Stepping Out

The church I attend has a strong commitment to the community, reaching out in a variety of ways. The particular niche I have settled into is food delivery for the FISH program. In rotation with other area organizations, once a month we open the phone lines to answer the needs of those in our area who, for whatever reason, are having trouble getting access to enough food. We do not ask for proof of need, or employment status, or try to find out if they already have food in their home. If a person calls and says they need food we say, “Okay. Tell us how many are in your household and where in Knox County you live, and we’ll bring you some food.” It’s not our place to decide whether or not they deserve the food. If they ask for it, we give it to them, and leave the judgment to others. It’s a beautiful thing, elegant in its simplicity, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

This month was a little different. Not in the essential elements of the program, but the actual delivery process was different because of the pandemic. Instead of all the volunteers gathering at the church and spending a little time together before we chose our deliveries and packed up, each person or team arrived at the church at a designated time, picked up the bags of food and list of locations outside, and loaded our cars from there. Everyone had on masks and gloves; everyone stayed several feet apart. We stayed in gloves and masks throughout the trip. Most of the folks we delivered to were wearing masks as well, and there was minimal contact or small talk with the people we were serving as we made our way down the list. When we finished Don and I went our separate ways instead of choosing a restaurant for a bite of lunch before going to our respective homes. Different.

I have to admit I was a little uncertain about whether or not to volunteer for this month’s deliveries. Even though we took all the recommended precautions, the risk of interacting with someone who had an active case of COVID-19 was certainly there, and I am old enough to be in the higher risk group. Those of us who are fortunate enough to continue living eventually end up in the “over 60” or “65+” category, so I’m not unhappy to be there. It means I’m still around. It also means that whenever I fill out a form, when it gets to age categories I skip to the last box automatically, and that I am at risk for all kinds of nasty stuff, from memory loss to falls to loss of strength and flexibility to diseases of all kinds. This pandemic we’re in the middle of is particularly troublesome, since we don’t have a cure or a vaccine and evidently it has the potential to hit like a freight train. 

So the decision to leave home and venture out, not only onto the familiar grounds of my church, but to several homes/apartments somewhere out there where the unknown factors were front and center, was not easy for me. Introverted by nature and a pacifist to boot, there are many things I can’t do to advance the cause of justice and be a force for healing in these times. But I can do this. I can help feed a few hungry people. If each of us does a small thing, big things end up happening. I think that’s how we move forward.

Podcasts

The second book on my podcast, House Mountain Views, is being released this morning. A narrative in four parts, it follows an anonymous teenager as he moves from rage and mistrust to the beginnings of self-awareness. “Journey” is structured on one version of the Native American Medicine Wheel and uses realistic language, making it unsuitable for young children. Click on the “Listen to my Podcast” page for links.

Not Exactly Walden Pond

In the classic work Walden, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately . . . .” As our day-to-day lives have settled into the new rhythms dictated by COVID-19, it strikes me that we are being forced into some version of deliberate living. 

The adjustments required by the presence of a virus for which we have no vaccine (and no coherent plan of response) have resulted, at least in the lives of my wife and myself, in an examination of activities and choices that before we didn’t think about in any kind of serious way. I would start a project at the house or in the yard with no definite plan in mind and proceed a bit at a time, letting the results of the previous choices suggest my next move. A trip to the big box home improvement store was an assumed part of the process, and it was not important if I forgot something. I would just jump in the car and make another run. 

Trips to the grocery worked more or less the same way, as did decisions about going downtown to meet friends or catch a movie or a meal at an old favorite or new place that sounded interesting. We would decide and an hour later be out the door and on the road.

No more, at least not for a time period yet to be determined. Tomorrow I am leaving the house for a trip to four places and do not intend to leave the house for another several weeks (barring an emergency of some kind). We’ve been thinking about this trip for several days, trying to make sure we aren’t leaving anything out. The places I’m going have options to minimize human contact, and I’m taking advantage of all of them. This morning I watched an online church service, with half of the people conducting the service working from their homes. We visited our children via Zoom this afternoon, and, while I’m talking with my parents regularly, I haven’t seen them for weeks and I expect it will be weeks before I see them again. I hope I see them again.

We are living deliberately; not by choice, but out of necessity. The rest of the Thoreau quote that I started with goes like this:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

We are certainly fronting the essential facts of life right now and we’re in in a position at present where there are important things to learn. It remains to be seen how well we will learn them, and what lessons we can carry forward that will make things better, more equitable, and healthier for us and our fellows. The lessons are there, I’m confident of that. I hope we can see them clearly and act accordingly. In the meantime, we’ve got a hell of a mess to deal with. 

It’s not exactly Walden Pond, is it?

Forcing the Metaphor

Yesterday, when I came back in from a short walk with my wife, I was hanging up my hat and noticed that a bird had made a small deposit in the crown, almost dead center. I realized that there were three different ways I could look at this:

  1. Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?
  2. I’m glad I was wearing a hat.
  3. Is this a metaphor for the times we’re going through?

As far as 1) is concerned, this rarely happens to me, so that doesn’t work. 2) makes sense, but I pretty much always wear a hat these days and so always go protected. And regarding 3), The COVID-19 pandemic can certainly be seen as the whole lot of us being shat upon from above, but the metaphor seems a bit forced to me. Most likely the bird didn’t even notice me walking beneath it when it let go. No life lessons or great insight here.

As we in the US approach the peak of this medical emergency, it remains to be seen what lessons we will take from the experience as we move forward. I have heard that gun sales are up, which concerns me deeply. You can’t stop a virus with a gun. It’s a very dangerous way of intensifying the “us vs. them” stance, however, and crises tend to foster that mindset. 

I have also seen most people finding ways to cope with, adjust to, and work around the current restrictions we are facing, often with grace, love, and maturity, which gives me hope. Some of the activities and habits we are being forced to set aside may, as the crisis passes, be activities and habits we decide to leave in our past. In almost every case the way forward for a person, community, society, or country requires that something be left behind. It’s been said that there is no gain without loss, and I think there is some truth in that. We’ll see how this all plays out; it’s very hard to see the big picture when we’re right in the middle of it.

In Response to the COVID Crisis

Good morning all,

I’m announcing a price change on all the books in my catalog that are available as ebooks. This new price will stay in effect at least through the end of April and as much longer as needed. All of my ebooks are now $.99; this includes the novels Tango and Rock, Paper, Scissors, the short works Journey and Glimpses, and all three books in the Boone series. The links to all the books are on the website housemountainviews.com; click on the catalog page.

With prudence dictating a stay at home lifestyle for now, we all need something to occupy our time. I hope this small gesture offers another option. 

Stay safe and stay in touch,

Jim

One Man’s Ceiling

This morning I listened to “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” Paul Simon’s 1973 release, with my morning cup of tea. It was recorded down in Muscle Shoals and has a lot of good music on it, but what really struck me was “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.”

We’re in uncharted territory right now, and likely will be for a period of time that is yet to be determined. I’m pleased but not surprised to see individuals reaching out to each other in comfort and assistance. This pandemic is one of the best examples of the fact that boundaries and categories, while sometimes of some limited use, are usually impediments to seeing clearly and acting with purpose. COVID-19 is no respecter of state lines, country borders, race, gender, economic status, political affiliation, or any of the other artificial ways we define and separate ourselves. The virus has quickly traversed the globe and no ocean, border, wall, or international policy has even slowed it down.

There are many things that science is not equipped to deal with: honor, love, justice, faith, and art come immediately to mind. There are, however, some things that science is uniquely qualified to address, and this is one of them. We need to not only listen to the medical professionals on this, but we need to support them however we can. This is not a war, no matter how much the politicians would like for it to be. It’s a medical emergency. 

In this time especially we are all members of the same group; it’s true always but easy to ignore most of the time. Right now, though, we need to hear loud and clear the chorus of the song.

“One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

Remember, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

We’re all in this together, folks. Let’s remember to act like it.

At-Home Entertainment

I hope everyone is taking care in these difficult times and finding ways to stay in touch and support each other. We are being asked to do things and refrain from doing things that are so different from our normal routines that it’s frightening for everyone. I believe we will find our way through this, although not without learning some important lessons along the way.

For those of you who need a little at-home entertainment, I’d like to remind you that the podcast of Pushing Back, the first book in the Boone series, is available at no charge. There are links on my website housemountainviews.com, and a search for House Mountain Views on Amazon or one of the other podcast hosts should also bring it up. The individual podcasts are between twelve and twenty minutes long, so you can get to know Boone in small chunks or all at once depending on your schedule which, if it’s like mine, is significantly different from a few weeks ago. I hope you enjoy Boone’s journey as he stumbles into adulthood.

Stay safe and take care of yourselves and each other.

Jim

Daylight Savings Time

When it came time to reset the clocks for DST, I moved through the house, trying to remember how to change the time on some of them and checking to make sure the ones connected to the internet made the switch automatically. In the process, I realized something.

We have eighteen clocks at our house. One in each of our cars, one in each of the three bedrooms (plus an extra in one of them), three in the family room, one each on the computer, the ipad, and each of our phones. The kitchen is a special place all its own. If my wife and I are in the kitchen and both of us have our cell phones with us, there are seven clocks just in that one room. The coffee maker, the rice cooker, the microwave, the oven, the two phones, and a ceramic analog clock on a stand next to the coffee maker (resulting in two clocks within a few inches of each other).

We are both retired and have very few things on our calendars requiring us to be at a particular place on time, but just in case we need to know the time to the minute, we are covered; there are only a few places in our house where that information is not immediately available. So far there are no clocks in the bathrooms, or in the dining room, or the laundry room (unless our new washer or dryer has a clock I’m not aware of), or in the greenhouse. 

Before I retired, most of my activities were dictated by the clock. Getting to work on time, running the workday schedule on time, allowing for travel from one thing to another, squeezing in a few minutes to eat something, being at whatever activity the kids had on that day to drop them off and then pick them up, making sure we were in front of the TV when our favorite shows came on, and so on. It was for me, as I’m sure it is for most folks, relentless, but at least some of that is self-imposed. I wonder if it’s societal pressure or something in our own makeup that drives us to fill all the extra time we gain through the invention of more efficient machines and overall higher productivity with enough activities to keep us on the edge of not having quite enough time to do what we have decided needs to be done. This is not only a formula for increased stress, but more importantly a narrow and inaccurate view of the world in which we live. In our modern society you could argue that efficiency is the god we pray to most often; unfortunately it is an impossible deity to satisfy. 

There are things of great value that have little or nothing to do with efficiency: art, music, friendship, love. These are also things you can’t put a stopwatch on or operate according to a schedule. Also, there are other rhythms. The day/night cycle, the progression of seasons, the buildup and dissipation of weather events of one kind or another, the flow of a conversation from start to finish, the path a song follows from beginning to the last note. Our pets sleep when they are tired, eat when they’re hungry, and let the requirements of the moment guide their waking hours. They don’t worry about daylight savings time. 

What Happened on Super Tuesday

I went to my usual polling place to vote on Tuesday. I’ve never been interested in early voting, even though I think it’s a good idea for people with busier schedules than mine. I like the ritual of going to the polls on election day, seeing familiar faces, and participating in the governing process.

Election Day always reminds me that, while we beat the drum regularly about how important the act is, we do nothing to encourage it. Election Day should be a holiday so people don’t have to fit voting into their regular routine. Failing that, it should be on a Saturday when at least some people are off work. Tuesday has only the argument of tradition in favor of it being designated as Election Day. Choosing that day doesn’t seem to be designed to encourage turnout. It almost seems to have the opposite intent, although I don’t think it’s an act of active voter suppression. Sadly, we have a history of using other methods to interfere with voting; the assignment of the number and location of polling places being a case in point. Fortunately, we have moved beyond charging people for the privilege of voting, although it took us until the 1960’s to get it into the Constitution. I’m in favor of declaring Election Day a federal holiday, which would be a clear statement by the government of how important voting is. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Standing in line at my little community polling center is a matter of a couple of minutes at most, and when a booth opened up I stepped up to it. As it happened I was next to the booth set aside for those who needed to vote from a sitting position, and as I was keying in my ID number a woman took the chair next to me. She called a poll worker over immediately and said that she couldn’t vote without her husband because he always told her how to vote. I don’t know how the rest of the conversation went; I tuned them out and went through the process at my own machine.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I believe that an informed populace is needed to make free and open elections a legitimate process. A person, male or female, who can’t cast a ballot without their spouse’s instructions is not an informed voter. On the other hand, I know that having one person (usually the man) make the decisions for a couple has a very long tradition and is not easily set aside. A part of me wanted to lean over to the woman and say, “The advantage of a secret ballot is that you are the only person who really knows who you vote for.” The main reason I didn’t say anything is that how a person votes and how they come to that decision is a private matter and none of my business. It is each individual’s responsibility to sort through the filtering, spinning, hyperbole, and outright lies to get as accurate a picture as possible of who is vying for power and how they compare to the others trying for the same prize. One other choice, of course, is to follow the advice an old man gave me when I was still too young to vote. “Never vote the man,” he said. “Always vote the party!” Not a method I would choose, although I can see that having only two candidates to choose from would make that a tempting option. None of our foreign exchange students understood why we only had two choices. They also didn’t understand the Electoral College, and that was one of the many facets of American life that was difficult to explain or defend.

I support voting as an exercise in civic responsibility. It’s a small voice, but it is a voice, and it has occasionally changed things in a significant way.

Aging and Lent

Traditionally, Lent is seen as a time of sacrifice, of giving up something. Some people give up chocolate, or drinking alcohol, or fast food; I met a young woman last week who was fasting for Lent. I didn’t get a chance to ask her what kind of fast it was, but at our small group meeting the only thing she had was water. For the last couple of years I’ve given up social media for Lent, and it has been surprisingly easy to do.

That probably means that I check in to social media sites mostly out of habit and not because they are particularly useful. Lent is good for that kind of thing, I think. Sometimes breaking a habit is helped enormously by having a little outside push, and Lent provides both that and a preset timetable. The choice of whether to go back to the habit we set aside when Lent is over is up to each person, and depends largely on several factors: how strong the habit was, how much each person’s peer group indulges in the same habit, and how much benefit of taking a break from it is evident in the short term. We’ll see what happens this year at the end of Lent for me and social media. 

Using Lent to set aside habits can also help expose the downside of our habits, whether we are wasting money, time, or the chance to improve on some of our good habits. When I give up social media for Lent, the monetary gain is pretty much non-existent, but the time newly available means I can practice my hammer dulcimer more, make more use of the library system, do some more writing of my own, and so on. That’s kind of the big deal about breaking habits, I guess; having a replacement activity helps a lot.

I realized the other day while thinking about Lent that the fact that I’m getting older (not 70 yet, but it’s getting pretty close) means that I’m also giving up things as a natural process. Lately I have noticed that I’m eating less, and I think that is a result of my changing metabolism. I’m taking time to notice the arrival and departure of seasons, and that is undoubtedly age related as well. TV is generally pretty boring, even with hundreds of channels, and the news is downright scary most nights (which is why I almost never watch it). It’s also clear, as John Prine observed in his fine song “Hello In There” that “all the news just repeats itself. like some forgotten dream . . . .” He wrote that song, along with a bunch of others that are staggering in their insight and poetry, when he was in his early twenties. Some people see things sooner and clearer than others; they are the artists among us.

At any rate, I’m giving up some things on purpose and Lent is helpful for that. I’m giving up other things as I age, and that is a good thing. I am, however, having a little trouble remembering I’m in my sixties when I set out to do some work around the house or out in the yard. That interior voice that tells me I’m still in my thirties is lying to me, but the temptation to believe it is hard to resist. I do pay for indulging that delusion the next day, or sometimes later on that same day. Or immediately, when I notice that the rocks I moved easily thirty years ago have gotten much heavier.