Call Us What We Carry

I keep telling myself I want to read more poetry. But I don’t do it. Why? I think in part it is because for me it is hit or miss. I love it or I don’t get it. And when I don’t get it, I feel less than. It feels unsatisfying. With a book, it is different. I may like the story or the writing, or I may not, but I don’t often feel a sense of failure. With modern art, or even classical paintings, if I don’t appreciate something, I just move on without judgment – not of the artist and not of myself. Why does poetry that goes over my head, or if it doesn’t move me, make me feel like it is a personal failure? I think I need to adopt the attitude I have about other art forms – enjoy what resonates and let the rest go. Maybe then I would make it more of a priority. After all, poetry lends itself to our lifestyles these days – they can be quick reads (maybe not quickly understood and processed, but it doesn’t require a huge time investment) so it would seem to be a good fit.

I am pleased to report, though, that a book of poetry I just read, prompted by my family book club (thank you, Nicolette), did not fall into the category of going over my head. I found it accessible and meaningful. Amanda Gorman’s Call Us What We Carry was insightful, moving, intelligent and creative. My niece, who picked it as this month’s read, called it a ‘time capsule,’ and I think that is very apt. Gorman wrote it during the pandemic, it was published in 2021. The poems remind me what the early days of Covid felt like – the isolation, the fear, the uncertainty. The poems cover that year, 2020, and all the upheaval that went with it. While some might not want to be reminded, it is important because though we think we have moved beyond it, in our quest for normalcy, there are residual effects that we need to reckon with.

It Is amazing to me that Amanda Gorman is so young – as of today she is 25. When she recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inaugural (that uplifting poem is included in this collection), she was 21! She is clearly well-read and well-educated – how much is formal education (she earned her B.A. from Harvard so there had to be some of that), or her own reading and research, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. She brings a sense of history and culture to her poems that is so impressive. There are references to the pandemic of 1918, the Great Migration (the movement of African Americans from the south to the north during the first half of the 20th century), the Civil War and her own life. She includes footnotes and endnotes. All of it is called upon in service of enlightening our present moment.

It isn’t common for our book club members to all agree on something we have read. Usually there are differences of opinion, and we bring a variety of perspectives and preferences to the piece  – which is what is beautiful about it– and we read a wide range of genres. Everyone was impressed with Call Us What We Carry. Each of us picked up on different themes, some things resonated more than others, but we all valued the experience. I should note that we do not all share the same politics – though I would not characterize any of us as extremists, we are mostly center-right, center-left, and maybe a bit further left. I point this out because one might be tempted to assume that Gorman’s poetry would be heavy-handed. We did not find it so – she writes substantively, with evidence and passion – not propaganda.

Several of our members perceived that some of the poems communicated anger. I can’t say I felt that as I read. I didn’t pick up on that in her tone. If it was there, it wouldn’t be without cause – there is plenty to be angry about. It didn’t hit me that way, though.

I think this collection of poems offers an important contribution to our time. I recommend reading and or listening to it. Our book club had a discussion about how best to engage with it – some had listened, some read and one of us read and listened at the same time. I think, if one can, that last method would probably be best. Reading it allows you to appreciate some of the artistic choices made in how it is presented (the poem in the shape of the U.S. Capitol, the use of white space, the color of the paper, etc.). Listening likely offers more of an appreciation of the rhythm and the playfulness of the language.

I will leave you with two parts of poems that made a meaningful impression on me. The first comes from “The Shallows,” which describes a time challenging to the human spirit, she concludes the poem with these lines:

Shall this leave us bitter?

                Or better?


Then choose.

The other piece is entitled Pre-Memory:

“Marianne Hirsch posits that the children of Holocaust survivors grow up with memories of their parents’ trauma: that is to say, they can remember ordeals that they did not experience personally. Hirsch calls this postmemory. Seo-Young Chu discusses what she calls postmemory han, han being a Korean conception of collective grief. Postmemory han, then, is the han passed on to Korean Americans from previous generations. As Chu writes: Postmemory han is a paradox: the experience being remembered is at once virtual and real, secondhand and familiar, long ago and present.” The whiplike echo of Jim Crow, too, passes through Black bodies even before birth.”

The piece then goes on to explore this idea. The notion that we inherit trauma, if it is true, has major implications – and would explain a lot about why people behave the way they do and why it is so difficult to move on.

Amanda Gorman is wrestling with provocative and interesting ideas. I think it is worth the time to explore them. I look forward to seeing what she will offer us as she grows.

An Appreciation

I am sometimes critical of Albany, New York. I have lived here for 37 years but in some ways, it has never felt like home. Maybe there is something about not being born in a place, not having spent your childhood there making memories, not associating your family of birth with it, that means you never quite feel connected. Of course, the place where I grew up, Canarsie of the 1960s and ‘70s, doesn’t exist anymore. The people I knew, the stores, even the landscape has changed. That may be why they say you can never go home again. What is home after all? That may be a topic for another blog post.

Anyway, my point is that for all that I might joke about ‘smAll-bany,’ there are a number of wonderful things about it. Saturday was one of those days that reminded me what is charming. Mother’s Day weekend is when the Tulip Festival is held each year. It is a chance for Washington Park to show off – the city gardner(s) do a wonderful job of planning a vibrant display of tulips of every variety and color. Below is just a sample:

There are also booths of crafts and food. There is music. All of it is free – well not the items sold at the booths obviously, but there is no entrance fee. The festival lasts two days. This year I noticed that one of the bands performing was Guster. We, as a family, enjoyed Guster back when the kids were teenagers. They play melodic tunes with fun beats and lovely harmonies, and we listened to them frequently when we were on one of our many long car rides. We saw them as a family at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center back in the early 2000s. I told Gary they were playing as part of Tulip Festival, and we agreed we’d try to go. They were going on at 4:30 on the mainstage at the park on Saturday according to the schedule printed in the newspaper.

Saturday afternoon Gary was weeding the garden, I was immersed in a book. At 3:45 Gary came in to get changed. We got in the car at 4:00 to head toward the park thinking we might not make it to the performance, but we had nothing to lose. It usually takes 10-12 minutes to get to the park. We hit traffic and had trouble finding a spot, but we found one on the street. It was a bit of a walk to the site. With all of that we arrived on the lawn at 4:35, just as the emcee said, “Please welcome to the stage…Guster!” There was a large crowd, but there was space – especially where we happened to come in – off to the side.

Ryan Miller of Guster saying hello to Albany

Where else can you do that? Leave your house a half hour before a performance at a large public festival and get there on time. In what city or small city is that possible? As we took our spot amid the crowd, Gary and I smiled at each other. “Isn’t Albany great?” I asked. Gary nodded emphatically.

The sun was shining brilliantly, the air was warm and there was a refreshing breeze. It looked like confetti was falling from the sky in celebration – it was some kind of small leafy substance coming from the trees. Though the ground rules said no marijuana, concert-goers paid no heed. Smoke wafted through the air and the police who were on duty on the periphery seemed unperturbed. Everyone appeared to be in a good mood – especially the guy in an orange t-shirt dancing dreamily with a broad smile on his face. Guster was great – they were in fine voice. The music brought back terrific, happy memories. The crowd enjoyed it. They played for just under 90 minutes. When it was over, we walked back to our car and drove home.

Earlier in the day we met my niece and her family at a local farmer’s market for breakfast. There too things were easy. We parked. We got a table. There were plenty of people, especially young ones, but it wasn’t packed. There were few if any lines at the booths. A group of musicians were playing what I might call American roots music – I’m not sure if that’s the right label, but it was all delightful. In the New York metropolitan area, attending a farmer’s market like this would never be that stress-free.

I imagine for folks who grew up in more rural areas my day might have felt different. They might not have been willing to venture out to the festival in the first place! Perhaps looking for street parking in the city of Albany and seeing the crowds of people in the park might have created anxiety. To be fair, the street we parked on has seen better days – the surrounding buildings were rundown.  Gary and I were okay with it. It is all a matter of perspective, I suppose.

Anyone who knows me knows that I still love New York City. I look forward to spending more time there. It’s good, though, to stop and smell the roses (or tulips) where I am. There is a lot to like about living and raising a family in the Capital District.

It Got Me….Finally

Hooray! I moved back into my bedroom this morning. My period of isolation is over! Ten days is a long time – at least in some contexts. After three years of avoiding it, Covid caught up with me.

I went to Boston to give my daughter a hand as she was dealing with a sick husband and child. We thought, based on the diagnosis at the hospital, that her daughter had croup, and that Ben was just under the weather. I figured I would mask while I was there, hoping to avoid getting whatever bug they had. What’s that saying? Something like, ‘woman plans, god laughs.’

I arrived at their apartment, said hello, and picked up a prescription that needed to be filled for the baby, and their insurance card. I went to a pharmacy and then got sandwiches for lunch. When I returned, I helped fold laundry. I removed my mask to eat lunch but sat distant from Leah. We opened a window to increase the airflow. Leah was relieved to have me there. So far so good.

About two hours into my visit, Leah’s phone rang. It was the Somerville Health Department telling her that someone in the household had tested positive for Covid. The baby had been to the hospital the night before. As part of the examination of the baby, they swabbed her for Covid. Given that she was diagnosed with croup, Leah and Ben hadn’t given it a thought. The news came as a shock.

Leah and Ben did a home test and, lo and behold, they were both positive. They called the pediatrician to share the information and find out if it changed anything in terms of the care of the baby. Turned out, it didn’t, which was a relief in some ways. We discussed what I should do.

I decided I would stay at a hotel for that night – I certainly wasn’t going to stay at the apartment. I told them I would bring them dinner and other supplies that evening. I left. Ben, who was feeling pretty miserable at this point (totally exhausted), was going to call his doctor to see if they recommended treatment.

I double masked everywhere I went. I decided I would go home the next morning. If I got sick, I didn’t want to be in a hotel in Boston and I didn’t want to feel too poorly to drive the three hours home. I stayed at the hotel that night after picking up Paxlovid for Ben and dinner for them. I felt fine.

I brought them breakfast in the morning. I was double-masked. Said my good-byes. I felt terrible leaving them, everyone sick. At this point, Leah was having symptoms, too. Great – a cranky baby and two parents who felt like shit. Plus the anxiety of not really knowing how serious Covid would be for the baby. But, what choice did I have?

I still felt fine as I drove home. I tested when I got home – negative. Maybe I would escape. I tested the next morning – still negative. But, now I’m starting to feel poorly. Headache, sore throat, tired.

Covid is a strange virus. It behaves differently in everybody. Plus, you can test negative and still have it. You can test positive and have no symptoms. You can continue to test positive long past the infectious stage. It so hard to know what to do. You hear horror stories about people having long-haul covid.

I went for a PCR test that morning (Saturday) and got a positive result within 24 hours. During the height of the pandemic, it could take 3 days or longer to get a result (which made the test almost useless) – so at least that is better. By the time I got the result, it was clear I was sick. My body hurt all over. I felt exhausted. I started coughing. I called my doctor. They recommended Paxlovid. I have several risk factors for serious illness, so though I am always a bit anxious about taking a new medication because it isn’t uncommon for me to have strange reactions to things (rash, anyone?), I decided it was worth it.

Meanwhile, it is now Sunday, the day I am supposed to read for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize. I didn’t want to miss it. I had a strategy. Though I was coughing, it wasn’t that bad (yet). I decided I would take cough medicine in advance. I had throat lozenges at the ready. I took Tylenol, too. I napped for an hour beforehand. The adrenaline kicked in. I was next to the last to read – of 15 people! I did not win. Nothing to be ashamed of – the other essays were good. I was still disappointed. I have to admit, I kind of crashed afterward. I was exhausted. It didn’t help that I was facing 7 more days of isolation.

I moved into Daniel’s old bedroom for the duration. I used what had been the kids’ bathroom. We are lucky to have so much room. Gary is serious about this isolation and masking stuff. He has masked at work from the beginning of pandemic and continues to do so now (he just recently stopped using goggles). We ate separately. We would watch t.v. in the same room, but distant and masked and, as long as it wasn’t too cold, we had a window open. It appears that he has not gotten it. When he had it last Fall, he still blames Las Vegas (we will likely never go back there!), I didn’t get it from him after we followed much the same isolation protocol.

I’m glad I took the Paxlovid. I did have a very unpleasant taste in my mouth for the five days I took it, and my digestive system did not enjoy it, but I recovered pretty quickly. The fever, severe headache and body aches were gone within 24 hours. The fatigue lasted a bit longer and the cough lingered. As of today, ten days into this, the cough is almost entirely gone. That is always the last symptom to go when I have a respiratory illness.

Though I was clearly recovering, I woke up each morning feeling sad. Another day isolated. I felt okay, but not so good that I had the energy to be productive. In theory, there are always things to do in the house – junk drawers to sort, stuff to organize. I didn’t feel up to it. Instead, I binge watched Top Chef. Thank god for that!

Fortunately, the baby, Leah and Ben have recovered well, too. I could hear them cheering all the way from Somerville when the baby could go back to daycare. Ten days cooped up in a relatively small apartment with an 11-month old who is healthy enough to be active, but fussier than usual, with no reinforcements, and little sleep, is an ordeal. They rose to the occasion, as they always do.

One piece of good news: we should all be immune for the next few months! Gary and I have a trip planned at the end of May. I should be able to travel without worrying about Covid. Leah and her family should be able to go out and about the rest of this Spring and early Summer without thinking about Covid, too. And we appear to have weathered the illness without lasting effect. It is always a matter of perspective – and finding the stuff for which to be grateful. It doesn’t come naturally to me to do that, but eventually I figure it out.

The view out my kitchen window. I looked at that a lot over the last ten days. I’m lucky to have such a lovely view