If Shakespeare Ran a Zoom

I chose to listen to a Shakespeare play done by the Royal Shakespeare theater. I had my earphone in while I was cleaning the kitchen. I wanted to escape into the lovely dramatic enunciation of the THEATAH.

I am not the only one. It’s been a lot of being home. We have not gotten much art in our separation.

What we do have is a lot of screen time and zoom meetings.

And masks. Not the fun theater kind–the kind that makes you wonder if other people are mad at you from 6 feet away.

I wanted a little break. Royal Shakespeare company, a comforting bottle of pine sol and my earbuds. I was cleaning my kitchen with world class actors speaking the beautiful old-fashioned pentameter.

But wait…I wasn’t paying attention. Did I miss something? Is that queen actually sincere when she is planning her support of the step-daughter? I thought she didn’t like her.

I wasn’t going to rewind to make sure I understood the intention. But then I remembered:

Shakespeare is not subtle. If that queen is plotting a demise but saying sweet words, the bard will have her do a stage whisper aside. My face cracked in a smile. Good old Will. He puts in the reversals, but he leaves BIG CLUES to make sure we can follow along.

And I did pause the play at that point. He got it right. He is as true now as he was 500 years ago.

Zoom meetings are exhausting, right? Everyone says so.

I’ve heard that a good policy in these tiring meetings is, when you have a question? Repeat it three times.

One time
Two times

Got that? Everybody ready?
No?
Three times

There are a lot of things competing for our attention. It’s crazy out there. It takes a few tries to make sure the message is heard.

I need to do my Zooms like Shakespeare showed us. You can get through all kinds of twists, substitutions and mistaken identities if you keep stating the facts. We can get through it if we stick to this idea:

“Speak plain and to the purpose.”

Experience

I’ve seen enough change to know that more will come
-Gloria Steinem

I’m looking for work again. I am a lot calmer about it than I have been in the past, because I realize I have successfully found work so many times before I can trust myself to do it again.

There is a name for that:
Experience

I have a lot of experience now. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, because it would be very comforting to look over my shoulder and ask someone else how to do this. It’s just…I’m that someone now.

One thing I’m good at after all these years is working with people remotely. That’s another hot trend right now “working remote” It means everyone is on their homes.

But it also has another meaning. When I am in my employer’s office building in California and I need to work with a coworker who is in DC, I am assisting remotely. I’ve had to do this kind of cooperation for all kinds of global work.

My work has to do with physical equipment, network connection and audio and video signals on each side. And very few of those things can I check remotely, only the network and that only a little.

Across time zone and language barriers, with the stress of the High up Executives wanting this all to work, I have to talk to my colleagues in all the other sites at the other end of the meeting and get it working. I have to trust the person who is there.

I know the equipment. I know which lights blink and how it all is cabled together. But I am not there. They are. I have to hear what they are telling me.

Even when it seems impossible and wrong.

But if my colleague is on the phone with me, describing the lights and the cables, I have to believe he is sincere. I’ve talked janitors into re-cabling entire systems for me. If we stay on the phone and trust each other it comes out all right.

I have heard stories that sound impossible. I know for sure how these systems work!

But I learned to listen. To ask questions and hear what my colleagues are saying. To trust them and ask again and again until we figured it out.

And we always figured it out. Because I did know how the systems worked. And they were telling me what they heard and saw.

Sometimes there were very big language and communication barriers. But I learned to use better words and be more precise. And to get confirmation from the remote colleague that she understood what I was asking.

There were a lot of tense moments, but every single time we did it. We just had to keep talking.

I’m thinking about that right now in my country. We are very politically divided. I am at home without a job and I’m feeling discouraged.

But I have experience. I’ve experienced how it can work out. We just have to keep working it. We’ll get there.

It’s your voice

“Why should I vote?” Olga said. “It doesn’t matter.

It was 1993 and I lived with Olga in Yakutsk Russia. When I first moved to Yakutsk to teach English-language kindergarten in a Christian school, Olga was the music teacher. She adopted me and persuaded me to move in with her.

I had my own bed in a two-room flat with the other teachers. There were four of us, but they were all so much older than me. I had just turned 20. Olga was 18 and like most Russians lived with her parents.

The other teacher whispered to me that she’d heard Olga was in the middle of a divorce. But this seemed unbelievable. I had to ask her was it true.

Yes, it was. She had gotten married at 16, she said. In fact, the single bed we shared—sleeping feet by head—had been the one she shared with her husband.

Why get married so young?

It was the thing to do, apparently. But he wasn’t nice to her. And after he went to prison for reasons unclear to me, she decided it was time to divorce. Except the church she had become part of seemed to want to give her advice about it—or at least gossip about it. She said the pastor said he would not give her advice one way or another.

But she and I spent all our time together and there was an election. And I wanted to go with her to see what it was like. She was not at all interested. “My vote doesn’t matter.”

The word for vote is Russian is the same word for voice. This still charms me. My American self was sure that it was her civic duty. And even if it hadn’t mattered during soviet times, surely things were getting better. That was more than a year ago! She should be part of the activism of voting.

Plus, I wanted to see what it looked like.

I persuaded her. We never had enough excitement anyway. She figured out the site to vote, and we took the bus to a section of the city I didn’t know. I went with her and saw the little stations. I had voted once right before I had, but I’d seen my parents vote. It looked very similar. I was happy for the new Russian Federation.

Yeltsin was president, but this was a local election. My Russian was not strong enough to follow it but there was not a lot of press about it anyway.

She came back from her booth and grabbed my arm, “I saw him!”

“What? Did you vote?”

Yes yes yes, she showed me her inked finger. This was a vote?

“But listen! I saw my ex!” She was nervous, clinging to me as we walked out.

He had been out of prison for a while, which I hadn’t known. She said he had a new woman in his life, and she had been with him. On the bus, Olga discussed her a little. She was so much older!

She had done it. She voted, even though she thought it didn’t matter. I told her I was very proud of her: “You used your voice.”

It is confusing and there are a lot of reasons not to bother. But I still believe my voice matters.

We Went… Maybe not the Woods

2020: the year we acted like we lived in the depression. Staying close to home. Baking sourdough bread. We grew plants from starts and seeds

I got to know my neighborhood. I watched spring come with rains. I saw the baking summer sun crisp the grass.

About the time the neighbors started talking about birdcalls, I knew we had travelled even further back in time.

I picked up Walden.

My friends and I are looking to find the silver lining in the quarantine.

What is really important? Are these material things really what we want? COVID made me think about death and therefore how precious life is.  Walden does the same. What is really most important?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”

Yes. If I am holing up to protect life, what am I protecting?  What kind of life is a lonely solitude? Before I pout too hard about my situation, Thoreau puts the challenge out there. He lays it out: take the time to notice the beauty around you!

He went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Even in the shutdown, there is marrow to suck. There are skies and plants to observe, simple skills to practice and alternate paths to try.

There is richness in the things I have passed over. The sun in the sky is a marvel. I have learned to observe it in ways I never have before.

Big cities—New York, San Francisco—they are hollowing out. People are taking their lessons from the lockdown and moving house. Sacramento and Salt Lake City are filling up with new neighbors. Now that people can choose, can do their work from their homes, they are changing the homes.

Thoreau and his Transcendental buddies. were quite thrilled with finding new classics, and making up their own minds

“Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us and we will see if they know anything”

Sounds like the internet to me. I want to know all the things the world has to offer, and I delight in new ideas. I love to be the one to make up my own mind about their value. I don’t have to live by the expected wisdom. This is a time to explore and make up my own mind. The whole world awaits.

It used to be

There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings movie where the village is being attacked and the children are sent to light the bonfire. It’s a system of fires set up to be lit across hilltops. This was the warning system.

This is the medieval 3- way handshake: light signal fire- far end sees signal fire. Far end lights signal fire.

That’s how the internet does it. But the internet hadn’t happened yet. There were a few more stops along the way between the signal fire and the internet.

The Post office changed everything. Ben Franklin had a great instinct for marketing, and the story goes that he invented electricity, white wigs and the post office, but the real breakthrough came from Victorian England.

Letters had been around since writing. The way it went is the letter writer would find some lucky person, and ask him to deliver it. The person would be paid by the person receiving the letter.

Remember that old saying “Don’t kill the messenger”? The value of a letter depended a lot on what was in it. There were risks involved.

Sir Rowland Hill invented stamps. England created a set of posts so that deliveries of these prepaid letters could be sent to anyone. And the letters were secret the envelope protected the message from strange eyes.

This was new in the world. Sir Rowland had to vision and got enough cooperation to make it a reality. No one had thought of it before, but once it existed it took off. It was so sensible it spread.

Until it was created, it wasn’t even a concept. It was impossible until one day it was normal. And once it was normal it could be made better and better until we have this internet that erases time and distance.

And we have a system that the whole world is riding on.

This normal amazing this didn’t used to be here. There are things just offstage waiting to be possible. I wonder what is next.

A Piece of Faulkner

I just finished Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Something in the air drew me to read it again. Faulkner was wrestling with his inheritance—the legacy of the American South.

He writes a fictional story that holds his experience. He lives on the edge of a conquered land. The story is not easy at all—at no point do we hear the voice of the main character. We hear the memories and the inferences of the people who were connected or controlled by him, by Thomas Sutpen, the demon hero of the story.

Sutpen controls the people around him and no one stands against him. They seem to admire what he can do so much they allow all the collateral damage.

He is the embodiment of a pure single-minded vision, and the people around him fall into it and give him what he wants. They are mesmerized, wanting to see what will happen. Will he make his dream come true?

The main narrator—not the only narrator—is Quentin. He’s not related to any of the characters, but his grandfather knew the demon Sutpen.

Quentin is trying to piece together what happened. Everyone from his hometown has their version of the story. No one can leave it alone.

They pull his sleeve, telling him what really happened.

He is stuck trying to make sense of it. What happened? Between all their versions he is not sure of the basic facts.

The others are sure. And he’s heard the stories his whole life so he knows the basic facts.

Until he thinks about it. He is trying to sort it all out with his college roommate. Now that he is not at home where everyone is so sure, he himself is not so sure.

He talks it over and over with his roommate. They piece together what he never saw clearly, what was hidden in plain sight, this dark dark dark story of the American South.

It’s a masterpiece and it is not for the fainthearted.

Here’s the piece that I can break off for you all:

I know there are stories I’ve heard and accepted my whole life. Sometimes, when I look at them now, they aren’t true anymore. They may have been true once. But they don’t have to be true now.

It is worth sifting out the jagged edges to find the things that aren’t true anymore. The assumptions can be discarded. I deserve to have the true truth.

Candle

This week I burned down a pumpkin spice candle. The date on the bottom said 2006. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s kept a decorative candle for years. It’s moved with me to several homes, but this year

I burned it all the way down.

This is the year I’ve learned to appreciate candles. I’ve burned down quite a few during the quarantine. I had forgotten about the little orange pumpkin candle, but after the other scented candle ran out, I found it and set it next to me on the desk.

It’s a friendly thing.

Lighting a single candle

My daughter has gotten in on it. The supermarket had some big fall candles and I brought a few home. I’d say the scent could be dialed back 2 or 3 notches, but Veronica loves it and lights it while she is doing her schoolwork.

I saw the candle growing smaller in its glass jar.

She asked “Where does it go?”

“It burns away. You can’t really see it, but it becomes smoke and floats away on the air.”

We stared at the flickering flame together. It was a quiet feeling.

Candles have been companions to worried people for a long time. They doesn’t ask for much. They put out light

Warmth

Kindness

maybe Hope

That little flicker is known all over the world as a prayer without words

When the hope is too fragile sometimes words are too heavy.

Or

When the imagination is too rusty and life is too rigid to conceive of another way, words don’t work.

I can light a single candle. I don’t even have to know why.

It helps. And I am grateful.

Time to Work

I remember.

I remember arriving to work at a specific time, settling in to my cube and starting my day. I had routines, an overflowing inbox and a clear understanding that, at a certain point, I would leave.

THIS is work

THIS is home

I remember rock-paper-scissors with my husband for which of us would pick up the child from school.

School was over THERE.

Now all the things are here. With a few more added on. There are intruding news stories and contagion reports.

I met a new friend on Zoom last week. I told her I was working on a new book, but…Covid.

“You must have so much time for writing now.”

Well, I do have time.

But whose time is it?

My job happily takes every second I give it and asks for more.

I find the starch to draw a boundary when it comes to my kid. She needs me!

And what is left?

Used to be I could leave the house for some uninterrupted time: a “break.”

Breaks are broken. Those cheap seats at Starbucks are illegal.

So, I’m nowhere. I’m not the only one.

We had a system. We had a lot of systems this. And every last one is unavailable.

This whole thing has gone on long enough. There is a lot I can’t control. And there are some things I can.

Repeat five times fast:

NoNoNoNoNo

I am not available at that time. I have a previous commitment.
Leave mommy alone. I am doing work.
MY work.
This is my time.
Other people cannot have it. Other people will have to wait.

In a blaze of irony, it’s going to take work to take a break. It’s still worth it. We’re going to be here a while.

Choice

These are uncertain times. That’s what all the commercials are calling it.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt are in abundance. All of those things make people scared and unable to act.

It’s finally September. In fact, we are coming to the end of September. We are three quarters of the way through this year.

What a year! Back in March, one quarter of the year had passed and we were told to stay home. Like an inverse hibernation. Stay home this spring.  Don’t leave. Don’t come out.

And then it became the summer too. And apparently the fall.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt is a well-known inhibitor. It even has a Wikipedia entry. Don’t think, just do what you are told. Wikipedia says it can “discourage decision-makers from choosing”

Stay. Be afraid. Be uncertain.

But time is passing. With every moment comes the need to make choices. Even if the choice is to remain.

For the most part, I remain. But I refuse to be choiceless. With every breath I have volition.

I choose to remain. Choice brings air back. If I choose to remain, what other choices are there?

I do not choose fear. There are sure things I do not doubt. I choose the opposite of fear.

“Perfect love casts out fear”   

I can show love. I can give love to the people around me. To get outside the choicelessness of fear and doubt, I choose to love who and what is around me.

I know I can love my family. Then I can stretch that love and give it out to the people who are less easy to love.

That makes room for more choice. More air. Freedom.

There is always fear, uncertainty and doubt.

There is also

always

Love, surety and choice.

I choose love. The rest will follow.

100 books

This list of 100 novels was drawn up by the editorial board of Modern Library. Where possible, book titles have been linked to either the original New York Times review or a later article about the book.

1. “Ulysses,” James Joyce READ

2. “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald READ

3. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” James Joyce READ

4. “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov READ

5. “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley

6. “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner READ

7. “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller READ

8. “Darkness at Noon,” Arthur Koestler

9. “Sons and Lovers,” D. H. Lawrence

10. “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck READ

11. “Under the Volcano,” Malcolm Lowry

12. “The Way of All Flesh,” Samuel Butler

13. “1984,” George Orwell READ

14. “I, Claudius,” Robert Graves

15. “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf READ

16. “An American Tragedy,” Theodore Dreiser

17. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Carson McCullers

18. “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut Started

19. “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison READ

20. “Native Son,” Richard Wright Started

21. “Henderson the Rain King,” Saul Bellow

22. “Appointment in Samarra,” John O’ Hara

23. “U.S.A.” (trilogy), John Dos Passos

24. “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson READ

25. “A Passage to India,” E. M. Forster

26. “The Wings of the Dove,” Henry James

27. “The Ambassadors,” Henry James READ

28. “Tender Is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

29. “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy,” James T. Farrell

30. “The Good Soldier,” Ford Madox Ford READ

31. “Animal Farm,” George OrwellREAD

32. “The Golden Bowl,” Henry James

33. “Sister Carrie,” Theodore Dreiser READ

34. “A Handful of Dust,” Evelyn Waugh

35. “As I Lay Dying,” William Faulkner

36. “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren READ

37. “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder

38. “Howards End,” E. M. Forster

39. “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin

40. “The Heart of the Matter,” Graham Greene

41. “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding

42. “Deliverance,” James Dickey

43. “A Dance to the Music of Time” (series), Anthony Powell

44. “Point Counter Point,” Aldous Huxley

45. “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway

46. “The Secret Agent,” Joseph Conrad

47. “Nostromo,” Joseph Conrad

48. “The Rainbow,” D. H. Lawrence

49. “Women in Love,” D. H. Lawrence

50. “Tropic of Cancer,” Henry Miller

51. “The Naked and the Dead,” Norman Mailer

52. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Philip Roth READ

53. “Pale Fire,” Vladimir Nabokov

54. “Light in August,” William Faulkner READ

55. “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac READ

56. “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett READ

57. “Parade’s End,” Ford Madox Ford

58. “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton READ

59. “Zuleika Dobson,” Max Beerbohm

60. “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy

61. “Death Comes to the Archbishop,” Willa Cather READ

62. “From Here to Eternity,” James Jones

63. “The Wapshot Chronicles,” John Cheever

64. “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger READ

65. “A Clockwork Orange,” Anthony Burgess

66. “Of Human Bondage,” W. Somerset Maugham

67. “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad READ

68. “Main Street,” Sinclair Lewis READ

69. “The House of Mirth,” Edith Wharton READ

70. “The Alexandria Quartet,” Lawrence Durrell

71. “A High Wind in Jamaica,” Richard Hughes

72. “A House for Ms. Biswas,” V. S. Naipaul

73. “The Day of the Locust,” Nathaniel West

74. “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway

75. “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh

76. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Muriel Spark

77. “Finnegans Wake,” James Joyce

78. “Kim,” Rudyard Kipling READ

79. “A Room With a View,” E. M. Forster

80. “Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh

81. “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow READ

82. “Angle of Repose,” Wallace Stegner

83. “A Bend in the River,” V. S. Naipaul

84. “The Death of the Heart,” Elizabeth Bowen

85. “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad

86. “Ragtime,” E. L. Doctorow

87. “The Old Wives’ Tale,” Arnold Bennett

88. “The Call of the Wild,” Jack London READ

89. “Loving,” Henry Green

90. “Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie

91. “Tobacco Road,” Erskine Caldwell

92. “Ironweed,” William Kennedy

93. “The Magus,” John Fowles

94. “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys

95. “Under the Net,” Iris Murdoch

96. “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron

97. “The Sheltering Sky,” Paul Bowles

98. “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” James M. Cain

99. “The Ginger Man,” J. P. Donleavy

100. “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Booth Tarkington READ