Thich Nhat Hanh says, “For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.”
Robert died almost a year ago. I could quote Thich Nhat Hanh, and tell you there is no birth, there is no death; life happens when conditions are ripe. Can you wrap your mind around that? This death/not death we all say we want: unexpected, unprepared for, unheralded. There is no way to make this into a story. I’ve moved into Burlington, from the amiable wreck we shared on the islands, with the four tons of pellets for winter heat, the skylit studio, the nights startled by wild dog packs, the snow geese with their eggs at the edge of the pond, the black fox down the trail, the seven deer (until there were three), the bunny on the walkway staring down the dog in the moonlight, the writers on retreat. It was perfect then, for life was ripe. I could say Robert is alive in our hearts, for he touched many. I could say, this winter was hard to bear, even with the little dog asleep on my shoulder, snoring into my hair. You, friends, brought food and solace, with instructions for moving a soul safely through the Bardo. (The Bardo must be crowded these days: Thich Nacht Hanh, bell hooks, a Scottish serial killer, Goddard, the Mighty Bomber, my great friend John Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Peter Bogdanovich, the Queen, Ozzie (the oldest living gorilla in captivity.) In May, the house sold in a day. I tossed out, gave away, handed off ⅔ of all that stuff – what freedom! – and moved to a cabin where the lake banged around the cliffs, the full moon posed on reflection outside my windows. And now, I am “here”, much lighter. “Here” also happened in a day; a quiet space with room to write, trails to walk; push a button and the heat comes on. The dog and I are happy here. Solitude in a packed city. I am masked. I avoid crowds. She trots by my side, a miracle. So I can tell you, here we are, back in the life stream where I am just another idiot tripping over words, with gratitude, grief, curiosity and wonder.
Cases drop, masking is once again up to us, we’re going to school, eating in restaurants, walking down streets holding hands. Our dogs are behaving badly, we need a hair cut. We’re fatter, unhappier and while some of us are dying to hit the bars, others of us really do not want to go back working three mind-killing jobs while still being desperate for food stamps.
This is the “normal” for many. Working three jobs for $9 an hour while still on line at the food shelves. no child care, medical insurance, housing, fuel. I just read that 40% of American workers do not want to return to their jobs. This is crazy and it’s not because of the generous COVID unemployment benefits killing incentive to work, so why are businesses having trouble finding workers? Because even with multiple jobs and a supportive household, living at these wages is unsustainable. Because low wage labor toiling to make the rich richer is soul death. Because America is based on consumption, we’re told to consume, consume, consume, and we have made of our planet a garbage dump.
We’re a slave society and always have been. We conquer and kill. We starve, manipulate, penetrate those who labor to support our consumerism. Americans want cheap food, cheap services, and we don’t care if the cost is the lives of millions of potential workers. Poverty of this scale in the richest nation in the world is paralyzing, unacceptable. And yet, we accept it.
What else do we accept? That rising prices for the consumer are the fault of workers demanding a living wage of $15 per hour, even though wages haven’t risen against inflation for 40 years. So, when we’re at the counter handed a bill for a Chipolte’s burrito that’s 4% higher than last week, we’re supposed to blame the line cook in the hot, miserable, chaotic kitchen. But guess what: the CEO’s salary is $38 million and the company profit rose to more than $350 million during the pandemic year. And the line chef? Well, he’s maybe not so interested in coming back to work in their crappy kitchen.
Republicans believe the answer is prematurely cutting off unemployment benefits. This strategy is based on a self-serving assumption that normal people don’t want to work, they’d rather hang out in front of their televisions eating poisonous food while their kids commit suicide on bad drugs and the planet chokes on our garbage. How the human species evolved as destroyers instead of guardians of the planet’s diversities is another topic. One that we have to face head on but we won’t.
I love the idea of Jeff Bezos getting in his space ship and heading – where? Nowhere. What I don’t love is that he’ll be back.
Dr Fauci has dropped in virtually to Gov. Scott’s Tuesday briefing, once again an hour of pleasantries, Vermont-isms and mostly well deserved self-congratulations. The Gov and his staff come off as serious, hard working and practical leaders herding our state through perilous times, and there is much to applaud. But, something’s fishy, The governor says it’s impossible to enforce mask wearing and Covid border control, a statement which I interpret as he doesn’t want to alienate his base, that segment of his base raving about following public health measures is an attack on physical freedom, even from reasonable people who leash their dogs, hook up seatbelts, pay taxes, keep their pants on in public without going nuts. It is, an election year, on the way to becoming an election month. Satisfying a base floods a candidates brain, no matter how badly that base is acting. I get that. But it not healthy.
Our state is pretty much masked up despite the lack of enforcement. Our infection rates are admirally low. So, in my mind, this is an argument for, not against, enforcing a mandate: even without the possibility of enforcement, people follow the leader when they trust him.
So why aren’t we – our Republican Gov – pressing for a mandate from the Feds? Is it because we have a leader who can’t be trusted?
the argument is that policies won’t be enforceable, our country is too polarized, the issue has been allowed to become politicized. Meaning, whomever is in charge of these things does not intend to alienate his political base.
Fauci is Fauci, I admire him. But when he answered a reporter’s question about whether or not a federal mask mandate would be welcome, he suggested that it wasn’t wise because our country is so polarized. I think this kind of reasoning is cowardly, in the same way that our governor’s belief that Vt. isn’t enforcing a mandate because enforcement won’t work is cowardly. On the one hand, Fauci and the governor himself believe that good leadership in our state has resulted in major obedience to protect public health, somehow this doesn’t translate to what should be done on the federal level. This is an election year, almost an election month…I get it. Scott is unwilling to alienate his base, even those who believe that wearing seatbelts is detrimental to their inalienable freedom. But they do wear seatbelts, because it’s mandated, because there’s a penalty for not doing so, and perhaps even because they get to accept that their own lives are at stake. Scott as a popular republican governor in a very blue state is in a great position to challenge the toxic leadership of his party by calling on federal truth saying and mandates. People do respond to leadership.
Cleaning out the Lilly beds too soon, it really was too cold, still damp, wet, the ground frozen beneath mud. She should have raked out the dead leaves in the fall, but November had been dark and cold, and already they were cocooning indoors. Winter had come too quickly just as it was leaving too slowly, (too soon, too slow, what was not too soon? Too slow?) So now, on this raw afternoon, she stood with a rake thinking it over. The sky was leaden, quilted by gray clouds, dripping rain, but not really rain, not yet, that wouldn’t happen until dark. It was almost dark. Coming quickly, this dark, a feeling of sky tightening air around her.
She bent down, looking through the lily leaves, pushing them aside with the rake first, but the leaves were stuck in the rake, she couldn’t tell what wanted to release and what leaves didn’t. Some were clearly dead, packed in around others with green at the edges, maybe attached to something, to another part of this thing, a lily, a clump of lilies still hidden in shawls of protective dead growth. This thing winter did. Freezing the juice from living leaves, so they would blanket what was to be saved beneath the frozen mud. Some came away. She put down the rake, bent, began using her hands. Could feel between her fingers what was coming apart easily, and what was still attached, still delicately bonded to the real life below but for what purpose? She didn’t care. Every day it had been first snowing then hailing then raining, every daybone chilling and too soon, but right now, there was a break. Expose the bulbs, for the sun was coming. Too soon, maybe. Something down there, not a bulb. She reached in, yanked. A bone. A big dog bone, gnawed at either end, The dog, in the winter, had come here with this bone in his mouth and carefully put it end first down among the leaves. It was yellow, brown with mud, no longer bone white, hidden away for a particular passage of time.
The dog came down the steps. It was a large white dog with a big head and a brown spot behind each ear. It sat behind her, nuzzled her neck and gently lifted from her grasp its bone. My bone, his eyes said in that animal language of looks, grunts, and tails, but did not thank her. Instead lay down beside her with the bone in its mouth, folding his long white legs. The paws then held the bone for licking. Hello, the dog said, now turning its muzzle to show his tongue. He rose again and laid the bone in her lap. This bone is mine, but I’m putting it here. And then he got up and went off to the pond where two geese were patrolling along the edge, the one goose pecking up and down the shoreline, the second goose standing still facing away from the pond, as if on patrol. Watchful. The dog watched the goose, the goose watched the dog and the woman looked at the bone. It was filthy, in her mind, but not so to the dog, for the dog was beholden to it, and the bone to him.
Pain down her leg, a stiffness in her back. It was not the best idea squatting here under heavy skys in a too thin jacket, torn pants, wet sneakers. Pain reminding her, to breathe, stretch, stand, to look out at the pond where now the heron had arrived. Having seen the dog, the bird changed its mind, flew past, its wings stiff and legs drawn back to its gray body, and landed now on the last bit of ice floating at the far shore. Three blackbirds backed away. They were ravens or crows (the difference has to do with their tail feathers. You had to wait until they were airborne to tell which was a crow and which a raven, for when they spread out, one perfectly straight, the other pointed in the middle, but which was a raven and which a crow, she could not remember.) She stood watching he heron find its footing on the slippery ground, its claws like fingers tapping out words. The patrolling goose moved away, followed by his spouse, the female she presumed. The protective male watching over the female eating. They looked alike, it was hard to tell if the female was doing the eating because maybe it was her mate, and she was doing the protecting. They could be doing both, or else the male never ate, or else they changed places. Last year at some point there was only one of them. The standing male who never seemed to eat, just patrolling the edge of the pond by himself. She presumed it was the female then deep somewhere in the bushes sitting on an egg, on two eggs, and sure enough, one day there appeared the other goose and with her two tiny geese and the next day they were all gone.
Now the dog too was watching, and she wondered what were his thoughts? Were they anything like hers? No, he was walking back towards her now. She watched him coming, his focused eyes, ears hanging like what, like….mushrooms, she thought, like big…oh, she couldn’t think of their names, soft things with fuzzy skins that would fold if you picked it up by one edge, fold like these ears no, this was silly. Big as donkey ears, was what. Only hanging down like soft flayed mice. Moving closer, steadily, focused on his intention and thoughtless, without contradictions or reprehensions or ulterior motivations or hidden agendas or any other metaphor or rhetorical ideations, just a dog coming back for his bone. Dog. Bone. No understanding of how it had arrived in her lap. No clue, no memory of the moments before when he had left it there, or when he had first discovered it, and certain nothing so far back as deep in the winter when he’d carried it out of the house, sat in the snow for a few moments under a weak sun, then lying under that sun, spread out on his back, feet in the air and the bone underneath. Perhaps the dog remembered the feel of the bone against its spine, My bone. Mine.
And how had it gotten into the lily bed? The dog was bad at this. He would bring those objects that meant most to him at this one instant, a moment he would never remember, which was neither too soon or not soon enough, carrying it carefully in his mouth because it was a long bone and would fall out if he didn’t manage the exact center, the point of gravity (she was trying to remember what that was called but instead remembered the name of the mushrooms. Portabellos. And that they were round, nothing at all like the ear of a dog, except maybe in the way it felt, soft and plush when held). In the winter, the dog had stopped in front of the lily bed, dropped the bone on the ground and began digging with its front paws. Very intently, it had dug, flinging the hard soil to one side. Then it deposited the bone in the lily bed behind the hole. It pushed some of the dirt back over the empty hole and gone away. She remembered laughing. How she and her husband had stood watching at the window, laughing. Not at the dog, but in concert at what the dog had in its mind about burying a bone.
Then the clouds overran the sky and the rain began, and she and the dog went inside. Her husband sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. It’s the end of everything, he said, showing her his laptop screen where Notre Dame was in flames.
The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.
This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.
I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.
NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.
On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.
One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go? Houston? Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.
The cats, however stayed and multiplied. You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.
My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.
I’m deeply involved in a writers community in my city. It’s a Meetup group that has maybe 200 active members. When the founder disappeared (who knows the real story behind this), they (who are they?) formed a 501C3 that required a Board, so that was formed, and after their terms ran out, a second Board came forth but a year later almost all of them quit in a huff without telling anyone why, without a transition plan. Then a transitional team tried to form, but they too quit (what is it with quitting boards?) and now there is an emergency community meeting because we have to pay the rent.
This has been going on for months, and now half of us who used to be copasetic in community don’t speak to the other half: being writers, we started sending each other overly long, acrimonious, analytical and philosophical emails and neglected our own novels.
I unapologetically fled. I was able to get out of town to a residency where I determined to convince my novel to forgive me.
I’m thinking of something that happened to a famous writer whose name I’ve forgotten. She tells the story of having thought of writing a novel about – I’m quoting from Amazon here – “a researcher (female) who sets off into the Amazon jungle to find the remains and effects of a colleague who recently died under mysterious circumstances.” But she never wrote it, and in due time her idea went away and settled in the brain of another writer, Anne Patchett, who actually wrote that story, which she titled “State of Wonder”. These writers met and kissed, or something, and became best friends.
This story of course sounds too good to be true, but even if it isn’t, there’s a lesson behind it, which is more or less that there are only so many ideas floating around the universe and if you don’t write your novel, someone else will.
You noticed the twitch, right? Left upper lip triangulating towards the nose, eyebrows arched and rapid eye blinks? Looks like a snarl, but of course, it’s not, because our nominee is just a regular beer drinking basketball playing judge who went to YALE.
Susan Orleans once said she was sick of old dead white men. Too bad, because new ones keep getting born.
The twitch bothers you, right? You wonder about the odd facial tics, the tongue in his cheek, the tears squeezing out when he’s talking about football camp. Like how old is he? The pursed lips, staring eyes. He looks like Mr. Potato Head on crack, a raving teenager someone should send to his room. Something really weird in the mouth. He wants to talk over everyone, shout, make his sniveling points and go home for a beer. You think this guy is having some trouble with the truth. The judge is a liar and a smooth one, the kind that deflects questions, knows the value of a righteous rant and above all deserves the job because, well, he is Brett. He was born for this job of a Supreme Court Judge! Mamma was a lawyer, Daddy kept up his calendars. Didn’t his very own daughter ask to pray for the woman? That woman who is destroying his life by her accusations which no way should be investigated? Somebody screwed that lady up but wasn’t me. A guy without blemish, gosh, everyone has told him so, even women have remarked on his fairness, and all he wants is a FAIR PROCESS that will get him the career plum he absolutely deserves. If it doesn’t, it’s because of the conspiracy: “Thanks to what you on this side of the aisle have unleashed” ….. I may never be able to coach again. Jesus. Never mind that we don’t want this guy as our coach,
Is he not showing us what a despicable judge he will be? Consumed with paranoid, partisan rage. The ranting Lear. Weren’t you the were the pornographer on the Starr team who asked Bill Clinton if he’d stuck a cigar between Monica Lewinsky’s legs? The guy denying a refugee the abortion she begs for? Your body isn’t yours, woman, it’s mine.
Yes, Brett. You blew it for me, but you’ll likely be nominated because you’ve spent the last four days being briefed at the white house by Donald Trump. Be my Donald clone on the Supreme Court. The judiciary is MINE. the house is Mine. the FBI is Mine. Congress is to do MY bidding, We are not going to vet your character because character is, as we know, overrated; what is important is stopping the other side from usurping our power. The entire Republican party just wants to stay in charge by lurching behind the flapping feet of a contemptible, stupid, illiterate, blasphemous, raging pitbull even though at any moment, in a bad mood, he will kick open the doors to the zoo and blow you away by lions, even though he’s a disaster and you, by impliction…..
When I first began to comprehend how Empire that rises inevitably falls, I thought, OK, that’s not so bad. Let America back off already, it’s time. I thought we were making progress, spreading horizontally towards decency. That our goodwill, incredible resources, diversity, and astonishing landmass would let us settle into becoming a generous place to live and flourish. We had only to let go of our exceptionalism, learn how to spread the wealth, give up the myth of The Greatest Military Power On Earth because really, it is ugly. I thought we would shake off the oligarchy. That the Empire would fall gracefully as a landing seabird when its time came.
What fools we are, spooning around the soft spines of this dream, hoping to keep warm and dry while out in the real world, our elected raging, paranoiac spews seeds through our laws, courts, safety nets, decencies, hope, and here’s one more fungus ready to fatten himself off of me.
“Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.” …William Faulkner, in his 1956 Paris Review interview.
So have we? Reached that point? School shootings, separating immigrant kids from their parents, starvation? The highest infant mortality rate of any of the 27 wealthiest countries? #17 in education? Is our culture desperate?
“Life is not interested in good and evil. Don Quixote was constantly choosing between good and evil, but then he was choosing in his dream state. He was mad. He entered reality only when he was so busy trying to cope with people that he had no time to distinguish between good and evil. Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move—which is ambition, power, pleasure. The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. …William Faulkner, in his 1956 Paris Review interview.
We’ve considered him stupid, moronic, evil, incompetent, mad, racist, misogynistic, a pedophile, self-aggrandizing, lying, stupefying, narcissistic, character flawed, disgusting We’ve mocked his hair, his ties, his mouth, his little fingers, his wife, his children , his bone spurs, his deal-making, education, university, his gold leaf, his diet, the elevator, his advisors, cabinet and his lack of a dog. We call him a clown and we make Ubu Roi his avatar, Pere Ubu, Alfred Jarry’s surrealistic joke of a dictator who wants to be the king of Poland. That play so horrified its audience, it closed the night of its premier, but this performance has lasted over 500 days to become a national – no, a global – nightmare.
At this moment, his most despicable action is holding hostage immigrant children to get his way – he wants his wall, and Congress is figuring out how to give it to him.