Sunday, February 14, 2021

NY missive no 178 - There is Time

The pandemic has warped and layered time like an earthquake disrupting rock formations developed over millions of years. It has played around with time and with distance in ways that we only partially grasp, or are conscious of, while busily distracting ourselves with our technology.

“Is that a donkey?”, Fi asked on Instagram, when I posted a photo of JNH sitting reading in a rocking chair, next to a wooden piece of furniture M and D had given me way back for a birthday – a magazine and small-book holder made from plywood – yes a Donkey it’s called. The rocking chair in the photo was the one from an Astoria thrift store that I’d got when I had the idea, when pregnant, that a rocking chair was a good thing to have for feeding a baby and rocking them to sleep. I happened to be sitting in that chair breastfeeding JNH at 3ish one morning when I heard the news on the radio that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

The book that JNH (now 10) was reading in the photo was called “Continental Drift”, following the movement of tectonic plates through geological epochs. When I sit on the rocking chair – rare moments at weekends – I rest that big Continental Drift book over the top of the Donkey to turn it into a table for a drink and bowl of salt and vinegar crisps. These are just some rather specific moments that are mind-blowingly tiny compared to the epochs in the book.

I have moments of feeling I should be firing on all cylinders like I ended up doing last year yet finding, in 2021, it much harder to do so. Moments of saying for heavens sake now of all times is a time to go slower, to reflect, when possible, and precisely not to fire on all cylinders. And moments when I just let both those opposing thoughts cancel each other out, and respect the arbitrariness of time. We can bounce fast along the surface of it, we can pause and dive deep into it, maybe we can sometimes stop it entirely. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

NY missive no 177 - Birthday and tomorrow's inauguration

So this is my first pandemic birthday, let’s see if it’s my last. The sun’s pouring through the front window. JNH is watching the pre-class videos for his online class which will start soon. (He’s using the big desk that was Mum’s, and her Dad’s before that, which has “skipped a generation” as he puts it). CMH is on the sofa having his 30 minutes of allocated FIFA-game-on-i-pad time. C is on his morning walk. And I’m writing this with a coffee and a chocolate croissant from Leli’s bakery, which we picked up on our morning “walk to school” round the block. The small details like that have taken on so much more weight this past year when everything is in flux and fragile. Like stepping stones over a river. Down the coast from here the mall and Capitol are pretty much barricaded as DC prepares for the inauguration of Biden as President and Kamala Harris as Vice President tomorrow, with 25,000 national guard troops protecting the area from potential insurrectionary attacks. 

The storming of the Capitol on January 6th was not surprising. Disturbing, yes, but not surprising, and for everyone who’s commenting “this is not America”, it totally is – a through-thread that’s been embedded in the country from the days of the colonists alongside the narrative of a trajectory towards a shared ideal. I remember when Biden’s winning was confirmed a few days after the election. Spontaneous celebrations burst out on the streets, including down the road here in Astoria, and it did feel like an elephant that had been sitting on our heads the past few years had just got up, but that was accompanied by a sense that any over-emphasis on restoring “normality” and going “back” to a better time was flawed and dangerous, just as when Trump talks about making America great again. I’m hoping that the next few years sees politics connecting deeply and practically with people - with everyone - where they are at in their lives, drawing lessons from the long-term door to door organizing in Georgia that brought black voters to the polls and flipped the Senate. 

Connecting with people where they are at is easier said than done, especially when there’s instant-community-at-the-fingertips on the web. The role of the social media giants in recent election cycles, as they have profited from misinformation – including fanning the myth of a stolen election which will have enormous repercussions over the coming years – is an example of corporate capture of politics to an extreme (another age-old force, though not unique to the US by any means). Time will tell which forms the street landscape and the online landscape take over these coming years, how they relate, and which holds the most sway.


Right, so JNH is now out of his online class, and their (awesome) teacher, who had wanted to stream tomorrow's inauguration for them, said the Department of Education isn't allowing it because there's no knowing what bad things might happen in the middle of it. 

Update: Both kids watched anyway on TV and were glued to it.

Monday, December 21, 2020

NY missive no 176 - A hot day and a cold night

I’d long wanted to go to the wildlife refuge in Jamaica Bay, and we finally went there at the height of August, on a bus through Maspeth, Ridgewood, Glendale, Woodhaven and Ozone Park. The place is beautiful but August is not the best month to go. At the center of the expansive bay, and sheltered from the Atlantic by the Rockaway Peninsula, the refuge is watery, windswept, and a stop-over place for flocks of seabirds on their long migrations. As it’s close to JFK there would usually be planes thundering low overhead too, but this being Corona-time, there were hardly any. 

It could have been peaceful. But as soon as we set off along one of the tracks we were rudely reminded that August is peak bug season. We didn’t have bug spray, and quickly our sweaty bare legs and arms lured fat mosquitos from all around, and hornet-y things came careening up to us. Had there been other people around we would have been a ridiculous sight, dodging out of the way of insects, actually running at times, while swatting ourselves with one hand and carrying umbrellas with the other to keep off the glaring sun. The pandemic’s accentuated (as it has everything) our interconnectedness with nature and the fact we meddle with it at our own peril. The Jamaica Bay trip was a close-to-home example of nature saying it's better off without us.

Fast-forward to December, and there was a heavy snowfall the week before Christmas. CMH’s soccer club went ahead anyway with their Friday evening practice. So CMH and I found ourselves arriving at Astoria Park running track (the football field is in the middle of the running track) to see it transformed into an other-worldly scene, the whole area a swathe of shimmering snow under floodlights. In the far corner of the field, 15 or so other little players and their parents had also shown up and were using shovels to dig a pitch out of the snow. We tramped/floated over to them like astronauts and joined in. Once the pitch was created the kids played the beautiful game, while the parents moved their feet and clapped gloved hands to keep warm, and right there you had the resilience of all the people of this city who have been finding ways to keep themselves and others together.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

NY missive no 175 - Wabi Sabi

Since reading Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows a while back I had lost touch with the concept of “wabi sabi”. Then I reconnected with it again when I came across an article about wabi sabi in architecture. It’s one of those terms whose meaning is nestled so securely in its original language and application, in this case Japanese, that much gets lost in translation. From what I’ve read I’m taking it to mean simplicity (not shallow, but deep simplicity), combined with the beauty that objects acquire over time with use. Perhaps the most wabi sabi object we have is the saucepan that C’s mom used to use, with gentle dents in its matte surface from much stirring over the years. 

I imagine wabi sabi can apply to relationships as well as material things. The way that they are formed by accumulated moments and focused interaction – the times that, for example, C has bought me a new item of clothing having spotted I need it and realized I wouldn’t get round to doing so myself, or rubbed my feet at the end of the day, or said something that makes me realize he knows me even better than I do myself (which is often). The way that relationships acquire completely unique markers, and yes, blemishes and imperfections, all of which are infused with an inner light that makes them whole.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

NY missive no 174 - Rosebud

I’ve never been so happy to see a rosebud.

Through these months of having a smaller radius of existence the roses of Astoria, which come out around April, have taken on extra meaning. 

When the video of the killing of George Floyd came out, their beauty was jarring. At the time I wrote:

How to reconcile

The roses’ beauty

With the image 

Of George Floyd’s head

Crushed beneath

Derek Chauvin’s knee

On the road

Crying out

I can’t breathe

Crying out


Crying out Mama

Until he breathes no more.

Through the Summer, I would often walk around the block before the kids woke up, looping back up along a stretch of 36th Street. There are roses all along that stretch, where each building has a small garden in front, and I would pause to watch their poses, tilting against walls or just growing upwards, bobbing gently on the end of their stems. Solidarity roses, and roses in abundant clusters. (Now that the kids are back at school after the Summer but virtually, all four of us walk that block together after breakfast, as a pretend “walk to school”).

Back in August I decided to try planting roses of our own in front of the house. Off I went on one of my infrequent missions to Home Depot on Northern Boulevard. I walked back with two little rose bushes in our maroon laundry cart. The laundry cart drives home for me the incongruity of having a house (albeit mostly still owned by the bank) and not a car. It means we don’t use the cart for laundry because we have a washing machine, but that we do use it as a surrogate car whenever we have to move more than we can carry by hand. It came in very handy in the depths of the pandemic when we’d venture out, masked and gloved-up, to stock up on food for multiple days rather than our usual daily food shopping.

So there I am, wheels rattling along the sidewalks, thorny branches sticking out. Back at home I start working on the holes to plant them, which means moving the garbage bins around to the side. I soon had doubts, and that defeating feeling of not being able to do something that you were hoping to do and that felt important. The ground was dry, hard, and stony. Worse than that, the evergreen shrub in front of where I was digging had a thick patchwork of spindly roots, so dense that it started to feel ridiculous trying to dig through them. How was a rose bush going to survive, let alone thrive, here?

I wiggled and dug and shook out the dry mud till two shallow holes began to appear. I tipped some potting soil around them to raise the surrounding ground and make them seem deeper. 

“You want to do planting in ‘R’ months”, said neighbor M from two doors along, who misses nothing. 


“Months with R in them. March, April, September, October. Not November or December of course, but those middle months that have an R.”

It was the last week in August. 

Doubting the holes were deep enough but not being able to get any further, I lowered the rose bushes in and packed them tightly with soil. Each time I came in and out of the house I checked up on them, and watered them most days. They looked decidedly shaky, and took it in turns to have their leaves get black spots. Then a bud appeared on the bush furthest from the door. Now each time I passed I willed the bud to still be there, and to open. Red petals began peeking through. It opened out into a fully formed rose.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

NY missive no 173 - Sobre Tumbas y Heroes

My main reading companion over the past two months of the pandemic has been Sobre Héroes y Tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs) by Ernesto Sabato. I thought I’d take the plunge despite knowing in advance that it’s a dark read, which may not be that suitable - or maybe too suitable - for these times of global pandemic and economic downturn. 

I say companion in the fullest sense of the word. Good books infuse themselves with whatever’s going on in your life and thoughts as you read them – like a constant conversation between the two, tapping into the essence of being human, transcending the distance of time and place that might separate reader from book even while reminding us that place and time (infinite, finite) are in fact two of the elements that define our shared experience and therefore unite us.

The book takes place, mostly, in early 1950s Buenos Aires, a moment of transition and of deep divisions between the old and the new. There’s hope (some) and despair (a lot), and uncertainty about what’s to come. In other words, strong resonance with the period we’re living through now. The sense of transition plays out in the Buenos Aires seasons as well, as Summer slips into fall, just as is happening now in New York albeit at a different point in the calendar year. 

About half way through: 

“Fueron tiempos de tristeza meditativa [para Martin]: todavía no habían llegado los días de caótica y tenebrosa tristeza. Parecía el animo adecuado a aquel otoño de Buenos Aires, otoño no solo de hojas secas y de cielos grises y de lloviznas sino también de desconcierto, de neblinoso descontento. Todos estaban recelosos de todos, las gentes hablaban lenguajes diferentes, los corazones no latían al mismo tiempo…: había dos naciones en el mismo país, y esas naciones eran mortales enemigas, se observan torvamente, estaban resentidas entre si.”

“Those were times of meditative sadness [for Martin]: the days of chaotic and dark sadness had not yet arrived. It seemed the right mood for that Autumn in Buenos Aires, an Autumn not only of dry leaves and gray skies and drizzle but also of confusion, of foggy discontent. Everyone was suspicious of everyone, people spoke different languages, hearts did not beat at the same time ...: there were two nations in the same country [!!], and those nations were mortal enemies, they watched each other grimly, they resented each other."

At the centre of the novel is the relationship between Alejandra, her spirit broken by past and present members of her aristocratic family – including her deeply disturbed father Fernando whose raging, rambling “Essay on the Blind” sits like a gaping fissure in the middle of the book – and the young, almost penniless (particularly after losing his job at a printing press) Martin, who is trying to find his way in life and the world, and in the same vein trying to find his way to understanding Alejandra, all the while recognizing that that there is an irreconcilable distance between them. That’s one of the many strands of the book’s beauty and tragedy, recognizing that people need each other in order to find their reason for being and yet can never know one another fully: the book rises and falls between closeness and apartness.

Bruno, the friend-narrator who guides us through the novel, reinforces that yearning for closeness after a night-time scene when he’s been looking out from a parapet across Buenos Aires, and all meaning seems to start crumbling away. Then he encounters a street dog. The dog is hungry, anxious for love. Bruno gives him some food and carries him to a sheltered space to keep warm, and something “enigmatic but powerful” seems to bring meaning back to Bruno’s own existence. 

Sabato-Bruno-narrator wonders at points throughout the novel about language, writing and what they are in relation to life (this is an Argentinean literary tome after all). In the midst of the fragile World when all’s in flux, at least, he says, the act of writing makes it possible to hold things still. 

“Las gaviotas iban y venían.

“Todo era tan frágil, tan transitorio. Escribir al menos para eso, para eternizar algo pasajero.” 

“The seagulls came and went.
Everything was so fragile, so transitory. To write at least for that, to eternalize something passing.”

And there’s the challenge of trying to convey life and its complexity through the lives of individuals, but he comes to conclude that that is the only way. 

“La verdad, se decía, sonriendo con ironía. La verdad. Bueno, digamos: Una verdad, ¿pero no era una verdad la verdad? ¿No se alcanzaba ‘la’ verdad profundizando en un solo corazón? ¿No eran al fin idénticos todos los corazones?”

“The truth, he told himself, smiling ironically. The truth. Well, let’s say: A truth, but wasn’t a truth the truth? Don’t we reach ‘the’ truth by going deep into a single heart? At the end of day aren’t all hearts the same?”

At one point (I’ve lost now where I underlined it) he shares the idea that our lives are lived as drafts, as a “borrador”, until they are over. 

Throughout the book, moments that may have seemed small or meaningless at the time they happened have weight in retrospect, like there’s a conversation going back and forth over time. I had that feeling, vividly, on the beach at Long Branch New Jersey at the beginning of September, on a surprise trip there that C organized for us. JNH, CMH and I were combing the sand for shells. We were on a patch scattered with mussel shells, tiny crab exoskeletons and the occasional cowrie, with the waves crashing beside us. I was immediately connected back to the times as a child, and young adult too, walking beaches with Mum looking for shells, both of us quiet, heads down, picking up little pieces of beauty when we spotted them. Those moments with her and with the boys now felt so complete given the connection between them, meaningful in a way that doesn’t need any explanation. I brought a little handful of shells (but not crab exoskeletons) home to keep on my chest of drawers.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

NY missive no 172 - At Astoria Heights playground

Two teenage boys on the bench next to me at Astoria Heights playground, talking in a blend of Portuguese and English, while JNH and CMH practice their soccer goals nearby. “Call her,” says one.

The other makes a call. “Hey, we’re hanging in the Park if you want to join”. And when he hangs up, “she said she might!”. 

As they head round to the basketball courts, one is saying “my Mom wants me to go fully virtual now.”

It’s in between Summer vacation and the start of school, with its staggered, mostly online and uncertain start because of Covid. It’s in between whether the girl comes to the park or not. Most of our lives happen in the in-between times, between “moments” which are more like punctuation, important but actually not essential, creating rhythm. The other day I read that the Inca have two forms of constellation: one formed by the stars, and one by the dark spaces between the stars in the Milky Way.