So, I have been engrossed in writing the sequel to North of the Tension Line, and then, this past month, immersed in a long and lovely visit from family.
But it has been the writing, mainly, that has engaged my entire heart and mind these past eighteen months. I have done nothing but go to work and write, and in the process have ignored everything from friendships to laundry, and all the common attentions to little things that comprise daily life. The weight of a deadline was heavy, and I simply did not have room in my head for anything else.
With the novel finished and in the hands of my editor, I have begun the process of digging out. I am attempting to renew my connections to the people I care about, to do the laundry, sort the mail and the many dropped details of life, and to attend to this blog. The neglect has left a field strewn with casualties.
So yesterday, alone and unscheduled for the first time in almost a year, I sat down to re-engage here. In the process I re-read old postings, and began, with some dismay, to discover how heavily the theme of death marches through my thoughts. I suppose that I have played out my grief here more thoroughly than I had been conscious of.
I heard someone say recently that we get sadder as we get older. That is clearly the natural trend of things. We are battered by life, by the struggles and the losses, and as we lose our people we become less sheltered from it all. The multiple losses these past eight years have made me acutely aware of my own mortality, and it looms.
This is the struggle. I look back at my parents’ lives, at the lives of my godmother, my 95 year old aunt–who is still with us and struggling herself to find meaning in her loneliness–and I wish I had known enough to listen more closely to them. I did try. I did my best. I still do. But then we get caught up in our own lives. And that is right, too.
I am sure Fiona Campbell would have a quote from Marcus Aurelius to fit here.
So anyway. Getting older and facing loss requires strength and courage and determination and a whole lot of cussedness. We cannot succumb to despair. We must accept the new landscapes of our lives and get on with it. Not with sadness, but with joy and gratitude and, well, cussedness.
Damned if I won’t be happy today.
Today is the 202nd anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. I doubt, when she wrote it, that she expected it to endure for two centuries, and I wonder how many of our contemporaries realize how perfectly modern–and perfectly biting–its humor is. If you haven’t read it, now’s the time.
Here’s to Pride and Prejudice. May it long endure.
I am on a first name basis with the people at our local hardware store. I am there sporadically but often, and they have patiently–and without one note of patronization–advised me on various topics ranging from the correct size of a wall anchor to replacing an outlet. They greet me like an old friend when I come in, and this minor element of small town life cheers me.
The frequency of my visits has increased recently for various reasons, so our conversations have taken on a serial quality, generally picking up where we left off. I was standing at the register this week piling up my purchases. “Will this be all?” I was asked politely. I struggled perfunctorily with myself and lost.
“And a package of Chuckles.”
Chuckles are a candy I know from my childhood, rarely seen anymore, at least in the midwest. They are an oblong package of five flat squares of gum drop style candy, with little ridges shaped into them, and coated with a crystal layer of sugar. They are always laid out in the same order: red, yellow, black, orange, green. I’m not sure when the hardware store started carrying them. But I first started noticing them this summer, when I was making frequent visits for items to prepare my late mother’s house for sale.
After our business was finished, I stood chatting, and opened up my package of Chuckles as I did so. Watching me, the owner said:
“You know, no one who buys those can ever leave the store without opening the package.”
“There’s something about their connection to childhood, I think. It’s powerful.” She paused for a moment, recollecting. “One guy who comes in stands at the counter to eat them so he can throw away the package here and his wife won’t know.”
“Maybe it’s better as a guilty pleasure.”
“So many things are.”
There was a moment of silence as I ate the first Chuckle.
“Which is your favorite?” the owner wanted to know. She pointed to the clerk. “He never eats the orange ones.”
“Really?” I was aghast. Orange is one of the best flavors.
“I find the orange ones hidden behind the counter.” She looked sideways at her assistant.
The clerk was not in the least abashed. “I start to eat them, and then forget about them.”
“You have to eat them in order,” I said.”It’s a cardinal rule.”
This interested them, and they both looked at me.
“You must be right about the childhood thing. I’ve been eating them this way since I was small. Green first. And then each flavor in order. Because the best one is the red one, and you have to save the best for last.”
As I thought about this piece of childish philosophy, I suddenly realized that it was more complicated, and I hadn’t been aware of it until this moment. I spoke slowly as my awareness of the process unfolded from my subconscious.
“And you can’t bite them right away. You have to let them melt in your mouth until all the sugar is gone, and then you bite into the little ridges very carefully. Then you can chew the pieces. But it’s better if you let them slowly melt in your mouth.”
“It’s a childhood ritual,” commented the clerk.
I nodded, thinking about the oddities of the mind, and how this leftover from my very early life could still be, unconsciously, part of my behavior. Another customer walked in, and we all went on with our day.
Somehow the conversation came up with my friend later on.
She listened, and then she said:
“How long have you been doing this?”
“All my life.”
“No. I mean eating the Chuckles. You don’t eat candy.”
I thought about it.
“I don’t know. All summer, I guess. I’m not used to eating sugar and they make me feel terrible afterward, but I can’t resist. It’s weirdly comforting.”
“So you’re eating a childhood candy, using a childhood ritual, as you work on fixing up your late mother’s house. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand what’s going on here.”
“I guess not.”
Hardware stores are interesting places. I’ve always thought so.
My niece’s wedding took place on a dock on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a fashionably updated working harbor surrounded by sailing ships, industrial areas, refurbished warehouses and chic shops and restaurants. It was a formal wedding, with the bride in cream satin, five bridesmaids in teal organza, and the groom and groomsmen in classic black tuxedoes.
Among the various tourist attractions on the Harbor is a pirate ship. It has lots of flags and sails, and a skull and crossbones, and its purpose, apparently, is for people to get happily sloshed while sailing around and experiencing various kinds of pirate schtick, all electronically amplified. I’m not clear on exactly what this involves. Maybe it’s something like the routines of the flight attendants on SouthWest Airlines only with a pirate theme, and probably a cannon or something. Anyway, the bride had been warned by the venue that the pirate ship made regular trips on Saturday afternoons, and that the pirates and their passengers tended to be somewhat…uninhibited.
Sure enough, just after the officiant had begun the service and The Sainted Aunt had been invited to come forward to speak, the pirate ship made its appearance, accompanied by amplified uproar. Naturally, it was impossible to speak over this, so the ceremony paused and everyone turned to watch the ship go by. This took some time. Everyone on the pirate ship waved, and the entire bridal party and guests all waved back. A ceremonial ARRRRRRRRRR was raised from the ship, and the guests responded in kind.
No matter what what else was said and done that day after more than a year of planning–what the vows were, what music was played, what was on the menu at the reception–I’m pretty sure that this act of exuberant spontaneity–and the response to it–is the one thing everyone will remember twenty years from now.
Another lesson for married life.