Underneath her white satin graduation gown, Virginia wore lavender. That morning, I had driven her through armies of dump trucks to the Navy Yard, where the building of luxury condos marches on and svelte restaurants sparkle beside gravelly lots.
Outside the D.C. United stadium, 18-year-olds emerged from blinking cars. Parents adjusted sashes and tugged at hems. Virginia slunk down into the passenger seat and said, “This is so humiliating.”
After her senior year spent entirely at home, we are being given a classic graduation ceremony. The first scheduled date was rained out, but today we would soon be gathering under an imperial sunny sky to celebrate a high school career, a lifetime in grade school, and a child ready to leave home.
Diana carried lavender hydrangeas. With only 3 seats for each family, Mark and Luke had to stay home. Jumbotrons emblazoned with “Wilson High School: 2021 Commencement” were flanked by the school’s mascot, roaring cartoon tigers. As we climbed one of the staircases in the 20,000-seat stadium, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over and over. We walked past families we knew and didn’t know, pods sprinkled among empty aisles for social distancing, and I felt a massive gratitude for the institutions and people that made this happen. Thank you for paying for this stadium. Thank you for knowing this was important.
One by one, each of the 412 students in Virginia’s graduating class were called to the stage to receive their high school diploma. Black and White, Asian and Latino, with names from cultures that span the world. All wearing white satin, all receiving the same blessing, a rite both affirming and breaking a tie.
After the photos and the lunching, the hugging and the squinting, I felt dazzled and disjointed, as if I had been holding an armful of stained glass. Yellow, blue, teal, magenta: sun shimmered through the colors, but there were pieces missing. The glass clanked, the edges bit. And I couldn’t see what design it was all making.
Grandiose ceremonies. I always want more than they can give. What is it that I seek —certainty, completion, wholeness?
No ritual could resolve the paradoxes of this year. How the pandemic broke us apart and brought us together. How some were shunted into homelessness and others into luxe vacation homes. Some were lost, some were found, and no one emerged unscathed.
Rising like a miracle after the city was leveled, this commencement was for me a celebration and a mourning of our return to society. Knowing that we must be different, and walking with trepidation and desire into the bold bright world again.
The final battle with the coronavirus is being fought inside my body. I got my second Moderna vaccine yesterday, and as I lie in bed today, I can feel the struggle inside. Pressing against the backs of my eyes, the skin of my lips, the nodes of my knees.
From my bed upstairs, I hear the family discussing lunch. It’s Virginia’s turn to prepare, and Enrico doesn’t want the usual vegan bowl veggie melange.
“But I don’t want pasta!” Virginia says.
“What about tuna salad?” Luke suggests.
“I can’t eat tuna!”
Eventually the discordant notes relax into a kind of rhythm, even though there are still flares (“Mark, what are you doing to help?”) and the sound of Kanye West singing “Through the Wire” jumbles through it all.
Eventually the music gets turned off and everyone sits down. I hear the deep voice of my husband, this man who has taken care of me and our children for 20 years now, and I am not sure who I am without him.
By the time I got this second shot, they were practically begging people to come in. No more pre-registering on mysterious waiting lists, no more listserv messages that the MedStar in Georgetown or the Six Flags parking lot had extra doses. The D.C. Health Department was even giving away beers if you’d get a J&J shot in the arm.
After dropping off Diana at a playdate, I stopped at the CVS on the corner. Before public schools went virtual, this store used to be swarmed with teens trolling for chips and candy and pop, but a renovation during the pandemic transformed it into an urgent care clinic with a convenience store on the side. The only one there, I received my shot in the new immunization suite, and then after walking past the rows of gummy vitamins and bandaids, I walked home by myself.
Now as I lie in bed with wool blankets wrapped around me and a cup of tea by my side, my joints are scarlet iron, my muscles bend as easily as metal sheeting, and my skull is lined with aluminum, registering the slightest electrical current.
The battle with this disease was once fought outside, with masks and distancing, sterilizing and shuttering. As I lie in bed while my cells are learning how to fight it, this feels like a private showdown. But I know it is a victory at the end a long war fought by others. Scientists and lab techs, doctors and nurses, pharmacists and trial volunteers, and all the people who told us with their lives: take care of each other. This is serious.
To be part of the human race is to be both gloriously soft and open to attack as well as inventive enough to outsmart the attacker. Every day I am supported by human beings I’ll never meet, who smooth the sidewalks under my feet, who hang the telephone wires above my head. Those who have come before me, and those who will carry on.
The morning after my convalescence, I am up for yoga. I feel my strength again, the beauty of a body that is alive and working. It feels like I have made it through a ring of fire.
It’s so strange to move through a normal world again, to hug friends, to feel the wind against my face, to go inside people’s houses. And yet I know, even if it looks the same, we are different.
I now know I am stronger when I take off my armor and stand here, small and bare. Underneath all the colors, the shapes, and various patterns of human beings, we are all the same.
Denying that pain and death are as much a part of life as joy and birth, as I once did, is to live halfway. When I open my heart to all that life brings — the suffering and the love, the anguish and the tenderness — I am wondrous at how it feels to be whole, and thankful to all the beings who have conspired to keep me alive.
When the officer in the security line looked at my photo, she asked me to pull down my mask. Then she looked at me for a beat, and as a minister would bless a child, she smiled and said, “Thank you. Have a wonderful trip.”
Dulles airport. I haven’t been with so many people all at once since the George Floyd protests. After eddying at the banks for a year, I am joining the river again.
I’m heading to Austin, Texas to meet up with college friends. Our 30th reunion will take place online, and my friends will curl my hair and help me with my Zoom background. It will rain the whole weekend, but we’ll talk non-stop and laugh until we cry, and it will feel like I’m reuniting with a self that I haven’t seen in a long time.
I had forgotten how fun it was to go so fast. One hundred and eighty-four miles per hour when the 747’s wheels lift off the ground. My body merges with my seat.
Above the clouds, there is only light. A field of ruffled cotton. Sun glints a diamond in the curve of the tail wing.
My arm still aches from the first shot. If it weren’t for the masks covering everyone’s faces, it would feel almost normal. I remember all the people in the terminal sitting in front of iPad menus, drinking, eating, and talking, while flames blazed on large-screen TVs saying, “Mass cremations in India continue.”
To come back to earth you have to go through the clouds. When everything outside is white, you don’t know where you’re going or where you’ve been. The plane shakes up and down, left and right. Your stomach falls, bags tumble, things slide down the aisle, and when the wheels hit the ground, your bones meet.
“United was the first commercial airline to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine to the U.S.,” a short film announces on the screen in front of me. Massive pallets wrapped in dry ice are loaded into the bellies of passenger planes. Men in fluorescent vests operate forklifts, and when the hold is full and a worker waves from the door before it closes, I start crying and I don’t know why.
In the grass by the runway, pink primroses sway in the wind, and rain splatters the windows.
Emergency alerts bleat from phones in the cabin. But it’s not about a hurricane: free vaccines are now available at all pharmacies.
I may think I’ve made it because I’m healthy or careful or lucky, but really it’s because I have been saved by the goodness of strangers. Harvesting the food, driving the trucks, checking the passports. Laying the pipes, testing the samples, landing the planes. My life depends on ordinary heroes.
“Thank you for coming,” I say, the night I return to D.C. to the taxi driver who wanted to quit for the night, but who came to the airport when he heard about the long line. Thank you for bringing me home.
Today I bring Luke to school for the first time in over a year. In his backpack are Covid-19 test results, a signed daily health tracker, hand sanitizer, a bottle of water, his Eureka workbooks, and a packet of cheddar sandwich crackers.
He’ll be going to school for math and social studies two mornings per week. In our arms are stacks of library books to return and a flower from the garden.
We don’t see any other kids walking to school. No high schoolers pouring off the city buses, buying candy and chips at the CVS. No packs of middle schoolers, looking at their phones, shuffling down Wisconsin.
Just this 10-year-old boy with his red backpack and his middle-aged mother carrying a daffodil, waiting at the crosswalk by the cars lining up at the intersection.
Two large white tents have been set up on the mulch playground, and kids are climbing the monkey bars. We look for the face that we’d only seen on an iPad rectangle.
Clumps of adults in dark coats huddle around children in front of the Pre-K classrooms, but where is the teacher who loves yoga and vegan food, whose parents immigrated from India and who’s passionate about social justice?
In normal times the morning assembly on the turf field would be thronging with over 750 kids and their parents. Today there are about 40.
We spot an orange 5-G sign and find the children, half covered with masks, that Luke learned to read and write with, the kids he’s sat next to in morning meetings, on field trips, at picnics, around lunch tables, in gym classes, and closing circles for the past 7 years.
The eyes of a boy whose mom I haven’t seen in a year catch mine for a split-second and seem to say, I know you.
“You hold this now,” I say, handing Luke the daffodil.
Another 5th grade teacher comes over to a huddle of Luke’s classmates and I overhear her say, “… so excited to see you, but…” Luke hands me back the daffodil.
“A migraine,” one of his classmates explains to me.
I give Luke a back hug before he and his classmates follow the substitute into the school.
Unlocking the front door, our house smells like the breath of children and sunlight. A single boy sits in an office chair facing his desktop computer in the living room.
I lay the daffodil in the refrigerator on its side next to a can of cat food.
The front door opens. Luke is in the foyer taking off his shoes, with wind on his eyelashes and his body swaddled in fresh air.
“I forgot to eat my snack,” he explains, as he takes another cheddar cracker out of the package.
First they had math on the smart board. Their assistant teacher was beamed in. “I raised my hand every time, but she didn’t see me.”
Music class was held outside. They sang 5 songs — Mr. W strummed his guitar — and they played Duck Duck Goose to the tune of Do Re Mi.
Friday, April 23, 2021
I wake up Luke for his second day of in-person class. “Shhh,” I say, as he thumps and clonks and makes trombone noises in the bathroom. “No one else has to get up this early!”
At the turf field, about 15 kids are standing or sitting cross-legged in a drawn out line behind the 5-G sign. They seem kind-of nervous, especially the boys.
A tall woman with long black hair and a poncho walks toward Luke’s class, smiling so brightly it was like she wasn’t wearing a mask.
“Ms. G, you have legs!” exclaims a girl. Luke’s teacher gives elbow bumps, takes hugs, and offers to carry the backpack of a girl with a broken leg, and then Luke grabs the daffodil, extends his arm and says, “Here,” and her eyes meet mine and she waves.
He looks 4 years old. I am young too. The dullness of “I know how this goes” is splashed off. Everything is new.
Luke walks back to me and says, “I didn’t know she was so tall.”
As Ms. G makes her way down the line, re-meeting every child, I notice the way her eyelashes curl at the tips, the way that one of her fingernails is painted with glitter, how the polka dots in her bow collect the sun. Against the turf and the sky as clear as water, she feels like a dream.
“Yesterday Mr. B forgot about snack,” a boy with a red knit cap tells her.
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t forget,” Ms. G says. “Snack is the most important part of the day.”
I thought you could know someone through virtual meetings and photographs, newsletters and friendly emails. I thought you could know someone by ‘All About Me’ slideshows and the way their voice wafts through your living room every day.
Taller, yes. More expansive, more beautiful, yes, but there was something more. More alive. She was exuding aliveness. She was life.
I had forgotten we had apple trees on the farm. The kids just run past the orchard on the way to catch a frisbee or run through a sprinkler.
When my grandfather was alive, the trees were so laden that apples would fall all over the ground and rot. They weren’t the kind you get in grocery stores. Small and green and covered with sooty blotch, they were perfect in the pies and apple sauce that my grandmother would make. We could feed them to the cows, let the birds eat all the high ones, and still there were plenty for everyone.
It’s spring break and we have come to Ohio to see my parents. Only Mark, Luke, and Diana could come — Enrico, Sofia, and Virginia stayed home to work. The speakers in the car went kaput during the first hour, so we passed the trip in the old-fashioned way: with inane songs and potty humor. “Icabod is itchy, I am too!” Luke sang from the way back. “Has it gotten stuck in your head yet?”
In April, most the trees along the highways are still wiry brushes, but some have been rolled in a colored syrup. Chartreuse, persimmon, or purple, pinpricks of color outlining the structure, revealing its secrets.
We hugged my parents with bare faces for the first time in a year. Around the dinner table, we sat close together eating every last spaghetti strand clung with my mom’s meat sauce. It was as if nothing had happened.
But time could be measured in the wrinkles around my eyes, in Mark’s stature, now taller than mine, and in the gait of my parents, slower, tentative. They showed us how they sit on a bench before dinner to watch the kittens prance in the garden, chase flies, and stand at the bottom of trees looking up at the birds. And I know they are in the sunset of their lives.
The apple trees in the orchard call to me. A band of angels offering armfuls of blossoms to the sky. Behind every open flower are three or four more pink bells, ready to unfurl. Each five-petaled flower is the face of a child.
After dinner while the kids are playing on the tree swing and my mom is clipping spent daffodils in the falling light, I decide to take a walk around the field. Constellations of fat yellow dandelions are scattered on the path, but it’s the few who have become blowballs that glow at sunset as if it were my eye they wanted to catch instead of the wind.
In August, a sea of soybean plants had risen in this field, and before that in a rare double-crop year, muscly wheat stalks heavy with berries were being harvested when we visited, 40 rows at a time, chaffed, and piled into mountains of gold in open trucks.
Now on this quiet April evening, the field is striated with purples, yellows, and greens. Wide swaths of field balm, violets, butterweed, and wild onion have made the plot into a watercolor rainbow.
I’ve always been torn between the triumphs of human achievement and the unspeakable grace of what unfolds all by itself.
These bitter greens, once collected for nourishment or medicine, will soon be cleared so that we can inject seeds into the ground, the kind that will give us what we love and what we need. French bread and three-layer cakes, taco shells and dumplings, drywall and school glue, toothpaste and tires.
One morning, I convinced the kids to help me walk around the perimeter of the lower pasture to pick up trash that had blown in from the highway. In summer, brush hides the Pepsi cans and Teddy Graham wrappers, Bedda Chedda packages, and dog food bags that we found. Spring’s bareness uncovers of the carelessness of man.
I tell my parents about the apple blossoms and how I’ve missed seeing them when we come in summer, how happy the trees seem to be.
“Last year we only had two or three apples,” my mom tells me. She goes through all the things she and my dad have tried to help them. And then she says, “When Grandpa was alive those trees would be noisy with the buzzing of bees.”
The next time I go to the apple trees, I hear the silence. A single honeybee is visiting. I take pictures of the blossoms again, but now their beauty is tinged with sadness.
The collapse of bee colonies is a sign of our modern blight, the sickness of the world. We have lost our sense of interconnectedness. Nature has become a resource we use to get what we want. Our domination is so complete that we will find ourselves alone, actors in a play we have decided is about us.
At the greenhouse by the cheap gas station and the bait shop, my mom asks the kids to help her select seedlings of cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli.
She won’t need that many because she’s replacing one of her vegetable beds with a pollinator garden of butterfly bushes, Joe Pye weed, and cone flowers. When the owner sees her considering a packet of milkweed seeds, he laughs and says, “My grandmother used to make me go pull that up!”
The problem starts when we forget that everything is sacred. As long as some people or things on earth are revered and others are not, it will be hard to see the bees and the trees and the weeds as holy. Splitting the world splits us inside and we walk around broken, looking for something to make us whole, not knowing that we have been whole all along.
I had bad dreams one night, and as I prepared breakfast for myself the next morning in the cottage, I thought, What if I walked through my days seeing everything as sacred? The pasteurized homogenized milk in my coffee. The genetically-modified industrially farmed corn in my cereal. The dirty sock on the floor, the bricks in the big house, the glue in the particle-board bookshelf.
That sun-bleached potato chip bag forgotten by the side of the road — it’s sacred too. How could it not be when everything has come from the earth and everything will return to it?
On the day before we leave the farm, I put on my gloves to look for trash along the upper pasture. On the way, I visit a lush apple tree as beautiful as a statue, a barn that used to shelter the herefords that my grandfather kept, and the stone gate by Lower Twin that I knew when I was a child.
Collecting beer cans, McDonald’s cups, and ice cream tub lids is a way I can participate. One day this place will be ours to care for, and it to care for us.
In the pasture, I see what look like bones in the grass. The remains of a tree stump has been weathered by rain and whitened by sun. Filling its cavity and encircling it are choirs of purple dead-nettles, a plant once used for treating wounds and healing tuberculosis. In England it’s still called archangel.
When I treat everything as sacred — the faucet water that rinses my hands, the contact lenses I put in my eyes, the toothpaste that cleans my teeth — I slow down. And it becomes easier to do the hardest thing of all — to see myself as sacred. Even the white hairs that shine silver in the bathroom mirror. The skin on my calves that crinkle like crepe as I pull up my socks. I am part of everything that lives and dies.
I don’t feel so helpless anymore. And I stop worrying that I don’t know how to complete the circle. When I find the holiness in everything, I find the beginning and the end. I have a feeling that this knowing is all I need.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.