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.   

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.

“The Way We Live Now”*

In my first novel, One Who Loves, one of the principal characters, Tess, recalls being raped at a very young age. In writing about this event, it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual in the fact that she repressed this memory for many years. I believe that this is often the case — which makes me wonder at the doubt cast on women in the news who, in turn, have repressed or kept silent about similar traumatic experiences.

What is there in our culture that prevents women from speaking out? Why, when they do speak out, are these women so often dismissed as unreliable, or blamed for their own behavior? Why does it become, so often, a “he said, she said” discussion, in which we side with our sex rather than with our hearts and our minds? Why are so many of us visually impaired when it comes to seeing both sides of a situation? We are, in some ways, regressing to a less open, less liberal society, in which a harsh reaction has replaced a more thoughtful response.

I am not a political person. I am a writer, a novelist, who works best in a quiet environment, away from the noise and thrum of our agitated society. But, like all women, I want to be heard and considered when I choose to speak out — whether it’s with written words or testimony or protest or some other form of active engagement.

*My subject line, “The Way We Live Now,” is the title of the 1875 novel written by Anthony Trollope. The novel is about what Trollope considered the corrupt state of England at the time.

“The First Lesson”

There’s something about December that’s both joyful and depressing.

It’s the season of joy, of course. Holiday cheer. Festivities. Presents. Twinkling lights. But it’s also the final month of the year, a summing-up month. For most of us, the year behind us has been both good and not-so-good. And some of that not-so-good was, and is, depressing.

Not long ago, I was introduced to a poem that has been on my mind a great deal. It evokes the season for me—and my current mindset as well. Here it is.

by Deborah Pope***

The Angel knocked
and when I opened
the door to it
I lost the Angel
already sitting
at my table.
Wind poured in
through the crack
slapped my cheek
a voice cried      you cannot have
two Angels.
The Angel in the doorway said
let me in
I see
you are alone.

The wonderful thing about a poem is that it is open—open to interpretation, to speculation, to the most personal associations. Once the poet has sent his or her lines out into the world, we are free to infuse them with a meaning that only we can know—a significance that only we can fully understand and appreciate.

For me, the message of this poem is very personal. I’ve had a good year. My novel, One Who Loves, is published, and the print edition is coming out soon. My family is in good health and spirits as, for the most part, am I. I have small means but big plans—and I’ve managed to convince myself that this might be better than the reverse. So I count myself among the fortunate.

On the other hand, I’ve had my disappointments, including, but not limited to, the recent election. Even though the wind of change “slapped my cheek,” I’m not without hope. Something—some lingering innocence from the last century—has gone out of our lives, but I’m hoping that goodness prevails.

“The First Lesson” is about hope—and loss. What is the Angel at the table taking away? What have I given up in order to admit what is new and unknown, good and not-so-good?

Perhaps one of the lessons I’m still learning is that moving ahead—opening the door to new possibilities, new challenges—is inevitably transformative. The Angel with whom I sit comfortably at the table must move out the moment I open the door to whatever is out there, knocking for admittance, because I “cannot have/two Angels.” The Angel at the door may be a harbinger of good or a messenger for the not-so-good, but my inclination is to open the door, to go forward.

Happy Holidays to you, and best wishes for all that is good in the New Year.

***from Falling Out of the Sky (Louisiana State University Press), nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. Deborah Pope is the author of two other poetry collections, Fanatic Heart and Mortal World. She is on the faculty at Duke University. Reprinted with permission.

First dog versus first cat

One of the current Caucus Front-Runners on The New York Times Politics Blog is entitled ‘The Search for the First Puppy.’ Obviously, in view of the response (approaching 800 comments at this hour), this is a subject that is top of mind for many readers. And with good reason.

Consider the following comment from ‘Dan,’ which appears on today’s front page:

“In the interest of reaching across the aisle, they should seriously consider also getting a kitten. Our nation is deeply divided on the dog/cat issue.”

Now you might say this is irrelevant. The campaign promise was for Mom and Dad to get the girls a puppy. In his acceptance speech, President-Elect Obama reiterated, among other outstanding issues, his determination to accept and fulfill this promise. The jubilant onlookers at Grant Park went wild. Here was the new government in action. Making good on its promises. Looking forward. Overcoming the obstacles of the status quo and heralding a transformative era of hope and change.

Dan’s comment, however, struck a chord with me, both for its simplicity and its depth of perception.

Let me say (full disclosure) that I am a confirmed dog lover. I have a deep respect for the beauty, intelligence, and independent spirit of the cat, but anybody who knows me knows that the dog comes first with me.

But even in the first flush of triumph and relief we should not lose sight of both parties’ oft repeated and fervent determination to bring our country together. After all, this is a moment in history when unity is seemingly (if only temporarily) possible.

So let us, indeed, put aside our differences, ‘reach across the aisle,’ and welcome a first cat as well as a first dog to the White House in January.

Black and white

To have my personal wellbeing, and that of so many people I know, wrapped up in the outcome of a presidential election – this is a phenomenon unprecedented in my experience.

When and why did this election become so important? It’s not just the economic crisis. It’s not just the failures of the Bush administration. There’s something else going on, something unlike all of the previous elections in which I participated.

As strange as it seems to me, I know that my personal wellbeing is teetering on the brink, and only a democratic victory will make me feel comfortable in my skin again.

What makes this election so different for me? It’s not the historical precedent – that of a presidential candidate who is half black and half white. It’s the man himself. It’s that he has a shining intelligence and a palpable empathy with the people of this country that I haven’t seen or felt since the early 60s.

I lacked maturity during the Kennedy era but I remember that I felt then, as did many other Americans, that there was something in the man that transcended the precedent that he was setting – that of being the first Catholic president. That ‘something’ was a quality in the man himself – a young man, largely untested, but with the intelligence, the charismatic appeal, and the capability to transform his time.

I haven’t felt as I did then – until now. There’s a lot riding on today’s finish. There’s a lot riding on this man who carries in his blood the divided nature of our past, and in his hands – the promise of our future.

The understudy

What does it mean for women when a female candidate for vice president of the United States spends $150,000 on clothes and sundries over a two-month period to stump for herself and John McCain?

What does it mean for women when this candidate spends $32,800 on hair and makeup over a two-week period?

What does it mean for women when this candidate’s makeup artist is the highest paid staff member on the McCain campaign?

I don’t remember reading any headline articles about Hillary Clinton’s clothing, makeup and hair allowance, and yet she is always attractive, well dressed, and well groomed.

What does it mean for women to have a candidate who may be a heartbeat away from the presidency and doesn’t understand her responsibilities as vice president?

What does it mean for women that this candidate, on multiple levels, is making a joke out of being a female contender for the role of presidential understudy?

I believe it means that Senator McCain is guilty of an enormous lapse in judgment in selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate in an effort to ‘energize’ a deflated campaign.

I also believe it means that the women of America will not be seduced into voting for a presidential candidate simply because his running mate is a woman.

Senator McCain may not know this but most women are not only perceptive and intuitive when it comes to politicians but also knowledgeable, savvy, and immune to tactics aimed at the gullible and the ignorant.

Identity theft

This week’s New Yorker magazine cover, called ‘The Politics of Fear,’ with a triumphant Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the Oval Office dressed up in and surrounded by the accoutrements of extreme right-wing fear and terrorism is, to put it mildly, tasteless.

I choose to put it mildly because its irony is so extreme that it is hard for me to moderate my reaction to it. In my opinion it goes so far that it turns around on itself and attacks its own tail.

There was a time when the New Yorker was, for me, unassailable. With its unique format, its superb fiction, poetry, cartoons, and reviews (think Pauline Kael), its elegant typography and meticulous editing, it was all of a piece – including its ads, which resided side by side with content in understated compatibility.

Then it was swallowed up by S.I. Newhouse and Conde Nast Publications and began its gradual and inevitable physical transformation into a clone of every other popular magazine, initially in its ads, and eventually in the overall look and feel. Editor Tina Brown completed the demolition during her tenure in the 90s, which is when I left it behind.

What it seemed to me to retain, when I returned to it infrequently, were the sublime and utterly unique humor of its cover art, its witty and on-the-nose cartoons, its excellent (though not as plentiful) fiction, and its intelligent and principled editorial choices. Which is why I decided to welcome it into my home again.

Now I wonder what part of its anatomy will be sacrificed next to some under-considered mandate to vanquish with shock and awe. Times change. Magazines change with the times. And the New Yorker – this icon of taste, humor, and irony – is yet another victim of identity theft.

The terrier and the hound

I love dogs. When I see dogs I tend to block out the human element and focus on the four-legged personalities. Perhaps that’s why the lead-up to yesterday’s Pennsylvania primary made me think of a feisty terrier and a lanky and dignified hound.

The terrier is running just behind the hound. She is barking and confrontational. The hound ignores her and continues on his way, just wanting to get on with his business. He is, however, irritated and becoming more so as the terrier becomes bolder. But the terrier won’t stop; in fact, she is gaining ground and seems intent on getting close enough to attack.

When the terrier grabs hold of the hound’s back leg, he drags her along, still hoping to avoid a fight. But the terrier won’t let go and the hound is forced to turn and defend himself.

Who’s going to get hurt? Well, both are. And meantime there’s a white-haired and badly scarred pit bull coming towards them. He has survived abuse and mistreatment in his youth and he has a temper he can’t always control. He’s hoping they will do enough damage to each other to save him the trouble of having to deal with their combined strength and courage.

But no matter. He knows how to survive. Didn’t he prove that seven dog-years ago?

The fierce urgency of now

Last night, as I was watching and listening to Barack Obama, it occurred to me that there’s something to be said for having a poet at the helm. We have not had a poet in office since Kennedy, nor have we had a president who elicits, almost effortlessly, such enthusiasm for his words.

Obama, who was at a high school in Texas, began by answering a question he had not been asked: why was he running in this election? He is relatively young, and could wait. His answer was to quote Martin Luther King on “the fierce urgency of now.” Later, in answering a question about global policy, he quoted Kennedy, saying, “Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.”

In both instances, and in his overall delivery, he was in command of his words, as is a poet, and elicited an emotional response, as does a poet.

I am not climbing off the Hillary/Barack fence because of the poetry of this man’s message. But I am acknowledging the appeal of a potential Commander in Chief of Words.