COVID-19, Friends, Garden, Poetry, Writing

Snow in April

Big fat snowflakes fell all day, a mid-April snow that coated the forsythia and the early flowering rhododendron—their bright yellow and hot pink flowers drooped under the snow but still shone through. A chilly day is in the forecast for tomorrow but increasing warmth throughout the week will bring those beauties back to vibrant life. This is spring in New England. Looking back through my archive of photos I see yearly shots of snow on April buds. 

I and most of my friends are now fully vaccinated, our immune systems firmly boosted by either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. I expected to feel some dramatic sense of relief, a desire to leap back into the world, but the shift has been subtle, a lessening of anxiety when I go grocery shopping or meet a friend for lunch on a coffee shop’s patio. I’m fantasizing about some regional travel but am not yet ready to hop on an airplane. Friends and I are planning summer theater excursions, outside, under a tent but I’m not quite ready for a movie theater. Outdoor restaurant seating is fine; indoors, too confined. Wearing masks in public spaces, especially indoors, is still the norm around here; I find this reassuring.

The New York Times recently posted an interactive piece titled Who We Are Now, featuring the voices of a range of Americans reflecting on the pandemic year. These reflections speak to the upheaval, disruption, fear, grief, renewal, recalibrating, and rethinking that the past year has brought especially for those younger than I, who have contended with job changes and losses, kids learning from home, parents at heightened risk, as well as for those whose age or health concerns have kept them isolated at home or in nursing homes. 

For me, life in viral times has meant an intensifying of changes I would have made anyhow as I left a full time job behind and moved into unstructured days that give me time for reflecting and writing. In a March 2020 blog post I noted that pandemic life isn’t all that different than my writer’s life except it’s harder to find alternatives to solitude when time alone weighs heavily—no stores to browse in or coffee shops to sit in with my computer open and eyes surveying the life around me. 

I guess I’m circling back to a question the poet David Whyte posed in a webinar: What is the seasonality of my life? What is coming into being? As I write that I think about my mother in her later years. Dad pulled her out into the world and after his death her own health problems and a strongly introverted nature kept her increasingly at home, in her recliner, touching the world through the Sunday New York Times, her television, phone calls with me and my sister, and visits from kind friends and neighbors. 

I picture her in those final years, sunk in her recliner in the living room. I think she found peace in the sitting and remembering, her mind drifting through time. In her last year or two I sometimes wondered if she was waiting to die, but maybe it was more that she was letting go, acknowledging the end. I’m not there yet; I’m tenaciously rooted in this life. But am I tiptoeing in that direction? Is that a piece of what’s slowly coming into being for me? 

I recently reread Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking.” I remember when I first read this poem many, many years ago, at a time of great upheaval and transition, I was drawn to the words “This shaking keeps me steady.” 

But now, as I sidle into a new phase of life, different words beckon me. “I hear my being dance from ear to ear.” “What falls away is always and is near./I wake to sleep and take my waking slow./I learn by going where I have to go.”

COVID-19, Garden, Home, Writing

Inviting Revery

As spring approaches I feel a quickening of spirit, a pull outwards to light and sound and life. The neighborhood sprang alive last week, little kids playing on one side, college students skateboarding and shooting hoops on the other side, people walking dogs, riding bikes. I chatted with Herbie from across the street, a widower in his 80s. I’ve seen him from afar this winter when he takes out the trash or occasionally pulls out of the driveway but we haven’t chatted in a couple of months. He says he’s OK but it sure has been a long winter. I agree.

First signs of spring

I started raking off garden beds last week, cutting back dried stalks of foliage, sweeping all the debris onto the old blue tarp and hauling it back to the brush and compost pile. It felt good to use my body in this way although I’m slower, more cautious, than I was when I first began gardening this small lot over twenty-five years ago. In those days I would have spent most of the day crouching down to cut stalks back to the ground, weeding, raking, edging, letting the shape of the garden emerge, plotting out what I was going to transplant, what needed feeding. I’d circle the garden with a cart loaded with organic fertilizers, one bag for acid loving plants, the rhododendrons and azaleas, the andromeda, and one for plants that appreciate a more neutral soil. 

But these days, with an older body to tend and nurture, I take my gardening in small sips and savor each moment. I choose a portion to clear, rake off the leaves and other loose debris, use the long handled trimmer to snip back the dried stalks, rake some more, then take a quick break to stretch before returning for a final round of clipping and raking. 

I uncover a few green shoots starting to poke through; the cat mint shows new growth hiding under last year’s smoky gray foliage, the pulmonaria sports a few blooms. I clip the dead foliage from the epimedium to make way for the delicate spring blossoms that will soon appear, tiny bells dangling from fragile stems followed by foliage that claims the space, holds its own. Eventually garden helpers will come in to edge, weed, and transplant. They’ll move through all the beds in a day, leaving them tidied and ready for summer, but I relish my slow start to clean up, my chance to say hello again to the flowers and shrubs, my old friends. 

I move more slowly through the rest of my life as well. This is partly pandemic lethargy. No need to hurry because there’s no place to go. Do I need to shower today? Not really. I pass a quick sniff test and the only living creature I’ll see in person is the cat. 

I lie in bed first thing, easing into the day. It’s hard to imagine being upright and functional but I’m soon out of bed and headed for the kitchen and coffee. The morning drifts along. I review my mental to-do list but have a hard time settling on a starting point—nothing feels urgent.

Friends and I talk about what we’ll do when we’re fully vaccinated, which for most of us will be mid-April. My dreams are modest: hug my friends, share a meal around my dining table, browse a bookstore. But even with increased freedom of movement and contact, I’ll need to navigate unstructured time, negotiate with myself about productivity, wonder what that means at this stage of life. 

At some point most days I catch myself staring into space, my mind wandering like those clouds that float in a summer sky, and I shake myself. Do something! Get busy! my inner critic chides. Then I remember the Emily Dickinson quote I used to have posted above my desk: 

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I breathe and stretch, throw a load in the washer, do a few dishes, amble around the garden before settling at my desk and inviting revery to wander onto the page. 

COVID-19, Garden, Meditation

Breathe

I made applesauce recently, using apples from a big bag of a local orchard’s pie mix, small brown skinned heirloom apples, big red apples, crisp apples, soft apples, sweet and tart apples. I quartered them, cut out the seeds and stem, placed the quarters flesh side down on a cookie sheet and roasted them until the flesh was almost liquid and an apple laden scent filled the kitchen. I lifted the skins off the soft fragrant pulp, slid the pulp into a bowl and mashed it into chunky goodness. Later I scattered all the cores and seeds and discarded apple bits into the woody areas around the yard for squirrels and other critters to nibble. On my way back to the house I spotted one squirrel with apple in its mouth hopping away to a nearby shrub. 

I want to live in moments like this, in the feeling of knife slicing through apple, the heft of an apple laden cookie sheet, the scent and sizzle of roasting apples, the feel of warm apple peel under my fingers as I separate peel from flesh, the slight resistance of apple innards against the potato masher, the first sweet taste of sauce. 

But it’s February and winter feels endless, especially this winter almost a year into pandemic restricted life. Gray days are the norm, snow, chilly wind. I’m spending more time than I like indoors, pacing around my small house. This morning I looked out at the snow covered back yard; dried stalks of perennials hinted at the robust, colorful gardens of spring and summer. And I remembered sitting in the midst of those gardens on summer afternoons sipping tea, watching the cat cavort, listening to the birds, watching them thread through the tree tops, and the joy I felt in those warm languid moments. I long to be in that warmth, that light.

Instead, I’m sitting at my desk looking out at watery sun and gathering clouds. Snow is in the forecast. The cat stares out the front window or hunkers down on the screened-in back porch, the closest he’ll get to outdoors until the snow melts. 

In front of me on the desk is a white rock with the word “breathe” imprinted on top. I pause and take a deep breath, then another. I remind myself that fretting and pacing won’t make the snow melt or bring the spring flowers any sooner, that I don’t want to wish the days away. I know that there are pleasures to be found in this interior time—our meditation group, various writing groups, a walk with a friend and phone call with another friend, hot chocolate, a good book, the smell of soup simmering on the stove. Right here, right now, let this be enough. Right here, right now this is ample. 

Christmas, COVID-19, Family

Christmas trees, pandemic, 2020

As the winter solstice approaches, with its short cold days and long nights, I feel a familiar swirl of feelings—sadness mixes with pleasure, contentment quickly turns into restlessness. These feelings are intensified by the approach of Christmas, a holiday that for most of my adult life I’ve greeted with nostalgia and a vague sense of loss. I wrote about this feeling of being homesick for Christmas in a blog post a few years ago. My sister’s death in December 2018 sharpened the edges of the sadness and pandemic-induced isolation has given the season a new twist of poignancy—it’s been tempting to simply ignore Christmas this year. 

In the end I decided to put up a tree, wanting to bring the green and light of warmer times into my home. The first step was twining the string of lights carefully around the tree, aiming for an evenness in spacing that I never quite achieved. “Beauty is in the imperfections,” I kept telling myself as I tugged a strand up here and down there but never closing the light gap on the left side of the tree. 

I sorted through the box of ornaments, taking the time to remember the stories that accompany them—these are a gift from a friend, these were on my dad’s tree when he was a child, here’s one my mom gave me when I first had my own decorated tree in an apartment far from home, a Norfolk Island pine whose slippery branches I loaded down with ornaments and small white lights. 

I lifted out brightly colored discs and balls; several cat figures; a delicate glass hummingbird; a crystal snowflake; a slightly tattered stuffed elephant that my sister had brought back from India; a small trombone, one of the vintage ornaments from my dad’s childhood tree. I hung the ornaments carefully, pausing often to step back and assess bare spots. 

Decorating a tree was a good thing to do in this strange year and yet I felt slightly let down. I wanted to feel more joy in the doing, to bask in the beauty of the lights glowing in a dark room, to feel the grace of light in a dark time, of continuity, of ties back through time. 

I wanted to feel the delight I’d felt as a teen when my sister and I would decorate the tree on Christmas eve, place the brightly wrapped presents, stuff the stockings. I remember how I’d sit in the darkened room with only the tree for light, everyone else asleep, and feel a wordless wonder. But of course that remembered joy and grace came as much from the shared experience of decorating the tree as it did from the tree itself–the laughter and teasing and loving connection, the anticipation of others’ delight. 

And so my pleasure in the solo tree decorating is muted, tinged with an awareness of loss, accompanied by ghosts of my young self, my sister, our family. I’ll keep the tree up until New Year’s day and I’ll sit for a few minutes late at night, with only the light of the tree, and maybe instead of waiting for—and missing—the remembered reverence, I’ll let the light wash over me, let it be what it is today. 

COVID-19, Home, Writing

Making space

I wrote an eloquent blog post in my head while I was clearing accumulated stuff off the dining table a few days ago. The blog post is gone along with all the detritus piled on the table. But maybe, by opening the computer, pulling up a blank document, and putting fingers to keys some of those thoughts will re-emerge. 

The piles had been there since spring. I’d periodically sift through looking for bills or other items that needed immediate attention; occasionally I’d make half-hearted attempts to organize and clear away. But I’d get distracted and abandon the task and the somewhat diminished piles would grow once again until my next brief attempt at pile purging. 

I’ve never been a neat and tidy person; my dining table has often sported teetering piles of paper, half unpacked grocery bags, a few stray articles of clothing. But at some point I’d invite friends in for a meal and the mess would disappear leaving an expanse of oak ready for placemats and cutlery, napkins, plates, bowls of steaming, fragrant stews or soups, cutting boards piled with bread, wine glasses glimmering, candles lit, maybe flowers in a vase, friendly faces, mingled voices. I don’t remember the last time I shared a meal at this table. Last February perhaps?

A major contributor to the mess was a big pile of fabric I’d used to make masks back in the early days of the pandemic. I’d spent hours researching patterns on the Internet, bookmarking YouTube videos of perky mask makers demonstrating their particular approach to cutting, stitching, pleating, fastening. I’d sacrificed an old bra and two unused half slips to the cause, snipping out their elastic to make ear loops. After several failed masks I produced two that I continue to wear. But with many vendors selling well-designed masks online I no longer need immediate access to all that fabric. 

My iron, a tote bag with sewing supplies, and the pile of fabric scraps are now cleared away—the iron is hanging next to the folded up ironing board, the fabric scraps are folded up in a bin under my bed, the sewing supplies stowed near the sewing machine in another room. All that’s left on the table is a small pile of papers to be filed or shredded.  

The empty table seems to be issuing an invitation but for what? An as yet to be discovered art project? A display of family photos and papers to stimulate my writing? A different sewing project? (I could use a new duvet cover.) Who knows when I’ll once again invite friends to gather around this table. 

This isn’t the post I drafted in my mind—I think I was playing around with a theme of “delights that ground me.” And I might write about that some day. For now, I’ll fold up the grocery bag that I plopped on the table yesterday and unfurl a brightly colored cloth.