Paddling With William Faulkner Through
the Debris of Life
I had the nightmare again.
I had been reading William Faulkner’s Old Man, where a convict is sent out into floodwaters—
“…his swollen and blood-streaked face gaped in an expression of aghast and incredulous amazement, continued to paddle directly into it…though the skiff had ceased to move forward at all but seemed to be hanging in space … now instead of space the skiff became abruptly surrounded by a welter of fleeing debris—planks, small buildings, the bodies of drowned yet antic animals, entire trees leaping and diving like porpoises above which the skiff seemed to hover in weightless and airy indecision … while the convict squatted in it still going through the motions of paddling, waiting for an opportunity to scream.”*
And feeling the desperation and outrage of this convict caught in a flood of water and prejudice and inequities, and paddling in my own life through the debris of one child’s seven weeks of GCSE exams at age 16, and paddling through the antics of two university aged children who were planning and plotting and scrambling for their own exams and travels and jobs and sports and lives, and paddling over the floods of erratic climactic extremes which of late meant endless pouring rain and dark skies, and paddling over the nationalist politics surging bloodily and shrilly across national boundaries and continents,
I had the nightmare again
—the same nightmare I’d had regularly at exam times from the age of 18 into my 40s, the same panic ever since I spent years studying—the sudden heart pounding realization that in five minutes, I had a final exam for a course I didn’t know I had signed up for, over a book I hadn’t read, in a building I couldn’t find—and I woke in a sweat with a heaving chest and a dread in my stomach, was unable to sleep, and went down to take stomach antacid. And while drinking my watery fizzy down, I did the ridiculous and checked the weather, which had been rainy for days, which checking was a great mistake on a sleepless night before having to drive cross country to move a child home from university—because the forecast for the next three days was torrential rains and floods and transport apocalypse, and I reared in fear, my blood pressure rising, wanting to scream, and then went up to my bed and lay down and tossed and turned—remembering the last time I drove there—the flash flood I had faced only one block from home, unable to drive west due to roads covered in water, to fetch exactly this same child.
I prayed and I tossed, and without ever reaching sound sleep, rose, transported the child with the GCSE exams to school, and then drove in completely dry conditions to the sunny city of Bristol, packed the car without a drop of rain, and saw the first drops fall as I sat drinking tea with my daughter and her friends, in their shared apartment.
And then politics and the current desperation of it in various nations swooped down out of the turned-dark sky to light on the table—like a carrion-seeking vulture—and heads hung and murmurs began, frowns and hurts, but then, “We can always hope,” said Anna quietly.
I nodded. “That’s right.” And knowing it was time to leave, knowing suddenly a need to bring us all together, knowing desperate times require love, out of nowhere came an idea—to propose a toast—to hope!
And that circle, those five young women and myself, representing a mix of nations and ethnicities and loyalties, toasted to hope. Hope for nations, hope for humankind, as the rain poured down outside and the flood of politics bearing the flotsam and jetsam of barns and hen houses and dead animals and migrants and refugees, the flood of human life, cast adrift by the undoing of promises and laws and contracts and civility and peace, swelled yellow and opaque and lugubrious across the world.
“To hope!” we said, standing and robustly clinking our mugs of tea. And then we hugged each other, loaded the last suitcases in the car, and she and I drove away in the rain.
*Quotation is from William Faulkner’s novella Old Man.
*Photo credit to Pixabay.
For more of my work:
click here to read The World Through the Hole in a Hanging Sock.
click here to read the first story in Laura Grevel’s Texas Ranching Adventure series.