Getting to Know Each Other Again After Covid

Some people thrived this past year during the pandemic, barely noticing the lock-downs, shut-downs, and shout-downs between the maskers and anti-maskers. Others were just “doing time” in their own home, a house arrest. And then there were the social butterflies forced to live less colorful more grey lives, pinned by a pandemic.

I spent this Covid year largely at my computer in my favorite outfit: yoga pants and a T-shirt.

Dressing up is now something from my distant past. I’m also less talkative. I grunt more. Movie star Sylvester Stallone said he preferred grunting as opposed to speaking in his portrayal of Rambo, an ex-military vigilante.  Stallone said the less dialogue the better—and that much can be communicated through grunts. So, I defer to Rambo’s wisdom.

Now though, with increasing Covid vaccinations and infection rates dropping precipitously, life as we once knew it may be returning. We’ll soon be able to eat at restaurants and see grandma face-to-face again. I have a friend who lives in British Columbia but her elderly mother is in a nursing home just across the border in the United States.  It’s been a year since she’s seen her mom. First the nursing home said no visitors, and then the Canadian border closed. I’ve wondered, after Covid will my friend and her mother have a happy reunion? Or will her eighty-eight year-old mother have grown too frail for a hug?

For some of us, a year is a long time.

Covid has changed us in many ways, including how we live and work.  It also may have altered the way we relate to each other. I took a walk with a neighbor this morning who told me that she suddenly felt like she’d become an introvert.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just don’t have a longing to join in with my old groups anymore.  I’m a little lonely, but I don’t have the energy for socializing.”

Our social and emotional lives can experience Covid damage. Sciencemag.org (online, 3/16/2020) says chronic social isolation increases mortality by as much as 29%.  Apparently, just being social makes a big difference on our stress levels. The institutions and activities that bind us, churches, community organizations, and sporting events for example, bring us both pleasure and comfort.  Such activities connect us.  I haven’t sat next to someone in a movie theater or at my granddaughter’s piano concert in over a year. Superficially, I haven’t missed the togetherness, but Harvard sociologist Mario Small says being with others can give us a reassuring sense, “… that (we’re all part of) something larger…”

Now thinking ahead to post-pandemic, I’m wondering if we can pick up where we left off relationship-wise.  Last March I sat at a dinner table with my book club friends talking and laughing through the night.

Zoom meetings have replaced those relaxed, fun times, but tech can only go so far in giving us a sense of community.

I politely declined when my sister-in-law recently asked me to Zoom together with other family members. I’m all zoomed out. You can’t read body language on Zoom, and that affects the flow of conversation. Either you’re talking over someone else—or you sit there silent, smiling dumbly into the computer screen.

A good analogy for our year-long Covid withdrawal is the story of Sleeping Beauty. When we wake up will all our castles be overgrown with vines, as neglected as our social lives?

My best hope is to smoothly transition back into former relationships.

The military has a protocol for service members returning home after an extended deployment. They advise them to take it slow “reintegrating” with family and friends. Military.com (online) says, “That first kiss back can be an amazing one, but it can also be awkward (nine months or a year of no kissing can do that).”

So, to all my affectionate family and friends that I haven’t seen in a year, I’m as ready as you are to get back together.  But just so you know, a simple grunt “hello” is the only greeting I need.

 

Blog post at http://www.dianahooley.net.  Image credit: Rambo, and Friends,

 

A Valentine to My Old Baptist Church

I grew up in a Baptist church and the people in the church became my friends and my community.  Brother Griggs, our minister, gave the same message nearly every Sunday, pacing back and forth on the stage of the sanctuary and wiping his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. He was passionate about saving sinners.

Even as a young girl I recognized Brother Griggs was trying to help his congregation find meaning in this life, and hope for a heavenly afterlife.

That was the theme of a hymn we often sang in my church, a 19th century melody by Eliza Hewitt called, “When We All Get to Heaven.”

I didn’t go to many town or school events because my church had its own social calendar. Besides regular church services, every Sunday evening was Young People’s meeting. I sat in a pew with my girlfriends, Sandy and Rita, chewing double-mint gum while we passed notes about cute boys in our youth group. We sometimes played a game called “Swords Up” where we held our Bible (our sword) with two hands in front of our chest until our youth leader gave us a Bible verse to find.  Then we’d race each other to see who could flip through their Bible the fastest and locate the verse. On holidays our church celebrations were different too. For example, on New Year’s Eve while the “secular” world was drinking champagne, our church had a Night Watch service.

The women in the church brought in casseroles and chocolate sheet cakes, and we ate, sang, and prayed our way through midnight into the New Year.

Once a month we had Wednesday communion and foot-washing service. The communion was a solemn affair, but the foot-washing part was pure fun.  Long before spa pedicures the people of my Baptist church laughed and splashed washing each other’s feet. We were following the model of humility Christ presented in the New Testament when he humbly washed his disciples’ feet.

I no longer attend a Baptist church, but have many, many good memories. Some of my friends however, are less than happy with their evangelical upbringing. A woman friend said she was frustrated with the patriarchal teachings of her church and found it demeaning to women. Another man told me he could no longer see the relevancy of what he was taught in Sunday school. One complaint I never hear from my age group is how the church “politically” misled us. In the 1960’s and 70’s there was a distinct line separating our church and the rest of the world. We believed and followed Christ’s words in the book of Mark: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and God’s the things that are God’s.”  The church’s mission was spiritual, not political. Our eyes were to be set on Christ’s kingdom, not a temporal government or that government’s agenda.

Interestingly, the Southern Baptist church, the largest protestant denomination in America, has experienced a significant drop in membership the last 13 years (Associated Press, 6/2020).

Apparently, young people are moving away from Baptist churches. Newsweek reported (12/13/18) that a 29-year-old Connecticut man, Alex Carmire, left his church shortly before his pastor announced from the pulpit that the presidential election of Donald Trump was ‘a miracle of the Lord.’ Just a few weeks ago a Baptist minister in Texas tweeted to his congregation that our new black, female vice-president, was a “Jezebel.” Maybe in recognition of this growing trend toward politicization, Southern Baptist leader Ronnie Floyd recently said, “It is clear that change is imperative…We have to prioritize reaching every person with the Gospel of Jesus Christ…” (Associated Press).

Floyd makes a good point. The first line of “When We All Get to Heaven” reads: “Sing the wondrous love of Jesus…”  These words are far more potent and beautiful than any political philosophy or slogan. If the Baptist church wants to retain its influence, perhaps it should consider going back to the basics.

That message of love spoke to me as a child. It still speaks to me today.

 

Blog Post at http://www.dianahooley.net and images: Church and Politics

Can Our Farm Save the Planet?

It’s a puzzle.  The problem is our livelihood and lifestyle. My husband and I are farmers living on the Snake River in Idaho who enjoy the fresh smell of cut hay and hearing the cows calling their calves. Our life is rich and rewarding, yet because we pay such close attention to things like weather, we know it’s getting warmer. Spring is nudging earlier and earlier and we need the deep freeze of winter to kill pesky bugs and build mountain snow packs to fill our reservoirs for irrigation.

I’ve asked myself, what can we do to help slow climate change?

But the very act of growing crops accounts for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gases that causes global warming (www.environmentreports.com). Every time a farmer cultivates or plants his ground, he stirs the soil and releases carbon into the atmosphere.

“I’ll tell you what you can do,” my adult son Sam advised me. “Two words: carbon sequestration. There’s lots of research out there supporting the fact that farmers can help climate change by not working their ground so much. Then the carbon in the soil gets left alone. People need to farm differently. I’ll text you some web sites to look at.”

I wanted to see Sam’s research because I was writing an article for a magazine about farming and the environment. Many farmers are currently limiting their tillage (as my son advocated) because it saves money, time, and improves soil health. They leave old corn stalks, dried weeds, and manure on the ground over the winter to increase soil fertility. Leaving their fields undisturbed also happens to sequester carbon. When I first came to the farm forty years ago farmers disced and ploughed the ground bare, waiting for a spring injection of chemicals to make it fertile.

Using farm ground to bury carbon has become such a popular idea. . .

. . .that the Microsoft corporation, food giant General Mills, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have said they’re willing to pay farmers for sequestration.  Who’d have thought the “Wolf of Wall Street” would show any interest in Coyotes from Country Lane?

Despite the increasing interest in Ag carbon markets, scientists are beginning to argue for caution.  Did I mention the word “puzzle?”  The puzzle here is that though farmers can use methods like minimum tillage to keep carbon in the topsoil, it’s not stored there indefinitely. Any kind of tractor work, planting a crop for instance, will release carbon from the topsoil.

In order for farm ground to be a true carbon sink the carbon has to be stored deep, at least a meter, where it’s more stabilized.

“Okay Dr. Baker. I just have a few questions.” I was talking to John Baker on the phone. Baker was a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis/St. Paul and a soil biologist for the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Did you say you’re an Idaho farmer?” Dr. Baker asked me. I suddenly realized how odd it must be for him to sit in his office surrounded by computer screens and data and get a call from a farmwife in Idaho.

I explained to Dr. Baker that I was writing an article about farmers and the environment.  We talked a little about farming in the west before I finally got to my central question: can farm ground be used to keep carbon out of the atmosphere?

“Well, I’m giving you a ‘qualified’ yes on that,” Baker said. “I mean farmers have to be able to sequester carbon deeper in the soil—where it will stay. They not only have to limit their tillage, but they need to plant, and then leave alone, deep-rooted cover crops that pull carbon lower in the soil.  If this happens, then yes, farmers definitely can play a role in mitigating climate change.”

When I hung up the phone I was surprised at how relieved I felt. Dr. Baker is an authority. If I understood him right, the pieces are all there. We in the farm community just have to start putting the puzzle together.

 

Image credit:  Diana Hooley, Hooley farm      Image credit: The Wolf of Wall Street 

Image credit:  Diana Hooley, wheat planted on old corn field using low till

What We Don’t Know About Our Friends and Neighbors

I was visiting with my neighbor Bea in her home when she suddenly turned toward a table in the corner and said, “I want to show you something.”

Bea walked over to the table and picked up two large, clear plastic bags each containing a colorful quilt in them.  “Look what I’ve been doing this winter!” she said, pulling the quilts out of the plastic and proudly draping them over her arm.

I was amazed at Bea’s quilts, their beauty, their crisp seams, and the colorful designs.

She told me one quilt was called “The Disappearing Four Patch.”  She’d seen the pattern on a quilting TV program: “Fons and Porter’s Love of Quilting.”  The other quilt was a collage of antique pink and yellow-themed blocks, and was sewn in a garden star pattern.

I marveled at Bea’s craftsmanship especially since I’m not a quilter myself, and left Bea’s house thinking about a book I read once, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.  The book was about a man who searched the world for the meaning of life. He eventually found his answer in India where he watched a woman weave a blanket. He thought this was our purpose: we’re each a colorful strand of thread making a contribution to some universal pattern. I was disappointed in the book’s conclusion.  The book was a bear to read, and I was looking for something a bit more mystical.

Bea is not the type of person I see quilting.  My image for that comes from my mother-in-law who was an excellent homemaker and spent years cooking and sewing for her family.  Bea’s been a homemaker among other roles, but to me she’s never looked or acted like one.  For example, I’ve never seen Bea wear a dress much less an apron. She seems most comfortable in an old T-shirt and jeans.  Often I’ll see her in a pair of muck boots working in her half-acre yard moving irrigation pipes or firing up her tractor mower. She has short hair and brown, leathery skin, and she spent years weighing potato and grain trucks at a local farm scale house.  Bea’s always been so practical, I just never knew she harbored so much creativity.

Who we are inside, our talents and thoughts, can be a big secret to the world.

We can be like Russian nesting dolls.  Layers need to be uncovered before you actually find the core of us, and it’s only in how we express ourselves, what we make, do, or say that you catch a glimpse of our inner life.  Sometimes that core can be surprising—and sometimes disappointing, even shocking.  For example, Abraham Lincoln was described by opposition newspapers as “…the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet-face ever strung upon a single frame…”  Furthermore, these newspapers said Lincoln’s speeches were “illiterate compositions…interlarded with coarse and clumsy jokes…” (medium.com). On the other hand, Ted Bundy, the serial killer, was characterized as “… young, handsome, and well-dressed in a preppy kind of way (Quora.com).”

Appearances aren’t the only possible deception in the package of who we are.

I was struck by this fact watching the fall-out from the riot last week in Washington on television.  NBC news reported that many of the participants were simply regular people, teachers and truck drivers, some even held jobs that contributed to public safety, like firemen and former police. The old axiom that you can never judge a book by its cover is amplified here. You can’t even judge a book by its plot or characters. You have to go deep to the theme, what animates the person.  For my neighbor Bea, surprisingly, it’s quilts.  For others, apparently, it’s something far more dark and angry.

Blog post at http://www.dianahooley.net and credits:  garden star pattern    The Razors Edge    Capitol riot

 

Reading about the Universe on New Year’s Eve

There’s a room upstairs in my house where I store things: my old skis, high school yearbooks, family photos.  Everyone has a place like this.  I foraged around in this room and noticed my personal journals on a shelf, journals I’d written in over a life time.  I rarely reread my old journals.  Writing in them was enough.  But I leafed through a few out of curiosity and was surprised by what I found.  I knew things in 1993 and 2001 and 2010!

It occurred to me that I’d never given my younger self much credit for wisdom.

I’ve always thought wisdom and the knowledge that undergirds it takes years to acquire.  It’s the wheelhouse of the very old—but it seems I was wrong.

For example, the last day of February 1993 I was anxious for spring and the weather wasn’t cooperating.  I wrote: “The temperature outside is 20 degrees—and falling!  Forget global warming!”

Apparently, decades ago I knew about climate change.

I knew about it long before Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, or young Greta Thunberg’s climate protests.  In 1993 I was a high school reading teacher and a busy mother of four.  I remember grading papers until late in the afternoon, and then picking up my kids from after-school sports.  On the way home we ate take-out Little Caesar pizza in the car.  When did I find time to read about trapped greenhouse gases?  And, where did I read about it?

I wrote an entry in my journal in 2001, the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York.  Interestingly, my topic was life and what it meant to live.  I’d just had my first colonoscopy, and I wrote: “I’ve reacted to this colonoscopy with disabling apprehension…I barely got through it…what with fear and anxiety over cancer, tumors, polyps, biopsies.  How many times will I have to live through these horrid experiences?  And then, THEN, Dr. Williams gave my colon a clean bill of health and told me she’d see me again in ten years.  My spirits went up like a kite.

I wanted to shout to the sky, ‘I’ll live!’—as if ‘living’ is solely dependent on physical health…”

In 2010 I wrote something in my journal that reminded me of a book I’m currently reading about Einstein and physics.  I barely made it through high school physics so I was intrigued to find out if The Dancing of the Wu Li Masters could explain the universe to me.  The author, Gary Zukav, wrote, “…all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all encompassing organic pattern and …no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.”

The Wu Li Master’s book soothed my grieving spirit this fall when my brother suddenly died, and I felt permanently “separate” from him.

Weirdly, in the spring of 2010 I speculated about how the laws of the universe and the elasticity of space and time might have something to say about death and dying on earth. I wrote:

“…there (are) all kinds of stories:  the story of childhood with its myth and magic; the story of adulthood with its passion and suffering; the story of old age with its death and loss.  But the mitigating factor in old age, in all of life, is the story of the universe, of time and space.  This is comforting to me because in the face of our cruel natural world, there’s a much bigger reality: time and space…”

When I finished reading my journals I restacked them back on their shelf, glad I took the time to revisit my younger self.  My journal writings turned out to be hopeful letters to the future me, that white-haired lady living in the year 2021.

 

Image Credit:  The Universe       Image Credit:  Dancing of the Wu Li Masters         Image Credit:

 

I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die…

Erin, my daughter’s friend, is in the first wave to get the Pfizer Covid vaccine here in Idaho.

She’s on the front lines working as a nurse practitioner in the cardiology unit at our local hospital.  I like her attitude. After getting the vaccine she laughed and offered to roll all over her friends to help them with herd immunity.  Lucky Erin. This vaccine can’t come quick enough, not only to stave off further infections, but many people are experiencing the very real problem of Covid fatigue. They’re sick of dealing with the virus and either actively defying health restrictions or passively ignoring them.

“Oh Covid’s everywhere,” a woman told me matter-of-factly this past week. “My daughter and her husband had it. My grandson had a fever for a couple of days.  It was no big deal.  They all survived.” This woman is planning a large family gathering at Christmas.

That’s the thing about Covid: for most people it is no big deal.  Some people are even asymptomatic, something that presented a problem in a school district near my home.  National Public Radio reported that asymptomatic carriers in the Bruneau-Grandview school district in Idaho may have fostered community spread of Covid.  Mask wearing is not popular among students, parents, or staff in this district, said NPR, and, “…there’s also this sense of, well, this is just how it is going to be.”

But the sense of inevitability, that we’re all going to get Covid, is not supported by the facts. After eight months of dealing with this pandemic, and probably largely due to preventative measures, only 5% of people in the U.S. have been infected according to statistica.com.  So why are people being so fatalistic?

Throwing your hands in the air and giving up is one response to ambiguity, or as the Bruneau-Grandview Superintendent noted, the unpredictability of the Covid situation.

Here’s a virus that’s known to be deadly for the elderly, but occasionally kills young people.  It’s often little more than a bad cold, but can send some people to the hospital fighting for their lives. There was no question in the Middle Ages if you became infected with the plague. Those infections resulted in fatality.

The maddeningly, arbitrary nature of the virus is at least partly responsible for our mixed responses to it.  The reluctance to take Covid more seriously has been blamed on either lack of leadership from the White House, or the moral failings of people more concerned with their personal rights than their community responsibilities.  But it’s difficult to bring out the Big Guns and always stand at the ready for months on end when the enemy is as unreliable as Covid.

When I taught school I had a front row seat watching human behavior, what motivated students and what did not.  Also, what made students give up and quit trying.  Later, in my role as an educational researcher I investigated reinforcement schedules, how to time rewards to keep students working and trying.  Too much uncertainty in a situation or outcome, and students lost interest.  It’s no different with this pandemic.

Finally, for some people the rewards for wearing a mask and social distancing has been too long in coming.  They’re just tired of it all.

So am I.  I’m tired of Covid too.  I miss our movie group party this holiday season, and hugging my dear, elderly mother.  I’d like my daughter to spend Christmas Eve night with us, but I’m not sure who she’s been around at work, and whether she’s been exposed.  I thought about the situation we’re in the other day listening to some alternative rock music on the radio.  The lyrics of one song said it all as far as I was concerned.  The ironically named group, Vampire Weekend, sang: “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die…”

 

Blog posts and photos: Bruneau-Grandview, Rimrock High School     Vampire Weekend

at http://www.dianahooley.net

 

 

Feeling Good this Christmas

“Do you know what’s in plum pudding?”  Andrea, my daughter-in-law, asked me as she read the recipe from her cell phone.

“Just a wild guess, plums?”

“Half a pound of kidney fat, and get this, you have to cure the pudding for a year before you eat it.”

“Yummy. Kidney fat is one of my favorite things.”

Andrea’s planning a Charles Dicken’s Christmas feast, but I have my doubts about a 150-year-old meal.  Lots of people are going “retro” this Christmas and looking to the past for holiday inspiration.  For example, I’ve read there’s been a run on live, fresh Christmas trees.  Apparently, plastic trees have lost their appeal despite the fact you can shake them open like an umbrella.  Another sign of Christmas retro: the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is currently in the top ten list of most-watched movies.  As I write this, the sixth most-streamed song this week (according to Rolling Stone magazine) is Dean Martin’s 1959 hit, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.

One oft-cited theory about our fascination with Christmases of the past is that we all long for a “simpler” time.  Not everyone agrees with this thinking though. I knew a man once who grumbled about fireplaces and wood stoves, the old-fashioned way to heat homes at Christmas.

“Why would anyone want to chop wood when we’ve got central heating?” he asked me.

Every time I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life I want to live in that quaint,1940’s town of Bedford Falls where everyone knows everyone else, and predictably, there’s a good guy, George Bailey, and a bad guy, the deceitful banker, Mr. Potter.  Though people and life are much more complex than that, at Christmas especially, we still look for a hero, someone as pure and good as a babe in a manger. We want to BELIEVE. We don’t want to deal with ambiguous leaders who lie worse than Mr. Potter.

Christmases of the past have a certain aura. They always seem so gilded with joy. Maybe because the ones we remember the best, are those of our childhood.  My mother tells the story in the 1930’s of wishing for a doll she saw advertised on a can of Clabber Girl baking powder. With enough Clabber Girl coupons, the doll was free. Mom told me she was thrilled when she discovered the Clabber Girl doll under the Christmas tree.  I remember being five-years-old and excited for Christmas.  I lay on my top bunk straining to hear Santa’s sleigh bells. One of my husband’s fondest memories is the Christmas he got an erector set. Happiness is such a bright, twinkling star. We want to follow that star no matter how distant and unreachable.

Our nostalgia this Christmas probably has a lot to do with the current pandemic.  We relate to Dean Martin crooning: “Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” –because with Covid, the weather’s not the only frightful thing. The pandemic has left many of us craving a safer, more comforting past.  But, that’s our fantasy.  Charles Dickens lived before antibiotics when a simple cold could mean death.  It’s a Wonderful Life was made during WWII.  And, Dean Martin was popular when Russia threatened the U.S. with nuclear attacks.  Even that first Christmas was not safe.  Mary and Joseph, like all Jews, lived under Roman oppression.

No matter what happens in the world, it’s good to remember that Christmas really happens inside of us, in our heart and our head.  For some, it only takes a old movie or a song to get into the Christmas spirit.  For others, it’s a kidney-fat pudding from the 19th century–and to the pudding crowd I say, “Bon appetit!”

Image Credit:  It’s a Wonderful Life  Image credit: Christmas Past      Image credit:  Plum Pudding

Let’s Travel to Another Place…

I’ve been living in the Land of the Sick—and I’m ready to move.  To begin with, I’m sick with some kind of non-Covid throat infection, and this despite the fact that I wear masks, social distance, and disinfect.  How did these bugs sneak by my PPE to my tonsils?  Then, my brother and elderly mother have spent time this month in the hospital.  My daughter-in-law just video-chatted and said their whole family is sick with fever and nausea and waiting on Covid test results.

Looking for a reprieve from ill health, I turned on the TV…

and the screen lit up with people in hospitals on ventilators.  I walked to the kitchen to make a cup of tea (for my throat) but couldn’t miss my kitchen counter covered with thermometers, throat lozenges, and ibuprofen.  A sticky pad listed the health clinic and doctor’s phone number. The scenery in the Land of the Sick is not so great.

There are other lands to live in and plenty of examples of people who, in dire times, discovered them.  Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island, spent much of his youth in bed sick with bronchial infections.  That didn’t stop him from letting his mind jump a ship bound for exotic, ocean beaches full of nefarious pirates. Teddy Roosevelt too, was a bed-ridden, sickly youth, yet he spent hours with his toy soldiers dreaming of great deeds and military conquests.  Being physically trapped in their beds didn’t prevent these young men from roaming far and wide in their minds.

Another woman I knew told me about her own journey out of the Land of the Sick.

“Koontz and his stories, they saved me,” said Pam. “I got through my cancer treatments and came out the other side, amazingly still sane.”

Pam was just a young woman when she found out she had breast cancer and needed both surgery and chemo. It was a nightmare. She was frightened and became obsessed with thoughts of death.  Then someone gave her a Dean Koontz mystery/horror novel.  Pam told me reading Koontz book she was transported from her hospital room to an alleyway in southern California where some telepathic dog was tracking a killer.

“I wrote Dean Koontz a long letter thanking him for all that he did for me,” Pam told me excitedly, “and guess what?  He answered me back!”

Other lands are far more pleasant than the Land of the Sick.  There’s the Land of Music, the Land of Adventure, the Land of Building.  My father was a trucker in norther Indiana hauling trailer homes across the country.  He spent long hours in the cab of his truck with little else to do but watch the ribbon of highway stretching ahead of him. Dad trucked in a time before podcasts and other entertainments were available. His only diversion was the radio—when he could get reception.  But it was on these lengthy, boring trips to Florida or Massachusetts that dad would design and build a large addition he planned for our house.  He told my mother he had the blueprint in his mind.

This past week I took a hiatus from the Land of the Sick to binge-watch Netflix.

There I saw a great mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, about a young woman who became a chess master.

In order for Beth Harmon to visualize her chess moves she had to leave the Land of Anxiety and Fear.  No one can concentrate if they’re locked in some awful headspace, but sometimes leaving is harder than we think. Beth Harmon took drugs–not an option for me, unless of course you count Ibuprofen.

Today, my throat still hurts, but I’m no longer contagious. I think I’ll take a drive down the road, not far, just to the place where there’s a little rise. I’ll park the car and sip my water bottle and and watch the traffic in the valley below. Maybe I’ll see a car with an out-of-state license plate, maybe Oregon.  Then I’ll think about that wonderful time we flew kites on the Oregon coast—and escape the Land of the Sick for a while.

 

Image Credit: Covid patient  Image Credit:  Dean Koontz   Image Credit: The Queen’s Gambit

Bad Times and Hard Luck

Winter is coming and many of us are stuck indoors dodging the coronavirus. Sounds like a good time for an inside joke. Isolating is causing me to stress-eat so much my shirt buttons are social distancing.  And, speaking of eating, how are we going to have holiday gatherings during Covid?  Treat everyone like turkeys and avoid from them all instead of just Uncle Cranky?  I might as well mention the job losses caused by Covid.  I’d make a joke about unemployment—but none of them work.

Though my attempt at humor may be fairly lame, the tough times coming this winter are no laughing matter.

The pandemic has already caused a great deal of suffering–but is this really the worst, hard time?

I was ruminating about our pandemic problem when I recently visited a rancher who lives in cowboy country just south of our farm.  Dave wanted to tell me some stories about his ancestors settling the west in the 1800’s, and the kind of winters his family endured in the early days.

“We don’t understand bad times,” Dave said shaking his head. “Winter was a real trial back then. Oh, we get bad winters now. In 1990 we had a cold snap.  Forty below in some places.  I remember I had to bring the cows in to feed. And, 2017 we got dumped on (with several feet of snow).  But my great-grandpa’s family—they couldn’t jump in a warm pickup and haul hay to their cows. At least we’ve got good transportation now.”

Dave showed me a book his Uncle Chet wrote about his ancestors.  His great-grandfather was a teacher from Delaware who came west to stake a land claim.  I leafed through the book and read about the first rock house his great-grandfather built in the high desert near Grasmere, Idaho.

The roof was made of willows, hay, and mud.

Inside the home, coarse muslin cloth was tacked to the ceiling to prevent dirt from drifting down on people’s heads.  Lacking trees in the desert, his great-grandparents burned sagebrush and manure in the fireplace.  Town was forty miles away.

“Life wasn’t easy, but they were young and had dreams,” Dave looked thoughtful. “If you live off the land though, you can’t ever forget that Mother Nature’s the boss.”

Dave said his ancestors learned to expect the unexpected. In the winter of 1919 a mangy coyote wandered into Dave’s grandparent’s yard and fought the family dog in the snow, spewing blood everywhere. Dave’s father, Billy, was just a little boy and loved their cow dog:  Doggone.

Doggone earned his name because anytime there was a mess or something was missing that “doggone dog” was involved.

Dave’s grandmother tried to shoo away the coyote and separate the two animals, but to no avail.  When his grandfather came home, he told Billy they might have to shoot Doggone because the coyote likely was rabid.  Then they learned Doggone had nipped both Billy and several cows in the pasture after his coyote battle. The doctor in Bruneau had to send away to San Francisco for rabies vaccine, and though Billy survived, Doggone and all the cows that were bit, went mad and died.

“That happened—but that wasn’t the worst winter,” Dave said.  The worst winter, Dave told me, was in the 1930’s during the Depression when his Great-Uncle Arthur, who ranched at Wickahoney, Idaho, had no money to buy feed for his cows. He finally went to the Bruneau bank to borrow money, but the bank refused him a loan. Banks were struggling as much as everyone else during the Depression. Not willing to stand by and watch his cows starve, the next day, Dave’s great-uncle hung himself.

“But my dad’s cousin, Rosella, Arthur’s daughter, she survived.  I think those hard times toughened her up, because she lived a good long life after that, well into her 80’s I believe.”

When my visit with Dave ended, I went in my house and walked around marveling at the comfortable and safe environment I live in. The family room felt a little chilly so I turned up the wall thermostat. Then, with a flick of a switch, I brewed some coffee.  As I sipped my coffee I thought about my particular story of oppression: the 2020 Covid Pandemic.  We may not be living in the best of times, but we’re certainly not living in the worst–not even close.

 

 

Image Credit:  Cowboy in snow.    Image Credit: Dave’s ancestral home 1900’s (courtesy Tindall family).  Image Credit:  Amos the cowdog (courtesy Christine Collett).  Image Credit: Cattle in winter (courtesy Christine Collett).

Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton