Submit Surrender Retreat: my corona diaries

As a writer I think about words in all their nuance, music, use and misuse.

I submit work in the hope of having it published.  In this context, submission is a good thing. No pressure, except what I put on myself in terms of deadlines, not to mention the emotional underpinnings of rejection vs. acceptance.

In the context of submitting to someone else’s will, it reeks of aggrievement. In these days when the abomination of racism, in general, and the reverberations of slavery, in particular, have brought us to our knees as a nation, conversations with my daughter have me hopeful that out of the ashes of protest may come a new level of awareness, maybe even change. We talk about books we’re reading, movies we’re watching, and their relevance to the times in which we live.

Doesn’t an individual story, fictional or personal narrative, so often move us more than historical texts?

‘I am here, telling this story, and not from the grave, not yet, but from the here and now, peering back into another time, when we were Tasked, and close to the earth, and close to a power that baffled the scholars and flummoxed the Quality, a power, like our music, like our dance, that they cannot grasp, because they cannot remember.’ – Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Water Dancer

It’s a gift, as poetic as it is poignant and powerful, to tell a story of slavery and the ending of it that would seem to have come, only to continue haunting us hundreds of years later. 

It’s a ruse, as political as it is linguistic, to try to take the wind out of #BlackLivesMatter by telling us #AllLivesMatter or #PoliceLivesMatter.  

The same can be said of what Susan Faludi calls the right-wing trap that turned  #IBelieverHer during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings into #BelieveAllWomen.

The misappropriation of language is indeed a bitch.

* * *

Surrender, in the world of meditation and yoga as I know it, is a melting away of resistance. The body, if you’re lucky, eases; the monkey mind quiets down, chatter gives way to present moment awareness. It helps to call that kind of surrender ‘sweet.’  

In his final moments we hear George Floyd—no more resistance left in him even if this was no true surrender—calling out to his dead mother. 

My daughter sends me a text: The world is over. Fuck us all.

I want to reverse the curse, give her reason for some hope.  I know my need to protect her has limitations and everything I can, or cannot, do, everything I fear is filtered through the lens of being a white mother.

We had to hire someone to help us help our son sleep. I have paid someone to buffer me from my own tendencies of protection in pursuit of a higher good. I am a black mother living in America. You cannot blame me for wanting to watch my child breathe all night.’— Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili,  Letter From Oakland: Black Motherhood in Sleepless Times

Black creativity emerges from long lines of innovative responses to the death and violence that plague our communities. “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief,” Toni Morrison wrote in “Beloved,” and I am interested in creative emergences from that ineluctable fact.’—Elizabeth  Alexander, The Trayvon Generation

* * *

To be disciplined enough to sit in front of a blank screen in the hope that something of relevance will come forth sometimes takes effort. Even without a pandemic forcing our hands re: staying home, solitude is a means to a form of expression, possibly even revelation.  No sooner do I finish reading The Water Dancer than I found myself caught up in novel that tackles five hundred years of Brazilian history, in which slavery played no small part, via one family’s lineage of women.

The savages, while he wouldn’t say they had no feelings, for even he could attest they did, were like cattle: their suffering was of a lighter nature and would soon pass.’—Maria Jose Silveira, Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother & Her Daughters

To be disciplined, sometimes to the point of embarrassment, for doing something someone else thought was wrong or simply did not want you to do is a whole other matter. It’s an expression of power. 

* * *

Will wearing masks, part of our routine, ever feel routine?  it’s rhetorical to ask how wearing them became politicized.  Like all performers, the man Fintan O’Toole cleverly labeled the unpresident has his routines, though I think he gets too much credit for thinking things through. He says what he wants/whenever he wants. He bastardizes language. He himself mistakenly misspelled ‘unprecedented’ as ‘unpresidented.’ 

* * *

These days find me in retreat, another riddle of a word.

On the battlefield, retreat most often echoes with impending defeat. 

Retreat, in the context of tuning out, stepping back, is a form of self-preservation. It brings ease, yes. But there is no real ease without unease. The demons—anxieties, fears, doubts—masked by routine become restless, exposed. 

As a writer I’m prone to overthinking, counting on words to make sense of things better grasped from a place beyond words. The need for retreat at a time when a pandemic already has me sheltering in place would seem to be overkill. And, yet, if there’s any personal good to come out of a time of misery it’s the diminished compulsion that has me slowing down. If my writing feels less driven, that’s okay. If I check in on social media once or twice a week, that’s okay too. News need not be up-to-the-minute to find me.

Some days all I want to do is listen to Igor Levit play Beethoven or watch dolphins swimming on my TV screen.

All of which has me me feeling almost liberated.

—-June 30, 2020

Dancing with myself: my corona diaries

Saturday and Sunday have become cleaning days.

It’s not as if I can’t clean my house on any day of the week, but, for someone who has been working at home for years, pandemic protocols to shelter in place only reinforce the psychological divide between weekdays and weekends.

Until recently, Tuesday was cleaning day. What my housekeeper would do in four hours takes me two days. It’s as much a product of (dis)spirit as it is a reflection of my energy to tackle a large house. She’ll be back soon enough.

Old habits die hard.

Necessity, again, proves herself to be the mother of (re)invention. The act of wiping down kitchen counters, dusting surfaces, vacuuming and mopping the floor has the effect of transporting me back to my twenties and thirties, pumping up the volume on a Saturday as I danced through my two-room NYC Upper West Side studio. David Bowie. Donna Summer. The Village People. The Rolling Stones. Talking Heads. Billy Idol.

I don’t use Clorox when I clean.

I miss dancing with friends.

* * *

The other night I watched Kinky Boots via my PBS app, a show I managed to miss getting tickets to see during its Broadway run. I’m admittedly finicky in my Broadway preferences. I pride myself on being ahead of the game when it comes to shows I have a gut feeling about before they become a scalper’s dream. I got it so right with Rent, first seeing it Off Broadway, then again when it hit the Great White Way. I got lucky with Hamilton, scoring tickets before it became a huge hit. I’ve seen it twice.I pride myself, too, on getting past the mundane associations of everyday symbols in our world. Too often the ones we think of as female are trivialized. The top three in my mind—shoes, hair, nails—are the cornerstone of my short story collection. Shoes indeed tell stories.

To be watching the Broadway production of Kinky Boots on a reasonably large TV in the comfort of my home is a mixed blessing, a reminder of what I had missed and why so much is now available to us for our streaming pleasure.

To find myself reveling in a show that tackles the generational fate of family business, coupled with sexual identity, and spices it up with song and shoes as metaphor, is a reminder that what is lost so often finds its way back.

* * *

Today I’m doing something I don’t normally do on a weekday. I’m watching The Rolling Stones, an Apple Music video playlist.  I suppose it’s like going to an afternoon movie, a delight I don’t take enough advantage of, in normal times.

The upside of so much alone time is the personal exploration it makes possible. I get more creative in my daily yoga, surprising myself with release. I spend more time meditating, even if that means grappling with the psychological and emotional walls it gives rise to.

Sadness and anger kick in.

When I think about not knowing when I’ll see my daughter and son-in-law face-to-face, I get sad. But sadness all least brings relief in the form of tears.

When I think about the upcoming reality of needing to wear a mask for the duration of a six-hour plane ride to the West Coast, it makes claustrophobic. I get angry. What do you do with anger, the thumping in your chest, the heat rising? Writing about it at least brings a steadying measure of expression.

The Mayo Clinic should have told Mike Pence to get out if he would not wear a mask.

* * *

I tune in to CNN to check up on Chris Cuomo. He is the high-profile, visible face of COVID-19, allowing viewers to see him at possibly his worst and now hopefully his best. He is talking with a woman diagnosed with COVID-19 when she was pregnant, then put into an induced coma so she could give birth 26 weeks early by C-section. She is doing well. So is her baby, born at just over 1 lb. Chris Cuomo encourages viewers to support her Go Fund Me campaign.

A cousin of mine has recovered from COVID-19. Same for the daughter of a friend.

My son-in-law was among the family members who spoke at a Zoom memorial service for his grandfather, clearly a loving, intelligent, brave man. Suffering with Alzheimer’s, he succumbed to corona. Pandemic times may not let us be with ailing loved ones or say good-bye when they die, but we do manage to find creative ways to remember them.

Anderson Cooper now has a baby boy.

On my walk today I pass by a woman having a conversation, from a safe distance, with a neighbor. She is planning a drive-by visit to her parents. It is a glorious day, sunny with just enough clouds for contrast, temperature in the 60s. I don’t exactly join in the conversation but I do put in my two cents: We may feel as if we’re going through hell but a day like this is my idea of heaven.

We should live and be well: my corona diaries

A stanza from a Jane Hirshfield poem:

A moment knows itself penultimate—
usable, spendable,
good yet, but only for reckoning up.

Passover, with its nonseder/seder for me, the Zoom version for so many others, has come and gone. We should live and be well, Jews like to say.  And by any measure, the creativity and love that has gone into long-distance celebration during corona times, speaks volumes about the collective spirit and will to transcend.

And yet, when time and distance give us perspective on how we coped during the 2020 pandemic, can we ever view it without the specter of that heartless heinous criminal occupying the Oval Office? Not to mention his complicit cronies.

The anger rises, finds me conjuring speeches for Joe Biden. Whatever shape a Democratic convention takes, I imagine Bernie Sanders giving the speech of a lifetime. An impassioned plea for his supporters to follow his lead, vote for Joe Biden.  Likewise for Elizabeth Warren.

Could there be a better appeal to party unity? Is a Democratic landslide/sweep asking too much?

I spend what feels like too much time thinking about food, then stress over the logistics of picking it up. Do I have everything I need for at least a few days?  I’m not prone to hoarding.

I think about what self-composed creatures we can be. 

I think about how that composure so easily shreds when reason gives way to raw nerves. Do we need to be afraid of everything we touch?

Local news story: the 20 something girl with a mother in need of lots of at-home medical care, a father in the grips of COVID-19 at the hospital. The hardest thing for her is not being able to visit him. To touch him. Never getting to say good-bye when he dies.

Another stanza from the same Jane Hirshfield poem:

The moment finds itself weary,
blindered,
language confuses its ears.

Do we need a new language or at least different ways for expressing a very particular grief?  ‘No closure’ when a loved one dies in a hospital, alone, doesn’t quite cut it. I look up synonyms for ‘closure’ in Roget’s Thesaurus (the real deal, on my desk). Dictionary apps cut to the chase, no nuance. Roget’s shows closure in four different contexts: closing, completion, hindrance, joint.

To call this variant of coronavirus ‘novel’ gives it a peculiar stature. How can I help but think of all the stories it has to tell?

Even weeks before the grim reality kicked in, I found myself restless. Online more, a lot of time spent deleting emails, checking in on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. I called it lackluster motivation, a time-in-life moment when I no longer know what it is I’m supposed to be doing. My daughter called it procrastination. 

* * *

I stare at the mesmerizing aerial and underwater scenes Apple TV provides as screensavers. I put on music. I am not stoned.

I get a cheap thrill at knowing I can watch Kinky Boots via my PBS app. Even if the reason it’s available is a mixed blessing.

I treat myself to a pretty caftan, a papillon pattern, to wear now, at home. Or whenever. I treat my daughter to a pretty blouse. Because I can.

Because what seems frivolous in dire times really does matter.

The very idea of procrastination to someone always one step ahead of deadlines makes me laugh. Maybe a new way of being has kicked in. Maybe I’m as thankful as I am tired of the “wild patience that has taken me this far.” Maybe this forced hunkering down is a time for shifting gears.

Adrienne Rich speaks to me now more than ever:

Nothing but myself? . . .My selves.
After so long, this answer.

Two stanzas later:

Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere—
even from a broken web.

Speaking of webs, my days are off to a much less rattled start when I don’t check in on Facebook or read the  news, or even emails. I can even find enough calm presence to sit down and write.

* * *

A windy, cool, almost wintry day for April has me thinking: can a marked shift in weather blow away the virus?

A very dear friend, a gifted artist who also just happens to be gifted in all things culinary and whose perspective on just about anything I value, introduces me to a new word.

Consilience: a coming together of knowledge from widely disparate disciplines, to provide a depth of understanding that would otherwise be unattainable.

Jane Hirshfield, Now Even More:

Now again, even more, I admire Roget,
in whose Thesaurus
self-knowledge appears under Modesty.

Following verecundity-–knowing one’s place;
preceding reserve.

April 20, 2020

Walking Waiting Worrying Weeping: my corona diaries

Walking helps the weeping. Springtime brings a little something new to notice each day. Mostly I’m swept up in that touch of green-gold on just-budding leaves.

Typically halfway into my walk around the lake endorphins kick in. My gaze shifts from the ground to the trees and sky. Nests show themselves. The worrying, intrinsically linked to the waiting, eases up. Today I passed a mother walking with a two-year-old. “Oh what I’d give to see the world through his eyes,” I said from a safe distance. The mother smiled.

“A seed knows how to wait,” writes Hope Jahren in Lab Girl.

“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nolumbo nucifera),” she notes, “and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while human civilizations rose and fell.”

An odd irony to be reading these words in these times. Waiting tests our patience, whether in a doctor’s office or sitting in my home office wanting to scream about an Internet that seems slow today, no reason other than a traffic-jammed information highway.

This waiting is about wanting to wake to tomorrow with the promise of an end to corona in sight.

* * *

Just now a sigh. I’m looking out my window, leafless tree branches swaying. I’m waiting for words, the right ones.

Don’t words too often fail us when we most need them?

Jill Lepore, in a recent New Yorker piece:  “Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.”

There’s a higher frequency both in the nature and number of text messages. One day a friend sends me a link to a man speaking Italian while demonstrating how to use a sanitary pantiliner as a mask. Another day she alerts me to the death of Bill Withers.

In texts with my daughter we can go so easily from conversations about shoes and trinkets and the local stores we want to make sure survive to despair over the need for convention centers to be turned into makeshift hospitals.

I glaze over numbers—is it really possible that the death toll in China is closer to 40,000, not the 3,500 reported?

It’s the individual stories that get to me most: The single mother holed up with her two-year-old. Patients struggling to breathe with lungs that sounded like sandpaper.

I suffer from supermarket stress. Get in and out as quickly as possible. Hope that I’ll find what I need. I hate wearing this mask. I hate that I have to ask the woman at the checkout counter to repeat what she said. Her mask muffles her voice.

 The other day there were three pairs of swans on the lake. Over the years just one pair.

Today it’s a swan convention, five pairs of them.

I hear more birds each day. They keep me from thinking. They remind me of something I read many years ago. Before words, we communicated through sounds. We made music.

My husband knows just the thing to make me laugh at night. Seinfeld reruns work like a charm. The other night a Netflix special, Dave Chappelle being honored with the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Today my husband tells me he was kept awake during the night with thoughts of a Russian takeover of our country. He’s convinced The Manchurian Candidate is in the White House.

“You’re starting to scare me,” I tell him. He’s troubled, too, about the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide.

I’m troubled that I can’t get a kosher chicken and brisket from the local butcher. Passover is days away. There won’t be the usual gathering of close friends and family at our seder, just the two of us.

My mother died during Passover. For years I could not recall the solar calendar date (April 8), only the lunar (Jewish) calendar date, 15 Nissan. This year brings synchronicity to the two ways of marking my days.

My daughter amuses me with a text about how Larry David, our favorite curmudgeon, copes during corona times. Today she texts me an alert from the White House COVID-19 coordinator re: avoiding supermarkets and pharmacies.

I take it all in, the worrying and the weeping. And I ask myself, by not rushing out to buy chicken and brisket a week ahead of time, am I simply being my normal, pre-corona-anxiety-stricken self? And isn’t that a good thing? If it turns out I don’t get what exactly what I want for a Passover meal, I’ll. make do with what I get.

New York State reported a drop in the death toll (594 new deaths, down from 630 the day before). The governor says it could be a ‘blip.’

April 6, 2020

I am not myself: my corona diaries

Day 1, week whatever. I am not myself.

Why Day 1 when awareness of COVID-19 has been with us for months?

Is it the snow falling, a post-spring-equinox reminder that seasonal change is fluid?

Is is a revelatory moment, just a day ago, a corner turned in my understanding of the hoarding mentality sweeping over us? Reason had me in the mindset of health—the no-need-to-panic mode of someone who says to herself, two weeks from now I’ll just go out for more paper towels, or chicken, or coffee.

Today, reason has me seeing people stocking up not so much out of fear that stores will run out of what they need but the more dire fear that the new corona will get them. And they won’t be able to go out.

Maybe there’s a middle ground where both fears meet.

Why Day 1, week whatever?

Why am I not myself?

For someone who works from home, and a writer to boot, daily life is not all that different in these times of social distancing. And, yet, hard-wired as I am to routines, days underscored by the corona pandemic have me feeling at sea. Not quite myself. Walking around like a chicken without a head.

As long as I can get out for a walk, meditate, do yoga, read, drink coffee in the morning and wine in the evening, I get by.

As long I get a text or phone call from my daughter, in Los Angeles, I can sharpen my focus, put the head back on the chicken.

Maybe even write.

Why Day 1, week whatever?

Maybe a revelatory moment, a defining one, that locates me in a very particular time and place. Or maybe it’s that these chicken-without-a-head days feel more like a circular loop of time, no beginning or ending—until something brings each of us to a starting point that makes personal sense.

We watch and listen, wait and hope for a marked point out of the circular loop of time to a place where a flattened COVID-19 curve portends the ending—not to be confused with the end—of days marked by confusion, despair, anger, fear.

We take solace in the little things, and the big ones, that make us smile, even laugh.

We temper the greedy, insensitive modes of survival with the generous spirit of true, collective survival. I like to think that social distancing is making us more gracious on social media. And even if it isn’t, it’s making us more present to the collective consciousness we share.

So, as we muddle our way through the best and worst of times a novel corona virus has given rise to, a rekindled sense of purpose, coupled with the ever-present need to make sense of things, brings more immediacy to my blogging self.

All of which has me thinking, from inside that chicken head of mine, of all the ways collective stories take shape.

All of which has me hoping, from that former, steadier self of mine, that blogging is a way of inviting readers to share, via comments, where we are/how we feel/what we need to get through the best and worst of times.

In the beginning there was light. And, there was the word.

In my secret life

A MOUSE

I don’t do well with mice . . . (unless they’re the animated Disney variety making a dress for Cinderella or of the Mickey/Minnie ilk). They keep us on our toes in scoping out their secret hiding places, unnerve us with the uncertainty of their moves.

The other night, the sight of something slipping under a closet door caught my eye.  A mouse? A large insect? Maybe just a shadow?

I called out to my husband to investigate.  A mouse indeed, scurrying along the closet floor, looking for refuge somewhere in a jumble of shopping totes. 

Eek!  I scrambled back from the door.

In my husband’s attempt to find and contain the little critter, he handed me (hopefully mice-less) totes one by one.

Eek!

The mouse jumped, seemed to disappear. I imagined putting on a jacket or coat, squeamishly surprised by a mouse in a pocket.

Double eek!

We had to find it, send it on its way out of the house.  My husband placed a cardboard barrier across the closet entrance, trapped the mouse under a cup. 

While I scurried away, he made jokes. “Look at that cute tail. . . . Sure you don’t want to take a peek?”

Out! Out! Damned mouse!

Out of my house.

WORLD WAR Z

I work hard at not being (too) reactive to the small stuff (a mouse more likely afraid of me than I am of the havoc it wreaks on my psyche) and the big stuff (a virus that has so many acting as if World War Z is upon us).  

In anxiety-ridden times, very little is too small or too big to push our buttons and a pandemic is bound to give rise to panic. I worry more about the panic COVID-19 has triggered than the real odds of being hit with a more than mild case or, far worse, death from infection. But that didn’t stop me from negotiating with my local CVS for an extra packet of antiseptic wipes to send to my daughter in southern California.  

In anxiety-ridden times, fear of the unknown becomes magnified. If it’s true that the past informs the present, we should look to the reassurance of our worst nightmares rarely panning out.

If it’s true that the future is riddled with uncertainty,  we should steady ourselves with what living in the present tells us again and again: being receptive, not reactive, to whatever the moment presents allows space for seeing things as they are, not as we project them to be. 

A stop at Target had me alarmed (reactive) at the sight of lines at the checkout counters, shopping carts rolling over with rolls of paper towels and toilet tissue and who knows what.  I watched, let my brain switch into receptive, here-in-the-moment mode.

I drove away, found paper towels and toilet paper and the groceries I actually needed for dinner at a much less frenetic supermarket.

Anxiety begets anxiety.  That vile—yes, vile—thing in the White House has so many of us feeling despondent, not to mention angry.  Remember what it feels like to be a kid with no parents in charge during an emergency?  Toilet paper only gets you so far. Feeling the urgent need to stock up on it reeks with metaphor: the shit is really hitting the fan.

No small irony that the metaphor of toilet paper surfaces in Here I Am, a poignant, profound, beautifully written novel by Jonathan Safran Foer published in 2016.  As Isaac, the patriarch of the family, readies himself to take up residence in a home for the elderly, he asks the rabbi to pick up toilet paper at Safeway, where it was on sale. The rabbi tries to reassure him that he wouldn’t need to buy it anymore.

“But that price. . . . “ reflects Isaac, who then goes on to say: “There are two things that everybody needs.  The first is to feel that he is adding to the world.  The second is toilet paper.”

A SONG

Today had me obsessed with identifying a piece of music running through my head.  That this particular piece of music was running through my head speaks volumes about my state of mind.  I did a variety of Google searches to find it.  My first—violin music in war movies should have brought it up but Google is less than perfect. 

Later, ‘adagio’ surfaced from a more receptive state of mind. Bingo!  I knew all along it was the undercurrent of  ‘Platoon.’ And now I recall its name: Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber.

I played it while I did yoga. It’s the kind of music that demands you slow down. Listen to the rise and fall of every phrase. Pay attention. Cry. Accept the goosebumps it elicits.

***

In the room that doubles as my work space and yoga studio is a photo of Leonard Cohen, a gift from a gifted photographer/friend, Abe Frajndlich.  It’s a young LC, holding a cigarette, looking directly at me no matter which way I turn.

It’s no secret that I’m a longtime fan, moved by his poetry, music, humility, sense of humor, spirituality, even the darkness that first drew him to me in all its appeal, sensual and otherwise.

In my secret life I have a spiky punk hairdo and I’m channeling Patti Smith. 

I’m riding a wave on a surfboard.

I’m light as a feather when I do yoga poses.

I’m not thrown off course (too much) when something catches me by surprise.

I’m not worried that my daughter worries that I’m not taking COVID-19 seriously enough.

There’s only true normal, not the nouveau strain that masks the anxiety its intent is to ease.

I’m dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

I’m not running from a mouse.