.

There is always someone, intent on power over others, who will speed things along, perfectly content to break every moral rule in so doing. Lies, half-lies, distortions, good intentions gone awry, spin together, pulling in the fringes, blurring everything.

Only empathy is strong enough to stop the whirlwind.

Only realism can brake the accelerating vortex.

When we’re in the grip of conspiracy-based fear, it’s like the feeling we have in a horror movie. Breaking the spell requires sunlight, open air, the presence of loved ones and friends.

These conspiracies are like bad novels, cheap slasher flicks. They rely on mass hysteria to spread.

Take them outside, away from the artificial world of computer and mobile screens. Let the warm sun and soft autumn breeze do nature’s restorative work.

The conspiracies will crumble. And the people ensnared by their darkness will breathe freely once again.

Friday, July 3, 2020

It's a Free Country


All lives matter, we hear.

I’m not talking about race, but it comes from the same source.

Because we don’t really believe it, do we?

If we did, we’d be wearing a mask in public places.

That’s the truth. If you’re not wearing a mask when you interact with other people, you don’t believe all lives matter.

You don’t believe your wife and children matter. Or your parents. You don’t believe the people you work with matter.

The only life that matters to you is yours.

We are watching new cases of the virus surge in Texas, as businesses open. You’ll have proof of the connection, eventually, when it’s too late.

Crowds thronged our area on the weekend of June 6th, unmasked, ignoring social distancing. These were mostly people from somewhere else. Our beleaguered businesses were thrilled, I expect. They’ve been suffering. The owners and employees have been suffering. No one can deny that.

I visualize those crowds bursting out of solitary hunkering like so many grade school kids let loose to run and play after a hard morning at their desks. With about as much mature thought.

And men were the most likely to go maskless. I see them, everywhere I go in Fayette and Washington Counties.

Their naked faces declare they’re not afraid. It’s a free country. A man’s personal freedom is the only thing that matters.

But he’s not free to spit on the floor of a restaurant or urinate in its parking lot. He’s not free to smoke in a non-smoking place. He can’t walk into the nearest movie theater and holler “fire!”

So many ways we’re not free to harm our neighbors.

Maskless, though, he can walk around exhaling virus on other people. He can sing at the top of his lungs in church all over the person in front of him. He feels fine.

Or, maybe he’s got a little headache and scratchy throat.

Or, sure, he may be a little sub-par—hay fever, you know. He’ll power through.

No one can make him think of anyone else. His mother used to try. She’d drill it into him. But now, he’s a big boy. Nobody can tell him what to do.

Or her, his wife. She hates the masks. (I do, too.) They’re hot and they itch and one’s breath is not a minty delight.

But she chooses to wear it, just in case. She wears it in the grocery store. She wears it bringing groceries and supplies to her car or someone else’s. She wears it, cooking in a restaurant, despite the inconvenience.

She wears it in case the 30% increase in county Covid cases that we’ve had over the past month has touched her. She doesn’t want to bring the virus home to her children, her mother or grandmother who’s diabetic. Or grandfather who’s on oxygen. Or to her macho husband who refuses to wear his mask.

Why do you think we’ve been “lucky” so far? Round Top is a tourist destination. Why don’t we show the rate of Covid infection Houston does, for example? A throng is a throng, after all.

One reason, I think, is our leadership. County officials had the courage and good sense to cancel the Spring Antique Shows. That made sure outsiders did not flood our community with virus from far flung hot spots.

But the July 4th celebration is coming. 

And it might not be a disaster if everyone who attends it, man, woman or child, wears an adequate mask and observes strict social distancing. Wouldn’t that be a great example of community spirit?

Come on, folks. Make Mommy and Daddy proud.