Keep Going

We have a lot to say. And nothing to say.

A pandemic has interrupted our usual topics, scattering them asunder. If we talk about our family members on the health front line, we sound anxious and spread worry. If we admit to each other we are afraid, we imagine we are selfish, since we have more security than most people. If we rail against the inequities in society, we flail at windmills.

We don’t want to upset each other. We want to shore each other up.

Like the time…

When we were driving through a thick fog. Keep going, I’ll watch the line along the shoulder for you.

Or

When we drove accidentally into swirling winds later reported at 70 mph. Keep going, I’ll watch for flying objects.

Or

When we hiked up a steep mountain from Lake Louisa in Alberta. Keep going. We can do it. I will rest with you.

Or

When I got lost in the Rockies on a solo hike. Keep going. We will talk you out. I’m waiting for you.

Or

When we faced open heart surgery. Keep going. We are waiting for you. I’m here for you.

And then suddenly we lose it. From no where comes a “I-cant-stand-it-moment!” The go into the closet and scream moment, the throw a magazine moment, or worse, a flying tool incident.

Followed by laughter. The get a grip aftermath. The what’s wrong with us? reflection.

There was a time when we hungered for a vacation in fresh surroundings where we would rise and plan a good day together. We’ve done that: in Spain, in Italy, in Mexico, Alaska, at the beach, in the mountains. Now, here we are with the rise and plan a good day together circumstances in familiar territory, our own home sweet home.

We entertain each other with silliness. Herb pretends to fish in the pond. He brings me an oversized doll with whom I have coffee and conversation. We play what did we accomplish today games. We send silly ideas to our bored grandchildren. We parody our fears. We talk about nothing, the color of a bird, the shape of clouds, the weeds in the asphalt cracks, the strength of the ice tea.

We sort photos, purge stuff, learn to groom the dog, write on our never to be published books. I work on a painting. He builds birdhouses. We dig holes and plant vegetables and shrubs. We buy and plant a tree.

We cry. Our eyes suddenly fill with tears. Unbidden. Triggered by a voice, a story, an image. Normally, we do not cry. We voice.

We have rules. Masks. Hand Sanitizer. Six feet apart or more. Social Isolation prevention. We need them, are committed to the cause, but we don’t like them. We don’t like not seeing the faces of people, not embracing them, not touching.

We pray. For everyone, everything. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…This we can do, over and over and over while we wait and do what we can. We are not alone.

It’s all so ordinary, and yet not.

Dolly Scarecrow stops for morning coffee.

Mooch the Mouse

The sun was dropping to the horizon, the sky lavender with whispers of coral pink. The day had bloomed. A friend had arrived with her camera to shoot blooms and bees. A neighbor had walked to the backyard to chat about our greenhouse. He wanted to build one too. Our yard man mowed.

The bounce of basketballs and children’s laughter filtered through the neighborhood. The aroma of grilled chicken wafted across our yards. A mockingbird sang its evensong.

A prayer welled up in me.

Tomorrow will be Easter— Again. It’s the again that supplies us. Again and again. Hallelujah.

And then suddenly a mouse darted out from the house, skittering by my feet, escaping down the steps and into the hollies.

What!? Another mouse!

Three weeks ago, when we discovered evidence of mice in our pantry closet, we set a trap slathered in peanut butter. When the trap caught a fat mouse, we decided to clean out the pantry! And then the laundry room. And the back hallway. And a closet off the hallway.

As we removed roasting pans, shoes, buckets, baseball caps, coats and more, we discovered dry dog food—in pans, shoes, and hats. At first I was amused. But as we kept sweeping up dry bits of Purina’s Pro Plan, I became alarmed.

A tiny hole along the hot water pipe for the washer was the probable entry. Poking fine steel wool into the hole with a pencil, I said, “That should do it!”

Having purged closets, we thought, let’s clean out drawers and the file cabinet. In the end, I used our dolly to wheel the old cumbersome filing cabinet out to the road where it disappeared within an hour. Focused entirely on getting the dolly under the cabinet and wheeling it out the back door and down steps, I hadn’t noticed what was behind the cabinet, not until later when I went to clean the floor and wall.

Where the filing cabinet had been, three pounds of dry dog food had cascaded onto the floor. The file cabinet had acted like a wall for a cache behind adjacent drawer units. Here is when I became understandably horrified. Mice were probably nesting in behind the drawer units and had been pilfering dog food from the dog bowl for a long time. And Warehousing it.

Removing the last of the dry bits from the crack behind the drawer units was possible with a thin vacuum hose from the warehoused miscellany in our garage. But removing possible mice from a nest would be trickier. We secured the dog food. What the mice might do, we weren’t sure. But they definitely were not going to dine on Purina Pro Plan Focus Adult Small Breed Dry Dog Food.

With a repainted and thoroughly cleaned, tidier area, we hoped for the best.

And then on the eve of Easter, as the sun dropped, a mouse saw its opportunity— an open back door— and escaped. Mooch the Mouse had given up.

So there it was—Easter eve, the lavender and pink sky, the it’s-been-a- good-day- feeling. And Mooch the Mouse. Peace and Yikes! All together.

Meanwhile

….all jokes aside…

A dear friend’s husband has been moved from a psychiatric care facility to a hospital ICU because of breathing problems. They await testing for covid-19. Our hearts ache for those who are isolated alone, for those with hospitalized loved ones, for the vulnerable care givers.

From Psalm 121: 8. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and coming in from this time forth, and for evermore.

U-TURN

Although last week I WAS writing about how our private lives march on despite global events, I’ve made what amounts to a writer’s U-TURN. The arrival of a global pandemic into our homes negates my thesis. If a global event becomes personal, marching on obliviously is not only unwise, it’s insanity.

If we can’t see something, we can more easily ignore its existence — until we are immediately and insistently confronted with it. In the case of Covid-19, we are reading dire news and warnings. We think, “What if..?

What would seem overly compulsive begins to become somewhat normal, at least not exactly completely off the wall, although maybe a little over the top…

Wait! Take off your shoes!

Hand me those cans of diced tomatoes. I need to wash them.

Here, wear these plastic gloves while you pump gas.

No, you can’t go play basketball with your friends. All that sweaty up close jumping and bumping isn’t safe.

You didn’t take off your shoes!? Now we have to mop the floor with Clorox solution.

—unless you have been hearing from your niece in Rome, Italy, who says about social distancing, “Some [people] won’t believe it until they start seeing how devastating it is and some will just never practice the RESPECT required to follow the rules for safety.”

Indeed, it’s a crazy time. Will our imaginations run away with us or help us?

A parent tells her son he absolutely cannot hang with his friends, not at home, not anywhere; and what are you doing now!? You can’t be on your phone all the time!

A group goes out to a restaurant to celebrate a birthday; the governor, the mayor, the parent, the adult child, all say, Stay home!

Social distancing just isn’t any fun at all.

It may be time to pull out the 1950’s playbook, before TV, plastic, fast food, and work out joints.

Since there is no chicken broth on the grocery shelves. Boil down a chicken with an onion, carrot, celery, slices of lemon, and salt.

Can’t go to the gym? Go to the yard and dig out dandelions and wild onions. Plant a flowering shrub.

Spring clean like Mama used to do: scrub the walls and base boards, move furniture, wash windows and curtains, air out all the rooms. Vacuum the car. Clean out the garage.

No mayonnaise, no Ketchup on the grocery shelves? This is indeed a catastrophe! Spread ripe avocado or cream cheese on the bread. Hummus works too.

Tired of silence? Memorize Spanish or French verbs. And sing! Who cares at home whether you can carry a tune?

Is it time to paint a room? No one is coming over. This is a perfect time.

Arrange bike rides or hikes with friends. Go for a drive in the countryside.

No toilet paper? Some of us remember the routine in the privy on the farm. Recycling a catalog or magazine didn’t mean tying it in bundles and taking it out to the street for pickup.

Out of paper towels? Rags, folks. Use rags. And soap and more soap and more.

Write a book. It doesn’t have to sell; that’s not why you write it.

Write notes to or call people who absolutely should not be out in public. And listen, listen, listen. No one can see what you’re doing while they talk with you. Just carry on while they talk. They need to vent. We all do.

That’s what I’m doing right now—venting. I have something to say, redundantly, since others are also writing, in newspapers, on Facebook, in magazines, on blogs, in email. You will forgive me, I hope, for seeking your attention. It’s quiet here in my den in front of the fire. Even the dog is quiet. And my husband is upstairs writing a book that will never sell.

All the Lives

Working out at a gym is an intentionally intimate practice: listen to your breath; stretch your muscles; raise your heart rate; push yourself. It’s necessary, this self-care, to be able to walk and lift with confidence, to sleep well, to control weight. Despite the focus on oneself, exercise is, however, done amid people arriving, leaving, working, playing—living.

How is your son doing?”

“You must be excited about your up-coming trip.”

“Did you have a good Christmas with your daughter?”

The other morning through floor to ceiling windows from my perch on an exercise bike, I witnessed a cutting from life to remind me of a line from Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

“All these lives,” she said. “All the stories we never know (125).”

Cars lined up diagonally in two rows in a parking lot. Vehicles rolled along a four lane street lined with small businesses. Directly across the lot was a building under renovation. Over successive months workers had replaced the roof and the exterior walls of the long neglected building, their work slowly transforming what had been a run down bar into a coffee shop.

On that particular chilly morning — during the hiatus between Christmas and New Years when people go to work or shop — three men were working on siding on the north wall of the building.

Two burly men stood on an orange boom lift platform: the man with a nail gun wore a lime green hoodie under a navy jacket; the other man with a hammer wore a brown hooded jacket. One man was slim and had a short blond beard; his lime colored hood flashed against the bland siding, a bright contrast next to the brown jacketed man, whose dark face, framed by his thick jacket hood, appeared weathered, his body heavy. The men’s foggy exhalations floated into the icy air.

Below beside a red pick up truck and a stack of siding was a worker in a red jacket who was sending boards up via a vertical lift to the two men.

The rhythmic placement of siding beginning at the parking lot with the red jacketed man had suddenly stopped three boards down from the roof’s edge. The two workers on the high platform turned and stood facing the parking lot below. The darker, larger man in the brown jacket lit a cigarette and leaned forward, his right hand gesturing as he smoked with it, his left arm folded across the platform’s railing, his body bent as if a great weight had fallen upon his back.

The lime green hooded man placed his left hand on his companion’s shoulder and leaned slightly toward him. He then moved and rested his arm across the brown man’s shoulders. The darker man raised his left hand to his eyes as if to wipe them. His shoulders convulsed with sobs. He kept wiping his face. The finished cigarette dropped to the ground below. The two men stood side to side, a suspended silence holding them together until they parted. They lightly punched each others’ shoulders. They looked down at the red jacketed man who reached for and sent up another board.

They took the board, lifted it into place, aligning and nailing it. Another board rose toward them.

The exercise cycle has a timer. I had been cycling for twenty-four minutes. Yoga class was next.

The Season for Trimming

December 2019

Our bay window this December does not sparkle with the usual Christmas tree. Our mantel is not festooned with greenery and candles. The Santa Claus collection remains in its plastic tub along with silk poinsettias and ceramic angels. Between our Thanksgiving and Christmas travels there is only enough time and energy for best choices. What, we asked ourselves, would we display? A poinsettia, reindeer dolls, a wood sculpture of Gabriel blowing his horn, a winter painting, a small sculpted crèche puzzle, and a stuffed quintet of Old Saint Nicks.

Thus inspired we asked ourselves: What if our holiday moments could also be trimmed—to a few precious memories—what would they be? Revealing an economy associated with aging, the longevity of generations, and faithful practice, we chose these four events

A large orange given out on Christmas Eve at a rural Presbyterian church. Oranges in Herb’s Kansas childhood were a rare and delicious treat. This must have also been true for my father and mother, for an orange was always at the bottom of my Christmas stocking, along with some walnuts to crack. Our children also received an easy to peel orange or tangerine in their stockings on Christmas morning. One year a grandchild asked, Why do you always put tangerines in our stockings when we can just go into the kitchen and get one? It’s not exactly about the fruit, we answered.

Candlelight services on Christmas Eve. The singing of Silent Night with candles held high expresses reverence and love, the light’s reflections merging faces, holding them in holiness. We anticipate this vision every Christmas Eve. You may recall that in 1914 an unofficial Christmas truce occurred along the Western Front. Following the truce, German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”. A candlelight service acts as a truce in our own discordant lives. To hold the candle aloft and sing is a truly simple act, void of complications, bursting with spiritual and historical significance.

Baking Cookies. Every December Herb bakes dozens of cookies, their aromas of chocolate, fruit, and nuts sweetening our home. The cookies go to our loved ones and to shut ins. He was inspired by his Aunt Marianne who baked in her farm kitchen over a hundred dozen cookies every year until she couldn’t. Her cookies were delivered to the local nursing home, the church, and the homes of friends and family. The other day I walked into the house to the delicious aroma of almond biscotti and oatmeal raisin cookies. The baking had begun, and so had allusions to bright woolen mittens, hot chocolate, jingle bells, and caroling. Cookies and caroling go together. The caroling might be off key but the cookies will be yummy.

Making gifts. One year we worked together to make eight crèches. I drew the patterns of tiny people and animals, Herb cut out the forms with his jig saw, and I painted them. Because we ran out of time, we never finished one for ourselves. An unfinished crèche awaits assembly in a drawer in my studio. It would be good to assemble the unfinished pieces, repeat the act of attention to symbols and meaning.

Although imagination was necessary, our hands made these memories of the heart. We like what Rabbi Johnathan Sacks says about optimism and hope: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better.” [quoted in TheBulwark.com, requoted in The Week, December 13, 2019.]

We lean on ancient prophesies, impatient with their centennial evolutions, our hands making tiny contributions, the results usually invisible, except in our imagination or as confirmed in history. Civilization improves at an erratic and sluggish pace, requires courage and ingenuity, depends upon intentional living, reason and faith. To participate we must suspend fears. Disrupters have always existed. Consider these: Isaiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Genghis Kahn, King Henry VIII, Mahatma Gandhi. Which ones worked toward a peaceable kingdom, acting not for themselves but under a higher authority for others? It is within that hope for a peaceable kingdom that our hands work.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.

—Isaiah 11:6

Strange Rain

It rained last night and this morning—

Not water but walnut leaves—

Fronds fluttering down,

Filling the view between

the deck and the cedar tree.

It’s an eerie invasion,

A silent, steady bombardment.

The dogs bark and hide.

We stare transfixed

by the relentless shedding,

Denuding the stalwart tree,

Blanketing the lawn,

Burying the boxwood hedge—

As if we had never before

Seen such a sight —

Tho this walnut tree

with its enormous limbs

is almost

As old as us.