Magic Realism

Today, I allowed myself the privilege of going outside to sit still for awhile. To do nothing. To sort out the meteors of thought shooting through my exceedingly unquiet mind. Lately things have gotten to be a bit too much. I can’t figure out what to think about first. Covid? Climate change? Neo-fascism? How about something personal to me like Roger Federer’s announcement that he needed a third knee surgery in a year and would be gone for a long time : read retirement? I just sat still and looked around while I sorted out my thoughts.

Michael’s tree

I took a photo of the kousa dogwood tree which I planted for Michael in 2019. Despite the dry conditions this summer, my constant watering and encouraging words have seemed to stimulate growth. Now it’s taller than me by about a foot and I’m hoping it’s got healthy roots. No blooms yet, but maybe next year. I want to be here to see that happen. As I observed it, I was thinking about poor Haiti. What must life be like for those people who live in abject poverty, not yet recovered from the earthquake of ten years ago, suffering from Covid with limited resources? With political unrest so profound that their president was assassinated with such ease. And facing a new tropical storm in days? While I stare at my little tree, I hear Michael’s voice saying, “the worst part of being married to you is that as long as you know there’s someone with a problem somewhere, you’ll be upset. And yet, that’s only globally – on the personal level, you’re hard as steel, tough as nails.” Yes, that’s true. The natural disasters clobber me. The interpersonal self-inflicted dramas leave me cold. If you do it to yourself, I’m not sympathetic. My life story.

I had a few quick moments with a hummingbird fluttering right over my head. Its wing speed is incredible and clearly exhausting. When it landed on the overhead wire to take a breath, I was transported into thoughts of what was happening in Afghanistan, one of the wars I’d opposed from its inception. I’m not a war advocate. Our world is under dire threat from natural disasters and infectious disease. Human life, as well as all other life forms, is held cheaply while billions of dollars are poured into artificial methods of destroying each other. The freneticism of the hummingbird’s flight reminded me of the mad scramble I saw on television this morning at the Kabul airport, where desperate Afghanis tried to hurl themselves into planes intended for diplomats and their families. Although I know that history has documentation of empires that successfully occupied what is now Afghanistan, there is the phrase “graveyard of empires” that’s been used as a descriptor for those countries which have engaged in combat in that rocky place, countries like my own. Two decades and all the effort to create a strong enough state to resist the fringe elements melted away in no time. Maybe they’re the primary elements of that society although that can’t be true for the women there.

Saigon 1975 – Photo by AP
Saigon 1975 – Photo by AP

Seeing the frenzy to escape brought back memories of the Saigon madness in Vietnam, when native collaborators with the U.S. were desperately breaching the embassy walls while helicopters ferried away the lucky foreign nationals. Our government says this wasn’t the same thing but the visuals don’t lie. What is left behind in Afghanistan, aside from those desperate translators and helpers who may not survive? The most lethal armaments and equipment which will strengthen the very people who were supposed to be militarily inadequate, compared to the fully equipped army and government we armed and trained to resist them. These tattered forces are now fully empowered by our billions of dollars in weaponry as the national army melted away. And now, our country’s politics will ramp up with new accusations and blame-tossing when in truth, this debacle spanned multiple administrations, not just the current one. History on my mind. I thought back to all the Civil War reading I’ve done and recalled the first battle of Bull Run in 1861, what the Confederacy referred to as Manassas, when Washingtonians drove to the battlefield in their carriages to share a picnic lunch while they innocently watched what they thought would be an entertaining skirmish. When southern resistance led by Stonewall Jackson proved to be more than what was bargained for, the northern army and their audience hightailed it back to Washington. The term “The Great Skedaddle” was born. That’s how Afghanistan looked to me today. A skedaddle. Where was the intelligence that should have informed the deciders of withdrawal how swiftly resistance would collapse? Sad and dreadful.

Today, as I sit still in my yard, that ’90‘s film, “Reality Bites” comes to mind. Not so much the subject material but the apt title. I’m not very partial to what’s going on right now. I suppose it’s fair to say that there’ve been plenty of other periods in time that haven’t felt fabulous. Absent from those however, was a pandemic and its subsequent sense of confinement and claustrophobia. Rare moments. The other day I did the math and realized that almost one-third of the time since Michael died has been Covid time. No wonder I’m feeling somewhat raw. I recognize that there are millions of people everywhere who’ve had to face sudden losses due to the virus. I’m not alone in navigating grief. But it’s not easy. I think the duality I’ve always had, one part grounded and practical, the other, open to more abstract and mysterious possibilities has kept me going.

I found the representation for my approach to the world in the early ‘70’s, when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time. I didn’t really know I was looking for a way to describe how I saw things. I’d taken a pretty direct path to where I was at that time. I knew what I wanted. A different political environment that I was willing to work for, a society that was based on justice, fairness and equality. I also wanted a life partner. None of the messing around free love stuff for me. I wanted a best friend, best teammate and best lover all rolled into one person. I had three offers of marriage. Actually two. Ironically, Michael didn’t really want to get married. He believed that all institutions were fundamentally flawed. But after a few years, he came around and stayed around until he died. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out and describe just what happened between the two of us. We both did. We couldn’t find a practical description for what existed between us. So we accepted the fact that although our rational parts weren’t particularly useful for explanations, the magic was just fine. Like this great line from what remains my favorite book by Marquez: “And both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.”

Years later, I bought into the concept of Tita, the heroine of Like Water for Chocolate, forced to watch her older sister marry her true love while she tended to their mother, who could pour all her inflamed emotions into food preparation. Everyone who ate her creations experienced all Tita’s feelings which infused each dish, sadness, joy, and lust, who were then driven wild by the power of her passions. I loved this idea. I willfully attempted to pour my robust health into pots of soup, batches of my famous pate, bowls of sweet steaming mashed potatoes and my spicy Italian beef. Tita’s emotions were accidentally shared while mine were deliberate efforts to cure the ills of my loved ones. Some magic is needed to live this life. At least for me. Tita and her love Pedro pined for each other many years, both ultimately outliving her sister and her mother. When they finally were able to join themselves together, their long-deferred adoration causes Pedro to combust on the spot. Tita eats extinguished candles to engulf herself in flames which eventually leads her back to her love in some mystical forever, as the land and buildings around them blaze. “Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves.” Ah, the magic of big love. I read more books by Marquez, Jorge Amado and Isabel Allende and Jorge Luis Borges. Part of my being embraces these others whose frame of reference is so different from mine. The world is smaller than we imagine.

I sit still in my yard, looking at the butterflies and the clouds as I often do, but motionless today rather than watching the outside while I work. I am coping with the realities unfolding in front of me, in front of the world. I know I have to move ahead in life despite all the ugly horrors across the globe. Maybe I’ll be able to make some small contribution to fixing a corner of a problem. I’d like to do that. But simultaneously, I draw on the impossible, supernatural enchantment that lies tucked deep inside me, where the essence of the strength named Michael and me still thrives. Maybe I got born into the wrong culture. I can straddle the magic and the realism. What comforts are no longer available to me in the corporeal universe somehow remain alive and accessible to me internally. I have no more explanation for how any of this is possible now than I did 49 years ago when I first collided with Michael. I just have room for this otherworldly core which is coupled with these feet of mine, firmly planted on the ground, eyes fixed on the realities before me. Somehow I find the comfort zone which allows me to survive in this time. I’m here and elsewhere. Trying to be ready for whatever comes next.

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