Cloister Commentary, Day 124: Settling Dust

I knew the day would be pretty good when, purely by accident, my mom and I watched Buju Banton perform live on TV while we were eating breakfast. In some ways, it was a classic COVID-only moment.

‘Twas the second-to-last day of Stephens’ summer school program. Students are presenting the results of their research for their “final”; their last assignment will be a companion persuasive research essay, due Sunday night at the latest. Topics: trucker safety (that was actually the best and most interesting one!), protections for sex workers, the future of Mount Rushmore, body shaming in the fashion industry, and the effectiveness of masking in a pandemic. You’d think presentation assignments on Zoom would leave a bit to be desired, but I find I’m less distracted, and the presenters seem so as well. To be honest, I enjoyed them, and look forward to Round Two today.

I returned to my hometown of Carthage in the early afternoon to drop in for a few hours on my old friend Kevin Keller. We hadn’t seen each other in 35 years, so we compressed much info into our visit. Kevin could (and clearly still can) always be counted on for thought-provoking conversations, and his reflections on his time in Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem and at Missouri Southern and Carthage Junior High (as a language and TESOL specialist) were fascinating. He also once did one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen documented on Facebook: he shared photos from the journey he made around the country with his ailing mom, who is currently in a nursing facility which, for reasons I need not explain, he cannot visit. Kevin was a great host, all told; I even got a home-cooked Dominican lunch out of the visit!

With the dust having settled somewhat after my father’s passing, it is now quiet enough that the true coping and processing has begun. We had a few sudden visitations of sadness and yawning absence after I returned, but decided to fight it with Modern Family (which I’d never seen), Key & Peele sketches (Peele had been a hilarious guest in the Modern Family episode), and Little Fires Everywhere, which Mom liked enough for us to binge three episodes. I’ve read the book and already watched it once, and the series really holds up.

For the record, I’m very aware of spiraling COVID cases, spooky federal agents in one of my favorite cities, the grim struggle over school reopenings, the ongoing and necessary fight in our streets for social justice, the specter of vote-suppressing chicanery, and a demagogue thrashing like the shark at the end of JAWS–it may seem I barely acknowledge it, but on my mentor Ken’s advice, in this project I’m simply writing what’s occurring with us. Paralysis is almost a tempting option, but despite churning gut and teeming brain, I’m attending to what’s in front of me. Reader, see, you’re not alone. I’m glad I’m not.

Streaming for Strivers:

One of the biggest, nattiest, most universal dreadlocked youths ever born.

Cloister Commentary, Day 30: “Spread the Greatness”

Note: This entry appeared in slightly different form on Facebook, where I could tag ‘n’ challenge.

To mark our struggle through this first “month” (for some, it’s been longer; others, shorter), I’m laying down a challenge to my brothers and sisters who read, watch, and listen with style: foremost in my mind are Nicole, Rex, Charles, Sadie, Isaac, Joe, John, Josh, Ken, Clifford, Paul, Alex, Susie, Peter, Zac, Kevin, Liz, and Vance. Here it is:

On your Facebook wall, post images of the book, record, and movie/series/show/episode that have made this mess most bearable. If you’d like to succinctly explain your choices, I’d be interested (tag me), but you don’t have to. Also, challenge a friend of your own. You can copy and paste this paragraph if it helps!


Book: I’d only read a few of Mary Oliver’s poems going into March and I’d loved each of them. I’d heard she’d run with John Waters’ crowd in Provincetown in the ’60s, and that also recommended her. But neither prepared me for the consistent brilliance, power, vividness and truth of the whole of her best work. Devotions, over 400 pages, constantly kept me engaged with the miraculous in this world, despite our troubles. Runner-Up: Sasha Geffen, Glitter Up the Dark.

Record: Dr. Mark Lomax II is a scholar, teacher and master drummer from Columbus, Ohio. His work not only celebrates Afrikan culture, tradition and styles, but also seeks to connect us, through music, to the thoughts, feelings, and practices that can deepen our humanity. His Friday lunchtime sessions on YouTube can seriously improve your day. The 400 Years Suite, a distillation of his eight-disc masterpiece 400: An Afrikan Epic, has truly energized me. Runners-up: Bowie’s Berlin albums.

Series: I approached Hulu’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere, with skepticism; in fact, I was really only wanting to watch it because my lit-crush Attica Locke was involved. It turns out that the performances, fromthe two stars but even more so from the youthful actors, are terrific, and Ng’s vision of the connections between privilege, corrupted good social intentions, and the American racial and class divides is communicated intact. Episode 7 ( of 8 )was a streaming TV landmark. Runner-up: Better Call Saul.

Have fun with this, spread the greatness, and stay safe.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: less than a half-hour of country classics.

Cloister Commentary, Day 27: “Small Circles”

Sheltering in place is sometimes hanging out on social media and gathering wisdom from friends, or gathering wisdom friends have have gathered and hope to pass along. My pal Ken Shimamoto is both a wise man and a discerning gatherer, and this quote he shared from composer Arvo Part really resonated with me, especially after I said (sarcastically) to two other friends in phone calls (see below) that we have passed beyond the COVID-19 “honeymoon period.” Here is the quote, which I must pass on to you:

“This tiny coronavirus has showed us in a painful way that humanity is a single organism and human existence is possible only in relation to other living beings. The notion of ‘relationship’ should be understood as a maxim, as the ability to love. Although this is truly a high standard, maybe even too high for a human being.

Our current situation is paradoxical: on the one hand, it means isolation, on the other, it brings us closer. While isolating ourselves, we should be able to – we are even forced to – appreciate our relationships in a small circle and to tend to them. All of this we have to learn before we expect, or even demand, love and justice from the whole world. In a way, the coronavirus has sent us all back to first grade. Only once we’ve passed this test can we begin to think about the next steps. This is a very long process.”

Sheltering in place is sometimes hanging out on the blower, jabbering, sparring, plotting, and speculating with old friends. Yesterday, I had great conversations with two unique individuals I have known for almost 30 years. My former student and longtime fellow hip hop head Alex Fleming spoke with me as he moved vehicularly through his hometown of Chicago. We compared theories about the other mess we’re in besides COVID-19; we talked about caring for, loving, and jousting with family; we groused about the simple fact that it is difficult to have an intelligent discussion with an elder (the kind of person we are both geared to respect) when he does not know (or often care to know) the historical background of the issue; we compared notes, agnostic to Christian, on the positive value of Biblical lessons and the modern failings–and bad bargains–of evangelism; we didn’t even get to music (other than Chicago’s International Anthem label, and that was just me raving), but we will next week. We closed by singing the praises of George Frissell, whose Classical Ideas and World Religion class Alex took in the early Nineties at David H. Hickman High School here in Columbia, MO–and whom I owed a return call, which I made when Alex and I closed. George and I did our usual: breaking down the most recent Better Call Saul episode, and threatening to watch it and its companion series all over again, again. George’s favorite characters: Mike, Kim, and Nacho. My favorite characters: Nacho, Kim, and Mike.

Sheltering in place is sometimes just sitting on the couch with your soul mate, watching some quality programming, sipping tea, and eating five of her peanut butter cookies a piece. I must say that, having read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Hulu’s given us a winner of an adaptation, though one episode remains. Should you choose to watch it, you will see some of the best acting done by (presumably) teenagers in quite awhile. Episode 7, in particular–the penultimate one–showcased these youth nailing very complicated and realistic scenes so effectively both Nicole’s and my nerves were jangled afterward. As far as the adult acting goes, Reese Witherspoon has delivered a classic hateable performance (Ng’s original conception of the character is not so much so), and Kerry Washington’s spot-on as one of the more complex streaming TV protagonists I’ve ever seen.

You all hang in there, and attend carefully to your small circles.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

I’m sending this out into the air for this just-COVID-19-snatched jazz master Lee Konitz. He doesn’t play on it, but I know he dug it.

Cloister Commentary, Day 2: “Humbled” (March 22, 2020)

I was talking to my dad on the phone the other day; he’s 84 and Mom’s 82, they’re down in southwest Missouri, and we’re keeping close tabs on them, of course. I was expressing my concern, when he very evenly, very matter-of-factly, very stoically replied, “Well, it’s just nature’s way of thinning out the population.” The wisdom of an elder: so comforting. But…yeah. Perhaps we require some humbling, just as a reminder of our essential insignificance to the overall works.

Speaking of, I am really enjoying the budding of the plants in our landscaping this year. I did the fall clean-up and pruning myself, and apparently didn’t KILL ANYTHING! But watching those buds pop out made me a mite envious: they’re outside opening up to the sun and sky, we’re hunkered down inside and…well, we don’t need to close up, for certain, but you know what I mean. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Mary Oliver. We did walk the old pooch up the block to drop some books off at a neighbor’s curbside loaning library (on Leslie, if you’re curious), but I locked us out of our house–during a pandemic, well-played! Fortunately, a friend has our spare key and we were able to recloister ourselves.

Yesterday was also our wedding anniversary, and we celebrated with the following: a great “quarantine concert” on Facebook by Edward Hamell (he’s playing another show Thursday we will also check out); some powerful music from the Sahel (see below); a couple beers; breakfast dinner (poached eggs, bacon, fried taters, grapefruit–I ate that under duress–and waffles with real maple syrup); and a further episode in Hulu’s adaptation of Celeste Ng‘s LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. Not bad for being locked in with each other.

Rituals are good. And necessary.

Anyone else out there more beset than usual by thoughts of how the rest of the billions currently breathing are navigating this? When I start thinking about that, and reflect on my blessings–I’m coming back around full circle here–it brings me a sense of near-relief of how very minor my suffering and anxieties (right now, calculating what many months of this could be like, plus a danged pinched nerve in my hip that almost cripples me at times) really are. That may sound strange, but there it is. Comforting. The world doesn’t revolve around me–it takes a little pressure off.

Streaming for shut-ins (seriously, this is a beautiful album, recorded inside a dwelling in Bamako while outside a militant human plague was running rampant–it might inspire you):