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.


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.

Unknown-3  Unknown-4

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.


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.


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.  


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.

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.

IMG_8124Milo Bliss

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

Day 3

Sunday March 15

The Ides of March.  Will I be betrayed or will I do the betraying?

Woke up weeping.  My blind cat, Milo, bumping into walls, walking in circles, looking for direction saddens me.  Really, it’s my pre-lock down life I’m lamenting.  I had just settled in to Dublin, had had a reprise from lingering ennui, the consequence of trying to write a book going nowhere.  Then, it was over.  Now, I’m home, untethered from that resolve and peace.  And like Milo, lost my way.


The maintenance of the house assaulted me- weeds, kitty litter, taxes.  A fog has descended on my brain.  I wandered from room to room looking, looking for what?  To get hold of myself, I listed what I had done by 1:15 P.M.: fed Milo, cleaned the litter box, took out recycling, filled out the census, had breakfast, read the newspaper.  Eating breakfast outside and reading the Sunday New York Times tricked me into thinking all was well: life hadn’t changed.  I wondered if I could put a vegetable garden in the front yard.

On the plane ride from Ireland, I considered growing potatoes.  Years ago, I had had a garden that included a long row of red and yellow “pommes de terre.”  Sinking my hands into the dirt, pulling out them out, holding them, eating them was deeply satisfying.   Associations to the potato- my Irish grandmother ate one every night for dinner, her mother emigrated to the states, an indirect consequence of the great potato famine in Ireland.  The poor relied on the potato for daily sustenance.  Since it provides many of the necessary amino acids, it is referred to as the perfect food.  When the potato blight hit Ireland, the British ignored the problem.  Starvation and homelessness were rampant.  Wouldn’t it be wise to grow a “perfect food” during a pandemic?

Yet as the day wore on, I didn’t work on my taxes or pay my bills or do the laundry.  Couldn’t pull all the threads together.

Like many people, I end my day reading in bed.  As a way of  “returning” to Dublin, I picked up Deirdre Bair’s biography of Samuel Beckett.  It should last a good long time, almost 800 pages.  Although he was a Dublin upper middle class Anglican and my family were Catholic tenant farmers from the hinterlands of Roscommon County, I hoped I might make a connection with my projected book, a mix of ancestral biography, history, anthropology, sociology, and maybe fiction.  I’ll grasp at any straw.  Instead he seems to be buoying me up, out of self-flagellation, however, briefly.  His struggle with writing, sometimes only getting a few pages done in many weeks, redeems me.  A colleague, another tortured nonprolific writer.


Day One and Two

Friday March 13 -Saturday March 14

This journal attempts to record observations during an extraordinary time.  Although the title for this entry says “Day One,” it is actually 207 days since my first interaction with the virus.  That day my doctor urged me to cancel my trip to Paris afraid I would be one of the now 5.7 million Americans stricken with the disease.  I didn’t listen: on February 15th, I landed at Charles De Gaulle airport.  My return flight was booked for March 20th.  I didn’t make it.  On March 13th, I raced home like thousands of other Americans after President Trump announced the closing of borders at midnight to anyone traveling from Europe.

Once home, I ran around the supermarket loading up on beans and toilet paper in a frenzy of ignorance.

The next day, March 14th, I faced my first day of reckoning.  Like many humans, my thoughts turned to vanity.  Who would cut and color my hair?  It was due.  My hairdresser had already closed her store but said she might consider seeing a few regulars.  I jumped at the offer, ignoring the risks .  These were early days.  Maybe I felt invincible.  I had been in France during fashion week when some Italians had been allowed to enter the country as Italy reeled from the voracious spread of the virus.  I had walked down the narrow streets of the Marais past fashion show venues bumping into people, perusing stores for hours.

UnknownMarais, Paris

 In London, I had been to the movies, to the British Library, the National Archives, spending whole days researching family history.

images-1Curzon Cinema, Bloomsbury, London

I was in Ireland just as Dublin shut down.

imagesO’Connell Bridge, Dublin

I had flown on a crowded plane for more than 6 hours and then taken an hour train ride home.  But I wasn’t sick.  So couldn’t I get my hair cut?  No, I finally decided, I couldn’t and so began five months of isolation and negotiations with family, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, with myself on what to do and how to manage.

Dublin Day 5

Wednesday, March 11

The plan- research my Irish ancestors at the National Archives of Ireland on Bishop Street,  a 2 mile walk across the Liffey into a gritty part of Dublin.

IMG_7655-2Millennium Bridge, River Liffey, Dublin

However, the Archives were closed due to the corona virus.  The day was just about shot, so I made my way to Dunne’s Department Store on Henry Street just blocks from my flat.  They stocked faux bone cutlery I had admired at my friend’s house and had unsuccessfully searched for in the Paris “marchés.”  Once I located my prize, I realized 8 forks, 8 knives, 8 soup spoons, and 8 teaspoons were too heavy to fly home.  The clerk recommended sending them through the postal service.  This required a trip to the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street, the republican’s headquarters during the 1916 Easter Rising when they attempted to end 800 years of British occupation.  Beginning Easter Monday, April 24th, the leaders of the rebellion took control of the building.  By Saturday, April 29th, shelling of the GPO made it uninhabitable.  They escaped by breaking through walls of surrounding buildings only to surrender hours later from their new headquarters at 16 Moore Street.

The_shell_of_the_G.P.O._on_Sackville_Street_after_the_Easter_Rising_(6937669789)General Post Office, Dublin, 1916 Easter Rising

Although it was almost closing, the postal workers were most helpful, the cost was reasonable, my problem was solved.

A downpour forced me home where I lit a fire, took up Angelica Grant’s, Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood. and had leftovers for dinner.  I was about to watch TV when I got a text from my cat sitter.  “Because of the Corona Virus, Trump is closing the airports on Friday to international travel.  Will you be okay?”  No.  I wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 10 days.


I’m obsessed with how some Jews knew it was time to leave Germany and other parts of Europe during Hitler’s reign.  Would I have had the courage, the sense to get out?  Here I was in a somewhat similar dilemma but I hadn’t paid attention.  My doctor had asked me to cancel this trip because of the virus.  I had had inklings of it’s problems in Paris when France barred Italian trains.  But I hadn’t changed my plans.  Now I had to get out of Ireland by Friday or be trapped in a foreign country,  or so I thought.  Immediately, I got on the phone to change my reservation.  By midnight I managed to get two flights: one with a stop over in London leaving in 6 hours, another leaving Dublin on Friday getting in at noon.  By 3 A.M, I had made a decision.  Worried I might get stuck in London, I chose to leave on Friday even though the flight might be delayed: the time difference between Ireland and the states gave me a 5 hour advantage.

Thursday created it’s own problems.  When I tried to confirm my flight, United Airlines had an expired passport number.  I tried to make the changes on line but to no avail.  When I called the airline, I got disconnected after being on hold for three hours.  Around midnight, I gave up and checked in using the wrong passport number.  I would make the correction at the airport.  But if I couldn’t, would I be kept in Ireland indefinitely?  This was the second time I wondered if I could get home from Europe.  I had been in France on 9/11 and for the few days when the US airports were closed, I imagined never getting home or being shot down mid air.

A cab picked me up at 5 A. M. Friday and for about a half hour provided some distraction.  After the driver uncovered I was doing research on my Irish grandmother’s education, he gave me a brief history of hedge schools.  During the 18th and part of the 19th century, only those of the Anglican faith were allowed to attend school in Ireland.  Hedge schools, usually held in barns, homes and fields were organized to give Catholic children (who were in the majority) an education.  Something to mull over in terms of my great- grandmother.  On the Irish 1901 census, it indicated she could read and write.

Rathvilly-Hedge-SchoolsRathvilly Hedge School Around 1827

Once at the airport, I went to the print out my ticket.  I dug in my handbag for my wallet.  Nothing.  I ran from person to person looking for help.  Finally an airport employee used her phone to call the cab company and yes, they had it and, yes, they would drop it off.  Relief.  But once I went through security, would I be prevented from leaving?  My passport indicated I had been in France just 10 days ago, a restriction for entering the United States.  I got through.  Momentary relief.  As I wandered around the airport, I learned that I had to go through United States Preclearance.  Now I was really worried.  This was US security.  What would they do when they realized that I had recently been in France?  And the line was exceedingly long.  Would I miss my flight?

My worst fears came to nothing.  I was back in Princeton by 2 P.M. –  enough time to rush to the grocery story and stock up on toilet paper.