Today is Friday, so I opened the door to my cage and let in the beast of anxiety. It's usually best, if it must come to me, for it to come on a Friday, the day before the weekend, when I know it can only last until Saturday, when there will be people around. People who will keep me from thinking about the awful things that are bound to happen. In my mind.
So, this morning, I was reading the local newspaper, something I often do on Fridays to find out what kinds of entertainment could possibly fill our days and evenings--a crafts fair, some music performances just about anywhere in the valley, and all the new movies finally coming to the limping theaters in the area which are now welcoming the masked and unmasked. We already have plans for dinner out, in a restaurant, surround by community members at tables safely distanced. But before I could even get to the Time Out section, I had to stumble onto Page 2 of Section A, and The Count. Not the Count of Monte Cristo, but the count of mounting cases. Of COVID. In our county, the numbers are overworking our local health-workers, and, as the article explained, taking away beds from other patients like those with strokes and heart attacks. So, instead of imagining myself in a darkened theater gazing at the head of a snarling lion introducing a movie and telling me I was about to be entertained, I imagined myself on a gurney in a darkened hallway, calling out for help, my hand over my heart, and about to meet my maker.
And, if I'd been wise, I'd have closed the paper and remembered my mantra of months ago, "Don't read the newspaper." Because, this morning, as I sipped my coffee, and I read on about all those people getting COVID because they hadn't gotten vaccinated, but also about all those people getting COVID who had been vaccinated, that's when it started. The tussle in my cage when that beast showed up, again.
At first, I was in denial. I was vaccinated. Safe. That thing, out there, was not real, and even if it was real, it was nowhere near as dangerous as people seemed to think. Just some egocentric guy behind a curtain, waiting to be exposed by my barking dog. No big deal. We're safe. Right? But wait. I don't have a dog. And why did this article on the Op-Ed page relate a story about a guy on the East Coast who, along with his friends, contracted COVID even though they were all vaccinated? So, the beast came in and spread itself around my cage, stretching out like it owned the place and smirking, knowing I had dismissed it forever a few months ago.
I've been crouching, here in my little corner, telling it to stay away, go back where it came from, this fear. A fear with scraggly, dirty fur and foul-smelling breath. Right this minute, I think it's sleeping. I'd like to tip toe past it and escape, and maybe close the door on it. But even looking at its body's slow and steady rise and fall is giving rise to some prickly stinging in my skin, especially when some random twitch appears in an outstretched claw.
Remind me to breathe. Remind me to look away and think happy thoughts. Think happy....
Today is the first day of 2021. A new year. Full of hope that it won’t be as bad as last year, and just about everyone would say (and is saying—a lot!) that 2020 was a bad year and good riddance! Well, I agree. It hadn’t begun that way. For me, 2020 meant clear vision, and I thought that we would all end up having, at least, some clearer vision, and we would all see the errors in our ways and all would come together, a unified country. A unified world. Of course, that’s always my hope for any new year or any new day. But, that isn’t how the year turned out. In fact, it was the opposite, in many ways.
I’m not going to look back at all the horrible things that happened during the year. Lord knows we’ve seen it enough, a little like replaying one of my other least favorite years, 1968, during which, for me, the only good thing that happened was the birth of my first child. That year, as I recall, there were assassinations, riots, and upheavals all over the world. And I wondered, will we ever recover from this? The world had gone mad.
No, I’m not going to look back, and I’m going to do what everyone is doing, now, and look forward to a better time. However, in doing that, I realize that I’m not doing justice to something that is actually more important than the future. And that is the now. The present moment. If I neglect this moment, I am trying too hard to rush through the precious moments of life that can create that better future. When the pandemic started, I wanted to say to everyone to wake me when it’s over. I’ll be in my office. Just send me a text and I’ll come out. But that was dumb. With my head planted firmly in the ground, that’s all I saw—a dark, deep hole in the ground, not appreciating the opportunities available for improving my life or the lives of others. In all that darkness, I forgot to open my eyes because of the fear that permeated my every cell. Yes, the fear, and at times, the fear of fear. And what is fear but projecting your thoughts away from the moment, the now?
So, how can we banish the fear and the darkness in 2021?
Breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus on each moment, each day, not at the future or the past. Look deeply at your world, your immediate world. The one you’re in, the one that is smack dab in front of you. Right now, for example, I’m enjoying the furry body on my lap, feeling the weight of all fifteen pounds of her against my jeans, her own breath, her own purring enjoyment of being close. And if I just look a little to the right and upward, I can see the gnarled branches of the tree outside my window without cursing its lack of leaves. For now, the bareness lets me see the blue jay resting there, and if I look just a little farther, I can see Grizzly peak, covered in snow. And it’s very, very quiet now. Except for Gordy’s strumming of his guitar in the other room.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Hope is now.
Gordy tells me I need to clear out my office so, when the carpet installers come to move the furniture, the extraneous stuff won’t be falling out of the shelves or off the top of my desk. I think I’ve grown easy on myself over the years in tolerating the books stacked next to the neatly arranged works that are not quite alphabetized but at least thematically organized. The ones in front are the books I refer to now and then for my classes or my writing. But, yes, some of them have not been touched for several years, so maybe it’s time to pitch some, or, recycle them at the library or, throw them into boxes to be sold for a pittance at our next garage sale.
But why is it so hard to get rid of books? I think it’s that books, once we have read them, become part of us, and to throw away a book is to trim something out of ourselves. So, it’s for that reason that I tend to hold on to book for forever. Way too many books!
I have always been someone who has invested in book shelf furniture, and such book shelf furniture is located in prominent places around the house, the most prominent being the floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room. I know almost by heart which books are on which shelves, as, they have all been catalogued for a reason—for effect, I guess, so that whoever happens into that public part of the house will look at the bookshelf and know something about me. The very top shelf is packed tightly with hard cover books about spirituality and new age topics by authors such as Fritjof Kapra and Deepak Chopra. Yes, there is a hierarchy going on—my wish to be, and to be appreciated as, spiritual, is at the top, as if putting them up there will put me closer to nirvana or some super-enlightened state. Same goes for the next level down—poetry books and books about writing. First, the hard cover, age-worn texts and collections that were maybe textbooks at one time, or the complete works of some of my favorite poets—Theodore Roethke, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams. When I glance at those books and their singular spines, I remember the poems that stand out from having read their pages so many years ago, and even many times over. Just below that shelf are the paper bound poetry books by the many contemporary poets whom I admire, some of whom I have applauded at readings over the years, and some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of participating in workshops with. And many of them are quite famous, such poets as Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, Robert Haas, Sharon Olds, Robert Bly, Thomas Lux, Mary Oliver, and so on.
Next, on the shelf below, are photo albums, waiting to be opened and perused—yet another look at who I am, who I have been. And all to be looked at by those I don’t know well or who know me and who I am only slightly. And all of the shelves in this public book case never change, are never rearranged; they are too much a part of my basic being to change.
But the shelves in my office—so fluid, so non-sensical to the untrained eye. And yet, I know what is what and how to find it, even when the spines are turned to the back and all I see are the fat or narrow tomes with yellow sticky notes poking out like little tongues, begging me to open them and do something with them. These are books I’ve pulled from somewhere to look something up. Thus, A Field Guide to Western Birds rests just under Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. On a certain sunny day, I might have seen an oddly colored bird on the tree outside my window and hoped to find it in the guide, on the very same day I referred to something Cheryl Strayed said in her powerful memoir. And then there are the textbooks I use in the classes I’m teaching these days, at the ready for all kinds of references so I can do my work. Tuesdays with Morrie rests just under Mark Doty’s sad but beautiful memoir, Heaven’s Coast. Both of them are references about dying and grief, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. These are the books of every day, not overflow or needless. These are the books I need to pack in boxes that say “Don’t Lose This” on their outsides so I’ll be able to restore them to their places after the carpet is installed.
I wish I could explain clearly, however, the reason for the extra books on my other bookshelf in my office. A stack of Rick Steves’ travel books—France, England, Ireland, Spain—as well as Playwriting for Dummies and Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies just below. And just next to those, two dumbbells, 3 lbs. each, and a blood pressure monitor just next to those. I can see re-shelving the travel books, or maybe even getting rid of the ones that go back to 2009 and beyond. Again, though, it’s just too hard to toss out books you’ve grown used to seeing, kind of like friends you keep in touch with but with whom you have little in common after so many years.
And I could never, ever toss out my friends or former lovers. But that’s another blog topic!
He’s not much fun. He’s curled up uncomfortably in the huge cage you’ve bought for him to recover in for most of the day. That is, when he's not scratching around in the litter box just five inches from the corner where he sleeps and another five inches from his food and water dishes.
You feed him constantly, hoping that each teaspoon of wet food will go directly to that pelvic bone that snapped under your right rear tire, the slender bone the vet pointed to on the x-ray, assuring you that it would heal in a couple of months, with cage rest.
You let him rest but sometimes open the door to his cage so he can roam, hobbling slowly. He does a solemn perimeter check of your office, sniffing the ancient barf spots in the carpet, then ventures to the nooks and corners where he’s sniffed before, in better days. He stops and looks upward at the wash of sunlight pouring through the window where he would sometimes sit, like a decorative ceramic cat on the back of the piano, looking out. Now, a glimmer of longing comes over his face. You tell him “No!” And he slinks off, stopping to look up at the cozy futon where he’s slept on many a winter’s day, and perhaps a memory comes to him, as he swallows hard, as if choking back a furball, or just a sad thought. And when he’s back in his cage, he wraps himself into a ball, covers his eyes with his two good paws and falls asleep.
When you run over your cat, you know you’ll never forget that eerie feeling of something under your wheel. What’s that? A branch? Why would there be a….? Oh, God! The cat! You realize this too late as he darts out from under and looks back at you, his eyes round with shock. You put the car in park, throw open your door and run after him, for he’s trying, with one side of his body a useless impediment, to get to the backyard, running for his life, running from you! Now, from his cage, he looks at you, or seems to, anyway, quite differently. You don’t know what he’s thinking when he wakes up and scowls, slit-eyed, and rises trying to balance in the least painful way, as some kind of thought returns to his little sleepy brain that he’s not the same old cat that he used to be, at least for now.
When you run over your cat, you keep saying you’re sorry, and sometimes you remind him it was, sadly, his own cat-fault for sleeping in a risky place. You want to go back to just before that horrible moment and have the wisdom for check to see if he was lazing in the sunny spot behind your car. You keep apologizing and hoping that he’ll say“It’s okay, really!” But he doesn’t, and he never will.