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Dinah Lenney

How am I. Having just this morning broken up the puzzle on the kitchen table (Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”), I am wondering which one to do next, which picture to live with for however long it lasts (the puzzle, the pandemic—)—

How am I? I’m fine. I’m thinking of making oregano pesto (we have a lot of oregano out back)—although to say I have my doubts. And yet. Last week, similarly skeptical, I made carrot top pesto. (I had carrot tops as long as my arms, couldn’t bear to throw them away.) And it was perfectly delicious, so what do I know. The answer —not much—has everything to do with how I am; how crazy to think I knew by now who and how to be—

Like, for instance, I am (I was) one to shake hands. I have a nice, firm grip (my dad taught me) and I like to suppose it says something about how capable, competent, present I am.

Also, I used to be the kind to catch a person’s eye—a stranger’s, I mean. I would have smiled at just about anybody. But now smiling is a production, isn’t it? Because people don’t know you’re smiling, that’s the thing. Therefore, smiling demands an explanation—you can’t just smile anymore, you have to say: “I’m smiling under here” (behind my mask)—which turns out to be embarrassing more often than not and more engagement than anybody wants. Therefore, easier to pretend we’re invisible, all of us; also easy to judge the stranger who averts her eyes first (she’s not even going to try?); and inevitable to wind up becoming her myself.

How am I, how am I... How should I be? I’m really asking: How to be here now? (Without shaking hands.) How to stay in the moment? As if we had a choice. It’s like one big mindfulness exercise, isn’t it. This morning a friend tweeted a quote he attributed to Valeria Luiselli: “…the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable.” But for me anyway, that isn’t quite right. Big picture (the thousand-piece kind), the present is overwhelming (if underwhelmingly so)—but that’s not why I can’t conceive of what’s next. Rather, it’s the certainty of a future like nothing I could have imagined—that’s what’s too much.

I mean, okay, hand-shaking is out for the rest of time. But tell me, will we never again stumble out of the rain and into a diner? Then, once inside, will we not squeeze awkwardly between the tables nearly knocking over somebody’s water? Won’t we contort ourselves out of the sleeves of our coats, and ask to borrow the ketchup on the table just there, and then happily shout at each other just to be heard for the time it takes to eat our burgers and fries?

No more crowded restaurants, theaters, markets, trains? No more bumping elbows, patting shoulders, passing the salt? This maybe isn’t just how it is but how it will always be? That’s assuming, of course, we survive the other virus — the #VirusinChief. But will we? I’m imagining we will. Same deal when I think about my all-grown-up kids, sheltering in place elsewhere in the city. I close my eyes and let myself imagine holding them close—she, slim and lovely, nearly my height; he much taller, stronger, broader in the shoulders—

Basta. Honestly. No sense looking back or forward for now—for now, what I have is this day, the present (how privileged I am, don’t think I don’t know)—plus a shit ton of oregano; plus, in a box on a shelf upstairs a thousand pieces worth of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” silent but sustained. There’s a puzzle worth doing and doing again.

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