When Home is Not a Place

Sometimes the most modest things call to me — an oval beveled window in a vinyl door. A porch with a hand-made dog gate. A wicker settee under a tree.

What if this were my home? In that little nook at the top of the stairs, I’d write like my heart were a river. If that were my hammock, everyone would be my friend. In that cottage, peace would stay.


We have come to Annapolis to celebrate Enrico’s 50th birthday. From the brick patio behind this house built in 1834, I see a bird has made a nest in a windowsill. I catch glimpses through the glass door of Sofia browning butter for a chocolate cake, and Virginia, roasting carrots and crisping focaccia.

A ship horn blares. Country singers harmonize. And a hot rod revs along Duke of Gloucester Street.


Here the sidewalks are carpets of bricks undulating over tree roots. Moss spreads over stone walls. Pear blossom petals drift over children playing behind a school.

But under this holy sky, a private haze persists. My shortcomings hound me. My mistakes are never far away. There’s always something else I need to do.


Here in Annapolis row houses are shoeboxes stacked in shades of turquoise, pink, royal, and sage. Midshipmen and women in navy suits with brass buttons and white peaked caps wander among the weekend crowds.


We treat our selves as if we were structures that need constant rehabbing, renovating, adding on. Addresses speak of our value. New walls promise starting over.

The lights in the house hum as taupe stratus clouds spill across the once-clear sky. At the run-down house next door, Budweiser cans lie abandoned on a mirror shard. A paper lantern has fallen under the magnolia. Diana calls to me with wet hair and pajamas, “Dinner is almost ready!”

I am blessed. But if I look out into the world, there’s always a prize I’m missing. I am cursed.

When I get tired of myself, I rest.


In the channel of the heart, in the center of the body that grows up and grows old, there is a refuge. A place where love is unending and the search is over. I know if I can stay here inside, I will always be home.

Hiding but Hoping to Be Found

My eyes flicked open. The clock on my bedside table read 4:15. We had decided we would do the egg hunt after quiet time.

“Mama?” Luke called from the kitchen. My dreams patterned over the sheers blowing into my room. They played with the wavy shadows cast by the window mullions. “Mama?” The screen door opened and banged shut. “Mama?”

“Don’t look!” I heard cousin Julia say to him in the backyard. “Or I’ll hide it again!”

He called my name from the basement, from the foyer, from the stairs, and then the calling stopped.

I didn’t want to be found, but I wanted to be looked for.


The day had started at 6:45 with the 4-hour leg of lamb sliding into the oven, and the crescendo of garlic softening, giving away its perfume.

A blue striped oxford for Mark, khakis for Luke, and a hand-me-down lavender dress for Diana that needed ironing. Three dozen eggs to be hard-boiled, and late-night instructions for vegan asparagus soup: Could someone please buy raw cashews, lots of basil, and vegetable broth? Clutter that had been collecting for days, whisked away minutes before our guest arrived at 11.


It was Easter and Mark’s 13th birthday. A beginning and an ending. Our son is now taller than me, his lilting voice gone, his shoulders a broad gate.

After spring break, he and his younger siblings will most likely return to school two days a week. Virginia is taking more shifts to save up for college, and Sofia has been going on camping trips in preparation for her big one.

After every pulling together is a drifting apart. When schools closed last March, we ate hot meals at noon around the big table like a farming family. Our separate ages, interests, and goals collapsed into a unity necessary to bear through the crisis.


Only scar-pink pistils remain on the weeping cherry that for one week was resplendent. But the fruiting cherry is beginning to swirl out round petals of white light. Little suns.

Life is an unrelenting tumble of grief and discovery. Losing and finding. Sugar crunching between the teeth melts on the tongue. Gifts bulging with possibility dissipate into tangles of ribbon. Blue button-downs are now crumpled in the laundry bin.

“It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”

D.W. Winnicott

We hunt for plastic eggs, not because of the dime-store candies inside, but for the promise of finding. We want to be the one to spot the baby blue globe tucked in the car wheel, the dome of pink sunk into a tuft of spiky leaves.

To be unfound, or to be ignored, is a kind of death.

I like being invisible now, because another part of me is unspooling into the world. Through the sound of my voice, I find myself.

Under bushes, in the crooks of branches, tucked into log piles, I still like leaving eggs. Hoping someone will find them, and know me.

When the Cherry Trees Bloom

An ambulance wails through the air warm enough to burst buds into blossoms on every cherry tree along our street. But the siren no longer unfurls dread from my chest as it did when the cherries bloomed last year. The sirens soaked the air with blood, terrifying as the blares in my midwestern town when a tornado was spotted.

It is said that when the mind weeps for what is lost, the soul rejoices for what is found.

In the taut stillness of spring last year, I felt held in the gasp of the entire world. I would see an ordinary nuthatch, hopping along the fence rail, and see that we had never been that different.

I was the nuthatch on the rail, the common violet in the grass, noticed for the first time. I was the purple magnolia weeping on the sidewalk. The puddle waiting to be stepped in by me.


More and more people tell me they are halfway or fully vaccinated. We are still wearing masks and staying home on Saturday night, but that will change. When the mayor announced that gatherings of 50 or less were allowed again, a bolt of panic struck. Who will protect the calm sea where I have anchored?

When the future opens, the present becomes a forgotten town we sail past on the way to glamorous ports.


A storm came this afternoon. The wind played jazz on the neighbor’s chimes. Dots of rain spotted the earth until they merged into a single color, louder than the birds.

In gardening it’s known that nature will tell you when it’s time. When you hear the tree frogs, it’s time to plant the peas. When the forsythia blooms, prune the roses. When the apple blossoms fade, tomatoes can be set in the ground.

When the cherry trees bloom, remember to live as if death could come tomorrow.

When the world is a jumble, be a daffodil, steady and open. When everything is too serious, see the raindrops dancing on the blacktop. And when you think life is deprived of majesty, notice the great old cypress after a storm, dipped in the sun’s glitter, talking big with the sky.

When to Wear Gloves

My mother always wore gardening gloves, even when she drove a hand spade into the soft suburban ground to nestle her purple hyacinth bulbs. 

But I’m different. I don’t care that my knuckles get nicked or that my nails are ringed with half-moons of dirt. I want to make contact with the minerals and the stems, no formalities needed.

When the seasons collided in late winter and it was summer for a day, I barreled into the garden and raked and clipped and swept and gathered all the crumpled leaves, the flower balls, and slanted twigs. They had kept the ankles of the plants warm, but now they were wool socks on a muggy day.

After I hauled the remains to the botanical cemetery behind the garage, the backs of my hands were alive with red scratches and my fingers were christened with a dusting of glimmery dirt. 

But by afternoon a gash on my palm ached. That night I scrubbed out the dirt with a bar of Ivory, just as my mom would ward off poison ivy with Fels-Naptha laundry soap. 

Maybe it needed antibiotics, I thought, dabbing some on and going to bed with a bandage. 

The next day, the pink opening called to me with the only voice it had. I soaked it in warm water again, but at the deepest part, a speck remained. With a pair of tweezers and eyes sharper than mine, my son extracted an infinitesimal thorn.

I’ve never thought of myself as a warrior. Swords are for killing and shields are for raising barriers. But don’t we hurt each other every day without even trying? Don’t lovers protect themselves from what their bodies want to conceive? Danger comes in equal measure as beauty.

Nature has boundaries, and so must you. Coax the climbing roses, claw out the river stones, press the seeds in deep, but take care. Protect yourself so love can last.

Dangerously Alive

To practice for their summer trip to the national parks, Sofia and her best friend decided to hike Old Rag Mountain. Nine miles around and 2,680 feet up.

On her day off work at the bakery, they drove with new driver’s licenses to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. 

“Shortcutting is dangerous,” said a wooden sign at the base. They trekked over needle ice. They climbed traprock staircases, they overtook ice rivers.

On that day cut with a diamond sun, Sofia had no time to stream The Great British Baking Show or to set silverware on folded napkins before dinner. She was crawling up billion-year-old boulders with two arms and two legs.

It was dark when the front door opened and the night air brought her in. As she untied her shoes, she swiped through glowing images on her phone. Shoulders resting against rock walls, pink noses, clouds of effort. Her eyebrows were rainbows. And her face was lit from the inside.

Sometimes We Need a Crisis

I barely recognize the version of myself that existed before this pandemic. That particular patching together, that paper maché person collaged from all I had learned and feared. A marionette acting as if every day were an audition to get into Life.

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

—Albert Einstein

A year ago this week, our crisis arrived. On March 11, 2020, a global calamity of massive proportions was declared. We are still in the midst of this pandemic, with rolling lockdowns and outbreaks flaring up around the world, states and countries arguing over what needs to be done and who is at fault, industries crumbling, livelihoods lost forever, and the weak and the poor being trodden down even more.

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it can be hard to accept a statement such as this one: “Sometimes the world needs a crisis,” the title of a Brookings report from April 2017. The report shows how crises throughout history, typically viewed as dangerous and wasteful, have also been catalysts for solutions and innovating, especially when conventional ways are challenged. Disparate groups have come together in crisis, bonded by their collective suffering, cooperating to create new systems. Danger also triggers the flow of communal adrenaline, focusing minds on what needs to be done.

A crisis is both danger and opportunity and we have experienced all during this pandemic. Shared vulnerability has pulled us together, but fear, suspicion of others, and restrictions on personal freedom have pulled us apart. In our defenselessness, we looked to our governments for help, who either gained or broke our trust. When things fell apart, we saw where our institutions were corrupt, and yet this awareness made us more willing to fight for change. 

I have seen this phenomenon play out inside the microcosm of my own self. When the crisis hit, I was terrified of losing the only world I knew. I was afraid of breaking until I didn’t know the shape of me, until I spilled everywhere. Like regimes resistant to change, I didn’t want to let go and find new ways of being. 

But danger woke me up and reminded me I was alive. Fear blasted away all those pretend stories in my mind and made me focus on what was real. The past was disappearing fast, the future was blank, and all I had was now. 

We think of light as healing, but the blackness nurtured me. In quarantine, I was forced to feel my own feelings, instead of going out interpreting others’. Unable to keep searching everywhere for the key, I was forced to leave the keyhole empty. I was forced to stay, when I wanted to go. 

With brutal accuracy, the virus showed me that I am not in control. When everything falls away, you find out who you are. 

“Global crises that crush existing orders and overturn long-held norms…can pave the way for new systems, structures, and values to emerge and take hold,” the Brookings report says. “Without such devastation to existing systems and practices, leaders and populations are generally resistant to major changes and to giving up some of their sovereignty to new organizations or rules.”

This is a message of hope. And yet another kind of threat awaits us when we emerge from crisis. When immediate danger passes, we often wander back to our separate spheres, our private battles, the ways we numb our feelings so we can get on with life.

The pandemic is not over, but with danger receding, I can feel all the useless terrors returning. I feel myself constructing my armor again, pasting layer over layer around me, protecting me from enemies that don’t exist and judgments that have not been uttered. 

Lacking a disaster to confront, “I” have become the problem that needs solving. The pulling-in effect spurred by crisis has dwindled, and now I feel a war brewing inside me, between the parts of me that don’t agree, the oppressors and the oppressed. Without the fear of imminent death, I have to fight to stay awake, to keep my heart open, to pay attention. The body wants to slip back into comfort, ease — sleep.

When 10, or 20, or even 50 years have passed, we who have been through this pandemic will know each other by our scars. I hope my scar will always remind me of the wound that healed me, the cut that went so deep to touch that place that connects me to every person, plant, and animal, stone, stream, and cloud. The part of me that sees in every human being a friend, teacher, a child. 

I am not courageous. I am terrified every day. But my wish is that I will confront the private crises of my life, the ones I suffer alone, that rip into the curve of my emotional globe, with a sliver of recognition. A gleam of insight from this gash. I hope I will remember that old orders must die into the eternal river of life. And from the greatest pain comes the greatest love.

The Mourning Dove Tells Me

I hear the coo of a mourning dove,
swaying as a porch swing does 
in the breeze by itself,
and I remember this time last year.
Spring was coming, 
but we didn’t predict 
the total eclipse.

I want to hug the person I was, 
scared and so lost.
To mother the child
when a bosomy clasp 
in a rocking chair
could still ease the pain.

In late February, 
crystalline light outlines 
the cypress fronds, 
shards of ice lose their edge, 
green points push 
out of the brown, 
and I want to run outside 
like a child 
who sees a friend at the door.

Dare I trust spring again?
The vaccine is here, but 
three thousand died every day
last month. 
In Los Angeles, funeral homes
rent refrigerated trucks 
to hold all the bodies,
and in Maryland, graves 
can’t be dug fast enough 
with shovels and backhoes,
so they must lay dynamite.

Conspiracies keep felling minds,
and the virus keeps morphing 
into new mutations
in South Africa, Britain, and Brazil.

The song of the mourning dove
swaying up, up and then down
seems to tell me,
Cry for all we have endured, 
for how strong you’ve been.

John James Audubon

Let the knots unloose,
the rain soak into you.
Let the ice thaw, and
the sun light up 
every one of your fronds.

Allow the wind to decide 
what branches need to fall
and which can still point to the sky.

Plant your feet deep in the ground,
and let every tendril take up 
the fertile funeral of last year’s loss.

Like the rain that has seen tragedies 
and majesties that you will never know,
you too must return.

Those choirs of geese 
making giant arrows in the sky,
those woodpeckers drumming,
these snowdrops blooming —
they are here to lead you out.

Receive, let go, fly.
This is what it feels like to be alive.

A Rainbow Puddle Under the Fig Tree

Diana and her new friend 
make hearts out of snow 
with plastic molds
my sister mailed
from Arizona.

They press a heart 
onto the tip
of a fig tree branch,
decorate it with 
food coloring —
red and yellow,
green and blue.

Like a sno-cone 
once bright 
with syrup,
the heart
begins to pale, 
and drip by drip,
onto the sidewalk 
a rainbow spills.

Broken Macarons

acqua_colore/Shutterstock

Caramel, mango, 
coffee, and raspberry. 
Broken macarons sit 
in a clear plastic box 
on the top shelf of our fridge. 

Cinnamon and vanilla, 
pumpkin and pistachio,
they’re sold for two dollars a piece
at the bakery where Sofia works.
But broken, they are worthless. 

She rises early to ring up 
quiche and almond cakes, 
twists and espresso
at the bakery in the mall. 
Freshman classes are virtual,
so she’s saving up for a car 
and a trip across the country.

The tooth first touches a stiff veil
like the crust over snow at night.
Then chewy meringue surrenders 
into a soft heart
before it melts everywhere. 

An exact degree of humidity is required 
for satiny but strong domes, 
rough but frilly crowns.
The softness of the macaron’s collapse
equal to the precision of its construction.

On the days when Sofia 
comes home, extracting 
from a crinkled white bag
a few broken macarons,
she smiles as if to say, 
What misfortune and what luck.

She adds them to the 
plastic box in the fridge — 
chocolate macarons filled with chocolate ganache, 
lemon with lemon curd buttercream, 
apricot with apricot jam.

“You can each choose one,”
she tells her brothers,
extending the open box to them 
in the middle of their Nerf gun fight 
as if offering bonbons to princes.

Crushed, cracked, or chipped, 
our macarons will never 
surprise a dinner party hostess or
commemorate an anniversary. 

They are eaten with 
grubby hands that have 
just formed snowballs 
from sidewalk slush. 
Popped into mouths between 
handfuls of corn chips 
and streams of potty words.
Appreciated if not for the form,
then for the content: 
“Passionfruit is so good!” Luke says.
“It’s like sweet and sour!”

Macarons were born 
as dollops of almond meringue
in the monasteries of medieval Venice. 
Priest’s bellybuttons 
they were called 
when Catherine de’ Medici 
married King Henry II and
brought them to France.
The Parisians transformed bellybuttons
into three-layer pastry shop tartlets.

When Sofia first mentioned 
macarons, 
I had the vague sense 
that I had missed 
some chic fad.
Perhaps out of rebellion 
for being left out, 
or a lack of respect 
for broken things, 
I ate my first one 
as if it were an ordinary cookie 
that thought very highly of itself.

“I’m grateful for macarons,” 
Diana said one evening
when I tucked her in.
Now I try to eat each one
knowing how hard they were to make,
how delicate and once beautiful.
And how the baker, knowing this too,
keeps making them again and again.

In the Abundant Heart of Winter

In the heart of winter, sadness has given way to acceptance, and even gratitude. After the quarantines and social distancing of summer, the arrival of winter had felt like a grim sentence. Yet even within the suffering and anguish of the world, there have been gifts.

Once a year in my former life, I would drive for hours to some remote lodge where phone calls and newsletters and signup sheets couldn’t reach me. The flames inside took several days to die down.

I spent hours without talking, I took walks in the woods, I went to bed early.

I always arrived confused and broken. Fooled by the outsides of people. They who seemed so confident, so easeful, so strong. And I, a sea turtle following the city lights instead of the moon.

This winter we hung the bird feeder my father gave us last summer. Squirrels and sparrows and cardinals gather in our backyard. Sharing, stealing, racing and chasing each other over the top of the bench by the fire pit, underneath the new trampoline, past the garage with the weight machine my husband assembled with the boys, and the rock tumbler, tumbling and rumbling raw amethyst and tiger’s eye into gems for Diana.

The kids play for hours outside in the cold because this is how they can see a friend. Riding bikes, clutching sleds, climbing trees, and tossing footballs until the sky turns dark. When a door closes, another opens.

If it weren’t for the virus, would we have kept clambering for more — richer, taller, fuller, more?
Terrified of what would happen if we stopped. If we let things decline, decay, melt back into the earth.
Cancer is the name we give to what never stops growing.

I used to love silent breakfast at the retreat center. Naps in the dorm room.
I would watch the sky turn gradations of yellow and gray and taupe from my bunk bed and think, God must live here. I didn’t realize that this was the feeling of being at one with myself in the world.

This winter silence, this absence, this draining of color and noise. An abundance of stillness.
Time to reflect, time to paint, to sew, to read, to dream.
Destruction blowing on the embers of creation.

My children have been doing school at home for almost a year now. The crowds of people I’d see every day — men in suits, women in hose, getting on the metro after dropping off their kids — I don’t see them anymore. I always imagined they were rushing off to do important things. Science or Education. Congress. World Peace. And I’d go home to my writing room and try to spin straw into gold by 3 o’clock.

Our high school senior is now in that room logging into class on Microsoft Teams. I write in the bedroom with the cat, who always finds an empty nook in my body to find warmth. Down the hall, Diana does reading workshop, and in her breaks, shows me how fast she can type on Typing.com. The boys are in the living room below, and our college student has returned home, now getting ready for her job at the bakery.

Death and life are two sides of the same coin. Endlessly flipping, tossing, through eternity.

Some days, when my husband takes the kids out, all I hear is the faint rumble of a plane plowing through the clouds. A single car shimmering over the icy street.

I tell myself, surrender.
Be still, while you can.
Go deeper.
Rest.
And when you wake, do not let yourself be led around on a leash by your barking brain.
Be guided by the heart of you, that silent prow cutting through the uncertain seas of your life.