Coming to Terms With It All

I thought I was handling this entire COVID-19 shut down thing fairly well. I finished the CSLI year one fellowship program in fine style. I’ve read twenty-two books, so far, and next week I’ll complete reading the Bible from cover to cover in ninety days. My family built and planted a garden, installed a Little Free Library in the front yard, and has plans for both bees and chickens. I’ve been doing Keto and have lost about twenty pounds, all while working and managing kids, both in school and during the rudderless summer days.

Don’t get me wrong; I have my down days, too. And there have been more of them than not lately. Being forced to stay in first gear for a few months has given me ample time to consider the fact that 142,000 people have died, often scared and alone. I’ve had to spend even more time coming to terms with the deep racial issues in this country as well the plight of people groups like the Uyghurs in China. I’ve watched as protestors in Portland have been abducted off the street, wondering what it means for our right to peacefully protest both now and in the future. I’ve listened as people tangle themselves in knots arguing against wearing a mask in public rather than simply choosing to love their neighbors by doing so and even witnessed a woman have a nervous breakdown in real time thanks to the glittering magic of social media.

Yeah, it’s been rough to say the least. However, I’m doing all this from a very privileged position. Both my husband and I are working from home, and our kids have space to continue schooling here as well. We have a solid internet connection, devices for everyone in the house, food on the table, and anything else that we need to be successful in these very strange times. But even with all that, it’s been difficult to keep my head above water some days. I cannot imagine how folks who have lost jobs or are trying to figure out childcare for the coming school year are managing.

But I haven’t cried over the last few months. Not even once. No matter how overwhelmed I’ve been or how sad I’ve felt, not a single tear has fallen from my eye. But then the dadgum Clydesdales came on.

I’ve been watching my team, the St. Louis Cardinals, play intersquad matches to get ready for the 60-game season starting at the end of this month, and since there are no commercials, the broadcast fills the time between half innings with great moments in Cardinals history, live shots of fans from around the park last season, and so forth. At least once a game, they show the horses pulling the Budweiser cart around the warning track, an Opening Day tradition in St. Louis going back to 1933 and the repeal of Prohibition. Every year, they announce this moment with great fanfare; even the players stop what they’re doing to watch the team of eight horses, along with two green-clad drivers and a Dalmatian complete a few laps around the stadium while the organist plays “Here Comes the King” and fans clap along. I look forward to seeing it (often on TV and once in person) every year. That procession meant baseball had come back and signaled the true beginning of summer for me.

But we didn’t get it this year. We haven’t gotten a lot of things. Maybe we’ll never get them again. It’s hard to say when the world seems to flip over every twenty-four hours. For the most part, I’m glad for the changes. I’m happy people have had to slow down and spend more time with their families. I’m beyond thrilled that the environment is healing because of a decrease in transportation and shipping. I think the BLM movement got a huge boost in visibility because things like baseball and bars and brunches weren’t there to distract us, to serve as a kind of Soma that numbed us to the reality of the world. Yet, still I grieve because life as we know it has unquestionably changed forever. I was able to keep a lid on it, to process everything that meant academically and logically, until I saw those massive hooves high stepping and shining ribbons flowing in the popcorn scented air.

One time while I was watching, a haiku by Kobayashi Issa came to mind:

This dewdrop world –
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet…

The poem expresses a Buddhist concept, one that espouses the world is in some sense an illusion (the word for it is maya). Like water rolling in an unknown direction on a leaf, the world is full of causes and effects, a web of choices and changes we cannot control. The dewdrop world is a dewdrop world. But that final line from Issa changes everything. Yes, the world may be somehow illusory, but that doesn’t mean it’s without longing or sorrow or tragedy. Those emotions as well as ones like joy, love, and peace are all part of the story we’re living.

Watching those horses trot was my “And yet, and yet…” moment. I can’t stop the bad things that are happening around me. I can’t even fully protect the good things I have or the people I love. I know that, but seeing a moment that has been part of my life for forty-plus years, something that brought me joy, and having it suddenly feel like an old newsreel was unsettling. I felt the sadness of the present moment in stark contrast to the simple joys of yesterday, and the difference was breathtaking. It cracked me wide open and mixed up all the thoughts and emotions I’d managed to keep neatly compartmentalized. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad—maybe it’s both—but I’m leaving space for it, allowing myself to feel it rather than move along to the next thing on the ol’ to do list because as Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (KJV).

When There Are No Words

The world is filled with perfect words.

Sometimes, it’s because of the way they sound. Is there a better term to describe the sound mud makes under your boot that squelch? Could bacon do anything other than sizzle in the pan?

Other times, words possess a certain rightness because they’re the ideal way to express a mood or feeling. Take languish for instance, a word that means “to become weak; to droop or fade.” With all its long vowels, it slides slowly from the tongue and softens the mouth. Even the “g” in its center hangs like a fat cat’s belly, as if it barely has the strength to hold itself upright.

There are words like décolletage, anathema, palimpsest, and paronymous, all desirable for their rarity. There are also well-worn ones —friend, laugh, peace—that are threadbare from being frequently pulled from our linguistic back pockets. And like the Velveteen Rabbit, they are all the more loved for their familiarity.

Some words are so precise that they don’t have an equivalent in another language. French has retrouvailles, which means “the happiness of meeting again after a long time.” And German—a language known for plosive and guttural sounds—boasts backpfeifengesicht or “a face that cries out for a fist in it.”

English speakers know all to well that our mother tongue favors quantity over quality. So finding the perfect word means we must rummage through piles of synonyms to it suss out. Why, even a simple word like happy has more than fifty cousins—everything from cheerful and merry to ecstatic and jubilant. And like the crayons in a child’s color box, each one is a slightly different shade, a degree warmer or cooler, brighter or dimmer than those around it.

But there are also times when there is no perfect word, no combination of consonants and vowels can capture exactly we want to say.

My grandparents outside their home Arkansas in 1957.
My grandparents outside their home Arkansas in 1957.

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease, and his mind has declined to the point that institutionalized care is necessary. Thankfully, I can use the term in the loosest sense of the word. Far from institutional, the place where he lives has fewer than thirty patients and is filled with the trappings of home—everything from vases full of fresh flowers to hand towels in the bathrooms. People volunteer to read to and play games with the residents. A hairdresser comes in once a week to give the men a quick trim and the ladies a wash and set. Home cooked meals and snacks are served at the same time each day in the communal dining area. I’ve stayed in hotels that didn’t boast such amenities.

But this isn’t a cozy bed and breakfast. It’s a place for people who will never improve, and like the Eagles say of their symbolic Hotel California, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” This was made clear to me when I realized the doors there required a code to get out as well as in. It’s a simple sequence: 2-0-1-5. The current year. Four digits visitors can’t forget but that their loved ones can barely remember. Because when memories are scattered like Pick-Up Stix across the kitchen floor, keeping track of time isn’t as simple as it once was.

Because I live several hours away from my grandfather, I was the only member of my family who had yet to visit him in this place, and that made me feel as if I was letting him down somehow, shirking my duties as a granddaughter because I had yet to take stock of his situation.

My grandfather was the manager of Wal-Mart #36 in Paragould, Arkansas. He was respected and beloved by his employees.
My grandfather was the manager of Wal-Mart #36 in Paragould, Arkansas. He was respected and beloved by his employees.

So I went with my mother, grandmother, husband, and kid cousin to sit with him for a few hours. We planned on enjoying the mild Florida weather in the large screened-in porch out back, to sit in the swings and talk of pleasanter times. But the instant we walked through the door, one of the patients saw my grandmother and cried, “Play! Please play!”

Unlike me, she visits daily, and part of her routine involves sitting down at the wheezy, grumbling piano to plunk out familiar tunes like “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in addition to the many hymns she can perform from memory. She nods and pats the poor woman’s spindly hands reassuringly.

As she plays, her cherry red acrylic fingernails clicking on the plastic keys like a woodpecker jabbing in search of a juicy beetle, many of the patients grow still and close their eyes. Some sing. For others, the verses and choruses vanished long ago, but the tune is still there, stubborn until the end. And so they hum.

My grandfather is one of the latter. And as my grandmother finishes the final verse of “He Hideth My Soul” and switches over to “The Old Rugged Cross,” I watch his trembling lips struggle to form the once familiar words….

“On a hill far away stood and old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame…”

How many times has he sung this? I wondered. How many camp meetings, gospel sings, and Sunday services? And the words are just gone?

My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt -- Father's Day 1991
My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt — Father’s Day 1991

What was it I felt in that moment? It was both pity and something deeper. There was pride too, because Alzheimer’s hadn’t claimed every inch of him. Frustration. Rage. Confusion. Heartache certainly. And there was also love—a tenderness so fierce it could crush bone. They were all correct words in their way, but there wasn’t one that represented the sum total.

I could see it on my cousin’s face however. It was the mix of sadness, confusion, and grief that comes when you realize your life has been irrevocably changed—and not for the better.

I knew he saw the same expression on mine as we both sat fighting back tears, the kind that constrict your throat and make your eyes burn but never quite spill over. For that small mercy, you’re grateful. Because once you start sobbing, it will crack you wide open and release those emotions words don’t dare lay claim to. And despite the fact you are finally able to voice your hurt, you do so in a language only you can understand.

 

The Family -- Thanksgiving 2014
The Family — Thanksgiving 2014