The Bearable Lightness of Being

Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
– Billy Joel, New York State of Mind

Not me. I’m more of a staycation kind of person, which like being an introvert, is an advantage during a global pandemic.

I’ve played tourist in New York City while living across the Hudson in Hoboken, N.J. How else would I have discovered gems like The Jewish Museum that had a Chagall exhibit at the time, and two other less well-known museums on the northern reaches of 5th Avenue?  El Museo has a collection of Caribbean and Latinx artists you rarely see elsewhere, and you won’t do better than the Museum of the City of New York, for a dose of history and view of the diverse citizenry that make NYC unique. I had never been to Ellis Island before my NYC staycation, either, though my spouse’s mother passed through there as a 3-year-old arrival from Poland. As an immigrant myself, I found it intensely moving to stand at the foot of a towering exhibit of all the suitcases and trunks donated by other people who first laid eyes on this country from New York Harbor. If objects could talk, what stories these might tell!

A few years and another staycation ago, we rented an AirBnB guest house in nearby Flamingo Park (West Palm Beach) for a long weekend, partly to test if the walk score of 83 was accurate. Yes, but only in Downtown. The average for WPB is more like 43, though the public jitney makes many things nearer. From where we were situated, we had easy access to The Armory Arts Center and the new Grandview Public Market developing just across the railroad tracks, and to The Norton, where we are members of long-standing. Flamingo Park itself is filled with beautiful stucco homes, some of historic interest, and we enjoyed just walking and taking photographs. Of course, someone had put up a little free lending library by their walkway. The Antique Row was also an easy stroll for morning coffee and window shopping, and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to Flagler and the waterfront. (BTW, if you’re interested in walkability and how it raises the value of housing stock, you might want to check out this article from Strong Towns.)

Now that exercise, cooking and eating healthier have become even more central to well-being, I content myself with 2-3 visits a week to Grassy Waters Preserve and with a heightened attention to where I source our food. I have always enjoyed grocery shopping and after all these years here, remain in awe at the abundance available to the average American. But the new normal means making different choices. Not so much stocking up at Costco (though I like how they treat their employees), but shifting my business to smaller purveyors like the produce and Asian specialties spot near me, or its neighbor, a well-established organic supermarket. Neither is ever crowded at the times I choose to go, and both observant of CDC guidelines for masks and barriers. It maybe a while before I’m near real farmers markets with locally grown and raised offerings, let alone New York’s Chinatown, but small is ever beautiful.

As Joanie Mitchell sang, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,’ the months-long closing of Grassy Waters for repairs made me realize how important it was (and still is), to have a complete reset of pace, mood and mind throughout your day, however you manage it. As I step onto that boardwalk, I can feel my shoulders soften and my breath deepen. I’ll sniff the air like the animal I am, for a whiff of what other living things are out there (preferably not another of my species wearing cologne). I love knowing that, to the various inhabitants of this pristine wetlands (and fresh water source for West Palm Beach) — even the larger creatures like bobcats, deer or wild boar — I’m no big deal. I’m just a part of the scenery, of what goes on here:  an alligator’s leisurely swim along one of the waterways; an anhinga warming its wings; a Moorhen couple; bright green lizards; the croaking of a bullfrog; and even, one day on a picnic, a shy little girl with her father, drawn to the sound of my daughter’s live harp music. Perhaps, it’s a shift in perspective worth cultivating for the long haul, even when vaccines have made the world safe again for hubris.

We usually do a couple of rounds on the boardwalk, then find an open tiki hut and rocking chairs to sit for a short meditation. The thatch overhead is fragrant. The reeds bend to the wind. It’s not escape I’m seeking so much as simply being still, because there is no getting away from the neighborhood of the here and now.

Waiting Is

Even if you’re not a Robert Heinlein fan, this pandemic can make you feel like a stranger in a strange land. I’ve used the upside down emoji more times than I can count as it perfectly expresses how I’m feeling: inverted, but with a little smile on my face because, well, I agree with those friends who think that some good has already come from our changed world, and more may be on the horizon. Yes, you’re hearing this from someone who is no stranger to the dark side in these pages. So, as an example of how quickly shift happens these days, let me just mention two things that are in orbit for me right now, both of them new. Mars juli-kosolapova-pZ-XFIrJMtE-unsplash copyPhoto by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

I. Last fall, I became a member of a newly-formed book group, most of us women of a certain age with sufficient differences of backgrounds and views to make discussions lively. We started meeting in each others’ homes, with socializing and food always an important component. But now, like so much else in this strange landscape, we’re holding our monthly discussions on Zoom. For some of us getting used to the meeting technology was and is a quick study and we’ve taken to it like the proverbial web-footed to water. So, we mentor our sisters. Video conferencing is also the only way we can gather in the summer when we are geographically dispersed. After a session or two, we all got the hang of muting when not speaking, and some may be experimenting with the feature that helps you look your best in that little lighted box, whether you’re in pajamas or haven’t had a haircut or manicure since January.

There’s a serendipitous glitch in the program caused by distance and terrain, evidently mountainous: a slight lag between one speaker and the next. Musicians find this intolerable and most professional video conferencing involving music or dance, has found ways around it. If you watch CNN,  you have probably grown so accustomed to that slight pause between question and answer, you no longer find it odd. For my money, that extra beat or two of silence promotes better attention, patience and possibly even respect. We’re obliged to simply wait. “I speak, you wait. You speak, I wait,” as my friend, Sylvia, puts it. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing.

II. Here’s an article from Motif, a newsletter based in Providence, RI,  where I am now, that covers news, events, music, shows, film, art. If the pandemic has sharpened your concern about our very sick healthcare system, a recent article, No Doctor? No Problem! offers a different perspective. It resonated with me because:

1. Although I deeply respect the professionals who devote their lives to the healing arts and sciences, the system in which they — and all Americans — are all currently trapped, needs more than tweaks. It needs a revolution. You probably know the stats as well as I do: how much we spend on healthcare vs. our dismal metrics compared to the rest of the developed world. We may also be the most over-prescribed population in the world, and certainly have among the highest rates of drug, including prescription drug, addiction. This is intolerable.

2. Pandemic has postponed all but the most urgent procedures to make room for Covid patients. These ‘routine’ procedures include annual physicals, redundant tests, and some elective surgeries. This hurts the business of medicine immediately, of course, and possibly permanently. But it also raises these questions: are we over-medicalized as a nation? are we paying too much for below par care? are there some circumstances when less is more? The fact that even emergency rooms have started to have fewer non-Covid-related visits suggests this could be true. Elder care and end of life care, are two categories I’m actively concerned about given my age and age cohort. If you are also, get hold of a copy of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.  There is a readers’ discussion guide in the back. You could consider warming up by forming an ad hoc reading/discussion group based on the Motif article.

Our groups next book selection is Jane Austen’s posthumously published Persuasion. Though written in English, the language is so of its period, you have to slow down, sometimes circle back. Yet I’m finding much to appreciate about the author’s witty skewering of the landed gentry with their endless amusements and schemes to preserve their wealth and status. Without a class system and convenient wars that built fortunes, Austen’s world could not have existed. No less ours.

Signing off with another back-to-the-future idea:  now that human habitation of Mars has become a thing, I’m thinking Stranger in a Strange Land could reward a second reading.  Maybe dig out your copy of the other cult classic of its moment, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig while you’re at it. Stranger things have happened. Time expands. Waiting is.