Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

The coronavirus shutdown forces me to sit in silent contemplation, doing my best to control the one thing I think I can—my thoughts.

American buddhists say people in the West are afraid of solitude, of being alone.              That’s not my fear.                                                                                                                                  I fear the future.                                                                                                                               When the threat of coronavirus is over, will I ever leave home again?                                  Will I ever chance gathering with friends or strangers in a group for a common purpose, a protest march, choir practice, church, AA meetings?                                                            Lunch even?                                                                                                                                        How would I fit into the world with no connection outside of myself and Henry the dog? What would be my purpose?                                                                                                             No wonder loneliness shortens life.                                                                                                     It will kill you, this lack of purpose.                                                                                          

Hmm. Two fast-walkers below my window dressed head to toe in black spandex, masked like bandits.                                                                                                                                        What are they talking about?                                                                                                           Are they planning to rob the bank on the corner?                                                                        Do they know the polar ice cap is melting and will soon spill over into Michigan Avenue? Perhaps they’re headed to Northwestern to get tested for coronavirus.                                      I hope they bow to the angels fluttering around the Emergency Room.

Down the street gardeners dig up winter to plant spring by the goldfish pond.                    Those goldfish swam around that manmade pond the entire winter. 

                     

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Out with winter. In with spring

Blackbirds jump from branch to branch on the budding leafless tress awaiting the gardeners’ departure.                                                                                                                       They swoop in for a scratch-around in the fresh mulch, but ignore the goldfish.           They’re not fishers.

The backup whistle on the garbage truck that normally blends in with early morning noise?                                                                                                                                                         It now pierces the street from the otherwise empty alley.                                                         Cars are so infrequent these days that instead of tires rolling over the road with a steady hum, their sound breaks the air with a hiss. hiss. hiss.                                                          Where are they going?                                                                                                                              If I had a car I’d be driving around too.                                                                                            I’d drive up and down the Drive to be close to my own wild lake.                                                The mayor closed the lake path and parks for good reason.                                                 Chicago loves to be out.                                                                                                                       We’d gather there, on the lakefront, congregate.                                                                     Spread the virus.

Those words are my thoughts from five minutes of meditation. This is how I talk to myself. How embarrassing. My interior life is a tragic waste of imagination—that grammar, those articles, prepositions and pronouns. The mundane. Oh, to be a poet.

On Being’s Krista Tippett hosted Stephen Batchelor, a Tibetan Buddhist on Sunday morning. His new book, The Art of Solitude, made a fitting subject for the Shutdown era. He said indulging in myself leads to inward wisdom and outward compassion. The integration of the two make me fully human. I’m game to be fully human, to be wise and compassionate.

But for now, I must get control of my thoughts.

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Alone on Oak Street Chicago 11:00 am April 27, 2020

_________________________________________________________________________

Before Coronavirus We Were Dying of Loneliness 

On Being: Stephen Batchelor: Finding Ease  in Aloneness

 

 

Shutdown Week 5: Masks Unseen

Shutdown Week 5: Masks Unseen

Until the beginning of April, the Center for Disease Control, health departments, doctors, scientists and pundits advised us to wear a mask only if we had symptoms. Then the message changed. We learned there were people with coronavirus who have no symptoms. A cloth face covering is recommended for everyone now to prevent us from giving it to and getting it from each other.

All of a sudden everyone wore a mask. For about ten days. 

On a mid-April Saturday, Henry studied the sudden arrival of daffodils, marking his spot. IMG_1713We’d walked less than a half a block before I breathlessly yanked my homemade mask off. The lightweight cotton had turned into a heat chamber about to asphyxiate me. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone’s mask was askew or nonexistent in the warmer weather. And that was the end of widespread mask use in the neighborhood.

The inconvenience of non-essential work has come upon the privileged. A neighbor can’t get her dishwasher fixed because our building management has deemed it a non-essential repair. I tried to replace a light bulb in the lamp by my reading chair and it broke off, leaving the guts screwed in place and me holding the glass bulb. The maintenance man said “no”.  Even though I played the old lady card, it’s not essential that my aging eyes have light to read. “Watch TV,” he said.

We’re not exactly on Cormac McCarthy’s Road, or settling into deprivation. But ordering groceries online has taken a turn. There are no delivery times available for the old stand-bys. I’m told to “check back later.” The store with the only coffee beans I like isn’t accepting online orders “at this time”. “Check back later” has taken up residence on my computer screen.

My computer screen is where I go to church. It’s livestreamed. Only it’s not exactly live because the preacher last Sunday admitted to recording the sermon. When the artificial worship service came into view the livestream accentuated all the elements of church I despise–the dead symbols, rituals, robes. And then the preacher delivered a walloping good sermon about “thriving in belief”. 

“For now, caring for our neighbor by sheltering in place is believing in the unseen.” he said. 

That’s me. You’re staying home for me. And I you. I believe this unseen selflessness will protect me, and you.

Do I like this virtue being forced on me? Not one bit. I’d rather make my own choice. I know what those protesters are up to. This is America. The government can’t tell us to stay home. It’s the Screwtape Letters in action. The master devil is telling his student to tempt us into saying God is on our side while tricking us into believing only in ourselves. If Granny gets sick and dies, it’s not because we gathered together in church, at a barbecue or a cocktail party. It’s God’s will. 

That’s me, too. Belief in the unseen reveals my secret selfishness and depravity. And it allows me to self-correct, sight unseen, to receive the virtue. I don’t know how that works. I simply thrive in the belief. 

Shutdown Week 4: Shame

House sparrows have been chirping at my window. They’re abundant on my city street and in the spring they emerge from their winter hiding places looking for food. Last year for the first time, European starlings appeared. Sometimes I think I hear robins and cardinals but starlings mimic the sounds of other birds. They’re trying to trick me into putting bird seed out for the more colorful birds, not knowing I love them equally. 

Gutsy red-winged blackbirds abruptly premiered on the railing of my balcony, sucking the breath out of me. Their distinctive one-second long, loud musical trill called me from the breakfast table. Jet black bodies shouldered with red and yellow feathers held on fearlessly as I moved closer to the window. For years I’ve had black furniture with red and yellow highlights, imitating red-winged blackbirds. 

A friend called from Florida to say Happy Easter as I was tethering Henry for his morning walk.

“It’s Easter?” 

“Yes! It’s Easter,” and we laughed in that old familiar way, like we just discovered each of our days slips from one to another like egg after egg slipping into boiling water. We starting talking about the Shutdown. I extended Henry’s walk farther along Lake Shore Drive sensing a longer iPhone conversation.

“I can’t watch the news. Can’t talk about him,” she said.

I understand, of course. It’s what we all say and like all of us, she ended up talking about it anyway—said the Democrats need to present an answer to the question “why” to win in November. 

“The Democrats have moved their convention to August about the same time as my book release,” I said. “Let’s go to Milwaukee and sell books out of the trunk of the car, a trunk show!” We’ve had such adventures in the past, but plans cannot be made until the Shutdown is resolved. 

The outside world has been a physical threat since St. Patrick’s Day. At first I was in danger of someone sneezing on me. I’m in the vulnerable group. Now others are in danger of me sneezing on them. I may be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier. 

Henry and I ended up sitting in the bus stop sheltered by an unexpected spring warmth. IMG_0871Walkers have taken to the street lately because the sidewalks aren’t wide enough to keep the reqiured social distancing. A woman in an ominous medical mask, six feet into the street, walked by and gave me a long evil eye. I’ve been wearing a cowgirl bandana for my mask and I neglected to re-cover my face after it slipped down when I was on the phone. Shaming eyes have replaced smiles and waves on the street. Watch out if you forget your mask. You’ll need to mend your wounds with a Brene Brown Ted Talk on shame from the daggers shooting out of your neighbors’ gaze.

The Stay Home battle cry presents no threat though. Settling into social isolation, I watch masked neighbors from the window.

And I pray for a visitation from the woodpecker I heard the other day.

Shut Down Week 3. Tagging

Shut Down Week 3. Tagging

One of the boarded up stores I walk Henry past everyday is Hermes, a Parisian couture import. You can buy a Hermes over-the-shoulder mini bag just big enough for your cell phone, keys and plastic poop bags (if you’re walking Henry) for $1,875.00. On the very first board-up day, a tagger spray-painted one of Hermes’ dark grey boards with a

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Shut Down Hermes Chicago

tasteful lavender scribble. The contrasting colors were delightful really, very French. And the next day, the street art was gone, painted over in Hermes signature dark grey.

Like the Buddhist arhat, Irish banshee and today’s death doula, the mythical greek Hermes is a psychopomp, or soul guide. Powered by his winged sandals and helmet, he guides the soul into death, to the other side. Crows are also psychopomps often depicted waiting in murders outside the home of the dying to herald the soul’s journey or perched inside the chamber as in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”.

Crows are sparse these days on downtown Chicago streets. There’s no discarded food to forage in the alleys behind the restaurants. Oh, sure, the restaurants are providing take-out, but all that trash goes home to another neighborhood’s compost. The heralding crow has taken her business elsewhere. No one is bothering to die a natural death here. We are all in a state of shutdown limbo. Indeed I never hear the usually frequent ambulance sirens headed to the hospital a quarter of a mile away. The covid-infected dying are taking cabs to the Emergency Room, hoping they won’t be turned away or sent to the field hospital at the McCormick Place convention center.

Hermes is known as Mercury in Roman mythology, from a Latin derivative meaning merchandise. I love the window displays but I have no reason to step across the Hermes threshold and finger the merchandise. These days I think of its namesake as a hallmark to protect the life of commerce in the city. I hope Hermes/Mercury doesn’t let the city die.

I have to grab hope wherever I can. It was Hermes’ sister Pandora who opened the box that unleashed plagues, diseases, and illnesses on the world. Our current Pandora, President Trump, has unleashed the coronavirus on us in opening wide his box of ignorance, inaction and mismanagement. The myth says Pandora closed that box before the healing spirit Hope escaped. President Trump spews false hope to us everyday with lies, inaccuracies and ego-driven platitudes. 

Hope seeps out on its own power though, just like the spray-painting tagger letting us know the street is still alive.

Shut Down Week 2

Nothing’s changed in my one-bedroom condo.

I wake up frozen in fear. My old Ikea down comforter shrouds my body. Before peeking out at the same world I fell asleep in, I breathe in and say, “The troubles of the world don’t own me.” I breathe out and say, “I don’t own the troubles of the world.” After twenty or thirty minutes forcing my mind back to this cushioning mantra, I go to my computer for the latest messages and news about friends impacted by the coronovirus.

At the hospital, a friend is off a ventilator and in for a long recovery, thanking those around him for saving his life. The Panama Canal Authoirty finally approved passage of a cruise ship that had been stranded off the coast of Chile, shunned at every port. Four people died onboard, and my friend, healthy but worried is locked down in a cabin with no windows and scant information. 

IMG_4785Henry jumps around to say he’s ready to go out and read his drizzled mail on the low hanging boxwood branches. There’s a shift on the sidewalk; less people than the day before, fewer parked cars, more birds. And Henry makes less and less whiffer stops. His friends must be on a later schedule, sleeping in. It’s the second week after all.

We pause at a neglected sidewalk garden, elevated in a bas-relief concrete trough. In there a crow pecks at dead twigs and tendrils from last year’s plantings. We’re not more than ten feet from her. She drops a brittle stick on the cement ledge, plunks a claw down on one end, grabs the other end and pulls up, breaking off a piece of nesting material. Gathering a few more right-sized pieces she jumps down and walks across the empty street with a full beak. Henry is nonchalant, as if she were just another member of the family. Dogs have a way of knowing. They read souls.

Around the corner, we stop to watch workmen covering another couture clothing shop with sheets of plywood. Pretty soon the whole street will look like a war zone of boarded up storefronts. Crows caw overhead. It’s our mother and her kin squawking about the lack of garbage pickings in the alleys behind the shut-down restaurants.

Back home you’d never know Chicago is on STAY-AT-HOME orders from the mayor unless you open the freezer and see 25 frozen Mac ’n’ Cheeses from Trader Joe’s. Other than that, nothing’s changed inside. I spend the whole day in hysterics laughing at jokes, memes and cartoons that people send me and post online. At first there were all dog jokes, like two dogs looking at a couch full of papers and a computer. One says to the other, “Do you think we’ll ever get our couch back?” The other says, “I think it’s going to
be a couple of weeks.”

After that, there were husband and wife jokes, like the photo of a woman knitting aIMG_5462 noose for her husband. And one of a woman digging a grave in the garden. Now I’m getting a lot of jokes with swear words:

Today the devil whispered in my ear, “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”

And I whispered back, “Six feet, motherfucker.”

That’s another way of saying the troubles of the world don’t own me. I don’t own the troubles of the world.

Life in the Shut-Down Lane

 

Going? Not going? A single day passed and no matter the destination whether Walgreen’s or Mexico, the decision was made for me. I’m not going. No one’s going. No one’s going anywhere. 

The questions alone open an empty space in my head that fills quickly with a laugh, a giant cosmic laugh that says, “You used to have a choice!” Now there’s no dilemma about where to go, who to see, what to do, what time to do it. 

Today, I am my existence. I maintain my essence built over a lifetime; fretful sleep, overeating, wasteful showers, obsessive reading, TV ’til two a.m. And, I build anew. I make tuna salad sandwiches, stir-fry zucchini with onions and go to meetings on Zoom. Henry the dog and I walk to new places like Michigan Avenue where we give six-foot hellos to neighbors we don’t know, will probably never know. In an unfamiliar park I break the law, unleashing him to run the crunchy March earth. We’re lulled into concluding some rules no longer apply. He trees squirrels. I hear a woodpecker

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Henry Sheltering in Place

(tomorrow binoculars). T.S. Eliot wrote “Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” I have time on my hands. It cannot be washed off, nor sanitized away.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales help children cope with their existential anxieties and dilemmas. I’m grateful for my new-found fairy tales on Acorn and Netflix. They’re satisfying, even intoxicating. “Vera” quenches my thirst for relief from today’s threat of a mad virus loosed on an unprepared society. She always catches the killer, within one episode. And “West Wing”’s President Jed Bartlett reassures me, “There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we are one country and have national needs.” Fairly tales are indeed a good shield.

A friend yelled at me on the phone, “I just want to go to a restaurant!” 

Who doesn’t? I live in cafe society— exchanging gossip, ideas, medical records and laughs in half-public coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, church halls, run-ins at shops and malls. It’s part of my essence, my existential cover, a baby blanket of being. I need it. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal whose health problems left him no choice but to sit alone in quiet for long periods. He tried to solve some of humanity’s problems. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he’d have given us more than pensées.

To preserve my sanity, I usually sit quietly in a room for thirty minutes every day consciously telling myslef I do not own all of humanity’s problems, nor do they own me. But now that I’ve been sitting in a room alone for days, I’m concocting brilliant and crazy solutions to humanity’s problems. Pascal would be pleased, but I’m afraid I’ll go from here to the psych ward. 

Or run for office.