Remembering Hortense

“Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more.”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

I was 17 when I memorized that quote for my senior English class as part of an assignment. How have I remembered such morbid poetry for these past 62 years? I do wish I had that good a memory these days! I also much prefer not to be morbid.

However, these words of the hapless Macbeth popped up recently in my 3 a.m. fretting mind. The middle of the night was not the best time, of course, to be ruminating about anything! It was a golden opportunity for Macbeth’s hopelessness to become real if I so chose. After all, I am part of a world that endlessly frets and struts itself in the midst of an unending pandemic and that creates more and more division and hurt. I am part of a world of unending information that is increasingly confusing and that feeds on unrest and discontent.

I don’t want to do morbid, though. So when it shows up, what do I do?

Perhaps that question is why Hortense Eichleman came to mind this week. In the late 1940’s, Hortense was an outsider in our quiet Midwestern middle-class neighborhood filled with well-groomed middle-class homes and families with kids, with fathers who drove to work and mothers whose work was in the home. It was a neighborhood where, on Sundays, we kids were not allowed to roller skate, because we might interrupt the quiet of the Sabbath and of hard-working grown-ups on their day off. (In the 1940’s, “Blue laws,” which forbid commerce on Sundays, had yet to be overturned, so going shopping was out of the question and malls were still a few dreams away.)

Daily news of the world only showed up in the morning and evening editions of our city’s newspaper and one extra large edition on Sunday, and in a half-hour evening radio broadcast. There was no t.v. yet, so any sights of the daily news were in static black and white photos. These were the three designated opportunities to know what was going on. Then, it was back to life as it was on Woodlawn Avenue.

I was 6 when we moved there and 10 when we left, and in those four years, I had the opportunity to watch Hortense Eichleman as she marched down the tree-lined sidewalk in front of our house, angrily complaining about something at the top of her lungs. She was venting, and she didn’t care who knew it. She was not pleased with this world, and this was her one way to make herself known.

Hortense was a young woman, thin and flat-chested, with brown curly hair just below her ears, held back on one side by a bobby pin or barrette. She wore flat, brown, tied oxford shoes, and I could hear the clack, clack of each angry, determined footstep as she strode by our house each day, head down and arms firmly crossed in front of her.

She lived in a large house about 3 properties north, separated from our part of the street by a row of tall thin arborvitae trees. The equally tall, prairie-style house had been built years earlier than ours and had not been painted, so it carried the grim dark grey of a haunted house to us kids. It was the perfect setting for this surreal “character” who fascinated and sometimes worried us as kids.

We had only one school-closing snowstorm in the four years that we lived there, and streets were cleared well before the sidewalks. This did not deter Hortense. She was on a mission. She simply moved to the middle of the street for her daily rant about whatever had caught her unsettled mind on that day. She was the walking shadow, strutting and fretting her hour upon the stage. She was the social media critic of our neighborhood.

I know the Hortense in myself these days, more often than I want. Fretting keeps me awake at night too often. It keeps me going back too many times to the latest news – as if it just might shed enough light for me to breathe more easily again. It rarely does.

Just when I figuratively find my inner Hortense, who really couldn’t help herself, I try to take a deep breath, because I can help myself. I know what to do. I have many graces to turn to.

I return to my most helpful meditations – and swear to make them a daily exercise again. I get my best walking shoes on and check my Fitbit to see how far I can go this time and remember how exercise can strengthen my mind as well as my body.

I turn on my best mix of music for calm and beauty and inspiration: Hauser’s cello albums. Choral music. Symphonies and concertos. These always bring me back to a level plain. I once again delete Twitter, knowing that if it’s there, I’ll check it too often, hoping it will bring a perspective that will satisfy and calm me. It never does. (When will I learn???)

I go to a church where Love is spoken and lived generously and where all are welcomed. Where my spirit is nurtured and encouraged and challenged with hope and purpose.

I call upon friends and family to keep me grounded. They are all so fine! We do not all think alike, but we all are willing to be in helpful dialogue.

The crises remain. I don’t want to be the poor player who frets and struts…and then is heard no more. I want to have a spirit that is healthy enough to be a healing force in my hour upon the stage. And perhaps some amazing grace, too.

And that is very okay with me.