It’s January 1, 2021. I wake to the sound of children’s voices downstairs. The new year has begun like many others, yet the voices are a little different. My son’s voice is becoming a man’s. The teens, now silent in their beds, were once little girls.
I hear the baritone voice of my husband. This house we have made together. This life. Comets colliding together through space. Children like stardust, clinging to us until they hurtle off too.
I hear the espresso maker pumping. Ceramic plates being set down on a wooden table. I know the noisemakers and party hats are still strewn across the crumbs and candle wax. The bottle of sparkling cider we never drank has exploded in the freezer, but I don’t know this yet.
Outside my bedroom, the cat mews. It’s 9:15, I have slept in. I slide the pocket door over the slanted floorboards. He wants to be close to me. I pet him and by the second stroke, he is purring. Animals teach what I keep forgetting. How to love, how to be loved.
The sky weeps. A sad start to a year that the whole world wants to be better. Can we find a less traumatic way to live? Before the virus came, we were still dying alone in hallways, keeping a safe distance, putting masks over our true faces.
Downstairs I find the boys lining up matchbox cars under the couch. I begin chopping onions and celery. Lentils bring good luck, Enrico’s mom used to say. Little coins in a bowl, we will spoon them in, eating prosperity for lunch.
A warm world, a world just awakened. What if I started each day knowing I am a little closer to my death? What would it be like to walk through the world so tender? Not cleansing the traces of sleep, not covering the dangerous softness we had when we were born.
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.
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.
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.
I’m afraid of losing my voice. I’m afraid it will vanish in the rush of the world turned back on.
I’m afraid of entering society’s maze again. Maybe I’ll shrink back into a titmouse, when for a time I felt as explosive as a volcano, as wild as a dragon, solid as a pyramid, serene as a falcon.
I’m afraid we will return to chit-chat and patter talk, and it will be hard to know anyone’s soul when the expected response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Fine.’ It’s so hard to get a foothold, I feel like I’m just clinging on.
When I was growing up, before I started thinking my body wasn’t skinny enough, I would spend all summer at the pool.
I remember how quiet it was under the water. When you are completely surrounded by blue, everything is connected. The water presses into you — heavy and complete — bending the sun into rippling diamonds, making waves every time someone would jump in, scattering crystalline bubbles everywhere.
We graduate to the world of air. It’s easier to get things accomplished here. Easier to move around, so light and transparent, but hard to feel the waves that connect me and you.
I’ve been so cradled in our shelter that I am not afraid of the virus anymore, I’m afraid of people. I’d like to add in one friend at a time. I’d like to vet people for trustworthiness and sensitivity.
I get overwhelmed by all the messages: the facial expressions, the look in the eyes, the tones of voice, and sleights of phrase. My mind gets noisier and noisier until its motor overheats with the task of interpreting it all, running over and over that it’s all my fault.
I’ve had emotional breakdowns over how I handled children’s party invitations. I’ve based my self-esteem on whether a handful of people I don’t know likes me. I’ve emptied myself trying to smooth out the rough parts until I was hollow.
Outside the bedroom that Mark, Luke, and Diana cuddle up in every night, I sing lullabies into the hallway. The floorboards of heart pine shimmer from the light of the neighbor’s window across the way.
I see the squared doorframes, the slanted lines of light, and each room looks separate. One door is closed, one room is open, one space holds clothing and one holds a bath, one room is suffused with lamplight and one is dark.
They seem separate, but they’re all attached. To the same hall, the same story. They’re part of the same house, built by the same man for his one family.
The notes of Edelweiss — E-G-C-B-G — travel through the air whether someone is listening or not. And even if that musical alphabet means nothing, I am still connected to my children, whether they are awake or asleep, in the house or on the street, pleasing me or making me angry.
When everyone seems scattered, I want to be the glue. Melting into the cracks, filling in the empty spaces, supplying the missing notes.
I need to remember how to be the swimmer, instead of the water. To dive in and play, no matter what my body looks like, where the lanes markings are, or what anyone else is doing. Plunging and swirling and flipping upside down, until I’m tired and it’s time to ride my bike back home.
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.
When you are so busy throwing stuff into the shell of your body, you don’t realize that to feel fulfilled, you must simply stop.
The sound trickling in is not water rising to drown you, but the sound of your own self coming into its rightful space.
Nothing can replace this ‘being one’s self.’ That is why you keep running, seeking, rushing, doing — desperate to fill the emptiness you fear.
Your longing is the longing for your own self: your own love, your own trust, your own intuition.
Sometimes you feel that you are an empty riverbed. A ditch that can never be brimmed, never satisfied.
Don’t be afraid of this blackness. It is what connects you to everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. It is what everything springs from and dissolves into. This is the power you are afraid of. The unknown, the endless, the incomprehensible.
Don’t fill the emptiness with small tasks and petty demands and a million directives from your in-box, your to-do list, and your self-help books — they will never be done, and you will never be full.
Don’t fill it with someone bigger, more powerful, more charismatic and brilliant than you — this person will leave and you will be alone again.
Don’t fill it with what you want to buy, become, create — if these things come, you will still feel something is missing. Even when your arms are full, even when you have everything you asked for.
These glimmering, brightly-colored, squeezable things — they are always morphing, growing, disappearing. You can never hold them and be done.
Only water can satisfy a riverbed. Only the part of you that is connected to all the streams, all the oceans, the lakes, the waterfalls, the floods and fjords that circle the world. The river of life that never ends and never begins.
Let all other things be washed away, all that has blocked you, obstructed you, made it impossible to hear the sound of your river rippling, to taste the flavor of your own soul.
In the stillness, your breath is a wave, coming in and going out. The knowing will eventually come, flowing through you from somewhere deep inside, filling the space you thought was vacant.
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.
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.