It’s a word my sister used after the death of Justice Ginsburg, when it became clear that the administration would be moving ahead as quickly as possible to fill her vacant Supreme Court seat. My sister, who lives in Australia, often wakes up these days to a round of staggering news from her homeland, and puts in a pre-coffee call to one of us here in the States. It’s three in the afternoon by our clock. By now we’ve had some time to digest whatever the day has thrown at us. But that day was hard. That loss was larger than most. There was little comfort we could offer each other, and by the end of the call we had worn out our grieving and were both feeling angry and defeated by the willingness of those in power to rush through a nomination that will change the way laws are decided in this country for the next two decades. That’s when she used the word. She said, “It’s unseemly.” And I said, “If you’re looking for seemly, you’ll have to look somewhere else. As political leadership goes, we are living in a time of almost unimaginable unseemliness in this country.” Her two boys needed breakfast and we hung up shortly after that.
We all arrive with our ideas and opinions, which on the low side of things turn toward judgments and a failure to understand. We are all capable of “unseemly.” But here’s the good news. That word has an antonym, and if we’re honest and look around with a fair mind, there’s plenty of “seemly” to witness in the world. It sometimes comes in the mail, via eBay, like this one. Three sentences, written in a shaky hand. It arrived in a package containing four watchbands:
My apologies for my tardiness in my handling and shipping your
watchband to you. So I have enclosed 3 similar style watchbands
(free of charge) in the hopes that you will forgive me as this is not
my usual practice in business but I was in the hospital and was not
in the frame of mind to have put my store on a leave of absence,
but that is not your problem so I wanted to make it up to you! Thank
you for your understanding and hopeful forgiveness,
Marie Smith of Colorado Springs is an example of humility, good business, and seemliness. In the future, whenever I need a watchband, you can be sure I will buy it from her. (Though with her generous gift of four watchbands, I’ll be 87 years old before I’ll need to call upon her again. Thank you, Marie.)
Unseemly isn’t what we are, mostly, though it’s the one booming voice in a quiet room. It’s tempting to throw up our hands and say, as the homeless guy’s sign said in black crayon on cardboard: Come on man. This sucks. That’s honesty, no doubt, but for many of us, seemly is something we can adjust within ourselves. Our circumstances have given us the choice. It’s a tool to go high (when they go low). That old-fashioned word, seemly, let’s make it fashionable again. Let’s do it for Marie Smith, in the hospital, worrying about my watchband. Let’s do it for my sister in Australia who feels the grief of distance compounded by a fear for the future of her homeland. Let’s do it for Justice Ruth Ginsburg and all the well-intended lovers of the Constitution of the United States of America. And for ourselves, our girls, our boys. Our world. This pear-shaped spinning object of great beauty, depending on us as we depend on it.
What is it that eases my heart every time a train rumbles by? The predictability? The knowledge that when this one comes and goes, another will replace it? The sense of connection-by-track to the enduring cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and other great metropolises of this nation? The understanding that through fire and snow, sickness and death, the engines move undeterred across our immense landscape? That nothing will stop it, except robbers looking for bags of money, and they are a thing of the past? That all the things that bring us to our knees right now will not bring the train to a halt? That the sound and vibration are surprisingly comforting, like being held and rocked inside an enormous tunnel by a fleshy, unapologetic body?
Often I wake up in the night, thinking the house is falling down, only to come to my senses and understand it’s a train. There is no feeling of panic. I have no sense of impending disaster. I reason with myself: the house is falling—again. No, it’s the train, the first engines dragging and the last ones pushing. In between, there’s only the steady heartbeat of wheels scouring the track.
It comes into my dreams in the same sinuous way it takes a corner. The other night it carried me to the river, the Colorado, and left me on a high wooden platform that wasn’t stage or dam, but a scaffold of sorts over which people were dragging their boats. Looking down at the river below, we gasped. The river, the lifeblood of the Southwest, was only creek-wide. You could walk across it. You could throw a barstool across it. “Still,” said one man lugging a kayak, “it’s the right color and all.” I wanted to tell him the deep clear green wasn’t the right color, actually, just the color we’d all gotten used to.
It was no dream the two summers I worked on a fire crew up in the Crown King district of the Prescott National Forest. They’d helicopter us in, we’d scrape line all night, then they’d tell us to walk out. We were seven short people, wore the same length jeans, and we’d hike out of there singing “Hi ho, hi ho.” Jean was the only other woman on the crew and she taught me how to get in a good nap when the fire died down and the air cooled off toward morning. Dig a trench, fill it with hot coals, throw dirt on top of that and lie down. Though I was just as likely to stay up with the boys, listening to their stories about life in the mountains. If we weren’t out in the burning woods, we’d gather in the Crown King saloon on a Saturday night and listen to the not-so-bad band singing Eagles songs and Crosby, Stills & Nash while the old-timers two-stepped. I was, for a brief time, a band member myself. Banged the tambourine.
Which speaks nothing of the terror of working a fire—from ahead of it if you’ve got the maneuverability and the wind cooperates, otherwise anywhere you can lay down a line. Meals Ready to Eat and frozen canteens of water. For me the scariest thing was knowing I had a fire shelter in my pack, it looked like something you’d wrap a baked potato in before throwing it directly on the coals. That shelter frightened me more than anything else about that summer (except the 1979 Castle Fire that started in Crown King’s backyard). Knowing that I had on my person a tube of tinfoil whose purpose was to keep me alive as a fire ran over me—knowing I was supposed to keep from scorching my lungs by breathing with my face in the dirt while the fire raged around me—something in this allowed me no comfort, no peace of mind. It was, had I known then what I know now, the opposite of what the train offers, holding and rocking me inside its great fleshy heart.
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