April and Eliot

“April is the cruelest month,” famously writes T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland, and cruel it is, with its hints of approaching sun and warmth, but its ever persistent rain. I consider going out to buy plants for the patio, but seeing the gray, windy day I retreat instead to a book. Maybe tomorrow, I say. But tomorrow never comes. The rain hasn’t stopped since forever and the temperatures never get above 60, but apparently spring is here. I remain skeptical but optimistic.

This is our tenth month in Portland and—perhaps helped by the weather’s constancy—we have settled into a routine, finally. It is not especially productive but it works and it gets us through the days without mishap. Routine, even boredom is welcome, for the world outside our safe haven seems to have taken leave of its senses. Change coupled with surprise is the order of day, and how anyone can have faith in our leaders and their constantly conflicted/conflicting ideas is beyond me. I may have given up anger, but astonishment never departs. 

Today, however, I am optimistic. A groundswell of organizing, resistance, and voting participation has brought a very red district in a very red state very close to being taken by a Democrat—an unknown Democrat who had only 60 days to develop a campaign against the Republican establishment in the heart of Koch brothers territory. April certainly is the cruelest month, but this one may have sown the seeds of a much happier future.



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While I’m onto Eliot, here is the first stanza of another favorite, The Hollow Men, written in 1925. It is, I think, perfection, and its lines, while not perfectly descriptive of our current leaders are perfectly descriptive of their ineffectual rule.

     We are the hollow men
     We are the stuffed men
     Leaning together
     Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
     Our dried voices, when
     We whisper together
     Are quiet and meaningless
     As wind in dry grass
     Or rat's feet over broken glass
     In our dry cellar

               Shape without form, shade without color,
     Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

Eliot wrote this a few years after the end of World War I, after the settled world of European empire had been transformed by chaos into an still-undefinable future. The poem always elicits a feeling of desolation in me and is best read on a sunny day with a good glass of merlot at your side.

I'm not angry am I?

I've been having jaw trouble, or TMJ, for those who prefer exactness. This is not new, it's been recurring since I was a teenager and is often caused by stress. Most of the time it repairs itself quickly, but it's been hanging around too long, and is annoying and sometimes painful.

Searching for answers to "why is this happening?" I picked up an old book by Louise Haye that a friend gave me years ago. It contains an alphabetical list of body parts and their common ailments, with what Hayes believes are the root causes of such ailments—usually spiritual or stress-related. I've found this list to be both accurate and dead wrong so I keep it for entertainment, and also because in a few instances the insight provided relief.

I flipped through the pages and found "jaw problems" followed by "anger and resentment." Hmmm, I thought, I don't think so. I don't feel angry, and certainly not resentful.

"You missed this one," I told Louise as I replaced the book and went back to my work. It was somewhat mindless work and inevitably I thought again about her diagnosis. Do I feel angry? I began to think that maybe I did. Maybe soon evolved to yes, and once I acknowledged that, the anger came roaring forth, surprising me with its strength. Indeed, I was shocked by my lack of self-knowledge, for as soon as I conceded the emotion I found I was angry at everything.

I was angry with Ray for being ill. I was angry at doctors and scientists who denied him a cure. I was angry at the cat for scratching the furniture. I was angry with myself for my incompetence as a caregiver. I was angry that I had a new car but only seemed to drive to doctor's offices. The anger began with me and extended to family members, friends, and the wide world of politics. Not surprisingly, much of it bore the presidential seal.

The force of this suppressed rage shocked me, and as new recognitions surfaced I wept cathartic tears. By day's end I felt better; even lighter. I sat down and wrote a list beginning "I am angry that..." It covered three pages in a small notebook. Then I ripped them out and burned them in the kitchen sink. And then I wrote a list of all the things that make me happy, grateful, and loved. That one I'm keeping.

Anger is not always a bad thing. It is often required—think of righteous anger—and it can move us to action. But action driven by anger needs careful monitoring, and seething anger can kill us and others. To give it credit, however, anger is a legitimate emotion, unlike guilt and jealousy which serve no purpose except to make us miserable.

No matter how cathartic my experience, how extensive the anger expelled, this was only a partial purge. With the world in such a state how could it not be? Anger is justified. But I have learned a lesson. Now I will seek to recognize, manage, and release—not suppress it. Because with anger gone there's a lot more room for love.

A woman and her thoughts

Many years ago a friend loaned me a book. She was insistent, so I read and returned it and we enjoyed a mutually satisfying discussion. Unfortunately I don't remember the author or the title, but if my summation rings a bell please let me know. I'd like to read it again.

It is the story (a memoir I believe) of a woman setting off to spend months alone in a rough coastal cabin on the Atlantic, with nothing nearby and even a grocery miles away. Getting supplies of any kind was tedious and time consuming. The details of her stay and the reason for her escape into this challenging environment are lost, but I have remembered one thing quite clearly. 

Throughout her stay she had no communication—no telephone, radio, TV, computer. She lived alone with her thoughts, and when she wasn't busy trying to stay warm and alive her thoughts grew progressively deeper, more complex, more complete. She described this process as having "long thoughts," and it is this idea that has stuck with me all these years. How satisfying it must be to have long thoughts.

To mull over an idea, to carry it to its most extreme interpretation and then to go back to that idea and exam it from another point of view—what a luxury that must be. To have the time to think at all in any deep, meaningful way is almost lost to us now. It is a serious diminution of our competence. We rush from one urgency to the next, constantly interrupted by waiting tasks or our glorious machines, wondering if we can capture an idea in 140 characters.

Mr. Trump perfectly embodies this new reality. I suspect he thinks in 140-characters, with the last person spoken to determining his opinion. This is no way to run a country.

But I too am guilty of this short-burst thinking. I find it harder and harder to contemplate anything, or to find the peace needed to do so. One would think this easy, since it's just Ray and me here, and he sleeps a lot. But apparently my mind has been trained by the Web and I jump from one idea to the next to the next to the next without giving any of them their due. This is no way to be human.

With the beginning of a new year I've been wondering about my own goals, outside the needs of my family. What do I want to accomplish in the next 12 months? I'm beginning to think that I need to relearn thinking. To set aside time every day for silence and choose a thought to follow. I don't think I'll ever attain long thoughts, but I might at least learn to slow down the ridiculously short ones that fill my mind with such chaos. It's worth a try.

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Thanks to NF for identifying this excellent book: Drinking the Rain, by Alex Kates Shulman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

That horrible, wonderful weekend

Unless you've been in a coma you know about the strange confluence of events last weekend. Friday was the presidential inauguration, a day of moderate crowds and a disappointing speech that was dark, angry, and blustery—no surprise if you've been following the campaign. I didn't watch but I knew what was happening and I tried hard to stay busy and not think about it. At 3 p.m., the hour on the west coast when the changeover became official, I burst into tears.

A day later, a Saturday like no other, we turned on our TV and saw images of the amazing Women's march. A march that filled the Washington D.C. mall and side streets with women in pink pussyhats and signs representing every imaginable cause. But this was only the beginning. As the day went on there were hundreds of "sister" marches across the globe and millions of women and men participating.

I joined my daughter and granddaughter and their friends in Portland and stood in the mud and pouring rain with thousands of others for almost three hours, before reluctantly dragging my soaked clothes and cold body back home. But it was a glorious and uplifting three hours and I would do it again in a minute.

At home I sat by the fire and looked at photos from across the nation and around the world, photos of people demonstrating not just against the new president but for things, things like immigration and justice, and black lives, and women's rights, and abortion rights. There were witty signs and angry signs, but nary a sign of hate. I wept again in wonder for all the people who had marched and all the positive, enduring energy they generated. Energy that is being captured by new groups as well as individuals; energy that appears willing to stand up again and again in support of rights that are being threatened.

I am optimistic about the country, despite the chaotic first week of the new presidency and the avalanche of executive orders and promises of legislation. The Whitehouse appears surprisingly inept—well, maybe not surprisingly—and infused with such crazed, illogical behavior that it's hard to imagine those within ever accomplishing anything. But they will, of course.

But the week also brought evidence of continuing resistance, in the streets, in social media, in the government itself (see the alt gov tweeters for instance). And how could you miss the Greenpeace sign hoisted on a crane high above the Whitehouse: "RESIST."

It all counts and it all makes me smile. And I have no doubt, if only we continue down the path laid for us by the millions who marched on Saturday, we will surely overcome. What an amazing week.

It's January, again

Can it be 2017 already? Can 2016, that annus horribilis really be over and done? Apparently so. I am still coming to terms with living in the 2000s which were the distant future when I was young, a future of commonplace space travel, flying cars and endless work-saving gadgets—a world of boundless blessings for all.

I see little of that dream in this new year 2017. Our striving for future perfect has brought us pretty tchotchkes and endless gadgets, which possibly save time or work but surely add frustration. We can be thankful for medical breakthroughs and—despite the hateful rhetoric on the right—a growing acceptance of others and "otherness," but we are losing our planet and the core of our humanity.

For me at least, that core is an acknowledged connection to the natural world and all it encompasses. It's depressing that our new leader(s) seems to believe the core of humanity is money.

Despite the drama of the election and the approaching endless spectacles of the new, ethics-deprived administration, I remain hopeful for 2017. There are so many people and groups,* working to make our country and the planet a better place. I believe we'll see a return to valuing and supporting local government at the city, county, and state levels, which is a first step in reforming Washington. I hope we'll see strong support for the environment and solar energy initiatives across the globe.

No matter what happens on the broader scale of human endeavor, it will be the daily actions of each of us that will be most relevant. 2017 is bound to bring unpleasant surprises but if we focus on now and do the work in front of us, we can weather any storm.

 

Happy New Year!





*Here are just a few groups doing great work. All can use your support.

Fight for Reform
Our Revolution
Wall of Us
Indivisible
ACLU
League of Conservation Voters
Honor the Earth
Sierra Club
Rainforest Rescue
Committee to Project Journalists (with thanks to Meryl Streep)

The care of giving

This is a strange season. As I write, electors across the nation are meeting to vote for a new president, and while I have hope I am also a realist. What the electors do today will not change the future.

As Americans we are all caregivers now, supporting a democracy that has never seemed more fragile. No matter what side of the aisle you sit on or who you voted for, none of us, I'd venture, want to lose our country to—take your pick: despotism, oligarchy, authoritarianism, fascism, or slow dissolution by billionaires. So we must do the work required to keep democracy going. We must care and we must give—our energy, our ideas, our hearts, and of course our money.

Thanks to my husband's illness I am familiar with caregiving in its most intimate forms. I am daily astounded by what I see and hear myself doing and saying. I am often kind and patient beyond what I ever thought possible, while just as often I can be shrill and shrewish, frustrated to the limits of my ability to cope. And despite all, Ray continues through his fog to find humor, understanding, and patience with my moods. I feel blessed by this opportunity. If you are looking for self-knowledge, find someone to take care of.

Here in Portland the snow and ice are being carried away by welcome rain, and finally, errands can be run and plans can be made without reference to the weather. It is, of course, the holiday season and plans there are aplenty. I have a long list of errands, some critical, some whimsical. I ponder over last minute gifts, but thinking about caregiving I opt instead to send the money to North Dakota.

The stresses of this political season blend inevitably into the stresses of this holiday season. But those stresses, as always, offer opportunity. Whether we seek to know ourselves as individuals or as citizens, we cannot do worse than become involved with those around us. We must care and give and do the work. It's not easy, but we're here, now, to do it, and the doing will bring us peace.


 

Wishing you the happiest of holidays and a stress-free 2017.

 

Snow day

It is snowing hard as I write this, and the naked branches outside our window are being clothed in winter white. Have I been transported back to Sisters? No, we're on a hillside in Portland, and the wind and snow are a welcome relief from the gray and drizzle we've been seeing.

I've always thought it wise of the creator—however you define her—to make snow so very white and to lavish it over the landscape at the darkest time of the year. When the ground and trees are covered with snow and the sun shines upon it, even the darkest corners of the house awake and cheer.

I've been thinking about my mother today because she would have loved this view and this snow. But she was a great worrier, and at some point in the day she would no doubt begin to worry about the whereabouts of those she loved and imagine the endless, disastrous possibilities: slides, slips, crashes,  falling trees, broken bones; anything and everything were grist to her worry mill.

This habit of hers used to drive me crazy, but it also taught me that worry is a waste of time. Her anxious distress almost never reflected the real world, and I often think how different her life might have been had she not let her mind return again and again to the deepening ruts of imagined disasters.

I am no worrier, but confess to occasional edginess, stress and trepidation, and I acknowledge that some occasions demand concern. The recent election has brought such feelings to the surface and I hear from friends and strangers alike words of fear, worry, loss, dismay, and outrage. The very air reeks of anxiety; if my mother were alive she would no doubt feel right at home. And as the days shorten and the darkness increases, it's tempting to retreat into our private shells and huddle there in isolation while the world goes on around us.

But isolation is no answer. Neither is fear. Certainly not worry. Reality is out there waiting for us and action is the best antidote for negative thinking. So many are doing positive work and we too can join them. All is not lost. Life is full of surprises (I say this often because it's true) and the solstice and the light it brings are right around the corner. So, in the words of one of my favorite old songs,

Grab your coat and get your hat

Leave your worry on the doorstep

Just direct your feet

To the sunny side of the street.

 

Yes!