My daughter worries about unlikely things. She fears that I will somehow spontaneously vanish, or that we could get lost and never find our way back home. She fears that, if her 5-year-old brother gets angry enough, he will run away and never come back. That the cats will escape, even though they demonstrate no will to do so, and the dog will follow.
When I was her age, I had similar anxieties. Unlike me, my little sister was swift to fall asleep, and when she stopped responding from her post on the top bunk, I would climb up and shake her awake again to make sure that she hadn’t died. It’s funny now; it wasn’t then.
Worries rob us of our joy, I know that full well. I have hated my mind for what it can do – how it can take the dearest things in my life and transform them into figments of pain and loss.
But right now, my worries are teaching me something, too. They are showing me how much I love life in all of its dull dailiness. They are underscoring how much people mean to me, how good it feels to go freely out into the world. They are proving to me that if this was all I were given, it would be enough.
The days are beginning to bleed together now, and I’m doing my best to build in some routine. “School,” such as it is, at nine on weekdays. Math, writing, movement, reading. Snack and storytime, preferably outside. Then creative hour with Dad. By the afternoon, I am out of ideas. I sit with my tea and see what they will do.
It is always different, and it is usually messy. They gather all of the pillows in the house and dive-bomb them. They take turns dragging each other around by their ankles, which, to my surprise, doesn’t always end badly. My daughter has recently decided that marbles are sentient beings, and she’s been naming them and building them makeshift houses and molding them various pieces of furniture from clay. My son has developed a game where he puts together his entire collection of puzzles and uses them as stepping stones in a sprawling version of Don’t Touch the Floor. One of them will decide to write a letter to a friend, and the other will draw the love child of a monkey and an elephant.
Of course I’m leaving out the unsavory parts. Sometimes they dump the snack box all over and leave the caps off the markers and get in a shoving match over who sits in the special chair.
Still, this era is reminding me that, in many ways, my children know their own needs better than I do. While I follow along behind them, checking off invisible benchmarks, they are moving wherever they need to move, learning whatever they need to learn. It is good to be close to this again, and to remember that, just like them, I too can be trusted.
In these recent, open afternoons, the kids and I have been hiking through the wetlands behind our house and into the forest beyond. They spend the better part of an hour clambering over the fallen trunks of trees while I sit on a stump with my binoculars, waiting for birds. Generally at some point someone slips and falls and needs to be picked back up. Someone steps in swamp water up to their ankles. Someone finds something new and calls the others over, and we stare at it for a while and wonder aloud what it is.
I write a lot about nature, but slow is not my natural pace. Usually I am pushing myself toward some self-invented goal, plotting out my next measurable achievement. Now, though, I am limited to letting time do its work, which means I get to learn the art of wasting it. It feels a bit like life has given me an assignment—Learn what’s it’s like just to sit here. Learn to listen. Learn to wait.
The baby days do not dredge up nostalgia for me. I was too tired, too harried, too sad. I plowed through those years on an empty tank, burning fumes. I loved my babies fiercely of course, and I also loved those days in a manner of speaking, but I would not choose to live them again.
This past fall, my son started full-day kindergarten, and my daughter started third grade. This was to be my first year of hard-fought freedom. Before the schools closed, I was spending my mornings in my writing room, scribbling out chapters and essays and revising a novel for publication. In the afternoons, I would read or garden or take the dog for a long walk around the wetlands behind our house. Naturally, those days are now gone for the unforeseeable future.
Last night I was cooking dinner after another long, loud day, and my son started putting a puzzle together on the kitchen floor. I had to step over him as I walked back and forth, fetching ingredients and opening drawers. It jogged memories of my babies in their big-bottomed diapers – riding around on my ankles, banging pot lids with wooden spoons, dumping out the basket of measuring cups. Savor these moments, everyone said, and I tried and often failed.
But now, in the presence of an imminent threat, I understand better that these days, too, will pass, and I will not get them back. I am starting to learn how to live when the sky is falling – and it is always maybe falling. Do not begrudge the puzzle. Step gently around your son. Marvel at the spring as it comes, remembering that there is only one of everything.
The Sandhill Cranes are back. A dance of the birds is nesting in the wetlands a mile behind our house, trumpeting back and forth in their loud, brassy rattles. One or two cranes in flight will cry out, and the rest on the ground will answer in a deafening chorus. Sometimes two of them will call back and forth for some time, and I will try to distinguish any differences in sound. Does the calling crane know the crane that answers? Are they repeating the same question and response, or does their meaning change each time?
These are questions I cannot answer, and I like them better for that. They become a relief from the urgency of myself. It is calming to listen to a language that I don’t understand. It is calming to remember the limitless scenarios in which I am only a blurred figure in the background, stepping out of the scene.
Here in Michigan the virus has finally landed, and it’s as though we are all frozen on the decks of our tiny, respective ships, balanced at the beginning of a wave whose height and power we cannot know. Every single one of us has been swept suddenly into the same stunned circle; we are more apart but oddly more together than before. We’re waving furiously across the distances, calling to each other over the roar. We’re shouting jokes, obscenities, comforts, songs.
Restaurants are feeding the hungry and asking for nothing in return. Children are hosting impromptu cooking shows on Facebook Live. Musicians are streaming free concerts, teachers are sharing resources, veteran homeschoolers are encouraging flummoxed parents to lower the bar. That one hilarious dude from my high school is curating memes for my Facebook feed that fit the exact shape and size of the dark humor room in my soul.
I went shopping for food the other day – now an uneasy endeavor – and a woman in the parking lot said, “Can you smell that? The rain? That’s the first time this year that the rain has smelled like spring.” Honestly, I had been so nervous about grocery shopping that I hadn’t even noticed it was raining. I stopped there on the asphalt and took a deep breath. “Thank you so much for making me notice that,” I said, and even though that was probably a weird thing to say, the woman smiled and waved and told me to have a good day.
What I’m trying to say is, this is who we are. Is there any better news? I have hoped that this is who we would be, and now I know, and how glorious is that? We are a people whose instinct, when confronted with fear, is so often to open rather than to close. For the common good, we shut down our lives, we cancel our plans, we give away what we can. We run errands for the elderly, we babysit the children of healthcare workers, we open our windows and we sing. We remember those who, in the busy-ness of our previous lives, we might have overlooked. We recognize that we need each other, maybe even that we love each other, even our own personal strangers. And in the midst of all this fear and uncertainty, all of this astonishing love is shining forth, a strand of lighthouses lining the bay, illuminating this rough new water.
And so I send out this small essay – a beacon, a lamppost, a love letter. Take heart, beloveds. There is so much goodness afoot.