Opening Boxes from 2019

When, in Fall of 2019, I moved out of what had been my home in the West Village, I thought I was simply moving from one place to another. I was excited to build a home again, this time in the South Bronx.

Brian and I ultimately lived in the South Bronx for only four months — until March 11 2020, when we looked at one another and realized we had to get into his SUV and keep driving North. As I described in my book The Bodies of Others, when then-Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Broadway was closing — just like that, a CCP-style state fiat, not an American-style individuals-dealing-with-an-emergency announcement — we both realized that bad things were coming, though whether natural or political we could not yet tell.

So twenty years of my possessions had stayed for the past two and a half years in a storage unit.

I was opening boxes now that were not just from another place — as is usual when you move; not just from another time; but I was opening boxes that were from literally another world. I don’t know that such a thing has happened in quite this way in history before.

Some items memorialized normal losses and change. Others, though, revealed that long-revered institutions had lost all morality and authority.

Here was a grey sweater that had belonged to my father, who had been a writer. It still had the line of loose threads along the clavicle, the little gaps opening up in the sewn-together pieces, that were characteristic of his distinguished-but-absent-minded-professor look. Dr Leonard Wolf could wear a moth-eaten sweater such as that one, on a street in New York City, and still look like a Byronic poet preoccupied with his latest sonnet. He looked stylish even when he was bedridden — even when advancing Parkinson’s meant he could no longer communicate with words, his treasure. He was charismatic even when gestures failed him; when my husband, an Irish raconteur, sat by his bedside, telling stories to make him laugh. He managed to have elan even when Brian had to ask him to make a sound to let him know if he wanted the stories to continue, and my dad could only groan: yes, more stories.

The stories have ended now for my father; at least the earthly ones. But the sweater still carries that wintry, breezy scent that was his while he was on this earth, telling us stories, more stories.

I folded my father’s sweater for the mending pile.

A small brown dog toy surfaced, chewed so thoroughly in one section that the white lining of the toy remained. The little dog who had enjoyed the toy, of course, the much-mourned Mushroom, is no more. His dog tag is nailed to a tree that leans over the river in the woods, near where we now live.

I put the chewed-up toy on the discards pile as well.

There was the little white wooden armoire I had hand-painted — amateurishly but with love — for a child’s room. The armoire was not needed any more. Everyone had grown up.

There were boxes and boxes of what had once been exciting, culturally meaningful CDs and DVDs. I sighed — what to do with these now? The technology itself was obsolete.

Then there were the pillows. Floral pillows. Tufted pillows. Even I knew these were tasteless, and I’d known that even at the time I had bought them. When my loved ones were old enough to notice aesthetics, they would chorus, when I brought home a new find: “Mom! Please! No more florals!

I saw that I had been obsessed then with accumulating not only florals, but warm colors — cranberry and scarlet, terra-cotta and apricot and peach.

With the eyes of the present, and now in a happy marriage, I realized what had been pushing me to acquire all of these redundant soft florals. I had longed for domesticity and warmth, but had been, as a single mother then, dating the wrong kind of man to get domesticity and warmth. So I had unconsciously kept choosing softness and coziness in decor, because I had missed it in my relationship.

The man, a gifted, mercurial charmer, had also, in the past few years, passed away; young; of a wasting cancer.

I sighed again, and put the floral pillows in the “donations” pile.

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Other items in the opened boxes, however, did not speak of organic loss and change but rather of worlds of authority that had seemed sparkling and real in 2019, but that have revealed themselves since then to be seething with rot.

Here, for instance, was the brown, pleated, Grecian-style dress, with the bared arms and gathered waist, that I had worn to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 2000s.

Brown is a color I almost never wear, and I had never worn that Grecian style of formal dress briefly fashionable in the Friends era; so I remembered, as I shook it out into the sunlight of two decades later, that I had felt quite daring that night.

The wedding had been in an event hall nestled in the dunes. Local seafood hors d’oeuvres had been passed on silver trays. The bride had been smoldering and lovely in a white lace Vera Wang (always Vera Wang) dress. All was as it should have been.

The wedding had brought together White House politicos, Washington Post op ed writers and reporters, brash young New York City political speechwriters and campaign managers, and trendy nonfiction writers who were already making names for themselves chronicling the scene. We were all in our mid- to late 30s — we were fomenting change, approving of ourselves, making a difference; we were kind of like The West Wing, we thought — (one of our friends consulted for it) — idealistic, unintentionally a bit chic, madly hopeful.

We were the scene.

I almost recoiled now with sorrow and anger. I folded up that dress, thinking about those institutions that had undergirded our optimism that warm night, when our confidence and certainty had rung out onto the warm, salty breezes, along with the sounds of the ultra-hip blues band.

The major newspapers? The once-young journalists? The last two and a half years showed them to be shills for what have been revealed to be genocidal imperial powers. They became media versions of sex workers, scheduling time to deliver blow jobs to whomever would write them the biggest checks.

The once-young, West-Wing-style politicos? The last two and a half years showed them willing to become policy wonks for a global march to tyranny that instrumentalized a murderous medical experiment on their fellow humans; on their very constituents.

Where now were those institutions that at that wedding in the early 2000s, filled us with pride and a sense of mission as we took part in building them?

Imploded morally; left without a shred of authority or credibility.

I put the brown dress on the Goodwill pile.

I turned to an old scheduling notebook — it recorded some visits to Oxford. We’d been at a dinner party in North Oxford, hosted by the Warden of Rhodes House, attended by the Vice Chancellor of the University, as I recall, and by many other luminaries. Indeed, the evolutionary biologist Dr Richard Dawkins had been a guest, pestered, as he no doubt often was, by a dinner attendee who had wanted to talk to him about his atheism.

It had been a sparkling evening, elegant and urbane. I’d felt privileged to be at a table where some of the greatest of minds of my time were gathered, and where the very leader of a great university was helping to convene us.

I loved Oxford with a pure love. The university had sustained a vibrant commitment to the principles of reason and to freedom of speech, for over nine hundred years. It had supported the asking of questions when it was dangerous to ask questions; from just after what used to be called the Dark Ages; through the High Middle Ages; through the Reformation; through the Enlightenment. It had tended faithfully, through the darkest of times, the bright, unquenchable flame of the wakeful mind of Europe.

That – the legacy of critical thinking of the West – was Oxford’s legacy.

But —in 2021— it had complied with a requirement that its students endure “online learning”— a demand that had no basis in reason or in the natural world (https://www.oxford.gov.uk/news/article/1686/most_students_set_to_study_online_under_new_national_lockdown.)

This damage done to its trusting young people was a travesty, in my mind, of the great innovation that the University of Oxford had given to the world – the tutorial system, in which being physically present with a couple of other students and with a Don (professor) in his or her study, opens up the dimension of rigorous scholarly discourse in a magical and irreplaceable way.

‘Online learning’? In Oxford? An institution that had survived plagues and epidemics that dwarfed the respiratory disease of 2020-2022, that had survived wars and revolutions, and that had taught students nobly in the face of crises of all kinds?

I did not know if I would ever go back to Oxford; and, if I did, what I would find there or how I would feel. I did not even know if today’s Oxford would welcome me back, being, as I was now in 2022, though I had not been in 2019, a “reputational refugee”, having been cancelled institutionally in most of what had been my traditional intellectual homes.

My heart hurt once more. I put the old notebook in the pile for “storage.”

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