Suburban Life

It’s the end of my second week here at my mother’s house, on Long Island. I’ve been taking it easy, riding my bike, sitting out in the yard under the big trees, taking Gem for long walks into town. It’s very peaceful here. I felt I needed a break from the crowds of NYC, the pandemic-deniers, or mask-avoidants. I needed to be able to let my guard down a little.

Since arriving, I’ve been doing all the cooking, which is surprisingly enjoyable — to have someone else to cook for, I mean. At home, I cook for myself, but only things that take no longer to cook than to eat. Cooking for my mother is different, a more elaborate affair: grilled salmon and mashed potatoes and glazed carrots, for example. I like to surprise her. Every evening, I call her to the table and she oohs and aahs, which feels wonderful.

My mother and I have been giving each other plenty of space too. In the first few days, we were stubborn and prickly with one another, both used to doing things our own way. But slowly we have adjusted and found compromises. Seeing her idiosyncratic habits makes me more aware of mine. How strange we are, we humans! All our little peculiarities practiced into grooves. Every morning, I come out to the yard and converse with the birds, convinced that my whistling imitations are being returned. Our eccentricities become exaggerated with age.

I’m still writing poems every day (as is she), or almost every day. We’ve been doing it since mid-March. Earlier, I was going through mine looking to send a few to a friend. There are probably ten or fifteen that I like, which doesn’t mean they’re any good. But I do like a few very much. It feels good to be doing something creative. I’ve been looking for an old Tascam 4-track on ebay too. Perhaps, when I get back to New York I’ll try to do some low-fi recordings. I find my Pro-Tools software difficult to use. I want a new toy that is easy and fun to play around with.

Painting by Egon Schiele

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Memorial Day. I write a dark poem and send it to my mother and sister (we are writing poems each day, sending them to one another). As my mood darkens, I grow restless with intolerance, monstrous with impatience, defeating the intention of the exercise — to give our quarantined lives purpose, an activity we can invest in and share. It was my idea. My sister has jumped in enthusiastically. My mother looks forward to the daily prompts. But poetry. What is poetry? A rhyming verse, a happy refrain? “Go deeper,” I want to tell them, though I hold my tongue. Because who made me poetry god? Can they feel the hostility embedded in my Memorial Day poem?

Soldiers died in wars
And we remember them
On the beach
Or at a barbecue
Roasting animal flesh
To perfection

Holiday weekends
Have always come
With the pressure
Of acknowledging
Not only their occasion
But our good fortune

Never to have gone to war
Never a marine in Afghanistan
Nor a foot-soldier in Iraq
Not a pig or a cow
Or a chicken
On the grill

It has taken me a lifetime and much reflection to recognize my intolerance as a symptom of anxiety– a tantrum that can be controlled with self-discipline and compassion. Because it is the antithesis of what I want to be in the world, which is kind. It is my own kindness I defeat when I am intolerant.

I can apply this to the people on the street who don’t wear masks and runners who come up quickly from behind. Everyone is living in this strange new anxiety-making time, doing the best they can. It’s so important to practice kindness and compassion now– with loved ones and strangers both.

(Painting by Gerhard Richter)

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Saturday morning. Everything is blooming. Week two or three? Spring arrives in the midst of a plague. For the first time, the streets were empty when I took Gem out for her walk. People in NYC have been slow to conform to the practice of social distancing. I took to it right away (although a non-conformist by nature). Wearing my black mask, lined with a Hepa filter, a wool hat pulled down low, and my puffy coat with the hood up, I keep a distance of six feet or more from others. My scary protective ensemble helps me achieve it. I don’t want to be one of those people who suffocate, as their lungs give out, waiting for a bed in an overcrowded hospital. I’ve been in a New York hospital. It’s awful in the best of times. It must be a kind of hell now. I feel for the health-care workers. They are saints and heroes in any time.

Every day, I occupy myself: drink coffee, write, play music, read. I call my mother and we decide a topic for a poem to be written. Then we write our poems and send them to one another. I make a stuffed cat out of a sock (which Gem soon destroys) and wash everything: keys, debit card, hat, gloves, mask, Hepa filter. My groceries are being delivered but I always forget something, or the store is out of it. Oh! Birthday Oreos– amazing! A substitution for the chocolate biscuits I like. They are addictive.

Outside, my tree is turning that chartreuse green it does in the spring when it is full of buds. Birds are communicating in their birdsong language. Gem is asleep on the loveseat across from me. It’s quite lovely and peaceful here.

(Painting by Henri Matisse)

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What to say about this time? Trump, climate catastrophe, and Covid19? It feels like a movie, unreal.

In Lars Von Trier’s film about the end of the world, Melancholia, the character played by Kristin Dunst, the depressed character– the one who ruins her own wedding because she is unable to be happy– is the only one who can face it. Her brain-chemistry has taught her to view the world with foreboding from the start, so unlike her sister and brother-in-law, she is prepared for the end. She is ready.

I’m a good isolator. I’ve often thought that I could survive solitary confinement better than most, though it’s easier to isolate in New York City than other places. You can be alone here without ever truly achieving isolation. There is the sound of the neighbor’s door closing, the construction workers on the roof next door, smoking cigarettes and talking. And though the streets are emptier than usual, they are never truly empty. Walking Gem around the block, or to the park, I pass other dog-walkers, or people out for whatever reason they need to be. We keep our social-distance, but life doesn’t stop here. Or hasn’t yet. Maybe at some point, we will be on lockdown as they are in Italy.

I have been playing the piano. Checking in with friends via text and email. Ordered 50 replacement squeakers for Gem’s toys and delighted her by bringing them all back to life. I have vacuumed and cleaned the bathroom. Sewed patches into a pair of torn jeans. I have called my mother every day. She is doing alright, reading or watching Netflix, as am I.

I have read everything there is to read on the Coronavirus, have added that to my obsessive reading about the upcoming election. The New York Times, Politico, The Washington Post, The Guardian, NPR, and WNYC. I am well-informed. Ask me anything. As for fiction, well, I haven’t been writing. I just can’t start something new right now. I don’t know why. The plague, perhaps? The monster in charge? I can’t get into the right headspace, but I am reading and not just the paper. Thank god for the writers who have written and will keep writing. I just finished The Convert by Stefan Hertmans and started Writers & Lovers by Lily King– wonderful. So much art and literature and music to feast on. Beauty in the midst of it.

Painting by Cecilia Vicuma

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New Year’s Day

First day of the new year, or New Year’s Day. Helicopters bring tourists from New Jersey for a fly-by over Central Park and the buildings of my East Side neighborhood, making it sound as if this is a war zone, and I think about the ones who actually live in a war-zone– in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, etc. And the fires in Australia, referred to with insufficient alarm, except by David Wallace-Wells who writes (In the Intelligencer) that: Global Apathy Toward the Fires in Australia Is a Scary Portent for the Future.

We should leave, but where is there to go? Where is it safe and quiet now? 2020, you’re off to a rocky start.

Still, Paul and I will play music next month (for the first time in 7 years!) at a friend’s club in Brooklyn (The Owl Music Parlor– on February 6). I’ve been practicing every day, reminding my fingers how to play, feeling the songs again, feeling my way inside them. Singing is a marvel, a relief, like howling or crying. And songs are prayers, hopeful, magical, though things are bleak in the world and the concept of healing is hard to believe in. But we need to believe, to hope, (and play music).

February 6, 2020. Lori Carson (with Paul Pimsler), and Atoosa Grey at the Owl Music Parlor

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Last night I dreamed I had a daughter. She was playing in a park and I needed to find her. The feeling I had was similar to dreams I’ve had of trying to keep my animals safe. In Olga Tokarczuk’s brilliant “Driving the Plough Over the Bones of the Dead,” Mrs Duszejko, the wonderfully odd and philosophical protagonist, refers to her missing dogs as “my little girls.” I had just finished reading the book, so maybe that’s why I had the dream. But also upon waking, I thought of Minnow, my fictional daughter, who was left to ride horses in South America in some future I imagined for her.

I’m in reading mode again, not that it ever stops. But sometimes, I seem to need it more than other times, for both escape and comfort. Inspiration too. I have become increasingly particular about what I need. Wise books by brilliant women. Characters who have seen a thing or two. I’m not interested in coming-of-age tales, or conventional love stories. I want a story of a woman who has been through some things. She is a little cracked as a result but has acquired a unique and independent way of looking at the world. Yesterday, I went to the Corner Bookstore. I knew just what I wanted. Sometimes, I go and browse, but this time I knew: Rachel Cusk’s book of essays, “Coventry,” Deborah Levy’s new novel, “The Man Who Saw Everything,” and Olga Tokarczuk’s first book (in translation), “Flights.” I think I’ll start with the essays. Cusk’s intelligence always satisfies.

As far as writing goes, I am between books. I plan to start another soon, though what it will be about I don’t know. I’ve finished three since the first; they sit here on my computer, mostly unread. I am without an agent now and spend some time each week looking for one. But mostly, I am living my life, walking Gem in the park, reading, cooking for myself. I play the piano or guitar, go for a run with Tracy. The other day at the dog park, a man asked me what I do for work. “I’m either unemployed or retired,” I said cryptically. Of course, neither is true. I continue to work, though the conventional understanding of “work” would not seem to apply when the work is made without reason or compensation. In truth, it is not enough for me either. Work is meant to have a finish line, and to be shared. Well, it seems to be beyond my control for now. Maybe I have had my turn (at worldly success) and I should try harder to accept that that time is finished — accept that my work is incidental to the world as it is now. Ambition is painful. I do try, even as I look for a new agent. I repeat like a mantra: accept what is.

(Painting by Matthew Wong)

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I’m not sure how to begin. Like many, I’ve been in a strange place lately, but maybe that’s when you turn to strangers. There is just so much you can ask from your friends. So, here I am. What I’ve been thinking about is what next? Or what now? I suppose I could lock myself in a room with a bunch of instruments as Rob O once suggested– I have a room. I could begin another novel or a short story, perhaps, but more and more it seems like futility to do the things I know how to do. So I walk my dog. A cheerful creature named Gem who gets me moving and is a constant source of humor. She’s totally food-obsessed and would probably choose a cheeseburger over me, but she’s a good dog. Without her company, I don’t know what I’d do.

What to do with a life that has been about one thing only? I suppose I could change cat litter boxes at an animal shelter or volunteer at a food pantry. Visit with old people, rub their feet or read to them. I could make myself useful is what I mean.

Sometimes, I think: just stop. Stop trying. I’m still in the mode of believing I can make something happen as I did when I was young. But I’ve slipped under the wheels of a different time and become irrelevant. This is natural. It’s only my resistance to it that is unnatural. All year, I’ve queried agents, looking for a new one. And wrote a new book too as I did this. So the unpublished work accumulates. What to do with it? Today, reading over the agents’ names, I realized that I have queried some more than once, some three times, like an insane person! Mortifying.

Outside, the chanting voices of children marching for climate change. They’ve been let out of their private schools for this purpose. It’s our fault, they say. We adults who did nothing, while the world became uninhabitable. What to say to this? How to defend it? It’s a failing of our species, an inability to live without harming everything around us. How to change this fatal flaw? It will be more difficult than eliminating fossil fuels. Character is destiny on the largest scale.

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Change Is Hard

I read an essay by the writer Meghan Daum the other day. After living in California and being married and divorced, Daum returned to Manhattan and resumed a similar, if not identical, life to the one she had lived twenty years before. She described the sense she had of returning to herself when this happened, the self she was unable to circumvent by temporarily adhering to societal conventions, such as marriage and working in an office. This was who she was, she realized, the one she was inevitably meant to be. Daum equated it to the number on a bathroom scale when, despite dieting and other temporary gains and losses, her body always seemed to return to the same weight. The life she was living again was her “normal,” she realized, the state she would return to no matter what. Sitting at a messy desk, writing on a deadline, eating deli sushi, drinking coffee, staring out the window. This was where she was, and where she would end up, too – because it was who she was.

Of course, I identified with Daum’s realization about this inevitability. I wrote about it in The Original 1982. That’s not to say that I believe we’re incapable of changing anything about ourselves, or our lives, but overall, I think we tend to drift back to a state that is true to our nature. I’m thinking specifically of my own decision to stop performing when I say this, and also of my romantic history. My life as a musician was stressful, the travel in combination with all the things that can go wrong. An unsympathetic sound-system, a broken string, voice or hands that refuse to behave. As for love, it’s been even more fraught.

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Doe, my love 2008-2019

I felt terrified of the moment when she would die. I have been through it with other animals and it’s never easy, but I knew losing her would be much harder. She is my companion in a deep way, I think because it’s been just the two of us. Also, she is a dog. I have loved cats, certain of them more than the humans I lived with at the time, but loving a dog is different. Their needs are constant and their attention is always on you. A cat no matter how much it loves you will treat you with some indifference. A dog, never. Its love is big and devoted and demands a corresponding feeling. A dog is both a permanent toddler and your best friend. Which doesn’t quite explain the way I love this particular dog—who is clever and funny and sensitive. She moves to curl up against me every time she wakes in the night. And in the morning rolls onto her back to have her belly rubbed. She gazes at me with intelligent brown eyes. She has the softest fur, is beautiful and elegant, and this is not only my very biased opinion. It is confirmed by strangers every day on the street who say, “What a beautiful dog!” and “What breed is she?”

“She’s a Papillion mix,” I reply, though, in fact, I’m not sure what breed she is, or what mix. She is uniquely herself, my Doe. When I ask her a question, her ears pop up to signal yes. Ears back, means no. If I say, “Do you want to visit Tracy and Jasper?” she will pull me all the way to 96th Street, right to their door. I don’t care what anyone says to dispute it; she understands what I say. When I first saw her, it was in a photograph on She was wearing a cheap red collar, standing outside in the snow, looking directly into the camera lens. I chose her from dozens of dog-photographs, for her intelligent expression, her delicate beauty, her tragic circumstances. She was 8 months old when I brought her home and we have been inseparable ever since. For 10 years, I have loved her more.

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Last Day of Summer

There were men on paddle-boards and no one else in the ocean, but the water was warm and I walked along the shoreline, ankle deep, with the seagulls who thought I was chasing them; I was, but only because they ran from me. I just wanted to talk to them, and remark on the beautiful morning we shared. The sun was shining and it was 75 degrees. The clouds looked painted on the blue sky and the waves felt soft and inviting as a bath.

My mother sat a few yards away, up on the sand, wearing her jean jacket and sunglasses. When I was sixteen, I used to beg her to drive me to the beach because seeing the ocean could always act against my depression, especially in the winter when a strong wind could blow it away and there was no one else around. I don’t get depressed the way I did then when I thought life seemed unbearably long and wondered how I’d get through it. Now I know all the tricks, and, besides, it’s three-quarters over. I still get sad though. I guess it’s the same things that get to me and the same things that save me. More than a half century of love and loss and the beauty of the world.

I walked back and sat beside my mother. She is 84 and doesn’t get depressed, not even when she has a good reason. I thought: How many more days like this? The sand was smooth and clean and we buried our feet in it and then walked on the boardwalk. I got a lobster roll from a food truck. My mother got an orange soda, but the bees liked it and chased us back to the car.

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