I haven’t launched myself into 2021 yet. It’s like I’m standing on the edge of an Olympic-sized pool, wondering if I have the strength to make it to the other side, thinking perhaps of holding my breath the whole way and never having to come up for air. Once, I could have done it. Many, many years ago. Now it’s no longer an option. I’m just hoping the water isn’t too cold. I’m just hoping when I come up for air, the sky won’t be on fire.
Competitive swimming is a lonely sport. Once you hit the water, you race yourself. Those who like to win will tell you they are aware of their competitors and driven by the need to beat them but, after I would hit the water, my only desire was to swim fast enough to hear my heart race in my ears. Driven by adrenaline, my arms became oars and my legs paddle-wheels. My body, then a machine, my mind was free to go elsewhere. I have my best thoughts underwater where, if you can hear the cheers, they are like muffled bubbles. Generally I would get to the other side with no idea how I did, disappointed I was back in the world where winning was everything.
Perhaps I’m afraid of that first slice into unknown waters. 2021 already means two postponed memorials to attend and now, it looks, sadly, like a third. This latest passing was a swimmer far more gifted at the sport than me. He’s standing on that mount now ready to take on his last medley. Go Danny. Remember the sacred mantra: Butter, Back, Breast and Free.
Yes, it was sadly covid.
And so I tell myself: “When you first hit the water, ignore the initial jolt. Keep your head down; your arms rising from and falling beneath the surface; your legs beating out the rhythm … take as few breaths as possible and you will get to the other side of the pool.”
The next morning I was barely able to lift my head from the pillow. I managed to call Macys only to be fired. I laid on the spare cot next to the wall heater, in and out of feverish delirium. Was it day or night? I never knew. Some time during the next three days Joellen stopped checking on me which meant she’d also been stricken. The phone would ring and ring and ring until whoever was on the other end gave up.
The night before Christmas, between the “ho, ho, ho” of jolly Christmas songs, we heard horror story after horror story over the radio, pleas from officials to stay off the roads. A historic ice storm was bearing down on the entire Kansas City area.
I’d been raised in the high desert where storms rolling through are generally swift and any snow that fell to the ground rarely lasted once the sun came out. However, in the Midwest, ice storms are slow moving and encase everything in ice. Trees bend to the ground as though praying for mercy. Icicles hang like giant fangs from the eaves of all the houses and the winds howl, sometimes for days.
There was no mail delivery service in Greenwood. Just a tiny one-room post office in the center of town where you went to “call on” your mail. Thus we had no tree, no stockings, no presents. Just each other. And the Hong Kong Flu.
In the morning the ice covering our one window acted as a prism, sending the colors of the rainbow through the room as the winds outside whispered gently. Merry Christmas, the Ice Storm hath ended. Outside all was white save the Christmas lights flashing in our neighbors’ windows. The children took full advantage of the snow and ice covered streets, laughing as they mounted new sleds and raced each other down the hill.
For the first time in days I’d woken with a growling stomach and not a headache. “I’m hungry,” I said to Joellen as she stumbled out from the bedroom.
“Hot damn! So am I!” She said opening our sole kitchen cabinet. It was empty or so I thought. ”Look what I found! A bran muffin mix and it only needs water. Good thing cause we bloody well don’t have anything else.” She turned on the water but nothing came out. “Whelp, no water either. The pipes are frozen.” Then she stepped out onto the tiny porch and ripped an icicle from the eaves. “I thought we weren’t supposed to drink melted ice,” I said as she melted the huge chunk of ice in a pot on the hotplate that served as our stove“Why the hell not?”
I had no idea why the hell not and so I just watched as she scrummaged through the cabinet. “And look … some hot cider mix! I do declare, we’re in for a real feast now.”
I can still remember the hot apple cider and bran muffins tasting better than any gourmet meal I’d ever had. Then we played our favorite records and danced around the room. My favorite Christmas ever.
[Note to followers: The first time I tried to post this story, the text blocks got all screwed up. One of Santa’s naughty elves I think or perhaps it was the eggnog! At any rate HAPPY HOLIDAYS!]
The year the Hong Kong flu swept across America killing thousands of people and leaving others begging for death, I was a “Christmas Helper” assigned to the home goods department of a Macy’s in downtown Kansas City Missouri. If you’ve ever taken a seasonal job selling products that you know nothing about then you’ll understand why I spent most of my time in the stock room. No one ever found anything in the stock room and so I could sit in there forever wondering why anyone would want a tangerine colored crockpot.
The store was located not far from the abandoned stockyards in an area where few businesses still survived but I was just a teenager with no resume. And so I’d quickly and without thinking taken a minimum wage job an hour by bus from Greenwood Missouri where I lived with a friend a few years older and much wiser than me.
Her name was Joellen and she was more than a friend. She was the big sister I’d never had.
Her life had been hard. Her father, an alcoholic, had committed suicide when she was fourteen and the man her mother soon remarried didn’t like children. Especially Joellen who was probably smarter than him and not afraid to speak her mind. She survived by hiring herself out as a nanny in exchange for room and board. We were really lucky when she picked our family.
Not long after Joellen graduated from college she married a man in the National Guard. She’d followed him on his first deployment to Missouri where, thinking they would be settled for a while, she’d enrolled in graduate school. However, he was redeployed, this time overseas, leaving her stuck in a town on the outskirts of Kansas City.
For a gal from Reno Nevada, this was akin to being stuck on Mars. Reno is an all-night, pay-to-play, everything goes town with a marque reading “Biggest Little City in the World.” The sign outside of Greenwood Missouri read:
WELCOME TO GREENWOOD ✞ HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED✞
After high school, my first attempt to voyage out into the world had ended in a Mennonite cornfield with one friend hospitalized, the other pregnant, and me with a fork stuck in my leg. I’d returned home to Reno hardly the Prodigal Child. My parents were going through a divorce, all my friends were in college or getting married prematurely to boys I knew would never be men. My chances to succeed seemed slim to none and then Joellen wrote:
”Come live with me and get your act together.”
She had more faith in me than I did.
We soon became known in Greenwood (population 800) as “dem dam hippies.” I guess because we drove an old VW bug and lived in a three room shack with little insulation, leaky windows and a wall heater that barely kept the place warm. When the temps dropped below freezing, we pulled the VW into an attached lean-to, however, in order to keep the engine block from freezing, we had to run an extension cord out to a lamp underneath the hood. It didn’t always work.
Every morning I drove with Joellen to the campus of the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) then took a bus down to Macys. I can still remember the long hours I spent in that windowless building pretending I had any idea whatsoever about what I was doing. The only thing that made the job bearable was a cheerful black girl, not much older than me, who could talk customers into buying products off the shelves so she did not need to enter the dreaded stockroom.
Five days before Christmas my body began to ache. The bars, barbecue joints, and Victorian boarding houses along the route back to the campus were decorated for the season with blinking lights and Santa Clauses but in my worsening condition they were as sinister as ghouls in a carnival funhouse.
I remember seeing my reflection in the window on those dark, cold nights. Instead of eighteen I looked eighty (or as my mother would say like “death warmed over”)
I cried as I waited for Joellen outside her class. All around were murals Thomas Hart Benton had painted in his lean and feverish years, scenes of farm life that felt so cold and lifeless I decided he must have hated the Midwest.
I tried to convince myself that a good night’s sleep was all I needed, but deep down I knew, it was the Hong Kong flu.
In this time of Trumpist bullhorns spreading absurd and harmful claims, I began thinking about the lowly dog whistle. After all, a bullhorn is like an AR-15, everyone can hear and understand. Why waste time with indirect words, when one can rip somebody’s heart out? But then it occurred to me that after Trump leaves office, maybe the dog whistle will make a comeback. Trump supporters might be forced to be more subtle in their disinformation and hatred without a president to goad and shield them. If that were to happen, one might be able to make good money off the sale of upgraded dog whistles.
Here is how it could work:
I’m glad to announce the Universal Dog Whistle for sale on the Tin Hats Blog. That’s right, we’re selling the ultimate dog whistle for conveying all of your homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, antidemocratic, racist, ageist, climate change denial, and…
When I heard the news the baby and I went to bed. I don’t know how … but we both fell right to sleep. Perhaps it was the shock.
Before John Lennon formed The Beatles, entertainers were brand names to be marketed and sold. The words they spoke were fed to them based on careful calculations. A really good example of what I’m talking about is the Netflix movie “Mank.” It’s about the early days of Hollywood when the public was fed stories about their favorite stars and those stars were expected to play the roles assigned to them. For example, the story that Mary Pickford was a forty year old virgin was a joke in Hollywood but apparently believed by her adoring public. Screenwriters were generally established writers slumming it for a few easy bucks. If asked to write a script for a political ad that deliberately mislead voters, they were expected to comply or risk being ruined both financially and professionally. However, when a writer knowingly deceives his readers, he generally calls it fiction.
Anyway, like the Mank character, John Lennon, whether you liked him or not, showed us that honestly over time is the only thing that gives art meaning. It’s just a damn shame he’s not here to lead us all into old age.
If you’ve ever read Duke Miller’s stories (which I repost here often), often they are grim recollections of his twenty years of refugee work, filled with regrets and sorrows but beautifully written. This is particularly true of his first book “Living and Dying with Dogs” and its companion piece “Handbook for the Hopeless,” a guide to getting and keeping a job (and your head) in a war zone. After our publisher closed up shop and we formed John’s Motorcycle Storage and Rare Book Disposal Publishing, Duke combined the two books into “Living and Dying with Dogs, Turbo Edition.”
It has been said of Duke that being pissed off is his way of dealing with life, however, his newest book, Tragedy Wears Many Hats, reflects a man who is in love with love, living in a world that conspires against its survival. Oh, there are a few pieces of “prose poetry” as he calls them, which bemoan the human condition, either comically or tragically but … well … I’ll post a few passages and you tell me if I’m right.
From Map of the Lungs:
My happiness blinked as I rolled to touch your warm skin, you were an ocean where the mountains rose beneath and the skeleton fish darted through slim channels, in never times, hours unkept, and I journeyed there, sighting upon your star-shaped pores, drinking at your eyes, never to live like that again, and I saw your map of lungs, there, at the bottom of the sea
We are all so helpless in this life, even the strongest and the richest and the wisest … the burden of scars forcing us to crawl while others run
Yet, there is the dressing of love, let us gently press it down
From Emaciated Horses
You need only tilt your head and let the wonder become your eyes and there it will be, everything great and small, the warm sad beauty that gives us life, that covers us with this terrible love we cannot name or forget
From Your Eyes:
I think of you and how easy it is to die, so very easy, and it is a lonely thing, but what a joy to have been part of your eyes
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks getting accustomed to a new computer (after seven years) and helping friends of mine either publish or get the word out about their books. First, I have to agree with all my blogging buddies who find WordPress’ new block editor a pain in the butt. I’ve lost hours of time trying the figure it out. Ugh.
On to more pleasant topics, back in September (golly it seems so long ago doesn’t it?) my friend Mary published her fourth book! Wow. Considering that Mary holds down a job, is married and has children still around the house and is still able to not only write novels but also help other authors promote their work is truly mind-blowing for me.
Mary’s novels generally involve young women who’ve had to overcome either eating disorders, obsessions with a life that could’ve been, or the old and familiar bugaboo to us all … choosing and then sticking with the wrong partner. Her newest I Doesn’t Have to Be That Way addresses the reasons behind toxic relationships both in the workplace and in our personal life. It is an honest portrayal that I’m sure was difficult to write but bravo to Mary for sticking it out.
Here was my five star review:
It Doesn’t have to be that Way is about Molly and Fred, two people with little in common except that both are stuck in a rut. Molly fell into her office job directly out of college and, although the work environment has gotten toxic, needs a kick in the pants to move on. The same could be said for her personal life. In flashbacks, we find out that her pattern has always been to rush into, and then find excuses to remain in, unhealthy relationships with men. Fred, who’s in his seventies, still mourns the fate of his brother who may or may not have killed someone in a PTSD-fueled rage. His failed marriage has left him only comfortable with virtual relationships (via his shortwave radio) or with women young enough to have been the daughter he never had (Molly.) As both begin to change direction they realize their futures might be tragically intertwined.
Unlike New England or even Jolly Old England, here in California we generally have two seasons: Green and Brown. Right now we’re between the two. Cold, dry days but not enough rain for our season of green to commence.
Last night my husband said to me “this was the worst Thanksgiving ever.” Considering that he generally has to be dragged to holiday celebrations and makes faces when I invite guests over to share “his” turkey, it provoked a sharp response from me. “You bloody hypocrite!” But in truth I’ve always known he doth protest too much. If he doesn’t get at least five requests for his famed Mac and Cheese recipe at holiday events, his year is ruined. Last year my best friend’s children fought over the leftovers and he spent the whole next day typing meticulous instructions (three pages long) to email to them all. He was a happy man.
This year, although he wasn’t “forced” to share his pumpkin pie, he realized maybe it’s not so much fun to eat it all by himself. A good lesson as that’s what the holiday is supposed to represent. Not the massive gathering of family during which deep seated resentments are bound to leave at least one family member hurt. Or hosting large gatherings that leave you cleaning the house for days afterward. But just simply sharing.
Speaking of families, the “children” of my Red Squill (seen above at its most glorious) continue to sprout at her withered base.
The eldest is above and below the youngest.
I know it’s greedy but I’m hoping she will have many more children who will somehow survive the coming winter and rise again in late August 2021.
The boat dropped me off on a Sobat River sandbar. The Ethiopian border was fifteen miles away and if you looked on the map, you’d find my location to be on the southern edge of the Greater Upper Nile region. There were 600,000 displaced Sudanese on the march. The Mengistu government had fallen and all of the safe-haven camps on the border were now closed. The Sudanese had to go home and so they left by the hundreds of thousands, crying and complaining; grieving over the lost protection of Mengistu, who happened to be one of the world’s worst dictators at the time. He’d eventually be found guilty of genocide and the death of 2,000,000 people, but due to the winds of Africa, he would avoid arrest and float down to a luxurious life in Zimbabwe.
Poetry and music were of no help to the Sudanese fleeing Ethiopia. Thoughts…
I’ve settled upon a few things about writing and reading and they are like imprints I can feel … breath and heartbeat on my walk, smooth stones in my lungs … and they take in everything that I can see and think, everything that is real
Voice is the key to writing, on the wire, in the wind as the Indian nations listen to pole and track … falling upon the ground in disbelief, dying suddenly, asleep, a great sadness, as if all the blood in the world has vanished upon some threshold unknown to me
Style is more important than content, just ask the sun in the sky, a unique style gives one the confidence to refashion birth and death with cotton candy and endless spoons
Honesty over truth, since no one knows the truth, particularly people who were there, hurt in those lost moments, so far away, dense…