We are now entering the eighth week of pandemic purgatory. A kind of purdah: the practice among women in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of living in separate rooms or behind a curtain in order to stay out of sight of unrelated men. The coronavirus has put us all in purdah, in our case a legally or societally mandated seclusion, with a few exceptions for activities such as the purchase of provisions and medicines or isolated exercise.
I dress up in a mask, hat and surgical gloves and dash to exit my home and escape purdah. Weather permitting, I head to Central Park which is now in full bloom. I have seen more birds and squirrels in the last eight weeks than in the last 18 years. On my walk, I encounter lone bird watchers who delight in sharing that certain species have returned to the park after a long exile (it seems they too were in a self-imposed purdah) and I smile in response.
In Ramadan, I smile as I fondle my worry beads, a gift from my father. A string of beautiful amber beads. They were handed down to him by his father. This makes me smile. I smile while my fingers play with each bead asking Allah for mercy and forgiveness
A week before the word coronavirus became an unwelcome addition to my lexicon, I flew to Chicago with my husband. It had been on my bucket list of American cities to which to travel and I had canceled several trips in the past due to various reasons. I discovered a welcoming city with a skyline that defied gravity, as well as a world class treasure trove of museums, above all especially the Art Institute of Chicago. I grew up heavily influenced by not just French and Egyptian films but of course by Hollywood movies as well.
My museum visit was a real throwback to the cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which a trio of high schoolers play hooky from school and go on an urban adventure. Trouble naturally ensues but along the way these truants make a cultural detour and stop at the aforementioned institute, where they all pose in front of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, a masterpiece in pointillism and an icon of every introductory course in art history. As I stood there that day, I couldn’t help but smile. My feet ached as I made my way through every room that the institute had open on that day. All the while, smiling. I had finally made it to a museum that had long lived in my mind but had hitherto been elusive in real life. I have to admit that in my reverie, overwhelmed by all the masterpieces that were instantly familiar from school and books, I walked right past Grant Wood’s American Gothic, without noticing it. They joke about Iowa being a flyover state, but no disrespect was intended by missing the portrait of the couple who lived there.
Trigger a happy memory and smile. Smile at the sun (don’t stare at it). Smile at the rain and at the clouds. Smile at uncertainty. Smile through past pain. Smile at our uncertain futures. Then permit yourself to cry. To weep. But then smile once again
A few days after we returned, the world was on lockdown.
Well, we’ll always have Chicago, I now smile to myself and shrug the way Humphrey Bogart did when speaking of Paris. I’m not sure if he smiled when he uttered those unforgettable words in Casablanca, but every time I think of Chicago I’m left with a smile.
Today I want us all to smile. My personal trigger is a painting and the city of Chicago. Short but intensely happy memories.
The reason for our trip was the opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art of a show curated by our dear friend, the British-Nigerian designer Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago. Upon first entering the MCA the evening of our arrival in the city, I smiled, or rather I beamed. I was surrounded by a sublime and incredibly diverse assemblage of works from private as well as public collections all under a single roof and meticulously vetted by a master’s eye. Duro cracked one of his famous smiles, as well. Chicago made us all smile that weekend.
Today, I want us all to smile. Trigger a happy memory my dear readers, and smile. Smile at the sun (but don’t stare at it). Smile at the rain and at the clouds. Smile at the uncertainty. Smile through past pain. Smile at our uncertain futures. Then permit yourself to cry. To weep. To wail. But then smile once again. Smile in private as your tears flow in the shower. It’s okay. Tears are cleansing.
I cried yesterday through my mask when I saw a homeless man with no trousers wheeling his few possessions walking down Madison Avenue. I crossed the street to avoid him, sensibly but guiltily nonetheless in case he was COVID-19 positive.
In this holy month of Ramadan, I smile as I fondle my worry beads, a gift from my father. A string of beautiful amber beads. They were handed down to him by his own father, then to me. This makes me smile. I smile while my fingers play with each bead asking God for mercy (ya lateef) and for forgiveness (astaghfirullah).
Listening to music this afternoon, I find the words of the great Nat King Cole particularly poignant:
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you smile.
I hope I managed to make you smile .