Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying to Doctor Watson that someone had “vanished without a trace.” This phrase came to me about a week ago as I was walking my usual early morning route in my neighborhood. That route takes me to a Mall that extends for about five blocks and is where a yearly art fair usually installs white tents inside which artists set up and hawk their creative wares in August. Of course that event was cancelled this year because of the pandemic. Instead, in late spring, one morning I noted four or five tents set up and knew instantly that they belonged to homeless people. Within days, our park board had installed a Portapotty so people had a place to eliminate., Within a week or so, those initial tents grew into more than twenty, spread all down the narrow grassy area across from the Mall proper. My walk had always included going up one side road to the “U” at the top of the area and then down on the other side that ran alongside several old brick apartment buildings. As the homeless encampment grew, I shortened my walk and took it on the grassy Mall area, though I never felt in any danger. Usually I was there before any of the tent dwellers was awake; if someone was already out in front of their quarters, we spoke but did not have conversations.
As the size of the settlement increased, I noted that many were not living in “tents,” but had thrown together several large plastic sheets, often full of rips and holes, secured loosely to stakes or poles. Some of these structures sagged on a good day and, in early October when we had a very unexpected heavy wet snow event, collapsed into themselves from the sheer weight of wet stuff. That morning and for several more until sun melted the snow and dried the plastic sheeting, I wondered how those inside were managing since I felt pretty sure nothing so thrown together could be water-proof. Since I walked past the encampment five mornings a week, I noted the changing nature of each “tent” and had a range of feelings. The longer each person or couple stayed there, the more odds and ends began to be outside the pretend sleeping/living area. One spot had set up a dead chrysanthemum clearly retrieved from someone’s alley where it had been taken because it was no longer “fit” to adorn a front porch or patio. Several sites came to include grocery store push carts full of clothes or papers or more pieces of plastic, perhaps waiting to be used when other strips played out.. Initially I thought how “messy” the various sites were becoming, wondering why anyone would retrieve a dead flower and carry it blocks to be put outside the flimsiest of shelters. That privileged reaction morphed into one perhaps closer to reality: I began to feel that if I were homeless and forced to try and make shelter outside, then middle-class ideas of “neatness” couldn’t be applied. to me To such a person, a faded yellow plant might raise their frayed spirits more than I could possibly comprehend. So I began to let go of my judgmental reactions and just be glad the person or people inside that particular flimsy place had found anything to give color or life to their tiny bit of grassland that is all my super wealthy neighbor could offer or allow them.
As fall extended itself, I began to wonder when the city would ask or force these homeless individuals–mostly black–to “vacate the premises,” another often-used phrase when facing the realities of homelessness in this country. At first, I noticed that the man who lived at the end of the string of plastic houses was out one morning burning trash in front of his dwelling. Next morning, he was gone, though lots of bits and pieces of his life accumulated over about three months were visible in the grass. I wondered where he might have gone and hoped that perhaps some agency had found him better accommodations even as I suspected that were not the case. In the course of the next week or so, about a third of those living between him and the original group of tents cleared out as well and I kept wondering where they might be on a given early morning as I walked by the mostly empty space where they’d made the best places to “live” as they could. Then, after noting one morning that there were now only about seven or eight remaining tents, I came to the Mall, looked to my left to see how things were going, and found not a single sign that anyone had ever been there. Not only were the actuall people gone but the park board had gotten trash trucks to scoop up every shard of their belonging. Every large black or blue trash bin had been emptied, tidied on the outside, and replaced where it had “belonged” before the encampment happened. Anyone who had not seen this make-shift community as I had done would have no idea it had ever existed. To them, indeed, the women and men who had lived there had “vanished without a trace.” But I had seen them, morning after morning, for about eight months. They came to be part of my day in a strange and disconnected way. And now, when I walk further up the green meridian and look at bare ground where they slept and ate and talked and maybe even made love or argued or hurt each other, questions linger: Why didn’t I give them money or bring an old blanket as air got colder or leave food from the nearby grocery store where I shop often? Why didn’t I ever say more than “Hello” or “Good morning” to someone just up from their hard “bed”? And, most important of all, “Where are they now?”
Their “trace” is in my memory, nagging at me every time I walk past the Mall, haunting me until I find an action I can engage in that may help some other homeless person trying to make a life out of whatever fragments s/he can salvage from the largesse all around them.
Having just finished watching Season 4 of “The Crown,” I am once again struck by how powerful are the first few minutes of each episode. Perhaps before the end of Season 1, I knew it was important for me to watch each time as the somber music began and golden, back-lighted shapes appeared slowly on my screen, gradually. forming first a cross and then a crown. I even wrote a blog a couple of years ago, when “Victoria” also began to be shown in this country. I felt the powerful difference between one series’ calling itself by the first name of the queen it wanted to portray while the other focused on the object with which the young Elizabeth was invested when she was told she would no longer be “Elizabeth Windsor” but rather “Regina.”
Lots has happened since that first season and my first blog. We’ve seen people told they may not marry whom they love or pursue lives they are drawn to, that they must swallow or smother or outright deny and kill any thoughts or wishes that endanger that “crown” and the monarchy it represents. I’ve watched Elizabeth enjoy her corgis and her horses even if she can’t play with or extend much love to her children. Her sister Margaret has stumbled from alcohol to chain smoking to flamboyant and frequent sex even if she can’t be with the love of her life. The young Diana has been caught in the headlights of royalty even as she becomes more and more isolated and dismissed. And Charles has been driven into narrow lanes intended to end in marriage to some suitable young female instead of being allowed to make a serious proposal to the forbidden Camilla.
But not until I began seeing those first two minutes of shapes emerging onto my screen for these last ten episodes has their deep import become undeniable to me as someone fascinated by images and metaphors, verbal or visual. So what have I seen this season? Here is my clearest comprehension:
- As the music begins, golden tentacles at the far left of the screen grow, oozing out in beautiful\ albeit sinister fashion. These initial reachings cause me unease.
- These on the left of the screen vanish as others emerge from the far right of the screen, a little thicker but still squirming like alluring fibers that take on greater force as they move into the empty space that will become inhabited by one of the actors.
- As the music becomes a little more forceful, those tentacles become bars of gold that are brought into clashing contact, forming a collar that reminds me of similar iron ones fitted around the necks of enslaved Africans in the North American South where I grew up. My initial unease is becoming something tighter, more constrictive and constricting. I feel short of breath, like I want some people to get onto the screen and start talking, removing the images that pervade my consciousness.
- Solid gold bars become delicately carved squares that slowly become the vertical and horizontal arms of a giant cross, I try to find this comforting, but the sounds and the force of the cross emerging from the backdrop of the screen offer dread more than comfort. The “church” that houses this object holds out no forgiveness or protection or love.
- The cross metamorphoses slowly and amidst shrouded films that hide what is happening until we see, filtered through the haze, a golden metal circlet with a tiny Coptic cross at its top. The CROWN has been born from the altered substance that began as the golden tentacles reaching ominously out toward whomever and whatever might enter or be attracted into their aura.
It seems undeniable to me, looking back now upon the seasons preceding this one, that whomever designed these opening moments and wrote this opening music understood where this fictional story of Elizabeth’s long reign was headed. S/he knew enough to enclose the action and actors inside the inescapable and gorgeous web or net or prison we have been asked to imagine. I am so admiring of that person or those persons for providing me with this frame that keeps on making its way deeper into my consciousness, causing me to decide that the cost of being part of the British monarchy is high and harsh. So I will continue, when watching the next season promised us late in 2021, NOT clicking on the little box at the bottom of my screen that says “Skip Opening,:” That “opening:” is the gloss for how I am to enter what follows, no matter how oppressive it has become.
In 1971 Alma Routsong, aka Isabel, Miller published a lesbian novel entitled Patience and Sarah. It’s the story of two women who love each other and refuse to be denied that love by family or cultural biases against such relationships. They lead a quiet and fulfilling life together, touched by moments of humor and argument. At the end of the narrative, the author reflects on just how unlikely such a life story still was by saying “You can’t tell a gift how to come.” I’ve remembered that line all these years because it keeps being the best way to describe how I am feeling about yet one more unexpected event or realization. It came to me again yesterday after I had attended my regular 12-step meeting (currently via the magic of Zoomland). At this meeting, we spend the first half listening to someone reading who and what we are about and then someone else’s talking about a step or tradition. The second half of our hour is devoted to small groups where each person speaks to the step of the day and then shares how our week has been in relation to the program we are working.
Someone with more electronic savvy than I breaks the 30+ assembly into a bunch of small groups, each of us appearing in our little Zoom box as we are connected. I wait eagerly to see who will be in my group and am often delighted to see a face I know will have helpful things to say. Yesterday, however, two of the three other women were members I hardly know and with whom I have never been in a small sharing group. The forth person is someone with whom I do have slight context. So I was a little guarded as we began to share. What happened next was a total “gift,” wrapped in paper I hadn’t recognized as beautiful.
The first speaker took advantage of an option I’ve never witnessed being used in the meeting, i.e., she used her time to ask for feedback about how she was to grieve over a recent death. The other women said things that moved me to tears and showed me a willingness to be vulnerable just because a fellow member asked for help. So I finally spoke a little about my way of reacting to my own grief by saying that I decided some years ago to stop speaking about or hoping for “closure.” I shared that at one point I had written the word on a small piece of paper to which I struck a match and watched as it burnt out in a saucer in my kitchen. Once this exchange had occurred, the rest of us spoke about whatever we wanted to say about the step or our lives. It seemed to me the level of sharing reached a depth seldom reached even when I’ve been in groups with folks with whom I am so much closer than I am with my three Zoom-boxed women.
I kept hearing one or another of them saying wise and clear-eyed things about how hard she is working to stay minimally calm and hopeful even as the world around us is increasingly divided and chaotic. We all agreed that the program helps us in ways we never could have imagined, so maybe if I’d remember Isabel Miller’s last sentence in time, I could have introduced it into our little Zoom space. I’m pretty sure my tiny cohort would have nodded or done a “thumbs up” to show me they felt as I was feeling–our time in that break-out space was truly a “gift” and we none of us would have expected it when we saw the others being attached to our screen. But the gift came anyway…. Just as it did to Patience and Sarah.
These days, I am washed over by all the losses of my own, of my friends, and of my country. Like many others, losing a world with scheduled events and responsibilities has not led to my being able to do things I used to say I was “too busy” to accomplish. Being less “busy” means I lose days or whole weeks without making progress on any of those projects and activities I began setting up for myself when the pandemic regimen began. This lack of motivation to do even things I relish, e.g., painting walls or being in my beloved garden for hours on end, propelled me eventually to set up a couple of Zoom sessions with an old therapist. She introduced me to “behavioral therapy” and I set up an Action Plan where I’d write in a little spiral notebook just one thing I was going to do on a given day. Cautioning me against self-sabotage, I didn’t try to have one per day; maybe three in a week. This broke through some lassitude and I finally did things like lay down bags of mulch in my garden so weeds wouldn’t thrive, though I’d remained frozen about the bag so long that the weeds it was to prevent had returned. So an activity that might have taken a few minutes–cutting open the bag, pouring out the mulch, and spreading it lovingly with my gloveless hands–took the better part of an hour. But I did it and felt proud of myself for moving off that particular dime.
I’ve continued to list more projects in my little notebook and even complete some of them. So now I don’t berate myself for procrastination. But my next hurdle made more difficult by not being able to be in other people’s houses or have them in mine turned out to be how to cope with the fact that too many of my old and good friends were having their serious health issues or coping with serious health issues visited upon those they love. But I knew where to turn for help on this kind of loss: I attend a 12-step program that teaches me to concentrate on my own side of the street, and how to love and support someone important to me without being consumed by their pain or sadness. So I worked my program hard and have been able most days to know where I start and stop in relation to those closest to me. And, of course, I turn out to be a better friend because I understand that their pain and sadness is their pain and sadness, not mine.
Then those of us in Minneapolis have had to face the callous murder of George Floyd by a white cop who clearly felt a horrible sense of rightness as he kept his left hand in his pants pocket and his knee on another human being’s neck until and after he stop breathing. Mr. Floyd’s senseless killing became the next in a nightmarish list of names of black men and women shot or otherwise killed by police who almost always go unconnected or punished by the essentially white justice system. All this constitutes loss for me–of the specific and beloved human beings whose lives have been cut short just because their skin is black, and of even a vestige of equality under the law. So I do listen to these individuals’ families and legal teams. And I read books by the likes of Ibram Kendi or Isabel Wilkerson or Resmaa Menakem or Claudia Rankine.
Finally, there’s the world of America in 2020, ruled by a despot who lacks three components I have long argued make us human beings–he has no brain, he has no heart, he has no soul. I understand that it is best if I listen very sparingly to news, even presented by PBS since they must report the same facts as other sources. If his face and voice show up when I turn on the TV, I mute immediately so as to avoid fury and meltdown. But I know what’s happening to what we think of as our democracy, flawed and imperfect as it surely remains. And loss on that large a scale is frightens me. That hovering fear got measurably worse when RBG died and he and his Republican minions raced to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court that means Chief Justice Roberts will lose control of that body. So, even as I wept over the inevitable lost battle over all the cancers that have been visited upon Justice Ginsberg, I looked for ways I can be active.
This last level of loss–of institutions and practices long adhered to by leaders with whom I might not agree but whom I could count on to respect those institutions and practices much of the time–staggers me. A friend with whom I walk once a week said recently “Things I thought were solid have turned into liquid under this president.” That metaphor leaves me putting my smaller losses into perspective even as I honor that they are real losses. And I now believe lots and lots of us are grieving. So we need to think in those terms and not ward off feeling how it feels to be grieving. I want to reach out in ways I still can to tell those who matter to me that they matter to me. And I want to listen to whatever it is they choose to share with me, offering them silent support and promising not to get tired of hearing what hurts. That way a few of my “solids” cannot be melted by the heated rhetoric from the man in the White House or by the ghostly presence of the virus, or by fact that more and more white people in this country are able to admit that institutional racism exists all around and inside us.