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.

WEEK 5-7 April 13-30

April 13-18

The vegetable garden is in!

The Original Garden Plan

At one end will be tomato plants. Potatoes and rhubarb at the opposite end. Potatoes slow the growth of tomatoes and tomatoes might cause potato blight. At another garden in another house in another lifetime, I innocently put the two plants side by side. I didn’t get potato blight, but they did cross pollinate: potato flowers bloomed on tomato plants. But no new vegetable.

In that earlier garden, I always sprouted my own potatoes. Three weeks ago, I placed three Yukon golds in the sunroom: nothing happened, not one eye. I called the local garden stores looking for seed potatoes. No go. Except for Lowe’s of all places. The next day to avoid contact with others, I was at the store by 7 A.M. No worries. I was the lone shopper in it’s cavernous environs. I bought red potatoes and sweet potatoes, chamomile and lemon verbena for the herb garden. At my local nursery, I found healthy rhubarb plants, a favorite food of mine. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve had rhubarb. I’m thrilled.

I went right to work. In my enthusiasm, I planted a month early. Every other year, I use May 15 to plant. Fingers crossed it all goes well.

April  19

A warm Sunday. The local deer agree, sunning themselves near the tulip magnolia tree, taking very little notice of me.

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After breakfast, as I often do on Sundays, I went food shopping. As soon as I entered the market, my anxiety spiked. This reaction isn’t new. In my very privileged town, I, sometimes, sense aggression emanating from my fellow citizens. Today, the virus ratcheted up the tension. The supermarket uses arrows to indicate one way direction for each aisle, an attempt at social distancing. Many customers ignore the arrows even though they are regularly reminded over a loud speaker. When I indicate that someone is going in the wrong direction, I’m often ignored. Today, I encountered the same person in aisle after aisle going against traffic. I lifted my shoulders in question and he responded with, “I don’t care!” But I don’t get it. Shouldn’t we be looking out for each other? From my sun filled morning with visiting wildlife, I’m plunged back into darkness.

April 24

Today another four legged visitor, a beautiful red fox, made himself at home in my back yard. In the front yard, the cherry tree has blossomed. Perhaps, there is hope.

I went ahead and planted marigold seeds down the center of the garden to ward off insects. Then butternut sqaush on either side with brussel sprouts in front of the potatoes. I added zinnias along one side and nasturtiums for color and eating along the opposite side. At the end where the tomatoes will live, are french radishes and lettuce.

The New Garden with Rhubarb

Perhaps it’s nostalgia or perhaps grief. As I worked in the garden, I recalled riding in the car with my mother before she died. As we crossed the bridge over the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania to Lambertville, New Jersey, I played Judy Collins’ version of Yeats’, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree. “

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Sligo, Ireland

Peace seems out of reach these days.

After listening to Collins’ version of Yeats, we talked about her relatives from Sligo. Grandparent Kearns, Aunt Honora. I miss her and her enthusiasm for the written word. Although not formally well educated, she was an avid reader of the better fiction of her time; Hemingway, Saul Bellows, Iris Murdoch to name a few. As we entered the garden state, she said as she often did, “I love New Jersey. I don’t care what anyone says.” She might have taken to one of my characters in a novel I set along the Delaware River.

He stood up from his desk, stretched his arms to heaven, walked to the window, and rested his elbows against its frame.  He leaned in, the glass cool against his forehead.

            The Delaware River was swollen from two weeks of unrelenting rain.  Fishermen in rowboats on the west side of the bridge sat and waited.  The shad were running.  Gary liked the routine of the seasons.  April meant shad.  He wondered about fish like shad and salmon that ventured between two diverse environments, from saline to fresh waters.  Looking across the river towards Pennsylvania, he thought how adaptable those fish were- more than he could say for himself.  

            Gary Monroe had lived in Lambertville, New Jersey for most of his life, over half a century, and still didn’t feel comfortable when he crossed the bridge to New Hope, Pennsylvania.  He was edgy, anxious to get back to Jersey.  People who knew him well teased him; they called him a Jersey junkie.  He secretly believed they admired his honesty: he admitted he wasn’t easily transported.  There were some things a person just couldn’t get used to.  He didn’t mind that leaving New Jersey was his particular nemesis.

I didn’t always agree with my mother’s view of Jersey. Another one of my character’s, a fifty year old itinerant lifeguard spending the summer in Ocean Grove, had this view of the Jersey shore.

The water was cleaner this year. He noticed the change immediately; although on the bus from Florida, he had read in a discarded science magazine that the ocean off the New Jersey coast was dead for fifty miles out. All that was left were jellyfish, a few mussels, and some clams.

Now there’s no escaping Jersey.

Week 4 April 6-12

April 6-8 Monday-Wednesday

I’ve started walking most mornings and noticed that birds and animals seem more present.  For the first time in ten years on this particular three mile meander, I saw a chipmunk.  And he wasn’t hurrying away.  Neither was a robin who moved slightly as I passed by.  Have they realized their environment is now safe from the onslaught of the two leggers and four wheelers as we stay in place?

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I am spending more time on the phone.  I talk frequently and extensively to friends and family.  These calls to Oregon or Ireland temporarily ward off loneliness.  When I was a teenager, I hated using the phone except for the many hours talking to my boyfriend.  My friends would call me almost every night wanting to know what I was wearing to school the next day.  Often I didn’t bother answering.    

Part of a short story found in my book, Jersey Dreams, describes that earlier time.

                  “It’s How You Play…”

        Not long ago, the Environmental Protection Agency listed my home­town as the site of the third worst toxic dump in the United States.  During my thirteenth summer, I was unaware of the hazards of being a teenager in Old Bridge, New Jersey.  What I remember is the smell of yeast from the Anheuser-Busch Brewery permeating the air and the color of charcoal on my bathing suit, sooty deposits from the lake a half-mile from my home.  My friends and I accepted these conditions as the natural state of affairs, occasionally unpleasant but not dangerous.  Now I wonder if some deadly pollution was being expelled by the Morehouse Chemical Factory whose man-made lake was our main source of recreation.  My mother, who still lives in the post-war tract home of my childhood, is untroubled by the government’s revela­tion.  She assures me that central New Jersey is- and always has been- a wonderful place to live. 

            That summer, the weather was perfect: warm enough to go swim­ming almost every day in the lake and cool enough for a sweater in the evening.  Each morning I awoke to hear birds call­ing to one another and to yellow light warming the knotty pine walls in the upstairs bedroom I shared with my sister.  Usually, I spent a half hour after breakfast choosing the clothes I would wear that day.  My friends and I all wore pastels that sum­mer: pale orange, tepid yellow, light pink, baby blue.  In the evening we used matching headbands to hold back freshly washed hair. 

            We never wore shoes until after dinner, priding ourselves on our ability to withstand the oozing asphalt roads that rib­boned their way through the housing developments.  When asked, I never said I lived in Old Bridge, but always replied, “Southwood,” confi­dent that the name of my development would be understood as a sep­arate dominion.  Southwood was the largest group of tract homes in the area, and the builders were quickly constructing new models with captivating names such as split-level or California ranch. 

            The summer before, I had accompanied my mother, with my younger brother and sister in tow, to the lake.  This year,  I went on my own, picking up friends along the way or joining them on the des­ignated spot to the left of the beach, where anyone from thirteen to sixteen was welcome.  We spread our towels or blankets in the direction of the sun, hiding our lunch in the shadow of a beach bag, and waited.  We waited for the older kids, mostly boys to show up; we waited for the lake to warm; we waited for mothers and younger children to go home.

My emotions are right at the surface as they were when I was thirteen. I watched the television newscaster, Chris Cuomo, who has the virus but does his job anyway. He made me weep.

April 9-12 Thursday-Sunday

Nature seems to be the theme this week. My vegetable garden which is almost finished lifted my spirits. I felt like my pre-virus self.

A immature Broad-Winged hawk landed on the branch of a favorite tree, a 200 year old ash directly behind the house. Hit by lightening, it shrinks each year. Once it’s mighty branches extended over the terrace providing much needed shade. Now that branch has gone. Each year, an arborist predicts it’s demise: each year it carries on and new leaves emerge.

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Briefly, the hawk took refuge. Probably looking for the many rabbits that frequent my back yard. The teenagers frolic about chasing each other in mock combat or perhaps just play.

I read the newspapers, watch CNN, MSNBC, listen to NPR and weep again. President Trump’s crassness and unconcern for his citizens’ lives overwhelms me.  Now he’s saying that the Governors’ request for hospital equipment is exaggerated. He wants to stop funding the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic.  I despair. Then I look out my kitchen window and watch the tulip magnolia blanket the lawn with its blossoms.  Restored momentarily. 

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Week 2 and 3

Week 2 March 23-29

I don’t know what happened this week. I tried to recapture it by looking at photos and the health app on my phone. It seems I went for a walk along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The image may reflect my state of mind, desolate.

delaware and Raritan Canal

Week 3 March 30- April 5

April 2, the anniversary of my first marriage decades ago. Below a fictionalized version of that earlier marriage, an earlier time.

Beaufort, South Carolina. Everything is yellow-green and wet.  The air a hot compress against her skin.  If the air were cool as compresses ought to be maybe Salina’s head would stop aching.  A headache on its second month. Three specialists at the Parris Island Naval Hospital had tried their luck at a diagnosis.  Ultimately, they recommended psychiatric treatment.  She wasn’t quite ready for that.  The only time the pain went unnoticed was when she played tennis.  It didn’t seem to matter with whom or how badly she played.  The steady slamming of the ball distracted her from the pounding inside her skull. She could forget where she was, even if the court was at the Officer’s Club.  

 She drove down Main Street. Salina pushed the window vent towards her face.  The rush of air didn’t cool her; it was more like a hot furnace.  The clock on Wachovia National Bank said 2:00.  She had a half-hour before Gladys, the cleaning lady, had to go home.  A half-hour of freedom.  It surprised her that she could love her son so intensely and, at the same time, long to escape the responsibilities of motherhood.  She turned the radio up and headed across the bridge to Lady’s Island where she could be alone and, for a little while, be herself.  Her body jerked in rhythm to Jimi Hendrix’s wailing, anxious guitar riffs.  She wished she was friends with an enlisted man and could get some dope.  That might help her head.  Once over the bridge, she pressed her foot hard against the gas pedal.  The l967 Volkswagen bug was going as fast as it could, and Salina was gone: far out, far fucking out as her teen-age brother would say.  She didn’t hear the sirens or see the flashing lights of the MP’s car until they were in front of her, signaling to pull over.

I’ve led a long life. But where is the wisdom? Perhaps, I should be kind to myself. I went on a long walk this morning, stripped my bed, made breakfast, read the paper.  Yet, I spent the next three hours playing computer games and listening to the radio.  Is this okay?   Now it’s close to have a drink time. So no writing.  I don’t think I can attribute this to virus time.  I think it’s dysfunctional Judy time.

I did have some social interaction. My friend Wendy, her husband Max, and their adult daughter Mira walked by: we had a nice over the fence, fully masked chat. Afterwards, I managed to get outside of myself and search for Easter gifts for my granddaughter and beach plum plants for my son and his wife, now living in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. My son once told me that doing three activities a day should suffice. I met that criteria.

Took Beckett’s bio to bed. Freudian analysts would have a field day. According to Deirdre Bair, he had a troubled relationship with his mother who worked hard to mold him without much success. Yet her disappointment in him tied Beckett to her through much of his adult life. And like her son, she was a tortured soul with mood swings, insomnia and “thundering rages” when she would isolate herself from her family just as, later, Beckett sought his own form of “social distancing.” He also seemed to inherit her willfulness, so both nature and nuture.

Samuel Beckett Paris apartment

His suffering makes me feel better, that is, his difficulty producing work allows me to temporarily forgive my own lack of discipline.  Once after a month or more, he wrote just four lines of poetry.  And like me, he blamed himself relentlessly.  Previously I had dismissed him based on Deirdre Bair’s depiction of their working relationship in her memoir, Parisian Lives. He agreed to work with her, yet threw arbitrary obstacles in her way.  Her interactions with him portrayed him as a self-centered prig. However, her biography reveals his tormented relationship with family, friends, himself and his work creating empathy for him and, maybe, for me.

Day 4 and 5

Monday March 16

I woke up this morning remembering recent conversations with friends.  Sometimes, I say that I’ve been in training for the lockdown, having lived as a widow for the last 9 years.  Sometimes, I lament a life alone, not having that loved one in the next room.  Is it as hard to be alone as I claim, am I pleased that I answer to no one, or do I want people to feel sorry for me?  Why?  Perhaps, my desire for empathy is a desire to be seen, heard, understood.  Much of the time. I have kept my grief to myself, not wanting to put people off.  Who wants to hear about sorrow?  Maybe as the pandemic takes hold, we’ll all be immersed in it and won’t be able to look away.

To avoid these concerns, I went to the Delaware and Raritan Canal for a long walk, a breather, some peace.  But peace was difficult to muster.  People crowded the walkway and seemed surprised when I asked them to give me room.  Often I had to stand with my back to them which felt like I was shaming them.  Maybe I was.

img_7871-1Delaware and Raritan Canal

As three young men approached me on bicycles, I requested they give me space to pass.  They mocked me.  Got my ire up.  I threw back at them that I was trying  to protect them as well.   As I walked away, they laughed, shouting, “Talk, talk, talk” to my back.  Discouraged, I cut my walk short and retreated home.

But I had a plan: do taxes, clean sun room, correspond.

By the late afternoon, I had taken care of Milo the cat petting him for an hour or so to relax him, filled out an application for a census job, read the newspaper, faced time with family, called the garden center to check the availability of Brussel sprouts, and contacted the landscaper about putting in a garden.  Then, I relaxed into my new addiction, computer solitaire in all it’s variations: Vegas, Forty Thieves, Spider, Gaps, Mrs. Mop.

Tuesday March 17

Newly established morning routine.  First order of business is Milo: lift him on to the ottoman facing the couch, provide treats, apply blood pressure medication to his inner ears, more treats, brush him, pet him for a half hour or so, feed him, clean out litter box, more treats and petting, and finally, put him in his bed.  Next is a walk down the driveway to retrieve the paper, followed by a leisurely breakfast working my way through the Times.

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Late morning, the landscapers arrived, reviewed my plan, a 10 by 20 foot raised cedar bed in the front lawn using organic mulch and soil.  I’m cheered by this return to vegetable gardening.

Although I haven’t done any writing, I did correspond with the writer’s I met in February while staying at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris.  Does that count?

Went to bed reading Samuel Beckett’s bio.  The description of cafes he frequented, the same as my haunts when I was 21 are bittersweet.   Nostalgia for hours of nursing a drink while reading, writing, staring.  But nostalgia has an edge, loss.

unknown-1Le Select Montparnasse