The Deep Lull Behind Christmas

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It was the afternoon of December 24 and the smell of toasting pecans was mixing with peppermint from the aromatherapy diffuser Virginia had set on the kitchen counter. I was arranging pink and green bon-bons on top of doilies to give away, because anything you do the night before Christmas is blessed with the most special kind of magic. The teens’ Christmas playlists of songs by Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani flooded the house with a cocktail of cheer and longing. And when I put on my coat to deliver the cookies, I detected the perfume of butternut squash roasting in the oven. Sofia was preparing pumpkin ravioli for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner.

 That morning I had crossed off the last gifts on each of the children’s lists. In the wrapping room, I enclosed each one with silvery paper, attached a card, and wrote something to the person who would tug at its ribbon. 

At lunch we had debated the evening activities during this holiday without grandparents — games or caroling or a Christmas show — and although it was contentious, everyone would agree because it was Christmas Eve. After dinner we would sift powdered sugar over the Italian pandoro cake we had warmed in the oven until it was soft and buttery. After the kids were tucked in, I would stay up late to hang the stockings, and then climb in to bed next to my husband, setting my alarm for early the next morning so I could light the tree, make coffee, and warm the cranberry cake before everyone came down the stairs.

The greatest paradox of Christmas is that the heart of it — the giving and receiving of gifts — is the beginning of the end. Mothers prepare for months, children wait all year, and then dawn turns to dusk on December 25 as swiftly as any other day in the relentless march of time.

After all the presents had been unwrapped and the grandparents called, I lay down and felt that familiar sadness come again. Everything had gone so well: everyone got what they wanted, no one was sick, hugs had been plenty. But when the tumbling, light-making gaiety of the holiday no longer held me in its grip, I was freed. I was lost. It’s as if I didn’t remember that night falls, parties end, youth fades. 

When the sun began setting on Christmas Day, I found Virginia painting a self-portrait with her new acrylics and Sofia reading her new book by Madeline Miller. The artichokes needed to be cleaned and the potatoes scrubbed, so Virginia and I worked and talked about star constellations and Rome and the vaccine while I watched Sofia roll out the pasta and make ravioli for the first time. When it was time, I pulled out the roast and placed Sofia’s warm pecan pie at the center of the table. There were more dirty pots and pans, whisks and wooden spoons than you might find in the back room of a small restaurant, but it was better than anything we had made before.

“Christmas is almost over,” Diana said when I tucked her in that night, her eyebrows coming together as if in prayer. “I wish I was still opening the presents,” she said. Anticipation sweeter than getting what you asked for.

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For me the days after Christmas are always sad. It’s a sadness that equals the joy that was held. And a sadness that tells of a dream that was always more than what was real. 

But at the moment when the emptiness seemed to swallow me, I felt a glimmer. Every thing contains its opposite. Every void is an opening. This stillness is the black earth where seeds soften. This is the night where rest comes. This is the ignorance where understanding is born.

Cresting the Hill

We went out for dinner on Saturday night, just us as it is every night, except Virginia put on lipstick, Enrico changed his pants, and I wore earrings. “I like your cheetah dress,” Diana said to Virginia, as she climbed into the car with her sparkly sandals on.

All along Wisconsin toward Georgetown, restaurants had claimed the parking lane with tents and string lights, turf and potted plants, spreading themselves outward for as long as they can, until winter comes. Fire lamps and concrete medians made space for wooden tables and white napkins. Green lattice and plastic flowers tied to metal dividers turned blacktops into parklets.

In the spare restaurant that had once been packed with tables, we were only six, not seven. Our oldest daughter is at college. Next year Virginia will go too. Little by little they will leave. This is the way of the world. 

If I live to be 100, my life has already passed its fullest point. One day big cars, trampolines, and jumbo farm shares will no longer be needed. One day our house will not groan from the weight of bodies climbing all over it. One day there will be no college essays to edit, Instagram accounts to monitor, colors to stitch together in the calendar patchwork. That will go threadbare too. 

I am grateful to have held this fullness. 


After dinner, we drove back home in the dark. A city bus that said Fair Shot lumbered away from the curb and headed past us down the hill.

The wind blew, helping the trees shed their leaves.

At home, I took off my earrings to get ready for sleep. This life of clasping children is waning, but another life is growing. I feel myself spilling out from the center inside. There is no end to this fountain. It always quenches, it always knows.

Photo by Kyle Roxas on Pexels.com

When I climb into bed, my body is tired, my back aches. I feel my bones lightening with invisible catacombs of air. My cheeks sink. Parts of me that were once fertile are now suspected of harboring disease. 

But I know there is nothing that needs to be added to me. I have always had everything I needed.

The rest of my journey will be for emptying what I have collected. Until the day I leave, blind and nameless, through the same blackness from which I came.

How Halloween Was Saved

Please yell ‘trick or treat,’ neighbors said, so we can see you when you pick up the candy we’ve put outside our door. I wore my daughters’s old hamburger costume and pretended I was a slider to accompany a small tiger, a killer clown, a skeleton warrior, Harry Potter, and the Grim Reaper around our neighborhood. After picking up baggies of candy laid out on tables, spread on blankets atop hedges, and taped to front gates, my young companions yelled, “Thank you!” and “Happy Halloween!” and “Have a good night!” to the people they couldn’t see inside.

Over the past month, the listserv in our neighborhood of row houses, brick Colonials, and wooden farmhouses was alive with questions: would we be doing Halloween? How would houses show they were participating? And would there be any trick-or-treaters this year?

The CDC deemed traditional trick-or-treating high-risk and suggested alternative ways to celebrate — hide Halloween treats around your house, have a virtual costume contest, or do a Halloween movie night with people you live with — they offered.

But it was outdoors, I reasoned, and we would wear masks and it didn’t feel right to give up the beloved nighttime romp, so I told neighbors we would be there. One-way trick-or-treating — where people set up stations with individually bagged treats for kids to take — seemed to be the way to go, even though the CDC still considered this moderately risky.

Two days before Halloween, Luke and I ran up to Target in the rain between lunch and his 1:30 class and found him a skeleton warrior costume. Homerooms were compiling 20-second videos of kids to replace the customary costume parade around the elementary school field, and his phantom costume was too small. For her video, Diana put on the fleece costume her grandmother made and recited the suggested script into the camera, “Hi, my name is Diana and I’m a tiger. Happy Halloween!” Room mothers delivered bags with goodies and games to kids’ houses, and in Microsoft Teams parties on Friday, the kids made popsicle stick werewolves, played Kahoot and Bingo, and ate Pringles and Starbursts together.

I love how Halloween wraps up so much and holds it all — both whimsical and dark, it’s about being yourself and being freed from your usual self. It includes everybody no matter your religion, your background, your color. A holiday for all Americans that takes place on the streets, not in private homes, because it is created together.

Before we went out into the night, we placed the 50-pound pumpkins we had carved that morning and lit their orange insides and jagged smiles with a handful of candles, spread sandwich bags stuffed with Tootsie Pops and Skittles across a table on our front walk, and lit a path of moon-and-stars luminaries. We didn’t have to go out long into the neighborhood landscape of graveyard scenes, singing ghosts, silhouetted window cats, and giant spiders to collect pumpkin bucketfuls of Starburst and Whoppers, Twix and Jolly Ranchers.

There weren’t many other trick-or-treaters, but we passed a muscly little Spiderman, a family of squids, a handful of witches and princesses, and a miniature recycling truck man. The richly packed bags of candy added up so quickly, and we had to stop two times in only 45 minutes to unload.

Seeing the kids dump out their candy on the table and start wowing and trading just like they always had made me feel like everything was going to be all right in the world.

“Oooh, I got a long tootsie roll, I love these!”

“Diana’s the richest one.”

“I had to give away all my Snickers, Milky Ways, and Milk Duds, because of my braces.”

“Oh, Crunch! Crunch bars are good.”

“Is that like the tenth one you’ve eaten? Jesus!”

“Mama, another Reese’s! Do you want this one?”

“Let’s organize them like I’m doing the Skittles.”

“Whoa, wait I have four of the ‘White Mystery’ Airheads?”

“Luke, that one house always gives out Yorks.”

“Are Almond Joys actually that good?”

“Three grape Laffy Taffy’s!”

Halloween was saved. Orange string lights had been hung up, candy was lavishly offered, neighbors waved from windows, and kids got to be something ferocious or scary or magical for a night.

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But I missed all the people — the faces I know and those I don’t. The good mood that pervades the air, the way the older generation always wants to see the younger one, the exchange that is made between the sweetness of candy and the sweetness of youth, this renewal of faith — in community, in tradition, in the kindness of strangers.


This year the authorities are saying not to get together for Thanksgiving. In another sign of a world turned upside-down, family celebrations are considered particularly dangerous. Some private schools here have already announced they will be transitioning online after Thanksgiving break because of the peril of people hugging each other. In Europe, where a new set of lockdowns are being enforced in response to a second wave, an infectious disease specialist even suggested postponing Christmas until next summer.

It’s hard to understand whether this virus is a deadly plague or just a new flu and maybe it’s both, but sometimes I just want to say, Are we sure it’s this big of a deal? But then I realize I can say this because I’m healthy and relatively young, and I think it won’t happen to me.

So we continue, wearing our masks, staying home, schooling in bedrooms, staying away from loved ones, meeting people over the strange and wondrous technology that makes it seem like we are not actually that far away.

This pandemic asks us to unite in sacrifice. In this life, there are not many chances to act for the whole, to be part of a grand solution. It’s not easy to hold our breath, to constrain our drives and dreams. And yet it is an honor to be included in a group that does for its members. Isn’t this the longing at the heart of our lonely striving? To feel part of something massive and wonderful? We are. It’s called the human race.

Suspended Somewhere In-Between

We couldn’t leave for our picnic until Mark was done with his Italian class on Zoom, but it was almost dark and Luke was still unpacking the groceries, a job he had been assigned an hour ago.

“I’ll give you 100 niceness coins and a ‘play with me’ ticket if you help me, Diana,” he said, a currency of dubious exchange value given that the chore was partly earned by being mean to her. When I was tossing the last items into the picnic bag, he was still pausing to unscrew the top of the paprika bottle, removing with scissors the plastic wrap around the tub of caramel chocolates, and examining the contents of a free sample bag.

It was Tuesday night and Virginia was working late at the juice bar, my husband doesn’t get home until 9:30, and Sofia is having picnics of her own on her college green, so it seemed like a good time to break out of the domestic container.

Just as we were closing the door, Luke slid the last box of cereal on the shelf, grabbed his Nike’s and jammed his feet into them on the porch. Mark ran to get a soccer ball, and we walked over tree roots through the edge of Maxine’s yard to Fort Reno Park, the highest point in D.C. and once a Civil War fort and a freed-slave settlement before it was razed to make way for lots of grass.

The boys wanted to hang out on the soccer field, but I convinced them to climb up to the high point next to the chain link fence with the signs that say No Trespassing U.S. Govt. Property. As we got to the top, I could tell we hadn’t missed the sunset. In fact, we had probably caught the best part.

Just above the tangled lights and chunky buildings of downtown Arlington, a slash of foggy red hung over the horizon line, diluting up into orange and yellow, green and turquoise, and finally a periwinkle blue that washed over the rest of the sky.

This was dinner theater, and before the show was over, I began tossing out grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. Steam escaped when we opened them, but the butter-fried bread was still crispy and the melted cheese had made the insides spongy.

A high school running group that had been doing calisthenics on the ridge below seemed to be dispersing. It was so dark on the hill we could only make out people dressed in white. A few pairs of teens sat along the fence, clouds of marijuana occasionally drifting towards us —nothing like the party that took place here every night in summer when the hill was colonized by young people, someone always bringing fireworks.

Behind the fence guarding a brick water tower and a cluster of buildings reputed to belong to the C.I.A., a flying thing swooped back and forth like a small plane doing exercises. “Look, a bat!” I said. After a brief exchange over whether it was a bird, it was agreed by all that it was indeed a bat. There is something different about the way they flap their wings, their flight path, they way you only see them at night.

The kids kept exclaiming and saying, “There’s another one!” as a handful of bats seemed to be surveying the sunset-viewing ridge.

We used to come here in March and April when schools closed and the virus was spreading like a laser through the country. We thought it was going to be a war-like experience as it was for my husband’s family in northern Italy. But here hospitals were never overwhelmed, and bodies were not collected in military trucks.

Ours was more of a slow death. The dying of a way of life, of buildings, institutions, stations, as if this were a game of Monopoly and an invisible player was winning, taking all the properties, hotels, and stores. A player who won’t let you have a turn, who keeps going around the board, collecting its pay, passing ‘Go’ over and over, methodically taking, emptying, clearing.

More than seven months later and no one has been able to stop its winning streak, even though it has slowed and now it wins quietly. Its rounds have expanded, like a mathematical roulette, making circles and eclipses that spin off into other territories, leveling, silencing. Now in Europe a spike of cases higher than the first is triggering a new set of curfews and lockdowns.

But it hasn’t taken this park. It hasn’t taken this sunset, this life, this family, these teens laughing and cussing when the bats swing close. The bats flutter like moths, they travel like messengers. What are they looking for — food, companionship, blood?


They say the coronavirus may have been passed to humans by bats. Bats pass diseases easily among their communities, sometimes numbering in the millions, because they are so highly mobile and social. 

“I can see through their wings,” Mark says, as we look up and watch them fly back and forth right above us, just as magical as the sunset. Sometimes I can see their ears against the blue-black sky.

“I wish it would stop right here,” Diana says, pointing to the end of our picnic blanket, “because I want to see what it looks like.”

I want to see it upside down, its webbed wings, its claws, its gargoyle face, its shape-shifting, its way of transforming into a creature both mammal and bird, charming and grotesque, of land and of air.


The man in the fancy pen store downtown watches as I try out rollerball pens by Cross and Faber-Castell that I can buy with the gift card my husband gave me last Christmas. I had to make an appointment to be here, and although I am the only one in the store, he is rushing around as if there wasn’t a minute to spare.

I comment about how one pen writes thickly and he says, “You press down hard,” the first time anyone has told me this, which would explain the callus I’ve had on my middle finger since I learned to write. I always thought it was ugly, but now I might see it as a pillow for my pen, the type of pillow that would carry a ring before the vows. Or a pillow that conveys a sword for knighting, a pillow to rest your head in the late afternoon in a private garden in Scotland.

Visiting the pen store was a chance to break out of the patted-down trail of my everyday life, the treads of our heart-pine stairsteps, the unsoiled sidewalks of our neighborhood. It was June when I was last down here for the thronging marches for racial justice, and with only 11 days until the election, I wanted to hear the voices of America, to see new metamorphoses, to stand in a place where the winds are blowing from all directions.

With my new black and gold Waterman pen in a little shopping bag, I walk down F Street by the Warner Theater and the National Press Club. The streets are so barren it’s like a movie where something has gone wrong and dawn is just breaking. I see the president’s name emblazoned on a grand hotel just a few blocks away from the White House and for the first time it seems odd. Lafayette Square, the core of the unrest in June, is sealed up with tall black fencing, and signs that protesters once punched in the air are now stuck there. A couple of police officers stand chatting on bikes, and a small group of tourists look like they are waiting for a double-decker bus.

Through a black diamond in the fence, I try to find the White House. It’s so far away now that I can barely make out the white columns beyond the statue of the rearing horse. Even the portion of 16th Street which has been emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ is completely empty. A solo guy with purple hair sits on a concrete barrier looking at nothing in particular.

I know I’ve missed something. I can tell by the pubs and churches boarded up with murals of Desmond Tutu and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It feels like the moment between pulling in a breath and letting it out. The yogis say that this time, between one breath and another, is when you can feel your soul.


We went back to the hill for a picnic on Thursday. It was so warm the kids wore shorts. Maybe it would be the last time we could come. The red of the sunset was muddled with cloud dust. Wispy clouds were painted all over the sky like a calligraphy written backwards. An explanation someone else could read. A message that would be covered by night and never seen again.

“Let’s lie down and look at the stars,” Diana says. The damp ground smells of mildew and salt. “The stars look so… so… What does meditation do?”

“You mean relaxing?” I asked.

“Yeah, relaxing but something different too,” she says. “Something else,” and she seems to still be searching for the words. I wonder if it’s something about their steadiness, their stillness.

“They feel like the sunset and the crickets and the ‘ee ee!’” she says, mimicking the distant sound of Mark and Luke playing farther down the hill, pretending to be monkeys.

“I hope a bat lands on us and talks to us,” Diana says, “and then lies down to see the stars with us and then we pet him.”

Bats are considered liminal beings. They occupy the space between two states. Mammalia and Reptilia. Fur and flight.

“I don’t hope it because I know it won’t happen, but I… I…” she says, again searching for the words.

In China bats are associated with happiness, joy, and good fortune. Here they make us think of darkness, witchcraft, and death. Everything is sacred.

“Dream. Do you dream it?” I ask.

To fly unnoticed in the night. To be in the nowhere space between sleep and wakefulness. Night and day. Between the angels and the beasts. A place of no limits. 

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.

In the Back Seat Again

September 19, 2020. How many times I wrote those numbers this weekend, signing my name on snowy sheets of paper and crystalline e-documents. Buying a new car for the first time made me feel both like a grown-up and a child.

I remember how our car looked with the tree on its back, leaves everywhere, glass on the blacktop. It had been waiting there to take us home. All the other cars got driven away that afternoon, and then even we — after taking our tissue boxes and maps and DVDs — left it there to get picked over for parts. I wish I had said good-bye.

“Let’s see — you had a Honda Pilot…” the guy at the rental agency said a few days later as he looked at his computer. “The only thing we have left with 8 seats is a minivan. I’m sorry — with Labor Day coming up, we’re all booked. But I’ll try to upgrade you on Tuesday.”

When Virginia, 16, climbed into the rental minivan in a sequined see-through dress and string bikini, she said, “Why don’t we just get this one?” 

“Yeah, there’s so much space!” Mark, 12, said climbing in and playing with the sliding doors. 

“Whoa, these seats are so comfortable,” said Luke, 10, from the back, sitting with his arms spread over the seatbacks as if it were a sofa. “The seats in our old car were so hard!” he said, and I thought of all the road trips we’d taken in that hard-seated but cool car.

“Sometimes it’s better to look good than to feel good,” I used to say when someone asked why I was wearing 4-inch heels to go to dancing all night, both defending and acknowledging the ridiculousness of my choices. That was 25 years ago — have I come very far?

In the days that we waited for the insurance company, I decided black was my minivan gateway color. Black, the color of absence, the shade of night. 

Lately I have had the urge to disappear. The same urge I had in high school and college that drew me to the chemical compounds in alcohol. I don’t let myself drink anymore, because I saw how I wanted to dissolve, one molecule at a time, detaching from myself until I had tunneled so far into the darkness that no one knew me, not even me.

I found a black 2016 Toyota Sienna on Cars.com at an auto mall in Chantilly. It had 85,000 miles on it, but the price was right and there was a DVD player for the kids.

The first time I saw a TV playing in a car, it was nighttime and a neighboring car on the highway slowly floated past us, even though we were all going 60 miles per hour. Inside there was a lighted slab full of moving pictures. It looked like candy being spun at a fair. 

The next time we needed a car, we got one with a TV that opened from the ceiling. It made me feel like a child at Christmas to be with my family cradled in a car at night listening to Burl Ives telling the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as we flew over the hills, knowing good things were to come.

On Thursday, I left four kids at home with their online writing workshops and U.S. Government classes to check out the used car. As I test-drove it up and down Pleasant Valley Road, I became aware of an odor that made my stomach queasy, and I thought about the CarFax report, the high mileage, and the Jersey City owner, picturing an Uber driver in Manhattan carting around toddlers wielding cups of milk, and bachelorette parties like the ones I was once a part of where someone always threw up in the back seat.

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This is partly how we ended up inside the new car showroom of a Honda dealership. Red, white, and blue balloons hung in bunches from the ceiling over a handful of cars whose coats looked like freshly painted nail polish. Songs from the ‘80s — You Give Love a Bad Name, Glory of Love, and Every Rose Has its Thorn — played over the sound system hour after hour without a truce as we sat at faux wood desks, waiting for salesmen and credit checks and staring out at a cloudless sky over Lee Highway.

“This is my dream car,” Luke said, when we took the 2020 Odyssey for a spin around Cherrydale, and he discovered the headphones stowed in a fancy compartment and how the back row could recline like a first-class seat on a 747. Back at the dealership we let the kids have choco-milk from the coffee machine while we talked with salesmen about incentives and warranties and interest rates for this car from 2020, a year that has been so destructive, so full of chaos and pain.

It will be a souvenir from the year of broken ties and broken promises, faces disappearing and re-constituting pixel by pixel. A year of disillusion and glimmering hope, the kind that shines through the cracks, the kind you don’t see when the day is bright and everyone is full. 

A second cup of choco-milk spilled during a scuffle over the Boogie board, so I sent the kids outside. The longer we sat in that glass office, the more the numbers mounted, and when I stopped and looked up, I felt like I’d climbed too high on a rock face. In one of the pauses when my husband and I wondered if we should just walk away even though we had already spent almost 5 hours there, little Diana said in her prairie dog voice, “Let’s get the car.”

I thought buying a new car would be exciting, I thought I would feel happy. That would come days later when the car was touched up and ready to drive home. When Mark would play my favorite songs ‘kind-of softly’ as we drove out of Arlington, when Luke would tell me that the rear screen says ‘how long ’til we get there,’ when the sun was setting and the world was beautiful and I pulled into the driveway without even scratching our brand-new car.

But I couldn’t shrug off the lingering feeling of myself as a child. Recognizing that I am both helpless against some events and liable for others to great responsibility. A deep setting in of both weighty duty and profound ignorance.

How can I tell the way things will turn out, how long this will last, if we’ve done the right thing? It’s impossible, and yet sometimes you find yourself picking up a pen, signing your name, and beginning again.

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.”

Impermanence

A giant tree limb fell on our car yesterday. The car’s back looked like it was broken: roof crushed, rear end bent, tires kneeling to the ground. Black glass was spattered everywhere. 

It didn’t look like I’d ever drive it again.

That night Diana asked if she could give me a face massage and a hand massage and a foot massage after I tucked her in. She touched my eyelids and my eyebrows, pressed her tiny finger pads into my forehead, along my cheeks, the whole length of my lips. Everywhere she touched, a prickly metallic layer under my skin melted away.

It’s just a car, I had said when we saw it there. We have insurance, shielded as we are from the buffeting winds of misfortune by our position, our color, our nest egg.

Diana asked if she could hum when she was massaging my hands, and “Is it okay if it’s just a made-up song?” She stroked the tendons on the backs of my hands, squeezed the tips, intertwined her fingers in mine and wiggled the forgotten crooks. She squeezed the fleshy parts — the heel, the ball — parts of a body that work without being acknowledged.

It’s just a car, but it was the car that Sofia and I had just driven to her first semester at college. The car that had taken us on 5 Thanksgiving trips when all the kids were living at home, summer visits to the grandparents, Christmas pilgrimages, missions to Dutch Wonderland.

Diana takes my feet. Having my feet touched has always felt like being in the hands of Jesus. It touches someplace deeper, more sensitive, a place both loving and needy.

We were at the pool when the limb broke. I had wanted to give the kids something more than riding bikes around the block, and it would be closing soon. The rains come almost every day now, the cone flowers have all turned black, and every last day lily has bloomed.

Something is dying in me too: a hope, a brightness. An opening is closing. When will I be able to bear this? When will I know that this is what happens when something else needs to be born?

“Why does it feel so good to be touched?” Diana asks. We are part of a whole, I say, and touching makes us feel less separate. Touching someone else is like touching our own selves.

The broken car, schools closing, summer waning, blossoms fading — they are all here to show me, again, that nothing lasts. And everything is special.

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Diana asks if I could give her a face massage. I run the pads of my thumbs over her plump cheeks, around the backs of her ears, and over her scalp and behind her neck.

There’s something different about this type of touch. Unlike a hug or a kiss, it does not need to do the work of communicating. It conducts something that we can’t control, that we don’t need to control, that will flow whether we do anything or not. Touch recognizes what is in each of us and allows it, unfettered.

I say to myself that I’m okay with this loneliness, this quiet, solitary life. But the tension builds, the silent grief, the continual battering of what used to be, the howling of what needs to die but won’t. And the pain sits there in a parking lot, keys hidden under the mat, until a tow truck comes to take it away.

The last time I saw the car, an orange caterpillar was inching up the curve of the wheel. I wonder if it felt lost, or if it knew it was just finding another way.

On Dropping Our First Child Off at College

Part I

I had never been to the college our daughter had chosen. Sofia had visited Kenyon with my parents, and I knew that my grandfather and uncle had gone there, but my April visit was canceled due to the outbreak. So when it was time to go on August 26, I wasn’t sure where she was leading me.

The route we normally take to Ohio got us only halfway, then we had to turn north toward Uniontown. We climbed the jagged mountains of Pennsylvania past historic battlefields, pre-colonial stone houses, and painted images of young George Washington in his ruffles and blue velvet, and I felt the same rush of awe and drama that I did when I went to college in New England. The East, with its founding history, plaques and pedigree, felt majestic and weighty. I instead felt like any girl from the cornfields of flyover country.

Kenyon told kids to pack light in case they had to move to a quarantine dorm, so the car was only half-full: a full-length mirror, a fan and a lamp, an area rug and a duffle bag of clothes, plus some photos to decorate the double Sofia would occupy by herself on a campus populated with only freshmen and sophomores.

When I went away to college, the kids I met who grew up in cities along the coast were worldly and impressive. It was easy for me to go from a silent admiration of Manhattan, Boston, Exeter or Choate to a full summation of the associated person as intelligent, powerful, even heroic.

As Sofia and I drove over the National Turnpike, American flags flapped around historic inns and famous taverns and I pictured revolutionaries in ragtag uniforms 300 years ago mapping attacks against the British. On this day, much of the red, white, and blue was supplied by yard signs and flags emblazoned with “Trump-Pence 2020.”

The problem with sanctifying people is that everything else becomes profane. My idols shone so brightly there was no choice for me but to be dull. Destined to chase after them, waiting for benediction.

After Sofia and I crossed the Ohio River into my home state, I felt the let-down of the Shoe Carnival strip mall where we stopped to get coffee. The freeway we took, bland and monument-less, was wet from a storm, but I couldn’t help notice how the water streaming over the concrete shimmered like platinum in the late afternoon sun.

An hour later we would slow down at a college campus of Gothic Revival sandstone that tapered into a row of clapboard markets, Victorian houses converted into academic departments, and a post office with a weathervane cupola.

But before that — when we first bumped onto a 2-lane country road and I knew we were getting close — I rolled down the windows. The air smelled like watermelon and hay, wet fields and crickets. The road tossed us up then held us tight, like a swing at the elementary school playground. We drove past velvety blue soybean fields and tin roof silos, barns taken back into the earth by vines and houses with their paint all rained off, piles of wild honeysuckle and fences fashioned of hay rolls.

Here was the Ohio countryside I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18. It was so beautiful, in the quiet way that home is. Something I wouldn’t have recognized back then, even if it were right in the mirror in front of me.

Part II

On a day that started with covid self-testing in an athletic center but had no departure deadline, I didn’t know how long to stay. Sofia didn’t seem to need me to leave — except for when I walked too slow or the time I said “micr-o-wave.” There were so many things to do: hang up mirrors and smooth on sheets, unwrap new duvets and take ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. I wanted to buy her everything that was missing — a phone charger, a box of tissues, the books she hadn’t ordered yet — as if currency would cease to exist when I left. 

Then her Reebok’s came unglued, the only warm shoes she had brought, and there was still time after eating General Tso’s tofu from the dining hall on a secluded spot on the lawn to drive out to Lowe’s for contact cement (and another fan for her room). 

When that too was assembled, and I could see that the new lightbulbs made her room a little cozier in the darkening evening, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll get going now.” 

She gave me a long, long hug, and said, “Thank you so much for helping me get everything all set up.” She insisted on walking me to the car and, in that moment I became unsure of who was leaving who.

As I drove away toward the hotel, shirred clouds of peach and rose and amber glowed against a sea blue sky. It felt like traveling inside a conch shell. Was launching an 18-year-old like spiraling deeper into life or opening outward?

I thought about how delicate she seemed: her slight frame, her porcelain skin, her detailed and careful ways. I wanted to cradle her and deliver her to the next person who would take care of her. But as she had watched me drive away, she was calm, contained. She didn’t look like she was searching for idols.

It was a quiet freedom that she was getting, a sober one. Not the wild one of my college days when I expected a pinnacle, lashing out against life if it didn’t deliver. It was a freedom that we were aware could be taken away at any point. I had the feeling that she would take every day gently in her hands.

I tried to take pictures of the sunset outside the hotel, but the camera only captured the telephone poles and the taillights of a car driving away. The sun went down and the fountain kept tinkling and pickup trucks kept rumbling around the square as if nothing had happened that night.

Part III

On the drive home, sadness did not come in a flooded rush. It was more like a thread, a thread that had to stretch so far it would always be tight.

Like a spider’s silk, it is only visible in certain lights, when it shines like a sliver blade. You feel it when you’re trying to go somewhere and you get all tangled up. But even if no one else senses it or sees it, I know it is there. It is always there.

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.