After we’ve had dinner, watched the news, perhaps caught an episode of Mrs. Maisel or Midsomer Murders, Ed and I often read short stories to each other from one of our many anthologies. Several months ago, we shared an extraordinary piece by Willa Cather.
“A Wagner Matinee” tells the story of a woman in her early-to-mid 50s. An educated woman who had traveled to Paris and taught music at the Boston Conservatory in her youth. A woman who has spent the past 30 years living in a “grim wooden fortress” (as the narrator, her nephew Clark, puts it) in the wilds of the Nebraska frontier with her “shiftless” husband who she met on a summer trip to the Green Mountains when they were both quite young. After the wedding, he’d whisked her off to the prairie and she hasn’t been further than 50 miles from their farm in the three decades since, until the death of a relative requires her presence in Boston for a few days.
Clark is shocked by his aunt’s weather-beaten appearance when she steps down from the train, her “semi-somnambulant” state. For reasons Cather doesn’t go into, Clark spent a portion of his boyhood on her Nebraska farm helping his uncle ride herd. He recalls his aunt working from dawn to midnight, cooking for her husband and six children, ironing and mending their clothes, while she listened to him recite his Latin declensions and conjugations. She introduced him to the joys of her former life—Shakespeare and Greek mythology—and taught him scales and exercises on the little parlor piano her husband had bought her after fifteen years of marriage, a span of time “during which she had not so much as seen a musical instrument.” My aunt, he says, was the source of “most of the good that ever came my way in boyhood.” But Clark recalls a darker moment, too, a warning his aunt gave as he was struggling to play a complicated piece: “Don’t love it so well,” she cautioned, “or it may be taken from you.”
Clark has planned a surprise for his aunt—a Wagner program performed by the Boston Symphony—but he now fears she’s too timid to venture out. Her thoughts seem completely consumed by the fear that she’s forgotten to leave instructions about the feeding of a weakling calf or the freshly-opened mackerel in the cellar that will spoil if not quickly used.
As they enter the concert venue, his aunt appears subdued, but when she clutches his sleeve during the Tannhauser overture, he realizes that this music has “broken a silence of 30 years.” And at the “seething turmoil of strings and winds” in the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, he notices her fingers moving, recalling perhaps the piano score she had played long ago. He reflects on the tragic waste of this once lively woman’s life until, suddenly, he hears a gasp as the Prize Song begins and finds his aunt has tears streaming down her cheeks. “It never really died then,” he realizes—”the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly…so interminably, it withers to the outward eye only.”
As the concert ends and the audience leaves, she cries out “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”, and Clark recalls that for her, just beyond the concert hall is a future of “the tall, unpainted house, the cattle-tracked bluffs”, the turkeys picking up refuse outside the kitchen door.
What It Has to Say to Us
Reading Cather’s story, I was reminded of one of the most profound observations I’ve ever encountered, a quote from author Annie Dillard:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
For Clark’s aunt, the days of a talented musician, a lover of literature and the arts, have been entirely consumed by menial house and farm chores in a life she shares with a man she doesn’t love in a place devoid of everything that had once sustained her soul, everything she truly cherishes. It doesn’t get much grimmer than that.
And yet, how often do we allow the tedium of things we don’t really care about to smother what truly ignites our passions? We promise ourselves we’ll get back on track, back to (fill in the blank with what matters most to you, the things that bring your life joy and give it meaning) once the kids are more independent/things slow down at work/the house is in order/we’re earning more money/we’ve ended an unfulfilling relationship. In view of the Cather story, I’ll call this state of limbo “life in Nebraska” (apologies to any Nebraskans reading this; it’s just a metaphor). Samuel Beckett called it Waiting for Godot. If you don’t know the play, let me give you a hint: Godot never arrives.
In the past two years and counting, for many—maybe most—of us, life has too often felt like it was on hold while we waited for “normalcy” to return. Waited for the life we really wanted to live/meant to live/would enjoy living to resume or at least begin. And while we waited, we filled our anxious days binge-watching the endless stream of series on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. We posted on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter. This, we could console ourselves, was at least better than getting lost in opioids or drowning in alcohol. Or putting a gun to our head and pulling the trigger. But, really, it was just another version of “living in Nebraska.”
And if we somehow dredged up the energy to do/enjoy what matters most to us, we often found our plans sidetracked, our energy subsumed by untangling the mess the pandemic made of most every interaction with the outside world. Hours spent straightening out health insurance claims, searching for available vaccine appointments, cancelling reservations, making reservations, getting a driver’s license, registering to vote, enrolling in almost anything from college to Medicare. Nothing drains energy so quickly as feeling thwarted at every turn. Like Clark’s aunt, lost to the more robust life we’d once enjoyed, we hunkered down and waited for a better day. Tomorrow, we promised ourselves, tomorrow I will get back on track.
But like Godot, tomorrow never comes. It is always today, always NOW. This is our life. And it’s going by whether we grab it and live it or not. Energy isn’t really about the time we have—we’ve had long stretches of time since the pandemic first hit. It’s about the use we make of those hours and days. Energy breeds energy. Use it or lose it.
I’m not writing of this from some lofty perch. Throughout the pandemic, as the pace of global warming quickened and the threats to democracy here and around the globe increased, I daily talked myself down from the ledge and pushed ceaselessly to get words down on paper. But limbo is a strange place to write from. To live from. Everything was tinged with anxiety, and fighting that anxiety consumed enormous energy. I usually rip through a first draft—just write, write, write. Revision is for improving, polishing, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. Underneath all this—the biggest stress, I realized—was the sense of my life going, going, and what was I doing with it? In early April, the birthday fairy dropped another one on me and I decided I must simply plow ahead. Just do what I love because I love it. No second-guessing. No worries about the outcome.
So, if any of this sounds familiar to you, I say it’s time we make a pact to get the hell out of “Nebraska” and resume or start the life we mean to be living. Get off the couch, turn off the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter notifications, and as Nike advised: Just do it! So that, at the end of each day, we have the sense we have lived that day. If we can manage that, then according to Dillard’s wise observation, we will spend our lives living.
Ed and I are travelers. As in, world travel is our passion. As in, our front porch steps are sagging and there’s a hole in the plaster in the living room, BUT every free dollar we can muster is earmarked for travel. We’ve even been known to book an AirBnB for the “next trip” while still enjoying the jaunt we’re on. (Well, Ed’s been known to do that. He’s a tad crazier than me.)
Anyway, you can see how the entire COVID mess put quite the kibosh on our wanderlust. In 2020, we had to cancel two vacations we’d booked just months before the pandemic hit—our annual excursion to my beloved London and a trip to Rome and Sicily. In 2020, the furthest I ventured from home was the supermarket three blocks over.
With 2021 came vaccines. We celebrated with two short getaways, one to favorite seaport town, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the other to New York City. And then, fully-vaccinated and boostered, we laid the groundwork for our next adventures. 2022! Time to break out of the States and reconnect with the world. Three weeks in Barbados, a month in London, and five weeks on the Normandy Coast with a side of Paris. Sure beats the produce aisle at the supermarket.
And Then …
We booked our usual direct flight from Boston to Barbados. Reserved a flat within easy walking distance of all the local places we love and bus links to every beach up and down the island. We were PSYCHED!
Then Delta cases surged in the fall. By October 1, the State Department’s list of not-so-great-places-to-travel included … Barbados. Ed wavered a little, unsettled by all the stories that immuno-compromised folks weren’t getting much protection from COVID vaccines, but I was less daunted. The variants always peak after two months, I pointed out. By January, we’ll be fine. Barbados, I reminded him, is an outdoorsy place. Beaches, restaurants, cafes—all open to the air. [Note: This is one of the many perks of a really good marriage. I worry about stuff that doesn’t trouble Ed and vice versa. We catch each other in free fall.] During a drinks-and-nosh gathering of neighbors, we put it to a vote. Everyone said: GO. Ed got a second booster in November and an antibodies test. The doctor congratulated him: “My man, you are superimmunized!”
We were on.
And then Omicron struck. By December, tracking the requirements to enter Barbados was like watching the ticker tape of a volatile stock market. Things changed daily if not hourly, but finally stabilized—if I can use that term loosely—around three musts:
1) you had to register your travel plans and residence on the island with the government;
2) you had to present proof of a negative PCR test (not the quickie kind) administered within 72 hours of your landing on the island;
3) you had to schedule a test at a Barbados lab for the day before your return flight (a U.S. requirement for re-entering the States).
We did #1 and #3—easy enough—and received a load of QR codes via email confirming these things. We uploaded the codes onto our phones to show folks at the airport so they’d let us onto the plane. (Ed did most of this, so for me—haha—it was relatively painless.) We also prepared a folder of the QR codes in hard copy in case our phones failed at some critical moment, as U.S. phones abroad are apt to do.
Get Me To The Test On Time
At this point, it was all down to getting that must-have PCR test. As I think most of us know, until very recently the U.S. has not exactly been on top of the COVID testing situation. I mean, Biden has done A LOT and thank god he won or we’d still be suffering the Orange Troll’s exhortations to “Drink bleach!”, but testing availability of the kind we needed was still in the roll-out stages late last fall.
Finally, in early December, our local Walgreens began offering drive-up PCR lab tests. The caveat was that appointment times were only released a few days in advance, AND as we were flying on a Sunday, landing at 1 pm, that meant getting the test in the afternoon of the Thursday prior between 1 pm and 3 pm AND getting our results back before the lab closed for the weekend.
Meanwhile the airlines began canceling flights. Like a lot of flights. Like thousands over the course of December. Omicron-related staffing shortages, a couple of severe storms, and bargaining between airline owners and workers over wage hikes made everything a toss-up. Our airline did contact us to say they were no longer offering a direct flight from Boston to Barbados. We’d have to take a 3:45 a.m. (!!!) flight from Boston to New York, sit around for four hours, then get another flight to Barbados. Our 4 ½ hour direct was now a 10 ½ hour “slow boat.” We adjusted our yet-to-be-booked PCR test window from 1pm – 3pm to 3 pm – 5pm, leaving us even more scrunched to get our results from the lab before the weekend.
As the holidays wound down, the leftovers dwindled, and family returned to their homes, we started watching the Walgreen’s online appointments sked in earnest, checking the instant we awoke each morning. On January 2, we finally got the green light. There were three appointment slots for the must-have time frame on Thursday. To book two of these, we needed to fill out an agonizingly long form, where every second I was aware that others were doing the same and might finish before me and snare those precious slots. But, in a stunning surprise, for practically the first time since COVID started, something actually went right. We got our requested slots and celebrated by uncapping the Remy Martin Ed gave me for Christmas, raising a snifter to good times in Barbados.
Fifteen minutes before our Thursday time slot, we pulled up in the Walgreen’s lot and it was chaos central. Cars circling around for a parking space. Cars lined up for the drive-through window. And one car parked at a peculiar angle, blocking us from either joining the line or pulling around it to see what was happening. The couple inside looked dazed. Ed went over to talk to them. They’d arrived not expecting to find all this traffic and had become immobilized as to how to back up and get out of there. Ed helped them reorient (without banging into us). Then he went into the store to find out what was going on. By the time he came back, five of the seven cars had left the line. Ten minutes later, we were at the window. The guy overseeing the testing handed us each a kit with two very long nasal swabs, capped tubes, and pre-printed ID labels. We dutifully jammed those swabs, as instructed, into our nostrils until they touched our prefrontal cortex and gave them a twirl. Then—pop!—into the tubes, capped, labeled, and away we drove. Now, if we could just get our results in time…
On Friday, we paused in our packing hourly to check in with the lab. Finally, near midnight, they arrived. Both tests were negative. We transferred the docs to our phones. We printed them out. We were ready to roll!
Two Hours of Sleep and a Mini Packet of Chips
Because the flight to Barbados was leaving at 3:45 a.m., we drove to Boston the day before and stayed at a hotel near the airport. This meant that, in early January, we had to hope for two consecutive days of good weather in the northeast, LOL. But, perhaps sensing that we were just a short hop-skip from meltdown mode, the weather cooperated. We arrived at our hotel, had dinner, slept a couple of hours, got up, showered, and hauled the luggage down to the lobby to get the hotel van at 2:30 a.m. We had settled this with the concierge the night before, but now we had a different concierge—the graveyard shift concierge—and he was nowhere near as obliging as the check-in staff had been. He informed us that “Van service doesn’t start until 3:30 a.m.”, fifteen minutes before our plane was skedded to fly, fly away. So…we hopped a cab.
Less than half awake, when the cabbie asked us where we were flying to, we said Barbados, so he dropped us off, not unreasonably, at the lower level of the international terminal. We should have said New York, which was our first destination and which, of course, was not international. A word of advice: Never try doing anything that matters on two hours of sleep.
I cannot describe to you just how deserted the basement of the international terminal was at 2:45 a.m. We rode up an amazingly steep escalator into a huge empty hall. By this time, we realized our mistake and started searching for signs to domestic flights. I had seen a man downstairs riding a floor-cleaner thingie and went in search of him. He turned out to be extremely helpful, directing us to the place we needed to be, down many long miles of automated walkway to the check-in counters.
Finally, like Dorothy catching her first glimpse of the Emerald City, we spotted the promised land: American, Delta, Jet Blue. We got boarding passes from machines (god, I miss the days of real people), handed over our luggage, and a man scanned our Barbados gov QR codes—the ones required to board the plane. Thinking our troubles were over, we headed for security.
I … have … never… seen … such …lines. Several hundred people stretched in an unwieldy queue ahead of us in a hallway outside the room where another hundred or so people waited to reach the security conveyor line with its little baskets. Our flight was leaving in 45 minutes.
At last, we boarded the plane. Hallelujah! Since it was a short hop to JFK in New York, and just 4:00 a.m., there was no food, but I managed to score an OJ. In New York, we were shuttled to another gate bordered by a lone kiosk that offered pre-packaged stuff—mainly, dried-up sandwiches and candy. We thought, OK, we’ll buy a sandwich on the plane.
When they called our flight, we found ourselves in a line where a man was checking passengers to verify they had submitted their Barbados government QR codes. Since we had done this in Boston, we breezily told him our names, BUT they were not on his list. We had to dig around in the carry-on and hand over the hard copy QR codes before he was satisfied.
But what the hell, we were on our way. After stowing our carry-on in the overhead bin, we eagerly scanned the info folders in our seats to find the list of food items we could buy on the plane. There weren’t any. Nada. They did hand out tiny, tiny packages of crackers which we gulped down. Don’t laugh, it would turn out to be the only food we ate between dinner Saturday night in Boston and dinner Sunday night in Barbados.
As the plane rose over New York and headed out to the Atlantic, I searched the movie offerings and settled in to watch The Devil Wears Prada through foggy glasses, courtesy of the required N-95 masks. Well, I’ve been doing my grocery shopping in the same foggy condition for two years, and the only real tragedy was once mistaking fresh parsley (which I loathe) for cilantro (which I love). Swallow your losses and move on.
Not So Fast
At last, amid sunshine and a balmy 82 degrees, we touched down in Barbados. YES! All prior annoyances, worries, gummed-up messes would soon fade to the sounds of reggae playing over warm sands as we read beneath beach umbrellas, rum punch in hand, between dips in the clear blue ocean.
We sailed through passport control and queued to show our PCR test results. A very serious-faced woman was working her way down the line, checking these. When she got to us, I proudly whipped out the appropriate docs from our encyclopedic folder and presented them. She looked them over, her frown increasing. I pointed to the NEGATIVE on both our tests. She continued frowning. “You must go in that line,” she informed us, pointing to a queue some 80-90 folks long—fully a third of the plane. “But why?” I stammered. “We both had the right test and we both have negative results.” “Your papers. They don’t say ‘nasal-pharyngeal.’,” she replied. “They must have the words ‘nasal-pharyngeal’ to prove the test was the right one.”
Exhausted, starving, and fed up with bureaucratic BS, I was tempted to ask where the hell did she think we’d inserted those footlong cotton swabs if not in our “nasals”, but I wanted to get out of the airport, into a taxi, and onto the beach, so I kept my witty remarks to myself, joined the others, and waited. It transpired that while we were enjoying our brief nap in Boston the night before, Barbados officialdom had once again changed the entry requirements to say all PCR tests must now be clearly marked “nasal-pharyngeal.”
An hour later, Ed and I were ushered into a small cubicle where several nurses were—surprise—inserting cotton swabs into nostrils. We did the test—a quick result variation of the lab-certified one we’d had back home—and then went into a new room to wait. Clutching my winter coat—which I’d shucked the moment we’d touched down—I stared through the plate glass walls at the warm blue sky beyond, a world where people, free happy people, wheeled their luggage to waiting taxis, and dreamed of a future where I might join them.
At last, a woman came out and said, “You can go.” That was it. Prisoners no more, we donned our green “OK” cloth bracelets proclaiming us COVID free to the world. As the taxi took us along familiar highways and roundabouts, a welcome breeze blowing through my hair, I thought “We made it. WE MADE IT!” All the waiting and hoping and worrying and documenting of the past three months vanished like a line in the sand erased by the sea.
Always Another Surprise!
I’d like to say that for three delicious weeks, we never had to give another thought to COVID, but there were a couple more hiccups. For the first eight days, we beached and swam and walked and read and dined and drank and stared at the millions of stars that dot the night sky on a Caribbean island. Then, on Day Nine, Ed woke up with the sniffles. Just a cold. He often gets them when we travel. But Barbados had temperature checks everywhere—all shops, all restaurants, all beaches, and our apartment complex. If Ed’s cold should spike his temp just a degree or two, we would be quarantined until a lab test came back negative. We had tix for an 11:00 a.m. tour of the Mount Gay Rum Distillery that day. I spent the intervening two hours talking myself down from all the what-ifs, and took a deep breath as we approached the distillery’s check-in gate. We both clocked in with normal temps. Whew! To give Ed time to recoup and avoid ratcheting up the nerves again, we ate take-out that evening on our lovely, airy balcony. No temp checks!
This last has nothing to do with COVID, but when we arrived at the airport to fly home, plastered across the front of the ticket counters were signs saying All flights today cancelled. In the nanosecond before cardiac arrest hit, a fellow traveler informed me the signs were from the day before—no one had bothered to take them down. So, in fact, Ed and I were truly lucky. Had we skedded our return for the 29th—when snowstorms closed all airports in the Northeast—instead of the 30th, we’d have been screwed. On top of that, we learned we could exchange our tickets for a direct flight to Boston—six hours late because of the prior day’s bad weather, but hey, no long layover in New York. As the Bard would say, All’s well that ends well. And you know what? I’ve already booked the theatre tickets for a dozen great plays in London.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (Voltaire)
[Note: I won’t kid you, this is a long post. I repeatedly considered what might be cut, but never did so because all parts of it feel vital in this moment. As vital as the fight to protect our integral freedoms—the right to read, to think, to speak; the defense of democracy for all Americans, not just the privileged few. If you can’t read it in one go, I hope you’ll return to finish. I’ve given most of a month of my life to researching and writing it. When weighed against what we stand to lose, though, that seems precious little. Here goes:]
In the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood Blacklist, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s famous political “witch hunts”, author Ray Bradbury penned his most enduring work, Fahrenheit 451, a cautionary tale about a future America where books are forbidden and the state employs firemen to track down and burn every book they find—as well as the homes of their owners. It’s an image that’s been invoked over the seventy years since the book’s publication to warn against those who would censor our freedom to read.
As it turns out, Bradbury was spot on. The fascist censors are on the rise once again.
Last month, in a Nashville suburb, in an event livestreamed on Facebook, people tossed books into a bonfire, cheering as copies of Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and other books went up in flames. Books deemed “demonic” by Greg Locke, head pastor of Global Vision Bible Church.
“We’re not playing games,” Locke stated on Facebook. “Witchcraft and accursed things must go.” Posting on Instagram, he added, “All your Twilight books and movies. That mess is full of spells, demonism, shape-shifting and occultism.”
Like all fascist bullies, it’s my way or the highway with Locke. A pro-Trump conspiracy theorist (surprise!), he countenances nothing outside his own rigid belief system which includes turning away any churchgoer who dares to wear a mask and claiming that kids with autism are possessed by demons.
First They Came for the Books, Then They Came for the People
The banning of books, the burning of them, in an attempt to destroy the ideas they contain, is nothing new. In May 1933, the National Socialist German Students’ Association, a staunch supporter of the Nazi movement, publicly burned some 25,000 books in 34 university towns and cities. Books they claimed were “un-German”, i.e., those penned by Jewish, leftist, and liberal writers. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, stirred a crowd of 40,000 in Berlin, declaring, “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!”
The book burnings were theatre, the opening salvo in a war to obliterate everything—and everyone—the Fuhrer deemed a threat to the state: Jews, leftists, homosexuals, intellectuals, people with physical or mental disabilities.
In the wake of the bonfires, the Nazis raided bookstores, libraries, even publishers’ warehouses, and confiscated all works blacklisted by the German Students’ Association—books by writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and German son, Thomas Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature just four years earlier. Even Helen Keller did not escape censure. The Nazis loathed her outspoken support for people with disabilities, for the rights of industrial workers and women, her pacifism—all were anathema to those sporting Hitler’s swastika.
International reaction was swift to condemn the book burnings as barbaric acts, unseemly in a modern civilized society, a dangerous portent for the future. And they were right. Yet here we are again. Not in Hitler’s Germany, but in the good old U.S. of A.
The State of Book Bans in the U.S.
Despite America’s involvement in a world war to defeat Hitler—a war that claimed more than 400,000 American lives—and a First Amendment to our Constitution that protects freedom of speech, the banning of books, books considered “un-American” (oh, the irony!), has a long and troubling history in the “land of the free.” No sooner had Eisenhower wiped the mud off his boots from serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe and assumed the office of President, then his Department of State got down to the business of removing all books by “Communists, fellow travelers, et cetera” from the 230 U.S. libraries and information centers overseas. Libraries established during World War II “to function as model public libraries abroad and operated on the principle of free access to printed materials for everyone.” Libraries originally dedicated to “providing books by writers banned under the dictatorships we had fought a great war to defeat.”
Among the books pulled from the shelves were poems by Langston Hughes, writer, social activist, and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. “What happens to a dream deferred?… ”
Race Problem? What Race Problem?
Almost seventy years later, we are seeing efforts to ban books on a scale that Hitler’s German Students’ Association would salute. The American Library Association reports that last fall alone, a record 330 books were challenged as “objectionable”, up from 156 for all of 2020. In her twenty years with the organization, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, “can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.” Small wonder when people like Texas state Rep. Matt Krause are calling for a review of 850 books he believes should be pulled from the shelves of the state’s school libraries.
The uptick in challenges began with last year’s push by far right GOP officials and lawmakers to stop teachers from talking about diversity and racial inequality with their students, a push that quickly morphed into real legislation banning all books, articles, or classroom discussion about America’s racism. Between then and now, fourteen states have passed laws restricting or forbidding the teaching of Critical Race Theory. Another twenty-two states have restrictions or bans in the offing. And just what is this heinous theory threatening to teach our impressionable youth? That racism is built into our very structure, perpetuated chiefly through laws and policies rather than individual acts. Heavens to Betsy—fetch me the smelling salts!
It’s a telling moment in our history as efforts to expand voting rights for people of color are being crushed, while efforts to crush the discussion of racial inequality are expanding. And what it’s saying is: America belongs only to some of us. The rest of you can just sit down and shut up.
If We Silence You, You Don’t Exist
The second major target of Republicans is any book dealing with LGBTQ+ themes or characters. In late January, the mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi, Gene McGee, threatened to withhold more than $100,000 in funding from the Madison County Library System—funding already approved in the city’s budget for 2022—until all such books were stripped from the shelves. Those books, McGee told Tonja Johnson, the executive director of the MC Library System, go against his Christian beliefs. To date, Ridgeland has withheld two payments, Johnson said.
Among the books are Katherine Locke’s What Are Your Words?, which shows kids how to ask about and use preferred pronouns with other children. Another book, Lori Starling’s Toby Wears a Tutu, encourages kids to love and esteem who they truly are, even if they don’t fit neatly with the stereotype—a boy who enjoys ballet lessons, for instance. Johnson said though four people complained about the books in September, no one had officially insisted on their removal. Until Mayor McGee.
Mississippi is not alone in holding badly-needed funding hostage to demands for library-cleansing. In more than a dozen states, legislators have passed or proposed bills requiring schools to provide a list of every book, excerpt, and activity teachers use in the classroom, a demand educators say would be costly and burdensome. But the price for non-compliance is the withholding of funds from our already underfunded public schools.
Some of these bills even mandate that schools give parents veto power over new curriculum and library purchases. Worse still, are the bills that allow parents to sue a teacher who brings any verboten material into the classroom. As a former teacher, I ask this question in all sincerity: We already have a serious shortage of teachers. Who among them, earning, say, $35,000 a year, would risk continuing in a job where some fascist arsehole can sue them for mentioning Martin Luther King, Jr., or the existence of LGBTQ+ folks?
Parents, as it turns out, are extremely useful in the far right’s push to purge our schools of anything resembling free thought.
Getting Parents Riled Up to Ban Books
Far-right parent groups like No left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty have become a major force in the war against the freedom to read. Among the demands Moms for Liberty is pushing are bans on lessons about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ruby Bridges (too divisive), lessons about civil rights confrontations (too negative in their portrayal of police), and anything to do with Galileo, they insist, must have a pro-church makeover. Poor Galileo. He took it on the chin from the Roman Inquisition in the 17th century for supporting heliocentrism—you know, Copernicus’s theory that Earth rotates daily and revolves around the sun. Nonsense! the Inquisition replied. Not what Holy Scripture says! They sentenced him to house arrest until the end of his days. Now, four centuries later, the Moms want to silence him again. Or at least give him some sort of flat-earth makeover.
It might all be sadly funny—the ravings of crackpots—if it weren’t for the influence the group commands online. The long list of verboten books Moms for Liberty posts on their Facebook page has distraught parents huffing into school libraries and demanding that librarians tell them whether books about these filthy subjects are on the shelves. [It’s interesting to note here that Moms for Liberty has also been waging war on school mask mandates.]
The power of such groups is receiving a boost from far-right candidates across the country. Recently-elected Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, for example, made parental oversight of books in the classroom a BFD in his campaign, running an ad that featured a distraught parent wailing about the horrors of her high school son reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a college-level English class. But as one Black parent noted, “They’re packaging some of these laws as ‘parents’ bill of rights.’ What parents? Because my daughter is entitled to see her culture and her heroes, people who look like her, in the curriculum, too.”
The Power—and the Threat—of Orwellian Doublespeak
No Left Turn in Education seems to head up an even oilier operation, if their website is anything to go by. The site opens with a “vision” statement: A future education where appreciation of American founding principles is fostered, family values are preserved, and every individual can pursue truth, virtue, beauty and excellence.
Scroll down through a series of subtopics “Educating”, “Empowering”, “Engaging” to find a cute video capture of two preschool girls—one white, one black—holding hands. This is one race. The human race, the caption reads. The capture, itself, is from a CBS news video wherein the little girls insist they are twins. “We have the same soul,” they tell the reporter. Ah, a sweet video to suck you into No Left Turn’s message: That all this messy business about racism in America is just ginned up by the left.
If that’s not clear, then wait for the fade to the photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his words: The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…” The page then morphs to a screen with the words: MLK not BLM. Okay, we’re getting closer to the truth about No Left Turn here.
The real whallop comes when you click on the menu bar. Get the Facts, for example, calls up these zingers: Leftist indoctrination in our K-12 public schools; North Korean defector compares Ivy League campuses to living under Kim Regime.
No Left Turn avows that: Our fight is not over until malleable young minds are free from indoctrination that suppresses independent thought. Right, just ban all books used to “spread radical and racist ideologies to students”, books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race,and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Ime Indian (among many others) and everything will be hunky dory.
No Left Turn’s website is a masterful tapestry of Orwellian doublespeak, reminiscent of the Republican National Committee calling the violent January 6th attack on the Capitol “legitimate political discourse” when it was, in fact, sedition. Which is a crime.
The slide into fascism is made frighteningly smooth by such doublespeak. It confuses people. As George Orwell said in his prescient novel, 1984: The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
Or, as Trump told a group of veterans in July 2018: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”
What’s at risk? The stifling of free thought; the silencing of ideas not conducive to the interests of the rich, not in line with a male-dominated, white-powered world; the invalidation of people of color and those who identify as LBGTQ+. Censorship is a cornerstone in all fascist societies where any dissent is met with threats, imprisonment—or a bullet.
The Birth of the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights
Every September for the past thirty years, the American Library Association has celebrated Banned Books Week, honoring all the books that have ever been banned from libraries and classrooms.
“Politics, religion, sex, witchcraft — people give a lot of reasons for wanting to ban books, but most often the bannings are about fear,” said Judith Krug, ALA’s director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom from 1967 until her death in 2009. “They’re not afraid of the book. They’re afraid of the ideas. The materials that are challenged and banned say something about the human condition.”
John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is a classic example. Published in 1939, it depicts the harrowing plight of the Joad family—poor tenant farmers from Oklahoma, driven off their land during the Great Depression by drought, bank foreclosures, and an agricultural industry moving toward the big and greedy. Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, the book’s championship of the right of laborers to organize did not sit well with rich landowners who exploited poor and downtrodden folks like the Joads, and the book was banned in a number of places including Kern County, California—a spot depicted in the novel where the Joads live for some time in a migrant camp.
Kern County librarian, Gretchen Knief, alarmed at the county supervisors’ decision to ban the book, risked her job by writing a letter in protest. “It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin,” she wrote, “… banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.” Knief’s plea fell on deaf ears in the moment, but Krug claimed the banning of the book was a seminal event in creating the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, a document that says, among other things, that: Libraries should provide material and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
Defending the Freedom to Read
That fight for the right to read whatever we choose—the one Gretchen Knief championed—is being challenged in America today on a scale surpassing even that of the post-war “Red Scare” of the late 1940s/early 1950s. But, thankfully, people are standing up, raising their voices, fighting back for that freedom. For the freedom of ideas.
Voters of Tomorrow, a youth-led activist group, is sending hundreds of copies of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Toni Morrison’s Beloved—two books high on the list of targets for removal from schools—to students in Virginia and Texas.
“There are people who would rather not have conversations around these books because they address legacies of racism and fascism that are still alive today,” says Maya Mackey, head of the group’s Texas chapter. “In order to have a truly educated society and democracy, we need to have conversations around books like these.” [In a heartening note, sales of Maus skyrocketed on Amazon after the book was banned.]
Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis, the first openly gay man to helm a state, condemned the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being promoted in states like Florida, where Republicans are advancing a bill that would ban discussions on sexual and gender identity in the classroom and require teachers to inform parents if their child identifies as LGBTQ+.
“Words matter. Laws matter,” Polis told a CNN interviewer. “When a group of people, LGBTQ youth, feel targeted by the words and laws that some politicians espouse… it can increase anxiety, depression.” Indeed, a recent poll reports that 85% of transgender and nonbinary teens say the deluge of anti-trans bills has negatively affected their mental health.
A group of Texas school librarians, enraged at the politicians and parent orgs leading what the librarians call “a war on books”, have formed “#FReadom Fighters” to resist all efforts to remove books from school libraries and dictate the parameters of classroom discussion. The group bombards Texas lawmakers with emails and tweets. To spread their message and encourage others to take action, their website, https://www.freadom.us/home, sells I support #FReadom T-shirts, hoodies, and tote bags.
The National Coalition Against Censorship has condemned this “sudden rise in censorship and its impact on education, the rights of students, and freedom of expression.” The law, they argue, “clearly prohibits the kind of activities we are seeing today: censoring school libraries, removing books–and entire reading lists–based on disagreement with viewpoint and without any review of their educational or literary merit.” The NCAC’s statement was signed by hundreds of organizations, publishers, bookstores, and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union who is currently representing two students in a class action suit against St. Louis, Missouri’s Wentzville School District for its removal of eight books from school libraries, among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The suit claims the books have been banned because they portray people of color and/or LGBTQ+ folks.
Earlier, I mentioned Ridgeland, Mississippi Mayor Gene McGee—the dude who was holding hostage $100,000 in funding budgeted for the Madison County Library System until they agreed to strip the shelves of books that conflict with his religious beliefs. Well, there’s a hero in that story. His name is Jerry Valdez and he’s the president of MCLS’s board of trustees. The books McGee ranted about are all back on the shelves now and in circulation, funding be damned. “The public library is the institution in our society that attempts to provide a diversity of viewpoints on a wide range of topics of interest … no matter how controversial or objectionable those ideas may be to some people,” Valdez declared.
For the Love of Books
In many ways, books have been my life. The reading of them, the writing of them, the sharing of them with others in critique groups and book clubs. I still enter a bookstore with the kind of anticipation a five-year-old brings to a candy shop. I still crack the spine of a new (or used) book with the hope of being transported, challenged, changed.
The attempt to kill ideas by fire, legislation, or suppression—it’s been around for over a thousand years, predating even the printing press. Manuscripts written by the Greek and Roman authors of classical antiquity—Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Lucretius, among many others—were left to molder in dank basements of monasteries (monks were the primary copiers of manuscripts in the Middle Ages) because the Church frowned on their talk of science, of atoms, of life not eternal but perishing with death. If it weren’t for the Renaissance of the 14th century, with its passion for humanism, its thirst for the lost works of the classical world, and the determination of men like Poggio Bracciolini to recover them, all those books might have been buried forever under the weight of the Church’s insistence on the non-negotiability (as Thomas More called it) of divine providence and the soul’s eternal existence.
I learned about these struggles in the pages of two marvelous books: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence. I’m grateful to both of them. History always illuminates the present.
If you are appalled by this latest fascist campaign to silence the freedom to read, the freedom to discuss, I urge you to make your feelings known. Talk to your local librarians, your local booksellers, your town’s school board members (even if you have no school-age kids). Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Or any paper for that matter. Contact your reps and senators at both the state and federal level. The freedom to read literally, sooner or later, becomes the freedom to live.
I leave you with a song. It’s not directly about banning books, but it does celebrate the power of organizing, of standing together against those who would take away our rights, our freedom, our democracy. Now, go read a good book!
February is the month of all things Valentine. Lacy cards, red hearts, avowals of undying love or, at least, momentary lust. A celebration of romance—tender, jubilant, exciting.
But there’s so much more to love than is dreamt of in the philosophy of a Hallmark copywriter. No less than the air we breathe or the food we eat, love in all its forms—partners, friends, family, community—turns out to be key to our survival. The emotional equivalent of a vaccine booster, we cannot live well or long without it. And every day brings us proof of this truth: What the world needs now is love, sweet love. (David/Bacharach)
Going Out of Our Minds
I can’t count the times in the past two years that Ed and I wondered aloud how people living alone have managed the isolation COVID has necessitated. Cut off from the usual public gathering spots—restaurants, movie theaters, sporting events, concerts, bars, shopping malls—people who live solo faced weeks, months, a whole year before the vaccine re-opened public spaces, and then on a limited scale. With the rise of the Omicron variant, social distancing and mask mandates indoors continue to matter. They also continue to discourage the kind of friendly chatter that naturally arose in such places pre-pandemic, chatter that made people who live alone feel part of a larger community. One of the gang.
And this long-term isolation is having a disturbing impact on our mental health. Up until the pandemic hit, the number of adult Americans who reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorders clocked in regularly at around one in ten. That’s not a statistic to be sloughed off—as I wrote in October, the trend toward social isolation has been rising for some time—but COVID catapulted the numbers. Four in ten adults reported such disorders in 2020. That’s a four-fold increase, close to half the country. And statistics show that the damage to our mental health generated by a disaster far outlasts the disaster itself. Especially for isolated folks.
“What’s love got to do with it?” as Tina Turner sang. Well, everything. When people are isolated, deprived of the emotional interaction and support that love provides, they grow numb to their own feelings. Despair sets in. There’s only so many hours you can stream Netflix before the truth of the situation knocks you flat: You’re on your own. Alone.
Desperately Needed: The Great Healer
The pandemic has not only messed with our heads, it’s led to breakdowns in our physical health. We’re not sleeping too well. We’re stuffing our faces with food that doesn’t appear on the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As Supermarket News gleefully reported in 2020: Snacks fit the bill as shippers turn to comfort foods. Alcohol and drug use are also up—way up. Suicides, too.
In the chain of cause and effect, our mental distress can reduce immune function, worsen chronic conditions such as asthma, kidney disease, and diabetes, increase heart disease and decrease cognitive function. It’s the mind-body connection, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in people suffering the loneliness of isolation. The American Journal of Epidemiology put it bluntly: Social isolation puts people at greater risk of premature mortality.
Sharing the load with a loved one in a crisis does more than halve our troubles and double our joys, as the old saying goes. It may literally boost our immune system, lower our blood pressure, and hasten healing. As one of Ed’s doctors told us after his liver transplant: “Every physician knows love is the greatest healer of all.”
Where Did Our Love Go? Families on the Rocks
What do you think of when you hear the word “family”? Nurturing? Supportive? Loving? That’s one kind—the happy families whom Tolstoy said are all alike. But there are other families, increasingly greater numbers of them, who struggle to meet the challenges posed by the 21st century: an ever-widening wealth gap, a high-pressure pace of life that includes 60 to 70-hour work weeks (with few boundaries between private and work life)—and a corresponding opioid crisis of pandemic proportions, no pun intended (opioid-related deaths skyrocketed from 21,088 in 2010 to 49,860 in 2019. And that’s before COVID hit).
So, what happens when you cram a flammable material into a tight space, pour gasoline over it, and toss in a match? Nothing good, I assure you. For too many families in the past two years, COVID was the flammable material, social isolation was the tight space, and worries over money was the gasoline. The result? An explosion of domestic violence.
In the two-month period from mid-March to mid-May of 2020, Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital saw injuries consistent with domestic abuse double in number compared to the same periods in 2018 and 2019 combined. “COVID doesn’t make an abuser, but COVID exacerbates it,” says Jacky Mulveen, project manager for Women’s Empowerment and Recovery Educators, an advocacy and support group in Birmingham England. Being stuck in a highly stressful situation, in tight quarters, with someone you don’t feel emotionally connected to can be just as distressing as being alone.
COVID is not the only culprit, though, when it comes to dividing families. One of the saddest statistics I’ve come across reports that one in four LGBTQ teens are disowned by their parents after coming out. Kids—as young as 14 or 15—tossed out into the streets like so much garbage to fend for themselves. How could a parent do this? Where is the love?
The short answer is religion. And it’s not just the fringe-y ones who preach fire and brimstone against any relationship not heterosexual, the Human Rights Campaign notes, but also the “standards” like the Roman Catholic Church (the largest single denomination in the U.S.), the Global Methodists (a sizable conservative group who is seeking to separate from the United Methodists precisely over LGBTQ inclusion), and certain Baptist sects such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, I’m not religious but I seem to recall a passage in the Bible that says something like whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.
The long answer is Fear Of The Other. And FOTO is killing us as surely as COVID. In our communities, across the country, and around the globe.
331,893,741 Americans in Search of Community
Most of us probably took our community for granted—our workplaces, play spaces, schools, and libraries—until COVID erupted, altering the entire social landscape. The fabled morning convocation around the water cooler at work? Not happening for the 42 percent of Americans who suddenly found themselves working from home via Internet in 2020. Another 33 percent were not working at all. And it seemed most of the remaining 25 percent were out there driving Amazon delivery vans, a very solitary way to clock in the hours.
But it wasn’t only adults who suffered the loss of community. Children couldn’t congregate at recess and college students weren’t hanging out with their friends on campus because most schools, pre-K through university, shut their doors and went the remote learning route. That’s a lot of isolation from our peers. And remote learning does not include the social lessons of life that shape who we become and how we relate to others.
Even now, after the vaccine has re-opened many schools and campuses across the nation, 25 percent of us still work from home full-time, with another 20 percent doing so part-time. For some, it’s been a relief not to have to make a lengthy commute each day, or to have to “dress up” for the office, or feign riveted attention during yawn-inducing meetings. Nevertheless, it’s one less face-to-face connection. One more way in which we are sealed off from the people who make up our community.
And in that absence, distrust has grown—with a generous boost from various social and news media like Facebook, Fox News and One America News. People glance at each other uncertain, or worse with suspicion. Are you my kind of person? Snap judgements are made based on outward cues—skin color, ethnicity, occupation, clothing, even the kind of vehicle one drives. COVID may have driven us into our holes and kept our faces masked, but the real threat to our communities is how the pandemic has been played to divide us.
A strong democratic society is built on inclusion. Tribalism destroys families, communities, nations. It admits no common ground. No meeting place or intersection. We see it in the rising tide of fascism, in militia groups like The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, in hate-promoting conspiracies like those promulgated by QAnon and white-replacement theory advocates.
Immigrants, Black and Brown people, LGBTQ folks, Jews, Asians—it’s so much easier to fear and/or hate someone you don’t know.
A World of Need
In September 2020—just six months into the pandemic—Oxfam reported that 32 of the world’s largest corporations had seen their profits soar by billions, thanks to COVID. Oxfam estimated that Jeff Bezos could pay every one of Amazon’s workers a $105,000 bonus and not be one dime poorer than he was when the pandemic broke.
But the workers who created this wealth were not the beneficiaries of this boom (are they ever?). At a time when unemployment, homelessness, and a deadly disease threatened to swamp nations the world over, these corporations were rushing to line the pockets of their shareholders—sometimes with government funds intended to protect jobs—while neglecting their workers’ safety and health.
And the greed rolls on. In no quarter has it been more deadly than Big Pharma’s insistence on outrageous profiteering from their COVID vaccines, a greed that has kept the world in the grip of the pandemic as variation after variation arises in a largely unvaccinated global population. And this refusal persists despite the huge amount of public funding that went into developing the vaccines in the first place. As Ebeneezer Scrooge says in the George C. Scott film, “It may not be fair, but it’s business!”
Profiteering at the expense of human life is nothing new though. Neither is the enormous threat it poses to life everywhere—animals, birds, trees, rivers, oceans. The planet in total. Rainforests and the Indonesian peatland are razed for industrial meat operations and oil palm. Our air is poisoned by carbon dioxide and methane from the burning of fossil fuels. Our oceans are choked by plastic. And the number of animal species is dwindling rapidly from loss of habitat and poaching. Big bucks in ivory tusks and tiger bones.
Decades before COVID, global warming was identified by scientists the world over as the major threat to all life on the planet. Since 1970, climate-related droughts have killed some 650,000 people. And storms, increasing in their frequency and intensity as the planet warms past human endurance, have claimed another 575,000 human lives. Within the past six months alone, Hurricane Ida’s 150-mph winds wrought destruction and death up and down the East Coast of the U.S., followed in December by a storm of tornadoes—yes, something like thirty of them—that ripped through nine southern and central states, killing more than ninety people and leaving thousands homeless.
I am constantly staggered by the number of climate deniers who don’t seem to care that they’re leaving their children an uninhabitable world. For many of them, it’s all about reaping big $$$ and the stuff it buys. People don’t write songs about stuff, though—at least, not often. What they do write about, have written about for thousands of years now, is love—finding it, having it, losing it. The unending need to love and be loved.
Love. For one another. For our families. For our communities. For the planet and all living things. It is the one thing, the only thing that will heal us. It is the thing the world most needs now.
“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.” (Seneca)
[NOTE: As I write this, 2022 is just around the proverbial corner, and Ed and I are hoping to get away to some sunnier clime for a respite from all things cold and snowy. Since January is the month for making resolutions, I’m thinking JOY is long overdue. As in: Let’s make more time for joy in our lives. As in: NOW. By the way, I’m happy to report that shortly after this post first ran in January 2020, I took up playing my guitar again. Regularly. Guess I was driven to joy through guilt. Well, whatever gets you there. EnJOY!]
Years ago, watching some movie, a scene occurred which both amused and haunted me. A man tells his analyst, “I’ve always wanted to do such-and-such while I’m alive,” and the analyst says, “Well, yes, that would be the time to do it.”
It’s funny because we all recognize it. It’s haunting because, well, we all recognize it. Procrastination.
That thief of time, as poet and philosopher Edward Young famously noted.
Our favorite form of self-sabotage (author Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby).
Our default mode (Me).
Understandably, we procrastinate over tasks with a high yuck factor or an Einsteinian degree of difficulty, but why do we so often put off doing the things we really want to do, the stuff that makes us happy, the stuff we love, that which puts the J in joy?
Let Me Count the Ways
When my son was in high school, I gave him a tee shirt one Christmas that said:
We all had a good laugh about it, but in the years since, I’ve gotten to wondering what are the reasons I procrastinate? Why do I so often think about pulling out my guitar, limbering up the fingers on a few tunes—and then do nothing? What prevents me from taking up découpage again—an art I both love and have the tools and materials for? Why do I vow to read the user’s manual for my Nikon “this week” so I can discover all the creative, fun stuff my camera can do—and then let “this week” become a month, a year, two years?
Why do I put off my own happiness?
Okay, I’ll have a go at filling in the Top 10 reasons I procrastinate—well, nine of them anyway. You can’t totally makeover a procrastinator at one go.
Maybe you’ll recognize a few.
1. I get wrapped up in the humdrum of the daily to-dos. Laundry. Groceries. Meal prep and clean-up. Weeding the garden/raking the leaves. Appointments. Workouts. Tidying the worst of the dustballs and flotsam that threaten to bury us alive.
Ed and I share most of this load, but it’s still a load. The monotony of the daily-to-dos—lather, rinse, repeat—leaves me both uninspired and desperate for something that is not emptying the dishwasher. I often think it would be wonderfully rejuvenating to drive out to the Quabbin Reservoir with Ed and aimlessly wile away an afternoon in that amazing wide-open space—living in civilization, you really do forget how BIG the sky is—but that would mean getting off my rusty dusty, digging out my hiking boots, driving an hour there and another hour back, possibly having to stop for gas… I get tired just thinking about it.
Hiking? Maybe once I’ve had a good nap.
2. With only a scant 24 hours in the day—can someone please do something about that?—I feel like a commitment to one more activity will be the blowtorch that ends up vaporizing me. As mentioned up top, I’ve been thinking for months, okay years now, that I should get back to my guitar. I love my guitar—an exquisite old Martin. I love playing guitar. I used to write songs. I love music—I know the lyrics to virtually every song written since 1961, for godsakes. So why don’t I pick up the guitar and work the calluses back into my rusty fingers? Why don’t I visit the music store downtown and see who’s giving fingerpicking lessons. I’ve always wanted to improve my technique. But lessons involve a commitment to practicing. Regularly. Should I give up reading (impossible!), showering (inadvisable)?
3. Following on the time crunch of Reason #2 is the need for expedience wherever I can find it. I love to cook, I really do. We have enough spices to stock a small specialty store, and a collection of cookbooks that span our travels and culinary likes: Greek, Italian, Sicilian. Curries, minestrone, tajine stews. I could lose myself in a Moroccan veggie tajine… if only it didn’t take so long. All that slicing and dicing. All that simmering and sautéing and roasting.
I keep thinking, “Next week, I’ll clear some afternoon hours, crank up Phil Spector on the kitchen CD player and make something fabulous.” But every week, that “some afternoon” gets pushed into the next week by an avalanche of must-do stuff where it’s a squeeze to manage a bathroom break, until I’m so overwhelmed by guilt (guilt for not doing something I like doing—teleport me to the nearest shrink couch, please!) that at long last I haul out Taste of America and prepare Shrimp-stuffed Eggplant, a dish that has 11 steps and involves chopping up several thousand vegetables. With each whack of the knife, I remind myself This is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what…
4. Speaking of food, I put off doing what I love because I’m a prisoner of the old dictum You must eat all your veggies before you get dessert. The “veggies” aren’t really the issue here—I could do without housecleaning (as an inspection of the premises any day will prove), but there are veggies I enjoy—writing fiction and working out at the gym. No, the problem is not the vegetables of life. The problem is I too rarely get to dessert. And my favorite “dessert” is to go places and do things with Ed.
We do spend large quantities of time together, doing the daily stuff of life, but the dessert thing is where I say, “Screw it, I’m not going to query any agents today or work on revisions or research markets for my latest short story. We’ll just jump in the car and drive north to Vermont or east to Boston. Spend the day combing bookstores. Visit the MFA. Relax and not count the hours.” That’s the crème brûlée I too often put off. Until X gets done, or Y is over. As we all know, X and Y never really disappear. They just mutate into new life-sucking forms from one day to the next. Life is short. Eat dessert first. And savor the crème brûlée. That’s where the memories are.
5. Some aspect of the thing I want to do feels uncertain, and this haziness quickly assumes the proportions of Mount Everest in my head. A couple of years ago, I got all fired up to sift through and recycle, donate, or—if all else failed—trash what we no longer needed in the attic, which I estimated to be about 90% of the junk up there. Okay, okay, I hear you: She dreams of cleaning her attic? Man, she needs to get out more. Yes, I do need to get out more, but stay with me here a moment. I like space. Uncluttered space. My experience has been that when the stuff we like or need is buried beneath an avalanche of the broken, the outdated, and the just plain ugly (What was I thinking when I acquired that?), we don’t get to it/use it/enjoy it. Add to that my tendency to hang on to a pair of shoes for 30 years (they’re perfectly good and still look great), and you get why clearing the attic might be something I really want to do.
Anyway, I was steaming along full speed ahead. Filling up boxes of books to donate to Reader to Reader. Loading cartons of clothing, CDs, kitchenware duplicates, and kids’ board games for the Salvy Army. Wrangling cords, computer monitors, and other outdated digital hoo-ha to drop off at Staples. When. Suddenly. I was confronted by five LARGE plastic tubs of American Girl dolls, their clothes, their accessories, their little bio books, their stilts and basketball hoops. I mean, these dolls come with a complete world of their own. They also cost, collectively, about a jillion dollars, so I was hoping to get a few bucks return on my initial investment. Something to sustain me in those twilight years ahead.
BUT there was just one teensy snag: I had never sold anything on e-Bay and hadn’t the foggiest how best to proceed. So I closed the tub lids and went downstairs and wrote a novel.
Last summer, I thought I will tackle this. I can do this. I’m the girl who jumped into her VW with all her worldly possessions and drove cross-country to live in a city she’d never seen. How hard can e-Bay be?
I got as far as reading the “How to get Started” section and making a list of all the things I needed to do: Clean up the five dolls, do my best to fix their hair (my daughter was a hair stylist of the 25th century), separate out which outfits, shoes, accessories go with each doll, steam all the badly wrinkled clothing, take a sample doll-and-clothes package to the post office for shipping estimates, make sure my PayPal account is up to date, check comparable AG doll offers online, decide on prices, then write the copy and post on e-Bay.
I stared at this mindboggling list for several weeks and then resumed researching and querying agents for the novel.
6. Some piece, some part is missing without which I cannot do the thing I want to do, and that means getting in the car, driving to whatever store that has the missing piece/part, then driving back home to install it—if it’s possible to install, if I have the necessary tools.
Sometimes this is simple, if the part is camera batteries which I can buy from Stop & Shop—an easy five-minute walk from my house—but sometimes it’s trickier if the needed thing resides in a store two towns over—the town past the town on the other side of the bridge that spans the Connecticut River, on the road that always crawls and comes to a dead stop from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. On a Friday, you could read all of War and Peace on that journey.
When that occurs, it’s a matter of strategic planning. Can I carve out time to stop and get Part X on the way home from my next hair appointment (every five weeks)? Can I manage to track down the needed thing after my eye appointment (once every two years)? These are the times I can definitely rely on being in the town two towns over. I try to make those trips count.
At the moment, I have a pile of artwork—prints from galleries in London, Paris, Florence—waiting to be hung, standing at the ready to lend elegance to my humble abode. The problem: The shop where I get my frames (big selection, good prices) is across that damn bridge, on the outskirts of the town two towns over. Last week, I finally managed to get a print from the Tate Britain matted, framed, and hung—I celebrated with a snifter of cognac—but the queue of prints is alarmingly long. Plus, we don’t really have wall space for all of them. Ed has suggested a rotating gallery approach. That sounds good. At least, possible. I’ll get to it soon. Really.
7. Technical glitches that mess with my head (which is most technical glitches). Last Christmas, I took a group photo of our blended family. Got out the Nikon (too many folks for any kind of selfie that didn’t have that fishbowl look). Set it up. Got out the tripod. Set it up. Screwed the camera onto the tripod. Set the automatic timer. Took a series of photos. “I’ll send you all a copy,” I promised everyone. That was a year ago.
Buoyed up by working on this post, I got out the Nikon. Predictably “batteries exhausted” flashed on the viewfinder. Not a problem! I located the recharger, plugged those babies in and reloaded. Not a problem! The photo I wanted to upload to my computer came right up. Feeling capable, powerful, CAN DO, I plugged in the camera. Nothing happened. Nothing uploaded. Undaunted, I googled the situation—maybe after such a long hiatus, I’d forgotten a simple step. I followed the online instructions. Nothing. Beginning to feel a tad daunted, I put everything away and promised myself I would dig out the instruction booklet that came with the camera. Soon. Because I want to print good copies to give everyone this Christmas. And I will. I hope.
8. What I want to do requires making arrangements with others via something I call “Calendar Roulette.” Say, I want to meet up with a friend or friends for coffee, drinks, a day at the races, a night at the opera (a nod to all you Queen fans out there). We all toss the dates and times we are free into the ring, hoping the stars will align in some joyous constellation. But it gets complicated. A is leaving next week for a month of hiking in the Alps, B can’t make it this week but has an open day three Tuesdays from now, and C is only available when 1) her mother-in-law arrives; 2) the kids are at camp; 3) any month that has a Q in it.
I have a dear friend of many years standing—from the long ago days when our kids were in elementary school together. I really enjoy talking to Elaine, but other than random, brief sightings of each other, we hadn’t sat down together for, well, way too long. Until last January, when swearing undying determination, we bargained times like poker players at a high stakes table and—at last!—located a two-hour slot on a Wednesday for lunch. It was great to see her, talk to her, laugh over old times and catch up on what’s new. But I don’t imagine we’ll manage it again until sometime in 2026 when the moon is full and Sagittarius is in the 7th house.
9. It will take forever to do the thing I want to do. This brings us back to Reason #2 and my pathetic inability to PICK UP MY GUITAR AND JUST PLAY IT, as the Nike ad says.
Actually, I did pick up my guitar one afternoon about six months ago. Trotted out a few of the old standard tunes. And boy did I suck. My fingers throbbed, making the chords sloppy and my picking, fumbly. In short, I, who have played guitar for, well, let’s just say decades, and two or three times in actual public places with an actual audience—though I admit, they certainly did not come to see me—I was like some hamfisted cartoon character with unarticulated pancake circles for hands.
The crazy thing is that I went through all this at age 12, when I saved up my babysitting money (at 50 cents an hour, it took a while) and bought my first guitar. Then, like now, I fumbled through chords, stumbled through simple songs, and toughened up my tender digits. But it was exciting. I was (slowly) improving! Where is that sense of joyous challenge now?
More to the point, so what if it takes forever? The most challenging session with a guitar is still way better than doing my ten millionth load of laundry.
10. You tell me. What keeps you from doing the things you most enjoy in life? From spending more quality time with the people you love? From developing a new skill? Reviving an old one?
As Ben Franklin, that wise and witty Founding Father, observed, “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’,” Martin Luther cautioned.
“A year from now you may wish you had started today,” author/artist Karen Lamb reminds us.
So this year, let’s do it. All those things we dream about. Let’s make a pact to:
Play hooky more often with the people we love.
Follow the pursuits that engage us.
Try something new that intrigues us.
As James Michener joyfully noted: “Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today because if you enjoy it today, you can do it again tomorrow.”