“Masked, I advance.”
― Rene Descartes
Hey, there. So, here we are, a little more than half-way through April of the year many of us will come to think of as The Year That Changed Everything. I have also come to think of it as the year that revealed to me to a few deep, dark corners of myself.
That smell that horrifies me every time I put on my mask? That’s my breath. I donned my first mask a few hours after eating some pizza and got ready to take our dog, Rina, for a walk. I thought she’d pooped in the house. I checked my shoes. The pungent smell of biological waste was everywhere. I couldn’t get away from it. And then it hit me. This was the engine of my body at work, up close and personal, churning its way through cheese, yeast, a few mushrooms, and, yes, garlic. I was inhaling the exhaust fumes which on any other day would have found their way into the ether or the nostrils of my mate and I could pretend to be unaware. Turns out that tooth-brushing helps but only for a while. The fact is, that each exhale pushes out millions of molecules charged with carrying out the garbage I generate. The only consolation is that by keeping others safe from the virus, I am also keeping them safe from me.
I know now that the longest I can make a 9X13 chocolate cake last is five days and that is only because after it cooled enough for me to consume a quarter of it, I cut the rest up and hid the pieces in my freezer like a serial killer might hide body parts.
I’d like to live and let live but my inner social-distance police are suddenly on full alert. Take the runners in my neighborhood, for example. They throw off sweat, snort like ponies, and eschew masks. They rarely swerve to avoid me and I have seen more than one spit or spew something out of a nostril. I glare over the top of my mask but my guttural snarl is trapped behind it and I’m left stewing in my anger as well as my halitosis.
There are days when “sheltering in place” feels like stewing in my own foul juices: fears, cravings, anger, and the knowledge that there is nothing I can change about what is happening but my own response to it. I was having one of those days this week when a friend sent this simple poem by Lynn Ungar. Here are few lines that have stayed with me; I murmur them like a mantra:
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is…
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
Then, inspired by this and by the belated realization that we are more than half-way through National Poetry Month, I thought: spine poems! Anyone can write one. All it takes is spending a few hours visiting all your books and rearranging the titles until they say something. Anything. I have not written a poem since high school. I am shy about it now, but trying these reminded me of all the ways words might go together — along with a reminder of some wonderful books right there on my shelves. As I look these photos I definitely pick up a theme, think I’ll call these my “Quarantine Series.” Go ahead, give it a try. Share if you dare!
In other news…here’s a really great, very short story from Ben Fountain that takes a look at what would happen if, due to a sweeping alteration in our world, the vans that delivered our stuff suddenly started arriving to take it away with the same targeted precision. Take a look. Let me know what you think or what you would miss, if anything.
“Amid the nonstop sales job of modern life we were constantly being admonished not to put our faith in material things, and we tried, most of us, and mostly we succeeded. We were not shallow people. The things in our packages weren’t just, well, things. They were . . . how to put this? Content. Structure. Emotion. Part of the necessary human fabric of our lives.” - From Rules of Special Measures by Ben Fountain in The Chronicles of Now - Short Fiction from Today’s Headlines.
And this New York Times essay by Matt Gallagher cuts through the noise to the heart of things as he thinks about the things he’d like to tell his young son: A Father’s Impossible Promise. Here’s one line that I’m thinking about:
“As the coronavirus continues to grip our country, one positive that may emerge is a social awareness that courage and service aren’t military virtues but human virtues…”
New Book Just Added to my TBR List
As it happens, I ordered Empire City by Matt Gallagher and it is on my TBR list. Matt Gallagher’s first novel, Youngblood, came out four years ago, the same day that my first novel, Casualties, was launched. Both stories grew out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but took two very different perspectives. Matt, a veteran who served in Iraq, set his powerful novel there and used it as a way to explore the complicated terrain between following the rules and following one’s own moral compass. Casualties follows a returning veteran home to a world that no longer makes sense to him and a mother whose choices during this period will haunt her.
When I ran into Matt a few months after the launch in New York, we talked for a moment about what was next. He said he was taking his time before starting again, that once he started he’d be living with the people and world he created for a long time. Empire City is the result. In this novel, Gallagher speculates on what would have happened if the U.S. had won the Vietnam war with a military made up of international volunteers serving in hopes of U.S. citizenship. I would read the book based on Matt’s writing in Youngblood but this review by Matthew Komatsu made me want to read it for the sheer audacity of the project. I’m looking forward to it and I’m buying a copy for my son’s birthday present.
Old Book, New Read
Joyce, a subscriber from North Carolina shares this week’s Old Book, New Read. After taking a trip down the Mississippi last September, she bought The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain so she could relive it. She’s been reading it while she and her husband ride out the Pandemic at home. Already read it? Then you might be interested in this interview Rudyard Kipling did with Mark Twain in 1900.
Tell me what you’re reading and how you are doing. What are you discovering about this period we’re all living through? And if you come across anything you think would be fun to share, send it along! I love hearing from you.
Be safe. Read a book. Pass it on. And if you are enjoying this newsletter, please share it with a friend, or a stranger for that matter. What’s the worst that could happen?
P.S. Your moment of Zen…
My son turns forty-five on Monday, April 20. We’ve not spent the day together in years but this photo is on my office wall and I look at it every day. I remember the day I snapped it, a hot spring day when I pulled into the driveway after making the rounds for my job as a reporter for the Gloucester Daily Times. I guess I made one stop too many on the way home and Rory, always able to adapt to his surroundings, climbed into the back of our Pinto wagon, settled into an old inner tube, and drifted off to wherever four-year-olds go in their dreams.