Gaps in the fence

The other day I was driving home when our neighbor’s wife called to say her husband had died. We didn’t know them well. I’d only ever spoken to the wife over the telephone, though I knew him to say hello or wave. He and the Hubbit were friendly; they’d call on each other for help as needed – to borrow tools or equipment, or work together on some or other repair. For a while we took care of their pasture in return for grazing our cattle there. More than once he zipped over in his golf cart to help us chase down a runaway steer.

Somehow I never got around to inviting them over to barbecue, and we had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in February.  When I got home I told the Hubbit the news and he was dismayed. “Well, dang!” he said. “I’ve been thinking I should go over and visit, but…”

A few weeks ago I learned that my Aunt Marietjie had died. She was in her nineties and I knew she’d become frail, but the last time I saw her – just a few years ago at Marmeee’s memorial service – she was as I’d always known her: calm, unfalteringly kind, resolute. We weren’t close; I didn’t see her that often and in the 23 years since I moved to the US we’ve never corresponded … but when I named this blog it was with her in mind, because she was someone I kinda wanted to be like – strong, unflappable, salt-of-the-earth, a woman of strong faith and stronger Scrabble skills, a quiet source of wisdom and comfort food.

My father, the Olde Buzzard, used to refer to her as a soustannie, and it was only after I named this blog that I learned that the word didn’t mean an intelligent, powerful woman with excellent culinary skills. It’s not a compliment. It means someone who is female, fat and bossy. Well, some might say that makes it a fine name for my blog …. Oh well. [Insert shrug emoji here.]

Moment of truth: the Olde Buzzard was intimidated by strong women, and that made him mean. He had uncomplimentary nicknames for me too. He died a few years ago, and … well, all I want to say is, I’m grateful that in the end I was able to do my duty, to treat him with love and kindness, and that everything needing to be said and done between us was indeed said and done.

Getting back to Marietjie … I thought of changing the name of this blog, but decided instead to stay with the image I’d originally had in mind – an image largely inspired by this aunt, whom I am not at all like, yet who was extraordinarily kind to me at random intervals throughout my life. She was the one person I could trust to love my Girl Child when she needed it and wouldn’t accept it from me. I always meant to write to her care of my cousin, but…

Some years ago I wrote a post that won a response from a different cousin, from the other side of the family. I replied, but he never commented again. But from then on, every time I wrote about dogs, a small part of me wrote for him, because I grew up hearing stories about his extraordinary ability to connect with animals.

I grew up loving him.

I have many cousins and I’ve had crushes on several of them, but Michael was special. He was so handsome, tan and blue-eyed and blonde, with ruggedly regular features and a smile that reached out and pulled you in. When he invited me up onto his lap and taught me how to tell the time on his big wristwatch, he made my four-year-old heart flutter. I was convinced I would marry him, and I was devastated when he married someone else.

The Old Buzzard had adored my cousin – they were close in age – and he disliked the wife, and now I realize that she’s probably strong and intelligent as well as being “a damn liberal who thinks we aren’t good enough”. Back then, viewing her through the distorted lens of his resentment, I couldn’t warm to her. But I spent a month with them, while I was a university student with a vacation job in their city, and I remember she was kind, and their home was beautiful, and they seemed happy. (Who wouldn’t be happy with Michael?) I remember that she collected silver, so at the end of the visit I spent almost everything I’d earned on some too large and probably tacky addition to her collection because I needed to prove that I’d been raised right. I remember I fell and sprained my ankle getting off the bus, and Michael – who was a successful vet by then – bound it up. When I complained that he hurt me, he laughed at me for making more fuss than a dog with far worse injuries. But I forgave him because he still made my teenage heart flutter.

After I got that message from him on my long-ago blog post, whenever I wrote about dogs and hoped for another message I thought about making contact. I imagined going to see him on my next trip to South Africa. And then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died. Hoping for more detail I looked at his sister Midge’s Facebook page – and that’s when I learned that her daughter had just died – a beautiful, bright, happy woman that I’d never met, barely knew existed, just gone. There are wedding photos on Midge’s Facebook page, and she shines. I wept over them for several days – I don’t know why the loss felt so agonizing; I didn’t know her! And then I tried to write to Midge, but…

Then I got a message on my last post, from Michael’s wife, reaching out, and that’s when I learned that he’d actually died long before I heard about it – last January, of covid – such a horrible, horrible way to go! And I wanted to write to her, but what to say? Where to send it? We’re not even connected through Facebook – which I rarely visit anyway. It’s not that I can’t figure this out – and I will – but…

But I want a do-over. I want a neighborhood barbecue, and after that maybe conversations and coffee with a few new friends.

I want to talk to Michael and his wife, and see her with my own clear eyes. I don’t know what we’d talk about … dogs, probably, but what else? I want to know!

I want another game of Scrabble with Marietjie, with a plate of koeksisters and big mugs of rooibos tea. And I want to walk on the beach and then loll about comfortably and talk about cats with my cousin, her daughter, who is still this side of the dirt but on the far side of the planet.

I want to hug Midge, and meet her daughter, and maybe be invited to the wedding, or at least send a gift. And I want to meet her niece, my goddaughter, whose parents thought it would be cute to make 12-year-old me a godmother, since they didn’t take such things seriously, only I wish I had. And actually I’d like to see her parents again too.

And then there’s the other cousin who used to look so hot in his SA Airforce uniform, and his brother who was in a quite popular band and then became a DJ. They used to tease me, and one time I played in their mother’s cactus garden and ended up sprawled over my mother’s lap, butt exposed to the sunshine and their gleeful mockery, while I shrieked my outrage and she picked out tiny needles with a pair of tweezers. Those cousins are still alive, as far as I know, round the other side of the planet, and one day it’ll be too late for a do-over, but right now I have no idea what to do about that. We had a friendship – the DJ cousin and I did, anyway – and then it fizzled and we drifted and … truth be told, there’s probably no way back. None on my map, anyway.

I have cousins scattered all over the world, and others – nieces and a nephew, second cousins – so many people that I love or have loved or wish I’d loved. And although I know I don’t have the capacity to reconnect deeply with all of them – or even with more than a very few – being strangers just feels wrong.

And then there are friends. Like Deej. I want to sit with Deej and lay out all my questions about God and ask him how he, one of the finest and fiercest champions of Christ I ever knew, could possibly think well of Donald Trump. I actually tried to ask him that, via WhatsApp, but he didn’t answer, and over time he ghosted me. That stung, because he was my pastor more than anyone else ever was or will be, and I want to look him in the eye and ask why he wounded me. But I can’t, because he’s gone, and there are no do-overs. He died last December, a week shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving me still burdened with so many questions and no one else I’d entrust them to.

I ache every day to go on a road trip with Twiglet, the sister my heart gave me. Talking on WhatsApp doesn’t cut it, especially as her connection is so bad that usually I just listen to her voice; it’s impossible really to follow what she’s saying. I want a cream tea with Luscious. I want to talk about God and poetry with Fair Bianca. I am homesick for the friends of my young womanhood!

I want to kick back and laugh with the Kat, and talk deep talks with the Egg and Homeboy, and argue face-to-face with the Girl Child instead of getting mad and frustrated over WhatsApp. I want to laugh and talk and eat with my foster kids, and watch the granddaughters they gave me grow up, and be there to love them through it when their mothers make them angry, and go to their weddings and cuddle their babies – or not, if they choose a different road. But they’re all, all on the wrong side of the planet.

I want to find a way back to the Stranger, but I don’t think there is one, and the meeting place where I’d hope to find him might not even exist.

I remember my blessings. Here I have friends, a few anyway, some quite elderly, and a Hubbit ditto, that I love as best I can – although never enough. I have neighbors that I may invite to barbecue next summer.

I’ve been thinking that the people we touch are like fenceposts. They enclose the fields where we grow our lives.

I look at my fence, and there are gaps in it. It’s been standing a while and has reached that stage in the life of a fence that gaps form more and more frequently. Some of the timbers are broken, others are weathered and warped and working loose, and many are out of my reach. Beyond the fence I see the wilderness pressing in.

I’m not afraid of the wilderness. Often I’m drawn to it … I stand next to the fence and imagine what it would be like to push through and see what’s out there. Then I remember that I have work still to do on this side and I turn back.

But it troubles me sometimes to think that one day the gate in the fence may open, and it won’t matter because the fence itself will be down. I’ll walk through, as one must, but I wonder who will know.

Photos by Denise Karis and Foto Maak on Unsplash

Head down, and plod

cmdrkitten perfect loop anxiety panic looping GIF

You know that feeling you get when you drink too much coffee? Jittery – an invisible tremor under your skin, a fist around your chest that makes breathing just a little harder, a steel band that keeps your head from exploding but you wish it weren’t quite so tight?

Turns out this is one of the side-effects of taking fluoxetine, aka Prozac. Apparently it wears off, eventually.

It’s also a side-effect of compulsively reading the news. Trump … Trump … Trump … I am so damn sick of the sound of that name! I swipe left on my phone and up comes the news and everything is Trump. My eyes skitter in an effort to avoid it as my fingers flickscroll fast through the headlines, but it’s inescapable. I switch to YouTube, and there it is again, thumping and jeering.

Warren is in the lead, both among the Democratic candidates (you can tell this is true because the other Democratic candidates are attacking her like a pack of mad dogs) and against Trump. But pundits say he’s going to win again. A landslide next time, they say. Because when you take a well-aged lump of Electoral College and drizzle on an oily slick of clever gerrymandering, that’s what you get.

Impeachment? Apparently there’s nothing to stop an impeached president from running for a second term. And if he does, how will we stop him from grabbing a third term, if he wants to? Don’t tell me the system won’t allow it. “The system” wasn’t supposed to allow any of this! Do you think the founding fathers would be proud of the noxious Thing that’s bubbled forth from their Great Experiment?

I wish I could run away, but where to? South Africa is crumbling under the terrible weight of systemic graft, ignorance and inefficiency. And while I know there’s a whole world of other options, from here, peering out from under the looming weight of Trumpian America, it’s hard to believe there’s anywhere that one might simply be free to live peacefully, attending to one’s personal daily interests, pleasantly bored by politics.

I’ve tried to go cold turkey on the news. Most of my friends manage to ignore it … My conservative friends, that is. As a result, they’re comfortably in denial, so if I rage about children in cages, or allies abandoned to be slaughtered, or the intentional collapse of scientific studies of random shit like weather, or violation of the Constitution, they go, “Huh? Wha’?” And then they shake their heads gently and say, “Oh, I don’t follow the news – it’s all fake.”

Elephant in the room

I have learned that the survival of many of my most important relationships depends on ignoring the elephant, no matter how much of the room it’s taking up, no matter how deep and pungent the piles of shit. You have to turn your back and look through the window – or, if there is no window in your part of the room, focus on the paint on the wall.

So anyway … I’m back on anti-depressants. I’m trying not to feel like a quitter. I really, really don’t want this … I want to manage my own brain, damn it! And I was doing so well! It’s more than a year since I quit, and actually I thought the Black Dog and I were getting along okay, moseying along life’s path, not worrying too much about the periodic dearth of primroses and simply taking in whatever view there happened to be. But that bastard Dog sneaked up on me. I realized a couple weeks ago that I’d pretty much stopped moseying, and was standing with my nose against the wall, staring at the paint. And then I realized that the Dog had become very large and was leaning in and crushing me, its hot, moist breath fouling the air.

The thing about clinical depression is, sometimes you don’t feel especially … well … depressed. Or, if you do, you look at the news, and there are so many excellent reasons to feel sad or hopeless that the way you’re feeling makes perfect sense. It can take a while to recognize that the rational sad feelings actually aren’t the reason you’re binge-watching “Hoarders” while your own home sinks under a pile of dog hair and dirty laundry.

So that’s why, once again, I’m shoving the damn Black Dog off of me by the power of my nightly happy capsule. On the downside, I’m uncomfortably jittery; on the upside, I’ve turned my gaze away from the wall and am getting through most days without falling over the Dog.

As for the White House … fuck ’em all, I say. I’m going to keep my eyes fixed on what I can fix – at least for the rest of today.

It’s a start.

Okay … talk to me. Do you struggle with depression? What do you do about it? Does politics make you feel good or bad about being alive?

 

There’s a black hole in my pocket

I lost a friend today because I was late. Well, maybe not a friend … but someone I liked, who I’d thought liked me, blew up in my face to lasting effect because I kept her waiting fifteen minutes.

The incident hurt surprisingly much.

In the greater context of this year’s overall shittitude it was a small thing. This wasn’t a key relationship, and while it’s possible that she’s been pretending to like me while nursing a growing grudge, it’s more likely that she was just having a bad day and I made a convenient target.

white-rabbit late
The White Rabbit – more than just a fantasy animal.

It hurts that she had a valid complaint that I seem powerless to address. I am always late, and no matter how carefully I plan, how early I set my alarm, how fast I drive from here to there, after a lifetime of trying the best I can do is damage control. When I know punctuality is especially important to someone I can usually, with considerable effort and anxiety, keep my lateness within a ten minute margin, which most seem to accept provided I call when on my way to tell them how late I’m going to be, and am sufficiently apologetic when I arrive. Everyone else is best advised to bring a book – or, if waiting annoys you, start without me – I won’t care. I wouldn’t have cared today when my formerly-friendly acquaintance canceled our arrangement. What hurt wasn’t that she got on with her day; it was the ugly and unexpected intensity of her anger, and my powerlessness to answer it.

I won’t defend a bad habit. Instead, here’s some perspective for the benefit of the model clock-watchers out there, and in particular those whose sanity is challenged by us tardies. (I know I’m not alone.)

First, we know our perpetual lateness is annoying – but as annoying as it is to you, it’s embarrassing and frustrating uto us. You see it as rudeness and lack of consideration; we see it as weakness, a defect, a failure to do something everyone else finds easy. We read books and make lists and watch TED Talks, but it’s like dancing: some people have rhythm; others, no matter how religiously they chant the “one-two-three one-two-three one-two-three” of daily life, cannot keep in step with the minute hand. For you it’s easy – you plan your day, you look at your planner, you know how time and distance and traffic fit together, and everything glides so smoothly into place you simply can’t understand how we manage to trip and stumble every damn time.

Well, allow me to enlighten you. Basically, this happens.

Soft Watch - Dali
Soft Watch, by Salvador Dali. This is any timepiece I use, at the precise moment of impact with having to be anywhere.

I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve concluded that I and people like me have hooked a heel on a loose thread in the fabric of the space-time continuum. We, too, plan our days and check our planners. We can figure out how long it will take to get from here to there, and what the time should be when we leave. We understand the different kinds of “leaving” – the kind that involves stopping what we’re doing, and the kind that involves actually driving through the gate. We know to add five or ten minutes for bumps in the road, and what we have to do before we go, and how long it will take to get our shit together. We figure all that out and then we start our day, and that old minute hand goes ambling around in its lazy circles, and some of the things on our to-do list get done and some don’t. And then our electronic planner twitters a warning … and at that exact moment a quantum cowboy blips into being, lassos our deadline, and vanishes with a resounding fart and a clatter of hooves through the black hole inside the clock on our smart phone – which at that moment typically shows five minutes to our scheduled time of arrival.

Arriving presents its own challenges. Quite often, this happens…

Escher stairs
Infinite Relativity, by M.C. Escher. How I get from here to there.

I’d like to say my new year’s resolution for 2019 is to be on time, but I already have a full tureen of bubbling resolutions to toil and trouble over before the Hubbit comes home. And while it turns out that I have two months longer than I thought I did – because he’ll likely be in rehab until well into March – that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of getting from where I am now to … anywhere at all. Time and space are tricksy devils, whether you count with a clock or a calendar.

Doesn’t mean I won’t try, mind you.

There is no try

Yeah, well … seriously, Yoda, you need to shut the fuck up. Go read a book or something. And if you don’t know by now that there’s more to me than one bad habit, and that I’m worth waiting for, then … yeah. Better you leave without me.

Let’s talk. How do you relate to time, schedules and to-do lists? Whether you are a Tardy or a Timekeeper, how do you feel about the other kind of human? Do you ever secretly think Yoda is a self-righteous pain in the ass?

 

A man and a dog, on the road home

I picked up a hitchhiker on my way home from the writer’s conference a week ago.

The way it happened was, I left the highway to buy gas, and on my way back to the highway I saw a dog lying just off the on-ramp. As my foot shifted to the brake I saw that someone was already there, so I thought, “Okay, not my problem.”

Bubba on the onramp
A dog, a backpack, and a highway.

I was halfway up the ramp before I heard that still, small voice that speaks to all of us, if only we listen. “Go back,” it said.

“What? I can’t reverse down an on-ramp!” I argued indignantly, but I was already braking. I know that voice. I don’t always like what it says, but I’ve learned to pay attention. I reversed down the on-ramp, and I didn’t hit anyone or go off the road or get fined.

When I was close to the dog, I stopped and honked my horn. The man kneeling next to it looked up, and jogged over to my car. In my rear view mirror I saw the dog raise its head, and then move to a more upright position. I realized it wasn’t hurt – it had just been sleeping … but I was there and the man was leaning to peer through my side window so I rolled it down.

“Is that dog with you?” I asked him. “Is it okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and smiled. I glanced at my rear-view mirror. The dog – it looked like a pit bull – was watching us. It looked healthy, well-fed. I looked back at the man. He was dark, and had gray hair in a long braid down his back, and wore a red bandanna. Even with him outside the car I could tell he needed a shower, yet he looked … well, not clean, exactly, but put together, as though he’d taken some trouble. The air billowing in through the open window was hot and heavy, and I turned up the fan on my air conditioner.

That voice wasn’t saying anything. It didn’t need to; I knew what I had to do. I sighed. “You need a ride?” I asked.

His face split in a huge grin. “Yes ma’am!” he replied. “Are you going near Ellensburg?” I was going 100 miles beyond Ellensburg – further than he’d hoped to get that day. We stashed his backpack in the trunk, and the dog, Bubba, jumped into the back seat and settled down with a sigh.

He introduced himself – I’ll call him Cajun. I’ll pick up hitchhikers when the voice says it’s okay, but I don’t feel obligated to entertain them, so I told him I was in the middle of listening to the final book in the “Wayward Pines” trilogy and didn’t want to stop. I brought him up to speed on the story and we listened together, but every now and again he’d drop a comment, and I’d switch off the CD and we’d chat. That’s how I heard his story – in bits and pieces interspersed with the bloody destruction of the last humans on earth – until I decided his story was more interesting than the book.

He told me he was part Cajun, part Mexican, part African, and two parts Native American. He’s been a mechanic for Boeing and a Marine, and a street preacher to the poor. Now, he does construction work and roofing, and picks up odd jobs here and there when he needs to. He’s a musician and songwriter and has supported himself and Bubba more than once by playing on sidewalks and street corners. At the moment his guitar is in Idaho, but he played me one of his songs that he’d recorded on his tablet. The recording wasn’t good, and I really wished it was. That song sounded worth hearing.

His regular-people life fell apart around 2001. The Man kicked him in the ass, so he gave The Man the finger, acquired a backpack, and hit the road. Since then he’s lived on the streets and wandered the highways of the USA, trusting God to provide, which He does mainly through the kindness of strangers. A few years ago he picked up a job in Sedona, Arizona, and within a few weeks he’d saved enough to rent a home. That job was followed by a couple of others. Life was good. He celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2015 by visiting the local animal shelter, where he found Bubba, and since then they’ve been inseparable.

But things fell apart in Sedona too, and soon Cajun and Bubba were back on the road. I was puzzled that he gave up on a place where it seemed he’d been content. This is not a lazy or stupid or unskilled man. He likes a cold beer at each end of a hot day, but he seemed sober to me. I asked him what had happened and he didn’t want to go into detail, but he said, “I don’t define my work as who I am. My purpose is to live in poverty and share God’s love with the discarded people in this earth.”

He has a grown daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. He had planned to connect with her when he passed through Seattle a couple days before I met him, but something went wrong and a payment he was counting on was delayed. He didn’t want to face her with empty pockets so he canceled, and now Seattle was behind him and she was pissed.

“You think she’d have cared that you were broke?” I asked.

“I wanted to at least take her to lunch,” he replied.

“You’re an idiot,” I informed him. “You should go back, or at least apologize.” (I am so good at telling other people how to run their lives!) I don’t know that he cared much what I thought – why should he? – but a bit later he was texting with her. He didn’t want to go back, though – he was focused on his next destination.

Dream home
When Cajun is surfing the net, imagining his dream home, this is the kind of picture he’s likely to save.

Before Seattle, on their way up the west coast, he and Bubba got a ride with a long-haul trucker, who told him all about the trucking life. So he was on his way to Salt Lake City, where he’s signed up for a training course with a trucking company. Not too far down the road he reckons he’ll be able to buy his own truck – apparently trucking companies contract with drivers and help them do that. He was excited at the prospect of having a real home, but one that wouldn’t involve staying put in the same place.

“Do you think of yourself as homeless?” I asked. I was trying to puzzle him out. He’d told me he could not “live the American life”. Some of the things he says sound as though he’s on the road by choice – a hobo rather than homeless. He says he has no regrets. But then he’ll say something else that aches with hurts and disappointments, both suffered and dealt out, and I wonder what he’d change, if he could.

“I can’t afford a home,” he said, and he sounded sad.

“So you’re not like Reacher – just choosing to live on your own terms?” I asked.

“Jack Reacher? Like in the movie?” He laughed. He liked that idea. He said he personally didn’t want a home, but he thought Bubba would like one, and that’s what mattered most.

Just east of the Cascades he asked for a restroom break, so I pulled over in Cle Elum. While he was taking care of himself and Bubba, I texted the Hubbit to let him know I might be bringing someone home for dinner. The way things work with the Hubbit and me is, we each make our own plans and the other accommodates, but each of us has veto power. So I waited an hour or so, until we were near the Tri-Cities, before I said, “Okay, you have three options. I can take the next exit and drop you in town – there’s a McDonald’s, Walmart, etc. Or I can take the exit after that one and drop you there; there’s nothing there but you say you do better getting rides from country people. Or you can come on home with me, and tomorrow morning I’ll drop you at the truck stop.”

His eyes lit up, then he looked worried. “But won’t your husband mind?” he asked.

“I texted him hours ago and he hasn’t said no. And he’s used to me picking up strays,” I said. Plus, if the Hubbit won’t remember to keep his phone with him and check for texts from his loving wife who is driving along a lonely highway through the barren wastes of Eastern Washington, that’s on him, right? “You’ll be welcome, so it’s up to you. It looks as though you could use a shower and a washing machine,” I added, ever tactful.

So he came home, and the dogs weren’t assholes when I introduced them to Bubba, and the Hubbit was surprised but welcoming. Well, resigned, anyway – and once Cajun had showered and dinner was on the table, the Hubbit discovered for himself that the company was good, as promised.

Cajun's feet
Cajun prefers his tent to a bedroom indoors.

Cajun didn’t want the spare bedroom. He pitched his tent under a tree in the back yard. The next day we offered him the option of staying on for a few days, helping out a little on the farm in return for his keep, and giving himself and Bubba a rest – but he was in a hurry to continue his journey. He repacked his backpack – traded me some cheap dog food that the chickens like for the better stuff we feed our dogs, and left a small blanket and an umbrella on the washing machine. I guess when you have to carry everything you own, you don’t hang onto an umbrella during the dry season.

It turned out that the truck stop near us, that I’d planned to take him to, was on the wrong route, so we drove into Oregon, and he kept studying Google Maps on his tablet and saying, “It’s pretty soon … I think the next turn-off … Or maybe the next one.”

“I’m not taking you all the way to Salt Lake City, you know!” I groused – not because I minded so much as I was worried about running out of gas, and it was nearly the end of the month so I’d already run out of money. The truck stop was at the next turnoff after that, and he put $30 in my tank, because he may be homeless but he’s not a bum.

I texted with him while writing this story. I had to ask his permission to use photographs off his Facebook page, and I wanted to check in with him anyway. He’s in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, feeling down in the dumps. It seems people there don’t respond to a “Hungry” sign, and no one is stopping to give him a ride. He’s hoping a trucker will come by soon, because they usually stop when they see Bubba. He’s moving on, going to Laramie, Wyoming, where he reckons he has a better chance of finding work. His course is in September and it lasts a month, and he can’t have Bubba with him while he’s training, so he needs to save up for a boarding kennel.

I hope they get a ride soon. I hope they make it home.

Do you pick up hitchhikers? What about hitchhikers with dogs? And … what do you think, when you see a homeless person?

 

What’s in a name?

Over the past year, reading the news carried me all the way from disbelief to despair before I ran out of angst. I keep abreast of major news events (the ones the online mainstream media, as funneled through my personal algorithm, tells me about, anyway. I’ve canceled my subscriptions to alternative sources like The Intercept).

Often I listen to National Public Radio when I drive, and if I’m not interested in what they’re offering I switch to the conservative talk show hosts on the AM channels – Savage, Limbaugh, Hannity. Sometimes they repeat themselves on an endless loop as they troll for callers, but the people who call in can be interesting. These are the folk who, for now, are driving our national bus. I’d rather know what they think than not.

Superman stopping a bus
Apparently Wonder Woman didn’t ever stop a bus from plunging to its doom while someone was around with a camera, so here’s Superman instead. She’d have done the same, except with one hand. And without a cloak to obscure the view. And afterwards she’d have parked the bus alongside the curb. (Source)

I have friends, mainly on Facebook, who share articles and rants. Sometimes I join the conversation, but more and more I just hit like/love/ha-ha/sad face/angry face and move on. More and more, I’m an observer rather than a participant. I feel as though I’ve been thrown from the bus and am lying, stunned but (as far as I know) intact, watching it spin toward the cliff edge. And while I’d like to care – or, better, release my Inner Wonder Woman to stop the bus from going over – what I really feel most of the time is curiosity. I wonder what’s going to happen next. I wonder what you think about it, and why your thoughts are not the same as mine.

We’ve ditched the Paris Agreement? Oh well, at least now corporations and communities are taking direct responsibility for limiting climate change, and maybe we’ll all be okay, and even if we aren’t I can’t change anything, although I’m thinking of setting up a beehive, so that’s something. We need bees.

Jeff Sessions is all set to enforce heavier penalties for drug use and cancel states’ rights to legalize marijuana, provided he doesn’t resign or get fired first, and also he thinks America is light on crime and he wants to change that? Wow … I wonder how it’s possible for someone to look so cute and be so horrible. Maybe he was teased and bullied in the schoolyard for looking like an elf, and now he’s compensating by behaving like a gremlin. Bullying has consequences.

A whole bunch of people are suing Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution? And James Comey’s testimony to Congress destroyed / vindicated Trump? And Trump may (or may not) fire Robert Mueller, as he may (or may not) have the power to do? And if he does he will definitely (not?) be impeached? Huh. Well, at least between all that and Twitter he’s being kept busy. Maybe this is good. If Mike Pence moves into the White House, everything will calm down and shit will get done.

To stay grounded I watch a lot of late night talk shows on YouTube. Trevor Noah is my favorite (just to give a fellow South African a shout-out), but I enjoy Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers too. Between them they almost make the news palatable.

Lately I’ve been watching Bill Maher. He’s arrogant, but I like the way his bullshit meter swings left as well as right. Like me, he believes in free speech for everyone, not just the people who think as he does; and he’s impatient with snowflakes and political correctness, as am I. So it’s been interesting to watch him navigate the turbulence following his use of a “racial slur” during an interview on his show.

He’s invited quite a few people, mainly black celebrities, to come onto his show and berate him. And while he squirms and occasionally protests, he takes what they dish up and he eats it.

This has been unexpected. I’ve been waiting for him to say, “Oh come on – it’s a word, that’s all. I haven’t enslaved anyone. Get over it!” I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have said. I’d have apologized, and then if they continued to fuss at me I’d have rolled my eyes and left them to flap their mouths at my departing back.

It’s not that I don’t know words, the names we call people, can hurt. I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner living in Smalltown America, I’m fat; I know how it feels to be smacked with a slur. But I believe – that is, I have believed – that someone who uses racist, sexist or otherwise denigrating language is really saying more about themselves than about the subject of their attack. So what’s the big deal? Let’s move on – right?

And mealy-mouthed euphemisms – ugh, I hate them! You don’t “drop the F-bomb” – you say fuck. You don’t call someone the B-word – you call her a bitch, and then – depending on whether she’s a ball-breaking bitch or a frigid bitch – she either rips your head off or says, “Really? You say that as though it’s a bad thing.”

So this word that Maher used … ehh. It’s icky, but it’s just a word. It’s just a noun people used to use. At least he was honest – he didn’t say it by using a euphemism to pretend he wasn’t saying it. And slavery was terrible, no joking matter, so that was a mistake – but it’s over, right? Both slavery and Maher’s joke – they’re over. Past and done.

Except … I remember the pure searing rage I felt, years ago when I was sick with longing for home, when the Hubbit and I were guests at a Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation shifted to reparation and how idiotic it was all these years after slavery was over, and somebody commented, “Weelll they oughta be grateful we enslaved ’em – otherwise they’d still be stuck in Aaaafricaaa.” These people, these buffoons who knew nothing about my beautiful home, so much richer and deeper and more alive than this flimsy America with all its flags and silly nationalistic rituals – how dared they say her name with such contempt?

And I remember the anger I still feel when I’m editing a report for a South African client, and I have to refer to black people as “Africans” as though I, being white, am not African, even though my ancestors have lived there since 1665. As though my grandparents and great-grandparents, and now I and my daughter, were ghosts, our lives without substance or meaning. As though we are illegitimate and homeless.

Thinking about it, I begin to understand that anger and hurt aren’t always subject to common logic, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

This morning I was lying in bed, yawning and flicking through the news on my phone, when I noticed my feed contained something new from Bill Maher – an interview with Ice Cube.

Full disclosure: I cannot stand rap, and I think Ice Cube is a stupid name for an adult; I don’t care how cool he thinks he is. Also, I was about bored with watching rich, successful “African” Americans (light brown people who have never lived in Africa) huff and puff over a two-word slip of the tongue. But I didn’t feel like getting up and I’d already watched the other late night shows I follow, so I clicked on it. You should too.

Seriously … If you let your eyes flick over the video without stopping to watch it, go back. (If you can’t see it, just check YouTube for “Bill Maher and Ice Cube”.) It’s part of this post and I need you to hear it, otherwise what I’m trying to communicate here will fall like a pebble down a well.

You done? Good. Thank you.

Okay … so, I still don’t understand why, if I don’t agree with the politically correct (as defined by black people) narrative, I’m accused of white privilege as though it’s something I’ve done. I don’t understand why blacks cling so tightly to past injustice instead of putting it behind them, living in the present and focusing on the future.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be dark-skinned in America today. It seems to me that when you read the news or watch late night talk show hosts, you don’t get the same message I do, and I don’t understand why. I can’t grasp how it feels to know your grandmother used to be someone’s property. I cannot comprehend your anger, your fear, your hurt.

But I understand this: I don’t have to use euphemisms if I don’t want to. If I want to speak about something, I can call it by its full name. But there is one word – the one that stabs like a knife – that I have never needed, and to which I relinquish all claim.

I understand now. That word is not mine to use.

 

Talk to me. I’d like to know what you think.