Moderate, with fog patches
Enormous changes at the last minute
‘Security is what most people want, whether they till the soil or sing the blues for a living’ ‘Our idea of derring-do is gliding across wheat fields in a John Deere combine during harvest’
IN idle moments, I like to think of titles. Once, lost in the poetry of the Shipping Forecast while driving to Lincoln when it was my husband’s constituency, I thought of a title for his political memoir: Moderate, With Fog Patches. This slim volume is yet to be written.
I was born in a small town called Greenwood, but a much-loved great-aunt lived a few miles away in a two-stoplight town called Itta Bena. My departure from the South was a journey lit up by the crosses of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a scary and unhappy time, but my life has turned out to be better than I ever could have expected. It’s given me a title for my own unwritten memoir: Don’t Cry for Me, Itta Bena.
I do like the chomp of a good title. A few have had the potent comfort of prayer beads, steadying me and pushing me forward. I Would Have Saved Them If I Could has pulled me out of the quicksand of lost time for nearly four decades. The title of a collection of short stories by Leonard Michaels, it’s been a valuable warning: sometimes you cannot save the alcoholic friend/the brilliant chef with the destructive temper/the couple at one another’s throats/ the girlfriend who goes from one crazy man to another.
It’s like an invisible tattoo that reminds me that I am not a heart surgeon, a psychoanalyst, a faith healer or a life coach. I’m a patient listener and, I like to think, a dispenser of wise advice and I would save them if I could but sometimes I just can’t. (I’ve passed it on to friends whose lives were stuck in the delusion of salvation, explaining that it’s the title of a story about the marriage of the writer’s parents. When I Googled the story just now, I read that it was about the Holocaust. Good lord. How did I miss that? I’m not sure I’ll ever see the title in the same way again.)
Another title that flashes in my head a lot these days is Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Change, even enormous change, comes in many sizes. A grave diagnosis makes you see your life in a whole new light. And, a month later, a reprieve: it wasn’t that, it was this and easily treated with a single course of antibiotics. In no time, you go back to who you were before.
Although we still wake up each morning, turn on the radio and make the coffee, who could have predicted that the world—our own world—would become a battlefield for ISIS? Back in 1993, a friend visiting from California brought me a long article by the academic Samuel Huntington called The Clash of Civilizations. In it, the writer predicted a post-cold War new world order shaped not by a clash of countries, but of cultures. He warned that Islamic extremism would be the biggest threat to world peace. Although a man of great intelligence, I thought Huntington’s predictions sounded Old Testament. The title now causes me to tremble when I think of it.
These days, life feels plagued by too many changes at the last minute. No one I know, Leavers or Remainers, really believed that Brexit was coming round the mountain. And when it did, no one believed that David Cameron wouldn’t hang in there, however miserable or ridiculous he felt. It’s all change, but so far, so vague. Nobody can say what Brexit really means.
However, Brexit feels like bite-size change compared to the property and casino developer who is now President of the USA. The enormity of that change at the last minute still has hearts pounding and heads shaking around the world.
Farmers don’t like enormous changes, long-term or last-minute. Routine is our fertiliser of choice. Our idea of adventure and derring-do is gliding across wheat fields in a John Deere combine during harvest when there’s a full moon. When your livelihood depends more on weather than sensible endeavour, that’s all the uncer- tainty you can handle. Last month, we lost 80% of the grape harvest in back-to-back frosts. Those grapes—and the wheat, the barley, the sugar beet and potatoes—are my bid for security.
The world is pretty shaky right now and, for better or for worse, security is what most people want, whether they till the soil or sing the blues for a living.
By the time these words acquire the dubious significance that comes from appearing in print, the General Election will be hours away. I’m a conscientious voter, inspired by another good title, Delmore Schwartz’s story called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. (He got the title from W. B. Yeats, who borrowed it from an unidentified ‘Old play’.) I confess that I feel nervous.
Every election now feels like a Catch-22, a title that has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind. Voters aren’t entirely convinced by one candidate, but have a dread of the other candidate, who promises enormous change. Actually, even Joseph Heller’s title was changed at the last minute, after Leon Uris published Mila 18 just months before Heller’s book, originally called Catch-18, was delivered to the printers.
Sometimes great titles are just luck. The writer Margaret Mitchell was asked to come up with a new list because her publisher wasn’t crazy about a big novel called Tomorrow Is Another Day. Under pressure, she came up with Gone With The Wind. The truth is, enlightenment requires more than a title. We are living in chaotic and complicated times and we could all use a period of calm. There is much to be said for Moderate. Even with fog patches.