A Word From the Publisher
I’ve been asked to edit this special “Love in the Time of Corona” edition of Persimmon Tree, and I think you will find much to love in the various forms of artistry we have gathered for you. These prose works include three from among Persimmon Tree’s closest associates – Nan Gefen, Publisher and Editor emerita; Cynthia Hogue, esteemed American poet and member of the Persimmon Tree editorial board, and Jane O’Reilly, author, and longtime adviser and friend of Persimmon Tree.
But most of the fiction and non-fiction is from you, our readers. The editors of Persimmon Tree are delighted that we were able to offer you the opportunity to participate in this communal undertaking. We thank all of you who contributed. Every submission was a joy and a privilege to read, because, in this time of isolation, it brought us closer to each of you. And every submission was also a gift you made to one another. We are required to separate physically at this time, but we have not been prevented from sharing our talents and our love to construct this special corona issue.
Editorial board member Elizabeth (EZ) Zimmer not only proofread every article, story and poem that appears in this special section, but also helped to select the prose. As so much else around Persimmon Tree, this issue would not have been possible without her. We received over 200 submissions for this issue, and almost every one of them was inspiring, engrossing and heartfelt. EZ and I regret that we could not publish every one of them. Because there were so many, we have decided that this will be only the first installment of Love in a Time of Corona. If you had hoped to see a piece in this section, and it is not here, it may well be here in a future issue.
You will also find, scattered among the stories and articles in this section, gifts from other kinds of artists as well. Gena Raps, member of our editorial board, renowned concert pianist, and composer, has given us links to two of her recordings – a Dvorak to soothe us and a Mozart to make us happy. You will find one of them here and the other in the poetry section of this special issue. Francesca King has contributed the haunting and mysterious works of art you will find in this issue. She describes them as “ silent art thoughts of life in lockdown.”
Please, enjoy reading, looking at, and listening to everything we have gathered for you here. Let it take you out of that comfortable prison you are for a few moments, and remind you that, even when physically separated, we are part of a glorious community of older women artists. Please leave a comment on each of the pieces you read. That is another way we can establish our togetherness.
And then turn to the poetry contributed to this special issue. You will find it every bit as engrossing, as comforting, as interesting as the prose you have just enjoyed.
Spaghetti in My Hair
We were late, my friend and I, to the Italian restaurant to meet the prominent woman educator and her husband. After introductions, the four of us ordered bowls of spaghetti, the house specialty, and settled in together over glasses of wine. The conversation was stilted as sometimes happens when people have just met and are of different generations, and it seemed the evening would be lackluster. I could not have known that the woman, Margaret, would make such a powerful impression on me that thirty years later, during this terrifying time of coronavirus, I find myself unable to stop thinking about her.
When the spaghetti was served, my friend dug into his bowl with his usual vigor, and as always when he ate, some of the tomato sauce fell onto his ample beard. I leaned close and pointed to his napkin. “I don’t understand why people make such a fuss about food on beards,” he said in a loud voice. “Why does it matter? In our uptight culture, everything has to be perfect.”
I sighed and turned away. Margaret, who was sitting across the table from me, watched this scene with narrowed, note-taking eyes. We continued our dinner, shifting to other topics of conversation, but in the dim restaurant light I noticed that she slowly began to place spaghetti on her well-coifed silver hair with her fingers, one strand at a time.
I gasped, and my friend finally looked her way. “What?” he sputtered. “Why are you doing that?” By this time her head was draped with spaghetti.
Margaret just shrugged and continued talking, ignoring his discomfort through the rest of the meal.
That’s the end of my memory.
I don’t know if Margaret went into the restaurant bathroom after we left and picked the spaghetti out of her hair before driving home, or if she waited until later to shower. Or what she and her husband said to each other about the incident. I assume she was trying to teach my friend a lesson, but maybe not. Perhaps the lesson was for me. Or there was no lesson at all and she was acting from a sense of outrage because he had acted in a boorish way? Or was she just being frivolous? I do not know. In the years that followed, I never saw Margaret again.
But now, as I face the Covid-19 disaster, her presence is again with me. Outrageous, courageous Margaret. She embodies the qualities I want to cultivate to get through this horrendous time.
I ask myself how it is possible to be outrageous when I am bound in my home. Home is the container, the safe place I’ve built to hold myself and my family; things are in order, routines established. Home and outrageousness do not seem to go together. But Margaret transcended boundaries in a restaurant, also an unlikely place, and I want to find ways to bring that creative spirit into this time of sequestration. I’ll work on it.
And courageousness, always needed but especially more so during this period. It requires courage to be imaginative, playful, and expansive in the mist of destruction and death. To step away from what is, and imagine what could and even might be. I remember Margaret in this moment because she reminds me that in the midst of this pandemic, I can find my own unique way to put spaghetti in my hair.
Under the Cherry Blossoms
A magical pink canopy of blossoms stretches above us, illuminated by floodlights against the black sky. He and I are alone in its beauty though hundreds of people float by in a silent promenade. I hear music—Debussy’s Clair de Lune—but there are no instruments, just a rustle when a breeze plays the blossoms. Or is it a collective sigh as we and the others acknowledge the dream we are living? Though I long to reach up and pluck a floral tendril to remember this moment, I can’t defile the tree, so I choose to love him instead. For how can you not fall in love when the cherry blossoms insist upon it?
That was almost fifty-three years ago. I was twenty, he three years older. Now it’s March 2020. Again, around the Jefferson Memorial the buds on the cherry trees are bursting. My husband, the same man I walked with beneath the trees, lies asleep in our bed, but I am awakened by my loneliness as a pandemic sets new rules for our existence. It will get worse before it gets better. Keep yourself apart from others for the collective good. Avoid going to public places. People have died. More people will die. Our children call with urgent warnings. The television news becomes dire. Friends who scoffed at early preventive measures are tentatively vigilant. I am terrified by this agony that has caught everyone I love in its throes.
So I write. And I remember the cherry blossoms.
Dvorak’s Waltz No. 1 in A Minor
The drummer has stopped drumming. He’d drummed at noon every day, rehearsing for the night when he performed at the bars in the village. He never told me which ones. I didn’t ask. He kept his distance. Inside with his drums was all he needed. He asked me once if he was loud (as if a drum could be soft). “It’s loud,” I replied, smiling in a neighborly way, “but it doesn’t bother me.”
Actually it did when I was trying to concentrate. The house reverberated; the birds stopped competing with his clamor. I’d thought about complaining. “Hey,” I’d say, “could you tone it down a bit?”
He probably would have if I’d asked. But I didn’t. Somehow it was good to hear another artist at work. Sweating it out behind the walls where I couldn’t see him, couldn’t applaud his efforts.
Now, everything is quiet. There is no drumming.
Well, like a lot of people these days, I’m coping. In fact, in some respects I’m thriving: the house is reasonably clean, thanks to heightened awareness of all the ways infection can occur; the laundry gets done when it needs to rather than when I get around to it. I’m cooking more now; enjoying it. There’s a kind of leisurely feeling to the days. I walk, putter around in the garden when it isn’t too cold, and treasure the silence that has descended on our densely populated neighborhood. It is the silence that nourishes, heals. Indoors for most of the day, I’m keeping up with friends and family near and dear, here and abroad, via Skype, text, email, telephone. And I’ve wandered around the Internet, something others have been doing for ages, and wondered at the infinite possibilities it offers. I read. I write. And I reflect – a lot.
I have learned a lot in these…how many days has it been now?
From my yoga teacher I have learned how to take part in her Zoom yoga class, the technology not as difficult as I’d imagined.
From my newly-discovered second cousin Adelaide, who lives in Taos, I learned via email that our mutual great-aunt Tante Christine—who had created some tension among her siblings when she adopted the Church of the Nazarene years before—had dropped dead on the floor of the garage where she’d taken her car to get new tires. Just like that, two months after her husband John had left her a widow. I’d never have known if not for having taken this shelter-in-place time to reach out to a distant relative I’ve never met for a wide-ranging chat about our family history.
I have learned new concepts like “social distancing” and new words like “coronavirus,” and new understandings of “co-morbidities” and “droplet protection” and “memes,” and new songs to sing while washing my hands. Would Gilbert and Sullivan be rolling in their graves if they knew that their “Modern Major – General” would be the tune I’d sing to ensure the virus – and a whole bunch of bacteria – would die on my hands in the suds and warm water after 20 seconds of brisk scrubbing? An off-label use of music if I ever saw one.
They say it’ll be another month, at least, that we’ll have to practice this heightened vigilance and careful behavior. Another month of clean, quiet space to move about in; another month of time to think, and create, and wonder about the meaning of it all. There is little I’d taken for granted as “normal” a few weeks ago that I’m in a rush to return to. Right now, I yearn for nothing.
The context in which I write is the humbling awareness of the responsibility of living
I have my task,
What matter if I can
Never accomplish it.
—Alicia Ostriker, New York State Poet Laureate
Since the coronavirus began digging in, I’ve heard the idiom “hunkering down”—with its short nasal “u,” hard “k,” and the deeply felt “ow” of collective dread in “down”—more often than “shelter-in-place.” Short of lockdown, the idiom is a more visceral way to refer to being housebound during this crisis, when “shelter” may seem too comforting a word to describe the emotional roil of social distancing. At least, it has seemed to me that we’re drawn by ear to the harsh sound of the “k” and the growl of the “r” at the end of the word “hunker,” that the word reflects our turbulent feelings. We are hunkering down. We will get through this pandemic.
Hunkering down isn’t all that strange for people who are solitary and retired, for example readers and writers of poetry like myself. Although I didn’t seamlessly adjust to being able to go nowhere except the grocery store, the rhythm of all the days at home has become a turning inward, a sort of dream-state in which the sense of being home bound is supplanted by imagination’s spaciousness. “The Brain is wider than the Sky,” is how our most famously homebound poet, Emily Dickinson, succinctly describes this sensation of boundlessness. In Fenton Johnson’s beautiful meditation on solitude and the creative life, At the Center of All Beauty, he writes that with enough solitude, as well as “reverence and diligence and selflessness,” we may perceive the “underlying harmony” in nature. In the ensuing silence, he notes, we can hear the trees “singing of a solitude that admits no loneliness.”
Denise Levertov’s early collection, O Taste and See, closes with a dream-poem, literally words given to her in a dream. The poem is instructional, a message from the poet’s unconscious. I’ll quote the first stanza: “Know the pine trees. Know the orange dryness of sickness / and death in needle and cone. Know them too in green health, / those among whom your life is laid.” And the emergent prayer, which now overlays these imperatives: May we humans know the green health at the same time as we face sickness and death, all of us alone together in this solitary solidarity.
Dreams yield up words bearing insight and comfort. Poems house both. We are all “breaking open,” Muriel Rukeyser wrote at the height of the Vietnam War. Among the things we can do, she urged, was to “make something.” Something to alchemize this nightmare from the lead of fear into the gold of love, so that’s what we’ll bring to the table when we can again break bread together with all those with whom our lives are laid. We see that’s everyone, no?
Not an Anti-Aging Cream
Am I really going to try to make the no-bake bread? That cute guy on YouTube makes it look so easy. Hey, while I’m on YouTube, I might check out the Bach cello suite; it’s played by that young musician wearing a T-shirt and playing from home.
Speaking of T-shirts, it is possible to wear the same turtleneck long-sleeved cotton shirt for three days in a row. Why not? I’m not going anywhere and no one is coming to visit. If I go on Zoom I should look presentable. But am I going to learn yet another new app just so my friends can see what I’m wearing?
Now what about catching up on all those New Yorkers and New York Reviews dating back to last summer? No. The trouble with reading one back issue is it doesn’t stop new issues from coming. Ah, those dedicated mail carriers, neither rain nor sleet nor coronavirus… And my mail carrier doesn’t even wear a mask. Talk about bravery.
My children have forbidden me to enter any kind of store. I could order online, but if I order frozen food, by the time it gets here, possibly in a week, I’ll have a lot of tepid vegetables swimming in their own juices.
My burning issue is what to do if I run out of chocolate. If anything tips me over the edge, it might not be fear of the virus but the loss of my cure-all, at least 72% cacao—dark, if you please, and forget “artisanal.”
I have opened a bottle of scotch, which I don’t like. But even though liquor stores are open, I will obey my children’s injunction not to go into any of them, and I’ll use whatever alcohol I have. Actually, this scotch is not so bad.
For some calm, I go to Riverside Park. I have an urge to hug that big sycamore. But wait: can I pass along the virus to a tree — or vice-versa?
For the first time I’m able to track the development of the cherry trees as I walk. It’s amazing how from one day to another a tree can begin to show blossoms that gradually unfold. It’s like an accelerated pregnancy. Why am I thinking about pregnancy? Probably because I haven’t cleaned out files, drawers, and closets, which would leave my children a ton of sifting to do, should I meet with my demise in the back of an ambulance, say, whose personnel could have been instructed to practice triage in the name of bolstering the economy.
Reminds me of the Trollope book, The Fixed Period, in which compulsory euthanasia is mandated for the elderly. Well, we aren’t there yet, Missy. Let’s look at the positive side: fewer robo-calls and an almost-full bottle of scotch.
I am so unlucky. I have been forced by fear of disease and loneliness out of my cozy apartment, to seek safe haven outside of the city that has been my home for over 50 years.
I am so lucky. I am staying in a beautiful house with my own sun-filled bedroom and new, shiny bathroom.
I am so unlucky. I no longer have a husband with whom to share this horrendously surreal experience.
I am so lucky. I am surrounded by the warmth, love and — amazingly — the laughter of my extraordinary sister and brother-in-law who welcomed me unquestioningly into their home and their lives until…whenever.
I am so unlucky. I cannot look out my kitchen window and watch people rushing to work or strolling up Sixth Avenue on their way to Bed Bath & Beyond, where the most pressing issue is which coffeemaker or down comforter to purchase.
I am so lucky. I sit at the breakfast table looking out at a beautiful, peaceful scene of lush greenery and budding spring.
I am so unlucky. I miss ethnic restaurants, live theater, long dinners with friends and indie movies – and the freedom to enjoy them all.
I am so lucky. I have plenty of food to eat, good conversation with my sister and brother-in-law, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
I am healthy.
I am not unlucky.
I See a Nuthatch Out my Window
A small, unwelcome change in daily routines became a harbinger of much greater restrictions: In our communal dining area within senior housing we were told we could no longer serve ourselves from the salad bar.
Less than two weeks later the rule became: we must stay in our apartments and meals will be delivered to our door.
I have it easy since I have a companion. Many people living in senior housing live alone. My partner of 57 years and I are still well and still fond of each other. Being alone together is no punishment.
D.R. is writing a lot…fiction and poetry. I write too: short stories, letters, and emails, and I also play cello. I’m learning the cello part for a trio, hoping friends with clarinet and bassoon will find ways to meld our parts together soon.
I’m also an artist and have space and materials and inclination for drawing and painting. The imposed isolation prompts images from my imagination, and sumi-ink and brush connect with mulberry paper to conjure stormy weather and flying cranes.
And so the time passes. I look out into woods from a third-floor loft. I go out on our terrace and hear birdsong. I see a white-breasted nuthatch foraging. I take a late afternoon walk around a pond, waving from a distance of six feet when other residents pass by. It is the uncertainties of the future rather than the restrictions of the moment that cause anxiety.
My dog, Charlotte, had a breakdown this morning.
At 5 am my granddaughter E called me from her enforced seclusion in Siena. Five am my time, not hers. She thought I had called her. I might have rolled on the What’s App button. Never mind. I urged her to write her story of Seclusion in Siena with A… the very last thing they expected when they decided to see if they could get along living together. So far rather well, I think.
I went back to sleep, and Charlotte the Dog slept with me. I heard a distant voice calling and then shouting, “Charlotte, Charlotte”…..It was 9 am. My roommate Luz had emerged from her room to find Charlotte and me curled together in sweet slumber under the comforter. The dog woke to Luz’s alarmed cries, desperate to go out. We failed her. She peed in the middle of the living room (not so bad, several pee pads and a bottle of vinegar later it will be fine). But, alas, we shouted even louder at her (“Wait! WAIT!”) as we searched for her leash. She assumed the poo crouch, and then stopped herself, but trying to do that seemed to cause her to fall flat with all four legs out in four different directions. Rather scary. Luz picked her up and carried her downstairs in a shopping basket. When they got outside she spread out like a spider and couldn’t walk. Or poo. (How does one spell poo? Surely not Pooh?) She crept sideways, still flat, oozing poo. And then lay still, eyes closed. Luz, sobbing, picked her up: “I thought she was dying. I wanted to carry her inside so she could die at home…but then I looked in the mirror in the lobby and her eyes were open.” So we patted and soothed and gave treats and Luz wept and I felt so guilty (my job is to set the alarm for seven every morning so I get out with her). Eventually she agreed, cautiously, to sit on my lap and be soothed and praised.
It was nice of her, because I really think she was expressing our anxiety in this time of quarantine, which we had until today rather successfully repressed by means of repeat views of Emma and Inspector Montalbano.
Another nice aspect of quarantine is that I seem to have accepted that I am “elderly,” making it possible for me to accept any offers by my neighbors to bring things back from the grocery store. This morning, as Charlotte was just beginning to recover, my neighbor L arrived with a large bag of essentials: daffodils from Ireland (Slainte!), emergency boxes of chocolate covered chocolate caramels, lactose free milk for Luz, salmon filets for dinner, but of course no toilet paper or hand sanitizer. L had wiped the food and bags with hospital sanitizer his mother provided (she works in a hospital). I plunged the small red potatoes into soapy water. We decided to wash the reusable plastic bag. (Yet another previously unimagined chore.)
I hope today’s ruckus is more or less concluded. At least until I turn on tonight’s segment of Die Walkure/Das Rheingold (thank you thank you to the Metropolitan Opera for your streaming gift). I require peace and quiet to strengthen my resolve to watch the next session. (Is it Siegfried tonight?) Lovely tunes, but still wondering about 19 th -century Germany….as have so many people before me when confronted with Wagner.
Actually, those moments of wondering (call them what they really are, moments of wondering what the hell is going on) are rather short and I am trying to limit them. Otherwise I am sort of afraid I will sink into the Wagner hagiography, and I would really rather do Beethoven, or even Rodgers and Hammerstein, if this is to be my last immersion. Annoyingly, at this particular point in writing this letter, I realize I will turn 84 on Palm Sunday, and I have run out of time for the many study projects I always vaguely planned to do. “Why Wagner?” for example. “What is a villanelle?” for another example. (Guess what!!!! Google is glad to fill me in on both those topics and 65 million others.) Quarantine suddenly seems less burdensome: I can watch Silver Sneaker Exercise lessons while simultaneously seeking elucidation on particle physics, if I can learn how to split my screen. Coronavirus could, actually, be seen as a gift of time.
Lurking behind all the household gaiety (did I tell you about washing all the towels I had to use to mop up under the leaking windows during the big storm a few days ago?) (and discovering the dryer is really giving out?) if not, you get the joke anyway. About household gaiety and Higher Thoughts.
Daffodils outside, helicopters overhead, but very, very few planes. Really lovely air…another gift. Perhaps a lesson learned? (I am aware that I am reaching for the positive here.)
Tomorrow I will finish cleaning out my files. So much free time.