A Word From the Publisher
At this time, shut at home, fearful of every breath from the outside, when we might rightly think we have little to be grateful for, here is what I am grateful for: I am well, and my family and friends are well, too. I have that most basic necessity for staying well, a home, in which I can isolate myself – something that too, too many people today cannot say they have. My home provides me with comfort and safety, and even with windows to the world – a balcony, a television, a laptop – so I can now and then feel I am not unalterably alone.
I am grateful that however selfish, self-aggrandizing, wrongheaded, and mean our President may be, his murderous choices are offset by the acts and intentions of so many other selfless, dedicated, intelligent people, who are calmly and matter-of-factly going about the business of stocking groceries, providing health care, looking for cures, and providing us with accurate and useful information – all the things necessary so that someday, not too long from now, we can emerge into a world made safe.
I am very grateful that this brief worldwide sabbatical from the everyday has actually taught us something worth knowing. There are goats roaming the empty streets of Welsh villages, lions sunning themselves and watching their cubs play on the unused highways of Africa. Bear are frolicking in Yellowstone. The smog has completely lifted from Los Angeles and Mexico City for the first time in decades. The waters of India’s rivers run clean enough to drink, and there is a view of the Himalayas, lost for thirty years, from the windows of Chandigarh. We believed we could not roll back the depredations that human industry had created, but in barely a month, we have. And that is a sign of how much more we can do.
Most of all, I am grateful that, during what would otherwise have been a period of enforced, meaningless idleness, I have had the good fortune to have this purposeful work to do. Publishing these special issues of Persimmon Tree has been a joy, not only because it has given me a meaningful and engrossing occupation, but because we have been able to provide the same to you. And through your many wonderful contributions to this site, you have given us priceless gifts in return – the gifts of community, of sharing, of responsiveness. Thank you.
And many thanks to everyone on the Persimmon Tree editorial board and staff who have also made enormous contributions of time, effort, and creativity to produce these special issues. Without you…. Well, here’s one more thing for which I am grateful: I do not need to complete that sentence, because we are not without each other.
There is no socially distanced chair in the podiatrist’s waiting room so I settle for next best, a seat next to a woman who looks healthy enough: petite, glasses, Asian, a little younger than my 70 years. We nod as I sit.
She’s dabbing her face with a tissue.
“I’m not infectious. I have something in my eye.”
There’s nothing to read, perhaps to keep everything virus-free. I run quickly to my car and return with my smartphone.
Perhaps I’ll sit elsewhere, just in case, but I don’t want to be rude.
I go back to my original seat.
After a few moments, my neighbor begins talking. Energy centered on my phone, at first I don’t pay attention. When I glance up, she’s crying.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “This is my first time here—”
“You’ll like the doctor. ..”
“It’s not that. I filled out his forms. It’s the first time I checked ‘widow’ anywhere.” Her eyes water.
“I’m so sorry,” I say quietly, resisting the impulse to touch.
“It’s okay…. I just wasn’t expecting it.”
I ask questions: married for thirty years, he died last September.
“The sadness and tears come in waves.”
I tell her my friend lost her husband and cried daily for a year, but less each time.
“Yes,” she says. “That’s what it’s like. I don’t usually talk about it, especially with someone I don’t know.”
I speak of a study I’d read. Several hours on an airplane next to a stranger results in intimate sharing because you’re with someone you won’t see again. It’s a way to unburden, without long-term implications.
She smiles, calmer.
“Want to hear my sad story?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, smiling gently, seemingly relieved the focus is away from her.
“My sister’s grandson, whom she raised, killed himself last night.”
The woman gasps, sitting upright in her chair.
“Jumped off the fifth story of a parking garage. Last time, he jumped from the second story.”
It’s her turn to ask questions that take the place of touching: rejected by his mother, thirty years old, two young daughters living elsewhere, recent break-up of a new relationship, rejection of a job application (“we’d hire you if you walked faster,” but he couldn’t, due to injuries from his first attempt). James left a note, my sister called police, he saw the officers coming and jumped over the ledge.
The woman commiserates, then we are silent.
“Do you have children?” I ask.
We share stories and laugh–how they prefer texting to talking, how we still worry about them, especially when they’re out late or far away.
I begin a story about my daughter marrying someone I didn’t know, from a country I couldn’t find on a map. “She hadn’t decided for sure, but carried a wedding dress on the plane…”
The medical assistant comes for her.
“It’s a good story,” I say. “Another time…”
Later, as I walk the hall, my podiatrist studying every step, I see her in a doorway. We nod to each other, and smile.
Fifteen days now.
Feels like more. Like the wind chill factor is more real than the temperature.
I nanny two of my three grandkids during the week so my daughter and son-in-law can keep their jobs. Originally I just chauffeured them: from school, to activities, to the doctor. Easy peasy. Afternoons only. Occasionally a snow or sick day.
Then came corona, and the schools went away.
How to keep them busy? Without screens. They’re not allowed to screen.
Well, I adore organizing. And their rooms had been calling to me.
We started with Iggy’s. His bureau was so stuffed, the drawers never closed. He was clothing-oblivious, being only eight, so he’d never noticed when his socks got low and tight, or his jeans climbed up his ankles. I made him try on everything. At first, he balked. I unbalked him, and it became a fashion show. We laughed ourselves into cramps when he walked in wearing skin-tight high-waters he couldn’t take off without help.
In the end, his bureau was a thing of beauty, with a giant bag of goodies to donate.
Naturally, Sabine, who was ten, wanted in. We redid her closet. More was given away than kept. The donation center loved us.
Zoë, at 17, was not in my purview, supervising-wise, but she got inspired watching us. Her closet was the stuff of horror films. The pile on the floor now reached the hanging clothes, and there were avalanches from the overstuffed wall shelves. This was so monumental an undertaking that we all pulled up chairs to watch. But soon there was no room for us, as she tossed it all into the center of her room to be considered piece by piece. We left her to it. Three days later, she hauled out four bags to donate.
And that was only the first six of the no-school days.
Then Iggy found he could FaceTime with his BFF on his iPad. But his call lasted three hours, and the decibel level of their reunion joy was so high that his future FaceTime calls were curtailed for the sanity of the other inmates.
Defying the anti-screen law, Sabine began watching reruns of Full House back to back.
Zoë began sleeping till noon, coming down for lunch/breakfast, and then going back up to her room, not to be seen till the next day.
The governor told us to stay home all the time.
My daughter and son-in-law started working at home.
The high point of the week was when I slipped out to Sam’s Club on a hot tip, and scored a huge pack of toilet paper. They’d been down to four rolls.
And the kids’ school district sent out virtual curriculae for all grades. O joy! They get new assignments every morning! All I have to do is make sure they do them.
While I long for the return of the old normal.
Picture & Performance
Canceling Everything but Naps
On March 3, my throat began to ache. By March 4, uncontrollable bouts of coughing took over. As soon as my throat calmed, another cough would start. I canceled everything but naps. On March 9 my doctor diagnosed bronchitis and prescribed prednisone plus codeine cough syrup, which lengthened my naps considerably. On March 10, Yascha Mounk* advised Americans to cancel everything and practice social distancing. I was way ahead of him.
My temporary crown had popped out twice. I was grateful my dentist could insert the permanent crown on March 17. He assured me his office was a safe space. So I put convenience before caution. As he worked, he told me all about his Caribbean vacation. I was horrified. This person – with his hands in my mouth (gloves on, but still) — had been out of the country just the other day.
I drove home, hyperventilating. The numbing shot in my gum wore off, but the possibility that I had been infected did not. Still on the road, I heard Virginia Governor Northam’s order to limit social gatherings and non-essential appointments. Too late now, I thought as I began another 14-day countdown.
This Time Last Year
I was on my way to O’Hare and a long-weekend literary conference at which I’d been invited to defend Chekhov’s self-centered women characters.
Since Duane’s urology appointment had been scheduled for the same hour as the flight departure, my friend Peg had driven Anne, Melissa, and me to the Fayetteville airport with the understanding that I’d ride back to town with them if Duane’s news was bad.
“I’ll stand over there to call.” I nodded toward the magazine stand whose racks of slick reflective covers gleamed in painful primary colors. I took a deep breath and dialed.
When I turned around again the three of them were beaming.
“I knew everything was all right the minute you snapped the phone shut,” Anne said as she threw an arm around me. “Now you can enjoy the trip.”
All of us were smiling and hugging each other, talking a little too loud, and I knew we were a spectacle. Over Peg’s shoulder, I saw a young man in a business suit and burgundy tie—a black leather briefcase on his lap—staring at us, watching us with a sort of irritated disapproval and disgust.
My gaze met his.
“Could I have a hug, too?” he asked.
San Francisco declared a State of Emergency on March 4, 2020 and issued a formal Shelter-in-Place order on the 16th. By then you couldn’t easily get a doctor’s visit, but since I’m older and had all the symptoms of Coronavirus except fever (cough, chest pain, exhaustion, shortness of breath) I did. Mostly by phone from another clinic room. After a chest X-ray, the decision was to call it bacterial bronchitis and prescribe an antibiotic.
Whatever it was, my building management ordered total confinement. “You cannot open your door.” I love my studio apartment, but not for 14 days without a moment outside. How to get food, take out garbage, receive and send mail? Neighbors brought my groceries, but I insisted that management develop a plan. They worked it out, coordinating through our security guards. I saw faithful, masked maintenance staff through my peephole, while they helped me with food bank delivery, garbage, mail.
Weak and snarled up in chest pain, I missed the exercise room, visible from my window, now locked. T’ai Chi class, library van, ballet movement class. My loved ones.
I played reggae music and hand-danced, sitting. Talked on the phone to family and friends. Started to work longer hours on my novel. Launched a project to create an illustrated collection of writing by my son who left this world seventeen years ago. I posted a video on social media about handling illness. Then a happier one, when I was soon to be released.
A few days ago, for the first time since sequestering, I got to bring my own trash to the chute down the hall. The tunnel of greenish-white hallway was luminous.
An Unexpected Lesson from Driver’s Ed
On lockdown because of a killer pandemic, I pursue online a course designed to help senior drivers stay alive. The video hammers hard its message: rollovers, collisions, injury, and death, caused by driver error, though unintended, are not accidents. They are crashes.
Get language right, the speakers insist. Words matter. Buckle up for room to live. TZD, toward zero death, say it like it is. Use words correctly. Place blame where it belongs. ACCIDENT exonerates. CRASH implicates.
I finish my training and turn on the news. Our government orders SOCIAL DISTANCING. Do I hear correctly? What an oxymoron. Social means community, coming together, not staying apart.
The contradiction reminds me of convoluted language in my college philosophy class. I never understood why Descartes and Kant needed to prove they existed, “Cogito ergo sum.” “I think, therefore I am.” I never pierced the intellectual opacity of their arguments.
But I don’t need to understand epistemology to know that strands of ribonucleic acids inside crowns of sticky proteins are changing the world. Whether or not a coronavirus has self-awareness, it exists.
What Do I Do About The New York Times?
What do I do about The New York Times that nests securely in the box, along with the local paper? Coronavirus lasts 24 hours on paper, but several days on plastic. Frost blankets the half-planted vegetable beds. The rooster crows and three baby chicks chirp from their home in a plastic tub. Wearing my red fingerless gloves, I collect the papers from the box, and place them on the back porch. After gingerly removing the plastic wrappers, I stuff the plastic into the recycle, and flatten the papers onto the dryer. I wait until the next day to read The New York Times.
To make it last longer, I place two scoops of the good coffee and two scoops of not-so-good coffee into the grinder. The soy creamer I like is almost gone. I turn the carton over and prop it up in the refrigerator so I get every goddamn drop. I have only six chocolate chip cookies left. I am quarantined for ten more days. If I have one-half a cookie per night, I will make it.
Because of Covid-19, only 2 of any item allowed for purchase.
The length of two shopping carts end-to-end, is 6 feet
reads the sign on the door of Grocery Outlet.
A manager tells a customer, “We are keeping the restrooms locked now.” “Is that to prevent people from stealing toilet paper?” the customer asks. “Of course it is,” I say out loud to a wall of toothpaste and mouthwash. Then to myself, Has it come to this? As I walk toward the bread aisle, I encounter two elderly ladies. I stop six feet shy of them. They ask “Are we okay?”
“Yes, we are all okay,” I reply, and let them pass.
While I am painstakingly spraying a bleach solution on each package of frozen spinach, others are laughing and spraying infected droplets at gas stations on the way to the coast or the mountains or the desert.
we will wake up from.
The Rufus Hummingbird
still searches for sugar water
in the red-based feeder.