Dread

It’s been coming around more often lately. There are rare days when it hangs sullen and gray over everything, like a drop ceiling of stratus clouds. Usually, though, it’s a kernel of feeling at the cusp of some worthy pursuit that my lesser nature does not want to do—exercising, cleaning out the chicken coop, working with my daughter on her fractions. And as my higher nature stretches up, my lower nature in protest stretches down, and I yawn open somewhere in the middle and arrive at the utter impossibility of action. I stand there frozen for a moment and wonder how anything in the world ever gets done.

It is a habit of mine to split things into two camps. Higher nature, lower nature. Good feelings or bad ones. Worthy vs. unworthy pursuits. Well-used time and time that I have wasted. Months ago these categories, though misleading, still served their general purpose. In this new era, however, they have all but lost their meaning. Is it more worthy to bake bread for your family or to hold your son while he cries? Which nature needs a nap – your higher or your lower? Is it wasting time to lock yourself in the bathroom for ten minutes of relative silence, the blessed fan drowning out your children’s voices calling your name?

Wendell Berry wrote, “Always in the big woods when you leave the ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”

Two months ago, each of us stepped off into an alternate world. The problem is, most of our new places look oddly similar to our old ones. This makes us assume that our capacities ought not to have changed. I should be able to wake early and exercise, homeschool the children throughout the morning, work as much as I need throughout the afternoon, and manage all of the daily household detritus before 5 o’clock rolls around and it’s time to cook dinner.

But in a new place, who we are must necessarily be different from who we were, and expecting oneself to maintain the same (or, for most of us, higher) standards of productivity is tantamount to expecting a displaced hunter-gatherer to glean berries from the desert. We have left one territory and entered another. Maybe how we are in this new space is how we ought to be. Maybe dread is a wise teacher bending over to whisper that at the moment we are taking too much on ourselves.

Berry goes on, “You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”

Alone is a scary place to be. Alone, each of us is necessarily weaker, more vulnerable, less certain of anything. Strength will come again in time, but it is not ours yet. First we must put down roots to anchor us in this new ground. First we must go alone, gentle and brave.

Photo by Allan Nygren on Unsplash

Little Agonies

Yesterday my daughter and I spent the afternoon riding our bicycles up and down the road behind our house. We packed the bike trailer with water and apples, a picnic blanket, and Alyosha’s stuffed dog Snoozles, who “really just needed to get out of the house for a while.” (Testify, Snoozles, testify.)

Such an afternoon sounds idyllic—mother, daughter, bicycles, country road, sunshine. And it was idyllic, in moments. But within all such times, there arise for me several small but unmistakable pockets of agony. I do not mention these moments out loud. I do not allow them to derail the day. And I can never tell if these moments are a part of my personality or if they are partner to every parent. But the truth is, I cannot comfortably function the way my daughter functions. If I took a bike ride by myself, then I would ride to, and I would ride from, and that would be the end of it. Maybe I would try to beat my previous time. Maybe I would challenge myself to a greater number of miles.

My dear Alyosha’s goal, however, is to stretch out every pleasant moment for as long as possible. In my younger years, I could have covered forty miles in the time we took. Yesterday Alyosha and I covered a grand total of seven. It’s not even that she’s a slow cyclist, it’s just that she’s constantly stopping. For a drink. For an itch. For a better look at the water. To read a sign. To eat an apple. To set a world record for Longest Time Ever Spent Eating an Apple. The agonies lie in my having to let go, over and over, of my own momentum, of my own will.

E.B. White wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy it.” Together, Alyosha and I total one E.B. White. I usually find myself preoccupied with improving the state of our little world, while Alyosha fiddles around with new ways of enjoying it. Yesterday, as she lolled about in the grass with her apple, taking her languorous, microscopic nibbles, I asked her what she liked best about herself. She thought for a while. “I like that I make things fun,” she finally said. “I know how to take something that’s maybe not very enjoyable and turn it into a good time.”

And she’s right, she does that. With school, with chores, with riding long distances in the car. And this ability of hers seems to spring from a belief that nearly everything could and should be enjoyed, that one need only cultivate the right attitude and the right approach.

I don’t want to malign myself here. As a working mother, I can’t get too caught up with enjoyment because there is simply too much to be done, especially now with homeschool and 24/7 childcare thrown into the mix. My children can follow their whimsy because their father and I are working long days earning the money, washing the laundry, procuring the food, and accomplishing the myriad of other tasks required to build a safe and happy home.

But when I can accept the small agonies and dedicate a part of the day to drifting along after my children, I remember that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. To my daily work, I can bring a fresh mind, a new posture. There is still time to savor and to yield. There is still time to sit in the grass and eat an apple and taste every bite.

Ducks

Our neighbors are raising a flock of ducks that waddle about their property in a little troop, bickering back and forth. Whenever I walk out into the yard, I can hear their quacks and blatts and ratchets from across the road, an enjoyable counterpoint to the squawks of our chickens, who gather at their fence and croak toward us, hopeful for scraps. Most of the time, the ducks seem unruffled and predictable and even somewhat stern. That is, until it begins to rain.

Whenever it rains, the ducks lose any sense of composure. They cry out together in their loudest, harshest voices. They begin, as well as they can, to run. Much of the time they abandon the safety of their yard and take to the open road. My entirely unscientific theory is that water speaks to the most primal part of them. Their natural habitat is falling from the sky. The world is calling, and they must go.

My children do the same thing, I think, when we arrive at a trail head and they sprint on ahead of me, squealing down the path. And I used to do the same thing as a little girl, when I set off over the fields or climbed a neighbor’s fence into the hills to watch the sun set. It’s a feeling I covet now, too often undetectable beneath my daily duties and all of my pretenses to knowledge.

But lately it has been returning more and more to me, this animal love for the earth. I can hear the wild world calling again, and I want to take off after it, my voice high and loud, my footsteps fast and frantic and light.

Photo by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash

Hard Work

Feral child with broadfork

Over the past week I’ve been prepping the beds in my vegetable garden. This involves a tool called a broadfork, which, aptly named, is a very broad upside-down fork with several long blades and two handles sticking up on either side. To work the blades down into the earth, you have to jump on the tool and rock it side to side. Then you work the handles forward and back to slice through the earth, thus aerating the soil while preserving its structure. You lift the broadfork, move six inches back, and repeat the process.

Broadforking is hard work, and it takes a long time. I am not weak, but I am smaller, and so I have to throw my whole body behind the pulling of the handles or they will not budge. I sweat, I ache, my shoulders burn. My hands begin to blister through my worn out gardening gloves.

And yet, jumping, rocking, pulling, plunging, something starts to settle in me. The fog of all of my imagined anxieties can no longer compete. This chore is hard enough to take all that I’m carrying and work it down into the dirt. And when I am finished for the day, I can sit back, emptied and exhausted and irrationally happy and finally calm.

Sun

I spent several hours this morning procuring and sanitizing two weeks worth of food for my family. I wore a mask and gloves and an outfit that I stripped off as soon as I stepped in the door. I sprayed all of the packages down with Lysol, a product I never used to use, while Scott scrubbed the produce in hot, soapy water. These new processes recommended by a doctor friend feel simultaneously excessive but also insufficient. Is all of this really necessary? Will all of this be enough?

But now I am sitting on the back porch in the sunshine with my notebook in my lap. As of yesterday afternoon, spring has given up teasing and finally touched down. Today it is almost too hot, which, after our long, troubled winter, feels obscenely luxurious. Silas is digging up worms to feed to our sick chicken, and Alyosha is devising some scheme I have yet to figure out which involves a pitch fork and a cooler full of dirt. Every once in a while, they will break from their projects and squeal around the yard like wild piglets. When I finish with this essay, I will spend the rest of the afternoon broadforking my garden beds and top dressing them with compost.

In this time of quarantine, I find that small things are carrying me so much farther—a hike in the woods, a crayfish sighting, a phone call from a friend, an afternoon spent working in the sun and the dirt. But the spring is no small thing; it is as big as the world. It is everything coming alive again with the promise that we will, too.

Marking Time

My feral offspring in their natural habitat

As of tomorrow afternoon, we homeschooling parents will have reached the end of our first quarter—a supremely comforting thought. Michigan schools shut down with twelve weeks to go in the year, and assuming they don’t open again until September, we’re one fourth done with our pre-summer duties. One fourth is a significant portion. At the end of next week comes one third. Two weeks more, and we’re halfway there (whoa-oa, livin’ on a prayer). And who ever knew Bon Jovi could be so prescient?

When it comes to life without the presence of an imminent threat, I try to resist counting down the days. I wasted years longing for an end to the epochs I was living through—the end of high school, the end of college, the end of an everlasting pregnancy. I have an unfortunate tendency to treat chunks of time as flat, colorless lands to be crossed as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, I gain nothing, and I lose the deeper experience of so many moments.

Right now, though, I’m taking a slightly different tack. Yes, I am trying to open myself up to this time, to truly live it in all of its strangeness and terror. But I am also grateful that our current anxiety is meted out in the small parcels of seconds that string themselves together and never, ever stop. I’m grateful that, even on days when our lives feel like they’re falling fantastically apart, we are still moving the needle one day closer to this all being over. Time will bring this epoch to an end, even if all we can do is wait.

Bread

I’m now using Tuesday mornings to teach my children to bake, and in baking there’s nothing more basic than bread. This morning Alyosha and Silas proofed the yeast and waited for it to bubble. They wore their arms out stirring in the flour. They threw their whole bodies behind the kneading of the dough. They beat the risen dough down with their fists.

Bread is beautiful to me because it’s just as much metaphor as it is an actual, physical thing. For a time, I lived in community with refugees, and literal bread bound us together. An Eritrean woman spent an entire day teaching us how to bake injera. The Bosnian refugees shared a recipe that they created in the camps using only the sparest of rations: flour, water, yeast, salt. Every culture has a tradition of bread, and that bread is half bread and half story. When we share bread, we share stories. When we bake bread, we write our own.

Years from now, when my children remember these days, I hope they remember the bread. I hope they sense the stories that gathered when we pulled the golden loaf out from the oven, warm and soft and smelling, more than anything, like home.

Wind

Yesterday there was a magnificent wind, so I took a long walk and let it push me forward and back. I watched the trees lean with it and the birds ride the invisible eddies of air. If trees didn’t bend, they would break, and the same is true for any number of things.

If I were a tree, though, I would make a disobedient one. I don’t like to be told what to do or where to go. It’s practically a Webster family birthright that when everyone else is going one direction, you go the other way. My people tend toward rugged individualism. We resist external controls.

But isn’t this pandemic so like the wind? It rose up out of nowhere, and it tossed our lives up into the air. It ushered us back inside and slammed our doors shut. We can’t witness it exactly, only its aftermath. It’s out there, everywhere, and it’s howling.

And here I am, still pitted against this wind. I’m spending most of my time resenting it for its destruction and disruptions, wishing it away. Naturally, this means I’m getting exactly nowhere—feet planted pointlessly, facing the roar. I wonder what would happen if I worked with it, like the birds, who ride sideways in great, gratuitous curves. Maybe I would end up somewhere new, somewhere I didn’t know I needed to be.

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

Bad Days

The four of us have been on top of each other for two weeks, and honestly, it’s getting old. The kids seem unusually loud and constantly ravenous, except after I spend an hour cooking them a healthy meal. I’m trying not to betray my annoyance, which today is triggered by almost everything they do—eating crackers on the couch, trying to walk down the stairs in roller skates, asking me over and over if I will set up an Etsy store to sell their perler bead creations. It’s supposed to rain all day, so I can’t send them outside. And it’s cold, and I am so done with the cold.

Here in Michigan, the cases of sickness are spiking. Scott and I have started the sobering process of sanitizing everything we bring into the house. A doctor friend of mine was recently assigned to the COVID ICU for the coming month, maybe more. My brother, a physical therapist assistant who works primarily with high-risk populations, continues to head out each day into this horror. There is an end to this, I know, but we cannot see it yet.

Still, the comfort of a bad day is that a better day almost always follows. So I am just going to let today be bad. I’m going to sit here on the bottom without trying to boost myself back up. I’m going to let the kids watch too many cartoons, and I’m going to take a long walk alone and read unchallenging fiction and drink too much hard seltzer.

And then tomorrow, I’m going to get up, and I’m going to try again.

Neighbors

We have lived here in Waterloo for a little less than a year. We are rather bad at mowing. We’re trying to turn our yard into a farm. We host a bass-heavy, Friday-night band practice in our barn. Also, our children like to yell and invite themselves over places and politely inquire as to the possibilities of food. If you were a stickler for neatness and predictable behavior, the Webster-Heins probably wouldn’t find a slot on your fantasy neighbor list.

And yet. Over the course of this past week, one neighbor has gifted me antibacterial cleaner. Another has dropped off literal pounds of free bacon. Another has left on my porch a Mary Kay Satin Hand Set to combat the deleterious effects of all this handwashing. And another has sent me a bottle of lavender calming spray, along with a card that made me cry.

I had already counted us fortunate to have landed here with these people. But now I’m much more cognizant of the great comfort that we’re all close by, if unseen, keeping watch out our windows, waiting together.