it’s been 792 days since that red-ringed virus shut down the world as we know it. all sorts of events got pushed off to the side, and plenty others — too many others — happened anyway, though no one was allowed to gather, to convene to absorb each other’s pain or amplify the joy of sweet triumphs large or small or somewhere cozily in the middle.
a kid i love made it across one of the toughest finish lines of his life back in may of 2020. turned in a book-length dissertation, crossed off the last of the law school to-do’s, and promptly slept in the morning his law school zoomed some semblance of quasi graduation.
they promised they’d make it up down the road, whenever ol’ covid relinquished its grip, let humans be human again. that moment, allegedly, is now. (though a good part of me is not so sure the grip is much relinquished as we were dashing to the pharmacy the other night for a friend who fell ill with covid for the third time since this all started and needed us to grab a prescription of paxlovid, the anti-viral wonder drug, and on our one little block, house after house is sealed shut for the cases of covid brewing inside.)
so we’re leaping into the unknown, taking our chances, flapping our wings new york way, and motoring up interstate 95, along the connecticut coast, where, come saturday morning, all four of our little family will convene with all the gusto we can muster there on an old campus where the classes of 2020 and 2021 get to make it official.
after all that separation, the simple magnificence of being together, being able to see the gleam in the eyes of the ones we love most, being able to wipe away a tear in real time, squeeze hands while walking through nothing so fancy as a parking garage: that is the definition of blessing.
despite its many deprivations, one good thing about these pandemic years is that it’s made the simple miracle of being together all the sweeter, more succulent.
there is catching up to be done, in the wake of red-ringed abductor of so many lives and so very much living.
so, two years after the fact, we are ditching long distance, saying no thank you to zoom. doesn’t matter to me if it’s two years too late. we’re going to be there. we’re going to hear that kid’s name when it’s called, and we’re going to watch that lope i know so well as he makes his way across the stage. i imagine i’ll be rifling through a cerebral cortex of memories, the late nights we stayed on the phone, the trips to the emergency room, the hours and hours i worried about how many days he’d gone without sleep, fueled on coffee and fumes. and i know i’ll be thinking all the way back to the start of it all, back to the very last thing he said to us, there on the sidewalk the morning we left him at law school, after we’d moved him in, made the requisite rounds of trips to IKEA for bookshelves that would not withstand the weight of all his books. he gave his papa a sturdy handshake, looked him in the eye, and said with all the certainty we had worked for and prayed for all those years: “thank you for everything; i’ll take it from here.”
and he did. and he does…
and that is the joy and the love beyond words that will be pulsing so loudly as i sit on the edge of my chair gulping back tears and holy hallelujahs.
God bless you, always, sweet Will. and thank you. love, always, your very own mama.
in all the annals of children’s literature, there deserves to be a shelf devoted to one gloomy donkey. eeyore is his name, a name derived from a phonetic spelling of the sound the farmyard friend is alleged to make. i say “alleged” because i cannot claim that i’ve leaned against a split-rail fence and listened in for just the way he hees and haws.
i write in praise of this misanthropic fellow, forlorn as the day is long, this chap who ambles through the hundred-acre wood tossing out lines wholly hollowed of all hope––for instance, “it’s not much of a tail, but i’m attached to it,” or, when someone pins a red balloon to where his tail went missing, he sighs, “sure is a cheerful color. guess i’ll have to get used to it”––because just yesterday i felt his every pain, and found myself cheered to be so deeply in his shadow.
it was an eeyore sort of day, and i was in an eeyore sort of slump (my best, best friend had three biopsies the day before, someone else was positive for covid, and i’ve not shaken the last of my own red-ringed devil although i’m due to board a plane to NYC tomorrow). and it made me think how fine a thing it was and is for a child to have an eeyore on the shelf, to feel some kinship when the world turns gloomy grey and a few good hours of slumping around in self-defined misery is not such a bad thing. it’s part of human nature. etched into the very dips and hollows of any old EKG, for starters. and it made me think that our gloomier angels deserve a moment’s appreciation. so here i am appreciating.
if not for grey, wouldn’t rosy raspberry be just another shade from the far side of the color wheel?
i’ve known souls who never seem to veer off the happy plane, and frankly they worry me. it simply cannot be a fact of nature that optimism is ever present. i like a little deviation in my moods. how on earth can you fully appreciate the good days, if you’ve not felt the uptick from down in the doldrums?
of course, i’m not rooting myself down where misery loves its company. like cloudy skies, it passes. and, after all, by day’s end at least a few of yesterday’s bumps had smoothed (the kid with positive covid PCR–a kid hunkered down in our basement just the night before–took another test and this one proved him negative; and this meant we didn’t need to seal our own college kid in a cellophane wrap, keep him home from college for an extra week, figure out just how to get him off to school without infecting every other passenger in sight).
all i’m saying is that i am grateful that in turning the pages of alan alexander milne’s classic children’s tale, a wee child sodden with sadness might find a kindred shadow in the likes of dear friend eeyore. no one likes to be alone in sorrow. i know very few who would appreciate a swift “get over it” when feeling wearied by the world, with no quick fix in sight.
and so i burrow against the contours of the dreary donkey. i embrace his full expression of how dark it sometimes feels. and, unlike eeyore, i look forward to the dawn when the sky is once again awash in pretty pink.
i can’t quite think of a question, so i offer simply this: if you’re feeling eeyore glum, may you find some tiny shred of solace in knowing you are not alone. one thing to contemplate might be this: what are the few ties to hope that sometimes pull you from the doldrums? do you have any tricks up your sleeve that chase the clouds away?
please pray for my beloved auntie M, as she is known in these parts, and where she has been my number one love angel since the very day she walked into my life—and my heart—my sophomore year of college.
Origin (from Oxford Languages): early 17th century: alteration of counterpoint, from Old French contrepointe, based on medieval Latin culcitra puncta ‘quilted mattress’ (puncta, literally meaning ‘pricked’, from the verb pungere). The change in the ending was due to association with pane in an obsolete sense ‘cloth’.
when i was little, i was oft confined to bed when i got sick. and, as i recall, my childhood was pocked with the sorts of sicknesses for which bedroom doors were closed and meals delivered by metal tray. a dinner bell rested on my mirror-topped vanity, and i jingled it if in need of gingerale on ice, or saltine crackers in wee stacks. clearly, my mother of five was practicing astute infection control lest she find herself in charge of quintuple cases of whatever was my ailment of the hour.
it was all quotidian enough—scarlet fever, chicken pox, mumps, measles, really nasty flu. i twice was sent to hospitals for IVs and a week of restitution, and so, given the spells in bed, i came to think the land of counterpane a most familiar terrain. (maybe, in part, it’s why i was drawn to being a pediatric nurse.) and, of course, i populated the contours of my bedclothes with a well-steeped storybook imagination––hills and vales and undulations, the nooks and crannies of my make-believe lilliputian chambermates: trolls and elves and sprites and sometimes an imaginary baby sister.
among the first poems i memorized was robert louis stevenson’s “the land of counterpane,” a verse i know by heart:
When I was sick and lay a-bed, I had two pillows at my head, And all my toys beside me lay To keep me happy all the day.
and so, this past stretch of days (now ten), once again behind closed bedroom door with trays duly delivered by the nurse in charge (now, the sweet, sweet man i married long ago), i find myself a-bed, beneath my counterpane, all my toys beside me laying. and (except for the few days when it was a bit of a challenge to catch a breath) it’s not been quite as dreadful as it might sound.
i’ve windows on three sides with golden sunlight streaming in by day; at night, i watch the twinkling lights and street lamps that punctuate the darkness as far as i can see. and the wonders of laptops and itty-bitty phones mean you can stay in touch with even the longest lost compatriots (two friends from nursing school in fact), neighbors who’ve checked in every day, my faraway best friend who has been as close as close could be, and my distant cousin whom i adore who thought to overnight me a barrel of freeze-dried apocalyptic broccoli. and, best of all, i’ve got my covid buddy––my firstborn, the one who fell first––directly across the hall. he escaped solitary confinement at midnight last night, as we’re abiding by the 10-day rule unless a negative antigen test allows early egress (which, in his case, he never got). so he and i have had long hours of crossword puzzles and conversation that might not have unfolded had we both been skittering hither and yon. it’s the younger one i miss the most, as he’s taken to steering as clear as possible of me and my omicron. (the kid’s no dummy.)
strange to think, a week ago i didn’t yet know what it was that had buckled me at the knees, and it would not be till christmas afternoon that the test result came back in red ink with exclamation mark, dare i miss the point.
the lesson of this covid tale would be as one wise doctor told me just the other day: assume you’ve got it––and stay in isolation––till proven otherwise. testing is just a mess, and misses far too many positivities till all the contagions are scattered in your wake. i fear for what’s coming in a country shut down by this latest red-ringed mutation. but i enter it now armed with mighty antibodies (or so i hope and pray). and a determined willingness to do all i can to help the next one fallen to make it through with TLC, and all the isolation tips i’ve learned along the way.**
sticking to the rules, i’ll not be sprung from my confinement till the midnight bell tolls tonight, and the year turns as well, allowing me to begin afresh the year of our Lord MMXXII.
my new year prayer is even more distilled than my christmas prayer a week ago:
dear God, let all of us have someone dear to check in on us, to bring us cups of tea, to care for us in tender ways (and even on the days when we’re not anchored in our lands of counterpane). keep us safe, dear God, and mindful of all that matters most: let us put down the weapons of words, of grudges, of cold hard shoulders. let us snap into focus to see that the path is short, is sometimes rough, and that the best way home is side by side, entwining elbows, and leaning toward the light. let us lock out the rampant toxicities (and i don’t mean the biologically viral ones), bar the doors to discourse that divides us, and strain to find our common common threads. we’re woven of the sacred, after all. it’s buried there, beneath the noise, the bombast, the sure evidence otherwise. the unfettered truth––most clearly realized on long nights when breath comes hard and fevers swirl––is this: life is swift. we’ve no escape from certain end, so let us make each day a living prayer in which we seek and find certain trace of all that’s heaven-sent, and all that hails from You, the One who fuels the light, who preaches love beyond measure and without end, and who gives us our each and every breath—even when it’s labored. blessed be that holy, holy breath, amen.
most of all, i hope and pray you’re well. and staying safe from this nasty bug that’s toppling us like tin soldiers.
more than anything, i yearn for the quiet of christmas, the early morning silence when it’s just me puttering about the kitchen, cranking the oven, simmering spices on the stove. i take my morning prayer by flickering candle flame. or beneath the morning stars. or beside the woodsy fir, now strung with lights and berries, standing proud beside the ticking clock that chimes the hours.
i love listening for the first of the footsteps thumping onto the floorboards overhead, and the creaking of the old oak that follows. but long before that longed-for stirring breaks the silence, it’s into the depths of quiet that i surrender, that i’ve been waiting for all these weeks. the old house before its stirring. when it’s just barely breathing. and christmas is finally at the door.
it’s in that silence that i most absorbingly slip into the dusky hours of that ancient, ancient night, when amid the vastly-vaulted holy land, beneath the rough-hewn rafters of a barn, down low where the straw was matted, where the creatures intoned their moans and mews and cooing, a newborn babe let out a human cry. i like to imagine i’m peeking out from behind a post. i sometimes imagine the laboring mother reaching out her hand, reaching out for strength in the form of someone else’s flesh and delicate bone, reaching for another hand—my hand—to hold onto hers, to wipe her brow, her tears, to kneel down beside her and whisper certainties. “you got this,” i imagine saying, as these three words have so often scaffolded me in my own hours of trembling fears.
but this christmas is not going to be like any other christmas. it’s not even like last year’s most unfamiliar christmas, when we all but hunkered down, when we awaited the vaccine just peeking over the horizon, when hope felt not too far off.
no, this christmas, we’re all upside down again. it’s all changed and changing fast. as fast as that red-ringed variant omicron is mutating, is doubling in numbers inside some of us, our hopes and plans for christmas are changing too.
there is abundant heartbreak this christmas. and here, on the very eve of christmas day, i don’t yet know what tomorrow will bring. but i’m willing to bed i won’t be leaving my bed.
given the headlines––the wildfire that is omicron––there’s a mighty fair chance your christmas is as tumbled up as ours.
we’ve an uninvited visitor here, one who snuck in through the back door and turned everything inside out and slanted. yes, covid came, and in very short order canceled someone’s surgery, and canceled someone else’s flight from california. covid came and sent one of us all but seeing stars, she was so gulpingly alarmed. after all, i’ve lived the last nearly two years doing everything i could to lope at least two steps ahead: for months i was among the ones who washed every single grocery bag or box or pint hauled into this old house; i steered clear of crowds, wore not one but two masks unless alone in the woods, or tracing the lakeshore’s edge. met ones i love harbored on the front stoop a good twelve feet away. washed my hands to happy birthday thrice. (if twice was recommended, i opted always for the extra round of public health insurance.)
but covid caught up to us. my firstborn—home for the first christmas in two years—is quarantined in the room at the top of the stairs. i was quarantined in my little writing room until my PCR came back negative early yesterday morn. for two long days, i was calling the book-stacked chamber my covid cottage, my covid christmas cottage.
and now, after a long night with thermometer under tongue, i’m all but sure the red-ringed virus dodged the swab but has me in its clutches, since i feel more awful by the hour. i’m thinking omicron is wily, and mighty good at playing hide-and-seek. i’ll test again this morning. (bless the neighbors who drove home from ohio, where supply is far more abundant, with a wee stash of impossible-to-find DIY covid tests.)
most of all, i’ve worried about my mama, who does not want to be alone on christmas day, but whom we don’t want felled by this nasty, nasty scourge. dear God, don’t let her get it.
all the last minute upside-down-ness has clearly pointed to one simple single certain truth: if we can be gathered with the ones we love, under the same roof, by zoom or phone or mental telepathy, well then we’re blessed as blessed could be.
this is not the way i imagined it, whispering christmas wishes through a crack beneath the door, leaving packages on the tray that ferries food and dishes in and out of the sickroom. too contagious to wander down the stairs and daydream by the light-strung tree. but here’s what matters: we are emphatically and undeniably all under one single roof.
which, after all, is the answer to a hundred prayers. it’s what we lacked last year. and some iteration of what i wished for this year.
while we untangle uncertainties here on the homefront, i still stand ready to unfurl a christmas morning’s benediction.
a prayer for quiet christmas
dear God of starlit dawn, dear God of Light now coming, as we gather up this year, gather up the sorrows and the sweetness, hear our deepest cries. let us love even when our hearts get bumped and bruised. let us be gentle in the harshest hours. let us keep upright even when we’re wobbling. let us hold onto hope. let us seize the blessings as they unfold within our reach. lift up our tender memories, the ones we’ve loved and lost this year. let us carry forward their inextinguishable flame, and keep their incandescence blazing. dear God, as we bow down and bend our knees, let us behold the newborn wonder, and do all we can to absorb the holy light of this most silent silent night.
merry blessed christmas to each and every someone who wanders by the chair. may you be well, and hold tight to all your blessings.
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?
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…..
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?
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?
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.xoxoxoxoand 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
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….