‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit. But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’ – Eudora Welty – One Writer’s Beginnings
(This was written a few weeks ago ‘between painting sessions.’ Short internet checks have kept my communication skills hobbled, but it seems timely today to ignore the emails, the news updates (I am anxious to check – but will wait to post this.) I often realized my good fortune to have had so much practice with self-imposed isolation. This present marathon of isolation has barely affected my moods – as long as there are paints and brushes and pencils and books to occupy my time, I am happy. (I do miss my connection with nature.)
Even when recovering from the dengue-chikungunya co-infection in 2015, I realized that earlier ‘lessons’ had prepped me for enduring unexpected challenges. My first introduction to dengue happened in Costa Rica, about the time of the story that follows; I realize now – that the USA is also suffering from a co-infection… Having one virus is enough – add another serious challenge, and the host faces a serious fight back to wellness. The Covid 19 Pandemic presented enough challenges of its own, yet the ‘newest’ one has been simmering and smoldering. I am not surprised that it ignited into a second heart-wrenching crisis. The scenes from yesterday’s cyber check made me cry, and with a sense of dread I will watch from afar as the racial tensions play out one day (and night) at a time.
This is titled, “The Invisible Fence” but has been incubating in my heart under the working title, ‘Whatever Happened to Dianne Wright?’ It’s another long epistle, so you’re warned.
The Invisible Fence
Twenty years ago I plunged into a cultural immersion – or perhaps baptism – near a tiny coastal pueblito in Costa Rica. With a Spanish vocabulary of a dozen or so words, I often used my drawing skills to convey my requests. Few people spoke English, and we hobbled along – even though the locals accepted and embraced me into their culture. They still laugh when reminiscing and state, “Lisa, do you remember when you said that you were a man?”
Dear sweet Denise, who presided over the small restaurant, had taught me how to say I was hungry the week before, when – out of low-blood-sugar fatigue – I had burst into tears of frustration. She had been talking at record words per minute in Spanish, and I feared I was about to faint if I did not eat soon! After I finished the soup and main course, my normal behavior replaced the jittery one, and Denise sat with me and patiently helped me to say ‘hungry’ in Spanish. Then she resumed in her record words-per-minute conversation, which I grasped maybe 3 percent – but received 100 percent of her kindness.
The next week I was bursting with enthusiasm to practice my one new word when I returned to the publito. Stepping into the bar/restaurant area, I stated quite loudly, “Yo. Hombre!”
The men at the bar almost spit their beer across the room, and they laughed and laughed.
Yes, the words, ‘hombre’ and ‘hambre’ now remain distinctively clear, and I am grateful that I could laugh with them and not be insulted – or cry! Another friend reminded me to pronounce the “L” in ‘disculpe’ (excuse me) so it wasn’t mistaken for ‘escupir’ (to spit) — the lessons are endless!
After a long day of hard manual labor, I asked a friend who understood a lot of English – but spoke little, “Would I say ‘trabajO’ or ‘trabajA‘ – since I am a woman?”
“Lisa.” he stated very gently, “Work is work.”
Of course I laughed.
‘Expats’ owned properties dotted along the same area, although one person pointed out that I was the only one with enough ‘courage’ (he used a word a bit stronger!) to stay during the rainy season. A creative person never runs out of projects, and when the rainy season arrived, I could switch gears and reach for a book – one of many which were reserved for ‘rainy days only.’ The reading marathons kept me quite happy, as I usually had a dozen or more new titles I was itching to read – but waiting for rainy-day opportunities.
Two of those books were volumes of collected interviews- Conversations with Eudora Welty, and one of those I recently read again. (The other is lost. 😦 Boo!)
“…Writing about anything teaches you – it teaches you the recognition of things in your life that you remember, but you might not have recognized their portent. It’s like you have an electric shock – and you can say that’s when I recognized so-and-o. Writing is a way to come to terms with whatever you’ve done or not done – what your life has meant to you – good or bad. One thing lades to another subjectively, and you could probably go on forever.” Eudora Welty – More Conversations with Eudora Welty – from interview w/Sally Wolff/1988 for Southern Review.
Endless gardening options provided total immersion in the outdoors, and the Mississippi Tomboy mastered learning Howler Monkey language much quicker than Spanish! The monkeys seemed curious about my behavior, and they often shadowed my own movements. At night they often slept in the canopy over the roof, then announced the arrival of the new day! We often swapped dawn conversations when the monkeys,louder than usual, seemed to beg, ‘Come outside and talk to us!’ –
I would open the door, smile up as they peered down like obedient pets waiting on their master’s approval, and then I’d say, “Good Morning. Buenos Dias. Hmmmp-hmmmp-hmmmp” – the latter in the guttural syntax of monkey talk. I still miss those monkeys!
One day when I searched the scrap-lumber pile for a section of wood, an iguana darted away and startled me.
“You think I scared you? You scared me too!” I shouted into the wilder areas beyond the pile. And then I laughed. I had not spoken a word to a soul in days.
I thought, “Lisa. Go to town. You need to interact with society.”
I missed hearing the English language, and during weeks of extra-heavy rainfall, I missed silly things that I normally didn’t want. Once while waiting on the rains to stop so I could walk home (over a suspension bridge and down a muddy road) I joined the locals watching a soccer playoff on television. A commercial for a Whopper (or Big Mac?) flashed on the screen, and I was suddenly wistful for a soft warm hamburger bun and a cola on crushed ice — and I did not even like those too-big Whoppers!
I was curious about the locals, their lives, yet the language barrier reminded me of an invisible fence. One Sunday I walked to town to watch a local soccer game. The locals ‘knew’ me, and I knew most of their faces – the families and where they lived. They, of course, knew who I was – and I suspected that they knew if I coughed or cried, what food I ordered and how many shoes I owned. I realized, with clarity, that I was – to them – who Dianne Wright had been to me.
Dianne Wright had been the lone black student to integrate my 6th-grade class in a long-ago Mississippi Delta town, population of about 300 people. We silently accepted her presence, yet ‘we’ (I speak for myself and assume twas true of the others) did not have the social skills to befriend her. Beyond an invisible fence, she sat alone in the cafeteria, and I don’t recall her presence at recess. I so well remember one book report she gave, and her beaming smile branded onto my memory. Paired with sparkling eyes, hers was a smile of hoped-for confidence, one to state that she could do this in front of all of us – and she did. Perhaps more sensitive classmates had befriended her, yet I fear that we failed in basic universal kindness.
At that soccer game a lifetime later, I realized that I too was the implant.
The locals accepted me, yet there was a distinct isolation. I was the ‘different’ one. I recalled that long-ago world – when a ‘different’ one attended our classes – and wondered, “Whatever happened to Dianne Wright?” I also realized that one day I would move on, and the locals might one day ask, “Whatever happened to Lisa?”
They were much nicer to me than I was to Dianne Wright. It would be nice to one day speak to her in person – and apologize for my lack of skills in a time that was awkward for all – yet surely more difficult for her. If she is still alive and healthy, perhaps she is reflecting now – and realizing how that year of ‘the invisible fence’ was beneficial to her own growth.
During those first few years in Costa Rica, I learned to treasure my long periods of isolation. I realized that one can stay busy with society and have what seems a full life – yet with little time for inward reflection. I had never cared for ‘junk television’ – which seemed to numb some viewers into hours and hours of distraction- when nature or books or even people (!) offered more enriching results. I did not miss television (or telephones) but books were important. After a few years I pondered that all people should be required to spend several months alone – with little interaction with the outside world – to find out what one is made of! It’s easy to use society as a crutch, and it can be a bit overwhelming to depend on one’s own company. There is a balance, and presently we are all looking inward – and outward – during challenging CoVid times.
I am so grateful for my earlier experiences, especially now – as this area of Ecuador rolls into another ’30-day period’ of isolation. I continue to divide my time between reading and art, and I remain happy and content. I must confess, however, that I am weary of wearing the mask. So what have I been doing? My drawing ink pens went dry, and I am very low on good paper. On ‘card/index’ paper sized 11 x 17, almost-finished study of the Masked Water Tyrant and water hyacinths…
The New York Times sends a daily email news summary, which is quite informative without having to follow any links. The ‘Weekend Briefing’ remained open in the email queue, and after reading #4 about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery*, I paused – collected my thoughts regarding racism – and how today’s times seem to amplify this ongoing conflict. *(Remember this was written weeks ago)
The Times asked, “Why did arrests take months?”
The photo shows a ‘Happpy 26th Birthday’ photo, and I join those who reflect on the tragic loss. Being raised in Mississippi, I agree that it is way past time to remove the invisible barriers that divide our communities, our countries and the world.
Our species might have evolved in technology, but I fear that our ‘report card’ would show that we are quite lacking in empathy and love for our fellow man. I have witnessed a lot, have heard personal stories that left me numb and saddened, and I’ve read first-person stories published long ago. We cannot and should not ‘wipe it all away’ as if it did not happen, but we have to find a way for those wounds to heal – and to move forward.
I also ponder the people protesting and demanding their personal rights/freedom and their anger about simple ‘rules’ like wearing a simple mask. They seem to be illustrating they are thinking of themselves and not of their fellow man. I think that sometimes these people are just plain angry at the world in general, and this gives them a reason to go outward with that anger. (Feedback is welcome here, as I’m watching from afar.)
In his post, Wise Words, Hugh Curtler prefaced, “…My son sent it to me the other day and said, simply, “it was written by a co-worker.” It strikes me as particularly important given the fact that we are all feeling fed-up with the coronavirus and all that it entails. We simply cannot wait until things go “back to normal” — refusing to admit to ourselves that there may be no return to normal and that the “new normal” will be like nothing we have ever experienced.” Please take time to read this – and ponder the stats.
Some days the intense concentration of painting leaves me quite exhausted, and – like long ago in the rainy season – I reach for a book and enjoy a reading marathon. Presently I’m reading “More Conversations with Eudora Welty” (c. 1996 -University Press of Mississippi)
“But how much better, in any case, to wonder than not to wonder, to dance with astonishment and go spinning in praise, than not to know enough to dance or praise at all; to be blessed with more imagination than you might know at the given moment what to do with than to be cursed with too little to give you — and other people — any trouble.”
― Eudora Welty
It is my hope that these horrific times will inspire people to reach down and find the best of themselves – and go outward in positive ways. The negative choices, as the news reports showcase, are not the best side of human nature.
A lovely story about “Miss Welty” is here:
THE QUIET GREATNESS OF EUDORA WELTY by Danny Heitman
(The header-image option is missing today- I suspect that in June more things will change when ‘Classic’ option is retired. The numbers are worse for the city of Portoviejo, which remains in the ‘red’ stage. Weekends remain blissful, however, with zero autos on the streets and few people. Time for me to eat my chicken soup and get home by 2! Thank you as always – Love, Lisa)