Away we go - into the sixth month and no reprieve from warnings and endless best wishes ("Stay safe. Hope you are well.") No straightforward way to say. What are my wishes these days? Are they the best I can come up with and not sound automatic. August is becoming the most uncomfortable month since few answers to questions about Covid are forthcoming.
What are 'best' defenses against the sense of futility so rampant? It's a personal matter. I keep uppermost in mind the memories of past summers when Chautauqua was ongoing and the beaches of Greece beckoned. Yes, even in the heat the salt water was cool on the skin, the view to Turkey across the way was unobstructed, all sense of time was lost in the embrace of sun, sea and sky.
The current worry when other worries have been tackled is about whether American cities will survive - those with the most prestige and attractions. When jobs are lost and money is scarce might young people especially think of returning 'home,' to smaller urban centers where cost of living is less and the potential to survive may be greater, not to mention the possibility of raising a family in less pressured territory. Give up the artificially induced ballyhoo regarding 'making it' and 'settle' for a reputation as a responsible, even fulfilled person.
(Salty eyeballs. Swollen lips. Hair like straw on skin baked dry by the sun. Unselfconscious bodies on a beach of multicolored pebbles. A warm wind over lapping sound of stones rubbing together in an irregular beguiling rhythm. An unobstructed view across the water to the outline of Turkey seen in a long gray shape. This is paradise dotted by tamarisk trees along a curving shore. A man in a neon yellow vest in charge of picking up stray debris takes the shade beside a public changing room - a small cubicle open from the knees down.Two such tiny structures are for the convenience of day trippers, to this out of the way place from town.Hence, too, a shower up against the stone wall under the narrow one-way road above. Years ago one morning I was startled but not entirely surprised to see a boatload of refugees coming ashore a few hundred yards from my sleeping quarters adjacent to the beach. I hurried back to throw on a robe and picked up pack of men's shoes and boots I had brought in anticipation of coming up against such a scene. Two young Syrian men from Aleppo greeted me next to the shower, nor far from a dozen or more fully covered women and children sitting quietly nearby. They would be taken by bus into town, sheltered in tents in the public park and interviewed by UN officials, and after that who knows their fate? Asylum on the mainland, but for how long? And where are they today. I
neglected to ask to track the young men, whose only interest in the moment was trying on the footwear for size. )
When the great book is written - there will be many of them - one benchmark question will be 'what kept you sane?" Cliche upon cliche. Yet it is possible to produce a plausible answer and not sound entirely off the rocker (a nice visual taunt). I know that I doubled down on cooking at home, usually for myself, a lonely only, seeing in recipes both distraction and challenge. I gloamed onto the NYTImes Cooking site and ventured forth. I persuaded myself not to get into the TV addiction syndrome but somehow rise above the incessant notices about what to watch what/ where/when. Keep focused on what is physical, I say. The better antidote to words on a screen or page.
Which - to jump around a bit, even into improbable topics - reminds me to offer this tonic: shoes as therapy. And why not? What is more essential in such a destabilized era than a pair of shoes to help provide some assurance of balance and motion. Not just to the perennially persistent walkers among us.
For diversion recently I took myself into a shop that calls itself ( I warned you) Comfort One. The array within appealed to me as much as a candy store. Among shoes I tried on (and even bought) were the names "feel good' cog and an 'antistress' all-purpose black pull-on style. So help me, those were the labels on the box. Or at least on the women's shoe styles I found among the exuberantly dayglo colored commonsense models. (No wildly high heels here; no fashion brands seen on TV.) The clerk - a shoe dog as they are known in the trade - confirmed what I suspected - that where retail store sales elsewhere are plummeting, they were open regular hours daily and doing very well.
Say hooray for the body knowing what it wants and needs best...
We the body politic seems to go back and forth these days about whether living in cities or suburbs is the better choice - depending, of course, if you have a choice. The author of a forthcoming book with the intriguing title of "Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age" asserts vigorously her case that opting out of city living can backfire, even in a pandemic era where bucolic retreats of any kind are being sought. Annalee Newitz, described as 'a science journalist,' calls into question mainly the resulting dependence on cars and abandonment of any hope for reinforced social support systems in urban populations. In a short piece in the New York Times Op Ed page recently, she never even uses the word - doesn't have to - climate change as related to the profusion of car ownership. 'Garden cities' is a sentimental concept in her mind.
Some day, individual recitals saying 'how did you survive the virus' might rest on a short summary of daily tactics employed to stay human and focused. A few people might confess going under, into deep depressions, if not totally unwound by physical manifestations of the disease and its aftermath. A grandchild, who can't quite remember this peculiar era, asking parent or grandparent: What did you do? And the mishmash of words that will follow in a hastened recall. Will there be any way to frame the period positively? The reach for the mundane, perhaps. Such as: I made it a point to read about a different tree every day, to try relating to nature that goes on around us indifferent to our fate. I tried to focus on good food, likely homemade, and think of the effort as a physical as well as an emotional one. I would take walks and concentrate on a theme of some kind: construction of doors, wrought iron balustrades, numbering, colors and kinds of materials in the built environment. Weren't you bored? I'd hear the little one ask. Which would open up an entirely new conversation: what is the value in, and discipline, of learning to enjoy solitude.
Two mind docs turned over the question recently (op-ed NYTimes), citing a study in which subjects chose to have pain inflicted rather than spend long time alone (or the equivalent of a distracting noise). Just to prove they were still human, perhaps. Boredom can be useful, however, if the mind is trained - and feels free to wander in thought: useful thought that can substitute for a lot of self-conscious time-wasting concentration.
Of the pandemic and boredom (for the sermon of the day): useful to have a minor schedule to follow, or an activity to finish. (I really do read about a different tree each day in addition to sending a 'pandemic era' photo to the DC Historical Society's In Real Time collection; try to stretch a few muscles in my body; try to have at least one conversation with a friend or a congenial service person. Valuable, too, to let the day flow by with surprising ease simply by following one's curiosity and nosing about the unexpected.
The month ends on the 31st the way it began: time unhinged and reality evasive. Look for hope behind the mask: the strange way people can still recognize one another in spite of half a face being covered and when the voice isn't in play. Checking out of the local hardware store today I was hailed by a clerk with the words "Nice cut," referring (I suppose) to my hair. Though I haven't had a cut in five weeks, I waved back to her, pointing to my head "Gets shorter every week." Meaningless in context but solidly on target as an 'affective' exchange. Shopping or walking or talking without the chance to show any emotion on your features is limiting so how much better when a near stranger breaks through the anonymity of a socially restricted life. Better not forget to add to the list a contribution to a worthy cause, of which there are so many these days.