Love in the time of coronavirus

Timely contents of a Little Free Library

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The music goes on

Coronatime is transforming everything, multiplying the many forms of love. We are clinging to those we take for granted. Many of us are reaching out to long-lost friends and family members. Across the world people are singing in solidarity from their confined apartments in adjacent buildings. Others are cheering for exhausted healthcare workers who are risking everything. Healthcare workers are applauding patients coming off ventilators. Citizens are appreciating all the suppliers along the food chain. Some of us are venturing to shop for the frail. Over and over we are seeing the meme of love expressed through window panes. We are dreading the grieving love of passing life. At the same time, people are falling in love. From isolation to the dance of facial masks in public space, the thrill of fear and danger, it’s a Mardi Gras unlike any other. Symptoms are timeless: rising temperature, shortness of breath, and a nervous cough.

A novel that explores love and death in time of disease is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, 1988), which I serendipitously found recently in one of Atlanta’s little free libraries.

The little library
A Little Free Library in Druid Hills

Sheltering in place still permits walking around, and Buddy the black pug and I have been going on long walks, passing a dozen little libraries. The point of this “world’s largest book-sharing movement” is to give a book to take a book, a perfect practice of socially distanced love whereby participants never even know their partners. The practice promotes pro-social free-floating love. The Little Free Libraries were was started by Todd H. Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin, back in 2009 and has become so popular that there are now little libraries all over the world and even little library-inspired works of art, such as this song by Bonnie Hundrieser and Lizzie Radke in Duluth, MN (courtesy of Bonnie Hundrieser):

Buddy and I got in the habit of going out empty handed and coming back with interesting books, slowly accruing debt. By the time coronavirus rolled around we owed seven books.

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The debt of 7

One of the uncanny finds was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Its pages engulf. What does this Colombian great have to say about love during a plague?

Love in the Time of Cholera
An uncanny find

Marquez depicts infectious disease as a tragedy to be prevented through public health measures. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, one of two protagonists, was trained in Paris in the latter half of the 19th century and returns to Cartagena, Colombia, to practice medicine following the death of his father from cholera. There he finds rampant disease and death (“it was impossible to discern the ardent scent of jasmine behind the vapors of death from the open sewers”), motivating his successful urban planning efforts. Then he falls in love, a sickness of its own. Justin Romero, who grew up in the Atlanta area, reads this passage from the third section of the novel in the following soundclip:

In so many other ways this novel is an exploration of love amid sickness and death. Florentino Ariza, the other protagonist and lover of Fermina Daza, is a counter current in the book. Whereas Dr. Juvenal Urbino leads a traditional expected development from youth into old age, Florentino is an old man from the time of his youth, ailing and perpetually lovesick, decadent, and on a different timeline marked by postponed love, detours, and seduction through letters. When Florentino is old he seems born again into a new youth, though the journey is foreclosed and haunted. Unexpectedly (because it is rare), this novel takes on the taboo topic of love in aging, challenging assumptions and stereotypes.

The book debt was weighing heavy on my mind and coronatime seemed the perfect time to also clear shelves and give back. Gathering seven old books, Buddy and I returned to the little libraries to stock them with what was dead or extra to us, possibly to be loved by someone else.

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The gift of 7

The never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha

An egomaniac on the loose in the US and Spain

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“Don Quixote head” by sanzibar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for spurring me on to read Don Quixote (1615) – Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation in particular. Your New Yorker story “The Little King” and the recently published novel Quichotte seduced me by showcasing Atlanta and made an offer (to read and compare Cervantes’ classic to contemporary times) that I could not refuse. Continue reading The never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha

A Californian in Atlanta

Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill evokes Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970)

Beach by South Fork Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve Atlanta
Beach along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve, Atlanta

After living in Atlanta for 14 years, I remain convinced that as states go, Georgia and California are about as far apart, physically and culturally, as you can get. The sweltering humidity of Atlanta in July is completely unknown in California, where heat is dry, plunges at night, and reappears in the morning only after the fog lifts. The ocean is a long four-and a half hour drive away from Atlanta compared with minutes away in my native Bay Area, though I’ve recently discovered the sand beaches hidden along our copious creeks. California has “Cal” (University of California at Berkeley), the ghost of hippies past, while Georgia has “UGA” (University of Georgia, Athens) where students even today actually wear what appear to be Chanel dresses to football games. California speak may be vague, dude, but Georgia speak is intentionally indirect and veiled, bless your hearts. California has Hollywood, but Georgia has … Hollywood of the South. Finally! One point of state-to-state connection. Continue reading A Californian in Atlanta

Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn comes alive in music

The Meridian Chorale performing in Southern Folk Passion, with Brenda Bynum on April 14, 2019 (photo courtesy of Meridian Herald)

I owe my budding awareness of Sidney Lanier entirely to Meridian Herald’s Southern Folk Passion this past Palm Sunday at the Church at Ponce and Highland. But for stumbling upon Lanier on the group’s website before the concert, I might have always assumed that Lake Lanier and the other Lanier monikers around Atlanta were named for a great engineer or politician. Knowing that they are named after a poet laureate from Georgia, one who was commissioned as a southerner to write the words (along with Dudley Buck, a northerner, to write the music) for the cantata for the 100th anniversary of the United States in 1876, deepens my understanding of Georgia as a literary place. That makes a difference to me. Continue reading Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Not like one of the family

Seeing and hearing black nannies

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Robert Frank, “Charleston, South Carolina,” from Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit Framing Shadows features 22 photos of African American nannies of white children from the 1840s to the 1920s, a family photo type found during these years in the eastern United States. It also displays novels that feature the mammy-child relationship such as Gone with the Wind, which Dr. Wallace-Sanders has written about in Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. The juxtaposition shows a progression in Dr. Wallace-Sanders scholarship from the fictive mammy character in narratives, images, and artifacts to the real African American taking care of white children in historical photos and biographical accounts. The exhibit previews her upcoming book on this work Nannies, Mammies, and Love Slaves: Portraits of Black Women Taking Care of White Children 1850-1950. Continue reading Not like one of the family

In and around the oak

In honor of Earth Day

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“Hank Aaron” white oak in Connally Nature Park, East Point

What are the significant trees in your world?

Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication. Continue reading In and around the oak

Majestying in Buckhead

Out to dinner at King + Duke

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Restaurant at the corner of Peachtree Road NE and West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.” Continue reading Majestying in Buckhead

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Till it reaches the city of the sun


Reading Ovid in winter

There’s something very wonderful about the coming of winter, cold, and darkness. It allows a person to burrow in, curl up with the dog or cat, bask in the warmth of the hearth, and read things like Ovid. Culturally it’s the Season of Light. Falling close to the winter solstice, the Season of Light marks the darkest part of the year. Winter celebrations involving light date from the Stone Age if not before. The Romans had two winter celebrations:  Saturnalia, sometimes depicted as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, and Sol Invictus, the festival of the sun God. Saturna, another pagan festival during the eight days up to the solstice, is depicted in the Jewish Talmud. The feast o Yule was celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples. Some of the old pagan rituals are similar to those in Christmas traditions. The Season of Winter, therefore, transcends any one religion or creed.  So does most mythology, which is so distant in time and place from our world today. In reading it, you simply disconnect from the present time and watch the struggle of larger-than-life characters play out in your mind’s stage. You bring the stories back to our world.

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House in December, Druid Hills, Atlanta

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) rewrote Greek myths for a Roman audience. For example he retells the myth of Persephone as the myth of Proserpine (Book V), and it is a myth that explains winter. Continue reading Till it reaches the city of the sun

Back in the Wren’s Nest

Joel Chandler Harris turns 170

My mother used to read to us, but she never read us Uncle Remus. We weren’t from the South and also she hated dialect. I can understand. With dialect, a reader doesn’t just listen to the writer’s words but enact them in weird voices. Not everyone is up for that.

In anticipation of the anniversary of the 170th birthday of Joel Chandler Harris at the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta this December 9, I sat down with his Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (compiled by Richard Chase, 1983 [1955], 808 pages!) and went through the first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, from Chapter 1 “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy” to Chapter 32 “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox.” Trying to read the regular silent way, the dialect was torturous. I sounded out phrases I couldn’t understand and figured some of them out – e.g., that “bimeby” means “by and by.” Eventually I gave up on silent reading. I started hearing an oral tale spoken by me.

Continue reading Back in the Wren’s Nest