After living five years on an island off the coast of Belize and two years in the magical Mexican city San Miguel de Allende, isolation is just another change that we hadn’t planned on.
Recently, while commiserating with a friend who had squirted a tube of oil paint on a wall while trying to open it, it occurred to me that accidents are art waiting for vision to give them purpose. The corollary to that is: There are no accidents in art. So, let’s substitute the word “life” for “art.”
Accidents—or events beyond our control—are art waiting for vision to give them purpose. And, yes, there are no real accidents in life.
And so, here we are, isolated in a building that was once a salon for artists, poets, musicians, and intellectuals. Reputedly, a long-ago owner and professor from Boston was romantically involved with the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is just a rumor, but a charming one at that. I’d hate to destroy it with facts.
In the building are several Frank Lloyd Wright chairs. You can tell by their classic lines and complete disregard for human comfort.
The tiled sign by the entrance says we live in Casa de Los Poetas—the House of the Poets. The house is now carefully carved up into four apartments, of which ours, at the very top, is the only one occupied since the Coronavirus siege began.
We are surrounded by terraces that look out over the city. I can count nine Catholic churches in a single sweep from left to right, including the iconic Parroquia de Arcangel San Miguel and my neighborhood church, San Antonio. In isolation, I have learned to count the bells and decipher their meaning. Church bells have spoken to the people here for hundreds of years. It is practically a second or third language.
From the rooftop terrace, practically all of San Miguel is there before me. It almost feels like a castle turret, and I imagine fending off an attacking enemy with rockets and arrows. Or, these days, Purell and face masks.
In PC days—pre-Covid—we would sit up there in the evening and watch fireworks almost weekly. This town celebrated so much and had so much to celebrate. In the morning, hot air balloons—as many as five—would rise sleepily into the sky and lazily float over the skyline, occasionally rasping for a hot breath to lift themselves ever higher over the church spires.
The balloons and fireworks are gone for now and so are the sometimes intrusive sounds of city life. Into this vacuum has come the melodic symphony of songbirds. Maybe they were always there—like the nightingale in Berkeley Square—but who could hear them?
We have a park-like garden in the back with a table and benches, a fountain and sculptures, and a stately sweeping Jacaranda tree that offers shade in the afternoon and endless sneezing when the lavender flowers are in bloom.
In a physical sense, even while sequestered, there is always someplace “to go” without leaving the house.
Being the only occupants, my wife can dance with abandon in the living room and not irritate downstairs neighbors. And she does. For a former ballerina and dance teacher and now a Pilates teacher denied use of her studio, movement is cathartic.
She studies Spanish, cooks amazing meals, knits, and binge watches “Homeland,” but she needs to be in motion—yoga, Pilates, and dance (with LOTS of music) are the punctuation marks that give her sentence of house-arrest coherence.
Being a writer, I lead a quieter life.
Sequestration has opened up wider spaces for thinking. My wife calls them naps, but you writers out there know better, right? I also enjoy the time to explore my inner-introvert. I like being isolated.
Toward the end of March though, I began to wonder, “What am I really doing with all this time?” OK, writing a novel. But who isn’t? That’s only worth talking about when it is done, if it ever gets done. Meanwhile, what’s up?
In “Dandelion Wine,” Ray Bradbury’s highly fictionalized and stylized memoir, the pre-teen Doug is laying out the harsh reality of summer to his younger brother: “Every year the same things, same way, no change, no difference. That’s one half of summer, Tom.”
“What’s the other half?”
“Things we do for the first time ever.”
So, what is that “other half” of isolation?
To find out just what I am up to, I decided, like Doug in “Dandelion Wine,” to keep a list. My sadly empty and utterly useless 2020 daily appointment book has come in very handy. Each morning, I turn to that day’s blank page and begin to log the things that I do.
Not “the same things, same way, no change, no difference” kind of things—like showers, eating, naps, shaving, self-inflicted haircuts, buying wine, laundry, walk the dog, doctor visits, mail runs, buying more wine, and dishes—unless they fit into the “other things” narrative in an interesting way.
They usually don’t.
What I have found is that I am filling my day with about 6 to 10 good things that I find personally interesting and enriching.
I drop down into a highly-focused and self-directed rabbit hole.
I can hear you saying, “Oh, he spends all day surfing the Internet.”
But that’s not it.
I started on March 27 with listening to Bob Dylan’s new song, the epic “Murder Most Foul.” Several times. Then I looked up the lyrics and put on a headset and followed Bobbo one more time. After which, I sat and meditated for a half-hour. I photographed our Jacaranda tree in full bloom as it was looking especially gorgeous in the daylight.
I read three essays in the New York Review of Books “Pandemic Journal,” as I find writers make the best reporters in times like these.
This sent me in pursuit of meaningful quotes on the concept of history—who writes it? Who controls the narrative? How does history fit into a fact-free environment? One from Orwell was worth writing down.
I continued to read Flann O’Brien’s “At Two-Birds Swim” because the masochist in me won’t let me quit. I wrote to my grandson Brody. Did the New York Times crossword puzzle and one in our local paper. Read the latest New Yorker—by latest in Mexico, I mean at least a week old. And by evening, I’d return to Flann O’Brien before falling asleep.
Just before nodding off, I took a photograph of the page and posted it to Facebook and that other social media mind trap, Instagram.
People liked it. So I kept posting each evening, just before turning in.
I find myself watching old movies like “The Big Sleep,” listening to Patsy Cline and Anna Netrebko and the “Moonlight Sonata” and “Meditations from Thais,” and reading daily letters from humorist-turned-humanist Garrison Keillor and political historian Heather Cox Richardson, and watching Season 3 of “Ozark” and ZOOMing with kids and grandkids and friends on lockdown in San Francisco, London, and Belize.
One day, I listened to six versions of the pop song “Windmills of Your Mind” and savored the many interpretations. The same day I listened to two BBC readings of the 1889 comic travelogue “Three Men in a Boat,” a book I’d read at age 12 and loved. The next day I watched a 1975 film version of the same with Michael Palin and Tim Curry.
I read Nobel Prize lectures from Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After reading three essays from Lewis Thomas’s “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,” I naturally listened to the symphony.
Reading “A Luminous Republic” by Andres Barba sent me off to find a recording of Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill,” (mentioned in the novel). I listened to several versions. Tartini claimed that the Devil himself gave him the composition in a dream.
So I glided through Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” where the devil gave him his prowess with a guitar and straight over to Charlie Daniels and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and the Mark O’Connor-fueled fiddle-fest “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia.”
And I kept posting these bare-bones lists online.
Another outlet that wasn’t getting much attention was the blog I started after we’d moved to San Miguel: https://sanmiguelmusesandmagic.com/ . When everything is closed and nobody is around and you can’t go out, the local subject matter falls away.
So, I now post my daily calendar pages to the blog and add annotations and links for entries that cry out (in my mind) for more information. Now the blog posts get posted to Facebook and I get to recapture some of that lost traffic. Yes, my several readers …
The truth is, I used to do stuff like this all the time, though not as much and not as intensely. Whereas listening to a symphony or a concert was background, it has now become foreground, subject to greater scrutiny, evaluation, contemplation.
I see connections and pursue them. For example, Barba’s “A Luminous Republic” leads to Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill,” which leads to the amazing story of the Lipinski Stradivarius (first owned by Tartini), which leads to the movie “The Red Violin,” which borrows from the Lipinski tale.
The other thing I have begun in isolation is to write poetry.
Not a lot. Just a few, which I post to the blog. And people seem to like them. They all have to do with the changes that have come to San Miguel with the closing (and to put my crude attempts into a more positive light, I add very attractive pictures of an empty San Miguel).
I’ve not written much poetry before, and certainly none when I became a journalist and first saw the movie “The Front Page.” Who wants to be known as the pressroom poet after that movie?
I hesitate to even call this poetry. The form may be there but mostly it is observational prose. But it feels right.
Although, I can’t help but think that the ghosts who inhabit this one-time salon, The House of Poets, may have a hand in guiding me.
Yes, there are ghosts. But that is a story for another time.