I wrote here about heading to North Adams on a private writing retreat and wanted to give an update.
I have made two visits to MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), concentrating on exhibits that have arrived since the Boiler House Poets Collective’s last residency in early fall 2019. I’ve taken a lot of photos to help me with my work on my collection and have even been able to sit in the galleries and work on some first drafts for poems. I have a growing sense that I need to center the collection on place, on what it means to be from and of this part of the world. To help with this, I’ve also been taking photos of the plaques scattered around the museum about the history of buildings and people’s remembrances. I even bought a book from the gift shop by Joe Manning, an artist/poet/author/historian, filled with interviews from people in the area.
While I miss my Boiler House poet-friends, I am enjoying the freedom of being totally on my own. I watched a long video about Sol Lewitt and spent time writing in the galleries, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I had our usual studio access, workshopping schedule, and shared meals. I certainly miss the immediate feedback on my poems, although I can sometimes hear echoes of their comments from prior years and feel that this is helping me in my writing and edits now.
The Museum is very responsive to the COVID dangers. Everyone has masks and distances appropriately. The Museum itself is huge, given that it is located in a series of old factory buildings, so it is easy to not be close to other people. They are leaving some windows open to increase air exchange and there are abundant hand-sanitizing stations. The cafe has expanded its indoor and outdoor seating to safe distances. Admission is arranged in advance so that there are not crowds trying to get in at the same time. During the shutdown, B and I became members of the Museum, so I am making good use of my free admission privileges.
Today, I decided not to go the museum. I did practical things in the morning and spent the whole afternoon writing and editing. It felt like a luxury. This evening, I’m catching up on reading, blogging, and email.
I’m also getting to visit some of the people I know who still live in the area. I got to have outdoor and distanced dinner with a high school friend and will have a cousin visit tomorrow in B’s hometown, Stamford VT. On Tuesday, when the Museum is closed, I will most likely drive to my and my dad’s hometown, Monroe Bridge, and my mom’s, Hoosac Tunnel. They appear in some of the poems in my collection.
I am more than halfway through my time here and am feeling like I have accomplished a lot. Perhaps, the most useful thing I have learned is that this time away is fruitful and a possibility to repeat in the future, COVID and family obligations permitting.
One of the big news stories in the United States this week has been changes in the postal service.
Let’s start with the cons.
The postmaster general, a recent Trump appointee who is a major Trump donor and who has no experience with the postal service other than owning stock in USPS competitors and contractors, has implemented allegedly cost-cutting measures, among them removal of large sorting machines that are especially useful for large mailings, removal of postal boxes where folks can mail envelopes and small packages without having to go to the post office, sending letter carriers out on their routes even when the mail has not all been sorted so that mail is getting left behind, and not allowing letter carriers to go back out on a second pass.
This results in mail delivery being delayed, which is annoying for senders and recipients. Sometimes, it is even dangerous as many seniors, veterans, and just members of the general public receive medications through the mail. It’s also difficult for the many, many businesses and consumers who are using delivery of goods rather than shopping in-person. It affects even businesses that use private carriers like United Parcel because many of them use the USPS as a so-called “last mile” service, delivering the packages to the local post office rather than to the door of the final recipient.
The postal service also informed at least 46 states and the District of Columbia that it might not be able to delivery ballots for the November election in a timely way, risking the integrity of accurate counting of votes.
The removal of postal boxes makes it difficult for people to get mail sent, especially if they can’t get mail picked up from their home and don’t live within walking distance of their post office.
Removing equipment is causing delays in delivery. While the changes were supposed to result in cuts to overtime, in many places the changes have resulted in increased overtime because things are not able to be done in the most efficient way.
I can’t come up with a single “pro” for the public, who overwhelmingly approve of the USPS, which is unusual for any part of the government. The postal service is as old as the country and is established in the Constitution itself!
The president in an interview this week described/admitted to a “pro” for him – that the election in November that is anticipated to involve lots of voting by mail due to the pandemic making in-person voting more risky will not be able to move forward effectively. The president opposes increased funding for the postal service which is included in the HEROES Act that has passed the House but is not being considered in the Senate, which is now on break through Labor Day in September.
The general public and some members of Congress are pushing back. Yesterday, the USPS postmaster general halted the removal of mail collection boxes until after the election. This is a start, but much more needs to be done to reverse the other changes and to make sure that all ballots (and other mail) gets delivered in a timely way.
The sad and infuriating thing is that the president himself revealed that the whole thing is a con.
Which many of us suspected.
You’re also not a very good con man if you give the con away.
Our wonderful family news has been a welcome distraction from the ever-evolving disaster of living in the United States right now.
We now have had over 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, which is appalling and could and should have been averted. (For perspective, the US has about 4% of the world’s population but about 23% of the world’s cases.) I live in New York State and have posted a number of times how Governor Cuomo and his team followed the science and data to bring our once highest in the world levels down to about a 1% positive test rate. The daily fatalities once in the hundreds, is down to single digits. Businesses and services have been re-opening carefully and slowly, so our transmission rate has stayed very low for weeks. In September, schools will be allowed to re-open, with most choosing a hybrid model with a small subset of students in physical attendance on any given day with the bulk of instruction still happening online. As with everything else the state has done, data will determine if adjustments or temporary closures are needed to keep students, staff, and their families as safe as possible.
Many other states are having large numbers of cases, overwhelmed hospitals, and deaths, but are still opening schools, bars, gyms, and other businesses as though there wasn’t a pandemic going on. It’s as though they live in an alternate reality promoted by the president where coronavirus is just “sniffles” and the virus will “just disappear.”
Meanwhile, people are sick and dying.
Millions more are unemployed and/or impoverished. Most of the previously passed federal relief measures expired at the end of July. The House had passed the HEROES Act in May, which would have extended and expanded them, but the Senate didn’t take up the bill or craft a comprehensive plan of their own, despite the fact that the vast majority of economists, even conservative ones, say that a large-scale plan is needed to keep the economy from sinking into a depression.
Strangely, negotiations were going on between the Democratic Congressional leadership and White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary; you would think that the Congressional Republican leadership would have been there as well, but they left town instead. Yesterday, the president announced some executive orders to address some of the issues, but they will almost certainly by found unconstitutional because Congress controls federal taxes and spending. We are dealing with not only the pain of the pandemic and its consequences but also with the shredding of our Constitutional federal government.
On top of this, the intelligence community has announced that several foreign powers are interfering in our upcoming election, partly be spreading and amplifying misinformation. Meanwhile, the president is casting doubt on the validity of our voting process, undermining confidence in voting by mailing in ballots (except in states with Republican governors, some of whom have purged large numbers of minority, student, and potentially Democratic voters from the rolls), and, through a crony as Postmaster General, slowing down the mail service. The president even floated the idea of delaying the election, something that is not at all in his power.
With both domestic and foreign interference at play, it may be difficult to mount a fair election. (By the way, the HEROES Act allocates money for both the postal service and for state election boards.) I am hoping that the vast majority of people will behave in a responsible, ethical, and legal way, so that the election really does reflect the will of all the citizens.
I don’t want to imagine what will happen if the election is unfair or disputed.
I’m happy to share the news that B and I have a new granddaughter! Daughter E gave birth to her second daughter, Jillian Grace, earlier this week. Proud daddy L was able to be there despite the pandemic hoopla and now-big-sister ABC was able to meet Jillian Grace when they were able to take her home at only twelve hours old! As I usually do initials here at Top of JC’s Mind to protect family privacy, I’ll hereafter refer to Jillian Grace as JG.
This photo was taken in the hospital with the very cute Pooh sleeper:
In keeping with the literary clothing theme, here is a photo taken the next day wearing a “Very Hungry Caterpillar” outfit. The script says “tiny and very hungry” which is a) adorable and b) true, although JG managed to wait until 38 weeks to be born while ABC appeared at 36 weeks and so was even tinier. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is a family favorite by Eric Carle, who lived for many years in western Massachusetts and used to visit and sign copies of his books at B’s mom’s school.
Of course, B and I and Auntie T wish we could rush over and cuddle JG, play and sing with ABC, and hug and help out E and L, but they are in London, UK and we are in upstate New York in the US. With pandemic travel restrictions, it’s difficult to go there, although we are hoping we will be able to visit this fall. Fortunately, L’s parents, known here as Lolo and Lola, are on hand and we are able to exchanged messages and videochat.
In fall of 2015, I took a frightening leap of faith and attended my first-ever poetry residency/workshop. It was a collaboration between Tupelo Press and The Studios at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). As a relatively inexperienced poet, the only reason I was emboldened to apply was that it was in North Adams, the small city in the Berkshires where I had gone to high school. I grew up in the tiny town of Monroe Bridge, about twenty miles away, so North Adams had been a second hometown to me, with at least weekly visits to relatives and stores.
The residency was, well, complicated. It was daunting and terrifying at times and I was perpetually in over my head, but I learned a lot and met wonderful poets. I blogged about the experience and just re-read all the posts. This post contains links to the residency week’s posts, which convey things fairly well, except for downplaying the terror just a tad.
In those 2015 posts, I mentioned the possibility of a reunion residency and I’m pleased to say that the Boiler House Poets Collective has met every year since in early fall for a week at MASS MoCA.
Until this year.
Because of the pandemic protocols and travel restrictions, our 2020 reunion is cancelled. We are all sad, but we are on the schedule for fall 2021, so we know we will return.
In one of the 2015 posts, I mention my plan to put together a poetry collection about my personal and family ties to the North Adams area and that it might take a long time to put it together.
This turned out to be true.
While I have completed a different manuscript in the intervening years – and two major iterations of the North Adams collection, I am nowhere near finished with the collection I envisioned in 2015. I had planned to spend a major chunk of our 2020 residency hammering out more poems and a new version of the manuscript.
I get emails from MASS MoCA and The Studios, so I knew that a deadline was coming up to apply for individual residencies for winter/spring 2021 and I began pondering if that was something I should try to do. It’s a bit complicated because 1) it’s very competitive; 2) the minimum block is two weeks, which makes things trickier in terms of being away from home; 3) no one can project what kinds of virus levels, travel restrictions, closures, capacity limits, etc. may be in place in 2021, so cancellations could still occur; 4) the application would have been quite a chore, especially because I don’t have a cv prepared.
In discussing this with my spouse B and resident daughter T, an alternate solution came up – that I could go to North Adams on a self-styled writing retreat, staying in a local hotel/inn, visiting the museum with my membership pass, and writing in my room or some other socially distanced space that may present itself. If I do this, I could choose the dates myself and could wander about the area as I wished. Importantly, I could also go sooner rather than later, while both New York and Massachusetts have good control on virus levels and no travel restrictions between them. I would be able to maintain good social distancing, so my risks would not be any higher there than here.
So, I might make it to North Adams to write for a week after all. Of course, it won’t be as rich an experience as I am used to when being officially in residence with my inestimable Boiler House poet-friends, but the time away to work on the collection in the place where it is centered would still, I hope, be fruitful.
This past week, we surpassed 150,000 COVID deaths and the virus is out of control in a number of states, including our three most populous. California has now passed the half million mark for cases – and the real number infected is, no doubt, much higher because mild or asymptomatic cases are unlikely to be found. There is some hope on the vaccine front with some Phase III trials beginning – the one I’m signed up for will start in August, I hope – but, even if one or more are successful, it will take months and months for enough doses to be available globally to quash the pandemic. Meanwhile, here in the US, there is still no national strategy and people are suffering because of it. Even states like mine (New York) who worked hard to get out case numbers way down are under threat of resurgence from infected people visiting our state, returning home from traveling, or coming back to our many colleges and universities. It’s terrifying.
On Thursday, the nation had an opportunity to reflect on love and justice and service. Rep. John Lewis, a central figure in the civil rights movement who went on to champion the rights of all people who suffered discrimination and prejudice – and the planet itself – was honored with a truly beautiful funeral service. Reflections were offered by clergy, family, friends, staff, colleagues, and all four former presidents, Jimmy Carter in writing and Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama in person. President Obama gave the main eulogy, which was also a call to action for justice and for voting rights, a cause which John Lewis literally bled for, was jailed for, and supported passionately for decades. The House of Representatives voted unanimously to re-name a voting rights bill that they had passed earlier after John Lewis. (OK, Mitch McConnell. Time to get it to the Senate and pass it into law.) Sadly, this law is needed after the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act originally passed in the 1960s, reasoning (wrongly) that the country was past discriminatory voting practices. Since then, many states have re-implemented practices that limit ballot access for citizens based on age, race, income level, location, and other factors.
To point out the threat to voting and election integrity – yes, there is also evidence of foreign election interference, as if the domestic problems weren’t bad enough – the same day as the funeral, the president floated the idea via Twitter that our November 3rd national election should be postponed. The date of the election is set by Congressional law, though, so the president can’t change it. Fortunately, even the Republicans in Congress said that the election date will not be changed. I also think there would be civil unrest if it was tried.
Still, the election is under threat from forces within the government. Each state is responsible for running its own election, but the pandemic has made in-person voting more complicated and dangerous. States are moving to make greater use of their absentee voting systems, but these usually rely on the postal service, which the president is undermining through inadequate funding and a new crony leading the postal service who is changing policy to slow service. The House of Representatives has passed legislation to allocate funds to the states and the postal service so that our election can be fair, free, and safe, but Sen. McConnell has refused to bring the bill to the Senate for a vote. His own proposal doesn’t address election integrity at all. It also doesn’t address aid to states – and it was over two months after the House passed their bill before he even put out his proposal.
During the impeachment and trial, Republicans kept saying that “the people should decide the fate of the president at the ballot box.” They should be ensuring that we can do that safely, securely, and freely, not putting up roadblocks. If they are confident in their positions on the issues, they should be eager to have the vote. This looks like they know they have failed in their obligations to protect and defend the people and the Constitution and realize they can only hold onto power by cheating and deceiving.
As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, there is more bad news on the economic front. The GDP declined at its highest rate since such things started to be calculated over 150 years ago. (GDP=Gross Domestic Product) Because the pandemic is so bad, many businesses are needing to close or scale back, so many more people are unemployed. Some who had thought they were temporarily unemployed are now permanently unemployed because their businesses that they owned or worked for are closing for good. Because the federal government isn’t helping the states, we are also facing a wave of layoffs of state and local workers. Unlike the federal government, most states are required to have balanced budgets. Their tax revenues are way down, so their budgets are broken. This can mean layoffs for police, public hospital workers, teachers, public works employees, and other essential workers that are needed even more now. This will make unemployment worse and cause more demand for anti-poverty programs – for which there is already inadequate funding. Oh, and the additional federal funds of $600/week that were added to state unemployment checks in the CARES Act this spring end this week. The House bill that passed in mid-May would extend them until January; McConnell’s new proposal cuts them way down.
Most economists advocate the federal government injecting much more money into the economy to keep it afloat until the pandemic ends. The very real fear is that what is happening now – with the CARES Act programs ending with nothing to replace them (or next to nothing) – that the steep recession will turn into an economic depression. Evictions and foreclosures, many of which had been forestalled by prior legislation, will likely accelerate, leading to an increase is homelessness and, possibly, bankruptcy for landlords who no longer have tenants. People may have even more problems finding food. There are already strains on both public and charitable food resources. Our health care system, which was already broken, will be even more overwhelmed.
I try to be realistic.
It’s hard, though, not to think that we are going to see more and more and more suffering in the months ahead.
As a nation, we need to summon more courage, more intelligence, more compassion, more reason to chart a path to restore peace, justice, and good health. I guess “restore” is the wrong word. We need to establish those things for everyone.