Underneath her white satin graduation gown, Virginia wore lavender. That morning, I had driven her through armies of dump trucks to the Navy Yard, where the building of luxury condos marches on and svelte restaurants sparkle beside gravelly lots.
Outside the D.C. United stadium, 18-year-olds emerged from blinking cars. Parents adjusted sashes and tugged at hems. Virginia slunk down into the passenger seat and said, “This is so humiliating.”
After her senior year spent entirely at home, we are being given a classic graduation ceremony. The first scheduled date was rained out, but today we would soon be gathering under an imperial sunny sky to celebrate a high school career, a lifetime in grade school, and a child ready to leave home.
Diana carried lavender hydrangeas. With only 3 seats for each family, Mark and Luke had to stay home. Jumbotrons emblazoned with “Wilson High School: 2021 Commencement” were flanked by the school’s mascot, roaring cartoon tigers. As we climbed one of the staircases in the 20,000-seat stadium, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over and over. We walked past families we knew and didn’t know, pods sprinkled among empty aisles for social distancing, and I felt a massive gratitude for the institutions and people that made this happen. Thank you for paying for this stadium. Thank you for knowing this was important.
One by one, each of the 412 students in Virginia’s graduating class were called to the stage to receive their high school diploma. Black and White, Asian and Latino, with names from cultures that span the world. All wearing white satin, all receiving the same blessing, a rite both affirming and breaking a tie.
After the photos and the lunching, the hugging and the squinting, I felt dazzled and disjointed, as if I had been holding an armful of stained glass. Yellow, blue, teal, magenta: sun shimmered through the colors, but there were pieces missing. The glass clanked, the edges bit. And I couldn’t see what design it was all making.
Grandiose ceremonies. I always want more than they can give. What is it that I seek —certainty, completion, wholeness?
No ritual could resolve the paradoxes of this year. How the pandemic broke us apart and brought us together. How some were shunted into homelessness and others into luxe vacation homes. Some were lost, some were found, and no one emerged unscathed.
Rising like a miracle after the city was leveled, this commencement was for me a celebration and a mourning of our return to society. Knowing that we must be different, and walking with trepidation and desire into the bold bright world again.
Today I bring Luke to school for the first time in over a year. In his backpack are Covid-19 test results, a signed daily health tracker, hand sanitizer, a bottle of water, his Eureka workbooks, and a packet of cheddar sandwich crackers.
He’ll be going to school for math and social studies two mornings per week. In our arms are stacks of library books to return and a flower from the garden.
We don’t see any other kids walking to school. No high schoolers pouring off the city buses, buying candy and chips at the CVS. No packs of middle schoolers, looking at their phones, shuffling down Wisconsin.
Just this 10-year-old boy with his red backpack and his middle-aged mother carrying a daffodil, waiting at the crosswalk by the cars lining up at the intersection.
Two large white tents have been set up on the mulch playground, and kids are climbing the monkey bars. We look for the face that we’d only seen on an iPad rectangle.
Clumps of adults in dark coats huddle around children in front of the Pre-K classrooms, but where is the teacher who loves yoga and vegan food, whose parents immigrated from India and who’s passionate about social justice?
In normal times the morning assembly on the turf field would be thronging with over 750 kids and their parents. Today there are about 40.
We spot an orange 5-G sign and find the children, half covered with masks, that Luke learned to read and write with, the kids he’s sat next to in morning meetings, on field trips, at picnics, around lunch tables, in gym classes, and closing circles for the past 7 years.
The eyes of a boy whose mom I haven’t seen in a year catch mine for a split-second and seem to say, I know you.
“You hold this now,” I say, handing Luke the daffodil.
Another 5th grade teacher comes over to a huddle of Luke’s classmates and I overhear her say, “… so excited to see you, but…” Luke hands me back the daffodil.
“A migraine,” one of his classmates explains to me.
I give Luke a back hug before he and his classmates follow the substitute into the school.
Unlocking the front door, our house smells like the breath of children and sunlight. A single boy sits in an office chair facing his desktop computer in the living room.
I lay the daffodil in the refrigerator on its side next to a can of cat food.
The front door opens. Luke is in the foyer taking off his shoes, with wind on his eyelashes and his body swaddled in fresh air.
“I forgot to eat my snack,” he explains, as he takes another cheddar cracker out of the package.
First they had math on the smart board. Their assistant teacher was beamed in. “I raised my hand every time, but she didn’t see me.”
Music class was held outside. They sang 5 songs — Mr. W strummed his guitar — and they played Duck Duck Goose to the tune of Do Re Mi.
Friday, April 23, 2021
I wake up Luke for his second day of in-person class. “Shhh,” I say, as he thumps and clonks and makes trombone noises in the bathroom. “No one else has to get up this early!”
At the turf field, about 15 kids are standing or sitting cross-legged in a drawn out line behind the 5-G sign. They seem kind-of nervous, especially the boys.
A tall woman with long black hair and a poncho walks toward Luke’s class, smiling so brightly it was like she wasn’t wearing a mask.
“Ms. G, you have legs!” exclaims a girl. Luke’s teacher gives elbow bumps, takes hugs, and offers to carry the backpack of a girl with a broken leg, and then Luke grabs the daffodil, extends his arm and says, “Here,” and her eyes meet mine and she waves.
He looks 4 years old. I am young too. The dullness of “I know how this goes” is splashed off. Everything is new.
Luke walks back to me and says, “I didn’t know she was so tall.”
As Ms. G makes her way down the line, re-meeting every child, I notice the way her eyelashes curl at the tips, the way that one of her fingernails is painted with glitter, how the polka dots in her bow collect the sun. Against the turf and the sky as clear as water, she feels like a dream.
“Yesterday Mr. B forgot about snack,” a boy with a red knit cap tells her.
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t forget,” Ms. G says. “Snack is the most important part of the day.”
I thought you could know someone through virtual meetings and photographs, newsletters and friendly emails. I thought you could know someone by ‘All About Me’ slideshows and the way their voice wafts through your living room every day.
Taller, yes. More expansive, more beautiful, yes, but there was something more. More alive. She was exuding aliveness. She was life.
Caramel, mango, coffee, and raspberry. Broken macarons sit in a clear plastic box on the top shelf of our fridge.
Cinnamon and vanilla, pumpkin and pistachio, they’re sold for two dollars a piece at the bakery where Sofia works. But broken, they are worthless.
She rises early to ring up quiche and almond cakes, twists and espresso at the bakery in the mall. Freshman classes are virtual, so she’s saving up for a car and a trip across the country.
The tooth first touches a stiff veil like the crust over snow at night. Then chewy meringue surrenders into a soft heart before it melts everywhere.
An exact degree of humidity is required for satiny but strong domes, rough but frilly crowns. The softness of the macaron’s collapse equal to the precision of its construction.
On the days when Sofia comes home, extracting from a crinkled white bag a few broken macarons, she smiles as if to say, What misfortune and what luck.
She adds them to the plastic box in the fridge — chocolate macarons filled with chocolate ganache, lemon with lemon curd buttercream, apricot with apricot jam.
“You can each choose one,” she tells her brothers, extending the open box to them in the middle of their Nerf gun fight as if offering bonbons to princes.
Crushed, cracked, or chipped, our macarons will never surprise a dinner party hostess or commemorate an anniversary.
They are eaten with grubby hands that have just formed snowballs from sidewalk slush. Popped into mouths between handfuls of corn chips and streams of potty words. Appreciated if not for the form, then for the content: “Passionfruit is so good!” Luke says. “It’s like sweet and sour!”
Macarons were born as dollops of almond meringue in the monasteries of medieval Venice. Priest’s bellybuttons they were called when Catherine de’ Medici married King Henry II and brought them to France. The Parisians transformed bellybuttons into three-layer pastry shop tartlets.
When Sofia first mentioned macarons, I had the vague sense that I had missed some chic fad. Perhaps out of rebellion for being left out, or a lack of respect for broken things, I ate my first one as if it were an ordinary cookie that thought very highly of itself.
“I’m grateful for macarons,” Diana said one evening when I tucked her in. Now I try to eat each one knowing how hard they were to make, how delicate and once beautiful. And how the baker, knowing this too, keeps making them again and again.
Outside the Neiman Marcus department store, guys in hoodies and jeans were loading metal racks and leather lounge chairs into black pickup trucks. Hand-written signs taped to the door said, “Auction Winners Only.”
“All the stores have closed, except for TJMaxx and Sak’s,” my friend said about Mazza Gallerie, the 4-story mall where my family and I used to go to the movies on Saturday nights. “The whole mall was sold,” she said. “I heard they got a really good price because it was in foreclosure.”
We walked through the darkened hallways past all the gutted stores, because I wanted to go inside and look at the corpse, and when we opened the back door, there was the Lord & Taylor building across the way with a huge yellow banner spanning the entire top floor saying, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
My friend and I used to be writing partners, meeting for lunch, exchanging chapters, working on novels together at the library. She tells me that they’re thinking of moving. Her husband has been working long hours for his law firm in their basement since March. “Why stay here,” she said, “when you can work from anywhere?”
We pause at the corner to say ‘see you later’ through our masks. Across the street, four 123JUNK trucks are being filled to the top with desks, wooden tables, and cabinets from an office building on Wisconsin. I think of all the offices downtown that no one is going to, and the places that are dying without them: suit shops, sandwich joints, gyms, even the Metro.
We part ways without touching each other at all, and I have the feeling of being in a place where the sand is shifting underneath me.
This fall, the kids — now in 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 12th grade — are schooling in an enclosed world, a circuit of screen, headphone and wire, where I am largely not needed except to adjust the connection, to drag them into the sun, to instigate something that resembles recess.
It’s been half a year since schools closed on March 13, a week after D.C.’s first covid case was confirmed. Everyone thought the kids would go back in 2 weeks, but the re-open date kept getting pushed back as the virus ripped into cities and hospitals around the world like a real-life horror show.
What seemed to be an unsurmountable challenge then — managing my grief and terror while trying to project an aura of calm for the kids, mapping the foreign landscape of remote learning at 3 different schools, navigating capsized social norms and nebulous lockdown rules — now feels like a hurricane that has dissipated into light rain.
I acutely feel the presence of my children’s teachers in my life, even though I’ve never been so far away from them. Doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, mail carriers and garbagemen are as essential and appreciated as ever, but for me, teachers are the new foot soldiers — protecting us, carrying my children, holding this world together.
I have heard the patience in their voices, and felt the difficulty. I know about the sadness, but I feel the love. I see how they band together in the pixelated quilts of Teams meetings, supporting classes that are not their own, gathering every child in this strange new container, persevering. They have become my teachers too.
When the pandemic hit, magnolias were exploding into obscene shows of magenta and rose, daffodils were blanketing the ground with newborn yellow, and cherry trees were unfurling sinful layers of crinoline and lace. Nature was creating an extravagant backdrop for an opera about loss.
When the air softened and the days became lighter, the kids and I found new purpose in the garden that had once seemed dull compared to cross-country or novel-writing or high school musicals. We dug up the weeds by the street and planted sunflowers, bee balm, and crayon-colored zinnias. One morning we woke to find 2 tomato plants on our stoop, and just as we were saying we needed basil for our herb garden, the lady across the street walked over with handfuls of sprouts, and we watered them until they grew big enough to make pesto to ladle over slippery hot linguine.
After the stay-at-home order was lifted at the end of May, restaurants were allowed to serve people outdoors, and over the summer the familiar sounds of people laughing and communing returned. Tables spilled onto sidewalks, squares, parking lanes, alleys, and even streets, creating pockets of joviality in this now subdued city.
But while anxiety about the outbreak has declined from a raging blaze to a crackling fire, other problems have flamed up. The run-up to the presidential election has heightened the feeling of living in two Americas, as if we’ve clung to opposite ends of a schooner, certain that if the other side wins, we’re all going down. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned through millions of acres of forests and neighborhoods, turning skies in San Francisco and Portland from blue to orange, and creating smoke clouds so massive they have traveled all the way to us on the East Coast. And recent violent acts against Black people have cut deep gashes, exposing a race-based hierarchy so intransigent that it will take a complete teardown of American society to build it back right.
The sunflowers that once brought smiles to people passing by the sidewalk are now headless stalks and the basil is bitter, and I feel the imminent loss of the handful of social interactions that have been made possible by the open air, one of the few things that prevent us from infecting each other. Fall has always brought with it a dose of melancholy, but this year in particular, I see my world getting smaller, like the tightening aperture in a mirrorless camera.
During a particularly difficult week of distance learning last spring, a friend brought over a puppy and a playmate for Diana. Another day I found a bouquet of red tulips and a Russian novel on my porch. Six months later I am still reading that novel.
“All the old ways of doing things were abandoned,” the main character tells his daughter about how it was to live through the communist revolution. “But the new ways of doing things had yet to be established.” I wanted to tell him through the pages, through time, through imagination and space, I have been there too. In the pliant dark between one place and another.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our wounds from the trauma of the pandemic have begun to flatten into a kind of scar. My grief is softening, and the boys, 12 and 9, are less like drafted rebels and more like dusty soldiers, marching through blue window after blue window to the end of each day, to the end of the school year, as if walking home after a war that no one has won.
At 11:30 each day, we always get outside, whether the kids’ work is done or not. “Let’s play soccer on Fort Reno!” Diana, 6, says, and the boys agree. Soccer is in, bikes are out.
“You guys go ahead and I’ll meet you there with lunch,” I tell them. I pack a Sullivan’s Toy Store tote with 1 poppy seed bagel sandwich, 2 sesames, and 1 bialy wrapped in foil, plus a half clamshell of strawberries, ice water in 2 old sippy cups, 4 paper towels, and just for fun, 3 Kinder Sorpresa eggs sent by their grandfather in Italy.
When I leave for the park just a block away, Virginia, 16, is sitting on the floor of the deck eating her vegan pasta bowl, and in the basement a CorePower Yoga on-demand teacher demands heart strength and deep breaths from students who once sweated with her in a white-washed loft, and the ones like Sofia, 18, that she will never know.
I climb the hill and see the kids on the far soccer field. After days of cold and clouds, the sun bathes the hill and our tiny figures in a dome of golden light.
As I get closer I can see Diana kicking the ball toward the goal, and Mark missing it and falling down like a clumsy marionette.
They spot me and the boys run to me as they did when they’d see me waiting for them after school. ‘All gas, no breaks,’ as the graffiti on the retaining wall says.
“We were playing world cup soccer,” they tell me. “And sometimes one of us is an A.I. player.”
We select a picnic spot near the community garden. I am drawn to the unusual things in this ocean of grass — the orange-red poppies, bright as my grandmother’s cakey lipstick, and clumps of white irises, standing around like lieutenants.
On the courts beyond the garden, a pair lob a tennis ball back and forth. A guy hits a baseball — TING! — in the batting cage. A woman smiles at us as she walks by with a small dog on a leash.
“Yummm,” I say, and a small chorus echoes me, as we bite into bagels spread with salty buttery cream cheese. A pair of fat carpenter bees bump into each other, dive into the grass, and then fly away in a drunken helix dance.
“Why do they fight?” Diana asks.
“Who knows what they are doing?” I say. “Maybe they are playing,” or maybe they are mating, which I don’t say because I’d rather not talk about sex.
After lunch, Mark sits on the soccer ball, the stitching busted at one of its joints. “Luke pumped it up too much,” he says.
We pack up the bag and walk home for siesta, just the 4 of us, and I feel we are like the buttercups we walk through, insignificant and yet a part of everything.
I love this peace. Not that long ago, I fought against the breakdown, the shuttering, the quarantine as if it were a militia I had to beat back so I could live. Maybe I never understood what is an enemy and what is a friend, or that maybe something can be both and neither.