The Details of Quarantine

There is much for people to worry about lately: namely the physical and financial health of themselves and their loved ones. Many have been writing about these stresses already, so I am going to excuse myself from adding to the topic. Instead, I’ll write about another aspect of social distancing, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: attention to detail.

Over the weekend, a couple neighbors played live music from their front porch, and our neighborhood all came out and sat six feet away from each other to hear music and to connect with one another. I am fortunate to live in a friendly neighborhood where it is likely that people will learn the names of your dogs before they recall yours. When we first learned of the spread of the Coronavirus, people slowly began to work from home and stopped driving as much, unless they needed to forage for food. Little by little, a calm settled over our block. It is not unusual to see people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, and waving at one another is just the southern thing to do. But as we made peace with the situation, I started to see it: people’s smiles appeared effortlessly; adults giggled with their children, as they chased them around in their yards; grandparents taught the kids how to ride bikes. Neighbors made an even bigger point to check in with one another, and they began to notice and discuss their surroundings: the warm weather, the birds’ songs, the early spring-blooms.

Red-orange flower opening

As a writer, observing is my job. Honestly, what I’ve observed more and more, in recent years, is the tops of people’s heads. I won’t drone on about cell phone use. I believe technology keeps us just as connected as it does disconnected from one another. However, it seems pretty obvious that technology definitely stands between our senses and our surroundings. 

Is connection to nature really important to anyone but poets and artists? Based on the collective sigh of relief I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks, in my neighborhood, I think it is. And whether we accept it or not, our bodies are part of nature, and paying attention to our surroundings paves the way to sensing what it feels like to inhabit a body and how that body interacts with its surroundings. 

Our culture revolves around work and status. We all get caught up in it sometimes, wondering if our achievements are good enough, if we’re good enough. But for many people today, those achievements are on hold for a while. What does this time-out mean for our psyches? 

city intersection at night in fast-motion

I am no economist or scientist; I cannot predict how our country will soon change in terms of money and physical health, but I hope that, since most of us are sitting at home right now, we might take this opportunity to begin to notice our surroundings more. Perhaps this quieter time might heal some of the wounds our fast-paced culture has imposed on our notion of self-worth. Humans are social animals, but there is something to be said for self-reflection, a pastime not just reserved for poets.

huge Earth marble between two tall buildings, with people looking up at it
Sebastian Errazuriz’s rendering of blu Marble, which is to be showcased at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on March 13, 2019.

Today, I leave you with Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991,” which describes the speaker feeling like a “secretary to the morning,” as he writes down all the details of his surroundings. The ending of this poem includes my favorite description of dawn that I’ve read in a poem.

I hope that you are all hanging in there. I know many people cannot stay at home and are directly confronted by this virus, either as healthcare workers or as employees at grocery stores and such. We appreciate you, and I hope that you, too, can find time in the future to rest and reflect.

Tuesday, June 4, 1991 

By Billy Collins

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.

It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.

I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation
until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls,
all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.

This is what stenographers do in courtrooms, too,
alert at their miniature machines taking down every word.
When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting
and listening, fingers resting lightly on the keys.

This is also what Samuel Pepys did, jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise
slipped into the dark amnesiac waters of the Thames.
His vigilance finally paid off when London caught fire

as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee
and says how much he likes this slow vocal rendition
of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will
make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks
on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,
hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out
a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eyes, a long intricate carpet
that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed
knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine
of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.

If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,

all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,

an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands
are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys,
whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves,
and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle

and the piano at the other end of this room with
its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench.
So convinced am I that I have found my vocation,
tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,

a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing,
when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back.
It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eros
or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,

not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun,
her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim,
her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky.
But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

 

Featured Photo

Sebastian Errazuriz’s “blu Marble”

Everyday Horrors

Spoiler alerts for the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and Black Swan below!

A graduate school poetry professor, DC Berry, once told me that narratives are either comedies wrapped in tragedies or tragedies wrapped in comedies. The movies I’m going to discuss are probably neither, but for some reason, the older I get, the more I recognize horror in places I never thought to look, or at least, I am more affected by it. For instance, I recently watched Hereditary, a horror film that involves dark witchcraft, possession, and a terrible family tragedy. It was the latter that struck me, though. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blood sacrifices…beheadings…but I spent the majority of the movie wiping tears off my face because I couldn’t stand how cruelly and dysfunctionally the family treated each other at the dinner table. I felt similarly about the horrors of family when I watched The Witch. At the end of the film, I wasn’t scared; I was just really bummed out.

The Witch

When I was a little girl, I watched the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and was transfixed. Victoria Page, a young ballerina, must choose between dancing in the company that will most nurture her art or her egotistical husband, whom she loves for some reason. I recently watched it again because I wanted to know if I had remembered it correctly. I only recall a few movies that I watched when I was little, and this one stuck with me. In fact, it informed many of the decisions I made as an adult, regarding career and relationships. What I recall thinking, as a kid, and as I re-watched it last week, is that a woman should never give up her career or her art or anything that serves as the anchor of her happiness. If she would like to marry, she should maintain this anchor at all costs, and not trade it for (as, Boris, the dance company’s impresario puts it) “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Don’t get me wrong, there can be room for both; a balanced life is often healthier (for any sex). However, Boris will not allow his dancers to fall in love with anything but art. Victoria Page sees it differently, and when told that Boris has fired Julian because of their romantic involvement, she replies, quite reasonably: “I shall dance somewhere else.” However, Boris’s company is where she grows most as an artist, and thus, the true conflict begins.

The Red Shoes

To be clear, the only reason for the conflict she feels is that her men are tearing her apart. Her husband’s ego cannot withstand her need to dance in the company that has fired him, and Boris’ ego cannot withstand the thought that her attention should sway to anything but his artistic direction. At the end of the movie, right before she dramatically flings herself off a building and onto the train tracks below, I recall thinking  (both as a child and now, as an adult) that she should have just divorced her lousy husband, who is so controlling that he abandons his opening night (and a pivotal moment in his career) just to dominate his wife and remove the one thing in this world, besides him, that she loves. That scene was exactly how I remembered it, and my feelings about it haven’t changed. 

I have read some contemporary reviews of The Red Shoes that claim it is a movie about artistic obsession. However, if the protagonist were male, I wonder if this so-called “obsession” would be viewed in the same way. Usually, when men are single-minded, regarding profession, we just call them “successful.” To me, the horror of this narrative is how commonplace and easy it is for a woman to marry someone who seduces her out of her light. Yes, the same can happen to men, but for women, there’s the added trap of cultural pressure not to outshine men, lest she be considered egotistical. “Selfishness” is one of the worst cultural sins a woman can commit, even if it is just for the short duration of a ballerina’s career. In the movie, Boris is, of course, also an asshole, but at least he uses his assholery for the promotion of her art, which she describes as wanting as much as she desires to live.

Black Swan, a more contemporary, but still tragic, ballet story, dons more overt elements of horror: bloody stabbings, doppelgängers, and surrealistic bird transformations. And yet, the underlying darkness again appears as a woman pulled apart by the demands made of her femininity. In this film, the virgin/whore motif manifests through the opposing forces of her controlling mother, who insists on infantilizing her grown daughter; and her creepy boss, Thomas, who sexualizes her during late night rehearsals in an attempt to awaken the darkness she needs for the Black Swan role.

Nina, becoming the Black Swan…literally.

I’ll admit, one of the most horrifying elements of the film is what ballet dancers do to their bodies. O their feet! O their spines! O the horror! (I’ll spare you a photo.)

I digress. I love this film. Natalie Portman is fantastic playing the role of a scared, little girl in a grown woman’s body, as well as the confident adult in touch with the primal need for lust and conquest. I’m also a big fan of surrealism and coming of age stories. This movie especially intrigues me because I am unsure what to make of the ending. 

First, there’s the fact that Nina’s death, at the end of the ballet, makes no scientific sense. Many people have pointed out that a stab wound doesn’t just start to bleed, randomly, at the end of a dance performance. True, but then why does her friend gasp when she sees Nina’s bloody midsection? There appears to be something literal in her death. My impression was that she did (or was about to) physically die at the end of the ballet. I’ve often wondered if simply having Nina wait to pull out the glass shard until the end of the performance, would have resolved this practical issue. I’m no scientist, though. Perhaps, she could not have performed those dance moves with glass in her abdomen. 

Natalie Portman has apparently stated that she doesn’t believe that Nina dies at the end of the film but that she symbolically kills her inner child in order to mature as a woman. I like that idea, but I’m still confused by what appears to be literal blood, that other people can see, spreading down her tutu.

No matter. I liked the movie so much that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in this form of human anatomy! What interests me most, assuming she’s about to die of a stab wound, is whether or not she truly finds her power at the end of the movie. My first thought, when I saw it in the theater, was yes; she attained her deepest desire: perfection that marries technique with the experience of losing herself in the moment. However, the price of this perfection is mental illness and death. As Thomas holds her hand and calls Nina his “little princess,” a name he had previously reserved for the last prima ballerina (who did not take his rejection or her retirement well) I couldn’t help but notice how puny he looked in the face of Nina’s artistic triumph. 

Again, though, I can’t help but to imagine this story with gender roles reversed: what if Nina were a man and Thomas, a woman? I just have the sneaking suspicion that, not only would Thomas (in this case, the star of the ballet) get to live, but he’d also be endowed with some sort of sexual power over Nina, despite her new role as his superior, in this imagined scenario.

Gender roles aside, I do not think America has mastered the art of balance. There seems to be quite a bit of the “do or die” mentality: overworking and indulging in ways that mask a deep fear of unworthiness. If we’re not perfect (read: popular, beautiful, talented—“the best”) then maybe we’re nothing. In that sense, I think that the end of Black Swan is a happy one. She has achieved her greatest performance and will never have to cope with inevitable decline, if not tomorrow, then in a few years time. 

This month, I offer you Nikki Giovanni’s “Balances,” a poem about the push and pull of life’s contrast. 

Balances 

In life
one is always
balancing

like we juggle our mothers
against our fathers

or one teacher
against another
(only to balance our grade average) 

3 grains of salt
to one ounce truth

our sweet black essence
or the funky honkies down the street

and lately i’ve begun wondering
if you’re trying to tell me something

we used to talk all night
and do things alone together

and i’ve begun

(as a reaction to a feeling) 
to balance
the pleasure of loneliness
against the pain
of loving you