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

April crow in the snow

April 2, 2018: it’s snowing outside, at least four inches’ accumulation by 9 a.m., no April Fool’s trick here. Yesterday a woodpecker caught me by surprise, a beautiful bird despite the damage it can do. Winter storms had blown away the strips of foil pinned to the column of wood that rat-tat-tatting bird has a taste for and which actually deter it, so I went looking for them in the yard—only to discover more miner bees than last year making nests in the soil. Otherwise known as ground nesting bees, you see them hovering near the little mounds of dirt that mark the entrances to their underground nests (no hives) and several females may nest in the same vicinity. They’re docile and they do lots of good pollinating and they don’t stay around for too long. But I can be forgiven for fearing an imaginary sting.

Today it’s the solitary crow in the snow demanding my attention.

A Yahrtzeit candle burns on my window sill. Lit at sundown last night, it’s a memorial candle marking my mother’s death according to the Jewish calendar, 17 Nissan, the second day of Passover.  A gorgeous full moon, a blue one this year, lit up the sky during Saturday night’s seder.

Well maybe not a full-scale seder since I opted to make it simpler this year.  I try, really I do, to keep the spirit of the Jewish holidays, not to mention my mother, alive, and I’m grateful for the friends and family who gather around the table each year.

 Even without a traditional seder, I need to mark what brings us together by reading from some Haggadah recalling the wonderful story of freedom from slavery in all its Cecil B. DeMille splendor.  This year’s choice was the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was a gift from friends who come every year. They know I’m a sucker for a beautiful book with a literary duo at the helm.  Here are some random passages that we read:

We live in a broken world . . . Exile—another name for brokenness—is not just the current condition of the Jewish people, according to the Kabbalah, it is the fundamental condition of the universe and of God.

Kafka once wrote in his journal: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

Passover is a journey, and like most journeys, it is taking much longer than it ought to take, no matter how many times we stop and ask for directions.

By no small coincidence, the fiction I’m caught up in right now is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. The novel casts a spell mostly in its reimagining of the heroes at the heart of the Trojan War.   There are slaves here, too, women taken in raids by the Greeks as a prelude to the war and it’s hard not to be taken with the humanity of Achilles and Patroclus in doing what they can for the few in their charge. Then there’s the war itself, as epic and classic as it gets, with its reminder that there’s no escaping the appetites of men for glory and greed, not to mention revenge. We get our archetypes from myths. We get some understanding of human foibles and the way gods have played with them. There may never again be a war of a thousand ships waged in the name of a beautiful woman. But there will, alas, always be wars, more often than not in the name of nameless things.



It’s easy to remember . . .

Sometimes even I surprise myself.

Last year, in a post focused on the spirit of place, I wrote these words:

Walls hold secrets. Memories are something we make.

Oh, to be a fly on a wall when something we’re not privy to is taking place!  The walls I’m mostly thinking about are the ones that give definition to the places I’ve lived.  They may be repainted and redecorated, but, barring any demolition, they remain standing.  Stepping into a room you once inhabited is bound to be riddled with emotion. Nostalgia for what’s gone may kick in, unless a nagging sense of what was really never there gets the best of you.

Memories are of a more fluid nature.  It’s one thing to understand the neurological processes that give shape to them in the first place, another thing altogether to laugh or cry at the spontaneous recall of some past moment triggered by a smell/a sound/a conversation or scratch your head in frustration at something that never gets past the tip of your tongue.

The gorgeous, bittersweet saxophone of John Coltrane tells me it’s easy to remember but so hard to forget.

I’m not so sure it isn’t the other way around.

Ask me the date of my mother’s death, and I still say 17 Nissan, the third day of Passover. That’s what the Jewish (lunar) calendar tells me, and that would be today.  The secular (solar) calendar marks her death on April 8, 1993. Don’t ask me if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the disconnect between the two different ways of marking time had me unable to recall the April 8th date for at least a few years after she died.

Passover, like Easter, is nothing if not a spring ritual, each holiday underscored by stories of renewal, not to mention death and resurrection. Photographs help me recall a time when there was no Passover without a Seder.

Young as I was, there was always that moment of mystery and magic—opening the door for Elijah the prophet, checking the level of wine in the cup left on the table for him to see if he really did take a sip. That would be my sign that all was okay.

Sentimentality, coupled with a sense of keeping some semblance of tradition, would have my family continuing to gather for Passover after my grandfather died. But the Seder would fall apart like crumbled matzoh without his guiding presence. Memory may (or may not) fail me but the last Seder I recall ended in a fight between my uncles. So the ritual of gathering to tell a story of enslavement and freedom would give way to the ritual of gathering simply to eat. It was my mother and aunt who held it together, with their cooking.

Food as ritual? You tell me. With each passing generation something is lost. These days I do some semblance of a modernized Seder to bring together friends and family.

And I do my best to remember.

Turtles and totems

Sometimes, in the rare moments when my brain is not in overdrive, I imagine myself walking through a View-Master. Virtual reality (not to mention the advent of 3-D movies and 4K TVs) may have turned that charming device from my childhood into an anachronism, but memory retains the magic. I still have one, purchased when my daughter was young and we were all not yet in the grip of technology.   If updated models (including apps available for download) are any indication, maybe it’s not just nostalgia being marketed here. Isn’t there something inherently mysterious and wonderful in the intimacy of putting a red plastic device up to your eyes and watching scenes unfold?

In the beginning, the more I think about it, was the image, not the word. How could all that light come into existence without picturing it before giving it a name?

I have a thing for the color blue. I also have a husband with his own design-specific tastes (a talented guy at that), which makes it all the more meaningful that he ‘acquiesced’ to myyoga room request for a blue carpet in a renovated room I’ve dubbed my tree house, since I really am eye level with trees up here. I take nothing in my life for granted and count it among my blessings to have a personal go-to place for yoga/meditation, listening to music, reading, or just breathing.   I take great pleasure, too, in giving friends who come to visit a serene room of their own.

Some things are reassuringly consistent. The calendar announces the spring equinox. Outdoor temperatures may have us saying the season has arrived ‘early’ or ‘late’ but either way perennials really do come back, bulbs blossom and those turtles lined up like sunbathers on logs tell me what I most need to know about renewal. They are always pretty much in the same spot on the lake and I always stop to marvel at the scene. Invariably they sense my presence, as quiet as I try to be, and one by one they drop into the water.turtles2

Why is the sky blue?

Every child inevitably asks the question, and scientific explanations never quite cut it. Growing up with a father who loved to sing (a reality I would turn into fiction), I was always touched by the answer Cab Calloway gives his daughter, Lael, in their ‘Little Child’ duet. Lael also happened to be my mother’s name.

That was then/this is now. My father and mother are gone, and it always requires some mathematical calculation to mark the passing time, almost sixteen years for him, twenty-three for her. It does not seem like yesterday.

Sometimes I feel a little lost, not a bad thing, Rebecca Solnit reminds me in her luminous book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The very first essay, “Open Door,” plunges the reader into the experience of a young girl at a Passover seder. I’d be hard put to ever see the horizon in the same light after reading “The Blue of Distance.”

“Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” she writes. She makes poetry of science here: the blue that colors the horizon is in fact light that doesn’t travel the whole distance from the sun and becomes “the light that gets lost.”

In the realm of meditation, the throat chakra manifests as blue. It is the seat of self-expression. Voice. Even a brief moment of seeing it (or, for that matter, any color in the chakra spectrum) takes me from lost to found.

It’s a balancing act, indeed. Going inside oneself, quieting the internal chatter. Coming out, hopefully with a deeper sense of presence and ease to bring to any conversation around any table. For those turtles on a log balance is second nature. As totems, turtles call up perseverance and longevity. Be the turtle coming out of its shell, a yoga teacher of mine was fond of saying. That protective armor we carry on our backs is as real as it is a metaphor. One day it hit me with the force of revelation: they’re not just slow, steady creatures. They swim, too.

Speaking of totems, was there ever a tree more alive in its deadness than this one, playfully My totem #1posted on Facebook as my updated profile photo? Somehow it tells me that the past is always with us. If you’re lucky, the weight of it is off your back, freeing you to be present to the moment and open to the future. To put it more eloquently (again, Rebecca Solnit): “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.”






Every bag has its day

bag and haggadah2At the very beginning of The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s novel of obsessive love, the narrator buys his fiancée a designer handbag she’d spotted when they passed by a boutique the night before. A simple, thoughtful gesture—to please the woman he’s engaged to—sets his life on an expected course the moment he lays eyes on the young woman working in the shop.  When the bag thought to be an authentic Jenny Colon design turns out to be fake, he has an excuse to return to the shop.  That Jenny Colon does not exist in the world of designer bags is beside the point, though she’s not a complete fiction: the real Jenny Colon was an eighteenth century actress who happened to be the muse of poet Gérard de Nerval.

Underscoring the story is the narrator’s fixation with collecting objects—anything associated with the object of his affection—and with it the reminder that sentiment, coupled with imbued meaning, is unquantifiable in the value equation.

Tucked inside a bag I don’t often use (a vintage faux snakeskin that belonged to my mother) is a small envelope, Cherry Lane Theatre, September 28, 1988. I kid you not. Did I forget it was there? Or is it something I left, deliberately or unconsciously, a way of surprising myself, bring a smile to my face at the recall of a celebratory night?  One of my dearest friend’s birthdays is September 29th, so it’s a no-brainer that I bought tickets to a show. In a flash I picture the small theatre, a Greenwich Village treasure, even if it takes a little detective work to remember what we saw. Thankfully, one of the torn ticket halves shows evidence of a few letters—‘Taffe’’—and Google solves the mystery for me: The Taffetas

Seeing Lady Gaga last week at Roseland with that very same friend was a gift in more ways than one. Another good friend had managed to snag some tickets for the very last show, April 7th.  A New York landmark went out in style with Gaga’s week-long run and being there was being part of history.  Maybe I should turn one of my snazzy Wendy Stevens bags into a time capsule, fill it with ticket stubs from some of the most memorable concerts I’ve been to: Wendy bagBruce Springsteen at the Bottom Line; George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, et al, The Concert for Bangladesh; Patti Smith at the Bowery Ballroom.  Let some future  civilization  piece together the puzzle:  CBGB—qu’est-ce que c’est? 

I’d seen the Fame Monster once before, March 2011, at the Staples Center in L.A., with my daughter, which prompted me to write about something we have in common, a highly coveted handbag.  Mine is orange, a present from a dear friend who wanted to give me something she knew I would never buy for myself (she got that right). It was one of the perks of doing business with a French company.  I’ve been accused of treating my Birkin more like a precious pet than a handbag; Lady Gaga has personalized hers, with scribbles on her white one and studs on her black one. Whether you call it defacement or art depends on which side of the fashion fence you sit.

Only one letter stands between persona and person, and Lady Gaga is brilliant when it comes to meshing the two. Her show is a fabrication, the makings of a fabulous persona with a great deal of talent, and she has made an art of connecting with her fans, boosting them with as much relish as they boost her.  She knows the feeling of being an outsider and she’s mastered the art of rising above.

Being a woman who appreciates style is not necessarily incompatible with being a woman of substance. Just read award-winning writer Chmamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thoughts on being smart and dressing fabulously.  Or look at all the comments a writer/friend of mine, Jayne Martin, got when she wrote, with her characteristic wry touch, about a bag she fell in love with. That her post appeared the same day my daughter wrote about her search for the perfect bag was pure serendipity. “Finding the perfect bag is harder than finding the perfect man,” Jayne quipped in response to Sara’s post.  More than one woman I know would agree.

There is no being true to oneself without taking time to examine how to make meaning of the things in life that sedermatter. Otherwise we just go through the motions.  The Yahrzeit memorial candle on my window sill is a reminder, not just of my mother’s dying during Passover but of all the good memories the holiday contains, not to mention the emotional baggage we do our best to let go of. It’s called conscious evolution–bring a new cast to old rituals.  In my family, traditional seders long ago gave way to a foodfest, but the spirit of Passover remained. My mother, more sentimental than devout in her Judaism, would have been mildly amused to see the Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists on this year’s seder table (God knows I try) but she would positively have beamed at the sight of me making chopped liver for the first time since she died. I did it with the very same friend who gave me a very beautiful orange handbag.


The Passover Games

It was in reading chapter 23 of ‘Catching Fire’ (otherwise known as Book Two of The Hunger Games trilogy) when it hit me with the full force of a plague of locusts: Lightning. Blood rain. Fog. Monkeys.

This modern, dystopian tale has the markings of a recast Passover story. Think about it: there’s oppression, enslavement, hunger as both a reality and a metaphor. The death of children. Katniss may not exactly be Moses, but her first presentation at the games is a fiery one, indeed.

We need our heroes. We need our children. We need our stories  . . .

Evolution is a funny thing. The human mind’s capacity to conjure hail and locusts, an all-knowing, all-powerful God that can part a sea just long enough to let the good guys get through and the bad guys drown now conjures forms of torture that stretch the imagination.  The ten plagues recited during the Passover seder  – blood, frogs, locusts, darkness, etcetera, etcetera – pale in comparison to what the Capitol powers-that-be in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy put the young tributes through. And, yet, it speaks to something as powerful today as in biblical times, namely, the will to survive and the endurance of the human spirit.

In the Passover story, we have a God who ups the ante each time the pharaoh, his heart hardened, refuses to let the Israelis go – until the final plague, death of the firstborn, takes his heart past anything it can handle. What could be worse than that? – except maybe a world in which games are premised on children killing each other to death. In the godless world of Panem, risen from the ashes of a civilization that destroyed itself, it’s left to the inhuman heart of President Snow to keep upping the ante. There is no letting go of his grip, no softening the stone that is his soul.  Only conquering.  Goliath is ultimately brought down by a girl with a bow and arrow.

As archetypal heroes go, it doesn’t get much better than Katniss Everdeen.  She heeds the call, questions it, retreats, comes back with a vengeance underscored by her inherent humility: “Power. I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed.” She walks into the fire, one too many times perhaps, and emerges with just a little more wisdom than a teenager can be expected to handle.  Too much blood is shed, too many people suffer.  Those who manage to survive will have a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, to heal. No one says it better than Katniss: “Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.”

So here we sit, between the dark futuristic world of Panem and the Biblical world of the past, held together by the power of stories and a collective unconscious that spans time and cultures. Yesterday I watched a real president make a pitch for something that should need no pitch, namely  common sense and decency and keeping politics in the political arena where it belongs.  Today I watch tractor trailers flying through the air in Texas, no special effects for a twister of a movie, the real deal.

Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, burns on.  Moses is never the same after his encounter with the burning bush.

Each year, Jews around the world gather for seders. The more traditional ones take hours. The condensed ones cut to the chase – drinking wine, breaking matzoh, asking the key four questions, reminding ourselves we were once slaves and now we’re free.  Traditional seders read through the entire Haggadah. Less conventional ones turn the telling into a dialogue – about hungry children around the world and families left homeless by war and natural disasters.  The fictional President Snow may be the embodiment of every evil dictator humanity has known – and more.  But we all know that truth is too often stranger, and darker, than fiction.

More and more I think that stories are what we live by. We may be curious about the facts that give rise to them, dig around for what really did or did not happen, question why we tell the same ones year after year, a kind of hunger all its own. It’s never the same, though, if we’re really listening.  Just watch the delightful movie about a Passover seder gone awry,  When Do We Eat?  Or read The Hunger Games if you already haven’t. Then sit down with friends and family, sip wine.  Share stories. And, eventually, eat.