Friday, November 27, 2020

They Will Remember the Carrots

 


Sixty years out, I think, they will remember the carrots:
how delicious they were,
fresh and crisp, newly dug and scrubbed,
pleasing in their shades of 
a muted purple, an orange and a nice turnip white.

Sixty years out, I suppose they might remember the color of their
humiliation:
how while they sat in their family van
they watched their mom
beg through her missing teeth, her dark eyes sad.
She had begged to five cars in a row and not even one occupant had handed her a single
dollar bill.

And then the carrots came
unannounced.
The sons ate them while
they waited for
the return of the woman
who gifted the carrots.
She, who drove an older-model Subaru,
not looking too prosperous.

She had said (and they hoped it was true) she would
go to her bank and return with the remainder of
the cash they needed
to get home
to Mt. Vernon
on the far side of the state.

They had slept cold in the car the night before
in a parking lot,
whose lights were like
spotlights in a prison yard
prying open their eyes
at each turning of their stiff discomfort.
The carrots in their carrot burrows,
early fall, frost-free,
had slept better than them.

With a faint and desperate smile, the mom said to me,
"The water pump it gave out yesterday.
Took all my money to fix it.
I have three kids there in the blue van.
So far, I have gotten fifty dollars,
but I need
seventy to get home."
Nodding slightly towards her kids she hurriedly added,
"And I'll need to  get a little extra to feed my kids."
She smiled when she remembered her kids.

"Do you have a twenty?" she asked.

The single mom (she told me she was a single mom) with
her smile circumnavigating her missing teeth
asked only for a twenty.
She could have asked for
a fair wage,
guaranteed income,
health insurance,
clear air, water, food, or
affordable housing,
but she only asked for a twenty (and a little more if it wasn't an inconvenience).

Rifling through my wallet, I didn't have a twenty.
But if she waited, my bank wasn't far.
"Oh," I said, "while you wait, I have some organic carrots!
Take some!"
She looked surprised
and said No at first (maybe remembering her missing teeth.)
But then, you know,
the carrots were so beautiful,
and her sons hadn't eaten much, so
she reconsidered with an amused
grin, "Well, I'll take just a few."

I couldn't give her what she really needed.
It might be sixty years out or maybe more,
maybe centuries,
before
no mothers beg
in parking lots
while their dear chidren watch anxiously.

Her sons, all teenagers (12, 14, and 15),
will look back as old men and
maybe they will remember the extra twenty for food
or the gift card for Subway
(enough still on it for three
twelve-inch-long sandwiches—
each one longer than any of the carrots).

But I hope they will remember
With some amusement
how
their fortune turned on the arrival of
three carrots:
one a muted purple,
one an orange,
And one a nice shade of turnip white.
 



 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Rural Postal Disruption

 

The flood was an enough of a problem for the mail carriers. The rain swollen and swift river carried rocks and boulders as though they were rubber duckies afloat in a pond. The river left its banks carrying its load of rounded basalt rocks,poured waist high through woods, and carved a new bed from the old roadway, making it impassable for mailmen. Uprooted trees fell, and one of them bashed a lone-standing mailbox with a glancing blow. By the time the waterline and roadcrews had replaced the broken watershed piping and repaired the road, this mailbox was left stranded across a gully with its door left ajar waiting for mail. Its flag missing. It swoopy new shape making it look like a sculpture in a a garden of a modern art museum.

But even before the newly appointed United States Postmaster began having mail-sorting machines dismantled in August and cut postman's hours to disrupt our upcoming election results, (I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.) another disruption was under way with that lone mailbox standing over the gully. The hazard arrived quietly and at first was small. It's silver gray tones blended well with the metal of the mailbox. It grew larger, filling most of the box.

Paper wasps construct nests by scraping and chewing wood fiber into a pulp and then layering it to make internal hexagonal cubicles enclosed in an exterior that looks similar to the flakey crust of a croissant. The nests are beautifully engineered.


These particular type of wasps are wonderful to have near gardens, where they catch small pesky insects that cause damage to plants. The wasps are not aggressive unless they are having to defend the queen in the nest, like those queens whose nests are located in mailboxes. All summer the wasps created one last hazard for any mailman intent on doing his duty to that lone mailbox.

But fall is here. We have had our first freeze. All of the paper wasps have died now. Except the queen. She will winter over in a snug place. The nest remains, intact and nonthreatening. Quite beautiful, really.

And the threat to the postal service of our democratic nation? 

The aggressive dismantling of what we have assumed was non-political. Well, go vote. It is too late to mail your ballot in many places (due often to more poltical shennigans), so GO VOTE—in person or drop your ballot in a drop box. VOTE. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Slow Loss. Inevitable. On the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 


Some losses are so sudden there is no anticipation attached. The death of Ruth Baden Ginsburg was of the worrisome slow and inevitable kind. I began worrying back when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. My husband's death of the same type of cancer left me no choice but to worry. Her recent abrupt passing was attributed to complications of pancreatic cancer.

Her death coincided with a recent trip of mine to Wallowa County, where the barn in this photo reminded me of slow deaths. I always forget about this barn until I round a corner and see it butted up against the road and am caught by surprise that it still stands. The roof has been disintegrating for a few years, and more panes are broken each time I pass. It is inevitable that it will fall.

What strikes me is that this is not a private ruin. It might be privately owned, but its demise is a public one. Its eventual fall will be mourned by those living in the farm house sitting next to it, but many individuals, who will be unknown to the owners, will also mourn its loss. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, this will be a community loss.

Building have degrees of integrity, of usefulness, and beauty. When I pass this barn, I think about all the horses who were sheltered by its walls. The hay fork (you can still see it hanging below the apex of the ruined roof) reminds me of the farm hands, who were surely pleased with the ease at which their work could be done. Inside their labor was lit with the generous light from the south-facing windows. A pleasing place.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg also emboded high levels of integrity, usefulness, and inner beauty. Qualities which led her to  be the first woman to lie in state at our nation's capitol. As a woman, her work as a Supreme Court Justice had an impact on my rights to own a home or get a charge card both without a male co-signer. I often use a charge card now. I charge for books, replacement windows, hot spicy cocoa, and airline tickets. I swipe and accept charges as effortlessly as I put on my shoes in the morning. But without Ruth Bader Ginsburg's work, these simple actions would not be possible under my name. Her work has made my everyday life and those of all American women much easier.

 

No one cosigned for Ruth Bader Ginsberg's legal understandings. She studied and made her own decisions with her sharp mind in a professional field dominated by men. She made her way up the ladder, looking out those calm and thoughtful eyes. In the last few years, many of us held our breath with the news of her each new illness or  fall. Her passing is a public loss. A loss grieved even by those who were often in opposition to her ideas on the Supreme Court. Like the old barn (once it collapses at last) I will hold both of them – a beautiful old agricultural structure and an intelligent woman – in my memory. 

Rest in peace, the woman who made it possible for me to sit in my cabin in the woods.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Illusions

 

  Years ago, I remember being admonished to put the heaviest part of a load over a truck’s back wheels, so I was careful a few weeks ago to put the Ponderosa pine in the proper weightbearing location on the Umatilla County’s flatbed vehicle. I don’t work on the Umatilla County road crew, but I do walk up into Oregon from Kooskooskie and notice what they are about. When I took the photo of the flatbed and the pine, it reminded me of photos from the 1950s. Back when it seemed possible to do any sort of feat, even load a Ponderosa upright in the back of a vehicle and show it off by hauling it down say Walla Walla’s Main Street for a Labor Day Parade. I changed the photo’s color to black and white adding to the illusion. And yes, this truck parked in front of a Ponderosa pine is an illusion. 

Illusions sometimes are frivolous, fostered for humor or delight: the slight-of-hand of a magician’s tricks, the peek-a-boo game with a baby, or the tongue-and-cheek banter about who is better at golf – when everyone knows who it is that always wins.

Illusions can inspire. In the children’s book by Jabari Asim, Preaching to the Chickens: How Civil Rights Legend John Lewis’s Humble Childhood Incubated His Heroic Life, the recently deceased Congressman John Lewis created an illusion for himself by preaching to chickens on the sharecroppers farm where he grew up. Along with nine siblings Lewis grew up poor. He loved the word of God, the verses from the Bible, and hoped to one day be a preacher. The illusion of his flock (literally) listening to him as he joyfully prayed for their wellbeing, inspired his life-long optimism and activism. In his early forays for political justice, in a time when a Black man rising to political positions in the South was unheard of, he created another illusion for himself and eventually he made it a reality.

Here in my hometown of Walla Walla, we have our own form of illusion at work. At a recent Black Lives Matter event, Walla Walla City Councilman Riley Clubb noted that in the last many years, construction of houses have mainly been “large single-family homes.” They are attractive and give the illusion that our community has a healthy stock of housing, but in reality we lack diversity in housing options. This lack of choices impacts families of color to a greater extent, partly because many experience discrimination in the housing market. Clubb encouraged those at the event to support the construction of a variety of housing stock and be willing to create diverse neighborhoods where single-family housing is interspersed with multifamily structures. He asked us to imagine planning more Walla Walla neighborhoods, like our Catherine Street, beautiful in its mixture of homes, apartments for seniors, and condos.

John Lewis asked us to make “good trouble.” Walla Walla and many other cities in America could do so by taking the illusion of good housing and make it into a reality.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Racism Puts Dust on the Heart


My aunt led my sister and me across the street to avoid passing close to a Black man walking towards us on a sidewalk during the late 1950s in a quiet neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia. Even as a kid, I understood that I was doing something wrong and was embarrassed. The events of these past weeks reminded me of our uncivil maneuver of so long ago. 

In the Bahá’í Faith the writings describe the act of offending someone as putting dust on the heart of the offended, but also such an action puts dust on the offender’s heart. I can still see that Black man with his shoulders hunched, arms slack, walking with a heart freighted with the dusting of many such an insult as ours. I remember my small heart feeling unexpectedly sad.

I was raised out West by a dad who didn't make racial slurs or acted differently around people of color, but some of his sisters and brothers, who remained in the South, were indoctrinated with a deep prejudice against those of color. Numerous studies show that children as young as three to five-years of age can begin acquiring racist attitudes, their spiritual judgement obscured. But attitudes of racism can be both learned and unlearned.

After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, my aunt’s attitudes shifted slightly as she came to know her now Black mailman and her local store clerks of color. This aunt passed away many years ago, but unfortunately she would recognize the racism we still see today. Only the protests would look different with the participants now having a greater diversity of skin colors. This, at least, is a singular point of worthy change.

The issue might seem less relevant here where I live, but in a Walla Walla restaurant just the other day, I overheard an older white man laugh as he mocked the Black Lives Matter protests for honoring a Black man who (allegedly) tried to pass a counterfeit bill, a minor offense. Even as this white man sat in a restaurant booth, his thoughts rose and sidestepped with his spoken words, slipping around the real issue of Black Americans suffering from systematic economic deprivation and unequal justice. This white man crossed the line of legitimizing the death of a human being for a minor crime – which even if George Floyd committed, he should be alive right now to have his day in court, this being the rule of the land in this precious democracy of ours.  

The smile of the restaurant patron, who rose and crossed lines, proud of his comments, conveyed not a light heart, but of a habit – of a lifetime of learning ways to be racist in America. Like my aunt, he has the capacity to eliminate his learned animosities, dust off his heart, and empty its rooms of prejudice. May he succeed. Godspeed.



Friday, June 12, 2020

Speed of Angels in the time of Coronavirus Covid-19

  
Angel, Mt. View Cemetery, Walla Walla, WA.  Photo by K. McConnell
  Scholars studying the Koran and the Bible concur from their respective doctrines that the speed of angels is calculated as being faster than the speed of light. I walked a local cemetery for an outing a couple of weeks ago during the coronavirus lockdown and I was thinking about speed. I had just read that coughs travel at fifty-miles per hour and sneezes at two hundred-miles per hour. The fastest human in the world can run only in the upper twenty-mile per hour range. If humans had to outdistance a cough or sneeze carrying the coronavirus Covid-19, any one of us would lose that race and risk becoming an angel.
  My mother died in the polio epidemic in the early 1950s, so I am hyper aware of how a single death can slow roll consequences across an entire life. As the numbers of coronavirus Covid-19 deaths are ticking ever upwards, I find the controversy about whether to wear masks or not to contain the spread of the disease confusing and sad.
  People who brag about the speed of race cars, of baseball pitches, and of bullets seem suddenly oblivious to the speed of a virus traveling through air in coughs and in sneezes. They brag as if one exists and the other does not. They label one of the prime methods of transmission of Covid-19 to be a hoax or a rumor. They claim that wearing a mask is a sign of not being macho enough or of being a member of the wrong political party. They seem to forget that the issue is a scientific fact about speed.
  Ordinarily most of us don’t wish to become an angel before our time – travel from this world to the next with a pace surely counted in micro-seconds. So, none of us should be so incautious as to be responsible for causing someone else’s death with our neglect. The issue is so simple. Get yourself up to speed; wear a mask.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

While Putting on Socks





  Something was familiar. I felt it around my eyes as if in some prior time, I had looked through these same eye sockets while also standing on one foot putting on a sock. The feeling evoked small bright anticipations and felt like the recovery of a stored memory from a long time ago. But when was it and where was I, and why was I having this reoccurring sensation a number of mornings in a row?

  When I felt it again this morning – coinciding with an image of my childhood self in my childhood bedroom getting dressed – I had it.

  This is how my days would start when I was a youngster. One might have thought that I was in quarantine by the ways I spent my days back then. Between meals, children were mostly left to their own devices. I had companions and we certainly whiled away many hours exploring the neighborhood, riding our bikes, or engaging in some game or another, but most hours were ours to spend alone – many in the house. Chores were simple and could be done by oneself. T.V. was never turned on at my house during the daytime or if the radio was broadcasting it was in the voice of a baseball announcer (background noise). Electronic devices were almost non-existent, unless you counted the rare walkie-talkies or the phone with its party lines.

  In this era of Covid-19, the stay-at-home mandate doesn’t seem much different than my childhood routine. I am not scheduled to be anywhere, and every day offers the bounty of time alone. It’s the dressing that prompts the memory. It happens before the tinkering with the toaster and the filling of the kettle. I already have woken slowly and considered the day’s responsibilities, so it falls then to those in-between moments of mindless dressing to consider and relish the possibilities of delight the day will afford. I am rarely disappointed. It might be something so simple as the lovely stalks of tulips on the counter, noticed just before turning out the light for the night.


  When I read the stories of the difficulty of families sheltering in, I imagine the chaos of kids in conflict, parents stressed out on yet another Zoom conference, or the immense sadness of having someone dear lost to the virus. This is not my story. Mine has a glimmer of being in love with a day’s possibilities, even in constrained circumstances.

  My time is spent in simple ways, like those of my childhood. Take the sounds of that time of indulgence. Slap, muffle, catch. Slap, muffle, catch. I bounced my red rubber ball against the side of the garage and caught it on the rebound from the grass. Jacks made pleasant clinking noises on the cement floor of the same garage. Sometimes I lay on my belly in the hot sun on a towel in the backyard, comforted by the familiar noise of a neighbor mowing grass. I liked the sound of silence in my own bedroom. It was a plain room without many toys at all, but again the adventures of books sustained me many hours.


  
  These days, some part of every day is spent outside. I watch for bugs and the budding of trees and bushes. And the noises in these days are as simple as hearing a frog in the little bog across the dirt road or the tiny screeches that mark the arrival of the violet green swallows that have returned from Mexico or Central American and somehow managed to again find the nesting hole in my guest cabin.


  Inside, I skip from book to book depending on my mood. And if I need a greater field of exploration, I vicariously choose the book of thirty-three walks of London from a book I brought back from the same city in January.

  These are all plain pleasures. Anticipated in the morning while the socks are coming on.