A Famine of Beauty

Rest in peace, Andre Leon Talley, long time editor at Vogue, contributing editor to Vanity Fair, journalist, NYT bestselling author, and diversity advocate before that concept was on many people’s radar. He was 73, and the cause of death was a heart attack complicated by COVID.

Of the many reasons I could bring up the man and his contributions, I want to focus on one quote that popped out at me from the Vogue documentary, The September Issue. “So far, it’s been a bleak streak over here in America. You know what? It’s a famine of beauty. A famine of beauty, honey! My eyes are starving for beauty!”

The concept of famine smacked me upside the head. Regency characters were intimately familiar with food famines. Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew its top in 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in 1300 years, and the whole northern hemisphere endured a volcanic winter through 1816. There was no grain harvest worth the name–not in North America, not in Asia, or Europe, not no how, not no where. There was no wheat, barley, or oats to import.

In a small way, the concept of famine has been at work in my life of late. A famine of hugs. A famine of the inspiration I derive from travel. A famine of positive news. A famine of emotional intimacy. I cannot buy these blessings from Amazon, cannot pick them up at Walmart, cannot import them, or find them on the dark web.

Just putting the label famine on the sense of lack helps me figure out the feelings that go with it. Longing, hope, determination, fatigue, fear… I realize that I am using the term to apply to a manageable shortfall in a vastly privileged life, and that others are enduring far worse than I ever have or will, but the emotions still resonate. When will this end? How much worse can it get?  What can we do to ensure we’re never, ever caught in this trap again?

Though even famines can have a silver lining. Following the Year Without a Summer, the proto-bicycle was invented in the hope of giving regular people a means of locomotion that did not consume grain. JMW Turner’s brilliant sunsets reflect the influence of volcanic ash on the atmosphere. Mary Shelley and her writer friends were forced by incessant rainfall to remain indoors during the summer of 1816, and they whiled away the time tossing around writing prompts.

One result was her story, Frankenstein, generally considered the foundation of the science fiction genre. Byron’s contribution to the game became the inspiration for Dracula, the foundational story in the horror genre. In my own recent lean times, I have learned to Zoom with family–not comparable to founding a literary genre, but one way to connect  I did not have two years ago.

Do you see any silver linings resulting from the past two years? Any challenges you have tackled, or new skills learned? I’ll put three commenters on my ARC list for A Tryst by the Sea, which–now that I think about it–is a tale about surviving a marital famine. Funny how that works!

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17 comments on “A Famine of Beauty

  1. I also know that I am pretty privileged these days. My silver linings are that I have been able to catch up on reading some classics I hadn’t read (shocking for a sort-of English major) and a few books that a now unfortunately deceased friend recommended that I probably wouldn’t have heard about on my own. And since I have the Internet, I was able to learn to use Zoom and the telehealth options my doctors have available now. And, it’s probably not something other people will understand, but I’m kind of glad I was able to say “no” to family gatherings because I’m afraid I don’t have much in common with most of my nearby relatives and it took an emotional toll on me to attend in the past. Again, I acknowledge my privileges (I didn’t grow up with most of them so I appreciate them even more now).
    I hope that somehow people will figure out how to do what keeps all of us safer so that the world gets back to a bit more like normal sometime soon.

  2. It’s an ill wind… new difficulties, unexpected developments, certainly force us to learn to deal with them in a new way! My life has been a series of those. And thereby we grow!
    Thank you for your books Grace! I have delighted in reading them because they are firstly cracking good yarns – but also because you handle words & languages so beautifully! I learned the King’s English as a child, yes I was born before Elizabeth’s reign began, & it pains me when writers in all fields handle words with cavalier carelessness.
    I have loved reading because my parents introduced me to books. I have learned to distinguish good authors from those who are otherwise. You, Grace, top my list of favourites! Long may you reign! Patricia

  3. I have come to appreciate the stillness and quiet moments of my day; to reassess all of my normal busy pre pandemic rushing around, planning and doing things constantly moments.

  4. My fantastic labs at my annual physical prove the value of having the time to cook meals from basic food groups rather than overpriced “fast” foods or even freezer meals.

    I discovered which friends love me enough to haul me to doctors at inconvenient times. Which I repaid with ferries to airports for red eye flights & whatever else they needed. We’ve bonded more closely than we would have without hard times.

    The corollary was pruning the “friends” who proved themselves acquaintances who only kept up with me when I was constantly useful. More time/less stress in my life.

    Finally, I’m pleased to need far less stuff when I’m not having to haul around a load of unnecessary detritus in purses, wear impractical clothes because someone in a galaxy far far away decided they were “business appropriate” based on a climate near the arctic circle when I live in the tropics, or put wear & tear on my car in a sea of mass migrations. I won’t need brakes or tires for another year & I can wear comfortable clothing appropriate to my climate while still appearing presentable on a small screen.

  5. My silver lining is becoming closer to family members. That’s been great, even if the covid that caused it has sucked big time.
    And what a great way to reframe things, Grace!! Thanks for that

  6. Silver linings?
    I realize that I have more now than in 2019-early 2020.
    Have reconnected with a good friend, keep in contact with my work buddies and keep in touch with my sister on a more regular basis. I am cooking healthier meals and not nuking lean cuisines, I spent quality time with my Rose during her last 2 years- Rose and Greg adjusted to my schedule before I did!
    Am more productive at work too.
    I think we’ve all learned to keep in touch, to learn new things. There are still challenges to face as this pandemic is still holding on. We can face the challenges- we’ve come this far.

  7. I retired at the end of the 2021 school year after a couple of really hard years politically. I kind of killed a month being a zombie and then woke up enough to make a couple of trips which were much needed but set off some emotional turmoil. The silver lining has been that for the time being I can live on the money I have, I have wandered through all of the thorns in my life and began to act on some of them (help with insomnia being a big one.) So many things becoming clear that would have been easier to address when I was younger. The cliches are endless.

  8. We just had my MIL and SIL over today for brunch to celebrate Hubby’s birthday. We haven’t been all together for over two years. When my MIL saw our sons, she told them she wanted to hug them but was afraid to. They *air* hugged across the room and I thought how sad that a grandmother doesn’t feel comfortable hugging her grandkids but–it is what it is. I’m sure she needed to hug them and, even though they’re adults, they needed to hug her.

    There are some silver linings–I haven’t had a cold or flu or any viral illness since March 2020. Washing hands, wearing masks, staying six feet away probably has helped. I’m sure these *extra* habits will stick with me long after we get the *all clear*. And am sure other people feel the same way.

    Zoom is a tool I will be using for many things, both work-wise and family-wise. I’ve enjoyed it for family and having a heart-to-heart with a son who lives in the city when he needs to see me (and I need to see him!).

    I’m much more organized because I have more time to be and….I will be weeding out my socks and underwear and going through my closet this week, getting a big bag together for several agencies in our community which serve battered women. I’ll be keeping clothes I regularly wear and donating things I’m not worn for a while.

    My priorities have changed and that’s a good thing!

    Stay warm this week, Grace!

  9. One huge silver lining is that my husband and I had it reinforced that we not only love each other but we also like each other. I’m not saying we never have disagreements, but they are not ones that put our marriage in danger. Sadly, we have a couple sets of friends whose marriages suffered because of the extra time spent ‘stuck’ with each other.

    We’ve also been able to do some travelling to lower population areas to spend time in nature.

  10. Your description of a “Famine of Hugs” describes my feelings exactly. The worst part, for me, of Covid isolation is missing the hugs of my “kids” (at 40 & 42 is that the best descriptor?) and grandkids. The rest, the not shopping in stores, the not traveling, the not attending public events, that’s all just inconvenience, but the missing hugs…. devastating! The only silver lining I can find is a friendship that developed at the beginning of Covid isolation that was nurtured outdoors on opposite sides of a fire pit, at opposite ends of a very large table in our screened porch, at opposite ends of our pool, at socially distanced and masked long walks through our state parks, a friendship which might not have been nurtured in that way were we not all mourning our inability to see our kids and grandkids. The four of us met in a seniors’ exercise class and shortly before Covid isolation began had shared one lunch in a deli they recommended, over which we chatted until they closed the restaurant and asked us to leave. But when we were all sent home to languish in isolation, we brainstormed how we could still visit, safely, without endangering each other. And, yes, Zoom sometimes played a part in that communing, when the weather became just too bitter to spend any time at all outside, even with a fire pit. As it happens, this couple has recently moved hundreds of miles away, to be closer to their family, now that everyone is vaccinated and visits are less fraught with fear, but we still make an effort to Zoom weekly at least. So a friendship that I hope will stand the test of time came about in part at least because of the Famine of Hugs.

  11. Like all famines of many kinds it will not end overnight and lives will take time to ‘re-adjust both mentaly ,physically.Loss of loved ones will ever be ingrained in memory.But slowly and hopefully mankind will work together in building a better and kinder new world—What a massive Challenge!!!!!!.I honestly worry we will just scuttle back to the survivors mode and with a sign of relief carry on as before. “I’m alright Jack”We must see the debris and distress that these last two years have caused and ‘re build.We all can do our little bit.One brick at a time.The silver lining for me is my family is still intact and close.I give thanks to my God.

  12. Hmmm… “silver linings” is tough for me right now. But, if I can pull one, it will be that my cats and I have bonded strongly. 🙂

  13. For myself, I think there are some easy to see silver linings like more time with my daughter during her high school senior year but I think in a few years I will be able to see what was created or a long term positive impact that is still just sort of chaos of a type now. I look forward to the clarity of a rear view mirror.

  14. Silver lining – I had time and the inclination to try a new science fiction sub category and I have found a lot of new cozy mystery writers.

  15. Although I lost a job I loved in the early days of Covid, at 67 I would likely have left within a few years anyway, so there was that.
    The unexpected free time resulted in two big things: I was able to help my beloved neighbour, a feisty 92 y.o., pack up her home for a big move. We spent a hot August boxing, sorting, cleaning daily, with popsicle breaks mid afternoon. It was a fun, precious time together, and we ‘got ‘er done.’
    During this time I met another neighbour – there were the three of us – and we bonded over the hard work & story telling. Kathy & I became good friends & walking buddies. Our old chum gave us her coin jars so we bought & planted a huge flower garden in front of our apartment building, and had a wonderful summer watering and dead-heading.
    I have missed the family Christmases and vacations, but there have been happy, unexpected compensations. And of course all the time to read to my heart’s delight!