Return From Exile

a poetry cycle
by Rich Orloff

RETURN FROM EXILE explores the transitional period after the height of the Covid pandemic, when social life slowly resumed in New York.  This poetry cycle, featuring poems both serious and comedic, is designed for both reading and performance.

A Prayer for Unmasking

We are here to celebrate life
To rejoice in our bodies and souls
To reveal our Divine Spark
And to receive the Divine Spark of others

But if we wish to be fully alive
We must welcome all of ourselves
Including those stressed places
That have waited patiently for permission to reveal themselves

We have all been through a collective trauma
We each have experienced traumas of our own
We can all relate to each other’s trauma
We each have a place inside that others may never fully understand

Joy and grief are not opposites
They are companions
Who can support each other
Through life’s largest challenges

If sorrow arises
Let me feel sorrow
If tranquility arises
Let me feel tranquility
If passion arises
Let me feel passion
And if all I feel is resistance
Let me cultivate patience

Let me embrace it all
But hold on to none of it
Let this be a reunion with places inside me
That have become strangers

Let me immerse myself in the river of feelings
Until we all reach a place
Where we can enthusiastically shout

A Prayer for Blossoming Trees

Whoever said
Live in the moment
Probably never had to
Live in this moment

As I walk by a barren tree on a wintry day
I’d rather imagine it full of leaves again
As I pass masked strangers
I’d rather imagine seeing smiles

As I eat another meal at home alone
I’d rather imagine bantering with a waiter
Delighting in menu options
Sharing a table filled with friends

If the past year was unimaginable
Perhaps I need to remember
That the present is simply another interlude to pass through
Although the future may be unknown
I pray for the courage to imagine what it could be

I look closely at the barren tree
And I trust it will be soon be covered with leaves

The Shot

As the weary nurse prepares the shot
She reviews the form I filled out
And just to be safe, she asks
If I have any allergies

I’m lactose intolerant,
I reply with great solemnity
So if there’s any milk in the vaccine
I may fart

She laughs
Which is my goal
I know she works hard every day
So I wish to give her a little joy

As the needle pierces my skin
I think of how my parents grew up in dreaded fear of polio
Until a vaccine was invented
I remember the excruciating pain my hulking father endured
When shingles reduced him to a whimpering man

I am filled with gratitude to all the scientists
Now and past
Who worked tirelessly so that the fears of the past
Need not be the fears of the future

As the nurse puts a band-aid over my imperceptible wound
She tells me I can take Tylenol if I feel pain later
I ask, with great solemnity,
Which is better for pain:  bourbon or Scotch?

Definitely bourbon, she replies
We trade smiles that shine through our masks
And I leave
With the hope that my piercing remarks
Will help inoculate her from her stressful day

A Prayer for the Clenched Soul

The clenched soul
After a year of hypervigilance
Is it truly safe to let my guard down again

To not worry when I pass a guy whose mask is on his chin
To believe it’s safe to eat inside a restaurant
To hug without caution
To recklessly inhale love

Self-protection is a skill I learned many years
Before the pandemic began
It loved being center stage this year
Like a bit player finally offered a starring role

As I tentatively venture forward
There are so many things to think about
So many questions that don’t have clear answers
They could consume my every waking moment
A sweet voice within says
It’s time to go out and play

So my only question at this moment is
Should I listen?

Kaddish for a Lost Year

I didn’t realize how sturdy my wall was
Until I began to dismantle it

As I reenter the world
And let the world reenter me
I feel not only the joy of liberation
But also grief over my year of bondage

A slow embrace melts the shell around yearnings
That had been placed in suspended animation
A loving caress awakens anguish
I had successfully anesthetized for a year

A leisurely, maskless dinner with friends
Is not only a joyous reunion
But also a reminder of how long it’s been since I’ve had
What was once considered an unexceptional pleasure

Unlearning fear is a bigger challenge than I expected
Like an animal caged for a year
I wish to roam free
But hesitate taking my first step

One day the quotidian traumas of this time
Will be stories I tell about a remembered past
But now they’re still embedded inside me
A primal response to a terrifying present

A voice tells me
Don’t push yourself to act like nothing happened
Give yourself time
Give yourself love
And if you really wish to heal
Tell your friends
Yes, I know your pain

A Valentine’s Day Fantasy

My fantasies of late
Have taken a turn I never would have predicted
In my most recent one
It’s three weeks after I get my second Covid shot

Newly emboldened
I sit at the computer
And with a mischievous smile
I google:
Orgies for the Vaccinated

To my delight
A website appears on the screen
And a few nights later
I arrive at a secret place
That has a new definition of safe sex

We have gotten our shots
We have passed our tests
The evening begins with a naughty game called
Let’s Move Within Six Feet of Each Other

Our eyes lock
Our arms embrace
I whisper in your ear

You are momentarily startled
It’s been so longer since you’ve heard the word
You take out your phone to look up what it means

You look me with a delicious grin
And an open heart
You whisper in my ear

We move not only towards each other
But also towards the intersection of freedom and trust
Saying yes to the spirit of life
And to creating more joy in the universe

The Party

My friend Sheila’s smile is as warm as ever
Barry has a few more lines on his face
Deborah’s wavy hair has expanded in all directions
George’s face is more angular
(He had lost thirty pounds)

Looking at my friends in three dimensions again
It’s just like old times
Except that in the old times
We were never quite this grateful

Most of us have been vaccinated
The rest have recently been tested
All but one of us are maskless
Nobody judged the one who still chooses to wear a mask

At moments I’m terrified
I’m not ready for this, I think
At moments I’m in love
With every person in the room

Glancing at the balloons floating on the ceiling
The birthday girl admits she has never inhaled helium
I loosen the tie around a balloon and hand it to her
She inhales and then sings to us in her helium voice

We decide to pass the balloon around
When the balloon comes to me
I wonder if it’s safe to put my lips where other lips have just been
And I wonder if I would have been quite so nervous a year ago

I take a deep inhale and say a few words
And if I die because of this recklessness
I hope my friends will remember the wisdom of what I said
In a voice that sounded like Donald Duck

Why We Gather

On a cold Saturday morning in April
A member of my synagogue
Opens the ark containing the Torah
And a rabbinic intern takes it out and holds it in her arms

Jews have been opening the ark and taking out the Torah
For over a hundred thousand Saturday mornings
But this is the first time it’s happening at my synagogue
Since the pandemic began over a year ago

The chazzan looks at the rabbinic intern and says
“You’ve been with us ten months now,
and I just realized this is the first time we’ve met in person.”
The intern begins to weep

Since both of her hands are holding the Torah
The rabbi takes out a handkerchief and wipes her tears
This only makes the intern cry more
So the rabbi wipes her tears again

Most of the congregation watches the service on Zoom
A few of us, sitting six feet apart from each other
In a space chilled from lack of human warmth
Are not just witnesses
But the first of many returning from exile

Which is what Jews have done
Whenever they can
In one way or another
In search of sanctuary

The Laugh

On a Saturday evening in late April
At a gathering with a dozen friends
I say something funny
And people laugh

I enjoy connecting with people through laughter
When one laughs heartily
One is doing nothing else
One is in the moment
One is filled with joy

A few hours later
Lying in my bed
Reliving the moment
(Although I really want to sleep)
I smile a contented smile at the replay of laughter in my head

And then
Thinking about how long it has been
Since I’ve been in a room
Hearing the laughter of my friends

My eyes fill with tears

Returning to My Favorite Diner

I could’ve sworn there used to be a wider selection
Of rolls in the bread basket
The salad portions had a few more greens
Another cucumber slice

I know that over the past year
My favorite neighborhood restaurant has incurred
More expenses and fewer customers
And I’m glad it’s survived

But I wanted to come back to the place it used to be
Now there are tall glass partitions between booths
And what used to be bustling crowd
Is just a scattered few

My favorite waitress has moved to Florida
Others found new jobs
The new waitress is friendly
But doesn’t give the smile I got from those who knew me

I wanted tonight to be a night of celebration
Instead I grieve
Not only about the lost year
But about what may never come back

The waitress chuckles at a comment I make
It gives me hope we can create a relationship
But at this moment she is only partially effective
At blocking the view of ghosts

Why I’m Still Wearing a Mask

I know the CDC has relaxed its guidelines
But tell that to the part of my brain
That reads about the possibility of variants
That knows about the devastation happening elsewhere

Tell that to the part of my brain
That remembers how scary it was to walk within six feet of people
That recalls the photos of ICU wards overwhelmed with patients
That watched the death toll climb without mercy

I’m beginning to relate with some of those who never wore masks
Who may have used not wearing a mask
As a kind of security blanket
To convince themselves that the dangers weren’t real

I think of all this
As I walk down the street still wearing a mask
Do not mock me about my security blanket
It has earned its place on my face

The Dance Concert

At a modern dance concert in a midtown warehouse
The windows are wide open to promote ventilation
The seats are in pods of two
Each pair socially distanced from others

What joy I feel watching my first live performance
In over fifteen months
The dancers swerving and blending into interesting shapes
Clearly breathing heavily under their masks

I am completely immersed in the concert
Until for reasons I do not know
I suddenly feel an urge
To cough

In the olden times I would have just coughed
But now I wonder if people will look at me
If my cough will trigger fears as to its cause
If my cough will make some doubt it was wise to attend

With much effort and concentration
I successfully suppress the cough
A gift I gladly give to others in the audience
That they will never know was given them

A few nights later I meet friends for dinner
One asks, “How’s life going post-Covid?”
Life will not be post-Covid, I reply
Until I can enter a public space
And know that if I cough

It will be a moment lacking significance

A Sunset in May

“Wow”, I say, as I walk up to six friends
Whom I have known for eight months
But have only seen via Zoom.
“Look at you.  You all have legs!”

We gather on a pier in Greenwich Village
The sun is setting on a warm May evening
The sky slowly turns from soft blue into darker hues
But our focus is on each other

Nobody looks exactly like their Zoom image
Perhaps it’s been the lighting in their little boxes
Maybe it’s that everyone is finally three-dimensional
Or possibly everyone is slightly aglow

We discuss Broadway shows we look forward to seeing
And the ones we want to avoid
A year of movies we’ve watched on streaming services
And the new ones we yearn to see in a movie theater

I only half-listen as people start discussing TV shows
What could be more rewarding than
Sitting on a pier with new friends
Enjoying the warm breeze
Knowing that these people are more than images

The Lark Ascending

An invitation arrives by email
My friends Mickey and Debby
Will be hosting a classical music concert in their home
For the first time since Covid began

Scientists by profession
Lovers of culture
Mickey and Debby love hosting young artists
Sharing the joy of music in an intimate setting

I must attend
Both because the violinist will play “The Lark Ascending”
And because, to be frank
I need to get used to being with people again

Mickey has done research
And decided with certainty that each of us should wear masks
Debby has done research
And decided with certainty that the vaccinated don’t need to wear masks

There I sit with Mickey and Debby’s friends
Half wearing masks and half not
As I agonize over what I should do
The concert begins

I am dazzled by the violinist’s finger work
I am awed by her virtuosity
I am swept away by the beautiful music
My mind is no longer contained by thought

I am not thinking about my mask decision
And for that moment
And until the violinist finishes playing
I am liberated from fear

A Summer Evening

On a muggy summer evening in New York
A few friends gather on a midtown pier to toast a pal’s birthday
As I hug friends I haven’t seen in almost two years
The hugs are more passionate and full
Enhanced by longing and box wine

A few minutes later all is familiar again
Anne responding shyly to compliments
Charles quoting Shakespeare because he can
Leslie responding with eye rolls that
Charles is too busy being Charles to notice

Our group is joined by Louis
Don’t ask me who Louis is
None of us know
A wristband indicates he may have recently resided at a hospital
His mumbling indicates his soul may be buried under many layers

Louis asks if anyone has a cigarette
None of us smokes
Anne offers him a cup of box wine, so he lingers
Charles looks disapprovingly at Anne
“I’m Canadian”, she replies, her default response when she’s kind

When the group leaves the pier
Louis stays behind
Never saying goodbye or thank you
Relieving himself on a nearby wall
With no plans beyond that moment

My birthday pal and I go to a bar for one last drink
It’s quiet until a group of twenty-somethings arrive
Noisy and gregarious
Exhaling with such shameless exuberance
That it becomes impossible to hear what my pal has to say

As I walk home I pass
One couple making out on the sidewalk
Another venting their rage at each other
A scantily clad woman looking like she’ll refuse eye contact
With anyone until she meets her prey

I relish all the people I’ve seen tonight
And I think
I guess New York is finally coming back
And I feel

A Weekend Away

I’m so glad that the trees aren’t wearing masks
Nor the birds
Nor the stars

On vacation in nature
Away from the news
My mind rests

The majesty of a hidden waterfall
The playful delight of a rushing current
The boyish joy of a scraped knee

I’ve accomplished less in the last three days
Than I’ve let myself not accomplish in years
Reconnecting with idleness is a poignant reunion

On the road home
My friend and I pull over
At a rest stop

As we’re about to enter
We see others walking out
And we remember something

We return to the car
Retrieve our masks
And put them on

We are no longer in nature
Our vacation is over
But our memories are free from masks

The Cure

On the train to Providence, where I will visit friends
I read about the alarming rise of the Delta variant
And I realize I haven’t asked my friends the question
“Have you been vaccinated?”

Sitting around their dinner table
They say they found a proven alternative to the Covid vaccine
A respected medicine used to treat parasites and head lice
Popular in Africa, a continent so far spared the ravages of the pandemic

I am dubious
Although not as dubious as when a friend told me
She was dating a man who claimed New York City’s early outbreak
Was caused by the city’s extensive 5G mobile phone network

When I return home I visit a website my friends recommended called
“Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance”
What an official-sounding name!
And I read articles about the miraculous results of this drug

Then I decide to google the drug
And I read article after article casting doubt
About the alleged tests proclaiming the drug’s effectiveness
Although each article admits the drug works well on parasites and head lice

I also read about how quickly the Delta variant is spreading
It is almost as contagious
As the spread of misinformation
And I wonder
Which is more deadly?

and finally:

How to Remember a Plague

One day the pandemic will just be a small part of history
Like the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic
Or the Black Plague
Or the Dark Ages
Or most of our lives

I do not know when the next plague will come
I do not know what form it will take
I do not know if it will brief or long
Nobody sells plague insurance

I won’t forget loneliness
Or despair
Or the fear of death
Or the days each hour was a challenge to get through

Or how I deepened my compassion for others
The opportunity to slow down
The joy of each breath
Learning to unmute myself on Zoom

Dancing in my living room
As I watched others dance in other lands
Feeling supported by friends
Who shopped for me when I was quarantined

I don’t know how much I can prepare for future plagues
I do know that remembering is essential
So we must tell the next generation
And the ones after that:

We were once enslaved by a horrible plague

And now we are free