The Shape of Things to Come is Squiggly & Crumpled

Photo: The Shape of Things to ComeMy inability to foretell the future seems to become more pronounced as I get older. Is this because I’m more aware of the potential diversions and distractions, thanks to my ever-increasing wisdom? Because I’m more attuned to Other Worlds as I sneak ever closer to the time when I’ll dwell in them, and lose focus on this realm? Is it because I’ve already forgotten what I was talking about at the beginning of this paragraph and have no room for pursuing any larger thoughts than sentence-chasing?

More likely, it’s just that the forces in this universe are much wilier than I am and outfox me at every turn, and as I age it only becomes more apparent to me, and to everyone around me. I’m okay with that. In fact, I learn, with every revolution of the solar system, more of how much adventure and delight can lie in the unexpected places that life takes, leads, or pushes me. All the prescience in the world wouldn’t necessarily have better prepared me for what lay ahead, and being clairvoyant couldn’t possibly have convinced me that the many fabulous extravaganzas of mysterious tangential journeying sprung on me were the right path or worth the risks. Yet it’s all gotten me Here. A twisting, bumbling, contorted tour, yes, but one with a lot of happy happenings along the way.

What tomorrow will bring is anybody’s guess. Anybody’s but mine, that is.

Well, Aged

I am not in the least opposed to growing older. Or even growing really, really old. I’d just like to do so with a smidgen of style and a jot of class, if I can lay hold of either of these by then. In the meantime, I’m pretty happy that most people don’t think of me as exceedingly geezer-ish—or at least don’t have the temerity to say so to my softly collapsing face. Grey hair and wrinkles, along with all of my more singular scars and bruises acquired along the way, are merely outward expressions of my having lived a life, perfect or not, as opposed to having merely existed on the planet, taking up space without filling it.Drawing + text: Time Flies

I may not be a glorious vintage of anything, but if I’m not exactly well aged, I’m at least, well, aged. And that pleases me quite enough.

Drawing + text: Finding Contentment

Going Viral, Part 1: The Texas Sore Throat Massacre

Digital illo from a photo: Going ViralI’m sorry if I breathed on you. I was unknowingly the “I” of the storm. Patient Zero. One hand on the door knob; ten thousand infected. The maker of monsters, incubator for incubi. Thankfully, I have not yet come across a single one of my hundreds and thousands of contacts throughout this winter who was evidently poisoned into illness through contact with me. I never had any of the usual indicators of being contagious during the whole time I had my various and numerous waves of feeling lousy: no fever, no evidence of strange-colored, pungent crud emerging from anywhere in or on my person…unless you count the slightly hallucinatory character of my thoughts in their natural state. My doctors, when I finally saw them, didn’t seem to think I had been particularly dangerous.

So I wasn’t quarantined. I didn’t get hermetically sealed in a makeshift NASA bubble-style ICU. I didn’t even get quite miserable enough to go to the doctor with my complaints until about ten days ago, despite having felt uncharacteristically unwell so many times through the winter, when I generally manage to go the whole year without suffering more than, at most, one cold. I just dragged myself around with a wan little, pasted-on smile.

But here’s the thing: that’s how Bad Stuff can get passed around. Not every little germy critter that sneaks its way into our bodies, even in this very knowledgeable, clever day and age, is necessarily that easy to spot, let alone to treat. Just because modern medicine can recognize so many more diseases and injuries and conditions than previous generations knew doesn’t mean that every medically trained person everywhere would recognize even the majority of them quickly and easily, never mind how unlikely any of us commoners are to notice and understand them ourselves. So for all I know, while I thought I was being the appropriate combination of careful for others’ safety and stoically dedicated to keeping up my own commitments during the whole fun winter, I might as well have been opening the door to unleash Pandora’s Pandemic. I might have been Typhoid Mary the Second.

Let me be clear about a couple of other things, too, though.

First, I grew up thinking that the nickname of Mary Mallon was as good an epithet for a vile and deliberate criminal mastermind as any. But in more recent years I’ve had reason to revisit that idea and wonder if she mightn’t possibly have been as much victim as villain, after all. The current political climate of preferring divisive self-righteousness and sniffy dudgeon on all sides of any issue about all of the evils perpetrated, always, by Them, not Us, makes it remarkably hard to establish and enforce any policies that do any genuinely positive things to make societal problems any better—poverty, education and healthcare being always top of the list. They’re always somebody else’s fault and everyone else’s problem. I can easily imagine a modern plague getting the better of this entire country as much because we refuse to cooperate with each other and pay attention to some basic survival instincts and practicalities as because anything were especially virulent or unusual.

If we refuse to converse and cooperate, we have no one to blame but our own desire not to be subservient to any greater good. The law of unintended consequences visits its ugly repercussions on us all at times, and most of all when we are busy wishing everybody who isn’t in our happy little 100%-shared-view groups would just stay quiet and out of the way.

Reality works quite differently, as history should have taught us all long ago. If, for example, (a) we don’t provide health care for the indigent/impecunious and (b) they become ill but must find some way to pay for health care, then (c) those able to do so will continue to work when ill. They have no other clear way to pay bills, feed families, and get tasks done than to do the work themselves as always. If (d) the only kinds of work that marginalized populations tend to be able to get are in servitude, then (e) their work will most often be in service work like hourly hire positions as housekeepers, janitors, maintenance workers, food service employees, day laborers, child care workers, and personal health assistants in private homes, nursing care or rehab facilities, and hospitals.

That’s right: if we don’t take care of the poor unless they pay, they will continue to work as long as they can drag themselves there, and the work they do is often both the lowest paid—where, as a bonus, it takes longer to earn enough, while sick, for their own care—and the highest social contact-oriented in all of society. If we want to be truly Dickensian, we can repeat the Typhoid Mary solution as well and imprison the ill to keep them from working; at least in that instance, we can make the choice to either care for that new prisoner or risk his/her infecting the prison population, which again in Dickensian terms could “decrease the surplus population,” but of course containment will remain an ever-growing issue, if the prisoners are dying in droves and the staff either succumb or, more likely, refuse to return.

Meanwhile, let’s just imagine, as some folk are inclined to do, that the majority of the poor anywhere are illegal immigrants and layabouts who only take jobs away from natural-born citizens and live as criminals by choice. We certainly wouldn’t want to either train and motivate any natural-born citizens who are layabouts to do any of these highly desirable jobs that have been stolen from them or, perish the thought!, educate and give incentive to both groups. Thankfully, we have a whole crew of people in many sectors of the political realm working hard to see that there’s plenty of money allocated to such progressive and humane and productive activities as developing larger PACs and private donation coffers to better control election results, and keeping business strong in the blessed US economy by letting larger and larger mega-corporations swallow up dwindling independents until they resemble nothing so much as a snake that has snacked on a water buffalo. I know that I, for one, am greatly relieved that we are nationally so opposed to monopolies, or I might mistakenly think they were popping up by the dozens. It’s also comforting that the same herd of politicos of all stripes have among their numbers plenty who think that the best way to finance such boons to humanity is to cut budget waste in areas like state funded universities, social services, and other massive boondoggles like universal health care. Clearly, educating, mediating, and healing larger groups of people to interact and live in good health, productivity, and harmony is an evil conspiracy.

You could say that feeling unwell makes me, unlike the hardworking poor, prone to lying around and getting irritable, misanthropic, pessimistic, snarky, and critical of the state of this so-called Union. I certainly won’t argue if you accuse me of thinking we’re a lot of selfish, under-informed, entitled rich people and a counterbalance of too many people who can’t support themselves and their families with the paltry resources left for them after the top feeders have had their fill. If, as some social commentators and economists and even scientists claim, the concept of surplus population and limited resources is a fallacious or at least far from inevitable construct, since we theoretically have the brain power to make what already exists on this planet into resources and better distribute them, then I can think of few better, more immediate, or more visible places than health care, civility, and education in which to begin this process. And I can’t think of any valid excuse for anyone who believes in the value of a single human being not believing in the potential value of each human being and thinking all worthy of the effort. Good citizenship and care for others should not be a partisan Issue.

Knowing thus full well that we’re all capable of being stupid, lazy, entitled, paranoid, or just plain bad (just read or listen to the news, if you’ve somehow forgotten this), I still don’t think we should just assume that anyone is any or all of those. Isn’t it better to encourage and defend kindness, generosity, trust, humility, respect for differences, and joy in our commonalities?

Even I, at my most crabby old complainer moments, think it worth a try to do better. To be better. I would hope others might think me worth the effort.

Don’t Pass Me; I’m Going as Fast as I Can!

Photo: Seen from a  TrainHigh Speed Chase

The world, my friends, is a fleeting thing, and life, swift passing by

Like silent film outside the train, blurred trees against the sky

And birds, small flecks, shot from the grass to pepper clouds with black,

Yet nothing would I change a whit to veer from on this track;

If hurtling time should slow its pace in this great journey’s run,

There’d be no more such tales to tell, no news under the sun,

No destinations to explore, adventures to be had,

And not one bit of joy that’s new, and wouldn’t that be sad!

So I’ll hang on and buckle up, and hope what’s speeding past

Won’t leave me in a cloud of dust. I’ll get there, too, at last.

A Certain Age

I’ve always been mystified by the people who are terribly age-conscious. When I was younger, I didn’t get the agonies my peers went through over longing to be old enough for this, that, and the other thing. Driving a car was never especially thrilling or compelling to me, alcohol had little allure as an illicit tipple when I could see how stupidly my peers (and many legal-age drinkers) behaved when drinking more than they could handle, and I’ve still not had the remotest interest in trying to smoke anything. I didn’t even care about R-rated movies any more than I do now; most of those are too violent, too rude, and or too loud for my usual taste.

When I got old enough to do all of the supposedly grownup-geared stuff, I became just as amazed and confounded by those who wish and try to be or appear younger than they are. If I want to lie about my age, I won’t pretend I’m some young thing I’m not; I’ll certainly tell everyone I’m much older than I really am so they’ll be impressed with how fit, alert, and fantastic I am compared to everyone else “my age”—but that’s too much effort for a silly joke on my part. I’m pretty content to be myself, whatever age I am, and let people love, respect, and admire me—or not—for the real me that they know. I’m happy to have accomplished what modest things I’ve learned or done, to covet the thin grey hairs and fine-lined wrinkles I’ve earned through years and experience, and to relish the freedom that comes with age.

Because as far as I’m concerned, the biggest and best goal of growing up (insofar as I’ll concede to attempting anything like that) is to be so at home in my own skin, however baggy and spotty and misshapen it might be, that I can like myself fine and expect the same respect from others without trying to be someone or something I am so obviously not. Here I am, 53-plus years of ordinary, thin-haired, not-so-fit, tacky happiness jammed into a humbly passable carcass, and I’m mighty glad of it.Ink drawing: A Certain Age

Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower