Vox Populi

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Paul Christensen: Jasmine Blossoms

A chilly, damp, paralyzing Spring, with soggy skies and faded landscapes. Reality feels like a pair of washed-out blue jeans. But the ground keeps birthing its progeny of weeds and flower stubs. The garden is sulking in its muddy pallor, and the birds are like boys too shy to mingle with the girls sitting in the dark of the gymnasium. No one wants to dance in this weather. If there are any chaperons, they’re holed up in a camper in the parking lot, sneaking a few snorts of whiskey out of a communal flask. I’d join them, but I’m standing here shivering in my bathrobe and slippers, with a cup of coffee quickly turning cold in my grip. Where has my youth fled in this anonymous moment? I have only my eyes to console me as I gaze about and find tiny green splotches dangling at branch ends, and shiny new leaves unscrolling on the twigs of the holly bushes. A neighbor might be a useful distraction at this moment, but everyone’s at work or reading a newspaper, or just idling in the living room until guilt drives them out of the house. I’ll go back inside and clean up my crumbs from breakfast and sit a while staring at the computer screen, dreading to read the gloomy headlines about Ukraine or the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s majority decision to shut down Roe v. Wade.

We’re off fighting what seems like a proxy war against Russia, telling ourselves that we are digging deep into our coffers to support the struggle to preserve democracy. But here at home we have nearly half the nation pushing hard to rid themselves of legal abortion. I thought Freakonomics made the case that abortion lowered crime rates, prevented abuse and neglect of children whose mothers were too poor or desperate to care for them. We know for certain that pro-life legislation affects black and Hispanic families more than it does middle-class white families. If a woman of some means needs to avoid a new child, she can take a bus to the nearest legal clinic in her region and get the service, and be home by the week end ready to handle the routines of raising two or three other kids. Not so the black mother who is already so broke, she gets her groceries from a food pantry or some other charity, and can’t find the extra cash to pay for childcare. She’s caught in a trap laid decades ago by the activist churches, whose flocks are largely composed of privileged middle-class white families. There is little conscience left to pay attention to the people who most need their help. Why is it the news reports never connect the dots in these class struggles?

All those books written in the middle of last century, like Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man showed us what was coming – a society that had hardened its heart and turned its back on the social contract, and allowed the angriest voices to dominate the public square with bigotry and racial indifference. Things haven’t been right for us Americans since World War II, the last time heroes rode down Fifth Avenue in a storm of confetti and cheering office workers, waving at all those grateful citizens. Since then, we have had nothing but pitched battles in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and little but our empty pockets to show for it. We don’t dare tread on Russia’s shoes and get into a hot fight over Ukraine; the fear is, we are too afraid of the consequences of another massive war and the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust. And I agree. Who wants to take on a psychotic narcissist dreaming of a rebirth of the Soviet Union at any cost? We’ll pay for someone else to do our fighting and be generous with our weaponry and intel, and all the free advice our surrogates ask for.

But the world is as paralyzed at our weather here in Vermont. Nothing is being done to control climate change, to help poor nations combat the murderous rampage of gangs like those in Haiti and the Darfur region of central Africa. Who knows how far the famines will spread, seeding the next generation of violent, hopeless men offering their flesh to the generals for a bit of food and a subsistence wage? I watch the news with a growing sense of helplessness, and turn off the tube to face the somber dark around my couch before going up to bed. It’s an unbearable situation, like waiting for sunshine to break through the swamp-colored heavens. I can’t really talk to my wife about my feelings; I may say I’m a bit down or out of sorts, and let it go at that. But gnawing at my entrails is a rat called despair, and my soul is now host of a thousand indefinable demons I can’t drive out with a stick or a curse. I’m stuck with my gloom, which clings to my back as I get up to make coffee. I carry that dread around with me as I get the mail, and it’s always hanging over my shoulders as I pad around in the supermarket looking for a can of black beans or a pack of uncured bacon. I don’t talk to strangers or even kid around with the checkout guy. Things are too troubling right now to play the joker.

But I am touched by the thought of a stray cat getting picked up by an old lady and taken home to be adopted. There is a thin filament of love between the human world and the bedraggled remnants of wilderness that come to our calls and let us pet their scrawny backs. I find hope in such flimsy connections with a moral universe of frogs and sparrows with broken wings, with bees stumbling back to the hive with a load of pollen stuck to their undersides, with a dog hopping up to get a peek of the sidewalk where someone is strolling by with a pampered little lap dog. I may be mistaking loneliness for frustrated love, but I am mildly cheered by the sight of a creature staring into a stranger’s eyes hoping to be shown some kindness, At least we are not altogether at war with nature. But even so, I can’t see Bolsonaro’s name in the paper without wincing with pain and knowing that he has chopped up the Amazon basin to the point where it may no longer be able to recover from such relentless depredation by industrial farming.

But we mustn’t let ourselves forget the scent of jasmine in a girl’s breath the first time we kissed. Or the crinkle of her waist as we went floating off into the dim light of a dance hall and later slurped our Cokes. Youth is that sacred rite of mortality, that brief moment in which we are careless and get away with one mistake after another. And we were unaware how beautiful we were to each other, how slender our arms and legs were, how rich our complexions as we blushed and stammered out words of passion under the streetlight. Wow. And the cascades of hair that tumbled down over your hands as you confessed to your wildest emotions. Adulthood was just down the road, up a hill and over the crest to where the city beckoned with its needling towers and cruel logic. I didn’t realize I was moving slowly through a secret garden and touching the hand of a girl who held back her most intimate feelings from me. But I was there, in a shiny jacket and tight pants, in shoes my mother picked out from the sale rack and let me slip on after supper to go out cowboying, as my father would say. And sneaking up the stairs to my bedroom and catching my breath as my father’s snores suddenly stopped at the creak of my footstep. And to lie there remembering a moment in which the girl rested her head on my shoulder, and we scrunched down in the movie theater and felt we had eloped.

Who can blame me for longing to return to that make-believe as I stood there in my bathrobe surveying my dismal kingdom in early spring. The bees are filling those waxy cells of the hive, preparing for the future. There is always tomorrow in nature; one must toil to make it happen. The clock has no reverse gear in this world. It can only push forward toward the next sunrise, and inspire all the necessary groundwork to bring forth a new spring. I take some consolation from this thought as I stand there sipping the dregs of my cold coffee. I’m an old man now, but an orphan all the same. The last of my family in this world, a dogged pilgrim heading with the butterflies for whatever tomorrow promises. A car slows behind me as it navigates the dip in the road before resuming speed to get to town. Maybe we are all like that, slowing at the perils that emerge from the road’s grimly undeviating purpose. We ease off the accelerator and feather the steering wheel to get around the turn, and then press hard again with the assurance that reality is logical, and that tomorrow is forming in the dark, just below the furthest horizon. We must join the bees in our preparedness, no matter how many missiles fly through the air and level the villages around Kyiv and Meriupol.


Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen

Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who lives in Vermont.

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