Good fences

Back in February, in another age of this world, a bunch of boys were playing in the back yard on an unseasonably warm day when “a strong wind” knocked a segment of our 12 year old crappy vinyl fence out, snapping the connectors and boards both. After a conversation on how I don’t mind accidents but I object to lies, I actually felt a flush of relief. The vinyl fence was of the kind that looks good juuuuuust long enough to sell the house, and not a second longer. There were many broken boards. The whole thing was dingy with mildew and mold. And I’ve always hated it. So this was an excellent opportunity to replace it with something I would like better.

I called a fence company, who said they could get it up in two weeks.

Then the world fell apart. They actually did the estimate that first week we were home, and I thought how convenient it was to be here for the appointment. Granted, it was at 7:30 am so it was actually Adam who was awake for it, but usually he’d be on his way to work by then. In the suddenly collapsed world of the stay-at-home order, I spotted an opportunity to let Grey stretch his wings a bit. “Go ahead and practice your graffiti* on the fence!” I blithely invited. “They’re coming to take it down next week. But remember to keep it appropriate!”

You are all smarter than I am. You all see where this is going.

I actually got annoyed enough to scrub a good portion of the graffiti off

So for the last two months (which were, lest I need to remind you, approximately 5 years a piece) every time I sat in my back yard or looked out my window I was greeted by orange and black graffiti spelling out things that were juuuuuust this side of the “mom is going to make you repaint the fence line” and only if you accept the explanations for what that _really_ spells/means mom. This has been a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe and a hair shirt for me ever since.

Not Restful

To my great joy and after only about a thousand urgent texts following up on the status of my fence, whatever unexpected supply chain backup was holding my fence hostage was resolved. And through the beautiful middle days of this week, the old graffiti fence came down and strong men with post hole diggers and cement bags put a new one in for me. And so I woke up on the gorgeous May morning with a backyard ready to be made into a summer escape.

I understand why the previous owners put up a privacy fence on top of the nearly 12 foot wall they installed to keep the house from sliding down the hill. The wall cost over $100k and was the motivation for them to sell the barely occupied house. But they were private people, with heavy blinds on every window. So a privacy fence on the tiny plot of land – no bigger than a squash court – kept wind and prying eyes both out. But behind our house is a glorious series of unbuildable back yards with lovely trees and grasses and wildlife. Part of what I love about this house is this borrowed view.

Shown with May snow

And I decided on a fence that would keep us from falling off the wall, but allow us to gaze out at the small piece of nature available to us. And I love it. I have big plans for what to do next: with all the extra light now available, I spent today planting lilacs as a hedge against our neighbor. Maybe I’ll put a fruiting bush in on the other side. I’ve already gotten citronella torches ready against in the fence for fiery nights. I found a great new spot for the chairs and table. There will be bulbs and phlox and clemantis – a riot of color and fragrance and peace waiting for me whenever the weather is fine.

New lilac hedge for privacy and fragrance

This time spent at home – always at home – has amplified everything about all the places we live. Was it small before? Now you feel the smallness every day, ten times a day. Was the view lovely? Now you cling to that view with the ardent gaze of a lover on a honeymoon marking every small shift in aspect or trick of light. Our lot of land is small, our view is beautiful. I am grateful because small is so so so much more than none.

The new position of table and chairs

Last night I sat in the warmth of the night before the storm, gazing out at the view through my new fence. For a minute, it almost felt like camping. From where I sat, I could see six different groups out enjoying the fine evening. The intermix of not-quite-intelligible conversations felt so much like what it’s like at a campground in the evening. And I have noticed that everyone in my safe suburban neighborhood is also tending to their homes. Sheds have been installed, mulch delivered, garden boxes constructed, yards mowed, trees planted.

I know that this time is not like this for everyone. There are many people working long hours and living in cramped and unsafe conditions. But from my borrowed view, I can see everyone settling into what it is they have, and taking the gift of time to pour themselves into their homes in a touchback to another time. People are baking, and sewing for need. They are gardening. They are sitting in back yards they have manicured themselves and watching the breezes sweep away the warmth and herald the lightening. And we are all in awe of how much more we can see now that we’re standing still.

This was quite a cloudburst. I think we would have normally missed it.

*Stoneham is home to a fantastic graffiti tunnel, with exceptional and high quality art work. Grey admires this and wishes to emulate it – not to vandalize stuff.

Recent art work by my favorite artist

Do not tax yourself with forethought of grief

The world has been different now for about 7 weeks. I remember clearly that last pizza and beer I had, after climbing off a mountain with a friend, as the last day of the world as it was. The next day, with school cancelled, was he first day of the world as it currently is. I read online a statement that Coronavirus completely destroys some folks, while leaving others almost completely unscathed. I am so aware that I am in that latter category. My job remains secure (if requiring plenty of time from me). My home is full of food. My children are well (if at risk of becoming inert elements in front of their computers). My family is all still healthy. So far, I’ve escaped even serious inconvenience.

But even so, the days have been hard. I find that every Monday is worse than the last, attempting to marshall my resources to teach my children, do my job, keep the house, cook the dinner, maintain my relationships. I almost didn’t make it through last Monday, and I am staring at dread with tomorrow morning. (I have a plan. It includes wearing a dress and makeup, in a desperate attempt to channel my inner professional.) A walk in the forest involves people edging to the side of the path, as though you might be carrying some awful, transmissible disease. The main street is full of signs either optimistically promising better days to come, or saying “Temporaly closed” (sic) – a sign becoming faded in the strengthening sunlight. Life is feeling harder every day, as supplies of TP and flour dwindle, and the walls of my home crush me.

Still, there is the great blessing of New England. This has been a long, cold, rainy spring. It seems like those are particularly common after mild winters. We’ve had our fair share of spring snow and rain and sleet and misery. We’ve had weeks where it didn’t break 50. It’s been a great boon to our amphibian population, as every creek and rill and vernal pool is full to the brim of cold water.

Bleeding heart

But this weekend, oh!! This weekend was the glorious weekend of spring that doesn’t come just once a year in New England, it comes perhaps once a decade. The skies were blue, the sun was strong. The colors were all new-formed, as though God himself had just dreampt them up. Every color imaginable is suddenly bursting forth into joyous profusion, looking new washed and newly painted on the world. We are at just the tipping point between daffodil and forsythia, into tulip and, well, everything. Even the houses look jollier in the bright sun, which portends warmth and freedom and backyards in a way that is utterly and inescapably charming to all those of us who have been practically housebound since October. There seem to be few consolations in this newly-isolate world, but oh. Spring in New England is still one of them.

Confession: this man has brought me breakfast in bed nearly every day for those 6 weeks

Not being a fool, I early resolved that my plan for this weekend was to spend as much of it as was humanly possible outdoors. Given that it’s nearly 11 and I’m still by a backyard fire, I declare said plan fulsomely accomplished. Usually weekends like this would be subject to the whim of the calendar: had I already committed myself? Was it to something outdoorsy? But yesterday I woke to a clean slate of a plan, and (after the delicious breakfast prepared for my by my incredibly loving husband) I started with a five mile run along the bike way that I played a small part in ensuring was here for us, now, when we need it most. The Aberjona and Sweetwater were both running high along their banks, and the trail was crowded with folks enjoying the finest weather we’ve seen in six months. Most of them, including me, were wearing masks.

In glorious fashion, the day unfolded with sleepy hammock naps, letters to friends, and meals shared with my beloved family. I have always said that I cannot relax at home, because there is too much to do. But honestly, most of it has now been done so for the first time in ever so long, I find myself able to just … be. Here. In this 10th of an acre that is my homestead. I spent the whole day happy. I definitely interrogated myself several times over this. The world is in tumult. So many have died. So many have suffered. There is more to come. How dare, HOW DARE I be happy? It isn’t fair that I be happy when so many are caught in sorrow, grief, fear and distress. That is all, unarguably, true. But the thing I’ve wanted to tell you, across many failed blog posts, is that your suffering does not reduce the suffering of others. So if you have a choice between suffering and not suffering, do not suffer.

I have been struck by the poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” since it arrived as the answer to an advent Google search I initiated looking for poems of peace. It is strong enough that many of the lines can speak to you. But the ones that have slayed me – stopped me in my tracks – during this pandemic period are:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

Resident baby bunny

On this most beautiful day of spring, I find myself challenged by the question: will I tax this day to neutrality by forethought of grief (or by focus on the unfairness of my joy?)? Or will I let go. Will I come into the peace of the wild things and take this moment as it is, built on a complex scaffold but for a moment, full of joy? I think of the baby bunny who has taken residence under my porch, and who nibbles on dandylions in my back yard. Do I see that creature as a pestilence-spreading eater of bulbs, destined to destroy gardens before falling prey to the hawks and foxes that prowl my suburban neighborhood? Or do I just enjoy the meek cuteness of its ears, now, when it is a baby and before its destiny is fulfilled for food or procreation? Do I look towards all the consequences of rabbit-incarnate, or do I just smile across baby-bunny.

For the bunny, my decision does not matter (assuming I am unwilling to poison his bulb-eating self). This Coney will live to be a great big jackrabbit, or it will fall food to yet wilder animals. It is not in my power to control. But what I can control is my joy of it, in this moment. I can choose to sit in companionable silence with my little Lagomorpha. Or I can choose to tax my life with the forethought of grief.

Communion under a dying plum

So I decided, in this one shining weekend, to enjoy it. To nap in a hammock tied to my dying plum tree, and not look at the blight. To build a fire of the wood I have and not consider the shortage at the hardware store. To serve communion to my husband from the glasses my father brought from Ethiopia more than fifty years ago, and not wonder when I would sit in a pew again to receive communion in a sanctuary. To look at bleeding heart with a full and joyful heart, and not wonder how soon it will be before my heart bleeds. To meet with my friends through the miracle of technology, and not wait until we can be together again in truth.

What would you do differently, if you chose not to tax your heart in forethought of grief? What joy is there for you in the time, in this moment? In an era of grief, doubt, uncertainty and loss, where is it possible for you to find peace?

Guest Post: Dustbowl Dance, COVID19 version

My 14 year old son Grey was given an assignment to write a song about a disaster. He picked the Mumford and Sons Dustbowl Dance for music, and the current pandemic. For those not up on the latest meme culture, here’s some background on his use of “Karen,” as a generic type of person and not an individual. – Brenda

A young lad sits inside of his room
He lies on his floor, attends a class in a Zoom
There’s no one outside and no one to play
He eats food and he sleeps, that’s all of his day

I have been stuck in my house since Winter’s last breath
And my sleep schedule makes me feel like death
I have read and ran and writhed in fatigue
Played so many games, I’m the best in my league
So hurry and quicken o’ science worldwide
Corona’s the thing you need to confront, not hide

Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide

Karens, you idiots, look at this place!
America now reeks of fear and disgrace
So everyone quarantines and anti-vaxxers do not!
How can you claim y’all are safe when you got
A disease and then said essential oils could heal?
Are you sure that the reality you live in is real?
You’ll live in your stupor and die with a flu
Corona has more letters than your IQ!

Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide

Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide

Yes Doctor, yes, Karen died of COVID 19
There were many more things in life she coulda’ seen
But she brushed off reports of the deathly disease
And now her body rots with fleas.

Antepandemian Days

Before the flood
There’s an old word, much beloved of the sort of 19th century poets and authors who took great delight in antiquated, obscure vocabulary, that has been much on my mind lately. The word is “antediluvian“. It refers to a time “before the flood” – it speaks to an ancient period both innocent and evil, of near mythical antiquity. HP Lovecraft was a huge fan of the word, and tossed it in like raisins to his descriptions:

All at once I came upon a place where the bed-rock rose stark through the sand and formed a low cliff; and here I saw with joy what seemed to promise further traces of the antediluvian people. – “>The Nameless City by HP Lovecraft

It is hard to know, right now and right here, just how much of an apocalypse this virus truly is. We have certainly, as humans, seen worse. When smallpox ran like a wildfire ahead of European explorers, it wiped out as much as 90% of those who had lived in the place I now call home. The Black Death killed millions. There is no doubt in my mind that we – humans – will be as triumphant long term over this stark moment as we have been over every other difficult and challenging time in our history. And there have been so many – more than even I know.

Still, it’s strange to be in that moment. It’s strange to have been a full adult in both the ante and the post of our pandemiun moment. I already felt like a part of a liminal generation. Born in 1978, I was one of the last to be trained on the prior generation of skills: typing on a typewriter, repairing a lawn mower engine, formatting a memo, writing a letter. I lived and loved in an era before the internet. But I also got my first computer at four, my first internet connection at sixteen, and one of my first jobs was digital. I have driven cross country before GPS, and can navigate with a map. I also love APIs and have written HTML for nearly as long as “markup languages” have existed.

And now I am at the full flower of my prime right at the moment where the world looks to reshape itself. There is a clear before, and there is a developing hereafter. The day of demarcation is bright in my mind. To me, the world pivoted as fast as it has ever done on March 12. I took a day that was intended to be Del’s funeral and spending it instead hiking in the White Mountains (a choice I think he would have fully approved of). When I left that morning, the stock market was strong, nothing was closed, and even our decision to cancel the funeral was just because it was being held in a “hot spot”. When we emerged off that mountain, self-consciously mindful of keeping our distance from other hikers, the stock market had the first of a historically awful series of days. My son had stayed home sick (with a bug he would share with me – still not sure if that was Coronavirus or not). And there would be no more days of school this winter. All employees in both my and my husband’s company were to work from home – indefinitely as it turns out. That drive home, we had pizza in a trattoria buried in the mountains and I noted it as an excellent find for later. Now I wonder if it will still be there when later comes.

As one of Generation X, I got to set my expectations for what the world was during the most boring decade in history: the 90s. (If you’re wondering, it definitely FELT like the most boring decade in history.) It was an era after war between nation-states had become irrelevant (or fast and bloodless, if required). Vice Presidentials scuppered promising careers with an inability to correctly spell root vegetables. We were all rudely corrected about how safe, how boring, how predictable the world was on September 11th, 2001 (the day the 90s truly ended).

Since that pizza coming off that hike, I’ve had this passage from Matthew (which I just read this winter) rolling through my mind, about that antediluvian era (although I know of no Biblical translation so obscure as to use the word itself):

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark. And they were oblivious, until the flood came and swept them all away. – Matthew 24:38-39

We have been swept away. Where we will land, on what shore and in what condition, I do not know. I do know that we will continue, and find new ways of being. We will create a postpandemiun society. And it depends on the choices we all make in these days and hours as to whether that society is a joyful one, or one built on fear. Hold on to hope, my friends. There will be a day – sooner than you can believe – where this is all a tale to tell children.

Abundance & Want

This strange time in the life of the world is giving all of us room, space and perspective to see the world through unfamiliar lenses. It’s remarkable what doesn’t change (not enough hours in the day!) and what is fundamentally shifted and may never come back the way it was (tbd). We are all spending way more time with some people, and way less time with others. Our habits are changed – die-hard grocery delivery shoppers like me can’t get a slot while others try it for the first time. Few of us are commuting, and the commute is changed for everyone. We are cooking more and eating more takeout, but it seems like a long time since we sat with friends in a bar, or a movie theater or… anywhere.

This time has also created different senses of lack or insufficiency. Many, many, many people are now encountering true want. Millions have been laid off. Many are in quarantine and struggling to make sure they have enough of the basics. But almost no one can find toilet paper in the stores. With just a small number of hoarders and a small increase in the amount we all picked up for our homes, our incredibly finely tuned system, designed to produce precisely the right amount of TP and not a roll more, is struggling to keep up.

When I was growing up, grocery shopping was a once a month thing. We’d get fill-in milk, eggs and bread, but my mom did one big shopping trip to the base (my father was military retired) about once a month or two. When we lived in Northern Idaho, it was like a 3 hour drive – each way. And that’s how we shopped: buy absolutely everything you might need as though you live in a logging town in the woods 20 miles from the nearest podunk grocery store with five aisles – and absolutely no restaurants. This never seemed particularly hard. By my parents standards, this was the height of accessible food!

6 months of supplies in Africa

This is my parent’s supply drop when they were in Africa. According to my sister this represents 6 months of food. The massive amount of soda here cracks me up – my parents made many sacrifices, but not the sodapop! Of course, this was supplemented with bananas from the garden, eggs, chicken and local foods – which were neither plentiful nor varied. (For the record, I’m the waif in the lower right.) The picture on the wall still hangs in my parents house.

Anyway, this is how I learned to shop, and this attitude remains true, even though we live a quarter of a mile from a (usually) well stocked grocery store. So we were well prepared for a 2 week “eat what you have” plan. But into our idyllic backlog of Costco whole wheat pasta, there came the voice of want. Here I was, watching the Great British Bakeshow with dreams of dinner rolls, pies, cakes and donuts dancing through my head. And Adam makes bread for our family every week – and usually a few loaves to share. But then we did a grocery store run – and there was no flour to be had. We checked the pantry – and the flour supplies were paltry. We looked online, and they’re scalping flour. Peapod was out. Amazon was delivery 25 pound bags only …. in mid April. Costco was out. Target was out.

We began to feel the scarcity. Ah! To be in a well stocked house with plenty of time for yeast breads… and no flour!!! Adam got particularly obsessed. He starting calling Stop and Shop every morning. He went on grocery runs which were ill-disguised flour runs. He got anxious. And then, finally, we found flour at the local teeny Target. Enough flour. We left with 25 pounds of flour (which was our desired amount). And somehow this anxiety we’d been experiencing, this sense of shortage, eased. We had enough. Adam says it was fascinating to watch his own mind, which had been dwelling on wondering what shortages we’ll experience, how our supply chain will hold up, what the uncertain future holds. But somehow, with enough flour laid by, he is more sanguine that this world will work out ok in the end.

This time we will be confronted with unusual and unexpected wants. We are short of toilet paper, socialization, and time alone. But there are also moments of plenty, if we look for them. Did we lay aside enough Coke to get us through six months, like my folks did? Is there an abundance where there is usually scarcity somewhere for you? Maybe a little more time? Maybe more connection with your family? More phone calls? More patiently watching out your window as spring takes over from winter? More yeast breads? Where are you abundantly filled?

Abundance

Seemingly months later…

A week ago today, I was commuting into work. I was irritated by it – it was already clear that this was going to be a problem and we shouldn’t be packing together on public transit to go into our 3 foot cubicles. But my work was still requiring folks to come in person. That seems like an altogether distant era – a time out of remembrance. But when I packed up that afternoon, in an increasingly quiet office, I took a long moment to look around. I work on the 25th floor with spectacular views from the heart of Boston. From one side, I can look up the Charles to the rising monuments of Kendall Square, and into New England’s soul as marked by the Citco sign. On the other side, punctuated by a steady stream of massive airliners, are the Harbor Islands and placid waters of Boston Harbor. The other two sides are mostly traffic, gazing down to the Blue Hills and up to the Fells.

The Harbor Islands view

I looked at my desk – my hundreds of colored pens, my pictures of my kids, my hilarious and ironic set of “awards” from my coworkers. And I wondered when I would see any of it again. It felt like goodbye. That night I learned the earliest likely date would be April 11th – almost a full month. We will see.

The world has radically changed in the week since that moment. Our kids are home from school. Public places are shuttered. Stores and restaurants are shifting how and when they serve various customers. Every ticket you have to every event is now a broken promise. Hiking trails are packed with people staying six feet apart. All of us are leaning on the internet as a critical lifeline to friends, family and a world outside the shrinking walls of our homes. And we know that for some, this catastrophe is truly catastrophic early. Not just for those who have fallen ill, or who will be soon. But for the economically precarious – suddenly laid off. For the abused trapped now with abusers who are themselves frightened, angry and lashing out. It can feel irresponsible to look for silver linings, especially when the path in front of us is dark and unknown.

But there are silver linings. I will never again get as much quality time with my family as I am getting now. For a month, I will be spending hours of focused, quality time with my teen and tween and husband every day. This was a gift that could not have been purchased in an era where teenage friends were waiting just there. (We also have a functionally infinite supply of board games, which is nice!) The flowering of creativity as people try to figure out how to do the things that are important to them in this era is a joy. I see online concerts, art activities, educational classes and free curriculums sprouting up all over the place. People are experimenting with hundreds of different ways of being together, apart. All of us are learning new tools and new techniques. How may of you have installed a new app, or tried new software, or interacted with something in a new way this last week? I have.

I’ve also seen people really reaching out and caring for others. Packages of chicken soup have been left on my porch. Offerings of errands from people have poured in. Texts and phone calls to see if I’m ok. Prayers. People are really, generally, pretty decent to each other. It’s just that the exceptions get the news coverage.

As we watch the forsythia bloom this strangest of springs, I have hope that we will become our best selves.


I am happy to report that my health is improving. I’m still not 100% (and I’m trying to take it easy), but I seem to be on the way up instead of the way down. Last night, I rested by binge-watching The Great British Bakeoff. I highly recommend this choice. Nothing like the bright colors, the high standards and low stakes, and the delicious looking baking you actually DO have time to attempt to emulate right now as an anodyne for the soul.

The kids are doing pretty well. Thane is dedicating nearly 100% of his learning time to German on DuoLingo. I’m avoiding pointing out that a binging strategy isn’t as effective in language learning. Grey is doing creative writing, and reading “The Stand”. I got some nice company from him when he read a section about a mom dying and then wanted to hang out with me, so that’s nice. We’re pretty glad we got a treadmill a few years ago for winter exercise, especially today which is rather crummy out. And I’m awfully glad to be working at a company doing something to help, even if I’m not on that particular project.

How are things with you?

The first Monday

It’s a bright sunny day here in New England, on this strangely askew morning. The usual stream of cars cutting through our street is stilled. Last night, we sat down with our boys to talk through how life would be in this new era, at least for now. We all need structure, sunlight, exercise, good food, and some sort of meaningful work in our lives to stay mentally healthy. Here’s what’s happening in our family.

8 am – everyone up (including mom)
10 pm – in bed, screens off (can read)

Before Noon: (minimum)
1/2 hour exercise
2 hours learning

Before 6 pm:
1 hr outside/daylight
1/2 hr exercise (1 hr. total)
1 hr. chores (or parent approval) – we set up lists on Google Keep for this
2 hrs learning (4 hrs total)

Here’s the list of things that count as learning for your inspiration!


Adam and I are working full days, of course. Unfortunately, I woke up this morning with a pretty righteous cough. I keep checking to see if I also have shortness of breath. I have a very, very mildly elevated temperature (eg. 99.7). I called the office where I had a PCP, and she has left the office and they were deeply unhelpful “You need to pick a PCP.” “OK, who are my options?” “You can Google it online.” So I also don’t have a PCP. On the plus side, this is an opportunity for me to find a better practice. (They were also pretty unhelpful in non-pandemic times.) On the minus, there is still no testing.

I’m trying to focus on what people would need to know about my work, in case I worsen or need to stop working and, ya know, rest.

On the plus side, Thane is working on his German and Grey completed an essay this morning! Both are now exercising – bike riding and basketball playing! (Thump thump cough shoot).

Learning German on Duolingo