Netflix is premiering Hillbilly Elegy, starring Glenn Close next week, so I have re-posted two posts about how J.D. Vance’s book reflects my own experience farther north.
In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.
I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of such a class of people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?
The short answer is me.
After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.
My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.
Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.
Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.
In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.
Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.
When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)
What’s not to love?
On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the church’s Sunday School room. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.
There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.
At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South ofthe Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.
Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step-great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a baby’s legless snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.
In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.
Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self. (It’s 2020 so add Covid.)
My relatives look to me for family history. They say, “I don’t know what we’ll do when you’re gone!”
“Where am I going?” I ask, without thinking.
“Well, you know…” they reply
You get to a certain age and people start flying in for that ‘last’ visit. My Belgian brother has made several of those trips. I can imagine them saying to each other, “She’s 84. How much longer can she last?” I have no opinion. I had my cancer battle in my 60’s – twice – so far in the past that I don’t even think of myself as survivor. My doctor and I have agreed not stir the pot by tests and x-rays and Ct scans. The diagnosis is ‘old enough to die’ but doing well.
It’s true that I was the only member of the family to be born in the hills. I could memorize anything and I loved stories about the family’s past. In fact, however, there are vast stretches of my own life which are lost to me. Apparently I raised two children in ‘the house under the hill’ near the school where their father and I taught. At gun point, I could probably come up with five specific memories. I taught high school English for 30-years. Ditto. At least, I have a cupboard full of dated year books in the event I need to remember. The photo albums of my family are few and undated. The 8 m.m. movies are helpfully of French cathedrals and Greek ruins.
Soooo last Saturday I got an email from Grant M. who said he had been my student in 1985 and graduated in 1990. Probably I didn’t remember him, but he told me a small story about a day I wasn’t my usual sunshiny self – pause there. My marriage had come apart in full view of 2000 students and about 100 teachers, most of whom knew it was going to before I did. Of course Grant came on the scene 7 years later, time enough for me to cheer up and my father didn’t die until 1988, at which time we got acquainted with 3 different police departments. Okay. It is possible I smiled on occasion. Grant disturbed by my gloom that day in 1985 rushed to the local market and bought the biggest, red-est apple he could find. He put it on my desk. I came into the classroom from the prep room next door and exclaimed in delight. Ah ha, I had the memory, Grant skewed his body up in a dead giveaway as he sat down. He blushed as I laughed and pointed at him. He had warmed my heart.
In his email, he admitted that I used to yell at him, but he didn’t hate me for it. I think he was in grade nine then, one of 35 hormone-driven kids, outgoing, spontaneous and funny. But that was my stage, my audience, so cool it, Kid. His friends had advised him to get a transfer when they saw I would be teaching him, but he said he was glad he hadn’t because I had taught him how to write an exam as well as much else.
By 1990, he had grown into his features and made a handsome graduate
On yearbook day, it was customary for me to hand my book around so students could write in it. His comment was on the back of the front cover, number one. I began to read other comments. I always had students fill out an evaluation of me on the last day and I always threw them away unread as soon as they were gone. The advice I gave any teacher. Never, never read them. I mean would you ask your ex-husband to evaluate you? Some of the yearbook comments alluded wryly to their differences with me, which apparently had ended in a truce. Others gushed. They sounded as if I had saved them from an otherwise unenlightened life. And I was always, always happy. If only I had known. Well, I lived in the country and I read the best books and I showed them how Hamlet was like them.
Then I leafed through the 1990 book looking at the pictures. Life in the hallways was vibrant with life. They were vibrant with life. They were in love – usually with a whole group. They were funny. They were up to no good. They didn’t have hall passes. When I was on hall duty they sent someone like Grant in to distract me. Then they sneaked in the other door.
In the halls my inability to recognize faces made me smile at one and all, really to duck and cover because sensitive little thing that I was, the noise and chaos overwhelmed me.
Grant said he told his children how much he liked me, how I’d helped make him what he is, how glad he was to have found me alive and well.
At a certain point in my career I had mentored new teachers and my job as department head had that same role. I always told them a good teacher was measured not by what she knew but by what she was. That was what the students learned.
Grant M. has a gift for reaching out and reminding me and no doubt others that alone as they feel, pandemic or not, they are loved.
Remember when the worst holiday problem was Uncle Joe who defended a point of view you hated. Now it’s literally a life and death problem.
So I didn’t fly to Los Angeles and drive up into the Kern Mountains to enjoy American Thanksgiving with my immediate family. I spend the afternoon in Mississauga researching Door Dash, Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes for roast beef restaurant takeout. This is Toronto or close enough. I don’t expect turkey. We never have turkey on the mountain anyway. Our eldest, even senior to me, and I am very senior indeed, doesn’t like turkey. We have roast beef from Whole Foods, which as I’m sure you know, entails a small second mortgage or at least a lien of the car. Three ribs usually does it.
Since Toronto is back to orange or maybe even red by today, there is no indoor dining and no outdoor either if by chance, you have a parka that warm. Chop and Cagney’s have roast beef on Sunday. It isn’t Sunday. The British pub has it every day and even has Yorkshire pudding or what it calls Yorkshire pudding but could serve as a hockey puck. The Keg seems to be confused offering every kind of delivery but impervious to ordering. I call them up. Sure I can get roast beef. I just have to pick it up. Would I like directions? No, thank you. It is our go-to place for major occasions, but how can I see a menu. “Just tell me what you want,” says Stephen. So I do. Dreaming it is Cagney’s, I order Caesar salad – it is definitely not Cagney’s superb Caesar, as it turns out – and the 10-ounce rib roast with mashed potatoes. And then dessert?
I can’t handle milk products, so, of course, I order Creme brule.
The first hurdle is that I have been shut in since March 13th except for early morning elder shopping in the grocery store. I step out of the lobby door into darkness. Whaaaat?! ‘Get a grip girl,’ I tell myself. I make my way north, do the left turn on Winston Churchill just before the freeway and park in The Keg’s empty parking lot. I call Stephen. The nice Bell telephone lady tells me to try again later. I tell her how many types of idiot she is and call again. And yes, Stephen says my dinner is waiting. I stride in the heavy door -once I had man-handled it open. The automatic thingee is taking Thanksgiving off. I present myself. Stephen is on the phone with his back to me. The young woman coming toward me looks alarmed. She stops more than 6-ft. away.
“Could you put your mask on, please?’
I already have glasses and a tight fitting tam, so I haven’t missed the additional stricture of the mask, which I have taken off one ear to talk on the phone.
Shame! I am overcome. While I am apologizing profusely, she picks up my order and says, ‘It’s not as if it will kill me.’ ‘O God,’ I expostulate, ‘I certainly hope not.’
It turns out there was a line for tip on the bill. You bet.
Here, where I live, no one fights the mask mandate. They want to go into stores. They never punch out the door person. Well, it’s true that one legislator and his looney followers demonstrate at the parliament building, but he’s been kicked out of caucus and the rallies are short and sweet, so they can get home in time for their afternoon meds.
How do you get 50 Canadians out of a pool in an emergency. ‘You say, “Please get out of the pool.”‘ Done.
On the way home, I irritate one young guy because I take too long turning left into a continuous stream of traffic. Just grateful he saved his horn concert until we were safely across. Like F—, I’m really old!
Unpacking the ‘hot’ bag, I am impressed. The main course is inside an insulated bag as is the warm bun. ‘There’s bread! And that lovely whipped butter with garlic and honey!’
I set to the hot food with my music on shuffle. It plays the Stones Paint it Black, Hugh Laurie’s St. James Infirmary and Leon Helm’s When I go Away. Eighteen months ago, I picked up my ex-husband’s ashes from St. James Crematorium, but I refuse to remember. I go with Leon who wants ‘no crying for this orphan boy’ ‘only tears of joy’.
The food is delicious, especially the bread and butter, even though or probably because I really can’t eat wheat or butter. I have opened a bottle of Berringer Chardonnay and poured two ounces. It’s true. I can’t drink alcohol. The beef is beyond description, streaked with buttery fat -I can’t really eat fat. Let’s just assume that everything on the table is an anathema to my digestion and a wonderful delight to my senses. As I am digging through the crust of burnt sugar on the dessert down to the yummy custard, I realize that I had not felt lonely once.
I’m not really an orphan. Well, legally I am but I am part of a 3 person bubble. At Canadian Thanksgiving in early October, we three singles – my sister, my niece and me – feasted together. My lovely niece cooked. We will do the same at Christmas. Usually if I am here and not in California, we drive an hour and some north to my other niece’s and join 6 to 9 children and 7 to 9 adults at a long table full of laughter.
In pictures, the youngest, Austin, is barely recognizable to me now. He is a real boy not a retiring toddler. His nearest sister, Jennifer, has lost her front teeth. Emily, their half-sister has become a statuesque young woman easily confused with her mother. Jason, the college student, is a taller mystery than ever. Quinn and Arya are still blonde and as free as ever. The other three are new step-dad inclusions and I haven’t got to know them.
We will miss the usual Christmas potlatch that my sister’s family goes in for.
Why not see them? I am 84. My sister is 78. My ‘bubble’ niece has serious health issues. We are willing giving up one Christmas to avoid dying alone on a ventilator lying prone. That last part – arrrrgh! But of course I would be unconscious by then. My son wouldn’t be tenderly sitting beside me, the way he did for his father. My daughter wouldn’t be able to show up in the ICU, from across the continent, as I have done for her.
If you are putting your hand up for that, you’re a ‘better man than I am, Gunga Din’. (Literary reference there. Google it.)
When I put on a mask, even now as the weather grows cold, I don’t breathe well and I get sudden hot spells. But I have absolutely no doubt that they work to prevent me infecting others and others from infecting me. Staying home except for essential shopping has protected me. Staying at least 6-ft. away from ‘non-bubble others’ has kept me safe. Luckily, I don’t have employment concerns because of my age. I do lose my mind staying in, on a fairly regular basis. On the other hand, I spend at least 2-hrs a day talking to others on video. Once a week or so, we three bubblers see each other in person. We don’t wear masks but we don’t hug either.
Nine and half months of living alone has been an education in mental health. Every emotional collapse has brought some more insight. It is very painful. It is nearly a year of invested time that I’m not about to throw away. But what if someone told you all you had to do to save your life was cover your mouth and nose and sit on your couch.
Some of us are hard to like. Apparently. I count myself among that number. I don’t feel dislikeable and I don’t dislike other people. I have five friends, but four of them are related to me. Despite my age, it’s not that most of them have died off either. I’m not aware that I have made enemies, but then I didn’t need to. I kept my father’s name most of my life, so I inherited his enemies, an even longer list than Barbara Amiel’s. A new Facebook friend from Dad’s old home town mentions she has friended me to someone and promptly blocks me. All you can do is shrug. Nothing personal.
I observe that lack of friends runs in the family.
Barbara Amiel, who recently published her memoir, Friends and Enemies, has listed all of both at the back of the book, a separate list for the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. The Friend list runs to a page and half, double-columned for each jurisdiction. The Enemy lists are shorter, comprised of the judges, lawyers and bureaucrats, chiefly American, who set out to ruin her husband Conrad Black, the Hollinger newspaper baron. A good number of people she thought were her friends turned out not to be, dropping Lord and Lady Black to preserve their own reputations. On the other hand, some people who weren’t even in the Black’s inner circle were astonishingly supportive.
Barbara Amiel is well aware that her caustic wit and fixed, somewhat libertarian views- her support of Israel for example – she is Jewish – grind on some people’s nerves. She began as a model for Eaton’s catalogue in Toronto. She was and is very beautiful, reason enough for dislike by some women. She became a columnist in Canada, then the editor of the Sun newspaper in Toronto and was eventually featured in the Sunday Times and the Times of London. She was dropped by nearly all of them when Chicago prosecutors went after Conrad.
Conrad Black is an amiable fellow, who quickly made friends at FCI Coleman, the federal prison in Florida, as he served his 78 month sentence. He taught history to other inmates. He was jammed, the third person, into a two-person cell. Being very tall, he habitually hit his head on the bunk above him. He has a reputation for kindness and generosity. Very early in his career, he was also pilloried when he sold the Dominion Grocery chain in Canada and raided the employee pension fund. He considered this legal and astute. I was one of those outraged by this action, but in view of his 15-year struggle with the American justice system, his 3 1/2 years in prison, the fact the appeal court dropped most of the charges eventually and he lost much of his wealth, I have forgiven him. I’m sure he’s relieved.
He also has a reputation for being long-winded, and pompously well-informed. More damning, his columns in the National Post support Donald Trump. Only natural, you say, President Trump pardoned him. Personally, I believe that Conrad would not publish something he did not believe in repayment. That seems to imply that I feel he is as a person of integrity if of poor judgement.
Barbara, who had had three husbands before she married Conrad, married up in two cases, men of considerable wealth.There used to be a rumour that Margaret Atwood’s novel RobberBride was based on Barbara. All must be forgiven, for Barbara describes sitting with Peggy Atwood in the garden on Park Lane Circle. In fact, she came away from her marriages with only a relatively small settlement, which she gave back eventually. But then she famously said, “My extravagance knows no bounds”. It wasn’t even altogether true. Her jewels were no where near up to those of the other socialites in her Manhattan group. But true enough to become the watchword once the ‘scandal’ broke.
Barbara tries to understand why these women do not take her to their bosoms on p. 201 of the book. She concludes that being over 50, they don’t really have the energy to get to know someone new and they do not share her interest in politics, policy or even music.
I would say they were numbskulls myself, but that proves why I have no friends. I’m a snob – intellectually -without really having the right to be.
My sister, my daughter, my niece -count ’em three – and I were so busy establishing and maintaining careers while raising children, that we had no time to lunch. Socially, we might have gone to one party a year, usually work related. When life finally spewed us out into stiller waters, we looked around and found a book club. But no, that didn’t work. Being frog-marched through books of other people’s choosing and having to listen to their ideas was painful. Or we found a yoga group taught by someone less limber and knowledgeable than ourself. I do try to temper my snarkiness – except in the company of the family. I will probably never be a match for Barbara. She will not remember ever meeting me, but in a glancing pass, she once insulted my sister. In retaliation, I announced loudly, “And you’re just a brain in high heels.”
It doesn’t matter. All is forgiven. I dare you to read her book and not like her by the end.
The Park Lane house had been George Black’s and Conrad had lived there all his life. It was the last of their four houses to go. Barbara had sold the Palm Beach house, the Fifth Ave. apartment and the London house in an effort to pay for lawyers good enough to win the case, but each time the relevant bureaucrat stepped in to seize the proceeds. At one point, they had no more than the change in their pockets
It is my opinion that whatever wrongs people think Barbara may have committed were more than balanced out by her 15-year support of her husband. If not quite enough, we can count the kindness and care she gave George Jonas, her second ex-husband when he was dying slowly of Parkinson’s.
Next week Netflix is going to premiere Hillbilly Elegy starring Glenn Close and so I am re-posting the two posts I wrote about J.D. Vance’s book and how it related to my family’s life.
I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy not as a political explanation of why a crazy man is in the White House, or why a generation of white men is unemployed and opioid addicted – although it is both – but as a personal reflection.
At the age of 5 in 1941, having just moved to a small town 30 miles from the ‘hills’ I came from, I screamed, “Runaway horse, runaway horse”. My cries led to much merriment. It was the first time I had seen a horse-drawn van. When I was 12, a city classmate asked me why I talked and walked funny? I thought my difference was safely hidden inside. I set about immediately losing my hill twang and my bouncy stride in desperation to ‘pass’. The drama society helped immeasurably, although in my 6th decade, I still imagined I would drop the crystal wine glass, and somehow shatter it on the deep pile of the Persian carpet. I knew how to behave in a five star hotel, but I wanted the staff to stop grovelling.
You can take the girl out of the hills, but even in her old age, you can’t take the hills out of the girl.
J.D. Vance poses the question: how can a hillbilly develop the confidence to go to Yale, become a lawyer and write a best seller. He has always been J dot D dot, but he was born James David Bowman. After his father allowed his mother’s third husband to adopt him, he became James Donald Hamel. After that his mother, a trained nurse, went through a string of men, a lot of alcohol and a good many drugs including heroin. J.D. was saved by his maternal grandparents, the Vance’s, Mamaw and Papaw. Their house near his mother’s was a refuge.
The Vance’s had left the holler in Jackson, Kentucky when Mamaw got pregnant at 13. Papaw was then 16. They went north. She lost that child, but Papaw got a job at the Armco. He enjoyed a drink or two with the other Kentuckian immigrants.Whole families moved up to Middletown at Armco’s encouragement. Out of the coal mines into the steel mill. Mamaw eventually kicked her drunken husband out, but he had reformed by the time J.D. needed him. It was true even in her old age, Mamaw could still take down grown men and did so whenever necessary.
My family came from a northern branch of Appalachia in Quebec, and twanged and drawled more New England than southern. When the war ended in 1945, my 4H father lost his job to a returning veteran. He moved us in a borrowed gravel truck to Ontario. My seat was in the gravel bed wedged among the furniture under a moldy tarp . I was armed with a package of Asper gum to quell motion sickness and a flashlight to be used only in emergency. My companion was a 14-yr-old Ontario boy, Daddy’s moving assistant. In those days, before super highways, the distance measured 800 miles and took all night and well into the next day. I remember only the first hour. The banging and bumping of shifting furniture and the steel gravel bed, hitting the tarp, trying not to throw up or panic is mercifully all but forgotten. The gum and the game of shadow animals had lost their effectiveness. I was convinced that my parents and two little sisters were forever gone. A gravel truck bed doesn’t access the cab’s window. The gravel never has to pee.
Thus we arrived in the much more advanced province of Ontario, Canada, in true hillbilly fashion, and finally ate sandwiches for breakfast on the grass at the side of the road.
We ended up eventually in the heavy industry town of Hamilton. Three of my mother’s five brothers arrived in due course to get jobs at Stelco and turn into alcoholics. My father never needed any help achieving an altered state. He could turn on a dime, faster than we could duck and run.
Violent, alcoholic, check and check, but did we have the Kentucky code of loyalty to family. I don’t think so. J.D. got in early, clobbering boys who said as little as “Yo Mama.” If anybody needed clobbering around me, well – I was the oldest, girl or not, and my weapon was mainly a loud, nasty voice. Once, all four female family members jumped on his back and took down our father as he whipped the smallest Then hurled his belt into a hay field. By the time he found it, he was sweating and not in the mood anymore. I want to say he was giggling, and perhaps he was, but my father’s giggle was just another danger sign.
In short, our family home reverberated with loud verbal and physical violence as did Vance’s home with its serial father figures – he said living with his mother and one ‘Matt’ was like witnessing the end of the world- as did the homes of hillbillies in general.
Vance’s grandparents still had strong ties to Jackson KY which was only three hours away and they visited often reinforcing the values of family loyalty, hard work and hard play.
As a 9-yr-old, I was convinced we could never go back to the hill. I would never again see the great aunt who had taught me to love Jesus. She had also helped me become a friend of an older cousin. His mother was ‘the teacher’ at the one-room school, and he was going to university himself. Never again see the ‘rich” and educated woman across the street I had befriended when I was five.
My mother grieved as though she could never go back. On the hill, she had had all of the women she had known since childhood, no matter how annoying, as backup. In the small town, she had had her cousin from the hills at the other end of our rented triplex. Now she had no one and she lost her mind. She locked me in a trunk. If not for my 3-yr-old sister, I would have stayed there until my father came home from the gravel pit in Orangeville the next weekend.
Still I did well in school. I was determined to. It made my father proud.
Vance was not such a good student. It was hard for him to find a quiet refuge to study, except at his grandparents. Fortunately, my father worked two jobs. After supper, I could count on the time until midnight to quietly study.
As well as his more or less stable grandparents, J.D. had his Uncle Jimmy Blanton who flew him out to visit him in Napa Valley. These visits and trips with his grandparents expanded his possibilities. When J.D. graduated from high school, he knew he was absolutely not ready for college. He joined the marines. In three years, including a stint in Iraq, he learned an altogether different code of living – disciplined, orderly, self-controlled, He came back to do three college years in two, and to get admission to Yale law school. He credits one of his professors for mentoring and guiding him. And most of all the woman he fell in love with and married.
The boy I fell in love with came from working class Yorkshire, England, but his mother worked as a secretary in a law office and was a terrible snob. I was way beneath her son, but caving in to the inevitable, she took up my education, lending me books I hadn’t found in libraries, introducing me to English eating, gin, sherry and trifles. Then I escaped my violent home by insisting on living on the university campus. There the dean of women and all the middle-class girls continued my training in social niceties. I even ended pouring the tea at one of our white gloved afternoons. The manager of the retail department store which had given me money for tuition, was fond of asking me to pour tea for his guests. Much to my humiliation, for I had to sit still while he praised for 5 minutes. Hillbillies don’t cowtow.
The coal mines in Kentucky shut down. Armco and Stelco went steadily downhill as car manufacturing turned from solid steel to steel frame and plastic. My mother, who had worked in an aluminum plant, and the two uncles who stuck it out in steel, died young of cancer. My father stayed on as a mechanic at Ford, Oakville until he retired.
The three girls in my family earned degrees and had careers. Our dyslexic brother got his education on the road -Europe, India, Afghanistan, Turkey. He married a Belgian French girl and made a career in film and antiques. He never in his life borrowed money until a few months ago. In the 3rd and 4th generation, most have college degrees and all have jobs, although one is caught up in the gig industry. Economic downturns have left some of us the worse for wear. I no longer own my home, for example, but I am constantly surprised that we didn’t end up homeless addicts considering our impoverished and abusive beginning.
J.D. Vance’s book is called Hillbilly Elegy, a song of lamentation for the dead. In this case a whole class of people, without cohesion or identity. Gone. The hillbillies had valued family loyalty, hard work, God and the American Dream. They moved north in large part to give their children a better future, as our father did. When industry failed and they couldn’t get work, they continued to pay lip service to industriousness, even though they never worked a day in their lives. Vance says they practice avoidance and wishful thinking, living on welfare, addicts and alcoholics, like his own mother and her string of boy friends.
Vance regrets that.
Our hill culture has been assimilated. We live in Ontario, California, Belgium and Boston. The hill itself is nearly depopulated. The fields, so laboriously cleared, are going back to trees -plantations and wild woods. I keep a picture of our mountain on my computer. I do not think I will see it with my own eyes again.
So 228 days of coping with isolation, terror diminishing to apprehension of Covid, apprehension building to terror about democracy, …
I stand in my entry way going over my armour – ok, glasses, sunglasses in case, scarf and hat for the other in case. I stare in the mirror. Oh yes, mask. It’s routine. Nothing happens except grocery shopping once a week. And recycling while I’m going down in the elevator and have to take the bundle buggy any way. There is so much recycling in the 15 storey building now that I have to hit the right day and hour or keep it til next week. Sometimes there is a parcel from Amazon, sometimes a Door Dash food delivery.
Then last week all hell broke loose.
So far as the family is concerned, I’m the eldest and centrally located. The latter is immaterial now since no one can flee to me and sleep in my solarium. There were video calls. The ones from across the sea had valiantly tried to wait but I am such a later sleeper. The ones from across the continent were more a slow burn. But, at least, the two took turns.
Our family gives us lots of opportunity to lose it. Past generations gave us a gene pool of psychosis, borderline personality, bi-polar disease, clinical depression, sociopathy, suicidality. Did I miss any?
In the course of my long life, I have had 5 therapists and 2 clinical psychologists. I have tried Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism, Transcendental Meditation, self hypnosis, hospitalization, journaling – I have 150 hard cover journals of 200 pages each, group therapy, primal therapy and a curious kind of mutual therapy, sort of damaged friend to damaged friend. My friend had a lot of money and all I learned was that the rich are more worried than the poor.
When someone calls in deep despair, I know what to do. Which is listen. Then listen and finally listen. It is also useful to inquire whether they are taking their meds. Across the ocean felt much better after taking the correct dose for the occasion.
Across the continent was a harder problem. Young person shooting himself in both feet, ending up with no income and no transport. Young person does not seek help because he is all powerful. If broke and possibly hungry. So we adults mull it over and over. We consult each other, even cross continent and ocean and conclude we have to leave him be. No more rescue ‘fish’. He needs to learn to ‘fish’.
I don’t mean to imply that I am beyond needing help myself. Depending on the problem, I can choose my sister, Georgia up the street or Julia, across the continent. Can’t breathe from acute anxiety, I usually choose Georgia in case she has to come down and apply a paper bag. Recently, a news item managed to pitch me deeply into PTSD. A family can’t have that many serious psychological problems without ‘breaking eggs’. Events from 40 years ago caught up with me, events I couldn’t stop then and have even less power over now. Twenty five years ago, we went to the police, but they were never able to substantiate our allegations. Recovered memories are shifty that way even when recovered by half a dozen members of the family subsequent to a funeral.
In Canada, we have almost 10,000 deaths from Covid with 1/3 the population of the U.S. which has about 220,000 deaths. We are glad to have Justin Trudeau leading a more or less effective national government and Doug Ford, our province. The number of cases is rising. Toronto and environs and Ottawa have closed bars and dine-in restaurants down again. It doesn’t materially change the way I have been living. Basically, a boring, long-haired life.
The U.S where most of my immediate family lives is either going to explode in two weeks or start repairing damage done. I can’t bear it, so I don’t watch anything but Netflix. I am reading Fareed Sakaria’s Ten Lessons from a Pandemic and intend to read Dan Rather’s What Unites Us. Please don’t assume I have not already read Bob Woodward, Mary Trump, Michael Cohen, John Dean, Brian Stelter, Michael Wolf, and John Bolton. But now I’m trying to read only more positive books. I also like a good mystery.
Why do I care? I’m Canadian. Why does the whole world care? And I have the kid who has no job or transport in L.A., the one I have to let be, as well as a willowy, red-haired 3-yr-old and her blonde little sister who is just getting words. And their dad and mom, both doctors in Texas.
And, as a child, I fought Hitler, scavenging metal and paper and meat fat for the war effort and praying for the Warsaw Jews. We won. So why is this starting up all over again?
Remember the line from Waiting for Godot: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
Well, the news isn’t good, we know that much. It’s October, 2020 and the number of Covid cases is rising everywhere, except Antarctica. Places are moving backwards, closing down bars and restaurants and gyms again. The people next door have moved their previously allowed 50 person party from a bar into their apartment. They are yelling and singing and smoking pot. Does this mean aerosol whatnots are flying through the wall?
This is Thanksgiving weekend here north of the 49th parallel and we are not supposed to mix households. Unless we are one-person households. We are. Three of us. So yahoo! I’m bringing champagne. Only problem is there were only three real champagnes left. One was rose, so I snagged a lesser known brand, weeping softly as I paid almost as much as I would for Veuve Cliquot. They just can’t get it, they told me. I’ve heard that first class Scotch is also scarce. All the first class Scotch islands were shut down for weeks and production suffered. But I gave up Scotch to save my stomach a long time ago. I gave up Scotch before most of you were born. Unless you are over 40.
So number two cause for some degree of unhappiness: I am 84 years and 5 months and 5 days old and at the present rate, it looks as if I will live the last years of my life in isolation reading e-books, watching Schitt’s Creek, and ironing my tastefully colored masks for my once a week grocery shopping expeditions.
But then I thought why should I? I have evaded Covid for nine months. I know how to do it. Just a question of discipline. Not that that is easy, but spending a couple of hours on video calls every day talks me down from rushing out with a bare-naked face looking for human touch. A hug! A hug! No, the problem is mortality in general. Actuarial tables. That sort of thing. So I came to a very serious decision – I will just have to go on.
My grandmother set an example. She was born in 1900 and passed on in 1996.
Now she lived her entire life on a farm surrounded by forest, high on a hill and under a mountain. She drank spring water, ate simple food and breathed clean air. I haven’t. On the other hand, I prepare all my own food and live on the 14th floor. Not good enough. All right. I’m up for this. I used to study and teach tai chi. I’ll start up again. I’ll learn to breathe. I know just who can tutor me on a video call. My goal is to get strong and healthy enough to have a few good years post virus.
But I need a carrot, something to pull me through the dark, isolated days of the next six months. Then it comes to me. There is an empty apartment in Paris. It’s a lovely old place with high ceilings and a balcony. It’s next to a subway stop and close to a grocery store. It belongs to my daughter’s Persian/American friends. They live in California. They don’t rent it out. They feel indebted to my daughter, who doctored their parents. Daughter assures me they would say yes in a minute. They have already sent her there on a first class ticket. Not that I expect they will send me, of course. But, if I keep saving the money I used to spend in bars and restaurants, I should get together enough to fly. If anybody ever flies for the hell of it again.
I invite my Brussel’s brother to join me. I have forgotten he hates Paris. He worked there for many years and lived in a 500 sq ft apartment in an iffy district. He talks my bizarre idea over with my sister Georgia. Who also hates Paris. She tells me. I don’t tell him, but I revoke my invitation. It would be better to go with my daughter anyway.
I love Paris. Did I say I love Paris. I went there long ago with the only man I ever really loved and our two young children. We separated 6 years later, about the time I reluctantly gave up Scotch. When he was in his last weeks with cancer a year ago, I said to him, “Do you remember that crazy little hotel near the Arc de triomphe in Paris? The children were across the hall and every time the subway passed the leg fell off the bottom of our bed. We thought the managers were gay but then…” “No,” he said.
“Well, I’ve been there so many times since,” he pleaded. With other women, I heard in my head. So no, we won’t always have Paris. I will have Paris.
I made my brother take me back one Christmas when I was in Brussels. We went to the Shakespeare bookstore across from Notre Dame. Ah, yes, Notre Dame! The centuries old trees in the attic. Well, who hasn’t suffered the ravages of age?
I will go back to Paris. I love the architecture. The city that Haussmann rebuilt, the ancient buildings like the Louvre, the bridges. I will go to look at the many-floored hotel de ville where the Ephrussi family lived. I will take a Cara Black mystery or two and visit where they are set. I know there are Cara Black tours of Paris.. I don’t do tours. And I don’t visit galleries. Too much standing and slow walking for me now. I have never taken a river boat. I would like to do that. I would like to see the tower that way. I think you can.
One wall of my home has black and white photos and sketches of Paris. One is a series of postcards depicting the construction of the tower in 1888-89. One is a photo taken from underneath, up into the woven iron work with a blazing rectangle of light in the centre. One is of the River Seine at night, all the bridges lit and Eiffel’s tower golden in the background. I know the gold is photo-shopped.
As is my dream. But how remarkable it will be if I rebuild some strength into this old body and survive and prosper and go to Paris once again.
There were 4 of us, ages 11-13. I was eldest, there for the summer. The younger kids were my two uncles and my aunt. (I know – hill people.) We had climbed onto the roof of the wagon shed. The corrugated tin was hot under our feet. There had been a dance down at the hall the night before. It was too wonderful to let go, so we were putting on a show. We had sneaked out the potato masher and a wooden spoon for microphones. I was singing, “South of the border, down Mexico way’. Evelyn was backup because, honestly, she couldn’t carry a tune. Ted was on air guitar, twanging away and Percy was battering the roof with 2 sticks. I got to the sad part, “The mission bells told me that I could not stay.”
Hereford Mountain hunched over behind the corn field and the Old Place.
I was happy, really happy.
“Whaaat?” my grandmother screeched as she came around the corner. “Get down from there before you break your necks. And give me the masher. I need it. The men will be back for dinner.”
Mountains don’t move, not even for Mohammed. Hills don’t give up farming to find work in a steel mill. Hereford Mountain is still there, although it has a bike trail up from the East Hereford side. There’s a new vacation house out back of Bungee, snugged up under the mountain’s shoulder. The road to this dead-end has been improved. There is a pond.
But Hereford is gone.
The 10 farms that climbed up from river valley are turned into tree plantations or rental properties. The sunny hay fields are now mostly dark and foreboding, thick with tall spruce. Perhaps some dairy farmer out from the prosperous wide valley is still taking hay from the old Owen place.
Those hills were great for farming stone. They yielded an excellent crop every spring, but never more than one crop of hay. The top soil was thin having been scraped off and washed into the valley. The Owens who came to Plymouth on the Hopewell, 3 ships after the Mayflower, had too many surviving sons. My great great (about 1825) migrated north to these bony hills and set to work chopping down trees and hefting stones, starving and working themselves to death.
I joined them in 1936, arriving in a tiny backwoods house -out around the Horn- with no electricity, running water or telephone. No horse but shanks’ mare. A woodstove in the kitchen. The good news was that my father had worked at pulp logging all winter and saved up $18 for the doctor to deliver me. He brought ‘twilight sleep’ for my hysterical 19-year-old mother. My Aunt Mae, perfectly capable of delivering a baby and possibly more adept than the doctor and his bag, stood by. All she had by way of anesthetic was raspberry tea, laughter and Jesus.
The last time I went back was 8 years ago, a birthday treat for my younger sister, Georgia, on her 70th. We stayed at the Ayres Cliff Inn as if we were rich people. On the way home to Toronto, we realized we could not go back. One of us had a back spasm and both of us never wanted to get behind the wheel of a car again.
Last weekend, Georgia, thanks to DNA testing and Facebook found Julie, whose mother Rose grew up on the hill. Thus I learned that the only survivor of the people I knew is Rose’s 97-year-old father. One or two of my Aunt Mae’s grandsons may still be there, but I didn’t know them. All my mother’s 6 siblings are gone. Most had died in Ontario where she had, and of cancer as she had. They had all worked in steel or aluminum. Evelyn and Ted had crossed the border to work in the U.S. They had been born there in 1937 in a hospital because of the risk with twins. I had felt Ted was gone, but not Evelyn, yet she had in 2013. The last of the old people, the previous generation, Julie’s aunt, her husband and his brother, Ron, another Owen uncle, had died since 2019. These were the people I had last contacted. I had learned then that our favourite, Ron had dementia and was in a home.
I left there almost 80 years ago. Or rather, we escaped. Afterwards, we sometimes were hungry but never starved. I wish I could say we left the worst of hill life behind, but I can’t because we still had Dad. Hereford Hill breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone no doubt. Gradually uncles and other folk followed in our tracks and tried to create the good old days, plus readily available booze and the odd mob contract to supplement income.
So this week, as well as facing democracy’s destruction and rising Covid figures, I bade farewell to the beauty and joy and awfulness of hill life. Ave atque vale!
She asks me why I’m such a hairy girl I’m hairy noon and night, hair that’s a fright I’m hairy high and low, don’t ask me why. Don’t know. It’s not for lack of bread like the Grateful Dead.
*********** Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, Flow it, show it, as long as God can grow it, my hair
Hair, from the 1968 musical
Fifty two years and here we are again. I confess I enjoyed the musical immensely and I never nagged my husband or my son about their long hair,
For weeks now in 2020, the hair cutters were shut down and hair grew. Our Prime Minister Trudeau seems to have gone with flow and I love his curls. Some people, who lived with other people, ordered clippers on line and got hair cuts. For better or worse. Anderson Cooper’s was all right unless he turned his right side to the camera. Chris Cuomo not bad, but poor guy had been really sick. My Facebook friend, Jeanne, rushed gleefully out when our late opening city finally got to stage -whatever. My own sister got the first morning appointment and sat between plexiglass screens. At no risk. And why didn’t I go to her hairdresser as well? My sister still goes to a first class hairdresser. I had to down scale to First Cut, $21 with the senior discount. I object to paying $100, but even more I object to the unnecessary risk of infection every 6 weeks. (I am following the CDC advice to avoid routine dental care. as well, but, hey, I floss.)
It’s not even the price. My hair started growing as the quarantine went on and on, and I remembered it was curly. The mirror showed me an older, much older version of my young self. My hair is at present pewter colored, whereas it was once brown. But there were those same waves. Miracle of miracles!.
Waves are not to be envied. They are single-minded and defiant. Some days they sulk and droop or on others, stand on end like Medusa’s.
Every young woman, reporter, actress, congress woman has long straight hair. Persons like me with a flawed fusiform face area in their brain, can’t tell one from the other except by hair color. But there’s the age-old rule, passed down by grandmothers: older women should have short hair. My own grandmother wound her long white hair up in a chaste bun for many years and looked like a woman with a very short cut. And tell that to the women, who live in Pine Mountain Club in the California mountains. They proudly swing their long, grey locks over their canvases and pottery wheels. They clap on a straw sombrero or a cowboy hat to add to the effect.
When you decide to grow your hair out, it gets untidy, still too short for a pony tail or a twist, and prone to escaping in the front and low on the neck, especially when you wear a hat and a mask and glasses. How annoying to have this pointed out before you can get to a comb. Or this in the elevator: ‘But what are you going to do with it?’ (You can tie it in a knot. You can tie it in a bow. You can throw it o’er your shoulder, like a continental soldier..)
Look I’m bored out of my skin. I’m 84 years old. I go out to get groceries. Period. I read. I stream mysteries. I stare out at the sky from my 14th floor window. But I have found an engrossing activity: I watch my hair grow.
Let me be.
Or maybe I’ll shave my head down to a bristle like the ‘person’ in Millions. Or a Buddhist monk. They say it clears your mind.
I could actually go out according to stage 3 rules of pandemic. I could go to a bar. I like sitting at Cagney’s with a glass of Butternut Chardonnay. With a book. At the short end where there is just enough light to read. Three guys will be sitting in the middle of the long side, separately, one talking to the owner, another flirting with the barmaid. Cagney’s is a Greek restaurant, oddly, and the owner goes to California to get wines no one else imports. It was tough discovering in the early days of the pandemic shut-down that this was the only hobby which got me out of the house. It was tough that the bars were closed for nearly five months. It was also tough that I had to stop drinking. Something about medication and continual dizziness.
But I don’t. Go out.
I get dizzy listening to the statistics. We are leveled off here in Toronto, fewer cases, fewer deaths. For now. I’ve given up keeping track of the deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. I packed it in around 100,000 departed souls. No the statistic that bothers me is the one that tells me my chances of succumbing. I am 84 and apparently have a 75% chance of surviving. That seemed like good odds when I had cancer. Not anymore. Surviving Covid-19 is an adventure I want to skip. If I want to drown, I’ll just jump in the pool, I’m that bad a swimmer.
So I stay in. Except for weekly early seniors’ hour at the supermarket.
I spend the better part of an hour every day in the mountains of Kern County, California. Via Facetime. My daughter calls every day, realizing that I’m in solitary for my own protection. I know the place well and some of the people and I have her catalogue what’s she’s doing there. The mornings are getting cold at 6000 ft. Autumn already on the wind. And some days I spend Facetime in a suburb of Brussels, which has seen a rise in cases and less freedom of movement. My brother’s bubble seems to be quite large, but as I reported in chapter 2, he also seems to have had Covid. I see my sister up the street a few times a week without aid of device, but we thrash over Trump every night on the phone. We should be suffering over our Prime Minister’s charity scandal, but the fate of the world is not riding on it. (The first 5 posts are available at 115journals.com.)
In that post, I proposed the idea that we signed up for our roles in life before we undertook incarnation, and that as bits and pieces of God, we had a role in planning events as well. I pondered whether some souls put up their hands to play bad guy. It seemed to me that all types of experience were necessary throughout our many incarnations.
(There are several references in the Bible to reincarnation which the early censors failed to catch.)
I talked to a friend about this idea and she was equally convinced that souls fell into the role of villain through lack of awareness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Soygal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Robert Thurman’s Infinite Life among other books teach us the stages of dying, usually pictured as different kinds of light ending in the vast clear light of consciousness. It is essential to see that light in order to choose your next reincarnation wisely. Confused souls are swept willy-nilly into the next life. This is the way people find themselves incarnating as foundlings who grow into psychopaths or bad painters who found evil empires or rich boys who are given no love or spiritual grounding and become men without empathy. These books encourage us to meditate on this path to clear light so we are prepared when the time comes.
I find that I can’t even keep the stages in order and my experience with death tells me that it’s not the only route. My father, who was the foundling, was not even likeable and even thoroughly evil and yet, I loved him. Before he died, he made an act of contrition, calling each of the children he could get hold of and saying ‘Sorry’. I watched his cruel death. While many others wished him in hell, I knew that heaven makes no judgement. He had put in his time in hell on earth, as most of us do. I knew that he had been welcomed and that his nature there was as pure and good as it had been when he was born in a New Hampshire work house and sold to a ‘nice couple’. Years after his death, he appeared at the bedside of a loved one who was in the grip of acute psychotic terror. He assured her he was there to protect her. It was he, of course, who had caused the terror when she was a child.
In another case, a young-gish woman died in a state of rage, which no doubt prevented her from sorting out firefly light from moonlight or clear light. Almost instantly, several of us were aware of a great love she was sending back to us. We had striven to help her on her way, but the people closest to her fastened on her anger and grieved without consolation.
And then there was Blake, my ex-husband, whom we sat beside for ten days. He was grumpy with his pain and childlike, still arguing that he should be able to drive when he got out of hospital. Eventually, he sank into a sort of coma. We didn’t stop talking to him. The ‘girlfriend’, who said old men disgusted her, got into arguments with staff and had to be led away for private chats. His son and step-daughter talked to him and held his hand. I read him Rumi poetry and sang when we were alone. On the last day, we were all 4 there, telling stories about him. He could be very funny, sometimes intentionally. So we laughed a great deal. And cried too. As his executor, I was ready for my final duties, but when he shuddered out that last breath, I lost it. I could barely remember how to dial the undertaker, I was so shaken, So shaken, that I forgot his clothes and he went to the fire wearing a blue hospital gown.
My sister reported that he made an aerial pass through her living room that night, blue gown flying, clearly in bliss. The next glimpse we got of him, he was hurrying off to an advanced physics class, completely absorbed in his tablet and books.
Blake was not spiritually woke in his last years. He had some dementia. He left me his confirmation Bible, which he never, ever read. I have the King James Bible, the NewEnglish Bible, the NIV Study Bible and the Amplified Bible, so he thought I was the right recipient. He knew that to me the Bible was literature. He left his fervent wishes for Bernie Sanders, who was still in the running, and a colossal mess in his home and his affairs. I have cursed him many times as we sorted it out, but Blake is preparing to come back and implement a universal wage. Presumably, he will branch into advanced economics next semester.
Which is to say, with all due respect to the Dalai Lama, the Rinpoches and Thurman, that there are many ways to pass and not get swept into the gutter next time.
Having helpers is useful. I have chanted with the Taoists for the departed. I have lit candles and prayed by myself. During the pandemic, I have been very conscious of the dying and the dead. There is an army of us thinking and praying for them. And Angels. I worried initially about dying sedated on a ventilator. No worry now. I’ve opted out. DNR. At the worst, I’d just die sedated. Now I think it doesn’t matter. We don’t need religion to show us the way. And we don’t need to be there with a check list: “there goes the moonlight, clear light coming up.” We don’t even need mental health, although the one necessary thing may lead to that. All we need is love.
A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family, which founded the riverside town on Macondo in the jungle of Columbia. In the first generation the isolated town has no outside contact except for an annual visit from a Gypsy band. It is a place where the inexplicable can happen and ghosts are commonplace. Many misfortunes befall the Buedias, all of which it turns out have been predicted. It is a long book, perfect if you are still, like me, a coronavirus shut-in.
“We are not here to be happy,” he said. He was a Catholic priest. I was a child. It wasn’t part of a sermon. I seem to be with a small group of children, standing around him. This is odd, since I grew up in Quebec, which was like Northern Ireland in those days, and I was Protestant. I was appalled to hear him say that. Of course, we were here to be happy. Jesus had pretty much confirmed that. The priest didn’t elaborate, leaving me to puzzle it out for the next 7 decades.
Which brings us to 2020 and Covid-19 among other things.
We thought we were living in end times when Donald J. Trump got hold of the most powerful office on the planet. Then we couldn’t breathe.
Because of my advanced age, I have been shut in for 140 days, except for essential shopping and visits to my sister and niece, part of my bubble since Day 78. Even then we wore masks and distanced. Lately, we have taken off the masks to eat together. We expect to live like this for a long while. I am 24% likely to die of Covid. Here in Canada, we have had about 9,000 deaths, but 2,000 have been elders in care homes. Note to self: stay out ofcare homes.
Tough on people who are praying to a merciful God. Had that experience as a child. We were 4 children, born over an 11 year period. I was oldest. Our childhoods taught us to be nimble, heart-broken, witty and kind. It was a mercy we all survived and a mercy that we have done as much good as we have. And we are all still here. Perhaps mercy is just a long term project.
Is this calamity destiny or the will of God? Is this pandemic and uprising for social justice part of a plan? Is that what is in operation now? There are 8 billion of us on the planet Earth. Is that just too many? Is nature just weeding the garden? Or is this a struggle between good and evil? In the midst of darkness has a greater darkness descended?
Some of us have had the leisure to consider such questions. Not the parents who have had to juggle home-schooling, home-office work and housekeeping, nor the essential workers who have risked their lives, but people like me, who have spent nearly 5 months in solitude.
CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) devised a secret plan to counteract riots here once the shut-down for the pandemic was announced. They took it upstairs. The higher-ups more or less laughed as I would have and canned the plan. Old joke: how do you get 50 frolicking Canadians out of a pool? You stand on the deck and say, ‘Please get out of the pool.” Of course we stayed home, as did Washington and California and other states, one by one. Lately, it has become clear that we have to wear masks if we want to shop. We wear masks. We don’t argue. Mostly. They are hot and not comfy. Ventilators are way worse.
That was my first glimpse of universal responsibility and open-heartedness. It was something like I saw as a child in World War II. Then there were the healthcare workers in New York City, working without PPE and in overcrowded conditions. They were getting sick and dying, but so were people, particularly immigrants, in less elevated jobs. I thanked the delivery people and the shop workers sincerely. They were out in the midst of it, while I was safe at home.
Their devotion and self-sacrifice cast light right across the globe. On dark days as the number of infected grew and bodies were stacked in refrigerator trucks and ice rinks and in mass graves, that love for each other, for absolute strangers, lit the darkness.
I had managed to figure out that the priest meant that we are here not to enjoy ourselves but to evolve, to become better people. I had had losses which felt unbearable, but eventually, made me a less self-centered person, more capable of empathy, of fellow feeling.
I wonder if he was a Jesuit. It seems Jesuitical.
The 13th century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi takes a different tack and says that the soul is here for its own joy, that we are here to make God a reality. An acquaintance of mine says that in me, for example, God is experiencing godhood as an 84-year-old woman. But Rumi also says, “The rule is, Suffer the pain. Your desire must be disciplined, and what you want to happen in time sacrificed. (Coleman Barks: Rumi, the Book of Love, p.98)
He compares the soul to a newly skinned hide, “bloody and gross”, that has to be worked manually and with the “bitter tanning acid of grief” to become beautiful and strong. Rumi tells of “‘the Friend’ who knows more than you do,” who “will bring difficulties and grief and sickness,/ as medicine, as happiness, as the moment /when you’re beaten, when you hear Checkmate/ and can finally say with Hallaj’s voice,/ I trust you to kill me.”
(Barks: p. 127) (Al-Hallaj Mansour was martyred in Bagdad in 922,)
I suppose you have to believe in soul or the higher self to begin to make sense of these ideas, although the past five months may have moved even atheists closer to that belief. It seems as though Rumi is talking about something like the will of God. It might feel imposed but, in fact, the suffering is what a best friend sees is needed. This ‘will of God’ is rooted in love.
It is easier to see that in operation in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not surprising that the urge for a fairer, more just society arose when it did. Most of us were paying attention. We felt helpless against the coronavirus but not so helpless against the injustice of George Floyd’s murder.
I am surprised and glad to find my close friends agree with my refinement of the will of God idea. You may find it a step too far. It seems to me that before we came into incarnation we helped to formulate these plans and volunteered for our own role. We have forgotten that for the most part and so we are not necessarily prepared for a sudden and early departure. We may be more ready to spend our lives in the service of others even though we think we made that decision for practical reasons toward the end of our education.
The corollary of that is, of course, that some of us have volunteered to play bad guy. Hitler, for example or my father. Imagine this pre-incarnated being madly waving its arm: I’ll be a psychotic sociopath and cause millions to suffer and die. (My father’s score didn’t measure up to Hitler’s by the way.) Somebody had to do it. Does it go all the way down to invisible viruses? “I’ll be that one! I’ll do that.”
I have periodic collapses. My nerves give out around the dinner hour news. When I seek encouragement, one or other of these friends responds, “Stop worrying. We all signed up for this.” or “It’s all already happened.” It’s hard to be a witness. Even if we see what’s coming, we can’t change it. To try to do so would make things worse.
Laocoon, priest of Poseidon, tried to change the history of Troy by exposing the ruse of the wooden horse, in which were hidden Ulysses and his Greek cohorts. Poseidon sent sea serpents to destroy him and his sons. It was fated that the Greeks would prevail and Troy would fall.