Sunday, August 29, 2021

Are Cows the New Chickens

 

“I love cows.”

I heard this from several women during my recent trip to Connecticut. They were not referring to steak.

These were women from the East Coast, whose acquaintance with cattle is restricted to observation, either from a footpath, fenced off, or an automobile’s window. Some of them are the people who became enamored in recent years of keeping hens in the city.

In this case, they’re mainly referring to dairy cows, I think, which comprise most of the animals I saw.

Which were very few in number, as a matter of fact.

I think I was a little homesick during that month I was away. I was visiting in Washington, CT, and staying about twenty-five minutes away in Litchfield. I’ve written before about the narrow twisty roads and forested terrain.

I had two routes I could use between the locations. The meandering route took me up a hill on a curvy and rutted gravel road, past pastures and farms for a few miles.

In one of the pastures, I saw four cows. It was a fairly good-sized field, but the cows were standing quite close together. I’ve seen cows grouped like that around here, so I didn’t think a whole lot about it the first time. I was awfully glad to see them, though. Up until I did, I hadn’t seen an animal anywhere around there that wasn’t a dog.

Not even many birds, although I think they were there, staying quiet.

Seeing the cows was a small touch of home, I guess.

The second time I saw them, they were grouped the same way, as though they were tied together. Surely not, I thought. I could see no rope or halter. And why would anyone do that? (I should point out here, although it’s obvious, that I know nothing about the cattle business. And my usual consultant on bovine matters is not around anymore.)

But I began to make a point of checking every day. I looked forward to my daily visit. Sometimes I would stop and murmur at them through the window.

Some days the cows were grazing at a gentle distance from each other. The weather was generally mild and the grass was plentiful, as it is here and for the same reason. Rain.

Finding comfort in cattle began for me as a result of the serious drought here a few years ago. As the landscape around us went sere and sorrowful, the cows disappeared. Their absence seemed to intensify the pain the countryside was enduring. Living things, us among them, were under attack, that’s how it felt.

When the rains came and the cattle came back, I felt relief. And even now, driving back roads from Round Top to our place, I feel an ease when I see a herd grazing peacefully, or standing shoulder deep in a tank, or even huddled under a tree for shade.

Toward the end of my Connecticut visit, in the evening, I found three of the cows bedded down in the grass, two of them nose to tail, very close, the bigger one on her side. I’d never seen that before. The fourth one was standing over them in a protective manner.

The next morning, when I drove by, four cows were grazing, and right alongside the darker one stood a tiny calf.

You have no idea how the sight lifted my spirits.

Late Migrations

 

I’m spending some time this month visiting family out of state, the first time I’ve seen them since Thanksgiving, 2019. Grandchildren are involved.

They live, part time, in a rural area outside New York City. It is a heavily wooded landscape with steep and twisty narrow roads over which people hurtle at thunderous speeds approaching 45 mph, tops. Thirty seems fast.

Sometimes a van or truck comes toward me on a curve, dragging a trailer that veers into my lane. Nowhere for me to go except up the sheer cliff to my right. Hair-raising is too tame a word.

This is a household of busy people. Both parents work at intense jobs involving hours of pressured Zoom calls and desk work that doesn’t stop at five p.m. Nobody reads books, anymore. I can’t see that they read anything other than material related to their jobs, except a story to the children at bedtime, perhaps.

You might imagine how strange this seems to me.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which my life is entwined with books until I arrived here. The member of the family I knew best when he was young had been a voracious reader. He read Lonesome Dove when he was ten. (Yes, I allowed it.) Since then he has read widely and deeply in literature, until the advent of children.

I wonder if that isn’t a factor for many people. Time for thought and reflection about who you are and why you are alive is replaced by family needs. And, of course, electronic screens with their myriad surprises.

The house where this family lives is surrounded by a forest of tall trees, mixed hardwoods and conifer, with a ferny understory (and no doubt legions of lovely ticks). The ticks appear to have significantly limited outdoor roaming in such places as a way for kids to learn and test themselves as individuals. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a loss worth mourning.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading, Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl, who lives in Tennessee and writes about Southern matters—nature and people—for the New York Times.

In this book, she has interwoven short essays about her family with observations of the natural creatures who live around her, in her backyard, basically.

She grew up in Alabama, barefoot and free to explore her natural surroundings with her brother. Intense, compressed memories of these places and the creatures, situations and close calls she encountered, form what I think of as the leaves and branches of this book. The trunk would be memories of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother. And some of her own life’s journey.

Most of all she renders “place” as something of prime importance in a person’s life. Often, we tend to forget that. Urban dwellers in particular disregard it. They do not have roots where they live for the most part, and the longing for roots somewhere steals into them gradually as the years fly along.

Those of us who have planted ourselves in Fayette and surrounding counties will resonate deeply to the substance in Late Migrations. Those of us who have lived here always, or who began here, will find a lot of home and memory in these words.

Fellow feeling is more accessible, I think, through the written word than through any other medium of expression. And I find it is one of the best ways we have to diminish loneliness.

One warning. When you encounter the essay titled “Howl,” about an old dog, prepare to cry.

 

Round Top Evolves

 

Authenticity. We hear the word a lot lately. People, emerging from the isolation and confusion of the last fourteen months of virtual meetings and social interactions, seem to be out looking for real experiences. Authentic experiences.

What does that mean?

A series of damaging storms, like we’ve been having lately, would certainly qualify as real. No one questions the authenticity of a major weather event when the wind and rain are buffeting their residence.

Authenticity, however, is something more than merely real. It’s a quality of character. Places can have it. People can have it. But both only in relation to something else, maybe their own past.

I’m thinking about what makes an authentic Round Top experience.

A friend once walked into a cafĂ© on the Square where all the customers sitting around were talking in German—and they switched to English because they recognized my friend and her husband as Houstonians. Fifty-some years ago that was authentic Round Top.

Shopping at Mercantile today is authentically Round Top, and so is attending a concert at Festival Hill or a performance by the Black Cat Choir.

Does it take time for authenticity to develop?

Or does it have more to do with inborn qualities? For instance, is it actually the absence of pretense?

I have a long and mixed relationship with pretense. I grew up in a city, in a striver’s social world where a surprising number of people hewed to the principle of “fake it till you make it.” By the time I came along, the ones who succeeded in previous generations formed a solid phalanx against the newcomers. In one more generation, who could tell the difference?

Where in the social trajectory did pretense stop and authenticity begin?

So here we are in Round Top and Winedale, where Houstonians Hazel Ledbetter, Ima Hogg and Faith Bybee changed things. They had a vision of authenticity that involved importing and/or restoring nineteenth century buildings. Was what resulted authentic anything? Authentically altered, perhaps.

Yet what they left behind formed the identity of the Round Top area for decades—at least with outsiders. And outsiders came, drawn by this imagined authenticity and its visual appeal.

They’re still coming. More dilapidated old houses are being brought in for renovation into appealing commercial property--more shops, restaurants and hotels geared toward visitors.

Do we have any alternative? We said goodbye fifty years ago to the—yes—authenticity that would allow a protective historic designation like Fayetteville’s.

So here we are, a work-in-progress.

Maybe that just makes us Texan. Not in the way of advertising—cowboy hats and ostrich boots. We’re more likely to wear work boots and baseball caps. But Texan by the fact that we are adjusting to constant change and finding what is most enduring within it.

Round Top remains a place where, as Leon Hale described in the Houston Post, mockingbirds mimic scissortails from the tops of trees on the Square. That was in 1980, but the Square, itself, still has the trees; still has a public restroom like it did then, plus the tables and benches needed to enjoy the respite they provide. The names on the shops have changed, but the early buildings are still present.

The Square is maintained by the DYD Club, whose guiding force is the little girl, now nearly my age, whose family owned the building Hazel Ledbetter bought in the 1960’s. Once it was Schwarz’s. You will know it as Lulu’s. DYD means Do Your Duty. It relies on the support of volunteers, folks. And maybe that’s the most authentically Round Top thing of all.

A Deep Dive

 

I've been spending a lot of time this month sorting through photographs, documents, pages of words, many in longhand. And I think what it most reminds me of is river or lake swimming, where the destination floats, raft-like, somewhere ahead of you. If you’re extremely nearsighted, as I am, you can’t really see anything more than a blob. It takes some kind of faith to keep moving forward.

But it has me thinking about the liquidity of memory, and the estuary-like conditions where fact meets fiction in a brackish exchange.

How factual is our personal truth? Does it matter? How accurate is our memory?

“Everything is still in there, every experience,” I used to think, just like last week’s carton of eggs is in the refrigerator, waiting.

Or maybe like my computer’s memory, with files waiting to be opened.

But whole memories aren’t stored that way, at all. They’re stored as fragments to be reassembled by the process of remembering, and not all at once, but sequentially.

Hence the sensation of fluidity. And also, the brackishness, as fiction infiltrates the facts you remember.

There’s far too much feeling wrapped up in memory for anything resembling factual accuracy.

The purpose of seining through past documentation has been to recover my early days with LH (in the Proustian sense) and place them in a timeline. How quickly did we move from being complete strangers to the full-body immersion of lifelong commitment?

Naturally, I am trying to write about it. What else would I do?

Fortunately, he was writing all this time. He’d been writing the column for thirty years before I wrote the letter that caused us to meet.

 (I think that’s how he met the woman who became his second ex-wife, as well. Makes sense. His life and work floated on a constant flow of letters, back then.)

Between us in those early months, we produced a thick file of letters. I have been able to cross reference those letters with his columns and with his calendars, at least for the year we met. (Several years of calendars are missing.)

Splash! We’re paddling around in that brackish reality where truth is surely all around us, but certainty is hard to grasp.

The calendars note the daily column subjects, in black, and any notable place he’s going, in red. Stories related to his travels often appear four or five days later. Details for the red notations are minimal. But they give me the dates for the experiences I’ve remembered, some of which are mentioned in the letters. And the experiences, themselves, are described in the columns, while I watch from the wings, there but unseen, unknown to the reader.

As a result, I am coming to admire the achievement of good biography even more than I did before. Finding the living person, or people, among the artifacts of a relationship requires much imagination. Far more than memory, alone, can provide.

I was a very literal person when I was young. I wanted logic and fact, and became annoyed when I was required in school or out of school to assess varieties of meaning in between the facts. The very attempt destabilized me. I floundered.

Experience and time have allowed me, now, to see what lies between and around (the dark matter of our lives, in a way) and I am comfortable within that space.

It is where truth resides.

And though nothing I discover will allow the full recovery of the past (even Proust could not attain that), still—as I paddle—I am discovering a more complete truth than any we experienced as individuals.

A Hole in the Heart

 How big is the hole in a heart? How big is the hole in a life? Is it big enough to draw into itself everything that once had meaning?

When your spouse dies your world pieces its logic together again from scratch, almost as though it were a beginning.

And it is a beginning—or will be once you can see that far ahead.

For now, however, it is all endings, tinted in freshly perceived regret. You did so many things wrong, things that you didn’t think mattered at the time. Decisions you both were sure about, when you made them.

It’s as though instead of just living, you’ve been viewing your lives together through a transforming lens, and immediately death widens the field, adds filters that distort memory, or possibly give memory a truer focus.

You can’t be sure which.

For weeks—only weeks, so far—all you can see is the change. The difference. And you may be forgiven if what you see is visible mostly through a scrim of tears.

Because the initial batting that wraps you softly against full understanding of the blow, takes a couple of weeks to fall away.

When it does, you feel the hole in your heart, in your life, so fully that you must grope for something stable to keep your entire self from falling into it.

People are kind. People are wonderful. They call, they send cards and notes, soup and empathy, and it all eases the pain for a time.

Nothing helps for long.

You’re busy, sure. Paperwork, lawyers, various family considerations, a memorial service to plan during Covid Time. You plod through these tasks like an old burro carrying her pack up a mountain path into heavy cloud.

People ask: what are you going to do? Are you going to stay here?

Where is here, you wonder. The here in your mind doesn’t resemble the here where you sleep. Or the here you walk through on your way to the barn, or out into the woods.

The here in your mind is crowded with memory, filled to the brim with your husband moving through his daily activities—erect, cheerful, warm, beloved. These images almost displace the awful ones from the weeks before he died. Will they ever succeed in erasing those? Those moments whose recall occasions anguish no palliative can reach?

An old doctor you met when you were young spoke of the necessary “tincture of time.” You’ve heard the phrase spoken more than once, since then.

It means that you will suffer in this state until, eventually, you stop. You find that almost comforting. Or you would if it didn’t mean you might also lose the memories you desire to grow stronger, not diminish.

Those are the memories you want to hold close to that battered heart of yours and never lose. And they are memories you need if you are ever going to write about him, as he asked you to do.

You certainly can’t write a word, now. Not about one minute of those forty years together. When you try, what you feel is a frozen mass where a fluid, pulsing life should be.

It’s not time yet.

Now is the time for grieving, for mourning, whatever those things mean. A type of healing is surely implied, and longed for.

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.