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Do you ever find yourself longing
For the beginning of the world-
That unimaginable openness
When the earth awoke - all quick, and fresh, and teeming? 


I finished this poem, oddly enough, the same day that I read an article by Margaret Renkl in the New York Times about how “The Pandemic Shows All is Not Lost.”  “Covid 19,” she writes, “will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future. But it is allowing us to see with our own eyes how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, how eagerly and swiftly it will rebound if we give it a chance.”

This pandemic, this end of our world,
Stifles us in our houses, while the houseless
Cower in abject fear of invisible menace-
Those silent microbes sundering us from each other.

Never mind - did you see the little birds,
Like tiny grace notes, cross the moon last evening?
At dawn, they land to feed along our rivers.
We find joy in their beauty, and  faith in their returning.



When I was a little girl I attended a school where we stood on our feet every morning chanting “Praise him and magnify him forever” as our headmistress read from a wonderfully apochraphal psalm listing all of the glories of creation, one after the other.  “O ye Fire and Heat, O ye Dews and Frosts, O ye Green Things upon the earth, O ye Whales, and all that move in the waters” – on and on she would go about the glories of creation as the voices of children called out our response in the morning of the day and of our lives.  

The beasts of the field are suddenly among us:
Coyote lope along our empty sidewalks,
Foxes drop by for curious backyard visits,
Impertinent skunks on our lawns ignore us entirely.

Kangaroos lollop down streets in the center of Aukland,
Mountain lions walk fearless along the forest verges,
Grizzles loll in abandoned Yosemite campgrounds,
While toads and frogs migrate across empty highways.

The birds and the beasts and all things that move in the water
Rejoice in creation thown open by our absence.

This morning my friend Ashok sent me photos of the sky over the Himalayas, clear and blue for the first time in decades, and told me that the Covid 19 lockdown has brought thousands of flamingos back to Delhi.  Of course we environmental activists don’t want to indulge in a “There, I told you so” attitude, but it is striking how very quickly nature cleanses itself when we bring ourselves to a halt for another reason entirely.  The virus is an aspect of Mother Nature too, and if the only way to refresh the air we need to breathe is to live on a smaller scale, we have shown to ourselves that we can do it

“And so our first task when we emerge from this isolation,” concludes Renkl, “will be to remember to sear into our memories that pure pageantry of wildness, of life in its most insistent persisting.  And then to try in every possible way to save it.”

They say that there are schools of dolphin at play
In the canals of Venice, now that no gondolas
Chockablock with tourists, roil the dazzling waters.
They trill merrily to each other in high-pitched music.

All the rest is true, but there are no dolphins in Venice:
It's just a story, a legend we have invented
Out of our terror, and out of our deep yearning
For a verdant world where we are in tune with the music
Of the beings of the earth, having found our place among them.

Pandemic- Gateway to a Better World?

The way I keep my sanity during this pandemic lock-down is STRUCTURE, by which I mean doing the same things every day that I did before we got all closed in on ourselves. In my case this means writing for several hours two mornings a week (the other days include two for environmental activism and one for finances, with the weekends off.)  As you may have noticed, the resulting blogs, posts, and tweets have  been on the cheerful side – light-hearted, or even (I hope) humorous.

The whole time, however, I was working on this piece for Impakter,  a European online magazine where I am a columnist. And in the middle of writing it, my older daughter, whose visionary ideas about the use of artificial intelligence to improve society are key to the article, came down with the coronavirus.  Mercifully, she recovered.  

Whereas Lorien envisions human beings fully capable of melding head and heart to build a better  world, I am more skeptical about whether we have the moral will to achieve the world we long for once (if) we get through to the other side of the Pandemic Gateway.

Pandemic Lemonade

I haven’t worn a bra in two months.

On my daily walks, I wear a mask.   But nobody else wears a mask. I have a pleasant (6 foot apart) chat with a young woman who is not wearing a mask, at the end of which she says she is a nurse anesthetist at the local hospital. I rush home to wash my mask.

I have always felt naked without lipstick. With a mask over my mouth every time I go out, I don’t need to put on lipstick.

My mask leaves me breathless whenever I walk up hill, and gets all fogged up when I breathe excitedly while birdwatching.

My engagement book reads like Wylie Coyote – Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!

Zoom is intrusive: it lets a whole committee into my home office and then, when they all disagree with me, there is no place to hide.

I discover that I can mute them: all of them!

A dear old friend tells me that, deprived of her volunteer comings and goings, she went “all OCD” and cleaned her garage “right down to the gnat’s eyebrow.”

(I feel no such compulsion)

I am not changed in any way by social isolation. I am not changed in any way by social isolation. But I can no longer get into the bathtub without my rubber ducky.

 You know those bras I haven’t worn?  I cut one up to make two masks, but it sure feels weird to stick my nose where my nipple used to be!

As I wait on the sidewalk for my friend to come out for a (socially distanced) chat, I realize that in my tweed cap, black jacket, mask, and umbrella I look like a robber intent on coshing her. So I devise an outfit consisting of a pink windbreaker, pretty cotton mask, and baseball cap to look less threatening. 

I appear so utterly anonymous that I post it as a joke on Facebook.  In the park a dear friend comes running up to me. “How did you know it was me,” I ask.  “Oh, I recognized you from your Facebook picture!”

An English Village of the Mind

So, yesterday I decided that I needed to get my mind off the pandemic, which seems to have crept into every mental nook and crevice.  When I was little, there was a lovely world I escaped to when things pressed down too hard upon my small shoulders, a world of tall grass and sunlight and the reassuring colloquies among mourning doves in the mulberry tree.

These days, I find solace in novels about life in rural England, quiet little villages where everyone knows everyone.  There are cottages, of course, their front gardens friendly with hollyhocks and roses, and just enough quirky eccentricity to keep the gossip juices flowing.

There is nothing better for this proclivity than Angela Thirkell’s Barshetshire novels,  which natter on about nothing at all and are indistinguishable from each other.  I have shared this taste and our extensive Thirkell ttrove with a good friend, ever since we pounced upon a deceased Englishman’s collection at a local rummage sale.

So, in the present exigency, we swapped the novels we haven’t read (or have forgotten we’ve read) and I’ve been off and away at the end of each and every day of isolation, content in some English village of the mind.

But last night, with months of quarantine yet to come, I realized there was only one Thirkell left on my bedside table.  And then, oh frabjous  joy, I found J.L. Carr’s  A Month in the Country on my Kindle – an old church, a vicar, a shell-shocked World War I veteran – it would do for now. After that, it would be back to my collection of  P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson, who also write the same English village novel over and over about nothing much at all.

Of course, it’s all unrealistic escapism – that’s what makes these novels so comforting in our present perils, which are much more like what went on in the Lincolnshire village my own ancestors escaped from by the skin of their teeth.

Rivers of Birds

 One night last week, self-isolation blues were getting to me, so I went to look at the stars. There was a full March moon, and, while I stood gazing at it, a concatenation of bugling and cackling reached me from way high up. I wouldn’t have known what it was if I hadn’t heard Sandhill Cranes at the same time last spring, flying north on the rivers of the sky. Thousands of them pass through Michigan along The Mississippi Flyway, migrating from their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to breeding sites in Canada.

I I would have jumped up in the air and clicked my heels if I could (I did it mentally, anyway).

In these lonely days, we are allowed to get fresh air and exercise if we keep 6 feet apart and upwind from each other (rumor has it that dread Coronavirus droplets can be carried on the wind). Chance conversations with real human beings who stop to chat always lift my mood, and watching birds on their spring migration rachets me right out of my funk.

The Rouge River runs through Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, where Canada Geese are sorting themselves into mating pairs amid clamorous lunging and imprecation. (With their people-watching curtailed, New Yorkers have taken to goose goggling.) If you aim your binoculars away from the shore, you often see migrating ducks resting on their journey.

Last Saturday (March 21), I got into one of those arcane bird watcher’s conundrums trying to figure out whether the little ducks gliding and diving in the middle of the lake there were Buffleheads or Hooded Mergansers, only to come back on Sunday to discover both species present. From that distance, the males with their prominent white head markings looked quite similar: the key was in their mates. The female Bufflehead has a small, round head and is brownish all over, but the female Hooded Merganser has a wild rusty mane that looks, my bird guide says, as if she had attacked it with a hair dryer.

Figuring out the intricate details that Mother Nature bestows on her creatures focused my mind wonderfully, and helped me rise above my gloomy preoccupation. There is something reassuring in the way birds migrate on predictable routes and schedules. In my back yard, for example, a Red- winged Blackbird has appeared around March 5 (my mother’s birthday) every year since I started keeping feeder lists in 1982 (my family has always thought we might come back to each other as birds, maybe it is her?)

Bird species tend to migrate through our area at set times. If you happen along the riverside path in Birmingham’s Linden Park during the first week in May, a bunch of us with binoculars around our necks and frantic looks on our faces will be scrambling about in the bushes tallying migrating warblers, teeny tiny birds given to darting about way high up in the treetops (warbler neck is a significant muscular affliction of this season.) These little birds travel at night, descend at dawn, and don’t fly in the rain: if we have had a wind from the south and a nighttime rainstorm, we might get the warbler “fallout” that we have waited for all year long.

Between 1992 and 2010 we kept records for Oakland Audubon in Linden Park and Quarton Lake, 112 species of year-round and summer residents and 26 varieties of warblers passing through on their spring and fall migrations. Tired and hungry on flights from as far away as South America, they spot the glittering currents of the Rouge River and descend for restorative stopovers on their way to Canada and the Arctic Circle.

I think most of us became nerdy listers as the secondary effect of the sheer delight of bird watching. Just looking at birds is a mood lifter, as I first discovered as an anxious ten year-old New Yorker when a kindly Audubon Club maven plopped me down in the middle of a Central Park multi-species fallout with colorful, active, and excitedly chirping birds perched on the trees and bushes in every direction.

Although climate change and destruction of stopover habitat has led to a sad decline in bird numbers, Scientific American reports that it is also shifting the timing of bird migrations, but only by two days each decade – not enough to throw them off their seasonal feeding schedules. It is heartening, too, that so many of our fellow creatures are adapting themselves to global warming.   The Scientific American notes “a study of 52 species published in Ecology Letters found that birds’ bodies are getting smaller over time while their wingspans are getting longer, apparently in response to rising temperatures. The smaller size may allow the animals to lose body heat faster as the climate warms, the researchers suggest.”

Are you interested in taking up bird watching? Here’s a great Cornell University Site to get you started.

Guess what? On March 29, the Kinglets were back! Tiny and darting swiftly in the undergrowth, they are the first migrating birds to alight along the Rouge River every year.

* visit Linden Park off of Lincoln at Shirley and Douglas Evans Nature Preserve off of Evergreen between 14 and 13 mile roads.

Everything is Talking Back

We are all locked up in our houses now – well, not exactly locked up, though it feels like it – self-isolated is the correct word. It is a weird situation for those of us who derive so much of our well-being from engaging with real live people; is it any wonder that we are beginning to converse with our teakettles?

Actually, talking to household objects isn’t all that strange. Travel writer Jan Morris, who at 90 is done with traveling, engages in “morning conversations with my toothbrush” and “night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture.” She also likes to “thank a good omelette.”

In a round of texting with my (self-isolating) friends I discovered that Sharon thanks each object as she throws it in the trash or recycles it, and that Marie was so struck by the beauty of her fried egg this morning that she took a photo portrait.

Years ago, when Yorkshire pudding was a staple of our household, I would congratulate it when it rose crisply from the sides of the pan, but I would never forget to commiserate when it fell flat.

One day, when I was about twelve years old, I let myself into our New York City apartment so quietly that my mother kept up her animated conversation with our dog Tuffy. When I asked her if she was all right, she replied that I should only begin to worry when Tuffy began to talk back.

I am beginning to worry.

This morning, the wallpaper in my bathroom, which has a pattern of tiny pink flowers on tiny green stems amid even tinier polka-dots, asked me if I couldn’t be more cheerful; but then the scale wondered if I had been eating too much peanut butter. My bed chided me that I hadn’t made it yet, but after I tidied the sheets and patted down the duvet it declared, with a kind of smug complacency, “Now aren’t I all cozy?”

Has my lack of human contact alerted me to the way these things have been carrying on all along? Maybe I should follow Poet David Whyte’s advice in “Everything is Waiting For You” to “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/ The conversation. The kettle is singing/ Even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots Have left their arrogant aloofness and Seen the good in you at last.”

On the Silence of Winter

There is a silence to winter that is a being in and of itself. If you still the chatter in your head, you can sense the fields and forests humming quietly to themselves under the snowpack, way down below the roots of everything.

Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness?

Listen! Beneath the frozen lawn and the icy layer of leaves on the garden, can you here faint singing? Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness? Can you hear the field mice pattering in their intricate maze of pathways? How about chipmunks scurrying between cleverly discreet chambers, some for sleep others for storage or giving birth or private little bouts of copulation?

There is a deep hole dug into the brush pile, whose occupant remains unknown, a winter mystery.

Just below the frost line night crawler worms are waking in their slime-lined nests to quietly arrange themselves, side by side, in hermaphroditic alignments.

Today it is all mud and muck boots; tomorrow there will be snow and snowshoes, but winter is breaking up, don’t you worry.

Listen and attend! While silence sorts, nature cavorts.

SATURDAY MORNING WITH COFFEE AND THE NEW YORKER

When I sat down to read the cartoon issue of the New Yorker with my nice, hot cup of strong coffee one Saturday late in December, I found an article by my favorite prose writer about my favorite cartoonist. Adam Gopnik is wonderful at what used to be called a “turn of phrase,” like describing a reference book he likes as “an atypically larksome encyclopedia.” He is also good at juggling ideas in a way that gets right in amongst us:

“People who don’t want high speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains . . . these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals.”

Here he is on the difficulties cartoonist Roz Chast experienced when she cared for her aging parents until their deaths, which she chronicled in her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. She found herself “caught in a permanent meta-cycle of well-meant gestures, torn between compassion and exasperation, having to be kind when you just want to be gone.”

And on the Brooklyn of Chast’s childhood: “the world of the receding New York middle class: scuffed-up apartments, grimy walls, round-shouldered men perched n ratty armchairs and frizzy-haired women in old-fashioned skirts…marked by a shared stigmata of anxiety about the eyes.”

Gopnik’s take on Chast’s “Sad Buildings in Brooklyn” took me straight into a bittersweet but gentle nostalgia for the tiny Manhattan apartment where I grew up in the 1940s. It was filled with cigarette smoke, presided over by neurotic parents, with soot-encrusted sills at every window, in a dimly lit wartime neighborhood that was in every way distinctly pre-Big Apple.

Chast’s characters have escaped her sad Brooklyn for what Gopnik describes as “a kind of timeless Upper West Side of the mind,” her preferred New York neighborhood which became mine as well. I have found a place to stay in a brownstone apartment on West 81st Street and when I gaze into the windows of tiny apartments chockablock with books and dust and people having intense conversations amid take out boxes from Zabar’s, I feel poignant regret at my midwestern exile from a life I might have lived.

It seems miraculous that Chast’s sad Brooklyn buildings not only failed to overwhelm the little girl with their grimness and miasma of anxiety, but provided her with the settings and characters that gave her a successful career and a wonderful life. The key, I think, is immersing yourself in the sad oddities that life doles out, working through and with them rather than complaining about  and pretending they didn’t happen. We are all broken in some way; the trick is to fill our cracks with whatever gold we can glean to create our uniquely idiosyncratic wholeness.

As we get older, silliness becomes an existential necessity. The trick is to stay silly, be silly, and find silly things to do. These days, I am knitting mice and then knitting little sweaters and skirts for them to wear; Roz Chast has learned to play a turquoise ukulele and performs (at the Carlisle, yet!) in band called the Uklear Meltdown.

A PHILOSOPHY FOR CLIMATE GRIEF

Dear Friends,

There is so much downheartedness in reading the news about climate disasters, ecosystem collapse, and species destruction that we sometimes fall into so much Climate Grief that we lose all will to act.

I am sure that we have all been there, so I wrote this article for Impakter.com, a European online magazine where I am a columnist, to try to encourage us to look deep for ways to buoy ourselves up.

 It took a long time to write it, because just thinking about it made me want to run away and hide under the bed.

https://bit.ly/2sUuGeq

Inside Two Bubbles: Some Thoughts on Jonathan Coe’s Middle England

  On the night after the first Trump Impeachment Hearing, I picked up Jonathan Coe’s 2018 Middle England. It is a really good read – well written, with engaging characters, and a fascinating account of England right now. I was startled by the realization that England and America are going through strikingly similar crisis.

In Coe’s England neither Conservatives nor Labour have figured out how to deal with Brexit, which they voted in by referendum in June, 2016. Parliament is so consumed by the issue that nothing else is getting done. People are locked into Leave or Remain positions that have broken friendships and family ties. The country is full of anger, not only about Brexit but against immigrants and non-whites, giving rise to violent attacks. The nation’s mood of surly, punitive xenophobia seems to have been fueled before the Brexit vote by bitterly divisive social media traceable, in part, to the Russians.

In the United States, neither Democrats nor Republicans have figured out how to get bills through Congress in the face of violent differences about President Donald Trump, elected in November, 2016. Families are estranged by Pro- and Anti-Trump convictions, locked into positions over his campaign against immigrants and non-whites. Hate crimes against African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants have occurred every few months since his election; the xenophobic rage that fueled them was promulgated during the election campaign, much of it coming from Russian misinformation fed into social media.

Even I, who consider myself as rational as anyone, found my head spinning during Republican attacks on the distinguished diplomats at the Impeachment Hearing as they testified about Trump’s pressure on the President of Ukraine to give him dirt on the Biden family (along with proof that the Ukrainians, rather than the Russians, were responsible for the 2016 electoral interference). The Republicans worded their accusations with such forceful illogic that they aborted my thinking process and went straight to my (appalled) gut:

“Well what’s the deal,” one sneered, “they got their arms without doing the investigation, didn’t they?”

Legally, an attempted crime is still a crime: if you assault someone you go to jail, even if you don’t actually kill or wound him. And that’s the actual truth.

The impressively dignified and professional  Ambassador to Ukraine, the target of screeds of invective, gave the best possible response; she just sat there and smiled, as we would like anyone to do, in the face of total nonsense.

But no, not anyone. In Russia, fake information has long been employed to reinforce a dictator’s appeal. The New York Times cites Peter Pomerantsev’s “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” about the “transgressive thrill in strong leaders thumbing their nose at the facts.” While Pomerantsev is writing about how the Russians feel about Putin, there are plenty of Americans who just adore the way Trump stands up in front of thousands of people and tells one lie after another.

In the interest of a balanced view I have made several attempts to get myself inside the Republican bubble. I tried to watch Fox News, but its spins left me nauseous. Then, at my gym, I found a treadmill with a Fox screen just to my left and MSNBC blaring away on my right, enabling me to juggle both bubbles simultaneously. They were discussing the July 25 telephone conversation between Presidents Zelensky and Trump, with Fox twisting Trump’s ask to investigate corruption in general, while MSNBC insisted it was about Vice President Biden and his son.

Each side was rendering its viewpoint in an entirely believable manner. It was easy to see how, as the New York Times puts it, “a loss of shared facts can be corrosive for rational discourse.”

As for me, I find what is happening to words and to reason, and to truth itself, profoundly disheartening.

Jonathan Coe’s newspaperman character, Doug, meets every few months with his source, Nigel, who is a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron.

“We’re going to win an overall majority,” declares Nigel. “We’re confident of that. That’s what the opinion polls are telling us.”

“But you just said you don’t trust opinion polls.”

“We don’t trust most people’s opinion polls. But we do commission our own. Which we trust.”

*New York: Knopf, 2018