Thanks

Novemeber 30, 2020

We wrestled with being thankful this year, like everyone else. To be living and breathing are enough in this year of holocaust. So many lives lost, so many families devastated, so many still at risk. Can’t the rest of us just wear the darn masks?

But then, Americans cleansed the nation of the Trump infection, although the scars remain. Biden seeks healing and unity. But the Trump cult remains, not only, as the liberals believe, in isolated rural places and depressed factory towns, but wherever greed or bigotry or ignorance animate American minds. The deranged post-election lawsuits frame Trumpism for posterity. Healing, unity? Somehow, up to all of us, but beyond my time.

Yet the vaccine is coming. Hope is in sight, arriving, we hear, by next spring. That was enough for thanksgiving worldwide and on this American Thanksgiving. The millions who gambled and crowded together this weekend may get lucky, or may not. A vaccine by next spring doesn’t help today’s victims. The virus is still spreading and killing.  

We looked forward to spending the day with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons, confident we’re following the guidance. We’ve worn masks and stayed away from others. At the nearly empty Bi-Lo, a woman behind us in the checkout line, keeping her distance, heard Sandy say we’re new here. “I’m from West Virginia,” she said. “I like it here, more opportunity, and good for the kids.” Good thoughts.

That afternoon, Wednesday, we drove around exploring neighborhoods. This city has at least two historic districts, both filled with massive colonials and graceful antebellum places, some showing off those blue “Hate Has No Home Here” and Biden-Harris signs. That kind of thing.  We’re not in the market for a quaint old place, even nestled among tall oaks with those cute gas-fired porchlights or wraparound porches. We killed about an hour cruising and learned a bit more about this town.

Mail is starting to arrive at the new address. We found a primary-care doctor who takes our insurance, always an ordeal. We got library cards and checked books out. I got through John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, my one sampling of the avalanche of What the Hell Were Trump Voters Thinking literature of the past four years.

We’ve chased the rental company with phone calls (not the local rental office, but the real estate mega-conglomerate in Miami) over the multiple letters about our renters’ insurance. Never does a human pick up. The future-home conundrum nags us, we’ve got the apartment for six months. Whoops—now five months.

The home-search project is moving slowly. One month gone but no progress on the problem, which according to the retired-folks magazines is supposed to be an adventure, an investment of faith and hope. But the two-bedroomer is OK. The boys spent Saturday night with us. They ate pizza and ice cream and watched a movie. Good times.

Paris Mountain State Park

We find faith and hope all around us. We stumbled onto Thanksgiving numbed by the statistics of death and suffering, yet lifted up by joy. Doctors, nurses, EMTs, nursing home and assisted living caregivers, police officers, teachers, local public health officials are confronting the pandemic relentlessly, saving lives, becoming casualties themselves. Early this month thousands of polling-place workers, ballot counters, state election officials nationwide persevered against pressures from Trump cultists to overturn the people’s will. They defied the pressure and counted the votes. They now go back to their daily lives among the rest of us, their courage and sacrifice largely unrecognized.

So thinking of all of them, we said thanks. In our new life, in this corner of a state I never imagined I would live, I’m buttressed by the support—the kindness—we’ve received from the physicians and their staffs at PRISMA Health in Greenville. My doctor in Virginia, who managed my recovery over two years, looked over my late-October CT scan and, hearing we’re moving here, called a colleague at PRISMA, who swept away the hurdles to getting care in a strange place. He looked at the scan, understood the problem, arranged my appointments, set me straight. I’m looking at more treatment. We’ll get it done.

So we’re grateful for these and other blessings. We’re reminded every day that prayer matters, that faith sustains and strengthens and consoles us. We’ve dodged the covid bullet so far but know others who are suffering. The new year offers more hope. We’ll be OK. So we’re giving thanks. Every day.

Bacon Ridge

November 23, 2020

The week of waiting began with the biopsy: the drive in predawn darkness to the hospital on the far side of town, the hike down long corridors to radiology, the usual prep work. The doc looked into the holding pen—what I call it—introduced himself, and ducked out. Then 30 minutes of sedation, an hour of recovery, and out of there, a bandage on the small hole in my chest. Seemed like old times.

We weren’t happy, mid-week, to see a local news report that Greenville County leads the state in new covid cases. Everywhere, businesses have posted signs either requiring or requesting people wear masks. And everywhere they stroll in without them. That’s one notion of personal freedom: put others at risk. But I recall it took a while for the mask habit to catch on in Virginia. So things take longer to sink in down here.

That’s unfair, maybe. But there it is. We’re finding that “upstate” South Carolina has its quirks. Our daughter Marie, always alert for new adventures in nature, last Saturday led us with the grandkids to the Pacolate Nature Preserve, a quiet stretch of woods somewhere between the east outskirts of Spartanburg and the swollen, sullen Pacolet River. The trail wound maybe a mile to the steep riverbank then ended abruptly. The brown rapids thundered by feet from the slippery, mud-coated trail. Although it was Saturday, we saw not another soul. Scratch that—in some underbrush I spotted a rusted iron cross engraved: “Jesse Gates, August 22, 1973-July 18, 2018.” A memorial, or a grave? So no hikers, but maybe one soul. Why was it there? I thought of James Dickey’s “Deliverance.” Except the river in the 1972 film looked cleaner.

Anyway, back in Greenville we’re staying positive. We drove the six miles from our apartment, rented for six months, over to Paris Mountain State Park, a pretty place crisscrossed with hiking trails, and bought the state park pass, half price for seniors. Although the next morning was cold, I went back and ran a few miles, trying to preserve the ritual I followed for many years, when we lived midway between Prince William and Fountainhead parks. Those trails became second nature. Here, I’m a newbie. The chill seemed sharper, more penetrating here than I recall in Virginia. But then I’m another winter older.

We’ve walked the attractive, upbeat downtown, set off beautifully by tall elms and maples, sidling away from the unmasked crowds, and driven around nearby neighborhoods, gawking at homes for sale. The hard core still show their Trump signs and banners, although definitely fewer than last week. Meanwhile, the pandemic hammers the state. The appointed Trump-to-the-bone governor, McMaster, pitches the “personal responsibility” mantra, scrounging for the redneck vote, I guess. Plenty of ‘em around here, even in church, maybe especially in church. 

These three Sundays we’ve been to St. Mary’s, the traditional parish downtown. Mass is in the church and an auditorium, where the chairs are well-spaced, almost everyone wears masks. But with covid still spreading, we’ll watch the live-stream at home.

With the “immune-suppressed” millstone around our necks, we’ve holed up in the apartment the past few days. I moved into our first house in April 1978, we got married in August. So the strictures of apartment living: paying rent, calling a maintenance guy, watching our noise, all are new. The place is wedged at the intersection of two four-lane thoroughfares. We got lucky, though, our cubbyhole is buffered from traffic noise by thick woods. We’ve squeezed the contents of a five-bedroom house into this two-bedroom apartment by using the second bedroom as our storage unit. The spare furniture and the rest of the stuff we couldn’t part with are stacked in boxes, nearly ceiling-high. Sometimes we open the door and peek in, wondering where it all came from.

So we’ve been three weeks here at Beacon Ridge apartments, a unit of PRG Real Estate, which is headquartered in Miami. (Why do I keep calling it “Bacon Ridge? My younger grandson likes it.) It’s really not all that cozy, the electric heat is less efficient and more expensive than gas, which we enjoyed all those years in Woodbridge. I like not having to have to walk the length of the house to find a tool or a book. The tools and books I kept are buried in the box room.

We appreciate the pluses. We hear no next-door neighbors partying and yelling at their kids, no teenagers drag-racing up the street. We don’t miss the lines of parked cars of renters crowding the street or the odd collections of furniture and yard tools accumulating on neighbors’ porches.

Yet I miss knowing every inch of our old home. We miss the little Salvadoran girls who lived next door running over and yelling “hi!” and the crowd of kids, who moved in recently, biking and skateboarding up and down the block. They were giving the neighborhood some life, the way we did when we moved in with our kids all those years ago.

Here at Beacon Ridge we seldom see anyone. I’ve spotted a few people hurrying to their cars, heading to work, I guess. Occasionally, someone is out getting his or her ration of fresh air. Plenty of parking spaces are vacant; the institution—er, complex—may not be fully rented. Most of the time the place is silent. The maintenance guy, Josh, scoots around in his golf cart. The first week we were here the manager, her face fully masked, ran out to shoo my grandsons away from the pool area. With good reason, I’m sure.

We’re in an apartment complex ghetto, bounded by Haywood Pointe Apartments to the north (I wonder why the “e?”) and Caledon Court Apartments to the west; close to the interstate and downtown, and close to the kids out in the burbs. We’re ten minutes from the Cancer Center. We’re in a practical place, where we need to be. We’ve got a wood-burning fireplace, but no frills, you can tell from the beige walls and carpet. Everything works, except the refrigerator, which seems to freeze everything. Josh has been by to look at it. We’ll call him again. We’ve got six months.

Walhalla

November 16, 2020

At the ten-day mark in Greenville, last Thursday, it was time to get out of town again. We aimed for Walhalla, about 50 miles west and minutes from the Blue Ridge, because of the odd name and because on the internet it looked like a serene retirement spot. We’re not serious about buying way out in the sticks, but we thought we’d take a look. Maybe it is serene, we didn’t stay long enough to decide.

Walhalla is on U.S. 123, due west of Greenville, tucked up in the corner of the state between Georgia and North Carolina. The hour-long drive out is a disappointing two-thirds commercial wasteland, the usual suburban miles of stop lights, fast food, used-car lots, gas stations, and more fast food. You turn right at Clemson, home of the big football school, which is concealed somewhere within the commercial desert. The highway skirts giant Lake Keowee, then opens up for a few miles. Then you’re in Walhalla.

As is often the case with small towns, the primary U.S. highway through it is the town’s main street, usually, as in Walhalla, named “Main Street.” We cruised a bit through the side streets looking at the old homes, most modestly well-kept, others not, many still decorated with Trump-Pence signs. I noticed a sign for a Performing Arts Center.

We parked on Main, grabbed our masks and stretched our legs a bit, then ventured into “Mountain Mocha” for coffee (me) and hot cocoa (Sandy). It’s a locally owned version of Starbucks with young folks staring at their laptops, and a gang of kids apparently doing their online school assignments, None were eating, none wore masks. The young woman who mixed the cocoa wore one, the guy who fetched the coffee did not. The tab for the coffee, cocoa, and two tiny muffins came to about 12 bucks. The premium for local ownership, I guessed.

We sat for a while looking around the place, listening to Christmas music. A large fir, decked out cheerfully in white lights, stood in the corner. For a few moments we felt the nearness of Christmas, and the peace and consolation Christmas brings. We enjoyed the sense of our separation from the big congested city, although Greenville isn’t all that big or congested. We sipped our coffee and cocoa and talked about the future. We didn’t think about covid-19 or the Trump pathology or my chest biopsy, set for early Monday morning.

We finished and ambled down the block past a barbershop with the old-fashioned spinning candy-cane poles outside and an unusual name, for a barbershop, “Memories on Main.” I needed a haircut and jumped at the chance. Two women were cutting hair, but as it was noon they were about to take a 90-minute lunch break. I said I’d be back. We then browsed at an outdoors-camping supplies place that offered freeze-dried food, mountain footwear, the works. I bought a map of the Foothills Trail, which runs 76 miles through western North and South Carolina. Actually using the map in the near future is a big maybe. 

We killed some time visiting Walhalla’s three, yes, three museums, the largest covering the history of Oconee County. There I learned that “Walhalla” is a Norse term meaning “Garden of the Gods,” although the town was settled by Germans. The museum provided information on settlement of the area early in the 18th century, local Revolutionary War operations, and surprisingly frank commentary on local slaveowners and post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan activity.

The smaller Museum of the Cherokee offered interesting exhibits on the area’s Native American heritage. The briefings made the point that South Carolina did not participate in creating the tragic stain on American history known as the Trail of Tears—the forced relocation of Southeastern native peoples by the federal government to western reservations between 1830 and 1850. 

The third museum, the still-smaller Oconee Military Museum at Patriot’s Hall, puzzled me, in that it featured an assortment of vintage World War II weapons, equipment, and uniforms, but nothing unique to Walhalla or South Carolina. It did show a brief video of a local veteran making some comments. Fortunately, the three museums asked only for donations.

All the history made us hungry. We stopped at one nice-looking restaurant, it had closed five minutes earlier.

Back at the barbershop I waited while one of the two barbers cut a little boy’s hair, the other a young man’s. I was the only one in the place with a mask. I was preparing to ask the barber to put on a mask when she called me, but she grabbed one and strapped it on. She may have pegged me for one of those Yankee liberals. I mentioned we’d only just arrived in the state and were looking to buy. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she said cheerfully. “Take a look at Seneca.”

She snipped away slowly, chatting. Eventually she held up a mirror to show her work, I thanked her. “Thanks for coming back,” she said with a smile.

We were by now a bit worn down by the tourist routine, even in this tiny, out-of-the-way place.  We got on the highway out of town, knowing we had skipped some vaguely interesting sites, the nearby state park, the Stumphouse Tunnel, a never-finished railroad tunnel, and Issaqueena Falls. That’s always the way it is for us. We never quite finish the tour.

We’re still not over tearing ourselves away from our home of 33 years, but we’re getting there. Things have worked out so far. My oncologist in Virginia, after seeing my last scan, called a colleague in Greenville, who looked at the scan report and scheduled the biopsy. Today’s the day. In a day or two we’ll know if I’m heading back to surgery, the chemo pen, or home free. I’m banking on good news. It’s almost Thanksgiving.

Connemara

November 9, 2020

We drove across the state line Thursday to Flat Rock, N.C., and walked the high and rolling grounds of Connemara, the home of Carl Sandburg, the “people’s poet.” Sandburg, a poet, journalist, historian, songwriter, and political activist, never graduated from college, but won three Pulitzer Prizes. He started life in Galesburg, Ill., then lived in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Chicago before settling in Flat Rock in 1945.

On Thursday morning, with political nastiness in America nearing its peak, a stroll around Connemara was just the thing. Flat Rock is a few minutes north of the North-South Carolina border, surrounded by the rugged peaks of the southern end of the Blue Ridge. The famous Blue Ridge Parkway passes just 30-plus miles north on its 469-mile way through Asheville on its way to its terminus near Cherokee.

Sandburg was the anti-Trump. He worked as a milkwagon driver, dishwasher, hotel porter, bricklayer, farm laborer, coal miner. He served in the Army during the Spanish-American War. He dropped out of college. He bounced around, mostly in the upper, colder Midwest. Then he started writing and never stopped: news stories for the Chicago Daily News, poems, children’s stories, folk songs, movie reviews, and fiction, before embarking on his magisterial biography of Lincoln, for which he won the 1940 Pulitzer. Sandburg was the first white man awarded the NAACP’s Silver Plaque award, the citation praising him as a “major prophet of civil rights in our time.”

 His wife, Lillian, pushed for the move to Connemara to have the pastures to raise her goats. Goats still graze part of the property.

“Anti-Trump” means anti-fakery. Sandburg didn’t try to pass for the “common” man. He was the common man. Common in that his entire life represented the qualities we all say we admire, but often struggle with: pure honesty, respect for hard work and people who do the hard work, acknowledgement of virtues that define goodness: steadiness, optimism, kindness, patience, civility. In his 1917 poem, Caboose Thoughts, he opens and closes with:

It’s going to come out all right–do you know? The sun, the birds, the grass–they know, They get along–and we’ll get along

What you read is an unvarnished sense of life lived with humility. The poems of Sandburg don’t give you the brooding, erudite nuances of T.S. Eliot. They give you the elegance of the mind of a man at peace with himself and with the world.  

Tramping the Connemara trails, you escape the malevolent nightmare of election news. A few folks, all wearing or holding masks, passed by with a smile and a nod. The place was largely quiet. Is it the election coverage? I shook my head at the thought. People who come to a peaceful mountainside gem like this don’t sit around watching TV.   

We are working to acclimate ourselves to such places, which seem to whisper that life is richer closer to forests and mountains and farther from crowded places, even if only for short stretches, a day, a couple of days. We still are separating ourselves from the Washington suburbs. That doesn’t mean that we’re going full country. As we drove up on U.S. 25, the thinly traveled fast road from Greenville, I pointed out to Sandy some homes perched on mountaintops. “Great views,” I said, half-seriously. She frowned. An eagle’s nest-type place with a scary, twisting access road isn’t in our future.

It would be nice if we all could visit places like Connemara every so often. I miss already the sharp rocks of the Shenandoahs, which after all are the northern end of the Blue Ridge we’re looking at right now. But what we’re all seeking is a vista on our own lives that Carl Sandburg’s life and work offer. Maybe all we need is the idea of a quiet mountainside.

What his life taught, or teaches, is that we’re called to seek, always, the diamond-hard virtues of human nature: generosity, tolerance, charity. Sandburg got a rocky start in life, working backbreaking jobs at age 13. His father was a railroad laborer. How does that shape a man? We know life was different then. Priorities and values were different. Poor people didn’t expect much. But today it would be easy to see him, or anyone in the same fix, slouch into resentment, envy, selfishness, or worse. We wonder how did he get along? Let alone win three Pulitzers.

Sandburg listened to the pulse of America. He looked at the lives of Americans who didn’t go to college, didn’t have money or health insurance or pensions, yet put their shoulders to the wheel at work that created America’s prosperity and power. They were the people who finished their shifts exhausted, dirty, often ill or injured, but showed up for work the next day. He wrote in Smoke and Steel:

So the fire runs in, runs out, runs somewhere else again,  And the bar of steel is a gun, a wheel, a nail, a shovel,   A rudder under the sea, a steering-gear in the sky;  And always dark in the heart and through it, Smoke and the blood of a man.   Pittsburg, Youngstown, Gary—they make their steel with men.

For sure, the quiet woodland beauty of Connemara is a long way from Gary. It became a place of solace for Sandburg, where he sat in a hard wooden chair and produced much of his work. He kept writing about simple, straightforward things, because after living through hardship and need he saw life as a path to be guided by the simple things: integrity, perseverance, equanimity, charity.

We come away from the place with these lessons, a little late in life, maybe. Some challenges lie ahead. But by a nice coincidence, as we trekked up the driveway to Sandburg’s house, I got a call from the doctor’s office and made an appointment. Complicated things are becoming simpler. That’s the way it looks right now. We’ll get along.

The Upstate

November 2, 2020

It occurred to me, as we stumbled into the second Marriott we tried at 10 PM Friday night in Greenville, S.C., that our lives had become truly bizarre. We sat through the closing on our house sale in a seedy office building in Falls Church, Va., in the morning—these settlement companies don’t go in for frills. We stopped at the house, no longer ours, and took pictures, still in a daze.

Then onward: we convoyed south, Sandy in the compact, me in the van, missing phone messages from the oncologist. We poked along separately, then stopped, separated, caught up. Then we passed Charlotte and ran into the I-85 construction gridlock nightmare that will taint “upstate” South Carolina’s reputation for a decade. Cones, warning beacons, closed lanes, mile after mile after mile. The trip: 12 hours. State welcome center and restrooms: closed. Dinner at 10 PM, McDonald’s drive-through.

Toward the end of the trip I wondered if Virginia just wouldn’t let go. Before we got to Spartanburg the GPS sent us on a six-mile detour into pitch-dark boondocks, passing no buildings, no lights, no other traffic. The device warned of a seven-minute interstate delay. I missed a hidden turn and went around the detour twice.

Reality: unlike at the end of our past trips to Greenville, we can’t turn around. Well, technically we could, if we don’t love this place. Right now we’re in a two-bedroom rental for six months in one of those complexes popular with twenty- and thirty-somethings. But after 41 years in a home of our own, to me, that’s homeless. There’s the deal. People make it every day.

Our kids and grandsons are here. Their nearness impels us to act younger, to take care of ourselves, to think with hope about the future. That means leaving behind the stale old-folks’ habits that were starting to dominate our lives. As time flew by we saw, both of us, the likelihood of sinking permanently into the numbing routines of the Washington, D.C. environs, whose primary product, after all, is hot air. Our friends saw it, too. They all were leaving, or planning to leave, or staying only because of work or family connections.

The whole move enterprise was a convolution of lightening-fast hits and misses. Amanda Carter, the agent, did all the work. Thanks to her, the house transferred to new owners before we knew what happened. Two very strong friends hauled our furniture into the trailer as if it were made of balsa. Other friends bought us lunch, dinner, drinks. The running group gave me a book of memorable photos and a mug engraved with the members’ names.

On the downside we were punished for our cluelessness, over the years, about the need to declutter. We hung on to junk as if it were invisible. At the melodramatic, desperate end I gave away suits and yard furniture, and trashed probably a ton of 30-year-old canceled checks and bank statements, tax returns, kids’ grade-school papers, out-of-date yard-care products, half-empty cans of paint, and countless more basement artifacts. Yet we still exceeded the space allowance in the truck, not able to part with camping gear we never used, distant relatives’ chipped furniture, old lamps, faded documents, and photos of people we don’t recognize.

But the plan, everyone’s plan, is to move forward, always, even in the Social Security years. The alternative is—none, really, except the end, which we can’t predict. Sometimes you backpedal—the oncologist said in his email he was sorry to hit me with the news that I need more treatment the day before the move. But the poor timing was mine, not his.  

It always seemed a little absurd to me that first, someone would want to pay what they paid for our house, and second, they didn’t change their minds. But that’s the other side of the deal. Another family is starting off in our house right about where we started there, with young kids. Their first question was about the schools. They eagerly signed all the papers, happy to get in the place. I wasn’t nearly as relieved to hand over my warrant to get out. I came away numb. Maybe they’ll stay there thirty-plus years, then do what we just did.

Before we left, we drove out to Strasburg to see friends for a day. From their kitchen window you can see Signal Knob, the mysterious, alluring peak at the northern end of the Massanutten Range. I’ve climbed it many times, though not recently. I stood for a few moments staring at it, transfixed by the gentle fall colors, the sharp profile. I wondered whether I’d see it ever again.

We got to Mass yesterday at St. Mary’s in downtown Greenville. Individual chairs were well-spaced, everyone wore masks. Rather than trot out his own opinions, the pastor stunned me with his eloquent, beautiful homily on the lyrics of the hymn, “O What Their Joy,” by the philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142), and translated from the Latin by the Anglican scholar John Mason Neale, who devoted his life to serving the ill and homeless. “All lives contain some share of suffering,” said the pastor, “but in the end is Christ.” His words heartened and strengthened us.

St. Mary’s, Greenville

As that old Carter Family tune goes, we’re keeping on the sunny side. We’ll be close to some of those we love. I’ve been reading up on the area, the mountains, the lakes, the links to rich history. I was happy to find you can see the Blue Ridge peaks from the entrance to our yuppie-heaven apartment complex. Maybe I’ll persuade some of them to go with me out there, hard against the North Carolina state line. My daughter already sent me information about a local trail running group, the South Carolina Ultra-Marathoners, or SCUM. I smiled.

Of course I’ll give it a go, but at this point that stuff may not exactly work out for me. But even while moving forward, you sometimes have to find a fallback and restart your engine. That’s a metaphor for the medical thing. But we’ll find fresh air and rough beauty wherever we can. Michael, my son, and I talked about climbing Maine’s Mount Katahdin next summer. It’s also the summer of my 50th college reunion in New Hampshire. We’ll have to find a way to make it all work—but now, from the Upstate.