Sometimes the trees can get too tall. They shoot up straight as if to poke the sun. Sometimes they get too green. They wrestle leaves into every clear space, strangling their own fruit. Sometimes they bear too much, globes weighing the branches until they break.
You pretend it’s someone else’s job to care for it, but all along you’ve known the orchard was also yours. You still want to be the child, even though you know they are tired, even though you know it’s your turn, even though you’re the only one who can do it now.
Under the pear tree, the kittens pounce on fireflies and paw at rolling apples. Loppers lean against a trunk, a saw lies on the grass, and a pair of clippers on the ladder shelf. The branches you have cut are black with death and, at first, the trees look bare.
Diseased, broken, or dead: those branches were the easiest to remove. It’s the young ones that break your heart. You must remove those that grow inward and make the tree too dark. Take the ones that grow downward, for they will not support fruit when it comes. Cut the branches that cross others, sowing disorder and conflict.
You must not be too harsh, not too delicate. You must not take too much, not too little. You must not think only of the fruit soon to be in your hand, your pie, your saucepan. You must think of next fall and the next fall and two dozen falls from today.
Don’t think you’re being kind to use a soft blade. Sharp cuts are easier to heal. Don’t think you’re being gentle by leaving some of the branch — you must take it all, for stumps invite rot and parasites.
When you have done the work, the dead wood must be gathered and cleared away. The children won’t want to help. Like you once, they just want to be free. But they need to feel the pull of their muscles and the taste of their sweat. It would be good for them to feel the rhythm and reciprocity of nature’s partnership.
If your life is to be fruitful, you cannot let your orchard go, simply because it will without any help from you. You must be a steward, deciding what lives and what dies.
Wind must be able to rush through your trees, blowing away that which festers and stagnates. Sunlight must be able to reach the inner places, drying the rain and curing the ills.
If your life is to be fruitful, you must visit your orchard in all seasons, learning the shape and habit of each tree, noticing what grows and what aches.
Above all, you must be a friend. When you walk through your orchard, listen more than you speak. Notice the tiniest unfurlings of beauty and grace. Feel how sacred the world is when you see, and the seen senses your gaze.
Maybe because it involved fire, maybe because they all had something to burn, they said yes.
I’d never paid much attention to the cycles of the moon, how my earthly body might be in tune with this celestial body. I come from a tradition of sun-worshippers, but other cultures use lunar cycles to set time and give meaning to the changefulness of life.
The new moon, or the moment of darkness between waning and waxing, marks the beginning of the month in the Hebrew and Chinese calendars, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac says that it’s the best time to plant vegetables that bear fruit above ground.
Burn what no longer serves you, and say a prayer for what you want to grow, wise women suggest, because this is the order of the universe. One cycle fades, another emerges.
It was raining steadily outside. Diana and I had changed out of wet clothes into pajamas. The air hung with the perfume of ginger, garlic, and broth from the soup we had for dinner.
“You’re going to burn your enemies?” Luke asked me.
My list was two pages long. I ripped it out of my journal as the kids quandaried over what to put down. “I wrote about my fears,” I told them, “and thoughts that make me feel insecure.”
The new moon is also called the dark moon, because it looks as black as the night sky.
I didn’t expect the boys, now 13 and 10, to start looking for small writing paper in the pie chest. Diana paced around the playroom, reminding us that we weren’t going to tell anyone what we wrote.
They used to say this in church: Give your worries to God. Lay them down at His feet.
How did this work? I wondered. I was too ashamed to tell God things like, “I’m not even sure you exist.”
When I was about 8 years old, my Southern Baptist grandmother gave me a daily Bible verse tear-off calendar. I peeked ahead to see what message had been selected for my birthday. It was Matthew 8:26: “Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?”
My life has been a dance of trying to hide what I was afraid had already been revealed.
Mark’s crushed paper ball made the candle flame muscle up and arc. Luke’s crumpled piece made a broad wall of light.
I scrolled my pages and touched them to the flame. They became a gray log, and I thought of fallen trees in the woods, bark peeling off in curls.
When Diana placed her squared folded sheet into the pillar candle, the schoolgirl blue lines stayed neat while frilly waves of sunset orange and night black advanced.
The earth knows how to transform, how to receive and dissolve. This beautiful merciful destroyer.
Wax came spilling down, running willy-nilly over the table. We put out the fires with splashes of water, then celebrated with rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream. Our table looked like a moonscape, or a funeral pyre. An after-party.
A few hours later when the last sunlight had leaked from the sky, Diana came downstairs, eyes blinking in the kitchen glare where Mark was making a poster on the Roman military. She said she was hot, but she pulled me close.
I climbed into bed with her, and she clutched my shirt with one hand, burying her head into my chest. “I said I wanted to give up being scared of the dark but I’m still scared,” she whispered. “Even more than before.”
“When you look something in the eye,” I said, “it can be more scary than when you were running away.” And I told myself as I spoke to her, “Sometimes we need to give it more time. Trust that it’s working even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.”
Faith is hard to hold in a place where magic isn’t real if it can’t be proven with test tubes and microscopes. When we can’t see all that is unfolding: the seeds that are growing underearth, the ghosts collapsing into the night.
“You should go,” Diana said when we heard my husband unlocking the front door and looking for me.
Dov’è la Mamma? he called up the stairs.
“He’s missing you,” she said. “I’ll be okay with the light on.”
My new moon prayer:
Take away my doubt and my shame, and replace it with compassion and trust as steady as the sun.
Show me how to stand in my own light, even when the world is bright and actionful.
Open my perception to the signs and symbols that are always here, pointing me where I need to go.
I walk to yoga in the park. It’s only 8:45 in the morning but the air is already ringing with the steady rattle of cicadas. It’s the moment of tension in an opera right before the stab, or the kiss, except this thrumming will go on for hours.
Under a generous beech tree, we spread out our mats. A man sleeps on a bench by the path. The teacher helps a cicada off her mat with her sandal before she starts the class with a round of Om.
A massive cohort of cicadas called Brood X is emerging in D.C. and across the central and eastern U.S. from Ohio to New York. They are not the August singers. These periodical cicadas only come out every 17 years, and when they finally emerge to mate, their life will be almost over.
After school Diana and her neighborhood friends collect cicada exoskeletons. Still clinging to tree trunks and fence posts all over our neighborhood, they are shadows of the nymphs who lived under the earth for 17 years. Now they have transformed themselves into black winged beings. The girls make piles of honey-colored shells and stick them to their shirts like broaches.
We do cobra and cow poses under the beech tree. Its branches reach out to give me shade. The grass underneath bends to hold me. Grips and grooves in the dirt help my feet find balance. In the studio I wobble — here I am a dancer.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the steady ringing has given way to a searing razz. Entire trees are on fire with rattle. Flames of cicada song lick the sky, even though the air is still on this late May day.
On schoolday afternoons, neighborhood girls extend their hands to cicadas in the grass. Diana names the one on her arm ‘Beauty Orange-Eyes Rose’ or ‘Beau-Beau’ for short. And this one, she tells me, is called ‘Matilda Angela Hope.’
What is one of your favorite sounds? was the question we asked at a family meeting this winter. “Frankie’s claws clicking on the floor,” said Diana. “Frankie purring,” said Luke. For Mark it was the sound of the dishwasher, Sofia the whispering in her A.S.M.R. videos. I said mourning doves in spring, but I wished I had thought of my husband’s answer: cicadas.
By now, cicadas litter the sidewalks: crushed, mangled, or partly eaten by birds or squirrels. Alone they are small, but together — in the tens of billions this year — their music has become the air itself.
“Cicadas breathe with their butts,” Diana’s friend explains. “That’s why they can stay alive without their heads.”
I find two cicadas touching, butt to butt, on our driveway. In a month or so, their babies will hatch. They will burrow into the ground like their parents did and feed on tree sap for another 17 years. And then, it will be their turn.
For this pair, all that will be left after their striving is to let go. Let go of the bodies that brought them together, the bodies that sang, that flew, that loved. Let go and return to the nothing and the everything.
It’s 92 degrees in the house and sweat is beading on my husband’s forehead. When I ask him if we should turn on the air conditioning, he says, “No, it’s nice to hear the sound.”
Eventually we give in, sealing ourselves into a box: smooth and predictable, pleasant and very quiet.
In the morning, I will open the windows to hear them again, and when I walk outside, the song of cicadas will tell me, You live in a place humming with aliveness. Here there is harmony and heartbreak, synchronicity and chaos. And underneath it all, a deep majestic order that requires nothing from you to unfold in perfect timing. Nothing from you, except maybe for you to feel it, to know it.
I had forgotten we had apple trees on the farm. The kids just run past the orchard on the way to catch a frisbee or run through a sprinkler.
When my grandfather was alive, the trees were so laden that apples would fall all over the ground and rot. They weren’t the kind you get in grocery stores. Small and green and covered with sooty blotch, they were perfect in the pies and apple sauce that my grandmother would make. We could feed them to the cows, let the birds eat all the high ones, and still there were plenty for everyone.
It’s spring break and we have come to Ohio to see my parents. Only Mark, Luke, and Diana could come — Enrico, Sofia, and Virginia stayed home to work. The speakers in the car went kaput during the first hour, so we passed the trip in the old-fashioned way: with inane songs and potty humor. “Icabod is itchy, I am too!” Luke sang from the way back. “Has it gotten stuck in your head yet?”
In April, most the trees along the highways are still wiry brushes, but some have been rolled in a colored syrup. Chartreuse, persimmon, or purple, pinpricks of color outlining the structure, revealing its secrets.
We hugged my parents with bare faces for the first time in a year. Around the dinner table, we sat close together eating every last spaghetti strand clung with my mom’s meat sauce. It was as if nothing had happened.
But time could be measured in the wrinkles around my eyes, in Mark’s stature, now taller than mine, and in the gait of my parents, slower, tentative. They showed us how they sit on a bench before dinner to watch the kittens prance in the garden, chase flies, and stand at the bottom of trees looking up at the birds. And I know they are in the sunset of their lives.
The apple trees in the orchard call to me. A band of angels offering armfuls of blossoms to the sky. Behind every open flower are three or four more pink bells, ready to unfurl. Each five-petaled flower is the face of a child.
After dinner while the kids are playing on the tree swing and my mom is clipping spent daffodils in the falling light, I decide to take a walk around the field. Constellations of fat yellow dandelions are scattered on the path, but it’s the few who have become blowballs that glow at sunset as if it were my eye they wanted to catch instead of the wind.
In August, a sea of soybean plants had risen in this field, and before that in a rare double-crop year, muscly wheat stalks heavy with berries were being harvested when we visited, 40 rows at a time, chaffed, and piled into mountains of gold in open trucks.
Now on this quiet April evening, the field is striated with purples, yellows, and greens. Wide swaths of field balm, violets, butterweed, and wild onion have made the plot into a watercolor rainbow.
I’ve always been torn between the triumphs of human achievement and the unspeakable grace of what unfolds all by itself.
These bitter greens, once collected for nourishment or medicine, will soon be cleared so that we can inject seeds into the ground, the kind that will give us what we love and what we need. French bread and three-layer cakes, taco shells and dumplings, drywall and school glue, toothpaste and tires.
One morning, I convinced the kids to help me walk around the perimeter of the lower pasture to pick up trash that had blown in from the highway. In summer, brush hides the Pepsi cans and Teddy Graham wrappers, Bedda Chedda packages, and dog food bags that we found. Spring’s bareness uncovers of the carelessness of man.
I tell my parents about the apple blossoms and how I’ve missed seeing them when we come in summer, how happy the trees seem to be.
“Last year we only had two or three apples,” my mom tells me. She goes through all the things she and my dad have tried to help them. And then she says, “When Grandpa was alive those trees would be noisy with the buzzing of bees.”
The next time I go to the apple trees, I hear the silence. A single honeybee is visiting. I take pictures of the blossoms again, but now their beauty is tinged with sadness.
The collapse of bee colonies is a sign of our modern blight, the sickness of the world. We have lost our sense of interconnectedness. Nature has become a resource we use to get what we want. Our domination is so complete that we will find ourselves alone, actors in a play we have decided is about us.
At the greenhouse by the cheap gas station and the bait shop, my mom asks the kids to help her select seedlings of cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli.
She won’t need that many because she’s replacing one of her vegetable beds with a pollinator garden of butterfly bushes, Joe Pye weed, and cone flowers. When the owner sees her considering a packet of milkweed seeds, he laughs and says, “My grandmother used to make me go pull that up!”
The problem starts when we forget that everything is sacred. As long as some people or things on earth are revered and others are not, it will be hard to see the bees and the trees and the weeds as holy. Splitting the world splits us inside and we walk around broken, looking for something to make us whole, not knowing that we have been whole all along.
I had bad dreams one night, and as I prepared breakfast for myself the next morning in the cottage, I thought, What if I walked through my days seeing everything as sacred? The pasteurized homogenized milk in my coffee. The genetically-modified industrially farmed corn in my cereal. The dirty sock on the floor, the bricks in the big house, the glue in the particle-board bookshelf.
That sun-bleached potato chip bag forgotten by the side of the road — it’s sacred too. How could it not be when everything has come from the earth and everything will return to it?
On the day before we leave the farm, I put on my gloves to look for trash along the upper pasture. On the way, I visit a lush apple tree as beautiful as a statue, a barn that used to shelter the herefords that my grandfather kept, and the stone gate by Lower Twin that I knew when I was a child.
Collecting beer cans, McDonald’s cups, and ice cream tub lids is a way I can participate. One day this place will be ours to care for, and it to care for us.
In the pasture, I see what look like bones in the grass. The remains of a tree stump has been weathered by rain and whitened by sun. Filling its cavity and encircling it are choirs of purple dead-nettles, a plant once used for treating wounds and healing tuberculosis. In England it’s still called archangel.
When I treat everything as sacred — the faucet water that rinses my hands, the contact lenses I put in my eyes, the toothpaste that cleans my teeth — I slow down. And it becomes easier to do the hardest thing of all — to see myself as sacred. Even the white hairs that shine silver in the bathroom mirror. The skin on my calves that crinkle like crepe as I pull up my socks. I am part of everything that lives and dies.
I don’t feel so helpless anymore. And I stop worrying that I don’t know how to complete the circle. When I find the holiness in everything, I find the beginning and the end. I have a feeling that this knowing is all I need.
My eyes flicked open. The clock on my bedside table read 4:15. We had decided we would do the egg hunt after quiet time.
“Mama?” Luke called from the kitchen. My dreams patterned over the sheers blowing into my room. They played with the wavy shadows cast by the window mullions. “Mama?” The screen door opened and banged shut. “Mama?”
“Don’t look!” I heard cousin Julia say to him in the backyard. “Or I’ll hide it again!”
He called my name from the basement, from the foyer, from the stairs, and then the calling stopped.
I didn’t want to be found, but I wanted to be looked for.
The day had started at 6:45 with the 4-hour leg of lamb sliding into the oven, and the crescendo of garlic softening, giving away its perfume.
A blue striped oxford for Mark, khakis for Luke, and a hand-me-down lavender dress for Diana that needed ironing. Three dozen eggs to be hard-boiled, and late-night instructions for vegan asparagus soup: Could someone please buy raw cashews, lots of basil, and vegetable broth? Clutter that had been collecting for days, whisked away minutes before our guest arrived at 11.
It was Easter and Mark’s 13th birthday. A beginning and an ending. Our son is now taller than me, his lilting voice gone, his shoulders a broad gate.
After spring break, he and his younger siblings will most likely return to school two days a week. Virginia is taking more shifts to save up for college, and Sofia has been going on camping trips in preparation for her big one.
After every pulling together is a drifting apart. When schools closed last March, we ate hot meals at noon around the big table like a farming family. Our separate ages, interests, and goals collapsed into a unity necessary to bear through the crisis.
Only scar-pink pistils remain on the weeping cherry that for one week was resplendent. But the fruiting cherry is beginning to swirl out round petals of white light. Little suns.
Life is an unrelenting tumble of grief and discovery. Losing and finding. Sugar crunching between the teeth melts on the tongue. Gifts bulging with possibility dissipate into tangles of ribbon. Blue button-downs are now crumpled in the laundry bin.
We hunt for plastic eggs, not because of the dime-store candies inside, but for the promise of finding. We want to be the one to spot the baby blue globe tucked in the car wheel, the dome of pink sunk into a tuft of spiky leaves.
To be unfound, or to be ignored, is a kind of death.
I like being invisible now, because another part of me is unspooling into the world. Through the sound of my voice, I find myself.
Under bushes, in the crooks of branches, tucked into log piles, I still like leaving eggs. Hoping someone will find them, and know me.
My mother always wore gardening gloves, even when she drove a hand spade into the soft suburban ground to nestle her purple hyacinth bulbs.
But I’m different. I don’t care that my knuckles get nicked or that my nails are ringed with half-moons of dirt. I want to make contact with the minerals and the stems, no formalities needed.
When the seasons collided in late winter and it was summer for a day, I barreled into the garden and raked and clipped and swept and gathered all the crumpled leaves, the flower balls, and slanted twigs. They had kept the ankles of the plants warm, but now they were wool socks on a muggy day.
After I hauled the remains to the botanical cemetery behind the garage, the backs of my hands were alive with red scratches and my fingers were christened with a dusting of glimmery dirt.
But by afternoon a gash on my palm ached. That night I scrubbed out the dirt with a bar of Ivory, just as my mom would ward off poison ivy with Fels-Naptha laundry soap.
Maybe it needed antibiotics, I thought, dabbing some on and going to bed with a bandage.
The next day, the pink opening called to me with the only voice it had. I soaked it in warm water again, but at the deepest part, a speck remained. With a pair of tweezers and eyes sharper than mine, my son extracted an infinitesimal thorn.
I’ve never thought of myself as a warrior. Swords are for killing and shields are for raising barriers. But don’t we hurt each other every day without even trying? Don’t lovers protect themselves from what their bodies want to conceive? Danger comes in equal measure as beauty.
Nature has boundaries, and so must you. Coax the climbing roses, claw out the river stones, press the seeds in deep, but take care. Protect yourself so love can last.
To practice for their summer trip to the national parks, Sofia and her best friend decided to hike Old Rag Mountain. Nine miles around and 2,680 feet up.
On her day off work at the bakery, they drove with new driver’s licenses to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
“Shortcutting is dangerous,” said a wooden sign at the base. They trekked over needle ice. They climbed traprock staircases, they overtook ice rivers.
On that day cut with a diamond sun, Sofia had no time to stream The Great British Baking Show or to set silverware on folded napkins before dinner. She was crawling up billion-year-old boulders with two arms and two legs.
It was dark when the front door opened and the night air brought her in. As she untied her shoes, she swiped through glowing images on her phone. Shoulders resting against rock walls, pink noses, clouds of effort. Her eyebrows were rainbows. And her face was lit from the inside.
I hear the coo of a mourning dove, swaying as a porch swing does in the breeze by itself, and I remember this time last year. Spring was coming, but we didn’t predict the total eclipse.
I want to hug the person I was, scared and so lost. To mother the child when a bosomy clasp in a rocking chair could still ease the pain.
In late February, crystalline light outlines the cypress fronds, shards of ice lose their edge, green points push out of the brown, and I want to run outside like a child who sees a friend at the door.
Dare I trust spring again? The vaccine is here, but three thousand died every day last month. In Los Angeles, funeral homes rent refrigerated trucks to hold all the bodies, and in Maryland, graves can’t be dug fast enough with shovels and backhoes, so they must lay dynamite.
Conspiracies keep felling minds, and the virus keeps morphing into new mutations in South Africa, Britain, and Brazil.
The song of the mourning dove swaying up, up and then down seems to tell me, Cry for all we have endured, for how strong you’ve been.
Let the knots unloose, the rain soak into you. Let the ice thaw, and the sun light up every one of your fronds.
Allow the wind to decide what branches need to fall and which can still point to the sky.
Plant your feet deep in the ground, and let every tendril take up the fertile funeral of last year’s loss.
Like the rain that has seen tragedies and majesties that you will never know, you too must return.
Those choirs of geese making giant arrows in the sky, those woodpeckers drumming, these snowdrops blooming — they are here to lead you out.
Receive, let go, fly. This is what it feels like to be alive.
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.