A Feeble Flapping at the Edge of the Quagmire

I stop to talk with a few of my students—the older ones, the ones who are not quite so sure they’re going to explode with guaranteed success on some future scene —and then I walk across campus to my car. I toss my book bag onto the floor on the passenger’s side; I snug my water cup into the drink holder. I take my phone from its purse pocket and put it in the crook of the arm rest, and then I start up the engine.

I listen for a minute, appreciating—it is good, this responsive power—and then I turn on NPR and pull out of the parking lot on this chill gray day.

And, from the radio, I hear this:

Rant rant venom

Rant rant venom

The impeachment trial has begun. An august senator is almost spitting in his rage at the other team.

I give it a minute, but he doesn’t waiver from his course. He doesn’t talk about the facts of the case or try to counter what’s been presented; he simply sticks his hand into a bucket of hot tar and smears, smears, smears.

I am sickened, and I turn off the radio. I get on the four lane and wend through the edges of this small gray city. It is quiet. I miss the interesting afternoon chatter of NPR, the only station that reliably comes through where I’m driving.

I think I should remember to get a book on CD to listen to while I’m driving.

I think it might also be worth looking into subscribing to a radio service.

Cityscape quickly melts into broad country fields and farms, and the silence gets to me. I turn the radio back on.

The other team has the field now, and this is what I hear:

Accuse whine whine

Accuse whine whine

So much for that. I turn it off in disgust., thinking there is no one here to be proud of, no dignity on display, and no compassion for the people these folks are pledged to represent.

I imagine the floor of the Senate opening, kind of like the dancing scene in It’s A Wonderful Life; I imagine all the senators falling into a swimming pool and flailing away.

I picture the floor closing back up and new people coming in. These people—there’s a rainbow of tones and gender and ages and accents here—shake hands and sit down together at long tables. They share information that often makes them frown and sigh, but they struggle together, trying to understand the truth, the right, the meaning. They are sitting at these tables until they can figure out the best way forward.

That fragile daydream pops softly and disappears as I pull off the four lane onto familiar home town streets. It’s replaced by a feeling of sickness, by this thought: There is nothing good here.

I am by nature a foolish optimist. I don’t want to believe in the absence of good.


I make the short trek from carport to house, and I see a scuttle of bugs zipping and flying. Bugs in Ohio in January. This is outlandish.

This is because it hasn’t gotten cold enough to send those bugs away.

This is because of global climate change.

My stomach clutches, and I climb up the two steps to the back door and wield my key.


I ponder, as I wash out my lunch dishes, what to do. Nothing is surely not an option, but what option will make a difference?

I can write letters; I am good at writing letters., and I think I will do that—write to my senators, one on either team,–and tell them of my distress.

I realize the letters will be read by some team member and never make it to the senator’s view. But I’ll do this, even if it’s only symbolic.

What else? What else? What action can make a true difference? If a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico can lead to a hurricane in China, how can I flap my wings? How can I direct my energy toward a more specific spot—toward Washington, where contention simmers and the work of the people—for the people—doesn’t seem to happen?

I can’t think of one single thing that might make a difference. I go downstairs to poke around in the freezer, think about dinner.


Jim is at home, at loose ends. He started this young year with high hopes for a great-fit job; but the organization interested in him opted, finally, to adopt a software solution instead of a human one, and Jim didn’t quite know how to process that, his filters tentative and undeveloped. It took him a week to work it through…to struggle from disappointment and anger to a realistic acceptance. There is grief in the emotional mix; there is a blow to confidence and self-esteem.

But he is back at it now, considering different kinds of jobs; his high hopes have fluttered down to a hard-nosed reality.

“I just want to WORK,” he says grimly, and he and his job coach scour the postings for anything remotely suitable.

And the days at home, waiting, are long. Jim creates projects and organization plans and tries to keep himself busy. By the time I come home, he is pacing, the walls of the house closing in.

Fuel to my malaise: why are so many disabled people sitting in front of flat screens, pushing the buttons on their game controllers, when they could be out there contributing?

HR Magazine tells me that 66 per cent of adults with autism are not employed…and that the 34 per cent with jobs are subject to a rising workplace bullying culture. And, the article adds, 500,000 more young people with autism will launch into the job market this year.

These are quirky people with varying levels of challenge, but people with considerable computer and organizational and other skills—people who could be enjoying detail-driven repetitive jobs that neurotypical folks abhor. To hire autistic adults, though, means shifting workplace attitudes and rules and culture.

While this is happening in some places, those places are all too rare.

What world is this I live in? I wonder, and I am angry and sad, and deeply, deeply frightened when I imagine the future.


I bag up the garbage and take it out to the bin, and I toss in the bag—made of compostable plant products. The week is half over, and there is just one other bag inside; since we started being plastic-aware, we have reduced the amount of trash we create by more than half. That at least is a hopeful sign, I think. We’re doing better, and we’ll keep figuring out how to do more.


“Do we have any outing-and-abouting to do?” Jim asks hopefully, and I consider quickly. This was buy-a-new-dishwasher week; there is not much disposable cash to be spent. But we could go to the library. And, I remember, Mark found a Panera gift card in the thing basket. There’s fifteen dollars on that, and I think I have another one in my wallet, with a buck or two left to spend.

We decided to take a trip to the library and then stop at Panera. We’ll buy a little treat for a gray afternoon, and we’ll get us each a bagel or two for tomorrow’s breakfast: something for now, and something to look forward to.

In the car, Jim gets music ready on his phone, and says, “Hey. There’s an email.”

It’s from Kelly, a creative job coach in the program that works with Jim. She wonders if he can send along his resume and a letter of recommendation from his supervisor at the college library.

His eyes light up.

“Why do you think she wants that, Mom?” he asks, and I tell him what I believe: that Kelly and her team have some possibilities in mind, that they are exploring new routes and different employers with the potential to become Jim’s workplace.

“But, remember,” I say, “this can take some time.”

“I know!” he says, but there’s a flicker there, like the pilot light has come back on. He picks a sprightly Abba song to play; we bop along to the library, while Jim talks about the Mama Mia movies, which, despite his penchant for fantasy and horror, he really enjoys.

At the library, he fills a bag with manga and DVD’s. On top of the stack is that wonderful redemption film, Chef, with Jon Favreau.


At Panera, the young cashier checks the gift card from my wallet. It has $1.45 left on it.

We choose carefully. Everyone likes an Asiago bagel; we get three of those. Then we choose an everything bagel for me and cinnamon crunch bagels for Mark and Jim. We ask the cashier to throw in a little tub of cream cheese. That takes care of breakfast.

For a sweet afternoon treat, Jim opts for a frosted cinnamon bun. I order M&M cookies, one each for Mark and me.

The cashier rings us up, and grins.

“That’s $16.45,” she says.

And that’s exactly, to the penny, the amount on the gift cards.

“What are the odds?” I say to Jim, and he shrugs and rolls his eyes, offers to get the bag, and we shlepp home the spoils, where Jim gets out a video game, and I light the fire and take my cookie and a book to the reading chair.


This is not to say the world still doesn’t stink. Free bagels and vague possibilities don’t add up to serious solutions to big problems. There is evil and there is tragedy and there is a huge and sucking quagmire of self-interest and power-craziness and the absolute pressing need to be acknowledged right at all cost. Children die and people are mistreated, and instead of howling in grief, we howl in blame.

I cannot hide my head and avert my eyes; I have to do something. I need to face each thing I encounter and think it through, find a way to act that contributes to healing instead of chasms.

It makes my stomach churn; it keeps me awake at night.

There is a heavy, pressing bank of clouds. There’s a dirty, pouring rain.

But there is, too, a tiny crack in the cloud bank, an infinitesimal suggestion that hope is still possible. Light pours through that crack, and, at certain angles, I’m pretty sure a small, bold rainbow shimmers.

Tonight I am writing letters,—a tiny wing flap. But I’ll know I’m adding to a greater flapping—to the actions of caring, concerned, and committed people, people who stand at many vantage points and have many different views of the situations we face. People, these are, whose hearts are good and whose concern is real.

They are people who can band together for the good of all.


There is work to do; I know that, and I know that what I have to offer is not very much. But hope tells me to offer it anyway.

And evil, I believe, triumphs only when hope is hidden away.

A Murmur of Chaos, A Murder of Crows


[Image from The Farmers’ Almanac, http://www.almanac.com]

The crows, on winter nights just before dusk, fly in to roost in the trees by the old folks’ home.

The home sits on the edge of the city’s highest hill, two houses down from me and across the street. We walk the paths that wind behind it, that skirt the hill’s ledge. Standing there, when weather has bared the trees, the little dog Greta and I can look to the east and watch the un-iced portion of river ripple. To the south, as darkness falls, city lights flicker on, then glow bold against the winter night.

But on these late January days the crows fly in by the hundreds, by the thousands.  They are random and disorganized and relentless. The trees, all of them, are weighted black and heavy, and still the crows come, wheeling in from all directions. They are raucous, and they feel threatening.

I get home from work just as the light is changing; the little dog waits for her pre-supper walk.  When I leash her up and we step into the front yard, she freezes, her ruff rising ragged.

They spook her, those crows, with their swooping, rough-edged cries.  They converge and there are awful moments when their individual caws merge into one swelling unpleasant pulse. Their harshness sands off the ‘kuh.’  Aw-aw-aw, they chorus, full-throated, beaks wide-open. Delighted, magnified, they get louder, bolder: AWawAWawAWawAW!

It is the shrill sound of chaos, the melody of madness.  It lands in the pit and squirms.

Some nights the dog resolutely plunges forward into her regular walking route, wary but determined, heading toward the home, toward the roosting crows.  Then, my neck prickles.  My shoulders grow cold beneath the collar of my plaid-lined cloth coat. I  pull up my hood and I follow her, but cautiously.  We do not dilly dally.

Other nights Greta turns quickly away, her back to the screaming, shiny birds, and  she heads down the hill to the quieter end of the street.


Crows, I have read, are for the most part solitary, preferring their individual lives in warmer months or climes.   It’s in the cold and chill of winter that they cluster, in murders, for night-time survival.

And animals, I think I know, are not inherently evil–nor good, for that matter; they just survive with the tools they’ve been given.

But I have seen, on a summer’s walk with my tender granddaughter, a pair of crows pluck a baby from a smaller bird’s nest and fly off jeering.  The baby’s frantic parents raced after them; the crows soared nonchalantly on ahead, one dangling the feebly fluttering fledgling from its beak.  The other crow swooped in to peck and torment; both turned their heads toward the parents, black eyes alight, and then flew on. My granddaughter, animal lover and nurturer, one born to help and heal, begged them, running after, please, to stop.

They seemed to us gleeful.

They seemed to us psychopathic.

I have seen crows strutting in the middle of a busy road, pecking around a carcass, unwilling to move before my speeding car.  They shuffle into flight at the last minute; I can almost smell the rotten stench beneath their wings, feel that warm decay pass me by too closely. Their leisure feels a lot like arrogance.

My head knows it’s silly to dislike a bird, but still. I don’t like crows.

And I especially don’t like the pulsing mayhem on these winter nights, their triumphant cawing infestation.  I am glad to turn the little dog back toward the bright windows of home.

Inside the house disorder rankles.  With an energy stoked by some sort of anger, I pull bags and packages from the pantry and stack them on the counter.  I climb on a chair and denude the highest shelf, discovering things plunked there and untouched since we moved in.

I sort–some to donate, some to discard, some to store and use.

I fill the sink with hot soapy water, plunge a soft cloth into the suds. I scrub each shelf mightily, and then rub each shelf, hard, with a towel.  I reorder and replace the saved items on shelves, neatly, pleasingly.  Balsamic and apple vinegars, western New York barbecue marinade, soy sauce and hot sauce, perch on the very top, a bottle-wall in front of cookie cutters and cake decorating things used only occasionally.  I put basmati rice and fettuccine noodles more easily to hand.  Crackers share space with cans of tomatoes, and prettily-bottled olive oil with its clunky, contained-in-plastic, canola oil kin.

I box things to go in the trash, to take to the food kitchen downtown.  I load boxes in my car.  I sweep and wash the kitchen floor, and I stand, in my sock-feet on the still damp tiles, in front of the open pantry door. I breathe in the new-made order.


The crows are gone, the trees empty, just after dawn when I take the dog out for her morning rites.  But the wind has picked up; it skirls dead leaves into the ivy that hugs the ground in front of the house.  Across the street, a long, thick, electrical extension cord snakes from New Neighbors’ house to the place they park their truck; on the end, some sort of element glows red and wobbles gently. The truck is long gone. The element seems like a story left dangerously without an ending.

A coil of blue packing twine skitters in the street, and still, these many weeks later, a shard of Christmas wrapping flips up into the leaves huddling by the retaining wall.

The sky is a lowering gray, full and ominous.  It will snow today, although the experts told us it would not.  The snow will be thin, light, whipping stuff that only sticks in hidden crevices and corners; it will taunt ankles and sting cheeks and have none of the beauty of a Christmas card. This wind will blow it anywhere it likes.

I am reading a book set in Provence, in the time of the mistral. The author talks about the wind-induced madness, a kind of craziness that lifts and tears and finally, cleanses.  This weather–and last night’s crows–make me think of that powerful, externally-imposed chaos. I hurry the dog along; we shiver our way back inside.

This day, the dog suddenly hurls herself at the door, snarling, when a frail old man shuffles past the house. Cars careen out in front of traffic, stealing right-of-way for themselves. At work, people plod grimly and bad news is completely expected and checks have come unloosened on ordinarily civil tongues.  I am glad when it is time to go home, to rub the dog’s silky head, to talk with Jim, warm and settled with his writing.

The fine and taunting snow swirls outside; I put potatoes on to boil.  I roll a pork roast in a skim of oil.  I pat it with a crust of herbs, and I put it in the warming oven.  It will perfume the house. I will shake the boiled potatoes with their own light film of oil and herbs, and put them, too, in to roast. Mark will arrive, shedding his long coat, rubbing his cold hands, ready to eat. I will dress a spinach salad and we will light a candle tonight as we dine, a shot at warmth and comfort.


After dinner I clear the desk, carrying a basket of unsorted papers to the dining room table.  I sift them; some I can act on right away, filling out the form, writing the check, sealing the message into its envelope.  Others must be filed, labelled and alphabetized and easy to find; many can go into the recycling basket.  Some few head to the shredder.  I work diligently, surprised when my knees begin to jelly on me. I look at my phone and realize I have been standing in this one spot for two uninterrupted hours.  I clear off the table, move everything to its appointed place, and celebrate finding the missing paper that had been eluding me.

Another surface cleared; a little more order imposed. I will sleep well tonight.


So we plunge into the infant year, with its unformed, uncommitted potential.  We try to steer it  away from the random, toward the light, out of discordance, into order—into warmth and meaning. The raucous noise, the threatening wind, the mindless creatures flapping: we’ll tame them with our light and with our bravery. We will hold them at bay, we promise ourselves, with the strength and ferocity of our belief.