Last Dispatch from Florida

Friday, 19 March 2021

It’s Friday morning at 3am. I woke about two hours ago from a dream that I was riding in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Another passenger watched impassively as a large wasp was trying to sting me. I swatted at the buzzing insect, in the dark, with a hat. When I woke, by heart was beating double-time. Isn’t a wasp dream supposed to mean something? How about when it’s combined with the military images that usually appear in my dreams? Have I just revealed some terrible truth about myself? 

Wide awake, I reached over to touch Susan, not to wake her, but for the simple comfort of her presence. She’d gotten up a few minutes before and wasn’t there. After she returned and went back to sleep, I tried for over an hour to do the same. It wasn’t going to happen, so I rose quietly in the darkness, grabbed the clothes I’d dropped earlier, and tried not to step on our invisible black dog. I picked up a pen and a notebook on my way out.

Tea, I thought. I’ll make tea and write. 

I’ve had a hard time writing anything for the past year. I throw down a sentence or a paragraph now and then and feel like a failure when my weekly word count amounts to little more than my body weight. I call myself a writer? Who do I think I’m fooling.

I brewed an expensive oolong I normally save for–what, company? That’s a laugh. Including household appliance repairmen, I can count on one hand the number of visitors who have set foot inside our home in the past year. 

But you’re here with me now. Will you sit with me for a few minutes? The tea is almost ready, steeping in a cast iron pot, wrapped in a towel on the small desk in the strange little common area of the house set aside for books, musical instruments, and writing—when the words will come. 

Dexter, the dog, followed me out of the bedroom. After staring at me for several minutes, apparently confused about my moving around at such an hour, he settled under my chair to lean against my bare feet. 

Thank you for spending this short time with me. Stephen King describes writing as a kind of telepathy. Here I am encoding my thoughts into tiny black symbols made of ink, which later I’ll transcribe into what you’re reading now. These are my thoughts, transmitted from my mind to yours. There’s something—what the hell, we’re in the wee hours, so I’ll say it—there’s something magical about the reader-writer relationship that doesn’t happen in any other aspect of life, not even in face-to-face conversation. That’s why handwritten letters are such a rare gift. Am I showing my age by lamenting the dying art of sending news and telling people you love them with ink and paper? Probably.

So, this is my rambling, sleepless letter to you today. And as I write it, I’m imagining you here with me in the dim light — you, whoever you are — holding a steaming cup to your nose.

It’s fascinating—and a little frightening—to watch myself and those around me change so rapidly. Just over a year ago, Susan and I had VIP tickets to Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, a well-organized event on the Hillsborough River with the University of Tampa’s gleaming minarets cutting an exotic skyline behind the stage. That concert was the last time we spent time in a crowd of strangers — just a bunch of music lovers enjoying being together and celebrating a beautiful evening. 

Since last March, so many aspects of life have been altered beyond recognition, it’s hard to fathom what “getting back to normal” means. Because it turns out that “normal” wasn’t what we thought it was at all, and I think there are a lot of us who aren’t interested in returning to the way we were. After four years of the most destructive presidential administration in American history, we’ve seen not only what our fellow Americans and elected representatives are made of, we’ve also learned a bit about the people closest to us. This has been a shattering experience for some of us. 

Despite events on the large scale, life continues on the small stage as well, including its final act. I lost an aunt and a grandmother last year, one to chronic poor health and the other to ripe old age. 

I lost an uncle as well, but not to death. He fell prey to the newly fashionable open bigotry that the Trump years coaxed out of its semi-camouflaged hiding places. It’s not that my uncle hadn’t been a lifelong racist and xenophobe. But until recently, he’d done a pretty good job of not letting it show, other than periodically blurting something embarrassing at a holiday dinner table, as certain uncles do. It was when he began to say loudly, publicly, and unapologetically that certain people shouldn’t be here, when he decided that fulminating in his own homophobic, white supremacist vitriol was preferable to continuing decades-old relationships, that I had to let him go. 

Even after all that we’ve witnessed, conspiracy theories and fear-based, data-free lunacy threaten to take others from me. I watch people I always believed were too intelligent to fall for too-easy explanations and simplistic solutions to complex problems subscribe to magical thinking. Of course everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. But there must be limits, and those limits appear when baseless theories, propaganda, and outright lies begin to hurt people.

I’ve changed as well. Some of those changes are undesirable, and I’m working on self-correction. Others I see as a sort of personal evolution. I’m learning, after a half century of walking the Earth, what’s important. All I need now is the self discipline to live the way I know I should, with compassion and forgiveness and gratitude, but also with a steely vigilance for people who deliberately do harm. 

I’m not blameless. I’ve made questionable choices. I owe apologies and atonement. In my own defense, I’ve offered some. Not all have been accepted, and that’s alright. It has to be. Actions have consequences. 

I’ll keep trying to be better because I want the people I love to be proud of me, and because I’ve reached an age at which enjoying my own company is a necessity.

We’re all feeling the strain of the world in our homes, our minds, and in our souls. Lots of us are basically mental at this point. 

I think we have to focus on hope and resolve. The constant barrage of misinformation is causing the pandemic to drag on long past when we could have ended it. (Behold New Zealand.) But it won’t last forever.

We kept our democracy, despite the best efforts of the evil leading the misguided who tried to turn America into something horrifying, and when that didn’t take, tried to take it by force on January 6th. It was a close thing. As more information has come to light, we see that it was a lot closer than we’d imagined. The fight for liberty and democracy continues. (I’m looking at you, Texas and Florida.)

Those of us with a single introspective bone in our body are learning more about ourselves, what we need to stay healthy and sane, and what we need to eliminate from our lives. We’re improving, despite the deteriorating state of the world. And look at all the intelligent and determined young people coming of age every day. They’re going to save us, as soon as people my age get out of the way and stop destroying the planet. The past five years of turmoil and the worsening climate crisis can be the very things that unite us as a nation, and hopefully as a species. I know we can survive, but it’s going to take unshakeable courage, hope, and resolve.

The Buddha is quoted as saying “Your biggest mistake is thinking you have time,” or words (not in English) to that effect. So love people now. If you stumble upon a way to help, do it now. If you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts banging against the inside of your skull, write them down. And if you’re going to make tea at 3am, brew the good stuff, while you can.

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