Category: writing

should we have stayed home?

How did we get here again?

In the days trailing Christmas, Lisbon steadfastly follows all the rules. I’m at once grateful and desolate about the relative safety I’m indulging in, of a country whose people were so devastated early on that they are now strict in attempts to ward off the inevitable. Is that what it takes? The consequences of a past so deep that we can’t ignore the future? It hasn’t seemed to work yet, I think grimly about home, about love, about bids for forgiveness. At least they are trying, I accept, as I walk twenty thousand steps per day to reward myself with pastéis de nata. On one of my sojourns I wander into a bookstore across from a museum, tucked away in a northern suburb where tourists are less likely to go. The newest issue of Granta lures me from its perch. Should we have stayed home? issue 157 inquires, alluding to the familar lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem. I am reverent, called-out, shameful over my first vacation in a long time.

Two years ago we wrote about this, earnestly thinking that after 2 weeks we’d have finished the canned beans we stocked up on. Two months ago we wrote about this, thinking we’d fold our cloth masks and put them away for the future. I saw some people string up cloth masks above their rooftops in triumph at believing they wouldn’t need them anymore; I saw others burn theirs. It’s different the second time around and even moreso the third, they’ll tell you about lockdown, and sex, and falling in love. That’s diminishing it, I know, but we’re all doing our best (we claim).

B sends me TikToks that I don’t watch until I do: bingeing his torrential messages in secret while attempting to sleep, but in public declaring that I’m “too old” to be a millennial and that I don’t watch TikToks. I kid myself when wondering why I suffer from insomnia, but at this point I gladly accept the burden of sleeplessness over other looming ailments. I rewatch The Walking Dead a third time, and this time it seems so close to the truth that I have to turn away to things like Sandra Bullock romantic comedies.

I return home again (what is home?), and I can still taste the cinnamon on my tongue. On every street corner, discarded fir and pine trees tumble into one another next to the metal bins. In the rare event that it’s not raining, Vondelpark is packed; gloved hands full of glühwein and dogs’ leashes. A surge of pessimistic foresight led me to purchase dumbbells at a suburban Target before I moved, and I use them every day. My friends invite themselves over to my place for dinner; they feel trapped, they feel alone. I make food for them on weekends. We sing songs from Moulin Rouge to pass the time. My neighbors across the street decidedly close their drapes to avoid watching me throw solo dance parties to Enrique Iglesias music videos from the 90s. But really I want someone to invite me on a roadtrip in their converted van, so that we can hide from the Greek alphabet and cook dinners over butane stoves in national parks while watching the stars. That’s a privileged-ass thing to be able to want, just like craving B’s curated TikToks under the safety of my Marimekko bedspread to the sound of the Dutch rain. On my daily walks I listen to podcast stories about death and collective grief. I think about my personal grief every day, but don’t write about it.

On cold nights I bike past the Amstel, noting the yellow holiday lights strung on tree branches blinking silently on the river and echoing our hope. Past due, left on for a little too long, yet still glowing like embers next to the bobbing moonlight.

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

― Dan Albergotti

(thank you to Matthew Ogle’s Pome tinyletter for this poem)

***

The days roll and mash together. Like the dough for sourdough bread under certain hands. My fingers tap tap at the keyboard and I watch E. make a different kind of dough every day: Dumpling dough. Autumn maple rye dough. Lemon peel blueberry scone dough. Buttermilk biscuit dough. My twin sister, a physician, is being retrained to work in the ICU.

We watch Elton John’s living room benefit concert. We put on musicals in the living room. J. makes a Tik Tok video. We eat cake for breakfast. Every day I have this particular brand of “survivor’s guilt” – what can I do as a knowledge worker who has the privilege of working in the safety of my home? How can I help? I collect ways to help. It doesn’t feel like enough. I know there are people everywhere who need help. I practice my Mandarin to help answer a hotline for the elderly who need assistance. It doesn’t feel like enough.

Nature doesn’t notice, it moves forward anyway: the cherry blossoms burst into song. The rain falls from infinite blue skies. From my window, I can see the red-breasted robins dance together. I watch the flowers grow. My eyelashes fall out. I don’t finish any books, I read a few pages and can’t go on. There is currently no feeling of future except more sickness, more death, so I’m relieved that the same people text me every day. We text about groceries, the rain, the garlic scapes, dating over FaceTime. It is comforting to develop a pattern again. A. reminds me of the three words of intention I set at the beginning of this year: stillness. creativity. abundance.

Here, in the belly of the whale: all of this time, abundant time. Here, in the belly of the whale: all of this stillness, abundant stillness. Here, in the belly of the whale: all of this bread, abundant bread. Out there, people are dying. There will be more soup, E. tells me when I try not to finish the soup. I don’t believe him that there will be more, so I don’t finish the soup.

He makes more soup.

let it be absolutely winter

In February, it is too cold to meander: leisure takes a backseat to power walking through gallery openings. The wind rips through my hat but I try to find the beauty too, like the coziness of being outside looking into a window lit with warm light, watching other people drink cheap champagne and discuss art. There is a German word for this feeling, I am sure of it. The art-goers are nibbling on Chex Mix and in any other setting, the Chex Mix would seem cheap but against the backdrop of nocturnal art and winter it looks like the best damn snack in the world.

I frequent basement jazz clubs more often in the winter. Our coats strain against the random hooks scattered across the walls. This coats-on-hooks thing is uniquely wintry, something I had never experienced before in Texas. The constant scramble to make sure you have all the accessories at the end of the night: Scarf? Hat? Gloves? Multiple sweaters? I’m still not used to it. The orange-brown hue of Old Fashioned drinks illuminated by candles that blow out every few minutes from the opening door. The way the saxophone wraps itself around you like a purring animal – all of this, this can’t be replicated in the heat.

A few months ago, E. texted me that he was out buying a snow blower with his brother-in-law. I responded, “Wow, that’s New England AF.” E.’s response: “…Rose, we don’t live in New England.” (“She’s smart, I swear,” I heard him whisper later. I did deserve that.) Living most of my life in the very southern part of the country insulated me from having to know where “New England” really is, or definitively what the demarcation is. Not that if you had asked me to think about it I really would have made the mistake, but it was an honest snap retort that made us laugh later. I just think of New England as The Place Where There Is Cold Winter. And The Need For Snow Blowers.

It doesn’t ever get easier. Not this season, not these feelings, not this cold. But the light changes, yes. Or, how we see the light. Or how we use it, sometimes even to our delight.

AK asks me if I’ve been writing, and it’s hard to answer that sometimes life moves too quickly for writing. It moves at the pace of note-taking, frantic scraps. Fragments I scribble even when my fingers are freezing in the tunnels of wind. Poems I write down to think about later.

Speaking of the winter and New England, I can’t stop thinking about this:

Part of Me Wanting Everything to Live

This New England kind of love reminds me
of the potted chrysanthemum my husband
gave me. I cared for it faithfully,
turning the pot a quarter turn each day
as it sat by the window. Until the blossoms
hung with broken necks on the dry stems.
Cut off the dead parts and watched
green leaves begin, new buds open.
Thinking the chrysanthemum would not die
unless I forced it to. The new flowers
were smaller and smaller, resembling
little eyes awake and alone in the dark.
I was offended by the lessening,
by the cheap renewal. By a going on
that gradually left the important behind.
But now it’s different. I want the large
and near, and endings more final. If it must
be winter, let it be absolutely winter.

― Linda Gregg