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Corona Diary


Corona Diary


Joan Juliet Buck

Thursday April 2

Woke earlier than I’d wanted, boiled up a compress for the eyes, carried it back to bed. And because my eyes were closed, I meditated. The other day, when I was having the horrors, I got tough love from Anjelica, who said “Don’t you have a mantra? Just do it. Don’t be sentimental.” I can dole out that same cold shower when someone close calls me and I hear more self-pity than distress. I have a radar for self-pity, I know it well, and I know how fast it sinks you. So does Anjelica. I’m too scared of horses to have had much practice getting back in the saddle after I’ve been thrown, but that’s what she does.
I retreat. Retreat. Implies defeat, but you tell me, what constitutes winning right now? If I were still in the hulking fortress on 42nd Street, just north of Hudson Yards where I have not set foot—the cover of New York Magazine was enough for me—I would crave air and light, because my view was smothered by a luxury condo built in the manner of a multi-story parking garage. Living in the country is my retreat. Not retirement—“a writer never retires,” a sentence that would be more convincing if I had more of an output. A writer never retires. This so-called writer could spend all day looking for food back when shopping was interesting and not alarming, this writer could write practically nothing for a year because her childhood love returned to her and that was more interesting than any words I set down in an effort to reach my agent’s expectations of what might earn us both some money in the marketing of this entity that I’d become after the publication of the memoir that, due to some sloppy PR prose, recreated me as fashion icon when that was never the story and never the point and certainly not the point of the book. I felt such a fake trying to write what might be considered enticing, saleable, that I stopped almost at once. There was no need to add to the mess of shit out there. I wanted to live, and love, instead.
I’ll stop that, we’re getting a little near self-pity. You can smell the Poor Little Me creeping in.
And that’s not the way it is. David Hockney made public his bright, simple iPad paintings of flowers and buds around his house in Normandy yesterday, saying “they can’t cancel the spring.” Now that the desk faces trees and bushes instead of a blank wall (Oh the self-punishing urge to conflate writing and prison), I can hope that the bush right in front of me is actually a lilac, because I don’t know. Dead leaves still cling to the undergrowth, and mauve flowers, too short to pick, with a strange name I never remember.
The meditation gave me the day. I was ready to hand it over to the headlines, then the TV news, then the governor’s speech. But now I feel that actually it’s mine.
Did the dishes that were piled in the sink. Dr. Stevens told me when I was 23 that I had horror vacui—fear of emptiness. The boyfriends were accumulating at a rate he found unseemly enough to quote Aristotle—“Nature abhors a vacuum”—with an apologetic laugh there in his office behind Harrods, the first Jungian I went to.

Thursday April 9

Storm, then sunshine. 
Slept well, and late. Much needed.
Bought vegetables today, ginger, and some bacon: $22. 
Because I don’t need more than that. Right now.
I feel smug about the little systems I’ve instituted in the kitchen. 
Meanwhile, people are going hungry. In the USA. Millions of people. A mile-long queue of cars outside a food bank in Los Angeles. People wearing trash bags against the rain standing on line for free food. 
The money I would have scattered all over the food stores will go where it’s needed. Directly to a local food bank. 
That will be tomorrow’s task. 
Today, I made an experimental face mask out of a Number 4 coffee filter, some paper adhesive, and a small silk scarf, tied above the knot on the back of my nylon head-wrap.
I was so proud of myself that I documented the mask on Instagram. 
It produces the same delightful effect as the paper bags I used to breathe into when I was hyperventilating with anxiety.  
I wore the calming mask to deposit some miniature but useful residual checks, predominantly in the two figures. This meant going to the bank’s drive-by, locating which of two metal posts the voice was coming from, then rolling the checks into a clear Plexiglas tube that whooshed up a Plexiglas pipe towards the bank. The beautiful Plexiglas tube failed three times to reach the right hole to penetrate the bank, and came whooshing back to me with a thump. 
An apologetic teller had to meet me outside; doubly masked and caped in my love’s raincoat, I slipped her the checks in a blue latex hand. Her face was bare. She didn’t smirk at the amounts. She apologized: this was a brand-new tube, not yet broken in. A customer had run over the previous tube and smashed it.
Back home, I washed the silk scarf at the same time as I washed my hands, with the same soap, hung it to dry from the shelf over the sink, held it in place with two French glasses.  
The landlord went into the basement; he tells me he fixed the lights over the washer and dryer. When I saw him at his truck, he wasn’t wearing a mask. I’ll wait a few days before I go down to the basement. His grandson cleaned up the flowerbeds, and will grapple with the butterfly bush that now bars all north-south access.
I started writing again this afternoon.

Friday April 10

Today erased itself as it went.
Becalmed, ignorant, retracted, not thinking.
Time shrank at each headline until it was too small to be felt or measured. The number of jobless Americans. Millions. Mass grave on Hart Island. Mass graves in other places. Mass. Graves. The word Trillion. The sound of systems breaking. Trillions. Cogs, wheels, deals, agreements, consortiums, expectations. Trillions. Ptoing! Crash! Boing boing boing, boing. Fizzle. Splat. Trillions.
We need a map. We need testing. Testing for the active virus, testing blood for antibodies. Testing to know where we’ve been and where we might be going.
Will I dare to wear a tracker?

Saturday April 11

Easter is the return. Before Easter, the light is at its utmost contraction to allow darkness to pervade everything.
We may awaken, after all this, to a world transformed by our new understanding. 

Monday April 13

As he began his briefing this morning, Governor Cuomo asked “What day is it today?. . . It ends in Y.”

Here are the questions in my head:

1: Are we learning patience and self-discipline?
Are we learning passivity?

If we are learning patience and self-discipline, will we emerge strong, wise, and powerful, like Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, Vaclav Havel after four years in prison, Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X after 40 minutes screen time in prison? Or as vengeful as the Count of Monte Cristo after 14 years in the Chateau d’If. Or as nuts as the tigers in Vegas, Women Behind Bars, and Mrs. Rochester.

If on the other hand we are learning passivity, won’t our instincts for combat melt into surrender? All we will know how to do is roll over.
which leads to 

This Can’t Be Happening, Can It?

2: Some of us need to know the news. Maybe, one day out of two. One day pure, self-contained, bored but not alarmed. Next day, news all day long and late into the night. Even if it’s broadcast from living rooms, dens, nooks, corners, hallways, Chris Cuomo’s basement, green screens. 
People who need the news are people who believe that objective reality and science exist.

Others say paying attention to the news lowers your vibration and makes you sick.  
These are the people who are 33% more likely to believe that the Universe has a Plan.

These others: Some read books, some write books, some don’t read, some can’t read, some have degrees, some read auras. Some are on a higher plane of abstracted bliss, some are baking like fiends, some are clever with dried beans, some do Zoom yoga every day and some believe that vaccines cause autism. And that the white jet trails in the sky are chemicals released as part of a plot to change the weather so as to lower the price of land so that George Soros can buy it all up. Some of these others believe aliens are watching.  
Some of these others believe this is all a hoax. 
Some of these others don’t vote because they say they don’t know what to think.
Some of these others don’t believe in science. 

So I know I’m not in the Others department. 
But to what degree do I think that—
— This is the revolt of Gaia?
— The clarity of the air and the waters will teach humanity that we can never go back to fossil fuels?
— This is God’s way of trying to flush Trump? 
— There is a God?
— There is no God? 
— Everything’s going to be fine?
— Everything is going to be changed forever?
— The children will never get over this?
— The old people will all die?
— They want all the old people to die?
— There will be food riots?
— There will be starvation?
— This is the beginning of a stealthy but complete takeover of our lives and liberties?
— You know you can’t renew your passport or get a new one right now, don’t you?
— This country will become a right-wing prison?
— We ain’t seen nothing yet?
— The Aliens will come save us?
— The Aliens sent it?
— The Internet was invented to carry us through this, and many more such to come?
— And what’s with the Swedes?

Saturday April 18 

I spent the last few days asking myself how it’s possible to have feelings without wallowing in self-pity.  
Self-pity is self-destruction. Especially now.
It’s easier for me, old, to say that, than it is for someone young whose entire load of hopes have for the moment atomized. If I allow myself to feel how much I miss my love in London, it hurts. Our miracle shimmers some days like a mirage; he doesn’t always read what I send him, I still haven’t watched the scientist’s film he sent me about “Nothing.” 
It took so long for us to come back together, really for the first time, fifty-four years later. Adolescence to advanced age. The unexpected, insane privilege of that, last year. It’s been the new time since he went home at the end of February, this is this year, the impossible unthinkable incoherent present, this is what now is like. We are older, and will be older before this is over.
If I allow my feelings to open up and spread out, I’ll be in tears. But this isn’t me, or me and him, it’s everyone at the same time all over the world. All the structures we relied on are breaking along their fault lines, great chunks of our world calving. 
So when I cry in the car or cry at the news, I tell myself I’m just crying, and that’s that. I’m not crying about me. Or us.
I entertain myself with complaints about the monotony of my own cuisine. I should write out a hundred times “I will not use more than one mixing bowl at a time. I will not use more than one mixing bowl at a time. I will not use more than one mixing bowl at a time.”
Stubborn as a dog, I keep trying new recipes, but no amount of non-wheat flour, eggs from Chris and Monique and Tim’s hens, hand-held beater or rapidly rusting whisk can change the taste of the food I make into the taste of food made by someone else.
Maybe next time, I’ll try leaving out the cumin. And the garlic.
The miniature twin sinks stayed full for days. The lassitude that overcame me at the sight of bowls and pans crowding the wooden spoons and the two crappy bamboo ones was familiar but not specific. 
Then I recognized it as the protective trance of waiting that descends on you when you hear your flight is delayed seven hours and there’s nowhere to go but down on your ass on your coat and your wheelie on the floor, where you sit, too obedient to read, zoned out, eating chocolates and letting the wrappers fall where they may. The hibernating dull dedicated non-time. Zoned out because you trust the airline to call your flight and to board you and take off and fly and get you there. Because you know you’re in good hands.
The suspended indifferent trusting time of waiting.
This is not that. 
Most nights I have to go to bed after four so that I will not wake at four thinking of lines of cars ten miles long queueing for food banks. 
So that I will not wake thinking that America still operates on slave labor. Of the 634 workers at the Smithfield’s pork processing plant in Sioux Falls South Dakota who tested positive. I wake wondering how many are badly sick, I remember what the head of the local chapter of the AFL CIO said on TV—that the workers had heard from home about the dangers of the virus a month ago, that they speak 80 different languages. The plant is Chinese-owned, the workers are from 80 countries. I remember something, look up Smithfield’s and find Food Inc., the 2009 documentary about another of their plants that had so many undocumented workers that every few weeks they’d let ICE raid a couple of worker’s family homes, just to have some peace. The conditions of the pigs weren’t much better, and for a while after I saw that film, back in 2009, I stopped eating big agribusiness pork, choosing only to eat small batch, hand-cured, local, nitrite-free, delicate, rich person’s choice pork products, or, in a pinch, D’Artagnan. 
These informed choices are not enough. They’re bullshit. This is a different world now, and to survive, society will have to change radically.
22 million filing for unemployment, the States of the United States are broke, the Federal Government is working against the states. 
Malignancy is abroad, and it’s not Covid-19. 
Night just dropped like the other shoe.

Sunday April 19

Late last night, I watched Helen Whitney’s beautiful 1983 documentary “The Monastery.” The Trappist monks, so holy in their robes and so candid in their interviews, elevated and soothed me. 
 After dinner I started watching the second Helen Whitney documentary I have—I’m to send them to London, they were meant for him—“Into the Night,” subtitled portraits of life and death, from 2017. 
A Mortician. A Cryogenic entrepreneur with 141 “patients” in the Alcor “patients bay,” preserved in large tubes he calls vessels. 
A writer who had to shelve a book about death, an astrophysicist who’s a lapsed Platonist, a former Islamic extremist. The first of nine—I’m going back to it now, it’s too good to leave for tomorrow. There’s a “transhumanist designer” whose face reminds me of someone, though I have zero idea what transhumanist designer means. She’s booked to be frozen. 
Helen Whitney, whose work I didn’t know before, gets subjects to talk about secrets more complex than, say, sexual orientation. Faith, uncertainty, doubt.
“In our hearts we have these private conversations,” says the writer, “so I feel a bit embarrassed but I also feel a bit shriven.” Shriven. Feels as if he’d confessed. Been absolved? 
I miss visiting the Catholics at mass.
Yes I do have to lighten the fuck up. 
God, though, the steak was comforting.

Thursday April 23

Watch Andrew Cuomo get tough.
The fridge grows empty now that shopping for food is no longer a daily hobby.
Order a pizza from Gigi. Wait in Oblong bookstore parking lot for it to be put in the trunk. Guy forgets to close trunk. We’re all a bit off by now. 
Eat most of the pizza from the box I’ve placed on the papers on the kitchen table, and go to the office to sort books, books, papers, plugs, so many plugs, plastic binders, cables, cables. Old iPhones. More cables.
But someone got at the pile of Paris books that I’d topped with Gertrude Stein (because she belongs in Paris). 
Today, Gertrude’s ziggurat of books about Paris had melted away, and she was incongruously sitting on top of Orson Welles in the movie pile. 
All the Paris books—not that many, but maybe 20?—had gone. As had the Quercy et Lot Michelin guide. 
I’m not hallucinating: the landlord showed the office to someone on Wednesday, the day I didn’t leave the house, and somehow the prospective tenant or the landlord must have created a disturbance in the field of my library system. I wish they’d also taken some plastic file folders. An old iPhone? The landlord is pissed off that I got sick in early March before I could complete the move, and that I’m only paying him for the period up until the original move-out date. I couldn’t move alone or get the movers until now. Where’d the effing Paris books go?
Irritating, but no reason to inject myself with bleach: the Paris books were going into storage, antechamber of oblivion. 

Saturday April 25

On March first, my love called from London to say “come over now. This could last for six months.” We decided it would be mad to go on renting the expensive office where I barely went and never wrote—I can’t write too far from a kitchen—and that I should pack it up. Storage units rented, movers booked March second. I started sorting, tossing, giving books and pictures away, with a move out-date set for March 13. 
Then I got sick on the 9th, and while I lay in bed sweating at 102.6, the portcullis came down, the moat filled up with enemy effluvia, and the world stopped moving. 
I don’t know if I had it. I might never know.
London would be, for the immeasurable time being, impossible. 
But I had a project.
This entire period I have been consumed with the impending, yet for weeks impossible, move out of the office. I dragged my head, arms, feet, and only returned the modem via UPS a few days ago. 
But for almost two months every day I’ve had the move on my mind. The must of the move. The maybe London is beyond the move or maybe he’ll come back here where it’s country, but speculation and planning both useless in the face of what’s going on. 
And the thing was, never mind the outcome, I had a project: the move. End of the office. All I need is a table, the rest is all crap from Staples to reproduce the props of a real office. But I had a project. A mission. A thing to worry about. A thing to not do quite yet but it’s number one on the agenda but I’d rather take a walk to build my strength back up, I’d rather disparage the forsythia and the unkempt trees than sort out the old pictures notes mementos manuscripts and clips. 
All of which had kept me from darting to London when he said “come now.”
I had a project, so I’d be OK. As long as I had a project I couldn’t watch Homeland without him, I couldn’t read the paper or pick up after myself because I had a project. And when I went back to the office to tackle the project, I’d stand perplexed in front of an open page in a notebook with the New York address of an old associate of my father’s, who’d called to give it to me after Dad’s death 19 years ago so that I could send him something. Did I ever send whatever it was? Should I throw this out? 
I know why I rented an office big enough to run Vogue from. I was hoping someone would give me an assistant so I could decide what to do about Mr. Pick’s New York address on the page of a pale blue notebook from Staples.

Moved my last things out of the office today. Correction: Movers moved today. Steve and Larry moved. I was at home sorting keep-donate-give-toss, pawing through ribbons and socks and that effing Tom Sachs T-shirt printed with a gun and “Kill all Artists” that I can neither frame nor wear nor toss. I was handing the Dansk desk over and now had to make the second big room ready for the long French farm table and the other table from the office, both very old, worn, and wonderful. 
But first I had to make sure that what I gave away went to the right home. Who needed, liked, wanted, desired, hoped for, would accept, would keep these things?
It came to me that my problem—this particular problem—began when recycling became mandatory, how long ago? Before that, I gave the better rejects to charity shops, and if I wanted to throw something out, I threw it out. I didn’t try to divine how to recycle my discards, who might be happy to receive the old shoes or the gloves, before recycling I didn’t stand by a bed trying to figure out who would like the yards of silk ribbon I brought back from Paris in 2001. Etc.
To snap out of the need to categorize my overflow and discern what was really garbage, I poured baking soda all over the big room carpet and then I vacuumed it up on the Turbo setting. The optical illusion of making a difference may not be borne out, but who cares? 
The desk went away, the tables came in, the room is quarantined for a few days, and for the first time in. . . eight years—I am all in one place. Unless I count storage. 

Zoom cocktail. New faces, old friends. I was still hungry; on the phone, Linda counseled me not to complicate the salmon, just bake it in a 400° oven with salt and pepper.  
SNL from home.  
Ate like a pig today. Nux Vomica 6 CH, and bed. Night off.
Oh my god I don’t have a project any more.

Sunday April 26

Watched two episodes of Homeland so that I’ll be caught up for the finale next weekend, and he and I can watch it together in real time, if not real space. 
If the asteroid doesn’t hit us. How timorous I’m becoming. Have to acknowledge that little clutch of fear about a firm rendezvous for one week ahead. Planning anything for the immediate future is oddly more alarming than long discussions about UK versus USA versus EU, if there’s any left by the time they let us out.
Homeland is not soothing. I pull at the fuzz of the hide at my left, and wonder if a wire pet brush might fluff it up. While Carrie Mathison is ruining her career, I check out how you comb a sheep hide, compare the special £4.30 brush from the UK with the $14.00 dog or cat brush from Amazon, and make Jeff Bezos a little richer while endangering a whole chain of overworked, underpaid, unprotected people from warehouse packer to forklift operator to delivery driver, so I can fluff up my sheep hides while I watch TV.

Monday May 11

Woke late. Recorded but have not yet watched governor Cuomo.
The thrill of the disaster movie has worn off. 
This is what life is, this is what it is going to be.
London call; we are both flattened by the monotony. 
When you drop the bravado of This Is The Opportunity To Work On Myself And Grow As A Person To Heal And Create A New World, everything suddenly weighs tons: feet, arms, head, the air, the day, the time.
Even the blue plastic bag that sheathes the NYT for delivery weighed a ton today. It was so heavy that it was sloppy, it was in fact full of water, water that the newspaper had marinated in for so long that it was almost papier mâché.
Another day of WTF. 
I briefly wondered who could have wanted to drown my New York Times
Prepared for a long period when no one will be watching. Or present. Or playing. Put away the movie books, brought forward the psych books that I used to hide, placed the box of remotes within easy reach of the loveseat, stashed away the useless and highly contagious board games—monopoly pieces, scrabble tiles, boxes of racing demon playing cards. All that touching, shouting, scrambling, snatching, pushing, spitting, yelling. Bliss. Forget it.
Attended Ariadne’s webinar about Procrastination so I wouldn’t have to work.
Familiar faces in the Zoom rectangles. But I think procrastination is as shameful for each of them as it is for me, so I didn’t wave. Must be like AA.
Walked with Joseph. Tried some word games on him. He didn’t enjoy playing Essences or Botticelli. “I’d rather gossip,” he said. But about what, dear Joseph, what on earth is there to gossip about? 
Zoom cocktail. One piece of good news about a friend. Each one there (or here, there, everywhere) as fed up with the dormitory aspect of our—so far—comfortable lives. Gloom if not doom and maybe more doom coming. 
France reopened, partially. Provincial hairdressers were overrun, but nothing like the scene French TV news showed, with an editorial smirk—the Colorado eatery jammed with jostling barefaced patrons. They missed showing the one with the guys standing at the Subway in North Carolina carrying automatic weapons and a rocket launcher. 
Those French, they just don’t get it. Tomorrow, right here, Caligula’s horse gets named emperor for life.

Thursday May 14

 Over 36 million people have lost their jobs since March.

All texts © Joan Juliet Buck 2020

About the author

Joan Juliet Buck has been interpreting Europe for Americans and vice versa since 1972, in The Observer, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Traveler, and others. A 1980 MacDowell Colony fellow and the author of two novels, her 2017 memoir The Price Of Illusion details an expatriate’s quest for firm ground. For seven years the editor-in-chief of French Vogue, she has played Marguerite Duras onstage, Meryl Streep’s nemesis on film, and Calista Flockhart’s mother on television.

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