Diary 7

Diary 7

Wednesday 25th March

Today the world felt just a little bit desolate. The empty streets seemed not such much calm as resigned. I had to make a quick dash to my local store and the young man behind the counter was cheerfully blasé about the virus. After all, he had to stay open, he said, and if he caught it, well, he caught it. The store, normally bustling, was as if in suspended animation, and the young man was more than eager to chat – he’d had so few customers all day.

In case you’re wondering what I’m doing going to my local store at all I’ll let you in to my reasoning. I am a firm believer in certain foods as being able to boost the immune system. Perhaps the hard scientists out there will guffaw at this, to which I will return a polite smile, and point out that very little controlled research has been done on this topic – astonishingly. And yet there is a huge body of unscientific knowledge that has always held that things like chicken soup are good for colds, and so on. Call it folk wisdom. Call it old wives’ tales. Yet, most of us would accept the usefulness of food supplements and vitamins in maintaining health.  Which is why I was out, getting in a supply of fresh garlic, amongst other things, to make a soupe Provencale. It always lifts my sprits to consume this soup, and, as we know, a positive outlook is good for one’s health. That, at least, has been measured.

Perhaps you too have a favorite dish to combat those microbes that lie in wait for us each winter? Are you presently cooking it?

Diary 6

Tuesday March 24th

Today was the first day of the lock-down – except it was actually more benign than that. People tended not to go anywhere, although the usual folks were out with the usual dogs, taking constitutional walks. On the whole people were not doing anything outrageous. My son, who seems to have had a mild form of the corona virus, was feeling much better, he told us (by phone) and is relieved that his self-quarantine was done for a good reason. My wife has moved her studio into the attic because the Arts Center where she rented studio space is now closed. I think she now likes the idea of working at home. Previously she was very attached to the idea of ‘going to work’ at a place she could leave at the end of the day. It’s a beguiling notion, but perhaps the new reality is telling us that not all notions are always what we think they are.

Personally I’m settling a little more into the sense that I can do my own thing rather than drifting through the days doing little bits of nothing much. In other words, I’m getting used to this. I discover, every day anew, that many of the things I’d tend to do in other times were not really useful ways to use my time. Now that I’m locked in, as it were, I make definite times to go out and walk, and I have a few weights in the basement I actually use now. Before the present situation I’d half-heartedly think about a walk, and then take a shorter one than intended.  The weights gathered dust. I never did go to the gym as I intended. Now I feel that I’m a bit more in charge of my own time and how I use it. I like that. I still have to learn how to use it well, though….

One thing I’d say is this: I now allow time to do not much. I allow myself the space to gaze out of the window. I slow down.  And I think this poor old body of mine really appreciates that. When I think back to my days as an active professor I begin to realize just how much cortisol and adrenaline must have been incorporated into my days. Fighting through traffic, the stresses of teaching effectively when management insists on behaving like idiots, the piles of papers to grade and comment on, the meetings. None of this would be kind to the body.

It’s a time of recognitions.

I cannot say what life must be like for those who now cannot make a wage. I can only assume that their stress must be enormous. My son and daughter are both in this category, but they seem to be doing fine.  I think they’ve accepted they can’t change things and have decided to be as happy as they can be under the circumstances. I can only write from my own awareness.

Diary 5

Monday 23rd

I’m starting today with a few pictures. They’re by Alama-Tadema, a Nineteenth Century artist famous for his scenes of the classical past, of Romans and beautiful Greek goddesses, scantily clad, sighing over long lost lovers (and so on). He came in for a fair pounding in the twentieth century, which accused him of sexism, soft-porn pandering to the male gaze.  All of which is true.

But looking at these pictures today, amid a global pandemic lockdown, something else comes to mind. These women are in lock-down, too. They are nobles and princesses forbidden to mix with anyone who isn’t within the palace, and even then they aren’t allowed to mix very much. They sit on high towers and sigh for absent heroes. They are models of Victorian decorum, longing, and fidelity.

And yet…..

What we can choose to see in these canvases, which are usually huge, is that these beautiful creatures are stuck in their daily world of luxury and routine. Beyond them, in the distances, are people who are becoming mythic, who are part of a larger reality than ours. This reality is beyond the quotidian. Here the human soul yearns towards the eternal, and so do these women, except they have no way to get there. 

They are like us, now, today. We can get stuck in the usual series of concerns about our world. We can obsess over this latest panic, if we wish.  Or we can look beyond this moment, and see that this world we live in, and love, actually has another aspect to it. It is many things, but it may also be just a stage on which we are working out our soul’s journey.

As we try to work out who we are without a daily routine, without a job or a career; without the ability to move about freely, and without even a coherent government to reassure us, we’re reminded that the soul has some longings, also. Stripped naked of our daily reassurances, some of which are our daily worries, removed from our tendency to fixate on certain repeated patterns of behavior, who are we?

Who are you between two thoughts? as Joseph Campbell famously asked.

Now we have the chance to find out.

Just like those women in the paintings, we have the opportunity to look outside ourselves - if we wish.

Diary 4

Sunday 22nd

Yesterday we attempted to go to a store to pick up some groceries. When we got there we discovered a line around the block, each person in line standing by a piece of blue tape on the sidewalk, six feet from the next piece of tape. The store was letting in only 15 people at a time. Faced with the prospect of waiting in line in the cold and wind, with a bunch of folks who probably had their statistical number of already-infected persons, we went home.

At home we continued to do 'stay in place' kind of things, including a pre-dinner happy hour by Zoom with our friends in Canada.

What occurs to me, though, is not the usual, 'when will it be over?' kind of questions. What sticks in my mind is that this kind of epidemic is probably only going to become more prevalent in the years ahead. We have a powerful wake-up call, right now, that says, get ready! The world is still becoming more populous, and strange versions of diseases are on the increase. We know this because every year we've had a new version of the flu (which also kills people), and that's been going on for a couple of decades. We have the chance, right now, to plan ahead and get prepared to head off the next wave of infection, as well as this wave. If we think long term we can make the whole world safer. If we think only about selling our stocks with an insider trading tip (as four Senators have done), to avoid a crash caused by this disease, we're backing a short term gain at the expense of a long time disaster.

It's time we started working together, as a global entity.

Diary 3: Magic

I've reached a sort of stasis. I find myself not doing the things I said I'd do - reading certain books, fixing things around the house - and instead I go on-line and seem to revisit the same selection of websites. It must be a form of self-soothing, and I suspect I'm not alone.

The feeling I have, which I think others may share, is that the air has been let out of the tires. In a real sense it has. My cars (the old one and the older one) stand idle, even though the price of gas has gone below $2 a gallon locally. I've no where to go.

The point here is that this is not necessarily a bad thing. What I've brought myself to do is to notice when I'm doing something repetitive, not judge it. Noticing brings me back to this moment, and to the recognition that we are not in charge of anything very much, and that the mind fills with noise to try and protect us from that. We can let go of that noise.

Consequently I've taken to re-reading the Grimm Brothers' Tales. Being 'out of time' as we are under this lockdown is strangely similar to what the earliest audiences to these tales might have experienced. They'd sit around the fire and listen to the story-teller recite the tales. It was too dark to do anything much, and probably in winter it was too early to go to sleep. Instead they fed the psyche with these wonderful tales. Some were silly, some were humorous, and some turned your soul inside out. This couldn't have happened in an era of electric lights, movies, frenetic socializing and dining out. It's happening now.

Take some time to let the magic reach you.

Diary 2

I felt a bit like Santa today, Wednesday 19th, as I delivered some toys to my grandchildren, but was not (of course) allowed to see them or play with them. I left their pink-with-princess-pictures-and-tassels bicycles (plus training wheels) on the back lawn in the sunshine, to tempt them to be outside and enjoy the weather. Their father is a restaurant manager, and so he’s quarantined himself; their mother runs a tutoring agency, and so is doing the same… you get the picture. In a few more days we’ll know if there are any microbes incubating, and depending on how that goes perhaps we can see them again. The great thing about four girls aged from 7 to almost 2 is that they play happily with each other. Teenagers might be a different story.

Meanwhile my son called in to say that not only is his construction business at a standstill but he also feels dreadful. His girlfriend came back from Florida a few days ago so we’re preparing to deliver chicken soup to his doorstep.

I think these kinds of events will keep returning to us for the next several weeks.

I remain at home and have tried to stay away from the stores as much as possible. Food is not really a problem yet. This ‘new normal’ is quiet and even restful, at least for now. My wife’s studio building has been closed, so we’ve set up an art area for her upstairs. There she continues to work towards producing new art for a show that features her, that may never happen, even though it’s in May.

Corona Diary

Wednesday 18th March: So what, exactly, is this diary to be?  After all, I’ve decided to write one (I almost wrote ‘committed’ but that felt too formal, too much like a legally binding  agreement – and if there’s one thing that these last few days have told me it’s that almost all the things that seemed so essential are probably much less so). Should I register the daily tallies of confirmed cases (200,000 according to WHO, worldwide)? Or should I focus on the news? 

Two things spring to mind immediately.  The first is that there is probably no way we will ever know the true number of cases, because some will be mild and some people won’t report them. The second thing is that thanks to Trump we have almost no testing kits and no resources. The sick are being urged to stay at home. Therefore they will not be statistics – and perhaps that’s what this administration wants. Even if they die they will probably not become statistics since no one can be sure what they’ve died of.  And so the uncertainty grows.

Trump spoke last night about giving a cash handout to everyone – since so many people are unable to work. Forgive me if I’m skeptical about this.  I’m sure he’ll find a way to delay such payments, and will make it hard for those who most need the cash to get it since the poor tend not to have electronic banking. I’ve no doubt that such a handout will also wind up being taxed.  But, truly, I do not believe this handout will happen at all.  Trump contradicts himself so regularly that I can imagine he’ll sink the effort himself and then blame the democrats. That would be his style.

Evidently this whole pandemic is making me, and folks like me, deeply suspicious of our Government – if we weren’t already.

The thing that puzzles me is the almost total lack of leadership from Washington. The job of a central government is to take the lead, make the necessary changes and take suggestions, provide instructions, re-assure, and be in charge. China, a place Trump loves to hate and yet still trade with, has built extra hospitals in a matter of weeks. Trump has said right from the start that he’s not ‘responsible’, that it’s not his problem to fix. So he won’t be doing much. He’s leaving it all up to individual states and cities. He’s certainly not building hospitals.

So now we know where the leadership really is. It’s in our hands.

Meanwhile reports are coming in of parties on the beaches of Florida as people disregard the whole quarantine idea. Presumably many of those people will swap microbes and then head back home, where ever that is, and keep the infection rate soaring. That’s another example of not taking responsibility.

At home here in Watertown, MA, the quiet is a tad unnerving. The birds seem very loud each morning, because they’re not blanketed out by the sounds of planes and cars. The roads are almost empty. Such cars as I see have developed the tactic of driving much faster than usual down our small roads.  I suppose they figure there’ll be no one coming the other way, no pedestrians to avoid, nothing at all. The daily news helicopters monitoring the traffic are missing – well, there’s no traffic to speak of. The distant roar of the Mass Pike seems to be missing, too, and that has been a constant in my life day and night, since I first came here thirty years ago.

In the garden the rabbits come out and play that strange game they enjoy, where one runs towards another and the sitting rabbit jumps high to avoid a collision. They do this over and over.

Facebook gives us encouraging messages about how we can learn foreign languages for free on line, or tour museums virtually. All very laudable.  But why I do feel as if I don’t want to do this? I don’t want to bring my life down to this screen for even more hours a day. 

Challenging Times

I've decided to keep a diary, of sorts, as we all go through the coronavirus episode that is likely to define this year, and possibly alter the years that follow it.

Like so many others I really didn't take the news too seriously at first. On Thursday 12th I was still wondering what, if anything, to do. To be safe I decided to ask my counseling clients to contact me only by using Zoom and on Friday 13th I began to do that. By the end of the day, after scanning the news for far too long, it felt as if the coin dropped. I was detecting signs of near-panic in some quarters. The toilet paper scramble was one that confused me and many others. This was, for some, the day one might call the tipping point.

On Saturday I could feel the mood deepen. The traffic was scant, the aircraft overhead were no longer as plentiful. People were canceling social gatherings -- much to everyone’s relief. It was quiet in ways I hadn’t experienced for some years.

Sunday was quieter than any Sunday has a right to be, and Monday was comparable only to the time immediately post 9-11.

Which brings me to today. I’ve been trying to fathom the energy, the mood of my little town. There seems to be a sense of determined resignation. The US Government obviously isn’t going to do anything for us, so we’ll have to sort this one out ourselves. My grandchildren are not going to school, but are playing with each other – no play dates. They are making their own entertainment. 

All of which adds up to my sense that some of us, at least, are finding some positive aspects in all this. Parents can’t go in to work, so they have to stay with their children. Shops are closed so there’s less rushing about to sales and special events. Stock markets have tumbled, so there appears to be a reluctance by some people to spend money, and this makes for a calmer atmosphere. We are being asked to slow down, and so far it feels like a welcome break, in some ways.

One of my clients put it beautifully – it’s like an unscheduled spiritual retreat, he said.

The question is -- can we use this time well? Can we move beyond our ingrained habits of consuming?  Can we learn to be mindful of what we buy, how we eat, and what we do?

You never know…..

Sometimes things come along that you just didn't expect, but which prove to be a huge gift from the Universe.

I'd been thinking about my late father a fair amount over the past few weeks, since he would have been 100 years old in January, and he died on the last day of February eighteen years ago. Coincidentally, he shares his birthday with my granddaughter, so you can see why he might be in my thoughts.

So, yesterday I had a delightful email from a gentleman from the Outer Hebridees (that the far North of Scotland in case you are wondering), saying he'd like to use some quotations from my father's memoir. It turns out he is the curator of a small museum in Tirlee, and had recently come into the possession of a whole series of letters written by one Charles MacLean, who was a resident of that small town and, it turns out, was a great friend and roommate of my father when they were serving on 217 Squadron in 1941. I knew about "Jock" MacLean, but there were no details, apart from the fact he was killed in action some weeks after my father was shot down and made a POW.

So now there are all these letters, full of excellent details about what it was like to train and be selected to be air Observers, gain a commission, and start active service as Navigators on a front line squadron. There is even, it turns out, a POW postcard sent by my father to Jock to let him know he'd survived. For me the most important thing is that I had very little idea what it was like to start in the RAF as the lowliest of recruits, get through basic training, and begin to be aircrew, ready to fight. My father was always slightly embarrassed that he'd come from very humble beginnings and so he glossed over much of his early training, He felt it wasn't very interesting to others. He was wrong about that. Now, here are these letters, written in a charming and buoyant style, and they make me feel I was right there, seeing what Jock saw, laughing at the absurdity of some of it, and never for one moment despondent. This sort of primary material, so full of life and character, is almost entirely missing in all the accounts I've read elsewhere.

And so a gap in my awareness has been partly filled. I could hardly be more thrilled.

Grimms’ Tales

Join me tomorrow, Monday March 9th, at 9pm, when I'll be talking with Barbara DeLong on "Night-Light" about those strange and wonderful tales. It'll be fun! Here's the link: