Let Us Breathe
My reaction to President Trump’s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square was outrage. I know that historic church well. I was married there many years ago. It is called “the Church of the Presidents” because of its proximity to the White House, and frequent attendance by many past presidents. It is actually fairly small, and noted for its lack of a center aisle.
The bridal couple instead have to make their happy exit down a side aisle. But what was so upsetting to me about Trump’s visit was that he didn’t go to pray or to seek solace. He, who had spent the previous Sunday playing golf, was going simply to pose outside for photographers, holding up a Bible handed to him by his daughter, Ivanka.
That same weekend, Washington protesters surged up Wisconsin Avenue, close to my sister’s Georgetown house. There was violence, and neighborhood stores were broken into. She lives alone except for a sweet Labrador, Maeve. “The sky was full of helicopters, which kept flooding their lights into my bedroom,” she told me, “so I couldn’t even sleep.” In Martha’s Vineyard, I couldn’t sleep either, thinking of these images of police brutality, how COVID-19 has ravaged communities of color and illustrated that health disparities are related to racial inequality. Both these images were such a contrast from the past two months, where we had all been cocooned in our houses and apartments engaging in yoga, spiritual development, and much Zoom activity. Now we suddenly are glued to the television watching massive street demonstrations, most of which are peaceful. Protestors must choose between staying at home and practicing social distancing, or uniting in a movement to end the epidemic of social injustice.
Watching television, I was shocked by the destruction of small businesses, whose owners were already suffering from no business, no customers, and no income. Listening to the young African American men being interviewed, I was appalled that these young men have always been in danger of being pulled over or harassed by the uniformed men who are supposed to be protecting all of us. Now I realize that these abuses, which are part of people of color’s daily experiences, have been covered up by those in power.
A friend, Kelly Smith, a woman of color, shared with me a letter she had written to her children: Here is a segment.
”The walls of this country were built with the premise of freedom and equality for all; however, attached to this notion was the blatant agenda of severe brutality and bigotry … which was sewn with the threads of an infected society. It has broken the backs and has ripped the vibrant life of our forefathers. Their blood stains the very soil that we walk on … We will not give them another day, where we are engaged in sitting on the back of the bus because of the color of our skin. We will not allow another chokehold to kill our spirit and trample our soul. Your knee will not collapse the air passages that sustain us — because we are inferior to your evil ideology. We will deafen the sound of your systemic blow of hatred and brutality so that never again will we say, ‘I CAN’T BREATHE.’”
I was shocked. I have always had friends of different colors. In the years Kelly and I have known each other, however, we have never discussed race. Much has been left unsaid. Unspoken emotions and thoughts have been simmering beneath the surface. American history taught in our schools remains very white, while African American contributions appear negligible.
Walking down to Main Street in Vineyard Haven, I noticed that Timeless Treasures and the Beach House, two stores owned by whites, had big signs in their display windows: “Black Lives Matter.” The next day I went by, and saw two young black women photographing each other standing beside one of the signs. This gave me hope. George Floyd’s death, followed by Rayshard Brooks’ shooting, has made a huge difference in our country and our culture by prompting civil discourse, demonstrations, and long-overdue reform. Now is the time to listen, learn, and lead each other toward the light of a new dawning of equality.
Frozen in Time
Everything is different now.
Walking the streets amid a cascading crescendo of noise from the people, traffic, and businesses that call Manhattan home, I used to encounter all sorts of surprises — neighbors, of course, an unexpected old friend, or occasionally the glimpse a celebrity. Now, self-quarantined on Martha’s Vineyard, the only sounds I hear are crows cawing, blue jays jawing, and warblers trilling. I watch wild turkeys crossing the backyard, and spot a rare walker striding down the street. The silence is deafening. I am alone, a castaway from the city.
The human touch has gone. No hugs, handshakes, or kisses. God, I miss a rub on my back, a warm hug. A few days ago my peonies burst into bloom, reminding me that time is passing. I spend the days rereading David McCullough and Geraldine Brooks.
I have lived more than eight decades, and in many countries, so friends occasionally phone and ask, “Have you ever experienced anything like this?” Yes, I answer.
In a haunting way, I’m reminded of my visit to the town of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It was 2001, 15 years after the explosion. I was living and working in Ukraine, and had heard so much about Chernobyl that I wanted to see it for myself. Along with three other foreigners, I received a special permit to go there; we were met and escorted everywhere by an official with a Geiger counter. What struck me most was the absence of sound. Never have I been to a quieter place, I wrote at the time. No birds, no traffic, none of the industrial hums and screeches.
A second impression was how intangible radiation is. Like a virus, you do not smell it, see it, or intentionally touch it. You think it’s nowhere, until suddenly you realize it’s everywhere. We stood on a road near the center of the exclusion zone where the Geiger counter was silent, while two feet away from the road, the radiation level was 1,000 times higher.
We also stopped to visit a Pripyat apartment house whose residents were told they had 30 minutes to pack one suitcase and bring it to a line of buses. What they weren’t told was that they would never return. I looked around the empty apartments, unmade beds, half-finished letters, and clothes abandoned on a chair. The apartments had been untouched for 15 years.
Today, too, lives have been frozen in time. Instead of being told to evacuate, we are instructed to isolate. We don’t know when we will return to our previous way of living, and or who will be missing when we do.
For months and even years in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, millions of Europeans lived in fear and uncertainty. In Ukraine, there was anger at the Soviet political leaders, who dissembled and covered up the mounting health hazards. This was especially evident when thousands of children were sent to march outdoors in May Day parades instead of telling them to stay at home. The reactor meltdown left a lasting mark on the Ukrainian psyche. To this day, no one knows for sure how many Soviet citizens perished from the eventual effects of radiation, just as no one will ever know for sure how many people have died from the novel coronavirus.
The heroes, then and now, are the first responders — medical personnel, firefighters, soldiers, and countless other essential workers, some of them volunteers, but many others just doing their jobs and bearing the brunt of the risks to spare the rest of society.
Comparing Chernobyl and the current pandemic, I’m struck by how the distant past seems so close.
Coronavirus Chronicles: Reading In Shelter
The pandemic with a shelter-in-place order has pushed us all in different directions. Arriving at my house on Martha’s Vineyard, the first thing that caught my eye was David McCullough’s “John Adams.” “That’s perfect,” I thought. A book I had always meant to read was just sitting there waiting for me. I made a schedule to read seriously an hour a day. Having mostly grown up in Europe, where there was no American history taught at school, I felt “John Adams” would fit the bill. The author is an Islander too, so the book would fill two bills. I became totally absorbed learning about the long, hazardous trips it took Adams to go to Europe, about the smallpox plague in Philadelphia, echoing today’s pandemic, and the fact that his son, like my father, was U.S. Ambassador to Russia. It was a great read.
The next book on my list was Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror.” Since the subject was the black plague, it seemed equally timely. My literary friends all reinforced the general opinion that this was a wonderful book. But as I delved in, the problem was that at that moment, it seemed dense and far away. I decided to put it off for a while, and instead dove into a book about the troubles of Northern Ireland called “Say Nothing.” That book largely took place in Belfast, and included much murder, mayhem, and torture. While It dragged me into a dark and violent time, simultaneously it opened up a whole new world different from the peaceful and green Southern Ireland I had visited, but I loved it. What next?
Of course, you can’t just read serious books, so I was intermittently devouring mystery books. Those set in foreign countries — such as bucolic villages in England, and famous capital cities — I found especially appetizing. This time I followed Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks as he sleuthed in Yorkshire, England, and also escaped into the rather gory thrillers by Mark Pryor, located in Paris and London.
Martha’s Vineyard has long been known as a center for writers and artists, and among the joys of Vineyard living have always been book parties, lectures, art exhibits, and theater. Several of my literary friends began making physical contributions to my reading list, and a pile of new books started to accumulate on my hall table. A strange Island tradition is the absence of doorbells, so masked friends would “knock and drop.” There was a big, fat book on Vladimir Putin, written by Fiona Hill, about Russia, where I had lived so many years as both a child and as an adult. Had even spent a rather grim half an hour alone meeting with Putin when he was vice mayor of Saint Petersburg, where his Artic glance chilled me to the bone.
Another Russian contender, obviously less serious, called “Pravda HaHa,” chronicled the outrageous adventures of a famous travel writer in Russia. A third entry soon followed, “Disappearing Earth,” by Julia Phillips. This very original book, about how the disappearance of two young girls affected a community, took place in Kamchatka, and was raved about by the donor. I was engrossed. Kamchatka had always been on my list of places to visit. Much to my surprise, I found my nephew Brandon in Atlanta, Ga., was reading it as well. Clearly an affinity with Russia runs in the family.
Gifts were followed by loaners. More knock and drops. First Honor Moore’s “Our Revolution,” a memoir about her life with her mother. The title puzzled me — what do revolutions have to do with mothers? So I put the book off that day. But the second loaner, another memoir, was much more fun. Titled “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir,” written by Victoria Riskin, another Islander, it drew me right in. Fay Wray, the author’s mother, was the heroine of “King Kong,” but also starred in about 100 other movies. Fay managed to be a doting mother and devoted wife at the same time. Riskin’s book is hard to put down, and immerses you in the chaotic and creative world of early Hollywood, with a little stardust on the side.
While the pandemic has kept me at home, I have enjoyed my travels to colonial America, Belfast, Ireland, Yorkshire, England, Moscow, Kamchatka, and early Hollywood. And who knows where my next voyage will take me?