October

I continue my morning routine: feed Milo, my 19 year old cat, empty the litter box, pet Milo for an hour, guide him to his bed, then a 3 mile walk, and breakfast with the paper. Some days I meander around the house doing chores broken up by any distraction that passes my way. The New York Review of Books on the dining room table captures my attention on the way to vacuum the sunroom. Twenty games of solitaire call to me as I drift by my desk covered with papers that need filing, something I’ve neglected since March. Old photos discovered in a folder occupy me as I move to sort out a bookcase.

IMG_8137My Greek Family in my grandfather’s village, Kastellia, north of Delphi

Late afternoon Milo time. Is it cocktail hour yet?

This month Milo bravely faced new obstacles. He is blind but could still navigate the house. On occasion he missed the litter box but not by much. He just wasn’t fast enough. Then he developed a neurological disorder which caused his eyeballs to shuttle back and forth. I assured myself that having him close and whispering sweet nothings in his ear would help his brain relax and his eyes would stop their mad movements. He never complains, not like me.

Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend sometimes a mediation on writing, on being a writer, and on teaching writing, ends with the last days of her dying dog. He became the true friend, providing an audience for her musings, her novel, giving unconditional love and support. Cats do have conditions yet Milo is accommodating and loving even as he suffers.

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One social day in the middle of the month, I spoke to friends in Ireland, Oregon, and North Carolina, then, drifted outside to plant 60 pansies as the summer flowers fade. My nemesis, Rudbeckia or Black Eyed Susans, have decided my yard is their yard and screw every other plant. I pull and pull trying to protect my 30 year old Irises and Poppies. Sometimes I delude myself that I’m winning. That night as I lay in bed with the windows open, I heard a fox howling. Eerie.

On the 27th, I had a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side.  It’s been 10 months since I drove to Manhattan.  The drive was fraught with fear.  A generalized COVID-19 anxiety?  I had to park in an indoor lot.  Am I safe?  I was back in my car in an hour but saddened not to enjoy New York as I usually do: no walk across town, no visit to the Morgan Library, no late lunch.  But the city didn’t disappoint.  Driving down Third Avenue, the sky a pearly grey, the Chrysler building on my left.  Restored.

IMG_9598A Pearly Sky on the Upper East Side

IMG_8695The Chrysler Building

That evening, Milo’s head started twitching back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Nothing comforted him. When he walked, his head twisted to one side: still, he’s eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom. The next morning, I found him wandering in circles, his head cocked laterally, unable to eat or drink. He must be frightened, in pain. The vet and I agree this is no way to live. It’s time. We spent the afternoon cuddled together watching the 1945 film, The Enchanted Cottage.

IMG_8241-1Milo’s last day

My first day without Milo, an empty house. I enter a room expecting to see him. A terrible loss at a terrible time.

September 2020/January 2021

January

This blog should recall chronologically my month to month journey through COVID-19. Today this approach doesn’t work. The present intrudes as my country comes undone.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021, marks the day the Capitol of the United States was stormed and defiled by President Trump supporters, shocking the nation. But why were we shocked? Trump stoked the fires of insurrection by sticking his racist verbiage into a long seething wound- inequality and purposelessness for the working classes of America. For decades, the rich and powerful have raped the United States of it’s capital, leaving millions without jobs or dignity. It’s the land of every man for himself. It’s also the land of the other, the other color, those of black, red, and brown skin who do the work and, yet, are seen as less, less than “me,” less than human.

America prides itself on being a democracy but that democracy’s foundation is racism. America boasts of being a “God fearing nation.” But the true God in America from the get go is money and power. Now that the money and power are in the hands of a very few, those at the bottom of the pyramid look for someone to blame, the other, and look for someone to lead them out of the muck and the mire. Just as in the thirties, citizens of Germany, Italy, and Spain looked for a way out. Fascism promised they were heard and would be rewarded as long as certain parts of society were blamed and eliminated. Trump promoted the same message to the unheard and the misinformed.

When I use this analysis with friends and family that those who breached the Capitol could be such people, unheard and desperate for a way out, I’m met with outrage. When I propose they were doing what many did, me included, in the sixties with sit-ins, with taking over universities, Columbia for example, more outrage. I know we didn’t have guns, I know we weren’t racists, but we were trying to be heard. If we want to prevent this country from falling apart, perhaps we should be listening and understanding their rage even if the reasons seem unfounded. I want to know why some of my family members voted for Trump, looked up to him, saw him as a savior, felt delegitimized.

I want to know how it feels to be the least heard of our population, people of color, the most injured of our citizens and, perhaps, the most resilient where for them every day is an assault, every day they can be overrun, every day is January 6th.

And yet here is what I wrote five months ago. Optimistic, naive, privileged?

September

I’m reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist with a friend of mine in response to the upheaval in the states.  Finally!  An unflinching look at structural racism and its participants.

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It does seem as if the United States is on the brink of something, an awareness of micro and macro aggressions towards people of color, the sheer unfairness of being white. It could pass and we’ll go back to our old tricks or some of us wonder if a civil war of sorts is on the horizon.  I could image several countries emerging: the west coast, the northeast, the south, the midwest and the west.  Other than contemplating the disruptions, the dire economic situation, the deaths due to the virus, the madman in the White House, what can we do?  Just whine?  I’m unwilling to take the risk of going to any of the protests, so contributing money seems to be the only recourse.  

In my never ending attempt to enter the world of fascism, to understand how it took hold, how people participated, were victimized or survived it, I been reading The Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkle which recounts her experience of owning a French bookstore in Berlin from 1921to 1939 whereupon, as a Jewish woman, she spent World War II escaping and avoiding the Nazi’s. She paints a vivid portrait of an unpredictable life for those who lived in Germany, Italy, and France. She describes everyday activities and deprivations almost like the times we live in now. Not knowing what to expect day to day, feeling the possibility of danger at any moment, thankful for those who takes risks so we can survive, and sometimes, dumbfounded by those who take advantage when they are afraid or hungry or both.

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I’m getting used to being a hermit.  Right now I’m sitting in my back yard, birds singing, a gentle breeze wafting through the air.   Most days, this pleasure isn’t possible due to Jersey’s weather, sticky and humid.  Today, there is a battle amongst the avian species for space in the bird bath- cardinals versus grackles. The grackles, a much maligned bird, are winning: they’re seen as bullies. The cardinals retreat to nearby bushes. Then the grackles have it out with each other even pushing the young aside. With limited resources, they are forced to fight amongst themselves. Would more birdbaths work? My backyard world mirrors the problems facing my fellow citizens.

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The Triumphant Grackles

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died September 20th leaving a dark hole in the Supreme Court that can now be filled by another right wing judge of Trump’s choosing. What went into her decision to stay on the court through all her illnesses? If she had left early enough, could Obama have filled her place? Was she worried that he couldn’t?

Does my cat Milo, blind and in human years hitting 90, use the same reasoning? Does he figure, I won’t be able to replace him?

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Irreplaceable

August

A Respite

My reading this month included non-fiction, cookbooks, and audio books. To escape the ennui accompanying COVID-19, I listened to Provence 1970 Luke Barr’s account of a confluence of food writers in the south of France: James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones and Richard Olney, the sometimes cantankerous painter and cookbook writer. Although by all accounts his meals were perfect, his approach to instruction was to provide general directions such as how to make a vinaigrette and then list various ingredients for a salad, so readers can make their own adjustments. I decided to take him on using his instructions for Porc Rôti au Fenouil or Roast Pork with Fennel as the main course for a family dinner in my garden. We began with a traditional French appetizer, french breakfast radishes from the garden served with butter, followed by the Porc Rôti au Fenouil served with sautéed potatoes, green beans with thyme and lemon, and, finally, dessert, peach pie.

The pie is an adaptation of one I learned while living in France with family friends, the Brenots who introduced me to good food at their summer home in Sotteville-sur-Mer and their apartment in the 12th arrondissement in Paris.

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Sotteville-Sur-Mer

My sighs, my grunts of pleasure, the closing of my eyes as I swooned over most meals amused them.   I ate everything they put in front of me: whole fish where I learned to use a spoon to get at the sweet flesh just below the eyeballs, wild hare with its innards made into a terrine, gamey yet fresh from the addition of tomatoes.  It took me twenty years to figure out Mme. Brenot’s crab soup and although mine is good, hers was perfection.

At that time, French husbands had one dish at which they excelled and probably the only one they ever cooked. For example, M. Brenot’s brother’s was a mousse of octopus including the ink. Not my favorite. But M. Brenot made an unforgettable tarte aux abricots. Finding good apricots in New Jersey is practically an impossibility. But Jersey peaches in August work.

My daughter and I have spent many a summer enjoying the sun and food of Aix-en-Provence, a second home. The meal transported us as food can often do and instead of COVID-19, the conversation drifted to good food and Lyon, the supposed gastronomic center of France. I had just finished Dirt another book about food and France where Bill Buford in his late 50’s apprentices at a Lyon restaurant.

The pandemic can be a time for regrets. One that haunts me is leaving Paris to finish my degree: my parents insisted. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the one place that is home. For me it was Paris. Everything fit: I was free. What if I hadn’t been a “good girl” and stayed? Would I have been a “good” French housewife instead? French women had only gotten the right to open a bank account in their own name, not their husbands, in 1965. I’m sure many households held on to that tradition for decades. I often railed at my mother for the measly allowance my father gave her: $100 a week for years and then, after I had left home, $200. She never complained. She felt safe after having grown up in an unpredictable alcoholic family. So perhaps I wouldn’t have been free in Paris. Although I have bragged to my husband that “I’ve been a good French housewife” whenever I’ve managed to use up everything in the refrigerator.

Later in the month, on my son’s porch in Barnegat Light, we enjoyed another bounty from my garden, all the cherries I had picked made into one pie. After which we took our traditional walk at dusk. “Can the French make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Can they make a cherry pie charming Billy?”

IMG_8048 Barnegat Bay, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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June and July

June

A sensuous month. The peonies have blossomed, the wisteria is climbing, the sour cherries are ripe. Each morning, I monitor the cherry tree. Last year, after a day at the beach, I found the tree picked clean. Had thieves robbed my tree? Yes, birds and squirrels. This year, I keep a vigil over several days as the cherries rippen, gathering bowls until I have picked the tree clean.

Then the real work begins, pitting the cherries for freezing or pie making. Sour cherries are small,: they don’t give up their innards easily. After hours of work, I have just enough for a pie, the chore savored for the yearly pleasure of gathering and eating.

Days later, I manage a peaceful walk on the canal. I arrived late in the afternoon and avoided maskless ramblers. The yellow light of New Jersey’s humid summers penetrated the canal banks. A Great Blue Heron crossed paths with me which bodes well, a much needed talisman.

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Great Blue Heron Delaware and Raritan Canal Kingston, New Jersey

July

Every summer I swim at the public pool 4 or 5 times a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This year the virus threatened to close that source of pleasure. Day after day, I anxiously scanned my emails for news as the recreation department debated if and when to open the pool. Finally, they announced the opening date- July 13th. .

I debated whether swimming laps was a good idea, but my love of swimming won out. I swim between 10 and 12 A.M. when the pool is open for seniors and lap swims. During those hours, it is divided into three parts. The center has three lap lanes, slow, medium, and fast. The left side of the pool is open to walkers and swimmers not ready to take on laps. The right side of the pool is used for children’s swimming lessons. Eight swimmers per lap lane was allowed. To my way of thinking, swimming in those lanes would mean close contact with open mouths during a pandemic. I would only swim along the walls of the pool where I wouldn’t risk facing another swimmer.

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Princeton Community Park Pool

Securing a spot meant arriving 45 minutes early in order to be the first or second person in line. Once the gate were open, I showed my membership card, raced down the lawn, tore off my mask, donned my bathing cap, and stood at the end of the pool, claiming my territory. Often swimming was complicated as I negotiated space with bathers resting against the side of the pool, gathering in groups, or swimming haphazardly with their noodles and finding their way into my lane. But mostly the “seas” parted and I managed my half mile. Swimming consumed my mornings: getting ready to go swimming, waiting in line to go swimming, swimming for an hour, going home to undo the chemical remnants of swimming, and finally sustenance, eating breakfast at noon.

Green lawns surround the pool with oak trees providing shade. One day as I was doing a lap, I glanced at the largest oak and felt it reach out to me, comforting me as it’s leaves slowly swayed in the wind. Was that a smile? Having never experienced interspecies communication, I questioned my loose grip on sanity. But no, my next lap past the oak convinced me I had been consoled. Some might label this experience delusional. Maybe, maybe not. After all trees “talk” to on another sharing information on water and food, helping each other. Perhaps this particular “arbre” chose to help me survive another pandemic day.

I’m making this entry on a dark December evening 272 days since the pandemic began for me. I need the consolation of picking cherries, seeing a Great Blue Heron, swimming daily. I need the solace of a kindly oak tree.

May

May 1-14

One way of holding on to Paris and create some type of routine was to take a French conversation class. Each week, I nervously joined the zoom meeting. Each week, I vowed to drop out. Since the microphone in my computer isn’t very good, sometimes, I couldn’t hear what was said and, probably more telling, I wasn’t up to the class’ level of French. I’ve taken several immersion classes in France, I was once fluent in my 20’s, yet I can’t seem to get it back. Partly, it’s performance anxiety. One summer during an immersion class at the University of Marseille, I couldn’t speak for a week. Blocked. So I said “Avoir” to the zoom class, felt immediate relief, and went back to my habit of listening to Pimsleur’s French CDs in my car.

I’m not the only one struggling with growth: my garden’s not faring well either. My three treasured hydrangeas took a hit during a recent storm, and the butternut squash hasn’t shown itself. Although my French isn’t doing well, my French radishes are flourishing. Ils sont delicieux.

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May 14-21

Plants and Animals.

Morven, an 18th century building once home to New Jersey’s governors’ and a signer of the constitution, is now a museum with public gardens. Each year my daughter and I attend it’s plant sale held around Mother’s Day. This year, I did curbside pickup- alone. Although the virus has robbed us of these small pleasures, I looked forward to growing heirloom tomato plants, butterfly weed, and veronica.

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Asclepias Tuberosa, Butterfly Weed               Speedwell, Veronica

Later that afternoon, after planting my bounty, I rolled my wheelbarrow full of weeds to the back garden.  In the northwest corner, a fox rested near the magnolia tree.  I assured him he was welcome as I backed my way out to the front yard.  He sunned himself for another half hour.

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Sometimes, it occurs to me that I don’t have a life. What does it mean to do a little gardening, to talk to a fox, watch a female cardinal battle with robins for time in the bird bath? What does it mean that playing solitaire for hours soothes me? How much television can one person watch? What am I doing? Then, all my privilege smacks me up side my head. I have food, wildlife guests, friends, a garden. Maybe isolation feeds this discontent. And yet I harbor a dream of living on an island, alone.

In her memoir, 50 Days of Solitude, Doris Grumbach describes a self imposed winter isolation in Maine, but she had regular contact with the “butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.” That might do it for me. Now there’s no time for chit chat at the market or pharmacy. To be safe, it’s a quick in and out.

Before the world closed down, my library was a constant source of pleasure. I first visited one with my friend Karen. Instead of going home after our kindergarten class, we decided to travel to Elmwood Library just a block away. It was the start of a long love affair. Sitting in a library browsing through books delights me, gives me peace. My mother often chided me for always having “my nose in a book” forcing me to leave those worlds behind to play outside. Now I can enter a book but not it’s home.

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Elmwood Library, East Orange New Jersey

May 22-31

A friend sent me Lucia Berlins’ A Manual For Cleaning Women. He wasn’t sure if he liked them or not, if she was brilliant or not. I had difficulty with the short stories and didn’t know why. I felt bombarded by the “I.” Then I read “Point of View” and loved it: she put distance between me and the protagonist using an “impartial voice,” the third person.  Suddenly I was at ease and could enter the story. Also, I’m a sucker for any discussion of writing and reading.  Her other stories can be brilliant but the prose is unrelenting.  I wanted to escape from the first person which is strange since this is my modus operandi.  

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This aversion may be related to my state of mind in these “worst of times.” Consider what I’m reading or have read: a 600 page biography of Samuel Beckett, The Great Irish Famine, then two memoirs, Doris Grumbach’s 50 Days of Solitude and Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey.  The first three engage me but don’t threaten me.  The first two are written in the third person, the second two in the first person which I’ve been finding difficult.  However, Grumbach’s prose lulls me whereas I struggle with Patti Smith: she challenges me when she starts imbuing inanimate objects with some sort of life force (maybe she’s read too much Murakami), in my face so to speak.  I guess I need protection.

May 21-30

I had a disturbing dream this week.

There was some sort of struggle and a few of us (who?) escaped to a house where we rested.  Outside on a beach were two boats shaped like motorcycles. I jumped on one and used my feet to pedal into the waves. The horizon was broken in half: above, an overcast sky streaked with blue, below a shimmering silver sea mirrored the heavens.  I felt free, liberated, happy.  I came back to the shore so we could make plans to escape or to fight.  Then, we were in the street surrounded by rubble, hiding but preparing to fight.  There was a young man with us who seemed too aggressive, but I assured everybody that he would be okay.

My dream resembles my days- some beauty, some fear, some moral dilemmas.