Note: This post is illustrated with photographs I took at the market in Nice, in 2014, when I was there for about a week with one of my oldest friends. It was my first long trip following the death of my mother in November 2013 and my partner in the March which followed, and in many ways it re-engaged me fully with life. That this welcoming, cheerful, easygoing seaside city which had offered me insouciant succor should be attacked was almost past bearing. There being no place where I live to leave candles and flowers of mourning for and solidarity with Nice, may these pictures, which have nothing linear to do with the post, serve as my tribute.
My guy, a New Yorker, had spent a week in Vermont with me, and would take the train back to the city. I was dropping him off when I ran into a friendly acquaintance, a woman I knew slightly from yoga class years back. She was dropping off her adult daughter and infant grandson, who were taking the same train as my boyfriend.
This woman, my yoga colleague, owns Alysons Orchard, a large and spectacular orchard in New Hampshire. I told her I’d been by last fall and was stunned at how beautiful it was, how loaded down with fruit every tree was, how I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
She thanked me. Said she was even happier with the way it looked now; that they had been putting in beds of flowers to attract pollinators and it was “really coming along.”
Then she added, with a shake of her head, “It’s just going to be a terrible year for fruit, though, this year.”
My boyfriend asked her why.
“Well, we had a lot of warm days early on, and everything budded out. But then we had two or three hard freezes, and that killed almost everything. It was really bad.”
These are hard days for more than New England fruit trees.
I write this just before the two party conventions in a fraught, incomprehensible, and to many of us terrifying, election year. Never in my lifetime has it been so socially acceptable in some circles to utter overly racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic sentiments, nor has there ever been so woefully unprepared and immoral a presidential candidate, so thin-skinned, narcissistic, and wholly without regard for truth or even consistency in his lies.
And this at a time when we are reeling from the Orlando massacre, and Istanbul, and then comes the horror from Nice. We are reeling from shooting after shooting of unarmed, law-abiding men of dark skin by police — most recently Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — and then here come shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
And as ever, our planet continues its long slide towards human- and corporate-induced ecocide.
Yeats’ words from THE SECOND COMING, return to my mind over and over again, score to a living nightmare:
Are full of passionate intensity.
The only time I have ever seen my country anything close to this polarized was in 1965, a year I wrote about here.
Since I am a virtual poster-child for living fearlessly, it pains me deeply to say this, but at the moment I think, if you’re not scared, you don’t have your eyes open.
Of course, I have never claimed that fearlessness was the same as having no fear: merely that, if one learned to tolerate fear and anxiety, realizing that it is the ticket to self-development, growth, and understanding of both oneself and the world, one would, indeed, “fear less.”
Or as Mark Twain succinctly, elegantly put it, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Now many argue, and cogently, that the numbers do not bear out how we feel about our time; that our age, in fact, is statistically far less dangerous and gruesome than most others in human history.
This is the case that linguist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker makes in his “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” with dozens of charts and graphs and maps to prove that this is so. What has changed, says Pinker and others who read the tea leaves of our zeitgeist as he does, is our knowledge of such violent and horrific crimes. That the 24/7 news cycle, the video recording on cell phones, the echo chamber of the internet and social media, make the “mere anarchy loosed upon the world” so loud and graphic that its volume and specificity get confused with its quantity.
That Yeats poem, after all, was written in 1919, after the First World War, with its battles of extraordinary butchery — Verdun, Sommes — which make the wars of our time look genteel. The first day of the battle on the Sommes, for instance, the first day, in one day alone, for instance, 57,470 British soldiers lost their lives (by contrast, Americans killed in action in the whole of the war in Vietnam total 58,315). The total for this one battle, the Somme? Over a million killed or wounded.
But no one at the Somme had video footage, to show the world the unspeakable horror, the carnage, to broadcast the last gasping words.
So perhaps by comparison, and by the numbers, what we face now just looks bad.
I hope so, though it seems sanguine to believe it, in the face of all we do see and hear each day… which may exactly prove the point Pinker et al make.
However, the idea that life has always been unsafe; that risk, injustice, fluke and devastation, whether by natural or man-made causes, accident or design, are inherent to existence… that, yes, I agree with.
How, if one reaches a certain age and has indeed kept one’s eyes open, could one rationally argue otherwise?
All the well-intended “thoughts and prayers”, and “positive visualizations” do not appear to change this one iota, as far as I can tell. Sometimes life comes out as we would wish it to — the cancer goes into remission, the recovery is full, the deserving person wins the lottery — and just as often it does not. There may be a larger “plan” to all this, everything may indeed happen for a reason (as I once believed, as many still do, and take comfort in so doing) — but I submit to you that none of us is remotely high enough up on the mountain to see the what and why of such a plan, if it exists.
And it is breathtaking hubris to imagine for one minute that we do.
So. How do we say yes to this unbearable reality?
I continue to believe that we must plant and tend the orchard anyway, as my friend is doing, even if we know this will be among the worst of seasons.
To hope, even in the most hopeless of times.
Yet to do so with our eyes open, without the false consolations of belief in a for-certain positive outcome. To feel despair when and as we must, to grieve.
And yet to get back up. To have not blind hope, but a kind of seeing hope, visionary, audacious, motivated by what we are for, not against: much harder.
I do this because to me, this is global equivalent of something that for years I have told myself, on a personal level: “Other peoples’ bad behavior is no excuse for mine.”
I get back up, as soon as I am able, because it seems to me the right thing to do, ethically and morally.
To let our legitimate fears stun us into passivity (because we don’t know what to do) or bad behavior (because we choose a simplistic explanation — devil, conspiracy, Muslims, Jews, or blacks — and take hate-driven broad-brush actions) means “they” have already won.
Call the “they” terrorists, though I mean the word in a larger sense than it is usually used — I mean anyone who incites fear in order to gain control or power; the “they” who are what the movies call “the forces of darkness.”
I may not know how to beat the “they”, but I know how they could win: by us doing nothing, because we are too depressed and frightened to get back up when the bad news of the day has knocked us down.
And I don’t want them to win.
I want orchards covered with fruit, literal and metaphorical.
And on years when this is impossible, I want to be able to say, as my friend did, “Thank God for the weddings.” Or for something. Something that affirms life, love, goodness. “Thank you,” even though I do not believe in God as such, any more than I do not not believe.
But thanks, yes. I definitely believe in thanks.
I said to my friend, the New Hampshire orchard-owner, “I wrote a poem about that. Awhile back.”
“About what?” she said.
“Oh, bad fruit years. ” I said. “And, you know, the inherent risk of everything. And how much we resist this knowledge.”
“Amen to that,” she said, nodding.
“And it’s applied, loosely,” I added, ” to raising peaches. Give me your email, and I’ll send it to you.”
The train arrived. I kissed my darling boyfriend goodbye, more than once, and he climbed aboard. My friend’s daughter, grandson and all the paraphernalia of babyhood were safely handed up onto the train.
When I got home, I sent the poem to my friend. And now I send it to you.
This was written in 2000.