Go Back to the Shire & Start Again

When I was a teenager, and we got our first Apple Computer, we bought a Hobbit adventure game. It was one of those where you have to successfully execute a series of tasks in order to level up. You started at Bilbo’s house in the Shire, and you needed to get certain supplies to get on your way, and then you’d go through adventure, and you’d get to the trolls, and you had to figure out how to defeat them, but it you had forgotten to pick up a key that you had passed way back near the beginning, you would fail at getting into their lair for the next step, and so you would have to go way back to the very beginning again, and you’d have to remember to pick up the key, but then you might forget to open a door somewhere where you were supposed to pick up your sword, and so you’d fail again somewhere along the way and you’d have to go back to the beginning again and start over. I don’t think I ever got as far as Rivendell. The goblins always got me.

When my son and I were sent home from school yesterday because of a Covid exposure, I felt like we had fallen into that game all over again.

I knew we should get tested. That only makes sense, right? The way to prevent the disease is to make sure that people who are exposed get tested, so we make sure they aren’t passing it on to their families, and on and on. So we went on a Quest for a Test.

Call the Urgent Care. Sorry, no more appointments for testing today. Are you experiencing symptoms? Then you probably can’t get tested anyway. Sorry. [Go back to the Shire and start again.]

Call the doctor’s office. Sorry, no more appointments today. Call first thing in the morning and we just might be able to get you an appointment that would get you an order to get swabbed sometime next week. [Go back to the Shire and start again.]

Call the kid’s insurance company. Yes. He should get tested. Go to the York Expo Center Drive-Through testing site. His insurance pays the whole thing. And by the way, he’s due for his well-child check-up and a dental appointment, and he can get a free flu shot at Rite Aid. [Angel sound. Door opens. Pick up swab test. Pick up flu shot. Pick up well-child check and dental appointment.]

Drive to York Expo Center. No one is there. Find people on other side of huge parking lot. “No, there hasn’t been a drive-through test here for months.” Sorry. [Go back to the Shire and start again.]

Call MedExpress again, in York and Lancaster. No. Sorrysorry. No. Call doctor’s office again. No. [Sit in the Shire and think about how ineffective you are at your life.]

Take a nap and wake up with a terrible headache and the sniffles. Wonder if you probably have Covid. Isolate yourself in the bedroom for the night. Call MedExpress again and tell them you have symptoms. “Try calling in the morning.” [Go back to the Shire and stop bugging people.]

Call MedExpress in the morning, as they suggested. Busy. Call. Busy. Call. Busy. Repeat. Repeat. Call the doctor’s office. Busy. Call. Get partway through automated phone ladder. Wrong choice. [Go back to Shire.]

Call doctor’s office’s Very Confusing Phone Labyrinth again and again [Go back to the Shire. Go back to the Shire] until you get a voice. [Angel sounds.] “We can get you an appointment for Monday.” [You don’t have to go all the way back to the Shire, just to Bree.] Anything, please, yes, but is there no chance we could see someone today? Pause and go on hold. “Yes, I’ll schedule you both for an appointment at 11:00.” [Angel sounds. Doors open. Pick up sword and key.]

Ten minutes later, receive a call from doctor’s office. “The doctor would actually like you to get swabbed this morning so you don’t have to wait until next week. Come to the office, but drive around to the back, in the employees’ entrance, and get in the car line to get tested. Stay in your car.” [We have broken through to a whole new level now, Bilbo!]

Swabbed and teary-eyed, we head for home, pull up our video conference with a very pleasant but tired-sounding doctor. My symptoms are not consistent enough with Covid to concern him, especially since I tend to get headaches, and I have allergies, and people are catching cold right now. We don’t need to isolate within the house–the others have been exposed to us for five days already since our exposure. We’re to quarantine until November 30 (though a negative test might free us sooner), and the others in the house can come and go as they please, as long as they take all the precautions. We do not need to wear masks in the house any longer, and the cats are grateful. [You have made it to Rivendell. Rest well, small hobbits.]

So that is where we are. Because school was to go virtual beginning Monday anyway, we’ll just work from here and hope the wi-fi holds up. If I get a negative test, I might be able to teach from my classroom using the school’s wi-fi for the week following Thanksgiving.

Faerie Ring

You have to look closely to see the Faerie Ring, but it’s there. The clumps on the upper left are hidden in the grass. This is, of course, why they’re so dangerous–you could stumble into one unknowingly and not come out for years. . .

A friend of mine has asked me to avoid saying “rules” when I write about shelter-in-place, because that sounds too martial, too authoritarian. I sort of understand. But “guidelines” feels wrong, too, because so many people seem to be taking them as just that, and ignoring them, going out without masks, not maintaining social distance, acting as though this is all gone. Part of me wants to say: May it be so. May it be gone. But we don’t make a thing “gone” just by declaring it so.

The science seems to be offering us a different picture, one in which we could be facing quarantines and sickness and death for a long time to come. I also want the governor (of PA, where I live) to take us more quickly to yellow and then to green. But I want my parents to be safe, I want the random people who seem to die from this for no apparent reason not to die, I (selfishly) want us to avoid a second peak so I can go back to my classroom in the fall.

Call them what you will–guidelines or rules or orders–please follow through a little longer, for all of us. Wash your hands. Stay home. Plot the Green Revolution. Practice caution and simplicity. Get along without. Keep us all safe.


Gratitude List:
1. This morning at the feeder: goldfinches, bluebirds, doves, downy woodpecker, chipping sparrows, indigo bunting. An indigo bunting in the sun seems lit from within by blue fire. An indigo bunting in the shade sucks all color into itself, holding all the shadows around it within its little bunting shape. What a magical creature.
2. Yesterday I did my Ten Breaths inside a fairy ring of mushroom clump beside the stump of the poplar tree. It was a perfect circle. The faeries did not whisk me away to the Faerie Queen’s realm, perhaps because I have long been a friend of their beloved poplar, perhaps because I am not imaginative enough for their purposes.
3. A family of vultures have taken up residence in the edges of the bosque across the road. Such somber and thoughtful folk they are.
4. The amazing crimson of that little red Japanese maple, and the scarlet of the cardinal up on the hillside above, and the glowing scarlet fire of the head of that red-bellied woodpecker.
5. Nothing in this part of the hollow died of freeze last night. This morning is crisply frigid, breezy and shining.

May we walk in Beauty!


“No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.” —Lupita Nyong’o


TO MAKE A PROMISE
by David Whyte

Make a place of prayer, no fuss,
just lean into the white brilliance
and say what you needed to say
all along, nothing too much, words
as simple and as yours and as heard
as the bird song above your head
or the river running gently beside you,
let your words join to the world
the way stone nestles on stone
the way the water simply leaves
and goes to the sea,
the way your promise
breathes and belongs
with every other promise
the world has ever made.

Now, leave them to go on,
let your words alone
to carry their own life,
without you, let the promise
go with the river.
Have faith. Walk away.


“Feminism requires precisely what patriarchy destroys in women. Unimpeachable bravery in confronting male power.” —Andrea Dworkin

I Just Want This to Be Over

“I just want this to be over.”

That’s what I said to Jon before I slipped off to sleep last night. I’m tired of this sometimes overpowering feeling of dread. I’m tired of carrying this bag of tears just beneath the surface.

The virus has entered my circles. People I know, and the beloveds of people I know, are getting sick. I had just heard the news of John Prine’s death, and then an anxious email popped up from someone I know, asking me to pray for his family because his father (who is an essential worker) came home yesterday with a fever. The dread is seeping in deeply. I was relieved to escape the real world into sleep for a little while.

I’m sorry. That’s a lot of heavy to place into this bowl of a space first thing in the morning. But it’s a big part of what I’ve got. So I stretch and breathe, stretch and breathe. I breathe in, and feel all the places where my body is touching a surface. I breathe out and straighten my spine. I breathe in and draw in the blue violet of those wild hyacinths. I breathe out and relax my shoulders. I breathe in and hold the taste and smell of the coffee that I am drinking. I breathe out and notice the quiet cat at the windowsill. In. Out. I can feel myself settling.

The dread is not gone. It’s going to be a long time before it’s gone. And maybe it will never go away. Likely it will mark and shape who I become for the rest of my life. And not all of that will be terrible. Some will contribute to my growth and completeness as a human. But right now? Right now, I breathe, and I notice. I find ways to live through the dread.

And this morning I have strange and wacky dreams to sort through. There was a part of the dream that was part real-life, part animation. A young man in a striped shirt was sneaking around, watching people, trying not to get caught. It wasn’t creepy or terrifying–more like an old-fashioned mystery. We chased him to an open field where dozens of blankets were lying about. He crawled under one, and by the time we got there and lifted the corner, he’d vanished.

And there was a baby bird who fluttered up to me with its beak open. I fed it tomatoes–they’re red like worms, right? It’s back was developing rich golden feathers through the baby fluff. Someone said it was a cuckoo.

And the strangest and most beautiful was the phrase. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up with a song or a phrase in my head, often completely unrelated to anything. This morning’s phrase is “Thou camest to me in sadness. . .and what wilt thou do for joy?” Yes, my Sleep Angels seem to be speaking Elizabethan English. Despite the weirdness of the delivery, it seemed to be a pretty clear response to my expression of pain as I dropped into sleep. And I think of the dreams that I dreamed (there were others, which even now are fading), and I wonder if this is what I can do for joy today and in the coming days: I can let myself experience wonder and surprise. I can tend to those who need me to feed them whatever I have at hand. I can immerse myself in story. I can communicate with my beloveds.

It feels like an extension of a thing a friend wrote to me yesterday, when I asked her about her husband, who has a fever and a cough: “Holding grief and joy together is messy and weird.” That has to be one of the defining phrases of these days.

May we all find ways to bring joy into these days when grief and dread can feel all-encompassing. Listen to your dreams. Keep an eye out for blue, for gold, for the thousand shades of green. Hold each other close–in our hearts if not in our arms. And when it just seems like you cannot bear the dread, let someone know. Reach out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Ground and center. There is no way out but through, and it will be easier if we walk it together.


Gratitude List:
1. The messages that come in dreams (even–or especially–if they’re speaking in Elizabethan English)
2. That patch of blue violet wild hyacinth at the base of the bird feeder stand, and the violet Gill-on-the-Grass that spreads from there to the Japanese maple
3. The chipping sparrow in the Japanese maple
4. The sounds of the morning house: cat eating second (or third, or fourth) breakfast, the constant flow of the water fountain (yes, also for cats), the little bits of conversation with Josiah, my own breathing. . .
5. The way a gratitude list becomes a grounding in-the-moment exercise. The dread has not lifted, but I am no longer living in the center of that cloud. I have sunk to a deeper place, where I can find more complexity (for now)–there is joy in the midst of sadness, no matter how messy and weird it is to hold all those pieces together.

Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. May we walk in Beauty!


“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” —Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk


“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.” ―Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


“Where there’s life there’s hope, and need of vittles.” ―JRR Tolkien


“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” ―June Jordan


“Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ―Albert Einstein


“We are all the leaves of one tree.
We are all the waves of one sea.” ―Thich Nhat Hanh


“It is respectable to have no illusions―and safe―and profitable and dull.” ―Joseph Conrad


“I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ―Rainer Maria Rilke


“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether they are worthy.” —Thomas Merton


“After a War” by Chinua Achebe

After a war life catches
desperately at passing
hints of normalcy like
vines entwining a hollow
twig; its famished roots
close on rubble and every
piece of broken glass.
Irritations we used
to curse return to joyous
tables like prodigals home
from the city. . . . The meter man
serving my maiden bill brought
a friendly face to my circle
of sullen strangers and me
smiling gratefully
to the door.
After a war
we clutch at watery
scum pulsating on listless
eddies of our spent
deluge. . . . Convalescent
dancers rising too soon
to rejoin their circle dance
our powerless feet intent
as before but no longer
adept contrive only
half-remembered
eccentric steps.
After years
of pressing death
and dizzy last-hour reprieves
we’re glad to dump our fears
and our perilous gains together
in one shallow grave and flee
the same rueful way we came
straight home to haunted revelry.

(Christmas 1971)