Of friendship and death

Joshua_Fry_Speed

We are too little moved at parting, blunting our feelings with the expectation that tomorrow will be like today. We will never say goodbye forever, not like this, on a sidewalk without warning. Tomorrow we will meet again, or perhaps the day after. There will be time enough.

Reading of Lincoln’s first meeting with Speed and the quick emphatic friendship that sprang out of that encounter, is full of pleasure to me, but I flinch back when the writer reports theories that they had sex and were lovers. The fact that they shared a bed is given as suspicious. The tone of open tender affection in their correspondence is interpreted as carnal.

I have a different take.

Two things I want to note. Aside from the historical economically enforced intimacy of whole families sharing beds in Lincoln and Speed’s times, (as well as with so many people today, who cannot afford privacy,) we’re looking at the fact that one feels differently in worlds of the past and present, when we know our time is driven by death, and filled with loss. We should know we have no time for dissembling. In Lincoln’s time, ignoring that urgency was an unaffordable luxury.

I remember same sex couples strolling down a village street in Africa arms entwined, fingers interlaced. I think that, yes, there is more than a mere difference in customs displayed. But, sorry, all you curious prurient-minded Americans, it’s not only carnal desire that drives expressions of love. It’s a mistake to reduce this closeness, this passion of feeling for the comrade, the friend, the chum, to an allegation of venereal desire.

In America these days, we feel we can afford to indulge our wish to forget mortality. By comparison the losses a twenty-year old man in Lincoln’s time suffered, I suspect, to be very like in number to the human losses suffered by the young Africans walking, arms entwined. We are talking about brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts dying young, often suddenly. We are talking about lives wrenched by death, a death that triumphs usually without a hospital battle, that springs by surprise out of a fever, an infected cut, a lorry running off the road, or a heart murmur from measles.

Friendship is a bond full of risk, taken at the edge of loss. When the average life-span before the Civil War for a white male was late thirties to mid forties, childhood through young adult mortality ran appallingly high. You found your friends and cleaved to them, because you knew your time was short. The next meeting might not come.

What in these days in this country do we know of death? Who among you readers who live in America have touched your beloved carrion? We have hospitals and nurses, morgues, caskets and the crematoriums to keep our hands clean. Death when it happens, we luxuriously consider an unnatural insult, unless the lost companion happens to be very old indeed. Then, we say it’s natural. That’s a lovely conceit. We all know at some level, our sense of protection isn’t solid at all. We’ve seen the evidence—cancer, automobile accidents, suicide, murder—the young die also.

So perhaps a dear friend may be held all the closer when you know you live under shadow. The rage of protective love might be allowed expression without embarrassment, because of this knowledge. All of us are like soldiers in trenches, death ever hungry, lurking underfoot, within, coming in from the sky, or from a side road. Pay attention. If you will stop looking away from death, it may lead you to share another hug on the street corner, to look with honest love upon a friend’s face, to watch the parting stride— saving images deep in memory long before this meeting is the last.

As for Joshua Fry Speed? He saw his beloved friend buried, years before his time.

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Another time

seven chanterelles

I grew up in a time when I could roam the woods by myself. I could grab a hat, and walk out our back door, not letting the screen slam or else my mother might remember that I should possibly be doing something else, like weeding, or picking beans. I hated picking string beans because of the squashy prickly bean beetle larvae that crawled over leaf stems and beans. They gave me the creeps because they looked as though they had neither tail nor head, just a translucent blob, the naked juiciness of them studded with a pattern of black spines. They would break against my fingers and I loathed the sap of their deaths on my hands.

Quickly walk along the tractor path that traced the base of the hill, so I’d be out of earshot of anyone remembering that I should be tutoring my younger sister, or perhaps vacuuming the living room. Or dusting— the job that never ended. Then, with a deep breath of freedom, across the mown slope barely in view of the house. Don’t look behind, or I might see someone waving me back home for any of those chores I was convinced could wait. Over the rise, almost running, with the sweat prickling down between my shoulder blades, and down past the brushy edge of woods that bordered corn fields green with eager breeze blown blades, taller than my head, the overcast glow of sky hot on my hat.

I always looked for other people. Looked for farmworkers, for wanderers, for the adolescent boy checking out possible hunting ground before the fall, despite the “No Hunting” signs my cousin had posted on this old Gowen land. Then I’d duck down a path into the woods, this path wide enough for a truck. Trucks had come this way, keeping it open. The farmworkers often parked down here where the slope of land deepened, seeking shade for lunch time.

six chanterelles

I knew that if I came across anyone else there, I should not let them know of my presence.. Soft footing around, I prided myself I’d always spot any intruder first, and never would they see me. Every so often, I’d take a pause, breathing through my mouth to listen. What did I fear? Nothing so clear; I simply knew I was safest alone, unknown, unnamed.

Now how many children have such freedom? To lose themselves in the woods and orchards of infinite mystery and promise, discovering animals, spying on insects, picking up a shed hawk feather or collecting a cluster of fresh chanterelles from the duff under the hemlocks? I took part of my education there in the shadows of trees, naming red oak and sugar maple, white pine and the startling silver and black of paper birch. What has replaced this for our children now?

single chanterelle

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Next, in Southern Coastal California

https://www.independent.com/news/2018/jan/09/mudslides-engulf-montecito-carpinteria-shut-down-f/

Last night I came awake to the sound of violent lashing rain coming in strong brief pulses. I lay and listened and considered all the work we had done last afternoon to put gullies into the orchard so that the runoff from up the road would settle deep into our heavy soil. Wondering if we had done enough.

The ground has felt like concrete, despite our continual adding of organics, our thick mulching and deep watering, so we are thirsty for rain in a way that feels more acute than it has ever been before. Consider this– we had none of our usual fall rains– even in a bad drought year we’ve always had a few inches in the fall. This year, we felt a sprinkling of drops but nothing measurable. The reservoirs were frighteningly bare, and the native vegetation, crisp.

Then, as the news has tracked, we had the Thomas Fire with all its tragic losses, and the heroic labors of firefighters. Such a dry land, that the fire often persisted in burning against the wind. How do you fight that? By hand, by shoveling dirt on every kindling patch, by the brutal courageous personal labor of good women and men on the front lines and extraordinary canny planning by the planners and strategists. We had a war here and our people rose to every call.

Now the rains came, late. Now they enact another price. The stripped land cannot hold when waterlogged on these steep slopes and in the canyons, and that’s why you read in today’s news of our massive landslides taking out yet more homes, killing people, and destroying roadways. I hear helicopters pulsing overhead as stranded, sometimes injured folk are air-lifted to safety, a few at a time.

The county sent out warnings, issued mandatory evacuation orders and voluntary evacuation warnings in different threatened zones. Many citizens last night chose to stay in place. Understandably sick of the disruption to their lives after weeks of fire evacuations, they didn’t want to leave yet again, especially if they lived in areas where a mere evacuation  warning had been issued, not an evacuation order. As I understand at this  time, these evacuation warning areas are where some fatalities took place last night.

For the record, I’m a chicken. Give me a voluntary evacuation warning, and I plan to be out of here. I think it’s fair saying that the county officials are no prophets, they can only estimate and guess how the natural disaster potential may be expressed, so I will err on the side of caution. Hey, even when we weren’t in the voluntary evacuation warning area for the Thomas Fire and it was still eight miles away from our place, I was packed to leave, the cat carriers were down, water bottles filled.

It’s worth thinking over what your personal limits and triggers are before the issue arrives. How would you feel?

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When the winds blow

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December 24, 2017 · 6:26 am

A deeper breath of air

       It has been a mess here but things are looking up today. Two days ago we had skies filled by smoke and ashes falling  so heavily you could hear them striking leaves and rustling through branches. Our Thomas Fire is a monster. For the past week a friend and her cat have been with us staying in our front rooms, due to the evacuations east of us.  It is this terrible dryness that has us in this fix. Years of drought followed by one adequate rain last winter, and now this year an even more intense drought. Until that breaks I see no real end to these flames and smoke, even when this particular fire, God willing, passes. For now we only hope there will be no sundowner winds to bring the fire into our laps. But, as said before, this is a fire ecosystem, and we are packed with our cat carriers set out ready for our four beasts should the call to evacuate come.
Our daughter has lingered in Phoenix where she’s a graduate student, because as we have told her, why should she drive ten hours to join us in this terrible air? But she is tired of waiting and has set out this morning. She’s a good driver but I shall be much relieved when she’s actually parked once more in our driveway.
Now, today, there has been a sense of jubilation that perhaps the incredible efforts of firefighters have succeeded in controlling the Thomas fire. My fingers are crossed, but now we have blue skies with only a bit of smoke haze, so different! We all look to the foothills and mountains thad think of those brave souls who have put themselves in harm’s way for all our sakes. All good honor and praise to them. Our sorrow for the fallen firefighter and his family.go-fund-me site
Thanks for all your good wishes and ours to you– may you have happy holidays with those you love, and peace.

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Thomas Fire, a week and counting

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 Nikolas_Abele_SBCo_hand_crew_2017 https://www.independent.com/news/2017/dec/11/fire-crews-fight-by-land-air-to-hold-thomas-fire/

We try to work inside these days, and our feet leave swirls in ash when we go out for the mail, while our protective masks set our spectacles askew. But we can stay home, so far, pat the cats, and feel better.

For those dark figures who stand against the fires when I would flee, I send my gratitude, nearly as deep as my fear. I could not do what you do. Thank you is a flimsy sentiment against what you put on the line by an act of will.

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Smoke

We are in heavy smoke on the South Coast, the sun left us before noon to disappear behind a great blanket of ruddy gray from the Thomas Fire. White falls like snowflakes, except we’re breathing the ashes of other people’s dreams. We aren’t in  danger but I can do nothing without turning on the lights and the occasional sky light is rosy orange. Surreal. Weirdly cold. I should be writing an apocalyptic novel but it’s hard to concentrate, so I am doing massive Christmas cookie baking for my neighbors.

Ray Ford Noozhawk photo Dec 5 Faria Beach
So we are lying low and waiting. I think we are in fine shape but because I am a paranoid person, I have all our cat carriers out and all the valuable documents packed up in bins! My husband kind of smiled at me, but I pointed out that if another closer fire broke out, the firefighters are already over-extended.
Grateful that the winds have quieted!
Time for some super chocolate three-way fudge cookies.

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