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, grabbed the clothes I’d dropped on the floor earlier, tried not to step on our black dog on my way out in the darkness. I picked up pens, paper, and my trusty iPad.
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 own body weight. I call myself a writer? Just who do I think I’m fooling?
I brewed the good stuff–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, Dear Reader. 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 black 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 heels.
Thank you for spending this short time with me. Stephen King has described 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, even in face-to-face conversation. That’s why handwritten letters are such a precious 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, holding a steaming cup of oolong.
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 America’s 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 flushed out of the undergrowth. It’s not that he hadn’t been a lifelong racist and xenophobe. But until recently, he’d done a pretty good job of not letting it show, only occasionally blurting something embarrassing at a holiday dinner table. It was when he began to say loudly, publicly, and unapologetically that certain people shouldn’t exist, when he decided that fulminating in his own 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 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 those who would harm others to benefit themselves.
I’m far from 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. Actions have consequences. I’ll keep trying to be better, mostly because I want the people I love to be proud of me. Time can harden a heart, or soften it; I’ll try to keep my own open and reachable.
We’re all feeling the strain in the world, in our homes, our minds, and in our souls. Lots of us are basically mental at this point.
But I see the light. It’s just over the horizon.
What? No, not that light. That’s just the sun coming up. (Thanks for sticking with me though. Is the tea still warm?)
The coming year will be one of hope and resolve. Covid-19 vaccinations are happening at an amazing rate, and this pandemic will soon be as hard to imagine as the 1918 Spanish flu once was for us.
We kept our democracy, despite the best efforts of misguided people who tried to turn America into something hateful and evil, and when that didn’t take, tried to take it by force on January 6th. It was a close thing. As more information becomes available, we’re probably going to see that it was a lot closer than we imagined.
There is hope. Better times are coming soon. We’ll meet again in groups. We’ll hug and kiss one another on the cheek. We’ll share drinks, play music, dance, hug each other coming and going. We’re all different now, and it’s not a bad thing. Our shared experience of the past five years of turmoil can be the very thing that unites us as a nation, and maybe, if you’ll forgive me for being idealistic, as a species.
But we’re going to need resolve for the foreseeable future. People in government, and in our neighborhoods, continue to fight to set our country back a century by pushing for non-democratic and openly discriminatory policies. Even now, a certain discredited political party is rallying around a lost cause, doing its worst to maintain rule by a corrupt minority, knowing its only hope of retaining power is to prevent every citizen from casting a vote. We’ll have continue to fight for our democracy every day.
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 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.