Letting It Be

My daughters are bingeing on ‘Game of Thrones’ on the screened-in porch, trying to finish the entire 8 seasons before Sofia goes off to college. Mark, Luke, and Diana are playing badminton in the dwindling August twilight. 

After dinner we rode bikes down to the convenience store on Route 50 to buy a gallon of milk. I strapped the last gallon they had to the back of my bike and rode home with Juicy Drop Pops and Reeses cups in a Par Mar Stores bag hanging from the handlebars.

The kids bat at the birdie with rackets too long for them on a span of grass a thousand times larger than the patch of weeds behind our house in D.C., and I want them to play as long as they can, to soak up this freedom until they’re full, because in a few days, they’ll be back to a city playground, and school will start on a computer screen, and for a minute I worry that they don’t have enough.

Somewhere beyond the pasture, a conch-shell sun lights up a mass of clouds that plods across the sky like an ocean liner. When I stay right here where I am, in this moment, in this Ohio countryside, there is no problem. I am not in pain. No one is mad at me, I am not late, I am not wrong. There is nothing I am supposed to do, nowhere I need to go.

How long can I stay here, encapsulated in this moment, like an unbroken bubble, a piece of taffy that stretches and stretches, a smooth highway that never ends, before my mind breaks off and goes somewhere else? The explosion in Beirut, the upcoming election, the email with no response, the virus spiking in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia —

If I begin spinning intricate adult coloring books in my mind, who is inhabiting the life that is already colored in right here?


From my armchair inside the cottage, I hear crickets making long dashes in chirring morse code. The children are now meowing in the basement pretending to be adopted kittens who don’t know how to brush their teeth. The clouds have made a blue surfboard and a shaving cream spume against a sky of cotton candy and butter. The trees are navy green silhouettes and the black fences are disappearing into the fuzzy green pasture.

This stillness I feel when I pay attention to my life right now — this awareness, this in-ness — is where answers will come from. I look elsewhere, but if I would just be, the wisdom, the knowing, the right thing would come to me. 

‘Chock, chock’ goes the clock on the wall. The shadow under my 12-year-old’s chin, the freckle there, the way my 10-year-old looks into my eyes when I really see him. The 6-year-old sucking her thumb, wet hair on the pillow, saying she is grateful for ping-pong.

When I am inserted into this life, I am connected with everything that is here and the knowing that pervades it all. The cicadas who know what year to crawl out of the ground and how to call a mate, the grass that knows when to start growing — the moon how to orbit the earth, the dog where to give birth, the tomato seed how to make another tomato, the horse how to die. 

Photo by Amy Suardi

There’s a place on every staircase where the notes of the lullaby amplify and round and deepen. I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with ‘du-du-du’s instead of words as I stand on the stairs up from the children’s darkened room, and I wonder what they look like in their beds. Are they sad, are they disappointed, have I done enough?

If I could live my life one full-bodied moment to the next, I wouldn’t need to worry about what’s going to happen, to practice what to say, fuss over what I’ve messed up. If I weren’t interrupting life all the time, trying to rearrange it, I would take each challenge as it came.

If there were more escapes like this one in the country, more eddies in the river of life, where I could sleep when I feel tired, be alone when I need space, let sadness rest in me when it comes. If I could shut off the wind turbine so all my thoughts would flutter to the ground and I could see for a while.

Because in this clearness, I know that I wouldn’t need to worry so much. I wouldn’t need to try so hard. In this stillness, I would know when to cut, when to mend, when to run, when to embrace, when to apologize, when to be silent, when to act, and when to let it be.

The Spooky Lower Pasture

To get to the lower pasture, you have to descend through a tunnel of trees, a darkened archway that takes some faith to enter. Shadows deepen as you leave the world of fields, barns, and sunlight, and enter this shadowy crescent of land between the creek and the wooded ridge. 

Down here you can no longer see the house or the cottage. The only signs of civilization are a couple of plastic Adirondack chairs overturned near a circle of rocks where we sometimes have bonfires, and a metal target my dad uses for shooting practice.

I usually only go down here to get to the creek, where I used to play when I was little, making names for sandbars like Cuttlefish Land, and finding odd bits of someone else’s life along the banks — an iron, a chandelier frame, a boot.

We have returned to this place in the Ohio countryside because — with 38 states off-limits due to rising coronavirus cases, and every vacation rental booked within a 4-state radius — we knew the cottage was empty, and even though we visited last month, my parents said, Come!

I walk down the path my dad has mowed along the creek. The creek is still now, its sloping banks dry and silent. It’s dusk, almost dark, and mosquitoes whine around my neck. Flying things keep getting caught in my hair. The trees are so loud with the razz of cicadas it seems that they are made of cymbals instead of leaves. 

It’s our first night in the country, having driven 7 hours from D.C. to get here, to this house which has been in my family since 1862. After a welcome dinner of grilled hamburgers, my mom’s baked beans and potato salad, and Dairy Hut ice cream with peaches and blueberries, I have taken a walk, and since my daughter took the upper path around the soybean fields, I took the lower one.

Here in the lower pasture, it’s nothing like the land above with its brick terraces, bedspreads, and wi-fi. Where redbuds are groomed and swings are tied around oaks. The only purposeful trees down here are a few deformed walnuts getting strangled by vines. Spider silks break across my torso, and I get the feeling I’m trespassing.

I walk beside the band of walnut and tulip trees that separates upper from lower pasture. They lurch out, as if wanting to take back the land that was cleared for cows and corn. I peer into the thicket. It’s not deep but so dark, and I see why the first European settlers to North America, arriving in a place where trees took the sun, suffered from a depression called ‘green gloom.’ 

I mustn’t wander from my father’s mowed path of clover and wild violet. An army of young poison ivy plants has marched right up to the edge. They glow a florescent green in the falling light, and rising above the dull grasses with their forked leaves of three, they look like vampires ready to attack.

Nature is always just about to win in the country. You can repair a fence, patch a leak, trim a hedge, but the wild always returns. You can get the flying ants out, and then swarms of ladybugs will infiltrate. You can shore up the creek bank with boulders, but the water will take your land farther down. Seal up snake holes in the foundation, and bats get in through the chimney.

I pick up a bit of brown lace on the ground. A poplar leaf whose flesh has been completely devoured by caterpillars who don’t care for the veins, leaving behind an intricate skeleton, a tragedy so beautiful it might be found on the cutting room floors of a Parisian fashion house. The earth caves in as I walk and I imagine the elaborate tunnel works that moles and groundhogs have made under my feet.

Beyond the creosote post-and-rail fence at the end of the pasture, pickup trucks sail over Route 50. Their tires spin over the pavement at 55 miles per hour, barely slowing through the no-stop-light town that sits at the edge of our farm.

Where the creek goes under the highway, it joins up with the bigger one where my grandmother’s brother drowned when he was only 10 years old. A strange odor rises from the banks, and it smells sweet and rotten like boiled milk and decomposing crawdads.

It’s time to get back, and tuck in the kids. Clumps of ironweed chirp as I walk by. My grandfather used to bushhog the thistles and ironweed when there were cows in this pasture. Now there are no cows, and my parents are the grandparents.

I have to walk through the tunnel of trees up the hill once more to get home. Lightning bugs, harbingers of summer magic in the world above, blink an eerie green down here, as if signaling a witches spell.

When I emerge onto the smooth flat plain, the sky opens big over me and I feel washed with an ocean of dove-blue light. The land is an outstretched palm holding me up to the heavens. In the distance, there is Comfer’s barn where it always has been, and a band of the day’s last light hangs over the distant blue hills. The houses pour yellow light from every window, calling me home.

It’s a Teardown

My grandfather loved to tell me that he was as tall as Abraham Lincoln and wore the same shoe size as George Washington. When I would come to visit, he would turn off the news, and sitting in his favorite armchair in front of the TV, he’d tell me again the story of when he left home to make his way in the world, and his dad simply said, “Be honest.”

He would tell me that when he was promoted from stock boy to cashier, he once rode his bike a mile and a half to return a dime to a customer he had overcharged. Or he might pull down a maroon leather book from the shelves and read me the poem, ‘I Am Old Glory’:

“So long as men love liberty more than life itself, so long as the principles of truth, justice and charity for all remain deeply rooted in human hearts, I shall continue to be the enduring banner of the United States of America,” of the finest country in the world.

Year after year of those sessions, of me sitting there on the living room couch, the one whose arms were always covered with plastic sleeves, while we waited for my grandmother to call “lunch,” I began to wrap that pride around my young body like a flag of bulletproof gems.  

As I got older, it was easy to find appeal in sayings I heard in high school like “Russia sucks,” because enemies were anyone or anything that threatened the superpower status which gave us — me — an inflated sense of self-worth, that lifted me above and away from the dread inside, the fear that I was nothing.

Before my grandfather died, he wrote a letter to his grandchildren and one of the things he said was, “Our freedom and all the good things we enjoy must be defended constantly, every day of our lives. Always remember that a nation can be destroyed from forces within.”


“What do we want?”

“Justice!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

“If we don’t get it?”

“Shut it down!”

The kids and I yelled these chants until our voices were hoarse down the streets of Georgetown during a Black Lives Matter march this June. “What are we shutting down?” asked Mark, 12, as we walked by stone houses that looked like Southern mansions, a few with white people standing in front waving.

“The system,” I tell him, but even I can’t picture it — the police, the government, the everything? I don’t know how one shuts it down or what would happen if we did. 

George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer finally shook us into reckoning that something is terribly wrong with our system — it’s rotting from within. What is festering inside our country is a caste system. This I was stunned to read in The New York Times magazine from July 5 that I had folded and saved on top of my stack of half-finished books. 

The formal structure that originally defined caste was abolished with laws and civil rights acts, but the race-based hierarchy still lives on, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in her profound and elegant article, America’s Enduring Caste System.

“A caste system is … a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits,” Wilkerson writes, “traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it.”

Having caste as our society’s hidden structure puts us, the world’s greatest democracy, the shining beacon of freedom, in company with India and its ancient intractable system and Nazi Germany. Invisibility, says Wilkerson, is what gives caste its power and endurance.

Wilkerson likens a caste system to the hidden structure of a house. “America is an old house,” she says, and it was built 400 years ago on a flawed foundation, a two-tiered hierarchy with those identifying as white at the top and Blacks at the bottom, while immigrants from non-European countries find a place somewhere the middle, and Native Americans are exiled completely.

As anyone who has lived in an old house knows, problems like sagging joists or water leaking into the basement don’t just go away. Sometimes we learn to live with the smell of mold and the slanted floors, and then “the awkward becomes acceptable,” says Wilkerson, “and the unacceptable become merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal.”

A house built on a crooked foundation cannot be fixed with patches and paint. When we focus on racism as the problem, it shape-shifts, it mutates, but the invisible lines remain because, Wilkerson says, the hidden structure has not been exposed and dismantled.


I walk barefoot whenever I can these days. When the soles of my feet make contact with dirt, with bricks, with grass or even cement, I feel solid, right, part of it all.

My daughter Virginia tells me that walking barefoot on the earth is called grounding. There is something about being in touch with the ground that is healing. They say the earth’s subtle electrical charge neutralizes free radicals, acting like one giant antioxidant, and regulates our autonomic nervous system. Keeps our circadian rhythms.  

Houses separate us from nature, from each other.  Houses are meant to shelter us, but when some people are relegated to the basement, it may look like a dwelling from the outside but from the inside, it’s a prison to some. When the people who are kept down try to escape the place of no light, low ceilings, and toxic fumes, they are spotted immediately by their appearance. In a caste based on physical features, no amount of education, resumé heft, or hard work will set you free, because you can’t change the color of your skin.

By the laws of nature, or the universe, or what you might call God, no species is better than another. It’s one big amalgam, one mysterious overflowing swirl of life. In the animal and plant and mineral world, there are no levels of greater or lesser rainbows, adequate or inadequate sunflowers, worthy or unworthy elephants. As a native of India once told anti-slavery leader Charles Sumner, “Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.” 

When my grandfather said all those wonderful things about America, I felt that I was being conferred a new sparkly costume, simply for the random involuntary act of being born on a certain patch of land. A glowing coat of beauty and power.

I must have been old enough by then to have lost that feeling I had as a child, the sense of unfettered connection with everything and everyone. I had already begun to separate myself out — good or bad, weak or strong, smart or not — judging myself with the standards and expectations that make some people into idols, others into nobodies.

I felt ashamed for my grandfather to know that I wasn’t the American that he admired and always strived to be — magnanimous, noble, fair, and true. So I took that spangled cloak and pretended I was. 

MaxyM/Shutterstock

I don’t know how we can take down piece by piece a structure that contains all of us. I don’t know when we will have the courage to step down, to live without shelter, to join the wild unknown of nature, to get rid of our shoes, our buildings, our foundations.

But it helps to shine an infra-red light onto the structure we live in and ask, How much longer can we stay here before the whole thing falls down?

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.

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.