STATION ELEVEN: ANOTHER VIEW OF A PANDEMIC AND OUR FUTURE?

Why do we, well, really me, love apocalyptic novels? Is it because they voice our fears about our so-called civilization? Or is it because we secretly wish our society and all the crazy people and things that happen would get their comeuppance?

In any case, here’s another in the series, but one that’s stunningly well written as well as an attention-grabber. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014 and thrust into best-seller and best-book status, rings so true, every character—and there’s plenty of them, from an eight-year-old girl to a thumping good, evil, self-proclaimed prophet –could be your friends and neighbors.

Mandel’s fourth novel takes place primarily in the Great Lakes region after a fictional swine flu pandemic, known as the “Georgia Flu”, has devastated the world, killing most of the population. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015. Although critics praise the understated nature of Mandel’s writing, I think that’s a misnomer. She simply lays out the characters and plot in a realistic, matter-of-fact way, so the 300 survivors in one area who take refuge in an airport function exactly like you’d envision your friends and neighbors would.

There’s lots of action, fighting off bad guys, battling for sheer survival, but also much insightful psychological and thoughtful musings about nature and humans and the earth’s future. Mandel’s talent as a literary author is indisputable. She doesn’t consider herself a “scfi” writer, but “literary.” I hesitate to use that term because it seems to scare people. Believe me, readers will adore both the content and the style.

Perhaps I’m not panicky over our current COVID pandemic because it’s not nearly as extreme as the other dystopian novels I’ve read—Ashfall, A Journal of the Plague Year, Hunger Games, Ship Breaker, Divergent, Rule of Three. When I close the covers of a book, I return to the world in which every one I’m attached to still survives and the culture around me still has unbelievable riches and opportunities. Yet each of these volumes, and most especially Station Eleven, carries a warning not to get too comfortable. For unless we improve our ways, that world could become one I don’t want.

THE MEANING OF MEMORIES

I started thinking about my childhood recently, in a more focused and intentional way than I have previously. I wondered if my memories have had an impact on me or if they’re just a collection of miscellaneous impressions? Have they shaped what I’ve become?

After extensive study of about five minutes, I’ve decided what I’ve retained is a handful of rapid situations. They don’t seem to connect to one another or to my life’s evolution. Since my degree is in psychology, I’ve dipped my toe in the indefinable pool of dreams, the unconscious, the subconscious, and the way these intangibles may put their mark on us.

As a writer, my memories can become fodder for my creations. An incident playing cowboys gets inserted in a story. A friend’s way of tossing her head can identify a character. Perhaps if I pursue memories in an organized fashion, my work will benefit. Others assure me that once I begin plumbing my recollections, I’ll  remember more and more. But I mostly want to do it because it’s fun.

Take the thought of an immense wooden packing case. Appliances and large items like furniture used to be delivered in sturdy boxes of timber, not flimsy cardboard or Styrofoam. They also were secured with bendable wire. When one of these items showed up in my yard, it jump-started ideas. It probably was about four by four by four feet in dimension. At the time, maybe fifth grade, I was in love with horses. Not that my family had any, but after submerging myself in every horse book I could lay my hands on (think Black Beauty, the Black Stallion series, Misty of Chincoteague), I would have traded my soul for one. Since we lived in a middle-class suburb with too many little brothers and sisters, my chance of getting a horse to ride was zero.

Luckily my imagination was unfettered. The box became a stage coach; my siblings, passengers; and I was the driver. It seems now as if I spent the entire spring taking imaginary journeys, complete with hold-ups, runaway horses, and broken wheels. My mind galloped to other ideas. Once I threw a ragged discarded bedspread over it, the crate began to double as a cabin,. . .a school with my siblings as reluctant scholars when I lined them up in rows

To this day, if I see a box of similar dimensions, my heart speeds up and I immediately begin plotting what it could be used for. A temporary hiding place from thieves, a corral for pets or small children. This memory makes me happy, even if I don’t use it for anything productive. Research has shown that reminiscing has the capacity to reduce loneliness, boredom, stress and depression. It can also help considerably in dealing with traumatic experiences, 

If you wonder about the value of wasting time remembering, just ask someone with a friend or loved one who’s lost his reminisces through Alzheimer’s or dementia. Only a hollow shell of HIM remains. He’s able to eat, mumble, sleep; but his essence has vanished. So I’ll keep pulling out these miscellaneous snippets of memory to help me make sense of my past, present, future. They’re the building blocks of my spirit.

DEALING WITH GRIEF: what helps?

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May 4, 2020



Nothing. That’s certainly how I feel when it first hits, especially the death of a close friend or loved one. The desolation and loss seem unbearable, the environment around me lonesome and gray.

Additional factors, such as the COVID pandemic or the loss of a job, aggravate the condition. Still “time heals all wounds” the anonymous, mysterious “they” say. . .probably some prehistoric caveman. This statement makes no difference when you’re grieving, but later can make sense.

Still HOW you grieve, the steps you take, can make a difference. A friend of mine recently lost a grandchild. For months she isolated herself from the world. None of her friends knew what was wrong and spent a long time asking one another if they’d seen or heard from her. By the time they found out, it was too late to offer much in the way of any sympathy.

One of our society’s shortcomings, I believe, is that we lack rituals and observances to help us through bad times. Funerals are becoming smaller and less frequent, those thinking about death have strong opinions about not want fuss and formalities. Whereas a century ago, you might wear black or drape a black ribbon over your door, these customs are uncommon. In those distant times, your connections knew the routines. Send flowers or at least a sympathy card, bring a casserole to the bereaved’s house, inquire of family members after the death how they were doing, or mention that you, too, miss the deceased.

This doesn’t mean that grief is any easier for contemporary people to handle. I have a number of acquaintances who mention the lack of inquiries from their own circles, along with just how hurtful it is to have their loss ignored, as if the deceased never existed, never counted, never left a mark.

“I didn’t know what to say or do” is often the rejoinder. Sorry, I just don’t buy that. If friends matter, and to me they’re the only thing that does in the end, they deserve our acknowledgment of their pain and loss. Those actions may be even more important to grievers who isolate themselves or try to stiffen their upper lips until they’re paralyzed. Grief is an emotion we’ll all experience at some point. The only way to eventually become a whole functioning adult again is to go through it. Surely the only means to a kinder society is to be kinder ourselves.

 

Celebrate Poetry Month and Drive Away the Blues

Poet Mary Oliver

April 3, 2020

April is Poetry Month. What better time to dip into the wealth of thoughts told well? I know a number of people claim they don’t like poetry, but I think perhaps they simply haven’t sampled enough, for it comes in every shape and style. On the other hand, I claim I don’t like football. Maybe I simply haven’t watched enough.

In any case, I admit there are many poems I don’t care for, but I’ve learned to simply turn a page and try another. Raised in times when most poetry rhymed and had formal structures, I’m relieved so much of it now is free-flowing and organic. The change makes it easier for me to write. I’m just beginning to learn that even free verse, which lacks both rhyme and a regular rhythm (meter), does have commonly accepted standards to help evaluate if a poem is any good.

But mostly I just try to decide what I like and what I don’t. One quality that always gets to me might be called “heart” or “insight.” The ones I treasure are those describing the human condition and emotion, not in a beat-you-over-the-head way, but in a subtle, hey-notice-this manner. I believe that’s what any art does—leads you to look at and consider something you may not have thought about. One of my current favorites is “The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. She combines an eternal question (“Who made the world?”) with an intimate and tender observation of a common insect, then ends with a challenge to the reader. Another with similar impact, by Maya Angelou, is A Brave and Startling Truth.

A friend of mine connected me to a poem chain letter online. We each send one poem to the person at the top of the list, then send the query to 20 others. Some decline to be involved, but that’s fine. I’m reading an assortment of poems I’ve never run across before.

In addition to exposing me to ideas I may not have stumbled over, poetry also helps me with what I call “middle of the night crazies.” These are the times when insomnia tracks me down and crams stupid, useless fears in my head. Why don’t my children like me? Why is the water in the toilet running and running? Is the tender spot on my foot some terrible disease, and how long will it take to manifest itself? Did I offend a person on a poetry video conference so that she’ll never talk to me again? I reach for poetry at these times because it blasts my mind out of its destructive, downhill hurtle and into something resembling human.

Lots of poetry is available free online. Not every poem, I hasten to add, because poets need to eat as much as anyone else. This website, https://poets.org/, enables you to search a number of subjects and poets and hosts the Poem-a-Day feature. Another, PoemHunter.com, has tons of poems and poets. You can bookmark your favorites so you can get to them quickly. This site, however, is cluttered with pop-up ads that make it a challenge to read the text. Then there’s Poetry 180, a project to introduce high school students to the joys, hosted by Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate, from the Library of Congress. If you like the oldies but goodies, try Project Gutenberg, which has notables by people like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, and you can download ebooks of some collections.

In these slow, yet somehow tense, days of our modern plague, people seem to be allowing externals to affect them adversely and profoundly. Try checking out of the constant, hysterical barrage of “news,” and explore the world of poetry. Hey, even if you favor off-color limericks, they’re still entertaining and thought-provoking. You may find that you’re a poetry lover, too.