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.