Sunday, June 21, 2020

After Truth


“I’m at church,” I said to my husband as he walked back into the kitchen to rinse his egg plate. I was muted, and later I turned off my camera, too, to minimize problems with Zoom on my phone. Life is so virtual now. It was an excellent reflection (we don’t have sermons), reminding us that compassion teaches better than shame. I do think that’s true. I learn more, and am more open to learning, when not shamed into it. My phone was propped up against the glass jar holding our gummy vitamins, which I used with a glass of water for our bloodless, bodiless communion.

I finished The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Picture it, a hotel of glass on a remote, wooded island. A main character who is for a time a bartender at the hotel is a woman named Vincent. I was thinking, just like Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, sure enough, it turns out the character’s mother named her after the poet!

As I read further, I encountered another coincidence: container ships off the coast of Malaysia! I know these ships! And then a character named Miranda, who is drawing! I realize she must be drawing scenes that will end up in her comic book, “Station Eleven,” from the St. John Mandel novel I read previously, Station Eleven! It’s not just a Random Coinciday! It’s intentional, and neato!

The Glass Hotel is a compelling book about “counterlives,” somewhere between the parallel lives supposedly possible in physics and lives imagined from wishful thinking, perhaps tangled in memory and dream. It’s a book about ghosts, what we are haunted by—regret, guilt, shame, people we loved and lost, people we harmed. It’s a book about shadow countries, the country of money, the country of the cheated. It asks interesting questions: What would you do for enough money? What won’t you do? It’s a book about denial, asking, Is it possible to both know and not know something at the same time?

By chance, while I was reading this, we watched the documentary After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, which shows the harm that can be done by sending untruths out in the world and also how “fake news” is used as a weapon by those who should know better. I finally found out exactly what happened with “pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory weaponized to discredit Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign season. (She had nothing to do with it, of course.) I now have great admiration for the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor staff and customers, so brave, so generous! And compassion for the gun-carrying fellow who was misled by fake news. Once he realized he was acting on false information, he readily gave himself up to police.

We need truth, we need transparency. Back to The Glass Hotel. The plot involves a Ponzi scheme, like the one that Bernie Madoff devised and went to jail for. “People believe in all kinds of things. Just because it’s a delusion doesn’t mean it can’t make real money for people. You want to talk about mass delusions, I know a lot of guys who got rich off of subprime mortgages.” That’s a character justifying his own lies, just as Jack Burkman justifies using fake news to try to get what he wants in After Truth.

I don’t quite believe in parallel lives. I think they exist in the math and the mind, not in reality. “What is reality?” someone will ask, and/or use to confuse or mislead me. What might I answer? Comet Ping Pong.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Last Days


My tiny chalkboard poems continue and, apparently, are appreciated by many who read them on social media, as these readers are telling me. I am glad. In addition to sudden chalkboard revisions as I write, I experience ongoing changes in interpretation. I wrote “Last Days” in my back yard, on the patio, gazing in wonder at the beauty of everything around me, and feeling eternity somehow. Inside me was the scary realization that I/we might be living our last days on earth…but, if so, at least they would be remarkably beautiful. And the world could go on without us.

Last Days

Yes, it might be
one of the last days
so breezy and bright,
so beautiful and clear.

The first version ended with two sentence fragments and had three periods. It felt breezier and brighter, therefore, but lacked eternity. Now it is one long sentence, like life. Eternity remains only in the title and at a line break. These may simply be the last days of sheer beauty before rain (needed!) or terrible heat (coming today). Or…these may indeed be my/our last days on earth.

I suspect I’m under the influence of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014 but terribly pertinent to now, as it’s about the world after a flu pandemic has drastically reduced population and wiped out civilization as we knew it. No grocery stores now, gasoline has expired, no electricity, no phones, no computers. People are making do in settlements here and there. And there’s a Traveling Symphony for entertainment, because, and this is a quotation from Star Trek: Voyager, “survival is insufficient.” This book was gripping and oddly hopeful! And it led me to her new one, The Glass Hotel, which I have to read in a hurry and return as it’s a “7-Day” new book, but time is askew at the library (as elsewhere) due to quarantining of books and materials for seven days upon their return.

I’m also reading Seed to Harvest, a collection of four short novels by Octavia E. Butler. She was a science fiction writer who died young, and people had been telling me about her work, so I read Fledgling, her vampire novel, which turned out to be her last. When Seed to Harvest came in to the library, I happened to be the one who “processed” it for library use, realizing I would now wait and let our regular patrons read it while it was a “new” book, and I’d get it later. Later is now!

Today is Juneteenth (which cannot be descecrated by a president who had never heard of it till he made it “famous.” Oh, my God. See why it feels like our last days?) Last year, Juneteenth was the theme of a script I wrote for an annual event sponsored by the local history museum. I knew it would be as soon as I learned the date of the event, June 19. You can’t hold an event on Juneteenth and not honor it. This year’s event, with its own theme, is not happening, due to the virus, and is postponed till 2021. Its title and theme will still be “Hindsight is 20/20,” which sort of breaks my heart.

I’m glad I happen to be reading a black author as well as a white author on June 19. But, you know, I’m not sure I like white people telling me what books on racism or anti-racism I should be reading. Yes, I want to learn, and, yes, I like book recommendations, but I want to learn about black experience by listening to black people, and reading their words. Is this an example of “white fragility”? I don’t know yet, as I haven’t read White Fragility, which is written by a white woman. Eventually, probably, I will.

For now, I’m reading (and writing) what comes to hand and what comes to heart in these precious, ongoing, even sometimes interminable last days, where every day is a Random Coinciday, and some days are Cranky Doodle Days.



Sunday, June 14, 2020

Chalk Revisions


My new routines include posting a poem every morning in June in three ways: in chalk on a chalkboard beside my front stoop, on Instagram, and on Facebook. 

What I’ve discovered is that I make chalk revisions, adapting the poem to how it looks and feels on the green chalkboard, how it fits there. This causes a few changes in line break and word choice. This surprised me but was oddly appropriate to the “now” we are living in, containing constant changes in a kind of suspended time that makes me constantly attentive to the present moment. So, moments ago, yesterday’s handwritten poem about the lavender-colored clematis blooming in my yard was adapted into chalk without the word “clematis” in it and with a line that has colors at both ends.

Tiny Meditation

I gaze at a pale
purple bloom on a white
trellis made of thread
upon a wooden fence.

In all its versions, it reminds me a bit of the William Carlos Williams poem with the white chickens. Probably because of brevity, the color white, and the word “upon.”

Another new routine involves masks. I have two masks, both handmade by volunteers, one provided by my workplace, one requested from a friend before I went back to work. It’s good to have two, so I can wash them after each day’s use and leave one to hang dry while I wear the other. I have two little fabric bags for carrying them, and these I also wash after each use. I can carry my mask in the fabric bag in the car, on my way to the grocery store, or in my hand as I walk to work in a scarf or bandana, tied and arranged to be pulled up quickly if I meet someone on the sidewalk as we cross Sugar Creek together and can’t step six feet politely aside.

No lipstick. It would get on the mask. Lipstick in Zoom sessions, to help you read my lips.

We all wear masks at work in the closed library. We wash our hands frequently and use hand sanitizer. I feel like a doctor or nurse now, walking into the room and washing my hands first thing. I had my annual wellness appointment with my doctor, as well as a previously scheduled dental appointment, following the new protocols. Temperature at the door, a series of questions to answer, masks. At the doctor’s office, the nurse gave me a heads-up to keep my mask secure, the doctor is a stickler (yay!), and I made sure my glasses secured my mask above my nose. At the dentist, the hygienist wore her usual mask and face shield but had adapted the cleaning to avoid excess water spray. The dentist did his usual handwashing but not his usual handshake! And wore a mask.

One of my daily chalkboard poems was about masks. So was another, one I chose not to put up, as it seemed too harsh and might upset the mail carrier. But you can probably handle it:

Unmasked

If you don’t wear a mask         
you reveal who you are

in more ways than one.

It is a little mean and glib. (And, oddly, it reminds me of a line from one of the Batman movies.) But, really, that’s what’s going on around here, out there, many people not wearing masks, thinking it’s all over, we’re all OK. Friends and co-workers are experiencing it out in the world and are worried. My parents decided not to go to an outdoor restaurant with friends when they saw how crowded it was, how few people were wearing masks, how some were sitting indoors… I’ve only seen my parents four times since March 13, in their back yard or their huge great room, six feet apart. A friend from Chicago came to town, and I visited with him outdoors and at the proper distance, no hugging.

Sigh… Yes, constant chalk revisions of our very lives. Chalk circles now on park greens to designate areas to sit in the sun. Pink chalk hearts on the street to show where to stand for the Pride Month Pulse memorial event.

But don’t be fooled, the virus hasn’t been erased.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Wearing Orange


What a week. What a hard time for our country and our world. I am grateful for the peaceful protests in solidarity happening all over. I am sorrowful about the ongoing grief arising from COVID-19, police brutality, racism, hate crimes, economic inequality, global warming, pollution, and violence. Oh, my god, the list of sorrows goes on and on in my mind.

As June came up, I thought I’d write a tiny poem a day on an easel/chalkboard we had in the basement from when the kids were young, keep it out by the front stoop, take a picture each day and post it on Instagram for family and Facebook for friends, and bring a tiny bit of cheer or beauty or love to people daily, from my own skill set, when I feel helpless sometimes, or on hold, and don’t know what to do to help. But June 1 became a National Day of Mourning, so I started with that. Tuesday became our Blackout Tuesday, but I had put out my tiny-as-a-postage-stamp poem for the mail carrier already, so I just kept going.

Now I am quietly protesting gun violence in America on Wear Orange weekend, June 5-6, an ongoing virtual event. We are decorating our front doors with orange; mine is sprinkled with orange construction paper hearts, my chalkboard poems, and some tiny shiny bursting boxes with orange pipe cleaners. Official Wear Orange Day was Friday, June 5. June 5 is also Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She was killed by guns in a terrible police mistake. But Wear Orange Day was created by friends of Hadiya Pendleton, dead at 15 by gun violence, back in 2013. My poem for that is hard, quick, and blunt. You understand why. 

Today I Wear Orange

to honor the dead girl
killed by a gun. Orange
like a hunting vest,
meant to say:
I’m not prey.

Hadiya had just been in the parade for President Obama’s second inauguration and was dead a week later.

I’m wearing my orange Moms Demand Action volunteer shirt today. Yesterday I wore my coral orange work shirt to plant salmon orange geraniums in the library planters, a marvelous coincidence. And I got to wear a bright yellow safety vest trimmed in bright orange to weed along the street. My shoelaces are melon orange.

I don’t like to jump on any bandwagons, but I do wish to stand in solidarity with all our nonviolent protestors today. At a distance, masked, I attended our local NAACP/Not In My Town rally to see, feel, and be part of the local support. I came late and left early, not wanting to mingle with any crowds. Couldn’t hear or see the presenters, but felt the solidarity. My peripheral vision made me turn at the right time to see potential danger, a young white man wearing a bandana on his forehead riding a motorcycle on Front Street. My gut said, Trouble. Later, he drove through the crowd and injured people; he’s been arrested. I listen to my gut now, having ignored it sometimes in the past. After seeing him, I scanned the crowd, as well. I was looking at the young white guys, I have to confess. There’s my current bias and tendency to profile. I apologize for the past, the present, and the future. I’ll do what I can, which doesn’t seem like much, but I do vote and help get out the vote, via a tiny elected office.

And my tiny poems will continue, at least through June. If I can remember what day it is. And who I am.

UPDATE: I stand corrected! (And that surely reminds me who I am!) When I walked down to a nearby park at noon, to join other Moms in orange, all of us holding up honk-in-support signs, you know who was among the honkers? Yep, young white men! Even a youngish white man in a bandana on a motorcyle! (He was wearing his bandana as a mask.) Supporters were men, women, and humans of all ages, white, black, people of color, a surprising number of them masked while driving. There's a whole array of honking styles, let me tell you. Also waving styles. We saw thumbs up and fists up. We were all wearing masks, so we tried to send smiles with our eyes, thumbs up back, and grateful nods. A beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Weather or Not


I have finally discovered Jenny Offill! For all of you who were reading her all along, isn’t she wonderful?! She writes a kind of fragmentary prose—vignettes, quotations, snippets of dialogue, prose poems, flash fictions, mini-scenes—all held together by a narrative flow/arc and a narrator’s consciousness. Gorgeous!

I started with Dept.of Speculation, about being a mom in a perfect-yet-shaky marriage instead of being a “monster artist,” as planned. The point of view is a crucial element of the story telling in this one, shifting from first to third to first again, so quietly. At one point the narrator is speculating about the phrase “wayward fog,” a state of mind to watch out for! “The person who has the affair becomes enveloped in it.” A little later, “It is during this period that people burn their houses down.”

On aging (though the narrator is still pretty darn young!): “But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

Then I read Weather, the perfect climate-change follow-up book to A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet, who thanks Jenny Offill in her acknowledgements! And Weather is “for Lydia”! (This Lydia?! I think probably yes.) Anyhoo, I easily connected with this one because the narrator, Lizzie, is a lot like me: she works in a library, has a “twinging knee,” and is terribly upset by the most recent presidential election, which seems to spell the end of the world.

So, yes, it’s a book about disaster psychology and preparedness—“…the superrich are buying doomsteads in New Zealand”—but it’s climate change, not pandemic, bringing on the end. With a context of 9/11. Her friend from Iran, who left right before the Shah fell, gives her insight on that: “Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.”

The superrich retreating into remote or gated safety is a Millet/Offill parallel. In Weather, the superrich who want to go to Mars get to answer a survey question: “What will you miss most on Earth?” “I will miss swimming the most.”

I will miss swimming on Earth! The local pools are closed this summer, a good choice. Sadly, as I write, this is the Memorial Day weekend of photos posted on the Internet of vacationers crammed together on beaches and in waterparks. Oh, there will be illness and death as a result, and not just among the vacationers. Alas!

In Weather,

…there’s an expert giving advice about how to survive disasters, natural and man-made. He says it’s a myth that people panic in emergencies. Eighty percent just freeze. The brain refuses to take in what is happening. This is called the incredulity response. “Those who live move,” he says.

Lizzie, the narrator, is helping to answer the emails of Sylvia, a climate activist also devastated, of course, by the election and by the relentless damage that now there is no hope of reversing. She says, in a speech, “What it means to be a good person, a moral person, is calculated differently in times of crisis than in ordinary circumstances.” Oh, my, we are challenged now, aren’t we, on how to be a good and moral person. I admire so much of what I see out there, and it helps to counter my despair over the masses in the waterparks. Yes, Mr. Rogers, I’ll keep looking for the helpers.

And reading. Jenny Offill’s prose style helps. Each fragment is like a moment lived fully, then let go. It is, therefore, like a meditation.