Pandemic Diary: #NamingTheLost

Two days after my father, William Robert (Bob) Aldrich died of COVID-19 (May 10) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, I was a participant in an online video meeting. Just before it was my turn to speak, something caught my eye: a cardinal, small but rich red in color, alighted on the Rose of Sharon bush beside my window.

Not many birds choose to visit this bush; it is crowded with thin branches and it is smack against the side of the house here. Also, the flowers are not in bloom yet; when they are, the bees will comprise approximately ninety-eight percent of the bush’s visitors rather than birds: through the day, the sound of bumblebee collisions with the window next to the Rose of Sharon punctuates my day.

The red of the cardinal caught my eye, because red always does, and birds are somewhat rare on that exact spot and cardinals rarer still (this was the first time). I mentioned it as I spoke, mostly to make a joke about the fact that the previous speaker’s cat had leapt into her camera frame. (Her cat had chased this bird to me, was the quip. I’m a dad joke waiting to become a father.) Someone all but said that the cardinal was my dad; I do not remember if the thought was that a bird’s visit is spiritual or a cardinal’s visit is.

Red cardinals are the males of the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); my dad was male, of course, but his hair was red when his hair had color. Red so noteworthy that his nickname in his hometown was “Red.” My friend had no way to know this.

I do not believe in a spiritual world, but sometimes it can almost seem (even to me) that the spirit world wants my attention. I do believe in a spiritual life in that I believe the only point to life is love; perhaps that is not “spiritual,” perhaps it is.
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Pandemic Diary: Just a Box of Rain

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,”
Four Quartets

* * * *
One day, he decided to read the pages that I’d left next to my typewriter. I was a literature major in graduate school, and I had just pounded out some pages about “The Waste Land” for a summer T. S. Eliot seminar. “I don’t understand anything you wrote, but it sounds like you know what you’re taking about,” my dad said with a chuckle.

My dad had a pretty good chuckle, just so you know. Chuckles are difficult to rank because they receive little attention in the universe of laughs, but they are worth a note. My dad’s chuckle was never one that claimed he knew more than the person with whom he was speaking, or more than anyone else, for that matter. It was an honest assessment of how amused he was at the moment, which I realize now was one way that told us his full-bodied laughter was true and truly felt.

I did not appreciate my dad’s chuckle that summer day so long ago, though. “The poetry of T. S. Eliot is more important than a laugh,” I am certain I thought. (I was insufferable, I assure you. My insufferable self, so convinced of his own importance, still is around here somewhere, but does not show up often.) Well, Eliot’s poems have plenty of laughs and chuckles available, as I now know, and I also know now that my dad’s message to me was a sort of baffled pride in a son so different from and yet so similar to him.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate Eliot’s volume Four Quartets and its deeply considered meditations on time, man’s role in the cosmos, eternity, and the permanent immanence of eternity in any possible moment, never at any individual’s bidding. With my father’s death from COVID-19 on Sunday, May 10, those themes become that much more important to me, and since he chuckled at my Eliot paper (“your report” he called it), perhaps a start with Eliot (“East Coker” opens with “In my beginning is my end”) today would have earned a chuckle from him.
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Pandemic Diary 17: So Near, yet so Far

A need to connect: Unsolicited wisdom from me and unsolicited poetry offered to me …

* * * *
I speak to or even see my friends each day thanks to technology both old (telephone) and new-ish (online video conference). Most of our conversations are about how much we do not like this or about what we are doing to occupy the time.

Since I am a disabled and retired person anyway, certain facts of my life remain unchanged in quarantine: the availability of time combined with its rapid disappearance each day. Others are new: I do not drive and I reside too far from the nearest anywhere to walk there (my town is mostly shut down now, anyway), so I have no command at all over travel. Mere weeks ago, I could reach out to a friend and ask if that friend planned to drive past my neighborhood and could I grab a ride to town. If not, I could reserve a cab. I could walk around town for however long I might want. That day will come again, but that loss of independence (when I think about it, like I am now) is one I feel acutely.

The acceptance of that loss has been a fairly straightforward one to make. My friends mostly live quite near, so the video conversations, while welcome, are a little surreal, that over-used word. Again, if I think of it, it is surreal, so I do not. I realized yesterday that other than my housemate/landlord (with whom I travel to the grocery store), I have not seen a person whom I know in person since this began weeks ago.
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Pandemic Diary 15: A Rainy Day

Quarantine considerations: Outdoors or in?

* * * *
A 1964 article in Nature with the euphonious title, “Nature of argillaceous odour,” gave the world the euphonious-sounding word, “petrichor.” In the article, two chemical researchers attempted to scientifically break down what it is we smell when we smell the world after a rain shower and to give the phenomenon a name.

The two authors coined the word, “petrichor,” which I have been mispronouncing in my head since I first encountered it in 2015, when an article on the Huffington Post started to make its social media rounds. It has a long “I,” so say it like this: “petra,” then “eye-core,” which is not how I hear it in my head, with a short “i.”
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Pandemic Diary 14: A Love of Books

My eight-year-old self enjoys his shelf of books in quarantine. He gets to choose each day between writing about reading or reading about writing.

* * * *
I’ve been told that I look like a kid in a candy store when we visit a book store. I suddenly appear to have multiple arms, like a Hindu deity, and my stride becomes a purposeful lurch.

There are two booksellers in my hometown of New Paltz, NY, plus our legendary record store offers a wall of books. When was the last time you visited a record store? Heck, it’s been a couple years since I have … and I reside in a community which has one.

An acquaintance, a rare book collector, was about to open a third bookshop here this spring, but the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quarantine interfered. It is a difficult time to start a business other than a vape outlet or coffee shop anyway, even in a college town like ours, even in times when one can come into physical contact with customers, delivery boxes, cash. There will be better times.
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Pandemic Diary 13: Teach Your Children

The control freak aspect to my personality hates life in quarantine.

* * * *
I taught freshman composition at two upstate New York colleges in the early 1990s for five years. My last class met for its final session at the conclusion of the fall 1995 semester.

From the start of that school term, I knew that this was going to be my last semester teaching or attempting to teach or even correctly referring to myself as a “teacher”; thus, of course, two of the three classes that semester were two of the best groups of students I had yet worked with, and they almost made me regret my decision to retire at age 27. Almost.

The decision never was mine to make, however; I was not a good teacher, and I am grateful that I learned this on the sooner side of “sooner or later.” I am, perhaps, an entertaining lecturer but I am an even better student; as a twenty-something freshman composition instructor, I must have been execrable. It was too bad that I had barely made even the faintest start in what eventually became my pose as a long-suffering anything by the time it was all over.
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Pandemic Diary 9: Love and Service

When all this is over, some of the things we used to take for granted will appear to us a novelties or great new ideas.

* * * *
Sometimes I wonder about the elderly couple that my friend and ran into a few years ago. If they are still with us, does the quarantine affect them; for those who were already in a form of social isolation, how has the month of April 2020 felt any different, if at all?

Love is love, no matter what. This fact can feel like a new idea in isolation, a revelation in our current world of video chats and the neighborly refusal to sweat the small stuff when the suffering and loss of others are omnipresent. I want to sweat the small stuff, though, to return to my cranky outlook on life, but I have friends on the front line of this global tragedy. I have family whose acquaintance with loss is renewed each decade or so. Thus, the small stuff remains small—Quarantine Land leads one to thoughts about whether any worry is important or not. Priorities are assembled in a more sensible order.
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Pandemic Diary 8: The Flat Curve

I could never hit the curve. Also, as if consistent physical incompetence was to be sole consistency that nature would bestow on me, I could not throw the curve, either.

Never athletic anyway, the absence of athletic ability from the start of my life was not a factor in any life decisions. And now, disabled as I am, almost every physical activity qualifies as athletic. (I walk a couple of miles each day because I can and ought to.) But I wanted to be a baseball player …
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