Ma foi est mort; vive ma foi

It’s been one of those “she has a three” weeks, to be honest. 2020 in general and the pandemic in particular has tied together all the salley ropes of my alarm bells, so if you ring one, you ring them all. A church friend died suddenly; another friend has been in hospital; people I know are getting tested, getting exposed; my own health has been iffy in ways that ought to be familiar but with the backlighting of anxiety turns to a landscape of monsters.

So I did some things that Future Me would appreciate. I wrote down contact numbers and an outline of directions if I should be taken suddenly ill — “I, being of as sound mind and body as can reasonably be expected…” I bought a new sauté pan with a glass lid and used it to make Indian butter chickpeas; the kind of gift that keeps giving. Washed some dishes. Shredded some junk mail. Accepted the offer of local publication for a story. Sat on the front lawn of my building with a friend (she, socially distanced in a lawn chair) with a glass of rosé, watching the dusk fall.

A spiritual director I once had used to talk about “practicing the absence” as a photo negative to Brother Lawrence’s “practicing the presence”: strangely, it involves doing many of the same things. It was not a spirituality, nor a practice, that attracted me much. I did not have to practice a presence that was with me whether I wanted it or not, and doing tasks mindfully seemed to me to be extra makework for the ADHD brain. I preferred the kataphatic movement — the affirmation of images, the celebration of festal pleasures, the shame-less pursuit of fruition — to the apophatic. This also is Thou. My soul was not built to have lovers, and John of the Cross’s metaphor of going to one’s lover in the dark of loss was doubly alien to my sensibility.

But I think I’m in a place where I need an apophatic orientation. Neither is this Thou. Let the images crack apart like dropped tiles; let my need to care burn its last slip on a makeshift wilderness altar; let the treadle of sacred time turn on joys I don’t feel as I give it its minimal push; let it go, let it all go, fashion myself no facile hopes and cling to no impoverished pictures.

I once thought this kind of thing was as self-indulgent and over-dramatic as the lovers of the Affirmative Way were accused of being; but it is not. It’s just the offering that presents itself to be made. Best to do it by choice. Ma foi est mort; vive ma foi.

I’m sure there are some fellow pilgrims on the Via Negativa just now. I’m sure I’ll probably find them. That’s usually how these things work. Bless you, and let’s walk on.

The ticks of racism: a white person addresses whites

Look, we’ve been over this. I have been over this, in this blog, which is not even my political venue of choice. This blog is supposed to be a place for my own benign commentary on writing, my own and other people’s; remember “benign commentary?” To me it’s like one of those spiders you fit into the center of a 45 record so you could play it on a 78 turntable. I don’t know how to “benign commentary” anymore. All I know is I have to find a way to be in this world so that the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer won’t be ashamed of me in that cloud of witnesses that unwarrantably swells now day by day.

So. If you are white and reading this, know that what Black voices are saying right now is more important than this. I’ll put a representative sample from my milieu here. If you haven’t read it yet, do that first.

To be quite honest: I don’t fucking know why it is not self-evident to everyone that Black faces are the Image of God — i.e. fully representative of humanity at its pinnacle, as any other human would be; and possessed of the right to exist untrammeled, as any other human would be. If you feel the urge to quibble with that, to say it doesn’t apply to the hellscape we’re living in, you must not think it’s self-evident and I refer you back to the beginning of this paragraph. The rest of this writing assumes that self-evidency.

But to be even more honest: it’s not quite true. I have an idea why it’s not self-evident to a startlingly large percentage of my fellow white folks. Because here’s another truth: treating people badly makes us hate them more. We think it’s the other way around. We think that hurting or kicking or insulting or mistreating someone discharges hate and ill-will towards them, that if we can act upon that anger and ill-will then we will be rid of its corrosive effects. We will have closure if we can punish just the right amount. We will be able to think well of someone once they have accepted whatever we wish to heap upon their head.

The hardest sin to forgive another person is the sin committed by ourselves against them.

And we white people know damn good and well that we have committed a vast cataract of sins against people of color who ought to be our fellow citizens. Collectively and individually we have committed them. With mens rea and without. And just as I can’t shop for basic groceries without giving my dollars to some gross corporation, I can’t live my life without benefiting, right now, from the practical effects of that cataract of sins.

Other people are saying better than I what can and should be done about structural racism. What I have to say here is about relational racism. I don’t have jack to say to my fellow white people about what our grandfathers did or didn’t do. They did it, or they didn’t do it; who cares. I’m talking about what happens in your and my everyday life, when someone, Black or not, calls you out for something you did or said. How can you, how can I, bear what seems like an attack on our stable self-identity as a nice person who is not A Racist??

I came up with this metaphor in a less fraught hour, so it may or may not play. I think of racism as I think about ticks. Anybody can get a tick on them, anybody. In a bad tick year, you don’t even have to go into the woods; sometimes, you don’t even have to leave the house, especially if a pet or person brings them in.

Ticks are just ticks. They are just pests. But it doesn’t pay to be complacent about them, because: they also carry diseases.

So when someone says, “You have a tick on you,” do you say: “I most certainly do not! I am not the kind of person who gets ticks on them. I never even go to the woods. How dare you!” Well, do you?

Historically speaking, when I’ve been told I have a tick on me, what I do is: I whimper piteously and beg them to take it off, and dispose of it so I don’t have to look at it.

But here’s the thing. Nobody is obligated to pick off your tick. You would hardly collar some random member of the public, drop your drawers, and ask them to remove a tick from your posterior. No, you ask a trusted friend or family member to take care of this intimate task. And even they are allowed to say, “Ugh, no thanks. Ask someone else.”

A day may come when you and nobody but you is available to remove the tick. And you may feel very sorry for yourself in the process. But that’s between you and yourself. Open your private bullet journal and commemorate the occasion:

  • Today, 2 June 2020: I removed a tick by myself. It sucked, but the tick is gone. Yay!
  • Tomorrow, 3 June 2020: make appointment with doctor to make sure I’m not infected.

People who do not attend to their ticks can get so infected that they no longer think they are sick, and eventually become a public health hazard.

Apparently quite a lot of people have decided to become a public health hazard. I guess they thought the coronavirus was fucking lonely or something.

This little trip down analogy lane has been half facetious, but I’m serious about one thing. If it matters to someone you don’t even know that you put on a mask, then it matters to someone you don’t even know if you check for the ticks of racism.

Because when it comes to bad tick years, this is Annus Horribilis.

Detective sergeants on parade

So, for reasons which it would be redundant to go over, I’ve been watching a lot of BBC detectives of late. I finally succumbed to the lure of a Britbox subscription even though I resent the way they shell-game all the shows I want to watch between one subscription or another; look, if I wanted to be nickel-and-dimed for television programming I could have just got cable TV. Capitalist greed, feh.

Anyway, I’ve been cycling between Inspectors Lynley and Morse, with a chaser of Poirot on rewatch, and found myself adoring the sergeants in each.

As far as I’m concerned DS Barbara Havers is the primary reason to watch the Lynley series. Scrappy, working-class, intuitive, she has like 50 chips on her shoulder and flies off an average of three handles per episode, and still she comes off as more stable than Lynley, whose love life only escapes being a weltering disaster by net volume. Lynley is a very good cop, and somehow he’s the only person who can get on Havers’s wavelength long enough to realize she’s also a very good cop. Havers spends most of three seasons on the knife edge of getting sacked, and every time it gets close you can just see the WTF on Sharon Small’s face, like a furious little bulfinch about to go on the attack.

Meanwhile, DS Robbie Lewis was already on my radar thanks to my having watched Inspector Lewis around the time it was being aired. I loved Lewis as a chief inspector and I love him even more as Morse’s sergeant, though he’s pretty much the diametric opposite of Havers in personality: even-keeled, pacific, and meticulous. He looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and Morse often laughs at him for being the kind of young family man who won’t say a cuss word and critiques the realism of pornographic films collected for evidence.

It’s that dramatic difference between the two sergeants that helped me tease out the thread of a trope I love: the loyal second-in-command. Because this is what Havers and Lewis have in common, so strongly that it carries a huge amount of emotional freight in both series.

As far as DS Havers is concerned, Lynley’s name is “Sir.” She doesn’t call him anything else, even when she’s throwing him a life preserver off the side of a speedboat. Even when Lynley at his most irrational chews her out for things beyond her control, she lets it ride and does what he says for the time being, because she trusts him in general. She argues with him, and occasionally disobeys him to follow up a lead, exactly so far as their dynamic will allow without breaking under strain.

DS Lewis, meanwhile, makes me laugh. He pokes fun at Morse poking fun at him. He comes back at Morse’s occasional intemperate accusations with a patient denial. He makes a mockery of class distinctions by refusing to complain about them. He fills in the gaps and asks the follow-up questions and helps Morse bend rules and gets conked on the head in dark places. He makes a fantastic catch in a cricket game, and looks over to where Morse is sitting in the audience, only to find him disappointingly asleep.

I love this dynamic because it is not a simple power differential. These characters are not equal in terms of the hierarchy they’re in, but they have the respect of their partners and a lot of room for maneuver. Occasionally the dynamic gets flipped topside and the sergeant is taking care of their boss. That’s my other bulletproof kink, honestly, and all my favorite working partnerships have it: Hazel and Bigwig, Breq and Seivarden, Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey, Simon Illyan and Miles Vorkosigan. No matter how much of this trope you dish out, I’ll still be back like Oliver Twist with my empty bowl and limpid eyes.

In fact, I’m fixing to dish bowlfuls of it out myself if I can ever get the plotting for The Lantern Tower off the ground. Curse this pandemic for spifflicating my creative season of the year.

Ah well. Back to the detectives tonight, I expect.

Marking time

The new leaves are out and making a deep susurrus when the wind gusts. Spring is no longer a matter of anticipation.

So this morning I took my elevenses out on my balcony, to get my share of the sunlight before the shadow of the roof sliced it off.

Clearing off my deck from the dormant dullness of the winter months gave me a pleasant little breath of normalcy, although I should long since have started this year’s garden. I’ve no idea what I’ll plant; every year I have to start over completely except for the spider plant and the snake plants which have lived up to their hardy reputation under my care.

Last week I did what I nearly always do sooner or later, and stepped out of chronology to write a scene further ahead in The Lantern Tower. I would complain about the pandemic eating up my spring creativity, but I’m much too grateful that those 1500 words were there for me to write. Small victories is the watchword of the day.

I’m mostly finished with edits to Household Lights; the rest is project management. I hope to have a release date nailed down soon.

Day by day, left foot forward, &c. We persevere.

Solaces

Let’s be real: in terms of mental health, I’m often not playing with a full deck right now. Sometimes, I’m not even playing with half a deck. I have a three. And if you get that reference, let me invite you to my Zoom happy hour.

Still life with solitary lilac.

I mean, I’m one of the lucky ones. I can work from home, I have my own sanctuary, I have my cat and my Netflix Party and my book club group text and a jumbo bottle of Beefeaters. But luck, in these circumstances, is definitely a relative term. In normal circs, a four-day panic attack is not the thin end of the suffering wedge, but it is now — and I can’t even tell myself that there’s no grounds for being worried and upset. Nope, I said, I need to call my doctor and tell her I need either an industrial-size Xanax or my own personal pulse oximeter. Or possibly both.

Nevertheless, I persist. And fait accompli still applies. There’s room even in this miasmic situation — perhaps especially in this misasmic situation — for reality and humor and wry compassion for self and everyone else.

So I share a couple of things that have brought me solace or cracked me open or both.

Music in particular has been a source of catharsis. I might have mentioned here my love of Widor’s Toccata for organ, and how I longed to finagle some way of getting someone to play it on Kauffman Center’s organ some Symphony night. So I was scrolling through FB yesterday and saw this — and when I unmuted it I instantly burst into sobs.

(I’d embed it but FB and WP are not playing nice.)

It wasn’t even the first time that week that music had got to me like that. We haven’t had much in the way of spring thunderstorms yet, but it rained heavily the other day and so I broke out the Dona nobis pacem from the Bach Mass, which I always play at high volume during the first good storm of the year.

It undid me completely.

It strikes me that crying at beautiful music at a time like this is an eminently sane thing to do, so I embrace it. But it’s not the only sane thing. On the advice of my coach I’ve also embraced taking my mask and saber out to the backyard and practicing cuts and lunges. It makes my whole body feel lived-in and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I guess it’d take a fencing coach to think of something so obvious to suggest. I envy my friends with gardens; but I reckon there are plenty of people who envy me my saber drills.

Solace is richer if you can share it. And if you can’t share it, I suppose the next best thing would be to enjoy it in honor of those who are in need of it. Good will is a paltry gift, but in times like these we can see the difference between good will and nothing.

Take care. Be well. May you make a good offering.