‘ . . .It was the worst of years.’

Bleak Days

COVID-19 virus. Mutant C-19 viruses. Impossible vaccine hurdles. Isolation. Weather. Insurrection. Intolerance. Narcissism. Ineffective leadership. We’ve made it to mid-February. Of all the above the weather is most likely to be resolved first, but that is cold comfort right now with a continuous cover of snow that looks to be extended if forecasts prove correct. It is so easy to feel discouraged.

But I read, and reading places my own life in perspective. I’ve been thinking of Samuel Pepys’s Diary. I know I have a copy somewhere but could not find it, and online I found Phil Gyford’s site that uses the text from The Gutenberg Project, which makes available free online the text of out-of -copyright classic publications. Reader comments at the end of each day’s entry are enlightening.

I have read excerpts but never the entire work. I am hooked. Pepys diary begins in 1660 and records momentous times: the ending of the English Civil War; the failure of Richard Cromwell to form a stable government after the death of his father, Oliver; the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, claimant after his father Charles I was executed, ascending to the throne; the Second Pandemic of Bubonic Plague that began in the 1300s and returned periodically to kill anew; the Great London Fire.

It was a time of great instability. In Pepys’s social class people socialized with their friends (they TALKED with one another), they married, babies were born and people died of war wounds, of accidents, of disease and, the fortunate, of old age. In the lower economic classes people socialized with their friends (they TALKED with one another), they married, babies were born, and people died of war wounds, of accidents, of disease (an equal opportunity leveler but the poor were far more likely to be malnourished, overworked and suffer other privations that made them more susceptible) but the fortunate still died at advanced ages. Not so much has changed today, it seems, though the particulars are different.

Samuel is 26 when the diary begins, a civil servant under the patronage of Lord Montagu. His job in the Exchequer rests on the political survival of this aristocrat, and in this time nothing is certain. Terms for restoring Parliament, pardons for combatants, retention of titles and lands are being negotiated, everything is up in the air. Who’s in? Who’s out? Where to place your bets? Some who backed the wrong horse are being dispatched to the Tower for their sins.

The political state of affairs bears an uncanny resemblance to our own times. There is no telephone, no television, no internet to carry the news of the day so one depends on social contacts and a pint of wine at the local pub or a dinner with relatives and friends in one’s circle; Pepys’s circle was wide.

Early on, one of his friends is diagnosed with smallpox, another killer disease that ravaged the population, but finds herself instead the victim of a lesser pox and is soon back at cards again.

Before Covid-19 tests were widely and immediately available there were also missed diagnoses. It seems still true that the more things change the more they are the same.

© Feb. 17, 2021

A Winter Snowfall

Despite the cold there are some things I do love about winter.

I grew up in the deepest South: annual snowfall two inches every two years. A snowfall of one inch or less provokes a run on the supermarkets for eggs, bread, milk and toilet paper. Fear that these items will be depleted before the snow melts tomorrow prompts sometimes strange behaviors, and too many drivers assume the rules of the road are unchanged. That means good business for the body shops. But mostly there is appreciation for the rare beauty od a somewhat unusual event.

I live in Pittsburgh now, and though snow is no longer a rare event I still am awed on awakening to the softened landscape of a snowfall.

Unless I have been up unusually late the night before or am ill I am often awake around 5 am; I may have padded down to the kitchen even earlier and and found almost enough reflected light to navigate without turning on the overhead light. The light snowfall during the night laid a fresh coverlet, and the light it reflects back, even on the cloudiest nights, is amazing; it’s so easy to pick out all the details of my surroundings: the houses across the street, the lyre-shaped oak in the back yard, someone out for an early walk with a dog (the road crews already have made their passes on this school bus route). In the clear sky of the last full moon it was astounding, the pergola’s shadows sharp on the snow.

As I wait for the coffee to drip, through the bare trees I see the lights of the various houses all across the valley and on the hill behind me wink on as their occupants arise and light their ways inside, and I watch the lights of cars coming down the distant section of PA 910 about a mile away.

I share the woods behind my house with a variety of animals and in the morning’s snow I see their wanderings during the night: deer, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, groundhogs. Sometimes a fox trots through the yard. And later in the morning the local flock of crows will be flitting from tree to tree and commenting on all the activities in their domain.

Biologists tell us that we are losing billions–that’s right, billions–of birds, insects and other fauna every year because of our own activities, and the possible consequences of this loss of diversity may be far more and far worse than we imagine.

As I pour my fresh coffee and take my cup to sit before the fire I think of this and hope we have not come too far down that road to make a course correction.