This Time of Great Change

Outside the Neiman Marcus department store, guys in hoodies and jeans were loading metal racks and leather lounge chairs into black pickup trucks. Hand-written signs taped to the door said, “Auction Winners Only.”

“All the stores have closed, except for TJMaxx and Sak’s,” my friend said about Mazza Gallerie, the 4-story mall where my family and I used to go to the movies on Saturday nights. “The whole mall was sold,” she said. “I heard they got a really good price because it was in foreclosure.”

We walked through the darkened hallways past all the gutted stores, because I wanted to go inside and look at the corpse, and when we opened the back door, there was the Lord & Taylor building across the way with a huge yellow banner spanning the entire top floor saying, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”

My friend and I used to be writing partners, meeting for lunch, exchanging chapters, working on novels together at the library. She tells me that they’re thinking of moving. Her husband has been working long hours for his law firm in their basement since March. “Why stay here,” she said, “when you can work from anywhere?”

We pause at the corner to say ‘see you later’ through our masks. Across the street, four 123JUNK trucks are being filled to the top with desks, wooden tables, and cabinets from an office building on Wisconsin. I think of all the offices downtown that no one is going to, and the places that are dying without them: suit shops, sandwich joints, gyms, even the Metro.

We part ways without touching each other at all, and I have the feeling of being in a place where the sand is shifting underneath me.


This fall, the kids — now in 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 12th grade — are schooling in an enclosed world, a circuit of screen, headphone and wire, where I am largely not needed except to adjust the connection, to drag them into the sun, to instigate something that resembles recess.

It’s been half a year since schools closed on March 13, a week after D.C.’s first covid case was confirmed. Everyone thought the kids would go back in 2 weeks, but the re-open date kept getting pushed back as the virus ripped into cities and hospitals around the world like a real-life horror show.

What seemed to be an unsurmountable challenge then — managing my grief and terror while trying to project an aura of calm for the kids, mapping the foreign landscape of remote learning at 3 different schools, navigating capsized social norms and nebulous lockdown rules — now feels like a hurricane that has dissipated into light rain.

I acutely feel the presence of my children’s teachers in my life, even though I’ve never been so far away from them. Doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, mail carriers and garbagemen are as essential and appreciated as ever, but for me, teachers are the new foot soldiers — protecting us, carrying my children, holding this world together.

I have heard the patience in their voices, and felt the difficulty. I know about the sadness, but I feel the love. I see how they band together in the pixelated quilts of Teams meetings, supporting classes that are not their own, gathering every child in this strange new container, persevering. They have become my teachers too.


When the pandemic hit, magnolias were exploding into obscene shows of magenta and rose, daffodils were blanketing the ground with newborn yellow, and cherry trees were unfurling sinful layers of crinoline and lace. Nature was creating an extravagant backdrop for an opera about loss.

When the air softened and the days became lighter, the kids and I found new purpose in the garden that had once seemed dull compared to cross-country or novel-writing or high school musicals. We dug up the weeds by the street and planted sunflowers, bee balm, and crayon-colored zinnias. One morning we woke to find 2 tomato plants on our stoop, and just as we were saying we needed basil for our herb garden, the lady across the street walked over with handfuls of sprouts, and we watered them until they grew big enough to make pesto to ladle over slippery hot linguine.

After the stay-at-home order was lifted at the end of May, restaurants were allowed to serve people outdoors, and over the summer the familiar sounds of people laughing and communing returned. Tables spilled onto sidewalks, squares, parking lanes, alleys, and even streets, creating pockets of joviality in this now subdued city.

But while anxiety about the outbreak has declined from a raging blaze to a crackling fire, other problems have flamed up. The run-up to the presidential election has heightened the feeling of living in two Americas, as if we’ve clung to opposite ends of a schooner, certain that if the other side wins, we’re all going down. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned through millions of acres of forests and neighborhoods, turning skies in San Francisco and Portland from blue to orange, and creating smoke clouds so massive they have traveled all the way to us on the East Coast. And recent violent acts against Black people have cut deep gashes, exposing a race-based hierarchy so intransigent that it will take a complete teardown of American society to build it back right.


MSSA/Shutterstock

The sunflowers that once brought smiles to people passing by the sidewalk are now headless stalks and the basil is bitter, and I feel the imminent loss of the handful of social interactions that have been made possible by the open air, one of the few things that prevent us from infecting each other. Fall has always brought with it a dose of melancholy, but this year in particular, I see my world getting smaller, like the tightening aperture in a mirrorless camera.

During a particularly difficult week of distance learning last spring, a friend brought over a puppy and a playmate for Diana. Another day I found a bouquet of red tulips and a Russian novel on my porch. Six months later I am still reading that novel.

“All the old ways of doing things were abandoned,” the main character tells his daughter about how it was to live through the communist revolution. “But the new ways of doing things had yet to be established.” I wanted to tell him through the pages, through time, through imagination and space, I have been there too. In the pliant dark between one place and another.

Time to Cast Off

You know you have become too safe 
when you can no longer grow 
if you stay where you are.

When the shell that has protected you
is now what hinders you.

And so, like a crab who knows 
when to molt, you must find 
the weakest part of your armor,

the fracture that aches the most.
This is where you start.

You must break your own shell,
and carefully back out
each limb and each eye,
until you are tenuous and new again.

You must disrobe like a lover
before her mate
and enter once again
the cycle of death and rebirth.

For if you are not brave enough
to be unhidden,
you will bring about 
the very danger you fear the most.

Lakkana Boonrat/Shutterstock

Impermanence

A giant tree limb fell on our car yesterday. The car’s back looked like it was broken: roof crushed, rear end bent, tires kneeling to the ground. Black glass was spattered everywhere. 

It didn’t look like I’d ever drive it again.

That night Diana asked if she could give me a face massage and a hand massage and a foot massage after I tucked her in. She touched my eyelids and my eyebrows, pressed her tiny finger pads into my forehead, along my cheeks, the whole length of my lips. Everywhere she touched, a prickly metallic layer under my skin melted away.

It’s just a car, I had said when we saw it there. We have insurance, shielded as we are from the buffeting winds of misfortune by our position, our color, our nest egg.

Diana asked if she could hum when she was massaging my hands, and “Is it okay if it’s just a made-up song?” She stroked the tendons on the backs of my hands, squeezed the tips, intertwined her fingers in mine and wiggled the forgotten crooks. She squeezed the fleshy parts — the heel, the ball — parts of a body that work without being acknowledged.

It’s just a car, but it was the car that Sofia and I had just driven to her first semester at college. The car that had taken us on 5 Thanksgiving trips when all the kids were living at home, summer visits to the grandparents, Christmas pilgrimages, missions to Dutch Wonderland.

Diana takes my feet. Having my feet touched has always felt like being in the hands of Jesus. It touches someplace deeper, more sensitive, a place both loving and needy.

We were at the pool when the limb broke. I had wanted to give the kids something more than riding bikes around the block, and it would be closing soon. The rains come almost every day now, the cone flowers have all turned black, and every last day lily has bloomed.

Something is dying in me too: a hope, a brightness. An opening is closing. When will I be able to bear this? When will I know that this is what happens when something else needs to be born?

“Why does it feel so good to be touched?” Diana asks. We are part of a whole, I say, and touching makes us feel less separate. Touching someone else is like touching our own selves.

The broken car, schools closing, summer waning, blossoms fading — they are all here to show me, again, that nothing lasts. And everything is special.

long8614/Shutterstock

Diana asks if I could give her a face massage. I run the pads of my thumbs over her plump cheeks, around the backs of her ears, and over her scalp and behind her neck.

There’s something different about this type of touch. Unlike a hug or a kiss, it does not need to do the work of communicating. It conducts something that we can’t control, that we don’t need to control, that will flow whether we do anything or not. Touch recognizes what is in each of us and allows it, unfettered.

I say to myself that I’m okay with this loneliness, this quiet, solitary life. But the tension builds, the silent grief, the continual battering of what used to be, the howling of what needs to die but won’t. And the pain sits there in a parking lot, keys hidden under the mat, until a tow truck comes to take it away.

The last time I saw the car, an orange caterpillar was inching up the curve of the wheel. I wonder if it felt lost, or if it knew it was just finding another way.

On Dropping Our First Child Off at College

Part I

I had never been to the college our daughter had chosen. Sofia had visited Kenyon with my parents, and I knew that my grandfather and uncle had gone there, but my April visit was canceled due to the outbreak. So when it was time to go on August 26, I wasn’t sure where she was leading me.

The route we normally take to Ohio got us only halfway, then we had to turn north toward Uniontown. We climbed the jagged mountains of Pennsylvania past historic battlefields, pre-colonial stone houses, and painted images of young George Washington in his ruffles and blue velvet, and I felt the same rush of awe and drama that I did when I went to college in New England. The East, with its founding history, plaques and pedigree, felt majestic and weighty. I instead felt like any girl from the cornfields of flyover country.

Kenyon told kids to pack light in case they had to move to a quarantine dorm, so the car was only half-full: a full-length mirror, a fan and a lamp, an area rug and a duffle bag of clothes, plus some photos to decorate the double Sofia would occupy by herself on a campus populated with only freshmen and sophomores.

When I went away to college, the kids I met who grew up in cities along the coast were worldly and impressive. It was easy for me to go from a silent admiration of Manhattan, Boston, Exeter or Choate to a full summation of the associated person as intelligent, powerful, even heroic.

As Sofia and I drove over the National Turnpike, American flags flapped around historic inns and famous taverns and I pictured revolutionaries in ragtag uniforms 300 years ago mapping attacks against the British. On this day, much of the red, white, and blue was supplied by yard signs and flags emblazoned with “Trump-Pence 2020.”

The problem with sanctifying people is that everything else becomes profane. My idols shone so brightly there was no choice for me but to be dull. Destined to chase after them, waiting for benediction.

After Sofia and I crossed the Ohio River into my home state, I felt the let-down of the Shoe Carnival strip mall where we stopped to get coffee. The freeway we took, bland and monument-less, was wet from a storm, but I couldn’t help notice how the water streaming over the concrete shimmered like platinum in the late afternoon sun.

An hour later we would slow down at a college campus of Gothic Revival sandstone that tapered into a row of clapboard markets, Victorian houses converted into academic departments, and a post office with a weathervane cupola.

But before that — when we first bumped onto a 2-lane country road and I knew we were getting close — I rolled down the windows. The air smelled like watermelon and hay, wet fields and crickets. The road tossed us up then held us tight, like a swing at the elementary school playground. We drove past velvety blue soybean fields and tin roof silos, barns taken back into the earth by vines and houses with their paint all rained off, piles of wild honeysuckle and fences fashioned of hay rolls.

Here was the Ohio countryside I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18. It was so beautiful, in the quiet way that home is. Something I wouldn’t have recognized back then, even if it were right in the mirror in front of me.

Part II

On a day that started with covid self-testing in an athletic center but had no departure deadline, I didn’t know how long to stay. Sofia didn’t seem to need me to leave — except for when I walked too slow or the time I said “micr-o-wave.” There were so many things to do: hang up mirrors and smooth on sheets, unwrap new duvets and take ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. I wanted to buy her everything that was missing — a phone charger, a box of tissues, the books she hadn’t ordered yet — as if currency would cease to exist when I left. 

Then her Reebok’s came unglued, the only warm shoes she had brought, and there was still time after eating General Tso’s tofu from the dining hall on a secluded spot on the lawn to drive out to Lowe’s for contact cement (and another fan for her room). 

When that too was assembled, and I could see that the new lightbulbs made her room a little cozier in the darkening evening, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll get going now.” 

She gave me a long, long hug, and said, “Thank you so much for helping me get everything all set up.” She insisted on walking me to the car and, in that moment I became unsure of who was leaving who.

As I drove away toward the hotel, shirred clouds of peach and rose and amber glowed against a sea blue sky. It felt like traveling inside a conch shell. Was launching an 18-year-old like spiraling deeper into life or opening outward?

I thought about how delicate she seemed: her slight frame, her porcelain skin, her detailed and careful ways. I wanted to cradle her and deliver her to the next person who would take care of her. But as she had watched me drive away, she was calm, contained. She didn’t look like she was searching for idols.

It was a quiet freedom that she was getting, a sober one. Not the wild one of my college days when I expected a pinnacle, lashing out against life if it didn’t deliver. It was a freedom that we were aware could be taken away at any point. I had the feeling that she would take every day gently in her hands.

I tried to take pictures of the sunset outside the hotel, but the camera only captured the telephone poles and the taillights of a car driving away. The sun went down and the fountain kept tinkling and pickup trucks kept rumbling around the square as if nothing had happened that night.

Part III

On the drive home, sadness did not come in a flooded rush. It was more like a thread, a thread that had to stretch so far it would always be tight.

Like a spider’s silk, it is only visible in certain lights, when it shines like a sliver blade. You feel it when you’re trying to go somewhere and you get all tangled up. But even if no one else senses it or sees it, I know it is there. It is always there.

The Beginning and End Embedded in Late August

Late August has always felt like an ending and a beginning.

Sunflowers don’t make plates of seeds anymore, cicadas sound more desperate in their güiro song, powdery mildew makes pumpkin leaf parchment, and cooler days discourage cannonball plunges in the pool.

The compensation for turning down summer’s brightness has always been school — fresh-cut notebooks, the waxy smell of never-used crayons, the polish of first-worn leather shoes. New projects, new friendships, new resolutions — the start of school always felt more like a new year than January 1st ever did.


But this year late August feels like a tapering off, a pinching of growth, a withering.

Good public schools have been a uniting force, but now people are moving abroad, switching to micro-schools, hiring tutors, forming learning pods, or simply logging in by themselves at home. It feels like we are particles after a big bang — slowly moving apart before we know what we are coalescing into.

I need a beginning, but I don’t know where it is anymore.


The earth starts turning away from the sun at the height of summer, and by August squirrels are hiding acorns under bushes, and crape myrtle petals fall slantingly like rain. The carefree parties that never were this summer are waning; the vacations that didn’t happen are over.

No longer can I depend on the events and milestones that used to mark the time — the splashy first day of school, the big neighborhood block party, or the exuberant high school musical. I can no longer rely on drop-off for my daily social interaction or eye contact with a teacher to know my kids are doing okay.


aragami12345s/Shutterstock

Just beyond the new beginning, fall has always seemed to say, You’re on your own. Time to get serious and prove yourself. 

This year I will be surrounded by children in our cozy home, but I still sense the familiar foreboding. The race to be good enough. The cool kids. The jostling for attention. The longing for a savior when I can’t do it anymore.

Maybe what is ending this odd August is joining the major stream. And what is beginning is the discovery of the tributaries, quiet and meandering, that I have not been brave enough to follow.

Letter to Myself

When you are so busy throwing stuff into the shell of your body, you don’t realize that to feel fulfilled, you must simply stop.

The sound trickling in is not water rising to drown you, but the sound of your own self coming into its rightful space.

Nothing can replace this ‘being one’s self.’ That is why you keep running, seeking, rushing, doing — desperate to fill the emptiness you fear.

Your longing is the longing for your own self: your own love, your own trust, your own intuition. 

Sometimes you feel that you are an empty riverbed. A ditch that can never be brimmed, never satisfied.

Don’t be afraid of this blackness. It is what connects you to everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. It is what everything springs from and dissolves into. This is the power you are afraid of. The unknown, the endless, the incomprehensible.

Don’t fill the emptiness with small tasks and petty demands and a million directives from your in-box, your to-do list, and your self-help books — they will never be done, and you will never be full.

Don’t fill it with someone bigger, more powerful, more charismatic and brilliant than you — this person will leave and you will be alone again.

Don’t fill it with what you want to buy, become, create — if these things come, you will still feel something is missing. Even when your arms are full, even when you have everything you asked for.

These glimmering, brightly-colored, squeezable things — they are always morphing, growing, disappearing. You can never hold them and be done.

Only water can satisfy a riverbed. Only the part of you that is connected to all the streams, all the oceans, the lakes, the waterfalls, the floods and fjords that circle the world. The river of life that never ends and never begins. 

Jack Anstey/Unsplash

Let all other things be washed away, all that has blocked you, obstructed you, made it impossible to hear the sound of your river rippling, to taste the flavor of your own soul.

In the stillness, your breath is a wave, coming in and going out. The knowing will eventually come, flowing through you from somewhere deep inside, filling the space you thought was vacant.

These Italian Pastries

We only had 6 hours on the island of Lipari. It was August 7, 2019 and my family and I had arrived by traghetto from mainland Sicily around midday. For the daily dip in the sea essential to many Italians on vacation like Enrico’s father who was with us, we went straight to a black pebble beach called Canneto. Those who dared swam with the jellyfish, and in our wet bathing suits, we all ate Sicilian bread called pane cunzato piled high with salty capers, marinated eggplant, and sundried tomatoes.

In a drive around the island, we stopped at a cliff where prickly pear cactus with yellow fruits and magenta bougainvillea tumbled down a dirt path towards the sea. In the distance Stromboli exhaled white smoke from its crater and the wind blew it along like a song.

At a single stand, a single man was selling little bottles of Malvasia wine and figurines carved out of volcanic rock. I was drawn to a bag of hand-made cookies, as if they needed to tell me something, so I counted six euros from my wallet and took them home.  

In a very brief piece published today in a literary journal called River Teeth, I try to understand why — of all the things I needed to bring home from Sicily — it was these Italian pastries.

Happy to share it with you: These Italian Pastries at River Teeth.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

“They’re saying that this crisis
is going to be the end of
America being the richest, most powerful
country in the world,”
my daughter Virginia tells me.

“I know.”

“It’s like ‘nothing gold can stay,'” she says. “Do you know that poem?”

She shows it to me on her MacBook Pro.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost, 1874-1963

And we talk about empires
rising and falling,
good and evil,
and if what we always thought
was ever true.