Thursday, June 9, 2022

Shrug is an Action Verb

What we do is shrug. Honestly now, isn't that true? All we've been through here in the past two years, with each news broadcast bringing the pain of hundreds, thousands, millions right into our homes. We begin to develop an emotional callus, a protection against feeling all that misery.

So, a guy with a gun kills nineteen children in an elementary school. How horrible! Deeply, truly, irrevocably horrible. Where did it happen? Oh, in Texas. That’s when the out-of-state reader or viewer starts to shrug. Of course, such a shooting is terrible, but I and those I love are far away. Safe. And then they move on.

We move on.

Shrugging has become our national answer to disaster. Shrugging followed by prayers.

Is it working?

We Americans, we Texans, pride ourselves on finding practical solutions for big problems. If ever we needed a practical solution for a problem, this is it.

The problem is complex, and our culture has difficulty dealing with complexity.

Faced with complexity, we gravitate toward any argument promising a simple answer. Gun control looks like one, at first. We grab hold of that and hunker down.

We’ve got to do something different, people. What that will be, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.

But I do think I understand some contributing factors.

It’s all about those calluses.

Visualized violence permeates our culture. Moving images of violent acts are on the television, computer, smart phone, accessible to anyone, anytime. Increasingly realistic video games place our children and young people—whose brains are still developing—at the killing console, vaporizing “enemies.”

Frequency of exposure can develop those calluses. And it’s the calluses that allow us to view torn limbs, squirting blood, explosions, etc., without a scarring revulsion.

Just like frequent exposure to mass shootings can cause us to shrug.

The recent catalogue of threats—terrorism, violent storms, pandemic, mass shootings—has left us feeling so vulnerable. Of course, people who feel vulnerable grab for armor, and arms.

And broadcast media—TV and radio—just wallows in it, escalating whatever fear there is to escalate.

Our fear prevents us from thinking. In fact, it’s caused us to stop believing that we can think these difficulties through and arrive at a plan.

We face problems of a planetary dimension—climate devastation, pandemics—and our brains cannot handle that. There are interrelated, complex systems at work that it takes computer modeling even to begin to understand.

Our fear in the face of all these stresses is logical and rational. But it’s preyed on by people whose motive is only to gain power and wealth in the short terms of their own puny lives. They rely on us to be afraid.

Maybe, for now, simple solutions are the best we can do. Here are a few:

Stop watching TV news; stop trolling the internet to fuel your anger and feel righteous; stop thinking that those who look different are out to harm you.

Look to your home and your children. Where are your guns—are they locked up—can your children find the key? (Most of the time, they can.)

Stop looking for dystopian drama, for end-of-the-world cheap thrills. Boycott the stuff. Read a newspaper, instead.

Get to know your neighbors. Stop feeling that you, in your small wisdom, are smarter and better than anyone else. You are not. Neither am I.

We are a vulnerable species, like every other. But, like every other, we occupy a specific place at a specific time. Know that place, know it in detail. It is everything. 

Leave the “vesper flights” that arc above the Earth’s clouds and confusions to swifts and angels.

Online Dating

This third version of me has to step out a bit.

In my 13th month alone, now, I have noticed how much I miss talking. With a man. Well, I did notice it sooner. It has taken this long for me to accept it.

There is peace, of course, in silence.

In the songs of birds, insects, the distant rumble of tractors. Peace there, as well.

To a point.

But not a word of conversation.

So where do we find it with a man, outside of hardware stores when buying a new garden hoe?

Newsflash: Fayette County does not seem to bulge with single men over seventy.

In a grief group I had met a solid and successful local citizen who told me he’d joined Match.com. He had lost his wife and was suffering, it seemed to me, much as I was suffering.

If people like this fellow join Match, I thought, it might be worth a shot. I’d been sharing feelings with wonderful women friends who walk ahead of me this labyrinth of widowhood. Maybe, now, I could connect, also, with a male mind over the destabilizing loss of a spouse.

So I joined it, along with a few other sites intended specifically for older people.

I had thought there would be few men of the right age participating on such sites. Apparently, however, a substantial number joined during the pandemic, when normal social life became restricted.

And so did a legion of scammers. We’ve all heard the stories. More about that another day, I think.

Overall, it’s a learning experience. People are classified on these sites according to categories into which the real person disappears. Very few men take the opportunity offered to post a description that might reveal personality.

And, curiously, a number of men don’t even post a photograph. I skip them. A face can tell you much about a person.

I discovered quickly that I have lots of choice if I’m interested in a man who never attended college or stopped after two years; is a born-again Christian; very conservative; likes to travel by RV, hunt and fish.

Go for it, girl!

Choices diminish if you are private about your religious beliefs and attempting to match an educational level of college and above.

In that category, I find mostly engineers, a few retired professors, a retired doctor or two, but zero journalists or writers.  

The pictures are fun. Men on boats, men holding big fish, or standing with a gun and dog beside a fallen deer. Men hugging pretty daughters or granddaughters. Men standing beside prosperous fireplaces, or at the top of a mountain, against a panorama of foreign valleys and towns.

Strangely, many of the men without props are scowling for some reason. Many others display excellent teeth. But no cheekbones. Cheekbones are out. These fellows have upholstery (as do I, in fact). Or the kind of beard that hides expression.

And then there’s me. The immutable fact of myself. I decided on complete honesty in my profiles. Age honest, photo honest, career honest. And I have to report that I have not discovered a groundswell of interest in the land of silver singles for seventy-seven year old female writers.

That should not be surprising.

But after so many years of marriage to a man who never criticized, who treated me as though I were still the “beautiful girl” he had fallen in love with, I had been carrying around an image of my virtues that had become tangible to me. I saw it daily in his eyes.

Welcome to the real world, honey.

The Moon is a Balloon

 Driving through Round Top around nine-thirty the other evening, I was struck by the sense of relaxed holiday ease. It was the first Saturday of the Antique Show and town was crowded. Yes, the weather that day had been fabulous. After all, it doesn’t take an Antiques extravaganza to bring people to our area on a beautiful day.

As night fell, many cars lined the streets. But the cars were still and quiet. Only a few couples strolled around, murmuring. I could hear light cocktail laughter from the tent outside Prost.

I recognized the feeling it evoked. We’ve all felt it—the peaceful pleasure of day’s end following hours of happy activity. I could feel it from inside my car as I paused at a stop sign. Been a long time since I felt that ease, that peace.

Did I mention the moon?

It was the night of the giant orange moon, slowly rising over Henkel Square. Such a moon exalts us. We can’t help it. The golden light sheds grace upon us. Maybe that accounts for the relaxed good nature of this particular evening.

I had attended the PaperCity kickoff party earlier with a friend. I think we were the only ones not wearing Santa Fe Style, or fancy western garb. My tunic had, in fact, been bought in Santa Fe, but there weren’t boots on my feet to proclaim it.

A genial kind of hype prevailed, with many photos taken and jovial conversation among local luminaries enjoying the perfect air and sloping late afternoon sun. Everyone seemed relaxed in the knowledge that they were in costume, and wasn’t it fun to be mingling and laughing in person, again?

Well, it was. Friends, music, food—out of doors so lingering fears of virus transmission could be allowed to drift away. No wonder everyone was in such a good mood.

This night also struck a kind of balance. We all know the virtues of Antiques Showtime. The health of the area’s economy depends on tourism.

City folk have populated the rolling countryside around us for almost seventy years. We know what they’re looking for. Escape. Peace. Charm.

Lately, though, developers from other cities are in hot pursuit. They have plans for us. Condos in pastures, tourist accommodations in a density never before seen around here. Tourists in cars that will spill out onto Highway 237, a road that, with caravans of heavy equipment hurtling past every day, scarcely needs more such spillage.

It’s not why the rest of us live here, is it? More traffic? More junked up roadways? And a Christmas Market to deliver the chaos of the Antique Shows year-round? Why doesn’t someone suggest a Buc-ees on the Square?

That just doesn’t fit, does it?

Round Top is molting, as it has done for decades. Slips out of the skin it has outgrown, tries out the new one, slips out of it after a few years, and so on. A continual, gradual process in which the nature of the place has, somewhat miraculously, retained its fundamental self—appealing, charming. Beloved.

Round Top has always known its brand and how to stop short of ruining things.

Do the powers that operate out of LaGrange understand that?

The hype that has attracted California developers and boosted local real estate prices is founded on aspects of our community that will be damaged, perhaps fatally, by the advent of developments such as the one suggested for 237 and W. Fuchs Rd.

If nothing else bothers you, think of the wells in the area that sucked sand during the last drought.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Third Self

 

Before you meet your person, the one who will stick, you are someone—a person all your own. Or a collection of characteristics you think of as a person. You have an identity. We all picture ourselves in a particular way, affected by whatever has been going on in our lives.

I remember the person I was when I met him. She was a worried thirty-seven-year-old divorced mother with one son. She wrote articles for regional publications and worked on fiction that went nowhere.

Then she met him, and after some back-and-forthing, they stuck, and she became his partner and his wife.

We were lucky enough to be a couple for nearly forty years.

During those years my identity evolved into something more symbiotic. It became entwined with the person and identity of my husband. I didn’t realize the extent of the interweaving until he died.

The absence created by his death left me in the condition of a hill-side house after a mudslide removes half the ground supporting it.

The house may have been a home before the slide. A safe place for a family. A place in which to raise children and where a couple might grow old together.

After the mudslide, you walk across its floors at considerable peril. What has that house become? It is certainly no longer what it was.

In the same way, after the loss of the beloved, who am I? Who have I become?

I don’t have an answer. Most people in that situation don’t have one, either.

I know I can’t remain defined by the subtraction, although it’s tempting. Settle in to being “the widow of.” I might almost get used to the words. I might let myself think that’s really all I am, that person—neatly contained within what remains of his much loved identity.

Whatever I do, I can’t return to being the woman I was when I met my husband. I’m forty years older. All the defining responsibilities back then have changed. My son is grown, has his own family, his own children.

My grandchildren.

If they lived nearby, which they do not, the demands of the present would pull me forward into the future, however murky it may seem.

But I have also changed in a deeper way. Life with Leon Hale expanded me. He was open, curious, embracing whatever might lie ahead. Interested in all that went on around him.

With him, I learned to think optimistically, to resist the appeal of a downward spiral when things seem momentarily dark. I’ve been grieving his loss, yes, for eleven months. A tremendously painful experience, and one unlike any I had imagined. But during this whole period of grieving, I haven’t been depressed.

Grief is different from depression, I think. It has been for me. Although there are moments when I feel like I’m falling off the edge of that teetering house, they remain, usually, just moments. Sure, the temporary pain that comes with them can be stunning, but I don’t think it’s as dangerous as depression.

And I am told that the worst moments will hurt a little less and come less often as time passes. I will have more energy with which to engage the future. The unknown future, yes, but furnished with many beloved artifacts of the coupled life that ended with his death. Familiar ones: Friends, family, our dog, the table where I work, the work itself. Many more.

And from these, and memory, and my continuing love for the absent spouse, I will cobble this, the third configuration of my Self.

Whoever she will be.

Hermithood, 2022

 

I’m back in isolation, historically a comfort to spinster ladies and ancient crones. Literature is full of them. I need mention only Emily Dickinson, whose isolation was not quite as solitary as mine.

Men who choose it are often called hermits. We laugh at them in cartoons, hermits in ragged furs, sometimes sitting cross-legged like a guru at the top of a mountain. In front of a cave. Hermithood, to me, implies caves, dank smells, penury, intentional or otherwise.

Solitude has a more satisfying ring, being voluntary and longed for, at least some of the time.

Isolation may look voluntary, but it is compelled. And therein lies the snake in the grass. How can something be compelled when nobody is forcing you to do it?

Or maybe somebody is.

Recent figures in Fayette County show a rise in the number of Covid cases. I know of three or four people who’ve had it, and they were vaccinated, if not quite boosted. And yet the data themselves are unclear. No one counts results from home tests, for instance.

And which masks are effective? Almost nobody wears one, or correctly, if required.

I go into the PO and the person on duty wears hers around her neck. I go into an optician’s office where the fellow who’s coughing into his mask leaves his nose uncovered. Oh, he has allergies, says another employee. Did he test? Without testing, how can he know if it’s allergy or Covid?  

At the grocery store, customers are good about spacing out in lines, but they don’t wear masks. They’re not worried. When one man coughs into the air between us, I jump like I’ve just been stung. Not a voluntary response, I promise.

Hey, you’ll say, but she’s out and about. That’s scarcely Hermithood.

True enough. I venture into stores, double masked, looking like a fool, and I scurry out, Hobbit-like, as quickly as I can. I go on windy picnics with a friend; or sit outside at a restaurant on a mild day.

But I don’t go into crowded indoor venues where everyone is acting as if we have returned to our age of innocence, 2019 and before.

Do we, any of us, truly retain that innocence?

We may want to think normality awaits, shimmering ahead of us like a highway mirage. But isn’t it really an historical artifact, a place to visit, like Washington-on-the-Brazos or Winedale?

What is truly going on?

Sound bites float through the ether and stick like bits of pollen. Resignation copulates with optimism. Real information takes work to locate, read and believe. Real information like vaccination provides quicker protection for self and others. And quicker matters because it minimizes future mutations.

But we’re all so tired of worrying.

I should feel somewhat safe. I’ve been vaccinated and boosted—but the variant is more contagious by far than any of the familiar wintry banes that, for me, travel straight into bronchitis. And each year, the severity of the bronchitis gets worse. I am not alone in this.

For people like me, Covid—however “mild” the variant—would be a disaster.

As a result, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as wobbly, stepping forward into a new year, onto ground ahead that does not look solid, with a view that is anything but clear.

So, at a time when, as a new widow I feel most need of being close to friends and family, I am compelled in the opposite direction, toward isolation. I have to protect myself, even if it makes me look silly or cowardly.

It’s a Texas thing, I guess, to put oneself first.

 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Galveston in December

Everywhere we look, this season, we encounter scenes of a traditional family holiday. A Hallmark card holiday.

All those attempts to sell you things by tugging on heartstrings tuned to a memory, or a dream—I wonder how much of the distress some experience at this time of year could be erased if we could avoid those reminders. (No doubt we have enough personal reminders, anyway.)

Christmas in our house has been a shrinking festival for some years. This may be a hazard of time’s passage when the grandchildren are far away. It is also a hazard of families fragmented by divorce, no matter how long ago that may have occurred. Of families that may blend on paper, but don’t gel.

Over the past thirty or so years, LH and I faced down this emotional barrage by fleeing. We didn’t go far—just to Galveston Island, out on the west end.

Most years the weather there was chilly, with few people enjoying it. Our visit, with its elements of escape, became part of our holiday tradition, a necessary part.

This year I have come alone, except for Rosie, my dog. I don’t really feel so alone, however, because the Gulf is still here, rolling waves toward me. The beach is still here. It’s not deserted this year, but sparsely populated by people and dogs. The weather is warm, lovely, so far. Asks for a light sweater in the morning. It will become colder, soon.

The peace that comes from proximity to large bodies of salt water has not changed.

Hale isn’t here in a form I can see and touch, but he is here, nonetheless. While I type, he is sitting just out of sight on the deck watching a convocation of seagulls at water’s edge with his binoculars. It’s funny, how clearly I feel his presence.

Before sunrise this morning, Rosie and I walked along the sand waiting for the sun to emerge from behind dawn’s cloud bank. And I brought with me Hale’s words about Galveston sunrises, how special they are. I did see one or two with him, but I was usually still asleep while he waited for the happening in the company of our current Labrador.

Because of Rosie, today I was wide awake, toasting this morning’s performance with a cup of coffee while she kept close watch on two Great Pyrenees a hundred yards away. They were stately, controlled, no doubt a great disappointment to her, the perennially hopeful pup.

Being alone in a much loved place when the spouse is no longer alive brings an elasticity to time.

I, suspended in the present moment, can see him walking along the sand sometime in the 1990’s, looking for the intact sand dollar he never found. His binoculars are swinging from one hand.

I can see him, younger still, teaching my son to fly a kite on the constant Gulf breeze.

Walking on the damp sand, I feel his hand in mine, always, across the decades, as our stride falls into synchrony. Such synchrony.

I recently came across a section of his food memoir, Supper Time, that recounted our improbable courtship. He told it, also, in his recently published retirement journal--two tellings of the event.

And it is a gift for me, now, to read these stories, written years apart, where sequence and chronology vary, but the inner truth glows and burns, unaffected. This is one of the lessons a writer learns from reading, from experience, and Hale knew it down to the bone. There is truth, and it lies next to the heart. Everything else is ribbons and shiny paper. 

Published December 31, 2021 in the Fayette County Record

  

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Holidays Loom

As the holidays approach, many of us have children and grandchildren scattered across the continent, if not further afield. In my case, New York, Africa and Dickinson, Texas.

My husband and I were accustomed to being a family of two. It might not have been what we wanted for Christmas, but it was okay. Leon had begun to find travel difficult, and the two of us had created our own traditions, unrelated to flying anywhere.

This year, however, I am a family of one, although I hear frequently from my son and son-in-law.

Small surprise, therefore, that—for me—the holidays loom on the calendar inscribed with a large question mark.

Thanksgiving is the first. Giving thanks for all our blessings—I have so many. The health of my offspring. My life with Hale. Surviving the pandemic year and its isolation. My new book which sold well and his, which sold better. I’m thankful for this column, and for the companionship of my dog. And for this little place where Hale and I lived together for so long.

Most of all, I’m thankful for friends. When one loses a spouse, one begins a long process of discovery. We discover grief, of course; and many things we didn’t know we knew about our husband, so that he continues to live for us in surprising ways. And we discover we have more friends than we realized. Good friends who open their hearts and their doors to us for the most difficult of these holidays.

Much of the time, though, we are on our own. He is no longer there for us to love; he is no longer there to look at us with the love in his face that we found as bright as sunlight, and more constant.

We are alone.

The other night, after midnight, I choked on a piece of soft cheese. I’d spoken to the dog as I was swallowing, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Furious coughing opened a passageway, but it was hours before I felt the crisis had passed.

The main aftereffect, so far, has been a heightened sense of vulnerability. Living in the country is rife with potential for accidents. Our yard is pocked with armadillo excavations. Hale fell several times those past couple of years, but I was here to call for help. If I fell, no one would know. Could I get up?

My friends have urged me to wear an alert button, and I have applied for one. Mindfulness will also help. Paying more attention to things like eating and walking than I am accustomed to.

But the result is a confirmation of time’s passage, the very snake we try to avoid stepping on as the year draws to a close. All those holiday events to which we were once invited kept such thoughts at a respectful distance. Being a generation younger than one’s spouse helped me maintain the illusion of youth far longer than might have been true otherwise.

Now the reality has arrived, and although friends—and distant relatives—certainly help, we are on our own in learning to manage our lives. That’s how it is, at the end of a day, or a year. We are alone, but not necessarily lonely within the constellation of ourselves, of our teeming mind, reflecting on our history of activities and good works, our memories of love in all its varied truth.

We have time ahead of us, right where it has always been. Years, months, days—one day at a time, unrolling. We are alive.

It is, we realize, a beginning.