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Category: COVID diaries

Portlandia

In which, for the first time in a year, a thousand firsts unfurl. Mostly, wrapping my arms around my firstborn, 1750 miles from where I spend most of my days…

It’s questionable whether sitting tucked in a dawn-lit corner in a faraway hotel, I can tap out too many hieroglyphics on this wee little keyboard, more fitting for the feet of an ant than for my fumbly fingers, but here I am, apparently so jazzed on the joy of watching my boys delight in each other’s company, not so adept at catching a night’s worth of zzzzz’s.

In this sweet swirl of days, so many frames have been packed in my brain, sleep has little room. There was the all-black-clad SWAT team rolling into downtown the night of the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, when Portland once again exploded in protest with dumpster fires, fireworks hurled into the night, windows smashed, and graffiti strewn on block after block of marble, glass, or brick-walled storefronts. There are the endless miles of homeless camps on the sidewalks, spilling down embankments along the highways (and I mean right up to the shoulder of where cars race by at 70 mph), in the wells of dried-up public fountains, under the Chinese arch just outside this hip hotel outfitted with British soaps and sheets and “ethical organic” coffees to tuck into earthenware mugs inscribed, “99 problems. coffee ain’t one.” And, no, the juxtaposition, the cruel irony, doesn’t escape me. It’s a wrenching mix of utopia and dystopia here, and it seems to beg for answers to questions and conundrums that would vex a troop of MacArthur geniuses. But my firstborn is here for 16 months, and once my superpower shot kicked in and shielded me and all of us from the red-ringed invader, we strapped on our travel packs and made the trek to Stumptown.

Alongside the unsettling, there is wonder aplenty here, too, as the city seems to collect the curious, the kind, and the kooky. While I sip my ethical organic coffee and watch the sun come up, I’ll let my picture roll do the talking.

I’ve usually been a most reluctant traveler, a top-of-the-line homebody, one who frets in the days before departure about whether my tomato plants will survive without me, whether the pansies will droop, and in this case whether the wily skunk would move inside while we’re not watching. (Shawn the SkunkTrapper sent a text to let me know he was bringing in the infrared night-vision cameras he was borrowing from one of his fox-trapping jobs; I await word any minute now…)

But here I am, four days in, and relishing every adventure. Maybe in my doddering days, I will finally slay a few of the ghosts who’ve long vexed me. Travel can test us as much as it stretches us, and I’m in for the stretch, buoyed by the boys who animate my every heart beat.

Signing off from PDX. With love, always.

Anyone else out there a natural-born reluctant traveler? And if not, what words of enticement might you offer to those of us who’d do well to take a deep breath and put some miles on our hiking boots?

the fresh-washed feel of now….

long ago, at the kitchen table where i grew up, the dad i loved, the one whose words seeped deep into corners of my brain as if etched in perma-ink, he was something of a walking-talking bursting-at-the-seams circa-1950s steel-cased filing cabinet, one so stuffed with aphorisms you could only shut the drawers with the heftiest of heave-hos. he had a witticism for everything, and every occasion. and though i can’t remember precisely the way he unfurled it, there was one along the lines of “the only good thing about banging your head against a brick wall is how good it feels when you stop.” only his version was pithier by multiples. 

i’ve been hearing some variation of those words rumbling round my little noggin these past few weeks, as slowly, elusively the fog begins to lift, we ease off our masks, and tiptoe back into some shadowy semblance of the life we used to know. the brick wall is crumbling. the skull banging into forged cement is winding down to diminuendo. 

and while plenty murky, especially round the margins, there are frames of the now-rolling picture show that indeed feel sharper, crisper, more vividly infused with color than i ever remember. the most quotidian of tasks feel, well, almost celebratory. certainly a relief. 

heck, i walked in a CVS drug store yesterday and ambled — no, sauntered — over to the toothbrush aisle, took my time searching for what i needed instead of grabbing and later discovering i’d grabbed wrong. i didn’t even hold my breath when the dude in biker shorts brushed by close enough for me to get a whiff of his perspiratory beads (a polite way of saying sweat). then, for kicks (a double-header that would have been unheard of just weeks ago), i lollygagged into the grocery store and actually hugged someone with whom i share no DNA, nor the same front door or roof. in other words — egad — someone from outside the confines of my months-long strictly-imposed stay-away-from-me bubble. 

perhaps you, too, have noticed this phenomenon as we emerge from the COVID caves where we’ve been hibernating through two long winters, two springs, a summer, and a fall. so much these days is bristling with an extra tinge of sweetness. we can breathe again. the people we love flow in and out of our houses, and we are paying attention. we are relishing. the bliss of conversation within the six-foot circumference. the occasions when we might be without mask, and thus can once again bring to our expressiveness the whole complement of facial moves and twitches from the nose on south, those parts so long eclipsed from public consumption. 

of course, i’m wary of the calendar filling too swiftly, too mindlessly, but so far that’s not happening. maybe the new dialed-down pace of things will stick around awhile. 

mostly, i hope this fresh-washed feel lingers. i’m perfectly content with one foot still in sticking-close-to-home mode and the other freed from inhaling fear with every half-breathed breath.  

what i love best about this now is watching a kid i love come and go, flow in and out of summer the way summer is supposed to be. he’s only been home three days, but each one of those days has been the very definition of conviviality, of a kid being nothing more, nothing less, than a plain old happy-go-lucky mask-less kid. 

this kid and all kids, in every corner of this republic, are long overdue for anything akin to normalcy. they’re starved for all the sweet spots that make the ardors of growing up bearable. it’s been awful to watch kids confined to dorm rooms, ferrying dinner in plastic-domed containers back from dining halls, to eat in solitude. it’s been awful to know that friday-night fun meant sitting alone in your dorm room, sharing screens on a wide web of laptops, to play remotely — doors closed and towels all but stuffed between the cracks to keep corona off the premises. 

it’s the proportional cost of COVID that’s tipped the scales, made it doubly hard for some among the whole of us. for kids from kindergarten through college, the fraction of their lives stifled by hoping to steer clear of the red-ringed virus is not insignificant. the lower the denominator, the higher the proportion of their little lives has been masked and just plain odd. 1/24th is bad; 1/8th is triple worse. 

at the other end of the age range, it’s proportionality of another kind: the fraction of years left on one life’s lease. our old next-door neighbor, the spriteliest, feistiest of 94-year-olds, one who still spends his best days at the racetrack, laying down bets on thoroughbreds, was making a lunch date with the resident architecture critic a couple weeks back when suddenly he offered perspective i’ve not forgotten. “when you’re 94 and you don’t have much time left, a year lost is everything,” he intoned into the speaker phone. again, it’s a fraction of declining denominators — 1/2, 1/3, a parade of fractions not pretty.

as we all stand back and try to gain some semblance of deeper understanding of the aftershocks, as we now clock our lives in BC and AC, before and after COVID, the kaleidoscope will ever shift. for now though, there’s a sweetness in the air. everything old is new again. getting on a plane. sliding in a cab. parking yourself in the bleachers at the ball park. congregating on the sidewalk with old long-unseen friends. dashing in the grocery store for that one forgotten item. or listening for the click of the front door, when the kid you love ambles in the door, after a long summer’s evening staring at the stars. and you didn’t once worry that he might catch COVID.

and, now, for a bit of summer reading….

it was my ritual of summer, signaling the start of kick-back time, soon as the last of the school bells rang, we were piling in the station wagon, unpiling at the door to the town library, dashing to the desk to ask the librarian if i could sign up for summer reading, being handed the folded card, filling in my name, piling my arms with books, scurrying home to read — all in hopes of the ink-stamped blot that would count the books i swallowed whole each and every summer. it’s a rite not outgrown. my hair’s now the color of old aluminum pipes, but summer reading is a class all its own, one that belongs to all. best accompanied by nighttime’s crickets and the blinking lights of fireflies. best lubricated, in the heat of mid-afternoon, with tall sweaty glasses of mint-swirled waters. and even better if read from a perch, be it tree branch or (geriatrically-approved) solidly-grounded reading nook that safely and securely looks into the trees.  

i’m proposing summer reading here, though what you read is whatever you choose. no groupthink here. i’m starting with annie dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, a collection of meditations “like polished stones,” and french novelist muriel barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or as my adorable mother-in-law suggested, “it’s got a porcupine in the title.” and it’s a charmer, set in an elegant Parisian hôtel particulier, it was a best-seller in france, (originally published in 2006), and though the New York Times subtly scowls that it “belongs to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer,” i say label me “accessible” this summer. 

the Times goes on to tell us: 

The novel’s two narrators alternate chapters, but the book is dominated by Renée, a widowed concierge in her 50s who calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody. She is also an autodidact — “a permanent traitor to my archetype,” as she drolly puts it — who takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but thinks life will be easier if she never lets her knowledge show. Even the slippers she wears as camouflage, she says, are so typical, “only the coalition between a baguette and a beret could possibly contend in the domain of cliché.”

Her unlikely counterpart is Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old whose family lives in the fashionable building Renée cares for. Paloma believes the world is so meaningless that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.

…Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her politician father and Flaubert-quoting mother, while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty in Proustian moments of elongated time. 

who’s in? and what titles might mark your beginning in this, the summer when we slink our way out of COVID hibernation??

and, how’s your emergence from the Age of Corona unfolding?

skunk update: he’s still on the loose, despite our wiliest of efforts. just this morning, evidence that he tunneled right out of the wire escape hatch we thought led straight into his take-me-to-the-woods case…..

long time coming: company

except for the plumber and the furnace repair man, not a soul — other than the few of us who sometimes or always sleep here — had breathed inside this house in all these months. certainly, no one besides the usuals had sat down for dinner at the old maple table.

but as the veil lifts on this pandemic siege, as we all now host armies of viral-slashing immunological soldiers coursing through our insides, standing ready to slash and burn any red-ringed invaders (a primitive description that would make my long-ago physiology professors cringe and grimace), we are apt to find ourselves pressed against the kitchen counter, knives raised above the cutting board, elbow engaged in the hammer motion that drives the chopping and mincing often found in the preamble to company.

yes, company. that now cobwebbed notion of people who do not live inside your house being invited and accepting your invitation to sit down in chairs ringed around a table. once there, those people — the so-named “company” — are apt to lift forks and knives, slide morsels into mouths, in between words spoken in conversation. it is an ancient rite, a rite as old as any known to human kind, and for the last 15 months or so, we’ve been stripped of it. had no practice at the art of considering a menu, of gathering stems in a vase, of imagining how the evening might unfold.

but this week i leapt back into gear. i had the best first company a girl might wish for: my beloved brother was driving all across ohio, indiana, and sweet chicago to pull to the curb outside my house, and our beloved mama was safely tucked inside my house, standing at the door in that way she always does when someone she loves is coming. she even hummed the little song she’s always hummed, the coming-home song we all know by heart, because she used to walk us to the corner of the busy street near our house and sing to us while we awaited the arrival of my papa’s car curving round the bend, home — safe and sound — from the 6:35 commuter train that pulled to the station a town away.

all day long on the day of my sweet brother’s arrival, i swirled inside the rites and rituals of the long-shelved joys of backstage dinner-party theater. the trip to the grocery store, plucking favorite this and that off the shelves. the merkt’s cheese my mama loves, the fat bunches of herbs a spring feast demands, the six-pack of beers whose name i know from the expert guzzlers in my life. the composing a litany of all my mama’s favorite foods, the ones she always sneaks in nibbles before they’re even on the table. for she was the guest of honor, after all; my brother’s whole intent in driving here was to be with her, to be her driver for the list of chores and appointments on her to-do list, to be by the side of the mama whose recent dramas have been narrated and reported across long-distance telephone lines. certainly not the proximity of choice when it comes to someone you dearly love.

it was a lovely thing, the whole of it: the vacuuming with purpose, the tucking white tulips in a pitcher on the kitchen table. the fussing for the joy of it. heck, i even cleaned the bathroom.

in all these months, we’ve had no chance to lavish love in that dinner-party way. and i was reminded how very much i love the gathering of deliciousness and the little touches of the beautiful, of grace. i remembered how i love attending to every detail in hope that the whole tableau shouts, “i wanted you to be here. i wanted to indulge in your presence, your conversation, your company.”

it’s the intimacy and the face-to-face conviviality of the dinner conversation that i love the best. i’m not one for crowded rooms, nor for walking into a backyard packed with noise and faces. but give me two or four or six (or one or three or five) infinitely engaging, tale-telling souls, and i will chop and cook for days for the joy and wonder of it all.

bit by little bit we will weave back in those little joys that animate our spirits, that punctuate our lives with the wonder and the magic of close company. we will pull out those tucked-away plates and trays and platters. the cake stand that elevates the store-bought cookies. and, sweeter than ever for its long absence from our lives, we will sit down to a table ringed by faces we have so missed.

welcome in, we’ve missed you more than we ever realized. it feels so glorious to hum and cook and fuss again….

what do you love best about company coming? have you missed it?

the algorithms of life in all its speeds…

some weeks, it feels like the crank on the faucet is wide open and what comes surging forth is akin to fire hydrant velocity. it just keeps coming, the news, bad and good and all in between. this was one of those weeks where i could barely steady myself between one and another. it started with a phone call, early monday morning, from an emergency room. someone i love was calling, crying, needed me and needed me fast. that’s pretty much all that mattered this week. but of course it was only the beginning of the cascade of 1,001 other thoughts, decisions, realities.

somewhere in there good news came too. and somewhere in there i got my second Moderna COVID vaccine.

seems these long months of COVID, of unnatural tethering to dorm rooms and home turf, of worries that you’ve been exposed, of navigating degrees of caution and leniency, it’s worn most of us ragged. i worry most about kids whose lives are disproportionally filled with histories of dark american chapters: kids born in the shadow of 9/11; kids who might never live a valentine’s day without remembering parkland and the unending video of high schoolers with hands over their head filing out from the building once the coast was clear, helicopters ominously hovering just over the school rooftop; kids who’ve now spent two years of college looking over their shoulder, submitting to swabs up their nose every few weeks, kids with no clue of an all-campus party.

sometimes i wish the world would break forth in birdsong, in pastel petal, in tenderly unfurling leaves. sometimes i wish we could breathe all that in, feel steadied, feel braced, feel fresh air in our lungs. isn’t it genius, then, that should we bother to look out the window, should we bother to lace on our shoes, it’s all right there, ready to take our worn-ragged selves and fill us with those quiet healing balms that stitch us together again?

we need this springtime, and the summer that follows, the slow, steady summer, the season of indolence. we all need a break from the rush and the roar of the news and the heartbreak.

we need to all catch our breath. and stockpile joys for a minute or two.

because this poem always rights me, i offer naomi shihab nye’s “kindness”….

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

how do you steady yourself in the weeks when the hydrant is gushing?

it’s get-on-your-knees season

from a distance, that is from this side of the windowpanes, where i tend to stand huddled in layers of wraps, it all looks like a matrix of unenlightened brown sticks. these are the weeks when winter has ground us down to particular dust. the pandemic, too. even with a shot in the arm we’re not exactly lying by the side of the pool, sipping our lemony-ades. the name for this stretch of the year might easily be mistaken for bleak.

but then, as i did this morning, you spy a runaway screen from an upstairs window, one that’s worked itself loose and taken a short hop skip and a jump off the roof and landed in the boughs of the trees. so, you, as i did this morning, you climb into your muck-about clogs, you haul out a ladder and you fetch the runaway part of your house. and while you’re out there, while you’re the wacky neighbor lady out climbing ladders at dawn, chasing after screens in the trees, you begin to notice things.

you notice that, once you’ve hauled out your magnifying lens, it’s not really all bleak. there is gazillions of action out there. why, there are sweet little clasps of leaves, gathered in prayer. and there are frilly umbrellas of green rising up from the detritus of winter.

and, like any self-respecting payee of attention, you start to put two and two together, and you start thinking maybe you could pick up a thing or two from this quiet explosion erupting from dear planet underground. maybe it’s not so bleak after all. maybe this is the season of quiet delight. maybe the starting all over again is kicking into high gear. maybe the same old same old is about to slow to a crawl, and one day soon this will all be but another badge on our we-survived-even-this sash. we’ll be sitting around in our rocking chairs, swapping tales of remember-the-year-we-were-afraid-to-touch-our-groceries? remember the year no one came home for christmas? remember the year we all sat down at our sewing machines and stitched together swatches of cotton or t-shirt, stuffed vacuum cleaner filters into the pockets?

the miracle is we’ve lived, the just-by-chance ones among us who weren’t done in by the terrible, horrible, awful red virus. i wasn’t there on the front lines, where friends of mine who are nurses and doctors faced it head on, walked into the dirge of it, day after day. i hope, for the life of me, we never forget what heroes they were, and how even the checkers at the grocery store had to dig down for a brand of courage they never thought would be part of the job of stacking cans on shelves, or ringing my celery over their scanner. and every time i read a story of someone felled by it, i look around and realize this world has lost one more incredible one-of-a-kind miracle. maybe reading all the obits is in the oddest of ways a reminder that lurking behind the facades of all the anonymous anyones we pass every day, there is inside a story of glorious wonder that might put us all in our places. maybe it’s why, once upon a time, i loved to be asked to write someone’s obit. because each and every someone has a story to tell. a story to make you sit up in your chair and take notice.

it’s not too unlike the scene out my window. from a distance it all looks bleak and windblown and soggy. but when you bend down to the ground, take a close look, you see something utterly beautiful. you see even the dew gathered in drops at the ends of each leaf. and you remember that life asks over and over again: open your eyes, open your heart, beauty abounds.

what’s some of the beauty you’ve noticed? on your knees or otherwise?

and while i’m here, a string of birthdays of aries who’ve twice had to blow out birthday candles during pandemic: happy birthday to two of my most beloveds, tomorrow and sunday, sweet P and auntie M, who i think were born back to back to emphatically wondrously remind me how glorious it is to be alive in the same span of time as the two of them. double blessing squared. and to dear amy’s papa who is turning 96 today. i don’t even know him, but i adore everything i know about him, and oh we are blessed to know of his sweet and everlasting presence here on this earth. xoxoxoxo and huge blessings to a sweet baby boy born in san francisco yesterday, and to his mama who is starting this glorious adventure she has sooooooooooooooo long awaited. blessings abound. xox

peeking out from under the mushroom cap

out of the blue the other afternoon, an email pinged into my otherwise unbroken hours of writing. the email was “inviting” me to sign up for one of those needles in the arm we’ve all been waiting for for ever, it seems. i played along, clicking the box i was supposed to click, fully expecting i’d land on a page that apologized for being already full, telling me to check again later. after all, i’d been clicking for the past four or more weeks for my 90-year-old mother (hello, vaccine gods, did you read that?!?! i said NINETY…), and getting polite apologies and no appointments every time. so why in the world would my mother’s MUCH younger daughter slip-slide into a slot? well, the universe is sometimes senseless, so i scored a slot, without barely enough time to figure it out.

and, as of 9-something yesterday morning, i am one of the Modernas. and as of about 1 something yesterday afternoon, i started to feel rather, um, vaccinated. as in there was some sort of little army inside me and it was strapping on its combat boots and shaking things up on its way into action. it seems to have been a rather bumpy beginning. i could have climbed out of bed at 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 to type this, as i’ve spent the night watching the little numbers on my clock count uphill.

the getting the shot was truly joyous. the nurse who ushered me into what had been a labor-and-delivery room at the old lake forest hospital (yes, i loved that my COVID vaccine was unfolding a room where generations of patrician little babies first breathed), she was so joyous, waving her arms in the air, tears in her eyes, i asked if i was her very first vaccine. oh, no, she replied, it was just that she’d spent months sticking swabs up noses and “putting out fires,” and she was now beyond thrilled, she reported, to be sticking needles in arms, “keeping the fires from starting.” i stuck out my arm. as i closed my eyes to whisper a prayer, she said one aloud. a really sweet one. one that melted my heart. i would have hugged her before i left but i can’t do that for six more weeks.

which brings us to the big number. six weeks. six weeks till I Day, that’s Immunity Day. six weeks. i feel something like the groundhog who peeks out from his peephole only to discover his shadow, so he leaps back down the hole. after all this time in the hole, i can’t say that i’m charging to climb back out, start running in circles. it’s a curious thing how we humans get used to the status quo, and for some of us, no change comes without a bump in the road.

i know i won’t mind the not being afraid. won’t mind not washing the groceries, as if they’re shrouded in cooties, and should i fail to shake one off, they’ll grow into red-ringed monsters right there in my fridge or my pantry. i won’t mind knowing my boys can live the life i’d sometimes taken for granted, and i mean the quotidian parts, the picturing one of them huddled with teammates on the frisbee field, picturing the other one pulling out a chair at a table in a restaurant that’s new and filled with adventure. i wonder if we can hold onto the relishing, if we can not grow numb once again to life’s unbelievable pleasures: the feel of someone’s head on your shoulders, running into someone’s arms, drying the tears of someone you barely know. simple acts of empathy, the up-close kind, the kind that have been against the rules all these months.

last night the president told us to start dreaming of red, white, and blue. imagine independence day. imagine lemonade stands on the sidewalk, and offering glasses to whomever walks by. imagine the fireworks, of a nation out from under its mushroom caps. imagine the rocket’s red glare when we look in the rear-view mirror at the red-ringed pestilent.

truth is, there are quiet parts of this equation that i’ve relished. and i hope i can hold onto some of that, without checking myself in to the nearest tall-walled monastery. and that’s why the six-week mushroom cap is a very fine thing. a little like waiting for spring for mr. groundhog. i can nestle into my hole here for a little while longer, start thinking about how it’ll be, and how to get used to a world where if i want to, i can take your hand and squeeze it tightly. or throw my arm round your shoulders. or lean in and whisper a secret. and i won’t have to wash down the sack of coffee beans to make you a fine cup of coffee.

bless the ones who worked tirelessly in labs to develop the vaccines. bless the nurses and workers who’ve stationed themselves on the front line this whole awful time. bless the drivers and pilots shipping these itty-bitty lifesaving vials all across the country. and bless every last person who slipped on a mask, kept the distance, and did whatever it took to get us across this great gulch.

housekeeping: ol’ WordPress seems to have switched out the font here this morning, and i have no idea if it’s going to stay that way, or give me back my serifs. if things look different on your end, it’s a mystery to me. and, like most change, it’ll take me some getting used to.

here’s hoping you all get the vaccine, and that it doesn’t keep you awake all night. what might be the one or two things you’re most excited to do once you cross the full-immunity line….

here we are, resilient

when the two feet of snow out my kitchen door melted, these resiliencies awaited. pushed clear through the snow, undaunted.

if you’d sat us all down a year ago, turned allllll the pages of the calendar, past easter, past fourth of july, past thanksgiving, christmas, valentine’s day, and everyone’s birthday; if you’d told us we’d skip our kid’s law school graduation, wouldn’t see where he lived far, far, away, in a city that protests and burns; if you told us that after 26 years of grammy tuesdays, they’d stop on a dime; if you told us one kid would spend a college semester taking in classes from under the quilt of his boyhood; or that the newsroom at the roots of this family would up and get scrubbed; if you told me i’d think twice about going into a grocery store, would hold my breath as long as i could if ever i ran into anyone with a mask slid under their nose or nowhere at all; if you told me i’d have dinner with the same one person every night for 365 dinners (and plenty of lunches, besides), i’d have asked if you were nuts.

and never mind the long months when we lysol-wiped every box of cereal or pasta, every jar of marinara, and carton of milk. and sang the birthday song twice while washing our hands.

that little red-ringed virus has done a number on us, managed to whip us in line (some of us) like nothing ever before.

we’ve made it a year.

we’ve zoomed. we’ve not touched or hugged or kissed. we’ve learned–and mostly forgotten–how long the little rascal of a virus lived on wood, paper, and stainless steel. we’ve parsed the virtues of N95, KN95, and plain old bandana. we’ve canceled plane tickets (or mostly gotten two-year extensions). we’ve learned how long we can drive without pulling over to rest stops. (clear to middle ohio, in the case of my award-winning bladder.)

we made it a year.

on the bright side, we’ve dabbled in sour dough, given names to the blobs bubbling and growing deep in the fridge (and we dumped it ceremoniously and sadly when at last we surrendered in sorry defeat). we’ve taken up star gazing (that lasted not nearly as long as the sour dough). and walking in woods (still ongoing, though the snows are slowing us down). i’ve taken up the book of common prayer, each morning’s quiet beginning. i’ve put down the big book too, searching for something with broader inclusion, something less rote. and i’ve not minded, not one single weekend, not having to worry about too many places to be, and the politics therein.

in a word, it’s gone from surreal at the start, to just plain odd. we’ve recalibrated just about everything.

i can barely stand to imagine how lonely it’s been for everyone who’s bearing this out all alone. i worry to death about kids who don’t know the joy of a play date, let alone running out the door to see who can skip down the sidewalks. or climb trees. or hop on a bike and see where it goes. i worry about kids in high school, and college, stuck in their dorm rooms, wholly unable to romp in the ways we’ve long thought were the essence of going to college.

i worry to death for every small business now shuttered. or shuddering.

i worry to death for the ones who’ve had to get up every single morning, slip on a mask and face the masses: be it ringing up groceries, delivering mail, or answering 9-1-1 calls.

we shouldn’t have to be afraid of standing closer than six feet away from a stranger.

but here we are.

we’ve made it a year.

it’s true, thank God, no bombs were dropping, and boys we love weren’t being shipped overseas, not most of them anyway. it’s hard to imagine how bursting our hearts might be if that was the trial. and at least we can stand under the heavens and breathe. i’ve thought more than maybe ever before about hiroshima, about radioactive fallout, and what it would be like to be unable to go out the door. thank God we can still go outside. thank God it’s the one sure and certain thing we can do, digging in dirt all our own, or stalking the wilds where it’s all common denominator.

it’s hard to make sense of this long last year. but it seems there might be an end off in the distance. i can barely imagine filling my dining room table again. but i think of it often. long for it. want little more than the sound of the doorbell ringing. and voices i love filling the rooms, bouncing off the walls. even doing the stacks of dishes at the end of the night, when the whole night plays over and over in your head, when you laugh out loud all over again, and you’re there at the sink, alone with the suds, and it’s after midnight, but you’re remembering the look on someone’s face, or the line that nearly made you fall from your chair, you were laughing so hard.

it feels like a distant mirage, the dinner table filled with people we love.

but we made it a year.

i keep wondering what parts of all of this we’ll carry forward. will we zoom ever more? will we always remember how blessed it is to run to the store, to hug a friend on the sidewalk, to sit on the seat of a bus or a train?

these are the things i’m thinking about, as this one long year draws to its close….

if you’d told us a year ago, we’d never have signed on the dotted line. turns out, we can do the things we’d never imagine. turns out, we’re resilient after all.

what did you learn this year?

inside the word factory

perhaps you have visions of some victorian chamber, with a velvet tufted fainting couch, at the top of a curving stair. perhaps you imagine, ala virginia woolf, a room of one’s own where even the logs in the fire waft a delicate perfume. that, you might imagine, is the inner chamber of one who strings words into sentences into paragraphs into pages for a living. (well, there’s not much of a living there, but that’s a story for another day, and one i shan’t get near.)

but back to the room of my own. i’ve got one all right. and once upon a time it was the one-car garage, likely a Buick or Olds, that puttered up the drive here in this circa 1940s house, when the war tragically was full-steam ahead, and the doctor who built this old house–a doctor who delivered babies deep in the night–must have been proud of that room for his Buick or Olds.

i park myself in that room. for interminable hours these days. from the dark before dawn till the dark in the night. and, mostly, i love every minute of it. even when it’s hard. even when the words are sputtering out like someone forgot to grease the cogs and the wheels in the word factory.

i thought i’d let you peek at my highly categorized filing shelf (up above), where the alphabet of books i’ve read for this book (did you realize that many, many books are compendiums of many, many books tossed into the word whizzer, where they whirl and they swirl, and they come out the other side a veritable library now distilled and condensed into the one single volume you hold in your hand?) are stored in their hardly sophisticated, but highly utilitarian, toppling strip on the floor. i’m certain a shelf would be a handy thing, but all the shelves in the house are previously occupied, so i was left with only this strip on the hardwood floor of my once-garage.

anyway, these are some of the more than 200 books (i just did my taxes, i now know precisely the number i bought), i’ve read in the note-taking phase of this so-called literary endeavor. it appears that i still write like a newspaper reporter, when it was my job to run about the town, and sometimes the country, asking all sorts of questions of all sorts of people who knew what i wanted to know. only this time around, many of the folks who know what i want to know are, well, dead. many died a long, long time ago. take the desert elders of egypt. they died some 1,800 years ago. but their wisdom was timeless, and i hope to absorb at least a mere pinch of it. moving a bit closer in time, there are the transcendentalists, emerson and thoreau, and in my book they seem rather young, having died not even two full centuries back. you get the point. and not all the geniuses whose words i am scouring are no longer among us. many, many are living and breathing and writing more sentences all their own.

i’ve also realized that a pandemic is the perfect time to write a book. there’s nowhere to go anyway. and each day is a wide-open block on the calendar, with little variation except for the chores that punctuate the morning. there’s water-the-plants day, and haul-in-the-groceries day. the middle of the week + sunday are wind-the-clock days, and in a week as wide open as that, why not plunk yourself down in your word-factory chair and get to work on a book? i realize this is my second such endeavor this pandemic, which, honest to goodness, is not too pathetic.

anyway, since this morning is write-the-chair day, i thought i’d let you peek behind the curtain before i plop back down and start typing some more. after all this time pulling up to the very same table, week after week, month after month, year after year, i figure you’re due a backstage tour.

i’m up to 37,226 words, in case anyone’s counting. and i hope to tack on a few thousand more today. i’m not too far from the end of the rough first draft, and then the hard part begins: reading it all from the start, trying not to wince, or fall off the chair in utter humiliation. round two is where you get serious. and each word is a test; each word, each thought, each big idea needs to be tested for muscle and truth, and, yes, poetry. it’s all due the first of june, which means i’ll be typing straight through the return of the songbirds and the blossoming of the lilac. it’s a very good thing i love the topic–the Book of Nature, by the way, that ancient theology that all of creation is infused with the sacred in all its wisdoms and truths, and that your closest encounter with the one i call God just might come lying under the stars one night, or cradling a broken-winged bird in your palm. what i love most is that it’s a wisdom woven with threads from all sources, ancient and not quite so old. so the books on my floor are books from the Celts and the Choctaw, from ancient Egypt and China, and right here in the Land of the Free, from Walden Pond and Cape Cod and clear out to the Great Salt Lake and the Redwoods Forest. which is all making me feel very Woody Guthrie. (and notice my knack for hitting the upper-case key here? that’s because my day job–there in the word factory–insists we show up with our capitals.)

so that’s the news from the factory floor, where i’m due any minute to be back in my chair and hitting the keys–caps shift and otherwise.

on the topic of books, what are the ones on your must-share list? and why?

true Christmas morning prayer…

that first Christmas, the one that for millennia we have gazed upon, meditated over, infused into our sugar-spun dreams, was as stripped-down as the ones perhaps unfurling under our own roofs this year.

there was no garland, only straw. no sparkly tree, only the boughs of whatever bush nestled against the flimsy walls of the barn. there were no carolers, only the lowing of the cow, and the clucking of the miserly hen who laid but one egg each dawn. 

what was was a mother in labor, her anguished cries of birth echoed decades later in the anguish of beholding a necessary crucifixion, one ordained by the heavens. one that might have filled an earthly mother with undying rage. certainly the mother who types these words. but in the barn that inky night there was no rage, only cries that shattered pitch-black darkness, only cries of mother and, in time, the child.

what was was the bloody birth, the newborn soaked in waters of the womb. 

what was was the gaze, eternal gaze, between mother and child, mother and the face of God. does not every mother see the face of God in the one pushed from her womb? in the one she calls her own, no matter how the child comes?

and so this Christmas, when all else is stripped away, when there are empty chairs at the table, when the oven holds less than half its usual Yuletide feast, when our arms cannot reach round the shoulders of those we love, when we cannot feel another’s heartbeat pressed against our own, we are flung into the whirl–the holy whirl–of empathies.

this is how Christmas feels to many. this is morning after morning when you awake to wanting. 

and so my prayer this quiet Christmas is first and most for all those whose hearts ache, those who forage in the back alleys of this uncaring world, who go to sleep longing for a hand to hold in the hollow of the night, those who cry for justice from behind bars not of their own making. 

my prayer is for those whose Christmas lullaby is the beep-beep-blip of some machine that keeps them alive. 

my prayer is for the cold, cold of flesh and bone, and cold—so cold—of heart. 

my prayer is for those whose gaze is washed with tears, stinging tears, all-alone tears, tears of please deliver me.

my prayer for each and all is that the blessedness of Christmas—the truth of newborn hope birthed after long hard labor, cradled heart against heart, entwined in love beyond measure from before first breath—my prayer is that the blessedness of Christmas settles deep inside the chambers of your soul, and that you look out upon a day, a world, in which radiance erupts through darkness, dawn after dawn. and all is holy, and holy is all.

merry blessed wonder of true Christmas.

xoxo

a hundred blessings from here at the old maple table. sleep this year is in short supply, as we are spanning time zones from middle america to pacific northwest, filling the hours with as much Christmas as you can pack in itty-bitty phone lines. i wished for phones with smell last night, so my own firstborn–my heart’s pure joy–could inhale whatever was wafting from the oven. he said last night that he couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas without the scents of bread pudding–the cinnamon, the egg + milk, the chunks of orchard apple. nor could i. but here it is. and next Christmas, God willing, it will be all the sweeter for its absence here this morning.

may your day be blessed. how will you make Christmas, true Christmas, come true this year?

image above, way above, is Albrecht Dürer’s The Nativity, 1511; image below is our little Christmas tree: what happens when you’re the last one to the tree lot (cuz you couldn’t bear to buy a tree till all your loves were home, and you finally realized that wasn’t going to happen this year….)

a hundred from-the-heart thank yous…

all week i’ve been counting, gathering my gratitudes by the dozens. by the hundreds, in fact. maybe you’ve played along. done your own counting up to one hundred. it’s an exercise in excavation of the heart, digging up the way-down blessings, the ones we call to mind each and every hour of each and every day, and the ones we stumble upon in some ephemeral flicker of momentary praise-be to wonder. turns out, it’s something of a diary of the year, this whole long COVID-pocked, election-torn year. it’s been a doozy. and, believe it or not, it’s left me filled with gratitudes. a hundred of ’em. here goes…

dear holy God, and giver of all good and glorious things, consoler in hours of deepest sorrow, the one whose hand i reach toward whenever i’m trembling, whose arms i fall into when the long race is finally ended, dear God, find yourself a cozy chair to sink into, cuz i’ve got a list for you. for all this, i say bless you and thank you. oh, thank you…

for Melissa, Queen of the Sick Call Grocery Delivery, the guardian angel of my college kid’s dining hall who went way beyond the call of duty when she whirled off to a miles-away grocery store, shopped like a mama would shop for her own, and showed up at my fevered child’s sickroom door with six bags of infirmary essentials: crackers and soup, 7Up and microwaveable rice, ginger ale and chamomile tea, packets of oatmeal, and on and on and on, when he was sequestered in quarantine with a whopping case of mono. (funny, how the first one to leap to mind this year is a woman i know only through her undeniable goodness, and her going the most extra mile. if love heals, she gets first round of credit for the mostly recuperated kid who sat at my thanksgiving table last night.) 

for election judges, and every single American who stood in hours-long lines, in rain, in sleet, in cold, in undiluted noontime inferno, to put muscle to the great American contract: to slip a single sheaf of X-marked paper into the slit of the ballot box. to make each vote count.

for the two little girls across the way, who have endlessly charmed since the day they moved in, and especially since COVID, as their front yard and driveway have become their play yard and imagination station. sweet little angels (3 and now 5) who dream up goodbye parties for a maple tree that had to be felled, and prance about in their plastic shields as if princesses and warriors from another planet. and for their mama and papa who tag-team their workday to endlessly fill their girls’ COVID-bound days with the old-fashioned sorts of adventures i’d long feared had been lost to obsolescence.

for the big heart of my down-the-block friend who every night goes out into the dark and the cold to feed a duet of stray cats with nowhere else to go.

for the woods where i amble everyday. and the golfballs that — so far — steer clear of my head.

for the moving crew who, despite a few wrong turns, finally found my firstborn’s apartment.

for the law school diploma that now sits on a bookshelf, proving the kid reached the summit of a very steep climb.

for the checkers at my Jewel, the truck drivers, and shelf-stocking crew, the baggers, the cart sanitizers, those blessed frontline workers who never imagined that ringing up groceries would become an act of faith and a stronghold against starvation. as well as the one permissible place to gab beyond the bubble, almost like old times.

for my mailman who never failed. 

for my UPS driver, who this year has more than let my fingers do the walking from the safety of my keyboard, and delivered the most curious assortment of necessities i managed to find online.

certainly, for my younger one’s freshman roommate from China who supplied us with a box of N95s before anyone here in America knew much about the masked wonders.

for the ambulance drivers, and the ER crew in the Buckeye State’s far-from-home hospital, who delivered my second-born child safely and soundly, and quickly discovered his sky-high fever was fueled not by COVID but rather by mono, and a whopping dose of it. 

for the ER crew here at home, who — in Round Two of this unfortunate adventure — were put to the test to quell the fever that would not go down.

for my long-ago college roommate who turned to page 206 in my new little book, and baked, wrapped, and mailed a box of my grandma Lucille’s turkey cookies. complete with raisins for eyes.

for the editor who kept pace with my decidedly accelerated writing speed, the brilliant designer who rounded up a woodland flock of critters to grace most every page, and for whoever decided to go with the place-holding ribbon, a rarity in book publishing these days. and in the end, brought us The Stillness of Winter.

for all the great thinkers and poets and mystics who’ve filled my bookshelves and my imagination this year, especially Henry Beston, Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, Annie Dillard, Joy Harjo, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert MacFarlane, John Phillip Newell, anonymous who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, David George Haskell, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson — all of whom make me reach higher and deeper in quest of words that illumine and thoughts that arouse. 

for Emergence magazine, and Image journal, and Orion, and the EcoTheo Review, whose boundless intellect and inspirations, breathtaking writing and generous spirit ground me to this holy earth, and launch my highest hopes for healing to come to this wounded planet.

for the wise priest, the monk, and the rabbi to whom i bring my insatiable hungers, my curiosities and questions, and the depths of my soul. for evocative prayers and eloquent sermons, especially the ones threaded through with the cloud of witnesses — the writers and thinkers, poets and everyday saints — who propel me to pull books from the shelves, to search for their stories and truths. for the epiphanies that so often come. and the dots so divinely connected.

for those marketing and p.r. mavens who do the parts of book peddling that make me break out in hives.

for the tangle of bittersweet i found in the woods. and the rusty but trusty clippers that brought a few branches home. 

for the occasional news story that infused me with hope again. and the election that tried to.

for the dawn, that light-infused vessel of prayer i step into each morning.

for the ages-old Book of Common Prayer and the crinkling of its tissue-thin pages as i turn them, morning after morning, beginning my day cloaked in holy quietude, in confession of sin, and blessed thanksgiving at the close of each dawn’s intercessions.

for the Cloister Walk candles from St. John’s Abbey, an apothecarial blend of geranium and lily of the valley, sandalwood, patchouli, and cedar that sends me and my prayers wafting toward the heavens.

for cricket song, that hypnotic hum of the ridged-wing critters that seems to rise out of the earth as the late-summer sun begins its daily descent, and the never-seen choristers quite frankly go gangbusters with their nightly rendition of clanging and banging. 

for the way the sunlight streamed in and ignited my summer porch as each day drew to a close. 

for the zillion ZOOM courses, and poetry readings, and retreats, and workshops with writers that drew me into living rooms and studios and aeries all around the globe….

for the college professors who so compassionately gave my sweet boy flexibility on deadlines for papers and projects. dispensations that might come to haunt us, when he’s typing away on the eve of this Christmas.

for the park district work crew who, last summer, taught my second-born seasonal landscaper the wonders of the midday siesta and flautas made on a portable grill.

for the science writers who so clearly explained COVID, and gave us explicit instructions for how to steer clear of the sometimes deadly, always mysterious, and frankly frightening red-ringed mutating virus.

for the bookshop owner who virtually hosted a throng of beloved bibliophiles the night my little book was launched from the cozy confines of my kitchen — and no one knew i was wearing flip flops and yoga pants under my fine woolen shawl.

for the red birds who bring me such joy, and the blue jays who squawk, and the chickadees and nuthatches and even the flock of humdrum sparrows who delight me hour by hour.

for my prayer bench that so generously offers me a place to sit, tucked under the leafy arbor of my so-called secret kitchen garden.

for my brothers (four) and their wives and fiancé for being my front line of defense when life tests from all sides.

for my next door neighbors who have not yet erected the 6-foot-high fence that will forever cut off that holy slant of late afternoon light. 

for my “tird” cousin, Paddy, whose DNA mingles with mine, from back South Kilmo way, at the house by the bridge in County Clare, and who over the year has showered me with everything from the Celtic tunes i play by the hour, to the 20 pounds of basmati rice, and the 18 rolls of toilet paper he had shipped from China, just to be sure i was never without.

for the glorious women in my tribe: my mother, my mother-in-law, my adorable and endlessly effervescent aunt, and all of my sisters by marriage or heart. 

absolutely and without hesitation, for those blessed souls, spoken and unspoken, who gather here at the chair. 

for those friends who, like me, respect the heck out of the red-ringed virus and don the mask, keep the social distance, scrub hands for at least two rounds of happy birthday, and never ever roll their eyes at my nurse-level cautiousness.

for old friends who always, always understand (no matter the matter at hand). and even if they don’t, go on loving anyway. 

for the herbs in my garden (the ones i pluck to this day, adorning my turkey bird just last night with fresh-from-the-farm parsleys and rosemary). and, root of it all, for the brother who insisted i farm, who even tracked down the lumberyard where i could get my 12x2s, and my 24 bags of compost and potting soil.

for the sunrise that never forgot. the stars that always shone. the moon that, month after month, teaches the basics of math: addition, subtraction and the fine art of fractions.

for my window seat, and the hours spent there, curled into the corner where wall meets window.

for bookshelves that bend but do not break.

for that rare string of summer days when each night for two whole weeks, the four of us — a complete set in this house — fell asleep under the same single roof, awoke to the same morning stirrings, and reminded me why this little family i love is the most precious treasure in my whole entire life.

for planes that stayed in the sky, until time to land, for plastic shields and sanitizing gel that did their part to keep my continent-crossing people aloft and free of the virus. 

for the long-distance phone lines that kept us connected through the long and lonely — sometimes scary — hours of sheltering in place.

for the deadlines and bylines that put purpose to my writing life.

for lightbulbs that shine so i can read the page.

for all the orchards near and far that turn blossoms to fruit, so harvests might be picked and i might bite into my daily dose of Jazz, or Envy, or Honeycrisp.

for the pie people — and especially Richard, my pierced-ear pie peddler at the farmer’s market — who keep us stocked in a summer’s worth of pie, and who have stocked my freezer full of six — count ‘em — six Thanksgiving-to-Christmas pumpkin pies….

for the fever that finally went down.

for the prayers that hold me in the great abyss of the night. and propel me out of bed each and every morning. 

for those rare magnanimous souls who forever keep us laughing, cranking joy out of the cracks and crevices of our lives.

for vote tallies that tilted toward justice and truth.

yes, for the uncluttered calendar of this COVID-strange year, for the Saturday nights when we don’t even need to put on our shoes, and no one needs worry about getting lost on a long drive home. 

for the gaggle of boys who’ve grown up at my kitchen table, in carpools, on the soccer fields i watched from the sidelines, the boys who now text me from college, who promise me they’re now immune to COVID and it’s safe for my non-immune boy to join them round backyard campfires, over these long winter months to come…

for the genius microbiologists inventing their way to life-saving, soul-saving vaccines.

for every voice broadcasting the message that masks and social distance are imperative, even when those voices are met with eye-rolls. or worse. 

oh, yes, for the sound of footsteps and creaking floorboards in the room up above, telling me someone is home, safe under his covers…

for not waking up on thanksgiving to a mind racing with mile-long to-do lists, and tables to set and refrigerator 3-D geometries to unpuzzle, for awaking on the national day of over-indulging not worried about cooking for a mere three. to this surreal year, with a light at the end of the long long tunnel…

for the sheer stresslessness of cooking for three, in a house with a roaring fire, the referee whistles of football, and the breast of turkeybird who — after nearly twice the projected cooking time — finally succumbed to golden perfection. and for the prosecco by the glassful that washed it all down.

for Eugene Beals, the sheer genius of the five-member California Turkey Producers Advisory Board, who, back in the early 1970s, invented the little red pop-up turkey thermometer, in hopes of rescuing a hungry nation from the dried-out birds being pulled from ovens from sea to shining sea. 

for the pine trees and maples who laid down their lives to go up in flames in our soot-stained hearth. 

for the God who gives me this breath. and the next — or so i pray. 

for the God who doesn’t so much command my attention but rather taps me gently just behind the ribs, on the wall of that vessel that holds so much, sometimes taking my breath away at the sight of a star-stitched sky, or a mama robin beak-feeding squiggly worms to her babies, or the dawn breaking open the indigo night.

for my holy trinity; my three musketeers; my heart, my soul, my everything: my blair, my will, my teddy…..

for all this, dear holy Maker and Infuser of Breath and Beauty, i drop to my knees, open my heart and whisper a most emphatic blessed be thank you……

(sadly, only two of these three were taken this week; the one on the far right is from way back last Christmas….)

and what might be a few of the things for which you are so deeply grateful?

(depending how i count, i seem to be teetering at about the 118 mark in the litany above. oh well. i am certain i will fling off my sheets in the middle of the night suddenly realizing i’ve forgotten the most important 119, 120, 121…indeed the trials of counting your blessings: you cannot stop once you’ve begun…)