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.”