Looking for Nick

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Disappearing of School

School started last week — every public school, every grade, every ward and surrounding county in D.C. — all online.

On the first day, we did not rush out of the house with clean backpacks, lunches assembled in a line, and shopping bags laden with boxes of tissues and crayons. At 8:30 a.m., Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were brushing their teeth while the principal beamed the morning announcements from a hand-me-down iPad.

Homeroom meetings began like animated quilts, heads bobbing in 20 different frames, stitched together by an invisible thread — the teacher’s voice. A voice that, in this new phase of headphones with mics, only my children can hear. Mark, 12, shooed me away when I peeked in at his living room gym class, and Virginia, 16, came downstairs for breakfast and then closed the door to the guest room for Environmental Science on Microsoft Teams. Sofia, 18, started her first day of college 366 miles away.

Over the past few weeks I had been collecting the elements recommended for good study spaces: desks, office chairs, clocks, and lists of logins. Mugs of colored pencils and stacks of marble composition notebooks sat on every desk, and taped to the wall: a different daily schedule for each child, with every slot from 8:30 to 3 filled in.

Last spring when schools closed in a rush, the kids were in charge of making a big lunch every day and we ate around the table every noon like a farming family. Technology tangles and sibling bickering forced school’s end by late morning when we busted outside to gasp for air, to run and bike and dig and bounce off the heaviness. 

We clung together away from the storm, but the danger that has kept schools closed this year feels amorphous and distant, even purposeless. And even though the kids and I are still always together, I feel newly alone. I seem to be caught between the gift of this quiet at-home school life, and not knowing what to do with it.

I have always loved the way textbooks crack when you open them for the first time, the pulpy bleachy smell of spiral notebooks, the spectrums of new marker sets. The sound of children singing together, racing to the playground at recess, lining up at the ice cream truck after 3. Fall has been about reconvening after summer’s vagaries, banding together to throw block parties or fall picnics, and venturing to make fresh alliances, to find new gurus.

When I peek into Diana’s writing workshop or Mark’s history class or Luke’s homeroom scavenger hunt, I am humbled by the patience and calm of their teachers, the compassion, their grace. The way they succeeded in creating a warm environment even though it’s not what they wanted, even though they couldn’t make it with anything you can touch.

Sometimes the tears of awe and gratitude merge into another feeling that I can’t describe. Grief . . . loneliness . . . despair? Like a ghost who has claimed an old house, this feeling haunts.


Another school week begins and the melancholy starts building again. But then I ask myself: is it possible that I have not lost anything, nothing but the past and the future?

What is the past anyway, but a memory, a re-enactment that my mind plays out? And the future a projection, a fantasy that I color in while I’m waiting for the real thing to happen. 

Right now, in this moment, is there anything that is wrong? Pink crepe myrtle blossoms brush against a cloudless blue sky. Acorns go ‘tic’ as they fall against the blacktop. The sun hums over my skin.

Can I live this life without remembering what was and what might be? Can I accept this time for everything that it is, without tallying the gains and losses? Because some day I might just look back on it, and say, “How sweet it was.”

The Beginning and End Embedded in Late August

Late August has always felt like an ending and a beginning.

Sunflowers don’t make plates of seeds anymore, cicadas sound more desperate in their güiro song, powdery mildew makes pumpkin leaf parchment, and cooler days discourage cannonball plunges in the pool.

The compensation for turning down summer’s brightness has always been school — fresh-cut notebooks, the waxy smell of never-used crayons, the polish of first-worn leather shoes. New projects, new friendships, new resolutions — the start of school always felt more like a new year than January 1st ever did.


But this year late August feels like a tapering off, a pinching of growth, a withering.

Good public schools have been a uniting force, but now people are moving abroad, switching to micro-schools, hiring tutors, forming learning pods, or simply logging in by themselves at home. It feels like we are particles after a big bang — slowly moving apart before we know what we are coalescing into.

I need a beginning, but I don’t know where it is anymore.


The earth starts turning away from the sun at the height of summer, and by August squirrels are hiding acorns under bushes, and crape myrtle petals fall slantingly like rain. The carefree parties that never were this summer are waning; the vacations that didn’t happen are over.

No longer can I depend on the events and milestones that used to mark the time — the splashy first day of school, the big neighborhood block party, or the exuberant high school musical. I can no longer rely on drop-off for my daily social interaction or eye contact with a teacher to know my kids are doing okay.


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Just beyond the new beginning, fall has always seemed to say, You’re on your own. Time to get serious and prove yourself. 

This year I will be surrounded by children in our cozy home, but I still sense the familiar foreboding. The race to be good enough. The cool kids. The jostling for attention. The longing for a savior when I can’t do it anymore.

Maybe what is ending this odd August is joining the major stream. And what is beginning is the discovery of the tributaries, quiet and meandering, that I have not been brave enough to follow.

Coronavirus Reckoning – 5 Months In

For me, the coronavirus outbreak was both a horrendous tragedy and a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It was a calamity that threatened everyone on earth and melted away the hierarchies that separate us. We were just human beings for a while. 

In the blackness of quarantine, I became invisible. Free from the constant daily interactions that always seemed to lead me to think I somehow wasn’t doing things right. From the self-consciousness that plagued me: how I was perceived, how I was judged, how I measured up according to the rules of the arena I found myself in.

The quiet darkness hid it all. I was simply a soul. A human being in a family of human beings. 


This is why I am not eager to go back to the way things were.

I don’t want to try to fight my way into society’s detailed ranking, its tight grid.  I don’t want to be aware of how I do or don’t fit in, where I stand in the graph — high or low, left or right.

I don’t want to look at everything I do through the lens of the groupthink to decide whether I am good or bad, worthy or worthless.


“I am a man.” I love this declaration that I see on t-shirts in Black Lives Matters marches. It helps me rewrite the limiting scripts in my mind. When I see a Black person I don’t know, I feel the assumptions my mind is making, and then I say over it, “Man.” Or “Woman.” Or “Child.” 

This is the way I want to be seen. I want to see others this way too. Greeting each person as a human being makes me feel part of a One, not a fragment among many. When I see someone and “human” is all I need to know about them, my heart speaks, not my mind, and compassion flows out.

Every country, every society has a unique hierarchy. People not born with the qualities that are valued at the top will most likely struggle to feel loved and accepted, always feeling they are on the verge of being kicked out.


I love people. I need people. I crave connection and soul-to-soul communion. People cooperate, lift each other up, make each other feel less alone, become the safety net. We help each other survive and thrive.

But there is something about large groups that leads us to categorize and place value on people based on what they do, what they look like, how much they earn, or how assertive, outgoing, or fashionable they are.

Perhaps this is why I am not heartbroken that our world will stay small and that our house will become a school this fall. School — even as a parent who only is involved with fundraisers and drop-offs, field days, plays, and graduations — brings back the same feelings I had as a child: I’m different and I’m afraid of what I have to do to belong.

I feel sad for my children, missing all the happy nurturing things about school and playing with friends in the sunshine. I feel sad for my daughter who will start her senior year on a computer. The suffering inflicted because schools are not opening is devastating. It’s a sign of massive dysfunction, and I feel a sense of dread as I witness the institutions and economies that support the livelihoods of so many people continue to deteriorate.

This is why it is so hard to reckon with the fact that I am okay with keeping the social, busy, public part of my life in the dark for a while longer, and clinging to the peculiar warm light I have found in the wreckage. Because as much as I grieve our losses, there was something unhealthy about the way we were, and something healing about what is now.

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A Graduation At Home

Sofia’s graduation ceremony happened last night on our TV. The basement carpet received my sister’s pink tablecloth as if it were a concert lawn. Big bowls of guacamole that Virginia had just made were set on it, plus a platter of fried pumpkin flowers her little brothers and sister had picked from the garden that morning. With her laptop logged into Microsoft Teams, Sofia broadcast the ceremony in her just-ironed white gown, with its tape-on collar and pine green sash, WWHS printed down the front in gold lettering.

The opening procession was like turning the pages of a scrapbook, every slide bearing 9 photos of 9 different kids standing in 9 different places, each posing with the “Wilson Grad 2020” yard signs that a band of mothers had sunk into the ground at each graduating senior’s house or apartment building. In the background was the tinny sound of the high school band, orchestra, and choir singing “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire, a concert from another era, a time when people could sing next to each other and parents could sit in the audience.

I look at Sofia’s face under her satin cap, her features still those of a child. The baby photo that we placed in the yearbook shows her bald head and monkey face, curiosity drawing out the only wrinkle in her brow, and her body launching from her grandfather’s arms in front of the Italian country church. How much love we felt for this baby, this wondrous act of nature — the only one of her that will ever exist in all of time.

She is sitting with us now, instead of with her friends, surrounded by her siblings who are dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, Under Armour shorts, and bikini tops, while she is draped in white satin, a mortarboard hat on her head, green tassel hanging down, like a master of ceremony, an angel, a sage from another realm. 

“I know this was not the graduation or senior year you expected,” the mayor says in a pre-recorded greeting in front of a hedge on a sunny day, “but don’t let that take away from how proud you should feel in this moment.”

“Our nation is hungry for change,” she says. “The pandemic set the stage for creating a new normal, and as cities across the country begin to open up, including our own, people don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”

I had bled so much for all that was lost, without knowing that only three months later I would no longer grasp for the way things were. Going back would be like returning to the school where you learned how to read and where you played kiss and catch. Seeing how tiny the chairs and desks are, how spare the playground that you once thought was a wonderland.

It took 45 minutes to announce all of the graduates. Senior portraits rise up and dissolve away. Hundreds of names, hundreds of faces, each one so different, each expression, hairstyle, every shape and color of every face. I wish somehow that I had met them all. I only knew a handful. Now it’s too late.

When Sofia appears, it was like the screen radiated with a thousand watts and the image of her face came toward me, glowing and hovering there, and then it was gone. A new face appears, a new name is pronounced, another college is listed underneath in italics, and the violins keeping playing “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over, as name after name, and face after face is honored.

Soon it will be over. Even though we made two dozen cupcakes with buttercream icing and gold and black sprinkles, even though we lit handfuls of sparkly candles, even though there were homemade gifts and cards and a call from the grandparents, the silence will come. I will get the kids tucked in bed, and my husband will finish all the dishes, and her sister will turn on the TV, and Sofia will be alone on the couch again. I don’t want the silence to swallow her up.

It’s the endings before any beginnings that are the hardest to bear.

The End of High School

On the last day of school, our high school senior was in bed in her room by herself. On Monday she had turned in her last assignment and on Wednesday she Zoomed with her last class.

While her younger siblings were having end-of-year slideshows, scavenger hunts, and superlative awards on Microsoft Teams, the last two days of the school year were spent like so many before, sitting on the living room couch next to her abandoned knitting, watching YouTube videos with headphones on.

The mayor ended the distance learning school year even before the canceled prom, senior awards, and club parties, events whose colorful blocks in our Apple calendar will float by like toy boats.

On the last day of school, I look at her by herself on the couch and feel quicksand in my chest. There were no hugs outside the front doors for her, squeezing each other with your past and your future all at once.

There were no locking eyes with the teachers that believed in you, or last glances at the ones that you didn’t care for, as if to fix them in your scrapbook too. No names being called down the hallway, some names you’ll never hear again, no clearing your locker of gross and strange things, dusty souvenirs from journeys you thought would never end.

There would be no signing of yearbooks with Sharpies, no snickering during auditorium ceremonies, no trying on of caps and gowns in the bathroom. No high fives, no last chances, no watching crushes as they walk away.

A high school career that, instead of exploding, disintegrated. Like a favorite song on the radio suffocated by waves of static as you drill into the long road ahead. Like a candle extinguished, not with a cakeful of others, but little by little in the morning damp.

Playdate Offender

I feel like I have committed a crime
I tried to organize a playdate for my kids
The school system said this week is our new spring break
No road trip to Ohio in April to their grandparents’ farm

I wonder if my name will be put on some kind of blacklist
by the parents who didn’t respond for days to the email that said,

“Playdate?”

My son’s best friend’s family said yes
to one there Tuesday
one here Thursday

I am a sociopath
For merging two families’ germ pools, contact histories

Neighbors walk by and examine this child playing nerf guns with mine
who yell his name so loud in our backyard
everyone must know by now
what I have done

And I feel a guilt so cutting that I have to go to bed early
with a headache and a cool feeling in my nose

This is the beginning of coronavirus,
I’m convinced

Serves you right,
they will say