Category Archives: Uncategorized

On Sending (and Receiving) Holiday Cards and Letters

In the small Maryland town where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, sending and receiving postal holiday cards was an important part of holiday tradition. Dad and Mom participated by taking an annual posed picture of us kids and then making numerous copies in Dad’s basic home photo lab, stinking up our house for days. They’d either include a holiday greeting in the photo itself or add a brief caption to each copy.

Then they’d stuff envelopes, write out addresses, and affix stamps by hand to send to family, neighbors, friends, and business contacts. Our parents’ lives back then were too busy for lengthy missives. However, we sometimes received cards with long enclosed letters from friends and family far away. In our house, one entire hallway was devoted to an arrangement of the most colorful cards, dozens and dozens of them, usually patterned into the shape of a stylized tree. After I started a family of my own, I continued the holiday card tradition. 

By now, the postal holiday card and letter are fast becoming outmoded. Email can be a lot quicker and just as informative. All the same, I’m loathe to give up the older tradition. Stationery and gift shops still stock boxes of holiday cards. The U.S. Postal Service still collects and distributes mail. 

Those of us who write holiday letters in whatever medium tend to brag a bit. We also tend to play down any difficult parts of the year just ended. I find pleasure in sitting down to compose a physical page (never more, rarely less) of highlights of the year just ending. It’s heavy on the celebrations and on the achievements of the younger generations.

This year I got a late start sending out holiday cards and letters because of holiday travel, visiting family members on the other coast whose pictures I hoped to include. Now I’m back home. Relevant trip pictures have been transferred from cell phone to computer. I’ve started my annual ritual of card and letter composition and distribution. 

Tools for preparing and mailing holiday cards and letters have gotten somewhat more convenient since my parents’ days. My desktop printer will crank out appropriate adhesive mailing labels in sheets of thirty labels each. The printer can also produce multiple copies of letter text and interspersed images in either black and while or color. My word processing software, with some wrangling, will position pictures where I want them in the overall design. Most envelopes have peel off adhesive strips so they no longer require licking. Most stamps are also self-adhesive.   

The process of writing out each card and sticking labels on an appropriate envelope helps me bring to mind each recipient in turn. I remember how they are special to me. I briefly reweave some of the tapestry of our friendships. It’s disappointing when a card gets returned with “no forwarding address”—I’ve lost track of yet another tie to my past. Even worse are the cards returned with regretful notes letting me know the intended recipient has died. Each year, the prior year’s card mailing list gets winnowed by at least a few names. As best I can, I focus on the good of the lives that have ended. In this era when age segregation has increased, I try to include younger friends and to broaden the age range of new friends beyond just my own cohort. Otherwise, my holiday card list would gradually dwindle to nothingness. 

Our current house has little hall space. The number of postal cards we receive has diminished. The ones we still get will fit easily on our mantelpiece and along the top shelf of the smallest bookcase. I cherish them, fewer though they may be. In these shortest days of the year, they remind me both of the longer span of lives well lived and of the beauty of lives newly started. They reconnect us, something most of us can use after much pandemic-related isolation. 

Happy holidays to you and yours! A belated Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy (Solar) New Year! Happy Upcoming (Lunar) Year of the Rabbit! Whatever your media of choice, may you continue to send and receive holiday greetings!   

Hallelujah Choruses

Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah,” and, in particular, its “Hallelujah Chorus,” figures largely in our family’s lore. Over the years, I’ve participated in several Handel Choirs, mostly as an alto. A vocal score of Messiah’s choruses has somehow made it through our various moves and sits, slightly musty, on a shelf in my office. Once covid concerns wane sufficiently, I hope to participate in future Messiah singalongs. 

I’m not sure when I first heard this uplifting music. Because both my mother and her mother were practicing musicians, it was probably early in my life. The first time I remember being fully aware of the majesty of the piece was the Christmas season I was ten years old. 

Our immediate family’s trajectory had been fairly typical of post-World War II small town America. My father came home from the Navy in early 1946, after serving the final years of that war on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He and my mom, who’d married during one of his home leaves in 1944, set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom cottage built by Mom’s parents next door to their own house. Mom’s parents wanted to keep their youngest close by, especially after their only other daughter and their one grandchild so far had moved cross-country to Seattle. 

About a year later, I put in my appearance, followed in 1951 by a sister, then in 1953 by surprise twins—my youngest siblings, brothers to carry on the family name. Although Dad and some carpenter friends had added a second bedroom when my sister was born, it was tucked into an increasingly steep hillside. The slope precluded further expansion. Our small cottage was bursting at the seams. Dad and Mom paid a minimal monthly rent to my grandparents, more as a sop to Dad’s pride than anything approaching market rate. 

Partly buoyed by this informal subsidy, by 1957 Dad and Mom had scrimped and saved enough to purchase a five acre piece of property in a wealthier part of town. Dad by then had become a small-scale residential construction contractor. He had the contacts and skills to be able to build his and Mom’s dream house on the newly purchased land at minimal cost. They would start construction in March, 1958, once the ground thawed. 

For our final Christmas at the cottage, we’d shoehorned into one corner of the living room a small fir tree with presents underneath. While we went next door for breakfast at Granny and Pop-Pop’s, Santa (so the younger children believed) would leave an even bigger pile of gifts to be opened after our return. 

On prior Christmas mornings, we’d been awakened by Dad’s best stentorian bellow: “Rise and shine, morning’s a’wasting!” he’d yell.  

This year was different. From somewhere near the stairwell leading from the living room to our basement-level kitchen, there was music. Every bit as loud as Dad, it had a decidedly different pitch and rhythm: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”  As we stumbled out of our bunk beds and wiped the sleepy sand from our eyes, we wondered what was producing the music. It didn’t take us very long to locate the new walnut stereo cabinet with the record jacket to “The Messiah” placed carefully on top. Dad grinned at us, triumphant. 

My father and my maternal grandmother had a respectful but sometimes strained relationship. Granny could be fussy about protocol and social niceties. Early in Dad’s and Mom’s married lives, before the arrival of children, Dad had gone out of his way one Christmas season to impress Granny. At considerable expense, he’d purchased three tickets to an evening performance of all three parts of Handel’s Messiah in downtown Baltimore. He’d arranged transportation to and from the concert hall and had put on his one good suit to escort the ladies to this holiday tradition. 

As retold at subsequent holiday gatherings, Dad was so tired after a busy day of physical work that he nodded off early in part one.  When the “Hallelujah Chorus” began (at the end of part two), Dad startled awake. Most in the audience were getting up, a tradition started supposedly when, at the premier London performance in 1743, King George II  had stood for the “king of kings.” Other audience members had followed suit. Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus became customary whenever and wherever the oratorio was performed. Dad wrongly assumed it was the end of the performance. He went to get Granny’s and Mom’s coats, much to Granny’s chagrin. 

Perhaps the 1957 hallelujahs were his way of celebrating the prospect of having a little more distance from his fussy mother-in-law. Perhaps he was just overjoyed at the prospect of a big-enough house. 

After my dad’s multiple careers were over, he developed dementia. For much of his decline, he was lovingly tended by my mom, assisted by a fairly robust social safety net that included veterans’ benefits and a drop-in adult day care center. During his final few months, once the burden of his care threatened to debilitate my mother as well, he was confined to a nursing home. When my sister phoned to let me know that his body had finally died, she had the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing in the background. Somehow, it was a fitting testimony to Dad’s release from suffering.

The past couple of years have not been especially easy. Many of us have lost loved ones. The covid pandemic, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has brought into starker relief our disparities of wealth and of access to needed services. Rather than Handel, some of us may be more attuned to the darker lyrics of a recent “Hallelujah” version by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Cohen continued revising the lyrics almost up until his death in 2016. After several despondent verses, he nonetheless asserts:

I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…

I like to think that both “Hallelujahs” are relevant. We have suffered. We will suffer again. We have known joy. We will know joy again. Hallelujah!

Lessons from a Self-Healing Mat

Becoming a serious craftsperson is likely beyond me. Most of my creations have a few blemishes in their stitching. My hems have a tendency to come unraveled at inopportune times. The face masks I made at the height of the pandemic were not uniform in either size or shape. Still, I’ve gotten a good bit of satisfaction from sewing and quilting during the enforced semi-isolation brought on by covid and lingering a bit as we try to determine how best to live pandemic-susceptible lives. As our human numbers increase, as travel resumes, as more people live near preserves of “wild” land, our chances of having another pandemic are increasing. News outlets caution about “tridemics” this winter. Seasonal flu, covid, and a related respiratory virus know as RSV have begun to increase as colder weather sets in. Bummer! 

Soon after covid lockdowns began easing in late 2020, I joined a small coterie of beginning quilters at a local shop near where I then lived in North Carolina. We masked and distanced and did our best to maintain good ventilation in our airy classroom. Before our first lesson, I went to the shop and bought some basic quilting supplies recommended in our course outline. First off, a “rotary cutter” (a very sharp, circular razor blade mounted in a retractable sleeve). I also got some clearly marked rulers in several sizes, plus an 18×24 inch “self-healing mat” on which I would use the cutter to fashion well-ruled squares, rectangles, and triangles of the fabrics I selected.  

The mat has served me well through several small quilts and hundreds of fabric face masks. As I started my most recent project, though, I noticed that the rotary cutter didn’t seem to be as efficient as I’d remembered. Carefully, I swapped out the existing blade for a new one. When my fabric cuts still weren’t coming through as cleanly as I wanted, I took a closer look at the mat. In several places, there were telltale threads sticking out of noticeable cuts in the mat. Other places, less severe, still had visible small gashes. My self-healing mat had reached a partial breakdown in its ability to self-heal. 

Now in my mid-70’s, I’ve noticed similar signs in myself. My digestive system no longer tolerates spicy, greasy, or sauce-rich foods as well as it once did. My circulatory system complains more quickly and more frequently on steep uphill slopes. My respiratory system is more sensitive to dust and smoke. 

Eventually, both the mat and I will need to be replaced. However, there are a few tips that may help both the mat and me. First, go easiest on the places that are most damaged, or avoid them entirely. For me, cutting way back on milk and cheese would never have been a first choice, but it seems to be appropriate for my aging digestive system. Second, revel in the capacities that still exist. There are places on my mat that have been little used so far that still yield excellent results. My limbs will still take me places unassisted. Hurrah!  Third, accept that everything, mat and myself included, will eventually wear out. Obsessing about when or how that might happen does little to help me live productively day to day. 

For now, I can still function at a reasonable level most of the time. I need to be a little more careful. I need to take life somewhat more slowly. If I am injured or sick, I need to allow a bit longer to heal. I’m glad my mat has reminded me.  

Liquid Amber

Back where I lived before,
They were called sweetgum trees,
Though what was sweet about them
Was beyond me. The huge one at our
Neighbor’s dropped prickly seed balls
Over three backyards, not to mention
The desiccated leaves and stray twigs.

The balls took forever to decay, in
The meantime punishing bare feet
And serving to twist ankles when
Those with shoes on stepped on the
Outliers on area sidewalks and pavement.

One year someone figured out that
You could spray gum balls with silver
Paint and tuck them into holiday wreaths.
A large expense of time and money for
A rather shabby looking result, I thought.

It took a while before I got the spelling
Correct in this locale–a single word,
With two ‘a’s in the second half.

In the right light, though, when nothing
Else in this near-desert landscape is
Colorful, the leaves can live up to their name.

On Being Granted Three Witches…

It’s a little past Hallowe’en. Images of “wicked witches” are fading from our consciousness for another year. Our recent understanding of witches has undergone something of a change, abetted by a modern Wiccan movement. Performances such as “Wicked,” a musical retelling of the Wizard of Oz story from the point of view of two witches, have also reminded us of the “good witch.” It’s been my good fortune to have become acquainted with three very good witches, three benign elders, since I moved to southern California in 2021. 

The first good witch I encountered was Anne, a spritely octogenarian with a halo of blue-white curls. When I first met her, Anne was presiding over a large table of other elders at a summer neighborhood gathering of a “village,” a mutual help group for over-50’s who want to continue to live in their own homes for as long as possible, rather than moving to assisted living facilities. Anne was one of the original members of our local group a dozen years ago. Listening to some of Anne’s stories, I learned that she had spent time in China, a favorite travel destination earlier in my own life. I asked if I might meet with her one-on-one to trade stories and to learn more about her China experiences. She graciously acceded. As it turned out, Anne’s China stay had occurred mostly before I was born. She was a school girl in Shanghai and then in Chongqing from 1946 to 1948 while her naval officer father was an advisor to the Chinese military. Anne’s life experiences are quite different from mine—a Navy daughter, then a Navy wife to a commander who served during Vietnam, a conflict I had protested as a young woman. Anne raised a large family while moving from military post to post and adhering to her Roman Catholic faith. My guess is that her opinions on reproductive freedom are different from mine. However, she has never tried to proselytize or to foist her views on me. She has expressed that aspect of her faith mostly through work with charities and social service agencies in support of adoptive parents, support often badly needed.   

My next good witch encounter was with Carolyn. As I oriented myself to our new environment by walking around, I was pleased that our “planned community” of about 700 houses had pleasant walkways and little traffic. A couple of small shopping strips bracketed the complex. A nearby public recreation area had both indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. Near the top of the closest hill was a cluster of churches. One morning as I explored the grounds of the local Lutheran church, I noticed a fenced garden behind the main building, with numbered raised plots and a small sign identifying it as a “nature friendly garden.” No one was around. I opened the garden gate and walked through the area. At one end were a small red shed and a small greenhouse. A couple of wrought iron lawn chairs were pulled up in front of the shed. The place looked well tended. I gradually made it a regular part of my walking routine. Several walks later, I came across Carolyn, who was tending some of the many plots she cares for. She’d opened the padlocked shed and was ferrying garden tools and containers back and forth as needed. She finished what she was doing, then took a break to chat. 

“This garden has been my sanity refuge during covid,” she told me. “Outdoors, so less virus-prone, and still able to provide a service to the community.” She explained that most of “her” beds contained vegetables planted for use at T.A.C.O. (Third Avenue Charitable Organization), a downtown San Diego drop-in center for the area’s homeless and lower income residents. On Thursdays, Carolyn ferried fresh produce from the T.A.C.O. beds to the center to be included in the following day’s lunch. She’d been doing this since well before the pandemic. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those already struggling, she felt it was more needed during covid than ever. 

“It’s amazing what the cooks can do with whatever I bring,” she said. “Sometimes we have mostly zucchini, other times it’s tomatoes, or carrots, or broccoli, or cabbage. Some of the other gardeners contribute their extra veggies as well.” Carolyn isn’t shy about her age—mid-80’s. She complains that she’s slowing down, but she can still heft a flat of squash or spade a garden plot with more energy than most of us, whatever our ages.

Ellen introduced herself to me by phone before I met her in person. She’s the doyenne of volunteers at our local public branch library. One of the restrictions of pandemic lockdowns that hit me hardest was the closure of area libraries. As soon as infection numbers waned enough so that libraries reopened, I visited our nearest branch, checked out as many books as I could carry, made a small donation, and signed up as a “Friend of the Tierrasanta Library.”  Several months later, Ellen phoned to ask if I might be available to help cashier for a two-hour shift at the used book sale she and others arranged in the library’s conference room during the first weekend of every month. 

“Sure,” I said. “Do I need to bring anything?” 

“Just yourself. You’ll be working with an experienced volunteer who can show you what to do.” Ellen, too, complains that she is slowing down. Well into her 80’s, she’s had one hip replaced and is due to get the second one done next year. At the end of a day’s work, she has a noticeable limp. She doesn’t let it deter her much. 

For over thirty years, it turns out, Ellen has been raising money for the library and spreading the love of books throughout the community. Over the years, she has refined a system that supplies extra children’s books at no charge to a nearby military housing complex.

Not long after arriving in California, I passed the midway point between 70 and 80. I’m slowing down a bit. Aging has brought different challenges than earlier life stages. One of the hardest for me is balancing self care with care for the wider community. Initially constrained by covid and by my general lack of knowledge of how this part of the country works, I’ve been inspired by the lives of my three good witches. Anne, Carolyn, and Ellen are not native Californians, either. They’ve all passed the 80 year milestone. Their adaptability and continuing active participation shine forth. Somewhere near here there are adoptive families with better coping skills thanks to Anne; someday a needy person is getting a more nutritious lunch thanks to Carolyn; in some child’s room someone is reading thanks to Ellen. 

My skills are not exactly the same as theirs. Still, I can write about them, mimic them as much as I can, encourage others to follow their examples.

. Who are the good witches in your life?  

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits: 2022 Version

In 2014, I began writing a mid-term election “habits” post, trying to point out where I’d fallen short of good citizenship and what I might do to improve. Mid-term cycles since have produced different crises and different configurations of bad habits. Here’s this year’s version—

Citizens in a democracy are members of multiple levels of government, however we choose to view ourselves. Because voting is one cornerstone of democratic government, protecting the right to vote and participating in honest and fair elections are responsibilities we all share. As the political culture of the United States becomes more contentious, overheated rhetoric from multiple parts of the political spectrum threatens to overwhelm our common heritage and our common sense. I’m doing my best to stay engaged and informed, to reform my bad habits. Recognize some?  

1) Local politics does not matter. 

I can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts me most directly is local: voting rules and the placement of voting sites; budgets; tax rules and rates; school funding; zoning; the placement and maintenance of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures; environmental safeguards and incentives. In addition to “big” races, I also need to pay attention locally.  

2)  Politics is dirty. Most politicians are crooks. I don’t trust the system.  

Our national, state and local political scandals can seem endless. Journalists make reputations by ferreting out officials’ misdeeds. “Dark money” (large, difficult to trace contributions) can distort our elections. I often hear unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. It can be tempting to walk away from politics entirely, or to act out my frustrations with the system violently. 

Active citizenship demands both enthusiasm and restraint. I can play a useful part through small monetary donations, thoughtful social media posts, in-kind donations, and/or labor in support of candidates and causes of my choice. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (almost never impartial or complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, even when possibilities seem less than ideal, I CAN VOTE. The right to vote can be eroded through outright coercion, but also through disuse.  

3) Government can solve all our problems.

  I can let my expectations of government get overblown. Sometimes I fantasize that my elected officials can just snap their fingers and quickly reduce negative impacts of pandemics, globalization, or automation; can minimize unemployment while controlling inflation; can eliminate child poverty; can mitigate climate change; can usher in world peace. In more realistic moments, I acknowledge that expecting governments to do too much or too quickly can be self-defeating. I can nudge my elected officials in what I consider to be worthwhile directions. I can get and stay informed. I can make a small difference; many small differences DO add up.  

4) Government is the problem.

Sometimes I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats” over regulations I thought were obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. I can find parts of government maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level. 

It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on damaged roads to providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’  benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Governing is complex. Getting it “right” takes both hard effort and principled compromise. 

5) If we just elect the right candidates, all will go well. 

Voting for a successful candidate is no guarantee that the policies he/she advocates will get implemented. Our political system was designed to have checks and balances. Since the U.S. first became a nation, our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold. Officials at many levels represent increasingly diverse populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole. However much they want to serve their constituents and our nation well, the job is extremely difficult. (Personal attacks only make a hard job harder.) 

If I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, voting is an important first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates of my views on issues—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.

6) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible. 

Of course it can matter which political party controls government appointments and legislative committee assignments. Of course congressional and presidential elections matter. However, as I’ve lived through more and more election cycles, I’ve come to believe that hyperbole about potential shifts in policy as a result of a single election can be counterproductive. Many substantive changes take decades or even generations. Conversations and disagreements in our society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women have existed since our beginnings as a nation. They continue to this day. 

I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of potential disaster from a single election, and of single-election long-term gains. However, it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. It is important to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time. 

7) Politics is serious business, so we all need to engage in it with utmost seriousness.  

One casualty of recent enhanced nastiness in politics is the decline of the “smiling candidate.” Too often, our media feeds and social networks send us scowling images of “those others,” whoever various media algorithms have decided they might be. We need to remember that successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. A wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”  

As this midterm election cycle looms, please continue to do the vital work of reforming whatever your bad political habits happen to be. Above all, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!      

Lettuce for All Seasons

September lettuce, southern California

Half a dozen years ago, I posted a blog entry (“New Year’s Lettuce”) expressing wonder at the lettuce I was able to harvest that year from a local community garden in North Carolina on New Year’s Day. We’d had an unseasonably warm fall, so even frost-tender plants had survived until early January. 

Climate change discussions were becoming more common then, partly because of some strange short-term weather patterns, partly due to a new global accord, the Paris Climate Agreement, that had been negotiated in late 2015. This accord was later signed by countries that produce over 90% of the world’s greenhouse gasses. 

During the Trump presidency from 2017 to 2021, official U.S. policy downplayed the significance of climate change, withdrawing from the Paris Accord and reversing many measures intended to reduce or mitigate U.S. contributions to a global problem. We have now seesawed back toward policies taking the climate issue seriously, though American public opinion remains divided about what exactly the problem is or what to do about it.

 Last year I relocated to the other side of the continental U.S., but I’ve once again found a nearby community garden. The climate here is quite different from North Carolina’s. Longer-term residents tell me that the dryness of our area is intensifying. While much of the U.S. Southeast and Caribbean currently are coping with catastrophic excesses of water from Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, the Southwest is dry as a bone. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, key components of the Southwest’s water and electricity generation systems, are below 30% of capacity and risk further declines.

Still, California’s climate is mild enough year-round so that,  with adequate irrigation, multiple lettuce crops are possible. California produces about 70% of the U.S. lettuce crop, with Arizona providing much of the rest. My little plant is an infinitesimal part of California’s crop, an even tinier proportion of the roughly 28 million tons of lettuce-like crops produced globally each year.

I’m trying to get better at water conservation measures,  to shelter my small plot of crop production from the worst impacts of heat and dryness. What will it take, on a much larger scale, for those of us who relish salads and fresh greens (including vast consumption in both China and India) to continue to have lettuce in all seasons? 

Last Day of Summer, Southern California

 

It’s been a summer with periods of brutal heat,
Mostly, it’s been brutally dry.
Futurists bandy about terms like “aridification,”
Though sudden downpours have carved
More gashes into wounded hillside landscapes.

This morning I awoke at first light to a thin film 
Of condensation on our bedroom’s window glass.
After a clear, cool sunrise, a gentle ocean-scented breeze.
I meandered uphill to our local community garden,
Where I spent a calming hour trimming back succulents.

Temporarily insulated from political punditry, 
I relished the quiet, the hummingbirds and
Butterflies and late-season blooms.
On a day like today, it does not seem entirely
Unrealistic to hope for more moderate media.

It does not seem unrealistic to hope and pray for drizzles 
Of autumn rain, nourishing the liquidambar trees
Whose colors have again come early and muted.
It is enough to concentrate on soil and a pleasant sun,
To consider instances of compassion here and there.

Of course there are wars and famines, 
A pandemic that wanes but is not entirely gone.
Of course there are hurricanes, floods, wildfires,
Erratic weather, ruined crops, but today,
The prospect of a peaceful harvest peeps through.

Punctuated Devolution

(Purloined and/or penned in memory of my doggerel-writing mother;
posted on what would have been her 105th birthday, August 22, 2022.)

Long ago, when I was a child
My parents said to memorize
A set of poems, some tame, some wild,
About the way time often flies.

I’ve never mastered, ’til today
The longest verse that they suggested–
About the “deacon’s one-hoss shay,”
In days when roads were less congested.

Per Wendell Holmes, the deacon tried
To craft a carriage with strengths so even
It never would just lose a side,
For years could remain fit for driving.

The shay survived through heat and storm,
Through varied owners, steeds, it roamed,
Providing rides in stellar form
‘Til at the last, per Mr. Holmes:

“There are traces of age in the one-hoss-shay, 

A general flavor of mild decay,

But nothing local, as one may say.

There couldn’t be,—for the Deacon’s art

Had made it so like in every part

That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.

For the wheels were just as strong as the thills—

And the floor was just as strong as the sills,

And the panels just as strong as the floor,

And the whippletree neither less nor more.

And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,

And spring and axle and hub encore.

And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt

In another hour it will be worn out!

. . . . . 

You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,

How it went to pieces all at once,—

All at once, and nothing first,—

Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.  

Logic is logic. That’s all I say.” 

Some days my bones ache,
Other days they feel brittle.
Some days my head hurts,
Other days it’s my middle.

Some days I feel fine,
Other days I wither,
Some days I’ve a clear mind,
Other days I dither.

May specific ailments give punctuation
To my inevitable disintegration.
As age advances, I hope and pray
I won’t go like the one-hoss-shay.

I’m not sure which of my parts will break
I hope some may be left to harvest.
May no internist unbeckoned make
Repairs to keep me from my last rest.

 

The Dobbs Case: What Would Solomon Decide?

I wish the Dobbs decision had never happened. For months leading up to it, I dreaded its potential impact on our fractured body politic. Now that it has happened, I am doing my best to find a forward-looking response. I doubt that any legal decision regarding abortion can satisfy anyone completely. I doubt that abortions will ever stop being performed, whether legally or illegally. I doubt we can ever reach an American (or global) polity in which every child is deeply wanted and loved, in which no mother dies from complications of pregnancy or delivery, and each new human is born into a fully functional family and society.

In the wake of Dobbs, activists on all sides of the U.S. abortion debate have increased their fundraising, outreach, and advocacy. Personally, I believe abortion prior to fetal viability should be primarily the decision of the mother-to-be, that her rights supersede any supposed state interests. However, I also believe that some common sense restrictions on abortions can be consistent with goals of family integrity and human rights. How can I best express my views? How do I act on my beliefs? When does life begin? How can we possibly know?  

Headlines tend to emphasize exceptional cases—the 10-year-old girl in Ohio who in May, 2022 was raped. After seeking care in Ohio, she had to travel to Indiana for an abortion because she’d exceeded the six week gestational limit mandated by a 2019 Ohio law triggered by the Dobbs decision. Overall statistics make less absorbing headline fodder, but are still abysmal. Over the preceding five years, Ohio had an average of over one abortion per week for a child aged 15 or younger. 

In ideal cases, a developing fetus is the result of consensual sexual activity between prospective adult parents. Ideally, once a woman’s egg is fertilized, the resulting zygote begins to divide, then implants and thrives in utero throughout the pregnancy, which ends when a healthy mother delivers a healthy infant. Many hazards exist between conception and birth, though—miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, maternal health complications, lethal fetal abnormalities. The rate of spontaneous miscarriage is estimated at between 11 and 22 percent of confirmed pregnancies. Possibly over half of all pregnancies end even before pregnancy is confirmed. About 2% of pregnancies are “ectopic”—the embryo attaches outside the uterine cavity, potentially threatening the life of the mother. In 2020, the US had the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations: 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. About 3% of babies born in the U.S. have birth defects of varying degrees of severity, with the most severe defects causing about 20% of deaths in infants below the age of one.

Ideally, prospective parents are financially and emotionally ready to raise to adulthood any child they conceive. However, a study from the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 found then that nearly half of pregnancies were either “unplanned” (27%, maybe later?) or “unwanted” (18%, not now, not ever!). Per their research, unintended pregnancy rates are highest among low-income women, women younger than 24, unmarried women cohabiting with a male partner, and women of color. Economic studies repeatedly link limiting access to contraception and/or abortion to increases in child poverty and crime. 

To help ground me since the Dobbs ruling, I’ve returned to my Christian roots, revisiting Biblical stories of King Solomon to try to find wisdom to help me through this most recent set of conflicts over reproductive choice. A seminal account involves Solomon deciding a difficult case shortly after he has asked God in a dream for wisdom in guiding his people. As recorded in I Kings 3:16-28, the case involves the death of a newborn and two frantic mothers’ competing claims on the one surviving child. To help determine the rightful claimant, Solomon threatens to cut the surviving child in two. The real mother cries out to let the other mother keep the child, willing to relinquish her child rather than have it killed. Through his decision, Solomon does his best to honor the mothers, the child, and the child’s future.

The Dobbs decision was injected into a United States with many festering debates. Abortion has been, and continues to be, even thornier than the dilemma posed to Solomon, with no clear one-size-fits-all answers. What seems clear so far is that many women, their families, and their doctors are fearful and upset at Dobbs’ sweeping change in national policy. The change overturned fifty years of judicial precedent, including many cases attempting to strike some sort of balance among competing rights—the mother’s, the developing fetus’s, and that of the governmental apparatus charged with supporting families and children. 

I like to think that Solomon in his wisdom would have come up with ways to help us broaden our focus, leaving us less obsessed with the period between conception and birth. It is a rare pregnancy that lasts more than nine months, a rare (though tragic) instance when a life after birth lasts less than that, a strange anomaly for a girl/woman to conceive before typical puberty, which happens between ages 8 and 13. 

Perhaps we can see beyond our differences to lessen the damage we are causing to the already born and to women not ready to become mothers. Our faith, our gender, our life circumstances can help impart the wisdom we need to navigate post-Dobbs America. If Solomon could consider the mothers, the child, and the future, might we be inspired to behave similarly?  Are we each doing our best for the human family of which we are a part? Are we helping to preserve a livable planet for future generations?  What would Solomon decide?