What the Super Bowl Commercials Said

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.

A Face You Know

Galushko Semen/Shutterstock

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.

Galushko Semen/Shutterstock

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.

What Will We Remember?

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 Beautiful Struggle

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?


Retouched photo by Vlad Tchompalov

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.”

After the Attack on the Capitol

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.

Anew

It’s January 1, 2021. I wake to the sound of children’s voices downstairs. The new year has begun like many others, yet the voices are a little different. My son’s voice is becoming a man’s. The teens, now silent in their beds, were once little girls. 

I hear the baritone voice of my husband. This house we have made together. This life. Comets colliding together through space. Children like stardust, clinging to us until they hurtle off too. 

I hear the espresso maker pumping. Ceramic plates being set down on a wooden table. I know the noisemakers and party hats are still strewn across the crumbs and candle wax. The bottle of sparkling cider we never drank has exploded in the freezer, but I don’t know this yet.

Outside my bedroom, the cat mews. It’s 9:15, I have slept in. I slide the pocket door over the slanted floorboards. He wants to be close to me. I pet him and by the second stroke, he is purring. Animals teach what I keep forgetting. How to love, how to be loved.

The sky weeps. A sad start to a year that the whole world wants to be better. Can we find a less traumatic way to live? Before the virus came, we were still dying alone in hallways, keeping a safe distance, putting masks over our true faces.

Downstairs I find the boys lining up matchbox cars under the couch. I begin chopping onions and celery. Lentils bring good luck, Enrico’s mom used to say. Little coins in a bowl, we will spoon them in, eating prosperity for lunch.

A warm world, a world just awakened. What if I started each day knowing I am a little closer to my death? What would it be like to walk through the world so tender? Not cleansing the traces of sleep, not covering the dangerous softness we had when we were born.

The Deep Lull Behind Christmas

Olesya.miro/Shutterstock

It was the afternoon of December 24 and the smell of toasting pecans was mixing with peppermint from the aromatherapy diffuser Virginia had set on the kitchen counter. I was arranging pink and green bon-bons on top of doilies to give away, because anything you do the night before Christmas is blessed with the most special kind of magic. The teens’ Christmas playlists of songs by Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani flooded the house with a cocktail of cheer and longing. And when I put on my coat to deliver the cookies, I detected the perfume of butternut squash roasting in the oven. Sofia was preparing pumpkin ravioli for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner.

 That morning I had crossed off the last gifts on each of the children’s lists. In the wrapping room, I enclosed each one with silvery paper, attached a card, and wrote something to the person who would tug at its ribbon. 

At lunch we had debated the evening activities during this holiday without grandparents — games or caroling or a Christmas show — and although it was contentious, everyone would agree because it was Christmas Eve. After dinner we would sift powdered sugar over the Italian pandoro cake we had warmed in the oven until it was soft and buttery. After the kids were tucked in, I would stay up late to hang the stockings, and then climb in to bed next to my husband, setting my alarm for early the next morning so I could light the tree, make coffee, and warm the cranberry cake before everyone came down the stairs.

The greatest paradox of Christmas is that the heart of it — the giving and receiving of gifts — is the beginning of the end. Mothers prepare for months, children wait all year, and then dawn turns to dusk on December 25 as swiftly as any other day in the relentless march of time.

After all the presents had been unwrapped and the grandparents called, I lay down and felt that familiar sadness come again. Everything had gone so well: everyone got what they wanted, no one was sick, hugs had been plenty. But when the tumbling, light-making gaiety of the holiday no longer held me in its grip, I was freed. I was lost. It’s as if I didn’t remember that night falls, parties end, youth fades. 

When the sun began setting on Christmas Day, I found Virginia painting a self-portrait with her new acrylics and Sofia reading her new book by Madeline Miller. The artichokes needed to be cleaned and the potatoes scrubbed, so Virginia and I worked and talked about star constellations and Rome and the vaccine while I watched Sofia roll out the pasta and make ravioli for the first time. When it was time, I pulled out the roast and placed Sofia’s warm pecan pie at the center of the table. There were more dirty pots and pans, whisks and wooden spoons than you might find in the back room of a small restaurant, but it was better than anything we had made before.

“Christmas is almost over,” Diana said when I tucked her in that night, her eyebrows coming together as if in prayer. “I wish I was still opening the presents,” she said. Anticipation sweeter than getting what you asked for.

Olesya.miro/Shutterstock

For me the days after Christmas are always sad. It’s a sadness that equals the joy that was held. And a sadness that tells of a dream that was always more than what was real. 

But at the moment when the emptiness seemed to swallow me, I felt a glimmer. Every thing contains its opposite. Every void is an opening. This stillness is the black earth where seeds soften. This is the night where rest comes. This is the ignorance where understanding is born.

A Gingerbread Fantasy

A week before Christmas, five evergreen trees were delivered to our house on a flatbed truck and brought down our driveway with a forklift. Twelve feet tall and 400 pounds each, they were to make a new hedge to screen us from an unpleasant view. 

I felt uncomfortable about the ease with which this operation was completed — the former spindly trees sawed down in a couple of hours, the new trees purchased over the phone with a credit card, deep holes dug in the mud by a crew of men. 

When they were all planted in a row, they looked so beautiful and I thought of decorating them with lights. But to celebrate what? Our continued fortune? The five trees, plus the one in our house encircled by a cascade of presents, reminded me where I stand in this lopsided world. 

2020 showed us the devastation that has always been here, and as we watched, it got much worse. Outside the Target in Tenleytown, people in rags beg at the door. At food pantries, lines of cars wait all night for a bag of sustenance. All across America, tens of millions will not have enough to eat this winter. And yet Jeff Bezos made 90 billion dollars this year, Mark Zuckerberg made 46 billion, and Elon Musk made 68 billion, increasing his wealth by 277%. I am a part of this world. How do I walk through it?

“I am grateful for our strong house and this safe neighborhood,” I say to the kids when I tuck them into bed, thinking of the foster child who asked Santa for a coat, help with school, and running water. 

Acknowledging all that I have fills me with warmth, banishing the emptiness that keeps me grasping. All the jumbled messages that criss-cross my mental space flutter down, and I can see again. I think if I continue to allow other people’s suffering into my heart again and again, I will stay human. I will act from a place of love, not defense.

When I protect myself from the world, I close off a part of myself. The part that sees and feels. I start to walk stiffly. My eyes cloud up. I become hard. A gingerbread woman in a land of my own making.

The children and I built a gingerbread village this year, bonding the panels of spiced bread with royal icing. We edged the shingles with sugar pearls, decorated the window mullions with jimmies, then added gumdrop trees and jujube flowers around a pond of sparkling sugar.

This gingerbread world — that we break apart after the holiday, that never tastes as good as it looks — reminds me to stay human. Be broken and ragged. Never too sweet, never too bitter. Always unfinished.

A Photo Album of Nothing, and Everything

The 2020 photo book that I just made for my parents, as I do every Christmastime, had more pages in it than other years, and my daughter Sofia wondered, “Of what?”

The starting images seemed spewed from a bottle of champagne: birthday dinners in packed restaurants, a stageful of kids dancing to the Little Mermaid, college tours through Mardi Gras, cousin reunions, airports, and beaches. 

Then, a grainy photo of empty toilet paper shelves at CVS. Stockpiling books at the library. Children’s art taped to windows. Hopscotch, puzzles, cherry blossoms.

But before all this, there was a picture that didn’t make it into the photo album. A swath of wet concrete and a group of kids walking away under a gray sky. It was March 13, the day schools closed, and the morning assembly had just ended. 

I hadn’t taken enough pictures, I remember thinking as I watched hundreds of elementary school kids stream into the building. I fumbled for my cell phone, eyes tearing up, and managed to hit the shutter button once before Diana, with her pink and green frog backpack, walked into her 1st grade classroom for the last time. 

Before the outbreak, I had been so preoccupied with my own worries and ambitions. I was never satisfied with where I was. I was always trying to get over there. Trying to become someone else.


You never feel more alive than when you are about to die. When the virus threatened to destroy everything, I felt awake. Everything in my life seemed to shift into order. All the jockeying to be accepted felt hollow, and the aloneness I had been trying to quash fell away. A thickness pressed in all around me, a feeling of togetherness much more subtle and steady than any acceptance from the world of men.


Dark matter is what scientists now call empty space. Invisible yet so powerful that it holds galaxies together. The great religions speak in parables and poetry of an indescribable something that contains everyone that ever was and ever will be. A oneness stronger than all the fleeting delights and disappointments of this life. 

We have become very good at seeing what shines and burns — the stars and the supernovas, glowing cities and their arteries, the synapses firing between neurons. But our fascination with light has sometimes blinded us to the power of the dark.

When the lockdown dimmed the world, the empty space showed its aliveness. The distance between humans suddenly felt charged. Our similarities seemed so clear and poignant. And the space inside me, once seeming like a black hole, was filled with a magnetic force.


By the time you flip to the month of May in our photo book, the pictures have become more and more green. Instead of faces, monuments, and ceremonies, the camera lingered on the daisies and the blue hydrangeas in our garden, how they seemed to luxuriate in our attention. The lens paused over the grassy hill near our house that was always there to receive our screen-weary selves. Snapshot after snapshot captured the farm in Ohio, which welcomed us whenever we needed to escape the city.

There were still things to photograph in the fall — the tree that fell on the car, school desks at home, unrest around the White House — but the photos seemed to tell that 2020 was about nature: vicious beautiful nature. The virus that both ripped us apart and fused us together. The wind that sanctified, the woods that soothed, the plants and the animals, the puddles and the moonlight, the dirt and the rainbows.

It was a year of heartbreak. Seeing the world on its knees, my heart broke open, and in came all the sorrow, and all the love. For what was lost, for what we never had. For the downtrodden, for the departed. For all that I have been given, and all that will slip away.

There was also grace, there is always grace. I have been so full of effort and too poor in faith to notice it much, but this year was different. There were moments when I knew I was both nothing and a part of everything. There were gifts and sometimes, the wisdom to accept them. Moments that wouldn’t be captured in any photo. The script of a snail’s silver path in the morning light. Sleep that supplied the answers in a dream. A smile of forgiveness that was offered without being asked for.