March 28, 2020
Nyack, New York
This morning I walked up to the graveyard—that’s what I like to call it, not a cemetery, which seems too clinical—down the street, across the road from our local hospital, and I walked amid the tombstones, pausing to take in the names, to look at the small bronze plaques that indicated veterans, some with little flags, sun-faded, working my way up the hill on a sunny, clear, spring day until I was high up over the Hudson Valley with a view of the river spreading out below, the new Mario Cuomo Bridge (that we still call the Tappan Zee), a rope between two shores. Up there, sitting on a small bench, watching a few excited squirrels scurrying around, seemingly delighted to be left alone, I felt like myself for the first time since going into so-called quarantine with my wife. Up there, amid the dead, wearing my favorite old black jean jacket, feeling the sun in my face, I felt alone enough to be inside myself, to recognize my life, and it had to do, I think, with the fact that on the way up the hill—taking in the stones, the markers of past lives—I had allowed myself to feel the enormity of the reality of death again, something that (and here I do not mean to sound immodest or cocky) I try to feel when I’m working. I’m not a morose person, and as a matter of fact those who know me find it hard to reconcile the person they know with the work I create, but for me—and this is personal—all art is about death, and all art has to reckon with it fully to really cross over into the deeper aesthetic truth. Again, I realize, writing this, that this sounds somewhat pompous and even egotistical, but up there on a bench, sitting alone, I felt purpose for the first time in weeks, and I felt a release from the daily chores lately—bleaching food on the front porch, trying to gear up to Zoom my students, listening to my wife teach her fifth-grade students via technology, their wonderfully light and eager voices rising and falling—and somehow like a writer, like someone who might create something new. It’s a feeling I need to have to get to work, no matter what, and it often comes walking, or wandering, poking around backstreets in cities I don’t know, or even, sometimes, looking at old photos. The feeling was amplified by the jacket I was wearing, buttoning it up, and the way my body felt on that bench in relation to the landscape—the tilted stones, the birds in the trees, and the blue span of water below against the backdrop of Westchester hills, and to the left, invisible but still there, the place where I live tucked away.
On the way down the hill I searched for the gravestones of Edward Hopper and Carson McCullers, who are buried there, and then I found the stone for C. Wright Mills, the sociologist who, in the heyday of social science, had coined the phrases “power elite” and “white collar.” I found his stone and sat down and shared some time with Mills because my father—a minister and a sociologist—had loved him and turned me onto his work when I was a teenager. I sat there for a while—thinking also about the time that Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan had visited Jack Kerouac’s grave, and felt, again—and I hate to admit it but I must—cool, hip, like someone who might somehow work again. I also prayed a little bit because that’s been part of things lately, throwing out a prayer to God, to the one I believe in, not the one you don’t believe in, or the one you do (I know, again, that might sound absurd but I respect the non-God, or the lack of God, as much as I respect my own God, who I have begun praying to lately, usually deep in the night, trying not to ask for anything but simple guidance.) Cars were passing on the road, which wasn’t far away, and I imagined one of the drivers seeing me, a guy with crazy, windblown hair sitting beside a gravestone in his black jean jacket, and I imagined they imagined I was mourning some relative, some father or mother, or brother or sister, who had left this earth, and that made me feel good—and creative—and made me want to get to my office and begin to work. I was inside their lives imagining them inside my own. Maybe that’s what I was feeling the whole time up there, walking from stone to stone, a sense that my life was just this minuscule thing in relation to the wider universe, a flick in time, but that by using my imagination to see outward and inward at the same time, I could not only be part of a larger reality but also find a way to be inside my body and life. Sitting by C. Wright Mills, I made a note to myself to hold that feeling I had, to carry it with me as I crossed the road and returned to the house, entering quietly so I wouldn’t bother Geneve, who was at the dining room table talking with her students, through the back of the house, down the stairs, to my little study where I write this now, sitting here, looking out the window at the backyard, thinking for some reason about Alice Munro, who I know sometimes looked out the window when she worked, or maybe before she worked. Now I’m here, on the page, writing this, wanting to spiral into other subjects, to talk about Thomas Merton, who I’ve been reading, and about the nature of the symbolic, and how I’ve been thinking about how this crisis, this horrific crisis we’re in right now, isn’t just about the virus, or statistics, but also, for the first time as an internet event, a deeply symbolic revelation of our closeness, of the way we all are interconnected, and somehow it’s also about the value of life itself, because it doesn’t matter what the statistical odds are, or how many would die if we didn’t shut things down, but it’s really about the symbolic power of our new mode of communication; so that when a person dies in Italy, we all know about it, or when the concept of flattening the curve appears, we tweet and Facebook about it until we all, somehow, in a wide mutual agreement, agree that we must do what we can as human souls to slow the plague down. The medium is the message—as Marshall McLuhan said—and the message is that we are collectively willing to put the life ahead of the death. Those stones on the hill, demarking lives that have come and gone, were the early technology, the only way of keeping track of comings and goings, and now we’re in the early age of a new mode of communication, and this crisis is one of the first major revelations of how we are going to mark our lives, and our deaths, in the future. Now I’m thinking about writers—for a minute, Katherine Mansfield comes to mind, and then Joyce, and then Beckett, and then Elena Ferrante. Her book is next to me on the desk here, and I’m going to stop writing and pick it up and go back in—I’m about halfway through My Brilliant Friend—and imagine being in Italy at another time, in a different mind and body.
Enough for now.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Means’s contribution will be directed to the Nyack Center.