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 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.
The long-hailed solution to our big problem has arrived.
I want people to be safe, I want us to be healthy and free, but I don’t want to be vaccinated against what I’ve seen.
I don’t want to be injected so we can go back to the way things were.
Needles and vials returning us to a world where producing was the dominant art form, where days were subdivided into rectangles of time, where we were stretched until we forgot the shape of our own selves.
I don’t want to be returned to a world where ‘nothing to do’ meant something was wrong, where the shy person inside was dragged along until she was tattered, never given a chance to speak, where the panoply of human activity made me dizzy until I stumbled and fell.
What will prevent us from replacing our masks with face coverings we can’t see? Walking around as if in costume, the imaginary spotlight always asking: is my life interesting, dramatic, memorable?
Where is the vaccine to protect us from a world where we worship people with power and step on those with none? Where humans are divided into ever smaller categories, peering at each other from behind the walls.
When we go back, will it still be normal that the closing of a restaurant means that some will lose their homes, and others will simply order in?
Are we broken enough to forget and start all over again? Have the waves of chaos washed over our eyes so we may see anew?
How will we bear being vaccinated, then walk back into world that is still sick?
We watch the Super Bowl for the homemade guacamole and chicken wings that we get to eat in front of the TV once a year. I like the half-time show and the fireworks and the chance to have a feast on a Sunday night.
When I was growing up, I would watch Brady Bunch reruns on a TV that my mother covered with a Navajo rug when it was not in use. French lace hung from the windows and botanical paintings from the walls. In between scenes of Gilligan’s Island and The Six Million Dollar Man, the commercials kept me in touch with an America that bought Stretch Armstrongs and Baby Alives from Toys ‘R Us, and Ford tough trucks and Dodge Rams with 0% down. Where dads grilled and slapped each other on the back, and girls made cookies in Hasbro Easy Bake Ovens.
I never really knew if ads imitated life or life imitated ads. I was both attracted to the sharp-focus slickness, and wary of it, as if it were a supermarket cake that tasted better than it made you feel.
Last night we passed around yucca fries and ginger beer with lime in front of Super Bowl 55, where helmets were engraved with ‘End Racism’ and seats were filled with cardboard cut-outs of people who paid $100 to not be there. And in between the tackles and interceptions, we got a taste of what America is doing, or what corporate America wants us to do, this year, 2021, a year that once rang futuristic, now the second year of the pandemic:
Keep ordering grub from neighborhood restaurants via DoorDash and Uber Eats because, as Stephen Colbert said in a public service announcement for small businesses, “when all this is over, we want them to still be there.”
Get Amazon’s new sexy robot Alexa, because it’s like having a hot cyborg be your servant.
Because social distancing is still necessary, keep ‘the backyard thing going’ with Scott Miracle-Gro (and John Travolta).
Subscribe to new streaming empires like Paramount+ where you can bypass terrestrial television and order up whatever you want through the Internet, including Beavis and Butthead, The Jersey Shore, and Star Trek.
Eat a lot of the new puffy Doritos.
Win a chance to ride on a spaceship in the first all-civilian mission on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket, brought to you by a tech billionaire who bought extra seats.
Pay people anywhere in the world to do digital jobs on Fiverr.com, the 5 & Dime marketplace for virtual freelance gigs.
Get out and trample trails and catch fish with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s because when everyone is feeling cooped up, “we need nature more than ever.”
Invest in the American Dream with smartphone apps like Rocket Mortgage and Robinhood, because anyone should be able to buy and sell stocks, not just the rich.
The multi-million dollar, celebrity-studded commercials were sprinkled with ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, including cameos by Pacman, the guys from Wayne’s World, and Sylvester Stallone. Each was styled like a video game or a movie made with a hand-held camera or a heart-tugging documentary featuring everyday people. Each like a cut in a multi-faceted diamond showing all the different-colored faces, all the power and glitz, celebrating and mocking our diversity, our troubled land, our beautiful powerful broken country.
I’m still not sure whether the blitz of video clips that studded the Super Bowl is a set of mirrors or a collection of mesmerizing pictures. But if you held it all in your hands, you would see an America soaring to the stars in technology, but dreaming of the past. Pandering to its celebrities, yet wanting to elevate the common man. Ashamed of its past, and trying to airbrush equality. Giving the people control of the levers, but keeping the gold in the same old places.
When you hear that voice saying, I’m nobody and my life is boring, your mind has become a newspaper, reporting on your life as if it were where you would find celebrities and calamities, awards and booms.
You have believed the reporters in your head, the editors and executives, that you are measured by how loud and unusual you are.
You who washes the clothes, feeds the children, shovels the snow, think you don’t matter, as you scrape drifts of snow off the car as deep as a New York cheesecake, and wonder when you’ll get to your next appointment.
Snowflakes fall as you you heave them up and throw them away, thinking you live in a world robbed of mystery.
They keep coming, like unopened letters, not one like another. So many that they make the cypresses bow, the streets hush, the fields round.
You will not understand them by reading the paper, and that is why you must close it up, and look out. Greet each six-pointed star like a messenger, a memory, a face you know.
Flopping into my bed, bits of dust fly up and tumble through the blade of light made by a slit in the curtains.
The man who rammed his car into the car behind me, and that car into mine, had the eyes of a child. Bewildered, wandering among the shards of chrome and plastic on Canal Road as if he didn’t understand what they were.
I wanted to go downtown and see the eerie scene before the Inauguration. I was prepared to be stopped by National Guardsmen, to thank them, to show them my ID.
He didn’t know how to find his registration in his glove compartment. He didn’t know which card was his license in his wallet.
Just as a police officer was arriving on the scene, my husband called. I knew he would say, “I told you not to go downtown,” and he did.
It took him 2 hours to get to work, he recounted, across the Chain Bridge through Virginia and into Maryland until he finally found a way back into D.C.
When a report was made and I was allowed to leave, the man was being loaded on a stretcher. He didn’t know what day it was.
The bed holds my back in my darkened room. My head feels metallic. Steel hitting steel still stored in my body. My car’s only memory the impression of license plate screws pressed into its bumper. Or is it?
Downstairs Virginia is playing Drake really loud — “You got it, girl, You got it” — as she gets ready for work at a juice bar where the streets are all blocked, Metro stops are closed, and where only 1 order will come in.
The officer on the scene called later from the hospital — he wanted to tell me that the man had had a stroke.
I wonder what he will remember of this day.
He said he didn’t have family to call. No friends. But when we helped him find his drivers license, I saw a photo of a small girl in pigtails that looked like him.
What will I remember of this day, this time? There will be notes in my journal, newspaper articles — about the plague, the election, the insurrection — that I stuffed among the quarantine mazes that my children made, so many mazes. But what will the soul record?
Every day begins the same, but little by little, the days change until you don’t remember how they used to be.
The day after the Inauguration, the kids go back to school and the hospital is open. My alarm rings at 6:00 a.m. I fumble to turn it off, then reach over my head to open the curtains. The sun wouldn’t let us sink back. The scent of my stirring husband next to me, heavy with sleep.
Sliding open the pocket door, I walk past the children sleeping in their rooms, my feet touching each heart pine tread as I go downstairs.
I turn the thermostat dial up to 70 and hear the boiler light a big blue fire, beginning its daily job of heating the house. I open the door to the basement. The cat murrs and trots into the cold kitchen.
When I turn on the espresso maker, it rumbles. I bang out yesterday’s puck, pack the basket with fragrant new grounds, and scoop spoonfuls of sugar crystals. A carafe of whole milk waits to be frothed as I watch the thick brown liquid stream into our cups.
When my husband’s lunch is packed and his breakfast cookies are set out, I take the cat in my arms like a baby and walk circles around the house until Enrico comes down in his suit and tie, smelling of shower gel and Old Spice. He puts on his wedding ring, slips his badge around his neck, and drops his keys into his pocket. After drinking his cappuccino, he clicks shut his briefcase, tosses a scarf around his neck, and walks out the front door. He throws the newspaper back to me, and I whisper goodbye so as not to wake the kids.
When I’m in the basement doing my sun salutations, I hear water cascading down the pipes. A little later the sound of feet — each with a different pitch and cadence. These ones belong to Diana who is coming down to get clean pants from the laundry room. They don’t need me to wake them up today as I usually do, so I linger here in this muted world.
The sound of dishes being put away. Dong! The radiators clang as they fill with steam. The scrape of sand in the litterbox. And today, something new: the coo coo of a mourning dove in January.
In this lull, there are no sirens. No souped-up cars drag racing down the avenue. Dogs barking into the night until they’re hoarse.
With the morning light, the sheer curtains turn the color of sweet cream. In the living room upstairs, I can hear the boys skirmishing. The sound of office chairs rolling into place, and then silence.
Chit chit. A pair of sparrows talk outside. A simple trace of summer’s clamor. Reminding me I am still here. A speck of dust, shining in the sun. Knowing that I have come from something and will return to something, even if I don’t remember how.
The city is slowly shutting down in preparation for what might have been considered a celebration, if not of a candidate then of the pageant of democracy. Every four years the inauguration of a new president is a dose of glory, a proof that our experiment is working.
However, the military zone erected around the Capitol and the White House — the fences and barriers, the trucks and troops, the shuttering of hotels and house-rentals, Metro stops and parking garages — is proof that something is terribly wrong.
Tens of thousands of National Guard soldiers have been arriving from all over the country to protect the Capitol, and state and county governments have boarded up and closed. Stay away from each other, mayors and governors say, and don’t touch the sacred house that holds us together.
“Man is wolf to man,” my daughter Virginia told me the other day. “It’s a Latin expression,” my husband confirmed, “Homo homini lupus.” I thought of the men with rifles, Molotov cocktails, stun guns, and baseball bats who attacked the Capitol. The noose they erected. The Confederate flags they paraded in holy places. The way humans have beat each other to death, gassed and tortured each other, blown each other to bits, molested, poisoned, and decapitated each other. Wolves are lambs compared to humans.
In times like these, I see how the seed of insanity lies inside every one of us. Our brains are so vulnerable, so powerful. Both a wondrous gift, and a dangerous weapon.
Wolves are prone to viruses like rabies, and it is suspected that this is why they occasionally attack humans. The virus infects the mind, making animals violent, confused, and excitable.
As Luke comes down the stairs in the morning, he snaps his fingers, like he does these days as he transitions between one thing and another. Today he empties the dishwasher before he pours his bowl of cereal. Yesterday subverting the rules, today going along with them.
“Chakras, chakras, everyone loves chakras!” he sings while grabbing two plates from the dishwasher and stacking them on the hutch. It’s a line from his favorite show, Avatar.
“Guru Pathik says that chakras are like pools of water along a stream,” he explains. “Sometimes they get clogged with leaves, and the water can’t move. The leaves that clog it are emotions like fear and guilt.”
“And madness,” says Diana, a fellow Avatar fan, who has just come down in the flannel pajamas her grandmother sewed.
“You mean anger?” I say.
“And love,” says Luke.
My grandfather — who grew up on a Tennessee farm, went to Harvard Business School, and rose from stock boy to top executive — loved God and his country. I always wanted his devotion, his patriotic glow. I wanted to believe his uncomplicated portrait of America, the glory, the innocence, the power. I longed for the time when our nation was noble and true, when its children were capable of achieving anything we put our minds to.
What he loved was an idea, a myth as spellbinding as it was untrue, and I could tell how he dug into it with more and more desperation as he saw the promise falling apart.
When we love our illusions too much, they destroy us. How many of us, believing we could be a star, have wanted to kill that part of us that didn’t make it? Idolizing, fearing, or hating those who have succeeded where we didn’t? The terrible dream, like a virus infecting our brains, can fill us with self-hatred, cannibalizing ourselves, attacking each other.
My husband got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, the new mRNA one that scientists hadn’t dared to try before. Calamity instigated innovation, pushing us to the edge, making us jump.
Some believe that the vaccine is the solution, that this moment marks the slow rise after having fallen to our nadir. But if the virus did not cause our problems, how can it solve them?
When the world seems to be a smoking pile of ashes, I feel myself wanting to give up. I seek the sweet forgetting of slumber. I walk through my house in a daze, living from one small moment of grace to the next. The steamy smell of sleep in the curve of my daughter’s neck in the morning. Sunlight shining on the cat’s black fur making a rainbow in every hair.
And then I come around to confronting my despair. I am devastated by the hypocrisy of this beautiful terrible country that I have loved. We have to witness the horror. Feel the suffering. Stop clinging to rosy myths.
The fire of crisis is necessary sometimes. The light of destruction reveals what we did not want to see. Havoc makes space for the world to be reordered.
As Eddie S. Glaude Jr. said on this day when we honor Martin Luther King Jr., it is time to “give voice to the trauma in our souls on behalf of a new world. Fight for the beloved community. The beautiful struggle.”
The day after the Capitol was sacked, I walk through the sprawling federal park near my house. Through a clearing for scrimmages, around a wooded thicket where a deer family lives, past a chainlink fence circling a reservoir.
I walk over a ridge and see the broad-shouldered middle school. In the distance, the cupola of its sister high school. These empty bastions once provided both stability and confusion, reassurance and anxiety. Now they are barren.
I remember the crowded stages lit with song, the event night hallways flooded with faces, the teacher conferences where it felt like parents were graded, the alliances and skirmishes of adolescents. Like a dream, where I was never quite sure what was real, it has vanished.
At the highest point in the park, a plaque explains that this green used to be the largest, most heavily armed Union fort defending Washington. When it was abandoned, formerly enslaved people who had found protection around the fort, settled here in a neighborhood that would eventually include three churches, a dairy, and a cemetery. There is nothing left of that neighborhood, of that fort. The signal towers and canons that killed Confederate soldiers three miles away have been replaced by steel obelisks that beam radio waves. The houses that provided shelter, razed to give a park to people with lighter skin.
Up in a tree on Chesapeake Street, a tattered red kite blows in the wind. A ball is being kicked around. A girl sits under a century-old tree. The baseball court and soccer field lie face up to the sky.
I think of the men with beards and horns, tattoos and flags smiling and laughing as they trampled all over the Capitol and I think, this is our civil war. The president, now a cult leader, whistles for his dogs to come and rip out the heart of marble. And as the heart lies broken, everyone shouts traitor.
White people hate the brown people next to them, while emperors and corporate gods pass around chalices of gold. In the wild section of the park, vines drip over every tree and bush. Grandfather trees have fallen, breaking the saplings underneath. One day all that will be left of our civil war be a plaque, and everyone alive now will be dead.
I come home and begin to make a vegetable soup for dinner. I feel heavy with blood and fat and gristle. I want the plants, the broth to run down my throat, to take it all away.
There are no summer vegetables to make the recipe I know, so I begin on my own. My son helps me chop the carrots, potatoes, and broccoli rabe. I know I am part of this. I have turned away from what I didn’t want to see. I have pretended not to hear.
When the truth is painful, when it has been battered for so long, it rips and people start grabbing their own shining flags. The soup has no flavor, so I add a shake of red pepper flakes, a pinch of herbs de Provence, a handful of thyme from the garden.
The earth remembers. Under the fuzzy grass of a placid park, the wounds cut deep. A balance has been lost, and it unsteadies us all.
It’s still so hard to see deeper than the thinnest, most outermost layer of these human bodies. Color is how we’re sorted.
The pasta and the lentils I added have absorbed all of the clear broth. The light soup I needed like a medicinal has become a gloppy mess.
This trauma cannot be washed away. Difficult truths must be sought and received.
We don’t have to know how to fix it. We just have to listen — deep in our bodies. Without recipes. Without getting caught in the dream, the music, the crowds. Without trying to win.