THE WRETCHED OF THE ROCKRIDGE

Certainly a grim subject for a holiday story, but look and listen well. Start with a look, if you dare, at our ubiquitous tent cities and the unfortunate individuals forced to endure that squalor. Like most of us, I suspect, I shake my head, contribute some money, vote for taxes, do some volunteering and wonder why nothing seems to get better. I wish this piece were about how we could understand, make an impact, create a better world so that everyone’s holiday could be merry and bright. But it’s not. Instead it’s a description of an episode emblematic of the horror of it all and how little it seems we, collectively, seem to do about it. So here’s the tale.

It was early evening. Mark was walking down a Rockridge residential sidewalk. Walking is a generous description for how like a semi-paralytic. He was as cold and wet as the weather. I’ve done my share of walking and driving by the Marks of the world, but this time, I stopped, asked where he was headed and if I could help him get there. Maybe usher him to a shelter or a meal. Or did he even have a destination? None of the answers I got was clear, but we settled on the idea that he might be able to get some help around 20th and MLK. I helped him into the car, lifting in his feet, whose movements were hampered by knees that operated only marginally. Away we went.

We started a conversation about life. (People are the only joy.) Travel. (Where had I been? Where would I like to go next?) It seemed coherent at first, but the same questions and statements kept repeating. Along with “Where are we going”?

Before long we were at 22nd and MLK, where, as I suspected, there was nothing that looked like a care center. My wife had volunteered at nearby St. Mary’s Center, which helps people in Mark’s situation. It was a mile or so away, so we went there. Closed. There was one worker doing some janitorial tasks. He thanked me for trying to do a good deed, but was sad to say covid, etc. had depleted their resources and that there were no caregivers, caseworkers, or any of the people that in other times might have been available. He suggested St. Anthony’s.

By this time it was dark, but I knew about St. Anthony’s. the place. We’d made some donations there in the past, which made me hopeful. I’d passed it on the way to St. Mary’s, but it looked so closed, I didn’t stop. Nevertheless, I had no other clue, and the guy at St. Mary’s seemed to know what was what, so away we went again, carrying on the same conversation as before. I drove around the St. Anthony’s block and found a gate and with some folks sheltering under an overhang, others standing in small groups, talking, smoking. I asked if anyone knew a way I could help Mark. Mostly there was silence except for one gentleman who thought that St. Anthony’s might serve some food in two or three hours. However, one lady–“Dare” was her name–thought if we went to the front of the building, someone might help. She offered to show the way. I had driven past earlier and it had looked pretty securely locked, but she certainly knew the situation better than I did. Plus she had a bit of food in a tattered plastic bag. It looked like small plastic containers of sauce that might come with a burrito or taco. Mark declined it.

Well, we had no better luck at the entrance with Dare than I had had by myself. However, she said maybe we should go to “Social Services,” saying they wouldn’t let him stay out in the rain. Away went another mile or so south. But they–the armed sheriffs at the door–did indeed leave him out in the rain, sent us away with no suggestions for alternatives.

It seemed we were out of options. I wish I could say I was mistaken about the lack of alternatives so I could give this a happy ending. But we were, in truth, as far as I anyone I could talk to knew or was willing to divulge, at the end of our story.

I took Mark and Dare back to St. Anthony’s. Dare to her previous seat on the sidewalk under the overhang. I gave her a drawstring bag in which to carry her meager belongings in as well as the cash in my wallet. I was embarrassed about how little cash I had, but then thought having too much might put her in danger anyhow. Then thought she might have liked to have a choice in the matter. Then I helped Mark out of the car–he didn’t want to stay there. He wanted to go “home.” I finally escorted him to a place on the side walk near Dare. And I left them there.

Maybe it was my lack of imagination or unwillingness to explore further alternatives, but I didn’t know and still don’t know what to do. I’m sure someone will criticize me for heartlessness and cruelty, and I’d be hard put to disagree. But I still don’t know what, as an individual I was to do. The answers have to be in the heartlessness of our institutions, in our collective selves. It seems individuals like me are helpless, acting alone, to make much of a difference . In the richest country in world history, why was no one there when a man like Mark, can’t find a way out of the rain? Why do we allow such situations to grow and fester while people like me sit in warm houses, roofs over our heads, meals in our bellies, take hot showers, and continue to shake our heads, contribute some money, vote for taxes, do some volunteering and wonder why nothing seems to get better? Why is it okay for congress purportedly to vote for $25 billion more for the defense department than the president or the pentagon even asked for while we shake our heads, contribute some money, vote for taxes, do some volunteering and wonder why nothing seems to get better?

“All you need is love,” says the song. And we certainly need that. More than ever. But more than that, we need compassion along with the money and action to back it up. I wonder where Mark and Dare and all their kin are tonight. I have no answers.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF PANDEMIC

We’ve been holiday/party central for a few days here, and it’s not over yet. Even with deadly Omicron spreading its tentacles, it’s become one of those hooray times when you’re simultaneously exhausted and exuberant even with masks increasingly necessary (We thought that was tapering off, but oh no.). Contradictory emotions? Indeed. In Whitman’s words “Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” As do most of us.

Like many families in these days of rapid and frequent transport, ours is a multinational phenomenon. One branch resides at the moment in Papua New Guinea, where she is U.S. ambassador, her husband a webmaster who goes virtually everywhere, her daughter a student at William and Mary U.

Another branch is in Hawaii. The big island, where he works in a tennis/golf club while his wife manages property rentals. They (via her family) have some land and a farm.

A third group calls London home, though they in the past have, by virtue of his being engaged in international banking, lived in Tunisia, Mozambique, and some other location I disremember.

Makes me feel a bit stuck, since We’ve been pretty much right here for the last whenever. Thank goodness someone (guess who?) more or less stayed put. It gives a place for all those folks to call home amid their travels. We all tend to coalesce every two or three years, sometimes for an occasion, such as the ambassadorial swearing in, or a holiday, such as this year’s Christmas. Seems to just happen.

So far it’s been a pretty glorious time. Some families find such gatherings raise old and painful issues. We’re human. We have those, but none of them seem important enough to override the underlying camaraderie and affection.

There is an exception to the camaraderie and affection label. As I said, we are human. The one person who could be the fly that pollutes the ointment wasn’t here. Isn’t likely to be in the near future. In the meantime he has become a little like Voldemort, the one whose name isn’t mentioned. There will come a time, we trust, when that will change, but until then, the warmth we feel for one another rest of us have on another must be sufficient unto the day.

Onward into the rising light.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?

BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR

This poem is, some would say, not holiday appropriate. But it is, I’m sad to say, timely at any time. As families gather, especially when families gather, it’s important that these thoughts stay in our minds always.

The U.S. has been at virtually continuous war since 1941. Not even those nations such as China and Russia, whom we think of as particularly warlike, approach our record. Not even close.

FAMILIAL

by Jaques Prevert

Translation by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The mother does knitting

The son fights the war

She finds this quite natural the mother

And the father what does he do the father?

He does business

His wife does knitting

His son the war

He business

He finds this quite natural the father

And the son and the son

What does the son find the son?

He finds absolutely nothing the son

His mother does knitting his father business he war

When he finishes the war

He’ll go into business with his father

The war continues the mother continues she knits

The father continues he does business

The son continues no more

The father and the mother go to the graveyard

They find this quite natural the father and the mother

Life continues life with knitting war business

business war knitting war

business business business

Life with the graveyard

THE CHRISTMAS THAT WAS LOST AND GONE FOREVER

HEY, WHAT HAPPENED TO CHRISTMAS?
THIS IS THE SADDEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME
THIS REALLY PISSES ME OFF.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was Christmas eve. A most happy fellow was in his kitchen helping prepare a feast for a couple of dozen friends and family. Suddenly, without warning, everything went blank. It was not as if all was merry and bright, then turned dark and sad and gloomy. Everything just . . . disappeared.

The fellow might have been mystified, started a search, hired a detective, called 911, talked to a therapist. Might have done any number of things anyone would do in such an emergency. He might have been sad, mad, depressed, enraged. He might have done or felt any of those things or some combination of them if he’d had a chance. Problem was, the fellow wasn’t there any more. Just disappeared. Right when he was expecting, supposed to, wanting to slice and dice and roast and mix and set the table, but the only thing of that was left of him was

A

SPACE

As usually happens in these situations, nature loving a vacuum the way it does, the world rushed to fill in. Unfortunately the fellow had no knowledge of or say in or control of who when or what came into the space or why. What had been, at least nominally, his space, now belonged to forces and objects that, as far as he was concerned, were unknown and unknowable.

But the way he described it to me much later was nowhere near this prosaic. What he said was more like a mad poem which makes no sense because poems don’t emerge from oblivion, yet there was both poetry and and oblivion don’t tell me NO because then you are talking states of being that are

here

there

everywhere

then

now

yet

to

come

stacked

and

merged

in ways that cannot be yet are and yet cannot not be but are

arranged in time and space completely outside the laws of physics or any other science or science fiction for that matter and even with chaotic imagery can make no sense out of that which has no sense to make.

It wasn’t the kind of thing when a person goes to sleep and then awakens recalling what it was like to crawl under the covers, then move on into a new day. It was oblivion, void of dreams or pain or desires or basic bodily demands or functions.

But the way I’m describing it here is still way too prosaic.

Under the circumstances, you’d think he was gone.

And you’d be right.

And you’d be wrong.

If he were gone, truly gone, as in dead and gone, vanished, blasted away as if he were cradling a nuclear weapon in his arms just before ignition, you wouldn’t find him again. Maybe some microbes, or radioactive particles, atoms that were once in what someone used to ascribe to his physical self. But not him. Not even him and not him. If it was like that, he’d never return. Couldn’t.

But this fellow did. And the world had a lot to answer for concernning things that went on during his absence. They called it a seizure. Okay, fine.

Something seized him.

Grabbed him

Kept him in thrall

Then let him go until whenever

He’s back now he tells me

But he can’t tell me where he went

Or what went on while he was gone

He hears stories, tales, of adventures involving him

But ask him about those?

A shrug. . .

No involvement

Wasn’t there

For him, in these adventures that are purportedly so real to others, there is no

here

there

everywhere

then

now

yet

to

come

He asked me to explain it all to him one day. I said I’d work on it. Though I might not. Some mysteries are like, as the priest says, “mysteries of faith.” Not only unknowable, but best left

un

touched

LOUISE IS AT IT AGAIN

LOUISE ERDRICH

Larry McMurtry once opined that even the best authors eventually run out of steam and can no longer produce the quality of work they did in the past. Despite a multitude of examples to the contrary, let’s suppose the (Lonesome) Doveman is correct. If so, Louise Erdrich, one of the best novelists of our time defies the laws of nature. From her opening act (Antelope Wife, 1984) through such gems as The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to her latest The Sentence Erdrich has produced an unbroken string of literary winners. Her pages are filled with magic and miracles, yet remain firmly on terra firma. How she does that I’ll never ever know, but she does.

The Sentence first refers to a period of incarceration to which our protagonist “Tookie” is sentenced for a framed up drug-smuggling charge. She’s out before too long and afterwards goes back to running her little book store (Erdrich herself, as many of us know, runs one such herself). She marries the man who arrested her. The store becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman who was a former customer but refuses to go away quietly. Or at all, really. There’s a daughter, Hetta, from whom Tookie is estranged, though things get better when Hetta has a baby. She won’t reveal the father, but the relationship survives somehow.

In the midst of all this is a character named Louise, another refugee from Erdrich’s life, perhaps, though there’s nothing overtly to suggest that about that that I could detect. There’s a church, a baptism, votive candles.There’s also a rugaroo, a wolf person who keeps coming back to life and who returns to certain places….”places where it hadn’t finished some wolf business.”

[See what I mean about making the paranormal appear absolutely normal when people speak about it so plainly and literally?] But then we make a leap. This from Tookie:

She (Flora, the ghost) died from reading a book.

‘People die from reading books, of course!’ Louise said sarcastically.

What I’m trying to say. . .’

‘Books aren’t meant to be safe. Sadly, or heroically, depending on the way you look at it, books do kill people.’

‘In places where books are forbidden of course. . .What I’m trying to say is that a certain sentence of the book–a written sentence, a very powerful sentence–killed Flora.’

Louise was silent. after a few moments she spoke.

‘I wish I could write a sentence like that.’

So, suddenly, the novel, instead of proceeding from a fairly inconsequential fictional pronouncement of incarceration–the ‘Sentence’ we thought we were reading about–we’re amazingly talking about the power of the written word itself. Halfway through the book, we’re spun into another dimension, smoothly and forcefully, before we even realize we were traveling.

And then it’s cremation. Except how do you cremate a ghost? You’ll have to ask Erdrich, and to ask her you have to read every sentence of The Sentence. Not at all an unpleasant thing to be sentenced to. Like every other work of hers, you’ll find these pages amusing, baffling, inspiring and magical.