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

Isn’t it just like February?

It hits me every year, just as January rolls into February: the shift in daylight, so incremental until it’s suddenly noticeable, particularly around sunset.

Groundhog aside, all you need is to pay attention to the light to know spring is on its way.

Of all the months in the year, February has me most mystified. How/why did February become the shortest month?  What would it mean to be born on February 29th, a leap year baby? More to the point, learning that, in ancient times, it was the last month of a 355-day year and it gets its name from the god of ritual purification sealed the deal on the title of my novel. What sounds like a simile—Just like February—has all the makings of a metaphor.

“Even in an age of femtoseconds and star clusters 11 billion light-years away, time defies true objective measurement,” writes David Ewing Duncan in Calendar, a book very cleverly subtitled Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.  “It can seem to go slow and even stall out at certain moments only to brashly and breathlessly rush forward at others.” Albert Einstein taught us everything we need to know about time and its relative aspects, something Alan Lightman captured so poetically and brilliantly in Einstein’s Dreams.

There’s no stopping time but doesn’t the very notion of mindfulness, coupled with meditation, speak to slowing it down in a way that brings on the present-moment sense of timelessness?

Time measurement is as universal as it is personal. We count on our calendar to tell us the day/month/year. But don’t we more often measure the passage of time in terms of rituals and events both personal and part of our collective consciousness? Jewish holidays, based on a lunar calendar, come on different dates each year. Christmas, a day fixed according to the Gregorian calendar that rules are secular year, is always December 25th.

Yes, the expertise of astronomers factored into how the calendar might be synchronized to the seasons and the stars, but politics and religion played their part.  Priests and aristocrats kept the calendar a secret.  A year might be lengthened to keep a favored senator in office, decreased to get a rival out of office sooner. (How frightening a thought is that?)

Until one year, a crafty plebian, Cneius Flavius, pilfered a copy of the codes that determined the calendar and made it public, smack on tablets in the middle of the Roman Forum. (An early descendant of Edward Snowdon?)

Alas, poor Flavius did not entirely win the day: the calendar would become a public document but patricians could still manipulate it for financial and political gain.You can’t make this shit up. But you can, as a writer, take great pleasure in the research that answers as many questions as it raises and brings enormous context to a narrative. As if to give timely grist to my February musings, along comes What Lunar New Year Reveals about the World’s Calendars via the New York Times.

February. Lengthening days. A month on the cusp between winter’s darkness and the encroaching light of spring.  

A transitional time that reminds us that no matter how much we count on a certain order to the universe, time and again something is bound to throw us out of whack. Some might see it as a fateful event, a teaching moment.  I see it in the way my father, a gambler, might have seen it: an aspect of chance or randomness, maybe even luck (good or bad), changes everything.

A writer can’t always be sure that the story she intended to tell is in fact the one she told. With novels especially, the time lag between inception to draft after draft to publication puts us on shaky ground. Readers have different ways of receiving/perceiving what we wrote.  I hold suspect any writer who says she doesn’t read reviews. I admire any writer who says she doesn’t take them to heart. I learn as much from criticism as from praise.

 All of which brings an extra measure of gratification when readers see the subtext of a novel for what it is. Here’s what one reviewer had to say about mine:

“What is February? A wonderful metaphor for the unpredictable, of opposites, a reminder to live without expectation while also appreciating ritual and traditional when it is gifted.”

And here’s the most charming of gifts from a fan.

Today’s walk around the lake had the look and feel of what I can only call winter/spring. Barely 30 degrees, leftover snow with a sheen of ice or slushy in the way that calls to mind a frozen Margarita. And these perfect-as-it-gets  images of a season in transition.

Trees. Bees. A flirting bird.

As morning rituals go, sipping coffee and reading are a constant, sometimes following meditation, sometimes a meditation of its own. Autumn and winter I have my indoor perch. Springtime and summer find me on my deck.  This week has me caught up in The Quantum and the Lotus, as perfect a follow-up as it gets to Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  It’s a brilliant novel and not the first time I’ve been awed by the author.  Anyone who can integrate a knowledge of physics and music the way he does in both The Time of Our Singing and The Goldbug Variations has my attention.  Anyone whose prose is lush and poetic gets right to my writer’s heart.

The interconnectedness of things, with its Buddhist undertones, is at the heart of his latest novel, so why should it surprise me that the book now calling out to me is a dialogue between a Buddhist monk and an astrophysicist born into a Buddhist family?

Hard not to marvel at the way the mind works.

Hard not to smile when distraction takes the form of a bird call. It’s a very particular call, a two-note flirtation. I can ‘t see the bird, and that’s probably his point. But my need to identify him has me searching the Internet.  This little bird, apparently a Black-capped Chickadee, issues a mating call that’s as close as it gets to what we think of as a catcall. How is it that the two-tone harmony enchants me when it’s coming from the bird and irritates me when I hear it from a man?

This particular chickadee appears to be perched somewhere in one of my Locust trees. Barely two weeks ago this Black locust was dripping with clusters of fragrant white flowers that had me realizing there were more trees of this variety on my property than I was ever aware of.  In the cyclical way that Mother Nature works, this may have been a particularly abundant year for those flowers. Or maybe attention to my surroundings is becoming more fine-tuned. Part of my motivation for leaving the city years ago to take up residence in the exurbian world was to be able to tell one tree from another. Sometimes local friends give me answers. Sometimes I resort to Google. Oak trees are easily identifiable but now I take pride in singling out a Hickory, an Elm, a Linden. A Black locust whose flowers fill the air in a way that almost intoxicates me.

The flowers have dropped but now I have my wild roses, another bit of flora I needed help identifying. For my first years up in Northern Westchester there were no wild roses on my property though I’d be captivated by the sight and scent of them on my walks. One spring just a few years back they landed on a Barberry bush alongside my driveway. That’s what they do, attach themselves wherever they see fit.   And that’s what I love about them most, besides their fragrance.

I’m not by nature a gardener but I do have a beautifully evolving landscape, a product of my husband’s vision, coupled with a gardening guru who does her magic. When he sees bees hovering around the Catmint my husband is happy. Doesn’t matter whether Einstein ever really said we’re doomed if bees disappear from our world; what matters is that enough people, including my husband, know there’s wisdom to this prophecy.

“A forest knows things,” says a central character in The Overstory. “They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”

Even if I grapple with comprehending a world in which everything I see and touch exists as an independent, immutable thing in contrast to a reality premised on interdependence, the combined wisdom I glean from a great novelist, a Buddhist monk, and an astrophysicist lead me in the direction of knowing things we don’t know we know.

Then there’s Shel Silverstein: “Once there was a tree. . . and she loved a little boy.”

And the seasons they go ’round and ’round . . .

crocus
The month of April is playing tricks on me. No sooner do I shed the fleece jacket for a morning walk one day, a sweatshirt all I need, than I find myself putting it on again the next day.

Expectation really resists being defied.

Okay, so the groundhog screwed up, promising an early spring; instead we got lingering cold and snow, to boot. For one Ohio lawyer (with a sense of humor I hope) there’s only one thing to do: bring a lawsuit against Punxsutawney Phil for misrepresentation; he wants punishment by death. A more enterprising legal mind might take it to the next level, sue the companies that are the most egregious offenders when it comes to emitting those noxious gases linked to global warming.

So much is out of our control.

Buds start to emerge from the branches of trees, a crocus (still closed) pokes through the ground. There’s reassurance in the songs of birds and peepers filling the air.

What a fine line between captivation and feeling captive on that carousel of time . . .

April, with its fool’s beginning, taunts me. Is there some poignant, poetic message in being reminded of everything coming back to life in the very same month that my mother died?  She loved when I brought her fresh flowers.

Spring demands its very own kind of cleaning. I find myself pulling clothes from my closet, suits and dresses I will no longer wear, not because they’ve been worn to death but simply because it’s time to let them go. Most often I’ll donate clothes to the local community center, but I get it in my head that these particular garments – an elegant coat and dress ensemble, a classic pants suit, a designer dress – should go to a consignment shop. It’s as if I’m infusing them with a life they really don’t have, a prideful place that asks me not to just drop them off to be picked through on crowded racks. By virtue of a transaction, they attain a certain value.

The consignment shop I’ve chosen makes it all very easy: just come by, no appointment necessary. The owner has a policy I like: items that don’t sell within sixty days are donated to any of several charities.  Maybe I’ll make some money, maybe I won’t; either way, there’s a satisfaction that comes with passing on things of value and sentiment. All of  which really is beside the point when I drop the clothes off, and they’re tossed in a bundle, not closely examined  while I’m there so I can tell the stories.

Of the few items I have relinquished it is the coat and dress ensemble that cuts to the heart. Deep navy blue, with a ruched trim on the coat, it looks almost as new as the day I first wore it (more than ten years ago), when my daughter became a Bat Mitzvah.  I would wear it several times after but never with the sense of some synchronicity at play when I put it on in celebration of that rite of passage: too many years earlier to count, a fourteen-year-old girl would sport  a grey pinstripe coat and dress the day her brother became a Bar Mitzvah. I can still see that  stylish Peter Pan collar of the dress. I can still feel the pride that went with being the big sister.

As I leave the consignment shop I imagine my offering catching the eye of someone with taste, a keen shopper on the lookout for something a cut above.  At the same time, a sinking feeling takes hold at what I have left behind.