I spent my birthday last month on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, and did yoga two days in a row outside on a screened porch listening to ocean waves a few hundred yards away. I smelled pine trees and saw bushes in bloom, instead of smelling the carpet my dog spends his days on and gazing out on the Midwest gripped in the worst winter in a generation. I felt soft breeze and sunshine on my skin and even had to move into the shade, wore shorts and a tank top all day and got just enough sun to be a little pink around the edges where I missed with sunscreen. Sunscreen! Aside from the one when I turned 6 and got a full-on cowboy ensemble, hat, boots, chaps, toy pistols (c’mon, I was six and it was Texas) and a horseback ride, this was SO my best birthday ever.
My cousin Jackie, whose porch it was, drove us around the island. There are few people that she doesn't know on this small island, accessible only by boat. She does seem to know every single house, though: “I replaced the compressor on their air conditioner one Fourth of July when there wasn’t anybody else going over (to the mainland to get one.)” “Me and my crew did all the ductwork on that house before it went in.” (“Went in” is the local expression for being washed into the Gulf by a hurricane, which happened to several beachfront homes during Hurricane Michael last October). “I need to stop by here and check to see whether they need a new condenser or can the one they have be fixed. I’ve told them I am not fixing it this time, but I’ll tell ‘em if they need a new one.”
She did air conditioning installation and repair in Florida, along with other construction, for close to 40 years. There’s a doctor on this island, a veterinarian, and then there’s Jackie, and it would be hard to tell who these people rely on the most.
It’s a thought that stays with me when I’m back in Iowa, snow still deep on the ground, temperatures only gradually edging above miserable and everyone getting snippy with long-winter frustration. I pour a cup of coffee and turn up the heat, glad to be working from home but nostalgic for ocean breeze-yoga. Where would I be if the furnace went out? I think. Every night on the news there is a storm somewhere that makes that happen. Thousands of people sit miserably in the cold and dark while people like my cousin Jackie are out in the snow and ice climbing poles, snapping new cables into place, lifting trees off of houses and cars. Air conditioning in Florida and heat in the Midwest are not just matters of comfort, they become life and death.
I sit in my warm house and grade students’ papers. A’s if they’ve gone beyond the reading to say something original, C’s if they have just repeated what they read. I will be up past midnight, finishing this and then preparing for class tomorrow, but I have never saved a life.
Americans talk a lot about work these days: people who are willing to work, people who aren’t. Politicians who represent working people, versus those who ignore them or steal from them. I know that sitting in a warm house grading papers, and going to an island to do yoga on my birthday, means I am not working people.
I also know my cousin Jackie gave me the best birthday present ever, that weekend we spent together on the island, and that she in fact has saved peoples’ lives.Commenting is not available in this channel entry.