Books stacked to the ceiling; new, old, hard cover, all colors, smelling of cinnamon, cloves, and musty spider dust. A woman whirling like a cyclone, her arms extending. She brushes the walls, her eyes shut. She chooses. The overstuffed couch swallows her and she reads. Sips of hot tea, cold tea, cider, coffee, one after another, the light changing through the day from powdery gray to melancholy green, at noon quite bright yellow and then white. Straining, she escapes into history, imbibing the past. Seeking perspective, finding a foundation to understand the moment. Respite. She girds to return to earth.
The silver lining in our Covid story almost didn’t happen. My son responded to a Facebook post. A Michigan friend, who was stationed in Afghanistan, posted a message from a Sacramento friend who had housing for herself, but not her pets. Through social media, they spanned the world to locate a fostering contact point.
It was a risk. Little was known about animal-human transmission, so we were leery of the multiple moves the dogs had made on their way to us. Potential virus vectors. But when Max noses in or Kohnan sings opera, I’m glad we took the chance.
Despondent when fashion shows were cancelled, Barbie longed to buy Capri pants, sexy PJ’s, and thong swimsuits. An action figure with years of experience, Barbie leapt to the rescue. E-mail sped to the White House offering a line of summer designs that included matching masks.
Convincing Ivanka to market the clothes and Melania to model was a piece of cake. Both had their original Dream Houses. And Trump’s campaign needed more than MAGA juice.
With the promise of a rollout in August, Barbie said, “Perfect. September is the new June.” Then she relaxed at Malibu, assured she could shop later.
Don’t You Believe It
An elderly lady, squeezing tomatoes in a pre-pandemic way, pulls her mask down. “You’re almost out of the woods.”
Whatever does she mean? “I’m healthy.”
“Yes, my darling, but stifled.”
Your father, reading Lang’s red collection with a Grimm smile, would say, “Poppycock.”
Imagining him in the library, a hole in one stocking, propping his feet on a worn stool sets something tingly-strange a-move.
Dozing later, you dream of the tomato woman, who waves her wand and turns you into the fairy tale of your choice. In a surprise move, you choose Into the Woods. Four stories, one price, music included.
We sing Happy Birthday, A gay grid of celebrants, in a non-traditional party, All five participating squares bathed in screen light. Quick to smile, slow to mourn this unknown country. We clap ourselves on the back, no clue where this is going Or when we might return. Time's cycles extinguish candles burning bright. Wax drips fluttering Quite like a guttering flame: always shifting. We might gather in person soon, Seduced by the promise of a wild celebration. But not today. Quiet when it's over, worrying. Waiting, our grand hopes scattered, eyeing the horizon, Watching in darkness for an illusive dawn.
My ninety-year-old mother is getting stir crazy. She says to me:
- I’m too old to be alive.
- You’re too ornery for heaven and the devil knows you’d raise hell.
She laughs. She roars. She can’t stop.
- My mother said the good die young, the rest are too ornery.
That’s my grandmother, who was herself pretty ornery and died at a ripe old eighty-seven. Ornerier than Mom.
Ornery, it’s a good word. A word for times like this when the world is upside down. Time to get stubborn. Find some beans, seeds and flour. Happy for a quinoa stash.
Writing in a Pandemic
For the past month, a Tarot card that means reprieve has consistently found its way into my weekly story prompt. Sometimes it defines the question. Sometimes it’s the unknown quantity that might determine the outcome. Either way, reprieve is in the cards.
I find this comforting. Whether a reprieve from a broken Washington, a reprieve through self-knowledge or a reprieve via creative insight, all of it seems good. And I see this theme cropping up in places besides my Celtic Cross spreads. My writing group met on Zoom this week. We are normally very disciplined, sticking to the text of the pieces we are discussing, offering useful comments about improving our stories. This week, the sense of loss evoked in the writing provoked a different response that reverberated through the group.
I find myself wondering how much of it was the fictional stories we reviewed and how much of it was the proximity of loss all around us that bled into our comments. In e-mails after the group, one member revealed that a family member had died of the virus. Another commented that we may need to be prepared for more losses as this pandemic runs its course. And though it is unusual to discuss personal issues in our group, the underlying impetus for much writing is personal loss.
My husband tells a story that may be germane here. A friend of his from college, an English major, saw his first snow during his freshman year at an Eastern college. They were walking across campus, white flakes drifting into piles of white flakes. The African student said, “You know that snow means death.” Such a normal phenomenon across most of the United States is a literary symbol which becomes potent when it overcomes the barriers that we erect against it. Heated buildings, roaring fires, protective snow gear, all the ways that man overcomes nature. Until, as in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, nature overcomes man.
As a culture, we have celebrated rugged individualism. We’ve gone into the wilderness, positive that we would return, sure of being protected from the worst by our pluck, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and free market economy. But some things require a group and to be a group, we need to pull together. We need to listen to the advice of people who know more than we do. That means finding some other song to sing besides America First.
We do need America to come together, but that’s not enough. The virus is here. The means to fight it are spread around the world. Isolation is the first defense. But cooperation can’t be far behind or we risk freezing to death as a result of our own stubborn denial regarding the risks. And unlike a man freezing in the wild, we will take others with us if we can’t admit that we need each other.
There are two versions of To Build a Fire. In one version, the protagonist dies. In the other, he sustains frostbite and becomes a wiser person. We could use a little wisdom as we fight our battle with nature. Reprieve is in the cards, the question is how we go about making that happen and how much damage we sustain before the pandemic is over.