About Time …

On the eve of an election pundits are calling make or break for democracy, here are a few thoughts from last Saturday’s Free Write group. I submitted (and wrote to) the prompt, Two Cheers for … inspired by the book-length essay, Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster, better known for his novels (Howard’s End, Room With a View, Passage to India) that take a scalpel to class relations while spinning riveting narratives. If you’re unfamiliar with Two Cheers, it’s worthy of your time. In fact, it’s more timely than ever. Here’s my blurb: A meditation about what happens when you attempt to govern with a document based on cherished ideals espoused by the people, for the people (woman and slaves not included), and end up with what we got: mediocrity soup. And it’s not half bad, considering the alternatives.

I joined this group of poets, writers of short fiction and memoir, coming on two years ago, the weekend after the January 6th attempted coup. Free Write participants get prompts by email around 10 am, write to one or more, about twenty minutes each, and gather about 90 minutes later on Zoom to share our writing if we wish. It was one of the silver linings of pandemic lockdown that I could join this group that used to meet at the Montclair (NJ) Library. So, in January ’20 I used one of the prompts to debut with a rant, not realizing that politics are more or less taboo. Not exactly my usual modus operandi. It was the second time that week, I’d let my rage overtake my reason. And I had a lot of bridge rebuilding to do in my family in the following months. What was I thinking? Was I thinking? Rage lives in the limbic system where perceived threats to survival are on the daily menu. I could lay this state of hyper-alert at the feet of the media, many have. But I’m a grownup, a yogi and meditator, and know how to manage my attention better than that. Sheesh!

Earlier that same week, we had an incident that, though mild compared to more recent examples of violence, continues to worry us about the state of the union. Returning from an errand one lovely morning, as we waited to make a left turn near a railroad crossing, a guy driving a truck pulled up too close to our bumper. If that wasn’t enough, he then leapt out, ran up to our car, red-faced, and proceeded to pound on the side window with his fist because my spouse was too slow, to make the turn. Or something. It was a sharp reminder that we live in a gun-loving (and probably carrying) state and you could lose more than your dignity and peace of mind in an encounter like the one with an irate driver.

We are both in our 80s now, and our children advise us to stay off the road after dark. Our doctor says simply: drive less. We are paying attention. We have nothing but time for everything we need to do, mornings at our favorite nature center, doctor appointments, visiting friends, grocery shopping, during the daylight hours. Our living room makes a fine disco for two.

Speaking of staying in the light: we voted early (very congenial and smooth) and gave heart-felt namastes to all the election workers — the real heroes. I’d volunteer if the workday was shorter that 12 hours. Also, we don’t plan to tune in to the election coverage tomorrow. There will be plenty of time to catch up with the results and move on from there.

Censored Books and Pot Luck

My friend, Henry, calls from his car to give me my assignment for this Friday’s movie night pot luck: a vegetarian entree for 10-12. Wow, I haven’t cooked anything on that scale since before the pandemic. In fact, my entertaining skills have become so rusty, I don’t dare wing this without consulting one of my well-thumbed cook books. I’m thinking a big pot of vegetarian chili with all the trimmings — who would vote against that?

We are lucky that, so far, no politician with an eye on higher office has targeted cookbooks, through some collections contain recipes that could, like a bubble bath, qualify as foreplay. Hello chocolate fondue. Crème brûlée. Soul food. Barbecue. But, though censorship is as old as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, who would have thought math books could bring out parents, red-faced, to school board meetings? Of course, where I live the politics have become increasing authoritarian and right-leaning in the last 20 years, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

About a month ago, I began protesting the banning of books in small ways that anyone can easily adopt — some acupuncture to improve the body politic, you might say. I got a list of the top 20 most banned books and put all of them on hold at my library. I’d read some of them: classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Diary of Anne Frank — yeah, crazy that they are anyone’s idea of dangerous for kids — and the more recent Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (highly recommended). But it was my first time with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winner, graphic novel, Maus, (obscenity and nudity, mind you, of mice) and some much-beloved children’s books that show a family that isn’t comprised of a traditional Dad, Mom and kids, is still a family. Of course, purchase is also an option, and in some instances have made a newly-censored book a best-seller overnight. Poetic justice.

In a week, I’ll be hosting a Zoom performance in which a group of volunteers read from their choice of a banned book, along with a comment of why they chose it or why it appears to have offended some group. As one of the readers, my friend, Nickie, puts it: “to bring light to the issue and encourage people to buy and read books that government agencies, school boards and libraries have deemed too ‘dangerous’ to keep on their shelves.” The selection of books by these reader/performers covers the spectrum of issues remarkably well, despite my providing no guidance in this. Racism, militarism, religious freedom, revisionist history, LGBTQ rights, as well as so-called obscenity. I cannot wait to hear Allen Ginsberg’s Howl out loud, once again in the presence of Allen Ginsberg, all in white, warming us up with Hindu chants at my alma mater, Montclair State U. If I do my job of moderator right, the Zoom performance will feel more like an old-time neighborly pot luck than a protest (now that marching risks arrest). Possibly it will inspire other performances, another way to take back the commons for the people.

Urban Greens

You often hear people dismiss the option of individual action when it comes to impacting climate crisis now being previewed in the less developed part of the world. But you won’t hear that from me, the tree hugger of the family, though I can’t claim anything approaching a perfect record. I did, after all, spend at least a decade helping a client put those PET bottles and packaging into our shopping carts and refrigerators, not to mention virtually every jogger’s hand. That was after I helped another client promote a technology that most certainly contributed to over-fishing.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t making any big decisions. Just one of the little people on the team who wrote and placed stories, came up with new ideas for a trade show, in other words, contributed to business as usual. As a grandson recently remarked about a past event: there’s no changing that. Indeed. It’s only in the present that we make choices that affect the future.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Some months ago, we stumbled upon Urban Greens Co-op Market in Providence, RI, where we escape from Florida’s summers (and hurricanes). As a former food co-op member, my inner hippie finds the Birkenstock-and-beards vibe familiar (and like family). So does the beautiful produce from local farmers, the free trade coffee, the pasture-raised meats, free-range eggs, nutraceuticals — you get the picture. Yes, Whole Foods (Providence has two) offers many of these items, and even occasionally someone helpful enough to check stock for an item missing from the shelf. But Urban Greens is an oasis in what is commonly known as a food desert of mom-and-pop convenience outfits offering sodas, bagged snacks, candy bars as food. Walking in that neighborhood at a hour when the high school opens, it’s obvious what many teens take for breakfast. Fingers crossed the cafeterias offer a hot meal, salad, fresh fruit.

As problems go, nutrition of children isn’t in the top ten these days, but guess what? It matters. A whole lot. To our future. On this, I’m with British chef, Jamie Oliver, who briefly imported his successful Feed Me Better school campaign to U.S. schools. I’m also a huge fan of Chef Jose Andres whose World Central Kitchen provides free meals during disasters, weather- and pandemic-related.

Membership in Urban Greens is (to us reasonable) $160/year or $40/year over 4 years and it also offers a Food-For-All Membership of $80/year for households that meet federal low-income guidelines. You don’t have to be a member to shop there, just pay more. And, it supports women- and minority-owned businesses.

Yes, this individual choice may seem a very small step in the wicked problem of how we adapt — mitigate isn’t even an option, according to most climate scientists — to our future on a hotter, dryer, less hospitable, planet. Perhaps not the equivalent of choosing to fly less, or not at all. Hold that aviation analogy in your mind for a moment: where we buy our food could be one of those choices that makes the difference between slowing down to a glide and softer landing vs. a nose-dive.

Touch Me

This, the last poem in Stanley Kunitz’s Collected Poems (2000), touches me every time I read it. I thought of it often during the months of isolating and social distancing, though my hugging-averse friends have a point that we do entirely too much indiscriminate touching here. Handshakes could go, especially in ‘flu season, even with diligent hand-washing.

Covid Haiku

I want a hug as much as the next person,

But I’m not dying for one.

Posted to my social media page, this got the biggest response ever.

Touch is necessary to human thriving, but the pandemic has taught us to be more selective about who we touch and how. Maybe we could do better than hokey-jokey elbow bumps of politicians. Eye contact, a nod. Hand on heart. Palms pressed into namaste, say, or Japanese-style bows.

As I learned in Japan, one quickly adopts and adapts, even if a few rules of etiquette are mangled in the process. For example, who initiates the bow? Gender differences? How low to go? Can you bow and exit gracefully? Do you bow to an elevator attendant? Maître d’ but not server? This is probably all covered in a handbook for business travelers.

In Tokyo, particularly on public transportation or in crowds – impossible to avoid – it was common to see people wearing masks. At the time of my visit, I found it noteworthy. But isn’t it just common courtesy, common sense, to avoid spreading a cold, the ‘flu, or worse? No big deal in a nation that puts community good ahead of personal convenience.

This afternoon, I’ll be meeting my book group on Zoom, once again. Omicron transmission is still a factor in South Florida where I live, though many of my fellow citizens are resisting vaccination and refusing to wear masks. (Neil Gorsuch, for shame!) When we began talking about books just before Covid, we took turns entertaining and we all miss that face to face intimacy, and yes, hugging. However, like most people I know, I’ve adjusted to Zoom (even if I haven’t mastered how to make myself look less cadaverous).  

Thanks to Zoom, I am part also of the Montclair Writers Group that used to meet in the local library. I live and raised my children in Montclair, New Jersey, earned two degrees from Montclair State U, so I feel I’m home, in some sense. These weekly meetings where we write poetry or prose to prompts for about 20 minutes each, then ‘gather’ to read and share some writerly tips and ideas, was the inspiration for my 80th birthday poetry reading on Zoom last October. About 50 friends and family members from around the U.S., plus England and Germany, joined in. High tech; high touch! Intimate as one could get in, in our little lighted Hollywood squares. Brought to us by Covid-19. Who would have thought?!

Forgotten Origin

At the Shapleigh Maine Baptist Church

the youth choir tunes up a fiddle

tap-taps the mike

woman in red hoodie presses

a Jesus Saves booklet  

into your reluctant palm  

Gotta love these kind strangers raising

funds for their free food locker

they woke up early to bake cloverleaf rolls

banana bread  blueberry muffins  mystery pie

for the bake sale

cleaned out dusty attics    a forgotten jumble

of odd cups  plates  pots missing their lids

wicker baskets  candle holders  linens

clothes  tools  toys  books

Take what you want — pay what you wish

On our way here roadside Trump sign fresh

as if for a new — or relentless — campaign

Forget the origin of this quiet desperation

at your peril

©Marika Stone July 28, 2021

Delray Laundromat

Saturday night on Atlantic Avenue:

flashy cars slow-mo on restaurant row

as a see-and-be-seen crowd

crosses wherever. Laughter.

Smoke from grills, cigarettes, weed.

I have shish kebab on my mind,

the final night of a poetry festival.

Must have passed the Laundromat

Dozens of times without pause.

Must be the fluorescence that limns

faces this Saturday night: people making

change while making eyes, could be.

Could be singles night for the lonely —

between relationships, between jobs,

between homes, shifts. Hands smoothing

tee-shirts, stacking jeans, while sneakers

in the dryer summon a disco beat.

Could be me.

Dancing in Our Living Room

When we rearranged the living room
to make a passage between kitchen
and patio, we found enough room
for dancing.  

The other day you said when life
returns to normal, we could
take some lessons.

I don’t want to wait for someone
to teach my body how to move when
a tune I love starts playing.

We didn’t need lessons in how to find
each other across a room, either,
though we had come to the party
with other people, and would
go home with them.

I pull you to your feet and kick off
my sandals. The Tennessee Waltz
is playing its old sad story of lost love.

And here we are in the middle
of our 36th year of married love,
in the middle of our Oriental rug,
cutting it.  

©March 1, 2021, Marika Stone

Crowdsourcing to the Vax

We first learned about an artist friend’s serious illness (not COVID) via a Go Fund Me link established by his wife. She was looking for $25,000 to help pay his medical expenses, a fact of life in these United States that should horrify — and motivate — all of us who are not on Medicare, not to mention work to preserve and even extend it to more of the population. We immediately donated to the fund with enough other people (between $50 and $200 each) and soon the fund topped $30,000. Alas, crowdfunding did not save his life, but at least she has some way to help pay his bills.

I’m hugely interested in solutions like this using the kinder side of social media. And I’ve tapped into another version — crowdsourcing — to help my spouse and I and others get vaccinated against COVID-19. Even if you are unfamiliar with the term, chances are you are already using it: Wikipedia. The term crowdsourcing is made up of the terms “crowd” and “sourcing” [that] uses the masses to find a solution to a problem.

If you’re one of my South Florida readers and are over 65, you probably have had direct experience of the complete incompetence and chaos around the Publix vaccine delivery program. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the highly political nature* of this award to the corporate entity that funded the current governor> Or the fact that it leaves out communities of color who are suffering the greatest devastation from the disease: people who have limited access to online services; a local Publix supermarket; and/or the time to devote to enlisting their friends and family to spend an hour or more online to register for a vaccine appointment.

As for the design of the online access to an appointment itself, any one of our computer-literate grandchildren could probably have done better. So here’s what we’ve been going through, and I realize our experience pales in comparison to that of people left out of the process entirely. After three attempts to secure appointments, the last one an early family mini-crowdsource (five adults and seven screens), we came up with zip. Last Friday, as the numbers for Palm Beach County’s remaining vaccine supply plummeted from about 9000 to less than 150, our son managed to pull up the opening form. But by the time he entered our information, there were no pharmacies with available stock, closer than Vero Beach. Two people + two shots each = four different trips. Maybe it will yet come to that for us, and we’re lucky enough to have the time and transport.

We have already filled out Health Department forms (more than once!) and call the Florida Marlins’ hotline (786-629-5752) daily to check whether its vaccine drive-through service is taking appointments. We are on our own UMiami Health system, though they also ran out of the vaccine. We even applied for a drug trial with the J&J vaccine, only to learn during the informed consent process that it was a double-blind study involving a placebo. Does this all sound a tad desperate? Well, when you read about COVID variants potentially extending this pandemic out years, you can get a little anxious about becoming one of the casualties. Yes, at 85 and 79, we’re healthy with no pre-existing conditions, and we have some adorable masks we haven’t even tried out yet. But still and all.

So the latest: Thanks to some friends who have managed to hack the system and get their appointments/first shots through at a Publix nearby, we’re going to give crowdsourcing one more go this week. All of the team is well over 65, so it’s not a small ask them to get up at 5:30 and pull up that screen, then sit there eyes glazing over, watching it roll over ever minute in the hopes your number will come up. Meanwhile, you can scroll down to your county and watch the available doses dwindle until, maybe an hour later, it closes. As I said earlier, what genius designed this?

I hope we get our appointments this week because we’re exhausted spending so much time and energy on what, in the better world I dream of, would be a relatively simple procedure. When I was a child in Burma, the entire country would get vaccinated in a matter of days whenever the was an outbreak of Cholera or other infectious disease. It was mandatory and very efficient. And the country, at the time, was parliamentary democracy.

The good news is, once you’re out of the appointment bottleneck, it’s all easy-peasy. Those who have been lucky enough to get their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine say it takes 15 minutes at most, and appointments are made for the next shot, then and there.

The best way we can think of thanking friends for their effort on our behalf, is to pay it forward (now there’s a movie to add to my ‘feel good’ list!) So if you are still among the Great Unvaxed and live in South Florida, and don’t want to wait for the Federal Government to step in, please zap me an mail at yogimarika at gmail.com. If you have a good hack for the current system, please let me know that, too. And, as one of my book group friends noted: we have to make more political noise about the sheer awfulness and injustice of this vaccine rollout in Florida, especially for those who have been left behind. Let’s do it!

Photo: Hakan Nural https://unsplash.com/photos/niBllet7sTw


*Palm Beach Post: “I’m absolutely, absolutely disgusted that the governor of this state has 100% taken the authority to administer the vaccination program out of the hands of the public health department and given that authority to a corporate entity,” said Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. This decision is completely oblivious to the reality of economic disparity. Publix does not generally place its stores in poor neighborhoods. If you’re in Belle Glade or Pahokee along Lake Okeechobee, there’s no Publix for 30 miles. “There’s no way in humanity my seniors can make such a long drive, and I wouldn’t want them to,” says Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson.

Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Tree

I stopped once to hear a sitar
played in a leafy shade.
A carpet had been laid to soften
spreading roots, and when the musician
paused, he rested his instrument
against a sturdy trunk.

Felled for a utility pole, says the young gardener
with outraged face. Couldn’t they
have found another place?

Now, where just a week before
we gathered in uncommon grace,
a stump and side-lying trunk.
Growth rings slowly weep sap.
Severed branches collect in a heap.

Something there is that doesn’t love a tree,
that sees only expendability; sees logs,
split and stacked for firewood;
sees timber, 2 X 4’s, cash.

That looks at shade and wants full sun;
that wants to make way for a lawn,
a fairway, a putting green.

©July 29, 2020
#68 of my 100 Poem Pandemic Challenge

Revised 1/12/21 with Susanna Rich

Enough of This Excitement!

We knew it would end with a bang!
Because bang gets eyeballs, enriches
The already rich, and besides,
No one is really interested
In reality, these days.

It’s all Disney, all the time –
Let us entertain you and you will
Come back for more. You will
Empty your wallets; max out
Your credits cards; go into debt;
Vote, to keep the damn show going. 
You will confuse your performance
With actually doing something,
Because that’s how we roll here.

I say, bring back the dullness
Of a government that actually works —
No soundtrack, no makeup,
No lights or camera, no Academy Awards —
For the least of us.
Let public life be respectful,
Again. Let’s reward the people
Who just do their essential jobs in obscurity
That they and we may all sleep better.

Boring is beautiful. All the world’s
Not a stage.

January 4, 2021