Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bike Caravans and Student Logs, Memorial Days and Laughter, Plague Journal

last days of class... 
it was weird teaching  this term

our friend norman's dad.
every name a story. 
On January 25, 1991, this is how The New York Times reported that 100,000 Americans had died from AIDS. They didn't bother writing their own story. They ran an Associated Press story instead. On page 18. Below the fold. No pictures. No names.


“We’ll see each other again.”
You hear it over and over again.
The Queen of England said it weeks ago.
We said it after the last day of class.
We hear it when something we’d planned for is canceled or called off.
It gets absurd how much we hear it.
It evokes groans and emotion.
Howard Zinn bookfair canceled.
Trips here and there canceled.
School years canceled.
Lives lost.
A parent.
A friend.
Everyone is coping with some degree of it.
For some, its acute.
The last week of school, zoom meetings with the union, student logs to read, a bike caravan against austerity, and the cycles of feelings in between.
Being at home without travel leaves our vulnerabilities right in front of us, glaring.
The problems, anxieties, deficits we easily neglect or run away from, linger.
My college friend Jessica Hurley, who is forced to leave her dream home because of the virus,  writes:

“I've created this chart, because we're going through a personal and collective trauma which can make it confusing to know who really needs support and how much another has to offer. Here is my cheat sheet...
CODE RED (SEVERE) - Seriously losing your shit in this moment
CODE ORANGE (HIGH) - On the verge, could go either way in this moment
CODE YELLOW(ELEVATED) - Just another day during a pandemic with moderate anxieties lurking in the back ground in this moment, but also still some meaningful moments.
CODE BLUE (GUARDED) - All things considered, things are going OK in this moment.
CODE GREEN (LOW) - I'm chill. I got this. in this moment.”
I cycle through all each day, sometimes several times a day.  
Each student log reminds me.
The feelings remind me.
The stories of mothers and friends,
Lost fathers,
Mothers sick.
My students, many first-generation in college, immigrants from all over the world, from Eastern Europe, the Carribean, communities of color, seem to be experiencing a different more severe COVID, with weekly pain, weekly, daily losses.

“Do you sometimes feel like you are choking from the inside because there is a lot going on in your head?” wrote one student. “Well this is how I feel most of the time nowadays. I have lost family members back to back in the past month. There is a saying that “saying goodbye to death is hard”. In my situation, there was nothing like a last goodbye because we were not allowed to. No funeral was held because everyone had to stay home and be safe. All we could do was say a prayer and mourn at home… The pain hits differently.”

Looking at the Times on Sunday, I can’t stop crying.
Norman’s dad on page one.
Story after story.
Coming and going.
Flying into the distance.
Each day, grading, biking and reading.
Looking at those in masks.
Those without.
Those scolding others for not wearing.
Everyone defensive.
No one wins at this game.

Our book group is making its way through What You Heard is True.
Carolyn Forché’s memoir of a year in El Salvador some four decades ago:
“Forché is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, he is a charming polymath … She’s heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country. Captivated for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension. …they meet with high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and clergy desperately trying to assist the poor and keep the peace… As priests and farm-workers are murdered and protest marches attacked, he is determined to save his country, and Forché is swept up in his work and in the lives of his friends. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as she attempts to make sense of what she’s experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering.”
Death is everywhere.
But there are no death squads after us.
(At least for most of us here… depending on..).
No late-night knocks at the door.
But the feelings sit with us.
“The poet gives us a gallery full of ghosts shaken by the fire and darkness of his time,” says Forché’s friend, referring to Pablo Neruda, on the horrors she witnesses, struggling to find a way to act.

We encounter other lives and experiences, shaken by fire and remember.
Others arrive.

Franz Kafka, in the last year of his life, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was devastated.
Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll, he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.
"Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures." This was the beginning of many letters, as Kafka endured his illness. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted. When the meetings finally came to an end, Kafka presented her with a doll that obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained: "My travels have changed me . . ."  Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: "Everything and everyone that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form."

Its not always easy to see it, but it does.
Kate Temple-West organizes a community garden in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
She describes a similar situation.

“I still often dream with this tree remotely: “I was active (lucid) dreaming on these tree roots today at the base of a massive Sycamore tree in an ancient forest in Samothraki. This island has been conquered by everyone in the region over the millennia, and yet these trees have never been cut. It's a balm to my soul. … The roots of this tree cradle me like I'm in a hammock and I have no trouble drifting off for a long time. I have dynamic dreams involving the omphalos and tree spirits and fire rituals, but what happens when I wake up is maybe more thrilling. So I'm sitting on this tree, my knees propped up in front of me, my left arm resting on my left knee-- recalling the dream. I look down and there's a spider floating in front of me. She's orange and white with a constellation of black eyes with pearlescent centers starring up into mine. She dangles a moment, then spools her way back up to my left hand, and then down again, bouncing a little at the end. I can now actually feel the tiniest sensation rippling to my finger. She's weaving her web from my hand. I stare for awhile, transfixed, finally placing her on a dried stalk next to me before she gets too far into her work. I begin recording the dream journey in my notebook, still sitting on the tree. A chameleon runs up the root looking at me. I look back. … this one checks me out for a long time, running over the journal, and then it actually licks my bare foot. … It's as though for a moment I've been given a non-human passport into the life of the forest.”
What a passport.
The city has many of them.
I correspond with friends most every day.
How are you, people ask.
I don't know how to answer it, we say. Trips canceled. Its good to be here. But I miss the world. I long to be out for a few days. But its not really possible.  So i bike everywhere. I'm watching old Robert Alman movies and traveling to parts unknown with Tony Bourdaine every night.
Each day a different ride.
On Monday, I join the


Protest against CUNY’s preemptive layoffs of
contingent workers and for CUNY funding.
The CUNY Board of Trustees meets on Monday at 4:00 pm.
Tell them to fight for CUNY and not to
cheapen education by making cuts!

DATE: Monday, May 18th
TIME: 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

STARTING POINT and ROUTE: Beginning at CUNY’s headquarters on the north side of E. 42 St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, we will continue past Gov. Cuomo’s office before heading up to the Upper East Side homes of multiple billionaires. PARTICIPATION: This event is open to all who wish to attend in cars.* Come and go as you wish! We will not leave our cars or congregate in any way.
Use hashtags:
Summer is coming.
School ending.
Shadows lurking.
Sunlight sparkling:
My friends at Judson remind me to look at the
Little Stones at My Window by Mario Benedetti
“Once in a while joy throws little stones at my window it wants to let me know that it's waiting … I'm convinced joy doesn't need to throw any more little stones I'm coming I'm coming.”
Sometimes the little stones break the window.
The balance is off.
I’m thinking about John Cheever’s “Swimmer.”
One of Rob’s favorites:
“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.”

There’s a darkness there.
Gunshots down the street.
Sirens roaring.

Thursday is my last day of class on zoom.
I think about all the student papers and logs, explorations.
A student from Cambodia talking about the genocide.
A student from Russia who got sick with this and recovered during the semester.
A mother laughing with her kids zooming about during class.
Another talking about her marriage falling apart.
Another called to active duty.
Another taking care of his grandparents.
Students writing about feelings and sensations, trying to figure out who to make it work.
Before class, I get the world that the Howard Zinn bookfair is canceled.
My usual trip to San Francisco coincides with this adventure.
An encounter with readings and authors and a lost city, sitting on the perch of a continent,
About to tumble into the water.
Ron and I usually walk the beach, reading poems,
Making our way to Muir woods and back to the Mission.
Later that night, I dream about seeing Ron.
Walking on the water.
A trip that isn’t going to happen.
But used to always happen.
I saw you there says Ron the next.
Sensed you.
Friends know.

Ron tells me later on Friday as I sit in the park.
Chatting with Ron, I watch the teenager finding a spot to skate...
Holy skateboarders ... sharing space, bodies in motion, the city as a work of art
before the cops show up...

You are trespassing
Say the police.
People inside are complaining about this, he says, pointing to the homes outside the park and then to the skatepark.
I didn’t see a problem I say.
Are you from here?
Yes, South Brooklyn.
Then why not go back there.
Why no intellect?
Sirens and police cars on the way home.
Sirens, bullets and police cars outside the projects.
You can’t walk through the city and not see the police aggressively policing communities of color. I see it every day here in Brooklyn. Every day. Every day. So much hate.
From here to St Paul.

What did you do to stay sane?
 I graded papers, taught, organized, wrote, and rode my bike dozens of miles a day with my traveling companion, who is now 17 years old, through majestic Brooklyn, past community after community doing their best to live together, to share this life together.

On Sunday, news and updates,
the paper announces:
A hundred thousand dead, a hundredth of our losses.
It took AIDS a decade to get there.
It took us three months.
Memorial days.

“how do you tell your son of wars?
my father never talked about it at all,
though I know now he was sort of a semi-hero at the Battle of the Bulge, a
major general (one star) in the Checkerboard Division…
My father, one star, one man, will lead
the old 99th out time and gain on missions
the ghosts of the men lost form gray swirls
in his breath on a cold day”

bob holman, life poem.
A story every day.

Each night I think about where the life poem is taking us,
Looking at Brooklyn rooftops, chatting with neighbor Greg
And the others down the street.
I hope we can keep doing this says one.
I wave and greet as many as I can see.

I think about Faulkner,
Chatting with mom about Emmett Till
Everyone was too horrified to say anything, recalls mom, thinking about 1955.
It’s the same thing today.

A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
“WHEN MISS Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant--a combined gardener and cook--had seen in at least ten years. It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.”

Tony Bourdain takes me to parts unknown every night.
His trip to Borneo begins with images of a trip on a river:

I guess we’re on that trip up the river, even when we’re home. 

a spontaneous bike caravan 


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