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It’s been so mean lately.

Oh, I know it’s always been mean. “Off with their heads!”; machetes removing limbs; “We will kill you for dancing”; waterboarding a workaday torture; “Tell us what you heard your father say about our glorious leader”; pogroms; labor camps; piles of bodies.

It’s always been mean.

The current mean is insidious as much as shocking, though, during this era when well-off people wrap themselves in privilege and self-righteousness to deflect from the tight bitterness of their begrudging. The current mean erodes my belief in foundations, makes it impossible to feel easy, causes me to yell at phantoms in my head when I’m out for a run. 

I don’t know how to write when the only thing I have to express is an extended scream down an open neck as I nestle a bloody head into the crook of my arm. I don’t know how to write because boundaries and tone become impossible to manage, drowned in a deluge of anger and disappointment.

So I try, very deliberately, to focus on the flashes of pure and good — a fine encounter with a stranger, a happy wave across the yoga studio, a student excited that she gets to take a trip to Greece. I try to open a channel and let the good stuff flow in. 

I started this essay one year ago, a month after my dear friend Virginia died; the opening sentence about “It’s been so mean lately” popped out of my fingertips then, as did the subsequent paragraphs. Even then, I was struggling to stay right as people got meaner. 

Then life reared up, and the essay draft languished. There was too much else to do, not enough time to sit and focus on one of the pure, good things that had saved me from complete disillusionment. 

But now I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe with Virginia’s widow, Kirsten, an ashes-scattering jaunt during which we not only left bits of bones in places that had been special to Gin but also took her to some new venues, whisking that intrepid traveler on one last journey. Along the way, as the bitter and self-righteous sloshed in their own sourness, we were reminded again, through Virginia’s lasting impact on a crew of devoted friends in Germany, that mean frets itself into unyielding little knots, but goodness turns its face to the sun. 

I’m being cliche and mixing metaphors here, of course, but the sentiment is true: people have been making me sad, yet the person Virginia chose to be in the world gives a powerful lift.

When I started this essay a year ago, I wanted to share the contents of a small red volume found after Virginia’s memorial service in a desk drawer in her basement — in the “museum” of Ginnie’s Stuff. 

Feeling tired and sad these past few days, I suddenly remembered that tiny journal she’d kept and realized I do have something to say that isn’t an extended scream down an open neck, dismembered head stuffed into my elbow — “Oh, I should scan those pages and write a blog post!”

Today, when I sat at the computer, I found a folder containing images I’d forgotten I scanned after her death. Today, when I came to the Dashboard of this blog to begin a new essay, I found a post I started in June of 2018. 

In looking at the scanned images and re-reading the notes Virginia jotted in 1984 about a Cambodian family she was sponsoring during their relocation from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields to a small Minnesota town with a kill line, I fell in love with my friend all over again. 

And I fell in love with Hieng and Sakun and Sokong and Soksan. (In particular, I really, really, really fell in love with Soksan on March 31, 1984.)

Looking at the notes Virginia dashed into a little book during the months when she poured time and money and love into a traumatized family, I remembered not everyone sits in their houses where they have too much and complains about brown people showing up where they don’t belong. I remembered that some people live according to the Law of Abundance, some people start and end with the principle that all human beings deserve an equal chance, some people don’t complain publicly about things they don’t acknowledge privately, some people check and challenge themselves: “Am I embodying graciousness? Am I truly living with grace?”

Virginia’s notebook, as it tracks purchases and errands with not only the Hao family but also other refugees being absorbed into her beloved town, provides a snapshot of genuine grace in a mean, mean world.

Virginia was not a saint. After these initial months of language learning, household establishment, health worries, and friendship joys, she left the Hao family more and more in the hands of others. Like me with this blog post, she had other priorities.

When I met her in 1996, however, Virginia was fully in the swing of sponsoring a Bosnian refugee family — helping them find work, enrolling the kids in school, spending hours and dollars to soften their landing. 

It’s been so mean lately.

But once there was a Virginia. And all of us now, if we try to live with similar grace, have it in ourselves to earn the title of “Mom,” to feel our hearts fill, to listen to our doorbells ring repeatedly, to eat watermelon together.

We have it in ourselves to believe that if we buy two bikes for $70 for people who need them, they’ll be as good as their word.

If we can just stop being so tight and mean, we can trust:

They’ll pay us back.


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Five in Five

One and Forever: Thursday, February 22

It’s a candy cigarette, so calm your tits.

It matters to this story that dusk is creeping around the edges, and thick, quiet snow is falling slowly, slowly from the sky, accumulating into a desert of white dunes outside the large picture window behind my back.

She’s talking, my great pal Virginia is, as she lies on the couch to my left, her feet elevated to help the fluids drain from her leg that swells each day from edema caused by the tumor that has inhabited in her pelvis for twenty years. Every day, to get through the day, her slight body is mobbed, swabbed, bundled, padded, and hooked — with nephrostomy tubes and bags, an under-skin pain pump the size of a hockey puck, gauze, tape, hooks, back-up systems. She is swaddled by the accoutrements of unbudgeable cancer, living graciously and gratefully in constant pain.

Very few people live an example.

Virginia lives an example.

Despite the lashings of medical equipment that snake beneath her clothes, Virginia’s brain roams wide and free. I’m taking trips with her brain now, as she talks over there on the couch, because we are catching stories for her next book, trying to capture them before she has a colostomy in a couple weeks, the next procedure aimed at improving quality of life. Writing is difficult business when sitting is often impossible, but if she can lie with her legs up, she can talk, and I can type.

So far, she’s told me seven-and-a-half stories — five of them about a neighbor boy she fostered, one about injustice on the playground, another about a woman on a park bench in Germany,. By way of a breather, we’ve let ourselves get derailed from a story about the day she met her future in-laws after I’ve asked some follow-up questions.

 

Now we’re talking about Richard, the youngest of her four brothers, the one I sometimes forget about because he was gone before I met her.

She was a senior in high school when he was born, but despite — maybe because of — that age difference, they felt a genuine connection. He loved writing, wanted to get into film, got a job with a kind of documentary company that at some point did a commercial involving a wallaby and luggage. Virginia remembers being so envious that Richard got to be on set with a wallaby, and she didn’t.

Not too long after Virginia returned home from a trip to Europe, her brother Dan called her to tell her that Richard, then 26, had been driving to Jackson Hole from Minnesota with a friend, for a vacation. Near Billings, in central Montana, Richard fell asleep at the wheel, and then awakening with a jolt, he over-corrected, and the car flipped and rolled into a ditch. With no seat belt on, he was thrown from the car and died within three minutes. His friend lived.

Later, after the immediate worst of it, after an undertaker named Mr. Graves readied Richard for permanent rest, Virginia awoke in the night, her heart racing. Panicked by the atrial fibrillation, she went to the emergency room, clutching her chest, and told the doctor, “It feels like my heart is broken.”

It was.

After Richard’s death, as his mother and siblings sifted through his belongings, Virginia claimed some treasures to keep her brother close: a pottery serving bowl which she had gifted to him, reclaimed now; a pair of his wool socks, eventually worn to nubs; a blue-and-green plaid flannel shirt, also worn to threads, and his belt, which became her default belt, her go-to, the only one she has worn now, as her own life winds down, these past two years.

Thirty-seven years have passed since Richard died, and his belt is with her as she dies by millimeters.

And so it matters to this story that darkness filters through the glass, soft snow sifts to blanket the ice-locked ground.


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Survey

Survey Responses from Byron and Virginia

In the next week or so, I’ll be posting the survey responses of those who have given me permission. Let’s start that roll with the responses of Allegra’s pappy and our family best friend, Virginia. 

Quick aside: the first sentence of Virginia’s #6 (her ideal day) made me teary. Twenty years going back and forth with cancer; currently on her I’ve-lost-count round with chemo; pain with a lot of types of movement due to loss of cartilage in her joints from radiation and chemo; crazy messed up bowel and urinary systems as a result of the cancer treatments; a nephrostomy tube attached to one kidney; unable to sit comfortably without an inflatable donut pillow under her bum; a palliative pain pump the size of a hockey puck under her skin at her waistline…and in the midst of all that, she remains hilarious, uncomplaining, and insightful. You want some life perspective? Take in her first sentence to question #6. 

Anyhow, now that I’ve tantalized you, let’s start with Byron’s answers.


Name: Byron Johnson

If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?

The feeling that there is never enough time in the day to do all the things that I want to do. Every day I want to create, cook good food, be physically active and/or be outside for hours, make a difference at my job, and spend time with people I enjoy. Every day consists of tradeoffs, choosing one thing to focus on or trimming down the time spent on each activity. Making those decisions is hard. Sometimes the flow of the day dictates what happens and what does not. I would love to be able to control my days so I did not have to make these choices.

What has been the best trip of your life? Why?

Spending a year in Turkey with my family. Why:

  • It was long enough to be immersed in the culture and to begin to understand some aspects of it. I left wanting to learn and experience more of Turkey.
  • It had extremely high spots and extremely low spots, mentally. Experiencing a high spot after being low really heightens the experience and gives it more meaning. I think of our trip to the Mediterranean in the spring of that year and how we really did not realize how much we needed that experience until we were experiencing it. That trip within our year abroad was magical.
  • The experience has rippled out into our lives far beyond the year we were abroad. We all came back changed and with a different outlook on the world and life. It was transformative, as all good travel should be.

What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?

Making the decision to leave my first full-time, permanent, job because I was miserable. I had worked for 3+ years in my field and finally had the opportunity to not work seasonally and live and work in communal situations. I was making a salary, had benefits, and a possibility for stability for the first time since I graduated from college. But I hated what I was doing and I wasn’t very good at it. I was lonely. I was sick a lot during that year, mostly from the stress of the job and not being very happy. I agonized for months about what to do, consulting with my parents and going on long runs just to think. I spent hours watching “The Simpsons”, doing sit-ups, and waiting to go to bed because then the day would be done. I worried about what would happen after I quit my job. Would I get another? Was I done in my field? How would I make money? I felt like I would let my employer down and in a tough spot if I left. But, eventually, I knew I had to leave or things would just get worse for me.

It was the right decision. While it was hard to make, I realized that things work out. Three months later I was employed in my field and in a position that suited me perfectly. I realized that people and organizations move on and personal happiness is more important than an organization.  If I hadn’t made that decision I might not have met your mother and I would not be answering this survey right now.

What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?

For me, what I have worked hardest for is somewhat sideways and not a stated goal I set and achieved in my life. The hardest thing I have worked for is the knowledge I have NOW of the things that make me satisfied, challenged, and fulfilled in my life. I have gone through a lot of trial and error, time and energy, money and sweat to discover the few things I need in my life to be happy. I’ve tried rock climbing, subsistence gardening, canning, hunting, pottery, journaling, ultramarathons, and many other things. From these experiences I learned a lot and gained perspective on the world, but the biggest take away has been that these things do not fulfill me. By ruling out what does not satisfy me I have discovered the few things that deeply and truly make me happy—cooking and eating good food (with people I love), stitching, physical activity (with people I love), crossword puzzles, and the access to the world my library card gives me.

It was totally worth it. I have experiences that tie me to lots of people and can connect with them because I have experienced something that may be their passion. I also have a lot of years ahead of me and I now have a succinct idea of how to fill that time.

What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

It was so good because it brought together so much of what makes us Americans in a way that really touched me. I cried at least three times during my visit. I feel like I could visit the museum weekly and still be in love with it like I was after my first visit.

What would your idea of a perfect day entail?

  • Coffee
  • Physical activity—it could be running, hiking, biking, or swimming.
  • Good food, shared with people I love
  • A surprise experience. Having something unexpected, yet wonderful, makes a day super special. It would not have to be big. It could be finding an unexpected patch of wild blueberries on a hike and gorging until we were full.

What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?

To dance.

What is your favorite word?

Inshallah—Arabic for “if God wills”. I love the way this word rolls off the tongue and the sentiment of hope, yet uncertainty, with which it is used.

What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?

Lake Superior, which I swam in earlier today.

If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

Grinnell College. It was a tremendous experience. The best part was expanding my worldview beyond what I was exposed to growing up. I met people I would not have known otherwise. I heard new music. I realized people approached life and living differently than I did. College allowed me to realize that the world is a giant place to explore and something to always learn from.

My advice—GO TO COLLEGE AND IMMERSE YOURSELF IN EVERYTHING THAT CATCHES YOUR FANCY.


And now Virginia’s answers:

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?  My habit of speaking before thinking about the possible short-term and long-term effect of my words.  I have often wished I could “unsay” something.  “Be impeccable with your words” is the best advice I continually try to follow.
  2. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?   To Peru with Kirsten.  It was well planned and well executed between Kirsten and this tour company.  I was not in charge.  My reactions went from skeptical to reluctant to neutral to surprised to delighted to very grateful.  The bonus was that I caught a pirhana fish, walked beside a tapir, had my shoes pecked by a wing-disabled red, white and blue parrot, allowed feathery-footed millipedes to crawl up and down my forearm after a rain, and got to hold a young three-toed tree sloth in Inca village along the Amazon River.  It peed on my tshirt and I vowed never to wash it.  It somehow got into the laundry, but I have a photo, which is actually better.  Easier to share.
  3. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?   To marry a man, because I wanted to do “the right thing” and that’s what seemed like the right thing.  It was in June of 1964.  I left this wonderful man in the summer of 1966 and went to Germany to study for a year.  Was divorced “long distance” in January of 1967.  Very amicable divorce and we were both better off.  Douglas eventually married the right woman.  They are still married, so I don’t feel bad on his account. And I am definitely in the right relationship now!
  4. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?  I worked hardest to acquire a good command of the grammar and an authentic-sounding pronunciation in several languages, but mainly in German and French.  It was definitely worth the effort!  
  5. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?  Le Quai d’Orsay museum of impressionist art on the Seine’s left bank in Paris.  It’s an old train station, huge, with great natural lighting from above and a huge clock with gold hands and numbers.  It has an excellent restaurant and the WCs are very clean. But most of all, I love to stand in front of the works of artists like Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Seurat, DegasCezanne, Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Pissarro, Bethe Morrisot, Renoir, and others and let it sink in that these are the very paintings which they created with paint and brush strokes and their particular way of seeing life.I am so touched that sometimes tears well up and then even I see things differently!
  6. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?  It would include waking up feeling grateful that I live in safety and have choices.  I would accomplish what I intended to accomplish on that day so that by bedtime I would have no regrets for misspending my time and I would be satisfied that I had caused several people,including strangers, to smile and perhaps laugh. 
  7. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?  How to navigate in Facebook and how to speak and write Japanese.
  8. What is your favorite word?   cherish
  9. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?   The Indian Ocean off the SE coast of Madagascar, among coral reefs
  10. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?  I graduated from St. Olaf College.  It was a wonderful, life-affirming experience.  The best part was exposure to new ideas, to poetry and literature, to interesting, deep-thinking people (both professors and students, and one German war-bride living a challenging life in Northfield and who hired me to tutor her in English).  Advice?  If you need advice about ANYTHING, ask your mother or your dad, or both, because they know you better than anyone and they are not judgmental.  I predict that you will love being a college student and you will make good use of your new and stimulating environment.

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