Coronavirus Reckoning – 5 Months In

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.

Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock

Birthdays Grow Like Bubbles When You’re Little

“Everything is happening good 
before my birthday!”
said my 6-year-old daughter.

”I learned how to 
blow bubbles with gum,

“Frankie went on me 
when I whispered into here,”
pointing to the cat’s ribs,
“‘Please go on my lap, Frankie’ 
and he did!

“And my tooth fell out —
and now I have one grown-up tooth
and 3 wiggly teeth — 
and only 2 days ’til my birthday!” 

And today, the day she turned 7,
she put on a blue party dress
with yellow flowers and a big
ribbon in her hair, and it was
raining, so her friend wore a mask,
and they ate pizza in an empty restaurant.

“I have to wait ’til Saturday so
my dad can see me open
my presents,” she told her aunt
on the phone, and after dinner
she shared the remains of
her Birthday Cake gelato
with her brothers and they took turns
taking spoonfuls until it was
all gone.

Praise the Interstate Rest Area

To get across Maryland, West Virginia, half of Ohio, and the Allegheny Mountains in 7 hours, all that is needed is to depress a pedal on a machine with flying wheels. You don’t even have to press it that hard to go 70, 80 miles per hour. To walk over that land, it would take more than two weeks, two weeks of hiking and laying your head down in a different place each night.

It took us 1/3 of a day to disappear from a hilltop in southern Ohio where a brunch was shared with grandparents under a locust tree, and reappear at a stucco house in an Eastern seaboard city where yards are arranged in checkerboard squares. 

There was just a skin of light left when pulled into the driveway, enough to see that the zinnias had grown taller than Diana in the week that we were gone.

“What’s this?” Sofia said when she pulled out a scraggly weed at the top of the cooler packed with milk and butter, green peppers and tomatoes from my mother’s garden.

When you’re flying in a spinning machine because you want to get home before dark, you only touch your feet to the ground but once or twice. 

The weed looked like a shooting star firework, its skinny seed pods shooting off the stalk, each with a single white floret at the tip. The type of flower that grows in the shade.

At the rest area off I-79 near Clarksburg, West Virginia, the kids sat around a cement picnic table by the bathrooms sharing M&Ms and an Orange Crush from the vending machines. No one wanted to relocate their snack break to the shade of trees at the top of the hill.

I left my shoes in the grass by the car and walked up to the band of shade. But instead of the grass ending, the trees simply parted, the grass unrolled up the hill, and soon I found myself in a clearing in the middle of a small wood. Some kind soul had swirled a mower up here. This place was meant to be discovered.

I could no longer hear the whining of trucks over the freeway. Instead the steady ring of crickets. Sunlight — bossy and yellow in the outside world — sifted through the trees and came out blue and hazy, filtered with drifting bits.

A mowed path led further into the woods. The ground felt spongy and cool on my bare feet, and I bent down and saw that it was not moss but a blanket of miniature fern fronds. The smell of damp things — creeks, dragonflies, spores. A blue and black butterfly danced up and around the path.

Of the weird things in the cooler, I told Sofia, “Oh, those are my artifacts.” But the shooting star flower, the wild daisy, and the purple thistle I had tucked in there were now twisted and black like things left over after a fire.

Once we got the kids in bed, cat fed, food put away, and some clothes unpacked, I had to lie down. It wasn’t that late and I felt I hadn’t done much of anything, but all the cells in my body were still tumbling and rolling over like those tires, and I needed to stop so that everything could come to rest.

It’s not natural to move a human body so far in a day. It seems so ordinary, so inexpensive, to get from there to here with only a map and a tankful of gas. But at that velocity, a single glance away from the road, a fumble with the air conditioning dial, or a slight bump of the wheel, and we could have all been killed.

“Naturalized Area,” I noticed a sign said after I wandered back down toward the picnic table and parking lot and looked back up at that secret garden.

I guess when you let things be natural, they get magical like that — they smell like dew, they turn sunlight the color of water, they carpet paths with fern moss, they bring striped bees and Monarch butterflies to the rose velvet tassels of Joe-Pye weeds.

Maria T Hoffman/Shutterstock

Thank you God for rest areas. Those modest harbors where you don’t have to buy anything to use the bathroom or wash your hands. Where you can sail off the American interstate highway — birther of chain restaurants and suspected killer of small towns, mother of quick trips home and enabler of packages delivered in a day — and fill up on enough free grass and trees to get you home, and your feet back on the ground.

Letting It Be

My daughters are bingeing on ‘Game of Thrones’ on the screened-in porch, trying to finish the entire 8 seasons before Sofia goes off to college. Mark, Luke, and Diana are playing badminton in the dwindling August twilight. 

After dinner we rode bikes down to the convenience store on Route 50 to buy a gallon of milk. I strapped the last gallon they had to the back of my bike and rode home with Juicy Drop Pops and Reeses cups in a Par Mar Stores bag hanging from the handlebars.

The kids bat at the birdie with rackets too long for them on a span of grass a thousand times larger than the patch of weeds behind our house in D.C., and I want them to play as long as they can, to soak up this freedom until they’re full, because in a few days, they’ll be back to a city playground, and school will start on a computer screen, and for a minute I worry that they don’t have enough.

Somewhere beyond the pasture, a conch-shell sun lights up a mass of clouds that plods across the sky like an ocean liner. When I stay right here where I am, in this moment, in this Ohio countryside, there is no problem. I am not in pain. No one is mad at me, I am not late, I am not wrong. There is nothing I am supposed to do, nowhere I need to go.

How long can I stay here, encapsulated in this moment, like an unbroken bubble, a piece of taffy that stretches and stretches, a smooth highway that never ends, before my mind breaks off and goes somewhere else? The explosion in Beirut, the upcoming election, the email with no response, the virus spiking in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia —

If I begin spinning intricate adult coloring books in my mind, who is inhabiting the life that is already colored in right here?

From my armchair inside the cottage, I hear crickets making long dashes in chirring morse code. The children are now meowing in the basement pretending to be adopted kittens who don’t know how to brush their teeth. The clouds have made a blue surfboard and a shaving cream spume against a sky of cotton candy and butter. The trees are navy green silhouettes and the black fences are disappearing into the fuzzy green pasture.

This stillness I feel when I pay attention to my life right now — this awareness, this in-ness — is where answers will come from. I look elsewhere, but if I would just be, the wisdom, the knowing, the right thing would come to me. 

‘Chock, chock’ goes the clock on the wall. The shadow under my 12-year-old’s chin, the freckle there, the way my 10-year-old looks into my eyes when I really see him. The 6-year-old sucking her thumb, wet hair on the pillow, saying she is grateful for ping-pong.

When I am inserted into this life, I am connected with everything that is here and the knowing that pervades it all. The cicadas who know what year to crawl out of the ground and how to call a mate, the grass that knows when to start growing — the moon how to orbit the earth, the dog where to give birth, the tomato seed how to make another tomato, the horse how to die. 

Photo by Amy Suardi

There’s a place on every staircase where the notes of the lullaby amplify and round and deepen. I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with ‘du-du-du’s instead of words as I stand on the stairs up from the children’s darkened room, and I wonder what they look like in their beds. Are they sad, are they disappointed, have I done enough?

If I could live my life one full-bodied moment to the next, I wouldn’t need to worry about what’s going to happen, to practice what to say, fuss over what I’ve messed up. If I weren’t interrupting life all the time, trying to rearrange it, I would take each challenge as it came.

If there were more escapes like this one in the country, more eddies in the river of life, where I could sleep when I feel tired, be alone when I need space, let sadness rest in me when it comes. If I could shut off the wind turbine so all my thoughts would flutter to the ground and I could see for a while.

Because in this clearness, I know that I wouldn’t need to worry so much. I wouldn’t need to try so hard. In this stillness, I would know when to cut, when to mend, when to run, when to embrace, when to apologize, when to be silent, when to act, and when to let it be.


Today I dropped off my 18-year-old daughter Sofia and three friends at a cabin in the woods. They had been planning this trip for months. Which way to divide up the cooking and buy the groceries, how they would get tested twice and quarantine for two weeks before (and some for two weeks after), who could drive and who had a car or a brother with a license, if they would bring bikes or charcoal, jugs of water or a filter, and who would bring the sunscreen, the bug spray, and the fire starter.

They played oldies from 2015 during the drive into the Shenandoah mountains, and bounced in their seats and laughed, the conversation always tripping along with the energy of an adventure beginning.

“I’ve been doing hella driving since I got my learner’s.”

“I had to do a U-turn in front of a sno-cone truck!”

“28 out of 30. I got the one wrong about how to pass a streetcar.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a streetcar.”

When we exited onto a two-lane ribbony country road, it started raining and they checked the weather on their phones, and it came down so hard all the colors washed into white, and we drove through farms clinging to the slopes and under a freight train standing still on a ridge above us, and then we turned onto a one-lane gravel road, then a muddy drive, and when we got to the steepest part, we thought the car wouldn’t make it.

“Dada sad, but a little glad,” my husband had said when he hugged Sofia goodbye before she left the house, and as we backed out, he stood in the street to make sure no one was coming. I had ordered groceries that morning, but when I deleted the frozen fruit Sofia wouldn’t be needing for her morning smoothies, I felt like I was deleting her from my life.

She wouldn’t be coming down in her yoga clothes every morning, hair braided down the back. She wouldn’t be making her weekly dinners with yogurt dill sauces or her roasted summer vegetables. We wouldn’t do driving practice on Tuesday afternoon, and she wouldn’t be there to remind Luke to put his napkin on his lap, or help Mark with his summer math homework, or ask the kids so I don’t have to, “Why aren’t you in quiet time?”

“Is that everything?” I call back to the girls who are now checking out the cabin bedrooms and the valley view from the hot tub deck, as I look into the empty car, and then I remember the firewood in the secret trunk compartment. I set the wood down next to the little wood stove and start trying to figure out how it works, and I realize I have already done too much. 

Sofia gives me a big hug, and she is happier than she has been in a long time, and I walk through the fiberglass door with the beveled glass window and close it, leaving me on the other side, and I get into the car and tell Google Maps to take me home.

She will not be home for dinner tonight, but she will also not be on that living room couch watching YouTube videos — she will be so far from her family that she will feel herself expanding, she will fill a space open and free, not criss-crossed by expectations and demands, underground hopes and invisible canopies. She will feel the chemistry of friendships alchemizing, conversations that go on for 48 hours, figuring out how she likes to do things, how she likes to run a house, set a table, organize her day, follow her heart.

As I wind down the mountain, the sun is coming back out and steam rises off the pavement. I drive past poultry farms and grazing cows and junk yards with piles of tires in front, and the road curves in and up, down and around, like a hammock swinging.

And then through a break in the trees, I see that freight train moving across a high trestle between two peaks, and I start humming that country gospel song I don’t know why I love, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” The train must have stopped in the downpour, but it’s moving now. Black tank cars, yellow boxcars, well cars stacked with shipping containers, graffiti decorating each one, including the word “HOME” spray painted in all caps.

The road winds around gasps of mist hanging beside the mountains, past the Skyline Caverns with its rainbow waterfall and enchanted dragon, and then there it is again churning along the tracks on a ridge, and I want to stay there and hear the steel rolling over steel, watch the cars clicking by one by one over the rails, being pulled along, simply holding what they were given, because somewhere ahead an engineer has his hand on the throttle, watching the curves, the fills, and tunnels.

When I get home, I send pictures of the girls and the cabin to the other moms and I think that I might not hear from my daughter for five days. And this is practice for a real leaving. A leaving she has been preparing for her whole life. An uncoupling. And I will feel the sudden loss of the weight behind me, like a railcar being unhitched from another after a long journey, and not being able to look back to see where the other is headed.

The Kiss Will Stay

When I tuck in my six-year-old daughter tonight, she says she’s grateful for ice cream.  Then she takes my palm and, with her eyes closed tight, kisses it and says, “Even if you wash this hand, the kiss will stay.”

I had been feeling sad that afternoon. And mad at myself for feeling sad. I should be over this. I should be getting better. 

I took a walk by myself through the cold damp, taking the alleys, the secret ways of the neighborhood: broken gates swinging open, moss growing on tree roots, window sills rotting.

Fellow walkers stayed so far away, out of kindness or fear, that our eyes couldn’t meet.

Yesterday my 16-year-old daughter Virginia painted her room frosty pink over the Dalila yellow she had chosen when she was 10, and placed purses and sexy clothes on the shelves which used to hold Keira Cass novels and encyclopedias of Greek mythology. 

I find the turquoise leather Holy Bible that my aunt gave her and its onion-skin pages remind me of my grandmother, who would underline passages with a ballpoint pen and a ruler, passages that I didn’t understand but that seemed mysterious and important. 

I find the poem “A Time for Everything” in Ecclesiastes on page 841. It says that everything is supposed to be this way: there is a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to be born and a time to die.

In my bedroom after my walk, I can hear Virginia chopping broccoli downstairs, playing Whitesnake songs I listened to when I was young and new Dope Boy ones I don’t understand. My children are becoming adults. I am getting older too.

I thought this life was going to be safe. I have not been a refugee, a revolutionary, a migrant. A minority, a wounded soldier, or a widow. I have been spared the trials of being hungry, poor, or homeless. It has been a stable existence, rocked only by dramas of my own creation.

But all our scientific advances and smart phones and futures trading were not enough to save us from this plague.

When I tuck my 9-year-old son Luke into bed, I sing him “Amazing Grace,” as I have done since he was an infant with a silky-border blanket. I touch his slight, smooth arms and know they will be bigger than mine one day. He doesn’t think his lullaby is as special as the one I sing to his sister, “You are My Sunshine.” What is a wretch, he asks, and how can you see if you were blind? 

But this song gets to the heart, the opposites bundled up inextricably into this one big life. Yet I keep insisting on strength without getting hurt, rest without feeling exhausted, understanding without confusion, courage without fear. Where tyranny was missing, I have created my own oppression of easy smiles, bouncy optimism, and relentless self-improvement.

I lie in my bed after the children are asleep, the older ones quiet on their screens. The cat who disrupts my slumber too early every morning rests his purring face into the curve of my hand.

The kiss is what stays. I feel it as she sleeps and I am still. It’s something strong yet untouchable, like love. I want to hang onto the sunshine, push away the storms. But there’s something that infuses and encircles it all. And the only way to hold onto it is to somehow let go.

Trading Potty Words for Silver

The word diarrhea has been said about 13 times so far today and no one is sick. With kids home from school and all their time spent together, the number of points they collect for saying gross things, making potty sounds, and being mean to each other is surging. Our house has become a potty-word-slinging, insult-hurling hot spot.

When we moved to New York City 10 years ago, we were so proud that we could take our daughters Sofia and Virginia, who were 5 and 7 at the time, to places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, institutions that would surely instill a worldly sophistication. We soon realized that the Met, and especially the Greek and Roman statue room, would not be a regular cultural destination due to its extensive collection of butts and penises.

This week alone Luke has earned points equal to 12 jobs, Mark 4, and Diana 3, and I’m running out of chores to give them and the will to enforce it all. I feel like a shipwrecked captain on a deserted island, slowly losing control over her crew.

It’s Saturday morning, and when the usual pillow-fighting, furniture-rocking, and ear-splitting screaming starts after breakfast, I am unable to get the kids outside, so I tell them they have to start doing jobs, like emptying these two dishwashers for example. Then Luke, 9, says, “No, I’m going to polish silver!”

We have a collection of silver-plated serving dishes from my grandmother and thrift shops, which are not valuable but I like to display their old-world beauty on our hutch and occasionally use them to serve fruit salad or dinner rolls. My mom would be happier if we would polish them, but I think their bronzy patina of neglect has an air of faded elegance, and who has the time anyway?

Luke gets the stool and reaches up to get one of the tawny bowls, and I start spreading the table with newspaper. “I want to polish silver too!” Diana, 6, says, climbing up on the hutch and trying to grab another serving dish. 

Earlier this week we had taken an outing to the hardware store, one of the only stores open now, to get more polish and Luke suggested we get two tubs. “I’m going to be doing a lot of polishing,” he said, recognizing perhaps his penchant for potty words and his attraction to this method of penitence.

Mark, 12, says, “That’s not fair that he gets to do all the fun jobs!” and soon three polishers are at the table rubbing silver platters with pinky-gray cream, running over to the sink to rinse them off, and calling, “Whoa, Mama, look!”

We look into these once brown and cloudy platters and see a surface so bright and clear it’s like a mirror miraculously appearing out of a murky pond in the dark woods.

Virginia, 16, who is sitting on the couch going over the list of supplies she’ll need to paint her walls Middleton Pink, comments, “That’s the way they really look?”

After lunch Luke has to do half of Mark’s vacuuming job because he was playing with Legos in his pajamas when it was his turn to set the table. Enrico has started to help Diana with her Italian homework, and as Luke pushes the sweeper wand back and forth over the tiles, he sings diarrea in Italian over and over to the tune of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”

I let the song wash over me and don’t even consider doing anything except going upstairs for a nap, when I hear the sound of reinforcements arriving. Sofia, 18, that former Metropolitan butt connoisseur, gets up from the living room couch and walks toward the chart with a pen like a dart, yelling, “Luke, do you want to be shining silver your whole life?” 

She adds another tally mark next to his name, and I think, maybe I won’t be carried off by a band of savages. Or maybe I will, but we’ll dine together on the finest silver.

No Training Wheels

Diana learned to ride a bike today. She wavered and swerved on the sidewalk in front of our house, able to pedal a tiny bit more each time before putting her feet on the ground. Her face lit up and she said, “It’s like swimming!” and I remembered how she used to celebrate every doggy-paddle float with a “Look, Mama!”

By lunchtime, she was teetering across the whole block.

Just a couple of days ago, I found her brothers hunched over the blue bike she got for Christmas when she was 4, training wheels and wrenches lying on the ground.

“We’re going to teach Diana how to ride a bike,” Mark, 12, said, as Luke, 9, lowered himself to the ground, trying to wedge the pump nozzle into a tight spot between the spokes.

I felt like I was walking into a storybook after living in a dystopian movie the past few days. The boys held her up, one on either side, and walked beside her as she wobbled along the sidewalk.

“Don’t get discouraged,” said Luke. “You’re better than me when I did it,” and I looked at him to make sure it was he who was talking.

The morning ended with Diana crying and the bike returning home on my shoulders, but on Sunday she got back on again. And today, after doing some math worksheets and watching a first grade teacher video, she wanted to bike.

“Did you see that?” she said over and over, as I sat on the grass in the tree box and watched her pedal 4, 5, 6 times before she lost her balance.

When it got close to noon, I called, “Luke, it’s your turn to make lunch!” He said OK to the supplies I left on the counter and disappeared inside, where Virginia and Sofia were making their own quinoa lunch and finishing a Zoom lesson.

In 30 minutes, sandwiches wrapped in tin foil began to appear on the purple picnic blanket spread on the front circle. “Whoa, Mama, did you see that?” Mark said as he set out glasses of sparkling water. “Diana did almost the whole block!”

I sat down next to the sandwich labeled ‘Mama,’ unwrapped it, and bit into layers of turkey breast and pepperoni, pillowy slices of olive bread, and tangy yellow mustard. “These sandwiches are so good,” I said. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, so good,” agreed Mark and Diana.

Compared to the meals I would often have when they were in school — rice cakes eaten over the sink — this was a party. Red and yellow tulips stood like dancers around us, and the white blossoms of a dwarf Montmorency cherry twinkled above. The noon-white sun seemed to sterilize me.

“My back is sizzling,” said Mark, getting up. And then all three of them hoisted their bikes up and rode together for the first time, doing circles in the middle of the street, because no one else was around.

You Can't Cry on Zoom

The day before the start of distance learning
the middle school principal told parents in a Zoom video conference
our faces at the top of the screen like squares in a quilt border

You are not expected to be your child’s teacher.
The most important thing is grace.
We need to give ourselves grace,
our children grace,
and the world grace.

And I wanted to cry
for her kindness, her forgiveness, her grace
but my camera was on