Cats and the Philosophy of Health Care

At our Socrates Cafe meeting on Saturday, we discussed the ethics of rationing health care.  How are decisions made about administering medical care?  Should health care be awarded to the wealthiest, the most fit, the least at-risk or the most at-risk?  Is health care a commodity that can be administered according to social and economic guidelines?  Is health care distinct from “illness care”?  And so on.  Our group is rather small and not especially representative of any particular demographic.  I don’t think we’re “solving” anything, we’re just enjoying discussion and engagement and some brain activity.  I’m exploring the results of allowing other people to comment on the products of my own bizarre thinking.  Which is kind of what blogging is about as well.

As I put in my own perspective on this issue, I realize that I speak from experiences that have centered mostly around my husband’s illness and death and from observances of non-human beings.  Jim used to chalk up a lot of his medical interventions as “better living through technology”.  He was the recipient of some very technical and somewhat heroic (although now pretty standard) procedures.  It was a complicated arena of insurance issues, multiple specializing doctors, drug interactions and availability, and the donor list system.  There were layers of decision-making involved and a fabric of responsibility that was pretty nebulous.  When his pulmonologist found out that he’d died, he asked me, “What are you doing about it?”  I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.  “I’m grieving!” I answered.  “I mean legally,” he explained.

Who is responsible for my health?

As for the observance of non-humans and their health, I look to the pets I have known.  Specifically cats.  I learned a lot from Pinkle, who somehow got injured up in the attic one day.  She simply stopped using her back legs until they had healed.  She slept.  She ate.  She tried out putting weight on them gradually, and eventually got back to doing all the things she had been doing.  She didn’t complain.  She didn’t seem miserable.  She didn’t worry or push herself or engage in any neurotic behavior that we could detect.  She took responsibility for herself, for the most part, and we provided food and shelter and quiet.  Phantom is another cat I have observed.  She is 16 years old now, and not living with me any more.  She had some urinary tract issues in the past when I did care for her.  I gave her antibiotics in pill and liquid form (which was an ordeal she did not welcome) and changed her food.  She had a bladder stone removed surgically as well.  That was maybe 10 years ago.  Her litter mate died of cancer a couple of years ago.  Cats don’t complain about pain much, and they don’t complain about death.  My kids tell me that Tabitha was purring as she died of the injection that ended her suffering.  Cats (and many other animals) have a tendency to seek out a quiet place to die.  They don’t make a big fuss.  We’re the ones who fuss.

Phantom del'Opera

Pinkle Purr (see poem by A.A. Milne)

What if we focused on healthy living and didn’t sweat so much about “illness care”?  What if we made it our social/economic/political responsibility to work hard to provide clean water, clean air, healthy food, shelter, education about health, and quiet (less stress) for as many of us as we can, and let illness play out as it would naturally?  What if we as a community took responsibility for supporting health but abstained from taking responsibility for preventing death?  It’s not like we’d be successful in that effort ultimately anyway, right?  We’d do our best to give you the basic needs, and the rest is up to you and nature.  That’s how human life went before technology kicked in, and plenty of people lived to reproduce (or we wouldn’t be here today).   Is there anything wrong with that model?

That’s my two cents for the health care debate.

Mad Farmers

I picked up a book of Wendell Berry’s poetry from off Steve’s shelf.  The book is called The Country of Marriage, and this poem is contained therein.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer. 

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed. 

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest. 

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years. 

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men. 

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth? 

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts. 

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. 

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 Has much changed since 1971? Are there mad farmers occupying Wall Street? 

Going Deeper

‘There is something rich and alive in these people. They want to be able to breathe the Great Breath. They are like children, helpless. And then they’re like demons. But somewhere, I believe, they want the breath of life and the communion of the brave, more than anything.’

She was surprised at herself, suddenly using this language. But her weariness and her sense of devastation had been so complete, that the Other Breath in the air, and the bluish dark power in the earth had become, almost suddenly, more real to her than so-called reality. Concrete, jarring, exasperating reality had melted away, and a soft world of potency stood in its place, the velvety dark flux from the earth, the delicate yet supreme life-breath in the inner air. Behind the fierce sun the dark eyes of a deeper sun were watching, and between the bluish ribs of the mountains a powerful heart was secretly beating, the heart of the earth.  — from The Plumed Serpent by D. H. Lawrence

Steve and I are reading this novel aloud.  The chapter that follows this quote describes a sensual ritual inspired by the god Quetzalcoatl.  D.H. writes with a rhythmic repetition that is especially enhanced in the hearing of it.  The protagonist, Kate, is an Irish woman opening herself to the experience of Mexico in the 1920s; the political and racial and sexual tensions pulsate under the glaring sun and a dark softness broods beneath them.  Last night, we listened to some selections of Richard Strauss (Four Last Songs), Shostakovich (Movements III and IV of the 5th symphony), and Wagner (prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde”) and talked about sinking into deeper places in the soul.  Obsession, ego, openness, control.  And under-girding it all, the space for life and love to unfold, which I might call “God”.  It’s like moving from a caress to a deep-tissue massage.  How much can you stand?  Does it feel dangerous?  I feel a “safety valve” kick in when I am in that dark night which always brings me back to the light.  I don’t know if that’s my ego wrestling control out of the situation or an intrinsic optimism that says that the space where everything takes place is basically safe.  When I am seized by grief or anxiety, I can only cry so much…and then I stop.  Steve seems to have a Slavic tolerance for brooding that far exceeds mine.

And today, Steve is dizzy and nauseated.  He took an antihistamine yesterday for his allergies, and he never takes drugs.  So he is sleeping it off beside me, breathing deeply and regularly.  A squirrel hangs upside down outside the window eating maple seeds amid the green and golden foliage.  The body, bodies, the earth: we move in and out of shadow and sunshine and time.  Nothing lasts, not brooding or joy, cohesion or disbursement.  The universe is in motion.  No wonder we feel dizzy sometimes.

Sky and water on a moving planet

You’re Grounded!

I have this thing about wanting to do things “right”.  I grew up with a strict father who had a clear sense of what he thought was right, and I was always trying to please him.  I find myself feeling anxious about whether or not I’ve made the right decisions or acted in the best possible way or been “good” in every way I can.  The more interactions I have, the more I have to feel anxious about.  So, in a busy week, I feel more stress.  Yesterday, I spent 7 hours making pea soup.  It turned out fine, although I had to do some re-direction and repair in the middle (turns out that whole dried peas don’t cook the same way as split peas).  Not a big deal, but I felt like I had “failed” to be super-efficient and triumphant in that endeavor.  My relationship with my cooking contained some anxiety and thus drained energy from me rather than invigorating me.  We have a relationship to everything on the planet, and this is living.  Living can be a drain, or it can be energizing, or anywhere in between.  It depends on whether you’re blocking energy or “surfing” on it.  In other words, you can be at war with life, or you can be at peace with it.  Our relationship with food is a good example of this.  Did you know that the use of pesticides and herbicides came out of the technology of WWI?  The chemicals that were developed for warfare were applied to food production.  Agribusiness declared war on the earth in order to use its technology and generate a wartime economy.  Conflict, manipulation, “strong-arming” the earth in order to wrestle food from it is a particular kind of relationship.  Organic farming uses a more peaceful relationship to obtain food, working with nature and not against it.

I have been trained, in a way, to think that doing things in a prescribed “right” way is the least stressful.  I have been a pretty compliant person.  But this anxiety of compliance also produces stress.  Is there another way?  Yes.  Being grounded and open.  I’m never going to know the “right” way to do everything because there isn’t a right way.  There are a million ways.  And that’s okay.  Steve and my sister share a birthday.  They both have a way of reminding me that the way I am is wonderful, but it’s not the only way.  They both play “devil’s advocate” and bring up something that I hadn’t thought about without saying I’m wrong.  It took me some time to take this as a gift and not as a chastisement.  I was used to taking everything short of complete praise as chastisement.  I used to be somewhat afraid of both of these important people whom I love so much.  They are challenging (and they are smarter than I am).  I have a relationship with them that can be conflictual or peaceful depending on my posture of defensiveness or openness.

So, I’m still thinking about all my relationships to the residents of earth, from the dominant one I have with Steve (three year anniversary today of our very first date) to the invisible ones I have with the bacteria in my own body.   My sister points out that “What are you feeling?” is perhaps a better question than “How are you feeling?”  What am I feeling in these relationships?  Am I feeling energized?  Drained?  Peaceful?  Afraid? Stiff? Open? Anxious?  Sad? Mad? Glad?  Being open to what I’m feeling allows discussion and movement and flow and change.

Letting go of the anxiety of having “right” relationships and exploring what I feel is what I mean by being grounded and open.  What surfaces in our relationships to other species when we do this?  Here’s one thing that came to mind: the euthanizing of animals who have attacked humans.  I have read several news articles lately about grizzly bear attacks, wild cat attacks and even a deer attack (a buck with antlers that inflicted some serious wounds) that ended with the report that these animals “had to be euthanized”.  I always thought that euthanasia was “mercy killing”, like putting a wounded animal out of its misery.  These stories don’t indicate that the animals were in misery, they were simply protecting territory or defending themselves from a perceived threat.  It seems that they were killed as a punishment for attacking a human.  Some of the articles mention that the possibility of rabies warrants “mercy”, but the animal is killed before any diagnosis of rabies is made.   What is the feeling?  Do these animals need to be punished because they’ve injured a human?  Is this about anger and a preference for humans?  Are we at war with animals?  If we end up in the same place at the same time, is it kill or be killed because you are my enemy?   Why shouldn’t an animal take out a human who has shot at it or who represents a food source in a depleted environment?  Are we somehow exempt from being in that kind of relationship?  Why?  For that matter, are we supposed to be exempt from being on the “losing” side of a relationship with listeria bacteria?  Are we “better” or “more valuable”?  Why? (or why not?)

How much can we be open to in our relationships with the world?

What do you feel about buzzards?

What about lotus flowers?

Activism

I am building a vocabulary of A-words: awareness, appreciation, action, attitude and activism.  I just got back from Madison where my family walked in a fundraiser for the American Diabetes Association.  Yesterday, we saw the film “Think Global Act Rural” (“Solutions Locales Pour un Desordres Global”) in a showing by the Milwaukee Film Festival.  Go to the website at http://www.thinkglobalactrural.com to see more about it.  I recommend it for its intense presentation of the failure of the Green Revolution and its depiction of organic farming solutions.  I can’t recommend its artistry, though.  The jumpy, out-of-focus camera handling is distracting to me, and the sequence of segments is a bit disjointed as well.  But the information is astonishing.  Of course, these two events are interconnected.  As a species, we have been poisoning ourselves and starving ourselves and getting further and further from being able to maintain a healthy relationship with food and food production.  Statistics can be eye-opening and misleading at the same time.  Rather than throw some shocking numbers up, I’d like to challenge you to look deeply into a few questions:

1) Do you think that spending time and effort in obtaining food is something basic to life?  Is that a right, a responsibility, a duty, or a privilege?  How would you describe it?  Is it something too “base” for beings as intelligent as we are?  Or is it ennobling to use our intelligence to do it well and graciously?  What do you think of farmers and their work?

2) How would you feel if you discovered that multinational corporations were purposely studying global food production to figure out ways to create monopolies on all aspects of it?  How would you feel if you realized that because of that control, a change or break-down in their system would mean that access to food would be cut off entirely for the populations that had become dependent on them?  And that, very likely, would include you.

3) How much do you know about the food web, how plants make food, how soil and sun deliver the necessary building blocks for plant life, etc?  If you had only yourself and nature to depend on, how would you eat?

4) How much does the quality of a person’s health depend on their diet, do you think?  Do you think that the medical industry creates a dependency on costly health care and de-emphasizes the importance of a naturally healthy lifestyle?  Do you think about “the bottom line” and who may be making money on your lifestyle choices?

5) Are you satisfied with the way that you live?  Do you think your neighbors are?  Your nation?  How about the people in other countries?  How about the planet?  Are you satisfied with the way that life on this planet is going?  (Yeah, this is broad, but whatever you’re thinking, try to follow it out to that end.  And do be serious.  It’s far too easy to be clever.)

Slowing Down

The morning after a splendid dinner party looks like this:

A kitchen full of dirty dishes

Four people, five beverages, three courses = dishes to wash.  Oh, but it went quickly and painlessly.  Then I took naps.  Three so far.  We’re both feeling a bit out of it today, not sure why.  Not hungover or anything, just slow and wobbly.  Plus, it’s been raining steadily.  Seasonal changes and changes in habit seem more noticeable as I grow older.  That’s good, though.  I want to be more aware; I want to slow down and notice life.

Tomorrow, we plan to head north into the upper peninsula of Michigan and camp in the Porcupine Mountains.  I’ve never been there.  I want to take lots of pictures and write blog entries in a journal to post when I return.  I want to keep my eyes open and learn.  I also want to figure out how to recycle the empty propane canisters for the Coleman stove.  We’ve collected 5 now, and the best information I can gather from the Coleman website is that perhaps a steel recycling place will take them, perhaps not.  I remember finding one in a fire pit once and digging out fibrous pieces that looked like asbestos or something.  With any luck, we’ll find enough dry wood that we won’t need to use another one.

Today’s reading material was from the book of Job and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  Radical affirmations of the mystery, sanctity and loveliness of life.  “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?  Declare, if you know all this.”  I cannot comprehend, but I can love.

The Ultimate Simplicity of Unity

Health comes from wholeness.  This is true for every individual body on the face of the planet right up to the Earth itself.  If the spherical (3-dimensional) network of interconnections is intact and working in harmony, we enjoy good health.  Damaging those connections and setting up division between body and soul, body and earth, ourselves and others, creates a loneliness that we compensate using violence and competition.  Violence to part is violence to the whole.  We undo the fabric of life this way.  Whenever we insist on the “rights of the individual”, we chip away at those connections.  (see Jessa’s comment on the last post)  How do we practice unity and health?  How do we take up a posture of balance in our relationship to Creation or the Universe?  Do we have the maturity and courage to desire this responsibility on our own so that it isn’t an “obligation”?

This morning, I have been reading an essay by Wendell Berry called “The Body and The Earth” from The Unsettling of America published in 1977.  It is an extremely articulate and broad analysis of that “spherical network” that moves fluidly from agriculture, to Shakespeare and suicide, to sexual differences and divisions, and more.  Here is an excerpt from the beginning which describes the mythic human dilemma:

“Until modern times, we focused a great deal of the best of our thought upon such rituals of return to the human condition.   Seeking enlightenment or the Promised Land or the way home, a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.  Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or master or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.  And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he become a fiend; he cannot descend into the final despair of destructiveness.  Returning from the wilderness, he becomes a restorer of order, a preserver.  He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors.  He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.”

Last night, Steve handed me his own definition of living holistically: establishing (or re-establishing) a personal responsibility towards all aspects of the universe.  He defines responsibility here as love, that is “presence with or an acknowledged relationship with” and the desire to improve that relationship.  He noted that this responsibility comes from free will, not as an obligation.  This is the posture of openness, the basic attitude to begin any discussion about living sustainably or in unity and harmony.  Think of it as the beginning of a tai chi exercise or a yoga session.  You take a balanced position: heels together and toes out for tai chi; heels together, toes together, palms together in front of your heart for yoga.  Breathe deeply, opening connections to the respiratory system, the digestive system, the circulatory system.

Steve assumes the position

This is only the beginning, but as Mary Poppins would say, “Well begun is half done.”  This part takes practice, just like meditation.  Return to your breath.  Return to a position of openness as you try to save the planet.  We are not gods and we are not fiends.  We are humans who love the universe, who desire to improve our relationship with every aspect of it.

How are you feeling today?

Last night I read a play that really impressed me.  It is a piece of writing that satisfies on many levels.  It’s called “W;t” (or “Wit”) by Margaret Edson, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.  I recommend it highly, especially to the Approximate Chef and Memma.  You will love the protagonist, a 50 year old professor of seventeenth century poetry, specializing in John Donne.  She has stage 4 ovarian cancer, and the action is set entirely in the hospital.  Her understanding of life, of living from your wits, is rigorous, exacting, detailed, intelligent.  Being treated for cancer puts her in a situation that is painful, humiliating, and collaborative.  The script is brilliant and suddenly tender at the end in a way that doesn’t degenerate into sentimentality, but strikes firmly at the heart.  If I were to see this live in the theater, I’m sure I would be unable to rise from my seat for a good half hour after the curtain fell.  I’d be savoring every emotion.  Read it and you’ll see what I mean.  One of the “running gags” is that the intern keeps reminding himself of the “clinical” practice of asking the patient how she is feeling.  The question may seem moot, or insensitive, or humorous, but it points to self-awareness regularly, which for most of us is sorely needed.

I am noticing the subtle changes of aging.  I hear popping and cracking in my joints whenever I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I feel stiffness in the morning from sleeping on our rock-hard futon.  I have never been very flexible, and today, I tried to do yoga along with a DVD.  I found myself mesmerized by the instructor’s body and thinking of my sister Dharam, who has taught yoga, acrobatics and dance for 30 years.  It is so beautiful to watch, and I feel like my body will never be able to do it.   Memma can do it; she is fluid and flexible and of a completely different body type.  I wonder if all bodies can if they practice regularly.  The problem is fear.  I am afraid and mistrust my own body.  The way to dismantle fear is with understanding.  I had a massage a week ago, and as each muscle was touched, I felt as if I were being introduced to it for the first time.  “Oh!  That’s my muscle going from there…to…there.  It feels a bit tight and tender; I wonder if I can relax it?  Breathe….”  I am trying not to think things like, “Oh, my god!  I am so stiff and creaky!  There must be something really wrong with me.  I probably have bone cancer!”

I keep reminding myself that I just had a full physical, mammogram and pap, and blood work done, all with normal results.  If I hadn’t, I could probably convince myself that I had one foot in the grave.  My hypochondria is fully actualized.  I’m sure part of that is due to living with Jim throughout the stages of his illness and death.  The vigilance we developed became a blessing and a curse.  The trick is finding balance, finding the Middle Way.  As I stand with my toes and heels together, arms at my side, breathing deeply through my nose, I remember this.  Balance.  Breath.  Practice.  Love myself.  Ask myself compassionately, “How are you feeling today?”

Feeling fine, thanks!

Dear Prudence

Last night, we watched the movie “Into the Wild” which tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, who walked into the wilderness of Alaska to live off the land and do battle with some personal demons.   After 113 days, he died of starvation.  The story brings up some very interesting questions about society, “prudence”, and responsibility.

“Society!  So – ci – e – ty!!!” yells Vince Vaughn in a bar scene.   His character is bonding with Chris in a less-than-articulate but heartfelt acknowledgement that we fuck each other up regularly.  Parents and children, systems, administrations, organizations, rules, protocol and expectations.   It’s all pretty neurotic when you step back and look at it.   Some days, maybe most of us would like to walk to Alaska to get away from it all, to experience the freedom and dignity of making our own choices and engaging with the world head on.   After 100 days of complete solitude, Chris writes that he is lonely.  I think of that Life of Mammals scene with all the baboons on an African mountain.  We are social animals; it’s in our DNA, and we can’t walk away from that.  Maybe that’s another part of life to engage head on.

The first time my mother met Steve, she made a comment about him being “prudent”.  He denied it immediately.  To him, ‘prudence’ has to do with conforming to the cultural norm for being sensible.   However, other definitions indicate “wisdom, judiciousness” as its characteristics.   Chris had no desire to conform to any cultural norm; to him, the culture was hypocritical and dishonest.  It wasn’t sensible at all.  His personal wisdom and judgment seemed pretty embryonic, which is probably why he wanted to challenge it and gain maturity through experience.  He was certainly intelligent.  But why didn’t he take the time to prepare more thoroughly for his wilderness adventure?  Why did he choose not to use a compass or a map?  Why didn’t he tell anyone where he was going or make any emergency plans?  Those decisions bring up the question of responsibility.

It seems that most people assume that our primary responsibility is to survive.   Many people held Chris responsible for his return from the wild.   The fact that he didn’t return led many to suspect that he was basically suicidal.  Are the oldest people in our society the most “responsible” ones?   Is cheating death for as long as possible the mark of wisdom?  If we’re all going to die some day, our success in survival is simply an incremental one.   It seems to make life about quantity.   What about quality and the way we live?   Would it be responsible to sacrifice your life for something you value highly?  Some people believe that Chris was doing that.  They think he was a hero.  Others think his adventure was “a pointless fuck up”.

Prudence in Death Valley: wear a hat, bring water

This judgement about what is responsible is the stuff that made me a neurotic mother.  Am I “responsible” for navigating the waters of life for myself , my husband, and all my children?  How much responsibility do I take?  Which risks are worth it?  Do I allow my kids to walk to school alone, to learn to drive, to travel?   Do I ‘allow’ my diabetic husband to eat ice cream?  If someone in my family dies, does that mean that I have failed?  We’re all going to die; does that mean I’m doomed to fail at life?  You see – this can start a very vicious cycle of paranoia and dread.  Is it wise to live with that?

I think that I used to abdicate that issue of responsibility and pass it on to God.  I figured He was responsible for my life and my death, and I was off the hook.  That was useful for a while.  My grandmother used to hedge her bets by saying, “Trust in God, but do your homework.”   I suppose that’s useful advice as well.   I find that Buddhism gives a useful perspective, too.  It says simply that life and death is what we’re given, and that we can choose how we live.  Jim used to say, “I can be sick and miserable or I can be sick and happy.  I choose happy.  Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.”   All good stuff to think about.

“Jerry”, Faulkner and the Laundromat

*Note: this was originally posted on Sept. 15, 2011.  It has been edited for submission to Into The Bardo, A Blogazine.  “The Bardo” is a place of transition, perhaps akin to Purgatory.  It is common ground and a sacred space of sorts.  It’s intriguing to think of the Laundromat as a place like that.*

David Attenborough makes a point in The Life of Mammals video about “Social Climbers” – monkeys.  He says that you can tell how large a monkey’s social group is by the size of his brain.  Baboons live in large, complex social structures and have the largest brains of all the monkeys.  Surviving and thriving in a social environment means that you have to be able to assess situations and make an array of decisions – how to make allies and with whom, how and when and whom to fight, how to secure a mate and improve your chances of passing on your genes.  Navigating social life is even more brain-bending if you’re human, I think.  More subtleties are involved.  Here’s a case in point: the laundromat.

When Jim and I were first married, I did laundry at the laundromat.  I hated going there, for several reasons.  First of all, I was pregnant.  The smells nauseated me; the physical demands of standing to fold and hoisting large loads of clothes around exhausted me.  It was a depressing place to be physically, but perhaps even more uncomfortable was the social aspect.  You never know what strangers you might encounter.  I have had some rather pleasant days at the laundromat.  I met a psychic, once, who was very interesting.  She could tell I was skeptical and not receptive, but she kept on talking to me nevertheless.  Gradually, I relaxed and figured out how to respect her and appreciate her and communicate that to her.  We parted with a hug and wished each other well.  Mostly, I get a pleasant experience if I can do my laundry in silence and read a few short stories at the same time.  What I often find is that the laundromat is a place to observe human suffering, my own and others’.

I happened to have selected a book of short stories by William Faulkner as my laundry companion.  I grabbed it off of Steve’s stack figuring that short stories would fit nicely into those periods of time between cycles, and I wouldn’t mind being interrupted or distracted as much as I would if I were trying to tackle “heavier” reading.  What I didn’t think about was that these stories of post-Civil War race relations would be cast for me on a backdrop of the urban reality of this century…and that the same awkward tensions would result.   I felt like some of his characters, eavesdropping in the kitchen, when people in the laundromat would chatter on their cell phones to friends and social agents.   Outwardly, I guess I was trying to be invisible.   I couldn’t help picking up snatches of their lives and wondering about their stories.   For example, Jerry and his family…

I’ve seen Jerry twice now.  Yesterday, I recognized him as I approached the laundromat.  He was wearing a diaper under sweatpants, shoes, and no shirt.  He was hitting his head repeatedly and grunting.  Or maybe it was more like moaning.   The woman he was with may have been his mother.  She was in a wheelchair with an artificial leg that looked like a sandbag.  He was with another woman as well, perhaps his sister.  She was the one doing the laundry.  I remembered them from a month ago.  They came with about 7 large, black garbage bags full of clothes.  They took a social services shuttle bus to get there; I knew this from hearing the mother make cell phone calls about being picked up.  This woman had the sweetest, kindest voice you would ever hope to hear.  Her voice was full of compassion and pain; it was lilting and rich and Southern.  I would cast her as a black Mammy in one of Faulkner’s stories.  Her manners were impeccable.  If she had to pass around me, she excused herself, and I felt like apologizing profusely for being in the way.  Her daughter (?), the other woman, spoke almost unintelligibly as she did the laundry and corralled Jerry.  Even the woman in the wheelchair told her, “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”    Jerry likes to wander.  They don’t want him to wander out to the street and get hit by a car.  They don’t want him to bother the other people in the building.  Their voices called out periodically, “Jerry.  Jerry, come over here.”  “Jerry, honey.  Stop!  Jerry, come here.”

When Jerry wanders near me, I don’t know what to do.  I keep my head down and my eyes in my book.  Would I frighten him if I made eye contact?  Would he frighten me?  Another gentleman was there.  He helped bring Jerry back inside when he wandered out.  The mother thanked him, “You’re so sweet.  Thank you, sir.”  They exchanged names.  He told her that he has a grandson who was hit by a car at age 7; the grandson is now 25 and has brain damage.  “Oh, so you know.  You understand,” she sighed.  I learned that Jerry is 32 years old.

In the other corner of the room, there was a mother with a 5-year old daughter, London.   She looked about 5, anyway.  London had a pacifier.  I heard her mother yelling at her.  “London!  Get up offa that floor!  Sit your butt down here!”  Her voice was sharp and angry.  London began to cry.  There is not much to interest a 5 year old in the laundromat.  She hadn’t brought any toys or books to occupy her.  The mother talked on her cell phone while London played with the lid of the laundry hamper.  I made eye contact with the child as we went about our business.  She silently bent her wrist toward me, while sucking her pacifier.  “Oh, did you hurt yourself?” I asked.  “London!  Get out of the way!” her mother said.

In the Faulkner story, Master Saucier Weddell is trying to get back to Mississippi from Virginia.  He is the defeated.  He and his traveling companion, his former slave who is very attached to him and his family, find themselves in Tennessee at a farmhouse.   These victors are extremely suspicious.  They think Mr. Weddell is a Negro.  Actually, he’s Cherokee and French.  The story is short, but intense.  The traveler and the farmer’s younger son end up being killed in an ambush by the farmer and his Union soldier son, Vatch.  The last two sentences read, “He watched the rifle elongate and then rise and diminish slowly and become a round spot against the white shape of Vatch’s face like a period on a page.  Crouching, the Negro’s eyes rushed wild and steady and red, like those of a cornered animal.”

I finished my laundry in silence.  I waved my fingers and mouthed “goodbye” to London who had been banished to the corner.  Her mother didn’t see me.

At home, the late afternoon sun shines down on the quilt on my bed.  Steve isn’t home, and it’s very quiet.  I feel like crying.  My brain is not big enough to figure out why.

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