Years ago, in the days when I preferred to tap on an Olympia manual typewriter fed with canary yellow paper, I wrote out this passage attributed to the Koran:
Said Jesus Son of Mary (peace be on him): The world is but a bridge—pass over without building houses on it. He who hopes for an hour hopes for eternity; the world is an hour—spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.
I’ve had those words taped to the wall of my room in every house I’ve inhabited, and from house to house their meaning has shifted, as if the passage itself is a bridge supporting no one interpretation, but home to the tent camp of ideas that mark our passage (a different sort of passage) through life. But today, as our third foot of snow falls, my eyes come to rest on the rest is unseen. The ground is gone. Even the sky is gone. Instead, there’s something above us unfurling shrouds of snow, and the earth floor rises up to meet it. Closer and closer come earth and sky. We all look legless. Heads, arms, torsos hovering above chilly whiteness, our bottom halves buried in steep snowbanks. It’s a thick, stalled, stuck-in-place river and we’re out in it, fishing for what we don’t know. Or wading out to serenade someone—a late sleeper; a weary number-cruncher working from home. Then someone shuffles by, walking on water, just because they found the perfect pair of snowshoes at that yard sale last summer and had the good sense to plunk down a six-dollar (bargained down from ten) investment in their future. Three bucks each shoe, they point out. Someone else has their own Iditarod going, a border collie on a long leash towing them on a dinner tray through the fluffy ashes of the storm.
How easy it is to make friends when the snow falls. A gang of three women roams the neighborhood, armed with shovels. I join them and that makes four. The man on the corner cranks up his snowblower and puts the women out of business, but when the snow keeps falling we’re out there again, clearing driveways, revealing sidewalks, making things manifest. It’s like a baby’s game of peek-a-boo: the blanket’s up, the face is hidden; the blanket’s down and there we are, where we’ve always been but seemed not to be. When the snow makes the world disappear, it emboldens us and we come forward. Have you noticed how the shy ones blossom from behind their masks?
My friend, Lynne, notices things, antelope in particular. But other things as well. She has an uncanny sense of who’s out there behind the trees, or under the rocks. She’ll pick up a stone and turn it in her hand until even I can see it was tooled, an incomplete arrowhead discarded for some flaw eight-hundred years ago. When we walk together, my web of noticing increases.
The last time we went up on the Peaks we were taking our chances. It was October, just a hair before the first expectation of in-town flurries. The trail was clear to the saddle, but along the ridge to the summit the snow was deep in places. Windblown, it edged down the mountain on both sides of the trail. At one point, to catch our breath under the guise of simply admiring the view, we stopped and looked out at the triumvirate of Kendrick, Sitgreaves and Bill Williams. Suddenly, a movement in our near field of vision pulled our attention in. The creature was ten or fifteen yards from us, a sinuous bounder of an animal, the size and shape of a mink but pure white. Its disguise was ingenious, and we could only imagine it was perfectly timed for the recent snowfall. As it moved across the rocks it looked like the ground itself was heaving. Only its dark little eyes and whiskers gave it away.
Unseen. The long-tailed weasel’s life depends on becoming invisible. In the mysterious way of things, some unknown amount of time before the first snow ever appears, the creature’s coat turns from brown to white and the disguise is complete. The animal itself is a prayer. And its wondrous life-sustaining disguise, met by our ability to notice—a prayer. This is a good way, isn’t it, to spend the hour we are given?
Remember the Alamo? When it comes to history, the man in the White House seems to have limited recall—or a grand sense of irony. To stage one of his last presidential appearances near the site of that great American trouncing at the hands of the Mexican army—well, what can I say? But if it’s a promise of revenge--Remember the Alamo! Second time’s a charm!—it’s both a past and a future I don’t want to dwell on. As photo ops go, the message of this one may have been too subtle or too complicated for our turbulent times.
Meanwhile, the vaccination waltz is playing out more like a rugby game. My brother and sister, both doctors, describe secret passwords leading to semi-clandestine gatherings for healthcare workers in sports arenas in California and Texas. My brother announced he waited in line for three hours and finally got vaccinated on first base. Over and over I’ve heard the words, “You have to be in the right place at the right time.” Wow. Really? Our ideas about an orderly progression of all things Pfizer and Moderna—scrap that script.
There are tales of relative youngsters side-stepping the system by figuring out where the anti-vaxxers live and showing up there. Plenty of vaccine in Lake Havasu City, I heard last week. See London Bridge while you’re at it. And then came surprising news. Apparently, my grandfather was the grandson of a little-known chemist named Charles Erhart who, with his cousin Charles Pfizer, emigrated from Germany in 1849 and started a chemical company in Brooklyn, New York. Soon enough they were producing pharmaceuticals to treat parasites, and painkillers and antiseptics for the casualties of the Civil War. In 1891, when my great-great-grandfather died, Pfizer, playing by the rules, bought out his cousin’s share of the business for half its value. For the grand sum of $119,350, paid to the Erhart heirs, Charles Pfizer became the head of the company that would then go on to create Viagra and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Was this our family Alamo? Were we trounced by the fickle fortunes of the pharmaceutical duo, the cousins who tossed a coin and called heads you win, tails you lose, but death will do the deciding? Great-great-grandfather, it turns out, was on the confectionary side of things. He made things sweet, palatable. It was he who made the medicine go down. That’s worth a lot more than money to me, to know I carry the genetic matter of a man who softened the blow. Who eased the pain. Who made the bitter pill easier to swallow. We could use him around here these days, passing off medicine as candy—not to prey on a national gullibility, but to deliver to us what we are hesitant to accept and so badly need: a curative, a kind word, a country.
It isn’t over. We have a tendency to think this way: anything that begins, ends. Sometimes it’s convenient to think of endings as disappearances, eradications, events that never happened. But history is not a record of entombed facts. History teaches the ever-presence of all that was. There is no ridding ourselves of what was once, for it turns into what will be. The past and future converge in a place called the present. The present is where endings live on.
There are so many words for what happened on Wednesday—enough to cause a weariness of language. Who is deeply surprised? No one, I suspect. Only the most naïve. I turn away from the logistical recaps and opinions generated by those events, to take a look at what happens inside me when I feel a threat to an order and predictability I didn’t even know I took for granted. We’ve been walking a tightrope for at least four years, learning to navigate the constant threats to order and predictability. We’ve gotten quite good at it. Our most workable strategy has been to shrug it off. There are many tragic historical precedents for this. Many. But that’s what we do, we turn away, we reach saturation and turn toward the east where the sun is rising.
But then something arrives that pushes us beyond our ability to imagine or navigate, and we sit in front of our screens and watch in shock and some of us cry. And then for a day or two the air feels electric. The thing we thought ending or ended, rattles the house, rattles the enclosure in which we’ve imprisoned it, or tried to. I know I’ve tried to wall off the disturbances in order to do my work, but the clanging sounds like the start of a prison riot, spoons percussing against the bars of a wild thing’s cage.
I recently saw two women, two partners judging by the energy between them, standing in a kitchen and talking to one another. The one was distressed and spoke her fears. The other listened intently, openly, and came toward her to put her arms around her. And she said, “Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.” When I heard those words, I felt like a stone was lifted off my heart. I left the kitchen then to give the two the privacy they deserved, but those words, those three sentences, stayed with me and have stayed with me since. It was the purest form of comfort: Don’t be afraid. I didn’t know I needed comfort but those words shot right into me and took care of something, and right then I decided I too would be a promulgator of those words. I would offer them sincerely, because we need to be told we are safe with each other and held by each other and we’ll manage together. And it’s true, we’ll manage it, whatever it is, and better two than one, and if we look around and are open to it, there are always at least two.
I know. People will argue it may be time to be afraid, and we aren’t safe or held, and knowing that is what gets things done. It isn’t. It moves us into a reactive place that often sends us in the wrong direction. Try this. No matter what your inner weather is right now, say to yourself, Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Say it with conviction. See if the clamor doesn’t die down and the world feel safer, friendlier, more familiar. This is a present we have to live in, after all. This is the convergence of two great vehicles, the past and the future. We’re little in the scheme of things. We’re a mouse in the Colosseum. We’re right here where endings live on and become the next thing, and the next, and the next. Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.
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