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?

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.

Can Butterflies Feel Love?

Diana’s legs disappear in the caramel-milk creek. She won’t climb up the fallen log because a spider with orange spots has already claimed it. Water bugs skitter over the skin of the creek, and a powder-blue moth flutters all around her and the log, its wings like pages of a book in a storm, flapping open and closed as if dying to spill its words.

“Tell it to go away!” Diana says, closing her eyes and batting the air. “I think it likes you,” I say from my position crouching on the muddy bank.

Mark and Luke run with high knees through the creek toward the highway and Greg says, “Come back and put your shoes on — there might be nails down there. People throw all sorts of stuff off that bridge!”

Diana now looks like a cross, her arms straight out, hands balled into fists. “I want the butterfly to get on me.” The boys run back, digging sticks into mud and finding truck tires in the bank. The butterfly tumbles through the thick Ohio July until it alights on Diana’s head. Its wings, the shape of a lopsided heart, the color of blue enamel, fold into one.

As Diana walks straight, barely moving her neck, the butterfly points skyward like a crown. It clings to clumps of her maple wet hair, even as she grabs onto a branch and climbs out, even as she runs to keep up with her brothers through the pasture to the Dairy Hut on Route 50 to get a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone. 

“The butterfly got your message,” I say, when I see her coming around the bend toward the house, soft-serve smeared all over her cheeks, the butterfly clinging to her bangs like a barrette.

I can feel the skeptics in the family bristle. “There must be a perfectly rational explanation,” they would say. “The salt in the creek water, the perfume of her shampoo, the hue of her skin.”

Just before Diana’s grandmother calls her inside, the butterfly lets go and flicks around the patio. “At least you brought it up to the house, “ Luke says, “and now it can pollinate the flowers.”  

For me, it was the love that made it stay.

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.

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.

Getting Caught in the Rain

I walk up the hill I used to take
when I walked my kids to Italian school
Now they will meet via Google Classroom

The hill is covered with patches of wild violets
tiny blue flowers like miniature pansies
Weeds, more beautiful than roses

I could have downloaded the distance learning packets
I am going to pick up at my children’s schools
but I wanted to have a mission

It starts to sprinkle
I knew I had left without an umbrella
but after a week inside
I kind-of wanted to get caught in the rain