It has begun to rain. Starting lightly. Gathering intensity as the sky darkens with the confluence, if that is an accurate or even applicable term, of the setting sun and the thickening of the low cloud cover. The red poppies in the front yard are being pelted with heavy drops as thick as rubber bullets. This seems to happen every spring a day or so after Memorial Day.

The rain beats against the bowed flower heads. Scarlet petals drop. These flowers seem to be unsuited to withstand the rain that comes each year at this time. Or is this not the case? Do I have it all wrong? Might the rain fit into some natural regenerative process that suits them just fine and it is only my own dark mood that colors what I see?

Nonetheless, they seem sadder to me in the rain this evening. Now that we did not stand, this year, in the cemetery on the hill in the sun as In Flanders Fields was read aloud in the heat of the day, with the bugle saluting and the old men and women in their faded caps and dress blues and browns and hands over their slow-beating hearts and the medals of war and wounds on their chests, among the  granite stones with names we all know and had once rubbed when we were young with soft pencil lead on earnest white paper to bring home with us in tight rolls to put on the mantlepiece or in the closet in the upstairs bedroom. Sadder now that the summer we will soon begin is like no other we have ever seen.

I think though that the sadness has bled not from the drooping flowers but from some dark place that lives within my own chest.

I do not know what day it is. I take my temperature.

How hopeful I was months ago when “stay at home” was somewhat of a welcome abstraction that had quiet days and simple lunches and stacks of books waiting to be read, and working remotely all seemed to be a relief.

How sure I was that no one I knew would become infected. That no one I knew would die in a bed or an alley, out of sight. That a ringing phone would be a portent or that a choice would need to be made by some between risk of infection or risk of eviction. What a false and flimsy folly that was.

How fragile and tenuous is the balance between help and harm in a community. How thin the line is between survival and death that it can be crossed so rapidly and so great numbers?

How ignorant we can be to stand by and not stop the encroachment of our unlimited self-interest and greed upon the limited resources and life on the planet. How swiftly that life, older than our own oldest ancestors, responds to that encroachment with a predicted infectious death blow and a rising sea.

How Orwellian it all is. To see, in real time and in repetition, the horror. How geometrically and inexorably, brutality and inequality and racism and greed and filthy politics feed on one another. Huxley warned us: Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

How could we not see how dependent each of us is upon one another; how false the notion of independence, of walls and safety, of security and how little we need one another.

The toxicity of our own breath and how quickly that breath can be suffocated, tear-gassed, unplugged. How we now see the broad reach and deeply personal reality of “I can’t breathe.”

I am reading Kendi and Garrett and Camus. Plagues of different sorts. I have read the lives of the philosophers. Socrates. Emerson. Kant. Nietzsche. I have watched a man die on the ground with a knee pressed to his neck. His killer in blue with his relaxed and idle hand in his pocket as if he is waiting for a train.

My son and daughter are home from college. We agree that systemic racism, white privilege, corporate consumer capitalism, militarism, the monetization and devaluation of human life, the institutionalization of impoverishment, the systematic abnegation of the common good, and the chimeric triplet forces of federal fascism, anti-intellectualism, and neoliberalism have created the rotting floor upon which we all are forced to walk. I am blessed by the currency of their language and perception, as I am by my partner’s love. I could not do this alone.

I long for the city. For its penetrating vibrance. Its awareness. Its speed and its greensward of progressivism. Union Square. Corner bodegas. The rushing river of music and food that irrigates the soil of city life. And now, the soulful salute of pots and pans from windows in the evenings, showing how close we all are in our incarceration to the banging and raking of metal cups across the bars caging men and women in true lockdown and to the quickness of confrontation in the streets. The loudness of voices.

Trump is wrong. He could not, holding a holy bible, shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and get away with it. Or could he? He might if he were on E 57th, smirking beside his golden tower. But not the city I know. Not if he tried that on 112th or on 8th or on Flatbush or on Amsterdam or Queens Boulevard.

I am a masked man. I have shaved my pandemic beard. I have lost weight in quarantine. I have been zoomed. My hair has grown long.

I must have slept. I have awoken with the gentle cat in the crook of my arm. The rain has cleared the air. The sun is out. New scarlet-red poppy buds have opened, revealing deep purple centers: brief memorials to Arbery and Floyd, Garner, Taylor and Till, and to the millions of shrouded neighbors, lost and mourned, whose names we are yet to know.

6 thoughts on “Malaise”

  1. So much to think about here in your moving piece…I found great comfort in your quotation by Huxley, “Facts do not cease because they are ignored”, and how you and your family are reenforcing each other’s truth. I identified so much with your malaise because I think those of us at a certain age will continue to have very real threats of survival for an indeterminable future even as life ‘opens up’. Your thought “How thin the line is between survival and death that it can be crossed so rapidly and such great numbers” brought to mind the work of Ocean Vuong. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, he detailed his struggle to be free of his depressingly difficult childhood: “Freedom, I am told, is nothing but distance between the hunter and its prey.” I leave on a more hopeful idea from a valedictorian speech I just heard at St. Mark’s School where Jack Griffin urged his classmates to be “active optimists” by seeing what life is and what it can become and acting on that expectation. Those of us who came of age in the sixties thought we would be there by now, but obviously must still focus on what it can become.


    1. Thank you, Nancy. Our experience since January: the impeachment, the approaching epidemic, the grossly mishandled public health response, the lockdown, the enormity of the losses, and the state brutality we have lived through is like opening a forgotten closet door and having the contents fall down upon your head.


  2. Joe,
    I sometimes think it is presumptuous to tell an author that an essay or story should be published., but this piece should be read by many. So, I urge you to do so.

    I wrote the ditty (which I hardly ever do anymore) below because of it:

    Would you please say I,
    so the whole world can share,
    the wallow of your deep despair?

    Would you please say I,
    so the whole world could parse,
    the road to hope in this unrelenting farce.


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