COVID Dream

I woke up way too early this morning—like 4 a.m.—and although I finally managed to get back to sleep for a while, I dreamed. Here is what I dreamed, along with my expert analysis of what it meant.

  • I dreamed that my bird somehow managed to dismantle her cage from the inside. Well, that’s obvious! Aren’t we all sick of being caged up and ready to bust out?
  • I dreamed that there was a big hole in the floorboards of my house. Representing the opening up of society? Let’s go with that.
  • My cat Mr. Bean was here! But given that he died nearly five years ago, this was obviously a zombie cat and so I’m letting him represent the coronavirus. (Sorry, Mr. Bean.)
  • The bird went through the hole in the floor, where she was caught by the cat. Oh, no! The virus is still out there!
  • I managed to drag cat and bird out of the hole. (Another lockdown??) The bird was okay, though looking sad, bedraggled, and frightened.

And the moral of this story is: Stay in your cage! There are zombies on the loose!

If you have a better explanation of this dream, let me know. Otherwise, I’m sticking with this one!

1960s Déjà Vu

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

I got up this morning experiencing a sense of déjà vu that sent me looking for my bound volume of all the campus newspapers from my senior year in college—1969-1970. I was editor-in-chief that year, so there’s a lot of me on those pages, from editorial decisions about what got covered and what went on the front page to editorial statements (many, in retrospect, rather outrageous!) about everything that was going on that year.

There was a lot going on. There was a Moratorium declared in opposition to the Vietnam War. On December 2, 1969, there was the infamous draft lottery. We put out a special issue on the environment in March of 1970. There was also the Texas Pop Festival and skinny dippers in Turtle Creek. But I think what prompted my déjà vu was the memory of our black students’ association (yes, we had one at SMU) and the list of demands they drew up and how meticulously we tried to cover them in the student newspaper. We got criticism for that.

The previous year, in May of 1968, I had submitted a term paper in which I cited numerous political theorists and a few black activists. The paper concluded that white America had long since declared war on black Americans and that black people had every right to fight back, including with violence. I quoted extensively from James Baldwin and even included one citation of Stokely Carmichael’s writings.

There had been repeated riots through the 1960s. We may have thought that the Civil Rights Act and school integration and a few other achievements would fix things. More recently, we may have thought that having a black President would fix things.

Nothing has been fixed. The past decade has seen a vicious resurgence of (never dormant) white supremacy with its constant toxic handmaiden, white privilege. And black people and other people of color have had enough. The current pandemic has revealed the deadly extent of existing economic and healthcare inequalities. The murder of George Floyd forced us to see what we haven’t wanted to see: The heritage of slavery and Jim Crow are with us still.

When people time after time are pushed to the brink, when they ask for and then beg for and then demand change and nothing changes, eventually something explodes.

When it’s a gas fire, you don’t just spray water. You turn off the gas. And until we address the very real structural inequalities that exist within our society, we’re going to keep having explosions. Maybe even some big ones.

 

A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

One Small Step…

I’ve chosen July 20 for the release of my new novel, NOT KNOWING, very deliberately: It’s the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Meg Fitzellen (my main character) knew that the moon landing was a significant event in the life of her father; she just had no idea how significant it truly was.

I watched the landing on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of a student hostel in Austria in 1969, while I was on a study-abroad trip. Not coincidentally, so did Meg’s father!

If you haven’t seen the CNN documentary yet, by all means tune in this Sunday, June 23!

Remembering Loss

A writer I follow on Twitter made the point that Memorial Day is not a day for calling up your military vet friends to thank them for their service, but rather a day for remembering those who died in service to our country.
Technically, she’s right, of course. But I think maybe it’s both.
I think it’s also a day for remembering all of our returned vets who have committed suicide and those who continue to do so with alarming regularity.
I think it’s a day for remembering homeless vets.
I think it’s a day for remembering the dreams that died on the battlefield with lost limbs and lost sanity.
I’m especially vulnerable to such sentiments this year because my next novel delves into these issues and especially into the legacy of family hardship that follows along with them.
I honor those who have given of themselves in honorable service. But I also hope for a day when we no longer sacrifice our young men and women’s lives and limbs and dreams in the service of ill-advised wars and interminable conflicts.

Remembering Mothers

 

 

 

The memories that matter are not at your grave site. There I find only tears, sad faces, loss. No, the memories I seek are in the houses where life happened.

In the kitchen where we sat together shelling peas or on the porch where we ate grapes with ice while waiting for the postman or at the table where we listened to the radio and played endless games and you let me keep score or under the trees where we gathered pecans in autumn. Today I remember life. Happy Mothers’ Day!

Broken Things

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I broke a teacup today. Well, I didn’t exactly break it; it was broken when I unpacked it from the move. You can tell by the clean lines of the break that divided it into exactly four pieces that it was a pressure fracture rather than an impact. That would have shattered it and produced messy shards.
The cup was part of a delicate little tea set hand painted for my mother by my best friend’s grandmother in the late 1950s. Well, she was my best friend back then. After my family moved away in the summer of 1962, my best friend and I wrote letters back and forth for a while. We were in high school and by the time we both went off to college, we only saw each other a few more times. Now I don’t even know where she is or what her name is. These things happen to women. We change our names and move on.
One of my Facebook friends suggested I have the cup repaired by the Japanese technique that fuses the pieces back together using gold or silver, making the piece more beautiful for its accident, making the break a part of its history instead of the end of it. That didn’t seem right for this piece.
My friend Debra Broz said she could put it back together and make it look good as new. I’ve seen her work; no one would ever have known it had been broken. Except me. I’d always know. And I’d always know it was Debra’s art as much as my school friend’s grandmother’s art that created my teacup. That didn’t seem right either.
Another friend suggested I have one of the fragments made into a piece of jewelry. Maybe I’ll do that.
Or maybe I’ll just try to track down my school friend and we can talk about her grandmother and drink tea from the cups that didn’t break.

Retrospective

church

The house where I lived for four years during high school no longer exists. The ground where it stood is now a paved parking lot for the Methodist Church across the street. That church is why I was there. My dad was the preacher. We lived in the parsonage.

The church is still there, white and solid and pretty as ever, with its proud historic marker out front, its claim to continuity and care. The town itself looks much the same as I remembered it, only older and with a few things missing. The old train station is gone. It was where the whole town used to turn out for pep rallies on Thursday nights before the Friday high school football games. Trains hadn’t stopped there in years. The old Baptist Church is a ruin, but there’s a new one.

I was back for a high school class reunion – our 50th. Like the town, we were all older and some members were missing. My folks had moved away shortly after I graduated high school, so I hadn’t seen these classmates in 50 years. It’s a strange feeling. We barely remember who we were back in high school and have no idea who each other is now. There were only 33 of us when we graduated; seven are gone. Out of the 26 remaining, ten of us showed up for the reunion. Others were too far away, in poor health, or had pressing obligations of family or work.

“I’ve been thinking about how much things have changed in the past 50 years,” I said to one of my classmates as we departed for our respective homes, some farther away than others.

“Yeah,” he said. “You know, in 1966 when we graduated, it was the class of 1916 having a 50-year reunion. They probably thought things had changed a lot, too.” That added a little perspective.

We talked a while longer. He lamented the local schools having been taken over by the Mexicans. Not just any Mexicans – the Raza Unida ones. He said it was hard to get help on the farms and ranches anymore. Our hometown was now just a bunch of meth labs and addicts. Some people send their kids to distant towns – smaller towns – so they can get that good country schooling experience. Some people, he said, think about selling their farms and ranches. “But where would we go?” It was a tough question.

I felt the distance between us. Not just the years, but the disparate experiences. I thought about the old story of the blind men and the elephant. We’re like that. We’ve experienced different slices and segments of life, so of course we draw different conclusions about what it all means.

He told me about an encounter he’d had a couple years back with a “colored man” coming through town. There weren’t any “colored people” in our town. According to what my dad heard when we were living there, the last black people in the town had been lynched.

This is where I went to high school. This is where I graduated 50 years ago. Things have changed a lot in 50 years. In some places more than in others.

The Encounter

nobodyREMEMBERS

Way of the Serpent opens with Jenda Swain’s encounter with an old woman, a woman Jenda doesn’t remember. “Of course you don’t remember,” the woman says. “Nobody remembers much of anything anymore.”

Shadow of the Hare begins with the same scene, but this time the reader is seeing it from the viewpoint of the old woman, Malia Poole, a dissident author and bibliophile. Here is what happens as Malia leaves the cafe where the encounter occurred:

Tears began to fall as soon as I was out on the street. I felt betrayed. Damn these disconnected memories! I have more memories than most people these days, but there’s that one year from high school—the period when I knew Jenda best—that’s always been a blank. At least until recently. It’s cruelly ironic that now I’ve reached an age when normal memories start to fade, these submerged ones begin to wash up like shards of sea glass on a beach. I write them down, cataloging them like curios of uncertain provenance, although sometimes I wish I could hurl them back into the ocean of forgetfulness from which they came.

After I left the café, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jenda. She felt like a key to something. I may not remember a lot about her, but I do know that up-tight little prude with the pressed lapels isn’t the girl I knew in high school. I’m pretty sure that back then she was a passionate Vintagonist. Something had happened to her, something very different from what has happened to me.

Preorder Shadow of the Hare.

You haven’t read Way of the Serpent? Free download continues through April 9.