All blog posts must be in this category.

Janice O’Mahony is a Whidbey Island poet and author. She and I often write together, mostly poetry. We’ve discovered that The Muse shows up more reliably for the two of us than for just one. A few weeks ago we decided to write about our daily to-do lists. The results (below) were so exhaustive/exhausting that they became hilarious; the sheer volume of tasks that are expected of us in a day or a week is ludicrous.

Janice writes much faster than I, and her spot-on humor peeks through the words in every line. So I’ve asked her to fold my “to-do list” into hers and to be the “guest blogger for this post.

Expect to feel frazzled when you’ve finished reading, because Janice puts a certain twist on the list that elicits laughter and tears at the same time.

Brace yourself for this tsunami . . .

 

Digital communications roll in 24/7, like polluted ocean waves filled with oil slicks, filled with junk like single sneakers, rusty pipe and plastic, fishing lines and pieces of styrofoam ice chests. The digital input never stops.

Demands

Deadlines

Decisions

You answer one email, you get three more. You stick your head up over the electronic barricade and snipers open fire. Last chance. Don’t look away. We need your answer today. Sale ends Friday. Flyers, fundraisers, catalogs, notices, warnings, pleas, and reminders.

If you can get to Costco in the next two days, you can save $5 on the organic olive oil you like. There is a $20 instant rebate on protein powder you know you should use.

We need your support to save the rainforest, help my campaign, support a woman’s right to choose, sign a petition for gun control after the latest school massacre.

You can sign up for our newsletter, see new film releases this week on Netflix, here’s your daily vegan recipe, here’s the enneagram thought for the day. Here’s the New Yorker humor for the day which you never take time to look at.

Waves of detritus spread out across your day: Taxes due, jury service, bills, reminders of bills, your card has expired, your bank needs you to come in to fix something, your book is in at the library and will only be held until tomorrow because the first notice went into your spam folder and you thought you had fixed that. They’ll send it back and you’ll go to the end of the line because you can’t make it tomorrow. But you don’t have time to read it anyway, so no big whoop.

You have upwards of 120 passwords right by your computer on a long, messy list. It’s messy because you have to write new ones in all the time, or amend old ones when you hit the “forgot your password?” button because you forgot to write one down.

You know you shouldn’t have a list, especially right by the computer, but you can’t find time to install one of those password-remembering programs cautious friends keep telling you about. And you don’t know how to install stuff anyway.

So many things, big and small, need your attention. Everything could be neater, cleaner, more organized. Everything could be spruced up. Your house is on a slippery slope, descending into permanent disorder. Sometimes it’s dramatic: pipe leaks, circuit blows, freezer thaws.

Sometimes it’s just whiny stuff: touch-up paint needed, dust silent but sullen, overipe fruit and fruit flies. Where do they come from? You could look it up. You’ve always wondered but probably will never know. Maybe you’ll stumble across an explanatory meme when you’re researching something else entirely.

Should you replace the water heater or wait for it to leak? If you could decide on living room paint, who would help you move the shelves? You don’t have a ladder so that’s another thing. You hate to paint anyway and you know better than to climb a ladder because that’s asking for a broken hip and death in a rehab center.

The toilet groans loudly when flushed. What does that mean? Does it just need a little oil on the handle or is it warning of a spewing eruption in the near future? Who would know?

How bad is all that moss on the roof?

You’ve learned about malware the hard way. You’ve been hacked more than once. Your email has been sold to big corporations. To unsubscribe from their relentless messaging requires going down a rabbit hole, spreading your contact information widely like electronic dandelion floss. Some hacker in Albania is looking at all your data with shark-like intensity right this minute, ready to crush you, take all your money and put you into voice-command-menu hell to try to recover. Para Espanol marque ocho. We are experiencing longer than normal wait times. Please try later. Goodbye.

Dear Lovely Madam, I am a Nigerian prince who needs $500 for legal fees and I will happily share the resulting inheritance with you. Good wishes to you, Madam. Sadly, you stop to think about it. It could be real.

Then there’s the car. Tires need to be rotated or maybe replaced, filters changed, oil refreshed, and you only have a quarter tank of gas left. Again. The car is filthy. Your shoes rasp on gravel and mud on the rubber mat under your feet and seagulls have pooped repeatedly all over your car and it’s dry as concrete now. There must be a way to get that shit off but you will just wait for a hard rain and hope for the best. But the best turns out to be white streaks. When was the last time you replaced the wiper blades?

The laundry basket is full, your winter coats need dry cleaning, your kitchen floor is sticky. Sometimes the stove’s front burner will ignite nicely, sometimes not. You should change the brush on your electric toothbrush but that would mean figuring out what model yours is and that’s surprisingly confusing. You’re not even sure of the brand.

You should haul your recycling but the center is never open when you think of it, or it’s raining. Does the recycled plastic really go to Third-World countries where it is towed out into the ocean and dumped? How could you find out? Who would tell the truth about that?

Leaves from last year still litter your “garden.” People tell you to find somebody to help you but can’t really recommend anyone and no garden service companies return your calls so you might as well do it yourself but you don’t do it yourself because you don’t have energy or time.

The dust gets thicker.

You need groceries.

You get yet another warning about the pretty-soon-any-day-now big earthquake expected. They love to say intone the cliche, “It’s not if, but when.” This leads you down another rabbit hole. They tell you sternly you should have three weeks of water and food, an axe under your bed, shoes by the door, gloves to lift trees off the road as you flee for safety, cash and sleeping bag in your always-fully-gassed car, extra glasses and medication. Oh, and by the way, you have to rotate the food and water so it’s fresh. Be prepared! Would Amazon deliver an axe? Don’t forget batteries and flashlight. You spend some time hoping you will die quickly in the rubble so you don’t have to rebuild post-Apocalyse.

Certain things haunt you: the overstuffed boxes and folders of family photos and letters. Your own memorabilia. What the hell do you do with that? You risk taking a peek inside a box and grind to a halt with the first letter, or the old baby book, or the blurry polaroid. You must get these things sorted and discarded, but the homemade cards are Kryptonite that saps your willpower.

You should go to the office supply store for Post-its in bulk. Maybe that would help. Maybe if you buy accordion files or color-coded Pendaflex files you could get organized.

Have you done all your end-of-life paperwork? Have you clearly stated you want the window open when you are dying? What else have you forgotten? Think! Jot some notes! Maybe there is a template online but your printer needs ink.

You could use a full day to make appointments: teeth cleaning, hair cutting, toenail trimming. But you know your dental hygienist always lectures you about better flossing on that back molar; your hair cutter doesn’t seem to try any more; you are embarrassed by your feet.

The only food you want is not good for you, so you indulge yourself (guilt) or deny yourself (killjoy). It takes hours to think about food, plan it, buy it, put it away, cook it and clean it all up. Egg McMuffins look so good on the billboards. And easy too. You could use some self-care, but massage is a distant luxury, too complicated to make happen, so your personal self-care consists of not putting yourself through that.

You could use some new jeans but the idea of seeing yourself in 3-way mirror – in which store, and when, and how are you getting there? – these things stop you in your tracks. You should have your full-body scan by your melanoma-seeking dermatologist.

You should re-order prescriptions.

You could maybe do some sit-ups but there is nothing you can do about soft saggy skin, though a pop-up ad tells you there is. When you buy this product you will find it was a scam but it cost too much to just throw away so you have to find a place for it out of the public eye because the label says in very large print “Reverse the ugliness of aging skin.” You’re vain enough not to want to people to see that. Maybe add a discussion of vanity to the list of things to discuss with a therapist if you ever take the time to find one, make an appointment, and show up. By the way, it’s not a bad idea to have a list titled “Items to Discuss With Therapist.” Put that on your to-do list.

And then there are

Doctors

Doctors

Doctors

Your primary care doc says you’re late for your mammogram. She wants you to have a bone density test to compare with the last one and you have to talk about osteopenia rapidly becoming osteoporosis (she tells you about this every f*cking time) and what medication might be useful. A friend’s teeth are crumbling from this medication but the doctor downplays that. Why is she so eager to give you this crap? She won’t say and you can’t pin her down. She’s standing with her hand on the door knob.

You have to talk a lot to doctors, although most have their eyes on a laptop. You have to be reasonable, demonstrate you are compliant and not a hypochondriac, be nice, tell them again the same things already in your file. If they chance on anything that needs further attention it will take over what little life you have left. You can reach out to some doctors online through Patient Portals which are complicated and finicky. You click on “make appointment” and the message back tells you there are no appointments in that time frame so please call the office. What you really want is a Patient Portal which teleports you to a doctor who has time for you, has a sense of humor, and never condescends or patronizes. Yes, and people want ice water in Hell. Put that teleportation Patient Portal on your Daydream Wishlist. You should have that wishlist somewhere. If you don’t, jot a note on one of your other lists to start a wishlist and keep it current so you won’t lose track of your dreams.

People want just a little bit of your time. Do you have a minute? Just one more thing…When you get a sec….When you have time…Can you zoom at 2? Can we meet next week? Could you have coffee on Monday or Thursday next week? Could you wave a sign for peace at the Main Street corner? Could you give a senior citizen a ride to the grocery store? If you can’t come to dinner on the 20th, could you suggest a few days that would work for you? What would you like to bring? What time? Put it on the calendar. You look ahead and you are scheduling for the month after next which will roll around faster than you think. Your calendar is a box canyon you’ve galloped into just before arrows start to rain down. Plan food for the dinner party you don’t want to have but you owe so many people and you really should. It’s daunting with all the dietary restrictions people have, but you really should.

Should

Should

Should

A friend’s birthday is coming up. Gift? Card? Long or short message? When? What? She got you something really nice so you better get busy. Make a note to google “best gifts for an older woman.”

What should you do about Ukraine, Roe v. Wade, the midterm elections, the Nazis congregating at the community center? Oh yes, and Global Warming or Climate Change or whatever that particular doom is called now. You should look that up.

One big reason why death isn’t so bad: when you die this all goes away. Kids will just toss stuff because none of them want anything and they’ve told you that many times. They would make a killing on the house as is, and donate the car to NPR. Family archives in the dumpster. Easy-peasy.

Delete

Delete

Delete

 

Dump

Dump

Dump

They should find your funeral instructions in your paperwork so make time to be sure you have written those instructions. Tell them where the paperwork is and watch their eyes glaze over.

Death is the re-set you crave, a little bit of time floating in golden light before you take the plunge for a new life. That next one will be simpler, with somebody to cook for you, where you live in a loving community, where the earth is healthy, where your writing is crystalline and publishers prize your work. Maybe put that on your wish list. Oh, you haven’t started that yet? Time’s awastin’!

And as for those tsunami warning signs we have on Whidbey Island – take a closer look: there is no way that poor sucker running up the hill is ever going to outrun those waves. The tsunami – whether earthquake waves or daily digital deluge – the tsunami will win. But keep trying. Don’t be a quitter.

Run

Run

Run

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

My gratitude to Janice for this exposé of our contemporary life!

FYI – There is a wonderful monthly literary/art magazine with the very unlikely title of Moss Piglet. The theme of the upcoming July issue is “Food, Glorious Food,” and we’ve been delighted to learn that BOTH Janice and I have had poems accepted for publication in that edition. I encourage you to take a moment to peruse some back issues, https://www.krazines.com/archives.html and maybe even subscribe. Each issue is a joyful explosion of color and creativity that will nourish your day.

(And if you have a few minutes more, you might want to google what a “moss piglet” is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH3ABle9k7A . I can’t help but smile now, every time I think of this homely microscopic eight-legged critter, and how it will be the only one left to turn out the lights when every other thing on earth is gone.)

Rest dear friends. Embrace your tired body. Love one another in this hard time.

from “Songs for the Shadows” Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, Editor, Geez Magazine

 

A writer is supposed to write. I have not been writing much.

An author is supposed to be publishing. I’ve had only one poem published this year. Not any books.

A memoirist is supposed to be keeping journal notes – I’ve not written in my journal since a few weeks after the January 6 attack on the Capitol when I was too traumatized to find words for much of anything.

A blogger is supposed to be writing essays. It’s been months since I have done so.

Writing is usually a gift I have to offer. Some prose, but mostly poetry. As I bow to the gentle deficits of my aging, poetry and one-on-one being-with are what I can give.

I can string words together that invite others into healing, rest, caring for themselves and each other. I can struggle to find the right words to help us remember who we hope to be, who we are at our best. I can support you as you choose to be on no one’s schedule but your own, to hold no one else’s truth but that which resonates with your own soul. We can encourage each other in this vastly-changed time.

Back in July of 2018, when we lived in a different world, I wrote a blog post about spiritual retreats, and I used the word “operculum.” I’d just discovered that word; I love enunciating it, drawing out the second syllable into a purrr. I love thinking about the ability of a snail to create a portal into its spiral shelter, a doorway that opens and closes. Over the years I have delighted in finding a few abandoned moon snail opercula among the stones and shells on the beaches of Whidbey Island.

Even this early in our usually gray, wet island winter there have already been two power outages of the electrical kind (up to three days long), and lots more of the personal kind for me (usually not longer than a few hours). In response I have become like a moon snail and withdrawn into the depths of my spiral. I pull my operculum closed and huddle inside. There sometimes I remember the darkest times of my years, and I am amazed once more to see how those events have shaped my life, how they have become the swirls of my beautiful spiral shell. When I reinhabit the dark times briefly, I realize that I would not change them even if I could. And I wonder how my shell will grow in response to the current dark times.

Storms are racing across the Salish Sea, trees blow down across power lines, and those lines short out. Likewise, too much chaos is happening out there in the world, and most of it is painful. News of it is way too accessible. I’m shorting out; I’m losing my capacity to absorb it. A few days ago I found this by Eliza Daley, in her blog, “By My Solitary Hearth”:

I see such despair in people who are trying to feel everything, who are trying to note all the destruction in a continual stream of jagged memento mori for ourselves, for our cultures, and for the world we are mutilating. I understand the urge. … But we are trying to feel more than we are capable of feeling. Or bearing. There is such hopelessness in simply trying to notice all the wrongs, never mind right them. And hopelessness breeds apathy eventually … . 

So I have chosen the small. I have drawn lines around what I am capable of feeling and, to a lesser extent, what I am capable of affecting. … I believe in small things. Humans are small. We are ephemeral. Even all this waste we are wreaking on the world will be a small drop in earth time, barely noticeable in the geological record. That is both humbling and reassuring. I don’t matter very much. Humanity doesn’t matter very much. But at the same time, if we all focus on the small ephemera of our daily lives, if we noticed what we do and noticed how we fit into our places, we can effect change in beneficial ways. We have short reach, but in that circle … we can do mighty things.

While we are in this dark time, I want to be solitary sometimes, deep within the spirals of my small shell, wrapped in warm fleece, focused on the glow of just one candle (it’s my shell; I can imagine anything inside it that I want). From time to time I want to have the courage to blow out the candle and be embraced by the dark. Rilke said it best, in his poem “The Night”:

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations–just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.

Perhaps I will notice a sacred something “stirring” in the candlelight, or in the dark; maybe I can write about that and slip the writing through the crevice between my shell and its operculum, like a love note for my friends, or like a message in a bottle tossed into a digital sea.

Or maybe, if you happen to wander near my shell, you might choose to knock on my operculum. (I’m getting a little hard of hearing, so you may have to knock twice, or ring the doorbell – yes, my shell has one!). I’ll be glad to light my candle, open my operculum, invite you in for a cup of hot chocolate, and have a quiet chat about what we notice moving in each of our hearts.

Once in a while there are small news items about bizarre highway accidents involving trucks. The ones that pique my imagination might describe a sorghum molasses tanker that crashes into a center guard rail on a freeway, and molasses leaks all over the pavement. The next truck, a grain hauler, skids on the molasses and overturns several tons of wheat into the sticky goo. Hundreds of crows and pigeons nearby are attracted to the grain, get stuck in the molasses, and need to be rescued by animal welfare volunteers. It’s serious business. It’s also quite funny when I give my imagination free rein to wonder how it all unfolds.

Another imagination wondering I have sometimes is when a highway accident involves a postal truck. If the truck catches fire, or the contents get soaked or smooshed or otherwise walloped, what then? Does all that mail just get hauled unceremoniously to the nearest dump?

I think not.

I think there are US Postal workers – lots of them – whose job it is to see that damaged mail is salvaged and eventually gets to its intended destination, regardless of its condition. I have proof of this from several weeks ago when I received this package:

 

 

 

 

It had been mailed from Indiana five months earlier. At first glance I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what I was seeing.

 

 

 

When I opened the package, this is how the contents looked:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was no explanation to accompany the contents – just sooty, ragged, acrid-smelling pages of what was once the December 2020 newsletter from the Historical Society of Ogden Dunes (the village where I grew up) and an equally-battered illustrated monograph on the four-decade long effort to preserve the eroding Lake Michigan shoreline of the village.

Somewhere along the highways and byways between Indiana and Washington, this package – and, I assume, the vehicle that carried it – had come to grief. And somewhere, between Indiana and Washington, this package and its companions were hauled to a building where eventually a USPS employee carefully salvaged the delivery address and the return address from the original torn and sooty envelope, taped those to a fresh Priority Mail envelope, inserted the damaged contents, and sent everything on the way to me.

I sort of wish that kind employee had inserted note with a hint as to what the intervening story was. For now I’ll just have to rely on my imagination. But even if I’d gotten such a note, it might not have clarified things entirely, as you will now see . . .

True Story (as first mentioned in my blog post entitled “Gastropods” in August of 2017):

In 1999 I received in the mail a clear plastic envelope from England. It held a Swiss-cheese-looking paper envelope containing an equally-tattered letter from my daughter. The envelope sported a single blue BY AIR MAIL/par avion/ Royal Mail sticker, the only thing that was still perfectly intact. Also enclosed in the plastic envelope was a letter from Mr. Roland D. Phillips, Royal Mail Customer Services Manager. The British decorum of the letter – and its explanation – are worth repeating word for word:

Dear Customer

I am sorry to have to report that the enclosed letter is reaching you in a most regrettable condition. Although we go to great lengths to protect our customers’ letters from [here the word dirt is crossed out and the word snails handwritten above it] and the weather while they are moving around the country, we have failed to look after this one properly.

Please accept my apologies. If there is anything further we can do to help, please contact your local Customer Service Centre.

Yours sincerely, Roland D. Phillips

 

A few years later I would learn that snails actually have thousands of teeth, and that they particularly like paper for an evening snack. This story gives a whole new breadth to the phrase “snail mail,” doesn’t it?

And both of these mail delivery mishaps illustrate the commitment of the USPS, and the Royal Mail, to their creed: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night [nor highway accidents nor voracious snails] stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Have you thanked your postal carrier recently?


 

 

 

What on earth does THAT word mean?

It’s not an acronym. It is sort of a neologism, though it’s hardly new, and has already pretty much disappeared from our language, leaving barely a whisper behind.

Shrdlu is the second half (my favorite half) of the nonsense phrase etaoin shrdlu which comprises the order of frequency of the twelve most commonly used letters in the English language.

If it looks vaguely familiar to you, then perhaps you’ve had a nodding acquaintance with pre-computer journalism.

The relationship of etaoin shrdlu to publishing is that that sequence is found, twice, in vertical rows on a Linotype machine’s keyboard; Linotype machines are how most type was set for newspapers, books, and broadsheets from 1884 through the early 1980s.

In my mind there’s a unique sound memory that goes with shrdlu – not in pronouncing it, but in how it was produced – the rapid clinking sound of the Linotype keyboard at work. And I remember the deeper metallic clanking sound of a complex Linotype machine creating a slug of lead type for a column of news for the Gary (IN) Post-Tribune, where my father was the City Editor.

Dad got his college degree in journalism in 1931, and began his reporting career at the Indianapolis Star. Before long, however, with a growing family to feed and house, he left journalism for more lucrative jobs in public relations. But printer’s ink was always in his blood, and for the last two decades of his career he returned to journalism.

One on my fondest memories of my father is the Saturday night, sometime in the late 1950’s, when he took me with him to see how the Sunday morning edition “happens.” That’s when I met the Linotype machine, and learned shrdlu.

Dad’s City Editor desk was at one end of the very intense, very noisy, cavernous room where AP and UPI wire service machines spewed out stories from around the world; where stories became slugs of lead type and proofreaders caught errors in all that mirror-image verbiage; where individual letters became handset headlines, and galleys of finished pages were sent off to the press room. I was thrilled with all the activity; I could practically SEE important words ecstatically flying around in the ink-, machine oil-, and hot lead-scented atmosphere.

Just before press time Dad gave me an “assignment” for the Sunday morning paper! He pulled a snippet of a story off one of the wire service printers. It was meant to be a “filler” story – to take up empty space on a nearly-finished newspaper page. This story was about a dispute between neighboring friends and a pet dog. Dad told me to write a quick headline for the story. Well, I took this assignment very seriously. I sat down at a desk, read the twenty- or thirty-word story several times over, then pondered what would be the perfect headline – maybe not Pulitzer quality, but close.

I decided that alliteration would catch the reader’s eye. I debated between “pet” and “dog” for the headline, then chose “pal” for “friend,” so had to use “pet.” Now, how to get some action, some emotion into the story’s headline? Something that begins with another “P.” I was caught up in the heady world of journalism, blissfully unaware when my Dad began pacing behind me. All but “my” page had already been sent to the press room, and the boss’s daughter was holding up production.

Okay, I had Pet and Pal; now how to connect them into a headline for this story? Finally I had it: “Peevish Pal Pokes Pet.” Dad grabbed the notebook page from me before I could change my mind, practically ran with it to the Linotype operator, who set the line. The lead slug was handed off to the pressman hovering over the final galley. The page was now complete, and was trundled off to the press room. Finally finished for the night, the Linotype operator smiled at me, and before he shut off the machine he ran his index finger down the second row of the right side of his keyboard. Then he activated the Linotype, and handed me a line of type that read SHRDLU. I felt as if I’d just been blessed by Clio or Calliope or some other Muse of writing.

And there was one more wonder yet to come that evening. Dad and I walked to the small balcony overlooking the huge presses two floors below us. The pressroom foreman was watching the balcony, and he and Dad exchanged hand signals. Dad nodded and shouted down, “Okay, boys, let’s put it to bed.” The foreman hit a large button that set off a klaxon and a couple of flashing red lights, and slowly the presses began to roll. Tons of off-white paper revolved and stretched and traveled over curved inked embossed plates. I could hardly breathe! Miles of newsprint spun and danced, met and parted, were sliced and folded, and somehow, miraculously, became the Sunday morning edition of the Post-Tribune that was even now being loaded onto delivery trucks.

Dad yawned and said it was time to go home. We got our coats from the chair behind his desk. A pressman, who’d run up two flights of stairs, handed him a copy literally “hot off the press.” Dad didn’t bother to look at it, yet. He knew every inch of what was printed there. Even the little filler story with the alliterative headline on page 32. I was so proud of my father I could barely contain myself and nearly cried. But I didn’t, because I was the daughter of a JOURNALIST. I was now a bit of a journalist myself. So I clutched the talisman in my pocket a rectangular piece of metal on which was written the magic word:SHRDLU – and went home with my Dad, the journalist who had just made the Sunday edition “happen.

PS – There is a poignant, well-done 30-minute online documentary, produced in 1978 by the New York Times, about the demise of the venerable Linotype. It’s called “Farewell, ETAOIN SHRDLU” and can be seen at https://vimeo.com/127605643

There is also a 3-minute piece from The Atlantic at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/celebrating-linotype-125-years-since-its-debut/238968/

 

 

On February 29, 2020, a Washington citizen became the first in the United States to die of Covid-19.

Twenty-twenty was a “leap year.” Twenty-twenty-one is not, yet it has “leaped” over that important date.

 

There is no February 29 this year to mark the ominous anniversary of what would stretch into twelve months of masking, sanitizing, seclusion. It was a year of Zooming, fear, political unrest. It was a year of sickness and death. We all experienced some measure of social division, depression, and occasional outbreaks of dark humor. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading perpetual newsfeeds, as well as doing jigsaw puzzles, and napping, and consuming videos with my chosen “Pandemic Pod.” Surviving, but not thriving.

There is no February 29 this year. No one-year anniversary date on the calendar.

As I begin to write this essay, it is March 1, 2021. More than 500,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, 5000 of them in Washington. This morning a friend mused about the past year, wondering out loud whether she had “used this time well.” It was a “year-to-live” kind of question, the sort Stephen Levine asked in his book of that title. If this were your last year of life, how should you live it?

But how does one know, either that it IS a final year, OR that one has lived it well . . . or not?

Have I used this time well? Not as fully as I might have, had I had access to a functioning crystal ball on February 29, 2020.

Every day, every moment, of this past year has been lived on the exhausting, awesome, awful cusp of history in the making, of a year without precedent politically, socially, epidemically.

It has been breath-taking, breathlessly amazing, and suffocating, all at once – much like the novel coronavirus to which, gratefully, I did not succumb.

In those circumstances, I guess I’ve done the best I could.

Today is March 1, 2021. It sits on top of an invisible anniversary on the calendar. This afternoon I got my first covid vaccination at a local pharmacy. I felt buoyant, almost giddy as I drove home.

As if I’d just been given a new lease on my life.

As if this is the start-point of a whole new year of my life.

Will I use it well?

 

 

 

Last month’s blog post played with oxymorons. This month I’ve moved on to malaprops!

A few weeks ago Governor Jay Inslee held a press conference at which he explained more stringent pandemic guidelines for Washington. I am proud of our newly-reelected governor – he’s thoughtful, strong, articulate.

But of his entire 20 minutes of air time that day, a single word has stayed with me – and that word was one he misspoke, then immediately corrected. He said, “We must be villagent . . . vigilant.”

“Villagent” – a malaprop as perfect as it is instructive. “We must be villagent.” In difficult and unpredictable times like this, it is helpful – and far less daunting – to think about how to live in a VILLAGE rather than in a more impersonal city or in the immense world at large.

A village today doesn’t look much like a village of 100 years ago. It might be worth the time to study today’s neighborhood, or town, or whatever chunk of community feels manageable right now. Study it to figure out what’s the “glue” that will best hold it together in the years to come. Talk with friends and neighbors, ask what works for them, and what doesn’t. Then plan how best to DO the “glue,” to BE the glue that helps the community cohere in a time that has almost no precedent.

Okay, so during our covid isolation time we can’t gather in local coffee shops, and the produce-growing season is mostly finished, and we can’t invite each other over to share a meal. But we CAN support local businesses and local farmers by judiciously ordering take out or delivery. We can buy a share in next year’s Community-Supported Agriculture crops, to assure that those seeds will get in the ground. NOW is the time to be more open-handed if we can, spending a larger portion of our budget to help small businesses and farms survive.

Now is also a time to donate to local service agencies as generously as possible – if not now, when? If not you, who?

Now is a good time to intentionally keep in touch with friends, neighbors, family. Connect with them now, not tomorrow. USE all that technology we were complaining about just a year ago!

And as for sharing meals with friends, how about Zooming some suppertimes? Three nearby friends and I Zoomed our Thanksgiving dinner this year. Each of us prepared a part of the meal, exchanged containers of food on a socially-distanced front porch, then settled in at home to enjoy our feast with the addition of a laptop computer on each dining table. For three hours we ate “together,” exclaimed over the food, shared memories, and even had delightfully silly finger-puppet skits!

Do you fret over national politics? I suggest that we let go of our doomscrolling through the news headlines, and learn more about how our local government works. Being villagent in covid-time doesn’t mean we have to suddenly reinvent government. But it might mean we choose to participate more on a local level. Maybe we could plan to run for a local office. (Yikes!) If that’s too daunting, how about volunteering for a non-profit Board? Choose one that provides services that matter most to you in your community. Or offer to serve on a non-elected committee for your town or county government, or on the neighborhood homeowners’ association. That’s “doing the glue”; that’s being villagent.

What will be asked of us next? What other huge changes are just beyond the horizon? Whatever they are, it’s certain that we’ll have to be creative, be inventive; we’ll have to learn, and use, new skills, be connective and compassionate and adaptable enough to help our local “village” life survive and thrive.

Nor surprisingly, Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster both have announced that the Word of the Year for 2020 is “pandemic.”

Maybe the Word of the Year for 2021 will be the perfect malaprop: “villagent.”

 

[Note FYI: on November 22 I gave a sermon, titled “The Art of Loss,” for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island. You can find the Zoom audio/video at https://uucwi.org . That will take you to the UUCWI home page; click on Service Archive to see the entire service, which was lovely. My 16-minute sermon begins at about the 18-minute mark of that video.]

 

In my third grade class our teacher, Mrs. Cole, assigned a project: we were to create one or two finger puppets, write a few lines of dialogue for them, and each present a short “play” for the class.

I made two “potato head” puppets, one a “student” and one a “scientist.” I didn’t know many “scientific” words, so I asked my brother (he was a junior in high school and really smart) to “give me some big words.” He wrote down words from trigonometry, and some from biology, and then he threw in what would become one of my all-time favorite words: “oxymoron.” I loved how it looked on paper, and how it sounded in my mouth, and how wonderfully smart it made me feel when I said it. “Oxymoron.”

When I asked my brother what it meant, he said, “It’s a fancy way of saying ‘contradiction.'” “What’s ‘contradiction’?” I asked. Patiently he illustrated the concept with jumbo shrimp and bittersweet and larger half, and I tucked those away as the first of a collection of oxymorons that I’d accumulate all my life.

Over the years I’ve also collected a plethora of “big words” and delicious words that warm the tongue and please the ear. There are “prestidigitation,” “peripatetic,” and “tatterdemalian.” When Mary Poppins and Burt the Chimneysweep sang “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in 1964 I was ecstatic. And when I discovered the name of the Welsh city, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch,” it made my Welsh heart rejoice.

But always there was a special place in that heart for “oxymoron.” My very favorite oxymoron is one I heard about 20 years ago: proactive sloth. That one made me laugh out loud, and I smile every time I say it or think it, especially when I’m feeling proactively slothful, like today. So I started yet another list: synonyms for my favorite oxymoron. How about lively languor? Or passionate otiosity? Or peripatetic inertia?

Really, what better use is there for this dull gray October afternoon on the worrisome verge of an historical election, than to let myself smile while playing in the sandbox of words?

Wanna come play with me? We can be alone together!

Did you think this would be a children’s illustrated story of an orange-and-black winged creature, perhaps wearing a little apron, stirring a pot of chowder? No, this is not that tale.

Did you imagine six delicate legs, and a spiral proboscis touching lightly on the surface of a sweet creamy bisque? No, not that either.

Did you visualize dozens of fragile little white wings floating in a dinnertime savory broth? Yuck, that’s the wrong image too!

“Butterfly soup” is my psychospiritual metaphor for the year 2020.

Since March we’ve lived in the midst of cascading plagues of Old Testament proportions: pandemic, civil unrest, wildfires, drought, deaths, hurricanes, flooding, even clouds of locusts. We’ve been secluded in our homes, isolated from friends and cultural activities; we’ve been social distancing, any smiles hidden behind ubiquitous masks.

I was searching for a way to describe how increasingly odd my inner world has felt in this very strange outer world – and up popped the image of a caterpillar. Yellow and black and white stripes encircling its pudgy body, it was hanging upside down from a twig, just entering the process in which nearly every one of its molecules and cells and chromosomes deliquesce into green goop – “butterfly soup.”

This is not a pleasant image. Nor is my current inner feeling pleasant. I’ve had to acknowledge that my life is forever altered. Not for just a few months, but forever. The “new normal” is going to be perpetual uncertainty, and I have no idea how to live with that.

Nor does the caterpillar understand how to live decomposed inside a chrysalis.

At one time I believed the urban legend that if you held a suitably sensitive microphone up to a chrysalis you could hear a sound like a tiny scream from inside. It’s not true, but it’s a satisfying fantasy-sound to accompany the imagined horror of annihilation.

As gross and frightening as “butterfly soup” may be, there are two metaphors of hope that accompany the physiology of the butterfly’s transformation: the first is a few miraculous cells, and the second is milkweed plants.

The poet in me loves that biologists call the caterpillar’s miracle cells “imaginal discs.” Those discs will eventually become wings, legs, antennae – structures that can’t even be imagined by the caterpillar. These cells survive the transformational digestive process, and use the raw materials in the butterfly soup to assemble a butterfly inside the chrysalis. Even the poet in me can’t find a human equivalent for those discs – surely it’s something about my soul, and its gifts, and its sacred contract to incarnate at this time and place. I’m at a loss to find words, though – spiritual “imaginal discs” weren’t in the syllabus as I was earning my masters degree in theology two decades ago! But I’m quite sure they exist, and in this butterfly soup time, that’s a comfort.

The hopeful aspect of milkweed plants in this story is their stolid practicality. Milkweeds – ordinary, perennial roadside plants – are what feed a Monarch caterpillar, somehow preparing it for its transformation. I now have milkweed plants growing in pots on the deck at the back of my house, hoping they will flower next summer to nourish crawling things on their way to becoming flying things.

That’s the correlation of this flower metaphor to today’s soul work: in these butterfly soup days we are all spiritually hungry and debilitated. The scientific name for milkweed honors Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. As in the ancient Greek healing centers (asclepeions), the nourishing and healing of our community depends upon our supporting each other with simple patience, attention, and empathy. We can share our fear and weariness, our confusion, and our dreams. We can do this one-to-one (wearing masks, practicing wise hygiene) or distantly and several at once (through zoom, skype, or whatever new technology is devised next week). In these unprecedented days we must trust the nutrients our presence provides to each other.

For this is, and will continue to be, butterfly soup time. We have the necessary imaginal discs within us. We can learn to provide the spiritual nourishment our community needs. May we grow together, with the simple generosity of weeds, to welcome transformation, and to dream of flight.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who was afraid of almost everything: bugs that flew, caterpillars that crawled, lightning that flashed, winds that blew, dogs that barked, rumors of robbers, sirens that screamed in the night, vegetables that looked unfamiliar, people that spoke with difficult accents.

In tears she often ran to a wise man, asking him to protect her, sobbing out her question: how could she feel safe when everything seemed so frightening? This wise man was her father; he would hold her until her tears dried, he’d say some soothing words, then send her back out to play. He could not protect her from every scary thing, but he could console her until she was old enough to hear the answer she sought to her question: How could she feel safe?

When the little girl was ten or so, the wise man decided it was time for her to be told the secret to not being afraid. “This,” he said, “is my family’s secret. Your grandfather knew it, your grandmother knows it. Your aunt knows it. I know it. It is a secret that is shared with those who are wise enough to use it. So now I pass this secret on to you: Every day, you must do one thing that scares you. It doesn’t have to be a great big thing. It can be just little tiny scary thing. At the end of the day you may tell me what scary thing you have done, or you can keep it as a secret for yourself. But do it – one scary thing each day.”

For ten years the girl practiced the wisdom of her father: almost every day she did something scary. Because she was facing them, paying attention to the scary things, somehow they didn’t seem quite so fearsome any more. Sometimes she wasn’t sure they even counted as her daily “one scary thing.” So she moved on to bigger scary things – she accepted leadership responsibilities; she auditioned for (and won) the position of drum major in her high school marching band; she sang on the stage; she traveled across the country by herself; she ended a toxic friendship; she moved away from home to live on a college campus.

Now this twenty-year-old young woman finds herself in a world that has become very much scarier than anyone can remember: a global pandemic growing to monstrous proportions; people killing each other over whether or not they will wear protective masks; racial tensions breaking loose in city streets, with political civility and maybe even democracy seeming to be things of the past. She lives in the midst of climate change, with hourly extinctions of flora and fauna. She has what seems to me (her grandmother) to be a bleak future.

But Jessica has perfected the rhythm of one-scary-thing-a-day. And so, in spite of what the future may hold, she moves forward with plans for how her life will serve others. She will be an elementary school teacher. She’ll finish her education degree in another year. She has plans for graduate study. She has learned to discern what’s worth the energy spent on fear (not much, in her experience) and what isn’t. She knows how she will help her young students face scary times.

Once upon a recent time – last week, in fact – this same young woman, who once was afraid of almost everything, did yet another scary thing: she walked into a tattoo shop to have her own wisdom inked permanently into her skin, just above her right inner elbow.

 

In Jessica’s wisdom, and the determination of so many others in her generation, I find courage for myself, and a glimmer of hope for our future.

 

 

Did you ever wonder about where our one-hundred billion dollar prison industry had its beginnings, and why it so disproportionally confines people of color?

For starters, look no further than the Thirteenth Amendment to The Constitution of the United States.

Go ahead. Look it up on Google. Read the whole Amendment. I’ll wait here while you read.

 

Back so soon? Yup, it’s only 2 sentences long.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude. That is very good thing. But there is an important catch built into it: the 14-word second phrase.

A few days ago I watched a stunning documentary, made in 2016, that I’d never heard of before last week: Thirteenth, written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It focuses on the implications of that 14-word phrase. It can be viewed on Netflix.

This is the sum and substance of my blog post this month: WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY.

Then I’d love to know what your observations are. One thing we can thank the coronavirus for is giving us the opportunity to ponder really big, unexpected issues. Thanks for considering this one.