On Hold: my corona diaries

The other day I got caught in the rain on my morning walk. More than a drizzle, less than a downpour. 

I don’t relish walking in the rain. I count on a 15-minute margin of error in timing my walks to the local weather forecast. Meteorology is only so precise.

A neighbor passed me on the road, offered me a ride home.

I’m okay, I laughed.

It’s summer, after all. Not a freezing cold winter day.  I let the rain drench me.

I’d recently finished reading D. J. Lee’s beautifully written, multilayered story, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots. What starts out as a journey to seek clues to a friend’s disappearance becomes an exploration of her family’s past and their relationship, as well as hers, to a part of Idaho that holds the most pristine river in the country, outside of Alaska. Chinook Salmon return to the Selway River to spawn.

If you’re able to define wilderness, to pin it down, then it isn’t wilderness, she writes.

Back in 1978, I was riveted by a National Geographic cover story about a woman who went through the Australian Outback by herself (accompanied by four camels and a dog). To this day I recall her thinking, after hearing voices on Day 71, that she might be going mad. Without her being tracked, there would be no National Geographic photos (and a book that would follow) which only served to relieve my anxieties, vicarious or otherwise.

I still have that issue, and a handful of others, despite the now never-ending spring cleaning intensified by an ongoing pandemic. Riffling through the glossy pages I’m charmed by an advertisement for a Smith-Corona typewriter, with its state-of-the-art Correction Cartridge. I had one of those.

At the ripe age of 70, I honor what’s in my comfort zone, which doesn’t negate my envy for women who take treks to remote places, with the deep connection to the natural world it brings. I imagine an aloneness that is empowering.

It dawned on me, as I made my way home, that the pandemic, coupled with the upcoming election, have me feeling as if I’m on hold.

Waiting.

For an answer to something to which there can’t be an answer. I want to know—-right now—when the pandemic will be under control. I need every assurance—right now—that Biden will win the presidency, with Kamala at his side. It’s not a stretch to see this as all of a piece with walking in the rain.

On hold. Reading a lot. Writing very little, if at all. Meditation, yoga, music get me through the day. I think too much about what to cook for dinner.

I spend a lot of time alone, a product of a work-at-home lifestyle magnified by the pandemic—which makes it all the more ironic that I’m not working much these days. I’ve become a master of distraction, today’s joy being the magic of a coral reef Apple TV screensaver that I stare at to a backdrop of piano music.

The world is heating up, literally on fire. Even from a distance, and in the comfort of an air-conditioned living room, it’s hard to process.

Is it an unsimple twist of fate that in these dark COVID-19 times, worsened immeasurably by the lies and greed and psychosis of the monster-in-chief, Bob Dylan has his first No. 1 Billboard hit, seventeen-minutes long at that?

I’m looking for a word to capture the very subtle shift in light signaling the arrival  of autumn. I picture the glow I forever associate with Florence, Italy.

Evening arrives sooner. Rosh Hashanah dinner, a few weeks from now, will be a very quiet affair this year.

A girl and her mother are jumping puddles, in yellow boots.

Children are returning to school in staggered schedules. 

A teenager glides by on a skateboard, carried along by his dog, a beautiful Husky, on a leash.

Bruce Springsteen wrote “Into the Fire” in response to 9/11.

Bob Dylan wrote “Murder Most Foul,” well, because he’s Dylan. The timing of the song, on his new album, have a reassuring effect on me.

The pandemic has warped our sense of time. It was only in March that I began blogging more frequently, with a greater sense of purpose. Little did I know that my own Corona diaries would place me in a collective of writers with the same mindset. To reread The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus, a New Yorker essay by Geoff Dyer that also appeared in March, is to have a real-time reminder of how things looked back then.

Somewhere between then and now, the urgency to write dissipated. If I say, simply, it is what it is, I take the thunder from Michelle Obama’s brilliant use of the phrase during the DNC. I breathe a little easier now that both conventions have come and gone.

There is a Buddhist notion of freedom in confinement. For all the despondency the pandemic has given rise to, I find myself opening to new ways of approaching everyday things. Why did I keep the wooden garlic smasher for so long? The flat edge of a large knife works just fine. All those years of downward-facing dog and pigeon and vinyasas in intimate classes with yoga teachers I’ve learned so much from have given me grounding to pick and choose from an online smorgasbord of programs available to me. It’s a whole new world. I do poses with fresh insights. At its heart a yoga practice is personal.

No one would wish for the kind of confinement the pandemic has wrought. I may be anxious to know what I can’t know but this time warp, reset, call it what you will has also given rise to questions I don’t need any answers to. Will I write another blog post? If so, when?

Or at the ripe age of 70 are my days better spent sipping wine on a stone bench some squirrel has used as a nutcracker, as I ease my way back, fictionally speaking, into where I left off? Inspiration has never been in short supply for me, but all the real-time writing spurred by the pandemic is humbling. Just look at The Decameron Project or The Chronicles of Now. Maybe there’s some fresh start I’m headed for, now that I grasp the vast divide between being on hold and holding on.

This may be as close as I get to a wilderness journey of my own.

September 11, 2020

Corona fatigue syndrome: my corona diaries

A dear friend of mine, very fit, tells me she feels uncharacteristically tired after a recent hike. She lives in northern California. Same thing for another friend, who misses her gym workouts and is doing the best she can with brisk walks. She lives in Miami. Her new Bluetooth spin bike is due any day.

My own daily walks, 40-45 minutes at a decent pace, have me sometimes feeling the need to lie down when I’m home.

I’m giving this shared experience a name, ‘Corona Fatigue Syndrome.’

It’s no secret that grief exhausts us, worrying drains us. But aren’t we programmed to plod on? Isn’t our survival enhanced by commonality? Divided we stand these days, no idea where united will take us.

How much can the body and spirit endure?

Trying to process what one writer calls the Covid-19 ‘infowhelm‘ is indeed dizzying. Then there’s the rest of the news. I still can’t wrap my head around a headline, May 12th, re: Afghan militants storming a maternity ward at a hospital in Kabul.

* * *

In normal times, anxiety can make it hard to concentrate. The heightened anxiety these days has many people unable to focus on the simple pleasure of reading.

By all indications on social media, writers are having a hard time, too. We thrive in solitude to do our work, we need community to share it. But what happens when both solitude and community are on shaky ground? I don’t know that I’ll ever be comfortable with uncertainty, though I’m grateful for Pema Chodron’s words to remind me it’s possible.

At my most restless, I know that writing grounds me. More often than not, I need that walk before I can sit down and get to work.

* * *

I don’t typically take my phone with me when I go for a walk. There are always moments I wish had it, for a photo of something so striking.

Turtles sunbathing on logs at the edge of the lake I make my way around always stop me in my tracks, the early signs of spring. Seeing those logs in a bed of algae was particularly striking. With any luck, I figured, they’d be there the next day when I brought my camera.

Later in my walk would come a moment not photographed but imprinted in my memory the way the best of images are. Mother, father, two young children, somewhere between three and four. Both are wearing pint-sized backpacks. The girl has a pink beanie on her head. This is not for warmth. I’m reminded of my own daughter, and her very own sense of style from very early on.

“If I could bottle this moment, I would.” I remark as I pass the family.

A little further on in my walk, I pass a young woman and her golden retriever. In another lifetime I would ask to say hello to the dog. Today all I says is, “What I would give to be a dog right now.” The woman smiles in agreement.

Almost home, I stop at a house vacant for almost a year. A young couple has moved in. From a safe distance, I call out a welcome.

* * *

I’m beginning to hate the word ‘okay.’ It’s what I say whenever I’m asked how I am by random people who recognize me from years of walking.

In truth I’m better than okay, at least when I take stock of my personal world. I’m not so okay when the monster in the White House invades my consciousness and I look at unemployment numbers and wonder what may or may never come back. Can I go to sleep like Rip Van Winkle and wake up in November with a Democrat taking on the daunting task of fixing things?

* * *

Our sense of time is positively warped. We joke about what day it is, what time of day, although there’s consensus that early March, in retrospect, was the before and after moment.

My husband and I flew to Ft. Myers for the wedding of a longtime friend’s son. Weddings often bring up complicated emotions, in this case, the groom’s missing mother, lost to us from breast cancer thirteen years ago.

It was a glorious weekend, now forever imprinted in our memories as the last time we boarded a plane with some semblance of feeling okay about traveling. My daughter, ahead of the COVID-19 curve by virtue of living in Los Angeles, read me the riot act before I left: she cut me some slack on wearing a mask but insisted I bring antiseptic wipes for the plane.

How long ago it now seems. But not long enough for an extra measure of pleasure in an email alerting me to the news of a baby on the way for the barely newlyweds, due date November 4th, the birth date of the missing mother.

Mother’s Day, thirteen years ago, was the weekend she passed.

Mother’s Day weekend 2020 my daughter sends a text — Has it really been 21 years? — with a family photo, her Bat Mitzvah.

Mother’s Day weekend 2018 we celebrated her wedding.

“Is this the weirdest Mother’s Day ever?” she writes in this year’s card. Our sense of time may be warped by this pandemic, but I ike to think that markers coinciding with yearly rituals like Mother’s Day get pride of place in our memory banks. When we FaceTime on Mother’s Day, we reminisce about another momentous Mother’s Day, our 2014 road trip to Death Valley.

Yes, the weirdest Mother’s Day ever, and the proof of it in her loving, albeit glib, four-word sign-off: Until we meet again.

–May 18, 2020

Lipstick (redux)

More than once is recent weeks, online conversations re: why bother wearing lipstick have come my way. Maybe sheltering in place has made many of us skip the makeup on most days, though I confess to a touch of color on my eyes and cheeks from time to time to brighten what I see in the mirror and, always, lipstick, never mind that it’s lost behind a mask when I venture out. All of which got me thinking of a post I wrote several years ago that touched on, among other things, the lipstick factor as a reflection of economic times. So here it is, one from the archive.

Lipstick

There’s a woman who lives down the road from me, a hearty soul who ran the family business, a septic-tank service, until Alzheimer’s put the brakes on some of her organizational skills.  I’d see her on the road walking one dog or another (she has two), a stick in hand to keep at bay any aggressive canines straying from their property, getting a little too close for comfort.  She always carried biscuits in her pocket, treats for the friendlier dogs she’d come across. All mine had to do was sit and look pretty, her wagging tail as good as any smile.

Over the years we’d strike up conversations, mostly about dogs, sometimes about the challenges of life. She lost a brother early on (a car accident), ministered to her husband when his kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis, at home.  She drove down to visit her father in Florida for a few weeks every year until he became too frail to live by himself. At which point she brought him (and his dog) up to her house in Westchester County.  She lives an hour north of New York City and has never been drawn to its pulse.

Her Alzheimer’s is far from advanced, and she always seems to recognize me, though I’ll have to remind her why Maggie isn’t with me, pulling me toward her house, a dog’s charm all the trick she needs to get her treat.  And she’ll remind me of how much pets bring to our lives. The tug of her dogs, small as they are, is too much, so these days she’ll take walks with a friend or her brother-in-law, who shares her home.

She always wears lipstick, and it always extends past her upper lip. There’s something about this that really touches me, the need to smear on that lipstick, no idea really that she’s missed the mark. She is not a glamorous woman, has never been. She could be wearing sweatpants and a sloppy sweater.  Her hair is neatly in place. Then there’s the final touch before she heads out the door, the lipstick.

Many years ago, as an editor of a newsletter focused on AIDS-related health and social issues, I attended a panel discussion on developments in research. One of the panelists was a ground-breaking researcher, a woman who had a certain style and glamour to her. Still, the last thing I would have expected, as the panel discussion was winding down, was to see her pull out a compact and freshen her lipstick.  Years later, I still remember being struck by the ease and nonchalance with which she did this. The more I thought about it, the more I admired her for the ever-so-subtle pronouncement. It’s only lipstick.

And yet. There are studies that call up the ‘lipstick factor’ as a reflection of economic times.  Maybe yes, maybe no. More to the point is what that purse-size stick or tube reflects in the woman who has made a deliberate choice today:  Red or pink or tangerine. Purple. South Beach Bronze or  Peppermint Candy..

My (unglamorous) neighbor is doing her best, putting on a face that pleases her even as something inside is dissembling.  I would like to tell her she doesn’t need it, and in fact might look better without it. I would like to tell her that the person she sees in the mirror when she puts that lipstick on is not the person she is, or was. But she knows all that. And besides, who am I to talk? I always dab on some lipstick or lip gloss when I head out. I like the way it makes my lips feel. I wear it like an assumption.

May 11, 2020