Winter in Ohio

The trees along the route are bare now. Air sparkles between their trunks like blue glitter as we fly by on the highway. Diana and I are driving to Ohio to pick up Sofia from college and see my parents and their new kittens. 

The noon sun in November is mellow, lighting up the yellow anthers of the Indiangrass that grows by the roadside. The once green hills now look like a Parisian dress, mottled gray and olive. Red barns crouch in valleys. Silos are obelisks at the top of hills. Moss covers mountainsides.

I notice that the rural Maryland landscape looks pastoral and soft when Ohio is our destination. But the exact same terrain, when we are traveling back to D.C., looks Eastern and dramatic.

It seems impossible but true that I have viewed the entire world through the hue of my mind.


When we started out Friday at 8:30, Diana did her Morning Meeting from the car with the iPad balanced on her lap. “I’m going camping in my backyard tonight until 9 or 8,” one second grader in her class said about his weekend.

“I’m driving to my grandparents’ house,” Diana said, “and it’s going to take 7 hours to get there.”

“It takes 14 hours to get to my grandparents’ house,” another child said.


After a long morning of driving, we pull into the Panera parking lot in Clarksburg, West Virginia. In the grass median, I stretch my legs and Diana jogs limply saying, “I can’t run.” We find ourselves doing yoga poses — warrior 2, 1, then 3 — while people at the Jiffy Lube watch us from their cars, motors running. “Now I can run fast!” Diana says, and tears across the grass like a circular saw through a fresh slab of pine.

“Do you want my soup?” I ask Diana, after I have eaten all I can.

“If you don’t like it, that’s okay,” she says. “I don’t like it either, but…” she says while spooning it into her mouth, and I laugh in my voluminous way. 

“Your laugh is so loud,” she says with a new self-consciousness. “Everyone can hear you.” I look around at a handful of customers sitting two-by-two in booths, and the store manager at a nearby table repairing what appear to be decorative bull horns, but no one even stirs.


When we finally exit the freeway at 4 in the afternoon, this is the Ohio I know. Undulating plains and little white houses. One-lane highways running through modest hamlets. Strip malls and chain stores. “There are so many farms here,” Diana says when we get close to my family’s place. 

The corn is silver-gold, still standing in the fields. Rows of dried soybean plants harvested close to the ground have made the fields into oceans of beige corduroy. 

When we pass the farm that used to belong to my great-great grandmother’s sister, we slow down. Then at the Dairy Hut where the Methodist Episcopal used to stand before they tore it down and broke my mother’s heart, we take a right. My parents and their three-month-old kittens await us in the house on the hill. 

When we were visiting in July, this farm was in the flush of fertility. Wheat was being harvested and soybeans were being planted right after in a rare double crop year. Only a few fuzzy pods remain where the harvester couldn’t reach, at the very edge of the field or where a branch had fallen.

This is beautiful too. This is as alive as the time of color and heat. 


In winter, you can see nature’s hidden structure — the order and the tangles, each embedded in the other.

The star-shaped crack in the cut circle of a log.

Thistle florets, dry and downy, stars in galaxy after galaxy.

Everything in the universe can be found within itself, patterns repeating according to eternal laws.


At the creek, the razzmatazz cicadas of summer are no more. Only a few crickets remain, trilling a lullaby. The waves of poison ivy that once forbade our entry have surrendered. Mud has been tamed with a layer of crackly leaves. There is no stifling humidity, no whine of mosquitoes. The biggest danger now is the dark and the cold. Night is falling. 

In Japan, beauty is found in decline, in the weathered and the worn. I love the way the woven wire pasture fence rusts. How the rain has washed the white paint off the cow barn. The way the Hackwood trees lean over the sides of the creek until they slowly fall in.


“Be very careful on the roads today,” my mom tells me the next day before I leave to pick up Sofia at Kenyon. “It’s deer season,” she says. Rutting season is when male deers are so intent on finding a companion that they run across highways. Dying to mate.

The freeways the day before had been splattered with blood. Mangled deer were slumped on the shoulder. Raw necks exposed. Parts strewn across the lanes.

I write down my dad’s directions and look at the map and drive the two and a half hours without the car telling me what to do, because I want to pay attention. After Mom’s Bait Shop, you take a left onto Pleasant Valley Road and drive by the patch of rotting pumpkins. At the middle school, you take another left, past the prison and the golf course, and route 23 takes you north, by the Dollar Generals and Speedways and Bob Evanses along the feeder road.

I don’t see any rutting deer, but the rain has shined the highway into platinum gold. There is a truck ahead of me called Super Ego Holdings. What is the message for me in the morality play of my life? To me, everything is meaningful, although the daughter I am driving to pick up believes that nothing is. 


A dad loading a minivan holds the door to the two-story sandstone building. This is the second and last time I’ll step foot in Sofia’s dorm. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the rest of the year will be remote. 

As I walk through the hall, I am reminded of my ‘50s era elementary school — the smell of pine cleaner, the memory of asbestos, the aging glazed brick. 

I knock a rhythm on the door, and Sofia opens it. Her smile and her hug fills me with the kind of warmth that floods your body after a good run. She thinks that she hasn’t done enough packing, but I see a dorm room ready to be folded into a car and driven away. I start taking armloads down to the car while she packs up the last things, vacuums the floor, and slips her key into a little manila envelope.

We drive through the rain all afternoon, and talk about whether she’ll defer next semester or work on an organic farm or take classes from her laptop in the basement. We get lost and make the final way back to my parents’ farm through one-lane roads of mobile homes, chicken coops, and garden pedestals in front yards holding blue gazing balls.

Bringing Sofia to the farm and then home feels like retrieving an important part of a puzzle, a puzzle whose borders are not so straight anymore.


The next morning, we hug my parents good-bye with masks on. The kittens will be cats the next time we visit. Diana knows it was I who left four quarters and took the tooth under her pillow the night before.

Sofia drives the first half and I sit in the passenger seat. “Look how many people are dead!” Diana says when we pass the graveyard next to Tanya’s house. A herd of black cows grazes on a lopsided hill. Eastern white pines, with their straight arms, are many-limbed crosses.

Little by little the flat farmlands give way to the foothills of the Appalachians. As we climb the mountain range, we begin passing resorts, vacation homes, and camps: Jesus in the Hills Camp, Chief Logan Boy Scout Camp, Canter’s Cave 4-H Camp. 

Beloved mountains. Shelter from the wind, the sun, and the rain, and perhaps most of all, from ourselves. In the mountains, there is always another ridge, another stand of trees to hide behind. To get lost and find yourself in.


In the late afternoon light of western Maryland, I get tired and Sofia takes the wheel again. Diana chants, “Skittles, Skittles, snake,” practicing her Ss with her two front teeth missing. Her new ‘S’ sounds like air being let out of a tire. 

In the vast expanse of leafless brown woods that line the highways, I notice the evergreen trees. Insignificant in summer, their green now holds everything together. Bridging the worlds of activity and hibernation, fecundity and decay, they remind me that even though nothing in this world stays the same, there is something through it all that is eternal.

A Fall Poem, by Diana

On a nice fall day,
go outside and rake some leaves,
then when there is a big pile,
jump in it, and laghf until your tired.

Then take a walk and
smell what it smells like in the fall.

AlexGreenArt/Shutterstock


Then go back home and
get your coat and shoes off
and then sit by the fire
and warm up with a blanket.

Sit there for a while and
maybe play a board game
while drinking tea or hot chocolate
or something hot.

After that, talk about something
with your family or freind
and do an activity with them.

by Diana, age 7

Cresting the Hill

We went out for dinner on Saturday night, just us as it is every night, except Virginia put on lipstick, Enrico changed his pants, and I wore earrings. “I like your cheetah dress,” Diana said to Virginia, as she climbed into the car with her sparkly sandals on.

All along Wisconsin toward Georgetown, restaurants had claimed the parking lane with tents and string lights, turf and potted plants, spreading themselves outward for as long as they can, until winter comes. Fire lamps and concrete medians made space for wooden tables and white napkins. Green lattice and plastic flowers tied to metal dividers turned blacktops into parklets.

In the spare restaurant that had once been packed with tables, we were only six, not seven. Our oldest daughter is at college. Next year Virginia will go too. Little by little they will leave. This is the way of the world. 

If I live to be 100, my life has already passed its fullest point. One day big cars, trampolines, and jumbo farm shares will no longer be needed. One day our house will not groan from the weight of bodies climbing all over it. One day there will be no college essays to edit, Instagram accounts to monitor, colors to stitch together in the calendar patchwork. That will go threadbare too. 

I am grateful to have held this fullness. 


After dinner, we drove back home in the dark. A city bus that said Fair Shot lumbered away from the curb and headed past us down the hill.

The wind blew, helping the trees shed their leaves.

At home, I took off my earrings to get ready for sleep. This life of clasping children is waning, but another life is growing. I feel myself spilling out from the center inside. There is no end to this fountain. It always quenches, it always knows.

Photo by Kyle Roxas on Pexels.com

When I climb into bed, my body is tired, my back aches. I feel my bones lightening with invisible catacombs of air. My cheeks sink. Parts of me that were once fertile are now suspected of harboring disease. 

But I know there is nothing that needs to be added to me. I have always had everything I needed.

The rest of my journey will be for emptying what I have collected. Until the day I leave, blind and nameless, through the same blackness from which I came.

Goodbye and Hello

On Election Night, Diana and Luke walked into the TV room wearing nothing but towels, hair dripping, eyelashes glistening.

“Duval county just went to Biden,” the ABC News analyst said as he touched an interactive map of Florida, and with a tap of his index finger, showed running tallies and count percentages and past winners. “What’s really interesting is that Miami-Dade county,” he said, “which has always voted Democrat, is leaning toward Trump.”

Like my children, I felt pinned to my seat by the blinking cartoon images of the two candidates, lined up as if they were opponents in a boxing match. The sizzling infographics in red, blue and white, the ominous yet upbeat transition music played by synthesized violins.

I had been tense the whole day, rushing around as if spinning would blow out some of the fire inside. All around D.C., restaurants, shops, and banks had boarded up in preparation for civil unrest. In case there was looting, Walmart stores across the country had taken down their displays of guns and ammunition. And even though everyone said the avalanche of mailed-in pandemic-era ballots would slow down the process, we were hoping for resolution.

“Live from New York, it’s George Stephanopoulos!” a disembodied voice kept saying at the end of each commercial break. Maybe it’s late-stage capitalism or the way we’ve always compared our country to the Roman Empire, but the pundits looked like mythical gods sitting 6 feet apart in their sparkling white rotunda. And yet the show was being broadcast from a black glass building in grimy Times Square, and the spectacle was taking place in polling booths and post offices and ballot boxes across the country (but mostly in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada). 

The kids said to wake them up to tell them who won, but even those who stayed up the latest went to bed without knowing.


The next day, I had lunch with a friend. As if nothing were hanging in the air, cars lined up at red lights, birds criss-crossed the sky, and the sun shone through the french doors onto our table. We laughed about how the president was saying, “We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning.” But I couldn’t admit to my friend that I wouldn’t be devastated if he won again. In fact, there was a part of me that craves what happens when havoc is wreaked. 

When we are destabilized, we band together to hold ourselves steady. When we are threatened, we find something in each other we hadn’t noticed before.

Chaos makes me feel alive. It disrupts the staidness that creeps over normal life. It burns off the staleness that inches over once-bright surfaces. It wakes me from the trance I spin, thinking I’m not needed here.

Crisis breaks the ego, and allows the heart to shine through. I’m afraid that winning this fight will make us think that we don’t need each other anymore.


I heard the news when I was in line to pick up my farm share at the Westland Middle School parking lot. It was 11:30 on Saturday morning, and workers were pulling boxes of eggplants and green onions and apples out of a truck when I heard someone cheer. Then a lady told me as she carried a box back to her car, “We have a new president!”

As I drove back home, I could hear cars streaming along Wisconsin Avenue and beeping in a victory song, so I played my horn as I pulled into our driveway. Diana and her friend, who were playing Barbies on the porch, came running down and said, “Biden won!” Virginia met me with a big smile as I opened the car door, held out her arms to hug me and said, “It’s over.” 

The summery air on our street became peppered with whoops and calls as the news spread. Neighbors ran out of houses to exclaim and pretend-hug.

92.6% of people in Washington voted for Biden. But half the country was mourning now. When the votes have only slightly tipped to one side, when both sides think the other are crooks, what kind of celebration is this? The man across the street with the same name as my father, who gives us armfuls of figs from their tree every August, yelled something about “stealing the election” and slammed his door.

For this one day, I wanted to forget conflict and remember what it’s like to be exultant. In a time when parties have been few and reasons to celebrate even fewer, I wanted to be part of something big. So I grabbed Diana and her friend and we ran down to Wisconsin Avenue, where all you had to do was wave and people in their cars started calling out and honking and then more cars started honking until the whole avenue was an impromptu party.

It reminded me of the summer of 1990 when Italy won the World Soccer Cup. Cheers and whoops ricocheted out of every kitchen window in Rome where I was staying. People hung out of car windows, doing victory laps on the boulevard along the Tiber River, blowing fog horns and honking and setting off firecrackers. 

My friend and her husband were getting into their car when we headed back to the house. “We’re going down to the White House!” she said, and I wanted to jump in the back seat. Back home, Virginia was playing Y.M.C.A. by the Village People really loud, and I bopped and sang along as I blended the cream of cauliflower soup I was making for lunch. 

“We should go downtown and see the scene,” I said to Virginia. She smiled and I could tell she wanted to go, already dressed for the sunshine in a cut-off t-shirt and my old bell-bottom Levi’s. Mark, Luke, and Diana wanted to go too, so we shoveled down our soup, and hugged my husband good-bye. Be careful! he called in Italian.

As soon as we emerged from the Farragut North metro station, we could hear music and honking and people cheering. “It sounds like a whole bunch of rhinos stomping!” Diana said about the music booming in the distance. Streets were blocked off and a go-go band was holding a concert on a stage near McPherson Square. People were dancing, mingling, smiling, taking pictures, and walking through the crowds with signs — Bye Don, Love is Power, and Trump is Over. Someone gave Diana a Count Every Vote banner and she carried it like a royal pennant.

When space freed up on a concrete barrier in the middle of Black Lives Matter Plaza, we took turns climbing on top. People were filling in the streets in all four directions as far as you could see. Celebrating as if a dictator had just been ousted. Characters walked by in crazy red, white, and blue costumes, two men stood on a pylon and made out, a woman popped a bottle of champagne and spewed the bubbles everywhere. At the tall black fence surrounding the White House, a guy was being lifted by another to re-tape the most massive of all the protest signs, which said, “You’re Fired.”


That night Virginia and I watched on her laptop balanced on the kitchen counter as Kamala Harris and Joe Biden delivered their victory speeches. “We must restore the soul of America!” Biden called to a crowd of people sitting on top of cars and waving flags in what looked like a futuristic drive-in movie with massive banner-like screens. “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle,” he thundered, “between our better angels and our darkest impulses.” 

Soon Trump will not be the face of our nation anymore, and maybe he’ll even get locked up in jail, but something of him will live on. When you’ve won a war, the demon is no longer across enemy lines. It’s inside of you. 

The seed of each thing is born inside its opposite. Like yin and yang, we are living inside an eternal cycle of chaos and order, dark and light, confusion and clarity.

“It’s time for our better angels to prevail!” Biden called to the crowd. I wanted to believe him. But I know that in a time of light, there is always the danger of closing one’s heart where the seed of darkness can grow. After the victory has been made, can we be better?

To accept the demons and the angels in myself and others is the way forward. To hold these opposites as part of a holy oneness. To welcome both the terrible times and the peaceful times. To see a drop of myself in the most opposite other. And to know that we need each other to wake up, to grow, to be better.

How Halloween Was Saved

Please yell ‘trick or treat,’ neighbors said, so we can see you when you pick up the candy we’ve put outside our door. I wore my daughters’s old hamburger costume and pretended I was a slider to accompany a small tiger, a killer clown, a skeleton warrior, Harry Potter, and the Grim Reaper around our neighborhood. After picking up baggies of candy laid out on tables, spread on blankets atop hedges, and taped to front gates, my young companions yelled, “Thank you!” and “Happy Halloween!” and “Have a good night!” to the people they couldn’t see inside.

Over the past month, the listserv in our neighborhood of row houses, brick Colonials, and wooden farmhouses was alive with questions: would we be doing Halloween? How would houses show they were participating? And would there be any trick-or-treaters this year?

The CDC deemed traditional trick-or-treating high-risk and suggested alternative ways to celebrate — hide Halloween treats around your house, have a virtual costume contest, or do a Halloween movie night with people you live with — they offered.

But it was outdoors, I reasoned, and we would wear masks and it didn’t feel right to give up the beloved nighttime romp, so I told neighbors we would be there. One-way trick-or-treating — where people set up stations with individually bagged treats for kids to take — seemed to be the way to go, even though the CDC still considered this moderately risky.

Two days before Halloween, Luke and I ran up to Target in the rain between lunch and his 1:30 class and found him a skeleton warrior costume. Homerooms were compiling 20-second videos of kids to replace the customary costume parade around the elementary school field, and his phantom costume was too small. For her video, Diana put on the fleece costume her grandmother made and recited the suggested script into the camera, “Hi, my name is Diana and I’m a tiger. Happy Halloween!” Room mothers delivered bags with goodies and games to kids’ houses, and in Microsoft Teams parties on Friday, the kids made popsicle stick werewolves, played Kahoot and Bingo, and ate Pringles and Starbursts together.

I love how Halloween wraps up so much and holds it all — both whimsical and dark, it’s about being yourself and being freed from your usual self. It includes everybody no matter your religion, your background, your color. A holiday for all Americans that takes place on the streets, not in private homes, because it is created together.

Before we went out into the night, we placed the 50-pound pumpkins we had carved that morning and lit their orange insides and jagged smiles with a handful of candles, spread sandwich bags stuffed with Tootsie Pops and Skittles across a table on our front walk, and lit a path of moon-and-stars luminaries. We didn’t have to go out long into the neighborhood landscape of graveyard scenes, singing ghosts, silhouetted window cats, and giant spiders to collect pumpkin bucketfuls of Starburst and Whoppers, Twix and Jolly Ranchers.

There weren’t many other trick-or-treaters, but we passed a muscly little Spiderman, a family of squids, a handful of witches and princesses, and a miniature recycling truck man. The richly packed bags of candy added up so quickly, and we had to stop two times in only 45 minutes to unload.

Seeing the kids dump out their candy on the table and start wowing and trading just like they always had made me feel like everything was going to be all right in the world.

“Oooh, I got a long tootsie roll, I love these!”

“Diana’s the richest one.”

“I had to give away all my Snickers, Milky Ways, and Milk Duds, because of my braces.”

“Oh, Crunch! Crunch bars are good.”

“Is that like the tenth one you’ve eaten? Jesus!”

“Mama, another Reese’s! Do you want this one?”

“Let’s organize them like I’m doing the Skittles.”

“Whoa, wait I have four of the ‘White Mystery’ Airheads?”

“Luke, that one house always gives out Yorks.”

“Are Almond Joys actually that good?”

“Three grape Laffy Taffy’s!”

Halloween was saved. Orange string lights had been hung up, candy was lavishly offered, neighbors waved from windows, and kids got to be something ferocious or scary or magical for a night.

panpilai paipa/Shutterstock

But I missed all the people — the faces I know and those I don’t. The good mood that pervades the air, the way the older generation always wants to see the younger one, the exchange that is made between the sweetness of candy and the sweetness of youth, this renewal of faith — in community, in tradition, in the kindness of strangers.


This year the authorities are saying not to get together for Thanksgiving. In another sign of a world turned upside-down, family celebrations are considered particularly dangerous. Some private schools here have already announced they will be transitioning online after Thanksgiving break because of the peril of people hugging each other. In Europe, where a new set of lockdowns are being enforced in response to a second wave, an infectious disease specialist even suggested postponing Christmas until next summer.

It’s hard to understand whether this virus is a deadly plague or just a new flu and maybe it’s both, but sometimes I just want to say, Are we sure it’s this big of a deal? But then I realize I can say this because I’m healthy and relatively young, and I think it won’t happen to me.

So we continue, wearing our masks, staying home, schooling in bedrooms, staying away from loved ones, meeting people over the strange and wondrous technology that makes it seem like we are not actually that far away.

This pandemic asks us to unite in sacrifice. In this life, there are not many chances to act for the whole, to be part of a grand solution. It’s not easy to hold our breath, to constrain our drives and dreams. And yet it is an honor to be included in a group that does for its members. Isn’t this the longing at the heart of our lonely striving? To feel part of something massive and wonderful? We are. It’s called the human race.

Suspended Somewhere In-Between

We couldn’t leave for our picnic until Mark was done with his Italian class on Zoom, but it was almost dark and Luke was still unpacking the groceries, a job he had been assigned an hour ago.

“I’ll give you 100 niceness coins and a ‘play with me’ ticket if you help me, Diana,” he said, a currency of dubious exchange value given that the chore was partly earned by being mean to her. When I was tossing the last items into the picnic bag, he was still pausing to unscrew the top of the paprika bottle, removing with scissors the plastic wrap around the tub of caramel chocolates, and examining the contents of a free sample bag.

It was Tuesday night and Virginia was working late at the juice bar, my husband doesn’t get home until 9:30, and Sofia is having picnics of her own on her college green, so it seemed like a good time to break out of the domestic container.

Just as we were closing the door, Luke slid the last box of cereal on the shelf, grabbed his Nike’s and jammed his feet into them on the porch. Mark ran to get a soccer ball, and we walked over tree roots through the edge of Maxine’s yard to Fort Reno Park, the highest point in D.C. and once a Civil War fort and a freed-slave settlement before it was razed to make way for lots of grass.

The boys wanted to hang out on the soccer field, but I convinced them to climb up to the high point next to the chain link fence with the signs that say No Trespassing U.S. Govt. Property. As we got to the top, I could tell we hadn’t missed the sunset. In fact, we had probably caught the best part.

Just above the tangled lights and chunky buildings of downtown Arlington, a slash of foggy red hung over the horizon line, diluting up into orange and yellow, green and turquoise, and finally a periwinkle blue that washed over the rest of the sky.

This was dinner theater, and before the show was over, I began tossing out grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. Steam escaped when we opened them, but the butter-fried bread was still crispy and the melted cheese had made the insides spongy.

A high school running group that had been doing calisthenics on the ridge below seemed to be dispersing. It was so dark on the hill we could only make out people dressed in white. A few pairs of teens sat along the fence, clouds of marijuana occasionally drifting towards us —nothing like the party that took place here every night in summer when the hill was colonized by young people, someone always bringing fireworks.

Behind the fence guarding a brick water tower and a cluster of buildings reputed to belong to the C.I.A., a flying thing swooped back and forth like a small plane doing exercises. “Look, a bat!” I said. After a brief exchange over whether it was a bird, it was agreed by all that it was indeed a bat. There is something different about the way they flap their wings, their flight path, they way you only see them at night.

The kids kept exclaiming and saying, “There’s another one!” as a handful of bats seemed to be surveying the sunset-viewing ridge.

We used to come here in March and April when schools closed and the virus was spreading like a laser through the country. We thought it was going to be a war-like experience as it was for my husband’s family in northern Italy. But here hospitals were never overwhelmed, and bodies were not collected in military trucks.

Ours was more of a slow death. The dying of a way of life, of buildings, institutions, stations, as if this were a game of Monopoly and an invisible player was winning, taking all the properties, hotels, and stores. A player who won’t let you have a turn, who keeps going around the board, collecting its pay, passing ‘Go’ over and over, methodically taking, emptying, clearing.

More than seven months later and no one has been able to stop its winning streak, even though it has slowed and now it wins quietly. Its rounds have expanded, like a mathematical roulette, making circles and eclipses that spin off into other territories, leveling, silencing. Now in Europe a spike of cases higher than the first is triggering a new set of curfews and lockdowns.

But it hasn’t taken this park. It hasn’t taken this sunset, this life, this family, these teens laughing and cussing when the bats swing close. The bats flutter like moths, they travel like messengers. What are they looking for — food, companionship, blood?


They say the coronavirus may have been passed to humans by bats. Bats pass diseases easily among their communities, sometimes numbering in the millions, because they are so highly mobile and social. 

“I can see through their wings,” Mark says, as we look up and watch them fly back and forth right above us, just as magical as the sunset. Sometimes I can see their ears against the blue-black sky.

“I wish it would stop right here,” Diana says, pointing to the end of our picnic blanket, “because I want to see what it looks like.”

I want to see it upside down, its webbed wings, its claws, its gargoyle face, its shape-shifting, its way of transforming into a creature both mammal and bird, charming and grotesque, of land and of air.


The man in the fancy pen store downtown watches as I try out rollerball pens by Cross and Faber-Castell that I can buy with the gift card my husband gave me last Christmas. I had to make an appointment to be here, and although I am the only one in the store, he is rushing around as if there wasn’t a minute to spare.

I comment about how one pen writes thickly and he says, “You press down hard,” the first time anyone has told me this, which would explain the callus I’ve had on my middle finger since I learned to write. I always thought it was ugly, but now I might see it as a pillow for my pen, the type of pillow that would carry a ring before the vows. Or a pillow that conveys a sword for knighting, a pillow to rest your head in the late afternoon in a private garden in Scotland.

Visiting the pen store was a chance to break out of the patted-down trail of my everyday life, the treads of our heart-pine stairsteps, the unsoiled sidewalks of our neighborhood. It was June when I was last down here for the thronging marches for racial justice, and with only 11 days until the election, I wanted to hear the voices of America, to see new metamorphoses, to stand in a place where the winds are blowing from all directions.

With my new black and gold Waterman pen in a little shopping bag, I walk down F Street by the Warner Theater and the National Press Club. The streets are so barren it’s like a movie where something has gone wrong and dawn is just breaking. I see the president’s name emblazoned on a grand hotel just a few blocks away from the White House and for the first time it seems odd. Lafayette Square, the core of the unrest in June, is sealed up with tall black fencing, and signs that protesters once punched in the air are now stuck there. A couple of police officers stand chatting on bikes, and a small group of tourists look like they are waiting for a double-decker bus.

Through a black diamond in the fence, I try to find the White House. It’s so far away now that I can barely make out the white columns beyond the statue of the rearing horse. Even the portion of 16th Street which has been emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ is completely empty. A solo guy with purple hair sits on a concrete barrier looking at nothing in particular.

I know I’ve missed something. I can tell by the pubs and churches boarded up with murals of Desmond Tutu and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It feels like the moment between pulling in a breath and letting it out. The yogis say that this time, between one breath and another, is when you can feel your soul.


We went back to the hill for a picnic on Thursday. It was so warm the kids wore shorts. Maybe it would be the last time we could come. The red of the sunset was muddled with cloud dust. Wispy clouds were painted all over the sky like a calligraphy written backwards. An explanation someone else could read. A message that would be covered by night and never seen again.

“Let’s lie down and look at the stars,” Diana says. The damp ground smells of mildew and salt. “The stars look so… so… What does meditation do?”

“You mean relaxing?” I asked.

“Yeah, relaxing but something different too,” she says. “Something else,” and she seems to still be searching for the words. I wonder if it’s something about their steadiness, their stillness.

“They feel like the sunset and the crickets and the ‘ee ee!’” she says, mimicking the distant sound of Mark and Luke playing farther down the hill, pretending to be monkeys.

“I hope a bat lands on us and talks to us,” Diana says, “and then lies down to see the stars with us and then we pet him.”

Bats are considered liminal beings. They occupy the space between two states. Mammalia and Reptilia. Fur and flight.

“I don’t hope it because I know it won’t happen, but I… I…” she says, again searching for the words.

In China bats are associated with happiness, joy, and good fortune. Here they make us think of darkness, witchcraft, and death. Everything is sacred.

“Dream. Do you dream it?” I ask.

To fly unnoticed in the night. To be in the nowhere space between sleep and wakefulness. Night and day. Between the angels and the beasts. A place of no limits. 

When

When your daughter comes down the stairs wearing a satin bustier under a Las Vegas jacket, you will want to say no but you won’t, because you will remember being 16 too. 

When you think refinishing the kitchen table will take a week, you will still be eating outside two months later, balancing dinner plates and glasses of milk on the porch swing.

When your youngest daughter loses her front tooth on the slide in the backyard, she will come rushing in with a radiant bloody smile and you will see her new again.

When you are thirteenth in line at the public library to read a novel loved by a friend, you will open the latch to the door of the Little Free Library and there it will be.

When your ten-year-old gets braces, he will let you hold his hand on the walk home and everyone will get butter pecan ice cream after dinner for the pain.

When your daughter’s college announces high levels of coronavirus in the wastewater, they will close the dining room and library, and she will eat alone in her room.

When Air Force fighter planes roar through the sky above you, your throat will blur and you will miss the child who believed there was something so powerful and so good.

When an ornery melancholy sits down inside you, you will try to convince it to leave, you will lean your back against it and try to push it out the door.

A friend will tell you to let the feeling rest. This will go against what you’ve always known, and you will be afraid it will stay like a squatter in an abandoned government palace in Madrid.

You will stop trying to find out who the squatter is or why he is here, and this is when you will see that it was you who invited him in, and this is what you have been waiting for.

Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Looking for Nick

It happened again. I have settled into a cradle I once thought was strange and prickly. Now I don’t want to leave.

Last Monday the chancellor of schools made an unexpected announcement that some elementary school kids could start going back on November 9. I immediately thought of how I would miss walking down the hall and seeing Diana working at her desk, lamplight outlining her pug nose, pixie hair slanting forward, feet dangling from the swivel chair.

How I’d miss seeing my pre-teen son Mark reading on the couch on a Wednesday morning, looking at me with wonder when, for the first time, the cat had lain purring on his lap.

I’ll miss waking from a nap to the sound of feet pounding down the stairs, when dad’s car rolling onto the gravel driveway signals the end of quiet time.


Last week for a schoolday screen break, Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were bored of everything — bike riding, soccer, scootering — so we took a walk around the block. “This is so boring,” Luke said. I know, I said, but this is what we can do. And that was when we heard meowing in our neighbor’s yard. A black cat looked stuck, but when he jumped the fence like a horse over a hogsback, I realized he was probably Nick, the cat that is occasionally discussed on the neighborhood listserv — is he lost? Do his owners know where he is? 

We watched him trot across the street, slide under a fence to another yard, and another, places we couldn’t go. Watching him from the sidewalk, wondering what he’d do next, hoping we could be friends.

He jumped on pillars, he chewed on grass, he crawled under bushes, he let me pick him up, purring and spreading his paw-toes and eating the cat treats out of our hands that Diana ran home to get. Before he wanted to get down, and we followed him across the alley to a parked car where he retired, I felt the muscles in his back and pondered his adventurous days, his lone strength.


This Saturday I helped clean up the city park on the corner. The kids wanted to go with me. We put on blue plastic gloves and picked up candy wrappers and plastic forks. The homeless man who had made an exuberant living space here was gone. All that seemed to be left of his decorations were paint swirls on the tree trunk and zig-zag flourishes along the benches. 

“Look what I found!” Diana said.  She held a gold and teal iridescent pom-pom the size of a pea between her thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know how to tell her whose it was; I didn’t know how to express both relief to not see him here and sadness that he was gone.

He was caught on neighborhood security cameras draped with plastic necklaces and pushing around a baby buggy and it was debated whether he was a thief or a charity case. He must be mentally ill, people said, but it seemed perfectly sane to me to scatter glitter everywhere when the world you inhabit feels bleak and forbidding. 

When I was depressed in my mid-20s, I would collect ordinary things at thrift stores and bedazzle them with jewels and sequins until nothing dull was left. I gave them out as gifts, thinking I was spreading sparks of light.

When I thought I had found all the trash, even skinny little glucose test strips, vape pens, and cigarette butts, I kept seeing copper-colored confetti disks and assorted beads among the October leaves, and I wondered, where did he go? Is he happy now? Is he safe, is he warm? Does he have a place where he can spread sparkle? A place of his own.


On schoolday screen breaks, our new activity became looking for Nick. In a high voice I would call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!” the same way I called my childhood pet Pepper, when most cats were outdoor cats. To adopt a cat these days, you have to promise that you won’t let it out. The out of doors is like a deathwish — vicious dogs and tomcat fights, ticks and fleas, fast cars and feline AIDS.

We couldn’t find Nick anywhere. We wandered the streets, thinking there would be nothing else worth seeing, but at the Armenian church we stopped to admire zinnias in shades of coral and hot pink and persimmon. Then we noticed the bees. Dozens of carpenter bees climbing over mounds of Durango red marigolds. There were big bees and “little kid” bees, as Diana called them, with one black dot on their fuzzy yellow backs, plates of black armor covering their abdomens. They let us watch and watch them, not minding how close we got, not caring about us at all.


Diana lay in bed with me today, touching my face, massaging my scalp, patting my nose, gazing at my eyes until I opened them.

She kissed me three times — left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. “That’s the Italian way of greeting,” she said. “And mama, elephants greet each other by holding their trunks like this,” showing me her arms intertwined at the elbows.

How rich I am — even in this poverty of human contact and touch — I have all these human beings around me, hugging me, lying on me, kissing me and looking into my eyes. I think about how I need this touch to survive, and then I think about the man who used to live in the park. Does anyone touch his arm, his face? Does anyone touch him at all?


Ekkoss/Shutterstock

“It’s Nick!” Luke yelled one morning after having gone out on the porch to eat his bowl of breakfast cereal.

Diana and Mark ran outside too. When they came back, I asked, “What was he doing?” wanting to picture a cat with no collar or curfews. He meowed and liked to be scratched, they said, and he walked around everyone’s yard and smelled things.

In our old life, this cat would have offered nothing more than a passing curiosity. Now that we are confined to a restricted radius and barred from our normal diversions, finding him has been like discovering a wild pony. 

But were we really free when we had everything? Were we really free with all those parties and meetings, appointments and dinners, ceremonies and plays and sports? 

Maybe it is not he who we are really looking for, but a part of ourselves. A part that is forever roaming. A part that is strong and lean, that doesn’t need a collar or a tag, doesn’t need doors or fences. That knows where to go and how to get back home. A part of ourselves that is, and always has been, free.

How to Sight a Rainbow

For our 20th wedding anniversary dinner on Saturday night, I put on a sequined top and the rhinestone earrings I bought in a Chicago vintage shop. “Please note that the temperature on the rooftop,” the restaurant wrote, “can be much cooler than at street level,” so we pulled out the wool blankets from storage and my husband threw them on the backseat. 

Just a few days before, we had a full moon. My yoga leader told me that this is a special time when innocence and wisdom are in perfect balance, when old wounds are brought up from the deep, beauty and abundance are awakened, and a new understanding can be forged.

When we walked onto the top of the 32-story high-rise in downtown Arlington, we could see the Washington Monument lit up like a sword. The dome of the Capitol glowed softly like a basilica in Rome. But the moon was the brightest of all. It lit up my husband’s sweet face, his flute of Prosecco sparkling like alfalfa honey, and the ball of buffalo mozzarella we ordered to start, so creamy it tasted like it had been airlifted from Sorrento.

The first time I did a Zoom meeting with other parents at the college where our daughter just started, we all went around the screen and introduced ourselves. When it came to the man with the long beard, he said he was from the part of Kentucky that is famous for moonbows, the kind of rainbow you can see when the moon shines on Cumberland Falls and the water droplets reflect all the colors.

This summer our youngest did a yoga camp on Zoom in her room by herself. She and 5 other little girls wrote in journals and colored mandalas and skipped rope with cords we picked up from the yoga studio in a goody bag.

One day she wrote a guided meditation, dedicated to me:  

Imagine, you are at the beach, and then, appears a rainbow, and then a bird swoops down and is waiting for you to get on it. So then, you walk to the bird, and say, “May you please take me up to that rainbow?” And the bird replies, “Yes I may.” And the bird takes you up to the rainbow and drops you on the rainbow and you feel how soft it is.

My husband and I shared a blanket in the black night, sitting side by side on cushioned chairs. “Is there a rainbow around the moon?” my husband asked in Italian as he looked up at the sky. I didn’t see it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. I still remember the summer in Puglia, swimming off the rocky Ionian coast, when he swam into the coldest part of a famed grotto, and a blue light made a halo around him and followed him as he swam away.

“Forse sono i miei occhiali,” Maybe it’s my glasses, he said, still looking up at the moon. “Si erano appannati.” They were steamed up, he said about his breath and the mask and his lenses. The tiny droplets of water making rainbows.

DTM Media/Shutterstock

I remember one evening this summer when the air smelled of thunderclouds and wet sidewalks. Then all of a sudden the world was bathed in a peach light. Trees looked like black felt cut-outs against the white sky. The storm had lumbered away, spilling behind it a bucket of white soapy water that was being tinted with watercolors — yellow, peach, pink. When the sky turned to fuchsia and lavender, I began to understand I had been under a cloud rainbow.

When we were waiting for the first course, I went to the railing and looked over the city, scanning the blurry black and the dripping light, thinking how the president is on this same patch of land too. Reading about him in the paper and seeing him on the screen, I forget his orbit is only 5 miles away from my everyday life. Occasional red and blue flashing lights around the city scene remind me that he was in the hospital, and I wonder if I can see Walter Reed from here. 

When you’re up this high, you feel closer to everything. I had wished this disease on him, thinking it was the only way out of this misery. But now that it’s happened, I don’t feel that way. Nothing can be solved when you become blackened and hard.

Everything looks so small — the White House, Memorial Bridge, even the Potomac, a line of glue in a diorama. Uncaught from my cage, released from my circle in the dirt, I have become a bird in the sky.

You have to go through the night to get to the moonbow. The storm must be borne to see a rainbow. Water is so clear that light shines through; may I become like water too.

This Time of Great Change

Outside the Neiman Marcus department store, guys in hoodies and jeans were loading metal racks and leather lounge chairs into black pickup trucks. Hand-written signs taped to the door said, “Auction Winners Only.”

“All the stores have closed, except for TJMaxx and Sak’s,” my friend said about Mazza Gallerie, the 4-story mall where my family and I used to go to the movies on Saturday nights. “The whole mall was sold,” she said. “I heard they got a really good price because it was in foreclosure.”

We walked through the darkened hallways past all the gutted stores, because I wanted to go inside and look at the corpse, and when we opened the back door, there was the Lord & Taylor building across the way with a huge yellow banner spanning the entire top floor saying, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”

My friend and I used to be writing partners, meeting for lunch, exchanging chapters, working on novels together at the library. She tells me that they’re thinking of moving. Her husband has been working long hours for his law firm in their basement since March. “Why stay here,” she said, “when you can work from anywhere?”

We pause at the corner to say ‘see you later’ through our masks. Across the street, four 123JUNK trucks are being filled to the top with desks, wooden tables, and cabinets from an office building on Wisconsin. I think of all the offices downtown that no one is going to, and the places that are dying without them: suit shops, sandwich joints, gyms, even the Metro.

We part ways without touching each other at all, and I have the feeling of being in a place where the sand is shifting underneath me.


This fall, the kids — now in 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 12th grade — are schooling in an enclosed world, a circuit of screen, headphone and wire, where I am largely not needed except to adjust the connection, to drag them into the sun, to instigate something that resembles recess.

It’s been half a year since schools closed on March 13, a week after D.C.’s first covid case was confirmed. Everyone thought the kids would go back in 2 weeks, but the re-open date kept getting pushed back as the virus ripped into cities and hospitals around the world like a real-life horror show.

What seemed to be an unsurmountable challenge then — managing my grief and terror while trying to project an aura of calm for the kids, mapping the foreign landscape of remote learning at 3 different schools, navigating capsized social norms and nebulous lockdown rules — now feels like a hurricane that has dissipated into light rain.

I acutely feel the presence of my children’s teachers in my life, even though I’ve never been so far away from them. Doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, mail carriers and garbagemen are as essential and appreciated as ever, but for me, teachers are the new foot soldiers — protecting us, carrying my children, holding this world together.

I have heard the patience in their voices, and felt the difficulty. I know about the sadness, but I feel the love. I see how they band together in the pixelated quilts of Teams meetings, supporting classes that are not their own, gathering every child in this strange new container, persevering. They have become my teachers too.


When the pandemic hit, magnolias were exploding into obscene shows of magenta and rose, daffodils were blanketing the ground with newborn yellow, and cherry trees were unfurling sinful layers of crinoline and lace. Nature was creating an extravagant backdrop for an opera about loss.

When the air softened and the days became lighter, the kids and I found new purpose in the garden that had once seemed dull compared to cross-country or novel-writing or high school musicals. We dug up the weeds by the street and planted sunflowers, bee balm, and crayon-colored zinnias. One morning we woke to find 2 tomato plants on our stoop, and just as we were saying we needed basil for our herb garden, the lady across the street walked over with handfuls of sprouts, and we watered them until they grew big enough to make pesto to ladle over slippery hot linguine.

After the stay-at-home order was lifted at the end of May, restaurants were allowed to serve people outdoors, and over the summer the familiar sounds of people laughing and communing returned. Tables spilled onto sidewalks, squares, parking lanes, alleys, and even streets, creating pockets of joviality in this now subdued city.

But while anxiety about the outbreak has declined from a raging blaze to a crackling fire, other problems have flamed up. The run-up to the presidential election has heightened the feeling of living in two Americas, as if we’ve clung to opposite ends of a schooner, certain that if the other side wins, we’re all going down. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned through millions of acres of forests and neighborhoods, turning skies in San Francisco and Portland from blue to orange, and creating smoke clouds so massive they have traveled all the way to us on the East Coast. And recent violent acts against Black people have cut deep gashes, exposing a race-based hierarchy so intransigent that it will take a complete teardown of American society to build it back right.


MSSA/Shutterstock

The sunflowers that once brought smiles to people passing by the sidewalk are now headless stalks and the basil is bitter, and I feel the imminent loss of the handful of social interactions that have been made possible by the open air, one of the few things that prevent us from infecting each other. Fall has always brought with it a dose of melancholy, but this year in particular, I see my world getting smaller, like the tightening aperture in a mirrorless camera.

During a particularly difficult week of distance learning last spring, a friend brought over a puppy and a playmate for Diana. Another day I found a bouquet of red tulips and a Russian novel on my porch. Six months later I am still reading that novel.

“All the old ways of doing things were abandoned,” the main character tells his daughter about how it was to live through the communist revolution. “But the new ways of doing things had yet to be established.” I wanted to tell him through the pages, through time, through imagination and space, I have been there too. In the pliant dark between one place and another.