pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: COVID diaries

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…)

counting my way: a centenary of thanks in the making, prayer shawl for hard times

a few years ago — i thought it was three, but in fact it was six — i stumbled into the making of a gratitude list and found myself counting to 100, which made it a centenary of thanks. i fell in love with the word, of course, and the notion of reaching toward a number so high it took concentrated attention. simone weil, of course, tells us that attention is the launch pad of prayer. only she says it more poetically. she says this: “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

pádraig Ó tuama, the brilliant north ireland peacemaker and poet, says this about prayer: “i do love praying. like prier from french, ‘to ask.’ and what i love about that word is it doesn’t require belief. it just requires a recognition of need. and i think the recognition of need is something that brings us to a deep, common language about what it means to be human…”

and so, this year especially, when the wounds are deep, and the fears shimmer just below the surface, the sacred act of weaving ourselves and wrapping ourselves in the shawl of a gratitude litany — prayer purled — seems not only wise but necessary. surely an armament against the cold winds that will not abate.

i begin with the woods. i’m drawn there first for its tabernacle of sheltered silence, for the stirrings so faint you can hear tree trunks creaking, as if old bentwood rocking chairs, who let out a bit of a pinched and arthritic cry as they bend in the wind, rub hard against their fallen brethren.

i begin with the light there, the way the shadows play. one day dappling the leafy floor into odd-shaped checkerboard geometries, the next day diffusing the whole — the undulations of rises and hollows, the tangle of vines still holding tight to their berries — in a radiance that might be a kind of mystical halo.

the woods, a grove of old-growth oaks and a tumble of decades-old anonymous stumps, runs along a canal just a short ways from my house. i’ve taken to wandering there, squatting myself on the logs and the stumps that seem like children’s play blocks strewn from a leviathan’s toy chest. i listen and watch. a prayerful pose, if ever there was.

the litany of gratitudes tumble into my notebook, for i always carry a notepad and pen. these days, the woods are just about the holiest place i know. a tabernacle tucked under the trees.

the woods, it seems, are a fine place to sit in a time of pandemic. you might traipse through a meadow. or plunk in the sand and the sharp-bladed grasses along the lakeshore. or perhaps you’ve a river that bends, that offers up its whispering current, that serves as your launch pad for prayer.

these are the places that pay no mind to the cacophonies of the world, to the political banshee cries, to the ungodly images from inside the ICUs where breath itself verges on the impossible.

i turn, in times like these, to those carved-out holy places of God’s making. the opening in the woods, the prayer pew along the river bank or the lake’s soft edge. under the great star-salted dome of the night sky, just beyond my kitchen door.

but i might find holy altars even on the inside of my old house. at the cookstove, most certainly. that place where i stand, stirring, intermingling my incantations with the steam rising from whatever’s bubbling. call me crazy, but for me cooking, cooking for the ones i love, is nothing short of a prayer. sometimes i get lost in the launching of my litanies, and i wind up more or less burning my prayers. i’m rather infamous around here for my long record of burning the broccoli.

all this seems to be a circling around of the centenary itself. i’ve yet to get to the counting here. so perhaps the wisest thing to do is to slow count this year, to make it a week-long practice of paying simone-weil-level attention.

i’ll have an abundance of grist here: a boy i love is coming home from college, clear till the first of february. he and his papa will be motoring across the farmland of the great buckeye state, soon as we get the green light, soon as the precautionary COVID test comes back from the lab, with nary a worry.

the table this year will be sparse. only three of us. with our most essential fourth far beyond the reach of my hand, too far. but blessedly he won’t be alone.

we’ll partake of the traditional thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, only we’ll be stationed outside. on her sidewalk, perhaps. or in the circular drive. and there won’t be any picking away at the turkey platter at her house. nor even the swapping of slices of pie.

but i promise i will make it to 100, cross that prayerful line of demarcation (i wouldn’t want to call it a finish line, as that might imply a stopping, and i’ve no intention of doing so). perhaps you might choose to play along. perhaps you’ll count to 100, too. weave your own centenary. if there are turkey trots galore this time of year, those early-morning chases down pathways and lanes, a preamble calorie burn to make room for more stuffing, there might just as well be a numerical exercise in the petitions department.

i will leave you with the breathtakingness of our friend pádraig Ó tuama who wrote this about prayer, in an essay entitled, “Oremus,” which means, in latin, “let us pray.”

“…let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. let’s lick the earth from our fingers. let us look up and out and around. the world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. let us pray.”

i invite you to pray to one hundred….

blessings and blessings upon us, in these hours of blessing to come….

even if you don’t count to 100, perhaps you’ll pay closer attention to the petitions you hold in your heart in this blessed season of gratitude. but i will see you here next week, with my centenary in hand, or rather at heart…where, and with what, will you begin?

p.s. that tepee above is a little miracle i stumbled upon in the woods yesterday. an architecture of sticks, gathered from the heap pile of fallen limbs. it hadn’t been there before and so it stirred a thousand questions: was it something for a boy scout badge? are there still children who play in the woods? was it some ancestral lodge in the making, a place from which smoky petitions might rise?

oops! i forgot that i was thinking of leaving a little something here. the other night there was a “book launch” for Stillness, and given these pandemic times, that meant a virtual gathering. so, from the cozy confines of my kitchen, we all gathered robustly. AND the wonders of technology made an instant recording, which you can click any time to play along. here’s the key to get in! (just click the word “key” and it’ll magically open the door)

the angel always comes. often in the darkness.

this angel story begins with a stuffy nose on a sunday evening, five days ago. the nose belongs to my second-born, the one tucked away at college in the age of COVID (on a campus where — wisely, prudently — no one — well, no interlopers, bystanders, or pesky parents — is allowed in or out).

a stuffy nose is barely bothersome, and no one — save for your mother — might notice it. i, though, am said mother. so i noticed it. and mentioned it — in an otherwise matter-of-fact sunday evening phone call. the stuffed-up one all but brushed it off, said he might go to bed a little early. that was about the drama of it. zilch.

next morning, though, the phone rang. early. before 7. which in college time is middle of the night. he’d taken his temp three times, he reported, and it was hovering around 101. to whiz forward in this angel tale, we’ll skip straight to the part where he called midday that day to say the college doctor had stuffed a swab down his throat, taken a COVID test, and was promptly dispatching him to quarantine, at the old comfort inn hotel the college has taken over for the year, for the sequestering of sick kids, COVID kids, to be precise.

until my stuffy-nosed sophomore was proven otherwise, he was stamped, “pending” for COVID. he had one hour to pack two plastic bins with whatever he might need for the next two weeks, and soon found himself in a room with two queen-size beds overlooking an empty parking lot. in the middle of rural ohio.

the stuffy nose was getting out of hand. it was doing fever tricks, making it climb straight up the mercury hill (in the old days, when i went to nursing school, mercury — that slippery silver element — was the thermo-register of choice). the stuffy nose was swelling up his eyes, and making dark circles all around.

by tuesday evening, when the fever crossed the line at 103-point-something, the stuffed-up one called the front desk, and talked to the football coach in charge (yes, two assistant football coaches — sweethearts! — keep watch over the comfort inn, which i now lovingly refer to as “the covid inn.”) the football coach made some calls, and suddenly an ambulance becomes the focus of this too-long-winded tale.

yes, it was decided that an emergency room was on the docket and to get there, an ambulance was called. the mount vernon fire department ambulance. egad. hearing the wail of a siren, coursing through small-town streets, heading straight to where your kid is cowering under the covers, shaking with chills and fever, is a sound you do not want to hear. it’s a sound you won’t forget. especially as it comes closer and closer to the phone on the other end of the line, the line you are clinging to, trying to squeeze yourself through via the itty-bitty invisible wires you’re sure connect you.

since we’re trying to get to the part of the story where the angel comes in, we can boil down the ER part to simply this: they started an IV, zapped him through the x-ray machine, drew lots of tubes of blood, gave him a giant dose of ibuprofen, and declared him a ripe and ready case of mono, as in mononucleosis, an infectious disease that comes in two flavors mostly — mild and wicked. looks like we’re in for wicked.

by 2 in the morning, he was delivered back to the comfort inn, where he slid under the sheets and tried mightily to sleep. the fever though was having none of it. and for the next two days, it teeter-tottered, climbing to the very edge of 104.

we’re almost at the angel part:

all the while, during his days locked in room 229, the college was sending over trays of food from the dining hall a few miles away. (this comfort inn is in the next town over, so the commitment to feeding any far-flung sick kids — ours was the only one in the whole hotel — suddenly entailed a car and driver.) problem was, buffalo chicken sandwiches and breakfast sausage don’t work so well with fever and swollen glands swelling to the size of apricots on either side of your neck.

in trying to zip this story along here, i skipped over the part where the dean of students had called us at home as the ambulance was whisking our fevered child to the county hospital. she was heavenly, and she certainly is among the angels of the week. (there are several; i’m singling out only one for the long-distance-mama’s gold-medal-of-the-week.) early the morning after the ambulance ride, i sent my new friend the dean a little note, and asked if maybe the dining hall could send over those mama staples, the things you always pulled from the pantry when a little one was sick: saltines and gingerale. and maybe a little packet of honey to boot. (ice chips and honey somehow became our cure du jour in this old house.)

well — cue the drum roll — when our sweet fevered boy finally awoke from his long and awful night, he stumbled toward the door of room 229, opened it just a crack, and lo and behold there on the table where they always left his tray, he found not one, not two, not three — but six! — bags of groceries, custom-fit for a fevered kid. it was filled with a veritable wish list of things you might try when you can barely swallow or lift the spoon. there were soups and teas and saltines! and gingerale and 7UP, to boot. there was a teddy-bear squeeze bottle of honey, and cups of instant oatmeal and rice and ramen noodles. someone, some holy blessed someone, had up and left the dining hall, driven 5.7 miles to the kroger super-store, strolled every single aisle, all but filling a cart.

our holy blessed angel’s name is melissa. and as she wrote to me later in a note:

I have a 10 year old son. I cannot fathom him being away from me in a “normal” world let alone in this crazy world we are currently living in. For [T] to be so far away and going through such a terrible time must be excruciating. My heart hurts for you and I wish we could do more! I’m sure it is a constant worry and this is something we can do to take a little of that burden from you. We will do whatever we can to help ease your stress and give [T] a little TLC.

her words — her heart — make me cry, even now, two days later. she lived the holy heart of it all, of every holy book and ancient text ever inscribed.  she literally slipped herself into the holy act of “what would make ME feel better if I was far from home, burning with a fever, all alone and stuck in a hotel a few miles from all my friends?”  the very words i made sure to write, and sent straight up her chain of command, straight to the desk of the college president, so he’d hear firsthand just what a bunch of saints he was shepherding.

so that’s the story, and here’s the holiness: even in a world where every day the headlines tear us apart, and leave us gasping for breath, even in — especially in — those spells of darkness that surely come, right when you’re teetering at the precipice, worried sick and feeling more helpless than in a long long while, the universe always makes room for an angel to squeeze in, to slip in through the cracks. to bring bucketfuls of light. to adorn us with the blessed healing touch. the simple act of reaching beyond the borders of our sorry selves. of going the extra mile. of loving as we would be loved.

melissa, the director of catering at kenyon college, a mom whose job it is to feed the fancy folk and fuel the everyday special occasions, she slipped herself into my scared shoes this week, and she doled out love and saltines in an act of kindness and goodness and through-and-through heaven-ness now seared into our hearts.

angels always seem to come. this world is filled with them, though most often they go about their business without so much as a wink or a nod — and certainly not with trumpet blasts.

but if not for the angels, those messengers of real-live, in-the-flesh blessings, we’d all be piled in the dust. exhausted, hopeless, worried out of our wits.

as i type, my sweet boy is finally asleep. the COVID test finally came back: negative. and today he leaves the quarantine hotel, and gets a ride — via campus security — back to his little cottage in the woods, aka his dorm away from home. if needed, we’ll motor down and bring him home, where i can be like melissa, and ply my boy with whatever his sweet and blessed hurting heart desires.

who are the angels in your week this week?

and, dear melissa, to whom i just might send this, a hundred thousand thank yous till the end of time…..bless you, bless your heart. signed, the mom whose shoes you filled this week.

riding the COVID-coaster*

U.S. Hits Another Record for New Coronavirus Cases: New York Times graphic

we are all — all of us, red states, blue states, striped states, star-dappled states — strapped into this unplotted, unprecedented, unpredictable pandemic roller-coaster ride (*aka “COVIDcoaster,” a term introduced to me by my brilliant friend amy). the season of COVID, long past its toleration date, is gearing up for a wallop. or so it seems as summer cranks up the heat, and what’s ahead grows hazier.

we seem to be lurching upward and off-the-charts at breakneck speed, as if some giant-sized foot is pressing the proverbial pedal to the floorboard.

at this old house, the summer feels a bit like a COVID chess game. us v. the invisible virus that takes our smell and taste away. i need to put on speed dial a beloved ER doc friend of mine, the one who answers every inane puzzle and quandary i conjure. (and, believe me, i conjure.)

just this week, boy No. 2 found out his best friend’s sister — and another dear friend’s cousin — had tested positive — fever + sore throat, the sweet girl’s symptoms. of course, boy 2 had been out hitting golf balls the two previous nights in a row with her brother. and, to double the trouble, one of those nights he’d taken a long sidewalk-straddling walk (without masks), with the COVID girl’s cousin, who’d just gotten back from a week of sharing a summer cottage — and a bedroom — with the newly diagnosed one.

from the minute boy 2 got the news — at the end of a hot sauna of a day mowing grass and chopping trees for the park district — he had his KN95 mask strapped on so tight it musta made it hard to breathe. he insisted on eating his dinner on the far side of the kitchen, a good 12 feet from the rest of us. and he holed up in his room as if protecting me from nuclear fallout. just now, as he loped out the door for another day of tree-chopping, he triumphantly announced his test (taken yesterday afternoon at one of those one-day testing sites) just came back negative, as did his best friend’s and the cousin’s. halle-holy-lujah! i’m thinking it was a close-enough call to maybe add an extra 20 seconds of hand washing to the regime from here on in, though the perceived invincibility of teens prompts me to hedge that bet.

then there’s boy 1: the one who is here, asleep under this very roof, spending his days studying for the bar exam and waiting to move to portland, oregon, where a federal clerkship awaits. you might think — with five scheduled cross-country flights and two separate moving crews, a new job, new apartment, and that bar exam — that we set out to plot the most complicated itinerary imaginable in the age of COVID (though we assure you we did not). as it stands now he is due to fly back to new haven on monday, where the first of the two moving crews will crate every last fork, spoon, and tome in his law school apartment, and ship it all oregon way. the plan had been to come back here for the duration, till it was time to meet the movers in portland, but with the COVID charts skyrocketing in the exact wrong direction, we ditched plan B. and have moved on to plan C in which the poor kid will wait it out for 10 days in a stark empty apartment (save for the old lumpy mattress he is not moving), fly new york to portland, meet the movers, and then — drum roll here for the most mind-bending part of the plot — fly four-and-a-half hours back to chicago to take the bar exam, which in itself is a legal petri dish of COVID waiting to engulf the entire law school class of 2020. the geniuses who plot bar exams are currently planning to stuff 2,000 illinois test takers into a ballroom for two long days at the start of september. some of those test takers, like our very own, will be fresh off airplanes, having flown into chicago for the exam. others, waiting to take the exam before they can start drawing a paycheck, might well be inclined to go ahead and take the test even if, say, they can’t smell a thing, feel a wee bit hotter than usual, and might have started sniffling or coughing. how this is allowed to happen is beyond me, but then it’s the COVIDcoaster, and we are all whipping around the course, bracing ourselves through all its undulations.

so i do what i do best: i worry the night away. i pony up for the higher-cost health insurance, haunted by visions of the kid sick as a dog and turned away from the best hospitals in town if he doesn’t flash the right insurance card. we canceled the plane ticket on the airline that no longer keeps the promise to not fill every seat on the plane, and grabbed a new one for an even-longer ride on a plane that promises a few inches more breathing room. and we are leaving the kid to sleep in an empty apartment for 10 days — all because we’re haunted by the very real fears that COVID is a fire-breathing, smell-stealing dragon that’ll come up and nab you from behind.

meanwhile, we watch germany and south korea mostly trot back to work, no longer so encumbered by this awful terrible invisible virus.

by the hour, awful terrible numbers are flashing before our eyes — cases climbing, death rates certain to follow.

and those of us who swear allegiance to masks and 75-percent isopropyl alcohol hand sanitizer, we begin to wonder when, oh when, will it end? and who of the ones we love will be caught in its vice — snuffed out, or left with lingering scarring for who knows how long?

it’s enough to wear you down, and wring you like a soggy rag. we’re weary of all the lysol-wiping of every last milk carton. and navigating the variations of rule-following among those we love is no summer picnic. (i’m among the self-avowed scaredy cats who takes tony fauci at his every last word; if he tells me to mask up and not share even a fruit bowl among friends, i’m wearing two masks and lysol bleaching like nobody’s business.)

it all makes for strange times. surreal times, really. but, thank God, we are — so far — living to tell about it.

and in the meantime, i’m baking.

almond joy cookies, hot out of the oven

here’s the latest summer joy from the cookie jar, and they couldn’t be easier. four ingredients, stir, scoop, press flat, await the slightest gilding of the coconut edges. then watch ’em fly.

almond joy cookies

these wicked little coconut cushions, studded with semi-sweet chocolate and bits of sliced almond, are what happens when your favorite grocery store peddles a similar confection at $5.99 for five of ’em. because those pricey little mounds are practically inhaled in this old house, i was determined to make ’em myself. a bit of prowling around the internet, my cookbook without end, led me to these, courtesy of some lovely someone named trish on momontimeout.com

she writes: “These easy Almond Joy Cookies take just four ingredients and don’t even require a mixer! No beating, no chilling, just mix ’em up and throw ’em in the oven EASY! You’re going to love these ooey gooey fabulous cookies!”

Prep Time: 5 mins

Cook Time: 12 mins

Ingredients

  • 1 14-oz bag sweetened coconut flakes
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup chopped lightly salted almonds (trish used Blue Diamond Low Sodium Lightly Salted – light blue bag, but i couldn’t find, so i used sliced almonds and added 1 teaspoon salt)
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk regular or fat-free works

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 325F.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  • In a large bowl combine coconut, chocolate chips, almonds, and sweetened condensed milk.
  • Stir until combined.
  • Scoop out dough with a cookie scoop onto prepared baking sheet.
  • Moisten the tips of your fingers with water and shape into discs. Pat the tops flat.
  • Bake cookies for 12 to 14 minutes or until tips of coconut are just starting to turn golden brown.
  • Let cool on baking sheet.
  • Store cookies in an airtight container.

Notes

Parchment paper is critical for these cookies to turn out right. Silicone mats, waxed paper, etc. will yield a slightly different result.

chime in and spill your COVID-coaster stories. do tell. misery loves company. and by now we are all worn thin from the red-ringed worries.

(p.s. i am not making light of one drop of this, merely recounting with a journalist’s eye the absurdities of what the summer’s bringing….)