Sunday, June 21, 2020

After Truth


“I’m at church,” I said to my husband as he walked back into the kitchen to rinse his egg plate. I was muted, and later I turned off my camera, too, to minimize problems with Zoom on my phone. Life is so virtual now. It was an excellent reflection (we don’t have sermons), reminding us that compassion teaches better than shame. I do think that’s true. I learn more, and am more open to learning, when not shamed into it. My phone was propped up against the glass jar holding our gummy vitamins, which I used with a glass of water for our bloodless, bodiless communion.

I finished The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Picture it, a hotel of glass on a remote, wooded island. A main character who is for a time a bartender at the hotel is a woman named Vincent. I was thinking, just like Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, sure enough, it turns out the character’s mother named her after the poet!

As I read further, I encountered another coincidence: container ships off the coast of Malaysia! I know these ships! And then a character named Miranda, who is drawing! I realize she must be drawing scenes that will end up in her comic book, “Station Eleven,” from the St. John Mandel novel I read previously, Station Eleven! It’s not just a Random Coinciday! It’s intentional, and neato!

The Glass Hotel is a compelling book about “counterlives,” somewhere between the parallel lives supposedly possible in physics and lives imagined from wishful thinking, perhaps tangled in memory and dream. It’s a book about ghosts, what we are haunted by—regret, guilt, shame, people we loved and lost, people we harmed. It’s a book about shadow countries, the country of money, the country of the cheated. It asks interesting questions: What would you do for enough money? What won’t you do? It’s a book about denial, asking, Is it possible to both know and not know something at the same time?

By chance, while I was reading this, we watched the documentary After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, which shows the harm that can be done by sending untruths out in the world and also how “fake news” is used as a weapon by those who should know better. I finally found out exactly what happened with “pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory weaponized to discredit Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign season. (She had nothing to do with it, of course.) I now have great admiration for the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor staff and customers, so brave, so generous! And compassion for the gun-carrying fellow who was misled by fake news. Once he realized he was acting on false information, he readily gave himself up to police.

We need truth, we need transparency. Back to The Glass Hotel. The plot involves a Ponzi scheme, like the one that Bernie Madoff devised and went to jail for. “People believe in all kinds of things. Just because it’s a delusion doesn’t mean it can’t make real money for people. You want to talk about mass delusions, I know a lot of guys who got rich off of subprime mortgages.” That’s a character justifying his own lies, just as Jack Burkman justifies using fake news to try to get what he wants in After Truth.

I don’t quite believe in parallel lives. I think they exist in the math and the mind, not in reality. “What is reality?” someone will ask, and/or use to confuse or mislead me. What might I answer? Comet Ping Pong.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Last Days


My tiny chalkboard poems continue and, apparently, are appreciated by many who read them on social media, as these readers are telling me. I am glad. In addition to sudden chalkboard revisions as I write, I experience ongoing changes in interpretation. I wrote “Last Days” in my back yard, on the patio, gazing in wonder at the beauty of everything around me, and feeling eternity somehow. Inside me was the scary realization that I/we might be living our last days on earth…but, if so, at least they would be remarkably beautiful. And the world could go on without us.

Last Days

Yes, it might be
one of the last days
so breezy and bright,
so beautiful and clear.

The first version ended with two sentence fragments and had three periods. It felt breezier and brighter, therefore, but lacked eternity. Now it is one long sentence, like life. Eternity remains only in the title and at a line break. These may simply be the last days of sheer beauty before rain (needed!) or terrible heat (coming today). Or…these may indeed be my/our last days on earth.

I suspect I’m under the influence of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014 but terribly pertinent to now, as it’s about the world after a flu pandemic has drastically reduced population and wiped out civilization as we knew it. No grocery stores now, gasoline has expired, no electricity, no phones, no computers. People are making do in settlements here and there. And there’s a Traveling Symphony for entertainment, because, and this is a quotation from Star Trek: Voyager, “survival is insufficient.” This book was gripping and oddly hopeful! And it led me to her new one, The Glass Hotel, which I have to read in a hurry and return as it’s a “7-Day” new book, but time is askew at the library (as elsewhere) due to quarantining of books and materials for seven days upon their return.

I’m also reading Seed to Harvest, a collection of four short novels by Octavia E. Butler. She was a science fiction writer who died young, and people had been telling me about her work, so I read Fledgling, her vampire novel, which turned out to be her last. When Seed to Harvest came in to the library, I happened to be the one who “processed” it for library use, realizing I would now wait and let our regular patrons read it while it was a “new” book, and I’d get it later. Later is now!

Today is Juneteenth (which cannot be descecrated by a president who had never heard of it till he made it “famous.” Oh, my God. See why it feels like our last days?) Last year, Juneteenth was the theme of a script I wrote for an annual event sponsored by the local history museum. I knew it would be as soon as I learned the date of the event, June 19. You can’t hold an event on Juneteenth and not honor it. This year’s event, with its own theme, is not happening, due to the virus, and is postponed till 2021. Its title and theme will still be “Hindsight is 20/20,” which sort of breaks my heart.

I’m glad I happen to be reading a black author as well as a white author on June 19. But, you know, I’m not sure I like white people telling me what books on racism or anti-racism I should be reading. Yes, I want to learn, and, yes, I like book recommendations, but I want to learn about black experience by listening to black people, and reading their words. Is this an example of “white fragility”? I don’t know yet, as I haven’t read White Fragility, which is written by a white woman. Eventually, probably, I will.

For now, I’m reading (and writing) what comes to hand and what comes to heart in these precious, ongoing, even sometimes interminable last days, where every day is a Random Coinciday, and some days are Cranky Doodle Days.



Sunday, June 14, 2020

Chalk Revisions


My new routines include posting a poem every morning in June in three ways: in chalk on a chalkboard beside my front stoop, on Instagram, and on Facebook. 

What I’ve discovered is that I make chalk revisions, adapting the poem to how it looks and feels on the green chalkboard, how it fits there. This causes a few changes in line break and word choice. This surprised me but was oddly appropriate to the “now” we are living in, containing constant changes in a kind of suspended time that makes me constantly attentive to the present moment. So, moments ago, yesterday’s handwritten poem about the lavender-colored clematis blooming in my yard was adapted into chalk without the word “clematis” in it and with a line that has colors at both ends.

Tiny Meditation

I gaze at a pale
purple bloom on a white
trellis made of thread
upon a wooden fence.

In all its versions, it reminds me a bit of the William Carlos Williams poem with the white chickens. Probably because of brevity, the color white, and the word “upon.”

Another new routine involves masks. I have two masks, both handmade by volunteers, one provided by my workplace, one requested from a friend before I went back to work. It’s good to have two, so I can wash them after each day’s use and leave one to hang dry while I wear the other. I have two little fabric bags for carrying them, and these I also wash after each use. I can carry my mask in the fabric bag in the car, on my way to the grocery store, or in my hand as I walk to work in a scarf or bandana, tied and arranged to be pulled up quickly if I meet someone on the sidewalk as we cross Sugar Creek together and can’t step six feet politely aside.

No lipstick. It would get on the mask. Lipstick in Zoom sessions, to help you read my lips.

We all wear masks at work in the closed library. We wash our hands frequently and use hand sanitizer. I feel like a doctor or nurse now, walking into the room and washing my hands first thing. I had my annual wellness appointment with my doctor, as well as a previously scheduled dental appointment, following the new protocols. Temperature at the door, a series of questions to answer, masks. At the doctor’s office, the nurse gave me a heads-up to keep my mask secure, the doctor is a stickler (yay!), and I made sure my glasses secured my mask above my nose. At the dentist, the hygienist wore her usual mask and face shield but had adapted the cleaning to avoid excess water spray. The dentist did his usual handwashing but not his usual handshake! And wore a mask.

One of my daily chalkboard poems was about masks. So was another, one I chose not to put up, as it seemed too harsh and might upset the mail carrier. But you can probably handle it:

Unmasked

If you don’t wear a mask         
you reveal who you are

in more ways than one.

It is a little mean and glib. (And, oddly, it reminds me of a line from one of the Batman movies.) But, really, that’s what’s going on around here, out there, many people not wearing masks, thinking it’s all over, we’re all OK. Friends and co-workers are experiencing it out in the world and are worried. My parents decided not to go to an outdoor restaurant with friends when they saw how crowded it was, how few people were wearing masks, how some were sitting indoors… I’ve only seen my parents four times since March 13, in their back yard or their huge great room, six feet apart. A friend from Chicago came to town, and I visited with him outdoors and at the proper distance, no hugging.

Sigh… Yes, constant chalk revisions of our very lives. Chalk circles now on park greens to designate areas to sit in the sun. Pink chalk hearts on the street to show where to stand for the Pride Month Pulse memorial event.

But don’t be fooled, the virus hasn’t been erased.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Wearing Orange


What a week. What a hard time for our country and our world. I am grateful for the peaceful protests in solidarity happening all over. I am sorrowful about the ongoing grief arising from COVID-19, police brutality, racism, hate crimes, economic inequality, global warming, pollution, and violence. Oh, my god, the list of sorrows goes on and on in my mind.

As June came up, I thought I’d write a tiny poem a day on an easel/chalkboard we had in the basement from when the kids were young, keep it out by the front stoop, take a picture each day and post it on Instagram for family and Facebook for friends, and bring a tiny bit of cheer or beauty or love to people daily, from my own skill set, when I feel helpless sometimes, or on hold, and don’t know what to do to help. But June 1 became a National Day of Mourning, so I started with that. Tuesday became our Blackout Tuesday, but I had put out my tiny-as-a-postage-stamp poem for the mail carrier already, so I just kept going.

Now I am quietly protesting gun violence in America on Wear Orange weekend, June 5-6, an ongoing virtual event. We are decorating our front doors with orange; mine is sprinkled with orange construction paper hearts, my chalkboard poems, and some tiny shiny bursting boxes with orange pipe cleaners. Official Wear Orange Day was Friday, June 5. June 5 is also Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She was killed by guns in a terrible police mistake. But Wear Orange Day was created by friends of Hadiya Pendleton, dead at 15 by gun violence, back in 2013. My poem for that is hard, quick, and blunt. You understand why. 

Today I Wear Orange

to honor the dead girl
killed by a gun. Orange
like a hunting vest,
meant to say:
I’m not prey.

Hadiya had just been in the parade for President Obama’s second inauguration and was dead a week later.

I’m wearing my orange Moms Demand Action volunteer shirt today. Yesterday I wore my coral orange work shirt to plant salmon orange geraniums in the library planters, a marvelous coincidence. And I got to wear a bright yellow safety vest trimmed in bright orange to weed along the street. My shoelaces are melon orange.

I don’t like to jump on any bandwagons, but I do wish to stand in solidarity with all our nonviolent protestors today. At a distance, masked, I attended our local NAACP/Not In My Town rally to see, feel, and be part of the local support. I came late and left early, not wanting to mingle with any crowds. Couldn’t hear or see the presenters, but felt the solidarity. My peripheral vision made me turn at the right time to see potential danger, a young white man wearing a bandana on his forehead riding a motorcycle on Front Street. My gut said, Trouble. Later, he drove through the crowd and injured people; he’s been arrested. I listen to my gut now, having ignored it sometimes in the past. After seeing him, I scanned the crowd, as well. I was looking at the young white guys, I have to confess. There’s my current bias and tendency to profile. I apologize for the past, the present, and the future. I’ll do what I can, which doesn’t seem like much, but I do vote and help get out the vote, via a tiny elected office.

And my tiny poems will continue, at least through June. If I can remember what day it is. And who I am.

UPDATE: I stand corrected! (And that surely reminds me who I am!) When I walked down to a nearby park at noon, to join other Moms in orange, all of us holding up honk-in-support signs, you know who was among the honkers? Yep, young white men! Even a youngish white man in a bandana on a motorcyle! (He was wearing his bandana as a mask.) Supporters were men, women, and humans of all ages, white, black, people of color, a surprising number of them masked while driving. There's a whole array of honking styles, let me tell you. Also waving styles. We saw thumbs up and fists up. We were all wearing masks, so we tried to send smiles with our eyes, thumbs up back, and grateful nods. A beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Weather or Not


I have finally discovered Jenny Offill! For all of you who were reading her all along, isn’t she wonderful?! She writes a kind of fragmentary prose—vignettes, quotations, snippets of dialogue, prose poems, flash fictions, mini-scenes—all held together by a narrative flow/arc and a narrator’s consciousness. Gorgeous!

I started with Dept.of Speculation, about being a mom in a perfect-yet-shaky marriage instead of being a “monster artist,” as planned. The point of view is a crucial element of the story telling in this one, shifting from first to third to first again, so quietly. At one point the narrator is speculating about the phrase “wayward fog,” a state of mind to watch out for! “The person who has the affair becomes enveloped in it.” A little later, “It is during this period that people burn their houses down.”

On aging (though the narrator is still pretty darn young!): “But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

Then I read Weather, the perfect climate-change follow-up book to A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet, who thanks Jenny Offill in her acknowledgements! And Weather is “for Lydia”! (This Lydia?! I think probably yes.) Anyhoo, I easily connected with this one because the narrator, Lizzie, is a lot like me: she works in a library, has a “twinging knee,” and is terribly upset by the most recent presidential election, which seems to spell the end of the world.

So, yes, it’s a book about disaster psychology and preparedness—“…the superrich are buying doomsteads in New Zealand”—but it’s climate change, not pandemic, bringing on the end. With a context of 9/11. Her friend from Iran, who left right before the Shah fell, gives her insight on that: “Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.”

The superrich retreating into remote or gated safety is a Millet/Offill parallel. In Weather, the superrich who want to go to Mars get to answer a survey question: “What will you miss most on Earth?” “I will miss swimming the most.”

I will miss swimming on Earth! The local pools are closed this summer, a good choice. Sadly, as I write, this is the Memorial Day weekend of photos posted on the Internet of vacationers crammed together on beaches and in waterparks. Oh, there will be illness and death as a result, and not just among the vacationers. Alas!

In Weather,

…there’s an expert giving advice about how to survive disasters, natural and man-made. He says it’s a myth that people panic in emergencies. Eighty percent just freeze. The brain refuses to take in what is happening. This is called the incredulity response. “Those who live move,” he says.

Lizzie, the narrator, is helping to answer the emails of Sylvia, a climate activist also devastated, of course, by the election and by the relentless damage that now there is no hope of reversing. She says, in a speech, “What it means to be a good person, a moral person, is calculated differently in times of crisis than in ordinary circumstances.” Oh, my, we are challenged now, aren’t we, on how to be a good and moral person. I admire so much of what I see out there, and it helps to counter my despair over the masses in the waterparks. Yes, Mr. Rogers, I’ll keep looking for the helpers.

And reading. Jenny Offill’s prose style helps. Each fragment is like a moment lived fully, then let go. It is, therefore, like a meditation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Songs with Stars in Them


Oh, there are so many songs with stars in them, among them, “So Many Stars.” They are on my mind, and in my ears, playing on in the otherwise silence, partly because yesterday I was listening to The Weepies sing “Hideaway,” where “even the stars hide away.” So I thought I would offer a little list! Song title, singer/band, maybe the line with stars in it that plays in my head, and a YouTube link for it so you can listen for yourselves!

“Les Etoiles,” sung by Melody Gardot on My One and Only Thrill and, on the same album, in English, “If the Stars Were Mine” ending with a child’s voice calling, “Mom, Mom!”

“If the stars were mine, I’d give them all to you…I’d put the stars right in a jar and give them all to you.”

“So Many Stars,” sung by Jane Monheit on Surrender

“How can I tell? How will I know? Out of oh so many stars... so many stars... / The wind... is filled with songs so many songs / Which one is mine?”

“Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love,” sung by China Forbes with Pink Martini on the album Hang On Little Tomato, Live in Portland, Oregon. The video has a wonderful, eerie, sweet black and white opening before the live performance.

“I know a falling star can’t fall forever / But let’s never stop falling in love”

and from the same album, concert, and singer: “The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley”

“Under Orion’s starry sky / I lie in the moonlit garden…”

“ThankYou, Stars” sung by Katie Melua on Piece by Piece

“And when you’re out there on your own, / It’s the way back home….You are the reason we found ours, / So thank you, stars.”

“Hideaway,” sung by The Weepies on Hideaway

“Even the stars sometimes fade to gray / Even the stars hide away”

Happy listening!


Weepy Wednesday


My scattershot Covid-19 reading had just led me to an opinion piece in The New Republic about the rich having run off to escape the virus in complexes far away from cities, and how they’ll stay gated and protected afterwards, when my newly-spawned ebook reading led me to A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet, where some rich kids from a yacht tell some not-so-rich kids on a beach about their parents’ complexes off in Oregon and Washington state, where they’ll be safe during the chaos of the end of the world.

There’s no virus (yet) in this novel, but there’s extreme weather, pollution, and general toxicity. The rich kids feel insulated from it all, partly by their wealth, yes, but also by their seize-the-day, devil-may-care attitude: “…the yacht kids didn’t care about skin cancer. If they lived long enough to get a bunch of melanomas, they figured, they’d bust out the champagne.”

But the book is not about them. It’s a about a group of children and teens who are sharing a summer vacation house with all their parents. I was reading it when we had days and days of rain, while, in the book, parents and children are preparing for a major storm, of near Noah’s-Ark-like proportions. Indeed, that parallel is intentional. A sweet boy, Jack, has been given a children’s version of the bible and, having been raised in a climate of atheism, is reading those stories for the first time…but making viable connections to the world he is living in. His sister, the narrator, is Evie, like Eve of the Garden of Eden. Another sweet boy, Shel, who is deaf, handcuffs himself to a treehouse. I had just read a poem in a Zoom event about a woman who lives in a redwood tree for two years to save it from loggers. In this novel, the children try to save the animals, Noah-style, from flooding from the storm. 

In the aftermath, certain events align readily with my Covid-19 filter: “The parents are getting sick….Fever and chills. Headaches.” Then the parents text the children to say not to come back right now, it might be contagious. These teens are disgruntled with the parents, who are always drunk and who have abandoned the world, ruining it. But here, the narrator begins to awaken to the possibility of their love: “I marveled: the parents, caught in a selfless gesture. I almost wanted to thank them.”

Later she remembers not picking up after herself, leaving snack bags in the family car. “It hadn’t occurred to me to pick it up. I always waited for my parents to take care of it. Once we had let them do everything for us—assumed they would. Then came the day we wouldn’t let them.”

It reminds of a song by The Weepies, “Can’t Go Back Now.”

       Yesterday when you were young
       Everything you needed done was done for you
       Now you do it on your own
       But you find you’re all alone
       What can you do?

But while The Weepies move past their nostalgia for helplessness, and “Walk on, walk on, walk on / ‘Cause you can’t go back now,” the narrator of A Children’s Bible resists shared responsibility for slick blame and continues, “Still later we found out that they hadn’t done everything at all. They’d left out the important part. And it was known as: the future.” 

A Children’s Bible carries some of the righteous rage of Greta Thunberg. Yes, the children can be angry with their mostly self-absorbed parents. I understand young people’s anger and sorrow about the world they will inherit from previous generations that were wrapped up in materialism and themselves, allowing global warming to continue, ignoring climate change and activism on behalf of the planet. But not all parents or older people of today ignore climate issues. Many are recyclers who don’t put poisons on their lawns and do grow native plants, etc. And, in the current coronavirus crisis, it is sometimes young people who are selfishly ignoring precautions, thinking themselves invincible, as young people often do, and not wearing masks to protect others, congregating in houses, parks, beaches, parking lots, apartments for beer parties, just like they did before, until some of them get sick, and it sinks in.

Avoiding responsibility and playing the blame game are unlikely to fix anything or lead to lasting change. But suffering may well teach Evie what she needs to know to be able to “walk on, walk on, walk on….” And I can easily forgive her her petulance, thanks to her moments of insight: “Why are we always complaining? We get to be alive.”

Here’s the New York Times review of A Children’s Bible. And here’s another review of mine, in Escape Into Life, of Mothershell, byAndrea Potos, also read through a Covid-19 filter. And here's the charming, childlike, official music video for "Can't Go Back Now" on YouTube.


Friday, May 15, 2020

Words I'm Not Writing Down


My clothes still fit, and my ear holes haven’t closed up, small good things. I do sometimes wear earrings for Zoom meetings, and I wore some yesterday when I went back to work for the first time, processing library materials in a closed library. Lots of hand-washing, careful use of three disinfectant wipes (for door and cart handles, surfaces), and judicious mask wearing. It felt good to see people—the few who were there, only four in the building at all, I think, plus some construction workers renovating the bathrooms, but I didn’t actually see them; I did see the smaller music collection, reduced to make room for a new accessible bathroom. A pang, but 1) what’s done is done 2) many people get their music in other ways now 3) we’ll have an accessible restroom on the main floor!

It felt good to clear off my desk.

Mostly, I’ve been working at home. Learning a lot, shifting to some tasks that are already in my wheelhouse (as a reader, writer, and editor), and wondering if and how my library job might change accordingly. All the articles I’m reading about libraries and workplaces re-opening do suggest that, since there is no return to the “normal” of before, we might consider who can still work from home and how to re-structure workplaces for health safety, privacy, and fewer shared work stations. Sigh, more like the cubicles of an earlier era. Not to mention the possible health scanning devices we might need to walk through, like metal detectors but taking our temperatures…

Science fiction that isn’t fiction. Of course, the great science fiction writers have always been writing about real science, often predictive science. I was reminding my folks that zombie movies begin with a virus, a virus that wants to live, and so it is very contagious.

On Wednesday (I think?) I was describing the plot of the movie Children of Men to my mom. (I still need to read the book, by P.D. James, no doubt as an ebook, under the circumstances. Even though I went back to the library, I am not checking out any physical materials till our policy is in place for that!) Pollution or something has reduced human fertility, and yet there may be a baby, there may be a safe place to raise a baby!! Oddly, this has been a go-to movie for me at times. Like The Fifth Element, which I also watched again recently, it shows me decent people acting decently alongside those who don’t in a scary, chaotic world with aspects of regular life and its ironic excesses despite the general dystopia of it all.

“What happens?” my mom asked, wanting some hope at the end. I hadn’t wanted to spoil the ending, but she needed the hope, which I could and couldn’t give her, because of the delicate, watery nature of the ending, but I could stress the big boat of rescue coming near.

This is a Blue Monday in the blog, even though it's Friday. Some weeks, it feels like Monday all the way to Wednesday, when it starts feeling like the Friday that will never come. There are things I am saying to myself these days, in words in my head that I’m not writing down—not here, not in my private diary, not in poems. They are ongoing. They come while I am walking or working, they interrupt my reading. They are mixed—like life. They have hope and fear and despair, darkness and light. I don’t know if I will ever write them down.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother's Day, Again


I’ve been a little sad all day, this first Mother’s Day of the pandemic. We had a nice multi-generational family Zoom chat, with mother stories and laughter, and a baby at hand (and sometimes cuddled in a box like a cat!). Some of us were inside, and some of us were out—too chilly and gloomy here in Illinois, but sunny and warm enough for those in Nebraska and Oregon, California and South Carolina… Why was I so sad? Perhaps the general sorrow and unease has caught up with me.

As perhaps it did with Olive Kitteridge, who has mellowed a bit in Olive, Again, the sort-of-a-sequel by Elizabeth Strout. If you didn’t like Olive in Olive Kitteridge, you might like her better now: her life is catching up with her, she’s worried she wasn’t a good mother, and she’s learned even more about love. If, like me, you did love the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this return to small-town Maine and linked short stories that work together to create a novel.

I read it at exactly the right time, though as an ebook and through pandemic eyes. It’s a cold May here, and character Jack Kennison is out on a cold June day, noticing the people. “There were people on the sidewalks, many were young people with kids or strollers, and they all seemed to be talking to one another. This fact impressed him. How easily they took this for granted, to be with one another, to be talking!” Indeed, how easily we took that for granted.

The character of Suzanne, whom her lawyer friend considers a true innocent, says to him, “I think our job—maybe even our duty—is to…bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.” I think she’s right. 

Blunt Olive Kitteridge, who has come to visit Cindy Coombs after seeing her in the grocery store and realizing she’s very sick, says, to help Cindy understand why none of her friends are visiting, “Everyone’s scared to die.” Everyone is, probably, or almost everyone. That fear is producing some very bad behavior in our country these days, and also some very good behavior. That fear, that suffering, may be developing people’s empathy. There’s some beautiful, generous stuff going on these days, too.

On Zoom today, I told about how wonderful it was to talk to my mom on the phone when I was young and alone and homesick on my own in the big city. Sometimes I’d call up and say, “I’m sad, sad, sad,” and she would help me remember the beauty of world. Today on Zoom, my daughter began to tell how I helped her learn to breathe…to handle pain…and then she cried, and I cried, and the Zoom went on, and we had our quiet tears and quiet recovery, and here we are again.

Ah, and just now, a birth! Mordecai Ivan Rio. Newly in the world!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road


I love Anne Tyler. Maybe my favorite of hers is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But I just read Redhead by the Side of the Road and was charmed. It’s pretty short, reads quickly, and keeps you rooting for love, of whatever kind, to win in the end. 

People keep being human in Anne Tyler novels, flawed, though sometimes trying very hard, even too hard, not to make mistakes. They want to be worthy of love.

I could focus on this book, even during this wackadoo time when it’s hard to focus on reading. Main character Micah Mortimer likes his routines, and that may have anchored me! He’s a misfit brother in a chaotic family, one of  Anne Tyler’s endearing routines.

He’s an IT guy and a bit of a hermit…so he has his own business, Tech Hermit. He’s “finicky” compared to his sisters and their families, but his sisters remember a bunch of personal details about people, past and present. I love how Tyler gets into his tech head in her third person limited omniscient p.o.v. “Shouldn’t they be periodically clearing out their memory caches or something?”

It was easy to return to normal life in this book, but I had a little moment of COVID-19 reading, when Micah is out very early in the morning to run, before any people are out. In his head again: “Imagine if some cataclysm had hit the city overnight.” The streets are empty. He does indeed begin to imagine the world like that, how long before he would notice, and his solitary day: “he had all the time in the world, it was beginning to seem.” This awareness makes him a little lonely. It prepares him for something.

I won’t tell you what!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

April Poem-a-Day


Like many poets in April, National Poetry Month, I’ve been writing a poem a day. I provided prompts for an online writing workshop I attend and adapted those prompts for the public library, where they are posted weekly on social media, so patrons and poets in the community can write along. I had hoped to offer and to write on a variety of topics, not to be preoccupied with quarantine, lockdown, worry, or disease, but worry often creeps in—to my own poems and those of my fellow poets.

Here’s one, for example, that began as the heart’s response to the sound of the train, just before it was leaving town headed north. I used to ride that train often, back and forth to Chicago, and would tell my husband to listen for the train horn and head for the station to pick me up. Then an ordinance was passed, establishing a Quiet Zone in town, and hearing the train now is rare.

Overground Railroad

Leaving town, the train moans once
on the cold air, unwelcome April snow
coming down like rain on silent lawns,
into silent fields. It might be a new
crew, unaware of the ordinance against
the train sounding its horn in town.
Who’s riding the train now? Is it mostly
empty, one living being for every six ghostly
passengers? By now, the train has passed
the ghost house three stories high, a stop
on the Underground Railroad, or rumored
to be. By now, the train can sound its horn
at crossings if it wants, can moan and groan,
can wail and keen, lament to heart’s content.

There, in the heart of the poem, I see the train sparsely populated, and I know why. Then the other passengers become ghostly. Then history and rumor arrive, and then grief. There is a house, just outside town, rumored to have been on the Underground Railroad. It’s a beautiful and lonely dwelling, a favorite of mine when I rode the train. When I could, I sat on that window side to see it.

This poem turned out to be a "broken sonnet." It has 14 lines and five beats per line, with much variation of meter. It doesn't rhyme, except now and then, internally, externally, or slantwise. But it does wail.

April generally gives me 30 or more drafts of poems to revise and develop over the next year. This one might stop here.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Blithedale Postponement


As I mentioned in the context of my loopy reading, The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne was up next, after Little Women (fiction) and American Bloomsbury (nonfiction) and the not-quite coincidence of all that genius in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1800s. (Ralph Waldo Emerson brought a bunch of smart people together.) It’s always good to read (or re-read) the right book at the right time. As I started re-reading The Blithedale Romance in mid-April, shortly after some unwelcome mid-April snow, I encountered an unwelcome mid-April snowstorm in fiction as Miles Coverdale travels to Blithedale to join an idealistic, intentional, back-to-the-land community, based on the actual Brook Farm that Hawthorne himself had visited for a time with high hopes. 

Then Coverdale gets laid up for two weeks with a rhinovirus! (common cold) in near isolation, tended by main characters Hollingsworth (driven by a single idea) and Zenobia (a beautiful woman and feminist). “Zenobia” is her writer/public figure name; she has a real name in the fiction and is probably based on feminist Margaret Fuller, who is named in the fiction, as if to separate the two, perhaps a courtesy.

Here are some more coincidences that surprised me:

--One of the entertainments in their little set-apart community is “tableaux vivants,” or dressing up as works of art. You may be aware that the Getty Museum challenge, etc. has inspired a lot of that in our current shelter-in-place situations.

--It shouldn’t have surprised me, as some summaries call Hollingsworth a misogynist, but he really is, and Coverdale, the narrator, calls him out on it, saying, “Hollingsworth had boldly uttered what he, and millions of despots like him, really felt.” Which was, basically, that woman is only a helpmeet at man’s side and must support him fully in his endeavors, blah, blah, blah. I guess the main surprise was Hawthorne outing “millions of despots.”

--Zenobia, complicatedly pissed off by this, retorts, “Let man be but manly and god-like, and woman is only too ready to become to him what you say!” Meaning, of course, that man isn’t.

--Earlier, Zenobia has said, in the context of supporting women’s rights, “Thus far, no woman in the world has ever once spoken out her whole heart and her whole mind.” It reminded me of Muriel Rukeyser, who said in a poem, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open”

--Hawthorne sounds like a closet feminist himself, speaking through the character closest to himself in life, Coverdale, defending a broken-hearted woman:

It was nonsense, and a miserable wrong,—the result, like so many others, of masculine egotism,—that the success or failure of women’s existence should be made to depend wholly on the affections, and on one species of affection, while man has such a multitude of other chances, that this seems but an incident. For its own sake, if it will do no more, the world should throw open all its avenues to the passport of a woman’s bleeding heart.

Now, Coverdale sounds like a pretty feeling guy there above, but Arlin Turner in the introduction sees him as rather cold, aloof from fellow humans, and almost the worst villain of the piece, while I saw him as more the observer, as a writer necessarily is—Coverdale is a poet. Sigh… 

But, plot-wise, he had the power, probably, to act, and did not, and that’s what counts, alas. Even if you can’t achieve a utopia on earth, you’ve got to act in human sympathy where you can. I guess I forgave him for being human, flawed, imperfect, and a poet…

And I do think he’s right in opposing Hollingsworth, who cares not a fig for the utopian community, but only for his own one central idea, pushed relentlessly upon the innocent and unsuspecting, respecting only his will, not theirs. Coverdale thinks we are meant to tend to our own lives as best we can and “insensibly influence other hearts and other lives to the same blessed end,” not force our “philanthropy” on others or be subsumed by one overarching theory or dream.

Looping back, I should mention that the cold snap in Blithedale caused the residents to postpone their May Day celebration until later, when the weather would be nicer. Likewise, our shelter in place has been extended, postponing many things, but rightly so, as our governor, listening to the advice of experts, is thinking of the general good of all, not pressing his personal will upon us. (And that makes it a Thor's Day in the blog!)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Antics of the Ants


The ants are marching two by two by four by dozens into our house in April, undaunted by the snow. Or they were. They had been very interested in the (covered!) butter dish on the kitchen counter and the flecks of toothpaste on the bathroom counter. But when they appeared en masse, not respecting social distancing at all, in the bedroom near my husband’s closet and dresser, he went into action with bug spray. 

He is usually a very gentle guy, and animals love him. But he does not love ants.

One was crawling up my pajama leg after some floor stretches. I have returned to yoga. Our daughter, who is training to be a yoga instructor, practiced a focus class on lower back pain on us via Zoom on Friday, and it got me back to A.M. Yoga for Beginners with Rodney Yee on Saturday and Sunday. I like Rodney Yee, forever young via video, as I am forever a beginner.

Also got back to the trail, now that the sun is out and the temperature is up. People remain friendly and polite as they (for the most part) maintain the six feet distance from each other. There are “Mind the Gap” signs up now.

I’ve reported on my “loopy reading” of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s fiction. I’ve also been reading poetry—the wonderful books Match, by Christine Marshall (Unicorn Press, 2018), Indigo, by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon, 2020), and Blowout,* by Denise Duhamel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Next up is Duhamel’s Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). I got the Duhamel books to read on the plane to Pittsburgh in early April for a reading event there. I won the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award, and she was the judge, and part of the prize was the reading! It was, as you can guess, canceled. The new (May/June) issue of Poets & Writers just arrived, with the announcement of this award in it, and it gave me a brief pang, tiny as ant bite in the scheme of things.

Zoom is helping me in so many ways—the yoga class, work meetings, a library open mic this past Thursday, Zoom Church this morning, and a family gathering by Zoom this afternoon, bringing together family members in Tennessee, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon, and California. With a baby!!

*I love how “blowout” is a big fight, a big party, and a way of styling hair, among other things. In hair, it’s a desired thing; in tattooing, not. But how about that beautiful body art on the Indigo cover? And that makes this a Random Coinciday, as well as a Poetry Someday in the blog.


Saturday, April 18, 2020

Loopy Reading


After Little Women, I couldn’t settle on the right book to read next. I started Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago, picked up at the library book sale, which was charming for a boarding pass left inside by its donor; it is a Portuguese novel, and the boarding pass was from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain, back in the days of international travel. I used it as a bookmark. But the language was detailed and dense, and I couldn’t stick with it, and have set it aside for now.

Then I went to my shelf for another American classic, and pulled out The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I vaguely remembered reading at some point. The underlining and margin notes indicated I had read it in some studious mood or circumstance. I skimmed paragraphs of the introduction and put it back. But, to foreshadow quite obviously, the way Louisa May Alcott does, I was destined to take it up again later!

Finally, I looked up at the top shelf of my computer desk, where I keep a row of books about Emily Dickinson, literary feuds, literary intersections, and the act of reading. 

And there was American Bloomsbury, by Susan Cheever, also scooped up at a library sale, and not yet read. This would be it, the next read, and its subtitle will tell you why, and also why I looped back to The Blithedale Romance afterwards. American Bloomsbury is subtitled Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.

It was exactly the right read, in part because of its “loopy” style. The author explains what she’s going to do: “a series of overlapping scenes in which some incidents are repeated, sometimes more than once.” She wants us to see the same incidents through the eyes of the alternating focal characters. “By this method I have tried to honor the characters, their lives, and their intimate connections with each other.” I remember my old self, so I confess that this method may have driven me a little crazy in the past, but the repetitions were helpful during this scatterbrained time!

It was fun to learn that teen Louisa had sort of a simultaneous crush on Thoreau, a young man, and Emerson, an old man; fun to learn (again) that Emerson basically paid for everything, that he had helped gather all this genius in Concord, Massachusetts; fun to revisit the annoying and endearing traits of Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, and Thoreau. I understand fictional Marmee better in Little Women, when she says she is angry every day of her life, by meeting her actual husband via Susan Cheever. Ineffectual dreamer.

And Margaret Fuller, charismatic feminist, interested me the most. Apparently, several male writers have fictionalized her, including Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance, so I will be reading it alert to the “male gaze” but with her interesting life seen recently through a “female gaze,” as well.

If you are having trouble reading, you might connect to this piece by Kim Kishbaugh in Escape Into Life. She has discovered YA books! 

And yesterday, thanks to my library’s ebook collection, I finally read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. 

Yes, I cried.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Penny Serenade

Fair warning: Penny Serenade is a tearjerker. It was on my mind after Baby Boom, because...babies! I had fond (and partly mistaken) memories of Penny Serenade, black and white, first viewed on tv late at night, interrupted by commercials. I loved it then, and I love it now. The hoopla copy had a good soundtrack (volume-wise) and a few vertical slits or seams in some of the frames, giving it a marvelous vintage quality. And now I may be hooked forever on free movies via hoopla via my library card.

I had remembered a sweet, sweet moment when a man gives a baby a bath. It takes as long as it takes, as does a new mother's fumbling with getting her baby's clothes off for the bath, and that was a delightful part of the movie, real time scenes. And the baby's sweet, sweet face! But I thought it was Cary Grant giving the bath, and that made no sense. I had conflated the bath scene with a later scene where he gives a great speech with the baby (a year older) sitting in a giant chair. You'll like it.

This movie has everything: romance, travel, an earthquake, journalism, comedy, New Year's Eve, and old-fashioned records. In a way, it's the story of a marriage unfolding through memories evoked by songs played on an old-fashioned record player. I don't want to say too much more, so you can have the surprises I had on first viewing. And so you can cry. This time I started crying when the inspector saw the child's room in the apartment upstairs from the newspaper office. And just kept crying, between smiles.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Baby Boom & Paper Man


OK, boomers! Yesterday I watched Baby Boom via Hoopla via my library card! Of course, I had first seen it back in 1987, three years before I had a baby! It was delightful to re-visit this film, which had come up in family emails because my sister and her husband now live on many acres that include an apple orchard, and he’s getting ready for the summer and fall Farmers Markets (or cancellation thereof due to virus and options for his products via McKelvie Farm at Etsy; the wood items are already there, the apple items will come later!) The tie-in here is applesauce from Country Baby, a brand created by Diane Keaton’s character after she heads to Vermont!

But first she has to acquire a baby! And I’ll let you discover or rediscover that plot element on your own. I just want to say I laughed out loud a lot during this movie—exactly what I needed—and some of it was from Keaton carrying the baby sideways. Pretty sure no babies were harmed in the making of this film! And, as often happens, two babies, twins, played the part of this adorable baby! You will fall in love with her—I did!—and also possibly Sam Shepard!

But is this happening to you? I view films through the lens of Covid-19 now, and cringe when people touch each other or kiss! Early in the film, there is even a handshake. Noooooo! I wanted to scream, and I knew Dr. Fauci would agree with me, and then the guy in the film actually shook the virus off his hand!! I know he was really shaking the hurt off his hand from her very strong handshake—it’s a feminist film (ish)—but virus eyes saw it differently.

Likewise, in an airport—nooooo, not an airport!—the baby sticks her finger in her mouth. Nooo! Later, she actually gets sick, with symptoms of fever! If I weren’t falling in love and laughing so much during this movie, it would have been unbearable.

Then this morning, on the recommendation of my cousin, I watched Paper Man, also via Hoopla, via my library card! This is a little gem about a writer, starring Jeff Daniels (so I had to watch it on my own as my husband doesn’t like Jeff Daniels), Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, and Lisa Kudrow. Good acting, a pinata, and a superhero, Captain Excellent!*

I’m so happy I can do this, find nostalgic old favorites and charming new favorites! And do you know what? These two movies have something in common: a yellow house in the country. Oh, also twins. And they are a little hard to hear. I wonder if this is a transfer-to-hoopla thing, because all ways of turning up the sound were employed. Or just older soundtracks. Or older ears.

Two favorite lines (I leave it to you to figure out which line is in which movie):

“I don’t even know how many grandchildren I have now.”

"Why origami? Why now?”

Wait, my favorite lines end with the word “now.” And that really makes it a Random Coinciday in the blog.

*And so does this: also this morning (I've been getting up very early) I found this fabulous YouTube video created by Emily Lloyd, librarian in Minnesota, to help kids handle wearing masks. She's a superhero! Who you gonna call!? Germbusters!



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Little Wisdoms


I’ve finished my re-reading of Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, a Big Book full of Little Wisdoms! By that, I mean pithy, sometimes surprising phrases and paragraphs that resonate now as containing something deeply true about human beings and their conventions and institutions—so that even if her time stamps them as dated, they still stand as true, sometimes as prophetic. 

Here are some examples:

When Jo takes Beth to the seashore, hoping to shore up her health but feeling the imminence of her death: “They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very hard to overcome.” So true! And yet I hope we are speaking our hearts in the current circumstances, feeling our fragility.

Alcott uses the phrase “division of labor” to describe what saves Meg and John’s marriage when she has become consumed with the care of their baby twins, neglecting him and the house. When she accepts his help in childrearing and the offered household help—dividing and sharing the work—their happy little family thrives.

Amy’s good sense, here speaking to Laurie: “it’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the one you want.” Indeed, it is! When she speaks of herself, she explains that she has given up on her own artistic ambition “because talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great or nothing.” She’s right about that, and we have to look hard at our talents, and find the ones to follow. And Amy isn’t contradicting herself here, as she is not throwing away all her good gifts; she will choose among them and apply them differently. In one of the “dated” aspects here, she intends to be “an ornament to society,” which sounds terribly like being an object, but 1) it was what she always wanted, from childhood, to be a rich man’s wife and go about in good society and 2) the way she and Laurie will do it includes a lot of generosity toward struggling artists and education!

And here’s a dated-sounding-but-still-apt paragraph on men and women:

Amy’s lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it till long afterward; men seldom do, for when women are the advisors, the lords of creation don’t take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do; then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it; if it fails, they generously give her the whole.

Alcott’s irony comes within her feminist, suffragist context, which you can read about here, in a lovely article offered by the Arlington (VA) Public Library this month, helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment! Alcott’s “weaker vessel” surely echoes what men say, not what women are!

Her humor suffuses her prose. Describing those twins, now small children at a family gathering with a table laden with goodies, she says: “…didn’t they each whisk a captivating tart into their tiny pockets, there to stick and crumble treacherously, teaching them that both human nature and pastry are frail?” Yes, and these days it’s also a warning against hoarding! Again describing children, this time Jo’s, who thrive in a wild upbringing, Alcott says Professor Bhaer, their father, thinks “that babies could digest anything, from pickled cabbage to buttons, nails, and their own small shoes.” This made me giggle.

Other fun surprises during this re-reading:

Beth drops treats from her window to the children below, just like Emily Dickinson!

Alcott prefigured the song “YMCA”! “Demi learned his letters with his grandfather, who invented a new mode of teaching the alphabet by forming the letters with his arms and legs, thus uniting gymnastics for head and heels.”

I am so glad I read this long book in my cozy moments of downtime on the couch or in the back yard, now that the weather is turning warm. What’ll I read next?