Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

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 a class of such 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 Sunday School room in the church. 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 of the 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 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.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

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The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.

MrDEath

Evidence of Things Unseen

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,
Hebrews 11.1

Here in the mountains of Kern County, California, we have been struggling with serious illness since the first of June. Finally, we have found the right doctors, got the right diagnosis and medication that works. What still doesn’t work is the bureaucracy that is paying for the treatment.

To skip even one dose of the several medications is to court disaster and yet again and again we turn up at the small pharmacy -the only one less than an hour away- to discover that we are over the monthly limit of 5 prescriptions, that we have used too many pills of that kind this month (doctor had changed dosage), that we can’t get one or another for five days, until we get a TAR, until we get a PA, unless we phone in the day before, never mind that we have been calling for 4 days prior. On the latest occasion it was the last reason.

Okay, confession time, I lost it. I leaned over the counter and explained as quietly as I was able, the possible dire consequences, the least of these was hospitalization. I was assured that the pharmacy had our best interests at heart, blah, blah,blah. That they just didn’t carry that medication and it would be ordered in only if we phoned the day before. Too much smiling from the other side of the counter. Too much eye shadow come to that.

“Consider it ordered,” I said.

The patient had fled to the car. I was so upset, I couldn’t actually see.

“Here are the other prescriptions,” said the Cheryl the clerk. “That will be $137.”

Whaaaa?

Blindly, I undid the bag and began to read the labels. The whole point was that the patient couldn’t pay for meds. As one of the meds’ monitors, I know every med name and dosage. None of these were familiar.

“These are not ours,” I said, pointing to the patient’s name. In fact they were for the patient’s mother-in-law, but I was too annoyed to bother saying that.

Cheryl’s eyes bugged out. As I left, I could hear her saying, “I can’t believe I….”

Next day, after 4 p.m., I drove back down the winding mountain road, to pick up the prescriptions. Yes, one was made up, although the other less urgent one wasn’t. As I waited for it to be done, I stood at the check-out counter.

Cheryl leaned over and said,” I just want to say…. I couldn’t sleep last night. I didn’t know what to do. I felt so bad. Finally, I decided to pray..”

She went on almost in a whisper, quoting a Bible verse with apologies because she really didn’t have it quite right, but it had to do with God’s help when you hit the bottom.

I touched her hand to reassure her. “Of all the problems we have had here, that was the least,” I said. “But thank you for praying. I’m not much good at it, but others are also praying.”

“God hears all prayers,” she replied.

Cheryl is one of those fervent Christians that scare us a little with their right wing views. Our idea of God is much more indwelling, not an all-powerful father or a son that will save you if only you surrender and believe. Perhaps, all things are possible, but they start within our hearts, we think and when you are grappling with life and death, God’s idea of an ideal outcome may not coincide with yours.

That night as I began to fall asleep, I felt the earnest love Cheryl radiated comfort me and  smooth a path for loving support from beyond.

The nature of God and our different interpretations of it seemed irrelevant then. Trying to have faith in God, too daunting. Faith in love that is another matter, our family’s loving and unconditional support of the patient, my own 5 month sojourn far from home, our 24/7 commitment, the wonderful doctors we have finally found, even those drugs with their unpleasant side effects. These are born of love.

And the best prayers may be tears.

Joy Says Good Morning

I have been reading and rereading all the poems in Rumi: the Book of Love, this week looking for this idea. For some reason, I read back to front. Still I didn’t find it. Last night I said to myself, “Well, it must be in Coleman Bark’s introduction to a section”, so I started rereading those, back to front. I found it in Section 14, entitled “Union”. The poems in this part talk about spiritual union, which we are all seeking, no matter how worldly and unspiritual we may seem.

Here Barks considers how potentially unbalancing this can be. When that happens we are liable think we are in deep trouble, but in actual fact, we are evolving. For the time being, we may need help and so we find another kind of union with our helpers.

“The heart cannot be talked about. We must experience its depths in that mysterious osmosis of presence with presence. Hazrat Inayat Khan says that our purpose here is to make God a reality, a daunting and potentially unbalancing task. One can get too full of the ecstatic state. Rumi warns the the roof is a dangerous place to drink wine. We can die trying to make God a reality. If we don’t fall from the roof, we wake with a hangover that weakens consciousness. Hangover remorse can be helpful then. The work of balancing love (enthusiasm) with discipline (practical helpfulness) is beautifully addressed in the first poem of this section, the drink of water that is ‘Sunrise Ruby’.”
p. 119 Barks. Rumi:the Book of Love

The Sunrise Ruby
In the early morning hour,
Just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
to take a drink of water.

She asks, “Do you love me or yourself more?
Really the absolute truth.”

He says, “There’s nothing left of me,
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise,
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no
resistance to sunlight.”

The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.

Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off work.
Water is there somewhere.

Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

Rumi trans by Coleman Barks in Rumi: the Book of Love p. 120

rumi 1

Septuagenarian Hobbit -another adventure

cinco de mayoAs a septuagenarian hobbit (a stay-at-home 70-something), I board a plane the way I get into an Athens taxi: I accept my death. After that I can relax.

I leave the pseudo-leather folder containing my will and insurance policies out on my desk. Clearly labelled.

When I was a mere 50-something hobbit, I actually flew to the other place. Very instructive. https://115journals.com/2012/07/20/i-dream-of-etherica-life-changing-dream-2/

My eastern medical adviser says this idea results from liver heat. General Liver is trying to help my weak, damp digestion by going into battle. The fire rises to my head and produces scarey images.

My western medical adviser prescribes Lorazepam. Which I carry on my body in case I have to slid down the escape exit without my purse.

I have given up wine with airline breakfast. Too dehydrating.

Last time this hobbit went on an adventure it was Christmas season and I flew to Belgium. See https://115journals.com/2013/11/28/the-septuagenarian-hobbit/ and posts following. There I contended with the confusion of three languages and found myself embraced by mon frère and his many friends. Turned out I was so Europianized by my three week stay that I found it hard to adjust back. https://115journals.com/2014/01/05/the-septuagenarian-hobbit-gets-a-parking-lesson/

This time there will be no language problem. Well almost none, although Los Angeles is near the top of the list of large Spanish-speaking cities.

I am due to arrive on Cinco de Mayo, a day of celebration. So nice of people to party on my birthday. For indeed it is. After this, I’ll have only one more septuagenarian birthday. Figure it out.

So what to do? Shall we immediately set out for the mountain fastness where Julia now lives. Not a chance. Let’s round up a little party of our own, hit that place in Culver City and crash at someone’s house when we are partied out.

I don’t travel for the love of travel. I travel for love.