Mod­er­ate, with fog patches

Enor­mous changes at the last minute

Country Life Every Week - - Another Country - Carla Carlisle

‘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.

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