THE COVID CHRONICLES – BETWEEN THE FIRES 9-26-20, 3:00 a.m. Northern California
I tell you what’s changed—I see stars out there in the night sky. How long has it been since I’ve noticed stars? It’s not as if they weren’t there before. They didn’t go anywhere. They’ve been there since before the dinosaurs. And they went extinct a long time ago. Why are we so short-sighted and arrogant to think that we as a species won’t go extinct? We’re doing our darndest to make that happen.
Sitting by the open kitchen window, what a luxury to feel the cool night air. How long since I’ve felt that? Like a kiss on my skin, a breath of what’s real to remind me that all is not lost—yet. My orchids are dying. They live on air. Like me they cannot breathe in this toxic smoke that blankets us from the wildfires. Get ready for the next round, they warn us. We’re not done with fire season and it’s heating up out there; three-digit temperatures by Sunday.
It was clear enough to see the moon tonight. From inside my self-quarantined apartment, I bathed myself in moonlight, the same moonlight that shone down on the dinosaurs and all the sorry civilizations of man since.
There’s always been conflict. Think of the Spanish marching into the “new world” and colonizing by killing. There have always been peaceful groups; they’re the ones that suffer. Those Europeans came, saw, killed and conquered. The Mayans and the Aztecs weren’t exactly bloodless societies. One brutal outfit just fought another brutal outfit. What for? Gold, land, possessions, greed. USA society’s all about money, land, possessions, greed. Some people came here just so they could breathe. That’s disappearing. And what are we replacing it with? Money, land, possessions, greed. And air we cannot breathe.
Mother Nature’s giving us a smack: Air we cannot breathe safely. There’s a bomb floating around in it. Where it lands, nobody knows—until we sicken and die.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la mểme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Life’s a crap shoot. No wonder gambling’s so popular. We think we can beat the odds, and we never stop trying, even though there’s only one ending. Try not to think of death as failure. We are too much of this world at the moment. Let’s go back to the real we so often took for granted and hardly noticed: it was so commonplace.
The night air that softly and luxuriously pours over me as I write is filtered by a beautiful tree outside my window. Birds used to live there. I have not heard birdsong in weeks. They used to be everywhere. Two weeks ago I was on a telephone call to my daughter, staring at the tree outside the window as we talked. A little bird came flying in and landed on a branch for a second or two before flying away again. I got so excited. “There’s a bird!” I exclaimed. “I haven’t seen one in over three weeks!”
“They go somewhere safe at time like this,” my daughter said. Of course they do. All animals hunker down for safety, even the human ones.
But someone was drinking from the water dish I keep on the front porch. I started leaving water out during a prior heatwave for all the errant cats that saunter through the yard, dogs that step off the sidewalk for some refreshment during their daily walk, the raccoons and god-knows-what other creatures who wander about during the night. I hadn’t seen much of any animal life since COVID hit, except people walking their dogs—cats they keep indoors, now. So, who was drinking the water I so faithfully replenished every day to keep it free of ash? Some days that dish stayed full. No one was venturing out at all.
And then, one evening as I walked downstairs to place a clean doormat by the front door, I saw a little fat squirrel come bounding up the garden path. I felt overjoyed at the sight of him, my first squirrel in weeks! And he looked so healthy. We used to have squirrels aplenty in this town. They’d move around on the squirrel highway, running along the neighborhood power lines, jumping from tree to tree. Since my landlord cut the big tree down in the front yard last year, I’ve seen squirrels less and less. They used to run up and down the tree trunk taunting the cats, “catch me if you can.” But now, they stay more in their hiding places.
A small flock of Canada geese flew by my window yesterday, a much smaller flock than usual. But still, a flock of migrating geese! What joy to see them in a V-shape against the sky.
This is the real I cling to as an antidote to all the chicanery of politics in Washington. As Rome burned, Nero fiddled. These days, he’s playing golf.
Aletheia’s had many jobs: teenage store detective. wine harvester in France, Hollywood P.A. and film reviewer for underground newspapers amongst others. Much volunteer work, too, including tutoring homeless children, arranging for NASA to bring their space mobile for a day of fun to inner city kids, and currently Foundation Vice Chair of an art and rare book collection. She lives at the top end of the Bay and looks out at Mount Tamalpais across the water.
United We Stand by Cliff Zyskowski
Certain days in our lives leave a permanent imprint, like a hot poker brand on cattle, a tattoo, charged with total recall, like it happened just yesterday.
United We Stand
9/11 I’m visiting clinical sites in Vallejo. My psych tech students are completing their internships at an out patient treatment center for folks with dual diagnosis. Autism, bi-polar, schizophrenia, developmental delays, head injuries: the students get to experience a patch work mental health quilt of many varied sizes, shapes and colors.
Ziggy cries out, “Why did they do this?” as we all watch the horror play out on the big screen TV in the day hall that morning. He has Down Syndrome. He is sensitive. He is a caring, loving human being laid to waste by tears as the story of the epic destruction of those twin towers unfolds.
Several of the participants begin to pace the perimeter of the room, their anxiety building, their coping strategies pushed to the brink. A staff person ushers Artie into a side conference room.
“Breathe Artie. Your breath like the ocean, remember? Breathe in the relaxation, breathe out the tension. You can handle this,” she implores. He’s hyperventilating, sweating, eyes open wide, piercing, pupils dilated, biting his hand, rocking back and forth at an increasing rate. She pages the off-site nurse for a PRN medication.
“I knew those Commie Pinko Fags were coming to get us. I heard them scheming last night. Their time has come. Our time is up…we’re next,” exclaims Josh.
Josh has paranoid schizophrenia. He’s hiding under a chair in the far corner of the room. Silently screaming in his mind’s eye, rubbing his head along the underside lip of the chair.
Mitch, the director, enters the room with authority. Turns off the TV. “Break up into groups of five. Today’s discussion: addressing our greatest fears. What is it that scares us? How do we cope with what we can’t control? How have we overcome obstacles in our past? How do we muster the courage and conviction to face our fears head-on? Meet back here at 10:30 before break.”
Divided We Fall
July, 1966 Hot, muggy, Mid-western summer day. No breeze off the Lake. Mom rounds up us four kids from the yard into the house early before lunch. Me and my best friend Vinnie had planned on riding our Schwinn bikes down Rumble Hill to visit the old man with his roost of homing pigeons. Not today.
“The blacks are marching past Portage Park to Norwood Park. They say 800 people will pass by our neighborhood and walk right past St. Monica’s church down the block from us. We’re all staying inside. People been throwing rocks at the marchers. I won’t let any of you kids get hurt. We’re not causing any trouble.” Not today. She looks worried, scared, pale. We obey without a fuss.
There are no black folks living in our neighborhood. This is the summer of the Chicago Freedom Movement. Martin Luther King is marching for equal housing rights. I’ve never even met a black person. Dad says when they move in, we move out ‘cuz, “They cause the property values to crash.”
“But isn’t your favorite baseball player Ernie Banks, a black guy?” I ask him.
While Mom shakes Jiffy Pop with one hand and stirs the cherry Kool-Aid with the other, my curiosity runs rampant. I sneak downstairs and climb out thru the basement window. I hear hundreds of voices singing in the distance. This Little Light of Mine, We Shall Overcome, the voices gather strength, rising louder and more boisterous as the throng approaches the corner of Nottingham and Carmen Avenues and the steps leading to the entrance of St. Monica’s Church. Nobody out in the streets but them. Vinnie’s mom, Mrs. Funsch, peers out between the drapes of her front room window. I’m hiding in the bushes across the street from the Rectory. MLK, the man himself, approaches the church entrance. He silences the crowd by raising his right hand, palm open to the sky, as he surveys his followers with steely determination. Gesturing with both arms raised to the heavens, he gets down on one knee and says, “Let us pray.”
“Almighty Lord,” he cries out. “Hear our prayer,” respond the marchers, all genuflected on one knee. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”
Heads bowed to the earth, prostrated on one knee, the congregation recites the Our Father…the same prayer I recite every night before bed. I find myself praying along, flushed out of the hiding brush, bent on one knee, “. . . forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, Amen.”
They pray, they feel, they sing, they kneel—just like us. My cup runneth over with faith in humanity.
Smile a Little Smile
Fall 1969 Summer of love passes. The annual 8th grade fall dance held in the basement of St. Monica’s rectory. I’m a nerd. One of three classmates wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Teacher’s pet. Too smart for my own good. But I made the basketball team. Tom Kowalski felt sorry for me and gave a fellow Polack a chance. In class, I sit behind Joanne Arcaro, 8th grade cheerleader. I whisper her a few answers during the math exams. Sister Felice proctors the tests. She is deaf.
Joanne believes in me somehow. When it’s time for the last slow dance, she comes up to me and grabs my arm without a word, pulls me across the room to the middle of the dance floor. The 45 drops onto the Magnavox turntable playing Smile a Little Smile for Me. This isn’t one of those tightly held slow dances. Sister Jeanette wouldn’t allow such behavior. For the first time, I feel like a man—a woman asked me to be her dance partner. I find a cure for my case of nerd fever.
For the first verse, we alone take center stage. She looks straight into my eyes, smiles, as we rock back and forth in unison to the song’s chorus, breathing as one, the class nerd making waves with the babe of his dreams. Loving kindness endlessly travels through time captured by a memory.
Birds, by the thousands, drop dead from the orange.
Ravens chant Nevermore.
A robin picks at a toasted worm, upended
from the parched terrain.
Bees labor back to the hive with ash-laden pollen.
Sunflowers strain to lift their heads to the sky.
There is no sun.
My mask blocks the virus, filters the smoke,
hides the shame we face:
Profit over Planet.
“They muddy the waters to make it seem deep.”
What legacy will we leave our children?
“You guys just stood around while
watching the West Coast burn?”
Who will unite ranchers, developers,
Who is prepared to build a coalition,
a consensus among polarities, concerning issues of
Black Lives Matter,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
“We are the first generation
to feel the impact of climate change
and the last generation
that can do something about it.”
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Save the Earth,
Value its worth,
Before we dread
The sky bleeding red.
September 9th, 2020 The Day the Sky Bled Orange
Cliff Zyskowski is a retired psychiatric technician and a Chicago native now living the good life in wine country. When not hashing out a long-winded memoir, he plays the piano for inspiration. His work has appeared in The Bohemian and The Sonoma Sun.
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