Essay: Soothsayer of Next Moves

I’m taking a short hiatus from reporting on the Oaxaca Mask Project to share this essay on being in the time of pandemic and injustice.

Let me just put it out there.

This is not fun.

I scan the horizon for the human figure coming toward me. I watch their feet and bodies.  Body language is crucial now. I must anticipate next moves. Where will they turn next?  Will they continue walking straight toward me or make a side street turn. Is the path straight or deviate?  In this time of Covid-19 most don’t wear masks.

Let me just put it out there.

I’m 74 years old. I’m anxious. I want to walk, smell the freshness of mowed grass, wisteria musk, lemony camellias in bloom in the springtime of the South.  Furthermore, I want to choose my own carrots, lettuce and potatoes at the supermarket. I want cantaloupes just right, ripe, not hard. I want to inhale the aroma of ripe flesh, put my nose to the navel and swoon.  

These days, someone shops for me and I eat what they choose.

I still walk.  Walking is my meditation. On the streets of Durham I can still smell the fresh air, clean and pure. I forget the pain that surrounds me, the stress of an unseen disease, the stress of society filled with racial disparities and social injustices, the stress of leadership that embraces military crackdown and lack of compassion.  Here I am on the sidewalk, walking in circles for sometimes ten thousand steps and more. And, like citizens of many worlds, I must anticipate someone’s next move. 

As I scan, I talk to myself. Will they step off the sidewalk and go around me at the recommended safe distance of six feet?  Will they make a beeline toward me as if there was no care in the world, no danger of a hidden disease that could end my life? I wish I could be like them, not a care in the world, walking where they please with entitlement, purpose, and privilege.

I stop at a quiet spot on a busy street.  Cars zoom by. They are going somewhere. It’s almost business-as-usual.  I sit to rest on the edge of a raised vegetable bed constructed of raw pine planks. It’s a community garden of sorts.  Someone has named it a Victory Garden, a throwback to wartime. I guess we are in a war now, too, both visible and invisible medical and societal.  I sit among ten raised beds of beets, squash, tomatoes, chard, built to feed the immigrants, the sign says. The tomatoes are tied with twine, needing taming, now erect, reaching to a Carolina blue sky.  Yellow flowers give off the promise of future fruit. I wonder who will come pick and eat.

Most of the immigrants here are undocumented and wouldn’t risk showing up. A Black person might be accused of stealing and taken down with a knee. You can smell that tomato-ey plant aroma, pungent, astringent, sour. That smell we all know if we have grown a garden, the aroma that repels predators. Across from where I sit, a dwarf fig in a huge aluminum tub is ready to burst with fruit.  My feet are squarely planted on the finely ground decomposed granite path.  I get my bearings, alone here with the buzz of tires over pavement, a bass beat of repetitive motion.  Where are they going now in the time of Covid-19?  I’m always on the lookout for what’s next.

These are my days of anticipating next moves, the habits of others, their impulses, directions.  I become a soothsayer of next moves.  A block away I see a pair of figures. Man or woman, I do not yet know. Will they meander or stop all of a sudden in my path? Will they continue to walk as they peer down into the face of a mobile device, devoid of cognition for my presence in their path?  I cannot risk not paying attention.  I have to assume they could bump right into me. So, I stop. I step off.  I step aside, off the sidewalk into the bushes, or I take a wide detour onto the street, or I turn my back turn away from them. Wait for a moment or more to see where they will go next.  Sometimes, they stop dead in their tracks as if an apparition called to them to halt for no apparent reason. At that moment they could be too close to me for my comfort and I have to be prepared to move fast.

I always wear a mask.

Out there, I notice the person or couple or family that is twenty or fifty feet away. I must take care. Who else will?

It used to be I’d get angry, confront, call out, “move away, back up, don’t get close to me.” I’d spout, “Why didn’t you stop?” expecting others to be respectful and change their behavior.  I don’t do that now.

Now, I have my eyes opened, attuned to the moves of others, anticipating.  For now, I’m grateful to be alive, outdoors, breathing the air of springtime. Free.

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