Looking for Nick

It happened again. I have settled into a cradle I once thought was strange and prickly. Now I don’t want to leave.

Last Monday the chancellor of schools made an unexpected announcement that some elementary school kids could start going back on November 9. I immediately thought of how I would miss walking down the hall and seeing Diana working at her desk, lamplight outlining her pug nose, pixie hair slanting forward, feet dangling from the swivel chair.

How I’d miss seeing my pre-teen son Mark reading on the couch on a Wednesday morning, looking at me with wonder when, for the first time, the cat had lain purring on his lap.

I’ll miss waking from a nap to the sound of feet pounding down the stairs, when dad’s car rolling onto the gravel driveway signals the end of quiet time.


Last week for a schoolday screen break, Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were bored of everything — bike riding, soccer, scootering — so we took a walk around the block. “This is so boring,” Luke said. I know, I said, but this is what we can do. And that was when we heard meowing in our neighbor’s yard. A black cat looked stuck, but when he jumped the fence like a horse over a hogsback, I realized he was probably Nick, the cat that is occasionally discussed on the neighborhood listserv — is he lost? Do his owners know where he is? 

We watched him trot across the street, slide under a fence to another yard, and another, places we couldn’t go. Watching him from the sidewalk, wondering what he’d do next, hoping we could be friends.

He jumped on pillars, he chewed on grass, he crawled under bushes, he let me pick him up, purring and spreading his paw-toes and eating the cat treats out of our hands that Diana ran home to get. Before he wanted to get down, and we followed him across the alley to a parked car where he retired, I felt the muscles in his back and pondered his adventurous days, his lone strength.


This Saturday I helped clean up the city park on the corner. The kids wanted to go with me. We put on blue plastic gloves and picked up candy wrappers and plastic forks. The homeless man who had made an exuberant living space here was gone. All that seemed to be left of his decorations were paint swirls on the tree trunk and zig-zag flourishes along the benches. 

“Look what I found!” Diana said.  She held a gold and teal iridescent pom-pom the size of a pea between her thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know how to tell her whose it was; I didn’t know how to express both relief to not see him here and sadness that he was gone.

He was caught on neighborhood security cameras draped with plastic necklaces and pushing around a baby buggy and it was debated whether he was a thief or a charity case. He must be mentally ill, people said, but it seemed perfectly sane to me to scatter glitter everywhere when the world you inhabit feels bleak and forbidding. 

When I was depressed in my mid-20s, I would collect ordinary things at thrift stores and bedazzle them with jewels and sequins until nothing dull was left. I gave them out as gifts, thinking I was spreading sparks of light.

When I thought I had found all the trash, even skinny little glucose test strips, vape pens, and cigarette butts, I kept seeing copper-colored confetti disks and assorted beads among the October leaves, and I wondered, where did he go? Is he happy now? Is he safe, is he warm? Does he have a place where he can spread sparkle? A place of his own.


On schoolday screen breaks, our new activity became looking for Nick. In a high voice I would call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!” the same way I called my childhood pet Pepper, when most cats were outdoor cats. To adopt a cat these days, you have to promise that you won’t let it out. The out of doors is like a deathwish — vicious dogs and tomcat fights, ticks and fleas, fast cars and feline AIDS.

We couldn’t find Nick anywhere. We wandered the streets, thinking there would be nothing else worth seeing, but at the Armenian church we stopped to admire zinnias in shades of coral and hot pink and persimmon. Then we noticed the bees. Dozens of carpenter bees climbing over mounds of Durango red marigolds. There were big bees and “little kid” bees, as Diana called them, with one black dot on their fuzzy yellow backs, plates of black armor covering their abdomens. They let us watch and watch them, not minding how close we got, not caring about us at all.


Diana lay in bed with me today, touching my face, massaging my scalp, patting my nose, gazing at my eyes until I opened them.

She kissed me three times — left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. “That’s the Italian way of greeting,” she said. “And mama, elephants greet each other by holding their trunks like this,” showing me her arms intertwined at the elbows.

How rich I am — even in this poverty of human contact and touch — I have all these human beings around me, hugging me, lying on me, kissing me and looking into my eyes. I think about how I need this touch to survive, and then I think about the man who used to live in the park. Does anyone touch his arm, his face? Does anyone touch him at all?


Ekkoss/Shutterstock

“It’s Nick!” Luke yelled one morning after having gone out on the porch to eat his bowl of breakfast cereal.

Diana and Mark ran outside too. When they came back, I asked, “What was he doing?” wanting to picture a cat with no collar or curfews. He meowed and liked to be scratched, they said, and he walked around everyone’s yard and smelled things.

In our old life, this cat would have offered nothing more than a passing curiosity. Now that we are confined to a restricted radius and barred from our normal diversions, finding him has been like discovering a wild pony. 

But were we really free when we had everything? Were we really free with all those parties and meetings, appointments and dinners, ceremonies and plays and sports? 

Maybe it is not he who we are really looking for, but a part of ourselves. A part that is forever roaming. A part that is strong and lean, that doesn’t need a collar or a tag, doesn’t need doors or fences. That knows where to go and how to get back home. A part of ourselves that is, and always has been, free.

In the Back Seat Again

September 19, 2020. How many times I wrote those numbers this weekend, signing my name on snowy sheets of paper and crystalline e-documents. Buying a new car for the first time made me feel both like a grown-up and a child.

I remember how our car looked with the tree on its back, leaves everywhere, glass on the blacktop. It had been waiting there to take us home. All the other cars got driven away that afternoon, and then even we — after taking our tissue boxes and maps and DVDs — left it there to get picked over for parts. I wish I had said good-bye.

“Let’s see — you had a Honda Pilot…” the guy at the rental agency said a few days later as he looked at his computer. “The only thing we have left with 8 seats is a minivan. I’m sorry — with Labor Day coming up, we’re all booked. But I’ll try to upgrade you on Tuesday.”

When Virginia, 16, climbed into the rental minivan in a sequined see-through dress and string bikini, she said, “Why don’t we just get this one?” 

“Yeah, there’s so much space!” Mark, 12, said climbing in and playing with the sliding doors. 

“Whoa, these seats are so comfortable,” said Luke, 10, from the back, sitting with his arms spread over the seatbacks as if it were a sofa. “The seats in our old car were so hard!” he said, and I thought of all the road trips we’d taken in that hard-seated but cool car.

“Sometimes it’s better to look good than to feel good,” I used to say when someone asked why I was wearing 4-inch heels to go to dancing all night, both defending and acknowledging the ridiculousness of my choices. That was 25 years ago — have I come very far?

In the days that we waited for the insurance company, I decided black was my minivan gateway color. Black, the color of absence, the shade of night. 

Lately I have had the urge to disappear. The same urge I had in high school and college that drew me to the chemical compounds in alcohol. I don’t let myself drink anymore, because I saw how I wanted to dissolve, one molecule at a time, detaching from myself until I had tunneled so far into the darkness that no one knew me, not even me.

I found a black 2016 Toyota Sienna on Cars.com at an auto mall in Chantilly. It had 85,000 miles on it, but the price was right and there was a DVD player for the kids.

The first time I saw a TV playing in a car, it was nighttime and a neighboring car on the highway slowly floated past us, even though we were all going 60 miles per hour. Inside there was a lighted slab full of moving pictures. It looked like candy being spun at a fair. 

The next time we needed a car, we got one with a TV that opened from the ceiling. It made me feel like a child at Christmas to be with my family cradled in a car at night listening to Burl Ives telling the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as we flew over the hills, knowing good things were to come.

On Thursday, I left four kids at home with their online writing workshops and U.S. Government classes to check out the used car. As I test-drove it up and down Pleasant Valley Road, I became aware of an odor that made my stomach queasy, and I thought about the CarFax report, the high mileage, and the Jersey City owner, picturing an Uber driver in Manhattan carting around toddlers wielding cups of milk, and bachelorette parties like the ones I was once a part of where someone always threw up in the back seat.

Fahroni/Shutterstock

This is partly how we ended up inside the new car showroom of a Honda dealership. Red, white, and blue balloons hung in bunches from the ceiling over a handful of cars whose coats looked like freshly painted nail polish. Songs from the ‘80s — You Give Love a Bad Name, Glory of Love, and Every Rose Has its Thorn — played over the sound system hour after hour without a truce as we sat at faux wood desks, waiting for salesmen and credit checks and staring out at a cloudless sky over Lee Highway.

“This is my dream car,” Luke said, when we took the 2020 Odyssey for a spin around Cherrydale, and he discovered the headphones stowed in a fancy compartment and how the back row could recline like a first-class seat on a 747. Back at the dealership we let the kids have choco-milk from the coffee machine while we talked with salesmen about incentives and warranties and interest rates for this car from 2020, a year that has been so destructive, so full of chaos and pain.

It will be a souvenir from the year of broken ties and broken promises, faces disappearing and re-constituting pixel by pixel. A year of disillusion and glimmering hope, the kind that shines through the cracks, the kind you don’t see when the day is bright and everyone is full. 

A second cup of choco-milk spilled during a scuffle over the Boogie board, so I sent the kids outside. The longer we sat in that glass office, the more the numbers mounted, and when I stopped and looked up, I felt like I’d climbed too high on a rock face. In one of the pauses when my husband and I wondered if we should just walk away even though we had already spent almost 5 hours there, little Diana said in her prairie dog voice, “Let’s get the car.”

I thought buying a new car would be exciting, I thought I would feel happy. That would come days later when the car was touched up and ready to drive home. When Mark would play my favorite songs ‘kind-of softly’ as we drove out of Arlington, when Luke would tell me that the rear screen says ‘how long ’til we get there,’ when the sun was setting and the world was beautiful and I pulled into the driveway without even scratching our brand-new car.

But I couldn’t shrug off the lingering feeling of myself as a child. Recognizing that I am both helpless against some events and liable for others to great responsibility. A deep setting in of both weighty duty and profound ignorance.

How can I tell the way things will turn out, how long this will last, if we’ve done the right thing? It’s impossible, and yet sometimes you find yourself picking up a pen, signing your name, and beginning again.

The Disappearing of School

School started last week — every public school, every grade, every ward and surrounding county in D.C. — all online.

On the first day, we did not rush out of the house with clean backpacks, lunches assembled in a line, and shopping bags laden with boxes of tissues and crayons. At 8:30 a.m., Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were brushing their teeth while the principal beamed the morning announcements from a hand-me-down iPad.

Homeroom meetings began like animated quilts, heads bobbing in 20 different frames, stitched together by an invisible thread — the teacher’s voice. A voice that, in this new phase of headphones with mics, only my children can hear. Mark, 12, shooed me away when I peeked in at his living room gym class, and Virginia, 16, came downstairs for breakfast and then closed the door to the guest room for Environmental Science on Microsoft Teams. Sofia, 18, started her first day of college 366 miles away.

Over the past few weeks I had been collecting the elements recommended for good study spaces: desks, office chairs, clocks, and lists of logins. Mugs of colored pencils and stacks of marble composition notebooks sat on every desk, and taped to the wall: a different daily schedule for each child, with every slot from 8:30 to 3 filled in.

Last spring when schools closed in a rush, the kids were in charge of making a big lunch every day and we ate around the table every noon like a farming family. Technology tangles and sibling bickering forced school’s end by late morning when we busted outside to gasp for air, to run and bike and dig and bounce off the heaviness. 

We clung together away from the storm, but the danger that has kept schools closed this year feels amorphous and distant, even purposeless. And even though the kids and I are still always together, I feel newly alone. I seem to be caught between the gift of this quiet at-home school life, and not knowing what to do with it.

I have always loved the way textbooks crack when you open them for the first time, the pulpy bleachy smell of spiral notebooks, the spectrums of new marker sets. The sound of children singing together, racing to the playground at recess, lining up at the ice cream truck after 3. Fall has been about reconvening after summer’s vagaries, banding together to throw block parties or fall picnics, and venturing to make fresh alliances, to find new gurus.

When I peek into Diana’s writing workshop or Mark’s history class or Luke’s homeroom scavenger hunt, I am humbled by the patience and calm of their teachers, the compassion, their grace. The way they succeeded in creating a warm environment even though it’s not what they wanted, even though they couldn’t make it with anything you can touch.

Sometimes the tears of awe and gratitude merge into another feeling that I can’t describe. Grief . . . loneliness . . . despair? Like a ghost who has claimed an old house, this feeling haunts.


Another school week begins and the melancholy starts building again. But then I ask myself: is it possible that I have not lost anything, nothing but the past and the future?

What is the past anyway, but a memory, a re-enactment that my mind plays out? And the future a projection, a fantasy that I color in while I’m waiting for the real thing to happen. 

Right now, in this moment, is there anything that is wrong? Pink crepe myrtle blossoms brush against a cloudless blue sky. Acorns go ‘tic’ as they fall against the blacktop. The sun hums over my skin.

Can I live this life without remembering what was and what might be? Can I accept this time for everything that it is, without tallying the gains and losses? Because some day I might just look back on it, and say, “How sweet it was.”

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.

Coronavirus Reckoning – 5 Months In

For me, the coronavirus outbreak was both a horrendous tragedy and a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It was a calamity that threatened everyone on earth and melted away the hierarchies that separate us. We were just human beings for a while. 

In the blackness of quarantine, I became invisible. Free from the constant daily interactions that always seemed to lead me to think I somehow wasn’t doing things right. From the self-consciousness that plagued me: how I was perceived, how I was judged, how I measured up according to the rules of the arena I found myself in.

The quiet darkness hid it all. I was simply a soul. A human being in a family of human beings. 


This is why I am not eager to go back to the way things were.

I don’t want to try to fight my way into society’s detailed ranking, its tight grid.  I don’t want to be aware of how I do or don’t fit in, where I stand in the graph — high or low, left or right.

I don’t want to look at everything I do through the lens of the groupthink to decide whether I am good or bad, worthy or worthless.


“I am a man.” I love this declaration that I see on t-shirts in Black Lives Matters marches. It helps me rewrite the limiting scripts in my mind. When I see a Black person I don’t know, I feel the assumptions my mind is making, and then I say over it, “Man.” Or “Woman.” Or “Child.” 

This is the way I want to be seen. I want to see others this way too. Greeting each person as a human being makes me feel part of a One, not a fragment among many. When I see someone and “human” is all I need to know about them, my heart speaks, not my mind, and compassion flows out.

Every country, every society has a unique hierarchy. People not born with the qualities that are valued at the top will most likely struggle to feel loved and accepted, always feeling they are on the verge of being kicked out.


I love people. I need people. I crave connection and soul-to-soul communion. People cooperate, lift each other up, make each other feel less alone, become the safety net. We help each other survive and thrive.

But there is something about large groups that leads us to categorize and place value on people based on what they do, what they look like, how much they earn, or how assertive, outgoing, or fashionable they are.

Perhaps this is why I am not heartbroken that our world will stay small and that our house will become a school this fall. School — even as a parent who only is involved with fundraisers and drop-offs, field days, plays, and graduations — brings back the same feelings I had as a child: I’m different and I’m afraid of what I have to do to belong.

I feel sad for my children, missing all the happy nurturing things about school and playing with friends in the sunshine. I feel sad for my daughter who will start her senior year on a computer. The suffering inflicted because schools are not opening is devastating. It’s a sign of massive dysfunction, and I feel a sense of dread as I witness the institutions and economies that support the livelihoods of so many people continue to deteriorate.

This is why it is so hard to reckon with the fact that I am okay with keeping the social, busy, public part of my life in the dark for a while longer, and clinging to the peculiar warm light I have found in the wreckage. Because as much as I grieve our losses, there was something unhealthy about the way we were, and something healing about what is now.

Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock

Birthdays Grow Like Bubbles When You’re Little

“Everything is happening good 
before my birthday!”
said my 6-year-old daughter.

”I learned how to 
blow bubbles with gum,

“Frankie went on me 
when I whispered into here,”
pointing to the cat’s ribs,
“‘Please go on my lap, Frankie’ 
and he did!

“And my tooth fell out —
and now I have one grown-up tooth
and 3 wiggly teeth — 
and only 2 days ’til my birthday!” 

And today, the day she turned 7,
she put on a blue party dress
with yellow flowers and a big
ribbon in her hair, and it was
raining, so her friend wore a mask,
and they ate pizza in an empty restaurant.

“I have to wait ’til Saturday so
my dad can see me open
my presents,” she told her aunt
on the phone, and after dinner
she shared the remains of
her Birthday Cake gelato
with her brothers and they took turns
taking spoonfuls until it was
all gone.

Praise the Interstate Rest Area

To get across Maryland, West Virginia, half of Ohio, and the Allegheny Mountains in 7 hours, all that is needed is to depress a pedal on a machine with flying wheels. You don’t even have to press it that hard to go 70, 80 miles per hour. To walk over that land, it would take more than two weeks, two weeks of hiking and laying your head down in a different place each night.

It took us 1/3 of a day to disappear from a hilltop in southern Ohio where a brunch was shared with grandparents under a locust tree, and reappear at a stucco house in an Eastern seaboard city where yards are arranged in checkerboard squares. 

There was just a skin of light left when pulled into the driveway, enough to see that the zinnias had grown taller than Diana in the week that we were gone.

“What’s this?” Sofia said when she pulled out a scraggly weed at the top of the cooler packed with milk and butter, green peppers and tomatoes from my mother’s garden.


When you’re flying in a spinning machine because you want to get home before dark, you only touch your feet to the ground but once or twice. 

The weed looked like a shooting star firework, its skinny seed pods shooting off the stalk, each with a single white floret at the tip. The type of flower that grows in the shade.

At the rest area off I-79 near Clarksburg, West Virginia, the kids sat around a cement picnic table by the bathrooms sharing M&Ms and an Orange Crush from the vending machines. No one wanted to relocate their snack break to the shade of trees at the top of the hill.

I left my shoes in the grass by the car and walked up to the band of shade. But instead of the grass ending, the trees simply parted, the grass unrolled up the hill, and soon I found myself in a clearing in the middle of a small wood. Some kind soul had swirled a mower up here. This place was meant to be discovered.

I could no longer hear the whining of trucks over the freeway. Instead the steady ring of crickets. Sunlight — bossy and yellow in the outside world — sifted through the trees and came out blue and hazy, filtered with drifting bits.

A mowed path led further into the woods. The ground felt spongy and cool on my bare feet, and I bent down and saw that it was not moss but a blanket of miniature fern fronds. The smell of damp things — creeks, dragonflies, spores. A blue and black butterfly danced up and around the path.


Of the weird things in the cooler, I told Sofia, “Oh, those are my artifacts.” But the shooting star flower, the wild daisy, and the purple thistle I had tucked in there were now twisted and black like things left over after a fire.

Once we got the kids in bed, cat fed, food put away, and some clothes unpacked, I had to lie down. It wasn’t that late and I felt I hadn’t done much of anything, but all the cells in my body were still tumbling and rolling over like those tires, and I needed to stop so that everything could come to rest.

It’s not natural to move a human body so far in a day. It seems so ordinary, so inexpensive, to get from there to here with only a map and a tankful of gas. But at that velocity, a single glance away from the road, a fumble with the air conditioning dial, or a slight bump of the wheel, and we could have all been killed.


“Naturalized Area,” I noticed a sign said after I wandered back down toward the picnic table and parking lot and looked back up at that secret garden.

I guess when you let things be natural, they get magical like that — they smell like dew, they turn sunlight the color of water, they carpet paths with fern moss, they bring striped bees and Monarch butterflies to the rose velvet tassels of Joe-Pye weeds.

Maria T Hoffman/Shutterstock

Thank you God for rest areas. Those modest harbors where you don’t have to buy anything to use the bathroom or wash your hands. Where you can sail off the American interstate highway — birther of chain restaurants and suspected killer of small towns, mother of quick trips home and enabler of packages delivered in a day — and fill up on enough free grass and trees to get you home, and your feet back on the ground.

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.