Tag Archives: Covid-19

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Beauty in Decay

When the calendar turned to April, two weeks into the shelter-in-place order that had become the new normal, I decided to take a break from work and leave the house for something other than a walk around my neighborhood or the weekly trip to the market. I would visit one neighborhood over, and I would drive.

Simply starting the car and backing it out of the garage were revelatory activities, behaviors from another life. There was my winter coat, in the back seat, where I’d left it. There were my notebooks and reusable grocery bags. I briefly rolled down the car window to breathe the fresh spring air–and then wondered if I should put it back up in case I ran into a neighbor from whom I was unable to stay six feet apart. I felt skittish driving, anxious about any encounters.

I drove to a stand of tulips I knew from over the years to be in front of a neighbor’s house. To my disappointment, they were largely gone. True, great splashes of color remained, among the thicket of bare stems. But they were frail and bent, far past peak, sun shining through their delicate crevices.

I was disappointed, of course. I’d stayed inside my house, in my neighborhood, for two-plus weeks and missed the whole show. Now I had the proverbial setback of having to “wait until next year”. I parked and walked over to the flowers anyway.

From close up, I could see the erratic, faded petals, frozen in mid-curl, the pistils and bits of pollen. The midday sun exaggerated the tulips’ veins where petals met stems.

The flowers were beautiful and dying and somehow fitting for this time. They fit the grief I had felt in the car, the grief and awe from merely being in a different neighborhood, a neighborhood right next to my own, where I used to go all the time and which now seemed newly fraught with danger in each set of approaching footsteps, as people walked around me with dogs or on phones, and kids skateboarded in the empty streets. Even as the April sun blazed and the world appeared especially peaceful.

I became absorbed taking pictures, something I used to do avidly at least weekly, often more, which I hadn’t done in almost a month. It felt good to be out in the world, even if still in my small corner of it. Even if the whole world had changed.

As I continued to shoot, new layers of decrepitude revealed themselves, my lens ever closer, as if I might be saved, at least momentarily, by focusing on increasingly small things that were within my control. A particular rotting husk, a translucent colorful thread, the way a furl of a petal could recall a woman’s scarf. In noticing those tiny things, for a devoted period of time, the world slipped away just a bit.

If we’re lucky, we live most of our days without thinking much about life’s fragility, about our own mortality, yet lately those things had become foremost in the news and in our minds. In the flowers, those ideas were made visible, yet also hopeful–even in their decay, the tulips were majestic, and even they would ultimately be reborn.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

Take the F: An Appreciation

In his New Yorker essay Take the F, Ian Frazier describes life in his Brooklyn neighborhood and building, before relaying the story of a neighbor who had taken ill. While she was in the hospital, the whole building was “expectant, spooky, quiet”.
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The neighbor finally returned, pale but on the mend. In celebration, Frazier “walked to the garden, seeing glory everywhere.” He “took a big Betsy McCall rose to (his) face and breathed into it as if it were an oxygen mask.”
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read this essay 25 years ago, and I still think about its life-affirming qualities often. I look forward to once again surrounding myself with roses, like these in the Sonoma (CA) Plaza, captured during the fullness of May.
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What do you look forward to?
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The Nightly Howl

Italians, under siege from coronavirus, began taking to their balconies and windows, at an appointed hour each night, to serenade one another with their national anthem. It was a show of solidarity, something to provide uplift in these brutal times. Residents in Chicago followed suit, singing a city-wide version of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. In Dallas, people sang Bill Withers’ Lean on Me in unison. In Brussels, Seattle, New York, Medellín–in places all over the globe–people started standing on balconies and doorsteps and clapping to applaud health-care workers, often at 8 p.m., local time. The phenomenon even spawned a hashtag: #solidarityat8.

In Mill Valley, CA, we have the Mill Valley Howl. Started a week after shelter-in-place orders, the Howl has grown to a citywide cry at 8 p.m. each evening, when cooped-up residents open their windows or go out onto their front yards, decks and streets, and howl at one another into the night. It’s an amazing show of solidarity, of a kind of momentary community joy, while at the same time evincing something more primal. I hear anguish in the Howl. I hear prayer (or perhaps I feel it, looking up at the bright star of Venus, while we’re all baying into the twilight.)

From my house, the Howl seems to start low in the valley and swell and run through the neighborhoods and canyons and up into the hills. It takes on different shapes in its few short minutes, before dying back down. Dogs and perhaps actual coyotes join in. I howl back at the noise and my neighbors’ lit houses. I howl to thank the first responders on the front lines. I howl to mark the days of this strange time. In a town in which people are temporarily sequestered in houses that are largely tucked away from view, howling lets others know, distinctly, “I am here. And I see (or at least hear) you.”

The Howl suits this place, at the edge of the wilderness, the same way operatic versions of the national anthem suit Italy. A howl is a call of social pack animals. We’re bonding with each other as we mark our territory–this territory, this moment–we’re here in our houses, we’re here on the planet, we’re with one another, alone and yet together.

Photos: Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival, Suz Lipman; Public Domain

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