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.