Dancing in the streets

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme. 
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Irish poet, playwright and translator
1995 Nobel Prize in Literature

This is a favorite Joe Biden poem, which I heard recited moments after he was announced President-Elect, on Saturday, November 7.

When I heard the news, at 8:25 that morning, I cried. I couldn’t stop crying. The feelings of relief, thankfulness, exhilaration, joy, were overwhelming. I had been waiting to exhale for months. Now, at last, we as a nation could do just that.

The street and neighborhood celebrations throughout the country showed me how many of us felt as I did and do. At the same time, I realize that, while 77 million Americans feel as I do, 72 million do not, are not celebrating, are frustrated in the way I’ve been for the last four years. 

I believe in the two-party system. I think it’s a good and necessary balance between political, social, and personal beliefs. Since Donald Trump’s election, the Republican party has become, in many ways, unrecognizable. Hopefully, it is still, in its essence, viable.

Throughout this election process, I’ve been cautiously optimistic. I hope we are able to get past whatever lies in store for us between now and January 20, when Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America.

The last four years were an aberration. I look forward to returning to an era in which qualified candidates engage in a fair fight for political ascendancy.

Hold on

photos Michael J. Fuhrman

One of the most important things I learned when I was a student of yoga was to hold a pose well beyond the comfort zone — that is, well beyond the point at which I felt I could no longer hold it.

At some point, my body responds to this extended hold. I begin to feel things other than my discomfort. I feel subtle changes in my body — a lengthening, a loosening, a letting go. Most of all, I feel a heightened awareness. The discomfort doesn’t go away — it just shifts, recedes. As I adjust to these strengthening and healing sensations, I realize that I can do what, just moments ago, I felt I could not do.

We have been holding a difficult and challenging pose for months now — far beyond any sort of comfort zone. It would be easy, and such a relief, to give up at this point, to relax, to escape the bounds of our homes, our rigorous adherence to masks, handwashing, sanitizing — as well as our voluntary distancing from families, friends, events and activities we desperately miss.

That’s why my message, both for myself and for you, is, “Hold on.”

Now, when more than 200,000 Americans have been tragically lost to this pandemic, hold on. Stay with the masks, the handwashing, the sanitizing, the physical distancing. Hold on, despite the inexplicable refusal of many of our fellow Americans to follow these guidelines.

Now, when climate change is so starkly visible — in excessive heat, wildfires, hurricanes, flash floods — hold on. Our votes are needed to put the brakes on this devastation.

Now, when we have a decent, well-qualified man and a decent, well-qualified woman ready to lead us out of the political, social, and environmental chaos of the last four years, hold on.

Now, when we have so sadly lost a beacon of women’s rights and equal justice, hold on. The spirit and legacy of the “Notorious RBG” will be with us as we move forward — along with the spirit and legacy of those we have lost to the pandemic.

Now, when voting is already underway that can potentially change our lives, and the future of our country, hold on. Plan your vote. Follow your vote. Verify your vote. Vote as if your life depended on it. This year, in so many ways, it does.

Hold that pose — even though it seems endless, and painfully uncomfortable — for as long as it takes.

photos Michael J. Fuhrman

Isolation and chaos

Trumpeter Swans

You and I — and everyone else in this country to a greater or lesser degree — have been incarcerated for four months now — voluntarily incarcerated for the most part, but incarcerated, nevertheless.

It has been a profoundly challenging and difficult time for all of us.

In an article published in The Nation on March 23, 2015, Toni Morrison said this:

“Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom.”

I’m searching for that information.

It would be so much easier if we could see light at the end of the tunnel. But that light has all but gone out with the resurgence of Covid-19. A California representative said recently, “We’re not driving this virus; we’re riding it.”

Somehow, we’ve got to make it through the next few months, doing what we can to halt the “resurgence” or “second surge” of the virus — a surge largely attributed to ignoring these simple guidelines:

1. Wear a mask (let’s all just do it, goddammit!) when you leave home.
2. Wash your hands frequently (to the tune of “row, row, row your boat”).
3. Keep your distance (now is not the time for hugs and high fives).
4. Do not reopen (schools, businesses, venues) too soon.

Somehow, we’ve got to make it through to November, and the opportunity we have to put an end to the madness of the current administration. So much depends on our vote, and the integrity of the voting system.

I’m hopeful — make that cautiously optimistic — that we’ll make use of the knowledge, perhaps even the wisdom, arising out of the simultaneous isolation and chaos of this unprecedented year.

God bless you. Be brave. Be patient. Be safe and well. My heart goes out to those who are coping with illness and the loss of friends and family members.   

Toni Morrison reflects on the role of art in hard times

Some years ago, during a time of crisis, Toni Morrison confided to a friend her discouragement and inability to write. The friend had this to say about hard times:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!

Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993, and wrote such memorable novels as Beloved and The Bluest Eye, echoes this advice when she says about “times of dread”:

There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

She was speaking in another time in our history, at another critical point, but the message resonates today.

In this time of global crisis, I believe we should pay attention to Toni Morrison’s advice — take up the art form, the creative activity, that makes us happy, that gives us comfort, and for which we have a passionate commitment. For me, it’s writing, but for you it might be visual arts, film or photography, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, cooking or baking, gardening, sewing, crafts, volunteering, teaching, scholarship, a business or scientific venture.

Whatever it is, if it’s creative and is infused with your energy, your individual stamp, it will help center you in a time of chaos and confusion.

Let me be clear. I look on this global crisis as impacting our lives for the foreseeable future. If the 1918-1920 pandemic is any indication, we are looking at a two-year disruption of whatever normality we had before the beginning of this year.

With patience and perseverance, the support of family and friends, and a daily infusion of creative activities, we’ll get through the difficult months ahead.

Favorite first lines

Can we talk reading and writing—go off-topic for a refreshing few moments by thinking about something other than what we’re all thinking about?

Our enforced isolation has inspired me to think “big thoughts,” to work on something big. For me, “big” is a novel. Judging from past experience, this is a forever project that will keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.

So far, I have a title and a few opening pages. In writing a novel, I usually start out with a title and a page or two. I know the overall arc of the story, and I know how it will end. After I work that out, things move along at their usual turtle pace. I push on, procrastinate, then push on again.

If you write, you know that procrastination is one of the mandatory limbering up exercises for beginning any writing project or, for that matter, any writing day. As I agonize over those first critical pages, I’ve been listing, for inspiration, some first lines that I particularly like. Many of my favorites go back in time. I confess: I love 19th-century novels!

The favorite first lines that follow are in no particular order, except for the first two selections, which are my special favorites. Each is a full sentence–no more, no less.

Take a look and–if you’re so inclined–send me a few of your own favorites.

Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

1984
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Rebecca
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Moby Dick
“Call me Ishmael.”

Jane Eyre
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

The Go-Between
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Peter Pan
“All children, except one, grow up.”

The Man of Property
“Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.”

A Passage to India
“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

The Razor’s Edge
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”

Far from the Madding Crowd
“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

The English Patient
‘She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.”

Wuthering Heights
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”

The Bluest Eye
“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”

Mrs. Dalloway
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Crossing to Safety
“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”

Brooklyn
“Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.”

them
“One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.”

The Great Gatsby
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Atonement
“The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and a lunch.”

Gilead
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

Alice in Wonderland
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?”

Thoreau and social distancing

In Walden (1854), Chapter 6, “Visitors,” Henry David Thoreau provides a persuasive rationale for social distancing. Here’s what he says:

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words.

You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plow out again through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval.

Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear—we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations.

If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.

Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout. As the conversation began to assume a loftier and grander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till they touched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there was not room enough.

Stay well and keep your distance.

Row your boat gently down the stream

By this time, you’re familiar with the instructions for washing your hands: 20 seconds of scrubbing, during which time you hum, sing, or shout, twice-over, a favorite contemporary lyric or “Happy Birthday to You” or–my preference:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

It’s a simple message but it has a certain grandeur, like the familiar lines from The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

For me, lately, life has a dream-like quality. So much has happened in the last few days. Profound changes in our lifestyle seem to be happening on a daily, even hourly, basis. I’ve always kept a weekly calendar. I wonder if I should plan from day to day, rather than week to week. What might next week bring? What seems most important is now, this moment.

Of course, that’s a lesson in itself, as it’s the way we should lead our lives under any circumstances. I’m sure there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this crisis, but I’d rather not learn them in this way.

Here’s another quote I’ve been mulling over. It seems appropriate to our current global experience. It’s attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a French Jesuit priest and philosopher who was also a paleontologist and geologist:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

What could be more human than a pandemic, as it touches almost every one of us? And what could be more spiritual, as it forces us to reconsider our very existence?

One of the things that hasn’t changed and hopefully won’t change is our ability to communicate with each other through social media and our various devices. I’m reaching out to you now, through one of those important communication options, because you’re in my thoughts, whether you’re a friend, a family member, a fellow writer, or a reader–unknown to me–who has been following my posts and publications. I hope you’re safe and well.

Happy Holidays!

My best and fondest holiday greetings to you. I hope this holiday season brings you peace, the loving company of family and friends, and a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for the year just drawing to a close.

I’m grateful for your support, and for the privilege of having my book, A Windless Place, published this year. Thanks for being there for me, and for cheering me on.

Let’s transition to a new year and a new decade with enthusiasm and hope. The world is full of good and well intentioned people. Our planet is on life support but we can still bring it back to health. All life is precious, especially yours. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

“The Leftover King” and food talk

I love Thanksgiving. That lovely “gathering” around the table with family and friends you might not see that often during the year. Catching up with all the news. Lassoing noisy kids. That feeling of congeniality, satisfaction, and a sort of reverence for the occasion.

Best of all, there’s the food: the sacrificial turkey, of course, but then there’s the stuffing, the gravy, the potatoes, the fresh red cranberries, the green beans, and other assorted delicacies. After dinner, there’s the pie, the coffee, the overwhelming satiety. To think that families used to eat like that on a regular basis. How did they get anything done?

And then there’s the leftovers … Yum!

Speaking of which: “The Leftover King,” one of my children’s stories, was a finalist and has been published in the Adelaide Books Children’s Literature and Illustration Award Anthology 2019, available at Amazon.

It’s about a king who loved leftovers — inspired by someone very near and dear to me …

Happy Thanksgiving!

Finding our “windless place”

In my new novel, A Windless Place, Maggie haltingly tries to formulate the words for what she wants to do with her life–words that, for her, are still “incoherent thought.”

“I want to go inside myself and be myself and express myself–somehow.”

Gina, with her usual confidence, sums it up for her, telling her she wants to find her own “windless place.”

When Maggie, breathlessly attentive, asks her what she means, Gina replies:

“Just something I heard once. In a classroom maybe, or one of those deep dark discussions we indulge in at a certain time in our lives, when we’re young, and eager.”

Maggie, very young and very eager, asks again, “But what does it mean?”

“It has to do with a candle burning in a windless place,” Gina tells her. “It was just an image that stayed with me. Something to do with repose, certainty–a sort of calm at the center …”

I don’t know about you, but lately I’m having trouble finding my “calm at the center.”

We are, as a country and, in a larger sense, as a global community, in the midst of multiple crises–the most critical of which is climate change. Right now, the state where I make my home is recovering from multiple recent wildfires. This year we’ve had extreme weather conditions all over the country, all over the world.

At the same time, as a nation we are torn apart politically–unable to communicate across a virtual Grand Canyon of differing views.

What will it take to bring us to some level of calm, of fraternity, so that we can begin to address climate change, and the bitterness and hate that infuse our politics?

We must love one another or die.”

In W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” the date of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Auden says, emphatically, “We must love one another or die.”

The poem has its own spirit of bitterness and despair, but it is, in the end, hopeful. On the eve of the second great war of the 20th century, Auden says:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …

Can we love one another enough to offset the differences we have created among ourselves? Can we find that windless place, surrounded by a peaceful, broad-based community, in a world we preserve and respectfully inhabit? I am, by turns, hopeful, resigned, moderately optimistic, skeptical. Most of the time, it seems, I’m in a queasy state of anxiety.

One year from now our vote will, among other vital issues, help to determine the preservation of our planet. Our decision will reverberate down the years, touching all of us as well as our children, their children, and every living creature.