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Well, let’s see what we are confronting these days. Inflation is affecting half of America’s families. The Supreme Court is about to end Roe v. Wade for good and set a new era of underground abortions that will likely harm and even kill many women who can’t afford to have a baby. The new omicron variant of Covid is loose and spreading with the usual rapacious speed, not unlike the wildfires of last summer. A boy of fifteen went on a murder spree with the help of his parents, who bought him a semi-automatic pistol and told him not to get caught buying ammo. Then he went out and killed four members of his school and his parents went on the lam. Oh yes, the Republicans in state houses are coming up with the most bizarre new districting plans for controlling the elections coming in ’22 and ’24. I’d say we have dragged into the nation a new Trojan horse and let the invaders loose to wring havoc on our shredded hopes.
We’re not alone, of course. What happens here is also happening across the globe, in Afghanistan, in Belarus, in Brazil, the Sudan, Ethiopia, in Venezuela. If I were a kid now, I’d curl up with my dog and hope I didn’t wake up. But then, kids have some inbuilt power to survive, to cope, to dream if nothing else. They can sneak up into the attic (in older houses) and build a fortress to protect their most prized lead soldiers or paper dolls. They have sunshine to illuminate their spirits, they have neighbors who might open a tin of cookies and share with a glass of milk. There’s always something around the next bend to help children get through, unless of course they’re starving or sick, or both.
What we need now is to have a white buffalo be born on some remote ranch in Wyoming and for all the tribes to come together to pay homage to this mysterious godling. We need a sign, as Shylock would say, and someone to call our very own Portia a second Daniel. I saw a cloud that reminded me of George Washington’s white hair and hooknose, sailing by like a circus balloon in a Macy’s Day parade. I need a cop to stop me and wish me happy holidays and hand me a summons to appear before the court of democratic unity. I doubt I shall be rewarded with any of these wishes. I don’t expect the doorbell to ring and to receive a bright bouquet of roses from the mayor. I don’t smell an apple pie in the oven, or good news in the headlines of that Cassandra rag, The Washington Post. I’m pretty sure I won’t read praise for Biden’s governance, even though I swoon at his dedication, energy, and care for the ordinary citizen. He’s an avatar of Walt Whitman, and for every atom belonging to him belongs to me.
Instead, my wife and I ran for the car and hurried off to lunch in Middlebury. She bought a beer, I ordered a chardonnay. She chomped down on a heaping plate of fish and chips, while I forked up a few quadrants of a hefty quesadilla. I couldn’t finish the plate, of course, or I would have to crawl back to my easy chair later to talk my stomach into taking it easy. But there was the New York Times Saturday puzzle to solve, and for my wife to slip upstairs to bury her nose in a new novel. We found the little crevices into which our troubled souls could find some solace. I sipped on my espresso and enjoyed all the tiny flavors that came to my tongue as I thought about the coffee plantations of Costa Rica, the hazy mountains, the lush obsidian black rivers rushing along like laughing water sprites on their way to the sea.
If you just sit quietly and empty the mind, or nearly empty it, you begin to see the world as the blind do — as this vast hall of echoes and scrapes, tiny scratches on the otherwise marble formality of silence. I could feel contradictions worming their way up through my depths to lie there in the pale sunshine of my subjectivity. I hear my mother coughing in her vinyl Lazy-Boy as she sewed a hem of a new skirt. I smelled wood dust as if my father had just returned from his work shed after smoothing a plank to put up in his ceiling. The mind has many long corridors disappearing into the unlit interiors of a ponderous old courthouse. You can take any one of them and walk for a while and look at the glass doors and the half-open transoms, and hear the click of old manual typewriters making flawless copies of writs and settlements. You could hear the whispers of young women as they dawdled in the supply room. You saw the long shadow of a lawyer before he turned the corner into another long, dimly lit hallway leading nowhere. I smelled the newly mown grass through the tall windows of the foyer, and heard a man dropping coins into a cigarette machine. I remembered how it was when a newspaper stand smelled like piecrust as I passed by.
The mind has many strange passageways, many tall doors that haven’t been opened in centuries. I might stop and gaze up at the forbidding authority of a judge’s chambers. He held a life in his scales and looked down with stern mouth and half-closed eyes at the miscreant before him, and gave sentence to the sudden clap of thunder from his gavel. The swish of his black robe, the grumble of chairs being pushed back, the rustle of skirts in the jury box as it emptied out. In the cellar was the janitor sharpening his mower blade, cleaning the magneto with his rag, readjusting the wheels to normal height. A woman cleaned the coffee urn in the staff room, and poured more water from the tap into its reservoir. Someone dropped a saucer and it rang out like the cry of the condemned. But in another corridor, which I entered briefly, I heard the soft applause of parents as their daughter married the next-door neighbor’s son. The justice of the peace said in a husky voice that the husband may now kiss the bride. I assume he did. The door was closed as I passed, but there was love in the air, and the birds in the sycamores were keeping up a monotonous epithalamion. O Hymen, Hymenee, chanted Whitman in praising the procreant urge in all of us.
But a snow plow dragging its blade down the road outside pulled me out my reveries and made me realize that the dull tin sky overhead was beginning to lower down its ice curtain on the fields. Fall’s theater of rust-colored wonders was winding down its third act and winter was in the wings, checking buttons, pulling straight the skirts that would whirl out in the next play and celebrate the season of death and resurrection. I must be sure to get a ticket and not miss the annual celebration of mortal paradox.
A cat was putting out a tentative paw to the little hump of dry leaves in our back yard, testing it for any possible prey that might be lurking at this late hour of the season. She smelled the thin cheesy odor of mice breath, and prodded further, and when the last curled leaf was lifted up, there lay a panting and terrified field mouse the size of my thumb. Its white belly shone like the brilliance of my confirmation suit all those many years ago in my childhood. There lay the mouse, belly up, tiny legs lifted in supplication to the floodlight eyes of the cat. They stared at one another, and then the cat, unlike all the other cats, backed up a little and turned away. A life had been spared by some arcane principle of animal justice. The mouse scurried back to safety and joined its family in the low-ceilinged shelter below an oak tree’s roots. At least someone escaped the claws of law and order and fell into the arms of loving friends.
I sat slouched down in my chair imagining the joy of this mouse, the proffer of grass seeds as a sign of renewed kinship. I was filled with the certainty that nature was benevolent, and however much we may fear its draconian laws of survival, it also followed the dictates of what Portia said was the quality of mercy, that it droppeth like the rain upon the place beneath, that it was twice blessed by those who give and those who take. Everyone wants his pound of flesh, I understand that, but there is some higher law that requires that we pat our pockets for a coin of reconciliation and willingly press it into the palm of those who beg for our forgiveness. Let us hope this poor nation, so troubled in its stormy seas, will find such an Eden to moor in, to drink deep in the relief of its sunshine and warm breezes, and then work hard to right the wrongs we suffer from.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.