Saturday, November 28, 2020

Texas notes: The soul of a man

     "The ability to give" should top all of our lists of reasons to be grateful, as Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey reminds us.

     “Hey Siri. Play Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.” 
      His name had been floating around in my mind since I heard it mentioned on NPR the other day. She complied, and I was greatly rewarded. Lilting, bending guitar chords slowly built up to the moment when a rich, boyish yet distinctive voice began imploring the listener. Mr. Elliott played and sang an old gospel song, "Soul of a Man."  
     Time stood still in the way only a song or another stunning piece of art, nature, or sentient connection can accomplish. The lyrics with more questions than answers matched my mood on this strange and lovely Thanksgiving day.
     The morning had started as usual with freshly ground coffee, newspaper headlines and my attention being pulled in and out of radio stories. I like to keep WBEZ Chicago playing in the background, even down here in Texas. Sure, it can be disconcerting to hear “a high of 47 and overcast,” and sometimes I have to take a moment to reorient. After years of living down here in the South it still surprises me, somehow, that there are places where winter doesn’t really exist.
     After coffee, I got dressed and decided it was time to get out of the house. I drove off listening to Ramblin’ Jack, windows open on a mid-70’s Fall day, to nowhere in particular. I had only a loose plan for this holiday. Once the song ended and the trance was lifted, I decided to start at the grocery store. Masked and distanced with hand sanitizer in my fanny pack and peppered all around the store in touch-less dispensers I felt like a character in the Jetsons. I thought “make sure your helmet and space suit are on, lest the very air around you cause sudden death.”
     Reasonably sure I’d survive this visit, I picked out one of the last containers of freshly baked Pao de Queijo (Brazilian cheese bread). I got back into my car and as I drove off continued listening to Jack. I could not find a song nearly as transfixing as the first one I’d heard, so I played it again and again.
     I headed to my friend Richard’s house where he met me in his garage. I left the cheese bread on a chair for him. He took a box of Saran-wrapped plates and Tupperware loaded up with holiday foods and placed the box on the trunk of his car, then backed away. I felt grateful and humbled that he (and others) offered me holiday meals and distanced visits, so far away from my family this year. Richard and I were both masked and kept a good distance from each other. We chatted for a little bit and then said our goodbyes.
     I took the food and headed to my happy place— a small field behind the castle-like museum in the Hyde Park neighborhood nearby. I laid a blanket out on the grass, unloaded the box and turned it over as a table. I put a nice cloth over it and unwrapped the feast. Baked chicken, yams with pineapple, green beans with thick-cut bacon, tart cranberries, stuffing and gravy. The works. I started with the pie of course.
     I marveled at the sky and how utterly content I felt. I’ve gotten used to solitude and while I miss people, we have found ways to stay connected. In some ways I feel closer to family and friends who are far away than I did when we visited more often. When we do talk it’s with more presence and reverence than before. The fragility of life is now ever-present.
      After my meal I took a short constitutional and saw families sitting in circles on their lawns. I wondered if they were wishing they were somewhere else. Sheltering in place with family members usually seen much less has been taking a toll on folks I know. Or were they basking in gratitude for being close to the ones they love? Perhaps they were wavering between the two, or something else entirely.
     As I headed back towards home I passed by a disheveled man talking to an unseen force in his head, standing next to a large dumpster near the gas station. I stopped at the store, picked out a vitamin water, and put together a bag for him— the rest of the feast that I had set aside as leftovers, a plastic spork and napkins, and a waterproof jacket a neighbor donated to my trunk-stash for folks in need. As I slowly approached him (keeping 20’ or so of distance) he bent down and hid. I called out “sir?” and he peeked out at me. I said, "If you’d like a meal and a jacket I will leave them here for you,” and left them on the curb.
     As I walked back to my car he called out a feeble and garbled thank-you and quickly took his gifts down the alley. I saw him sit down in his encampment, about a half a block away, and dig right in. I wished I’d given him more and now that I know where he is, with the generous flow of gifts from my neighbors, I will look for him again. “What is the soul of a man? I’ve traveled in different countries. I’ve traveled in foreign lands. I found nobody to tell me, what about the soul of a man?” In this COVID era I’ve never felt more comfortable with the fact that I do not know.


  1. Thank you, Caren, for reminding me how my childhood dream of becoming a priest was so, so wrong. Faced with the obvious need for succor as you were, I would very likely have turned away and felt little more than a tiny pang of guilt in doing so. Nonetheless, I can't but admire the instinct, the compassion and the courage to share so evident in your character and lacking in mine. That indeed is the Soul of Man.


  2. Thank you for reading John, and for you comment. At this time in my life, the thing that gives my mortal existence meaning are moments of peace and (sometimes caused by) moments of connection with other beings, verbal or otherwise.

    1. * your * comment, that is!

      and * things *

      I’m having a lazy sleepy grammar less day!

  3. Sounds like you hd a good Plague Year Thanksgiving. My wife and I spent our first Thanksgiving home alone in 25 years, not counting about a dozen years ago when we were both sick and had to cancel our plans. A week or so ago I was bummed. We wouldn't be having the pig-out at my wife's nephew's place, and he wouldn't be giving us the two turkey carcasses that allow us to eat soups, stews, hash, pies, and all things turkey for much of the winter.

    But then we won the food lottery. A woman in my neighborhood, whom I've never even met (except on Nextdoor) offered to drop off two complete home-cooked turkey dinners with all the fixins...southern style (she's originally from Georgia).

    So I got up well past noon, as it was just another day. Gray, damp, chilly. No rush to get to the party, as there wasn't any. About 3:30, the husband brought over enough food for a small army, in bags and styrofoam containers. Turkey. Ham. Green-bean casserole. Mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Stuffing. Mac & cheese. Collard greens. Black-eyed peas. Cornbread. Rolls. Pie. Whipped cream. WOW!

    I'm not exaggerating when I say there is still enough left for about four more meals. AND she gave us the carcass! PLUS, the nephew dropped off HIS carcass! So we went from rags to riches in a few days. More left over turkey than we've ever had before. It will keep in the freezer, and we'll probably still be eating it in the spring. So much to be thankful for. Thank you, Roger and Jessica!

    And now we get ready to batten down the hatches and hunker in the bunker and to settle in for Mother Nature's awful music...the "Big Band sound" of snow off Lake Erie. The bad stuff looks to be coming earlier than usual this year. But we have our book-filled bungalow, our music, our TV, our devices, and our two female felines. And each other.

    Could be worse. Much worse. We're so much better off than so many. We're alive, and we're breathing. We're warm amd dry and well-fed. We're not sick, or alone, or lonely, and there's no way in hell not to be thankful and grateful. Happy happy, joy joy.

    1. A fellow turkey carcass aficionado in the news, Grizz:

      "Mike Dukakis Is No Longer Accepting Turkey Carcasses"

  4. What a bounty! So glad to hear you two have what you need as the cold winter ensues.

  5. Another great story but what jumped out at me is when you said you wished you’d given more. Reminded me of Schindler when he said in despair that he could have saved more.
    No matter how much we help I think we all believe we should or could give more.

  6. I enjoy reading about your life in Texas. My husband and I were Winter Texans for a few years prior to the pandemic. Don’t want to travel anymore until Covid is under control. Thanks for sharing your stories through NS. You both have a good heart!

  7. A truly giving Thanksgiving. Thank you for sharing.


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