Today I logged off work a minute early, because daylight is still precious, and I wanted to get out into it. I also wanted to walk by the Ukrainian Church which I have written about before, and which I can see from my living room window and which has been, if you get right down to it, most of my world view for the past two years. I face my monitor eight hours a day (not counting what I write when I write because I must write). If I turn my face to the right, I see the little altar of candles I have created to keep my spirits up. If I turn my face to the left, I see through the window the Ukrainian Church – that is, a little sliver of some magnificent stained glass window on the far left and then three stories of indifferent taupe brick and many many dull dormitory-like windows that I realized only during the pandemic were actually windows for a dormitory, for the monks who live there.
Yesterday I thought of visiting the church when I logged off work to set a candle in front of the locked gates. Remember after 9/11 all the makeshift altars in the neighborhood for all the cops and firemen who were then our neighbors? Remember our neighbor Joe the Fireman? I still remember cooking dinner on a Friday evening, on what must have been the 14th of September because the 11th was a Tuesday, and hearing a car door slam and Joe’s deep voice saying “Thanks.” He was thanking someone, probably a fellow fireman, for the ride home. He had been at “the pile” – remember that they called it “the pile”? – since Tuesday. His house had lost either 12 or 17 guys. I don’t remember. I remember calling down to him from my kitchen window, “Thank God you’re alright!” and I remember the absolute exhaustion in his voice as he stared up at a voice just as I was shouting down to a shadow.
Anyway, David, two other people had had my same idea, because there were two candles in jars in front of the gates. Unlit, because it was raining, and not inside the gates, because I have never seen those gates open, except when expelling a congregation, not open even during the Ukrainian Festival which shuts down that whole block of 31st Avenue so that beribboned braided girls can clog on wooden platforms while their counterparts, stiff, solemn boys in short vests, wait their turn to click and leap.
So, not the warmest church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, no tentpole revival meetings or pancake breakfasts, but this is Astoria, after all, and the Greek Orthodox folks aren’t welcoming to outsiders, either. I walked on a block to see Con Ed soldering some metal plate over some hole they had dug up. They have been doing this for months, tearing holes into the street and then patching up, only to tear and patch again. I have theorized – since there is no one to talk to – that they are doing this because of the number of free-standing houses they are tearing down so that real estate developers can erect high skinny buildings where the shabby faux-Victorian houses used to be. Perhaps a greater strain on the Con Ed grid has inspired all this manic drilling and patching and ca-thunk-ing as traffic drives across the metal plates at night?
Anyway, someone was sealing a metal plate over a hole of the crew’s own making, and I watching the arc of the sparks, as one will watch arcs of sparks. A man in goggles saw me and shook his finger at me. He pointed two fingers to his own eyes, then to me. I walked away from him, a few steps before one of his begoggled colleagues shouted, “Don’t look at that! It’s bad for the eyes!”
You said, David, the last time I wrote about this church (see post “Saint Behind the Glass”) that you had never noticed the church, despite living so close to it for so many years.
Four years ago, before I left my terrible job, a fireman died on the set of a movie in the Bronx. His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and attracted hundreds, if not thousands. Firemen and policemen, on motorbikes and on foot, filled Fifth Avenue, 57th Street, and other feeder roads. I was working in the GM Building at the time, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and was coming into the GM Building from an appointment. I rode the elevator with a Young Turk of Private Equity who tapped both his foot and his phone.
“Is that the funeral for the fireman who died on the set of the Ed Norton movie?” I asked.
“Is what what?” he responded.
I explained: the roads shut down, the hundreds of uniformed men everywhere you looked, the absence of traffic, the sound of tolling bells.
“Huh,” he said, his thumbs still on his phone. “I didn’t notice.”
“Huh,” I responded. “And still there are so many people everywhere.”
“Isn’t it funny how I didn’t notice?”
“Funny is one word for it,” I said, and stepped off the elevator.
I wish this made me a hero, but of course I’m not a hero, and he no doubt dismissed me, as all the young people in my former and current department do, as some weird old dame (if they even use the word “dame”!) But that is a topic for another discourse.
I guess this topic is what to look at, whether or not it is bad for the eyes.
Longer letter later, as we used to say —
I’m not a full-fledged book critic, but I did review two books this year and provided a blurb for another. They are therefore disqualified (and indicated in italics) from my top ten. So, with the downtime I had at my disposal, and reading in periodicals, and listening to podcasts excluded, here are the books:
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanith (N)
Breath – James Nestor (N)
300 Years of Long Island City History – Vincent F. Seyfried (N)
The Winthrop Woman – Anya Seton (F)
Insubordinate Spirit – Missy Wolfe (N)
The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell (N)
Asthma: A Biography – Mark Jackson (N)
Damnation Island – by Stacy Horn (N)
The Other Islands of New York City – Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller (N)
Fever – Mary Beth Keane (F)
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health – Judith Walzer Leavitt (N)
The two ongoing projects here are an essay on breathing and other people’s attitudes towards a person unable to breathe, and a memoir/local history/I don’t know about the little area in Astoria where I live, the dog cafe which I began to frequent as soon as I felt it was safe to mingle again, and the history of the islands around Hallett’s Cove. The Winthrop Woman is a fictional account of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, a well-connected Puritan woman whose marriage to William Hallett, scandalous in its day (1650 ish), necessitated the “founding” of Astoria, which meant that a Dutch governor gave an English newcomer Lenape land to farm. Insubordinate Spirit is historian Missy Wolfe’s excellent nonfiction account of the same events, with a larger cast of characters and less romance. Similarly, Fever and Typhoid Mary are fictional and factual accounts of the life of Mary Mallon.
Wish me luck as we wave 2021 goodbye on making meaningful progress on these projects.
Actress – Anne Enright
Euphoria – Lily King
The Heavens – Sandra Newman
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
The Cold Millions – Jess Walter
Better Luck Next Time – Julia Claiborne Johnson
Meet Me in Another Life – Catriona Silvey
Humane – Anna Marie Sewell
V is for Victory – Lissa Evans
We Run the Tides – Vendela Vida
Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford
Interesting Women – Andrea Lee
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes
A Snake in the Raspberry Patch – Joanne Jackson
This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell
We Want What We Want – Alix Olin
Matrix – Lauren Groff
All’s Well – Mona Awad
Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr
The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell
The Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead
Self-Care – Leigh Stein
The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz
I read Hamnet in the food court at LaGuardia Airport, where I arrived at 6 a.m. to learn that my flight on the Fourth of July weekend had been delayed twelve hours. Even the association of reading that book with the every-fifteen-minutes rendition of “New York, New York” played to the performing water fountain, and the tears I shed over Hamnet while wearing a mask could not diminish the experience. I made it a mission to read everything else Maggie O’Farrell has written. The only reason her other novels are not bold-faced is that they sort of cancel each other out, like Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor, and besides, her memoir is bolded as well (see below).
The other bold-facers are the familiar names of the year, with the exception perhaps of my Stonehouse sister-novelist Anna Marie Sewell, who somehow blends a tale of a First Nations detective hunting down missing women with a lycanthropic romance, and Lissa Evans’s V is for Victory because it is the third in a charming trilogy of an unlikely found family during WWII.
Ghostbread – Sonja Livingston
Ladies Night at the Dreamland – Sonja Livingston
Recollections of My Nonexistence – Rebecca Solnit
I Am I Am I Am – Maggie O’Farrell
The Good Poetric Mother – Irene Hoge Smith
I had hoped to do a workshop with Sonja Livingston at VCFA, but when the confeence went virtual, I folded like bad origami at the thought of doing another Zoom workshop. I had already done a novel workshop, and am part of a program called New Directions which blends psychoanalysis and writing, introduced to me by Irene Hoge Smith, the daughter and author of The Good Poetic Mother. New Directions streams for three intensive long weekends three times a year.
I loved I loved I loved I Am I Am I Am, a unique and compelling structure for a memoir.
The Celeste Holm Syndrome – David Lazar
The Unreality of Memory – Elissa Gabbert
Pain Studies – Lisa Olstein
Letters on Cezanne – Rainer Maria Rilke
A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver
I decided to re-read Rilke’s thoughts on Cezanne ahead of the exhibit on Cezanne at MOMA.
Cozy old things and mysteries
The Enchanted April – Elisabeth von Arnheim
Pretty as a Picture – Elizabeth Little
The House on Vesper Sands – Paraic O’Donnell
Dear Daughter – Elizabeth Little
High Rising – Angela Thirkell
Before Lunch – Angela Thirkell
The Women in Black – Madeline St. John
In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming
All the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny
Death at Greenway – Lori Radnor-Day
Castle Bran – Laurie R. King
Clark and Division – Naomi Hirahara
And there you have it. I will close out the year with Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses, which I find slow-going because I often have to close the book in envy and contemplation and reconsider my life choices.
I have a smallish stack of friends’ books I have not yet been able to read, and they are moving from the pile to the list in the coming year. I recognize the utter lack of poetry books, except for the one craft book, on my list, because I tend to read poems as individuals and not as part of a collection, but I am happy to take recommendations.
I am also still looking for literature which takes place in or contains scenes which occur in Queens, so if you have any thoughts on those, send them my way.
It is not merely community that we miss, but spontaneous community, the casual hang, the chace encounter which, as my WordPress legend has it, I am champion of, or used to be, when chance encounters were not a public health threat. “Don’t be so friendly to strangers,” a former friend once admonished me. “It’s weird.”
She said it in this very park, where I sit and write this, the park I came to visit, Socrates Sculpture Park, five acres by the waterfront, reclaimed some decades ago from industrial landfill. In addition to large outdoor sculpture, it hosts, in the summer, all manner of exercise class and artistic offerings: cinema nights, concerts, dance performances and Shakespeare al fresco. It was at the latter, when I was picnicking and offered the group at the adjoining blanket part of our nosh that my friend chided me:
“Don’t do that, don’t talk to people all the time,” she said. “It makes you look desperate.”
Desperate to get back to normal, desperate to venture beyond our walls, desperate to transcend social distancing for human connections outside our “pods.” Desperate to shed our masks (if only to then don the social ones we used to wear: “a face to meet the faces that we meet.”). Or is that a desperate reach for a metaphor?
Perhaps I am desperate. Perhaps we all are.
I know that this park, on a chilly Sunday afternoon one week before daylight savings time comes to alleviate at least a small fraction of our darkness, is full of my neighbors (or, if you prefer, “strangers”) in masks and down coats, attempting to hasten spring by behaving as though it is already here.
I came to the park today to photograph the sculpture “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” by Fontaine Capel. I attended a Zoom talk by the sculptors in the new installation, and Fontaine Capel said that “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” represented the stoop of brownstones, which are being displaced by the glass-and-chrome building erected by real estate developers. We are not losing merely brownstones and stoops, but a place to sit and hang out with neighbors.
Neighbors hanging out in common places form what used to be known as community. When we lose community – the casual, sometimes vexing, occasionally inspiring presence of the familiar – what else do we lose?
After a year without it, we know what we have lost. And we are desperate to have it back.
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
I recently bought a rosemary plant. She is not happy. She yearns to be outside. So do we all, Rosemary! I wish she would straighten up, but she persists in maintaining her Martha Graham stretch towards a fiercely desired elsewhere. Rosemary reproaches me.
I reproach her.
Yesterday, returning through the back courtyard of my building with weekend provisions, I found my actor neighbor Ian repotting a hothouse of plants — a ballerina of a ficus tree, a robust rubber tree plant, and numerous other flora I could not name. He had large clay pots, great bags of potting soil and bounteous enthusiasm. I approached him for advice.
“Eastern exposure’s no good!” he shouted cheerfully. “Herbs like that need a ton of sun — a ton! Why don’t you take the stems you need, you know, for cooking, and plant it out back?”
“Out back” is the side of the building, where (only in New York) on a tiny strip of yard, certain residents of the co-op maintain miniscule herb and vegetable gardens. They are known as the Gardening Brigade and although I am technically of their demographic (female, middle-aged, unencumbered by caretaking), I am not of their kind. I spend my weekends at my keyboard, illuminated by my scant eastern exposure, and not on my hands and knees, toiling in soil. I respect that toil, but I do not yearn for it.
Ian and I agreed that once Rosemary starts to falter, I will leave her in front of his door, or leave her in the back courtyard with a sign akin to Paddington Bear’s: “Please look after this plant, thank you.”
But something in the way she slants reminds me of a painting I saw years ago — decades ago — at the Whitney Museum, when I was still fairly new to New York, recovering both from a difficult upbringing and the disappointing realization that New York City, for all its possibilities, would not magic-wand away my childhood damage. I saw a painting titled Resilient Young Pine.
For years, I remembered little about it except the delicate, resolute brushstrokes, and the depiction of the idea of being battened by great winds and remaining, if not upright, then still standing. I remembered that word: resilient. “Resilient young pine,” I would remind myself over the years through personal and professional setbacks, breakups and rejections and loss.
“What was that painting?” I have asked myself recently, as people used to ask at the end of an episode of The Lone Ranger, “Who was that masked man?” (Masks: how timely. I will not be exploring that here.)
A google search revealed that Resilient Young Pine is the work of Morris Graves, a mid-century native of Washington State, who was categorized as part of the school a magazine dubbed the “Northwest Mystics.” Resilient Young Pine is currently part of the collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, whose description of the painting, “heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism,” includes the statement that Morris Graves “lived his life in an eccentric manner.”
Since, damn it, “eccentric manner” could mean anything, I researched further and learned that Graves, a dreamer and a high school dropout, took on work as a deckhand on a merchant ship. The ship took him to Japan, where, he has said, “I at once had the feeling that this was the right way to do everything. It was the acceptance of nature, not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air.”
Graves’ painting was to me what Japan was to him. A different air. He returned to the U.S., finished high school, and then painted. He achieved enough early success (and had simple enough needs) that he was able to live out the rest of his life on painting alone. He lived as a recluse on chilly Northwest islands, usually alone, except for the companionship of dogs and cats, all of whom were called Edith. (If this detail does not delight you, I don’t know why we are friends.) All the while, according to Art and Antiques magazine, he created “many depictions of birds, animals, and flora, delicately drawn over abstract backgrounds of gently washed-on color.”
During the war, Graves was painting away on his foggy Pacific island when he was arrested. His application to register as a conscientious objector was misfiled by the army. That happenstance, along with his affinity for all things Japanese, landed him a midwestern brig for a few years. Afterwards, he returned to his Washington island and his Ediths, continued to explore transcendence through painting, and continued to meditate.
He remained resilient.
Screen to screen to screen has been my life this past month — my work laptop, augmented by my personal laptop, and then my desktop, when the workday is through, followed by some viewing on my laptop again. I am privileged to be able to work from home and to live in a co-op building which is well-maintained. But as I have revealed, I have taken to gazing out my window.
Now straight ahead, dead straight, to the left of the streetlight and to the right of the bright window in the building across the street, you can see a bit of colored glass. There. You see it? Had I an actual camera (instead of a phone) or were I a better photographer, I could capture that image — the streetlight, the stained glass of the Ukrainian church beyond.
Last night, I attempted it. The bars of the fire escape were too intrusive and the zoom on the cell phone camera wasn’t sufficient, so I climbed out on the fire escape and did my best.
This yellow-robed Ukrainian saint has been gazing into my living quarters for the past 20 years, but I only thought to think of it now. Of course, I was aware that there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church a block away — I have photographed their fete on Ukrainian heritage day. Beribboned children in native costume dance all afternoon in reluctant troupes. Ornately braided girls and grim embarrassed boys prance and clap on a wooden platform in front of the church, to the blaring of recorded accordion and clarinet music. A street block is roped off from traffic to allow for tables selling embroidered goods and meat-stuffed pastries, and chairs for the parents of those mortified, loyal prepubescents.
These wares, these performances, are not meant for the likes of me. I don’t know the difference between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox but I know neither proselytizes. Far from it. It is from the Greeks that we get the word “xenophobia,” from the Greek xenos meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” Also, “barbarian,” which originally meant “a person who does not speak Greek.” (Non-Greek sounded to Greeks like someone saying “bar bar bar.”)
After twenty years in Astoria, I was not keen to insert myself where I was not welcome.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that the church I look out on every day was not merely a church, but a religious residence. The low tan building I look out on (and appreciate, since it affords me sunlight when a commercial building would not) is not just extra church space, but a dormitory for the order.
How’s your world, everyone?
Here is a photo of mine, when I look out on it.
I am two blocks from a branch of Mount Sinai Hospital, as my friends and social media friends know. A branch where they have erected emergency COVID testing tents. In three minutes from the time I am writing the words “in three minutes,” the applause will start, the applause for the health care workers at the shift change. It seems to grow in duration and in volume every day.
I begin each day by opening the window and turning on the classical music station. I was fortunate in that my remote control broke one week into this isolation, so I no longer have the option to channel surf or listen to live press conferences.
There it is, the applause. Banging of pots and pans, honking of horns.
It should lift up my spirits, but instead it burrows deep into my sinews, like a fishhook, not a knife. This is a trauma not easily extracted. This is an anger not easily assuaged.
When I was on an “Unworkshop” retreat at the Highlights Foundation last fall, I met a woman named Heather Dean Brewer. The Highlights Foundation retreats take place in Pennsylvania on a rural property outside Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Because I admittedly live in an NYC bubble, Honesdale was the first town where I saw an un-ironic “Make America Great Again” sign posted in the window of a small-town business.
Heather was at Highlights for a workshop.(By way of explanation, Highlights offers a vigorous catalogue of workshops for children and young adult authors and illustrators, but also offers space and meals for any writer who might need time and space.) I was there for time and space. Heather was there for a workshop. She is the author of this happy little book which I bought for my sister’s birthday. (Spoiler!)
Heather was sweet enough to send me a bottle of wine from distant Michigan.
My cultural references these days are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, staring out the window and speculating on the neighbors. And Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel about the 1918 pandemic which has been written about by wiser heads than mine, for example, here. I cannot look at it now, not with the sirens screaming in the background, but nor can I forget the story’s final line: “Now there would be time for everything.”
A month ago, my biggest concern was that the 92nd St. Y would cancel the appearance of Dame Hilary Mantel, who was to discuss the third book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I had been looking forward to her talk for months; bonus points for it occurring on my birthday. But of course, it was cancelled. Instead, I ordered the book from The Astoria Bookshop, my local indie, on the last day it was operating live. It is still operating virtually, if you would like to support it.
I am having a hard time concentrating on The Mirror and the Light. I loved the first two volumes. I am pretty well versed in the Tudors. But despite the fact that the circumstances are dire, and that we know how this will end (it’s the world of Henry VIII, after all), I have trouble following along and perhaps need a lighter book.
But one line did resonate. Among so much speculation about succession to the throne, one character observes that it is treasonous even to wonder about the future. “We are trapped,” she sighs, “in the hours we occupy.”