Shelter in place.
What if this is the rest of my life? I do have one person who is fully huggable skin to skin, and he’s my beloved. I have an active garden that is still squeezing out ripe tomatoes and succulent peppers and crisp colorful chard, and it’s yelling at me to get my ass in gear and get the garlic bed ready because the planting’s already late. I have two cuddle-intensive cats who have not yet forgiven me for staying overnight at Salt Point this last week, so they are both sitting on my chest when I take a nap. I can’t go to the gym, but I’m getting some traction on putting a program together that can take up at least some of the slack (pun intended.)
What do I mourn? I already grieve not being able to perform for a live audience but I’m having some success putting that energy into writing the memoir. The thought of never embracing my daughter in Italy again is painful beyond belief, but we are lavish with phone calls and Facebook. In the past we tried Skype and didn’t like it, ditto FaceTime, but they do exist. I’ve always loved doing radio and have called it the most intimate of broadcast media, so perhaps the phone will continue to be the blessing it is at present.
Long-distance travel has always been a cherished experience, and I would have loved to go back to Italy and Amsterdam and Carnac again. But I have found that many of these places I have visited and loved year after year are so engraved on my memory that I can go there virtually. Really. I tried once walking from Plouharnel to Penthievre in my memory, step by step. I know this road well because I’ve more than once gotten off at the bus at the first rather than the second and then walked an hour to get to the hostel. I remember which wildflowers grow where, I remember choosing to walk the railroad ties for a while because the ground was so crumbly, I remember what it feels like when I get to the stand of ancient pines whose layers of needles are a soft carpet, I remember what the sound of the waves is like through those trees, and most of all I remember the light. I can still go there.
And my one solitary ancient stone at Carnac is still standing in the middle of a farmer’s pasture. So many times I have embraced its warm gritty skin and placed offering and burned incense at its base. I think it is a hot point on a ley line and I think another hot point is at Portuguese Beach, so maybe that’s another version of Skype.
If this is the rest of my life, it can be rich if I make it so. It’s up to me to reach deep into that fragrant loam and cultivate what can supply the energy that will be missing from the mix. I have a darkness that lives within me that constantly wants me to roll up like a pill-bug and sink into its dark, but I can reach for the light. That is the most important task.
I’m in the periodic limbo stretch. Just finished stages of multiple projects—6th draft of a new novel, interior layout on another ready for publication, billionth rewrite of a short story (well, start with a title like “William Blake at Starbucks” and see what happens to you), etc.—and wondering what’s next.
Fortunately, this next week I’ll have my fingers in papier mache, creating a mask for a friend, and that’s a project with a finish. Words are another matter: they never dry up. Words are like politics: there’s always something more to do.
Which brings up the election. Bots run rampant in my brain at 2 a.m., stilled only by counting my breaths or imagining myself screaming Whee! Whee! Whee! in a crowded subway. (Those who know me would find that image uncharacteristic.) Writing—even writing political Facebook posts—is a form of vaccination: immunizing oneself by taking in a less treacherous form of the virus. Writing is pretty harmless.
Excluding, of course, words for a demagogue or a California proposition or a legal brief—those can have their effect. But a short story or a novel, not so much. That’s scant comfort, of course, if your readership numbers in the dozens.
Yet there’s a certain grim comfort in the notion that you’re doing something that (a) is up to your standards, (b) has integrity, and (c) does no harm. Organic farmers, massage therapists, and chess masters can share this, but most professions run the risk, however slight, of ending in something hideous.
Not without exceptions. Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be credited or damned for promoting abolition, causing the Civil War, pushing Black stereotypes, mixing protest with sentiment, inspiring the theatrical “Tom show,” etc. (Nevertheless, a compelling story, in my opinion.) So it could be that our words might have effect, at least if we were a best-seller second only to the Bible. But we’ll just have to risk it.
Our son Eli came to visit today. I’m not sure if we’ve been together at all since the virus moved in. There might have been a time early on when we sat distanced with masks in his apartment in the Mission, but I’m not sure. What I do know it that it’s been a long time.
We had our daughter with us back in February when I had my weekend 80th birthday party, and Eli was with us then too. She was here for a week and then got back home to Italy in the nick of time. God, that party was a blessing. I got to see and hold my beloveds in a bunch, and then the doors slammed.
So today was very special. We had coffee at HardCore, picked up sushi at Fiesta, went home to prep the picnic, and then went out to the ocean. Sun, waves, sake, and a gull. Conrad and I always go to the same spot, and when we have scraps we delight in making a gull happy. Today we didn’t have scraps, but we had a gull. I can’t be sure it’s the same one we’ve entertained in the past, but she stayed with us the whole time anyway. At first alert, standing, watchful, and then just hunkering down in a warm sandy patch nearby until we got up to go. Silent presence.
Back home I puttered in the garden, gathering some arugula for Eli to take home to Meg, and some catnip for him to take to their cats. Dinner happened without drama. Mostly, the three of us were together in the house in afternoon comfort, playing with the cats and then sitting in silent presence. We had a good meal and Eli went home.
I think it’s the ultimate intimacy, silent presence. It feels so good, like walking alone in moonlight. Nothing asked, nothing judged, just being there. I remember nursing; no way to meter the milk, it just happens.
I look forward to the time when the stream of life runs gently again for all of us. For now the two of us are our own still waters, our own embraces and our own silent presence. If you are someone I love, I am with you too. The next full moon is on Samhain, Oct 31st, and that is when the veil is thinnest between the worlds. When you are in silent presence with all you hold dear, I will be with you too.
Sunday we opted out. For the day, at least. No news, no email, not even plucking a weed from the vast half acre of our existence. The wars will go on, people will shoot each other, the President will go to the can, major criminals will enjoy a cook-out, but we won’t be there. It’s their loss, not ours. We went camping.
We’ve spent many nights under canvas. Our first trip to Europe in 1969— except for a week in a London B&B, four days in an Irish castle, and one overnight in a Polish hotel—we were three months in a pup tent. Same the next year, and other years thereafter. In the States, lots of festivals, odd weekends here and there, and since coming to California the destination has usually been Salt Point.
It’s a state park and campground on the coast about two hours north. We stoked the cats with plenty of water & food, explained that we’d be coming back and they could babysit each other for 24 hours. We took a picnic lunch for the seashore and Cornish hens for supper, a roomier tent than in the early days, and of course my iPad—I could let go my oversight of U.S. foreign policy but not my rewrite of Chapter 22.
In fact I never touched Chapter 22—the world will have to wait. The trees, the sky, and the waves crashing, sending their spray high above the rocks—well, I took some stunning action photos but got impressive images of my thumb.
But it’s not the photos we go for, it’s the presence of the ocean itself: twenty feet away as we eat picnic and stare, a few hundred yards away as we sleep. It’s being in the presence of the womb. Not a warm, motherly womb, but a birthgiving tumult of unimaginable force—so frightful in its healing roar. Takes me back, for a moment, to a line in Chapter 22, in fact: “that moment when you squeeze out of the birth canal and get the fluorescents full blast and think, Oh crap, now I’m in for it.”
And we’re always IN FOR IT, always have been. We go back to the news, the cavortings in high public office, the bombs falling, the daily grind, the multifarious hemorrhoids of life. But it doesn’t take much—just an afternoon and a night—to remind me of the inexorable and blessed tide of life.
Our cats are quarantined.
Maybe not the right word. (Segregated? Gerrymandered? Red-lined?) Whatever, our bedroom is upstairs and we don’t want them bouncing on our bed. Unfortunately, in our house there was no door to the stairway, so when we got kittens I had to make one. The stair construction didn’t make that easy, but that never stopped me. I built what was more or less the bottom half of a Dutch door and for a while that was adequate. It didn’t have a latch; it fit in its frame snugly and that was enough.
Not for long. They are brother litter-mates, but Shadow is slim, soft and fluffy, and Garfunkel is a big fireplug with a bulldog butt. As they grew, two things worked to make the gate obsolete. Shadow, intense and lightweight, eventually leaped entirely over the damn thing, and Garfy could snake his paw into the corner and wrench it open. More carpentry.
A second higher plywood panel was added, which took care of Shadow, but latches were required to defeat Garfy. Now there is a little barrel-bolt on both the inside and outside. When we retire for the night, the inner latch is closed. At first this resulted in banging, rattling, and howling, but in time they grew philosophical and more cunning. Shadow is the sneak expert; you can swear he’s nowhere near but as soon as you open the gate on the way up he’s streaked through and stands there on the landing, laughing and preparing to bolt the rest of the way up and get under the bed. We have developed strategies to deal with this.
It also takes craft for a human to come down through the gate. I used to be a night person, but gradually that has shifted. Now I’m lucky if I sleep until 6 AM; Conrad’s alarm is set for 7:30. I have grown to love seeing the golden dawn, and mourned the days when the smoke made it invisible. When I come downstairs, I unlatch the inner bolt, open the gate just enough to wriggle my foot through, and sweep Shadow to one side. Bam, I’m through, close the gate, and bolt it from the downstairs side. Replenish kibble, change water, de-turd the cat pan, skim online news (not unlike the cat pan). Then when Conrad comes down the stairs, he halts and yells “Yo!” and I come let him out.
I always find this funny for a moment, which is sweet—letting your man out of his kennel—then when the bolt is closed again we have the long, long full-body close embrace that begins our day together. There’s a traditional Native American morning prayer—”Thank you for this beautiful red day you have given us, and thank you for our lives”—and mine is a variant. “Thank you for another day that we can have together.” I don’t know what the cats think.
I used to wonder what they did with the whole downstairs at their mercy all night. After all, cats are nocturnal. One night I was not only sleepless but twisty-turny and came downstairs to sleep on the couch. I found out what the cats do: not a damn thing.
They are philosophical about their quarantine, knowing it comes to an end. May we all take comfort from this.