Fifth Avenue during Lockdown by Gena Raps
A Word From the Publisher
“I can’t breathe.” It is the sentence that spells disaster for anyone who contracts Covid-19, because it means the disease has conquered the lungs. From there, the six o’clock news has shown us, night after night, one is but an ambulance ride away from ventilators, from sinking oxygen rates, from lungs like leaden weights. From death.
“I can’t breathe” is also the sentence that George Floyd and Eric Garner have had to utter – almost the last sentence of their lives – as they were strangled (asphyxiated is the dress-up word that Medical Examiners used of each) by cops who themselves had been infected by the disease of racism, the most virulent illness of all, the most likely to lead to injury and death, the easiest to spread among white Americans, and the easiest to get rid of – the one for which we already have a cure – if only we had the political will to use it.
“I can’t breathe.” So strange. So fated that two of the nation’s worst disasters should come together like this. Overlapping in time. Overlapping in syntax. And overlapping in effect: African-Americans are much, much more likely than whites to be the subjects of police over-reaching, and, while Covid-19 itself does not discriminate, the social fallout of racism means that the virus kills many more people of color than it does whites.
Both national disasters demonstrate how ill-prepared the United States was to confront, let alone solve, the problems that ail us most. Both demonstrate that Americans are ready to do the right thing, and to do so need only effective moral leadership.
Meanwhile, as someone said on late night television this week, “In the absence of a President who could or would embody that moral leadership, Americans have become their own Presidents,” have exercised for ourselves the morality and leadership that our elected leader failed to give them. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans chose to stay home, to wear masks in public, to keep themselves and others safe. And, in the face of institutionalized racism, hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, have joined or supported protests. Where does the quote end? Once you determine that, send it back to me..
These essays are about the unselfish responses of many of our readers to the corona pandemic. Were we to ask you to craft essays about racism, they would be, I am sure, just as unselfish, just as generous, just as thoughtful.
A priest friend of mine sent me an essay he admired. Its premise is that God is using Covid-19 to chastise God’s people. God thinks we need a wakeup call, so to speak, to return to Him with all our hearts. To become more obedient. He sent me the essay in March, back when people were still comparing case numbers across the country and imagining some of us would be spared.
I wrote my friend back saying I can’t believe in a god who would punish the weakest and most vulnerable, while the rich and powerful self-quarantine in mansions and on yachts. My friend never replied. Later, when the virus was spreading, I sent him an article about six elderly nuns who died from Covid-19 in their nursing home. Was God chastising them? Had they not been obedient? My friend never replied.
I’m supposedly a person of faith – I work for a church, working from home for now. Any attempts at theological explanations for this pandemic make me furious. Even attempts to see the benefit of quiet and prioritizing what matters (family, nature, baking bread, arts and crafts) leave me cold. Yes, we’ve experienced positive outcomes staying home, but we need not thank Covid-19 for them. Let’s thank our public health officials instead.
I love the quiet. I love not having to go to work, and I dread the day I’m expected to return to church work because church services involving hundreds of people will put many (especially people like me) at risk. Church is, in the healthiest of times, messy.
In the meantime, when I reflect on moral implications of Covid-19, I see nothing morally instructive in the virus itself.
Indeed, I think it’s immoral to ascribe some deeper meaning to the virus. Keep God out of Covid-19. Let science define it. It’s as morally instructive as dandelion fuzz. However, our response to the virus carries moral weight.
It’s immoral to force workers to choose between their health and their jobs.
It’s immoral to deny relief to millions of undocumented workers who contribute to our economy while lacking a safety net and healthcare.
It’s immoral to protest without social distancing and masks.
It’s immoral to put profit over public health.
I’m a 64-year-old woman who works for a church that claims to be pro-life, yet across the country churches are opening and holding services against the best advice of health experts. And if I don’t go back to work, when I’m called to, I could face termination. So which termination do I choose? Termination of employment? Or potentially of my life?
If this is my Abraham and Isaac moment, I am playing both roles, bringing myself to be sacrificed. I’m not counting on the voice of God to say, “Oh, never mind. I was just checking to see if you’d obey.”
The voice testing my obedience belongs to a man.
Fighting What Else Plagues Us
While waiting for a vaccine against the coronavirus, I recall how in the summer of 1954 we hoped for a vaccine against polio, one of the diseases that plagued us. When my third-grade classmate Dennis got polio, unable to breathe outside an iron lung, we kids stared at Life magazine pictures of the huge metal contraption from which a child’s small head emerged and put our weekly allowance into the March of Dimes collection box. Though ten cents could buy red wax lips at Woolworth’s or a pack of candy cigarettes, we gave our dimes to stop the hot cluster of cases that terrified us in Syracuse, New York.
Polio was not the only plague in town. Prejudice infiltrated Webster Elementary, where to be different was to be ostracized. I was the only Jew in a school on the factory side of town where General Electric (“Progress is our most important product”) experimented with small tubes for TVs. All houses in my neighborhood looked the same except for the color of now-vacant swing sets in the back yard. Polio had claimed 46 children. First they got a fever, then felt weak, and then fell paralyzed. As public swimming pools closed, fear eclipsed compassion.
By mid-third grade Dennis returned to school dragging a twisted leg behind him. Like me, he was seen as “different.” Classmates who called me “dirty Jew” mocked him. Meanwhile Dr. Jonas Salk was working on a vaccine. I needed him to save me. At eight years old I thought that if a Jew could save all kids from polio, maybe he could save me from prejudice.
Dr. Salk needed a million kids to prove the vaccine’s worth. If the vaccine was too strong, kids might get polio from it. If too weak they might contract polio anyway, so parents signed permission slips. Nurses came and divided us into two long lines. No one knew who got the vaccine or the placebo. Kids in the line next to mine said their shots stung. Mine didn’t. I figured I got the placebo.
Months went by slowly for parents awaiting test results, and for Dennis and me, taunted daily. One day, walking home from school, two boys yelled: “Jews drink Christian kids’ blood at Passover.” I had no idea what that meant. I asked my mother if “Jewish” was something bad that only other people could see. The next day two boys shoved me down the slimy side of a sewer and clanged the heavy slatted top shut. Above me their laughing faces looked masked in the slanting sunlight. I stood in dank, smelly water waiting for help.
In April of third grade I was sitting in the back seat of the family car as my mother backed it out the driveway. Suddenly all city sirens sounded in a long, loud wail. My mother stopped the car, put her head onto the steering wheel, and sobbed: “It means the vaccine works.” She turned and faced me. “I know you’re miserable at school. You wish you were a member of the flock. Mark my words, sweetheart. They’ll all fly to you someday.” I cried, too. Maybe now the other kids would understand that Jews were good people.
Today as we wait for another vaccine to rescue us, Far Right extremists spread the venomous lie on social media that Jews spawned Covid-19 so they could find a vaccine and make a profit. Last year across America, in all fifty states, Jews have experienced the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents since the Anti-Defamation League (www.adl.org) began tracking them in 1979 — fully 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment. Most disturbing is the 56 percent increase in lethal violence.
Now, prejudice hits Asian Americans as fear of the coronavirus increases. They are 18 percent of our nation’s doctors and ten percent of our nurses and the brunt of a steady rise in verbal and physical assaults as they leave the front lines of our hospitals. Asian American children are bullied by other children online. Their parents endure angry slurs and worse in our cities. Fully 1800 incidents since mid-March include being spat on, stabbed, and loudly blamed for what President Trump called “the Wuhan virus.” He has changed his diction, but words stick.
What psychologists know is that name-calling does hurt you, and turns violent when normalized by those at the top of society. There is no masking the danger. The name-calling tolerated by the principal in my elementary school, like the constant denigration of others exhibited by America’s president, are behaviors that become contagious if not kept socially distant.
There may soon be a vaccine to conquer Covid-19. In the meantime, we need to inoculate against an old, insidious disease still trying to infect us.
Heron Alone by Nancy Henningsen
My husband strives to name each bird that flutters by our kitchen windows – so far he’s spotted tree swallows and orioles and sparrow-hawks beside the ever-present robins and starlings. I soak beans – black, red, white, green – bake brownies, play endless games of catch with the kittens. We’re here in a tiny farmhouse in the mountains north of New York City, living together for the first time since we wed five years ago. Ordinarily, we retreat regularly to our separate lairs – mine by the bay in Brooklyn, his by the beach on Long Island. We enjoy our time together, but we’re both solitaries, and we’ve never before shopped, slept, sighed, cooked, eaten, cleaned side by side for so many weeks on end. Some days I’m ready to bolt; others, I want to dive in more deeply.
Fifteen years ago I drove, panicked, from New Orleans to New York, pursued by a storm that spun my dreams long after I’d touched down. The lost city – my abandoned home – haunted me, even as today my empty apartment beckons. Two young cats escorted me then, Ginger and Miso, orange tabbies whose bold forays taught me acceptance; today, our newly adopted kittens Anna and Elsa, a calico and a dilute tortoise-shell aptly named at the shelter after Frozen’s sisters, teach me to laugh. Because really, mostly, all I want to do is cry. It’s achingly beautiful here in the slow-blooming mountains. It’s safer, no doubt. And yet…
I came straight here on March 14, leaving the artists’ colony where I’d been since the end of February. I’d planned on being there for a month, had packed books and clothes and projects to keep me going for that time. The virus was already circulating then, and we knew it. But somehow we didn’t think it would reach us. Mike would spend the month alone in the mountains and later we’d return home. But Mike got sick in early March, and I feared being separated as the world unspooled. Once here, I didn’t want to leave, not really.
Seventy years ago my parents left Egypt when Jewish lives there were threatened. For most of their days afterward, they looked back longingly to their earlier time, huddling in fear. Exile and loss are programmed into me. As is fear, and the impulse to flee. Our household was a closed one, choked, and all I remember wanting as a child was out. Swallowing the fear, I ventured forth. I made my way – out, out, farther and farther. “I choose to walk at all risks,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh declares, and like her, I walked, finding joy in the world’s wild rush.
Which is why sitting still, in one place, with one companion, ruled by fear, is so unnerving. It would be easier, I think, if I were alone, or in the city. And yet, and yet, there’s something good here, something healing, something new. I wait. I wait … for the moment when love triumphs over fear.
Someone Else’s Salt
I am here this morning, looking out the window, chewing on a piece of unbuttered baguette bought two days ago from the local Whole Foods where I stood in line on the blue tape that kept everyone six feet apart. It’s a cold, cloudy morning, and as I watch some errant mallards crossing the street in this New Jersey beach town, I can’t help but notice that the bread has a slight salty aftertaste, not unpleasant, but not familiar either.
We have been here since the end of March, when New York shut down completely, more or less. Through friends, we rented a tiny house in this bucolic place with lakes and tyrannically manicured lawns. By all measures, it is a beautiful place – serene, private – and a place that, years ago, I never thought I could ever afford, even as a renter.
I grew up in New York, on the Lower East Side. My family and I were immigrants, and we were poor, but it was a step up from where we had been – squatters’ village, extreme poverty, and the attendant diseases and ailments. So my being here is a testament to the American Dream at its most promising.
Yet I am troubled by a vague sense of guilt.
I keep thinking of the time, in the late ‘80s, when my family and I went back to China to visit. It was our first time back in two decades. On arrival, at the baggage claim, we found that our suitcases had been slashed. My parents, saying nothing, quietly hoisted the ripped suitcases into the carts, even though I knew what they were thinking – as whoever had slashed our luggage was thinking – that we were traitors who abandoned China and now had returned to flaunt (by their standards) our wealth and riches. By my parents’ docile reaction, I knew they believed their own guilt.
I am feeling the same kind of guilt my parents felt that day.
Having moved around so much, from China to Hong Kong to Winnipeg to New York, I’ve never known the meaning of home. But because I’ve been in New York for the longest time, it is the place in which I am most comfortable.
It is a city that saw my adolescence through adulthood, a city that gave me work at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the City University, a city that allowed me to be both Chinese and American. I have come to love that teeming, sloppy city of project dwellers, new and old immigrants, fake and genuine merchandise, a city of art, a city of food.
As someone whose childhood trauma began with hunger, New York nurtured me with anything I wanted – gingko congee, roast chicken, shrimp dumpling, shrimp burrito, sausage and pappardelle – any time I wanted.
But I left it for a town that has everything but beef chow fun and Singapore rice noodles, and I miss them. Now I’m left to wonder whether running away from trouble is a moral deficit, if it’s more than the instinct of survival but a genetic condition of exiguous loyalty.
As I swallow the last bit of bread, I walk up the short flight of stairs to pack. I’m going back next week. Back to the eight flights of stairs to my apartment. Back to my ailing city that I’ve left behind.
I can only hope I’ll be forgiven.
Corona and the Final Goodbye
My best friend died several weeks ago. A friendship of over thirty-five years, gone. That week started with a group email from her husband:
“Sarah asked me to let you know about her current status and condition. She’s in the hospital… having had a seizure late Sunday afternoon… her doctor said they’re working on sending her home ‘soon.’”
I’m startled to revisit that email. Even then I was sure he’d said, “she’ll be home by the end of the week.” I read what I wanted to believe.
Opening my email account the next morning, I saw another message from Vince. This can’t be good news. It’s too soon. I went to open it, but there was no message. Perhaps my misplaced vision was a precursor of things to come.
A day later, the words I was not prepared to hear:
“Sarah is still in the hospital and will not be leaving… the decision has been made to put her on ‘comfort care.’ This means she won’t be receiving any additional treatment to attack her cancer…she’ll receive only what’s necessary to keep her as pain free and comfortable as possible…Sarah is either sleeping or very drowsy…She’s lucid – she hears and responds when spoken to but can only manage short conversation before she just poops out… I feel compelled to tell you what the charge nurse told me when I arrived. She asked me to remain in Sarah’s room and not wander around, saying, ‘The hard truth is this place is full of virus – this is not a good place to be.’”
Any other time I’d have jumped in my car for the three-hour drive to be with her. But now? I’ve been in lockdown for three weeks, but the hospital allows two visitors at a time if “death is inevitable.” Her husband will always be by her side, leaving room for one more. It’s not only about me though. My significant other and I are both seniors, and we share a household. He had open heart surgery last December and also has breathing issues.
My daughter’s response, who also knew Sarah and loved her:
“You’re not going to see her, are you?”
I knew I couldn’t go. My heart broke. I called, and found her awake. As she whispered hello, in the voice that had been so painful to listen to for so long, barely able to breathe without constant coughing, we said our last words. I told her I loved her. That I couldn’t come. That she’d made my life better.
“I don’t know how to say goodbye,” she said.
“Me neither,” I replied. “But maybe we’ll see each other again someday.”
“I don’t know where…,” her voice drifted off.
“Nor do I. But if you can visit me, please do.”
She laughed quietly.
Then it was time to let go.
She died a week later, but that was the last time I heard her voice. I spoke to her husband, we texted, and he let me know when she was gone.
Although she touched the lives of many, no one went to visit her. We were all afraid.
My feelings stick in my throat as I write this. Sarah is gone. I couldn’t be with her, but I will miss her for the rest of my life.
Covid-19 sucks. And so does cancer.
I stand at the top of the stairs, ready to take the first step, first flight, down. But as my right knee bends and my left foot lowers, I do not fly, I fumble and grab the banister. My head swims and my thighs tremble. I’m dizzy. I gasp and stare with tension; I hold my breath. Dizzier still. But the spell passes quickly, I compose myself and continue on. Later in the day, I tilt suddenly from window to sofa to wall. Panic runs through me; “dizziness is one of the symptoms of Covid-19.” For hours, I swirl in a haze of dis-ease.
Exhale, focus, reason. This is about awareness – I am not ill, I am re-orienting. The period of confinement, nearly three months now, is drawing me deeper into my planet’s interior, its forms (of muscles and organs), its sensations (of tingling and gripping and weakness), its perceptions (fear, relief, fear again) and the ability to discriminate among them: integrity and sequence. I walk in my city, I feel the wind, I hear the pigeons coo, and I taste spring in its intense spaciousness. Unhindered.
Sally Hess and her Instructor Darius Mosteika in the Ballroom
Home alone, I can explore movement gradually without hurry or obligation. In layered concentration, the bodily attunement, from inner ear to feet on floor as my proprioceptive function rises toward consciousness, is becoming available to the dancer I am, serve, and treasure during my Covid life. Climbing up the stairs, I sense my weight shift in relation to my pelvis; the banister becomes a ballet barre, and each knee bend a demi-plié.
Yes, hand to banister, window, door. Hands to wash and chop, to hold a book. Not hand to hand and thigh to thigh nor thrill of human energy, no dynamic exchange. I am a ballroom dancer but as our New York governor has declared, I’m “on pause,” not waltzing in my partner’s arms. Without his hand on my back, gently, my hand on his arm, lightly, or the thigh-length pressure of our legs in contact, reassuring, he does not know where I am and I cannot espouse his shape. Spatially distanced, we are half our dancing self. No, we cannot Zoom it, mirror it, talk it, cannot practice it six feet apart; those are possibilities, I’ll call them ethereals, that we substitute when substance is forbidden (to) matter. My true dance is a matter of fact, feet, floor, of timed touch and touch in time. To the dismay and bemusement of my beloved non-dancing friends, I am inconsolable.
Sally Hess and her Instructor Darius Mosteika in the Ballroom
I calibrate balance amid asymmetry, fluidity within structure. Even as the pandemic storms, it is tidal. I long for the earthen tranquility that roots both the oak and the reed, invite it to ebb and expand within me. Time flows through the body incarnate. Can I abide peacefully inside its cycle of destruction and creation? Decay too is supple and life-giving. Time the dancing, trust the dancers – in this most vulnerable present, I must touch and be touched, to touch, touch the world.
I Don’t Make My Bed
I quit making my bed on Sunday, July 30, 2018. Just the day before, it was our bed, the one John and I shared for nearly 43 years. On Friday night John climbed into bed under the light of the full moon, which would become eclipsed. He took his last breath 36 hours later. John always made our bed, but on sheet changing days, we did it together. I’d stand on one side, he on the other, chanting, “Two, two can do it better than one.”
Months before John passed we purchased a thick duvet with a brown linen cover. It was puffy, easy to pull up. John called it Mr. Lumpy. Sheets or blankets didn’t need to be smoothed out. I asked John to do that for years. He never did. I learned to stop nagging, and just smoothed them out myself. Now, one year, nine months, and fifteen nights into sleeping alone, I still don’t make my bed.
I did try. In autumn, I purchased new sheets. The light rose cotton sheets softened the browns and greens in the bedroom. That’s all. I don’t make my bed.
I like order: no clutter, everything in its place, no fingerprints on the refrigerator or windows. My active toddler grandson, the new love of my life, is teaching me, once again, to let go of order so I can embrace him – his fingerprints. You’d think I’d want to model bed-making for him. But no. The exposed sheets are getting aired out and the sun streaming in the windows must sanitize them.
In this time of a coronavirus pandemic, there’s grief worldwide. I’m sick of grief. Yet, here we are: all of us together. Alone. Together. I hear and observe people in denial (“The numbers are inflated.”), anger (protests), depression (A friend sleeps much and is barely keeping up with basics), bargaining (“I’m nice to my neighbor. Let me live”), acceptance (“I’m doing my part staying home and wear a mask when I must go out. This will end.”), or finding meaning (“It’s an opportunity for us to consider new possibilities.”).
I’m experiencing a wide variety of new thoughts and feelings. Some fleeting. Some persistent. Some are encores. Sometimes I stomp my feet like a child who can’t get her way. At random moments or after hearing another bizarre news story, I shout or pray, “Enough already!” After John died, I opened the refrigerator, saw a container of expired cottage cheese – something only John ate – stomped my foot, and cried out, “John, where are you?” Though I miss and ache for John regularly, there is no cottage cheese in my refrigerator.
Perhaps my unmade bed is a visible protest, a temper tantrum of sorts. It’s an uncharacteristic, surprising new way for me, for now and for who knows how long. Perhaps it’s a sacred honoring of John’s life, our shared love, the irreplaceable marital bed John and I shared – an adaptation. Though there are common observable grief responses, we each do it in our own way. A wise man told me, “There’s only two stages of grief: Who were you before the loss? Who are you after the loss?”
It is eight weeks of stay-at-home in Seattle. The view from the small window of the second story of my senior housing apartment, in a quiet suburb of Seattle, looks across the avenue to a landscaper’s garden opposite. The front is simple and small but planted with exquisite greenery and decorated with Tibetan flags. Traffic used to be loud and busy, busses belching by, people rushing to the nearby market. Now there is less traffic and only an occasional solitary jogger or mom pushing a baby stroller, and sometimes parents with children in tow.
The landscaper built a small stone fountain with recycled water running over rocks, and boulder benches that sit beside the sidewalk. There resides the yellow cat. He is rotund and sleek and does not accept treats offered. From ten or so in the morning, depending on the weather, he appears and approaches most everyone passing by. He has no fear of the dogs being walked – mastiff, boxer, chow, chihuahua, terrier, pug. He ignores them as he sidles up to the owner, who often stops. The cat will sit patiently for twenty minutes while a toddler pulls at his tail, chortling with laughter.
An unkempt man walks aimlessly by and sits on a rock seat, his shoulders slumped. He tugs off his mask and buries his face in his hands, then looks startled as the cat rubs against his pant leg. They sit there for a quarter of an hour.
A checker from the grocery store next door takes her break on the bench, removes her mask to light a cigarette, then digs out a snack. She offers some to the cat who declines but sits right against her hip as she rests.
He stays more at a distance when a young couple sits deep in conversation. Some parents bring their kids by to see the cat every day. Today a youngster has a meltdown. “I want you to go to work!” he bellows at his parent. The dad kneels down and reasons with him. The cat trots over and they both turn to meet him.
A teenage girl in shorts walks well behind her mother, rolling her eyes at a remark the mom makes over her shoulder. They have an argument and the mom continues walking ahead on her own. The girl sits alone with the cat on the garden step, her long hair flopping over the cat as they commune.
Senior residents of my building slowly trek past throughout the day, their energy and effort focused on the nervous task of getting to the grocery across the street and back home. They make stops to rest and connect with our free block therapist and counselor.
Yet the cat knows how to take care of himself, too. By late afternoon he stops his patrol and lies in the last patch of sun that falls across the landscaper’s porch, out of reach, but greeting his admirers from a distance with a wave or two of his tail.
The Covid cat brings me hours of serenity and pleasure. Surely it’s too far for him to see me watching daily from my recliner in the window across the street. Isn’t it?
Today a baby crow perched on my deck railing, no tail feathers yet, gripping the banister as if he were hanging from a bridge awaiting rescue. I did not see his arrival, whether his mother parked him here straight from the nest or he flew off-course and landed here. Crows generally avoid the house itself and gather in the woods, the yard, the garden. However he has come to me, here he is when I bring my coffee into the sun room after breakfast.
Since I’ve retired and especially since I’ve been sheltering in place during this virus outbreak, I take my coffee with the birds and my cat, Flora, each of us entertained by songbirds feeding on the deck, hummingbirds in aerial combat around their feeder, squirrels interrupting constantly. This ritual of coffee, birds, purrs, crossword, reading, and writing has become my preferred way to start the day – any day – virus or no. Normally, coffee would be followed by water aerobics, or more recently, a walk, to get outside and take some exercise, but I have broken my ankle now, another message from the universe to sit tight, pay attention, adopt a new angle of vision, and see what good news I can learn during a bad situation.
And so, the crow. I playfully name him Corvid-19 and watch hour upon hour as he watches and listens, taking in the whole wide world beyond his nest. Naturally, I talk with him, welcome and encourage him, worry about how long he goes without food, water, and Corvid supervision, but he sits attending his surroundings and utters not one sound or complaint. By lunch time, Corvid-19 can move along his perch, hop to the deck and back again, stretch his wings to full wing span, and flap, his curiosity and innocence unaltered. In silence, he learns, becoming one of the best students I’ve seen – and I taught high school and college for thirty-nine years. I’m inexplicably proud of him, happy for him, as if a graduation looms.
Perhaps there is a word for one who watches another watch another, but I don’t know this word I have become. I’m amused by how Corvid-19 is absorbed with every bird call, insect, rustle of wind in trees. He is silently engaged with the everything of everything, especially when older crows flap by and chat among the trees. He is productive as well, grooming away his baby fluff, stretching his wings, fluttering his feathers like most fledglings. During the first hours, he opens his mouth wide as if expecting Mother Nature to drop a snack down his throat, but he stops that as if he realizes that feeding himself is part of this new order.
All this free time has loosed my imagination in interesting ways. I imagine his mother telling him to stay put, pay attention, learn, feel, observe his habitat, own his situation, and when he feels the impulse, ride the air. I imagine this crow mother is nearby now, watching her child watch the world, that she watches a strange human watch as her child watches the world. I feel kinship with them both, with it all, great and small.
So often I’ve suffered hunger, thirst, or a pressing bladder to avoid disturbing a sleeping pet that occupies my lap. For six hours, I scarcely eat or drink, watching a fledgling decide to launch. I don’t want to miss that. I am alone with a cat and a crow, the Covid-19 virus raging, a broken ankle, my loves at a distance, all of us hoping to survive into a huggable future without fear, when we can return to our previous selves. But watching today has brought home to me that we are changed beings now. I too am learning in the quiet, realizing a new existence.
I’m learning how little I need to survive and enjoy my life. I’m thinking birds are on to something important: a few seeds, a passing insect, a lot of water, the freedom to sing aloud, the companionship of friends in midair, a kindly current of wind, a limb with a view, a nest for night’s rest. I’m thinking that I have been spoiled with expectations of plenty rather than enough. I’m learning acceptance, new ways of prayer, deeper paths to joy. There is no misery that is not an opportunity to be better than I am. And just now, as I’m filled with these realizations, Corvid-19 bounces twice and takes the air.
Heron Alone by Nancy Henningsen
Beating My Wings in Place
The crimson hummingbird feeder had sat nearly forgotten on the laundry room floor since early last spring. I’d been excited to order it from Amazon, but once it arrived, I never seemed to find the time to mix the nectar, find a proper hook, or find the right spot to convince my husband to hang it.
Then came the pandemic and shelter-in-place. The staying-in part didn’t bother me; I had hobbies to pursue, a home to clean, and a half-acre yard full of grass, trees, and flowers to tend. I hoped I might even get caught up on my never-ending To-Do list.
One day, “Hang the Hummingbird Feeder” finally moved to the top of my list. When the glass container was properly filled and hung from the patio roof, I crossed the accomplishment off, eager to move to the next chore.
But as I began noticing the first tiny bird flying over to drink, beating her small wings so fast I could hear them humming, I became captivated. I would stop whatever I was doing – rinsing dishes by the kitchen window, grabbing a broom to sweep the patio, or heading out to feed my climbing roses – and stay perfectly still to observe. Sometimes my husband and I would pause together. As several birds became accustomed to us, they would occasionally hover near our faces before sailing off – delighting us both.
While on the phone with my brother, I described the humming noise their wings made. He then told me they’re the only bird that can fly backwards. I shared this tidbit with my husband, but he already knew. (He always knows everything, which is one of the reasons I love him.) He also knew they can fly upside down, weigh less than a nickel, and that a group of them is called a charm. How charming!
These days I’ve become accustomed to stopping to watch my new friends several times a day, mesmerized by their delicate feathered forms hovering midair. Standing still isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I like to keep busy. Yet, here I stand. And watch.
These intriguing creatures with their iridescent green feathers are providing more than entertainment. They’re teaching me the importance of staying perfectly still, moment after moment, while hovering in peaceful mindfulness of my good fortune, having hummingbirds visit my yard, and sharing their enchantment with others.
Also, their charm reminds me to treasure the bright spots of friends in my life – bird friends, as well as human friends.
Most of all, they’re teaching me to pause long enough in my busy day to search out and drink in the sweetness of this crazy yet wonderful world all around me. Even in a pandemic.
No Saying Goodbye
It’s hard not seeing friends during the pandemic. Harder still, not saying goodbye to those who have died.
R.I.P. Mary Wynton
R.I.P. Nicole Grandjean
For years, Mary and I played second violin in a small community orchestra. We warmed seats in the back row, a measure of our modest abilities. But we loved music and loved the purpose of our orchestra – to play popular tunes and holiday favorites at local retirement homes and convalescent hospitals. On March 1, a Sunday like most with either a performance or a practice, Mary dropped dead of a massive heart attack. She was 75. By the time her children arranged a funeral mass, for April, California had already shut down. No saying goodbye. No celebrating Mary’s life.
In mid-May, cancer claimed Nicole at the age of 71. She owned a popular market and café in my neighborhood. Nicole was French, and among other defining features, she understood my occasional need to sit at a table for hours over a single cup of coffee, reading a book or scribbling notes in a journal or just relaxing under a broad sun umbrella. She would pass my table and smile, never once urging me to finish up. A friend and I often met there for lunch, having a glass (or two) of rosé as we sorted out the problems of our lives, problems that now seem so trivial.
These two women, not close personal friends, were valued members of my community. Many of us knew and loved them. But we can’t gather to remember them. We can’t stop and hug each other and feel sad for what we knew and what we’ve lost. A tiny, deadly virus forces us to keep our distance at the very moment we need to hold each other near.
Six Pieces of Eggplant
I woke this morning with a line of poetry in my head: “In dreams begins responsibility.” How odd! It’s an epigraph from Yeats, although my unconscious misremembered it. The original is “responsibilities.” What are dreams telling us right now? Although many of my dreams have to do with processing the fears I’m suppressing during the day – mostly, selfishly, that everything I love will be taken from me – I know viscerally that that is happening to people at this moment in the world. Rather than the alternative, facing one’s fears seems timely, and then the further step, realizing that we are all facing such fears, some of us right at the front every day, with such courage it takes my breath away.
With its koan-like statement, this dream got my attention. The line is a gift from a past life, when I was a young graduate student with few “responsibilities.” Now, evidently, I have a responsibility, and the insight – not what the responsibility is so much as that I am called to find out – is one of what I call micro-insights, small moments of illumination, thanks to the intensity of life in isolation. Often such moments are touched by a heightened capacity to be present to our lives, the simplicity of a joy grounded in the daily. My cousin, a strong woman tested to the far reaches of her psychological strength by her husband’s non-Covid illnesses, told me of one such moment this week: that there were six pieces of grilled eggplant left over with which to make a meal the next day, a frisson of relief (no cooking!), a quotidian miracle of the loaves.
In the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, “The Snow Queen,” Grandmother tells the sweet and loving children, Kai and Gerda, the story of the Snow Queen, and Kai boasts that he would melt her if she were to come to them. Soon after that, Kai, whose heart and eye were pierced by pieces of the hobgoblin’s shattered Mirror of Distortion, is swept off to the far North by the glittering Snow Queen. Kai survives, but he can no longer feel anything, for his heart is frozen and his eye makes everything beautiful in the world ugly. To adumbrate the tale a bit: Kai’s in a white world feeling nothing for others, because he is literally cold-hearted.
And so my dream: In dreams begins responsibility. Or, as the philosopher of witness, Kelly Oliver, writes, response-ability. Whatever fears I’m dealing with right now, the process is a step toward cultivating that ability to feel for and with others. My heart is actually breaking each day. That’s how I feel, in brief. Don’t you? So many hearts breaking – open – to response-ability suggests to me that we’ll emerge from the pandemic changed. Kai in the end is saved by Gerda’s love. To invoke Auden’s urgent insight in “September 1, 1939,” “We must love one another or die.” Auden forever rejected the sentimentality of the line. We might attend to its sentiment.
Madison Avenue during Lockdown by Gena Raps