While The World Is on Fire

My dear friend Cornelia came very close to losing her house in the Thomas Fire this week. A sequence of text messages and pictures attests to the drama: fear and uncertainty, her husband’s vigilant presence, flames roaring in the hills directly behind the house, firetrucks lined up on the driveway, firefighters bracing themselves for further battle, helicopters dropping loads of bright red flame retardant, a roller coaster of emotion. At one point the scene was even broadcast last night on the nightly world news. “They simply canNOT let us burn now!” said Cornelia.

And indeed the house still stands. I just got the good news, along with a picture of a very ashy hillside and Cornelia’s wry comment: “It’s gonna be a white Christmas.”

So it was a moment of relief and gratitude, although I am sad to say that for a great many others, the story has not turned out so happily, and in fact this tragedy is ongoing.

Here in Gaviota, the air today is a little better than it was, but we don our masks when we go outside, and we monitor the fire maps and wind conditions with great trepidation, for the threat of fire is always real to us. We know that we are vulnerable too.

But there are moments of transcendent beauty even in these dire times. Today, for example, we went down to the beach in the afternoon, looked out onto the Channel, and saw the haze lifting and clearing in the distance, creating a luminous white-gold band above the sea. A mild wind emerged from the west, and I took off my mask and felt its novel coolness on my face.

The sun, high in the sky and filtered by smoke, was orange, almost red, and although the time and angle were not right for sunset, the colors it cast upon the sea were…sunset-like. But I could just as accurately say unlike-sunset, because everything was different, nothing quite right, displaced and disconcerting, but finally sublime. There were translucent glimmers of magenta-orange on the ocean, reflections on the wet sand like pools of flames, and orange waves glimmering. There was no sense of what time it was, and no sense that it mattered. There was only a gilded dazzling drunken sort of now.

And then came the dolphins, weirdly close to shore, spinning and leaping high out of the water. (What must they think?) We watched in wonder. A ray of light caught one as it jumped in the air, and its body glinted with an iridescent flash of orange just before it splashed back into the sea. Oh.

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Here’s What’s Worrying Me

I believe that documenting and writing can sometimes help us figure things out, and there’s power in the very act of writing. So I’ve given myself a homework assignment, which is to write about what’s troubling me since the November 2017 election, not a rant about personality, but rather an attempt to get a handle on the issues and principles at stake.  Here, then, is my first rough cut at a list of worries related to the current regime:

Culture and Values. This first one is sprawling and imprecise, but like a vast dark cloud, it shadows everything, and needs to be addressed. We are seeing, first of all, the rise of a culture of mean-ness. There is a disturbing lack of civility and kindness, from the top down. Spiteful insults have replaced statesmanship; crude comments and behavior seem to be the norm.

Civil conversation and development of informed policy are lacking, in part because of the overt disdain for knowledge, science, and expertise. Educated input is mocked by the ignorant. The White House inhabitant bestows positions of great power and influence upon relatives and absurdly ill-suited individuals. There’s a complete disconnect between qualifications and job responsibilities, an inverse correlation between merit and reward.  Individuals have been empowered who see no need to tell the truth, no need to read or understand complex issues. The ability to lie unflinchingly is a valued talent.

Members of Congress routinely put party and tribalism over democracy, and greed above decency, diligence, and reason. It’s a toxic climate in which fear and anger are actively promoted, and these emotions are used to justify aggression and designate “others” as scapegoats. Meanwhile, innocent and vulnerable people are blamed for their own illness or poverty.

The GOP Tax Bill. This brings me to the implications of the GOP Tax Bill, a slightly more specific area of concern. I am troubled by this bill not only because of the rushed, improper manner in which it was drawn up, replete with secret deals and disingenuous maneuvering, but because of its underlying premise. If you are wealthy, it tells us, then you are worthy of extra breaks to allow you to aggrandize your wealth. Your money is proof that you are one of the more valued, productive members of society, and we shall count on your munificence to create more jobs, although we have no guarantee that this will happen, and trickle-down economics was long ago disproven.

On the other hand, if you have trouble, you deserve it. And entitlements only breed laziness and dependency–get yourself out of the hole you’ve dug. (Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed that one of the roles of government is to help us help each other. It is also the appropriate behavior of human beings. Call it compassion, decency, even Christianity…whatever you like…but this is what makes us great.)

Tendencies Toward Authoritarian Government. Moving right along on my list…and this is turning out to be harder than I thought…I am deeply troubled by the movement toward an authoritarian form of government. There are disturbing attempts to intimidate and repress voices of dissension, and an ongoing effort to undermine the free press, while paid liars and propagandists are given a spotlight daily. There is an attitude from the (so-called) president that others work for him and must not question or criticize him. Disagreement is treated with disdain or dismissal, and decisions of national and global significance are made based on the emotions of an erratic man, his business interests and donor obligations, or the counsel of the few in his inner circle.

Meanwhile, Congress has become a purely partisan club happy to look the other way as long as they can shove through their agenda as fast as they possibly can. There is virtually no check on the executive branch right now.

Stacking the Courts. Which brings me to the issue of judge appointments. The current (so-called) president has already filled the vacant Supreme Court seat that we all know was President Obama’s to appoint. Since that time, he has made numerous appointments for lifetime judge-ships on federal appeals courts that will shape the judiciary for a generation to come. All named are deeply conservative, relatively young, and not well vetted. The latest nominee, Brett J. Talley, has never tried a case, is married to a White House lawyer, and was dubbed unqualified by the American Bar Association, but is being seriously considered by the Senate. This judiciary transformation is one of the most worrisome aspects of what is happening right now, because it extends so far into the future.

The Environment. Speaking of the future, one of my deepest concerns is the assault upon our environment. Let’s face it: the current administration and Congress came in with the idea of tilting the scales in favor of the traditional energy sectors (oil, gas, and coal), removing barriers and restoring incentives to make hydrocarbons pre-eminent once again, oblivious to the impacts on the earth. We already weren’t doing very well, but during the previous administration, there was progress in place, an enlightened perspective, a globally cooperative stance. So much has been dismantled since.

In his very first week in office, the (so-called) president set the tone by signing executive actions to revive Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, both of which were highly controversial and had been rejected by President Obama, Native American groups, and environmental advocates. He proceeded to appoint a Supreme Court justice hostile to environmental lawsuits, gutted the EPA budget, and appointed an EPA administrator committed to tearing down the agency from within. He has opened the door to more coal mining, rolled back pollution standards, and relaxed enforcement against illegal pollution. In June, he announced that the U.S. would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.

And just a week ago, he dramatically slashed the size of two national monuments, the largest rollback in federal land protection in our nation’s history. Everything this administration is doing seems not only in denial but outright defiance of the urgency of climate change and concerns we all share about the viability of our planet for generations to come.

Global Instability and Ill Will. And, speaking of the planet, the level of global instability and ill will that this administration provokes is terrifying. An impulsive, ignorant man has the ability to launch nuclear strikes, enjoys playing “chicken” with Kim Jong-un, alienates even our allies, has gutted the State Department, sees no need for diplomacy, and has very little knowledge of international relations beyond sordid private connections and business deals. Let’s leave it at that for now.

Racism. Finally, there is the matter of racism. This administration and its enablers rode in on racism, have inflamed racism, and represent the last desperate gasp of an old white order, one that will not go down but not quietly. (Others have said it better than I ever could. I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates for starters.)

If you step back and look at the long arc of history, I believe our country has made gains, and perhaps we are closer to equality than we’ve ever been before, but with this current regime, we have snapped backwards. As James Baldwin explained it decades ago, white America fabricated a hated population against which it could define itself–and now the haters have come out of hiding again. In a way, though, it makes it harder to deny the ugly realities that people of color have faced all along.  Our nation has a fundamental moral problem, and it isn’t new.

But just as this nightmare has fueled old hatred in some, it has ignited new passion in others. I didn’t realize how much I cared about democracy, or what it requires of us. I never knew how much it matters tomorrow what we do now. I know I’m not alone here. Let’s step up for what matters. Let us find ways to restore truth, compassion, and decency. Let us speak facts, and let us speak them with clarity, persistence, and eloquence. We are all part of history, and even a blog post is a primary source. So this is my list of tangible concerns, and it’s really only partial, because as I was typing I kept thinking of other things, but I’m going to leave it at this as a springboard.

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Fire Light

Yesterday I walked up the canyon wearing a cowboy hat and a breathing mask, toting a pink bag with a birthday present for our neighbor’s two-year-old daughter. There was something comical about it, but also surreal. The landscape glowed in sepia tones, the sky looked weirdly jaundiced, and the sun was a bright red disk above the hills. The Thomas Fire is an hour to the south of us, but the air here is smoky, and ash has powdered the vehicles and accumulated like new snow in the corners of the stairs to our house. The communities of Carpinteria, Montecito, Summerland, and adjacent areas are directly threatened, and I have dear friends who have been evacuated as flames draw terrifyingly near to their homes. At 230,500 acres, this fire is the fifth largest in California’s recorded history, and only 15% contained as I write this, with gusty winds and severe conditions likely to persist, and not a drop of rain in sight. We are worried, depressed, and feeling very vulnerable. I cannot count how many times I have heard the word “apocalyptic” in the last few days.

Later in the afternoon I chatted with my daughter in Oxford and learned that while we were seeing ash floating in the air, she was watching snowflakes. Heavy snow, ice, and plunging temperatures were grounding flights, disrupting power, and closing roads in England. She and her husband had gone to the park and enjoyed the enchantment of it, laughingly indulging in a snowball fight, and were now settled in at home wondering about Monday’s train service to London. A year ago they were here with us, riding horses on the beach, skies blue and hills green. Strange how things change.  I feel wistful and fragile, and I make a few references to mortality, as I am prone to do.

“Gosh, Mom, you’re cheerful,” says my daughter at one point. “That’s like the third time you’ve mentioned death.”

Well,” I said. “You’ve heard of SAD…right? Seasonal affective disorder. Maybe what I have is a little like SAD.”

My son-in-law interjects. “You’re in California! You don’t get to claim SAD in California. You live in one of the sunniest places on earth!”

I conceded that maybe I’d chosen the wrong term to explain what I was feeling.

“It’s the fire light,” I clarified. “It’s the way it slants through the trees filtered by smoke, it’s the yellow-stained shadows, the way the air smells like anxiety, the way everything is reminding us that we are ephemeral.”

“You need another term for it then,” said my son-in-law. “This isn’t seasonal affective disorder; this sounds more like mild ongoing panic. Californians experience MOP, not SAD.”

I hereby proclaim that I am in the throes of MOP.

More to come.

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Smoke and Mirrors

The Thomas Fire is raging to the south of us with no end in sight. The air is filled with smoke and ash, and we have friends who have been evacuated. These are anxious times. But until I have some more current writing to post, I thought I would share the following piece I wrote thirteen years ago, during another fire. 

It was the long-awaited weekend of my daughter’s high school graduation, that evanescent marker of beginnings and good-byes, and we gathered beneath an ashy sky, distracted by the eerie light, the sickening swells of smoke, the low flying helicopters with buckets of seawater suspended from their bellies. My daughter sat among the Dunn School graduates in a too-large borrowed gown and a lei of magenta flowers, the angry eyes and teen-age glare sometimes giving way to a tear and awkward smile.  The flag was at half-mast for the death of Ronald Reagan. Events do not unfold as one expects.

We had been at a graduation luncheon when the fire began the day before. Guests at our house in Gaviota received the call to evacuate, hurriedly packing into their truck every item they suspected might be valuable and transporting it to us. Now our own little car was comically crammed to capacity with computers, violins, assorted knick-knacks, costume jewelry, random photos, and heavy file boxes of odd papers whose existence had long ceased to matter.  How do you harvest the artifacts of someone else’s life, given twenty minutes? Some people prepare for such hasty retreats; we were not among them.

The winds were gusty and erratic. I was wearing yesterday’s dress and kept a hand on my straw hat, newly aware of being insubstantial.  I thought about my father, born in 1911  — the same year as Reagan — my father, who never had the chance to be old. I tried to imagine him at ninety-three watching his granddaughter graduate, but it was impossible to override, even for a moment, the old familiar fact of his absence. Now as a new generation of young men and women ceremoniously entered adulthood, my pride was tempered by worry, local as well as global. Control is always an illusion. One of the graduates sang a song about faith.

There was comfort in community. Friends — close and casual — tendered sundry offers of assistance and invited us to stay in their homes. A network of cell phone numbers connected Ranch residents, and I received a flurry of informative and reassuring e-mails. Julie remembered being evacuated for a week during the Painted Cave fire, watching the flames from a distance and feeling curiously detached. “At one point, “ she wrote, “we were allowed to go home and had a half hour to gather belongings. We ended up taking only a few very special things, important papers, and animals. In the end, it was a Zen experience. We gave up everything. And then we got it back.”

Another friend, Genevieve, recalled spending a night in Michael Jackson’s guardhouse when she was a child while the Midland community battled a raging barn fire with metal pails of water.  She was evacuated again a few years later as flames rolled down the mountains during the Mare Fire of 1993. She took refuge in Saint Mark’s church in Los Olivos and watched the sunrise for the first time in her life. “The proximity of fire strikes a primal nerve in us, “ she concluded. Maybe it is some ancient recognition that we are part of a cycle much greater than ourselves.

We were spared: I can afford to be philosophical because the fires have been contained and I am typing this in my well-furnished living room.  But the straw-colored hills are ominously dry, the winds are gusty, and the air still smells of smoke. We drove back past blackened hills, charred and skeletal trees, small spiral blizzards of white ash blowing.  Fire has revealed the true faces of the mountains and exposed scores of beer bottles that were tossed into the brush at the outskirts of the state park. At the Ranch, the light is hazy and surreal, and everything is strangely quiet. What lingers is a sense of humility and vulnerability, the premonition of bereavement for all we must lose.

Meanwhile, my only child has graduated and is about to leave home. She has chosen a college on the East coast, the coast I abandoned many years ago when I headed westward in a ’73 Buick whose tattered strips of vinyl roof blew like sails in the wind. It was my great migration, my life’s defining journey. So forgive me if I cannot sleep. The moon is beginning to wane and the stars above the silent hills are like bits of bright broken glass.

The burned areas will in time heal themselves: wildflowers will surprise us and new growth will come. I guess it is all just a saga of endings and beginnings, of brush fires and brushing lives, of deaths public and quiet, of the family of origin and the family of friends. It is about the illusion of possession, the consolation of community, about too much stuff and what really matters. It is about the legends we create amidst blizzards of ash, about precious ephemeral lives, about letting go and having faith. There is nothing but change, and it will not unfold as you expect.

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In Those Golden Hills In A Not-So-Golden Time

 “We’re in the golden hills!” said one of my walking companions, and indeed we were. Our hike was a twelve mile out-and-back to a place in the San Rafael Wilderness known as Hell’s Half Acre, a boulder-studded field with views of mountains and sea in the hazy distance, and none of us could understand why such a beautiful spot has a name so foreboding. That golden grass rippled in the breeze, set off by the surprisingly dark green tones of chaparral, and we each found a perch on a rock from which to enjoy our lunch. We live surrounded by beauty. I am humbled and dazzled by it daily.

I needed this. As I have said many times, walking outdoors is my therapy. I do have a sense lately that we are under siege, but when you don’t know how to fight, it’s not a bad idea to step back, regroup, fortify oneself for the long haul. I wanted to feel my legs and lungs working, behold the wonder, and clear my head. And I didn’t exactly clear my head, but I did try to sort out my thoughts. When I got home, I decided to make a list of the issues that are worrying and troubling me right now, not the personal ones but the political and social ones, although all of it is ultimately personal.

Tomorrow I have a long train ride, and maybe I’ll use the time to type out my list and share it here. Rather than crouching in the shadow of the great amorphous thing,  I want to try to break it into its component pieces and look straight at each concern.

But for the moment, I’ve reclaimed my soul, and I have those mountains to thank.

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Making A Thing

It was a silvery-rainy Sunday in a country house in Brittany. We were finishing tea, and talking about art and creativity, and I was bemoaning the fact that I don’t know how to do anything. I was saying how much I’d love to step away from words and try to paint, for example. Two years earlier, a friend had given me a thick inviting tablet of watercolor paper and a little set of paints, but they sit unused to this day. On more than one occasion, I took up knitting, only to leave behind some scraggly unfinished piece of work that speaks of failure and lethargy. I’ve made a few lopsided clay pots in my time, and folded hundreds of paper cranes. I shrugged. There wasn’t much else to report.

My daughter’s father-in-law, Peter, thought this defeatist attitude had gone on too long. He had a sort of wood shop and work area in the garage, and he insisted that I come in and “make” something right then and there. I protested but he insisted, and I figured I might as well humor him and give it a try. I donned a paper haz-mat suit and mask, and he put a jig-saw in my hand, and asked me what I wanted to create.

Um…I had no idea. Maybe a shape? A pretty curve of wood? Well, we sawed and sandpapered and made a huge amount of noise and there was dust everywhere and occasionally I leapt back in terror when the machinery seemed to have a life of its own. Eventually I had a vaguely S-shaped bit of wood, which I had no use for at all and didn’t want to add to my luggage, so I proclaimed it an art piece and presented it to Peter.

I can see that woodworking won’t be my hobby.  The watercolors beckon, filled with quiet promise, so we shall see. But there is a curved piece of wood on the step of an old house in Brittany now, clumsily crafted by me, and it’s not much more than nothing at all, but it’s definitely a thing, and it’s there.

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Upright and Mobile

 Late in the day I loaded up some podcasts, grabbed my hat and trusty walking stick, and went for a stroll on the road. The sun was slipping fast into the sea and the light was turning golden, a gentle breeze stroked my face like cool fingers, and I suddenly felt happy. It was the motion, and being outdoors. Everything was poetry, even the understated details: the muted tones of the dry grass, the shining train tracks in the distance, the way the curve of a certain fence parallels the curve of the hills.

The podcasts helped too; the best was an episode of Paris Review, which featured a short story by Raymond Carver and excerpts of a 1984 interview with James Baldwin. Hard to beat company like that!

Baldwin in particular…what an eloquent, brave, and brilliant man…he shared thoughts about art, protest, and the pain of loving a country despite disappointment about its failure to change. “You may live your whole life as a battle,” he said, “but I don’t think you can escape it…I have changed because America has not.”  His words seem timely and prophetic today: “When I was a kid, the world was ‘white’ for all intents and purposes. Now it’s struggling to remain ‘white.’”

But this interview focused on writing. He said that a writer has to take the risks of putting down what he or she sees, and “You learn how little you know.” In fact, the act of writing is itself a way to find out something that you don’t know, and perhaps putting down what you see enables you to begin seeing what it means. I think that’s what I try to do when I write. I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to say when I start out, but  my hope is that the process itself will yield some understanding. Even here, even now.

“One writes out of one thing only: one’s own experience,” Baldwin observed in this interview. And when asked if he had advice for writers, his response was something like this: “The only advice is to find a way to keep alive, and write. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” Endurance. That seems to be the fundamental ingredient not just for writing, but for life itself.

But the quote that really lodged in my mind was this: “Your self and your people are indistinguishable from each other, in spite of the quarrels you may have. And your people are all people.” I love how that idea reflects upon the humanity of us all, on the things that we share, not the things that divide us. (What a thought for Thanksgiving in a time of divisiveness.) I’ve been exploring some family history lately too, and wondering sometimes if I obsess too much about my own personal stories, but now I’m trying on the idea that these stories reflect some universal elements of being human. I’m trying on the idea of this all-ness.

And this is just another digression in my stream-of-consciousness blogging. (“Blog is such an ugly word,” said a writer-friend recently. “Maybe we need another word for this. Mini-essays, perhaps?”) Whatever you call it, though, I’m exploring here, hoping to discover some meaning along the way.

It felt good, though, to be mobile and upright, walking briskly in the fresh air, listening to such worthy voices in my head, getting new input, not looking back but looking out. I felt exhilarated. I even liked myself. That’s what a good walk and a good sky can do.

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I Have Seen A Manatee

I wrote this several years ago, but I’ve decided to share it here on this Thanksgiving.

It is the day after Thanksgiving and we have gathered on a wooden pier at the Indian River near Palm Bay Florida in the hopes of seeing a manatee. We are family and strangers, children and grown-ups, Southern drawls and New York City accents. Little Rose gets down on her belly, dips her hands, and gently splashes. She is wearing pink as usual and has no idea what a manatee is, but she is fully caught up in the excitement of finding out. Sunlight paints the muddy water, every bubble and shimmer draws our rapt attention, and it feels as though we are on a small raft together – a raft of fools, perhaps, but cheerful ones. In a Walmart three miles away shoppers are clambering for merchandise in the avaricious frenzy of holiday shopping officially uncorked this very morning and I feel a bond with those who have the sense to be here instead.

The day is an island of green and blue, heartbreaking in its loveliness. Strange ungainly creatures, the manatees are migratory aquatic mammals that find their way to the warm shallow waters of slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas. They are gentle half-ton herbivores constantly grazing for food along the bottoms and surfaces of the water, hence their nickname: sea cows. Manatees have no natural enemies and can live for sixty years if they avoid encounters with boat propellers or other human-caused dangers. Sailors of long ago mistook them for mermaids, but these men had been at sea too long – it is hard to imagine a homelier animal.

We have come to this place like pilgrims hoping for a glimpse, and our patience is rewarded. First, bubbles appear, and a glimmering mirage just beneath the surface of the water. Next a curious pair of nostrils makes a shy appearance, and when finally a wrinkled whiskered snout emerges, we all gasp in wonderment. Silent and trusting, the manatees draw nearer to us, even accepting the touch of our hands. I am inexplicably happy to reach beyond my human-ness and defer to the dignity of this elephantine emissary from the natural world. It is comforting to know that there are manatees.

Comfort comes when you least expect it. It would be an understatement to say I had been worried about this Florida trip. More accurately, I was terrified. For one thing, it would be my first trip back since the death of my sister. I dreaded the sight of the familiar house where she no longer waited. I didn’t want to stand in her kitchen trying to remember the sound of her voice. And then there was the whole prospect of meeting up with family. Family: the ones who know you too well, the ones who know you least. Since our current lives don’t overlap, we tend to dwell on the history we’ve shared, and my family’s history just isn’t any fun. I knew of course we would try to be cheery. Then all the old pain would press upon our hearts, and all the old angers would spark and collide; regressive dynamics would kick into place, and I would be crazy again. But I have sailed across three thousand miles of sky to take my place among this ragtag assemblage. I guess this is what people do.

There is an oak tree by her grave with Spanish moss and wind chimes in its branches. Her name on a stone stuns me for a second but the sense of loss is neither deepened nor dulled. My sadness is a cold, familiar wind through a broken pane – and this too is what it feels like to be human. I am one who learns almost everything a little bit too late, but for now I let myself close my eyes and think about forgiveness. I hear a sparkling sound like jewels in the air and try to fill myself with light. I cast away regrets and imagine them flickering like aspen leaves, like shiny coins that jingle like the wind chimes in the tree.

And I am absorbed into the dominion of the present, where miracles are unfolding all around me. Every day could be a hymn of gratitude. The water sparkles in the sunlight, the air is rich with river, and good-hearted people take time out for inter-species communion. Now the Dixie Chicks are singing on the radio, the menu at Dot’s includes salsa and grits, and Rose is drawing pictures at the table. Nobody cares what you did twenty years ago. We are all flawed and short-lived; we may as well stand still for a moment. Trust me on this. I am a woman who has seen a manatee.

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There Was No Map

He was my brother, and the country of childhood was a tangled one, fraught with discord and shadowed by mystery. Dangers loomed, whether real or imagined, and tranquil moments could not entirely be trusted, for they were as delicate as glass and might easily shatter. But he knew how to make me laugh, and he taught me many things: the refuge of crayon and pencil retreats, the magic of pretending to be someone else, and how marks on a page can transform into words and everything suddenly shines. There was no map for that country, but we walked it together.

He knew the names of all the dinosaurs, and he took arty pictures with his little Brownie camera, and he salvaged a red bicycle that someone had thrown away and showed me the momentum and mobility in that humble machine. He told me once that we should never let anyone see us cry. But I had discovered somewhere along the way that my tears could garner sympathy and attention, so I indulged in them with vigor when I felt like, while my brother endured all with stoic dignity. His suffering was real, and life was brutally unfair, but I never saw him cry, and I never saw him mean.

In time he went elsewhere, living among strangers or in lonely rooms, trying hard to attain outcomes that for so many others had simply been written into the script. He completed a degree in economics and even started law school far away. He was brilliant and creative, but he was born with a terrible kidney disease and it finally took its toll…life on dialysis, poverty, confusion. He wandered, he was hospitalized more than once, he called me from bus stations in implausible places, and went back at the end to our family home, which wasn’t much of a home by then, and there wasn’t much of a welcome, but where was he to go?

He was my protector, and over time I had grown taller and stronger than him, and I should have become his, but of course I failed to do so. His letters kept coming, to me and to my daughter, who was only a baby, but he hoped someday she would read them and know her Uncle Eddie. He never felt well, not ever, but he sent her paper fans and plastic toys, children’s books and collectible coins, boxes of cookies and his own ink drawings. My brother had so little, but his heart was so generous.

And it was his heart that finally failed him, a secondary development in kidney disease. Corrective surgery was attempted, in a New York City hospital, and he never recovered. I have a letter he wrote me a day or two before the surgery, looking out the window at the city lights, still filled, despite everything, with hopes and promises, or maybe he was just trying to be brave. I will never know. He was forty-five when he died.

Today is his birthday. He would have been seventy years old. I have never learned what to do with my sadness. There is no map for this country.

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Let Us Not Lose Heart

We get these amazing low tides now and then at this time of year. Negative tides. It’s fascinating to walk way out and stand where water usually is, to peer into pools, see hidden rocks revealed, curiosities uncovered. It feels like another planet.

And I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but it occurred to me that maybe we’re at a sort of low tide period in our nation’s history right now.  What had been beneath the surface and is now exposed is ugly, not wondrous, but these things have been there all along, and it’s crucial that we face them.

Or maybe it’s more like the underpinnings of a house…it might appear that the place is being ripped apart, but some dismantling is necessary to eliminate the rot beneath the floorboards, the corrosion in the pipes, the toxic chemicals in the walls, all the flaws and weaknesses that are going to be corrected once and for all and would have been our downfall.

Yes, I realize this is simplistic, but I need to believe something like this, so I choose to see it as possible. This is an extremely disillusioning and discouraging time, and we are going to have to turn things around, and somehow…we will.  Let us not lose heart.

Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is approaching. I feel humble and grateful for many reasons, every day, as well as alarmed and sad and baffled.  And I think the following poem of thanks by W.S. Merwin powerfully expresses the irrational, contradictory, defiant, insistent sense of human gratitude felt even in the most troubled times.  It’s like a song we have to sing…and besides, there are no times that are not troubled. The world is imperfect, messy, cruel, and unjust…full of mystery and tragedy, beautiful and terrible in every moment…but we persist in trying to make sense of it. We are here,  bearing witness and doing our best, and we are saying thank you.

THANKS by W.S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

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