I am the gardener, I am the flower, too.
In the prison of the world, I am not alone.
— Osip Mandelstam
“In prison, I had the habit of living in the future, getting ahead in days in order to erase them. At the beginning of each month I crossed out the whole month on the calendar, and on New Year’s Day I drew a circle around the new year.”
— Hwang Sok-Yong, from The Old Gardener (trans. Jay Oh)
I devote myself to the child in me. I return more and more often to the things I knew as a girl, the kinds of things, ways of knowing or relating that adults beat out of children.
It’s hard to maintain moments of clarity because the world tells you that your clarity is derangement. So clarity comes largely in flashes, or it hides. I’m hiding out in order to search for what I know.
Re-read an early story by Calvino (trans. T.Parks):
It happened one day, at a crossroads, in the middle of a crowd, people coming and going.
I stopped, blinked: I understood nothing. Nothing, nothing about anything: I didn’t understand the reasons for things or for people, it was all senseless, absurd. And I started to laugh.
What I found strange at the time was that I’d never realized before. That up until then I had accepted everything: traffic lights, cars, posters, uniforms, monuments, things completely detached from any sense of the world, accepted them as if there were some necessity, some chain of cause and effect that bound them together.
Then the laugh died in my throat. I blushed, ashamed. I waved to get people’s attention and “Stop a second!” I shouted, “there’s something wrong! Everything’s wrong! We are doing the absurdist things! This can’t be the right way! Where will it end?”
People stopped around me, sized me up, curious. I stood there in the middle of them, waving my arms, desperate to explain myself, to have them share the flash of insight that had suddenly enlightened me: and I said nothing. I said nothing because the moment I’d raised my arms and opened my mouth, my great revelation had been as it were swallowed up again and the words had come out any old how, on impulse.
“So?” people asked, “what do you mean? Everything is in its place. All is as it should be. Everything is a result of something else. Everything fits in with everything else. We cannot see anything absurd of wrong!”
And I stood there, lost, because as I saw it now everything had fallen into place again and everything seemed natural, traffic lights, monuments, uniforms, towerblocks, tramlines, beggars, processions; yet this didn’t calm me down, it tormented me.
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “Perhaps it was me that was wrong. It seemed that way. But everything’s fine. I’m sorry,” and I made off amid their angry glares.
Yet, even now, every time (often) that I find I don’t understand something, then, instinctively, I’m filled with the hope that perhaps this will be my moment again, perhaps once again I shall understand nothing, I shall grasp that other knowledge, found and lost in an instant.
From “The Seven Wise Women and the Shout without Echoes.”
During the season of praising flowers (i.e. spring), a hundred thousand people all wanted to go to a resort to enjoy themselves. Among the Seven Wise Women, one woman said, “Sisters, you and I should not go to scenic parks to partake of worldly entertainments like those people. Instead, let’s go together to enjoy the charnel grounds.”
The other women said, “That place is full of decaying corpses. What is such a place good for?”
The first woman said, “Sisters, just go. Very good things are there.”
Another death in my extended community. Then another, then another.
Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die
At seven in the evening people pump their car horns, bang pots and pans, and cheer loudly for a moment in support of and thanks for health care workers. What to make of this noise? It’s one of the constants in my days and I admit I relish tuning in to the sounds when I hear them. I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this gesture of solidarity (I don’t know what to make of it), but on a purely sensory level this exercise wakes me up.
Maybe, most immediately, it makes me miss other kinds of noise that mark time and life in a community. I don’t live in a place where I ever hear church bells or the muezzin’s call. When I lived in Manhattan, oddly, I sometimes heard the distant wail of a train late if I stayed up late into the night. From my time in India I remember the early morning call to prayer, which stirred us from our sleep in the dark. We’ve got plenty of noise in the city, but I can’t think of anything nearby that tolls consistently and with the intention of sending me a signal. At home in Brooklyn, the best daily reminder of time used to be the grinding of garbage trucks in the morning or the sound of children leaving school in the afternoon.
Years ago in Cambridge, K, a black scientist who worked for MIT and who rang bells for her church, invited me to join her on some Sunday to ring the church bells. I was thrilled at the invitation, and it remains in my mind more meaningful than the pile of seemingly more important invitations I’ve received in my life. I’d heard only faint debate at that time about the famous Russian bells that had been removed from a monastery in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century and installed in a Harvard building. Ought Harvard return the bells to the Orthodox monastery? (They ought.) It was D, an Orthodox icon painter and friend, who helped me see this question in a way that was not abstract.
I think at the time bells held a romance for me. I think of Flaubert’s description of Charles Bovary as a boy, who would, “on the most important holy days, beg the sexton to let him ring the bells so that he could hang his whole weight on the great rope and feel himself pulled up by it in its flight.” For my part, I moved away from Cambridge, and never did ring the bells with K.
Apart from some dim fantasy of the bell-tower, though, I still love bells, for the way they broadcast news to a collective. The news: time, celebration, death. (Thinking of Mrs. Dalloway, recovered from the flu and hearing Big Ben: “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.” And now I think of the siren, a bell as warning.) A bell as a momentary call to attention. Time is passing, the hour irrevocable. Someone has just died, remember you are mortal.
A part of me is skeptical about the 7pm clangor. I, too, appreciate the health care workers who are toiling non-stop through this emergency. If this gesture of noise-making supports their morale, then yes, absolutely, we owe them this and much more. My doubts have to do with a U.S. culture that knows how to cheer and is always ready for a quick triumph, but that doesn’t know how to collectively mourn, to stay with difficulty. What would it be like, I wonder, if we heard pots and pans or a bell every time someone in the city died of Covid-19. What would that noise feel like? Or, if that were too unbearable, what would it be like to have a moment each day to hear bells peal, one for each person who had died that day? Many evenings at 6:15pm I join a brief memorial service broadcast from a monastery upstate. I listen to the prayers; then there is the moment when the specific names of people in the community who have died are chanted. And then there is a chant for all those who have died and the it includes the number of known deaths up until that day. Hearing that number each evening feels utterly heartbreaking and I’m so glad for this small ceremony. A moment in the day to face the losses directly, to hear a voice say the number of people gone, to say the number out loud myself, the vibrations moving through my own mouth.
John Donne was recovering from a serious bout of “spotted fever” (typhus), epidemic in England at the time, when he wrote the often quoted “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” These lines are from meditation 17 of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Several Steps in My Sickness, and they were not abstractions. There were real bells, real deaths. An excerpt:
Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
What would it mean, I wonder, to think this way? To think of another’s death not even as a reminder of your own mortality, but to push further to experience it as your own, a passing of a piece of yourself out of this world? What would it be like to hear bells or pots and pans during this time in this way and know how to grieve?
Maybe you saw him today, too, after you’d heard about another death of someone in your community, after you passed a fleet of police cars, ambulances, and park vehicles stationed in the middle of the park with lights flashing, and saw the policewomen and park rangers gather in a methodical circle inside a cordoned off patch of earth — they seemed as likely to be investigating a crime scene as prospecting future burial grounds. Maybe you saw him, too, while you were thinking about some ancient poems (Virgil’s Eclogues) and green grass and blossomest blossoms in a time of strife (Roman civil wars and the death of the republic) and thinking about a semolina, lemon & blueberry cake you ate last summer and wondering what day it is. Maybe you saw him, too, and felt great pain and great love for merely this: a man looking, standing still, making something appear.
A starling appears on my balcony. It perches on the edge of the window box over the long, dried out tassels of ornamental grass, plucks a single foot long strand and flies off with it in its mouth. The bird returns every twenty minutes or so and takes another strand. It’s building a home somewhere I can’t see.
Just now it’s gotten bolder. On this visit, it took three switches of grass, a beautiful sight with the three wires sticking out of its beak, this way and that. “Haywire,” I think, though nothing is out of order here. Today I keep time with a starling, in blades of grass.
From the Book of Serenity:
As the World-Honored One was walking with the congregation, he pointed to the ground with his finger and said, “This spot is good to build a sanctuary.” Indra, Emperor of the gods, took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground, and said, “The Sanctuary is built.”
The Citizen Potawatomi botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
Sweetgrass is best planted not by seed, but by putting roots directly into the ground. Thus the plant is passed from hand to earth to hand across years and generations.
This morning I woke to see an ambulance and a fire truck, both silent, outside my window. It seemed that a neighbor across the street was sick. But the rear doors of the ambulance remained closed, and there was no stretcher in sight. A paramedic placed a plastic footstool next to a side door to serve as a step. And then a man, I think he was Mexican or Central American, trundled towards it accompanied by the paramedic. I wondered if the patient was one of the men I’d seen a few days earlier gathered across the street. At first I thought these men were connected to the Mexican bakery, for they stood and talked outside its shuttered storefront. Only this morning, with the front door of the building open and the ambulance waiting, did it occur to me that the men I’d seen might be residents who lived upstairs. Now, this one, this man in beige pants and a beige jacket, stepped into the ambulance as if he were boarding a bus. And then the bus departed. I’ve never been on that route but I know what the last stop is.
I wonder if my neighbor will return.
Today the sad news that R’s mom has died. I’d texted him two weeks ago, when I’d heard that he was sick and his mom was in the hospital. Let’s talk by phone when you are better, I’d said, and I was looking forward to that. I’d heard just a few days ago that he was getting better and his mother, too. They all lived together in a building in Brooklyn: R, his wife, and their children in one apartment and his mother upstairs. Then the news of his mother’s passing. I didn’t know R’s mom, but I recall R talking about her immigrant roots and I wonder about her, because R is one of the best people I know.
Today, I feel the joy of being at home. My house (it’s an apartment but I always say house anyway) is full of sun and light and the windows are open and it’s unusually quiet, now that there’s so little traffic on the street below. Usually in the afternoon I tell time by the sound of middle-school children walking home, or a bit later the elementary kids with their parents. But the world has grown so hushed. The last of the cumulus clouds have been brushed away and the sky is a flat, but rich blue. Inside at least, at least today, there is some kind of order and I feel at ease.
My happiness doesn’t worry me. Lift up the rug, open the windows – sorrow is always there in fresh supply.
Listening to the news I hear that, given the current public health emergency, many local municipalities have decided to suspend water shut offs for residents who are behind on payments. I am furious. This “emergency” and the situational compassion that arises out of it reveals so much about who we are, the cruelty of our culture. I turn the radio off.
When is it ok to deny people access to water? It is always an emergency if people don’t have water. It is always a public health emergency. It is always a moral failure.
In 2014 the city of Detroit turned off the water supply to more than 15,000 “customers” due to late payments. Customers? Not “citizens,” “residents,” or “human beings?”
Natalie Diaz from the poem “The Water is the First Body” in Postcolonial Love Poem:
We think of our bodies as being all that we are: I am my body. This thinking helps us disrespect water, air, land, one another. But water is not external from our body, our self.
My Elder says, Cut of your ear, and you will live. Cut off your hand, you will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our water, we will not live more than a week.
The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body. What we do to on — to the body, to the water — we do to the other.
A few days later, I see the flattened shape of the bird on the now dried-out sidewalk. Like a leaf pasted to the ground. Without guts it has lost all its volume. Its silhouette has changed, too. Now it is splayed, like a more delicate-winged cousin of that eagle on the quarter.
In the Writing Group (now online) convened today by S, we read together and then write. We are reading from Virgil’s Eclogues today. I don’t remember why S chose it, but I was happy to go along. I recall many, many years ago standing in the stacks of the NYU library reading from Virgil’s Georgics. I still have a bodily memory of where I was standing when I opened the book (the choice was random in that I had no particular interest in Virgil, but this was part of the wonderful drift of my graduate school & nyc life back then).
I remember the opening:
"What makes the cornfield smile; beneath what star"
and how this made me smile and still does.
The Eclogues were a little harder to follow today. I didn’t love the translation, but it wasn’t a moment to be fussy and we just dove in, without notes or context. There was a brief moment in Eclogue I that snagged my attention.
Meliboeus, exiled from home, approaches Tityrus who “neath a broad beech-canopy/Reclining, on the slender oat” sings his songs. He remarks on Tityrus’s good fortune, his ability to loaf and sing. Tityrus says that it’s thanks to the gods looking favorably over him. Then Meliboeus says:
I grudge you not the boon, but marvel more,
Such wide confusion fills the country-side.
See, sick at heart I drive my she-goats on,
And this one, O my Tityrus, scarce can lead:
It feels like this. In some parts people lean and loafe, while wide confusion fills the country-side. The sick at heart, overwhelmed, are driven on and continue to work.
Yesterday, or the day before, or the year before, or before that even, I came upon a sparrow lying in a saucer of water on the sidewalk just outside the park. Nearby three other birds were hopping around and bathing in a larger puddle. The dead sparrow’s wet body gleamed black, like a clump of mud. I might not have noticed it as I walked, but for its spindly feet the color of a pencil. I looked more closely and saw the feathers of one wing spread out on the wet pavement beneath its body. The bird lay on its side the way I do when I sleep, with legs tucked up near fetal position. A sleeping, dreaming sparrow. A drowned or anointed bird. A strange shape in any case.
A fly arrived and walked steadfast up the sparrow’s leg toward it’s body, where it began to roam. Then another fly landed and a third. Someone walked by and the three of them flew.
I didn’t feel particularly contemplative as I looked at the sparrow. I did think of a wounded bird I saw dragging itself along a stone wall in a Spanish village many years ago, a bird that had seemed blind to me. And the starling lying dead outside my apartment building two summers ago. And a dying big-bellied robin I’d seen on a street in Manhattan last year. And the bird that slowly decomposed beneath a small mulberry tree in front of the house where I grew up. I’d watched as its skeleton appeared (after the flesh had been eaten or rotted away) and then disappeared, buried by time and the elements. One of those magical, inconsequential secrets that stack up through childhood: I know where a special bird is buried.
This sparrow before me: it’s the strange way its body rests in profile that keeps me looking. And the water. It’s the water. The bird is not submerged or swollen. The scene is not oily. It doesn’t feel poignant either. I can’t locate any grand sentiments about death just now. The dead bird, its brown body blackened by the water, glistens. It glistens darkly in the fresh spring air and under the sun. I walk on. There is always something to look at.
“I don’t think about the future,” M, the mother of two young children, said to me last summer. We were shooting hoops with her son P in their back yard in Park Slope. It seemed to me the explanation for her sanity and happiness. I wanted to believe it. “Yeah, no future,” I’d said.
I asked my friend G on a long walk in the park, “Where in your memory is this moment?”
I keep hearing that this moment is unprecedented. Online pronouncements of disbelief. Is this really happening? How could it be happening? How could we have been prepared for something like this?
As a culture we weren’t prepared, it’s true. Many of us have never experienced and never expected a crisis like this. Still, this moment does not feel unprecedented to me. It lives somewhere in my memory, even if the memories are not my own. Right now I feel connected rather than isolated. On the one hand, the mere fact that we need to self-isolate reveals the underlying structure of the world: we are all deeply interconnected. There is no separation. This is why, in order to contain a virus, we need the extreme artifice of separation.
G understood my question. She spoke of her Ukrainian Jewish ancestors and the periods of hunger in her parents’ lives before they fled the Soviet Union. If you have ancestral memory, if you read literature, if you pay attention to the lives of others, then there are reference points for the pandemic. For whom is the disruption of normal freedoms an absolute surprise, something beyond anything they could imagine?
I recall my friend who lived through the H1N1 swine flu in Mexico, when Mexico City was shut down and everyone retreated into their homes. I think about the accounts of living through war, most recently from journalists in Iraq and Syria. Last fall I read Our Women on the Ground, a collection of “Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World” edited by Zahra Hankir. It includes so many stories of loss as well as the ongoing efforts of people trying to continue to live in the midst of public catastrophes. A short anecdote from Hannah Allam:
I knew one young woman, the daughter of a cherished friend and a recent dental school graduate, who refused to let “the situation” – Iraqis’ preferred euphemism for sectarian slaughter – deter her from pursuing her dream. She went door-to-door in Baghdad neighborhoods, offering free checkups and minor dental procedures. Her mother, who’d already lost a son to crossfire, was fearful but proud.
“This is Madness!” I would tell her. “Who knocks on strangers’ doors in a civil war?”
“I do,” the young dentist replied.
It was the tiny, ordinary pleasures that were most missed: a shopping excursion without fear of kidnapping, sipping chai on a balcony without the crackle of sniper fire, going for a leisurely drive uninterrupted by checkpoints.
For the nearly two decades that we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq have we considered the ordinary lives of the people who live there?
I think of many other situations, too. There’s a story my mom told me of villagers hiding out (and then dying) from smallpox when she was young in India. Of course, there’s Anne Frank hiding out in an annex for two years. There are the many people being tortured by our government right now through solitary confinement. I think of the people I’ve met and worked with in prison. Last summer after I introduced myself, shook a man’s hand and asked, How are you? He replied, This place is hell on earth. And then we turned the conversation to other things. Every time, I leave a prison I feel as if my body and spirit are diseased and it takes time and effort to recover any sense of human order. And I’ve only made the briefest visits.
In the year before he died, my father became increasingly isolated within his own body. Often when I turn a doorknob to leave the house, I think of him. This is something he couldn’t do. I find it impossible to follow the current public health guidelines to avoid touching my face. But I also remember that my father couldn’t touch his face at all, not to wipe a tear, not to scratch an itch.
I’ve been thinking, too, about Natalia, the narrator of Merce Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant. Perhaps, I’ll say more later but my memory of what Natalia had to endure to survive a brute husband, poverty, and the Spanish Civil War is real. Along with everything and everyone else I think about these days, I think about Natalia. At one point Natalia listens as a visitor remarks, “how sad he was that peaceful, happy people like us had gotten mixed up in a piece of history like that.”
None of this is to diminish the horror of what’s happening in the world right now. It may take all of our lives to process it. But those who expect not to suffer, those who have been taught that they are exempt from history, from collective suffering and from the consequences of our disastrous politics, cannot believe this moment and because they believe their suffering to be unique, find themselves doubly isolated.
On February 29th I took a train from Providence to New York. I travelled with EH and SN and I recall that the train was completely sold-out because it took some assistance from the conductor for us to find seats together. I spent nearly four hours absorbed in conversation with my brilliant companions and registered no anxiety at all about being on a crowded train.
On March 4th I had a meeting in Manhattan. I didn’t think to worry about being on the subway or about being in the midst of mid-town crowds that day, but I do remember feeling unease at the meeting after shaking the executive’s hand. Afterwards, I made sure to wash my hands. All day long I had Solange’s voice in my head as I sang to myself, “Don’t Touch My Face.”
On March 11th when I ran into KD my instinct was to say farewell rather than bye when our conversation ended. I made a joke of it. She and I had plans to have dinner at the home of KJ and JC a week later. “Farewell” I waved like Miss America, “See you… one day.” The following week the dinner party was cancelled, almost without words. For there was no need to say.
I have been in isolation (of different colors) for five months. In November and December, a residency in the woods. In January and February a medical residency (well not a medical residency, but self-isolation due to health issues) and now this third residency in March until.
The one thing I don’t feel is surprise. I am not waking up every morning wondering if this is real. On a psychic level the shutdown does bring its own relief. At least we won’t have to change plans every six hours as we’ve had to in the last two weeks. I welcome whatever stability the lockdown offers, a chance to figure out how to live now.
When did it occur to me to stop planning for the future? In late February, as I was coming out of my own month long (medical) confinement, I kept thinking to reach out to E to block out a week this summer to meet and I kept not writing because international travel, even in the summer, began to seem dubious. But plans were drawn and erased on different calendars. June in Vermont, July in the Hudson Valley, August farther away, all still seemed possible.
These days our conversations are disjointed. One person still reaches for a hug to say goodbye, expects to see you at a concert in a couple of weeks, and scoffs at the notion of cancelling a spring break trip to Rome. Another person tells you that they have procured enough shelf-stable grocery items to last a month, maintains their distance and is worrying about whether it’s time to leave the city. These conversations happen on the same day and what strikes me, even more than the dispositional differences of these people, is that their utterances, spoken on the same day bear radically different time stamps. Information circulates unevenly, so some, having heard the dire warnings, are ahead in time. Others, whose local governments and institutions have been slow to respond, are behind by several days. Even within the same region, even within households we experience the intervals of coronavirus differently.
And so, interactions are fraught. Accusations of overreaction. Accusations of putting others at risk. We are all tumbling inside this for now.
As for the future -- Clarice Lispector The future, the future -- Inger Christensen
The news has been erratic and assaultive. The big decisions I had to help steer last week have been made; I’m home now, most of us are home. But I’m still in the process of dismantling the current version of my life.
I was supposed to meet A for a long walk in Prospect Park tomorrow. We texted today and I think we both hoped — somehow– that it might still be possible. There’s a strange new navigation of consent in all interactions. Do you want to do this? Do I want to do this? I understand my own risk, but if I see you will I put you in danger? I don’t know A, so when I wrote to her to say I thought we should postpone, I was surprised by the loss I felt. A had attended a talk I gave at a university a few weeks ago and asked a question during the Q and A. I recognized a thoughtfulness, a longing, and an intelligence in her question and I told her so later in the day. When she asked her question I had also felt recognized: the simple fact of hearing my name pronounced correctly channeled my words from my head to my heart. She wrote later to claim kinship with me, and I suggested we have tea. We planned to meet in Morningside Heights, where we both work. And when the university closed down, we decided to meet in Brooklyn, where we both live. And when meeting indoors seemed unwise, we thought we might take a walk in the park instead. Then today, after further restrictions were imposed, we decided we wouldn’t meet at all.
Like everything, this, too, began before it began. Origins are elsewhere.
In January I thought of starting a new notebook titled, “Notebook of a Recovery in a Non-Native Land,” but I didn’t, and now I don’t quite remember what I had intended. I know well enough the physical malady I was recovering from, but why Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal was on my mind (why I was so tired of the world) I cannot now say. Nor can I recall with any precision why I felt just then that home was a non-native land.
I can’t remember much of what was happening or how I was thinking or feeling just two weeks ago. Something crystallized in my mind on March 8th. That was the day I spoke to KE and cancelled my university lecture scheduled for the next day. I was sure I had allergies, but it seemed better not to scare an audience of old people with my sniffles. So March 9th felt like a snow day though it was nearly seventy degrees outside. I walked for a few hours by the river with S. I loved listening to water as it lapped against the pier that evening and how the warm air very suddenly, with a single gust, turned cool when the sun had set. We both noticed it and turned in tandem to leave. I remember the days after March 8th with some clarity. Though I was in crisis management mode, I thought quite a lot about returning to the river as that water was the answer to some thirst. But the days (the months) before then seem a fog. Still, I reach for them to remind myself of something vital: this didn’t just happen; it’s been happening.
The world was already too much.