November is like two sisters, equal in beauty, strikingly different in style and mood. The younger one looks over her shoulder toward autumn, the elder anticipates winter. One clothes herself in deep, rich jewel tones, the other dresses in a subdued palette of white, black, and many more than fifty shades of subtly nuanced gray. Today, as the sun shines brightly on the last stubborn leaves of fall, a tribute to the younger, playfully flamboyant November sister.
She delights in autumn’s most brilliant shades. She sets the scarlet leaves of a row of sugar maples against a backdrop of perfect, cloudless blue sky.
She’s an expert in color theory. She knows that on a complementary base of glowing green, the red and orange leaves of a Japanese maple will appear even more distinctly luminous.
She enjoys a dramatic makeover. This pin oak at the edge of our front yard is an unintentional gift from a squirrel, a sprout from a forgotten acorn buried about ten years ago. Throughout the summer, its coloring blends with that of the neighboring pines. It’s not especially remarkable, and easy to overlook. But come November, the younger, whimsical sister does a spectacular fairy godmother turn, and endows it with a golden radiance.
She loves to accessorize in unexpected ways, often ignoring the rules of seasonal dressing. Cheerfully, she combines the concentrated yellows and oranges of maple leaves and the intense red of nandina berries with the deep fuchsia of summer’s roses.
She pairs the most delicate pale pinks of our trellis roses with the vivid red of rose hips. Somehow it works, especially when the surrounding foliage gleams in tones of green and gold.
As the day goes on, the temperature is dropping and the wind is picking up. By tomorrow, little of fall’s resplendence will remain. Soon the younger November sister will bow out gracefully, yielding to the more austere beauty conjured by her older sibling.
If, in the unlikely event that you have not yet voted, and have not yet decided how to vote, here is some last-minute food for thought.
One candidate’s modus operandi can be boiled down to a familiar childhood taunt, based on the lie. The blatant, aggressive, unyielding lie. We’ve all heard it: I’m not. You are! For example: I’m not a cheater. You are! There’s also this variation: I didn’t do it. You did! As in: I didn’t kick the dog. You did! The pronoun “you” is replaced as needed.
For most of us, the ridiculousness of this tactic is readily apparent. We know we’d be called out immediately as a liar and a fraud. But for bullies, who wield power through fear, and never, never, back down from the lie, it’s highly effective.
It has proven to be a surprisingly successful strategy for a president surrounded by a cadre of sycophants. He uses it to shirk responsibility and to deflect blame. It works well when the only objectives are self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. In his words and actions, this president demonstrates, repeatedly, that he cares only for himself. Not for his fellow Americans or the fate of our country. This is especially apparent in his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now that he, thanks to health care largely unavailable to the typical American, has survived the coronavirus, he feels more powerful than ever. He uses our Department of Justice to fight his own personal battles, and he seeks revenge on those who have crossed him. Another formidable weapon that works to his advantage is the rabid eagerness of loyal media allies to sow and nurture seeds of disinformation. I had hoped Donald Trump’s election to the presidency would prompt him to rise to the level of the office. It didn’t. Instead, he threatens the very future of our democracy. Think what he might do, unchecked, in a second term.
The other candidate is another human person, who has his flaws, as humans do. He’s been known to misspeak, as humans do. Traces occasionally remain of the childhood stutter he worked hard to overcome. But he is most certainly not a bully seeking to be a demagogue. He is an honorable, capable, experienced, compassionate public servant. Those last two words are very important. Unlike our current president, his goal is serving the U.S. and his fellow citizens. He has done so, for years, as a Senator and as a two-term Vice President. He has a proven record. He pledges to continue to do his best to improve the lot of working Americans, and he will put actual plans in place to do so.
And finally, for my friends who identify as Christian, there’s this warning from 2 Timothy 3: 2- 5:
For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!
Which of the two presidential candidates best fits this description?
I make this modest proposal: Why not follow biblical advice to avoid the candidate so perfectly described here, and vote for the other guy?
The annual Halloween joyride was on. “Come on, kids!,” beckoned Slim. Our pack is a pod, so let’s go!” This may be Kiko’s favorite event of the year. He loves nothing more than to ride shotgun with with Slim.
To Kiko this means settling in for a cozy doze in the passenger seat, the top down, the sun warm, the wind refreshing. He can count on Slim to take his time with the drive; this will be no quick there-and-back trip, but an unhurried, meandering cruise over roads hitherto unexplored.
I can rest assured that Slim and the gang will be back with plenty of time to set up for the Halloween festivities, which this year, thanks to the foresight and organization of young parents, involves a neighborhood parade and safely distanced candy give-aways.
Nearly every year the Halloween joyride yields some unexpected pleasure. This year it was the spotting of one of Slim’s more reclusive pals who happened to be walking along a woodsy section of road. “Trevor!” Slim yelled, braking so suddenly that the chihuahua twins Ruth and Rocky ended up atop Kiko in the front seat, briefly waking him from his nap. “I can’t believe it! Is it really you?,” asked Slim incredulously.
“Indeed, it is I. Trevor Wildermann, III, at your service,” replied the tall, hirsute figure, barely visible among the shadows.
“Unbelievable. I awaken to a covid pandemic and run into the true King of Social Distance, the original wild man himself!,” Slim exclaimed. “What brings you to the suburbs of Northern Virginia?”
“I just returned from early voting. It’s the last day for it locally. I’m a citizen now, of course. Have been for some time. My house is just there among the trees. Mostly quiet eccentric types in this neighborhood. They’re discreet. And they know not to refer to me as “Bigfoot.” The vulgarity of the common parlance offended Trevor to his core. His feet weren’t even especially big, considering his height. “I’m confident that the secret of my whereabouts is safe, unless perhaps you, Sir, decide to reveal it to some goofball at the Travel Channel. You wouldn’t, would you?”
After Slim pledged total silence regarding his friend’s Virginia residency, Trevor invited him to pull the car around back and join him on the open-air courtyard for drinks and snacks. While Kiko and the pack explored the artfully landscaped gardens and drowsed in the sun, the two old friends indulged in a leisurely catch-up. Luckily, Slim had planned the joyride for early in the day.
The two had met in Bavaria during one of Slim’s Grand Tours of Europe in an earlier century. Trevor’s family has owned and operated the historic Hotel Wilder Mann in the Danube River town of Passau since the mid-1500s. It’s his custom to spend the spring in his charming hometown, where the Easter season, very dear to his heart, is so beautifully celebrated. The covid outbreak prevented his return this year, much to his disappointment. The fortuitous encounter with his old friend offered a welcome bit of consolation.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened and the pups began to get restless, Slim felt the tug of duty. It was time to get back to prepare. The two friends said their goodbyes with reluctance, yet rejoiced in knowing that this time next year, they would meet again.
Upon his return, Slim got to work. We had decided to greet trick-or-treaters from my mother’s house this year, as it’s more easily accessible for the parade. Slim placed two tables near the street on which to lay out a wide array of candy. He made sure to include goodies that the nut-allergic could enjoy. He set up chairs for everyone at the top of the driveway, so we could watch the festivities from a safe distance. Kiko, who didn’t know he’d be spared the constant doorbell ringing of a typical Halloween, had retreated upstairs earlier to his night-time bed.
Before long, the first vehicles of the parade began to approach from the nearby cul-de-sac. While there were plenty of walkers, other kids were conveyed in decoratively festooned golf carts, cars and SUVs. There were riding mowers and Radio Flyer wagons carrying puppies and toddlers. Parents and kids were masked and careful about maintaining distance between family groups. Most neighbors participated, with candy-laden tables set up at the base of driveways. The happy, expectant spirit of Halloween flourished, despite the unusual circumstances.
Slim was buoyed by the treat of seeing his dear friend, the elusive Wildermann. Even if that chance meeting had not occurred, he claimed, he would still have dubbed the evening a satisfying success. As he reclined again on the swooning bench, his mood was one of jubilant calm.
Before he retired for the night, our wise October companion offered these reassuring words: “Never underestimate life’s capacity to surprise you and to cheer you, especially when you least expect it. I’ll go back to sleep soon, and I’ll dream sweet dreams. Meanwhile, you’ll get through this thorny patch. I’ve got a good feeling about it. Cheers to 2021!”
Our skeleton friend, Slim, was crestfallen, but not surprised, to awaken at the beginning of October and learn the news of covid-19, or as he refers to it, “the latest pandemic.” He thought he’d misheard at first when I told him there had been nearly 230,000 deaths in the U.S. since February. He remembers the 1918 flu epidemic, when he and my grandfather were taken ill that fall. “Sam and I were hit pretty hard, but we were lucky and managed to pull through. We were young back then, and among the most vulnerable, for some reason. One of our best buddies was not so fortunate. We heard later how worried Nora had been about Sam. So glad he made it!” (I am, too, or neither my mother, nor I, would have been born.) My grandfather was thirty then, a new father to my mother’s older brother, Leland, who was just over a year old, still an only child. Neither my grandmother, nor the baby, was sickened. “After we were out of the woods, Sam and I swapped stories of our wild fever dreams,” Slim recalled. “For two full days, I was in a fox hunt. I was the fox, the hound, the horse and the hunter, all at once. I hadn’t thought about that in years.” Slim is always a gentleman, and he chooses his words with care, typically avoiding expletives. “That was some crazy $#*%,” he said, shaking his head.
The vivid memories of the nightmarish experience, and his shock at so many lives lost in 2020, prompted Slim to take to the swooning bench at my mother’s. As he draped himself in a comforting shawl, he mused. “How many died in what we used to call the Spanish Flu, even though it didn’t start there? Always gotta play the blame game. About 675,000 in the States, over the course of two years? And this pandemic on track to rival it? I thought we’d have learned to do better by this point. What year is it again? Goodness gracious. People know about masks now, right?”
Though knocked for a loop by the grim state of our current covid world, Slim rarely lingers long in life’s valleys. Encouraged by his loving pack, happy to reconnect with our family, he rallied. Soon he was ready to engage in more pleasant reminiscences. . .such as my grandparents’ celebratory wedding dinner at the Canary Cottage in Louisville, on the first day of 1915. . .
. . .and to hear from us about a few good things that happened in 2020, such as the whirlwind trip my daughter and I made from Charlottesville to New York City when she unexpectedly got tickets to Saturday Night Live. . .
. . .and to anticipate a better future, post-pandemic, post-election, posthaste.
By Halloween morning, Slim had the usual spring in his step. The air was invigoratingly chilly, and it was time to get down to business. Halloween would be different this year, but it would still be Halloween. “Onward ho, pack!”
Last week, as I was considering how, when and where to go about figuratively hiding my head in the sand, I realized that, for the moment at least, I was already in a place of relative sanctuary. The house was quiet. I had refrained from checking the news online or on TV. My mother’s Washington Post was still baking in our oven (a half hour at 200 degrees, an anti-covid precaution we adopted in March). Kiko was snoozing in his bed after our walk. From the window adjacent to the table that has become my desk in the former playroom (now that my husband has taken over our home office), there was a swirl of constant motion as birds flocked to the feeder in the side yard. The morning had been foggy and overcast, but now the sun was breaking through.
The early afternoon light created a golden glow on the thick carpet of pine straw, and the scene was suddenly idyllic, like something from an old-fashioned children’s book. There were so many birds. The usual little ones–the chickadees, tufted titmice, sparrows and house finches, a downy woodpecker–were fluttering about. A couple of nuthatches were plummeting headfirst down the pine tree trunk. A pair of wrens engaged in loud, excited communication. Similar chatter from humans would be annoying, but from these compact, spunky birds, it was charming. Several cardinals perched in a row atop the fence, stately and dignified. Was that a hermit thrush? I think so. A red-bellied woodpecker and a bluejay took turns swooping in dramatically, wings extended, briefly scattering the smaller birds. A family of doves foraged patiently on the ground. They mingled contentedly with the squirrels and chipmunks, apparently unperturbed when the furry ones scampered in circles and popped up, as though spring-loaded. The bobtail squirrel was among the group, as confident as ever. I first noticed this particular squirrel in the spring. He clearly once had a tail, but all that remains is a bit of uneven fur, as from a bad haircut. I hate to ponder what sort of traumatic and painful event he must have suffered in the past. But he’s notably bouncy, and his fellow critters don’t seem to treat him any differently.
A view toward our front yard showed a spectacular blaze of orange and red as the tri-lobed leaves of the sassafras tree caught the light.
Atop the frame of our old swing set, next to an intensely red Virginia creeper vine, a bluebird couple eyed the ground for worms.
Despite the ugliness and outright evil that currently afflicts so many human aspects of our world, the beauty of the season, and of the natural world, remains. At least for a while. Serenity, if pursued, can still be attained. At least for brief periods.
And hope still remains. Every time the sun’s rays stream unexpectedly through a bank of leaden clouds and turn the autumn colors incandescent, I know this is true. I know it every time I see the bobtail squirrel bound lightly across the yard, able and undaunted.
Let’s keep hope alive.
Vote, if you haven’t yet done so. Vote as though your serenity depends upon it.
Is anyone else yearning for a safe place to hide from the ongoing malaise that is 2020? There is so much from which to seek refuge: covid-related illness, anxiety, depression and deaths (221,000 as of today in the U.S. and 1,126,000 worldwide). There are the ongoing climate disasters, including fires, floods, droughts, scorching heat, and even plagues of locusts. Tornadoes, derechos of intense ferocity, and so many hurricanes that we’ve started through the alphabet again for storm names. Then there is all the conflict, free-floating anger and polarization. Extreme economic disparity. Drastically contrasting perspectives on issues of race and class. Weighing heavily on my heart and those of my immediate family is the mind-boggling range of opinions among fellow humans on some of life’s essential questions. On the meaning of decency and morality, on American ideals and what our country stands for, on what it means to call oneself a Christian, what it means to love one’s neighbor. Even on the meaning of truth itself. How can there be such pronounced and heated disagreement? How can some view such questions merely as issues of politics?
But wait. There’s more. Or is it just my dreary outlook that makes me see the world as a meaner, sadder, more dangerous place than usual in other ways, as well? Is it that the high points that typically offset the to-be-expected bad stuff are rarer these days?
I’m not sure. But among my interconnected circles of friends, sudden, non-covid related severe illnesses and frightening medical diagnoses seem to be popping up with alarming frequency. For some, it’s that health conditions, previously under control, have taken a sharp turn for the worse. What was expected to be a short hospital visit turns, on a dime, into hospice care. Or the typically healthy member of a couple, the long-time caregiver for a chronically suffering spouse, abruptly falls ill and succumbs. A friend’s husband complained of back pain, and three weeks later, he was dead. Another friend, the beautiful image of health and fitness, simply did not wake up one recent morning. A promising high school senior in our neighborhood took his own life on a lovely June afternoon. The sign in front of our church frequently honors the memory of another brother or sister “called home.” Never before have I been so constantly aware of the wispy, gossamer-thread fragility that separates life from death. And never before has this earthly realm seemed so inhospitable.
I see my mood reflected in the behavior of the creatures around me. When I find my elderly dog curled up and surrounded by stuffed animals in our daughter’s shaggy beanbag chair, I tiptoe away quietly. I hope his old bones are finding the comfort and consolation they need. I wish I could join him, but he wouldn’t allow it. My perfect pandemic dog is a social distance snuggler, unless there’s a chance of thunder.
When I discovered a tiny frog sheltering in a bright yellow chrysanthemum on our front porch steps, I tried not to disturb the little fellow. As I spotted him beneath a bloom while watering the plant, he opened one eye cautiously but remained perfectly still. I checked again later, quietly, and saw that he appeared to be asleep again. I hope he was able to enjoy his leafy nest for as long as he liked. And when I see the blue-tailed skinks basking on the warm flagstone of our patio, I tread lightly. These little lizards need their place in the sun, just as we all do.
As this year remains mired in the messy muck of tragedy, I long to cocoon myself in a cozy refuge. To hibernate for as long as necessary. At least until mid-November. And dream of emerging into the light of a more hopeful world.
The Ramones said it well:
Nothing to do, nowhere to go, oh
Bam-bam-bambam bambam-bam-bambam, I wanna be sedated.
With the passing of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday, this world has lost a tenacious and tireless advocate in the cause of justice for all. The second woman elected to the Supreme Court, she served for twenty-seven years, rarely missing a day despite recurring cancer treatments in later life. Last week she lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, the first woman, and the first person of Jewish faith, to do so.
The woman who would become known as the Notorious RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader in working class Flatbush Brooklyn in 1933. Her father, a furrier, had come to the U.S. from Russia at thirteen. Her mother was born in America to parents who had recently emigrated from Austria. She was the second of the couple’s two children. Her older sister Marilyn died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was just over a year old. Once she reached school age, there were several girls named Joan in her elementary school class, and it was decided that she would use her middle name.
Ruth’s mother, Celia, was a powerful influence on her only surviving daughter. Celia was highly intelligent, inquisitive, and hard working. She graduated from high school at age fifteen, but limited resources prevented her from enrolling in college. Instead, she went to work at a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s education at Cornell. Celia was determined that Ruth pursue the educational path that had been denied her. She secretly put aside money each week in a college fund. Happily, Ruth, like her mother, excelled academically. Celia was diagnosed with cervical cancer when Ruth started high school. Surgeries and radiation treatments prolonged her life for four years, but she died the day before her daughter’s graduation. Ruth was valedictorian of her class, but she missed Commencement to mourn at home with her father. Celia’s college fund had grown to $8,000 by that time, but Ruth gave most of it to her father. She didn’t need it for her education, because she’d earned a full scholarship to Cornell.
At the university, Ruth Bader met fellow student Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Outgoing, jovial, and the life of the party, Marty was a foil to Ruth’s more serious, quiet personality. They married in 1954, shortly after graduation. Marty was drafted into the Army, and their first child, Jane, was born before long. After two years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, they moved back east, and both enrolled in Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of nine women out of a class of five hundred. Coping with adversity and maintaining an academic focus while dealing with the illness of a loved one were skills that Ruth had mastered as a girl. They came in handy during her early married life when Marty was diagnosed with cancer. Ruth managed, somehow, to maintain excellence in her demanding studies, help her husband stay afloat with his, all the while caring for him and their daughter.
Marty made a complete recovery, graduated, and took a job at a New York law firm. Another year of law school remained for Ruth, so she transferred to Columbia and continued her studies. She made Law Review at both Harvard and Columbia. In 1959, despite graduating first in her class (she tied with a male student), and the glowing recommendations she received from her professors, she found it difficult to find employment. She’d had a summer job at one of New York’s premier law firms, but no permanent offer was forthcoming after graduation, from that firm or the other twelve with which she interviewed. After several rejections for clerkships, also because of her gender, she attained a position as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. Facing the fact that the doors of major law firms remained closed to women through the 1960s and 70s, Ruth’s career path turned toward teaching. She taught first at Rutgers and then at Columbia, where she became the first woman to earn tenure.
Along with her academic responsibilities, Ginsburg began to litigate gender discrimination cases referred to her by the American Civil Liberties Union. She co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972, which was created with the goal of removing impediments toward equal opportunity, such as those she had experienced herself. During the 1970s, she argued six pivotal gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. One of these involved a male plaintiff, a widower who had not been awarded the Social Security benefits to which a widow was entitled. One of Ginsburg’s most fiercely held convictions was that neither women, nor men, should be held to narrow, confining gender stereotypes. Her husband agreed, and their loving fifty-six year marriage was marked by the sharing of household duties and the raising of their two children. (Their son, James, was born in 1965.) When President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, Marty quit his prestigious and highly paid job as a tax lawyer in New York to become a professor at Georgetown University Law School. Marty, by all accounts, was Ruth’s most dedicated supporter and ardent cheerleader.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, she was easily confirmed by the Senate, in those less partisan days, by a vote of 96-3. During her nearly three-decades long tenure at the high court, she became known for her powerfully and beautifully worded dissents, which Justice Ginsburg regarded as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.” With the passage of time, the minority opinion (as, for example, in the cases of slavery, civil and voting rights), is likely to become the prevailing one. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”*
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt’s eulogy at Friday’s memorial service for Justice Ginsburg focused on a phrase from the Torah featured in a framed artwork in the judge’s chambers. One of the core tenets of Judaism, from Deuteronomy 16: 20, it reads: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” emphasizes its significance. The verse makes clear for Jews that one cannot be in right relationship with God while mistreating fellow humans, including the widow, the orphan, the servant, the immigrant, the least and the lost. For the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her life’s goal and guiding light was the meticulous perseverance, step by step, case by case, in the pursuit of justice, justice, for all people. May her legacy live on. And may the “intelligence of that future day” be quick in coming.
*King’s words condense and paraphrase a passage written in an 1853 sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker.
Many thanks to my friend, the Reverend Dawn-Marie, for providing the beautiful photos documenting the honoring of Justice Ginsburg in Washington, D.C on September 25.
Who had a good summer? Who had a good summer? This boy! He’s such a good boy, isn’t he? Yes, he’s a good boy.
Imagine the above spoken in “puppy talk,” that silly-sounding person-to-dog gibberish. The goofy cadences, the redundancy of needless repetition. I fall into it sometimes, and Kiko either turns away in embarrassment, or looks at me with an even greater degree of condescension than usual.
But if my dog were able to answer the question, he’d probably agree that he did, in fact, have a good summer. A very pleasant summer. If anyone’s life was improved by the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, it’s likely the beloved companion dogs whose humans’ activities have been so drastically curtailed.
It was Kiko’s good fortune that Covid numbers spiked here in Virginia during the final week of July, so that Massachusetts wouldn’t let us in without a negative test result or a two-week quarantine period. Until that point, we’d been planning on our annual Cape Cod vacation, even though much of what we enjoyed most about it would no longer be possible. Instead, at our daughter’s suggestion, we bought a ten-foot inflatable pool, set it up on our back patio and reminded ourselves of the long and painful drive we were avoiding. With sunshine and a big pitcher of margaritas, we almost felt like we were on vacation.
Of course, our dog doesn’t fully appreciate the unexpected blessings that came his way this summer. He doesn’t realize how narrowly he avoided the usual period of solitary confinement at the animal hospital. Instead of facing long hours in a cell and a few circumscribed outings in a featureless enclosed area, he remained free to pursue his favorite activities, without interruption, on his home turf. Kiko maintained his role as canine king of the castle grounds, languidly roaming the outdoor spaces between our house and my mother’s, napping in the sun, napping in the shade. There were so many delightful choices: the baking heat of the deck, the coziness of dusty mulch beds, the cool flagstone beneath the hydrangeas, or the sofa on the screened porch. Occasionally he’d jump up to chase a chipmunk or squirrel. More often, though, the little furry ones, like the mice in an old Tom & Jerry cartoon, tiptoed behind and around him as he snoozed. Sometimes he’d disappear on very hot humid afternoons. I’d find him around dinner time in a deep, coma-like sleep in his bed in the chill of my mother’s family room. Often Mama wouldn’t even realize he was there. Evenings were his to spend watching the fox and deer as they made their neighborhood rounds. On the rare occasions when Kiko sought company, one of his pack members was always around. Always.
He’s clearly noticed that his people are ever-present. On a recent afternoon, Kiko was curled up on my bed. I opened my closet door and took out a casual (a very casual) dress on a hanger. He looked at me with a sudden, heightened interest. He stretched, shook vigorously and leapt onto the floor. Was I, perhaps, going out? Maybe in the car? Whoo hooo! Count him in! One of the things we love most about dogs is that they have no fashion sense; they don’t care how, or even if, their humans dress. My husband gently suggested, the other day, that I consider wearing something a little less lived in than the extra-comfy dog-walking gear that has become my standard, all-purpose wardrobe. It’s been about six months since I’ve dressed up. I’ve even realized, on occasion, that I’ve worn some distressed item of clothing inside out all day long. No one has noticed. Certainly not Kiko. But he’s evidently observed that a change of clothes involving a search through a mound on a chair has no impact on him. But the now rare opening of the closet door followed by the emergence of a hanging garment–that offers a hint of promise. One of the drawbacks of such constant human presence is that it offers far fewer opportunities for car rides.
Now that summer has officially ended and school has begun, the pandemic has granted Kiko yet another gift. Because classes are being conducted exclusively online, there are no buses to roar menacingly past our windows. This time last year I wrote about my dog quaking with fear in the early mornings when the bright flashing lights atop the school buses suggested the approach of a terrible storm. See here. Unlike the rest of us, he has one fewer trauma to grapple with. Kiko greeted every dawn last fall as though it might be the end of the world. Now it’s just us humans who wonder if that’s the case.
School began again here in Northern Virginia this week. It’s the strangest “Back to School” ever, with all classes taught remotely. Last year I wrote about the poignancy of those “First Day” pictures that flood social media sites every fall. (See here.) The current photos have a different sort of heart-wrenching quality about them. Gone are the signs of jittery anxiety about bus-riding, lunch in the cafeteria, fitting in socially, and spending hours away from home. Largely vanished, too, is that hopeful excitement that comes with a new adventure and the opportunity for a fresh start. This school year drags with it a melancholy unease, heavy with the loss of what should have been. There will be no fun school-sponsored group events, no band, orchestra or choral concerts, no in-person drama productions, at least for months, and no fall sports. But without a doubt, there will be the ongoing annoyances of Internet and WiFi outages, tech complications, and occasional widespread system failures. Frequent parental intervention will be required, a serious problem for working moms and dads. There is the issue of space, especially in smaller households, the difficulty arising from an entire family working and schooling at home. And then, when things are progressing as intended, there is the dull sameness of hours sitting in front of a screen staring at a Zoom gallery.
For college kids, the situation isn’t much different. Our daughter’s spring break last March slid into online classes at home. After a summer that involved unprecedented amounts of time with her family and too little with friends, she began her fourth year again at home. The University of Virginia encouraged students not to return to grounds until after Labor Day. Now she’s once again in Charlottesville, in the apartment she shares with three friends. It’s not the final college year they had anticipated, that’s for sure.
This new school year feels anything but new. It’s already tired, burdened by the same frustrations we experienced in spring and summer. Is it really September? Does it matter? The months have ticked by with alarming speed, yet each day is much like any other.
In the alternative reality of our Covid world, time has become slippery, looping and uncertain. I’m reminded of the red plastic cassette recorder I enjoyed as kid. My closest friends and I used it to tape variety shows modeled on The Carol Burnette Show and soap opera parodies (Another World in Hay City). Our talent for comedy, if little appreciated by a wider audience, kept us in stitches. I can see my finger on the rewind button, hear the whir of fast forward, the loud sudden clunk of the stop. I recall the baffling emptiness when an expected song or bit of dialogue had somehow disappeared. Sometimes we hit the wrong button and accidentally recorded over a prized skit or hilarious duet. Since March, 2020 has moved with a similarly lurching, erratic randomness. Some aspects of life that we cherish most have simply been erased. Many people are grieving lost loved ones. As I write, nearly 192,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus. Sometimes it feels as though a cloud of semi-mourning shadows the entire country. We plod along, uncertainly. And we keep ending up where we started, in a place we never wanted to be.
Happy “Back to School”? Not particularly. Not this year.
This week our nation honors Congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of eighty. I’m fortunate to have grown up hearing Lewis’s distinctive voice. I remember him as an Atlanta City Councilman. My childhood home is in Georgia’s 5th district, which he represented in Congress for over thirty years. His eventful life, by accounts, was truly purpose-driven. Born to former sharecroppers who saved enough to buy their own small farm in Troy, Alabama, he was the third of ten children. A serious, thoughtful boy who thrived on learning, he began his public speaking career in early childhood, preaching to the chickens. He loved books, when he could get them. The county public library was off limits to people of color. He attended local segregated schools. Higher education seemed hopelessly out of reach until he learned about American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. The Seminary offered free tuition, in exchange for campus work, to black students planning to become ministers. After graduating from the Seminary, Lewis enrolled in Fisk College to pursue a degree in religion and philosophy. Although ordained as a Baptist minister, he had begun to feel a powerful call toward a path of activism in civil rights. Throughout his life, he preached his strong faith with actions as well as words. The chickens’ loss was a gain for Americans and people all over the globe.
Lewis was among the young black men, neatly dressed in suits and ties, who dared to enter all-white Nashville diners and sit at lunch counters politely requesting to be served. Freedom Rides on buses throughout the South followed. As the Chairman of the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he became a leader of the student civil rights movement. Before long, Lewis was working closely with nationally known Black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. At twenty-three, he was the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Lewis’ s unswerving commitment to nonviolent activism got him repeatedly arrested and often beaten, a few times nearly killed. Ironic, isn’t it, that peaceful protest, which requires vast stores of self-discipline, tends to ignite such frenzied brutality in those challenged by it? On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a group of six hundred, in what was intended to be a fifty-mile march from Selma, Alabama to the capitol in Montgomery in a demand for voting reform. The Civil Rights Act, which President Johnson had signed into law in 1964, addressed some forms of discrimination but did not touch on unfair voting practices. Throughout much of the Deep South, poll taxes and spurious “literacy tests” were used to suppress the black vote. The efforts of Lewis and the SNCC to register blacks to vote in Alabama was sparking increasing hostility from law enforcement and white segregationists. At the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis and Williams saw a fearsome human barricade of state troopers and police awaiting them. It’s notable that the name of the bridge, so prominently displayed, honors a Confederate General and former Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The marchers continued to approach, quietly and orderly in a long narrow column, until they were about fifty feet away. Law enforcement warned them to turn back and disperse. The group, with Lewis and Williams still at the front, stood their ground. Williams asked to “have a word,” but the police were finished talking. After a few minutes, the officers put on their gas masks and advanced toward the protestors, pushing them back. The group resisted the urge to defend themselves. Many were knocked to the ground, beaten with clubs and sprayed with tear gas. Lewis’s skull was cracked by a policeman’s billy club.
Nonviolent protest served its purpose that day. Most Americans reacted with shock and anger when the images of police attacking unarmed marchers quickly appeared on televisions and in newspapers. Public demand for serious voting reform gained ground. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law just a few months later.
Today, at our nation’s capitol, the public is paying final respects to John Lewis. On Saturday, July 25, his flag-draped coffin, born by a horse-drawn caisson, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time. For many years, there has been talk of renaming the bridge for Lewis, a son of Alabama whose determination to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America” yielded fruit on Bloody Sunday and throughout the span of his eight decades on earth.
It’s appropriate that Lewis’s final public appearance was a visit to the newly created Black Lives Matter Plaza near Lafayette Square in Washington DC. He was weak from a chemo treatment the day before, but he wanted to see the site of peaceful protests that were sowing the seeds of change. 2020, for all its misery and misfortune, could well be a pivotal juncture in race relations in America. If we take to heart the wise words and courageous actions of the man who came to be known as the “Conscious of the Congress,” perhaps it can indeed be so.
I’ll end with some of Lewis’s own words. As a young man in his 1963 speech at the March on Washington, he urged our nation toward transformation:
Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people. . .
We must say: Wake up America, wake up!
Throughout his life, Lewis was persistent, and his message consistent. In a commencement speech at Emory University in Atlanta in 2014, the seventy-six year old offered this advice:
We all live in the same house. It doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latino, Asian American, straight or gay. We are one people, one family. We all live in the same house. So be bold, be courageous. Stand up! Speak up! Speak out! And find a way to create the beloved community. The beloved world. The world of peace. The world that recognizes the dignity of all human kind. Never become bitter. Never become hostile. Never hate. Live in peace. We are one. One people and one love.
May we honor John Lewis in the most honorable way possible, by following his example. By working toward the good of all Americans. This means avoiding violence. In Lewis’s words, again: When someone calls you everything but a child of God, you keep your cool. You stand with dignity, or you kneel with dignity. It means truly listening to one another. It may mean rethinking long-held convictions and taking actions that we never expected to take. As Lewis has said, When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to not be quiet.
Remember that we’re not starting from scratch. We’re building on Lewis’s legacy, a strong foundation of love, peace and hope.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.