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 1: Happy Anniversary, Here’s Your Pandemic!

My good friend Ken Shimamoto, probably remembering that, in 2012, I began documenting daily what I then thought was my last year of teaching, suggested yesterday I do the same for this science (non-)fiction fix we’re in. That seems overwhelming, but I’m going to take his advice and just write what comes to mind and not fuss.

My head is daily spinning. Its preoccupations have grown from the immediate (“What’s the best way to teach these kids remotely?”) into the long-term (“When will I see my friends and family again, and how will this change us?”), from the rational (“This too will pass.”) into the paranoid (“How will we be exploited this time?”). My revelation-flickers have been both comical (“I need to at least have a stretching routine!”) and horrifying (according to Brecht-Weill, food is the first thing morals follow on). I have more ideas than I know what to do with, but for once I actually have plenty of time to do them, so to speak. In a weird way, and I know I’m not alone, in the explosion of change I feel more alive and more clear-eyed; for a second time in recent memory, a big national scab has been ripped off, and it is time to deal or die. But then there are also kitty litter boxes and windows to be cleaned! Don’t scoff at mundane rituals: what the tortoise sees as sustenance, the hare hops past unwittingly.

I’m lucky to be cloistered with my soul mate–it is our 28th wedding anniversary today. We have always liked spending time with each other and have hardly been averse to seclusion, so we seem to be well-equipped for the task at hand. Reading together in silence we both find exciting, we share music and viewing preferences (reggae and Rickles roasting yesterday), and we are immune to each other’s imperfections (#snorers). But the first 7-10 days of this adjustment have brought us to the necessity of rituals–not just exercising, but writing, meditating, working (new kinds of work), and especially helping. We’ve joined a local Facebook group that is networking concerned citizens in order to help each other and wrestle with COVID-19, and a crowd-funded effort to keep our local healthcare heroes well-fed seems to be in the offing. I’ve volunteered to mentor local students (kids or adults) who need reading or writing help, because I am not sure classes will ever resume in person before summer.

One of my biggest worries is if, as a nation, we are equal to the level of personal discipline required to arrest this virus as quickly as possible. All I can do is make sure I’m trying and succeeding.

From Mary Oliver, some worthy words:

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last! / What a task / to ask / of anything, or anyone, / yet it is ours, / and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.

And: Streaming for Shut-Ins.

Cloister Commentary, Day 2: Humbled

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:

This group recorded a beautiful album inside a dwelling in Bamako while outside a militant human plague was running rampant–it will inspire you. I can’t share it, but this performance might motivate you to seek it out.