Shay and I sit on the porch, exhaling. It has been a week, a year, and a close-to-four year thing. There’s still so much wrong with our country, Covid cases are rising daily to proportions of great anguish, millions of people voted for someone who denies reality (the pandemic, climate change, etc.) and the rights and dignity of so many humans, and untold beings suffer.
So much is too much or not enough, especially over this week when I’ve been hitting the GABA (to help me calm the $%#% down), the Pepto Bismal, and the pillow only to wake up anxious or excited at irregular intervals. I’ve done more math, including all sorts of contortions with percentages and adding very big numbers, in the past three days than I have in the last decade. There have been many hopeful or freaking out phone calls punctuated by big bouts of googling various angles of the same question. Yet in the end it seems certain a good outcome (mostly) will prevail.
Life, as Ken often reminds me, comes point-blank at us, often overfilling our imagined capacity. Then there are pauses, like right now. I sit with my tired brain and finally calm digestive tract, surrounded by the sunlight-filled leaves of the hackberry tree, the loving eyes of our old dog who struggles to walk, and the balmy air of a sweet autumnal day. Once again, I’m so happy and grateful to be here in every possible way.
I just returned from writing poetry on the porch at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow to write poetry on the porch of our place. Being outside continually jolts me out of my inside-mind with its cast of thousands to make space for other beings who, if we just pay even a small smidgen of attention, will mosey on, fly, charge, or buzz through.
At Dairy Hollow, the most dramatic of these guests — although actually I was the guest in their home — was a young buck, racing about four feet from me on the other side of the porch railing. He was young, strong, handsome, crazy-fast, and once he got past the house, curious. But then I find a lot of the deer and other critters in Eureka Springs all-too-acclimated to humans, pausing easily in their grazing or romping to take us in, shrug their shoulders, and return to the grass or the path. The buck also seemed quite content to engage in a long photo shoot with me and my phone, posing with his perfected aloof-but-handsome gaze.
The next night, a slim fox stopped in her tracks just across the street. “Hello,” I said quietly. She seemed skeptical and slowly merged into the trees nearby. Dozens of brown morpho butterflies — often tinged in their middle with turquoise melting to brown — titled their dark wings on one diagonal or another into the low and high flowers to drink their lunch. There was also a bird I couldn’t see and had never heard before scream-chirping at me at regular intervals, so insistent and so loud that I would leap out of my chair to scan tree tops trying to see where this alarm was coming from. By the time I left Arkansas, much of this menagerie had made its way into the poems I was writing or revising.
Back home, it’s hummingbirds, monarchs, and at night, barred and great horned owls. At dusk, the changing of the guard from cicadas to katydids. Of course, there’s a lot of other wildlife here I try to avoid, namely Mr. Chigger, Ms. Tick and Overlord Timber Rattler. There’s also the somewhat domesticated wildlife — two sofa-like dogs who spread themselves out on the porch while I work, and a small pouncing kitty. At times, it’s a precarious balance; just last month, we lost our beloved big cat Sidney Iowa to what we suspect was an itinerant cougar. The packrats have discovered that their favorite food is it the innards of Ken’s Honda Fit although they also enjoy chewing apart every rat trap he sets for them. So we have to be watchful as well as budget a lot for automotive electric repairs.
In the balance, I know how lucky I am to draft, sketch, compose, revise, re-compose and otherwise inhabit poetry while co-habitating with the critters who live here. They continually nudge me out of my human-centric view of the world and show me the real ground, teaming with all manner of the wild we can’t even see most of the time. Here, even and especially as so many species are going extinct, is where we truly live.
I know you’re crazy-scared about the coronavirus. How could anyone paying attention not be when the closings and cancellations fall like dominos. Just in the last day, many universities in your state cancelled in-person classes, events on your calendar vanished in a wisp of precaution, and your synagogue called off services. In an age when even a minyan (Jewish term for the minimum number of Jews to be present for formal worship) is a risk, it’s hard to turn away from the ticker tape parade across the frontal lobe that keeps blaring, “The world is ending!”
Actually, it’s just the world we know in the ways we expect it to be based on how it’s been rollicking along for a while. Your son was videoconferencing with his friend in China last night, who lives one province over from the virus epicenter, and they were laughing and catching up. A Facebook friend in Italy posts about the beyond-imagined new normal and how they’re hanging out at home, watching movies, making food, taking short walks, and worrying about loved ones with the virus.
Moreover, this moment — while certainly unique in most or all of our lifetimes — is another one of many ongoing overwhelming threats to human life and activity along with climate change, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and so much more. While we’re in an expansive rift, let us also mention the reality that we are all exceedingly mortal and can control only a fraction of what happens to us.
Telescoping in to what might be in your purview, it’s not a good time to think about your retirement investments, and yes, some of your gigs are called off, but please don’t go down this rabbit hole because you, along with a lot of people you know, are likely going to be fine and will have the resources you need. You have good health insurance, you live in a lovely home in the country with fields and woods to traverse, and you can afford to stock the pantry. You’re also abundantly outfitted with books, art supplies, sewing projects, movies, and animals. Oh, and you have the phone and internet, and already, you’ve been visiting deeply with lots of friends more even if the conversation is often punctuated with “I’m scared too.”
So many people, close around you and scattered around the world, do not have such a safety net. You can pray, send good wishes, and contribute money here and there, but consider what else you can do. Your son’s idea to contact neighbors and make connections so that, as needed, we can run errands for each other is a good one. It’s also important to contemplate little, quiet fundraising efforts for people who will lose most of their income. What else can you do? As for everything and especially this thing, more will be revealed in time.
So why, little trembling darling, are you still so anxious? Of course, telling yourself you need to be less freaked out right now so that your emotions don’t diminish your immune system isn’t going to get you anywhere either. Panicky urgency should not be given the keys to drive the bus right now. Instead, I want you to consider this:
Right now, no one you know is sick and suffering with this virus, and while that’s likely to change, it would do you good to dwell in the present. Speaking of which….
Right now, the pale blue-to-white sky is as soft as the warming air. The peas and carrots you planted in the garden on Sunday are germinating in that rich dirt after rain saturated everything. The fields are just on the verge of going from washed out tans and browns to scribbled-in exuberant green.
Right now, you have a cat asleep near your feet and a dog asleep (although looking at your quizzically) by your side. They fear nothing.
Right now, there are deer in the woods walking gingerly up the hill. There are happy rabbits regrouping with their buddies for the spring. Hibernating turtles stir underground. Early spring birds sing across the airwaves. Here we are in an unfurling world beyond the reach of headlines and soundbites.
What we worry about happening usually bears no resemblance to what happens. If and when you or loved ones get sick, as a zen master pal of yours said today, you’ll be okay even if you can’t imagine what okay is or how it might play out. Or you’ll not be okay, and that’s okay too.
Most of all, know that while you can’t do anything to stop a viral pandemic, you can do something about your airspace in the pandemic of fear. When you get scared, get off your bum, walk outside, and take a long, deep breath. Go hang some laundry and feel the wind lifting and dropping all around us. The world is infinitely larger than the scaredy cat meowing inside you. Take another breath. Then another.
“It’s like an animal daycare here,” said my friend Laurie, here to give Shay some doggy acupuncture today. She was right, and with two dogs and two cats, it’s also a canine and feline exercise and mindfulness training program, continually interrupting what I thought I was doing to point my attention toward a higher power. Never underestimate the call of the dogs to go outside. Add in the cats, whose needs must be met whenever they arise because: cats, and you can imagine how much practice I get sitting down only to stand up again.
It wasn’t always like this. For years, we had a constant balance of three animals, mostly two cats and a dog, and occasionally a cat and two dogs. But the addition of Moxie — a border collie with a bit of rat terrier in her — to our trio of Shay the dog, and Miyako and Sidney Iowa, the cats — the balance has shifted even more from the two-leggeds to the four-leggeds. Working at home means I’m in the thick of Animal Kingdom much of the time, and wherever I am in or around the house, they must be also. I could be in my favorite chair, laptop fully engaged, or at the kitchen table meeting with a client over Zoom, or on the front porch, talking on the phone with someone to plan an event, and I will be interrupted. Repeatedly. Just about everyone I work with has heard barking, meowing, and doors opening and closing often.
The animals must of course situate themselves around each other and me. If I pace as I talk on the phone, sometime I’m prone to do, the animals must pace too. If I head to the kitchen to make tea, there they are, herding me toward the stove (particularly the border collie, who can’t help herself). If I need to concentrate — especially in the middle of composing a sentence, revising a poem, or editing a manuscript — someone will leap, hiss, yelp, or knock over something loud just as I’m struggling the most to find the right word or punctuation.
At the same time, I really like being part of a pack. Besides never feeling alone, the mammals do the same thing for me as the meditation bell I downloaded onto my computer, which rings every hour: they stop me in my tracks. I more or less have to look up from the bottom of my rabbit hole to see what else the world holds: three crows balancing on a branch of Cottonwood Mel, the wind picking up and clouds filling in, and a big, lazy cat in the window sill who wants back in. I use the meditation bell to make myself pause for five minutes, breathe and meditate, and check in with how I’m feeling and navigating.
Mostly, I discover that whatever I thought was set in stone or anxiously urgent actually isn’t. Instead, there’s fur-covered faces staring intently in my direction, saying, wake up as well as get off your ass andfeed us! I do because I don’t want to be in the doghouse with these animals or with my own habitual deadends. Besides, there’s a lot to learn from surrendering to a higher power even if it does take the form of muddy paw tracks all over the house.
Each day I crave a clear view of a clear sky, but fog, snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain, and variety packs of all this percipitation at once fills the well-hidden vistas. Narrower perspectives of what’s out there push me inside and inward to what’s in here. My technicolor dreams, on the other hand, go go big screen and high speed, involving shadow cities of places I thought I knew and a conveyor belt of swiftly-changing characters, many of whom I don’t know. Then again, I’m also sleeping more, giving those dreams extra room to get wild.
Like many of us, this is the time of year I drink a lot of hot tea, craving little butter cookies to dunk in that tea, and at night, hunker down under blankets and heater cats (real cats, real warmth) surrounded by a herd of animals, now including two dogs, two kitties, and one husband. I’m more aware than usual of the air, sometimes too cold or too dry, and right now, composed of clouds too close to the ground. Last night, I dreamed I looked out a high window that doesn’t actually exist on the imaginary third or fourth story of my house to see the ground, faded into brownish green with small patches of snow, then when I looked again, greening up like it will do in a few months. I looked away and saw a blossoming tree, something like a magnolia, but when I woke into darkness and chill, such a tree seemed preposterous.
Because the scene is so monochromatic, I’m drawn more to black and white movies, last night Mr Deeds Goes to Town, which also has plenty of foggy, soft-edges scenes that even lower the volume of New York City 1930’s lights and action to a whisper. I’m hugging the edge of home more too, forgoing leaving the house with its heart-rushing foray down a drive composed of layered snow, frozen rain, sleet, and more rain. Instead, I bake or ignore the urge to bake, plan sewing projects, talk with friends on the phone, and make a whole lot of soup.
But that’s all for the good because in the cave of winter we’re meant to do some hibernation. Although it doesn’t feel like it, spring will come soon enough with its fast-moving flowers. Now is the time is quiet down and listen to the space between not enough and too much. That’s more than enough.