The Man Who May Never Become President

January 22, 2017 by

It’s nearly three days into the administration of President Donald J. Trump, and he’s managed to make one thing clear already: He is not our president. Not yet.

He seems almost obsessed with proving this to us with each day. Each new tweet, each new unworthy kerfuffle he takes up and busies himself with brings it to our attention again – he’s not our president.

I’m not speaking here of some popular vote fetish. I don’t mean he didn’t win election. I mean he has not become our president. He’s held his right hand aloft, and placed his left upon a Bible before the entire nation and assembled dignitaries. He’s said the words; he’s sworn the oath. But something isn’t right. Some ineffable thing has not transpired. So there he stands, a garish sort of pretender to our highest office – large-headed, bushy-browed, in a suit, appearing angry most of the time. He’s riding in the right limo, he’s been seen entering the right house on Pennsylvania Ave., but something’s amiss. He remains a spectre of a president, a changeling president, a creature we cannot recognize awaiting transformation.

Let’s begin as he did – his inaugural speech. A president has to do just a few things in this speech to marry himself to the citizens of our republic. He has to show humility on his great day; he has to show a scope of global consideration that embodies American exceptionalism and reveals the heart of a great nation as it regards the world; he has to make his listeners’ hearts soar with a sense of possibility and great things to come. It sounds like frippery perhaps, but it’s critical.

In his speech Trump said many awful things but among the worst was, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be—always—America first.” In what passes in him for a flourish of extemporaneity he added, “America first.”

He could not manage to offer up even one of the crucial items an incoming president must in order to join the country together and move us energetically into the first days of governance. It’s as though he’s not succumbed to that moment of awareness presidents talk about. The moment where they feel the full force of the job they are poised to undertake settle onto their shoulders, and at least symbolically drop to their knees under both the weight and the awe of it. I thought maybe, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where he laid a wreath after arriving in Washington, his moment had come. Trump stood, looking straight ahead, and he seemed to breathe heavily. If you watch film of it, you’ll see him patting at his chest repeatedly, right over his heart. He did this many times, and I thought at first it indicated depth of emotion. But I wonder now if it was mere impatience at standing there for so long.

Trump appears unable to sense the U.S. as anything more than another company to run. Worse, he appears to have no one around him who might point him towards a moment in which he could stumble across the realization that nothing could be farther from the truth. He speaks briskly of trimming, clipping – ‘skinny budgets’ potentially eliminating funding for arts and humanities. Where former presidents praised American artistic vision even as they did scientific initiative and entrepreneurial drive, Trump speaks in a mingy, crabbed way of “America first.” You can see the mean kid on the school yard elbowing everyone else out of his way to be first in line for lunch.

I have always felt America’s greatness lay in part in the capacity of every citizen to be moved – deeply, at the core – by its origin story, by its Constitution, by its durability and flexibility in stormy times. By the knowledge that immigrants literally teemed onto our shores and poured into our cities to build them, expand them, and ultimately make both those cities and themselves great. The notion of a nation whose citizens actually make one another better by example is a wonder in the world.

The fact that America’s leaders are charged with mirroring and amplifying the dreams and strivings of its people, as well as recognizing and alleviating their sufferings, is also a wonder, especially in a world where national leadership often springs from raw brutality and military force.

This sort of nationally inspired and shared wonder at the very essence of the U.S. seems to be a scant commodity – an undervalued one, at that – in the Trump administration. They appear sealed off from it. They come from a place of defense alternating with aggression, and as of now it just looks ugly, unevolved, and mean. It certainly gives the rest of the world no reason to hope or to wish us well.

I have few feelings of empathy for the Trump I’ve read about, but I have great stirrings still for the presidency. What it is meant to be, what it has been and can be at its finest. It can be such a beacon, even in a dim world of disaster, terrorism, hunger and thirst. But that beacon must be lit from within. I see no light in Trump, and it will be the greatest of both human and global tragedies if this man cannot ever manage to find that light, and show it to us all.

Recover the Cornfield

January 22, 2017 by

On Inaugural morning, the moon never rose. I accidentally reset the remote and could not correct it after a full hour’s work. The plan, tiny but precious to me as any jewel, was to drop my pants to the giant nodding orange head and pledge resistance. Instead the TV didn’t function until later that day when Tim got up and corrected it in moments. Grateful to the point of tears for his restoration of my Friday night watching sitcoms I’ve already seen, I gave our son a huge cash reward and fell asleep early. When I woke up the streets filled with women all over the world. If the new President had any horse sense, he’d be too worried to be wounded by this. Happily, he has none. No one can navigate in the waters of outrage. Sensible people discuss the undoing of the world under his leadership. I ponder the degree of suffering ahead for him, and know it will be both immense and unmanageable. I know this because I have spent forty five years nursing people who have lost their minds to one degree or another.

I listen to his speech and recognize the influence of medication in his thick tongue and slightly halting nuances. My guess is a beta blocker and a minor tranquilizer, designed to hold down his physical response to anxiety, and add a little glide. I’m put in mind of Fahrenheit 451- the film, not the book, where the leader is always on a huge screen and you may watch, but not without being watched. I think of the old woman who immolates herself among her books in the middle of the movie. She is an image that is always with me, and I think of her laughter as the firemen burn her alive among her volumes. In that world no one may own a book. The firemen come quickly, not to vanquish flames but to start and feed them. The film ends beautifully and sadly in a forest where a secret tribe of the resistance turn themselves into books, memorizing and then disposing of them, becoming their book, walking and speaking their book aloud under the trees.

As the week leads up to the terrible day that the age of Obama will end and this age begin I experience an unshakeable sense of the surreal. I am often close to weeping, then I am quiet for a long time and feel alone on an emptied planet. I go to a field near Kim’s workplace and watch geese land and depart. I am questioned by a woman at work who has done much strange and inexplicable damage to me over the last decade. She asks why I don’t believe in God. I tell her it was Syria that took God from me. Before we leave in the morning she approaches me again and says flatly: “I believe in gravity.” I think to myself how clever and tiresome she is, but I say nothing in return. Out in the dayroom, one of the young patients asks me why I am always in black. “I’m in mourning for my life,” I tell her, never thinking she’ll credit me for the remark. When she does, I don’t illuminate the thing. For we have passed beyond the age of truth, haven’t we?

Uncover the Cornfield

January 15, 2017 by

Friday morning next, I’ll finish up with my patients for the week. It will be, as it ever is on that day, Little Debbie Friday, the day of tiny frosted cakes brought in by myself for the patients to have with morning coffee. No fights break out in the dayroom on LDF day as if tempers rise someone hands someone else a cake and offers the full pile of them for seconds. I have learned over long time how many problems real coffee and the serious depravity of cheap white sugar solve. My patients will turn on the inaugural and they will watch it on Fox. Make of it what you will, and I surely have, but only safe within the walls of the nursing station, and only to the chosen few who think all the same political thoughts I think. My beloved colleague Abdoul has gone to Mali and is even now probably sitting with his father watching the moon or the sun rise. He will not be here to exchange glances with me, roll his eyes, and say as he does when pushed to his limits: “What else?”

After I have passed the last sweetie and the last pill and the last insulin syringe, I’ll take off my gloves, scrub up, and drive home to pick up and drop off Kim. I’ll drive home for the second time and wash up. I’ll set my alarm for 10:45 am, about two and a half hours later, and fall into a deep dreamless sleep. I will be sure to have the clock in the bed with me, so I don’t leap up and fall out of the bed on the other side. Generally I sleep each day until I wake naturally. On the most extreme days I may sleep until 3 in the afternoon. But on no day would I wake before this time, a mere two hours after I climb the stairs slowly, with the increasing stiffness and pain the years are bringing to my aging body. By the reckoning of anyone under 70, I am old now. I long for the extension of my life so I can continue to serve and to attend and to watch for the relief of pain of all sorts. This has never ceased to enchant me. It is my fairy tale, my story of the blessings of energetic transfer. Humans cannot tell as readily when they are loved as can animals and plants, but they learn, although slowly and clumsily.

When the alarm rings, I will stand by the bed and steady myself for a moment. Then I will turn on the TV and possibly to Fox as an added fillip to what lies ahead, or perhaps I should say behind. All alone in my bedroom with my door shut and latched, I will do the thing I have never done a single time in my long life. I will lower my pants in anger. And when the large ungainly discoloured head appears I will back my ass up to the screen and bend over. Surf’s up, bitch.

Trump Watch: The UTI Edition

January 8, 2017 by

I am, on occasion, the queen of the unsavory. In this season of the New Year, I am battling on dual fronts: a sinus infection (that sidled into my lungs), and a urinary tract infection. I’m on my second set of antibiotics, for the late-arriving UTI. I’m displeased and dispirited. The antics of Donald Trump’s incoming administration, and the amoral shit-show that is our new Congress, are not helpful. They are fully as irritating as anything floating in my urinary tract, if you’ll pardon my saying so.

I share this undoubtedly unwelcome information in order to excuse myself for being crabbier and meaner than usual. And, at least in print, I can come off as pretty mean and crabby. So here I am, consuming quantities of tea, juice, and water. Then more water. Sleeping, because I am exhausted. And when I turn lazily in bed to examine my Twitter feed, I see story after story about the idiots clustered around House Speaker Paul Ryan – and the man himself.

It is clear to all watching the spectacle unfold that Ryan is motoring around his life in DC in a spirit of elation, if not with an endless hard on. After years of being restrained, he now finds himself at the epicenter of an Ayn Rand wet dream he’s had since youth. With a president of his own party, and both houses of Congress Republican, he’s got the power to cut government benefits for millions of Americans whose lives will be worsened by the loss. If this seems an odd thrill, remember the man – Paul Ryan. He believes government assistance demeans and weakens humankind – when objective studies have shown the opposite. But more on that anon.

Lest you cry ‘foul’ at my characterization, note the following if you missed it: Ryan has publicly stated his belief that the American Left (and, presumably, all those lefty government programs) would leave children with “a full stomach and an empty soul.” He then segued, in the actual recorded remarks, into a story about school lunches, as though to sneakily tie the latter to the former.

Predictably, his complaint was bitter when someone later made the connection more direct and overt than he had dared. He wanted to assert, indirectly, that school lunch programs leave children with “full stomachs and empty souls,” but when caught out as a coward trying to edge into that equation sideways, he balked and pointed fingers at ‘the media.’ They were misquoting and distorting his meaning.

Nota Bene: To misquote is not a major issue if the speaker’s original meaning is clear, traceable, and intact in the misquote. He said what he said. He can’t outrun it.

Yet media shaming always works for Republicans. They have cultivated a solid 30-45% of the country who now believe the GOP line over objective reporting, which they have been brainwashed to believe no longer exists. This has been done via endless think tanks with names like The Family Research Council, and through fictitious news outlets like Fox. History will show it has been a stunning creation – a careful, papier-mâché cultural application of lies over the flimsiest architecture of truth. It is cynical beyond belief. And it has worked brilliantly.

This week, Ryan’s Cro-Magnon cronies in Congress are poised to approve a raft of appointees to crucial human service, housing, national security, environmental and other federal posts on an accelerated basis, before their ethics vetting is even complete. This is remarkable. It marks a complete historical departure from precedent.

All they really want to do, of course, is rush into ripping health care from 20-30 million Americans, many of whom are their voters. And then rush to funnel giant tax cuts to rich people, thus undoing the careful Obama economic engineering that brought us a record DOW, unemployment as low as most economists ever want it to be, a resurgence of the auto industry, and a deficit that has been dropping like a stone.

The GOP power clique will turn this epic record around, handily. All recent Republican administrations execute disastrous policy. They spend like drunken sailors, harm people and markets, and gut the planet itself. Then they wait for a Democrat to capitalize on public outrage, come in and clean it up. They spend their defeated phase energizing their brainwashed followers to set the Right Wing Zombie Nation in motion yet again, plotting their next takeover. No wonder my interior is fulminating like some unholy brewery.

About that research I mentioned, the study is found here:

Done by University of Iowa Assistant Professor Padmaja Ayyagari, published under the auspices of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, it takes advantage of some amendments to Social Security from the 1970’s. These created unique, unintended discrepancies in income among recipients that could be studied later by an astute academic. I directly quote the findings (the study was, I believe, also the basis for a recent NPR segment):

“The paper finds that:

• Higher Social Security benefits due to amendments to the Social Security Act in the 1970s led to significant improvements in elderly health outcomes. Specifically, individuals receiving higher Social Security benefits due to these amendments saw significant improvements in functional limitations (e.g. bathing, eating, preparing meals) and cognitive function.

•Improvements in health are not uniform across all groups. In particular, improvements in cognitive function were larger for individuals with better cognition.

•Further, higher Social Security income led to significant decreases in depressive symptoms but only in the case of households whose primary Social Security beneficiary had less than a high school education.

The policy implications of the findings are:

•Our findings have important implications for aging populations and for public policy. Our findings suggest that cuts to Social Security benefits could potentially have significant negative impacts on the functional limitations and cognitive function of older adults, while increases in benefits could lead to improvements in health outcomes.

•In addition to the direct impact on population health, increases in Social Security benefits could potentially be offset by reduced health care expenditures by the Medicaid or Medicare program, since functional limitations and cognitive impairments are often associated with significant health care spending.”

So Speaker Ryan is wrong, Ayn Rand should have perished in obscurity and the GOP is about to set a policy dumpster fire that will leave America in a smoldering heap. However, the research above sets up a future discussion of the absolute brilliance of a guaranteed income for Americans, perhaps the only sensible antidote to what is about to unfold.

Bring In The Blue Chair

January 7, 2017 by

I have not written here in four weeks, because every day from that day that seems long ago contained a list of things that had to be done before Christmas Eve. The funniest list had a rebuke attached to the end of it. “Bring in the blue chair to decorate it,” it instructed me. “Left Hand of Darkness, books on films and composers, candles in every glass thing, go to Best Buy and Scheels, THEN STAND DOWN.” On the twenty-third Kim and I drove through a freak storm, one of those stony nights when the flakes drive through your brain and you feel you are hunched in the front of a boat with the waves crashing over your head. Behind us, cars slipped off the road. We each thought this was imaginary until we told it to one another. We were playing Jobim on the car DVD player. I was trying not to want to keep replaying “Waters of March,” which makes me laugh and cry at the same time. Music can do anything, but not much music can do that.

Christmas was beautiful as it is here at this house. There is always a real tree, and each year I am driven to the edge of tears by the curse of getting it onto the tree stand. Outside I am sawing it and it won’t saw through before I am freezing and worried. This year I bought a new saw and we couldn’t get the guard off the thing. Once I’d dragged the ten foot Frasier fir through the door I set at it with my router and drilled an immense hole up the middle. From there, clearest of sailing and the thing could not be brought down by the worst storm or a herd of cats. I apologized to Kim for my usual holiday despair about the inception of the tree, and we collapsed on the couch. The boiling water I’d put in the stand rose through the icy tree and little clouds of resinous green wafted through the room.

I have never cared about getting presents, but been passionately distressed about giving the right ones ever since I was a child. This drives me for weeks and distracts me to the farthest shores of myself. I dream about it. I ruminate every waking hour. There is always one day in that last week when I actually have small, sequential panic attacks complete with rapid breathing and chest pain. These days I take a baby aspirin, for I am now sufficiently old that there could always be a better reason for the breathing and the pain. A lot of my presents to others went surprisingly well. On Christmas night I had to work, and I gave everyone a gorgeous little great horned owl crouched to fling itself from a high place right onto a mouse. It was the smallest gift I have ever given and I was amazed that the owls met with such a hearty reception. It was then that a deeply sad revelation imposed itself onto my soul. I realized in a flash of insight that my presents are always too much, too large, and too expensive. In this way I have fatigued many a soul I meant to delight. I have no idea what I can do with this awareness. It is very painful, actually. I doubt I will reform myself. This weird thing about me goes back as far as my memory will extend. When I was too young to offer other people things of value from my own coffers I simply gave away my own presents.

This year my sister, my only sibling, sent me some photos she had enlarged and laminated onto painted boards. She had spent nearly thirty dollars delivering these to me. I drew them out and stared at them in horror. There was an image of me as a four or five year old with my young tanned mother, and a second of me with my beloved son, my hair tied back in a scarf. My sister had sent a card warning me that one of the two had turned out better than the other. My son Tim stared at the boards. “Grandma looks insane,” he said flatly. “Yes,” I replied. He looked at the image of himself as a toddler for a long time before he spoke. “Why is my face stabbed like that?” he asked me. Across the image there were slashes, as if someone had taken a knife to it and run through it in a rage, a blizzard of anger. In my mind I’d heard the old music from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” when I pulled it from the box and saw it. “I think she had some trouble with this one,” I told him. “Some sort of issue maybe with the lamination, or with the process, I don’t know.” Later, Tim spoke to me from the hallway while I lay in bed watching TV. “There’s something else,” he told me. “She sent me a Christmas ornament. It’s wood, and has a really frightening Santa on it, a strange looking man.” I took it from his hand. “It’s your grandfather,” I told him. “He doesn’t look well,” my son said, “and the image is sinister.” “Go and put it on the tree,” I told him. Last night, we all sat near the tree, in our last days with it. Because we never put the tree up until a few days before Christmas, we leave it up for a few weeks afterwards, and it’s lovely and fresh. “You don’t want me to put up the ornament of Grandpa next year, do you?” I asked Tim. “No,” he replied sadly. “I just loved him too much to look at that again.”

At work I asked the wisest woman I know how to thank my sister for these terrible items. Julie is so loving and expansive she could be the mother of all things. Her devotion to every broken person around her is complete and without a moment of hesitation or rancor. I live in a perpetual state of rancor and hesitation. I revere her. I told her everything. “Just never say anything,” she advised me. “How can I say nothing?” I asked her, shocked by her answer. “Tim was frightened by his own image,” she said, “and if your sister didn’t get that he would be, there will never be a damned thing to say about it.” I have never stopped wanting my sister to love me, and forgive me for being the wrong sort of person for her, and support my child in his struggle with the illness that will one day likely take his life from him. The truth of these things has broken me many times, but I will not allow that pain to be more than momentary or make it important.

The Day I Disappeared

December 12, 2016 by

A strange thing happened to me over the weekend. I’ve heard of it from others. But I had no idea what it really felt like until it happened to me. While this is true of many things, I now know that being rendered invisible by virtue of your age is an otherworldly sort of experience, and it hits hard. I hadn’t run into it yet. Or if I had, I’d been impervious.

Sunday, I was not impervious. I was downtown, in my beloved little city, Iowa City. The Missus and I were searching out lunch – we enjoy a leisurely Sunday lunch before we focus on the more difficult part of the day – the hours in which Sunday becomes all about re-entry into a looming week of work.

We stopped, at the Beloved’s behest, into the Pullman, an upscale little dining car of a restaurant, where the food is interesting without being skimpy, and the drinks win awards. It was packed. A couple just ahead of us got the last table. I heard Jessica visiting with a host, and soon we were seated at the bar. The tall stools were too close to the frame of the bar, which doubles as a visible kitchen built off from the back end. So a trio of chefs were working right in front of us as I wedged my knees, neither of which has been treated well by life, and scooched into the seat.

I pulled the menu, and already knew what I wanted for a drink – a Hendrick’s martini, dry, possibly dirty, with 2-3 olives. I looked over the food, and asked Jessica what she was going to have for a drink. A few minutes went by. Then a few more. Full disclosure: I am not the most patient person in a restaurant. If I am not acknowledged with water and a drink order within a couple of minutes, I am not delighted. But this was now approaching five minutes. I made eye contact with the barlad. But we didn’t get waited on. He was further down along the stainless bar, and I’m not sure he knew how to navigate the busy chefs. Two young guys came in, and seated themselves more directly in front of barlad. He took their orders almost at once. That was it for me. I could not believe my eyes, and I was livid. Jessica was not thrilled either, but I was much angrier. She asked if I wanted to leave about another 90 seconds later, and I said, “Hell yes. Let’s get out of here. I am damned mad.”

I grasped my coat, slid down off the bar stool, and it would be fair to say I stormed out while Jessica chatted with the chefs, who felt badly about our departure and wanted to ask after its cause. She soon followed me. I found myself not merely angry, but emotional – I am most often neither, at least not in response to the basic slings and arrows of life. I don’t expect all that much. I try to live like my mom, the late great Mary Alice, who once said, when I was offended on her behalf over some familial slight, “I’m not proud, honey. If I’d have been proud, I’d have been dead a long time ago.” This was perhaps a touch of maternal martyrdom on her part, and it is perhaps a touch of denial on my part to think I’m living up to it, but I don’t think of myself as especially demanding. I’m certainly no diva.

Jessica has perhaps the best bead on this whole part of my life. She looks at me in restaurants when serving delays occur, and says, with a twinkle in her eye, “If anyone ever gets between Kim Painter and something she wants to put in her mouth…” I always bristle a bit and try to raise a point of objection to this, but really – there is no use. No such point is ever handy. She is right.

We rounded the corner to Basta, a place we also frequent. I ordered a Beefeater martini within 90 seconds of our being seated, Jessica ordered her drink, and it was then that she realized that I was both furious and also teary-eyed. It surprised us both. I spoke in a quiet voice, “I just felt so …”

“Invisible?” she said. “You were. It’s age. You know that, right? I talk about it all the time.”

“I know you do. You’ve spoken of it for years. And I heard you. But I guess I’ve never really felt it before.”

We talked it over, as we do all things. The martini arrived quickly, with the glistening incidental shards of ice shaken out onto the top I love so much. Jessica had ordered an item called The Comb Over, containing Short’s whiskey, homemade Noble Bee honey ginger ale, rhubarb & vanilla syrup, and lemon. The Pullman faux pas was fading away, along with my snippy vow never to go there again, which was laughable on its face.

This is our town. It holds our food, our drinks, our restaurants. We share our lives here, and all our joys and disappointments. Age – and the response of others to age – can never diminish the experience of living one’s life with the person one loves best and most, doing the things we love to do. But I know now what it is like to become a shadow of sorts in the eyes of persons too busy, or meek, or blithe, to understand how the acuity of their sight is a thing that matters much. I will not forget this, and will watch myself – a thing I perpetually do in this life – to measure how it affects me, how or if I mature internally in the face of my own aging. To see, I suppose, if I ever successfully come to embody the eschewing of pride professed by Mary Alice.


December 10, 2016 by

Last night I went to bed before eight, and prepared to die in my sleep. Over the course of the work week I slept twenty hours in five days, and by Friday, walking around the grocery store, I had difficulty lifting my arms and deciding what to pluck from the shelves. At certain points I was sure that my brain was not sending signals of movement to my legs. I reminded myself to keep my mouth shut, and not allow it to slack open. Over at the bakery the overwrought samples man who is almost saintly in his devotion to the customers, and so eager to offer every shopper a morsel, smiled at me. I have never accepted a sample in my life, except once, from him. Today I tell him that when I make my usual refusal. He’s amazed by this, and pats my shoulder briefly. “Take care, my friend,” he tells me, this old fellow with the sweet eyes. I walk off thanking the universe that the missus never turns down any of the things he proffers.

These days I feel a heightened need to be tender and to make small gestures of abundance and love. I feel the wounding I’ve spoken of these last weeks all around me. Many are simply fearful. My favorite clerk, Fatuma, tells me she is going to work in the bakery. A beautiful high school senior who spent the summer in her native Ethiopia, Fatuma wears a full head scarf. She selects gorgeous and opulent fabrics to swath herself within and she is a banked fire. She leans forward now, graciously checking out my bottle of Elijah Craig without a moment of judgement. “Since the election,” she tells me quietly, “people are saying some terrible things. I cannot be here longer. I will hide in the back.” Instantly my chest burns and I feel the heat of it rise to my head. I bite back my anger for her sake, and tell her I will see her there happily, when I come to get sugary things for my Tim, my boy, who has my father’s sweet tooth. “I’m just there every damned day,” I tell her, wishing I hadn’t said “damned” and feeling I am going to start crying. I will weep and fall to the floor and Bill the manager who is so good to me will come and tell me quietly he’ll help me up. I hurt for her and I cannot make myself important and let her know that, and make her sadder. I flatten myself and smile again. “You will learn to make wonderful things,” I say, “and they’re so lucky to get you back there.”

Outside our window today it is snowing that fairy tale snow that floats through you somehow. If you stare into it you are hypnotized and enchanted. Kim and I sat in the back hallway and watched the birds at our covered feeder and on the copper water bath I change every single hour when I am here. There is another large blue metal tray on a stand also covered with the black sunflower seed I use exclusively from November until April makes the flowers. On the ground there are hundreds of birds. We sit and watch them for an hour. When they’re startled, the sound of their wings as they rise together is a beating so loud we hear it from where we’re sitting, warm inside.

I have lost everything I believe in now except for love. My country lies in tatters in my mind. I woke this morning before five am, and wandered around from my room to the bathroom sink, washing my Buddha figurines and my painted wooden swallows, and opening and closing books. I found four pages of drafts of a poem I was writing years back, of the Polonnaruwa sleeping Buddha. I’d been rereading my favorite Michael Ondaatje novel, Anil’s Ghost, and pondering the great character of the surgeon Gamini, who is among my few personal heroes. While I read I looked at photographs of Sri Lanka. Here lay the great figures, rain sheeting over their bodies, and humans who appeared like the tiniest of birds walking beneath them. I see in the lines I wrote my failure to bring my thoughts to a resolution. “Wait for me! I know you are here!” Gamini recalls that these are the words men cry out when they die from their war injuries, calling their mothers. On the last page I find the only reminder I left for myself. “This is the unbreakable line,” I wrote in a margin. Now I have no idea what it meant or where it was headed. It’s a lost fragment that meant so much to me I had to pull it from the swamp of the rest and leave a warning. “It’s a simple ecstasy, the breaking of the will toward grace.” That cannot be true. Still, I will think on it a long time, now that I’ve found it again.

Trump Watch: The Deck the Halls Edition

December 4, 2016 by

Deck the halls with boughs. Or, for today’s purposes, bows. Stolen bows. Yes, the squirrels of 1029 are engaging in the New American Lawlessness. Inspired by that scofflaw Trump, they have carried off a perfectly lovely late autumnal bow bestowed upon our ceramic owl by The Missus. We didn’t realize what had happened to it, and assumed treacherous human behavior – someone had clearly thieved the thing, carrying it off to their own yard. But no.

Early one morn, gazing up into the tree canopy that domes our yard and those of our neighbors, Jessica saw it. Green, waving, jaunty with color against a dull gray sky – the bow! It was some 30 feet up in the air, festooning a large squirrel nest. As autumn fades, and leaves plummet, these formed and woven high-air dens become visible throughout the canopy. Havens for the long winter, a constellation of twig and leaf sealed together against pellets of sleet and harsh wind. One of them stood apart, more seasonal and jolly than the rest (click to see full effect):




So all creation, apparently, has been loosed from the bonds of civility and decency by the raucous triumph of the buccaneers about to inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. What are we to do in the face of this? It is a question I ask repeatedly here. Answers are grim and tough to come by, but I’ve come to believe the squirrels may be onto something. This quote, from D. H. Lawrence, sums it up nicely:

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.

His advice couldn’t be more succinct. All around, we see Americans sorry for themselves. Some with mighty fine reason for fear and feeling sorry – the pirates, alas, will wield power, and have many decisions to make, affecting many lives. Still, why not become a wild thing, and release our sense of anxiety and loss? Once wild, we are free to speak as we please, and do more or less the same.

It would be a fine way to live, relative to cowering in terror as we await the daybreak that reveals the skull and crossbones of Trump over the people’s house. How much better to stand our ground, plant our paws solidly apart in defiance, and make the world all our own and as fine as we can manage! For those we love, for those we hope to protect and who desperately need our protection, let the majority which rejected the ascendant robber baron come to life – a true and wild life – and do our best on every front to resist vulgarity, selfishness, and the plunder of the defenseless. I gaze up each day, to the ribbon of green our squirrels now fly as a standard, and commit to life as a wild thing in my altered country.

Ghost Story

November 30, 2016 by

I woke an hour ago. I’d failed to go to bed this morning until after 10 am because I am battling the squirrels for primacy of my songbirds at their winter feeding station. Around nine I wrestled the seven foot enamel coated iron pole from the now slowly freezing ground and relocated it deep in the pachysandra. Within a few moments, almost as soon as I entered the back hallway, the feeder was alight with woodpeckers of three kinds, cardinals, and that rusty small fellow with the white eyeband whose name I want to know. Over the arc of the top baffle, tufted titmice and sparrows floated, waiting for their turn. Down the driveway a grey cat stopped briefly to look, then turned and ran, the chaos ranging beyond his appetite. Too rich for his blood, it is also too rich for mine. I climbed the stairs, soaked my bum foot, and climbed into bed with a dozen catalogues. The time of year cannot be mistaken for any other. On May 18th, I wrote in the garden journal I keep each year and contaminate with everything else, grocery lists beside lists of plants, dreams seeping into plans for drainage and root support. “Version 1,” it says. “Out to the bright world of loss and appetite. Version 2,  Out to the bright world of appetite and loss.” Why is Version 2 better? If I knew more, I’d know, but then it would hemorrhage to death. I like best to turn away from beauty before it becomes too apparent, holding the shadow of it close and moving away quickly.

I had dreamt today of two patients restrained in one room, attended by four staff. One was a young man, the other a young woman. They were thought to be so wily for self injury that they could not be released. Somehow factions had arisen at work, and there were secret agents among the staff, and among these double and triple agents. As the dream began to resolve I was on watch for the young woman, and to secure her from intrusion had taken her to a safe house. There, agents broke into the house from four entry points. I was brandishing the garden pole against a tall thin man with dreadlocks dressed entirely in green at the front door. “I swear, I thought you were the plumber,” I told him. “I’m an agent, and we’re here to free her,” he told me. I turned around to see the female patient had just stepped out of her restraints and stood behind me. She appeared to be backlit, and I lost my temper for the first time in my nursing career. I began to run through the house smashing windows, doors, walls with that same iron I’d wielded in my waking morning. “Wake up!” I screamed. In the living room, all the women from both of my parents’ families sat playing cards. “It’s high time you got mad,” said one of them, “and don’t forget the basement – there are a lot of them down there.”

“Now in the firelight,” Sting sings in my favorite from that recording, “the case continues.” In this time of my birth, this creep of winter, my whole nature responds to the sinews of the cold he evoked in this wonderful song, his “Ghost Story.” The dead rise and walk beside me, and in the scatter of birds and the scuttle of clouds, darkness sparkles. I walk out to the car in the bitter starry night, and feel I am witnessing a coronation in the skies. “It’s so clear tonight,” I tell the youngsters at work, preparing to head home from their shift work. “Look up before you go in.”

Piper at the Gates of Doom

November 27, 2016 by

Thanksgiving 2016 has come and gone and, as predicted, I was not as thankful as I typically am for our most food-driven holiday. I have fallen under the thrall of some version of Trump-inspired blues, for sure. But which strain I can’t precisely isolate. I don’t fear for my life – I can’t. I refuse. I don’t feel anxious, per se. He’s too small, too unfit – I refuse to let myself be made anxious.

I suppose what I feel is some sense of being robbed, of the normally vibrant contours of my holiday season having been dimmed without my consent. As I write, Hillary Clinton has won some two million more popular votes than the man who presumably will swear in as our next president. Even in our wonky Electoral College system, that is a whole lot of popularity – and votes – to have to ignore in order to crown Trump as prince. Documented acts such as gerrymandering (once deemed illegal, by the way), voter suppression and purging of voter rolls make this imbalance even more remarkable, and harder to peaceably tolerate.

A world I thought I understood – of an America heading in the right direction, fearless and true to its origins – is instead some other world. A world where a sub-species called ‘white supremacist’ can appear resurgent and validated, in its own twisted view, by the results of a national election. A world where leaders in congress actually advance a logic-contorting view that health care – the mere providing of health care without question to Americans – will somehow rob them of their sense of initiative, thereby undercutting their chance at gaining a toehold on the SS American Dream. A world where a president can advance his personal business interests while seated in gold-trimmed chairs visiting with other world leaders, refuse to move his family into the White House, and apparently flout the law at will. It is a hideous fun-house of a world, filled with distorted thinking and expressions of willful idiocy shown across television screens day after night after day.

How is one to respond? Well, winter is almost here, and for this INFP on the Myers-Briggs scale, it’s time to burrow. Food, the judicious use of alcohol, and literature are chief orders of the day. I’ve been reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I only dimly recall my first experience of the book, far too long ago. Now, I am in the place I love best – a created world of magic, warmth, and essential good will. There are some dangers, but the overarching feel is of a half-hidden enclave of small animals having adventures, looking out for one another, and sharing hospitality as they recuperate from any perils endured. I suppose it’s no wonder I inhabit the place with such joy right now.

One of the great pieces of writing in the book is the chapter titled Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In it, Rat and Mole decide to help a sorrowful otter father by heading out in search of his lost son, little Portly. They experience the fully supernatural sensation of night becoming day. At the height of the experience of their familiar world transformed, they come upon Portly, who is sleeping nestled at Pan’s feet. Pan is here a protector, a finder and saver of the lost and imperiled in the forest, and he gifts any who experience the sight and sense of him a final gift in addition to being found and saved: forgetfulness, lest they return to normal life only to find it ruined for them, all joy and light-heartedness gone forever. As Rat and Mole reunite Portly with his father, and turn their boat away from the scene, they float quietly, until Rat begins to hear words sung in the air moving through rushes, limbs and leaves. Among the words he catches are:

‘Lest the awe should dwell – And turn your frolic to fret – You shall look on my power at the helping hour – But then you shall forget! Now the reeds take it up – forget, forget, they sigh, and it dies away in a rustle and a whisper. Then the voice returns –

‘Lest limbs be reddened and rent – I spring the trap that is set – As I loose the snare you may glimpse me there – For surely you shall forget! Row nearer, Mole, nearer to the reeds! It is hard to catch, and grows each minute fainter.

‘Helper and healer, I cheer – Small waifs in the woodland wet – Strays I find in it, wounds I bind in it – Bidding them all forget! No, it is no good; the song has died away into reed-talk.’

These words have captured my heart for now. We are a great nation. It hardly does to compare us to podgy otter children lost in a wood, or even brave and hearty Rat and Mole off in search of them. Yet lost we are. I feel it in my heart. I see it play out before my eyes. Things best left buried are risen, moving across the land like foul shadows. Who knows what damage will be done? Fools have gained the throne and will overrun the people’s palace, making a mockery of centuries of progress and sacrifice. They will harm those who stormed them into power, almost before they wake to realize it. I only hope we come to a clearing in the wood where we find the purer self we have lost. I only hope some great god spins soothing songs to help us forget, and ease us back into the life we lived before. May we live it ever more bravely, should we have the privilege of doing so.