It’s been a month of inks and pens. For those of us who love fountain pens, #30inks30days, the brain-child of Tom Oddo, gives us an excuse to play around with some of the amazing inks that are available these days. While fountain pens have never completely gone out of style, the allure of deeply saturated inks, of inks that shade, shine, sheen, and shimmer, of inks that are “bulletproof” and more enduring than biro inks, of inks that highlight texts and glow in the dark, has certainly contributed to the resurgence of interest in fountain pens.
The idea behind #30inks30days is that one will use a different ink every day of the month, then clean one’s pen and move on to a different ink on the following day. Ink samples and sharing make it more affordable to come up with thirty different tones and tints.
Then one posts whatever one has written with the ink. Some people just write out the name and brand of their ink of the day; other folks draw detailed illustrations or calligraph beloved quotations. It’s my favourite kind of game — one in which all the players win.
I’ve been posting my meagre thoughts and sketches on my Tumblr, but here are my contributions all together. As you can see, I am looking to place some of my creations in the Museum of Modern Mediocre Efforts. But I am trying to be a little more daring, a little braver, so I’ll post them here too. And off we go:
In my last post, I wrote that my mother’s story became mine, and that is true. But it is not mine alone, not by a long shot, and I am beyond grateful for that, for having family with whom to navigate this odyssey. However, I do not have permission to share their parts in this story. I have not even asked for it because I am not ready for the suggestions and censorship that would inevitably ensue. So I’ll restrict this posting mostly to what pertains to my mother and myself.
In early February — on the first of February — my mother fell ill and wound up in the ICU. The expectation was that she had only days left to live. She told me later that she had gone to the hospital thinking, hoping she’d die there.
However, my mother came from tough pioneer stock and her body held on despite her intentions to die. The doctors put a tube through her back, between her ribs, and into the lung that had been filling with fluid for longer than anyone could guess. Until this procedure, my mother had endured all the poking and prodding, imaging and invasiveness without complaint. But the drainage tube was painful, painful enough that one night it gave her dreadful nightmares of confinement and torture. She thrashed around and dislodged the tube and her IV and woke bloody and wracked. We had no idea then that the pain would never go away.
After almost two weeks in hospital, we took Mom home. Different doctors gave us divergent prognoses: two weeks, a few months, a year. We struggled to make plans. Was it time for hospice? A nursing facility? Could we handle what to come ourselves?
Mom seemed frail beyond belief, almost skeletal, nearly translucent. She had no appetite, no energy for eating. She kept the thermostat at 78º F; in the middle of a bitingly cold Winter, I wore tank tops and shorts and, if the neighbours hadn’t such a clear view through the family room window, I probably would have worn even less.
When the cold drove the cardinals to gather near the patio, my mother perked up. She and my dad, dead these dozen years, kept binoculars by the glass door in the kitchen to watch the birds, and we got them out to watch the red creatures flit through the bushes. (The neighbours never did anything interesting enough to warrant spying, so there was no Rear Window-ing.) My husband, back after a few weeks home, bought some bird seed for the small feeder — an up-side-down stone turtle dish — and the cardinals came and ate, one pecking at the turtle’s up-turned belly as its mate kept watch. (It was all rather Promethean, but I didn’t mention that.) Eventually, the cardinals nested in the bushes lining the patio and in the hedge by the back bedrooms abutting it. It was hard to get a true count, but there were five or six nesting couples. My mother was delighted.
In years past, turtle doves had nested in a flower pot by the kitchen door. This year they flew in, but didn’t stay. I did what I could to coax them back with bird seed and by transplanting some soft ground cover into the pot, but they would only stop by to visit rather to set up house-keeping. They had always been so calm, so trusting, so unfazed by Mom’s comings and going, that she had found their confidence enchanting, and was disappointed that they abandoned her this Spring. I still haven’t forgiven them.
As the rains poured down, as the thunder welled and the lightning flared, Mom grew stronger. I cooked real meals, and she ate just enough to gain some energy. Eating wore her out, though, and she would head to bed to sleep for a while after dinner, always re-appearing just as I finished cleaning the kitchen.
In the hospital, Mom had been put on oxygen and, once home, tubes tethered her to tanks, but the oxygen sharpened her mind marvelously. The forgetfulness we had attributed to age, we now realized had been induced by how little oxygen had been making its way form her lungs to her brain. Nevertheless, Mom would still ditch her tubes to smoke in the greenhouse, sitting there in peace, looking at the yard, the birds, the sunset, and Hamlet’s undiscovered country drawing near. She ate more; the thermostat started to edge down. But the pain from the drainage tube persisted and increased. Meds took off the rim of the pain, but never made Mom comfortable. When others were around, Mom would pull together and push aside the pain, but it would come roaring back and she inevitably paid for her efforts later, panting panting panting from the pain. Despite the on-going agony, Mom was kind and grateful, though being so was patently a Herculean labour.
As Spring came on, the pink-bud bloomed. Bright buds of mauve and purple lined the branches; bright green leaves unfolded; bright cardinals and subfusc wrens perched on the limbs. We enlisted a home health nursing service, but time and again they could not apprehend what Mom needed. They came with pre-conceived beliefs that physical and occupational therapies would strengthen Mom when all they did was wear her out and exacerbate her pain. When we asked for guidance to help with Mom’s anguish over not being able to work, we were told to have do whatever made her happy, but it was being useful, feeling she had a purpose, running the family business that made her feel content.
When we had to make the shift to hospice, the doctor and nurses promised that they would see to it that Mom wouldn’t suffer, but her pain and sense of uselessness were equally anguishing. She felt betrayed by every effort to keep her alive; she wanted the hospice folks to speed her on her way, but state laws forbad such relief. “They promised,” she kept saying. “They promised I wouldn’t suffer, and this is suffering.”
Sitting in the kitchen, looking out at the yard, Mom found herself longing for more colour. I planted such flowers as I could find at the nursery and scattered seeds to bring more blooms later. The rains coaxed out more leaves, more flowers, more growth as my mother flagged and diminished. I intended to go back when there would be more plants available, but Mom started to decline and it was hard for me to leave the house for long.
Mom had some good days, too. My kids flew in and out to visit to see her a few times, bringing life and youth and more love into the house, and reminding Mom that she had helped shape the next generation, that part of her would live on in these quick, bright things. When the end became clearly in sight, Mom rallied a few times to tie up loose ends and legal matters. She wrote in her computer journal, committing to the machine stories of her own mother, philosophical thoughts, unresolved sorrows. She and I had time to talk, to argue politics and discuss Shakespeare. We said “I love you” a dozen times a day.
She’d say, “I hope you’ll miss me.”
I’d say, “I’ll miss you like mad.”
Her last really good day came when the neighbours came over with their grown son, his wife, four kids, and a huge, fluffy puppy. My mother, who loved animals,* especially dogs, was enthralled. She sat on the floor with the kids and the dogs and radiated warmth and happiness from the presence of the pup and the knowledge that, over the decades, her life had become so intertwined with these kind and generous people.
In the end, I think it was the pain more than the cancer that overcame her. Even the morphine she had been taking did little to ease the pain. Everything revolved around the regime of pain medications we kept hoping would bring some relief; eventually, because she was too thin for a morphine drip IV, we were giving her pills or liquid morphine every hour around the clock. I snatched occasional, twenty-minute naps and lost all sense of time. The mid-Spring days grew longer and brighter; my mother’s season diminished and faded.
And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.
And I miss her like mad.
* I always said that I never worried about my getting lost in a forest because I knew all the woodland creatures would flock to her and lead her to the nearest house of hospitable dwarves.
I am back. I have been away because, for several months, I was living someone else’s story. And the story was not mine to tell.1
When I left, it was Winter. In the cold days of February, I thought about other topics about which I might write. There were the cardinals that came close to the houses to glean some of the ambient heat, the reds of the males flashing against the greys of the sky and the clouds, the orange beaks of the females, warmer and more welcome than the sparking males. The flock’s calls and clicks that sounded like notes from a wooden xylophone were equally bright — glowing coals of sound, equally cacophony and symphony. I could have written about the way they came close, but not too close, never venturing onto the patio, never coming under the shelter of the roof, but rather perching on the branches of the pink-bud tree that almost — almost — stretches its limbs under the overhang that shelters the patio.
I thought about telling how, years ago, the pink-bud tree on the patio became diseased and had to be cut down. There was debate about whether the unobstructed view or the shade of a tree was preferable. While we waited for the stump to decompose, new saplings twined up from the base of the old tree and flourished. After some years, it was decided that the new trees weren’t growing right, and the trio of trees were cut down. This time, stump killer was applied to prevent new growth. It didn’t work. The new shoots became a proper tree. And now that tree shelters cardinals in the cold and spills out pink and purple buds in Spring.
I thought about writing about the rain. The grey skies cast down unusually generous rains and soon there were thunderstorms with their rumbles and explosions and lightning shows. I stood on the patio, under the overhang, watching the wildness, catching pieces of lightning with the camera on my phone.
And I thought about trying to articulate the strangeness of watching the heart of one season slide into the respiration of the next in a place that was not home, in a span of time that unspooled yet held still, of seeing Winter’s snows become Spring rains that greened the grass and persuaded the trees to cast on shawls of light green, then coats of darker verdancy. The mock pears shone white with their blossoms;
the cardinals paired off and set up housekeeping in the hedge by the patio and the tall bushes by the back bedrooms. The cardinals and wood doves came for the bird seed I put out; I began feuding with squirrels and keeping an eye out for rats.
I considered describing how I went to the tree nursery and brought home blooming plants in vivid hues and stuffed them into pots along the patio.
I cast seeds wantonly into the pots and planters, along the back fence, in front of the house. The continuing rains washed the seeds into the soil and set the seeds to growing.
I thought about writing about how time morphed into strange shapes and lost meaning and days were the same day and different days and it stopped mattering and time escaped altogether.
I “wrote” in my head, but got nothing on paper, nothing entered onto the computer nor on line. I was too enfolded in other matters, in another’s life, to write anything down.
1. Jenny Lawson blogged about this dilemma too, telling readers of her blog back in January, “I’ve struggled with what to say because I don’t know what to say. I am an open book and I write everything, but this isn’t just my story and I want to respect that,“ and “Turns out it’s really hard to write about emotional things and even harder when they involve someone you love whose privacy you want to protect.”
In a recent post, I wrote about developing aphasia and labouring to re-build my vocabulary. I am an editor and an independent scholar; both my work and my vocation depend on my ability to deploy words with attention to nuance and connotation. This post is a note of gratitude to Jaynie Royal, the person who helped me to revive my inner thesaurus.
Before I “met” Jaynie in LinkedIn’s Literary Endeavor discussion group (which Jaynie established), I had been playing “brain training” games and looking up words, writing down their definitions in tiny journals (I’ve long given up on the games, but I still keep the vocabulary journals). I read read read with a kind of desperation that alloyed almost out of existence any pleasure I might have taken in the activity. I also consumed articles and comments in on-line groups, and I did find some support and validation there, but no solutions.
And then, a little more than three years into my struggle, I started to get to know Jaynie, thanks to the magic of the Internet.* We became friends, and then, when she invited me to join her publishing house, colleagues. To keep our work and our personal relationships (slightly) separated, we started consigning our communications about editing and publishing to e-mails and using letters — the kind written by hand, on paper, with a fountain pen — to share news and thoughts about family, the weather, politics, recently read books, and recipes. (Well, it’s mostly Jaynie sharing recipes because she is a superb cook.)
Beyond the exchange of chat and epiphanies, Jaynie and I discovered just how much we share an enjoyment of playing with language, of indulging in what we think of as elegant prose and others might call florid ramblings. Since this is my blog, let’s go with elegant prose. (Jaynie’s style absolutely sparkles.)
Here was someone who laid out the riches of her vocabulary for me to delight in and who was willing to revel in the gems of verbiage I was able to unearth from the buried treasures of my verbal trove. Corresponding with Jaynie over these last four-plus years has helped me unlock rooms in my head that I forgotten were there. Letter therapy — unintentional, accidental therapy — has been what has brought me back some sense of who I am and what I used to be able to do.
I doubt that I’ll ever completely recover from the effects of the Prednisone (I am on the far side of middle age and I’m not sure of how much plasticity my ossifying brain is still capable), nor is there any compensatory silver lining nor new philosophical outlook that will make me a better person because of my aphasia. I will always resent the loss; I will always be frustrated when the right word refuses to trip off my tongue or slide down my nib. But I am relieved to have learned that I can get better. And I am tremendously grateful to my friend Jaynie for giving me the means to do so.
(I think I’m going to need a bigger box — or another one.)
*Jaynie and I have met in real life too. You know those movies where people find themselves living inside their favourite novels? Meeting Jaynie was like that, only I felt as if I had walked inside one of her letters.
A few days ago, Lydia Schoch put up a post on her blog, “What I Would Do with a Million Dollars.” Her plans are eminently sensible and I applaud her foresight. After all, one never knows: someone might just hand her a fortune someday, so it is important to plan ahead.
But lately, I’ve found myself wondering what I would do if I happened to have 5.7 billion dollars to spend. I’m pretty sure some of it would end up at our local bookstore. I’d probably buy that cool fountain pen I’ve been eyeing. In a moment of unbridled reasonableness, I might even set up retirement funds for myself and my family.
But what to do with the other 5.6 billion? Would I build a border wall that could be easily breached, one that would have an enormous, deleterious effect on the environment, that would divide towns, deprive people of their homes, augment the crisis at the border, and be an eye-sore to boot?
No, I don’t think I would.
I think I’d be inclined to spend it on children, on the generations coming after me.* Maybe I’d give kids books and fountain pens. Or better schools with reasonable class sizes and teachers who are paid so well that our best and brightest would vie to spend their days with boisterous kindergartners and surly, adolescent, high-school students.
Maybe I’d find a way to help social services around the country staff their offices with social workers who would have only a few cases apiece so that children in desperate situations wouldn’t get lost in and abused by the system. And maybe, like teachers, I could pay these workers well enough that bright and caring people would be eager to be hired for these positions, especially if there were money left over to provide them with the training and support they would need to deal with heart-breaking family situations.
I might spend the money on research to reverse global warming so that our children will have a planet on which they can live or donate the funds to NASA in hopes that they’ll find new worlds for new generations — and ways for them to live on these planets without destroying them. (See WALL-E.)
Truly, I can think of so very many ways to spend 5.6 (or even 5.7) billion dollars, and none of them include a border wall. Anybody have some other suggestions? What would you do if you had 5.7 billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket?
Here is a relic of my childhood: Mazel and Schlimazel, or The Milk of a Lioness by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer tells us a story of two spirits, Mazel (good luck) and Schlimazel (bad luck) and the wager they make one day after Mazel has been boasting how happy he makes people and that everyone loves him, but no one loves Schlimazel. (And I have to say, even though Mazel is basically a good character, he is pretty obnoxious right at the start. But he quickly gets better.) Schlimazel gets understandably riled. He claims that whatever Mazel can do in a year, he, Schlimazel, can undo in a second. And the bet is on.
Mazel seeks out the poorest hut in a poor village and finds Tam, a young man beset by bad luck. And here’s where I start to love Mazel. He sits down next to Tam in his shack with toadstools growing from the walls and gets to know Tam. Even though Tam isn’t really aware of him, Mazel asks Tam questions about himself and while Tam talks — to himself, he thinks, but really prompted by Mazel — Mazel pays attention. Mazel and Schlimazel is a children’s book, a short story — a fairy tale, really — but at this moment in the story the words and illustration depict a moment of genuine companionship.
From here, of course, Tam’s life promptly improves. His luck changes. He is brought to the attention of the king and the princess.
After a good bath and a change of clothes, Tam quickly rises from the court smithy to the court proper.
And while Mazel helps every step of the way, the story makes it clear that Tam is doing the work. Mazel’s presence might have prompted the king to give the young man a job, but Tam labors to do well. And Singer reminds us that “When the humble achieve success, they often become haughty and forget those among whom they grew up. But Tam always found time to help the peasants and the poor.” Tam’s kindness is all his own and not a veneer imposed by Mazel. Tam’s rise becomes a joint effort. Mazel provides opportunities and Tam earns the next chance that Mazel makes possible. Mazel and Tam build on another’s efforts. That’s teamwork, people.
Tam and Nesika, as we would expect in a heteronormative story such as this one, are in love. The king (who never gets a name and has class issues), much as he likes and values Tam, continues to hold onto hope that Nesika will find a prince she can tolerate sufficiently to marry. Nesika (and here is another aspect of the story I love), however, is no mere passive prize. In fact, when we first meet her, she has been driving her father up the wall for refusing suitors for eminently sensible reasons. One laughed too much, another would only discuss fox-hunting, a third beat his dog. The latest suitor (number seven) Nesika rejects “because his boots were foolish.”
“‘How can boots be foolish?” her father asked.
“‘If the feet are foolish, the boots are foolish,’ Nesika replied.
“‘How can feet be foolish?’ her father insisted.
“‘If the head is foolish, the feet are foolish!’ Nesika retorted.”
Nesika is one smart cookie.
But, naturally, a day comes when an impossible task must be accomplished. Tam volunteers to get the necessary milk of a lioness, and the king is so touched he says that when Tam returns, he may marry Nesika.
So off Tam goes, Mazel riding unseen on his own horse right behind him. A lioness with cubs is conveniently hanging around right outside the city, and Tam, thanks to Mazel, strolls right up, milks her, and pops back on his horse. (There is an amusing moment, one that I find a little poignant, when Tam and Mazel leave, in which the lioness comes out of her luck-induced haze and realizes what was done to her and is terribly embarrassed and angry. I don’t blame her for feeling pretty violated.)
Tam returns with the bottle of milk and presents it to the king just as the year is over. Schlimazel steps up and, in the single second that he’d said he would require, causes Tam to mis-speak a single word and the whole house of cards that Mazel and Tam had built so carefully over the course of the preceding year comes crashing down and Tam is sentenced to hang.
And this moment in the narrative is the one that has been on my mind lately. If you want to know how the story ends, you’ll have to read it yourself, which you should do anyway, because it’s a really good story.
The Personal and the Political
This pivotal moment in Mazel and Schlimazel has come back to me often as I have been struggling with both personal and political issues about speech (and yeah, yeah — I know: the personal is the political, but bear with me. I offer my distinction as point on a continuum, not as a dichotomy).
We have all seen, over and over, the harm done by words carelessly or viciously deployed, seen the way these words are making our cultural landscape into something twisted and bleak. Tam’s verbal mis-step and the consequences of a words rose to mind last month when Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth declared the entire Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) to be unconstitutional. With a word (well, OK, a set of words, but ones that amounted to No), Judge O’Connor may have swept aside all the good that the ACA has wrought: coverage for young people through their parents, the slowly stabilizing cost of insurance, coverage for those of us (and we are legion) who have pre-existing conditions. The ACA is far from perfect; we need a Congress willing to pitch in and work together in good faith to argue and compromise and give a damn about the citizens of this country for that to happen.
The rescission of the ACA might not condemn any to hang, but it will cause deaths — slower deaths from illness, injury, despair and poverty from exorbitant medical costs rather than from the rope, but deaths nevertheless. The word of one man can take away essential care from so many — our friends, our families, our neighbors, ourselves — care that can save lives, save minds, and save souls.
And this kind of sudden reversal is not affecting health care only. We are seeing the accelerated destruction of the environment, of foreign relations, of civility, of children’s lives — brought on by ill-chosen words and inexcusable silences. We are seeing years of work and progress undone in moments.
My memory of Tam’s reversal and the degradation of political discourse and practice also connected with me in a more personal way. The personal aspect again has to do with health, my health. Several years ago, I was on high doses of Prednisone for some months. The drug messed with my mood and memory; I recall very little of those months, nothing of what was happening in my son’s life, fragmented scraps of my daughter’s college graduation. For most of that time, I had to sequester myself because I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. I felt terribly isolated from the people who were important to me and from myself. (Let us give thanks for good therapists.) I usually call my mother a few times a week. It was unsettling to go for more than three months without talking to her.
While I still don’t remember the months I was on the Prednisone, most of my memory is back. The deficit remaining lies in my ability to retrieve my words. I often struggle to get the word I want, the word I can feel in my mind, to come out my mouth. Instead, I hear myself say something that starts with the same letter but is otherwise completely unrelated or a word that has some relation to the word I know is in my head. The link might be somewhat similar in meaning to or the complete opposite of the word I want, but there will some kind of connection that makes sense to me. The result is that, often, I, like Tam, spout out the wrong word at important moments. So far, as far as I know at least, no one has died, though I often feel terribly awkward. No one warned me how drastically the drug was likely to affect me, and no one told me that the effects might be lasting. (Again, my situation is not strictly analogous to Tam’s. No one has tried to put an actual noose around my throat. It just feels like that.)
I have been living with aphasia ever since.
Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.
That’s how Meghan Beaudry describes the bewildering, frightening experience of losing her words. Amy Roost, author, host of the podcast Fury, multi-talented and -accomplished wonder woman (Check out her web site. Go ahead. I’ll wait) sent me a link to Beaudry’s article, “A Brain Infection Destroyed My Marriage, But Made Me a Writer.”* Beaudry’s aphasia was inflicted by cerebritis, not medication, but like her, I had to “claw back” (exactly the phrase I hold in my mind) my ability to find my words. It’s still a struggle, almost eight years later. And her relationship to language is much like my own. Beaudry “balked at learning to navigate a new computer or phone, but cherished language, treating my words like pets and people: each with their own personalities and preferences….” Losing my words was like being unmoored. snatching at frayed threads instead of have a solid rope to secure me to my life.
Again like Beaudry, I continue to replenish my word hoard, but it is frustrating for me and for those with whom I try to communicate to wait around while I fish for words, needing the right ones with the right shades of meaning for my verbal palette. Poor Tam had a single moment of mis-speaking and was condemned for it. I live with the fear of condemnation, of being judged inadequate or unintelligent, of having people impatiently fill in my pauses and thereby let me know that I am taking up too much of their time.
Returning to the more overtly political, I wonder how many of those who claim to govern for us understand the power of their words, they way they are creating a world of flourishing hatred, selfishness, vituperation, viewed through a lens so narrow that no light seems to get through. I think most of them are aware; I suspect few of them care. Tam (though he didn’t know it) had the excuse of being momentarily beset by some really bad luck; others of us have conditions that make it difficult to find the words we need. But Tam and most of us struggling with impediments work to correct our errors, though we may not always succeed. I don’t think many of our politicians and lawmakers can say the same.
I’m not much of a fashion maven, but I suspect that if we check the footwear of many —too many — of the people in power, we will see that they are wearing dangerously foolish boots.
*Beaudry’s story is headed by a photo of a snail slinking along the page of a book. It’s an apt image: finding words now can be a slow process, one that doesn’t necessarily stay on track, though at least it’s not usually slimy.
OK, OK: I’ll tell you how the story ends, but not how it is resolved, so you still have to read the book. Tam avoids hanging, he and Nesika get married, and Tam and Mazel remain friends (even if Tam doesn’t know it). And here’s another great aspect of the story: when the king dies a timely, totally non-suspicious death, it is Nesika who ascends the throne. Tam happily inhabits his role as consort, providing advice to Nesika when she requests it. But it is Nesika who rules the kingdom.
I like to say that, just as Scrooge carried Christmas in his heart all year long, so I carry Hallowe’en in mine.
So even though Hallowe’en was over weeks ago, I want to tell you a story — a true story! — about the kindness that allowed me to put out a Jack-O’Lantern to welcome trick-or-treaters this year.
I had a busy October and didn’t get out to acquire a pumpkin until just before Hallowe’en. (OK: I am typically a last-minute kind of person, as I was unhelpfully reminded by the unnamed person who was with me). But the stores usually carry some pumpkins into November for Thanksgiving, so I thought I would at least be able to pick up a couple small ones. However, when we got to the King Soopers, the outdoor bins were nowhere to be seen.
There was not one pumpkin in sight.
Not any of those tiny decorative ones.
Not even one of those white ghost-pumpkins.
Not even one with a mushy spot.
However, it was a drizzly, cold evening, so I thought perhaps the pumpkins had been moved inside to keep them from freezing. With hope in my heart, I entered the store and went to the produce section. Alas! Here, too, all presence of pumpkins had been abolished. I resigned myself to a pumpkin-less All-Hallows and set about doing the rest of the grocery shopping.
When I had finished at the deli counter, the young man behind the counter asked if there were anything else I needed. So I said, “I don’t suppose there any pumpkins hiding somewhere in the store.” He said he didn’t think so, but offered to check.
He disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with the produce manager — Joseph I think his name was. Joseph explained that there weren’t any more pumpkins out, but that he did have one in the back he had been planning to take home. We did the “Are you sure?” exchange a couple times, but Joseph explained he already had seven Jack-O’-Lanterns at home, so I accepted his offer with profuse thanks and profound gratitude.
Joseph disappeared into the back for a moment, then came out carrying one of the biggest, most perfect pumpkins I have ever seen. That pumpkin glowed.
It was a truly magnificent pumpkin, and an equally magnificent act of generosity.
Well, I was sure that something awful would happen to that glorious squash on the way home, that my husband would drop it (even though he almost never drops things, especially when he’s being careful), that I would trip over a particularly strong up-swelling of gravity (all too likely; gravity has an unfortunately tendency to accumulate under my feet), that aliens would see my perfect pumpkin and beam it up to carve themselves (we keep hoping for something to get abducted because how X-Files would that be? — but not that pumpkin). But we got that orange orb into the house in one piece, so of course I proceeded to cut it up.
I wish I had had more time to do us to do justice to that pumpkin. I wish I had been able to carve an intricate visage with painstaking details, a well-thought-out face with tremendous expression. I wish I had been able to make a Jack-O’-Lantern that would have been entered into the annals of the Great Pumpkins of All Time.
But I didn’t. Because we have small children in our neighborhood, I wanted a lantern that would be rather welcoming, but also spooky enough to add to the atmosphere of the evening. I envisioned a sort of banshee, one with a wailing aspect and hair blown about her face. I’m not sure that my intentions came through entirely, but it was all right. Not what that pumpkin deserved, but I hope it was not too embarrassed by the countenance I carved.
I salvaged the seeds for roasting and used the sections I cut out for a light pumpkin soup.
The post-Hallowe’en weather was cool and the pumpkin-lantern held its shape for a solid week. No squirrel nibbled on it; no neighborhood hooligans laid a hand on it. It stayed on our front step until it suddenly collapsed on itself and had to be resigned to the compost bin. But with me I still carry the glow of that pumpkin, of the candle the lit it, and of the kindness of Joseph, king of the produce aisle.
Does anyone else remember this classic Far Side cartoon by the inimitable Gary Larson? It was a favourite of one of my closest college friends (hey, Sara!):
Well, I ran into my own Far Side moment the other day.
It was a lovely day in Colorado and I was walking along the West End of the Pearl Street Mall, headed for a coffee shop, talking on the phone with my friend and colleague Jaynie (hey, Jaynie!). I stopped outside Ozo’s to finish my conversation, and as I soaked up the bright autumn sunshine, I noticed a small, grey, slightly fuzzy spider valiantly trying to spin a web across the busy sidewalk. She was slightly larger than the top of a pencil eraser, and on a cloudy day probably would have been virtually invisible. But as I was standing there, the sun shone right down between the buildings and caught her like another strand of her web. Even so, no one else seemed to notice her.
What blew me away was that she had managed to get at least four long strands in place, one from the awning of the coffee shop, one from the wall next to the awning, and two others across the walk, attached to a low newspaper dispenser by the curb. The spider herself was hanging upside down, binding her anchor threads together, about four feet right above the middle of the sidewalk. There were a lot of people walking by in both directions and I have no idea why no one had torn through any of her threads.
(I couldn’t get a photo, so you’ll have to imagine the scene from my sketch.)
Alas! Her good fortune did not last. First a young man walked, all unaware, through the webbing that ran from the wall. The spider swung away, but not far, since she was still attached to three of her strands. Then, as the spider swung back, still working to tie together her workings, a woman in a coat of the same grey as the spider, ran into the weaver. I thought for sure that the spider would be off for a ride on the camouflaging coat, but after a second I saw her on the sidewalk, crawling back toward the wall. Dozens of people and a couple kids on bikes all came within a hair’s-breadth of squashing the little arachnid into oblivion, but she seemed to have a force-field around her because everyone swerved without even seeing the scrambling spider and she made it safely to the lea of the wall.
I don’t know what happened to her after that. And I don’t know what the moral of this story is. I guess I just have a fondness for the quixotic, for creatures that decide to tilt at windmills — or try to spin them for themselves.
We’ve all seen them, those click-bait ads that promise if we do just ONE simple or weird thing, we can transform ourselves for the better. Well, here’s one thing we can do to help change our world:
If you live in a state like North Dakota or Georgia or Kansas, voting might not be simple. It might be weird or even difficult. But please vote. Remember if anyone tells you that can’t vote, you are still entitled to a provisional ballot. Demand one and a receipt for it and vote. Democracy only works when we, the people, are willing to rule and to remind our representatives that we will take the lead.
I started writing this piece a few months ago. I have struggled with the conviction that what I say will have no impact beyond, perhaps, attracting malicious responses. But with the mid-term elections here, I decided to finish the essay and post it. And as I was filling in the remaining gaps today, I saw that there was another shooting, this time in a synagogue in Philadelphia.
I am a Jew. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, and I don’t find that I am more appalled at this rampage than I have been at all the many, many others. But I confess this one shook me. These were my people. I may not have known any of the congregants or victims, but this killing is still personal, and it brought to the surface not just what has become my usual fury, but also a core of fear that I wish I could deny I carry with me. So now I publish this essay not just in hopes of effecting some ripple of change, but also in defiance of that fear and of the people, like today’s killer, who have installed it in my heart and in my mind.
It has been over nineteen years since the slaughter at Columbine High School, nineteen years since we saw what destruction of lives, of dreams, of potential could be wrought by the proliferation of guns in our country. In those nineteen years, we have seen with growing frequency how gun violence does not just end the lives of people, of children who should have lived, but also how such violence leaves victims bewildered,1parents’ hearts shattered, siblings missing brothers and sisters and wondering whether their parents will ever be happy again. Friends and classmates are left with memories of carnage, memories that shape them for the rest of their lives. And we rarely hear about the children who are picked off one by one every day —an average of nineteen shot each day, three or four of whom will die.2 And those of us who want to prevent these rending losses with gun-law reform are branded as unpatriotic, our ability to understand the Second Amendment derided, our intentions attributed to a desire for some kind of self-serving political gain. Like Cassandra, we see clearly but seem fated to be dismissed.
It has been a little more than eight months since the Parkland murders, eight months since the survivors of that horror transformed their anger into a movement that (should have) shamed us all. The students spoke and marched and insisted — rightly — that such shootings should never happen again. Their demands were sensible and moderate, yet they were denigrated and ignored by many, especially by those in power who could have brought about changes that would have lessened the violence. And these young people continue to persevere by turning their March for Our Lives movement into a Vote for Our Lives endeavour, by travelling the country and encouraging other young people (and not so young ones too) to register and cast their ballots. They give me hope.3
And then there was another shooting, this time in Texas. And what was shocking was the lack of shock. It was Santa Fe student Paige Curry who, when asked by Foti Kallergis of ABC-13if there was part of her that had thought such a shooting couldn’t happen at her school, baldly replied
“No,” she said, without looking directly at Kallergis. “There wasn’t.” “It’s been happening everywhere,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”4
I find it unspeakably abhorrent that we have allowed, by refusing to implement sane regulations on guns, this expectation to become normal, that we have become comfortable with our children’s knowing we find their slaughter an acceptable alternative to regulating weapons in America.
The community of Santa Fe is still, as they should be, reeling and mourning.5 And yesterday, The New York Times reported that
Kentucky State Police foiled a man’s plan to attack a high school after they received a tip from a New Jersey woman who said he had sent her a racist message on Facebook, the authorities said.
The police traced the message to Dylan Jarrell, 21, of Lawrenceburg, Ky., and then discovered after searching his phone that he had been plotting to attack local schools.6
School shootings continue to be the signature villainy of our time, continue to be the salient point around which our arguments and fears coalesce. My husband is a teacher; he doesn’t know what to tell his students.
I continue to think about guns in our culture, about the people who do use them safely, and about those with opinions different than mine who are willing to engage in civil discourse on this topic. So I asked someone I respect, someone who grew up shooting guns, who could shoot from the back of a horse and the back of a truck, what she thinks we should do about guns. She told me that her local city newspaper recently ran a cartoon of a police department with guards all around it, and a hospital with guards, and a school that’s completely open. She thinks we must set guards around our schools, have our kids walk through metal detectors to get into their schools and be searched upon entry to the school building.
I know there are other thoughtful persons who agree with this view. But it is untenable. No school district has the money to post such security forces nor to purchase detectors and hire still more security to search our children. We are not even willing to pay the majority of our teachers a living wage.
More disturbing is the psychological effect that asking our students to go to schools that are set up like prisons will have. It is strange and upsetting that so many people, so many lawmakers are willing to ignore the effect sending children to fortresses every day will have but are eager to use the mentally ill as scapegoats. While some killers are indeed in need of psychiatric intervention, not all are cognitively or emotionally dysfunctional. The Las Vegas shooter had no mental illness. Too often the logic is that because a person, almost always male, picked up some guns and used them to kill more than four people, then that person is crazy, an aberrant statistic about which we can do nothing. But if we adhere to that argument, how can we hold any killer accountable? How do we calculate the amount of damage that we will define as insanity? Shooting four people isn’t much worse than killing three, or two, or one. And we can keep going from there. If killing a single person is madness, what about beating someone? Raping teens? Slapping a guy who got fresh at a bar? Calling the nerdy kid at school names? Pretty soon we would have to acknowledge that any act of harm against others, intentional or careless, willful, planned, or spontaneous is a sign of incompetence and illness, and that only the saints are sane.
We need to stop calling to our past, to our history as an excuse to maintain the status quo and to acknowledge that our present time has different needs. When our country was born, as Garrett Epps explains in The Atlantic7 more cogently than I can,
To much of the revolutionary generation, a standing army was the mortal enemy of freedom and self-government. Those ratifying the Constitution had vivid memories of red-clad professional soldiers—some speaking German—swarming ashore to enforce British tax laws, and then to try to crush the Revolution.
Despite that fear, the United States has established a federal military and invested the president with the powers and responsibilities of Commander in Chief. We have done away with state militias and bearing arms has never been a constitutionally unlimited right. It is long, long past time for the majority of us to stand up and say, “No more. Pass laws that will drastically reduce the number of guns in our country.”
America has always wrestled with the competing rights of various groups and individuals. We have, in the past, prided ourselves on our ideal (to which we may not always live up as well as we should) of protecting the less powerful from those in a position to oppress them. Those who argue for the “right” of all of us to own arsenals of whatever weaponry strikes our fancy are not preserving our freedom; they are refusing to see that the great American experiment with flooding the country with guns has notmade us or our children safer; it has turned us into a society that tolerates killers and the terror that our children carry with them to school and into life.
As we go to the polls, we should remember that the Second Amendment was meant as a safeguard against tyranny. It is a sickening and dishonourable shame that it has now become itself an instrument of tyranny.