Making the Heart Grow Fonder

When I have conversations about quarantine — which is, unsurprisingly, all the damn time — there is always a moment where I mention that I haven’t visited my family since February. (Presidents’ Day weekend, to be exact.) Whoever is in the conversation expresses some level of sympathy, and the conversation moves on.

I realized the other day that saying I haven’t visited my mother, brother, and sister since February doesn’t mean anything. I said it in April, said it in June … But some of the people I talk to maybe visit their families once a year, so my lament doesn’t hold any weight in their understanding, while it’s huge for me.

For the last several years, I’ve been visiting my family once a month. I’ve missed a month here and there, but generally, I’ve held my schedule. I visit because I love them and they are a few states away from me, and I miss them. I also visit because they love me and my being in the same place with them eases some of the tension in the air there. It gives us a chance to have conversations we don’t have over phone or email, let’s us do the regular maintenance requires on those ties that bind, gives us opportunities to laugh at foolish inside jokes, to look at old photos … and just be alive in the same space, together.

And I haven’t been to visit in five months. It’s starting to feel like a year. And the virus is still rampaging, and my job is staying virtual for the fall semester, so it might really be a year.

In these five months apart, I’ve missed each of their birthdays: first my sister’s early in lockdown, when we thought it might not last too long, then my mother’s, and just over a week ago, my brother’s. In about 6 weeks, my own birthday will be coming up. It’s on a Friday this year, so I would definitely have been spending it with them. My mother turned 84 last month.

Yes, I sound whiny. I am whiny. I know that I’m incredibly lucky. I am safe and healthy and working from home. My family is safe and healthy — even though my brother and sister are both officially “essential” and still have to leave the house and work. Our broader circle of immediate family are mostly safe and healthy (our Texas family is in the hot-zone with the virus creeping closer every day). I’m lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’m unscathed. I don’t make a lot of noise about what COVID is stealing from me, about the ways my life has changed since the start of lockdown, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it.

Absence is purported to make the heart grow fonder. I suppose. But I’m already supremely fond of my family. All this absence is adding up to sadness and frustration.

I need one of my mother’s hugs.

Flying Off at the Handle

Here’s a little truth-telling from me, the Queen of Oversharing.
 
I write a lot about my growing relationship with my anger after decades of being afraid to express it or even to allow myself to feel it. Anger and I are still in the early stages of what I hope will be a solid relationship that spans the rest of my life. I need her and appreciate her, but I am still unfamiliar with the full breadth of her range.
 
Saturday, I had a stunning flare-up of extreme rage, something that has happened a couple of times during quarantine, and seems directly connected to my struggle with months and months of isolation. Saturday’s flash fire was alarming in the speed with which it came on and its ferocity. It left me shaking and physically ill.
Each time I’ve experienced one of these rage flares, I have been shocked by their suddenness and ferocity, and distressed by the physical toll they’ve taken on me. As I write that, it occurs to me that my experiencing this rage so completely in my body is for-sure connected to the fact that I turned my anger inward during all those years when I was afraid to express it, swallowing it rather than letting myself feel it.
 
Saturday’s rage blew up and blew out fairly quickly. But even after the shaking and nausea passed, I was flattened for hours, not feeling like myself until I woke up Sunday morning.
 
So why is this happening? I blame COVID and quarantine because I’ve never experienced anything like this until now, until spending all this time mostly alone. I lose my temper, of course. That’s not new. What’s new is going from zero to critical mass in a second.
 
When quarantine started, I thought I was pretty perfectly suited for self-isolation. I’m extremely comfortable staying home, comfortable with my own company, comfortable being away from people. I have about 10,000 distractions in my house — hundreds of books, materials for at least four different crafts, coloring books, art supplies, notebooks and pens … Being home is easy.
 
I was pretty fine with self-isolation. I’m still fine with isolation … And, too, I miss the world. I miss people. I miss physical contact. I am a hugger, a hand-holder, an arm stroker, and I haven’t touched another human being since March 8th.
 
Yes, I am angry about what COVID has stolen from me, angry at the ways it has shrunk my world and my life. More, I’m angry at the way COVID has been allowed to ravage this country, angry that almost 145,000 people have died, angry that BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by COVID, angry that this country has no interest in protecting people and saving lives, angry that Caligula is more concerned about lining his pockets and destabilizing our democracy so that he can strong-arm his way to re-election than he is about a single human life, let alone the tens of thousands of human lives already lost and the millions more currently at risk.
 
I am angry. I am furious. I am so engulfed in anger that I haven’t been able to see it because it’s everything, it’s the air I breathe. And these rage flares I’ve experienced are maybe my system’s attempt at release, at lessening the pressure that has been building up in and around me since the start of our colossally horrific response to this pandemic.
 
I need a different release, a better one. The physical toll Saturday’s rage had on me isn’t something I care to deal with again. Time to ease back into that long-ago-discarded meditation practice? Maybe so.

Notes from a Slide into Totalitarianism

The snatch-and-detain situation in Portland terrifies me. This practice run for terrorizing Americans and seizing power is playing out in real time on our social media and in the news.

If the US had been invaded by a powerful enemy and was now under siege, I would expect to hear stories like the ones coming out of Portland. But, then, I shouldn’t be surprised because that is exactly what has happened. The US has been invaded by a powerful enemy … they just happen to be the ruling party in Washington. Caligula and his masters and minions are taking what little is left of our democracy and grinding it under their heels. Well, not really, though. They’re far too weak to do the grinding. They are happy to sit back and let the military do it for them.

Unidentifiable military police are disappearing people off the streets of an American city … and we all just go on with our days — place another Amazon order, wonder if the Key Food has toilet paper, hope we can get to the bakery before the baguettes sell out.

Not that I have any kind of idea about what to do. Yes, write to my senators, post rants on FB, rock myself to sleep in fear … beyond that, I’m at a loss. What can I do?

Portland is just a test run, a dress rehearsal. There are, as I see it, multiple goals:

  • See if Caligula can get away with laying siege to a city within our borders.
  • See if this terrorism succeeds in shutting down protests.
  • See how easily people can be swept away … and what it would take to sweep up large numbers of people.
  • Make people think twice before speaking out about anything.
  • Testing the will/strength/capacity of the opposition party and the courts to see how the situation might play out in other cities, in November.

Is there anyone who doesn’t think Caligula has an encyclopedia of dictators in the residence … or, well, board books with one brightly-colored tome for each despot? He’s clearly been captivated by the volume on Pinochet.

I don’t think I’ve ever kidded myself that the US is the “more perfect union” the founders dreamed of in the Constitution’s Preamble, but I never thought we’d be here, either. Never thought I’d have to think seriously about dictatorial rule in this democratic republic I call home.

I’m puzzled by one thing, though. How are the military police okay with carrying out these orders? How are they not standing in support of the freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy, the freedoms they’re supposed to have enlisted to uphold? How are they so comfortable and casual about enacting violence on their countrymen? How is this possible?

I am, actually, this naive. Yes, it turns out that I am. I wouldn’t have thought it so, but here I am.

Who fights for us, the fools like me who thought we had a firmer grasp on how things could work in this country? Who fights for us if the people who signed up to defend the country are now actively fighting against us?

Turns out, I’m even more naive than I just realized. After federal law enforcement attacked the BLM protesters in Lafayette Square in June, General Mark Milley acknowledged that he should have participated. And lots of folks saw that as a signal that we could count on Milley to side with the country and not the titular head of the country. I let myself be lulled, figured all those people who make a living analyzing this stuff must know what they’re talking about. And Mark Esper said some words, and those same thinkers papered those words over top of Milley’s statement and said we should all feel a little bit of optimism.

And I grabbed onto that optimism. So naive.

And here we are, on the knife’s edge, watching people who could so easily be any one of us grabbed off the street, bundled into unmarked vehicles and taken away.

As I said, Portland is a dress rehearsal. Not a full dress rehearsal, though. This is a first run, a chance to see how everyone reacts. The disappeared have been released (so far as we know), and they have mostly been unharmed. In the next run-through, there will be far more violence so that Caligula can see how we respond to that threat. And then, in the full dress rehearsal, we’ll see the kinds of for-real disappearances the people of Chile could tell us stories about. Where will the mothers of the disappeared gather in this country? Who will create the American version of Madres de Plaza de Mayo?

Yes, yes, yes. Maybe you’re thinking I’ve gone from dangerously naive to histrionic. But have I? Have I really? Does what’s being done in Portland seem like business as usual to you?

And I sit here, choking on my impotence. Because, really, what do we do? I have been able, until now, to convince myself that my pen is my answer, my weapon in this fight. But what can my pen do for me now? My minuscule readership isn’t likely to mobilize and take on the anonymous troops in Portland, and I wouldn’t want them to. But there has to be more I or any of us can do other than look on in horror.

A venal monster by any other name …

I have taken to calling the president “Caligula.” Seth Meyers put this in my head by referring to him a few weeks ago as “our drooling, potato-brained Caligula.” It felt perfect. I used the whole description for a bit, but have given up the adjectives. They offer too much cover for evil.

At the start of the administration, I refused to put the word “president” beside Caligula’s name. Also wanted to avoid using his name. I started calling him “THOTUS” instead: Titular Head of These United States. (I was pretty proud of that one, I have to admit.) THOTUS worked for me on many levels. It gave a nod to the man’s baseness by including “tit.” It acknowledged the obvious fact that the decisions he was making were guided by his masters even as he wore the crown. And it let me bypass saying his name or calling him by the office he held.

Eventually, I had to give up THOTUS. It still worked for me, still felt satisfying, but the damage being done to and by this country was too great to be tossing around a cutesy name for a greedy, self-aggrandizing, painfully unintelligent, insecure, hate-monger bent on theft and destruction. And so I finally succumbed, began calling him both by his title and his name.

But now the power and horrific majesty of “Caligula” has been presented, and I find it too fitting to pass up. I’ve been using it almost daily, and it satisfies utterly. Or … almost utterly. Sure Caligula’s rep is that he was a monster and a sexual predator who thought he was a god. That all tracks. Yes, the homework I did that turned up questions about the accuracy of those accounts, but it still felt right. But somehow not enough right. And, of course, that’s because of Caligula’s grand-nephew, Nero.

Nero keeps getting in my way. Famous for “fiddling while Rome burned,” which definitely feels right if you sub in playing golf for fiddling. But “Nero” doesn’t feel as right for me, and “Caligula-with-a-side-of-Nero” is just ridiculous.

And, too, there is the concern that saying anything other than his title and name is just repeating the mistake of THOTUS, the mistake of being funny when there isn’t a single funny thing happening.

I’m sticking with Caligula for now, despite the inaccuracy of the comparison — the Romans at least got one good year of not-insane rule before Caligula turned into a horror legend. I’ve dropped the almost cutesy, doddering-old-fool additions of “drooling” and “potato-brained” and settled fully into this usage. Hoping that I only need to use it for the next seven and a half months.

Hoping.

Failure to Launch

I wasn’t sure I’d post this one. I wrote it the day after the poems I shared last week but held it back. Not that I haven’t written about this in past posts, but maybe precisely because I have written about this in past posts.

Sheltering-in-place has been sucking me dry. I keep trying to push myself back to the page, and I keep not getting there. I have been doing plenty of other things, but I miss my writing, miss finding my way through my thoughts on the page. I know it will come back, but I’m feeling it today.


Try and Try Again
Forty-one

The nurse held your hand.
She looked into your face and smiled.
“I’m saying the fertility prayer over you,” she said.
Her face was kind
was sad.
You had seen the waiting room.
Most people came here in pairs
not like you, alone.
She must have said her fertility prayer
for all of them.
And sometimes it must have worked.
Not for you.
You left as you’d arrived, alone.

I can feel your heart rise
then fall.
I can feel your anticipation,
the way you tried not to dream
and dreamed all the same.
And I can feel the crash and burn
the sting of it,
the finality.

It would have been easier, maybe,
to get a registered letter.
“No, you aren’t meant to be anyone’s mother.
As you were. Thank you.”
Easier than all those hopeful days,
Easier than all those tears.
Easier.

Still.
You accepted it.
It took two false starts
and three failures.
It took all the money you never had.
It took all of you.

Not anyone’s mother.
It can still make you cry,
but you have accepted it.
Because what else is there but acceptance?

You think about the nurse
her wedding ring hard and cold against your hand
her eyes sad
her smile sad, too.
Her fertility prayer
over you like a shawl,
slipping from your shoulders
to pool on the cold, tile floor.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020