Thursday, March 19, 2020

Living Small in March 2020 Until ?

        These are the best of the worst of times. Being able to walk and talk when so many are  struggling to live. These days will forever be marked B.V. and A.V.
          Then some of us go out, in spite of the warnings, the pleadings, the rules. Someone living alone who has high energy must find a way not to feel isolated while being more fully aware of alone-ness  without  partners, roommates and family folk. It's too late to adopt a dog so I'll rely on a neighbor who has one. Dogs don't get or give the virus. I'll go even further and farther breaking the rules to enjoy the company up close of a few people whom, in these times of stress, I will call family. Substitutes. Not contact every day at length, mind you. Probably less and less as numbers (statistics) mount. But they are there, and have my key.
        Among the many questions raised each day is the inevitable: How are you coping?  What advice to you get or give? Answers  vary each day, as is the definition of what it means to cope.  One of the most ingenious among those of us who find concentration more difficult than ever is to order jigsaw puzzles online. A friend chose a complicated mandala pattern that she said looked difficult enough to challenge her mind - to put mind over matter and lose herself in the combination of shapes and colors.Another form of meditation.
         I put a sign on the front of the house: Keep Calm And Carry On, rallying cry of the Brits during World War II. I wave at  neighbors through the windows. On Friday at 5 p.m. our City Councilman hopes everyone will come to their stoop or porch or equivalent for Happy Hour. No doubt singing will commence. If the Italians can do it, so can we at least try. You vow to learn something new every day, however simple or even silly. I look at recipes like medicine, to lose myself in their myriad ingredients and then pull back: It's not possible to have so many required ingredients on hand and not possible to trip off to the store for just one or two items. Stores now have 'senior hours,' presumably because we seniors in the undefined elderly group are thought to be at great/greater risk. Never mind that seniors can transmit unseen germs to each other like everyone else.
         Pat me on the back, I put in several orders for books at the independent store now closed. Their industry is already severely compromised and these days give Amazon more power than ever.Let Amazon devote  its profits to the vaccine, to paying employees overtime and more.
         Improvise: Hearing that Britain's Royal, heir apparent Prince Charles, caught the bug I decided on his behalf  to concoct a mythical dog for myself and call him Charles. My Charles - little Charlie - can get out and mingle, can still sniff and smell and tastes. He is cheerful and sociable and, of course, asks very little of me.
       My real family is thousands of miles away. I cry when I think I will not see them soon and not know when I can. They are not avid Facebook or Skype people. Their texts are short. An email is an occasion.
          Today is spring on the calendar, usually a hopeful thing. I think about all the equinoxes I've been able to celebrate, the many years of life and memories they contain. I'm counting on summer, -the  heat and  hope.

     Slight digression. Take a look and have a thought about some of the past very real catastrophes in the world.:
       Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C., United States on November 7, 2015.[1][2] Located at the intersection of North Capitol StreetMassachusetts Avenue, and F Streets N.W., the memorial was built by the National Park Service and the Ukrainian government to honor the victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–33 and educate the American public.[3] The memorial is one of three monuments in Washington, D.C. designed or co-designed by women (the others being the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.)[4] Congress approved creation of the Holodomor Memorial in 2006.[5]

It does lend perspective At least at this point in our shutdown/lockout status. At least most of us are still alive.

      'Small' is relative. You can live big in your mind. Observe how many are utilizing their own resources to compensate for the isolation. Have an old table tennis table stashed away? Bring it up to the largest room in the house, give it center place, and get going with the paddles. Confirmed: physical exercise and mental exertion.
       Everyone has their own idea of a good day, a 'sensible' plan. This writer likes to pretend she can have a schedule that involves at least one productive or creative enterprise, or attempt at one. It might only be vacuuming the floor, or  wiping down the kitchen, cleaning out the fridge, writing a short story for my grandchildren. But it is visible and  valuable. Far trickier is the creative side since it involves dampening down the gremlins that provoke distraction, despair.  Those stray thoughts  and emotional vagaries....Now, finally, we may come to learn what is meant by discipline. Does meditation teach us how to focus? Or is it merely the panacea we need?

April 1 - who's the fool?
We are all the fool when supposing we are  in control. Irony aside, at last a person stuck at home can control the day's schedule. Limited choices perhaps, except when he/she get on the Internet and is overwhelmed by testimonies, advice, pods and posts. I'm guilty of that here, in the vain idea that a diary of sorts is worth keeping of the 'times out of joint.'  To note how one acquaintance decides it is time to read Proust; another cleans her apartment''; a third takes up baking bread. I jump around, one plan to another, shiftless and undisciplined. One reliable factor is the  daily  newspaper arriving at my door - a talisman that such chaos can be contained within the pages. I challenge a friend in New York - another daily 'hard copy' reader- to come up with odd/offbeat pieces of information gleaned from NYTimes' prolific pages. I suggested a small article I saw that implied a study showed how warm, better hot baths might help to prevent heart trouble. She declined, saying it was really the obits that interest her. And no wonder. Good people are disappearing -  with legacies to cherish.

On my block, which is how my world turns these days,  the news is either big or small, depending how you view such things.. A very large owl (they are all large) lives in a very large tree next to my house. Or rather, he/she is said to visit occasionally - preferably in the dark hours of 2 a.m. when streets are mostly silent and he can feast on the rodents  on the ground below. Rats, mainly - leaving their former sites, the shuttered restaurants nearby whose garbage normally was a reliable food source for them. My neighbor across the street reports that his one year old Akita caught her first rat today - in his small back garden. It took two hours for the conquest to occur, but then the Akita wasn't experienced. A novel encounter for her.
Another neighbor reports she could get most of what she ordered online from Costco Delivery and it arrived on schedule, more or less. Smiles all around.

When I venture out shortly after 8 a.m. fo ra Trader Joe Senior Hour shopping binge I found so few people inside that some aisles were empty of customers. It was disorienting, to be privileged this way. The idea, of course, is that the elders are considered more vulnerable, both as victims and as carriers. Masks were common; smiles were not.

At 5 p.m. on a day when the DC Mayor predicted one out of seven residents would most likely be afflicted (for better or worse), I make a medicinal Margarita - lots of Vitamin C limes, abundance of alcohol and a swift dose of Triple Sec. I sit on my porch, facing the street, many more than six feet from the sidewalk. I have some brief exchanges with passersby, lifting my glass. The custom of meeting up on the stoop, porch, whatever has not yet taken hold each Friday as our Council member hoped.  So at 5 p.m. the next day - after the CDC recommended everyone wear a mask - I proposed neighbors come out masked (the more colorful the better) and form a procession, a long loose snake, at these Friday happy/unhappy hours. It's a strange sensation to wear a veil and without hearing aids it is difficult to hear many people speaking.
Taking chances - it seems nearly illegal to do so  - I ventured out to my local CVS expecting to find a line. Nobody was at the prescription counter. I needed to reorder, and wanted to leave plenty of time before running out of pills. The pharmacist was in a mask and I had draped a scarf over my nose and mouth. To pronounce my name clearly was a challenge; fortunately I had an old capsule with me clearly marked. Emboldened, I next bought toothpaste and a notebook that I paid for with a credit card on the self-service checkout machine. Leaving, I encountered at the exit door just a foot  away from me a disheveled man ranting and waving his hands erratically, blocking the entrance. Store personnel seemed unconcerned. I pivoted away quickly, somewhat afraid.
You take your chances. A good friend of mine from long ago died this week in New York from pneumonia plus virus. What chance did she have I'll never know. I had neglected to write or phone her to see how she was coping - another woman alone - as soon as the city's lockdown order was announced. Most likely as a writer she was working to the end, not knowing the end was coming. Her latest book is due out this fall.

  So go the days when time seemingly has lost all meaning. Yes, there is a war on with a fight within and without. A stroll at sunset around the block on a Saturday evening: silence, few footsteps,  weariness everywhere. The sun tries chasing away clouds that have given the day a gray pallor. I can only hope for a good, maybe entertaining, dream. You have to be grateful for small things.

The nonfiction bestseller by Erik Larson , 'The Splendid and the Vile,' is, strangely enough, a reassuring read although it focuses on personalities central to the conduct of World War II in London, mainly on Churchill and his family and circle. It illuminates how important was the character of people then - their steely resolve.  (And show, by contrast, how little leadership has been exhibited in this country these days.) Churchill is shown in all his endearing and frustrating form as a leader throughout the worst days of the German blitz. Hardly cheerful text but yet uplifting, engaging.  Though these days of quarantine might be equally well spent reading in depth biographies of the great (James Joyce for me) or historical figures  few people ever heard of but who were critical in their day.

Now six days into April ('the cruelest month' said the poet). I practice isolation under a magnificent deep pink cherry tree that looms over three back yards.  I can sit in meditative silence contemplating various limbs as they move in the slightest breeze. None follows a pattern. None is alike, like stars or snowflakes. Oddly, I imagine them as keys or notes on a piano and wish only they could sing. This is a tree with no wish to be predictable. The main trunk is split in two ways, topping off at three stories skyward. This particular breed was supposed to  have died off years ago but maybe because it is rooted in the nutritious remains of a fallen diseased Dutch elm, it has special strength. I feel blessed to have it near - and can even reach out and touch the lowest flower. Winds have come up that threaten the life of the blooms. Branches are like waves in an ocean spreading pink petals everywhere on deep red bricks. Life is fleeting, the blossoms say. Take each day as it comes.

I thought today that I might at least tackle the dust in my house but instead felt greater need to be out in the sun.

On My Block Again: Excitement comes in strange ways. A prized cat likes to sit on a second story windowsill in one of my neighbors' houses across the street. The young Akita dog keeps watch in the yard next door. The neighbor family immediately to my left offer to bring me a Chinese dinner and I offer a beer in exchange. While ruminating on my front porch, I see a runner moving in the road who is  hassled verbally by a car who claims to own the road he/she once is accustomed to travel there unencumbered. There is a spitfire exchange: who has the right to prevail?

Day What of the semi-quarantine? I don't think of days but try to think of Today. Imagine some activity that will provide some personal satisfaction beyond the newspaper.
Cooking and then eating alone has definite drawbacks, too obvious to name.
A little 'game'  that provides some positive feedback is finding places in the city where a person can walk safely in relative solitude, where paths need not be measured in six feet sections. I will happily give away location of the three such places around Washington DC - though likely two of them require a car. A means of transport before starting the walk: Kingman and Heritage Island in the middle of the Anacostia, a real wilderness in parts; a path along the Anacostia River beginning at the end of M St.SE that winds past the Community Boathouse (closed of course), past a gated rear entry  to the U.S. Arboretum, on to the decaying RFK Stadium and then up East Capitol Street and home ; the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland NE, near Catholic University has grounds open for reflection roughly between 9 and 3, with a prayer chapel also available on the site. The tulip show  is worth the trip. This is the Easter Weekend so perhaps another trip is in order, although weekends make such retreats prized by teleworkers tasting freedom from their weekday schedule.

Coming up with such diversions is a challenge - finding resources not ordinarily explored. It's possible, one family realized, to get takeout dinner from a local restaurant and, on an unusually balmy early evening in DC, sit  on benches  outside such iconic sites as the Supreme Court or the Library of Congress. The beautifully landscaped park bordering the river near the Nationals Stadium is a mecca for sunbathers - or once was. Now police patrol to keep the people away.  A pity that canoes and kayaks are tied up; rentals banned. Somehow I can't see the harm in letting people paddle six feet apart on the water.

 A quick walk late afternoon around the 'hood, ostensibly to mail some letters but really to get the feel of the outside world. I walk fast, avoid anyone on my side of the street, head towards the mailbox that is farthest away from my home.  (Envelopes with checks to nonprofits who run public radio and TV.) I wear my mask but keep my eyes alert to anyone who might be near. I see a nearly uninhabited bus going  nearby, north on Pennsylvania and a passenger looking out a window  waving. Does she intend to call attention to my mask: the second side of a special handmade double sided linen cloth creation from a friend deft with needle and thread? My friend had chosen  the fabric from an African source, she told me (my friend is a former Peace Corps country director in Malawi). Mindful of 'keeping up with appearances,' I had put that one on the public side to go with black trousers and a  black top. It's identifiably tribal, being black with white markings. Not the soulless black  blob of a mask available commercially .Was the stranger congratulating me for that choice in a time when many black Americans are being targeted wearing wear black masks resembling robber garb?
I wave back at her, smiling, pointing to my mask, unsure what had caused her to respond. Maybe she simply wanted to connect with someone on her lonely ride. But maybe, too, she knew. A heartening encounter.

In the wee morning hours I came up with a title for a journal of this kind - written under stress.
Henceforth: Whiskey For Breakfast and Bourbon Before Lunch. Anything goes as long as it goes towards lightening the spirit...

Which of course is easy enough to say though I well know a person can't drown sorrows in colorful enticing liquids. There are or should be certain rules to follow. As a child of the last century, when I and others in my combined household (three parents, five children) had the habit of saving things such as tin foil (from inside  the grownups' cigarette packages?) for the war effort, I find myself now reusing old aluminum foil and, yes, even plastic so-called cling wrap. It's difficult to do the latter and questionably hygienic but I feel I'm saving steps I might have to make to replace such items at the store. I no longer think about ducking under tables -- the air raid alert practice -- and closing blackout shades. What comes easily, however, is the notion of routine in the time of uncertainty. Hence, I've determined to keep on my bathrobe until noon if possible (it is), to keep in mind some small goal for the day, and a phone call to or from a friend.

Those calls are lifelines for sure: a text message is devoid of any responsibility to really communicate, with emotion in the voice. I heap objections to a friend who - lazily in my mind - thinks nothing of sending along a few words and a ding. Why  should I target her unfairly except this could be a time for scapegoating, however petty? It's my self pity showing - the single woman alone, who knows better . (Hence, the story told me by a woman who is put upon by phone endlessly and sadly by an old lonely-only acquaintance from an apartment where she sees no one and has no neighbors.)
A phone call late yesterday (4/16) from my friend eager to arrange access to Theodore Roosevelt Island and how challenging that will be - with the city discouraging crowds by closing the parking lot considered the only way to reach the island's paths from the city. We have researched  another possible  avenue by driving into Rosslyn and checking out parking spaces close enough to a hiker/biker walkway that leads there...Likewise, Hains Point - a lovely three mile circumference - has close off all parking spaces alongside the road. A side road across from the now restricted  Wharf might allow us to park and walk a short distance to the Tidal Basin as well. Such are the joys of discovery, a sense of satisfaction, entrepreneurship - and potential exploration of a little-used area for exercise.

I'm still finding little need for television escape in spite of the barrage of tips and links that surface daily. If I would find myself bedridden, no doubt I would eagerly gravitate to the small size screen supported just above eye level in my downstairs living room. Thus far, I seem to use it as a radio since much of the interview shows are relayed by Skype  rather than film. Cosmetic touches still are required, however - maybe even more so. What proud government official unabashedly calls her need for a hair/beauty salon 'essential' since she is expected to appear composed and well groomed. I'd choose a good hair cut  and color these days over a visit to any store...especially now that I've been invited by a neighbor to add on to her Costco and Peapod orders. But a visit to Trader Joe during its 8-9 a.m. senior hour is akin to a trip around the world - the thrill of shopping perhaps a substitute for having freedom of choice in almost every other aspect of life.

Even the shortest walk invites an opportunity to learn, or simply to reflect. How does it happen that on every block within a few hundred yards I notice that  every house has a different style number in front. And a few have none at all. How does it happen except that different owners must feel a need to be different. Mine is vertical, in brass. Most are conventionally horizontal. Not all are easy to read. I walk slowly and look closely.  At one address in the next block - I know not a single neighbor there - I pause, seeing a woman in bathrobe and slippers just closing her door, a cigarette in one hand, and the day's mail in the other. We both spontaneously at each other. I give her a thumbs up and she laughs. That likely never would happen under normal circumstances.

Oh, the holy normal - how the word can irritate. Late Saturday afternoon a big band sound erupts near Eastern Market. I can't see the source but immediately I wonder: how can they play this way, close together? But  of course they need not be standing close at all. Their notes are joyous, invigorating. welcoming.

Strategies for survival are everywhere. Truly ingenious: my neighbor in a wheelchair (victim of West Nile virus many hard years ago) playing - what to call it? pan tennis - with one of his daughters using two dustpans and a tennis ball in the backyard. It is a Tuesday, the  virtual 'school bell' rings at 9. My morning activity will consist of taking my  12 year old Mini Cooper to a local service repair shop since the automatic icon appeared showing engine overheating and 'service repair' needed sign. Taking care of others, even a material object, is therapy. Hence, too, watching over and not interfering with the mother bird planting her nest in my dryer vent high  up on the side of my house. Which will cause me not to use my clothes dryer until the birth of young ones: OR? The neighbors debate. I'm already choosing to put clothes on a rack under a covered porch, or strewn over a railing inside. Improv time! Who's to lose?

A good perfume containing 70 percent alcohol makes a good sanitizer. Why not? Just be careful not to drink it, whatever our clearly uninformed president might suggest.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

At the Gas Station

               On Capitol Hill, we have a Capitol Hill Arts Center, a community Hill Center (these are actual buildings offering programs for a price to residents and beyond), and ever so many other physical spots such as  Eastern Market indoors and outside where one as likely or not to run into people one knows and sometimes may only barely remember.  
                We also have a service station for gas and auto repairs that is now is in its third generation of same-family ownership. The name is Distad's, and the longer a person has lived on the Hill (as its known, because, yes, the Capitol building is on the same elevation - a Hi-Line of sorts) the more likely he/she is know to Distad's employees. I go regularly for help with mundane things such as filling my tank or figuring (why don't I ever learn?) proper gauge for air in my tires each season. Recently, I dropped by to buy new windshield wipers after having dared  one rainy evening to cross  the bridge  from Virginia into the District with little rubber tailings on my window wipers that did very little actual wiping. I made it home, sweating.
                While paying up, I chanced into a Woman of Some Importance in these parts - at least to those of us bearing and raising children in previous decades - the estimable Marguerite Kelly whose  Almanac column was a mainstay, and a life saving guidance outlet, in the Washington Post Style section. She was there to do some repairs on her - was it really? - 20-year-old car, laughing at the check-out counter with another acquaintance from 'old times..' Marguerite's writing was my substitute at times for a godmother giving me the only advice I had on how to handle a newborn. I had no mother, no relatives around, no doula (not then much spoken about) and my husband was eternally, it seems, away on missions specific to a member of Congress who always have to be seeking reelection.
              'How is your son'?' she immediately inquired. How could she remember that I had a son, now 43? I wanted to know how she kept her skin so smooth. This is a beautiful woman of 87 with a flawless complexion. "Vitamin E oil," was her answer. Another secret of aging well, she implied, was 'not doing anything." No heavy breathing exercise regimen. She has a daughter and son-in-law living with her, another daughter nearby working for a local theater complex. Marguerite had just had her driver's license renewed and lo and behold, she marveled, she was now good to drive for another ten years. "Ten Years!" she exclaimed.
              I suggested she might consider becoming an Uber or Lyft driver and specialize in the senior market. To make other seniors comfortable and confident they, too, can survive the prejudices of the anti-aging crowd.

            There is another sort of community, too, not often acknowledged as such: riders in a Metro car during rush hours. The physical closeness of strangers  isn't a likely social group - until an emergency arises. I thought of this while sitting on a window seat during the hour when Metro platforms can fill rapidly with the tremendous energy of teenagers  getting out of school, presumably on their way home, letting off steam.
             WAs that the reason for the presence in the car of two very tall (handsome!) uniformed Transit policemen wearing a slew of devices and standing up by two different exit doors - one of them leading to the next car, not normally used. They were unsmiling guardians of the peace, though one appeared to carry what could have been a laser or light (maybe a foghorn!) on his chest. One of them kept staring into the car, while the other looked watchfully onto the platform at each stop before alighting at Metro Center, the usual connecting link for other trains. None of the passengers - except me - seemed intrigued by the sight. Almost everyone had their eyes and hands on mobile phones, though at least one woman was absorbed in a book. My intense stare didn't seem to bother the two men. I was puzzled by public indifference  -- either they found it normal to have fully armed guards aboard or they = we = choose to stay cloaked in indifference as a way of simulating personal privacy. Until otherwise summoned to act... since, these days (a long long stretch) we are conditioned to be constantly aware of what is around us, what could be happening, what would be the correct response.
               I was intimidated by their presence to some degree, being by nature attuned to scenes around me. The journalist's weapon perhaps. Only minutes before the two men had entered the car, I heard a commotion at one stop. There was a delay of some kind. I saw out of the window what could have been a group of tourists yelling and gesturing to someone who might have been part of the group - telling someone, or several, 'get out,' words to that effect. To get out of the Metro car because it was not the right train? I saw expressions of worry, frustration. Definitely a 'crowd scene, ' until the car door closed and we moved on.