A Word From the Publisher
If you insist on criticizing, then at least surround it with praise.
First praise, then criticize, then praise again.
Mao Tse Tung is usually given the credit for that exceedingly wise advice. It doesn’t sound much like him, but maybe. At any rate, I usually follow it. And will this time, too.
So, first, some much deserved praise: For everyone who, at no small risk to themselves, has made these two months of lockdown a little more bearable and a tad less fearsome. The nurses, doctors, EMTs and hospital workers; the sanitation workers and police and firefighters; the Amazon and FedEx and USPS delivery persons; the doormen and porters and janitors; the grocery store clerks, the truck drivers, the soldiers and sailors and members of the National Guard. And, most of all, our neighbors. The folks who left an extra roll of toilet paper, a casserole, or a bottle of Prosecco outside the door. A kudo, a pat on the back, to each of us who has helped keep everyone else healthy by staying indoors, maintaining that critical six-foot distance, faithfully donning a mask, and forsaking visits, other than virtual, with our own children or grandchildren or dear friends, and special praise and gratitude to those who could not, and did not, go to the hospital to hold the hands of family members who died alone. All praise and thanks to every one of them – and every one of us.
And, now, the criticism. This will be more of a challenge than a criticism, but I suppose challenging someone to do something – if it is something that they didn’t do but should have – is very much the same as criticism. Many states and localities are coming out of lockdown, and it might be too soon. There is as yet no vaccine; testing and tracking are still not widespread. In these circumstances, releasing everyone to mix and mingle, working, partying and going to school shoulder to shoulder may be nothing but an invitation to the virus to spread again, causing even more pain and death than it did the first time. But during the lockdown businesses have closed, people have lost their income, rent has gone unpaid and bills have piled up. Governments, economists, media pundits, all seem to see no solution to this other than to open the economy again. But there are other solutions; it is not too late to adopt them, and I challenge our government to do so. First, government should take on the duties that, during a national health emergency, rightfully belong to the government and not to private corporations that make decisions about health and welfare based solely on profit calculations. Government was created to serve the people, to protect and preserve their health, their property, and their safety.
Translated to COVID-19 terms, government should be paying everyone at least a sizeable percentage of the money they are losing from their paychecks and self-employment incomes. Government should either be supplying individuals and small businesses with the money they need to fend off landlords, mortgagees, credit card companies, auto dealers and other creditors or should be declaring a moratorium on those debts during the time that the economy is shut down. Not a delayed payment plan, but a total moratorium. Government should be making all health care and prescriptions free during the crisis, and should reimburse hospitals and individual practitioners a reasonable portion of the payments that a payment moratorium would take from them, so that those providers can continue to pay their own bills. Government should follow the example set by FDR and set up infrastructure projects all over the country so that people who have been furloughed from companies that have had to shut their doors can find solid, healthy and safe employment, and so that the country can come out of the pandemic better than it was when it went in. And, finally, government officials should provide people with clear, complete and thorough reports on the situation and should pledge to let their decisions about people’s lives be guided by science and medicine, not by a craven desire to help their electoral chances by pumping up the economy at all costs.
Okay, that is the criticism. Now, back to the praise — and the gratitude. Thanks to Persimmon Tree’s talented, generous, and loyal readers and contributors, we are now publishing another heart-wrenching, heartwarming, and utterly beautiful coronavirus supplement. We had originally intended these Persimmon Tree specials to be a gift from us to our readers, but they turned out to be gifts from our readers to us — and to one another. In the middle of this period of tremendous social aloneness, the editors and readers of Persimmon Tree have forged a new community – or perhaps just demonstrated what a strong, giving, and creative community we have been all along. In the spirit of that community – and as a thank you for the gift of your essays – Persimmon Tree’s very talented editors have graced this issue with gifts of our own to you. Cynthia Hogue is again giving us an ineffable reading of her poetry. And Gena Raps shares with us her insightful rendition of Brahms’ Capriccio in G Minor. Our delighted thanks to them both. And to all of you, readers and contributors alike. All praise to the people of Persimmon Tree.
Excerpt from a Corona Journal
March 19, 2020
The hardest part of today was Dad telling me not to come over. I had called him to announce I was. Sometimes I barge in. Sometimes I announce. He insisted I shouldn’t come, that it was dangerous and “against the rules.” At 92, he can be ornery and paranoid. But these times do call for orneriness and paranoia. I didn’t actually want to go over, had no particular mission, no groceries to deliver, no trash to take away, so in the moment of the call, I decided not to argue a) because he might be right – that because of all we don’t know about this thing, less contact is simply better and b) because he and Mom do not remember the content of arguments from one hour to the next. It is pointless for us to argue now. It is only important to laugh whenever possible.
Although Robin and I have sequestered from almost everyone, we had decided to treat my parents as “our household” even though they live for now in a different house. They have no help but us right now, although they manage most everything themselves.
Dad said I shouldn’t go over, and I agreed I wouldn’t, but then I did.
I was upset. I just wanted to see them, because the world is ending, and I knew that although they would likely not remember my explanation, I wanted to tell them why they should never be afraid of us, that it is okay for me and for Robin to visit. When I got there, they were sitting around the dining room table and I joined them. They seemed pleased that I’d dropped in. Though Mom was surprised – and I was surprised she remembered I’d said I wasn’t coming. Dad was finishing his “breakfast” which was soup. Mom had, hours before, finished her lunch. It was about 3 p.m. Dad had no memory of having told me not to come over. I felt compelled to go on with my explanation though I knew it was an exercise in futility. I talked way too much, but they tolerated it. We had a friendly exchange, though Dad couldn’t hear quite a bit of what I was explaining, and Mom repeated a good deal of it, acting as his personal hearing trumpet, and I then put up the poster that I had made with my five simple COVID-19 precautions.
“What are you doing now?” Mom called.
“I’m putting up a poster,” I said. I taped it to the kitchen cabinet. She thought that was funny.
“Why are you making fun of me?” I was irritated. “This is just to remind you what you can do during this time that we’re sequestering. It’s going to go on for a while.”
“You’re acting like my mother!” she said, shaking her head. “Hy,” she said, “Look how she’s bossing us around! She’s acting like my mother.”
He nodded vigorously, and seemed amused.
“Yep, get used to it,” I told them. “I’m going to be a bossy cow.”
I affixed an extra swath of tape to the top of the poster. “I came into this world disguised as your daughter, but now I’m your mother, and I’ll be telling you what to do. All for your own good, of course.”
We were all laughing by then, argument averted for the moment.
Then I was driving home, and the tears came. Perhaps because at the stoplight, I switched on the radio: Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in B-flat was underway. That, and an old man in an old car pulled up in the next lane over. He kept his gaze straight ahead, but he gave me his profile. A Roman coin. Temporarily unearthed. His face a Roman coin.
What Dante’s Inferno Teaches Me
Recently, three things happened at once. Corona virus exploded around the world. I received a devastating letter from my grown son. My partner and I pretty much had to flee Mexico, where we’d been for three months while she taught at the University of the Yucatán. We were quarantined as soon as we got home and the world seemed to be tilting, and I was sliding off.
I began to read Dante’s Inferno, one of those poems I had promised myself I’d get to “later,” by sheer happenstance as I came across the first canto online and thought, “Yes, I know something of what the narrator is experiencing.”
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
How dark seems the world right now, how fearsome. What we knew as normal life has suddenly been upended. We collectively, but at different times, “came to” when we realized that the virus was no longer over there, and that we were deeply in the woods. What a slow, agonizing and hard awakening it was. Dante’s woods resonate with the ones we are in, “savage, dense and harsh –” so harsh that the narration itself re-traumatizes him.
In the midst of his lostness, Dante sees a hill’s “shoulders/ arrayed in the first light of the planet/ that leads men straight, no matter what their road.” Light! Hope! All he has to do is climb up, but he is thwarted by three wild animals. Terrified by their aggressive and threatening approach, he turns back in utter despair, driven “down to where the sun was silent.”
The silence of the sun (‘l sol tace) is such a provocative phrase. What is the language of the sun? And what is its silence? It has been said that a silent sun represents midday when it seems suspended and the temperature is at its hottest and most brutal. I also think of a silent sun as an absent one where no light exists, a place where darkness is, as Milton said, “visible.”
It is not a nice place to be.
And then something happens. Virgil’s ghost appears; Dante’s beloved Virgil comes not just to offer sympathy, but to guide him out of his misery. At first blush, the way out of the darkness and fear sounds as bad as what Dante’s current situation is: he must descend into Hell, witnessing the misery of the lost, understanding the reasons for their torment. The way out of darkness is through darkness.
Grim, I know. But there is something comforting about the fact that Dante the writer understood that none of us gets through our lives unscathed, that we need help from others and it is precisely from others that grace arrives. Virgil’s ghost accompanies him throughout the descent.
And so, the journey begins. Mine too. I still have several cantos to read before I see the outcome of Dante’s journey. I had to wait 14 days to find out if I was infected by the virus as I rushed to get out of Mexico – three airports, two planes, and exposure to a terrifying number of people. I’m still raw from the letter I received from my son. It’s going to be a rigorous journey to the sunlight.
Reading Dante’s gorgeous work (I’m using the bilingual edition of the Hollander translation, by the way) helps me situate my personal fear and anxiety about Chicago’s and the world’s growing and unstable horror, in the context of what it means to be human and vulnerable to a powerfully destructive viral entity so small it can only be apprehended under magnification; to be vulnerable to the pain of a grown child, pain in which I unknowingly played a role many years ago; to be vulnerable to the threat of a global economic collapse; to be vulnerable to death – and yet not as vulnerable as the millions of others with minimal or no resources.
Dante reminds me to think about the condition of being human and the need I have – we have – to connect with each other, to be agents of grace as we journey through whatever hell we find ourselves in until we can “see again the stars.”
COVID-19 Limits Lives of Those with Limitations
I dread the morning phone call.
Joshua will want to know when this will be over and when he can come home. And now because he knows summer is near, when can he go to Okoboji, Iowa. Autistic and developmentally impaired, our son understands the limits of the quarantine but is not sure who is sick and has trouble grasping all the other vagaries of COVID-19.
We did all the right things at an early stage of the COVID-19 warnings. My husband closed his furniture store. “No one ever died because they didn’t have a bar stool,” he said. We bought a reasonable amount of groceries and supplies. We ordered books and tested our access to television movies.
Shannon, my son’s very competent and caring group home supervisor, called to tell us that the house’s management company announced a policy of no home visits and no contacts outside of the group home. I replied that we would instead bring Joshua home for the duration of this epidemic. She gently recommended that he stay at the group home with his easy-going housemates, the competent staff, and his routine. After twenty-four hours of soul-searching and family conference calls, I acquiesced. In normal times, he comes home every week-end, a ritual we all cherish. But we have become tired seventy-three-year-olds, and months of caretaking would strain us.
People with autism need routine. On weekends here, Joshua plays Wii by himself and Uno with us, bikes in good weather, washes cars with his sister. At night, we look for the North Star, which we named “the Joshua Star.” On Sunday, he and I “walk the churches,” a route that allows us to enjoy the bells and recorded music of at least six denominations.
He has now surrendered to a new routine. We FaceTime with him twice a day, as do his sisters and their families. He walks around his block and waves to his neighbors. Some know he loves seeing garage doors move and open theirs for him. The county sheriff sometimes turns on his flashers for him. These small acts manage, as he says, to “make my day.”
Creative and energetic new staff, who were laid off by non-profits that provide jobs to disabled clients, are supplementing their incomes and the house’s workforce. They take him on picnics and walks at uncrowded nature areas. They have made doggie treats with him and encourage him to do puzzles and interact with his roommates.
Joshua will come home. He will be disappointed that we cannot do his Okoboji routine of boats and old friends. His life will probably change in other ways. Work at his beloved sheltered workshop may be limited or impossible for a while. We will adjust. People with disabilities learn early in life about the limitations of their dreams.
Every night, when I let the dog out, I look directly at the brightest star in the sky, the Joshua Star. And wait for when I can show it to him again.
What’s It Like to Love
There he is, standing in the doorway, alert, willing, kind, honest, and I hope he goes away soon because I want minutes to myself, so I can read messages on the phone, the article about conspiracies in The Atlantic, the newsletters from the historian and the lawyer trying to make sense of this time. I want to read texts to make sure I haven’t made anyone mad, or email to make sure I’m not expected to do anything. I haven’t. I am not needed. I didn’t promise anyone something. And then he returns, ready for breakfast, which he makes, brings me cold coffee, which he makes. The door in my heart opens, a little.
But still. There’s my shower, my hearing aids to adjust, the bed to make. I’m late for breakfast.
When he was sick with COVID-19, quarantined in the guest bedroom, I’d check on him every few minutes. Always sleeping. The temperature at a constant 100. He ached. Sometimes he threw up. Tried to eat, couldn’t. He too has hearing aids, but is much deafer than I. So he couldn’t hear me while I raged at the news, at the motherfucker who was responsible for this, couldn’t hear me insane and ranting, willing to kill if anything happened to my beloved. And I was so inadequate. I couldn’t make anything he wanted to eat. I didn’t know how to make him comfortable. I didn’t know if I already had the virus, so I couldn’t kiss him. Or touch him.
Finally I just decided I must already be infected, and got into bed with him and held him. Now, he’s fine; I’m fine too, over my bout. Now, I go back to reading in bed in the morning, guarding my privacy, so that my heart doesn’t slide out of me and lay itself at his feet. Begging him, never leave me.
When I was four years old, my father took me clam digging in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and I looked for the magical bubbles, then dug for clams that I proudly brought home in my red bucket. Two weeks later, my parents were severely burned in the cellar of our rented cottage and disappeared for nine months. I learned that life can change in a millisecond and have always lived in that chiaroscuro world, aware of great joy and great sadness.
Now, the pandemic rages across the world. My husband and I, 76 and 70, and our small dog, Ella, live in Glen Park, San Francisco. We are unable to hug our daughters, unable to go to our grandsons’ graduations back East, unable to gather with friends, and unable to meet and greet our neighbors on the small streets that lead to the market or the bookstore. When I walk Ella, I’m a moving target, avoiding runners breathing heavily, or small clots of teenagers who walk too close. I rush by small children, where before I would smile. When dogs come too near, to play with Ella, I put my hands up – “Please, don’t come too near – thanks.” Some dogs have even carried the virus on their fur. At times, my eyes visible behind my mask, I thank those who move away, a small signal of humanity.
We are the lucky ones: we have a beautiful home, and enough food to eat. In the morning Jim and I sit on the couch, listen to Up First on NPR. Without a guaranteed income or health care for all, more people live on the margins or die needlessly, nurses holding their hands, their loved ones on FaceTime.
I do what I can to repair the world: sign petitions, buy books from my local bookstore. I talk often with my daughters, connecting through this new virtual world. hoping and praying that we all make it through. I make a list. Revise ten pages of my new memoir; get handouts together for a Zoom class I’m teaching; do an exercise tape; and lately, drive once a week out of our neighborhood to take a walk or hike.
Last week, Jim and I walked around Stowe Lake. Along the shores we saw mother geese, their babies clustered around them, an explosion of new life. Jim built me a flower box that sits on the middle patio. I’ve planted lettuce from seed. Now it’s sprouting. I’m excited each day to wake up and see more green sprouts. A small plant a friend gave us has finally flowered, one gorgeous purple blossom. It is these small moments of joy – the ability to comfort a child, to see that nature still dresses the world in all its spring finery – that bring me joy. When the dark feelings take over, I rest, talk to my loved ones, or write. We are all so fragile right now, as we’ve always been. But now, we truly need to care for each other, to finally repair the world.
A Good Hug
I am at home in a comfortable house with my husband, dog, and cat. I am working online so all in all I am lucky and yet challenged by this pandemic existence.
For one thing, I am now cleaning my own house. I have been fortunate enough to have hired someone for many years, but now that the virus confines us all to home, the hardworking woman who cleans my house cannot come here. It has always made me uncomfortable not doing it myself. Such a privilege! Now I have to clean, and it is quite a workout. I am not paying her enough.
Removing the duvet from a king-size comforter, washing it, and then putting the comforter back inside requires technique. Even with a good plan, I am not strong enough.
As I make the bed I notice the nightstands need dusting. Vacuuming the floor leads to seeing that the windowsills need wiping down, that all the surfaces are dusty. I finally understand why my mother was always cleaning. Once you start there is no end.
Vacuuming the steps is particularly difficult. It requires dexterity and triceps strength that is considerable. The first time I do the steps between the first and second floor, I notice that the window on the landing, which I pass many times a day and evidently never look at, needs cleaning. This leads me to look around. All the windows need cleaning.
My husband is more than happy to disinfect, a manly task, but his everyday cleaning standards are mediocre, and our relationship cannot manage the discussion of “just what clean means.”
My husband is in charge of keeping the virus out of the house. I am often yelled at for some infraction of the rules. He is having the best time ever controlling our universe to protect us from the imminent threat of annihilation. The pandemic is a confirmation of his world view. He believes it will never be over. This will go on for months, maybe years. When he sees someone not wearing a mask he has a thing or two to say about the apocalypse and how this unmasked citizen is responsible for adding to the death toll.
The one infraction I am allowed is having my sister over to sit on the porch with me, masked and at least six feet away. The visits are lovely but I can’t hug her hello or goodbye or smack her arm when she says something annoying. It doesn’t feel right. The essence of most of my family visits are in the hug.
It’s been two months since I have hugged my daughter or granddaughter. My husband is an okay hugger but far from the best. My daughter’s hugs are brilliant and fill my soul. I would gladly clean my house for the rest of my life for the gift of hugs from my daughter and granddaughter.
Day #34 of “Safer at Home.”
Politicians are looking for someone or something to blame for COVID-19. They fasten on Wuhan, China. Was the virus on wild animal meat in the city’s “wet market?” Did the germ escape from a military lab a few blocks away? How about the natural phenomenon that folks have been fearing for several years?
No one is considering that Grandmother Goddess Hannahannah might be responsible. Maybe she heard Greta Thunberg address the United Nations last year, saw the ho-hum response to our climate change peril, and got really pissed.
When Hannahannah gets angry she heads to the underworld.
On January 1, while humans were dancing and drinking in the New Year, Hannahannah shut down her Mac, picked up her luggage, and slipped through the veil of light and dark.
Of course, during the six-months of every year that Hannahannah is underground, everything above goes to hell.
And she doesn’t care.
Especially this time she doesn’t care.
She knows an abused Mother Earth needs a break.
So in her underground suite, Grandmother Goddess Hannahannah lies back on feather pillows and thinks that while she’s here, maybe she’ll take ukulele lessons.
I live alone on the third floor of a condominium where everyone is more than sixty years old, a warm community that meets every month in the foyer for potluck dinner, chats in the parking lot, gathers to play card games, even goes on trips. The elevator growls up and down all day.
But now silence fills the corridors; we block our smiles with masks; we speak with our eyes. As an Indian immigrant, I’m reminded of the caste system – the untouchables who distance themselves from everyone, the people for whom Gandhi fought so hard.
There is no life around me except for my fish; their vibrant colors flooding the tank, and the pileated blue wood pecker that tap-taps on the trees. Yes, there is time to read, write, think, and yet at the day’s end, I am empty. I watch TV ─ the heroic deeds of nurses, doctors, service people, whose lives are meaningful.
Despite Zoom sessions with fellow poets and writers, the loneliness is chilling. Characters in my stories and poetry don’t come alive as they used to. I’ve created them; I love some; some disappoint me, but they’ve all been in my heart for years. Now, they too are forgetting their sagas and prefer doing something meaningful. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined abandoning my characters in folders in a row on my carpet.
There’s Nina trapped in Professor Shah’s office, seeking help with her application to college when the loudspeaker screams that Indira Gandhi had been shot. Everyone should vacate the building. Students and teachers rush through the hallways, but Professor Shah jumps up and locks the door. “Finish it now,” he says, lighting a cigarette.
There’s Aruna, who went home to her mother to deliver her child, as Indian girls do. Her mother-in-law predicted it was a boy! She was wrong. Instead, a child with nothing between her legs was born, a girl of no value, she told her son.
There are poems that yearn to live on the pages of a book. Some have been published in journals; some are in the final throes of editing. They are all waiting for me.
Perhaps characters come alive when we ourselves are alive, can speak and hug our families and friends, do a little something for someone. I am surprised and deeply saddened by my own helplessness. Yes, it is petty, meaningless and self-serving.
Lucille Clifton, Maryland’s poet laureate from 1979 to 1985, wrote “Every day something has tried to kill me. And failed.” Every day, I read her words.
Cancer in the Time of Corona
“I’m sorry to tell you this way, Mom. I’m at work and don’t have time to call. It’s bad news. I have colon cancer.”
I slumped in my chair and cried when I read the text from my daughter. The week before, Jennifer had her first routine colonoscopy. At age forty-eight, she was younger than the recommended age of fifty, but I’d had several colon polyps, and there can be a hereditary connection, so she made the appointment. The doctor found two polyps.
When the biopsy confirmed cancer, it was shocking. Jennifer had no symptoms. However, the cancer had already invaded the lining of her colon, in the same silent and invisible way that the COVID-19 virus was invading our country.
Nobody was allowed to accompany her for a diagnostic MRI and blood work to see if the cancer had spread. We had to stay apart, trying our best to make sure she didn’t contract the virus. My heart ached as she went through frightening tests alone.
Jennifer needed surgery. But COVID-19 was at its peak. Hospitals were flooded with patients who were sick and dying. The surgeon’s office canceled her appointment indefinitely due to the pandemic.
Concerned, we researched neighboring states with fewer corona cases, wondering if she should attempt to have life-saving surgery elsewhere. But the virus was spreading throughout America at an alarming rate. She couldn’t outrun COVID-19.
Several days later, the surgeon’s office called back and said he wanted to see her. We were elated! However, when she met him in his office, he explained that all surgeries were canceled except for imminent emergencies only. Jennifer had to wait.
Each week the hospital medical panel met and decided on surgical cases. They allowed only a small number of surgeries to be performed during the pandemic. We waited, and prayed.
When the phone rang on a Friday morning, the surgeon was excited. “Say yes, and I can operate on you next week.” he said. They scheduled her surgery for the following Wednesday.
The hospital did not allow visitors. Jen’s husband had to drop her off, kiss her goodbye, and not see her again until he brought her home. It upset her to think she would undergo surgery and recovery alone, with no family members on the premises.
“I know it sounds silly, Mom, because I’ll be asleep, but if something bad happens during the operation, I’ll be all alone.”
I told her I would be there.
That morning, as they wheeled Jen into the operating room, I sat in my car in the hospital parking lot. I wanted her to know her mother was close by during the surgery. She wasn’t alone.
I watched as the parking lot filled with doctors and nurses who bravely walked into the hospital to help others, despite the pandemic. These dedicated people will forever be heroes as they walk towards danger every day.
Not only was Jennifer’s operation a success that morning, but she did not need to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. The surgeon removed all the cancer.
Four days later, on her son Ronan’s fourteenth birthday, Jennifer stood outside her home with him. Before the surgery, she had arranged for a birthday parade of his friends to drive by in cars, honk and wave, not knowing if she would be there to see it. I was in that festive parade, and cried with happiness to see my beautiful daughter standing outside, clapping and smiling. She blew me a kiss, tears in her eyes.
We still can’t hug each other, but hearing her voice on the phone or communicating with her on Zoom warms my heart.
In this time of corona, my daughter fought her personal battle with illness, and won. I can’t wait for the day when I can hold her once again.
Writing into the Future
I haven’t had a haircut in months. My head looks like an over-enthusiastic chia pet. I’m stress-baking. Again. And I’m eating everything I bake. I watch too much TV news, read too many newspaper articles online and in print, and answer too many emails/texts/posts/phone calls about the virus. I worry all the time. About my health, my husband’s health, my family, friends, neighbors, and strangers I’ll never meet. The state of our country terrifies me. I go out into my garden. The roses oblige me, their perfumed blooms opening like a sigh. Then the cheerful zucchini, not to be outdone by the yearning tomatoes and eager basil, burst forth in shocks of yellow and green. I like the way the world is slowing down. I take my pruning shears and snip here, snip there. I remember to breathe in, then breathe out. It helps some, this small piece of living right, but the anxiety never completely leaves me. So I’ve been writing poems every day for about two months. I make it a practice to sit down in the early morning and write whatever facet of my worry manages to find its way onto the page. Typically, I am an excruciatingly slow writer. I often work and rework a poem many times over. But this pandemic – with the death toll rising every day; with desperate searches for vaccines, protective masks, gloves, and gowns; with shortages of food and more shortages of sanity; with so many lies publicly told as truths; with no real answer to how to survive except a “take your chances” strategy to combat the deadly virus – weighs me down in what feels like a physical pain similar to grief. I feel helpless. So I write. I write without hope that I’ll feel better, that my country will feel better to me. But I know the power of words is real. There is a possibility that my poems will answer a question I didn’t know I’d asked. I am writing into a future which maybe only my poems know exists. And that’s how I am coping.
At a Window
I live next to a window. I live with the self. Solitude is the gift of time to write. To stare. To breathe slowly. Time to ask who the hell I am. Loneliness is an ache. News reports do not compensate. Memories of my long and varied life bring sounds of wind in the palm fronds, rain on a roof, a scent of sea at the hours of dusk, applause from a darkened audience. In these ragged months of global ache, death is one of many inevitable(s). We all know this, but I’ve had a personal mantra for years, I am the woman who asks how close is death, how near is God. I used to visit with old women. I thought I needed to learn how to become one. I photographed their hands, their see-through veins, their milk-stained stares. The subject is not new to me, sharpened by the solitude and of course, the loneliness; front of my mind and heart, or in the background, it lurks. Now that the déconfinement as it is called in Paris has been semi-opened, paranoia about my collective humanity being stupid grows daily. Streets are too crowded with those who do not wear a mask even when I do. Those who don’t make space on a sidewalk when I stick one big toe in the metaphoric water to breathe a brief dose of long denied sunshine. I used to be afraid to come too close to an accident in the street, or a lover who was too much older than me. That changed. I attended disasters. Touched hurt bodies. Began to think about healing. Touching. And honesty. I once admitted to an older lover, as we lay naked and pleasured, that I was afraid to catch his age. Fortunately, he was compassionate. But our collective terrible illness of 2020 has changed all I thought I believed. Angel or vulture, how can I know? I’m one of millions, daring to ask without answers. I used to be addicted to hope. I’ve been lost. But I’m a woman who asks. Sometimes I speak a single psalm, a nod to my father’s demand that I learn the Old Testament before he died. For He shall give his angels charge over thee … to keep thee in all of thy ways. “But first you have to agree to do the soul’s work.” An ex-priest told me that. “Do your soul’s work.” That’s what I tell myself I have been forced to do these months. Soul Work. An understanding insists that there is nothing else. I go blank and forget that I made any such promise to myself. Then I remember. Thinking I do not know how to do it, then silent, then lonely, then afraid of the future so best not to think of it, I stop the clock. I look at the small flowers in a box outside my window. I must water them. There is no one else to speak to but the black cat. She is more interested in food than in my soul. But alone in the dark, I draw her near me and she seems to understand that bodies need bodies, no matter our species, and she allows us to sleep curled, and to live in the endless un-knowing. I know nothing more than now … and now. And maybe that – is the soul’s work. Being still. And not knowing. And living another night and morning.
This morning, I awoke exhausted from a dream set in my post office. I’d gone there to get my mail, as delivery had stopped, and I ran into a guy I know, a former colleague at the Village Voice, the historic alternative-press paper that shut down two years ago. A tall, substantial fellow, he’s a musician who serves as a DJ on local non-profit radio. We were both masked, and had in our hands envelopes we’d come to drop off, because the street mailboxes were gone. We talked for a while, staring at the single slot in the wall – a small, vertical slot, like one of the boxes the P.O. would rent to you – that was already stuffed with letters. No room for ours. I volunteered to take his letters and find another resting place for them, along with mine.
As I walked toward the service windows of the large, WPA-era post office, a clerk waved to me and said, “Hey, I know that guy, he’s a musician!” I tried to give her our letters. “Sorry,” she said. “We’re full.”
I lay there for a while, shaking off sleep, pondering my plight, and then realized it was OK. I am not responsible for his mail, or for mine; the post office is still operating. For now.