When life allows, I sit. Still. And listen for what is important today. To me. Maybe not to anyone else. But maybe.
‘Today’ might be misleading, though. These are not ‘thoughts for the day’. They are just what I wanted to write. Today.
Here are some. Just in case you might also be sitting. Still.
August needs deliverance. It has suffered enough. Enough denigration, enough relegation, enough classification, enough truncation, enough defenestration.
I love August. Now. As of last week. Before that I dreaded it. Especially while I was looking forward to it. The trouble with it was that it was just too close to September, too near to the cruel inexorability of back to school. It was the relentlessly hot month when you shopped for your winter clothes and nearly dropped dead in the dressing room. It was the month when all the big stores changed their swimming suit, sandals and halter top displays to three-ring notebooks, pencils and lunch boxes. And it was when your family squeezed in a vacation knowing that was really just a massive distraction from the reality: summer was basically over.
Christopher loves August, too. In fact, finding out recently that he loves August helped me. But I wonder how many of us there are. Do you love August? Or do you, along with every other August-cynic in the northern hemisphere regard it as the ‘after-the-roses-and-not-yet-radiant-leaves month? Do you see the baby apples on the trees and think, ‘Yep, Fall’s just around the corner’’?
Or I did. Because this year (my 77th summer) Christopher and I decided to take all of August as holiday (as we say in England). We would stay home the entire month and free it of any expectations, demands, obligations or schedules. ‘Waking with no plans’, as my friend Trisha says, is the true definition of ‘holiday’. So all of June and July I was excited thinking about the monumental celebration it would be when August arrived.
But then it did. And as wonderful as it felt to wake on the 1st with no plans and to know that I could do that for 30 more mornings, something seized up inside me. Not just something. My entire childhood and adulthood to date. It was August. Oh dear.
So, determined to bask in, revel in and generally worship every single thing about this time off, I decided to do a serious reframing, a wholesale whack-a-mole job on a lifetime of uninvited assumptions about August. Immediately. I dug around for the just-right words to knock all of those assumptions unconscious. In fact, dead. And today, a few days into our intended August bliss, I’m feeling a change. The permanent kind you can detect even when it is only a peep.
This is what I think now: August is mature summer. August is high summer. August is a woman expressing her self willing to please no-one. August is fulfilment. August is confidence. August is blessing. August emerges from the brief tentativeness and then self-promotion of June and July and is not cowed by, nor even much interested in, an unconceived September. August is August. As Christopher and I say about some very special people, she has herself.
The fullness of life is not to be confused with the end of life.
Thank you, August.
He is a gasp-making marvel, a legend, a force of nature. And (given the absence of the inexpressibly celestial grace, precision and power of Roger Federer) Rafael Nadal took my breath away, as I am sure he did yours, last Wednesday. Super human he was, as in above, over, beyond – a 7cm tear in his abdomen deafening his inner world beyond even the outer world screams of incredulous adorers. Above, over, beyond. Absolutely. And wonderfully.
So let all of that be the majestic context for my reflections on this glorious athlete, this hero.
I want to talk about his towel.
Did you see it? Did you see what he did with it? Did you see how he put it carefully into the perky purple waist-high metal towel box, then folded in the towel’s edges and patted it before he walked away to score another insanely brilliant point?
I loved it. I began to pray for the end of rallies, wanting him to win them of course, but also hoping he just might go back to that towel box, pick the towel up, dry his face quickly, and then take his time settling it back into its little space. And patting it.
That care – that visible regard for a thing, that gentleness in the midst of appropriately fierce competitiveness – counts. It says something about the man. About the values that accompany every aggressive, exacting, hold-your-breath execution of his prowess. Inside all of that is an aesthetically aware sweetheart.
I began to notice how everyone else dealt with their towels. Did you? Some threw them in, some smushed them in, some wadded them in the middle and stuffed them in. All of them left tendrils of towel dangling over the edges. (And then there was the player who used a different towel every single time and piled up a week’s worth of laundry by the end of the match. Climate police, where were you?)
Now you are sure to argue that a) towel behaviour does not matter one single bit in the most revered athletic event in the world and is a weird thing to notice, and b) Rafa’s towel behaviour is just another manifestation of his supposed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that appears, for example, at the end of his breaks during his painstaking water bottle line-up ritual.
First of all, that OCD-ness is possibly not OCD at all. He says it is process. I think it is meditation. Same thing. Key thing: his entire consciousness is focused on those bottles. For 7 seconds he is not in the battle, not in the achievement or the loss, not in the rev-me-up or calm-me-down self-talk that surely populates most of those sit-down, hydrate-yourself breaks. He is with only those bottles and their proximity to each other. He is making a choice to be entirely present.
And that is beautiful.
The towel. The bottles. The play. The man. A coherent best-in-the-world wonder if you ask me.
Clear And Present
‘He is a clear and present danger.’
When we hear those words from a measured, observant, informed, fact-unearthing, experienced legal mind about a leader of a democratic country, we need to stand back and stand by. We need to take note and take time. We need to stop and think. And not flinch. Regardless of our affiliations. Regardless, most importantly, of our allegiances.
It is exactly allegiance that I have been thinking about this week. This year, these two years, these six, these forty. And I’ve been asking myself these questions:
When is allegiance smart, and when is it stupid?
When does it fuel a clear and present danger?
My answer so far is:
When allegiance is neither clear nor present, it is dangerous.
Dangerous leaders count on both. They count on their followers to be neither clear about facts nor focused on the present.
Dangerous leaders produce fervid allegiance by follow these four simple directions:
1. Amass and rally marginalised people and tell them you love them, that you understand them, that only you can restore their dignity and power, that only you can protect them and the country they love.
2. Create and repeat ‘kill shots’, labels that belittle your opponents. Use them endlessly.
3. Be first to comment on any issue, remembering that if you are first, you establish the context, requiring others to refer to you.
4. Expunge all who question or oppose you. Even family.
If we and ‘our people' have for years been systemically ignored, passed over, ridiculed or exploited, we are prey. Any person with charisma and celebrity can use us to empower themselves. All they have to do is say in public that they love us, and we will swoon. Our minds and hearts will glaze over.
We will stop clarifying facts. We will use the leader’s facts instead. Feeling seen and loved at last, we will follow, follow, follow.
As we do, we will invoke with grievance a past that denigrated us. We will embrace with fervour a future the leader claims will respect us. We will exit the present, replacing it with whatever the leader-lover-of-us says it is.
And we will sing, shout, chant, applaud, hooray ourselves into a swelling of the rebuked and the righteous. We will dance in the streets. March in the streets. Kill in the streets.
Because he loves us.
But he doesn’t.
He needs us. To love him. To raise him up.
Dangerous leaders watch; they spot us; they wait, and then they swoop. In thrall we hang from their jaws, our true selves bleeding out.
So let this be our mantra: only our self-generated dignity, credibility, grace and stride can house the love we want, the understanding we long for. Only our own seen selves can keep from danger a country we love.
Clearly, in the present.