Here in the US, we’re deep into the dog days, but the weather’s not the only thing overheating.
I saw an article posted at Unherd yesterday bearing the headline, “America’s Tribes Are Ready for War.”
The writer was British, and Unherd is a European website, so maybe they’re slightly out of the loop. But my immediate response was: Duh. Where you been?
It’s scary out there, y’all. The loudest voices on both the left and the right are speaking in increasingly apocalyptic terms, while the rest of us are hanging onto the center by our fingernails, our ineffectual talk of “common ground” and “compromise” drowned in a noisy sea of anger.
And on top of all that, it’s August in coastal South Carolina.
But Lowcountry humidity is “extremism” I can handle. In fact, it’s almost a comfort this year. Predictable, perennial, it is what it is and demands nothing but our acceptance. Sometimes, it can even cool us down.
When the big picture is overwhelming – “America’s tribes,” “war,” and all that – I remind myself to revel in life’s small pleasures, like the gift of a gentle sea breeze on a sweat-soaked body.
These small pleasures? They’re the things that will get us through these hot and heavy days. America’s tribes may be ready for war, but consider me a conscientious objector. They’ll have to drag me onto the battlefield kicking and screaming, then pry my small pleasures from my cold, dead hands.
Speaking of small pleasures, did I tell you about my Painted Buntings? Yes, yes, I know I’ve written about them ad nauseam – how I pined for them, prayed for them, bought specialty birdseed for them – and finally lured them to my yard a few summers ago. But you haven’t heard this story.
In early June, our family was preparing for a long-awaited – and long – trip to Europe. Thanks to a couple of rogue raccoons that live under our shed and wreak all manner of havoc after sundown, I’d been bringing my bird feeders in every night for months. I was distraught at the prospect of keeping those feeders in the house for three whole weeks. Though birds have plenty of natural food this time of year, I’d only had one pair of Buntings this summer, and I was certain they’d abandon our yard while we were gone, never to return.
But they didn’t. I took away their beloved white millet seed for three weeks, just so I could traipse around Istanbul, Budapest and Prague like some fancy-pants Kardashian cousin. And the day after we returned, my Buntings were back at their feeder, the boy in his technicolor dreamcoat, the girl in her lemon-lime glory, as if I’d never left them. It was humbling.
This is what the Christians call “grace.”
And then there are our cats – Gilbert, age 4, and Sullivan, age… brand new. We adopted Sully from PAL about six weeks ago, and things have been a little . . . tense. Hissing, spitting, growling, etc. Apparently, nobody told Gilbert and Sullivan they were supposed to make beautiful music together.
But they’re warming up. Slowly but surely, classic catfights are giving way to cuddles. While once Gilbert regularly fled to any room where Sullivan wasn’t, I now catch them sleeping side by side on the same rug. And just last night, I found them sitting in Jeff’s lap . . . simultaneously.
Almost gave me hope for Republicans and Democrats.
And what about those Back To School photos on Facebook? You have to be a real stoic to remain unmoved by the sight of children decked out in their crisp school uniforms, beaming with optimism. Sure, those smiles may be parentally enforced, but if they are, I don’t want to know about it. I may not have a school kid at home anymore, but I still relish the smell of a fresh #2 pencil in August. It’s the smell of possibility.
Hmmm… What else? Oh, choral music! The choir at First Presbyterian has been on again/off again – mostly off again – for 2 and ½ years now. Every time we think we’re back in the loft for good, a few folks come down with the Covid and we have to put the kibosh on choir. It happened again back in May, and we always take July off anyway, so there went most of the summer.
But as of last Sunday, we’re back in the choir loft, berobed, and making a joyful noise again. It’s heavenly. I don’t know how long it’ll last this time, but guess what, Covid? You won’t win. We can keep doing this forever. We’re Presbyterians. We play the long game.
While searching my brain for one more “small pleasure” with which to finish this column, I thought of the novel I just finished – Honor, by the Indian American writer Thrity Umrigar. Set in present-day Mumbai and a small Indian village called Birwad, this haunting novel tells the story of two women from very different worlds, the forces of misogyny, social caste, and inter-tribal hatred that shape both their lives, and the harrowing ways they challenge those forces. It’s a beautiful, deeply disturbing novel that, believe it or not, sheds light on our own troubles here in America.
I’ll be interviewing Thrity Umrigar on stage at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival in late October, so along with her latest book, I’ve been reading articles and interviews with the writer. Though she’s been profiled by most of our major newspapers, it was a “self-interview” – on a website called The Nervous Breakdown – that captivated me with its humor and insight.
Here, Umrigar is talking to “herself” about literature:
I believe that a book has to be emotionally honest. It may or may not be pretty and the language may or may not be beautiful. It’s always nice when it is, but you can get away with that stuff. What you can’t get away with, is a dishonest book. Writing is a sacred thing. There’s so little integrity in the world around us—politics is crooked, business is crooked, religion can be manipulating, the media is superficial and simplistic. Only literature, only art, retains that kind of purity, that unfiltered access to another human being’s soul.
Rereading Umrigar’s words, it occurred to me that literature is really too important – too essential – to fit into the category of “small pleasures.”
Then again, so are my cats.