The End of February

Virgo Full Moon

I went out for the first time in a few days. The weather was mild , and I had recycling to take out, and there is always a point at which the twitch in your legs feels like it must be heeded, spiky contagion or not. All the same, it’s always a leap to open the front door – the airlock to the universe. Or maybe like a bit like thinking about diving into a pool, waiting for the moment, never quite sure it is there. At some point, you will have to decide yourself, and not wait for the sense of rightness. Or maybe – that is the moment.

Once upon a time, I was at the edge of a quarry swimming hole, with dark green-blue water beckoning slyly under an uncertain sky that was just becoming more cloud than blue-grey, and a wind that would suddenly pick up off the ocean and slip through the ragged pines that clung to the rocks of the small island. A bit like life, really. Every time I resurrected my courage to dive into the water – and it was really the only way to do it – either all at once or not at all – the wind would pick up again and the sun would hide behind a cloud. Finally, a friend who had been watching me, from the golden perch of self-satisfied drying off after an icy swim, laughed and pushed me in.

How dangerous! How unreasonable! The removal of all autonomy!

All these thoughts ran through my head as I pillowed through the cold water, depths not to be touched, shock and icy skin instantly becoming an internal tautness, senses on alert. The smell of water – so watery – not the salt of the ocean, weirdly, as the sea thrashed and shook not a quarter-mile away – filled me – damp – dark – full. I should be mad, I thought. Yet, I wasn’t. The attack on my autonomy was all those things – and none of them. And I knew now I could claim the privilege of sitting on the rocks, freezing and wet, declaring victory and the success of my summer reintroduction to the body -remembering what happens when tender flesh meets the world.

Like life, really.

As the rain falls, the pigeons and doves coo to each other, under air conditioners, and in corners, hiding on the bits of the rooftops that are protected, as sheep and moor ponies do by a stone wall or hedge. Birds in the winter must be hungry. I have bread for them. They are bold enough now to pick it off the window sill. Otherwise, the starlings, who turn out to be the wild ones on the bus from the outskirts, with their streaks of green and gold in the dark feathers, and easy instant willingness to fight and sing, shake at the food and look confused when the morsels of bread disappear through the gaps in the fire escape metal, falling to the alley below, dispensing with everyone’s breakfast.

When I went out, I found that after a few days of warmer weather, the mountains of snow at the shore between sidewalk and street had nearly all gone, leaving behind a collection of masks and plastic bags filled with dog poo, and the bits of garbage that the trucks and the men always leave behind, here in New York City. A quick sidenote – I have not lived everywhere in Europe or the UK, so cannot say for certain – but I know from my fairly recent trip that London at least seems to move closer to the American ideal of privatization and resentment and disaffection that must be the reasons garbage men here rarely pick up whatever falls out of bags, or anything that isn’t properly ready for the dawn raid by the white trucks. I’m all for work to rule to make a point – even if this seems to be a point that hurts everyone. But when you’re tired, you’re tired – and all the unspoken rules are the loudest. New garbagemen must start out picking everything up, the way some wonderful drivers on the subway give a late-night radio announcement, their melodious voices describing what is coming up next. Not like life.

A friend and I once had some voiceless interaction with the driver in the front car, as we all looked out at the track and horizon, watching Manhattan come closer, the Kingdom of Oz, like in a video game. I walked up to the man in the compartment to say goodbye and thank you at my stop, , and he pulled down the window to interact. Neither wanting to just abandon the anonymity of transport, usually one of the secret joys of the city – the quick removal of connection. He would continue – go around the sharp curve by the new concrete condominium buildings – and finally sink below the surface, the only way into Oz, subterranean. A thousand people in each train, safely guided by the heroes of the everyday. He smiled and wished us a good night and hoped he would see us again soon. I think of him, and the bus driver who used to watch each person try to insert a thin bit of plastic so his bosses could get their money,  acknowledging those who said hello, moving students without tickets along, a man on a schedule, who had to work a shift that meant sometimes I’d see him both morning and night. I heard someone ask him about this once, and he nodded. Said he went home in between, but it was hard to rest or do anything else, before it was time to get up and do another commute to the job. But what choice did he have? The powerlessness we feel, faced with casual cruelty of those who make schedules, and follow the rules without thinking. When I saw that the MTA employees, and the drivers of course, suffered the worst almost of anyone during this whole pandemic nightmare, I thought of both of them. I prayed for them. They deserve better than the casual indifference of egomania and cruelty that passed for leadership. Four long years of moral pandemic. We mustn’t forget.

Of course, the millionaires, looking on their laptops from some other place at the pictures from the security webcam they have installed in their new apartment on the 80th floor, aren’t terribly concerned. Didn’t they receive a tax rebate for buying this new build? Some misguided hope that their millions would trickle down. But they aren’t even here. And when they are, what do they care?

So many people have left NYC. They will probably be back. I know someone who said, “We’re buying our second home first.”

I think of that, when I write the rent check and train the mice to disappear when I clap my hands. I saw a very sweet mouse the other day, small and grey, and looking somewhat confused. Imagine if mouse world was like the Zoom meetings everyone sits through – the outward manifestation of behind-the-scenes Machiavellian power plays, light-hearted banter between those who made their deal and now seek to show it, the one person who repeats at every meeting exactly what the “leader” says, with the eternal preface of “I agree – that is a great idea” – the rest, smiling, checking email, looking engaged, then finally speaking up to make a point that matters, while recognizing the entire meeting can not be only about agreeing to ridiculous things. A reality show – a game of very low thrones, and the people who buy into it for a variety of reasons. Including me. Remember to smile. At least we now don’t all have to report on what we’ve been up to, like some group project no one wants to complete, the way we did at the beginning of this new version of Reimagining Leadership 101.

But the little grey mouse ambled along, not at all keeping to the walls and perimeters, like stressed mice do in studies, looking around, a bit dazed. It ran off when disturbed quickly enough, so not sick. But maybe it went off to explore somewhere else, with skills and vision not shared by the other mice, who were fixated on chewing at the wall and chasing each other around. Keeping to the mouse trail at the edges of the wall, instead of venturing out into the dangerous middle. Yes, evolution, hawks and open ground – I know this. But the world doesn’t have perimeters – it’s not flat – sorry. And at the edge, you must cross, or retreat and return. Some brave mouse once wandered into the middle, while its group mocked.

There’s no grant to study this, and maybe that’s a blessing. So many interesting, thoughtful people – and yet they can only observe the things there is grant money to study, and fight to be first in a group, because that’s what they were taught to do.

The end of winter reveals detritus and debris. Have we spent our time wisely in lockdown, in our wintry caves? Or will spring just be the green overgrowth hiding what the snow used to conceal?

Alice Severin February 2021

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