Diary in the Time of Corona


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Diary in the Time of Corona

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I woke up this morning and decided to write. Why today? What’s different
about today than yesterday, or the day before?
I have no answers to these questions. It’s Day 25 of the quarantine. The sky
is dull gray and it’s raining, my windows streaked with wet wavy lines that make
them look like etched glass. Today is not so different from yesterday, except
yesterday it wasn’t raining.
And yesterday we went to the supermarket. That place fills me with terror.
The aisles are not wide enough to keep the required six feet social distance. In the
produce section it’s inevitable that two or more people will end up inspecting the
bananas or the lettuce at the same time. When that happens we move apart as far as
we can but we don’t walk away, as if the lettuce or the bananas or whatever are a
territory we refuse to surrender. We do avert our eyes, ashamed to look our
adversaries in the face.
Upstairs in my bedroom I hear the rain against the roof, a soft, steady patter.
The marsh is enveloped in a fine mist with ochre and green grasses and a few trees
yielding small mauve flowers. I’m waiting for phone calls from the dead: my father,
who passed away nineteen years ago and my mother, who passed away three years
Why do we want what we cannot have? Or is this the nature of grief, that
after the sharp stabbing pains of loss a knot of slow sadness begins to form and
wind itself around our hearts, once in a while tugging so hard we’re reminded
sharply once again of those who are gone?
Maybe that’s what writing is for: not the documentation of what we have but
the recovery of what we’ve lost.
I’m reading a book by Lydia Davis called The End of the Story. It’s a novel
about a woman writing a novel about a brief but intense love affair that ended
thirteen years earlier. She can’t finish the novel because she can’t find the right way
to end it, or so she says. But we know she can’t finish the novel because finishing it
will end her connection to her lost lover, and she doesn’t want to experience such
pain and grief all over again.
The rain has stopped and the sky has shifted to a softer gray. The yellow and
dark greens of the leaves are startling and bright in the thin light.
Lydia Davis is a descriptive writer. She paints vivid pictures of the natural
world: sound of ocean waves, piquant scent of eucalyptus, aggressive jade plants.
But in her obsessions and delusions and isolation from friends she is not the best
companion for me right now.
Day 26. I am a witness to the pandemic. Everyone is a witness. But I’m not
risking my life like the nurses and doctors and other workers on the front lines. I
feel like a coward.
Today is sunny, with a cloudless sky of soft, washed blue. When you are
quarantined weather becomes very important, like a prophecy or a sign of progress,
or stagnation.
On fine days I could go outside for a walk but usually I don’t want to. On the
days I’ve gone for walks there’s an unspoken tug-of-war on the sidewalk when
others approach: who will be first to step out of the way. My husband and I are
always first to move. We agree we tend to give a wide berth earlier than necessary.
Still, each time we veer into the street so walkers can pass I feel we’ve offered a
consideration that was not reciprocated. This gives me a feeling of victimization
that makes me even more irritable than I already am.
On a recent walk I couldn’t help noticing that everything in my neighborhood
reminded me of the virus. Small shrubs with crimson buds. A mask in the middle of
the asphalt, awaiting asphyxiation. Street signs that say Dead End. I never realized
there were so many dead ends where I live.
When I’m overcome with anxiousness I prepare a meal. Before the time of
corona I was a reluctant cook, and we often ate dinners at the local trattoria. But of
course that’s no longer possible.
I don’t have the patience or creativity to be a decent home cook. But now I
find comfort in assembling a dish or two. I experience a sense of accomplishment in
completing what feels like a meaningful activity. Food is no longer readily or easily
available. If I’m missing an ingredient I won’t run to the supermarket wearing with
my mask and disposable gloves. With every trip to the market comes the risk of
additional exposure. Grocery shopping demands enormous amounts of energy. So I
try to plan ahead, which isn’t easy when you’re anxious all the time.
Today’s side dish is quinoa tabbouleh with scallions, tomatoes, feta, and fresh
lemon. Even writing the word “fresh” refreshes my depleted spirits.
Before preparing the tabbouleh I looked out the window, my gateway, my
connection to the world outside my home. My attention was drawn to a single
orange-breasted robin stepping across the grass. I watched for a while, since now I
have time for such contemplative activity. The robin began to peck at the ground,
circling and wandering, circling and pecking. I had the idea he was searching for
food and not finding any. I turned away.
Things I never noticed before. The whiskered tips on the scallions, like a
man’s white-gray beard. The amount of plastic and paper towels I waste even
though I claim to be pro-environment. I think of my mother growing up during the
Great Depression with barely enough food and not enough money. I have coats in
the closet, sweaters in the drawers, a stocked refrigerator. Was I really so clueless
and ungrateful?
Day 27. Be mindful, stay in the present. I am trying to be present but the
news on the morning radio announced 40,000 Americans are dead from the virus.
How is this possible? The future has become our dystopian present.
Last night we visited with our kids on Zoom. Such interactions are one of the
challenges of this particular moment, the physical separation from loved ones.
These meetings in cyberspace reinforce the sense of enforced isolation: my adult
children isolated in their homes within an hour or so of mine. I miss them. They
might as well be living on the moon. I’ve heard stories of doctors and nurses
sleeping in their garages so as not expose their families. This is worse than my
experience, much worse, because their lives are in imminent danger. Nonetheless,
their experience does not erase the pain I feel as a mother and new grandmother
who can’t touch or hug my children.
In my home state of New Jersey, 40 percent of more than 4,200 coronavirus
deaths have been linked to long-term care facilities. My mother was a dementia
patient in one such facility for six years. I thank heaven I do not have to worry about
the virus killing my mother in a nursing home.
The past seeps into the present. The present is the future, for the time-being.
I’m reminded of the words of T.S. Eliot: “Time present and time past/ are both
perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.” Perhaps
our sense of separation between past, present, and future was always illusory.
My brother contracted the virus a few weeks ago and was ill with a fever that
spiked as high as 102.8. Mercifully he is recovering well. Past, present, and future,
they are merged into the nightmare of the virus.
I just read about a 25-year-old woman, a Latino grad student studying
marriage and family therapy, who died of complications from the virus which she
likely contracted while working at a clinic for Latinos in one of the corona hotspots
in Queens. I am overcome. I can’t write anymore.

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