Pandemonium #3: Rise

Perhaps we should call it “Pandememe-ium.”  My group texts explode with evidence of the humor and creativity of humanity’s resistance to confinement: The bald guy whose head masquerades as an egg in a row of egg cups on his kitchen counter, until he leaps up lip-syncing “I Wanna Break Free.” The corkscrew doing jumping jacks as it follows along to a chipper TV fitness video.  The Italian dad whose quarantine video diary shows him  a.) “swimming” down an apartment hallway on a rolling platform b.) “cycling” the same hall in full Tour-de-France lycra splendor on a child’s tricycle c.) Dressed in DJ couture and dialin’ up the heat to Italian club tunes at his cooktop and c.) hiding from his inquisitive young daughter behind an enlarged photo of couch pillows, perfectly framed to blend in to their living room decor.  Let’s not forget those delightfully overachieving families:  the Les Mis medley from the Marsh family of Kent, England; or New Zealand actor Jack Buchanan’s “Family Lockdown Boogie,” with his wonderfully deadpan and game mom, dad and sister, the unseen hand of a clever choreographer/videographer perfectly framing them in their suburban home.

I am so appreciative of these efforts.  And yet, does anyone else feel kinda bad about their lack of participation in the meme-fest?  A few people have asked me when my family plans to launch our contribution, steeped in humor and performance as we are, with trained vocalists, theater enthusiasts/veterans, a digital designer and no dearth of big personalities/hams currently in residence.  I would love to tell you that this lockdown experience has ignited in us a shared goal of crafting our hilarious and hopeful statement for the world.  But it hasn’t.  We are united in the following more modest goals:  sharing the cooking, negotiating over the best spots for getting work done, whether sewing masks, designing, writing, online college and grad school classes, Zoom-meetings, voice lessons, data management, or generally trying not to devolve into continual hostility and/or weeping.  Even the dogs and cat slink off to new hidey-holes in an effort to get a little breathing room from the togetherness.  Typically a Gidget-like font of cheerful can-do, I am irritable and desperate for space, a twitchy loose wire of reactivity. On Tuesday, I LOST IT with John for interrupting an attempt at meditation because the effing sprinkler guy was in the driveway, texting us to turn on the water from inside the house and John wasn’t sure which handle in the basement utility cabinet was the right one. (Sorry, honey.)  I teared up when I went to wash the napkins after dinner the other night and found a load of (not my) wet laundry in the washer; and yet another (not my) pile in the dryer.  Before stay-at-home struck, walking in the woods with our eager, beloved dogs was soul-food, rain or shine, but now, they look at me with their big brown, beseeching eyes, tails wagging hopefully, and I resent them for their cloying need in all weathers.  Friends, too, have reported uncharacteristic breakdowns over misplaced Seder plates, malfunctioning computers, broken dishwashers, innocent comments misconstrued, forgotten passwords, burned (or simply imperfect) dinners, spilled milk. 

I acknowledge these are problems of privilege.  Although two of us are freelancers/independent contractors whose earning opportunities are currently disappearing quicker than brownies in a college common room, and two others are a barely employed grad student and a soon-to-graduate college senior, we are nonetheless fortunate:  We live in a comfortable, 3,000 square foot, four story house with tons of outdoor space and conservation trails fanning out around us in every direction; we have savings; we are healthy and we have health insurance; we have each other.  Our weekend games of “Settlers of Catan” are a shining beacon of fun amidst the slog of enforced bonding and resultant avoidance.  I hesitate to share our whiny struggles.

To be fair, the “kids” (27, 25 and 22 this past Thursday) are coming through like champs.  They each have a cooking night and their dinners have been fantastic:  curries, pizzas, chili, pasta with an artichoke and caper tapenade that Nate invented based on pantry contents .  They adhere (basically, last night excepted) to the laundry schedule and on Saturday we all divvy up the housecleaning—everyone takes one or two shared spaces, plus their own room.  Nate has done yeoman’s work in the yard, a bittersweet vine we’ve been eyeing resentfully for years, 30′ tall in some places and ranging greedily across two planting beds, was no match for his pent-up energy. Lucy sews face-masks of increasing sophistication and is heartwarmingly cheerful and emotionally supportive; I hope the toll on her is not too great.  Mia remotely manages the schedules of her college’s admissions student volunteers and hosts Instagram Live Chats for admitted students. Her glorious bel canto soprano fills the house during remote voice lessons. I overheard one of Nate’s colleagues on a Zoom meeting the other day asking, “where’s the singing today?”  Mostly, the siblings stay out of each other’s way as much as possible.  They are adults with needs of their own, social and work lives rudely interrupted, thrust back into childhood bedrooms with too little closet space and too many idyllic and/or frustrating memories under the roof of parents who they thought were perhaps younger and more energetic than we have become.  We are all trying not to play out old scripts, with intermittent success. 

To my lovely and much appreciated friends and colleagues who so sweetly invite me to join prayer chains, trade inspirational quotes or exchange recipes, I gratefully but firmly defer.  I am overwhelmed keeping up with the press conferences of Andrew Cuomo and my new crush, Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern.  It takes a lot of time to explore real estate online in New Zealand or perpetually reload my Instacart and Peapod account pages in the hopes I will win a slot in new-delivery-date roulette.  And all the emotional work I have to do on a daily basis under normal conditions—grieving my brother’s death four months ago; recovering from the stress of my mom’s hospitalizations last fall; fretting about my 85 year-old parents who live alone in Manhattan and on Long Island respectively; worrying about my empty work pipeline whilst the grocery bill swells under the demands of five full grown adults eating 21 meals a week; fantasizing about potential clients who refreshingly realize that now more than ever is the time to invest in that website they’ve been putting off, and who better to do that for them but me?; and let’s not forget this one: adjusting to the new reality that I just turned 60 and I am plunged into a new profile of vulnerability that my inner identity struggles to integrate—all this work must be done quietly if at all in snatches of space and time too confined for patient self-reflection.  I am often exhausted from the effort of going nowhere.

But today is Easter, a day for hope and resurrection.  It’s a halcyon morning, sun pouring in through east-facing windows framing a powdery blue sky, soft with cirrus clouds.  Nyx, Lucy’s cat, luxuriates in a pool of light on the study floor.  Looking down to the flagstone patio from our third-story bedroom, I’m not sure when John planted those lavender pansies outside.  It was last week sometime, probably when I was freaking out trying to get in our applications for CARES act relief, which it turns out our bank had closed for self-employed individuals and independent contractors before the window had even opened for such folks.  The pansies’ periwinkle faces wink happily from their pots; it’s good to be alive.  Over our breakfast coffee, Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” plays on Pandora, the first song I learned to play on guitar when I was thirteen. Tomorrow, my a cappella group will attempt multi-track video recordings tomorrow of a song Mia arranged for us, James Taylor’s tender “Only One,” as well as our signature song “How High the Moon.”  I can still teach Nia, Monday mornings at 9:30 and some Saturdays, boogie-ing like a happy fool in my family room, learning to teach to the reptilian green eye of my MacBook Pro’s camera.  My students undulate and bloom in their little Zoom thumbnails like underwater plants and it’s a joy to see them.   The weeping cherry tree in the back yard used to slump in defeat under the weight of the ravenous bittersweet vine Nate extracted, but this morning its pink flowers sparkle lazily in the pleasure of a new lease on life.  And everywhere, people are turning to poetry, quoting Rumi or Mary Oliver in their emails, taking solace from the exquisite moments of modest resurrection constantly surrounding us, but previously hovering at the edges of our awareness, because we were all so busy being en route to our lives, rather than having arrived in them.   

My flour order was finally delivered Friday and I’ll bake a loaf of honey whole wheat bread today.  The kitchen will smell yeasty-sweet and the dough will rise, fall and rise again. We’ll enjoy it hot from the oven with butter, celebrating the nourishing warmth with delight, fortified.

Easter blessings to all.

Pandemonium #2

Earlier this winter, I signed up for a contemplative poetry writing workshop offered by a former web design client of mine, Bethany House of Prayer, a spiritual retreat center tucked between tidy single-family homes on a residential hillside in Arlington, Massachusetts. Julia, Bethany’s Executive Director and one of the loveliest, wisest, bravest people I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to work with, liked some of the writing I did on the website, and we developed an easy working relationship as kindred spirits. She suggested I explore a few groups that Bethany offers to support writers— I have always yearned for a group of like-minded scribblers who also want to share the process and product of their work, but who aren’t (like some writers’ groups) snooty or viscious or only-for-the-published.

Full disclosure:  I am not a poet. I do love reading poetry: William Butler Yeats was a subject of both my college thesis and my graduate study in Ireland; whether Billy Collins or Rumi, Mary Oliver or Shakespeare, I am enraptured by the stuff when it’s good.  (And that includes you, Shel Silverstein.)  As for me, I can occasionally write poetically if by that you mean, with the odd surprising flight of language or imagery.  But the economy of poetic expression is not my natural voice.  Nonetheless, I was drawn to a Bethany workshop titled “Making Poems from Images:” using collage as the entry point for generating poem content.  This sounded like something I might reasonably manage.  The workshop was scheduled for Saturday, March 28, and much as I’d like to believe nurturance of baby poets is an “essential business” in these pestilent days, I assumed it would be postponed, along with the other contemplative programs offered by Bethany House, community being one of their chief delights. 

But then a week ago an email popped into my inbox from an address I didn’t recognize:  “luckyfish.” The contemplative poetry workshop was on, at least virtually, if we were game for a Zoom version of a writing workshop.  And so this past Saturday, armed with a grocery bag full of magazines to inspire my collage, my laptop tuned to Zoom, I met with twelve other writers and our instructor. 

Within thirty minutes of our convening, I was on the study floor, surrounded by paper scraps and little piles of torn pages and images, glue-stick at the ready.  We were instructed to work purely on intuition, quickly pulling images that somehow “caught” us, like silvery fish, and asked only to note what surprised us about the choices we made.  No judgments, no editing, just tear, witness, move on. The only ground rules for the finished product were that our collage had to 1. create a locale and 2. include at least one figure. If you haven’t already figured out that the image with this post is the result of my collage-making, well, now you know.  The example our teacher showed us, her own work, was haunting and beautifully composed: an elegant lady was inserted into a dreamscape, a single hummingbird hovering wistfully in the corner.  The collage itself was a poem.  Trying not to judge my profligacy, I felt myself massing up image after image–so many human  figures, that surprised me.  I was drawn to eyes, hands, people, crowns.  “Well, this is what happens when you invite a wannabe-be novelist to a poetry party,”  my inner critic noted with a cocked eyebrow. We had exactly one hour to make our collages:  fifteen minutes to pull images, and forty-five minutes to compose.  At the center of my collage is a photo of my brother I cut from a spare copy of the program for his memorial service this February, his arms outstretched in victory as he emerges from the wintry Atlantic on a Christmas morning some years ago.  He died suddenly this past December, by his own choice.  I guess I wasn’t so much surprised to find him asserting center stage in my collage as slightly pissed:  he has a way of sneaking up on me, both before he died, and since.  I miss him and I hate that he’s gone, but I don’t miss feeling ambushed by him.  It’s complicated.

After cleaning up the detritus of our collage-making and breaking for lunch in our separate homes, our leader reconvened her fledgling poets on Zoom and we viewed each other’s collages.  She asked us simple questions about our creations like “what do you find mysterious in your image?” or “where do you sense longing here?”  It was fascinating and moving to see what we’d all created in that short time.  My page felt over-populated compared to the leaner creations of my classmates, so says Miss Meanypants, Inner Critic LLC.  I’ve suffered, mostly in youth but still on occasion as an adult, by being told I am too much:  too talkative, too expressive, too dramatic, too quick.  Here was another manifestation of that: too much shit on my collage.  And yet, it made total sense to me.  It was operatic.

 Because so is this moment in our human story.

Our last assignment was to pick a figure in our collage and write a “persona poem” in that individual’s voice, whether human, animal, insect, or some other being.  One fellow-student wrote from the perspective of an empty swing, which I thought was lovely.  But I, with my gluttonous temperament and blockbuster collage cast, couldn’t limit myself to one.  Four voices spoke out from the image.   My brother, of course, gets the last laugh. He did have the best laugh.

Here’s my poem:

“Grace Notes”

I.

Listen, sweetheart:
I dare you not to hear the music.
The mezzanine may be empty,
All retreated home, as one must.
Fingers of light grope the empty stage
Where mouse turds scatter unswept corners
instead of sequins.
How we danced through AIDS!
And this? This is not some sad little dinner-theatre
“Death of a Salesman,” watery martinis and local talent.
This is the fucking opera, baby.
Legions framed in a proscenium of glorious dread
While the score drives forward:
Andante!  Waltz!
Look in my eyes, am I not fabulous?
Do I not dazzle? 
Does my artistry not awaken hope?
I say: Fist pump the universe
From your apartment, or closet,
your ghetto or your gated estate.
Because this is the one life you’ve got,
And sister, the fat lady is still singing.
Put on your golden crown and strut.

II.

How many now?
I need numbers.
Are you listening?
We are scrambling.
You need to suit up, STAT. 
This is no time for Kombucha and Vitamin C.
It’s life and death.

III.

I sing, my body electric:
Tarrah, tarrah, TARRAH!
Light pours through panes,
Strings crescendo inside my chest:
Huzzah, huzzah, HUZZAH!
So much joy, joy, joy I can’t help
But grin, halo shining—
Recitatives, arias, encores—
My winged voice soars:
Tra la, TRA LA, TRAAA LAAA!
I am not naïve; no denial
But my gift to the listening air,
A prayer of thanks and dreadful rapture.
I embrace your sadness
With a flourish.

IV.

I had to go. 
I know, grief’s predatory eyes
Follow you.
Sorry about that.
But: can you imagine me now,
Here, plagued?
No doctor, however sainted
By mantle of unspeakable courage,
Could steer us through;
No guest room, or marriage,
Or child’s devotion, home me.
Listen: Where I am now
Is golden.