In early April 2020, when we were less than a month into the pandemic shutdown, I was going through some old books and found a copy of the Bible in German a friend had given my wife years before. The cover said the writing inside was in “heutigem Deutsch,” which means contemporary German.
I’d never read the entire Bible before and I’d been wanting to improve my German, so I decided to make reading that Bible my pandemic project. I figured if I could average two chapters a day, I could read the whole thing in about three years.
That was exactly a year and a half ago, and yesterday I reached the halfway point in my reading. I still have a year and a half to go, but I have no doubt now I’ll finish. That’s one good thing that has come from this awful pandemic period.
You never know what you’re going to uncover when you look in old boxes. I found these wrapped in tissue paper in a plastic bag…some forgotten trip to Hawaii? The visit to South Carolina a few years back? That time on the beach in Zanzibar?
I’m reminded of the old Dan Fogelberg song, Souvenirs.
While walking yesterday, I saw these mushrooms bubbling out beside the sidewalk and felt drawn to look more closely. They reminded me how important it is for a writer–or anyone, really—to remain aware of and sensitive to the world around you. That sensitivity can be painful at times but it also can bring moments like this: when something some would consider unsightly suddenly shines with strange beauty.
Three months ago, in the midst of all of the post-election rancor, the editor of Notre Dame Magazine asked me what I would think about writing an essay on Goodness. He was tired of reading so much about the badness in the world, he said. I told him I’d take the project on but had no idea what I’d do with it. He seemed especially pleased at my not-knowing.
Given the times, with death and uncertainty, everywhere, nothing could have been better than spending the holiday period thinking about Goodness. The essay came to me in bits and pieces while I took long walks alone. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to write some kind of traditional essay, but I didn’t expect the more lyrical piece I ended up creating: a meditation on what Goodness is.
The issue my essay will be in is at the printer’s now and will be mailed out to the magazine’s almost 200,000 subscribers sometime in the next 2-3 weeks. When it goes up online, I’ll post the link here.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to think about where Goodness appears in your own life. It’s a much better lens through which to see the world than the ones you find in most news outlets or social media.
Today would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. A remarkable woman, she raised two children by herself on a bookkeeper’s salary. Once, when she asked her male boss for a much-needed raise, he told her raises were only for men, who had families to support.
I tell other stories about how she was treated by men and the strength she showed in dealing with them in the memoir I’m working on, which includes the days around her death.
Don’t worry, I tell stories about happier times and events too!
Two days ago, I was doing a phone consultation with a writer who, among other things, was writing about bees. When I looked up from my notes, what did I see in our yard? A huge swarm of hundreds of…bees. I’ve never seen such a thing. It was strangely beautiful.
As I continued my consultation, the swarm lessened and eventually seemed to be down to a few dozen bees circling like electrons around an overgrown rhododendron. When I got off the phone, I went out to look closer and saw what is in the picture here: an upside down bee cone. It was two feet tall and just as wide at its widest part.
Fortunately, our neighbor used to have beehives and had the right equipment, as well as the desire to have one again. So last night he came and dropped the cone into a garbage bin and took the squirming mass off to put in one of his old bee boxes.
He missed a few, but over the past two days they’ve disappeared, so maybe they’re all together now.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in whose works the kind of coincidence in my first paragraph here happens all the time. Maybe more is at work in our world than we know.
I started reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera yesterday, as every writer should at some point during a pandemic. It is so beautifully rich in language and poignant and, what I didn’t expect, funny. Here are two lines from early in the book I thought especially evocative:
“In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.”
“At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.”
I keep a copy of this poem/reflection by my writing desk. It seems more important now than ever (an English translation follows the German):
by Jochen Mariss
Laß uns wieder lernen, den Augenblick zu genießen, zu nehmen, was ist, mit beiden Händen, hier und jetzt zu leben, bevor wir das Leben verbracht haben mit sorgenvollen Blicken in die Zukunft und den Erinnerungen an die gute alte Zeit.
by Jochen Mariss
Let us learn again to enjoy the moment, to take what is in both hands, to live here and now, before we have spent our life in anxious glances toward the future and memories of the good old times.
p.s. The photograph here is from Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway, and dedicated to those who are self-isolating with children. 🙃