Journal of the Plague Year (Abridged)

Journal of the Plague Year (Abridged)

[Editor’s Note: Lorna Dee Cervantes contracted Covid a year ago. Her 2020-21 Facebook posts, even heavily abridged here, offer a personal journey through the daily evolving landscape—all with the generous and rebellious spirit of an Earth Mother under assault.]

January 5, 2020

My mother named me, “Lorna Doone” (Dee) so I’d “be brave and able to eat horses if (I) had to!”

I Never understood the part about the horses, but according to recent tests, I can survive a zombie apocalypse.

March 4, 2020

I decided not to go to AWP… I can’t NOT HUG y’all! My event was cancelled today. Anthology not back from printer.

It really is the “no hugging” policy. How does one do that? Some of my young friends were going to booty bump, but I don’t have much booty to bump that much… Maybe carry a sign that says, “Muchos ABRAZOS fuertes!”

The co-director of the AWP resigned last night over their decision to go ahead.

March 9,2020

I am self-quarantined. … couldn’t in good conscience travel. Not from Seattle. Not after being coughed on directly by someone not covering their face inches from my eyes.

 … The bus was in front of the Amazon where a “community transmission” person died. … 19 deaths so far, 18 in my county. Dry cough is the main symptom after slight sore throat and then fever. Deaths occur when it reaches the lower lung.

 

I’m also 60+ plus. I may not survive. But, I’m an existential phenomenologist and an educator.

March 10, 2020

Me, I’m great! Self-quarantine is my default mode… a wannabe Eagle Scout. I’m always prepared.

Got my black beans. Got my brown rice. Got my amaranth. Got my quinoa. Got my oatmeal. Got my flour. Got my broths. Got some vegetables. Got some fruit.

Got my portable 3-in-one, wind-up battery, solar-powered charger, light, blinker am/fm radio, short wave, alarm and compass for when the grid goes down.

Got my sanitizers … aerosol sprays, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, vinegar and vinegar wipes, body wipes for upper and lower, toothpaste …

Got my oranges. Got my cinnamon. Got my slight sore throat…

 

Boo, I don’t got my maple syrup.…

 

Good time to go backpacking…. Like, forever…

 

Bad time to have to rely on public transportation…Got my fold-up, multispeed, custom-built bicycle, with fixing to attach a motor; a good helmet and all the fixings. … It’s a good day to ride. Hokahe!

Italy this morning? 90 deaths a day.

March 11, 2020

Gist of the matter is this …The virus migrates down … to the lower lungs, you die. …  Wash your lungs! Use a few drops of Eucalyptus essential oil in… boiling water. Put a towel over your head. Breathe in the steam through mouth and then nose. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat until water has cooled. Then gargle with it. As much as you can stand. …

I’ve learned to hold my breath. The steam keeps my lungs clear.

Cook good healthy food and plenty of it. That’s your gold now.

Be a Water Protector. It’s you, and our children’s lives, and their future children. The Ancestors are there, absorbing all our tears. Show some Love and Gratitude to Water; to All, for All.

The only cure for fear is knowledge. When in doubt, research. We are our own “expert.” … A laugh a day keeps the locos away. Be kind. We’re all our own doctors now. …

SHARE FIRST is the economy now. Stock up on medical books, herbal wisdom, DIY. Darwin got it wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the most creative.

We Will survive.

The women are smarter.

WWGD? What would gra’ma do?

Feeling blue? HELP SOMEONE.

Art SAVES lives.

Poetry the first time.

 

My go-to homeopathic flu remedy Oscillococcinum … Effective against all strains. Tiny sugar pills …dissolve on the large pores under your tongue … morning noon and night for 3 days. …repeat cycle as needed. Get a bad flu, all wiped out. … Go dancing, symptom-free, in four days. What flu?

Are all those dead—in Italy, New York, Ireland and Kirkland—”fake news?” Not to mention China, which would just grab your ass, kicking and screaming, and weld the doors and windows shut so you wouldn’t go out to have your fun… to infect a couple hundred new victims because you wouldn’t listen to reason.

What’s wrong with you? Show some COMPASSION.

To Someone, let it not be you:

… Mortality rate is going up as virus MUTATES to conditions, it’s that smart. Unlike some humans.

…It eats up your lining of the throat and lungs, along with the fine hairs protecting them, the sweepers, the first line of defense

…What flu or bronchitis ever shut down a whole country?

How healthy are you? I’m pretty fit. I don’t know about my cilia. A HEALTHY 32-year-old male is going to die now, taking care of somebody sick through negligence, because of the cavalier presidential and entitled attitudes surrounding him. …How’s your health insurance? I had a three-week stay in ICU– $150,000+ not counting follow up visits and medications.

 

Stop parroting “fake news.”

It is no longer business as usual. We are in crisis mode. Help someone….It’s fun to do right.

The eye-witness accounts on the GROUND ALL OVER THE WORLD and coming into my 5,000-friend newsfeed, I can’t keep up with all the notifications and ACTUAL NEWS REPORTS… from physicians, staff, hospitals, boards, clinics, morgues…. Regular people crying real, not crocodile, tears over very dead daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, whole sets of grandparents, in one single week. Is it worth it? Fun, that is; I like to have fun. This is not It.

And they ALL HAVE THE SAME SENTENCE as their ending:

“WHY ISN’T ANYONE TAKING THIS SERIOUSLY!”

Don’t you read?

Get over yourself. You’re going to exterminate an entire generation first…including the band members, and their families, who play for our FUN. If my holing up… will save just ONE life, SOMEBODY’S CHILD, I’m all in!

You don’t need to be right. You just need to DO RIGHT, my high school motto.

Pretend it’s your kid, to preserve and protect. …

The Truth is out there. You just gotta poke around…

Show some respect for your Elders. They know more than you.

March 12, 2020

It was a TERRIBLE decision to not cancel the AWP writers conference…. 14,000… sold out…. 40% cancellation and lots of empty bookfair tables. Lots of hugging and kissing in jest. …Everyone traveling, most on public transportation. I knew this was going to blow up big by the time they flew home, to infect their families and communities. Hard not to talk at a writers’ conference, face to face, breathing in each other’s air. 8-12 feet is low end of safe distance. I keep that distance from people when I have to go the ATM… Big enclosed space? Potentially thousands of millions of the virus airborne and contained. Think about it.

I’m not going to say, “I told you so,” but I knew this was going to be very bad for all. Ever since I was geeky girl, I studied different viruses, wanting to be a cellular biologist. I’ve read every plague book and study you can imagine, including HIV.

I need to buy a thermometer. …

First time out today. I’m the only one touching things with wipes. Yogurt places and Chinese restaurants, closed.

…You can … take every caution imaginable…then some dude dry-coughs right in your face in the city bus…

As you age your fine hairs in the respiratory tract decay like an old brush, you have fewer and they don’t move as fast sweeping the crud out.

They’re going to call it:  Old And In The Way Syndrome. OWSy.

Eyes are the WORST … because of the tear ducts, which are like the highway to heaven for any viral infection. … thought about wearing sunglasses but I forgot that day.…

We’re smarter than a virus, which is wily indeed. … this virus “somehow” uses the body’s own immune system to replicate. When you read “somehow” in a medical study, that’s never a good sign.

Oh, yes, Eucalyptus essential oil: after the steam died, I gargled with it. There’s a gag reflex, but good way to coat the palate.

D-3 and vitamin C. … recommended when reports of the virus first came out… EVERYONE is out of ZINC.

 

Bottled water and toilet paper were never on my shopping list. I think it’s an urban myth. Loose stools, however, are one of the early overlooked symptoms of the virus and how it transmits: aerosolized every time someone flushes. In a public bathroom. Think about it.

What is “brain fog”? … It’s one of the symptoms of the COVID-19 Virus.

This afternoon I went to buy medicinal tinctures and hemp milk and a thermometer. On the way there… walked in front of a moving car. … into the store…realized I forgot my purse….went back… only to remember that I forgot the bag of wipes…in my hand. I went back … to the store. Every time I got in line, I got out because I forgot to get something, about 5 times, every time intending to get hemp milk and a thermometer. I got home, lined up my purchases, and realized I forgot Eucalyptus essential oil… So, I went back. I bought Astragalus tincture instead, and hemp milk. I kept forgetting my things after paying, and they had to remind me as I headed off… I got home, washed my hands, and couldn’t find the bag…took almost an hour, couldn’t find it anywhere…decided to go back to the store. I had a vision of it under arm, so I picked up my coat, and there it was folded in the sleeve.

Never did get a thermometer.

…Chest pain: new symptom, like nothing … ever felt before. In the middle of my chest between the sternum and where the ribs start.….

Sweats: I broke out in a sweat. … I’m keeping the heat to 70, sometimes 72. … No fever yet.

Fatigue. …don’t feel like I could walk all the way around the lake, like just 3 days ago. If the band were playing tonight, for free, and I had a ride, I wouldn’t go dancing. Now you know I’m sick. …

March 13, 2020

…I have no health insurance, no primary physician, no money, no credit, and no transportation. …Soon as this hits my lungs, I’m headed to ER for respiratory failure.

The respiratory tract lining is its filet mignon. The lower lungs are its prime Maine Lobster.

“This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no fooling around.”

I look on the bright side, I have no loved ones here to risk infecting.

You can’t get it from sharing a sandwich …. You breathe it in, or it enters through eye pores… You can get it walking into the bathroom after someone…has taken a dump…Save your business for home

I live between both ends of the candle. …

It’s time-consuming to self-cure. Takes longer to sit in a … clinic waiting room, or ER loaded with people worse off than you… and risk infecting the caregivers, who don’t have treatment or cure. …

March 16, 2020

Now in the UK. It’s 12 weeks PAST “recovery”… Told you so. 

Research and report. That’s my Crisis Mode. I turn into Ms Spock….

Symptomatic in all the stages. DEFINITELY WORSE AFTER ELDERBERRY!!!

…Works for flu, great. NOT THIS! 

LAUGH-ter is the best MEDICINE. KNOW-ledge is the best DEFENSE.

Positivity wins La RAZA.

 

March 20, 2020

STAY AWAY FROM REFINED SUGAR!

STAY AWAY FROM ELDERBERRY!

STAY AWAY FROM ANY IMMUNE BOOSTERS IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO VIRUS!

… I feel like I’m treating this thing aggressively, and winning…

March 22, 2020

DAY 3: SYMPTOM FREE!!!

Oscillococcinum & Eucalyptus essential oil steam + 4000 mg C!!!

4000-6000 IUs D 3 in 1000 IU drops!

180 mg chelated zinc

Constant hot liquids

Positive attitude

LOTS of laughs

Keep your sense of humor

MUSIC!!!

(Save your local musicians first.

They keep us all alive!)

 

…You feel better a few days after stage One. You want to go out, like dancing. That’s how the suckers get around. Don’t let them.

March 24, 2020

WOW!

I want to clean my kitchen!

Now I know I’m cured!

Day 5: SYMPTOM FREE

Uh…I’ve only not felt like cleaning my kitchen in like, uh, ten months…

But I’m having SO MUCH FUN watching the water twirl down bathroom sink and it’s SO sparkly clean! Kitchen sink, too. …

March 25, 2020

…Not celebrating yet. … my sense of smell and taste … returning….hoping I can still devour whole wedges of oranges. I’m starting to taste sour again.

I cannot begin to describe what it felt like to go from a HEALTHY, energetic and youthful person who could walk 5.6 miles around the lake twice a week to being a weak, old, sick and sweating, palsied woman who couldn’t walk three blocks to the ATM.

Day 6: SYMPTOM FREE!!

Today I had to run an errand. I didn’t run but I walked fast….as usual I passed everyone who wasn’t running… I checked the map: I walked 3.8 miles. Back on track for backpacking / hiking training. (!!)

Cheery.

…a list of my treatment regimen now going around. … a few lines left off…maybe the most important: “Positivity wins The Race” (meaning human) and “NEVER LOSE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR.”

Hug the Earth in your daily Gratitude Prayer. It will hug you back, and keep you on it. I type these words to you with tears, so like I know a poem is finished, I know these words must be true.

“May you live long and prosper.”

I love you ALL.

May 13, 2020

Empathy is the word of the age. It’s not an economic crisis. What we’re facing today is an empathetic crisis, the consequences of a lack of imagination.

June 18, 2020

I get nervous lately when little mild symptoms come back, like yesterday my fingertips were numb and tingly….that’s why this Illness is so sneaky. You don’t know you have it, then when you do it’s like wading across a reef ankle deep until without warning you’re in the deep water and caught in the rip tide getting washed out to sea. …

July 2, 2020

Our President spoke these words in this order: “I don’t know if you need mandatory because you have many places in the country where people stay very long distance.” 

Meanwhile, college students in Tuscaloosa…infected…are holding Coronavirus parties with others in competition to see who gets it first. 

It’s called herd mentality.

Mad Cow Disease…

July 24, 2020

“Dr. Jean Bousquet, professor of pulmonary medicine at Montpellier University in France, said diet may play a larger role in determining who contracts the virus and how well they fare fighting it off.”

I’m planting cabbage today… a lot of cabbage in slaw and soup and stir fry, and used to drink sour kraut juice daily. …

DON’T SKIP MEALS IF YOU HAVE THE VIRUS.

I’m glad there’s FINALLY something about the role of nutrition and COVID-19.

Since having a child at 40, I learned to pay attention to my cravings and listen to my body. Besides oranges and tangerines, which are not my favorite fruit, soon as I got sick, I was craving asparagus. Good thing it was spring. I eat it at least 3 times a day. Turns out, besides stopping cancer growth and repairing cells and liver damage, it’s an anti-inflammatory agent, and this is an inflammatory disease.

Everyone who has had it says the same thing: It’s like no other illness… not chicken pox, not rheumatic fever, not pneumonia, not tuberculosis, and definitely not “just flu.”Flu, for one, doesn’t make your fingertips numb, or your toes bruised for no reason that hella hurt.

The first stage symptoms are subtle as a mild hangover or allergies or a bad hot dog outside a venue, if you eat such things. (I did that week I was infected.)

July 26, 2020

It’s a strange time & place when your spellcheck knows, “I’m so glad you’re alive.”

Consider I have 5,000 Facebook friends plus followers, most I know, have met, or are actual friends in real life….told my … neighbor, and his maskless guests laughing into my front door as I was trying to enter, I have five friends on Facebook who are already dead from the virus, and so many more “I’m so glad… are alive”

August 3, 2020

Lorna Dee is missing soul to soul communication.

I get it after readings, often with complete strangers…who then become my Facebook friends, and friends. I used to get it between sets and after shows with my dancing buddies, and friends. And this is the longest time between life partners. I always get into deep soul to soul conversations with my significant others; that’s why they’re, um, significant. It’s what’s missing in The Great Pandemic.

September 1, 2020

A fellow COVID-19 survivor with weird lingering symptoms was diagnosed by her doctor with “language fatigue.” Apparently, it’s a thing.

I’m beginning to wonder if I have “language fatigue.” I remember a friend after a traumatic brain injury being told “not to think.” How do you do that? If you’re a thinker by trade? I haven’t been able to read… for months now. Yeah, it makes me tired just to think of it. I read the news…. I read snippets from Facebook, but prefer to listen to music over readings…

I can’t read my own poetry, or other people’s. Not like before, not whole books… It’s not that I can’t…. It’s that I don’t feel like it. Language fatigue.

… Actually, I feel that with this latest brush against my own mortality, I’m writing more and better…writing poetry is an involuntary action. Or as I often like to say, “I’m not in charge. The Muse has a mind of Her own.” Reading poetry on the page is voluntary.

I can write poetry, but I can’t read it, not for longer than snippets.

Poets have to poem…

January 1, 2021

Not sure what I’m going to do with my usual rolled over NY resolution: Have more sex…

All books and no play make Lorna Dee… (nevermind)

My favorite resolution because it’s an easy one to keep.

This is the longest I’ve ever been single…

Try it. You’ll like it.

January 2, 2021

Told you so… 

One million cases in NY alone: “More than a third of the state’s total cases were reported in December as cold weather nudged people indoors, holidays increased social gatherings and residents tired of restrictions. On the first day of 2021, the U.S. surpassed 20 million Covid-19 cases — twice as many as the second-ranking nation, India.”

 

Stay home. Do your art. Play with your kids.

May 4, 2021

Get vaccinated. Trust a virus less than anything. If there’s an alien on Earth, it’s a virus. They don’t feck around, and neither should we.

May 13, 2021

I actually don’t mind wearing a mask… I never was attached to my face. Besides, “I think it makes me look like Zorro,” said Tonto.

CDC just announced all vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks….as if SOME people don’t lie.

May 25, 2021

Lorna Dee is feeling good to be feeling back to 100% normal. Meaning, she’s just weird enough & back to not acting her age. …

May 28, 2021

In a week I’ll be huggable again…

“HAVE POEMS. WILL TRAVEL.”

~ me

Why I Traveled to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zanzibar During Covid-19

Why I Traveled to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zanzibar During Covid-19

For decades, it’s been my dream to join the Traveler’s Century Club. Why? Their club motto aligns with my personal mission statement–“World travel: The passport to peace through understanding.”

Once you’ve stepped foot in 100 sovereign states, territories, exclaves or island groups (I’m at 71), you may apply to the social networking group for intrepid travelers.

Due to Covid-19, I had already cancelled two trips to never-been-there-before countries. The prospect of losing an entire travel year to the pandemic was weighing heavily on my mind. I’m no spring chicken; I don’t have forever to accomplish my goal!

My friend Robyn and I first envisioned this trip to Africa in late 2019. Her brother, Stuart, had accepted a position in Kigali, Rwanda. Robyn and I had a history of visiting Stuart in exotic locales, having spent a week with him when he lived in Bangkok, Thailand, four years ago. Eager to take advantage of the inside information Stuart was so adept at providing, Robyn and I blocked off dates during the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday.

Then, the borders closed in March 2020, and we stopped talking about the trip.

In August, when Robyn and I were suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms due to no travel, Stuart messaged and said Rwanda had reopened its borders to Americans with a negative Covid-19 PCR test result 120 hours before departure, a negative test result upon arrival, and a 24-hour quarantine. Plus, he wasn’t sure how much longer his assignment would last. Robyn and I started discussing the journey again.

In October, official studies decreed that flying posed a low risk of catching the coronavirus. Stuart noted that Rwanda’s death rate was much lower than in the U.S., masks were mandated, and a 10pm curfew was in effect. We would probably be safer there than here. He suggested we add on either Kenya, Tanzania, and/or Zanzibar, because they were also allowing Americans in. 

Robyn and I are beach fiends and easily fixated on dipping our toes in the crystal-clear water and brilliant white sand found on Zanzibar’s award-winning shores. We would stay there four nights with Stuart at the end of our trip, loafing at a fancy hotel a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean. 

Dar Es Salaam (DAR), Tanzania, was meant to be a two-night citybreak before riding the ferry to Zanzibar. We would hop a return ferry and fly from Tanzania back to the U.S. A Covid test was not required. The rest of our trip would be spent in Rwanda.

We purchased tickets on Qatar Airways, confirmed a designated quarantine hotel, and uploaded our negative test results on the compulsory Rwandan government form. Equipped with face masks, face shields, and Clorox wipes, I was ready to take a risk for a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity (and the reward of adding three new countries to my list)!  

We landed at Kigali International Airport and were collected by our hotel driver. I gawked out the window as we wound our way through the city. My head swiveled and I took in more breathtaking views. Huge trees in countless shades of green, rolling hills, pink roofed houses perched in the distance.

The driver explained that Rwanda’s nickname is “Le pays des mille collines,” French for “Land of a thousand hills.”

Kigali is the capital, located in the center of the country on the Ruganwa River. Locals navigated the hills carrying baskets of fruit on their heads. Vendors pushed carts down pristine streets. No potholes in the roads. Everyone wearing masks.

We were dropped off at the hotel’s open-air lobby, tested for Covid and escorted to our room. Four hours later, we received our negative test results. Another scary hurdle conquered! Stuart picked us up the next morning. We would stay at his place for three nights and celebrate Thanksgiving together.

Our first tourist stop was the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This Centre commemorates the genocide of 1994, where members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered 600,000 of the Tutsi minority. Inside, an audio tour describes the heartbreaking exhibits. Outside, a garden of carefully tended trees, flowers and an eternal flame mark the graves of over 250,000 souls.

Perhaps you saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, starring Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, which documents the Rwandan civil war. We had soup and sandwiches at the real-life “Hotel Rwanda,” Hotel des Milles Collines, which became a sanctuary for 1000 Tutsis whose lives were saved by the guile of the manager, Paul Rusesabagina. Chatting with hotel and restaurant staff, we learned the Rwandan people have put this horror behind them and are a unified front in moving their country forward. Rwanda is now considered one of the safest and cleanest countries in Africa.

Another of Rwanda’s claims to fame is animal wildlife viewing. Before Covid, tourists flocked to the country to go gorilla trekking, and you might have had a year’s wait for a permit. Robyn and I had decided we didn’t want to hike hours in difficult terrain or pay $1500 each. Instead, after consultation with Stuart, we made plans to see the golden monkeys at Volcanoes National Park, a three-hour drive north of Kigali.

I scored last minute reservations for two nights at a luxury lodge near the park. We had to take another Covid test, because negative results within 72 hours are needed to enter Rwanda’s national parks and to leave the country. (Tip: Go to the Rwanda Biomedical Centre’s Petit Stade location on KG 11 Ave. Park employees can verify your test results through this portal.) 

We purchased our permits ($100 per person) at the Rwanda Development Board office one day in advance. Lodge personnel verified our updated Covid-free test results the next morning, and our assigned butler drove us to the entrance of the park.

With our guide, we trudged 45 minutes through muddy farmland and prickly brush. Armed guards flanked our front and rear. Photo ops abounded with a background of tree-flecked knolls and mooing cows. We put on surgical masks and had our shoes disinfected before entering the bamboo forest.

Dozens of monkeys with reddish-gold streaks on their backs scampered inside the evergreen grove. You have one hour to immerse yourself in the experience. After taking plenty of photos, I closed my eyes, and breathed deeply in the palpably fresh air. I listened to the monkeys chattering and rustling around me, and thanked the Universe for this moment.

We missed our flight to DAR on Sunday because of an erroneous email from RwandAir, and rescheduled for Monday with Stuart. A warm, breezy, full moon night in a City Centre Holiday Inn boasting a rooftop restaurant, infinity pool, and a hella jacuzzi made up for no time to tour.  At the ferry terminal in DAR, be wary of touts fighting to carry your luggage. Go inside to the main box office to buy your ticket. I highly recommend upgrading to VIP for the two-hour ferry ride.

We docked at our “Shangri-la” greeted by pouring rain! Zanzibar, also known as the Spice Island, is an autonomous territory of Tanzania. The country is a mix of African, Persian, Arab, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and British cultures. More than 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Here, we noticed the majority of women wore hijabs and traditional Islamic dresses.

Stuart wanted to check out the spice bazaar to restock his kitchen, and we all wished to visit the former slave market and memorial. For over 100 years, Zanzibar served as the biggest slave trader hub in East Africa. Our hotel suggested a two-hour walking tour through the mazelike passageways of the main city, Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Luckily, the skies soon cleared. After that, beach time!

 

 

When our toes were firmly planted in the warm sand, Robyn and I gave ourselves a huge high five! We had achieved a joint mission to reach this fabled island halfway around the world!

Taking full advantage of the tropical setting, we rode in a skiff to a secluded islet, accompanied by a school of dolphins. We snorkeled. Our captain dished up coconut, mango and pineapple so plump the juice dribbled down our chins.  

We savored freshly caught red snapper in restaurants beside the sea. Amazing sunsets topped off lazy, flawless days. Waves lapping against the shore lulled us to sleep each night.

Much too quickly, our vacation was coming to an end. 

 

I learned it is possible to travel safely in spite of a pandemic. I’m glad I took the chance. And even if I don’t get to 100 countries before my stint on Earth is up, it makes me happy to know a group of like-minded individuals is committed to the superlative goal of promoting world peace through international travel.

Plate Tectonics

Plate Tectonics

“We can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection. But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen. “                       

Brene Brown

 

The only online class I ever took was to fill in a gap in my transcript. In college I eschewed science and math as if they were fatal diseases while welcoming literature, history, and philosophy. One exception, a graduate class I crashed as a freshman at Rutgers taught by the British economist E.P. Thompson who wrote The Making of the English Working Class described by Amazon as: “A seminal text on the history of the working class by one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century.” I loved the class especially the social history part taught by Dorothy Thompson, E.P. ‘s brilliant wife. The social history was based around stories, stories about labor strikes, union battles, descriptions of families and communities, public health, and education. E.P. took over in the spring and began to unpack statistics, graphs of social mobility and the industrial revolution’s transformation of the British economy. In other words, math.

When I went through a certificate program to get certified to teach high school English, I was told I had to have a science credit, so I signed up for Earth Science and spent 3 months listening to a computer explain where earthquakes came from and being introduced by a video to tectonic plates, defined as pieces of a cracked shell that rest on the hot, molten rock of Earth’s mantle that fit snugly against one another. The heat from radioactive processes within the planet’s interior causes the plates to move, sometimes toward and sometimes away from each other. Basically, I interpreted this idea as earth as a huge cracked egg. I had no contact with the professor or the rest of the class and received an annoying B-. I immediately forgot everything I learned except for those shells heaving and moving on a bed of lava, people as tectonic plates, a metaphor for massive change. After all, I am a fiction writer.

So, distance learning has essentially moved across the education landscape on a bed of molten lava transforming the classroom into a grid of small, black boxes with, if present, faces of students, framed by their backgrounds with glimpses of pets, grown-ups seeking coffee and an occasional sibling demanding to be seen. I stopped classroom teaching in 2009 with an occasional return but mainly focusing on producing a writing manual and coaching private clients writing fiction or memoir or College Admission Essays but also anything connected academically to English or History.

“We were a collective, not a dictatorship. . .”

As a classroom teacher, I never sat at my desk unless I was administering a standardized test. I walked around, I lightly touched shoulders, poked the dozing, hovered over the distracted, the disaffected and the confused. I frequently spoke from the back of the classroom or sat down in an empty desk to encourage the continuance of a discussion. I broke the fourth wall between teacher and student because it seemed counterintuitive to be protected by that huge piece of ugly furniture while they were risking being wrong, being ridiculed, or considered a teacher’s pet if they answered too many questions. We were a collective, not a dictatorship; I was frequently argued with, corrected, and laughed at. We were largely happy, and kindness was a core value.

Recently, I listened to my friend, a stunningly great teacher just awarded the highest award given to public school teachers, describe the loss of her children, empty black boxes of classes she knew intimately, knew their parents, had taught their parents, siblings, and friends, who created community while demanding and supporting excellence.

Absence was caused by the loss of a home, the loss of a grandparent, the need to use the one family computer for something else than education, alienation, and boredom. The grief she felt was clear, her job was safe, but her students were slowly losing their way, and she could not reach through the screen to assure that child that she saw them and loved them. Yes, teachers love their students even the awful ones.

“It feels like no one is really there,” a high school junior told me, “like it doesn’t matter anymore.” I asked her if she’d contacted her teacher to ask for extra help, but apparently this teacher lectured and assigned worksheets and as an ESL learner, incredibly smart, she needed more, she needed the presence and encouragement of an actual person. It isn’t her fault it; isn’t the teacher’s fault, although I questioned the wisdom of having an inexperienced teacher taking on such an important role on this lava bed. Why not team a newer teacher with a veteran and have them help one another, one brilliant with technology, the other experienced, realistic, and prepared? All I know is we are all moving across this alien landscape, trying to survive a social earthquake, doing our best but struggling.

How to Put on Your Big Girl Panties for the Pandemic

How to Put on Your Big Girl Panties for the Pandemic

So, I’ve been traveling in a pandemic for eight months because this was the year to write full-time and finally leave America with Trump behind. Getting ready to travel and write some more now — the first sign was when I ran into the Acropolis in Greece. What an adventure — I’ve learned how to swear in Persian and words of seduction from the beautiful Muslim who says Iranians aren’t real Muslims, anyway.

 I’m in my sixties, and eight years ago suffered critical brain surgery, my fifteen minutes of fame at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Texas, because my ten-year old tumor was the largest ever — a Texas-sized grapefruit. Became a celebrity for two weeks in ICU. Now I’m a walking, talking, miracle.

Let me tell you, there is nothing like a re-birth after almost-dying. When you get a chance to start over. Waking up to a day filled with sunshine, rainbows, and a good veggie sandwich. Now I truly understand that change is your friend. And that yesterday’s darkness has to be the past if you want to not just live, but flourish.

Long story, but seven years now since that brain surgery, I arrived in Athens the night of their lockdown, riding an empty subway, in a pouring rain that was March-cold with only a cotton poncho to keep me warm. I’m from South Texas, and we have few winter days here.

I was told by Immigration at the airport to self-isolate for two months. The grocery stores and fish markets remained open, so I didn’t starve. My cooking skills became more important than trying to keep warm, and since the washing machine didn’t work, remembered how to handwash my blue jeans while walking around in leggings.

“I was totally alone, only my Facebook friends and NPR.”

I was totally alone, only my Facebook friends and NPR. I missed my gym, the cinema, the theatre. I missed my cat—now adopted out—more than the lover who had to stay in the past. But I had my online yoga, meditations, recipes, and music to keep me focused. A book to complete, online workshops to take. Life went on.

After an extended stay in Greece because of the Pandemic, I went on to Portugal to visit more museums–masked–and walk the hills and cobblestones of Coimbra every day. I lost the ten pounds I couldn’t lose despite so much exercising in the U.S. Got addicted to coffee, fresh bread, and the streets named after poets. My sneakers wore out — my two sets of panties turned transparent from so much washing. The turquoise and lemon yellows of Portugal became my new favorite colors.

After international flights, trains, buses, shuttles, and walking on the pedestrian walkway around the Acropolis for weeks, I hadn’t gotten sick. I was certainly vulnerable, so why not?

Now back in the States, my older friends were concerned, mortified about Covid. They couldn’t believe my life. I told them I almost died once, and this is what I’d learned:

1. It’s not enough to wash your hands.

We have to wash-out what we were before. Wash your house, your car, your purse. Your keys. Bust out the Pine Sol, the vinegar, lavender concoctions. It’s gotta be a disinfectant, not just smell good.

My visual artist friend, Terry Ybanez, told me once that she cleans her house all dressed up and puts on her good lipstick! Make your house sparkle cause you’re washing out yesterday and ready for what’s coming! In Texas we say Dale Shine! Put on some grooves, dance with the broom, shake it and break it a little.

If you have teenagers, I am sorry to inform you they are not playing by Covid rules. I’ve seen too many out there. Banish them from the kitchen or common areas…Get them a microwave. Try to keep them separate from your spaces, and wipe down whatever they touch frequently including the car, inside more than outside. The bookcase, the remote control, appliances, doorknobs, and especially the family bathroom.

Our grandmothers, my abuelita, was the kind of religious who had faith in cleanliness as a sign of purity, maybe even virginity. Call on her during this Pandemic. 

Upgrade your hygienic standards—this is vital in disinfecting your house no matter how often you wash your hands–especially if you have a family… Now is the time to wash with hot water, be generous with the detergents. Clean everything like you’re in the Army! The Marines! And you’re the General, the soldier, and the Sergeant. But make it fun! You’re alive. You’re a strong, independent, woman! We just elected a woman as Vice-President! A little Pandemic is nothing besides you. Yes, you are that beautiful in that mirror. Look at yourself. Say it again! Sing it! 

2. OK, so you’re in prison.

But no use protecting yourself if you can’t get some exercise. Lack of movement accelerates aging. In Greece, I took online classes.

Now here’s my heresy: Walk, yes, walk with your mask— outside—alone—far away from everyone for at least 20 minutes a day. This is your time to think, to commune with the trees. Stay far away from anyone without a mask. Don’t linger anywhere. Don’t touch anything, wash your hands thoroughly the moment you step into your nice, clean, house, and this is why you disinfect those doorknobs. OK, you don’t like walking — get a treadmill, a bicycle, and use it! It’s not for hanging clothes. (Which may be picking up some Covid, who knows…?)

Exercise makes me happy, changes my mood, gives me energy. Good for your brain, too. As I get older, I want to do it less, and that’s where the following is the trick to get you moving again. …

3. Forget the “Covid +15 pounds.”

Go for the “Covid Minus 10 Vegetable Diet.”

Now is the time to break out the veggie cookbooks. There are some absolutely delicious heart-loving recipes out there for spinach, cauliflower, carrots, kale, brussels sprouts, broccoli, peas, apples, grapefruits, berries, and anything dark and crunchy. Explore the world of Indian and Thai cooking, especially if you like spices, and I do. Make your own yogurt. Think corn tortillas, fresh beans, rice, and whole-grain is always best, but don’t force yourself. Explore the world of new foods, experiment, improvise. Forget the cakes and pastries except for the New Year. Nuts, honey or molasses for dessert. I used to buy all sorts of spices in tiny quantities at the fancy grocery store in town—try that. Now is the time to let your artist loose. The best artists I know are also fabulous cooks. Get wild in the kitchen! Listen to your news there.

Go for caldos! Add lots of greens and carrots to the soups. Our bodies are amazing. They will adjust, you’ll see. The trick is to find a healthy way to eat the foods you love, too. And then the magic happens and you are eating the way you always dreamed. Thanks, Covid. Tears are good for the sauce.

Besides, green vegetables make your skin glow, and they are a boon to digestion. Nachos and Christmas stuff? Once a pandemic. YOU are my Christmas. Your children and the teenagers will be amazed, what an example you’re setting for them.

4. Turn off the television.

Limit your news cycles.

Read all those books waiting for you! With a library card, you can download lots of books for a free rental with the Libby App. This is how I can read all over the world in English. Or Spanish.

5. Pray. Every day.  

Give thanks that we have so much.

Don’t ask for anything but how to love, because that’s why we’re here, anyway…

Tell the Divine to keep you strong and fearless, that you realize this Pandemic is a kind of death that is bringing something new — and you want to be ready for the rebirth of this planet, despite the sadness. The adventure of life. A little pandemic is nothing for mujeres fuertes. There are goddesses everywhere taking care of you. Watching over you, like they did for me in Greece.

6. Meditate.

This forces your mind to calm down, and once in a while, you travel to the places where the goddesses approach you for a few seconds and smile at you. A place where we find some clarity about what we’re here to do in these days of possibility. This adventure called life.

A life isn’t that short, I recently read. There is enough time to do what you’re supposed to do if you use it.

No regrets.

Xxx

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT: Spoiler Alert!

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT: Spoiler Alert!

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved immersing myself in a story and a world not my own. So, when friends began talking about The Queen’s Gambit limited series, based on the novel by the late Walter Tevis, my husband and I decided to watch it.

Enjoy life

I’ve been a photographer for more than 30 years, have written on and off for a couple of decades, and am married to a guy who has been in TV and video production all his adult life. We probably aren’t the people with whom you want to watch a popular series. We’ll moan out loud as we critique believability. We’ll pause and replay a scene multiple times to study the lighting or marvel at the composition of a shot. We’ll pause to have a discussion about why a scene works—or doesn’t. We’ll pause simply because a particular shot moves us. Consider this a spoiler alert and a walk through the series with us.

 As visual storytellers we were captivated by the phenomenal attention to lighting. It created moods we could feel and set the tone for pivotal scenes. The attention to detail in every scene made us feel we were there — the blue-green color of a handful of pills, the hand-sewn name tag on young Beth Harmon’s dress, the cone of light that illuminated the chess players’ tables and melted into darkness around them. The pacing of the story, especially the chess scenes, built some taut moments, moments when I didn’t think I’d be able to take any more tension.

And did I mention the lighting? And the attention to detail? Wow.

It was only as we were approaching the end of the series that I began to dissect the story and see how it had gotten under my skin.

In many ways it’s an over-the-top, tug-on-your-heartstrings kind of story. It pulls out every trope in the book — the orphan prodigy, the addiction, the underdog, the humble school custodian mentor, the drunk adoptive mother, the unloving step-father, and on and on. A different show, a different book committing the same literary sins, and I might have caught this earlier and cried foul. I’m sure more sophisticated viewers caught all this early on. But the acting and the story were so compelling I believed it all — the adoption, the first few matches when Beth can’t stop winning, the first losses and the consecutive bigger wins, the use of alcohol to cope. I believed it until the last few episodes when I began to “see” the writing and literary devices intended to keep the story going.

At the end of the story Benny Watts, one of the few men to beat Beth at chess—and who has become a friend and sort of love interest—abandons Beth to fund her own way to Moscow for the tournament that will pit her against the Russian player Vasily Borgov. He’s has bested her, twice; this will be her chance to beat him on his own turf. But she doesn’t have the money to get there, and Benny’s going not to lend it to her. He’s done with her drinking and selfishness. But even as I realized that this was likely a turning point in Beth’s life, I also clearly saw this as that hero’s journey moment — the all-appears-to-be-lost device that leads a story to its conclusion. I was no longer immersed in the story. And I didn’t quite believe that Benny would do that to Beth. Instead of questioning the characters and their motivations, I began questioning the writing.

But the latter part of the story also brought a moment I’d been waiting for: Beth’s roommate Jolene, the Black girl who was her friend in the orphanage, shows up on her doorstep. I’d been wondering what happened to her. But the story line took a turn that made me angry here.

Despite the fact that Jolene didn’t even merit a last name in the series — unless my stalwart IMDB app has failed me — she is now a strong woman in her own right, and will help Beth get to Moscow. Because while Beth has been spending her winnings on alcohol, her house, and one hell of a wardrobe, Jolene has been working as a paralegal and saving her money for law school. But when Beth says that Jolene is her guardian angel, Jolene is angry. She’s simply been following Beth’s chess career and cares about her; that’s what friends do, so don’t call her a guardian angel.

 Really? If the writers didn’t want us to see her that way couldn’t they have written her character so she wouldn’t come across that way? More to the point: Did the writers really intend to tell us another story about a Black woman coming in to save a White woman? Did they miss the broader social and misguided underpinnings to this bit of story? Oh, and by the way, the car that Jolene drives in this episode? That was a gift from a married man she’s dating. By this time, all I could think was “Wow. Married man. Cliche. Yawn.” I’ll come back to this in a bit because the treatment of Jolene’s character made me angry.

Remember Benny? Once Beth is in Moscow, we find out that back in the U.S. he has teamed up with several other male chess players Beth has played over the years to help her strategize that final game with Borgov. “That would never happen,” my husband said aloud. She beats Borgov, of course. But that last scene in which Beth and her federal agent minder are driving toward the airport — that moment when she steps out of the car, leaves to go play chess with the old men in the park, and the cab drives away? Yeah, that would never happen either, especially not after all the warnings the minder gave her about being in Moscow. 

But let me come back to an unexpected pleasure I found throughout the story: Love. The love that blossomed between Beth and her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley. Both of them were so damaged and scarred, that I was certain Alma was going to use Beth to see the world by traveling with her and taking her tournament earnings. I expected their relationship would end badly. But somewhere along their travels, indeed funded by Beth’s winnings, they forged an affection and respect for each other that both found difficult to express beyond sharing a drink or touching hands in a cab. That made the death of Alma much more acute.

I was so distracted by these misses that I also missed what my astute writer/editor friend Steve Steinberg pointed out about the fairy tale ending: “Beth is outfitted all in white, with a pompom on top her hat: She’s dressed as the White Queen — and that’s what she played against Borgov.” That’s over the top for me, but if you’re going to have a fairy tale ending, it’s too lovely a detail to have your viewers miss while they’re pondering their disappointment.

But back to Jolene. I remember once hearing an editor speak about artistic choices. She said that not only do they shape the creator’s work, but they also shape how others view and receive that work. Artists need to challenge themselves to think and create beyond stereotypes, she said. Artists can create wonderful works when challenging themselves to think outside these boundaries. They can also challenge audiences to expand their own views of the world.

As I was wondering how The Queen’s Gambit could have descended into such tired stereotypes, I thought, “What if Jolene, a Black girl, had been the chess prodigy? What if the adapters of this story had challenged themselves — and us viewers — with a story that really upended what we think of chess, of women, and especially of Black women?”

I realize that this would have been a different story, and one much more difficult to tell. A Jolene chess prodigy in the 1960s and ‘70s would have faced even more obstacles than Beth Harmon did. Would a White custodian have mentored her the way that Mr. Shaibel did Beth? Would she have had an ally to help her get to Moscow? Would she have been accepted by the White male dominated chess world? I can’t say.

But, therein lies the artistic challenge, no?

New. Year. Count. Down.

New. Year. Count. Down.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know exactly what I’m wearing to the first celebratory anything I attend when this wretched pandemic ends. 

 

Hanging in my closet is my favorite purple dress and the funky wrap I bought more than a decade ago from my favorite Dallas shop. Both are wrinkle-free and ready to be worn.  

I want, no, I need, to dress up and feel pretty. I want to go to a restaurant I’ve never been to, the reopening of the symphony season or a fancy fundraiser.

I mean it.

It’s one thing to go braless and wear flip flops, jeans, and t-shirts to shop or see a movie, but it’s another thing to live braless in jeans and t-shirts daily for months without end, stuck under what-the-hell-who-cares house arrest.

I will get a haircut, facial, manicure, pedicure. I will dredge up my sparse makeup kit and wear nice lipstick instead of Burt’s Bees chapstick. I will hug all the people I used to hug. I might even kiss a few.

I tend to be unpredictable, so I might also hug a stranger or two, especially if I can finally do my own grocery shopping, some poor unsuspecting clerk restocking the frozen vegetable aisle. And when the store manager summons law enforcement because a crazy woman is randomly hugging employees, I might even hug the responding cop or firefighter for the unadulterated heck of it.

I’m not sure, but if confident lightning won’t strike, there’s an outside chance I’ll even slip into somebody’s place of worship for a more quiet expression of gratitude for family members who were spared Covid’s miserable reach. Maybe sit for a moment more to remember those whose families weren’t.

There aren’t enough thanks in the world for hospital workers who slogged through the last 10 months and have continued to do so, even when they weren’t doing it for anyone I know.

I know for sure I’ll never be able to adequately tell friends how much it meant to get chatty phone calls from time to time — even those made too early in the morning or almost too late at night. I can’t wait to cook for them again.

I forgive my daughter for enlisting friends to spy and report on my well being (for heaven’s sake, don’t let her know I know). All mothers should have daughters who care that much.

Such random musings pretty much sum up 2020 from my tiny space in the universe. All things Trumptopian will soon be in the hands of jurisdictions from which there is no escape. I can’t clutter my little pea brain with anymore thoughts of that man and his ilk.

The countdown has begun. 

The dress awaits.

En garde, 2021.