The Deep Lull Behind Christmas

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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.

New Book: My Beautiful Terrible Pandemic Life

I am happy to announce the release of my book, My Beautiful Terrible Pandemic Life, a compilation of the micro-memoirs, poems, and essays published on this site since the start of the outbreak.

Publishing online has been great for communicating with speed and ease, but after months of sending words out into the ether, I felt the urge to hold something in my hands. I have always loved paper and print and keepsakes, and with book-making options so advanced these days, I figured I could easily put one together.

It turns out making a book is not as simple as cut and paste. Formatting the manuscript in one application and then another took weeks, and decisions needed to be made and re-made about trim size, paper type, fonts, margins, and spacing.

At least the content was all set, I thought. But when I looked over what I had written back in March, I wanted to make some changes. But revisions triggered a whole new round of proofreading, and I created fresh typos in the process of correcting old ones. And then there was the whole question of designing a cover, a technical and artistic feat I was not cut out for.

After many rounds of formatting and revising, printing and proofing, the interior text finally met both my standards and those of Amazon’s print-on-demand service. My friend and graphic designer Alston Taggart rescued me from the amateur cover I was attempting to make, and I feel like I’ve been sprinkled with the magic dust of a big publishing house.

The book is finally finished and is available to anyone who would like a copy.

Holding this book feels like being with an old friend. The pandemic that caused so much suffering and death also provoked growth and new life, and for me this book exemplifies that bewildering paradox.

I will keep writing here — with an updated look and abbreviated name (Painting with Words) — because the ongoing losses and gifts of this time continue to show me how nothing lasts and everything is special.

Thank you for reading, receiving, and allowing my words into your life. Connecting with people through my writing has shown me that we are never really alone and this has been the greatest gift of all.

Your support and readership helped bring this book to life:

My Beautiful Terrible Pandemic Life: Micro-memoirs, poems & essays

Thank you.

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.

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.

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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.

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