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.

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 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.


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.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Do You Feel Safe?

Our county’s largest town has fewer than 5000 residents. Many of us live on rural properties that give us a nice daily walk to the mailbox. Small wonder that, at the time of this writing, Fayette County had only 30 cases of Covid-19, with 2 deaths.

I give thanks every day, and I imagine you do, too. Because the contrast with larger entities is stark: Texas (47,000 and 1,305 deaths); New York City (348,232 and 22,478 deaths).

It’s comforting to think the difference is population density, isn’t it? All those people crammed together in cities, living in little boxes stacked on top of each other, too high in the air for birdsong.

It doesn’t sound in the least appealing. And certainly not for eight weeks or more confined to one of those boxes.

The kindness of strangers is a requirement for city life, even in normal times. The kindness of neighbors, too.

We’ve been receiving a lot of the latter since our self-isolation here at Winedale began in late February. Our neighbors, meaning all of you, have been so kind and helpful.

Because of my husband’s age, we are abiding by especially strict limitations. Everything that comes into the house is sanitized by me. If I must go into a store, when I return home, I immediately throw the clothes I wore into the washer.

Our margin for error is zero.

You cannot imagine how we long for a loosening of the noose of caution that draws our worry close, night and day.

What would allow that to happen? What would make us feel safe? This is the question that livelihoods, jobs, depend on.

There are answers, of course, but they’re not fast, and they’re not certain.

The culture of our past thirty-five years has not rewarded patience. Every innovation in technology has been to speed things up. A staggering degree of complexity hides behind one click.

Now we’re being asked to understand so much that isn’t easy.

The medical world anticipated a pandemic from China for years, in fact, and warned us we needed a battle plan. (I read about the role of that country’s wet markets in viral transmission at least ten years ago.)

Political leadership minimized those warnings using the same arguments we hear from Congress, now, on climate change. A crisis foreseen never commands the attention of one in full flower.

Most of us have grown up in a culture of distrust. The internet does a particularly effective job of magnifying honest error into conspiracy. We can’t tell whom to believe. And often we just opt out, altogether.

But now we have a choice.

We can flaunt bravado, scorn every request for caution, as a teen-ager might. Or we can grow up and wear that facemask.

Even though we still can’t buy the kind of masks that protect us, we can use homemade masks that protect the people we talk to, the people we pass or stand in line with.

And they can protect you by wearing their masks and keeping a good distance.

If we follow directives from Austin and “open up,” if we hold the July 4th Celebration, and the Sesquicentennial Fete in August, tourists will come from places where the virus is flourishing. We don’t know if they’ll be sick, or asymptomatic, or healthy.

We don’t know if we are, either, right now.

But if everyone wears that annoying face mask and maintains a thoughtful distance, we might all come through it okay.

I’m talking about masks that cover both nose and mouth, worn by every man, woman and kid out of infancy. (Babies should NOT wear facemasks.)

It isn’t a matter of comfort or liberty. It’s a matter of kindness.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Icy Fingers of Doubt

Conspiracy theories flourish in an atmosphere of fear and ignorance.

They’re like fungi, spewing spores that fall on us when we’re feeling small and inconsequential. Or especially aggrieved. A pandemic creates their ideal medium for growth.

Spreading such inventions is a human failing. That’s why the Bible cautions: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.” (Exodus 23:1)

Oh, but we do it anyway. Some of us. More of us than we, ourselves, may realize.

The internet has exploded lately with conspiracies about the origin of COVID-19. These run from the absurd to the semi-plausible, if you don’t look deeper.

They attempt to smear with doubt the people we trust most. I’m thinking of Dr. Anthony Fauci, an experienced voice of calm and reason and scientific information in the midst of the viral storm.

I’m thinking of Bill Gates, too, widely admired for the extraordinary work his foundation does to alleviate human misery around the world.

Each of these men stand at the forefront of medical efforts to understand the scope of the danger we’re in, and to find ways to combat it.

Yet concerted attempts are made to undermine their efforts with falsehoods. And those falsehoods are being spread by ordinary people on social media.

People who are fearful, like many of us, unsure whom to trust.

And other people, too, of a bristling ignorance. Angry at what they don’t understand, and wrapped in longing for simplistic answers, instead of the slippery complexity of a brand new virus.

Conspiracy theories, whether left or right, can be seductive. Once you allow the first deadly spore into your conscious mind, it will multiply according to a design that exists only within itself, quite separately from any other reality.

Like a virus does, in fact.

The only “vaccine” against conspiracy-think is knowledge. Verifiable knowledge that’s at everyone’s fingertips, if we take the time to look for sources and read critically. (That means outside the thread of links that support the conspiracy.)

I have spent a great deal of time in recent weeks researching what is known about COVID-19 and its fellow coronaviruses. I subscribe to a daily compendium of articles from medical journals related to the virus, in addition to other well-respected and verifiable sources. Science is accretive. New information arrives each day. And as we learn more, we revised the picture of what we know. It’s like turning a pencil sketch into a painting. Understanding is a work in progress.

The half-truths, no-truths and innuendo that are woven together by shady operators to comprise the most prevalent conspiracy theories are a disgrace. They are designed to promote various agendas not related to your or my good health.

Run them down for yourself. Make sure that you look at a variety of unrelated sources to evaluate your information. Don’t swallow Laura Ingraham or the Washington Post headlines in one, undifferentiated gulp. (The actual articles in the Post are far more balanced, by the way.) Political axes continue to be honed, even now, when we should be pulling together.

As for those who spread misinformation about subjects that affect me and those whom I love, I have a few questions:

What are you trying to do? What are you trying to gain? Who are you working to benefit? I’d really like the answers.

You seem to want communities to unravel. You want children and unsuspecting adults to die from preventable illness. You want to topple rational, experienced leaders and replace them with what—a leaderless massing of people? For what purpose?

Your spreading of lies about Dr. Fauci and Mr. Gates will cause some well-meaning people to resist the COVID-19 vaccine when it is developed. And that will undermine the herd immunity we need for life to resume a more complete normality. Herd immunity is basic science, which you scoff at.

If you’re successful in sowing doubt your result will further imperil my husband and me as we are imperiled now in our self-isolation. You will cause people to die.

Why? Why would you do that?

[Titled "Conspiracy Theories," this post ran as my column in the Fayette County Record, April 24, 2020.]