Stubborn Wishes

“The whole reason that there are so many dandelions is because of the wish thing,” Mark, 12, tells me.  Diana, 6, gets off her bike, lets it thunk to the ground, and bends down to pick two blowballs from a patch of grass — one for me, one for her brother.

“Thank you,” I say, and look with admiration and repulsion at this perfect sphere, this geodesic dome built of fluff, the bane of gardeners everywhere. I blow mine, feeling like a vandal, wishing the seeds will float to the street, not to innocent yards behind me.

When I try to pull one up in my garden, gathering all its arms and legs and yanking it by the neck, its body remains in the earth and soon will grow a new head like some kind of mythological monster.

Mostly I’ve given up, now just popping off the flower heads when they’re young and yellow and leaving the rest, as if accepting a colony of stray cats as long as they don’t make babies.

Whose wish is growing between the bricks by the Lilies of the Valley? Who planted the desire in between the sidewalk and our front gate?

Are the dandelions in our gravel driveway proof that my children had dreams? And I, thinking only of neatness and order, behead them on my way to accomplishing something else. Sometimes I stuff the heads in my pocket, for lack of a place to dispose of them, then find them again, drawn up and clean, in a freshly laundered pair of jeans.

They don’t want to be yanked out of the earth. They do everything they can to stay anchored there, shooting their tap roots down like arrows, saying ‘I belong here!’ They could survive the worst drought, flood, or heat wave, when the basil I coddle in a pampered plot will die if not offered a drink of water on a hot day.

Is it because those untold wishes are more tenacious than anything you can buy or plan? My mom used to drop her wedding ring around a candle on her birthday cake before blowing out the flames to make her wish come true.

Today Diana asked if she could pick our first cherry tomato, the only one this season that has made the journey from yellow star to rosy globe while escaping the catbird’s eye.  

She cradles it in her hand and says, “Let’s do a ‘sermony’ or whatever you call it,” and I know she means the way we take the garden’s first fruit, a single blackberry or strawberry or sugar snap pea, and place it on a sliver plate until dinnertime when everyone is seated, and after presenting the specimen, slice it into as many sections as people around the table, placing the morsel on our tongues, tasting all at once the watering, the weeding, the coaxing, the staking, the shooing, the clearing, the sunlight, the rain, the worms, and the wishing.

“Feel it,” Diana holds out the little ball. It’s plump and firm, round and warm.

“It’s like a wedding ring,” she says and runs inside, climbs onto the hutch and reaches up to get a small white bowl, placing the orange globe in the center by itself, like a ring of gold that seals a pact of love.

Later this morning Luke will celebrate his 10th birthday with one friend, one present, one pizza, and one scoop of salted caramel gelato in a paper cup. No candle, perhaps because of that article in the newspaper that asked whether it was dangerous to blow germs all over a dessert. 

He will be upstairs putting together the Star Wars Black Ace imperial Lego spaceship he just unwrapped when his dad will come home from work, take the ragged mass of keys out of his pocket and his wedding ring off his finger, and drop them, Ching-a-ling!, into the silver tray on the counter, and then pop the single cherry tomato in the little white bowl into his mouth. 

There is no ceremony when we blow off the globe of downy hair from a dandelion puffball until the seedhead is completely bald, plucked and pock-marked like an unfeathered chicken. No ceremony except for the long in-breath and the closing of eyes and the fantasy spinning into color. No ceremony except for the parachute seeds dispersed into the wind, onto the rolling lawns and sidewalk cracks, over the blue spruce hedges and under buckling blacktop driveways. Secret wishes that won’t let go.

Summer Morning Sadness

The first time we went to the pool this summer, we could only stay 20 minutes. Mark had math class on the living room computer, and I thought we’d hop in the car right after and make it for most of our slot, but he had a quiz and said it was going to take him a long time, but we said, of course we’ll wait. 

Luke and Diana and I sat on the porch in our bathing suits with sunscreen on, listening to the crows caw and distant lawnmowers rove, and after a while we opened up the pool bag and looked at the hotdogs all wrapped in foil, and then we unwrapped them one by one and the mustard was so tangy, the buns so soft, and then we opened the box of carrots, and then the container of potato chips, and when Mark came out, he looked white and said there was no point, but we piled in the car and got there just in time.

But this morning Mark doesn’t have math, and we got a 2-hour reservation, and the water is sparkling like turquoise gold. The kids throw off their shorts and pull on their goggles and fast-walk to the deep end, and they’re so happy, and Sofia is coming home today, and everything is fine. So why do I feel like sitting on this vinyl lounge chair and crying?

Was it the email that came in this morning declining the invitation to celebrate Luke’s 10th birthday at an amusement park, or the shame I felt for having even asked? Is it because the thing he really wants is a bike and I can’t find a single 24-inch bike in stock to give him?

Maybe it’s because of all the money we lost on the canceled trip to Florida, or that yesterday the mayor was supposed to announce how schools would re-open but then called off the press conference, and Houston and Atlanta and L.A. and Montgomery County have already announced that school will be online this fall.

Or was it that when Virginia said she didn’t mind if her senior year was all virtual because she’s over high school, I saw a black computer screen replace her life and my redemption, my last chance to be the mom she wanted me to be, to trust her, to let her do more when high school was still high school and kids still loitered around the convenience store and rode buses and bought dresses for dances and roamed around looking for parties after football games.

“When are you going to get in?” the kids ask me, the tips of their noses dripping, their eyelashes like star points, and I tell them, “Later, I’m not hot enough yet,” but what I really mean is I’m not happy enough.

Maybe it’s because today is the day we would have flown back from Italy, bleary from too many nights out and visits to cousins and early morning cappuccinos and our suitcases would be jammed with stained sink-washed clothing and plastic bags of shells, brochures, and tiny bottles of Italian shampoo swiped from hotels.

Is it because my children have each other, but I spend my days alone, and even though I am consuming this solitude like one wide-open mouth, I feel that somewhere people are hugging and laughing and locking eyes and I’m here caught in a wind tunnel of air, so much air, fresh non-human air.

At the diving boards, kids line up to do can-openers and back dives, and I feel like a traitor, dry and motionless on my chair. I don’t know what to do with this sadness. It makes me feel soft, rich, babylike. To mourn the loss of things that others have never held.

But how does it help to not let myself cry? I become a steel drum with a welded top, my precious dangerous stuff kept in. And everyone else kept out.

After the whistle blows the long looping whine that means “get out,” lifeguards block the main entrance and masked bathers file out of the side exit by the chain link fence. I too am wet — the kids convinced me to stop wrestling with my sorrow and jump in. Near the snack bar, an enormous stack of pool chairs has been constructed, hundreds of different types and sizes that once made this a place to gather have been fitted together into one giant mass, as if ready to make a bonfire. 

The remaining few set sparsely around the pool. So I couldn’t sit near anyone and pretend that I was happy. Spaced apart so that the air would fill with silence instead of chatter. So that sadness had a way to spill out and join with the rest and finally be washed away.

Uncoupling

Today I dropped off my 18-year-old daughter Sofia and three friends at a cabin in the woods. They had been planning this trip for months. Which way to divide up the cooking and buy the groceries, how they would get tested twice and quarantine for two weeks before (and some for two weeks after), who could drive and who had a car or a brother with a license, if they would bring bikes or charcoal, jugs of water or a filter, and who would bring the sunscreen, the bug spray, and the fire starter.

They played oldies from 2015 during the drive into the Shenandoah mountains, and bounced in their seats and laughed, the conversation always tripping along with the energy of an adventure beginning.

“I’ve been doing hella driving since I got my learner’s.”

“I had to do a U-turn in front of a sno-cone truck!”

“28 out of 30. I got the one wrong about how to pass a streetcar.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a streetcar.”

When we exited onto a two-lane ribbony country road, it started raining and they checked the weather on their phones, and it came down so hard all the colors washed into white, and we drove through farms clinging to the slopes and under a freight train standing still on a ridge above us, and then we turned onto a one-lane gravel road, then a muddy drive, and when we got to the steepest part, we thought the car wouldn’t make it.

“Dada sad, but a little glad,” my husband had said when he hugged Sofia goodbye before she left the house, and as we backed out, he stood in the street to make sure no one was coming. I had ordered groceries that morning, but when I deleted the frozen fruit Sofia wouldn’t be needing for her morning smoothies, I felt like I was deleting her from my life.

She wouldn’t be coming down in her yoga clothes every morning, hair braided down the back. She wouldn’t be making her weekly dinners with yogurt dill sauces or her roasted summer vegetables. We wouldn’t do driving practice on Tuesday afternoon, and she wouldn’t be there to remind Luke to put his napkin on his lap, or help Mark with his summer math homework, or ask the kids so I don’t have to, “Why aren’t you in quiet time?”

“Is that everything?” I call back to the girls who are now checking out the cabin bedrooms and the valley view from the hot tub deck, as I look into the empty car, and then I remember the firewood in the secret trunk compartment. I set the wood down next to the little wood stove and start trying to figure out how it works, and I realize I have already done too much. 

Sofia gives me a big hug, and she is happier than she has been in a long time, and I walk through the fiberglass door with the beveled glass window and close it, leaving me on the other side, and I get into the car and tell Google Maps to take me home.

She will not be home for dinner tonight, but she will also not be on that living room couch watching YouTube videos — she will be so far from her family that she will feel herself expanding, she will fill a space open and free, not criss-crossed by expectations and demands, underground hopes and invisible canopies. She will feel the chemistry of friendships alchemizing, conversations that go on for 48 hours, figuring out how she likes to do things, how she likes to run a house, set a table, organize her day, follow her heart.

As I wind down the mountain, the sun is coming back out and steam rises off the pavement. I drive past poultry farms and grazing cows and junk yards with piles of tires in front, and the road curves in and up, down and around, like a hammock swinging.

And then through a break in the trees, I see that freight train moving across a high trestle between two peaks, and I start humming that country gospel song I don’t know why I love, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” The train must have stopped in the downpour, but it’s moving now. Black tank cars, yellow boxcars, well cars stacked with shipping containers, graffiti decorating each one, including the word “HOME” spray painted in all caps.

The road winds around gasps of mist hanging beside the mountains, past the Skyline Caverns with its rainbow waterfall and enchanted dragon, and then there it is again churning along the tracks on a ridge, and I want to stay there and hear the steel rolling over steel, watch the cars clicking by one by one over the rails, being pulled along, simply holding what they were given, because somewhere ahead an engineer has his hand on the throttle, watching the curves, the fills, and tunnels.

When I get home, I send pictures of the girls and the cabin to the other moms and I think that I might not hear from my daughter for five days. And this is practice for a real leaving. A leaving she has been preparing for her whole life. An uncoupling. And I will feel the sudden loss of the weight behind me, like a railcar being unhitched from another after a long journey, and not being able to look back to see where the other is headed.

Today We Would Have Departed

Today is the day we would have sat on our suitcases to zip them up, flattening down carefully selected outfits and collections of mini lotion tubes, and Mark would have offered to carry his sisters’ bags down, until 7 of them congregated in the entry. We would have given the sunflowers and kiwi berries one last soak, crouched to say goodbye to the cat under the couch, and turned the porch light on as we latched the door. We would have eaten grapes and salami sandwiches wrapped in foil in Terminal B as we watched the sun set over Dulles airport, waiting to board the plane, knowing that in one short night and one long day, Nonno Franco would be wearing his shirt full of pockets just beyond customs in Milan holding boxes of peach nectar and brioches, and the cappuccino that I would get at the airport bar would be the best I’d ever had.

After months of zig-zagging between resignation and hope — Italy has recovered! but New York is a mess — Sicily is offering 1/2 off hotel stays! but only to Europeans — the emotional spikes got softer and softer until they finally lay flat. We asked the airline to issue us vouchers for another year, but no one is sure when that will be.

We were going to go to the Marches where Enrico’s father grew up, where it was his job as a child to buy ice for a handful of lira from the man who would chop off a block with an axe, and Franco would wrap it in a cloth and race home in the noonday sun — “Via, via!” — with the melting ice strapped to his handlebars, past the farms where earlier that morning he and his father had traded the sole and seabreams they had caught in their net for peaches and cantaloupe and watermelons still warm from the sun.

I thought it would be sad when the day of departure came around, but it already feels far far away, like a carful of cousins who stayed for a good long week but are now already 7 states and 2 motels away, and their sheets have already been washed and dried and folded away, the extra chairs stacked back in the garage, and we have returned to following our hearts or to-do lists, sleeping in our own beds, spinning new scenarios in the privacy of our own minds.

Before we canceled the reservation on Vrbo.com, we had planned to argue over bedrooms when we arrived at the centuries-old house on a cliff above Ancona where the pictures showed stone stairs leading down to a sandy inlet of the Adriatic Sea, and at lunchtime we’d toss hot pasta with olive oil and garlic and red pepper flakes and wrap salty prosciutto around melon slices and eat it in our bathing suits under the myrtle trees on the patio, and I didn’t mind that the house had no air conditioning because I like it hot, or pipes so old you could only take one shower at a time, because we would have been all together and it would have been new — to me.

Tables would have been set end-to-end in the courtyard of a Milanese trattoria to fit all of Enrico’s aunts and uncles and cousins, and there would have been dinners that rolled on until midnight with his friends from university, and maybe I would have cried from laughing at the story of the forgotten tent poles when they were camping on a beach in Greece. And we would have met the family of Isabella, the exchange student who stayed with us last September, and the girls would have hung around in beachside bars with Italian teens and I would see vistas opening into their lives where there were none before, and my Italian husband would be like a fish released back into the sea, not waking up thinking about the situation on Ward D2 or the back-to-back appointments until 9:00 pm, but he would be shimmering with plans of which rugged beach we would conquer that day, which hill town we would climb, which odd lamb dish only made in this one village he would track down, and he would do all the leading, and I would feel like I was sitting in the back seat and just looking out, not having to drive the car, decide which way to go or what to do.

We will remember this summer not for these things, but for an ordinary quiet so deep it rivals a symphony. Siestas will keep happening every day after lunch, and I will keep taking walks after dinner when the kids are in bed and the fireflies are starting to shine like diamonds sprinkled in the twilight. We will pair up and go down the list of things that needed to be done but never were, like repainting the antique wrought-iron garden chairs, figuring out how to recaulk the bathtub, and translating the fable their Italian grandma remembers hearing when she was little. I will keep taking Sofia out for driving lessons in half-empty state park lots, and Mark will finish a middle school math class on Microsoft Teams, and we will take a long drive across the Appalachians and hug my parents with masks on and the kids will run free and I will write and sleep, and we will notice how many different kinds of bees there are, and how a zinnia bud looks like a cut gem before it opens. 

A Graduation At Home

Sofia’s graduation ceremony happened last night on our TV. The basement carpet received my sister’s pink tablecloth as if it were a concert lawn. Big bowls of guacamole that Virginia had just made were set on it, plus a platter of fried pumpkin flowers her little brothers and sister had picked from the garden that morning. With her laptop logged into Microsoft Teams, Sofia broadcast the ceremony in her just-ironed white gown, with its tape-on collar and pine green sash, WWHS printed down the front in gold lettering.

The opening procession was like turning the pages of a scrapbook, every slide bearing 9 photos of 9 different kids standing in 9 different places, each posing with the “Wilson Grad 2020” yard signs that a band of mothers had sunk into the ground at each graduating senior’s house or apartment building. In the background was the tinny sound of the high school band, orchestra, and choir singing “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire, a concert from another era, a time when people could sing next to each other and parents could sit in the audience.

I look at Sofia’s face under her satin cap, her features still those of a child. The baby photo that we placed in the yearbook shows her bald head and monkey face, curiosity drawing out the only wrinkle in her brow, and her body launching from her grandfather’s arms in front of the Italian country church. How much love we felt for this baby, this wondrous act of nature — the only one of her that will ever exist in all of time.

She is sitting with us now, instead of with her friends, surrounded by her siblings who are dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, Under Armour shorts, and bikini tops, while she is draped in white satin, a mortarboard hat on her head, green tassel hanging down, like a master of ceremony, an angel, a sage from another realm. 

“I know this was not the graduation or senior year you expected,” the mayor says in a pre-recorded greeting in front of a hedge on a sunny day, “but don’t let that take away from how proud you should feel in this moment.”

“Our nation is hungry for change,” she says. “The pandemic set the stage for creating a new normal, and as cities across the country begin to open up, including our own, people don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”

I had bled so much for all that was lost, without knowing that only three months later I would no longer grasp for the way things were. Going back would be like returning to the school where you learned how to read and where you played kiss and catch. Seeing how tiny the chairs and desks are, how spare the playground that you once thought was a wonderland.

It took 45 minutes to announce all of the graduates. Senior portraits rise up and dissolve away. Hundreds of names, hundreds of faces, each one so different, each expression, hairstyle, every shape and color of every face. I wish somehow that I had met them all. I only knew a handful. Now it’s too late.

When Sofia appears, it was like the screen radiated with a thousand watts and the image of her face came toward me, glowing and hovering there, and then it was gone. A new face appears, a new name is pronounced, another college is listed underneath in italics, and the violins keeping playing “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over, as name after name, and face after face is honored.

Soon it will be over. Even though we made two dozen cupcakes with buttercream icing and gold and black sprinkles, even though we lit handfuls of sparkly candles, even though there were homemade gifts and cards and a call from the grandparents, the silence will come. I will get the kids tucked in bed, and my husband will finish all the dishes, and her sister will turn on the TV, and Sofia will be alone on the couch again. I don’t want the silence to swallow her up.

It’s the endings before any beginnings that are the hardest to bear.

Pandemic Chore Schedule

The main thing that has changed is who makes lunch and who does the lunch dishes. Making school lunches used to be the weekly rotating job of Mark (12 years), Luke (9 years), and Diana (6 years). Based on ingredients I would leave out, every morning before school one of them would fill 5 plastic bento boxes, each with a lid of a different color. (Although in recent times, Virginia, 16 years, got tired of the salami sandwiches and brie with crackers and said she’d pack her own salads and smoothies.)

Now that all the kids are home during the week, the former lunch person sets the table and pours drinks at lunchtime, and the kids take turns making the meal for everyone except for Virginia, who is now vegan and usually makes her own lunch. (My husband, Enrico, works more than ever and is out of the house from early morning until late at night in his job as a hospital administrator and physician.)

When it’s Mark’s week to set the lunch table, it’s Luke’s week to clean the litterboxes (on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), and Diana’s turn to empty the dishwasher in the morning. Then the jobs rotate, although Luke sometimes tries to get Diana to trade dishwasher for litterboxes, which only has to be done 3 times a week instead of 5.

Another new routine, suggested by the teens when schools closed and adopted at a family meeting, was that each person would do their own lunch dishes, and the person who prepared the lunch would clean the pots and pans and countertops.

Sofia (18 years) makes lunch on Monday, Luke makes lunch on Tuesday, Diana on Wednesday, Virginia on Thursday, and Mark on Friday. 

The teens used to get the younger 3 kids ready for bed at night, until they traded that job for making an extra dinner per week, so I make dinner on Monday, Virginia on Tuesday, Sofia on Wednesday, me on Thursday, and on Friday, we order out from a neighborhood restaurant, one of our new pandemic traditions

Sofia sets the table for dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and vacuums the kitchen after dinner on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and Virginia sets the dinner table on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and vacuums after dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

On the weekends Mark and Luke set the table and vacuum the kitchen after meals. Mark sets the table on Sunday lunch and vacuums after Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner, and Luke sets on Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner and vacuums after Sunday lunch.

The boys also take out the trash and recycling and bring the dirty laundry down to the basement, alternating week by week. I do the laundry on the weekends, and each person bring their clothes up and puts them away.

We usually have 2 dishwashers to load and unload every day, so the afternoon shift is done by Mark and Diana on Monday and Thursday, and by Luke and Diana on Tuesday and Wednesday, and only Diana on Friday.

Dinner dishes are washed by Virginia on Monday, Sofia on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, Luke on Thursday, and Diana on Friday (although Enrico or I usually do them for her because she still needs a stool to reach the faucets).

On the weekends, Enrico finishes meals first so he usually jumps up and does the dishes (minus the pots and butcher knives, which I usually do) and he also unloads the 4 to 5 dishwashers per weekend (except for the weird stuff — mixing bowls, whisks, carrot peelers, and baking sheets, which I do).

I make lunch on Saturday and Sunday and Sofia makes dinner on Saturday night and Virginia on Sunday night.

On Sunday, the weekly turns end and new shifts start on Monday. Monday also begins a new bathroom schedule — Mark, Luke, and Diana are assigned different bathrooms each week to get ready for bed because all that used to happen in the kids’ bathroom was playing and fighting. I usually stay with the person in the basement bathroom because no one wants that one, except for Diana who likes that bathtub better.

Diana takes a bath every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and Luke every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they both take one on Sunday, except when they’ve convinced me they don’t have to, or I’m too tired to make them. 

We only have 1 TV which was not a problem before the lockdown (except on weekends when Sofia and Virginia sometimes wanted to see different movies), and no one was allowed to watch on school nights anyway, unless they watched in Italian. But without friends, play practices, meetings, swim lessons, and babysitting jobs, the rules relaxed and it became clear that we needed a pandemic schedule for the TV too. It was decided that Virginia gets the TV on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night, and Sofia gets it on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night, and they alternate Sundays.

For other occasional and semi-regular jobs, like taking out the compost, cleaning baseboard moulding, and weeding the garden, we rely on our point system, where unwanted behavior (such as potty play, teasing, and bedtime-flouting) results in points which can be cancelled by doing one job per 3 points. 

I know I’ll want to remember this one day.

Friday Night Pandemic Diary

Restaurant sign only open for take out and delivery during coronavirus

It’s become a lockdown tradition to order out on Friday night from a neighborhood restaurant. We’ve tried Mexican, Korean, French, Italian-American, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, and tonight, Indian. I wonder which of them will still be here when we emerge.

At Masala Arts, you can order the Community Package of 4 main courses, 4 breads, and 2 appetizers, and they’ll give you a free tray of 30 eggs and 4 toilet rolls. We already scored a 12-pack of Charmin mega rolls at CVS on Monday, so we go a la carte.

I tuck 2 hand-made masks into my back pocket, a credit card, and two $5 bills for homeless people we might run into on the avenue. Diana gets out her brother’s hand-me-down bike, and we head out into the goldenrod evening. 

At the top of the hill near SuperCuts, we pass a group of older teens with masks hanging off their faces. Restaurants and dry cleaners say they’re open, but Tenleytown feels empty, like it’s made of scaffolding.

When we pull open the door to the restaurant, Diana says, “There’s no one here!” Instead of a take-out and delivery operation, the place looks exactly the same as it did before the pandemic. Just the bodies are missing, as if they had been vaporized.

A man with a mask is on the phone taking another order, so we walk around, noticing the spice orange walls, the sensuous Indian sculptures, the charcoal drawings of women with real gold jewelry attached. I wish I wore jewels on my forehead and garlands of gold around my waist and ankles.

As I take our warm paper bag of food home in my arms, a bald man I’ve never seen before is resting his forehead on the Mexican restaurant patio post as if it were a walking cane. I drop $5 in his empty 20-ounce Pepsi cup, and he says, “God bless you.”

In the CVS parking lot, Duane has returned to his station on a blanket-padded milk crate, writing the next installment of The Black Fields Chronicles: THE HOBO on his cell phone. He always says “I’m blessed” when I ask how he is. I give him the second bill to help pay for dinner, we say good-bye, and Diana coasts down the hill toward home.

After we eat all the lamb korma, coconut curry chicken, and rock salt cilantro naans, Mark draws dolphins on Virginia’s feet and faces on her toes with a ballpoint pen because it feels good. Sofia starts melting chocolate chips over a pot of boiling water, and it’s time for people to get ready for bed. Virginia vacuums the rice off the floor in a knit strapless dress because it’s her turn.

When I tuck Diana in, she says, “I’m grateful that restaurants are open.” I stay in her room and write about this day while she falls asleep, because she doesn’t like sleeping alone, and because it was a beautiful, sad, special, ordinary day.

The Light Side of the Dark

Our wounds from the trauma of the pandemic have begun to flatten into a kind of scar. My grief is softening, and the boys, 12 and 9, are less like drafted rebels and more like dusty soldiers, marching through blue window after blue window to the end of each day, to the end of the school year, as if walking home after a war that no one has won.

At 11:30 each day, we always get outside, whether the kids’ work is done or not. “Let’s play soccer on Fort Reno!” Diana, 6, says, and the boys agree. Soccer is in, bikes are out.

“You guys go ahead and I’ll meet you there with lunch,” I tell them. I pack a Sullivan’s Toy Store tote with 1 poppy seed bagel sandwich, 2 sesames, and 1 bialy wrapped in foil, plus a half clamshell of strawberries, ice water in 2 old sippy cups, 4 paper towels, and just for fun, 3 Kinder Sorpresa eggs sent by their grandfather in Italy. 

When I leave for the park just a block away, Virginia, 16, is sitting on the floor of the deck eating her vegan pasta bowl, and in the basement a CorePower Yoga on-demand teacher demands heart strength and deep breaths from students who once sweated with her in a white-washed loft, and the ones like Sofia, 18, that she will never know.

I climb the hill and see the kids on the far soccer field. After days of cold and clouds, the sun bathes the hill and our tiny figures in a dome of golden light. 

As I get closer I can see Diana kicking the ball toward the goal, and Mark missing it and falling down like a clumsy marionette. 

They spot me and the boys run to me as they did when they’d see me waiting for them after school. ‘All gas, no breaks,’ as the graffiti on the retaining wall says.

“We were playing world cup soccer,” they tell me. “And sometimes one of us is an A.I. player.”

We select a picnic spot near the community garden. I am drawn to the unusual things in this ocean of grass — the orange-red poppies, bright as my grandmother’s cakey lipstick, and clumps of white irises, standing around like lieutenants.

On the courts beyond the garden, a pair lob a tennis ball back and forth. A guy hits a baseball — TING! — in the batting cage. A woman smiles at us as she walks by with a small dog on a leash.

“Yummm,” I say, and a small chorus echoes me, as we bite into bagels spread with salty buttery cream cheese. A pair of fat carpenter bees bump into each other, dive into the grass, and then fly away in a drunken helix dance. 

“Why do they fight?” Diana asks.

“Who knows what they are doing?” I say. “Maybe they are playing,” or maybe they are mating, which I don’t say because I’d rather not talk about sex.

After lunch, Mark sits on the soccer ball, the stitching busted at one of its joints. “Luke pumped it up too much,” he says.

We pack up the bag and walk home for siesta, just the 4 of us, and I feel we are like the buttercups we walk through, insignificant and yet a part of everything.

I love this peace. Not that long ago, I fought against the breakdown, the shuttering, the quarantine as if it were a militia I had to beat back so I could live. Maybe I never understood what is an enemy and what is a friend, or that maybe something can be both and neither.

Colossus

I help my son Mark with his homework
in English Language Arts

For months he’s been reading
a novel in verse about a girl 
who flees Vietnam
to America

We are asked
if she felt welcome

I know the answer and
feel so ashamed 

“Give me your tired,
your poor, 
your huddled masses”

We did not live up 
to our promise

I cry inside but I stop it below my throat 
because I can’t explain to Mark why


I want to believe there is something 
or someone
that will always embrace me
take away my sorrows
my brokenness

This is too much to ask of a country 
with its government of men
institutions 
codes and tribunals

The meek shall inherit the earth
they say in the Bible

I used to think this meant 
the meek will conquer the strong

But now I know it means
I cannot be embraced
when I am brazen

It’s when I’m huddled and poor 
that I am fingertips away
from the immensity

Down to the River

I went down to the river today. It felt like touching the feet of God.  

I hadn’t driven a car in a month. Weeds were growing around the tires. My phone was dead so I drove there without a GPS. I felt grappled to the earth. I got lost.

Cars were parked all over the shoulder by the trail heads like beetles to nectar.

Sometimes you can be too safe. Like a plant in a pot, your roots go round and round and nowhere. The walks we take around our neighborhood. Nature is not tame like this. Landscaped bushes, tulip beds, Dogwoods placed like armchairs in the corners of yards.

In the woods, trees are dangerously high. Others lie dying at their feet. Black Vultures circle high at the edges.

Table manners, Office 365, social media headshots, calorie counts, rankings: what does all this matter?  

Violent beautiful nature. I feel calmed, sobered.

I came back to the river at sunset with my family. I want to give them more than errands for shampoo and canola oil, or bike rides to parks where security guards shoo us away.

We take foot bridges over the punching water of the Potomac. It rips over black bedrock. Diana is scared. She knows the river can kill you. 

I want to know that it is possible to die. This fear stops me from tinkering with dials and buttons, and makes me look up at the sky, and feel the clay under my feet.