Excerpts from The Distance Project
Volume One. - April - June 2020
It's the start of Memorial Day weekend, 2020. A pickup truck with an over-sized American flag firmly planted in its bed, hurtles toward me on a winding country road. The intent to intimidate slams me in the gut.
Similarly, one day last summer I returned to my car, parked in a spacious lot a half hour earlier, to find it tightly sandwiched between two vehicles: large pickups, each sporting white supremacist insignia and flagpoles draped with the blue, white and black “stars-and-stripes” of the Blue Lives Matter movement. There seems to be a drive to defy regulations, to spew blasts of oily exhaust into the air, to roar a muffler-less engine so that it can be heard approaching a mile away. What I know of rage originating in pain brings to mind volcanoes on the brink of erupting -- uncontrollable jets of lava indiscriminately burying whole villages.
I am remembering what inspired my obsession with documenting the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. . .
The world was, as usual, at war. Some of us perceived we had arrived at an apogee of human crisis on the earth and were agonizing over the central question: “What can we do?”, feeling that whatever it was – is -- we have to do it now. At the same time, other people were celebrating what they considered a victory, apparently envisioning a smoothly paved road ahead.
Fear is a powerful motivator, but it often has a brief shelf life, turning quickly to anger. Anger often festers and become hate. Hate builds, builds, and builds some more. Then it explodes.
Some said, “We didn’t see this coming!” They laid blame on our failure as Americans to listen to our neighbors, specifically to the people in the nation's heartland. People who felt left out. People who saw their lives worsening -- the eternal sunshine of the American Dream obscured by impenetrable clouds.
No one mentioned the nearly forty-year, step by step dismantling of the unions; the undermining of hard-won rights to home, health and job security; the fabric of community torn to shreds by outsourcing of labor, and other actions that lead to economic devastation; obscene class inequity; systemic racism; polluted air and water; poisoned food. No one mentioned the culpability of five successive presidential administrations, all of which share responsibility for the pitiable current condition of our country.
-- From ART HEALS by Murray Ngoima
My two-leggeds are home all the time now. They feed me whenever I want and let me in and out and in and out. I like to pretend I’m coming in when it gets dark and then run away and stay gone for another couple of hours, but I don’t want to be left out there by myself when I want to come in -- and I’m not left out anymore, ever! In fact, they’re both paying more attention to me lately and that’s how I like it so it’s a good time for me. Except they yell at each other a lot more now, and I don’t like that. It’s almost as bad as watching that yellow cat across the street kill a squirrel. I like things to be quiet.
That’s one reason I like the ghost. She sits on the little wrought-iron bench in the side yard and smokes cigarettes. I’m not sure, but I think I’m the only one who sees her. She told me she used to live here, that she misses the house and the front yard. She doesn’t think the two-leggeds who live here now are taking good care of the house: they’re messy and they let the dogs pee on the floor sometimes. She doesn’t like the way they have parties and stick decorations on the walls with scotch tape, or let candles burn while the air conditioner is on so little drops of wax get blown against the wall and then aren’t even scraped off the next day.
Her name is Mrs. Wallace, and she had a maid who lived out in a funny little room facing the alley, under the oak trees. She mostly comes by around the time it starts to get cooler, at the end of the day, when the squirrels and lizards finally quiet down. We both love the quiet. Now that it’s almost summer, those huge bugs in the trees and bushes, the katydids, have started that annoying, buzzy, on/off humming that goes on all night. Still…They stay out of my way and I stay out of theirs. We learned early on in our relationship that it’s best to keep our distance. (They’re way too crunchy to be tasty anyway.)
From PARKER AND MRS. WALLACE by Jill Logan Leuders
We lived in the same house when I was growing up, and all my life my grandmother was a strong, feisty woman whose spiritual height vaulted well over her physical stature of 5 foot 3 inches. She had radiant skin and large, expressive eyes that exuded a warmth I associate with calming paintings of the Himalayas. A woman of great personal discipline, she wore mostly discrete earth-toned saris, nothing that grabbed attention. Her personality was charismatic so she didn’t have to wear bright colors to monopolize a crowd. She ran around managing the house even when she was in her 80s and it was impossible to imagine she would ever become weak. A dynamo like my Aita would surely be exempt from banal human processes like aging!
The dreaded news of her death reached me on March 27th of this year. I had spoken to my mother the night before, discussing what the new lockdown orders in India meant for my family, whether they were prepared with groceries and other essentials. She mentioned that Grandma had been taken to the hospital that day because her health had deteriorated even further since I’d last seen her. She was having trouble breathing. But even hearing of that symptom, I assumed Aita would make it back after a few days at the hospital, like the other times she’d gone to an E.R. She always bounced back. That was her nature -- her indomitable level of vitality and resilience -- so I didn’t worry. And in any case, with NYC becoming the world epicenter for Covid19, and India on full lockdown, there was no way to board an airplane and make my way back to Assam to see her.
A call from my mom flashed up on my phone screen at 4 a.m. and the hour told me something was wrong. But I didn’t pick up the call. I pretended I could delay the reality of Bad News if I didn’t hear it. This tendency to try to avoid facing pain is not unlike an ostrich, I admit – that strange creature who seems to believe that by sticking its head in the sand, unwanted experiences will go away. Pulling my covers over my head, a sickening river of emotions went through my body and I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
Scenes of home flooded my mind; snippets of conversations I’d had with my grandmother over the years; images of the monsoon rains that would pummel us for months -- the fresh breezes making the leaves of the grand Banyan tree in the courtyard dance...How my whole family would sit on the floor playing board games and munching on home-made papadums from Aita's oven... How she would narrate a funny incident from yesteryear, bringing us all together in laughter. And then I felt that melancholy yearning -- the yearning to be able to touch them. My family. The people I love. Aita. To be able to hug someone who is now thousands of miles away... and dying....
From AITA by Dev Shankar
Ph.D candidate in Mathematics/Engineering at N.Y.U.
(from N.E. India)