Sometimes the most modest things call to me — an oval beveled window in a vinyl door. A porch with a hand-made dog gate. A wicker settee under a tree.
What if this were my home? In that little nook at the top of the stairs, I’d write like my heart were a river. If that were my hammock, everyone would be my friend. In that cottage, peace would stay.
We have come to Annapolis to celebrate Enrico’s 50th birthday. From the brick patio behind this house built in 1834, I see a bird has made a nest in a windowsill. I catch glimpses through the glass door of Sofia browning butter for a chocolate cake, and Virginia, roasting carrots and crisping focaccia.
A ship horn blares. Country singers harmonize. And a hot rod revs along Duke of Gloucester Street.
Here the sidewalks are carpets of bricks undulating over tree roots. Moss spreads over stone walls. Pear blossom petals drift over children playing behind a school.
But under this holy sky, a private haze persists. My shortcomings hound me. My mistakes are never far away. There’s always something else I need to do.
Here in Annapolis row houses are shoeboxes stacked in shades of turquoise, pink, royal, and sage. Midshipmen and women in navy suits with brass buttons and white peaked caps wander among the weekend crowds.
We treat our selves as if we were structures that need constant rehabbing, renovating, adding on. Addresses speak of our value. New walls promise starting over.
The lights in the house hum as taupe stratus clouds spill across the once-clear sky. At the run-down house next door, Budweiser cans lie abandoned on a mirror shard. A paper lantern has fallen under the magnolia. Diana calls to me with wet hair and pajamas, “Dinner is almost ready!”
I am blessed. But if I look out into the world, there’s always a prize I’m missing. I am cursed.
When I get tired of myself, I rest.
In the channel of the heart, in the center of the body that grows up and grows old, there is a refuge. A place where love is unending and the search is over. I know if I can stay here inside, I will always be home.
To practice for their summer trip to the national parks, Sofia and her best friend decided to hike Old Rag Mountain. Nine miles around and 2,680 feet up.
On her day off work at the bakery, they drove with new driver’s licenses to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
“Shortcutting is dangerous,” said a wooden sign at the base. They trekked over needle ice. They climbed traprock staircases, they overtook ice rivers.
On that day cut with a diamond sun, Sofia had no time to stream The Great British Baking Show or to set silverware on folded napkins before dinner. She was crawling up billion-year-old boulders with two arms and two legs.
It was dark when the front door opened and the night air brought her in. As she untied her shoes, she swiped through glowing images on her phone. Shoulders resting against rock walls, pink noses, clouds of effort. Her eyebrows were rainbows. And her face was lit from the inside.
The trees along the route are bare now. Air sparkles between their trunks like blue glitter as we fly by on the highway. Diana and I are driving to Ohio to pick up Sofia from college and see my parents and their new kittens.
The noon sun in November is mellow, lighting up the yellow anthers of the Indiangrass that grows by the roadside. The once green hills now look like a Parisian dress, mottled gray and olive. Red barns crouch in valleys. Silos are obelisks at the top of hills. Moss covers mountainsides.
I notice that the rural Maryland landscape looks pastoral and soft when Ohio is our destination. But the exact same terrain, when we are traveling back to D.C., looks Eastern and dramatic.
It seems impossible but true that I have viewed the entire world through the hue of my mind.
When we started out Friday at 8:30, Diana did her Morning Meeting from the car with the iPad balanced on her lap. “I’m going camping in my backyard tonight until 9 or 8,” one second grader in her class said about his weekend.
“I’m driving to my grandparents’ house,” Diana said, “and it’s going to take 7 hours to get there.”
“It takes 14 hours to get to my grandparents’ house,” another child said.
After a long morning of driving, we pull into the Panera parking lot in Clarksburg, West Virginia. In the grass median, I stretch my legs and Diana jogs limply saying, “I can’t run.” We find ourselves doing yoga poses — warrior 2, 1, then 3 — while people at the Jiffy Lube watch us from their cars, motors running. “Now I can run fast!” Diana says, and tears across the grass like a circular saw through a fresh slab of pine.
“Do you want my soup?” I ask Diana, after I have eaten all I can.
“If you don’t like it, that’s okay,” she says. “I don’t like it either, but…” she says while spooning it into her mouth, and I laugh in my voluminous way.
“Your laugh is so loud,” she says with a new self-consciousness. “Everyone can hear you.” I look around at a handful of customers sitting two-by-two in booths, and the store manager at a nearby table repairing what appear to be decorative bull horns, but no one even stirs.
When we finally exit the freeway at 4 in the afternoon, this is the Ohio I know. Undulating plains and little white houses. One-lane highways running through modest hamlets. Strip malls and chain stores. “There are so many farms here,” Diana says when we get close to my family’s place.
The corn is silver-gold, still standing in the fields. Rows of dried soybean plants harvested close to the ground have made the fields into oceans of beige corduroy.
When we pass the farm that used to belong to my great-great grandmother’s sister, we slow down. Then at the Dairy Hut where the Methodist Episcopal used to stand before they tore it down and broke my mother’s heart, we take a right. My parents and their three-month-old kittens await us in the house on the hill.
When we were visiting in July, this farm was in the flush of fertility. Wheat was being harvested and soybeans were being planted right after in a rare double crop year. Only a few fuzzy pods remain where the harvester couldn’t reach, at the very edge of the field or where a branch had fallen.
This is beautiful too. This is as alive as the time of color and heat.
In winter, you can see nature’s hidden structure — the order and the tangles, each embedded in the other.
The star-shaped crack in the cut circle of a log.
Thistle florets, dry and downy, stars in galaxy after galaxy.
Everything in the universe can be found within itself, patterns repeating according to eternal laws.
At the creek, the razzmatazz cicadas of summer are no more. Only a few crickets remain, trilling a lullaby. The waves of poison ivy that once forbade our entry have surrendered. Mud has been tamed with a layer of crackly leaves. There is no stifling humidity, no whine of mosquitoes. The biggest danger now is the dark and the cold. Night is falling.
In Japan, beauty is found in decline, in the weathered and the worn. I love the way the woven wire pasture fence rusts. How the rain has washed the white paint off the cow barn. The way the Hackwood trees lean over the sides of the creek until they slowly fall in.
“Be very careful on the roads today,” my mom tells me the next day before I leave to pick up Sofia at Kenyon. “It’s deer season,” she says. Rutting season is when male deers are so intent on finding a companion that they run across highways. Dying to mate.
The freeways the day before had been splattered with blood. Mangled deer were slumped on the shoulder. Raw necks exposed. Parts strewn across the lanes.
I write down my dad’s directions and look at the map and drive the two and a half hours without the car telling me what to do, because I want to pay attention. After Mom’s Bait Shop, you take a left onto Pleasant Valley Road and drive by the patch of rotting pumpkins. At the middle school, you take another left, past the prison and the golf course, and route 23 takes you north, by the Dollar Generals and Speedways and Bob Evanses along the feeder road.
I don’t see any rutting deer, but the rain has shined the highway into platinum gold. There is a truck ahead of me called Super Ego Holdings. What is the message for me in the morality play of my life? To me, everything is meaningful, although the daughter I am driving to pick up believes that nothing is.
A dad loading a minivan holds the door to the two-story sandstone building. This is the second and last time I’ll step foot in Sofia’s dorm. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the rest of the year will be remote.
As I walk through the hall, I am reminded of my ‘50s era elementary school — the smell of pine cleaner, the memory of asbestos, the aging glazed brick.
I knock a rhythm on the door, and Sofia opens it. Her smile and her hug fills me with the kind of warmth that floods your body after a good run. She thinks that she hasn’t done enough packing, but I see a dorm room ready to be folded into a car and driven away. I start taking armloads down to the car while she packs up the last things, vacuums the floor, and slips her key into a little manila envelope.
We drive through the rain all afternoon, and talk about whether she’ll defer next semester or work on an organic farm or take classes from her laptop in the basement. We get lost and make the final way back to my parents’ farm through one-lane roads of mobile homes, chicken coops, and garden pedestals in front yards holding blue gazing balls.
Bringing Sofia to the farm and then home feels like retrieving an important part of a puzzle, a puzzle whose borders are not so straight anymore.
The next morning, we hug my parents good-bye with masks on. The kittens will be cats the next time we visit. Diana knows it was I who left four quarters and took the tooth under her pillow the night before.
Sofia drives the first half and I sit in the passenger seat. “Look how many people are dead!” Diana says when we pass the graveyard next to Tanya’s house. A herd of black cows grazes on a lopsided hill. Eastern white pines, with their straight arms, are many-limbed crosses.
Little by little the flat farmlands give way to the foothills of the Appalachians. As we climb the mountain range, we begin passing resorts, vacation homes, and camps: Jesus in the Hills Camp, Chief Logan Boy Scout Camp, Canter’s Cave 4-H Camp.
Beloved mountains. Shelter from the wind, the sun, and the rain, and perhaps most of all, from ourselves. In the mountains, there is always another ridge, another stand of trees to hide behind. To get lost and find yourself in.
In the late afternoon light of western Maryland, I get tired and Sofia takes the wheel again. Diana chants, “Skittles, Skittles, snake,” practicing her Ss with her two front teeth missing. Her new ‘S’ sounds like air being let out of a tire.
In the vast expanse of leafless brown woods that line the highways, I notice the evergreen trees. Insignificant in summer, their green now holds everything together. Bridging the worlds of activity and hibernation, fecundity and decay, they remind me that even though nothing in this world stays the same, there is something through it all that is eternal.
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.
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.
Today is the day we would have sat on our suitcases to zip them up, flattening down carefully selected outfits and collections of mini lotion tubes, and Mark would have offered to carry his sisters’ bags down, until 7 of them congregated in the entry. We would have given the sunflowers and kiwi berries one last soak, crouched to say goodbye to the cat under the couch, and turned the porch light on as we latched the door. We would have eaten grapes and salami sandwiches wrapped in foil in Terminal B as we watched the sun set over Dulles airport, waiting to board the plane, knowing that in one short night and one long day, Nonno Franco would be wearing his shirt full of pockets just beyond customs in Milan holding boxes of peach nectar and brioches, and the cappuccino that I would get at the airport bar would be the best I’d ever had.
After months of zig-zagging between resignation and hope — Italy has recovered! but New York is a mess — Sicily is offering 1/2 off hotel stays! but only to Europeans — the emotional spikes got softer and softer until they finally lay flat. We asked the airline to issue us vouchers for another year, but no one is sure when that will be.
We were going to go to the Marches where Enrico’s father grew up, where it was his job as a child to buy ice for a handful of lira from the man who would chop off a block with an axe, and Franco would wrap it in a cloth and race home in the noonday sun — “Via, via!” — with the melting ice strapped to his handlebars, past the farms where earlier that morning he and his father had traded the sole and seabreams they had caught in their net for peaches and cantaloupe and watermelons still warm from the sun.
I thought it would be sad when the day of departure came around, but it already feels far far away, like a carful of cousins who stayed for a good long week but are now already 7 states and 2 motels away, and their sheets have already been washed and dried and folded away, the extra chairs stacked back in the garage, and we have returned to following our hearts or to-do lists, sleeping in our own beds, spinning new scenarios in the privacy of our own minds.
Before we canceled the reservation on Vrbo.com, we had planned to argue over bedrooms when we arrived at the centuries-old house on a cliff above Ancona where the pictures showed stone stairs leading down to a sandy inlet of the Adriatic Sea, and at lunchtime we’d toss hot pasta with olive oil and garlic and red pepper flakes and wrap salty prosciutto around melon slices and eat it in our bathing suits under the myrtle trees on the patio, and I didn’t mind that the house had no air conditioning because I like it hot, or pipes so old you could only take one shower at a time, because we would have been all together and it would have been new — to me.
Tables would have been set end-to-end in the courtyard of a Milanese trattoria to fit all of Enrico’s aunts and uncles and cousins, and there would have been dinners that rolled on until midnight with his friends from university, and maybe I would have cried from laughing at the story of the forgotten tent poles when they were camping on a beach in Greece. And we would have met the family of Isabella, the exchange student who stayed with us last September, and the girls would have hung around in beachside bars with Italian teens and I would see vistas opening into their lives where there were none before, and my Italian husband would be like a fish released back into the sea, not waking up thinking about the situation on Ward D2 or the back-to-back appointments until 9:00 pm, but he would be shimmering with plans of which rugged beach we would conquer that day, which hill town we would climb, which odd lamb dish only made in this one village he would track down, and he would do all the leading, and I would feel like I was sitting in the back seat and just looking out, not having to drive the car, decide which way to go or what to do.
We will remember this summer not for these things, but for an ordinary quiet so deep it rivals a symphony. Siestas will keep happening every day after lunch, and I will keep taking walks after dinner when the kids are in bed and the fireflies are starting to shine like diamonds sprinkled in the twilight. We will pair up and go down the list of things that needed to be done but never were, like repainting the antique wrought-iron garden chairs, figuring out how to recaulk the bathtub, and translating the fable their Italian grandma remembers hearing when she was little. I will keep taking Sofia out for driving lessons in half-empty state park lots, and Mark will finish a middle school math class on Microsoft Teams, and we will take a long drive across the Appalachians and hug my parents with masks on and the kids will run free and I will write and sleep, and we will notice how many different kinds of bees there are, and how a zinnia bud looks like a cut gem before it opens.