A Paradise Springing Up from Hell

As the yellow sun begins to set in the west, it filters through the leaves of the trees over our kitchen table. We’ve just finished dinner and Mark, 12, says something I don’t think I’ve heard him say before: “Let’s go on a walk!” 

Diana, 6, and Luke, 9, cheer because they know that a walk means a bike ride, and Sofia, 18, and Virginia, 16, look at each other with a silent Thank God, knowing they will have the house and the playlist to themselves.  

“Where should we go, to the park and back?” I say, as we tumble down the porch steps. The park had become our destination during quarantine, a place where the kids could bounce basketballs and throw tennis balls and see dogs playing, but now it’s been chained up.

“No, that’s boring,” Mark says.

“I know where we can go,” I say.

Life has turned upside down, I realize again, as I take them where I used to go when I needed to get away from them — the fancy neighborhood at the top of the hill with the stately stone houses and knife-edged lawns.

Diana on her tiny training-wheel-free bike powers up the hill like a bumblebee, Mark hunches over and leans into his Huffy 10-speed mountain bike, and Luke stands and pushes down on the pedals of his hand-me-down 16-inch. I feel grateful for these bikes that have given them so much pleasure when I have run out of ideas.

With barely any cars on the road, I let them ride down the middle of the streets. They sail, instead of fighting. Swirling around in generous figure eights until I catch up with them. “This is the best biking day ever!” Diana says.

Normally this neighborhood is deserted. When I would come on my meditative walks, the only figures I would see were statues of stone, the only warmth the engines of cars that had just returned from work. Now it’s different.

Earlier this week, Mark had said, “There are so many people walking these days,” noticing the gentle parade of people walking by our house — older couples conversing, teens with dogs on leashes, families with strollers, small groups who pause and ask about our flowers. I tell him it’s because they have nowhere else to go, but he doesn’t seem convinced.

Here in the fancy neighborhood, where there is no foot traffic from the metro or stores, there are people everywhere — couples on walks stopping to chat with friends, a family playing badminton in a traffic circle, teens making videos in alleys, a boy practicing skateboarding stunts on the corner, a man painting a fence.

I have felt crushed under the weight of this quarantine — the shutting down of everything, the relentless fear that we are suffocating not just the virus but all the structures that had held us up.

And yet what freedom to be roaming around this quiet carnival of friendly faces and flowering trees. The sunlight feels like a benediction, and when I think of the people in China who were stuck in their apartments for 70 days, I wonder how anything I have been through could be called suffering. I feel like a king who has all the riches he needs.

As we wind in and around the neighborhood streets, we hear the sounds of a ping-pong ball clocking back and forth, a real piano being played near an open window, and a little boy on a tree swing, who when he sees us says, “People!”

We see people we vaguely know from the elementary school and I am drawn to them like long-lost cousins. We linger to talk about our new lives, their new dog, but must go — the light is turning blue and tomorrow we have online school, but it feels like we are leaving a party early.

On the way home I smell hamburger juice hitting hot charcoals, the chlorine sting of a garden hose, and the purple perfume of magnolia leaves crushing into a carpet. Elaborate chalk drawings look like sidewalk murals offered to anyone passing by, and kids art and teddybears in the windows of the houses we pass seem both a call and an offer of help. 

I see how this spirit of community and creativity is being nurtured by death and suffering, and I don’t know how to hold it all in the same armful.

It’s Raining but the Sun is Always Out

Diana, 6, has been writing a lot of letters these days. Here is one she sent to her great aunt and uncle in Phoenix:

Dear Uncle Fill and Corky,

Here it’s raining, but the sun is still out. (Well, the sun is always out but sometimes you just can’t see it.)

A few days ago I learned how to ride a bike with no training wheels!

The tennis court and the park are closed!

What’s going on at your house?

Lili showed us how to make a kite (’cause it’s supposed to be windy on Friday).

Mark turned twelve on April 4th!

Love, Diana

A Quarantine Birthday

My son Mark turned 12 during lockdown.

He got Risk, the board game (deluxe version)
A pencil sketch of a selfie photo 
A handful of books on war and disasters
$6 from his brother to spend on anything
and 3 Xbox discs that will probably join the others
that are too embarrassing to have friends over to play
because everyone else has gun games

There was no party to cancel
when social distancing became a thing
since none had been planned. 
I had suggested a river hike and a campfire —
I could feel him trying to decide
if that was cool enough.

We ordered 3 pizzas from the expensive place
and walked down to pick them up,
savoring the rebel thrill of
touching a germ-covered door
and walking in to see people,
the kitchen still a hive of activity.

Stores were out of sugar
but his sisters found two 1-lb. Domino canisters
and made him yellow cupcakes
with blue buttercream icing and purple sprinkles.

The only thing on his birthday list
that he didn’t get
was a phone.

His sisters didn’t get one ’til they were 14,
and though trends have shifted,
we decide to wait a little longer.

I used to run into other middle school parents
who would tell me,
‘Every 6 months they go without a phone is a victory,’
but since we are almost the only ones over here,
I wonder what we’ve won.

To celebrate, Mark wanted us all to watch a movie together.
We don’t do that much anymore.

A Marvel or Avengers film
would be more his style,
but he was OK with Enchanted. 
It’s rated for 6 years and up, and
what’s a party if all the guests can’t come?

Still Searching

We go to the bike shop to fix Mark’s brakes. The kids don’t wear helmets. I don’t wear a mask. I feel like I’m killing people with my bare face.  

The world is quiet. I kind of like it until I remember why. We buy a baker’s dozen from the bagel truck in the parking lot because they seem needy.

I wish I could enjoy this time more. But swirls of happiness don’t last. The heaviness returns, and I start sighing as if I could push it out.  

I do meditations in the morning. I tell my son Mark it helps, but he says it doesn’t and I wonder if maybe he’s right. 

This morning I could feel that sweet-sad feeling of being me that has always been there, since I was a child, looking out through my eyes.

They say that presence is my soul and that every soul is part of the universal soul. 

I know that things change yet something is always the same. Something massive, something bigger than anything, something that includes us all and makes everything possible.

Last night I dreamed of a guide I once had. She disappeared in the darkness, and I kept looking for her.

Maybe I never find her because I am not meant to be afraid. If I stop searching, maybe I will see that this darkness is OK too.

The cat purrs. The coffee brews. The water in my shower will join the sea one day. I look in the mirror and see the scar. It’s fading, but I know that it will never really go away.

Flamethrowers

Mayors in Italy, where life is on lockdown, are getting mad at people
for jogging, playing ping-pong, walking dogs.

The governor of Campania says in a press conference
at a wooden desk, gold-fringed flags behind him:

“I’m getting word that people are planning graduation parties.
We’re going to send over the carabinieri
with flamethrowers.”