Christmas Thoughts

As I was thinking of writing this, my mind turned to the recent election and how different this Christmas season will be to that of four years ago. Four years ago, I was determined to visit Washington DC before Trump entered the White House and Mattie, who had particularly wanted a cold Christmas that year, joined me. I remember with fondness our few days there, including our first glimpse of the capitol the first evening and the huge, lit Christmas tree before it; my sipping gluhwein whilst watching Mattie skating in the falling snow on the rink by the National Gallery, visiting the marvellous museums and seeing the helicopters taking off and landing in the grounds of the White House as we walked towards the Lincoln monument – I am forever glad that the White House was not occupied by the new president at the time.

This Christmas, of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its impact on all of our lives, often tragically, will be very much on our minds. I am sure that many of us have been thinking of the future in ways that we might not have done so before.
In the US, we may also look back on the year as the worst yet for climate change, with all the wild fires on the west coast and the spate of hurricanes along the Gulf. My thoughts often turn to the tiny towns of Cameron and Creole in Louisiana that Mike and I visited on our road trip last November: both were struck by the hurricanes this summer, they were in fact hit twice.

Cameron wouldn’t normally have been a place where we’d want to spend the night (the former fishing village having once been destroyed by a hurricane and with an oil installation right on the shore and the faint smell of petroleum as we drove up) but it was already dusk when we arrived, and looking at the map there didn’t appear to be any other prospect of accommodation for miles. I remember how we were greeted at the bright orange motel by three sweet little kittens and how the Indian motel owner’s father, a spry, trim man in his seventies, liked to chat and told us he practised yoga every day. I remember the spectacular sunset on the way to the ramshackle restaurant in nearby Creole as we drove along fields of cotton tinged with pink.

And now my thoughts turn to a place closer to home, Corpus Christi, Texas, and in particular to Mustang Island State Park with its pristine stretch of sand. I used to look out at the sea there and see only brown pelicans and other shore birds flying over but now due to an overturned regulation (one of many) of the Trump years the view is blotted by several offshore rigs.

Unfortunately we will also look back on 2020 as the year the Republican party attempted to overthrow the election – almost as incredible to me as the election of Trump in 2016.

But with our new president soon to take office we can only be more confident of a better future. And this Christmas I will still enjoy some of the simpler things that I did four years ago: I will read my favourite short story – Nabokov’s Christmas – from an anthology of short fiction that my mother sent me during our first Christmas in San Antonio, and I’ll listen to Renee Fleming’s Christmas in New York CD. There will of course by the Christmas tree to decorate with all the baubles that bring back so many memories. And on Christmas Eve there will be a walk in one of our lovely parks with our dog Leia in tow (and Mattie, who has been living with us again since the start of the pandemic, will no doubt enjoy dressing Leia in her new coat with little reindeer antlers if the cold weather we are currently experiencing keeps up). And we will eat Mexican tamales that evening and watch a Christmas movie on TV. And who knows, later we may look back on the coming new year of 2021 as one of the best ever.

Wishful Thinking?

So often since emigrating, eight years ago, I wished: If only America had gone through a process, as Germany did, of acknowledging and processing its ugly past. The history of slavery here is so often ignored – some schools barely skim the surface, some private schools not at all. When Mattie started high school (only four years ago) a statue of the commander of the confederate states army, Robert E Lee, stood in the school lobby and two of his portraits hung in the school office. Those items, as well as the few statues that then existed in San Antonio parks, have gone, but the issue of removing confederate monuments elsewhere in the US, despite the memories of slavery they invoke, can be highly controversial. Below is an article by the poet Caroline Randall Williams, which first appeared in the New York Times in June, and which left a big impact on me. Perhaps under a new presidency my wish will be become a reality and one day her article will be read and discussed by every high school student, hopefully leading to a greater understanding.

You want a Confederate monument? My body is a Confederate monument

NASHVILLE — I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.
If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.
Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servants to redress it. But there are still those — like President Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell — who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.
According to the rule of hypodescent (the social and legal practice of assigning a genetically mixed-race person to the race with less social power) I am the daughter of two black people, the granddaughter of four black people, the great-granddaughter of eight black people. Go back one more generation and it gets less straightforward, and more sinister. As far as family history has always told, and as modern DNA testing has allowed me to confirm, I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help.
It is an extraordinary truth of my life that I am biologically more than half white, and yet I have no white people in my genealogy in living memory. No. Voluntary. Whiteness. I am more than half white, and none of it was consensual. White Southern men — my ancestors — took what they wanted from women they did not love, over whom they had extraordinary power, and then failed to claim their children.
What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past. My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past. The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?
You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn’t understand. You cannot say it wasn’t my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don’t just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I’ve got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.

And here I’m called to say that there is much about the South that is precious to me. I do my best teaching and writing here. There is, however, a peculiar model of Southern pride that must now, at long last, be reckoned with.
This is not an ignorant pride but a defiant one. It is a pride that says, “Our history is rich, our causes are justified, our ancestors lie beyond reproach.” It is a pining for greatness, if you will, a wish again for a certain kind of American memory. A monument-worthy memory.
But here’s the thing: Our ancestors don’t deserve your unconditional pride. Yes, I am proud of every one of my black ancestors who survived slavery. They earned that pride, by any decent person’s reckoning. But I am not proud of the white ancestors whom I know, by virtue of my very existence, to be bad actors.
Among the apologists for the Southern cause and for its monuments, there are those who dismiss the hardships of the past. They imagine a world of benevolent masters, and speak with misty eyes of gentility and honor and the land. They deny plantation rape, or explain it away, or question the degree of frequency with which it occurred.
To those people it is my privilege to say, I am proof. I am proof that whatever else the South might have been, or might believe itself to be, it was and is a space whose prosperity and sense of romance and nostalgia were built upon the grievous exploitation of black life.
The dream version of the Old South never existed. Any manufactured monument to that time in that place tells half a truth at best. The ideas and ideals it purports to honor are not real. To those who have embraced these delusions: Now is the time to re-examine your position.
Either you have been blind to a truth that my body’s story forces you to see, or you really do mean to honor the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed, and you must at last acknowledge your emotional investment in a legacy of hate.

Either way, I say the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments, must come down. I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me. I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.

You want a Confederate monument? My body is a Confederate monument

Lexicon for a Pandemic

For this blog, I am copying in an article from the New Yorker (by Jay Martel) which has given me a lot of laughs:

Maskhole: An individual who wears a mask in a way that makes it completely ineffective—e.g., below the nose, under the chin, on the back of the head.
Face naked: The state of facial exposure that occurs when an individual declines to wear a mask in public. For example, “Pence went all face naked to the Mayo Clinic.”
Body mullet: What most people wear on Zoom calls: a nice top and, below the waist, underwear or less. (“Business up top, party down below.”)
The NOVID-19: The nineteen minutes after a too-close interaction with a maskless stranger during which you experience a thickness in your throat and a certainty that you’re dying. This sometimes lasts longer if frantic hand washing, antiseptic gargling, and estate planning are not readily available.
Overdistancing: When the guy in front of you in line has a metric understanding of the six in six feet, allowing twenty feet to open up between him and the next person in line, which then allows others to interpret that next person as the end of the line and to cut in front of you.
Domino distancing: When the person behind you in line stands too close, causing you to crowd the person in front of you, and on and on until everyone dies.
Emotional distancing: Deciding that now really isn’t the time to make big decisions about a relationship or, for that matter, to have a conversation about it.
Covideo: A short video featuring a quarantined individual’s child doing something adorable and/or profane, the public sharing of which falls somewhere between cute and a cry for help.
Stockholm syndrome: The assumption that everyone would be just fine without any government restrictions.
Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatterday: Days of the week.
Parenting: The ability to figure out why the PlayStation isn’t working with the Wi-Fi.
Body Zoom-morphia: Finding your own image on a group video call so unappealing that you are unable to focus on anything else.
Quorumtine: The minimum number of family members necessary to decide what to watch on TV.
Pan-demic: A potentially dangerous increase in the baking of bread in a quarantined home.
COVID-30: Formerly COVID-15; the amount of weight gained by an average adult during quarantine. Sometimes related to a pan-demic.
Helter shelter: That moment in the quarantine day when everything seems dirty and chaotic and you feel like saying, Helter shelter“Fuck it, let’s go outside. I don’t care if we die and a bunch of other people do, too.”
Flattening the curve: Trying to fit into your jeans after three months of sweatpants. (See COVID-30.)
Germophobe: Formerly, crazy people (e.g., Howard Hughes); now everyone except crazy people.
Going viral: No longer used.

It Feels Like March

I was interested to note that I wrote my last blog on the last day of February this year. Like many things during the pandemic there has been a lull. Soon after writing that blog, when the country shut down, I remember how scary things felt, with so little known about the virus and constantly conflicting messaging from the White House; one didn’t know where things might end up. The only saving grace here in Texas was that numbers were very small and one hoped, naively as it turned out, that this state might not be impacted too much at all. Now, three months later, Texas is a hotspot, suffering almost the highest daily infection rates in the country, and the Governor, who had decided that early May was the time to open up (but with no enforced wearing of face masks or social distancing), is closing things down again, and again, things feels scary.

One hates to mention some personal positives of a quiet few months, when so many in the country are suffering terribly. The bright side on the horizon is that the deep underlying issues in this country – gross economic equality, racism and millions still without healthcare – have been brought fully to the fore, and that a complete change in governance following the election in November will, at last, begin to address them.

The weather here in San Antonio has been quite lovely during June. Generally, the hottest times of the year are from noon to six pm during July, August and the first half of September, but with the recent improvements Mike has made to the back yard it will be more pleasant to sit outside. In the front yard, Mike, with the help of Mattie’s boyfriend, has removed the St Augustine grass and we are in the process of replacing it with pea gravel. A lot of greenery/vegetation in the yard still remains due to the two large beds of Asian ivy ground cover out there, as well as a large flower bed around the huge live oak and several smaller trees we planted. But the grass – a non-native variety popular in San Antonio in the 1960s when housing began to spring up in the wealthier north of the city – only looks nice in summer with a ton of water on it and the right amount of shade.

Shade here means light dappled shade whereas back in the UK, for me at least, it meant deep shade. Consequently, when first planting up the yard, it took me a while to work out why some new plants were expiring after only a few months when they were in spots with hardly any sun at all! Now, after some gardening mishaps, I feel pleased with the appearance of both front and back yards (though I say it myself). Nearly every plant growing is a native Texas one, apart from the odd zinnia or two and a soft peach David Austin rose, which actually was grown in Tyler in east Texas. I remember my surprise on finding out that David Austin roses, based in Wolverhampton where my family lived for many years, had a subsidiary here in Texas. Not all David Austin Roses are available here, of course, only those suitable for the various north American climates. We have a Texas native rose, a light crimson in colour, growing alongside the peach one. There are in fact many varieties of Texas roses, most of which are very hardy, and they grow beautifully in shade – dappled shade, of course!

Even Crazier Times Than Usual

America is even crazier than usual! Now there is not just the daily spewing out of tweets from the Whitehouse, we have hysteria from the pundits regarding the Democratic presidential primaries, and Coronavirus has begun to infect the country.

A good antidote to all the craziness is to escape to our house in Corpus Christi. There we have no TV or internet, only the sound of birdsong or a dog barking in the next garden, and the main decisions of the day tend to be whether to go to Starbucks for a coffee, where to take the dog for a walk and which restaurant we might like to eat in that evening.

Another antidote is to lose oneself in a book. I have been lucky to read three terrific books lately and each has taken me (blissfully) into a completely different world.

In the first book, “My Antonia” by Willa Cather, I found myself in mid-19th century Nebraska, a time when the first immigrants began arriving in that part of the country, and in this case a Bohemian family who befriended an orphan called Jimmy. The second was the magical “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett, an author I had never read before but whose writing reminded me of Latin American authors. And the third book, Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” about Louisiana politics in the 1930s, Mike gave me years ago but for some reason I had never read it and I was surprised how apt it still is today. I loved reading these books but “My Antonia” is closest to my heart. During the first year or two of my own immigration I sometimes wondered, on seeing my German Apfelwein jugs on our library shelf, or visiting one of the German towns in the nearby Hill Country, how it was for those early settlers and whether they ever felt homesick. “My Antonia” answers these questions most poignantly.

Another antidote to all this craziness is to take our dog Leia out for a walk. I am surprised at how many new walks we have discovered together since she first came to live with us last May. One or two are even in our immediate vicinity. Not long ago, one chilly early morning, she and I discovered a beautiful, wooded limestone creek behind a new housing estate and the light was so clear the empty creek shone a bright white. As we stumbled along it I saw something move and suddenly about eight deer sprang over the creek and then disappeared out of sight. Just beyond the creek a track led to a railway line and yet more deer. Only freight trains run along that particular track now. The freight trains all tend to be covered with graffiti as well as the American flag. In the poorer parts of town, on the south side, the trains run right up close to the houses and the orange trees in the front yards, without even a barrier in between. Once I saw a freight train trundling by one of the historic missions and the driver got up and waved out of the window at me.