On New Year’s night, 2020, I was at a friend’s house to watch a football game. She had an extensive library — a whole wall of shelves — and let me borrow Katherine Anne Porter’s short story collection Pale Horse, Pale Rider, published in 1939. I’m a Texan who had never read anything by this Texas author, and I wanted to start the new year by closing that gap. I did not know that the title story was about the 1918 flu epidemic. I also did not know that a virus would wreak havoc only weeks later.
Across the country restrictions are lifting. I’ve gone from just wanting everything to go back to the way it was to accepting that the path does not lead back — only forward, as it does in Porter’s story.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is sixty-seven pages. It focuses on a relationship between a newspaper reporter named Miranda and a man who is about to ship out to WWI named Adam. Neither takes the relationship very seriously. This isn’t love, only —
the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty-four years old each, alive and on earth, at the same moment.”
What’s on everyone’s mind is the war: “the war, the war, the WAR to end War.” I’d never before thought of the juxtaposition between unrest and pandemic, but it’s been true during other massive outbreaks. It’s true now.
What Miranda is consciously not thinking about is her “burning slow headache.” When she and Adam go out on a date, they specifically do not think about the passing funerals (funerals, plural). But who wants to think about a plague, “something out of the Middle Ages” as Miranda says.
What Miranda wants to think about is whether she does or does not love Adam. Or if she even should try. But it doesn’t matter. She is already sick.
Some of the story’s most beautiful passages occur when Miranda is most ill. Reality and memory and nightmare collide: mountains, buzzards, a jungle, a gangplank, a “fiery motionless particle.” Adam tries to get her medical help, but none is to be found.
They can’t get an ambulance,” said Adam, “and there aren’t any beds. And we can’t find a doctor or a nurse. They’re all busy. That’s all there is to it.”
This is a story about taking stock of your life, the way “a plague, a plague, my God” makes you rethink everything. When Adam asks Miranda if she’s ever been happy, she replies,
I don’t know,” she said. “I just lived and never thought about it.”
How many of us could say the same thing before a virus quarantined us in our tracks?
During this unusual season I have continued to cultivate the practices that have served me well in other unusual seasons — especially walking my dogs in the morning dark and poetry time in the afternoon with a large cup of tea.
Recently The Slowdown podcast featured a poem titled And We Love Life by Mahmoud Darwish, whose work has been part of a Tweetspeak dare. The poem begins “And we love life, if we find a way to it.” The line is repeated three more times, and the last line of the poem is an affirmative “We love life, if we find a way to it.”
Is that what we’re doing with this unplanned-for time? Are we finding a way to love life?
After Miranda recovers she awakens to the sounds of parades for the Armistice. She is not able to enter into the joy of the celebration because her brush with the Pale Horse, Pale Rider of death has made everything around her strange — her own hands, her own face, morning, sunshine. All is new in her brand new Now.
No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”
We have left our shade-drawn houses to find not parades, but protests. The world is changed. Suddenly there is all this time. Do we know what to do with it?
It’s time to love life, friends, to find a way to it.
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro