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America’s unofficial rest stops

It is a sunny, fall day and my neighbor, Lawrence, and I are on his front porch. He’s sitting in one of those outdoor chairs with plastic straps running across a metal frame to comprise the seat and back. I’m standing on the brown concrete floor, my hand on the bar of the stroller, pushing it rhythmically back and forth to lull the baby, M, dozing under his green and white blanket. This was in the days before we homeschooled and so the girls are off in their classrooms, the dog tucked in the house, across our abutting yards.

“I’m just grateful to be alive,”Lawrence says to me. Not long before this, he was in the ICU with pneumonia. His daughter had been over at our place playing with our girls right before he went in. When he’d walked over to our front door that night to pick her up, he’d hustled her along, saying he didn’t feel well and needed to get back home. It would be months before we would see Lawrence again after that evening on our front stoop. In the process of treating him for the pneumonia, they had to amputate both his legs below the knees. He’d lost fingers as well.

Really, this attitude of “I’m just grateful to be alive” is all you need to know about Lawrence.

He’s just gotten through telling me about the time, back when he was still in a wheelchair after his surgeries, when he’d had to go to the doctor. He points up towards a brown building within eyeshot but somewhat obscured by a few trees and other foliage. To get to the doctor that day, he was going to have to cross the 6 lane highway* next to our houses and he didn’t have time to call and wait for the public transportation service. So he’d called for a car and driver using a popular app/ driving service/ side-gig to drive him up the street.

“I don’t know what I was thinking or if they’d had me on some sort of drugs that day, but I decided to get myself back home.” Neither the curbs nor the pedestrians signals are amenable to wheelchairs or really, for anyone, who isn’t basically in above average physical condition and in a hurry. Fortunately, Lawrence explains to me, a kind soul had been there to help him across the highway and safely home.

The conversation turns towards various other issues in our neighborhood. The garbage and litter, empty beer and wine and liquor bottles that the neighborhood middle schoolers occasionally smash into the street or sidewalk walking home from school. The car accidents, particularly at the two closest intersections. Lawrence says he once watched someone, a young man, get mugged in his front yard. But, from his wheelchair, he’d been unable to do anything and had to watch as the two assailants made off with the young man’s back pack. I recalled the time someone threw a brick through a neighbor’s car window and stole $500 cash. He tells me about all the cars that pull over in front of his house. Sometimes, drivers get out to pee against a tree. “Hey, man!” he shouted once. “Well, I’ve already started! I can’t stop now,” the guy shouted back.

We both have time that day, chatting on his front porch, so Lawrence launches into another story. “I had taken the bus down to the gym.” While it wasn’t too long ago that he was in a wheelchair, he now works out regularly on two prosthetic legs. He describes how he’d decided to pick up a six pack of beer. And he spends some time on this detail of the story, as if somehow he feels like he has to explain it to me, as if picking up a six pack isn’t a completely ordinary or reasonable thing to do. On his way back to the bus stop, his legs started to hurt, so he grabbed a bench in a nearby park. He set his beer next to him. It was after dark and quiet, so he did what everyone would do and he checked his surroundings. That’s when he noticed a policeman in a marked car watching him. The policeman approached Lawrence, sitting on a bench in a public park and asked him what he was doing.

To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details of the conversation that Lawrence relayed to me. But I do remember that he kept saying the policeman “just kept trying to trip me up.” The officer wanted to know what was in his bag. And as Lawrence relays this to me, on the front porch of his home on a sunny fall afternoon, he says, “I just kept thinking about Freddy Grey.”

“Was I being racially profiled?” Lawrence asks. Later, in the comfort of his own home, he wrote letters about this experience. “The words just flowed,” he says, smiling slightly.

He goes on to tell me that, eventually, the police officer backed off. “He told me that the reason he noticed me was because I was looking over my shoulder.” Remember? When Lawrence started the story by explaining that he was in a park after dark and thus checked his surroundings? That was him “looking over his shoulder.”

************************************************

A year later, on another sunny fall morning, we wake up to the surprise of a construction crew at an intersection near our houses. It appears that they are setting forms and pouring concrete to change the shape of the curbs. I am hopeful that this might be an effort to slow down cars driving through our neighborhood. We have large, broad streets and few sidewalks, crosswalks, and four-way stops. Between these car-friendly conditions and the 8 lane highway which runs to both the beltway and into DC, our residential neighborhood is often used as a quick and easy “cut through” for drivers on their way someplace better.

Our foray into a traditional school was brief, and so on this day, the children are all at home. But it’s sunny out, so they opt to play in the front yard while I’m inside with the littlest one, no longer small enough to nap in his infant car seat like he was last year while we were on Lawrence’s front porch. I don’t know what makes me look out the front window at them, but when I do, the bushes right outside the fence are shaking strangely. It takes me a moment to realize that I can see the shape of a hat above the fence that runs between my property and Lawrence’s property, in the plants. I open our front door, shouting, “hey”. I think my voice can’t be heard over the sound of the cars and trucks on the highway. I start clapping. The girls look up, alarmed and then back behind them, where I am looking. The both scream and start running towards me. “Get inside and close the door,” I tell them. I see the hat begin to move back out of the bushes as I open the gate. There’s a man, obviously from the construction crew, walking away from the fence and back towards the intersection where the construction is going on.

At this point, I’m yelling as I follow the man. Everyone on the crew is looking at me. “Where’s the supervisor?” A man approaching me. He’s holding a cell phone, as if this indicates his status as the one in charge. He seems to be insisting that nothing happened. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m having a hard time understanding his English.

There were three of these on this particular day that I was clearly garbage from in front of our house.

Lawrence comes up next to me. “What’s going on, Rhena?” I hear him say.

“One of these guys was in front of my house, in the bushes. Right next to where the kids were playing.”

Lawrence says, turning towards the man with the cell phone. “I saw someone else peeing on a tree over there.”

The man with the cell phone tries to explain that he has been calling the boss all morning. He keeps talking about a “seat” and it takes me a while to realize that he’s requested a portable toilet but in the meantime, he’s told his crew to go and pee somewhere far away.

“There are children here!”

“This is bullshit,” Lawrence says. He looks at me and then behind me. My 9 yo, A, has followed me out. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He nods towards A.

He turns back to the man. “If this happens again, I’m calling the police.”

But I know, and I’d wager a guess that everyone here knows: getting the police involved is the last thing anyone here wants to do.

***************************************

I’m perhaps even a little jumpier than usual that day and the following. I’m a little unsure what to do with myself. I have the post-adrenaline come down but no resolution. On regular Sundays, Eric and I meet with some other parents at our parish. One of my responsibilities is to send out an email ahead of time with the Sunday reading and gospel. I decide that maybe typing it up will give my hands, at least, something to do. It’s a little early, but at least it will be ready to go out. The reading is from the prophet Habbakuk, as follows.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help/ but you do not listen!/ I cry out to you, “Violence!”/ but you do not intervene./ Why do you let me see ruin;/ why must I look at misery?/ Destruction and violence are before me;/ there is strife, and clamorous discord./ Then the Lord answered me and said:/ Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,/ so that one can read it readily./ For the vision still has its time,/ presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;/ if it delays, wait for it,/ it will surely come, it will not be late./ The rash one has no integrity;/ but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

******************************************

We used to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is popularly referred to as “fly-over country”. The truth is actually that Minneapolis, as a hub for one major American airline, would be more aptly called “fly through” country. Over 18 million passengers pass through the airport there each year. Much like a sanctioned rest stop on the side of America’s highways, the airport is equipped to deal with the basic needs of those passing through. Needless to say, such a high volume of passengers and aircraft can have a profound impact on local residents. Perhaps most detrimental are noise disturbances. In order to distribute this impact so that no one community must bear the brunt of low-flying jets overhead, the flight paths are rotated around the airport. In addition, grants are available to upgrade HVAC and windows on homes to keep the noise out.

For those of us who live in residential neighborhoods next to highways and which are “drive through” country, none of these types of accommodations, even those around basic pedestrian safety are provided for us by the county or the state.

**********************************************

Later that fall, I am once again in our front yard. I notice a car pulled over in front of my house, next to the “no parking” sign. I watch the car, wondering if the occupants need help. A few times in the past weeks, I’ve seen someone get out of a car and then walk to the median of the state highway with a cardboard sign to ask drivers at the stoplight for money. I’m not entirely sure what to do when I see people right in our neighborhood, begging for money. So I pray.

Watching the car now parked on my street, I can see the outline of a driver and someone else, another adult, hunched sideways in the back seat. I watch for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. Eventually, the person in the back seat moves to the front passenger seat. The car drives off. I see on the side of the road, a familiar neatly, folded white package left behind. A used diaper.

(*In an earlier version, I mistakenly described this as an 8 lane highway as I inadvertently included the turn lanes visible from my neighborhood. I apologize.)

Summer Sunday

It is hot and mid-day and Mr2yo and I are in the longest shady stretch we can find in our yard, turning, step by step it into a defacto toddler run.

“Mama,” he says, “way!” And points his little arm around the adult-chest-high plastic box that holds the bike trailer and a few tools.

“You want me to go this way?” I verify even though this is the third, maybe fourth time we’ve done this.

“Yeah,” he tells me as he turns back to the other side of the box.

I walk along the proscribed route. A few steps later, as I reach his side of the box, I intone in my sing-song voice, “Where’s M? Where did M go?” I can see him, tucked between the box and a large, evergreen bush out of the corner of my eye but this routine counts on him not yet understanding how to see the world from another’s perspective. That will come later.

Just as I pass by his secret spot, he runs out.

“Oh!” I yelp, “Boo!”

And he laughs his deep, throaty laugh that seems to belie his age and innocence. But just as quickly, he’s back to business. “Again!” he commands me over the rumble of cars along the highway near our house.

I follow him back along “my” way around the plastic box and down a slight, tree-root-covered slope. He makes little, nonsensical noises as he leads me, pausing after each to give me a chance to mimic him. I repeat his sounds as best I can. He moves faster than I do, seeming to leap with each step so that he appears to float over the ground. Like a butterfly.

He reaches the four foot fence that separates two parts of our yard, ostensibly so that we can contain our dog in one area or the other. (The reality, of course, is that not even her dog crate with locks on it has been able to contain her.) He pushes against the small gate, trying to remember how to open it. “Mama, help me,” he tells me.

“Please?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he answers. Good enough. I reach over the gate, unlatch it and show him where to push to open the gate. He pushes it open and steps through.

“Ok,” he says. “Again.”

He’s seen his two older sisters (10 and 7) on the patio with their aunt. They are reading picture books to each other as a sort of informal picture book writing workshop. I don’t know if he would have gone up to the patio had they not been there or if he had it in his mind to turn around and repeat our steps, but either way, he walks back through the gate and up the slope to where we started. Again.

By mornings end, I’ve lost count of how many times we repeat this hiding and jumping out and gate opening routine. There is very little variation in the routine and dialogue. And I don’t know what is the impetuous to him deciding to move on to another task (perhaps once the script was memorized, it was time to leave it behind?), but eventually he does just this. I suspect that it had something to do with him testing some theory or idea. Perhaps he was learning that the gate, the plastic box, the tree roots, even his mother, would be largely unchanged on each trip back and forth. Object constancy, some call it. Or maybe it was more “behavioral consistency” that he was looking for from me or from himself. Would the word “way” and pointing result in the same behavior on his mother’s part? Would she really ask, “Where is M?” In the same sing-song voice each time? Will my sisters and aunt still be there?

I suspect, as I periodically do as a parent, that I had passed some sort of unspoken test on his part. And I was glad to move on to something else. And I can only assume that he was too.

Together, Together.

Five thousand years ago back in February of 2020, I ordered a Harriet Tubman themed yarn collaboration box curated by Lady Dye Yarns. It featured beautiful hand dyed yarn, a button with the Tubman quote “Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” a pocket constitution, a box of Girl Scout cookies (thin mints!), some green tea, digital pattern download for Harriet Tubman wrist cuffs from JimiKnits, and arrived in April.

Much changed between when I ordered the box and when I found it on my doorstep (a few days after the obligatory “sorry for the Covid delay” email from Lady Dye Yarns). To wit: when I first saw the box for sale, Eric and I had been thinking about a weekend or overnight trip along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway here in Maryland. It had crossed my mind that the wrist cuffs could be my car trip knitting project. Needless to say, we tossed aside our mediocre-laid plans.

I just finished the wrist cuffs for Ms7yoZ (well, minus the blocking, because she’s been too excited to wear them. Yes, wool wrist cuffs in 90 plus degree weather. She’s mostly wearing them inside in the air conditioning, though, and I think it makes her feel like a superhero, especially when she’s typing away on the computer, as she usually is these days in either chat rooms or working on her book. Writers wearing wrist cuffs is a thing.)

The pattern for these wrist cuffs are a curving and complex (for such a small space as a 7yo’s slender wrist!) series of cables. I’m currently casting on the first of a pair for Ms10yoA. (The younger sister loved the purple-forward colorful skein that came in the box, but the older one requested a silver yarn.) This is a sure sign of a well-written, enjoyable, challenging yet satisfying pattern: the desire to do it all over again right away.

Tiny wrists meant I had to adapt the pattern very slightly but it was easy to do.

So what makes this, or any pattern worthy of repeat or what kind of pattern makes me search out the designer’s other patterns as I did with this one? In this case, the pattern was given twice in two different ways (a chart and then written out). I used the chart and didn’t even have to refer to the second way because it all flowed. And it worked. The pattern worked. I ended up producing the wrist cuffs shown in the picture (ok: honestly, I made two small mistakes in the cabling, but that was on me not being attentive and being too lazy to go back and fix it).

At the end of the day, a good pattern writer is also a good teacher. They don’t take for granted that the person reading their pattern knows everything that they know. In this case, the designer included small tips like where to use stitch markers and links to videos that show some of the more unusual techniques used.

I know that I’m in the middle of a really satisfying pattern and project when there are moments of intense, focused concentration on the pattern itself punctuated by moments of, “Oh! This is working! I really am getting this!” Afterwards, I’ll step back and look at the project and kind of marvel that someone else created this and then, even though I’ve never met this person in real life and with a minimal of words and tools, their design went from their mind onto paper, traveled to me, and then, looking at nothing but this piece of paper, my hands created what they had in their minds, exactly. Honestly: it can feel like a small miracle. Or, at the very least, it gives me a slight feeling of awe at human beings’ ability (and desire) to create and connect beyond the superficial.

The children have this board game called “Gnomes at Night” in which each of the two players see two different sides of a maze. They have to work together to collect different items in the mazes: basically describing what they see on their side of the board to direct their teammate to move through the maze that they can’t see. It’s super fun and cooperate and challenging. And it creates this similar feeling of the joy in the task is in successfully communicating what you have in your mind to another person.

It’s magical! And fun.

I’ve been making a few stop motion videos over the past months. In fact, one of the early ones that I made was a mini unpacking video of the Harriet Tubman box from Lady Dye Yarns.

My apologies for the quality, it was my first one, I think.

I posit that part of the appeal to stop motion video (to me at least) is the way in which they communicate the idea or story in such a way that there is clearly a human creator. We know that a human mind and hands had to be involved in conceiving and making it but we never see that human or those hands. (And I’ve heard more than once lately that human hands or non-physically distanced bodies, even on a video, are making viewers squeamish and uneasy these days.) If you’re like me, you’re drawn to and discovering all the myriad ways in which humans connect with each other in non-physical ways these days. And you’re finding a depth to these communications deeper than you previously thought possible. Cheers to that!

Reading Revolution

Consider Kindle Unlimited. For $10 a month, a reader in possession of an electronic reading device can access a library (Amazon advertises it contains over 1 million titles) of self, indie, and large house published stories and books. The sheer volume boggles the mind: all those stories, all those words, all those pages.

Over on Twitter, some published authors have recently broken taboo and shared their advances under the hashtag “publishing paid me”. Numbers range from the few thousands to, of course, the six figure and even millions (usually for a multiple book contract) of dollars. Many on twitter were astounded to find how small some authors advances were. An advance can be described as a publisher’s gamble on how well a book will sell. It’s not a gamble in the purist sense because publishers can control to some degree, through marketing, what sells. And clearly, sitting on a large advance and the freedom and time this gives a writer to create will impact the product. Some writers, most writers, have to keep their day jobs.

This commodification of books, or stories, has been a bit of a hang up of mine. I went to graduate school for creative writing. We spent hours in workshops sharing and discussing each other’s writing. We paid (a lot) for the privilege of doing so. To a lesser degree, we learned about and discussed how to make a living doing this, putting words on a page. And years on, some graduates are making a living writing or teaching writing or editing or other jobs that people who have studied words do.

I am not. Not that I wouldn’t love to get paid for writing or editing or teaching writing. But I don’t.

A classmate once compared the experience of being in a workshop with one specific professor to being tossed about in a rock tumbler and coming out of it as a shiny gem. I have to admit that, in those hallowed halls of higher learning, I applied that image to the whole experience of publishing. I really fell for the myth that the only good stories, the only ones worth reading are those that have been tossed around in the rock tumbler of workshops and editing and revisions and knocked into a smooth shine. I didn’t bother to examine that sometimes all that comes out of the rock tumbler is a pile of dust or that the dull, craggy rocks are usually a hell of a lot more fascinating than the sleek uniformity produced by the tumbler.

I still read words and consume and learn about the world in this way but lately, much of my reading and listening and general consumption of written ideas has been shadowed by a thought that seems to intervene between me and my enjoyment of the written word. Imagine, if you will, holding a smooth, thick piece of paper in a dark room. You’ve been told that this piece of paper contains another person’s story, their truth but you can’t see what it is. You move closer to a window in the room and the dim light reveals that the paper is glossy as well as thick and smooth. And then you look up a realize there’s a shade over the window and behind that a cloud has been intercepting the sun light all along.

The cloud and the shade are a bit like the publishing industry and workshops. And when those are removed and under the full light of the sun, you see that this is a photograph and you can make out all the finest details and little nuggets of truth and humanity. And this photograph is a story.

Sorry. I’m mixing metaphors now. What are stories? Are they rocks? Or are they photographs? They are both. And a lot more. Stories and poems and essays are even the shiny, tumbled stones. But in spite of what the NYT Bestseller list and publishers and even agents might try to tell us, that’s not the only thing they are. I’ve been staring at those shiny stones for so long, wanting to make my own just like them, that I haven’t been able to see all the rocks and photographs and birds and swords and trains and fountain pens and on and on and on that are also stories.

Not too long ago, I would have scoffed at an indie press book much less something self-published. If it hadn’t been through the tumbler, it would undoubtedly be riddled with typos and cliches and vague language and other crimes against language. This, of course, is a wrong-headed way of thinking. But, like I said above, I had sipped some of that kool-aid.

But not long ago, I read a few books that were NYT Bestsellers and I couldn’t shake the feeling that as much as I wanted to connect to the authors, their agents and editors and beta readers and conversations about “what would sell” seemed to keep stepping in between us like that cloud and that window shade as I tried to discern what was in the photograph in a dark room. So I pulled out my kindle and I started looking through Kindle Unlimited self published books.

I found one, Brotherhood of Secrets and Lies by Lashonda Beauregard. And I was captivated. It was a short, quick read in an efficient 80 pages not wasted on delving into character development or much exposition. It was a college campus murder mystery. It reminded me of an episode of Law and Order. I even thought, “This is like the old TV show 21 Jumpstreet,” and, lo, one of the characters was actually watching that show in an 80s flashback. And in that moment it felt like the author, Lashonda Beauregard, and I had some of the same cultural touchstones and that this is one of the things I had been looking for in a book, in a story. I wanted to be entertained, which I was, and I wanted to connect with the author even if it was something as seemingly superficial as a TV show, which I did. And I wanted to just read a story without feeling the presence of the agent and the editor and the beta readers, just me and the author. And I wanted to read something where there was no moral complexity or ambiguity in the characters. In other words, I wanted to escape the messiness of the real world for a place where the answers are all obvious and laid-bare. And that’s what happened. Thankfully, Beauregard has more books on Kindle Unlimited.

Kindle with pie and coffee go together like, well, kindle, pie, and coffee.

I’m willing (and thankfully able) to pay the $10 a month to pay for this access. And, in fact, I’m happy to pay for it to have access to self published authors. From my point of view, it’s a panacea to the monopoly that the big publishing houses (and even, although to a lesser degree, the indie houses) have had on story telling. And, trust me, I know that Amazon is the enemy. But I can’t help but think about how, in its original iteration, Amazon was a book distributor. And the other thing that I can’t help but think about is that this platform gives writers so much freedom and control over their own work. They can choose to spend money on editors and graphic artists and copy editors or they can choose not to. They can even hire marketers or do their own marketing or do nothing at all. Lastly, for those signed up with Kindle Unlimited, they are paid based on the number of standardized pages that are read. In other words, if people are really into what you are creating: YOU GET PAID. If not, then you don’t get paid. Now, of course, as someone who doesn’t have any work on Kindle Unlimited, I have no idea whether the amount writers end up getting paid is fair or not, but as a reader it makes me feel like by the very act of reading pages, I am supporting authors I like. If anyone knows of any platforms (electronic or otherwise) that allows writers as much independence and to have as much ownership while also connecting them to an audience AND paying them based on audience response and experience, please drop a link in the comments. Thanks.

Smoking

I looked out my front window today to see a small cloud of smoke wafting through and over our fence and into our front yard, which was strange. But cars often pull over near our house so at first I thought maybe it was a car overheating. When I went outside, there was no car there. I walked out through the gate and found that the smoke was rising right out of the ground, apparently from a patch of smoldering mulch about 18 inches across, which was also strange. I was wearing pretty heavy shoes, so I started to stamp it out but this didn’t work, so I grabbed a bucket from our yard (what? You don’t keep buckets in your yard?) and went to our hose and filled up a bucket of water. In the end, it took about three or four one-woman fire brigade trips to put the whole thing (which seemed to have jumped to a few smaller patches in the intervening time as I walked back and forth).

In the meantime, drivers in their cars waiting for the light to change at the closest intersection watched me. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed. “Oh, I’m just putting out a small fire here on the side of the road in front of my house while you watch me. Hi!”

I don’t know.

I took a picture too while drivers watched.

Although I didn’t see a cigarette butt, what I can only assume is that a lit one tossed from a car or by a pedestrian going to the bus stop was the initial spark. But I didn’t see a filter and I’m no fire marshall so who am I to say? Later on, my husband and I considered whether it could have been a roach, which led to a lot of questions from my 10yo. She’s writing two novels right now, so I will not be surprised if some of her characters end up tossing a roach out a moving car window.

Eighteen months ago or so — anyway, back in November of 2018 — I put in a request for a sidewalk in front of my house. Part of me thought, naively I guess, that by sending the sidewalk people (as I call them, not their official title) a picture of the smoldering mulch, maybe they would put in a sidewalk. I received an email response from them: no. Well, not this year anyway. Our sidewalk is now under consideration for 2021.

Perhaps this is the moment that I need to remind you that I live in the United States of America (which, my all measures is still considered a first world country) in a suburb of the capital, Washington, DC, in what is supposedly one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.

I ended up calling 311. I wanted to talk to the County Executive, Marc Elrich, and 311 is his listed phone number. The operator said she couldn’t connect me to the county executive but that she could put in a request. I’ve put in a number of email requests over the years, I explained to her, and never has Marc Elrich responded. One time, when my husband called to try to get some help with a rat problem on our property in connection, in part, to the open garbage at the nearby bus stop as well as some pet birds at our neighbor’s house, someone from the County Executive office (Mike Subin?) responded to tell us that his people were taking care of it. But the whole rat problem is perhaps a story for another time. I feel the same flush of embarrassment thinking about the rats as I did pouring water over smoldering mulch by my house while drivers looked on. I don’t know. It’s something about being watched but not seen that feels terribly embarrassing.

The 311 operator couldn’t connect me but she put in a request on my behalf. I told her a bit about my problem with the sidewalk and the fire. She was lovely and even granted me a sharp intake of breath when I told her about the burning mulch.

“You should not have to be dealing with all that in the middle of a pandemic,” which, honestly, (and a bit like my previous post wherein my two year old touched dog poop), COVID-19 hadn’t really even been on my mind. Even in a pandemic, some people are still just putting out fires.

“I wanted to go on a walk with my kids after that happened, but I knew that without rain in the forecast, I would be nervous about another cigarette butt igniting. So instead of going on a walk with them, I hosed down all the mulch,” I told her.

She was sympathetic, a mother too, she told me. “I understand how important your kids’ safety in their environment is,” she told me. Which was nice of her. I apologized a few times and told her that I knew that dealing with all of this wasn’t actually her job or her fault. And I thanked her for her sympathy. And it was nice and I felt a little less alone and isolated and a little less like no one cared or understood or wanted to understand.

It’s late and I want to click publish on this, but I’m hesitant. It’s all so unpolished and I haven’t properly processed and revised and edited. But it is all true.

Do not engage. I repeat: do not engage.

Two nights ago, one our family walk, we let Mr2yo out of his stroller. He shot off down the sidewalk as he always does and straight towards a small, dark colored object in the middle which he then bent down to touch, ignoring our cries and protestations.

And, that small brown object was dog poop because of course it was dog poop. And of course we were already blocks from home and of course we had no wipes or hand sanitizer or even an errant napkin in the stroller. Because I am the mother, I took the hem of my tunic and wiped his hand as best I could and then placed him back in the stroller, where, because he is 2 and because he was upset because we had just been yelling “no” at him and because he was being put back into his stroller he, of course, put his fingers in his mouth to comfort himself because of course and because he is 2.

So at this point, I take off back towards home just me and the stroller full of crying, distressed, poop covered finger sucking 2 year old and send Eric and the girls and the dog (our dog, not the dog who had pooped on the sidewalk) to finish the walk. And I’m sort of half fast walking, half trying to not make Mr2yo more distressed and alarmed while simultaneously trying to plot the fastest physically distanced course home through streets of our neighborhood that have one and sometimes no sidewalks and little to no pedestrian-friendly infrastructure like stop signs and crosswalks.

And in front of me, there’s a woman with a dog on one of those retractable leashes. And the woman is talking and I guess she’s talking to me? And she saying something about how her dog, who is sort of coming towards us and sort of looking at us, loves children. But my child is crying and I’m fast walking and I have no idea why this woman is talking to me but she and her dog are in the middle of the only, narrow sidewalk, so I turn off from the sidewalk and into the street. And the woman says, “oh no.” And when I look at her in response to her seeming tone of distress, she says, “We can be nice to each other, you know” and her hand gestures back and forth between the two of us in what I can only guess is some sort of universal sign for “we’re all in this together” which is also supposed to indicate that we are six feet from each other.

“My son just touched dog poop in the middle of the sidewalk and I’m trying to get him home,” I tell her, only I think there were probably a lot more “ums” and “errs” and pauses and hesitations and flustrations.

“Well, I didn’t do anything to you,” she responds, which, of course, convinces me that she was almost certainly the dog owner who did not clean up after her dog a few blocks back.

I arrive home after what feels like 17 days of toddler finger-sucking, wash all four hands, strip and change two bodies and the two of us are back outside on the front step when the rest of the family arrives back from the walk.

I tell them what happened on the way home. The children are rapt. And Eric is appalled, “That’s so passive aggressive,” he says. Ms10yo and Ms7yo want me to tell the story again but it is time to get dinner started and there’s already been more than enough excitement. But I understand why they want to hear it again. I know it’s because it’s a classic tale of their mother-hero thwarting the villain small dog lady on her way to save their little brother from poop bacteria. It gets them every time.

Late on, after I’ve had a little time to calm down a bit, I do what I often do in these situations, “God,” I ask the creator, “why do you make people like that.”

And this time, unlike many others, came a clear answer, “You do not need to engage with them.” Which, of course, is absolutely true and right and good. I know that this woman’s implication that I wasn’t being “nice” triggered me in some way to respond. As if someone thinking I’m not “nice” might somehow matter in some way. Which it doesn’t. And the whole interaction ended up leaving me more upset and irritated because she clearly didn’t not view me as a nice person and she never was going to view me as a nice person and what did it matter anyway as long as I could wash my kids’ hands?

Creature of Comfort

I woke up at 6 this morning, which is uncharacteristically early for me, both in the time before and the time after. Our youngest is just two, so Eric and I both been stealing sleep from around the edges of the day for at least as many years. Most of the time, our night-before ambitions for the morning, are tempered with the thought, “well, it depends on how tonight goes.” Last night, the two year old ended up in our bed, sleeping tucked up against my chest on top of my arm. Still, I had set my alarm so that I could attempt to make bagels this morning. The dough is (fingers crossed and a pray for the intercession of Saint Honore) rising in a draftless corner of the kitchen right now. We can buy consistently good, fresh bagels not much further than a mile from our house but the cost-benefit equations have been flipped. Is it easier to run down to the store or to set an alarm and make the darn things myself? So here we are.

There was a time when kneading dough for fifteen minutes at 6:30 am would have seemed needlessly arduous. This morning, I didn’t even turn on the radio to distract myself from the work. I just got on with it, much to my surprise. It’s been like this these days, an endless series of unexpected and sweet revelations about myself, my husband, my kids, life even. The nearly 7yo came to me yesterday morning and asked why, in some places, 30 degrees is warm but here it’s cold. “Is it like backwards or something in other places?” she asked. This launched us into a discussion of imperial versus metric, which lead us back to different measurement scales. Later on, I sat with Ms10yo while she worked on algebraic fractions. I showed her what I knew, step by step with pen and paper, and then together we worked through how she could use the gem-like plastic pieces from her “Hands on Equations” to solve for y.

Learning is comforting. There’s just something that soothes the soul with the repeated revelation of “oh, here’s one more thing I don’t know!” I don’t know everything nor do I need to. And each new little piece of knowledge or discovery is a reassurance that there’s even more to know around the next corner and the next and so on.

And making, creating is another comfort.

I’ve been making food and socks, and the process has been immensely comforting. Even more so has been the completion of each project. “Oh, yes, that’s right: I am capable of learning and making.” I signed up for a sock yarn of the month club from Farmers Daughters Fibers and my first skein arrived a few weeks ago: a gentle yellow called “Sea Nettle”. Eric and I keep bees (well when they’re not dying) and this yarn color reminded me of honeycomb. This free pattern from Emily Bolduan was in the “to knit” folder in one of my mental filing cabinets and this yarn seemed a good fit. It’s my first pair of toe-up socks which has so far involved a new (to me) cast on method and German short rows for the heels. Each of the individual cells of the honeycomb are comprised of little cables. After reading the pattern and then completing a few rounds, there’s an immensely satisfying moment when the gears seem to slip neatly into pre-assigned cogs. The pattern is revealed and I no longer have to rely on the written instructions but can read the round that I just completed which will tell me what I need to do next. It’s immensely satisfying.

Just as cooking a good meal, especially unplanned and with what I have on-hand purchased, no less, by Eric on one of his weekly or sometimes even fort-nightly (it is appropriate that I just unintentionally inserted a k before the n in that word) trips to the grocery store, is immensely satisfying. It’s a gift that my options for meals I will prepare have been so severely limited to what Eric happened to bring home. It is as if having too many choices and options left me feeling like whichever one I made was always the wrong one; or else I would be paralyzed by (ultimately meaningless) options. How many minutes, hours, days have I cumulatively wasted staring at shelves and shelves of products trying to make up my mind: salted or unsalted? Organic or not? Eric shops quickly and efficiently, taking what’s available with no second guessing. And somehow, of course, it always comes together for food and meals together at home.

And the bagels? Well, they finished while I was writing this. And they were delicious. And not to hard to make.

Tiny Kitchen

Our kitchen is tiny. With a toddler, it’s almost impossible to eat out at restaurants. And so take out is something of a habit. Or, I should say, in the “time before” it was becoming a habit. But our tiny kitchen and reliance on carry out has betrayed the actual truth: we love to cook and we love to eat our own cooking. But sometimes our passions don’t fit neatly into our reality.

This weekend, I cooked Ethiopian food. We live in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of DC. You cannot swing a dead cat around here without hitting an Ethiopian restaurant. As much as we love Ethiopian food, there’s never been any sort of reason for us to learn how to cook it. Until now. OK. Yes, technically we can still get take out. But we’ve found that even our favorite spot (which also happens to be one of Marcus Samuelson’s favorites) doesn’t carry out very well. Perhaps it’s because we miss out on the server bringing a beautiful tray of colorful foods laid out on a thick piece of injera for us all to collectively dig our (well washed) hands into.

Our youngest turned 2 this weekend and so we invited my parents over (bringing our total numbers to 7, still well short of the “no more than 10” gathered together orders) to celebrate. As always, I (over) ambitiously set out to prepare three dishes, a salad, and injera from scratch. Plus, a dessert for the birthday boy.

To be clear, when I say my kitchen is small, I mean that it has about two square feet of use-able counter space. I lived in two apartments in NYC when I was in graduate school: one studio and one two bedroom. Both of them each had kitchens larger than the one we have now.

And yet, still, I do utterly nonsensical things like plan a multi-dish meal for guests that is comprised of the foods of a cuisine which I have zero background in cooking. To celebrate a toddler’s birthday.

Injera batter must ferment for at least a few days ahead of time. So I was already behind the eight ball when waited until the day before to start looking at what I needed to prepare. So I dug around for a short cut that involved using yogurt to create the “tang” of fermentation while cutting down on the time it would need to sit. OK, I figured, good enough. It would have to do. Thankfully and like most of the cake making around here, the passion fruit cheesecake was mostly Eric’s purview and he had already read through the recipe (from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen G’oh’s book Sweet) enough to know that it was going to have to be done mostly the day before. Cheesecake has to sit in the fridge.

But, of course, on Sunday morning, as I tried to cook the injera, the whole thing seemed to keep falling apart. And while it had satisfyingly bubbled and even formed little holes on the surface, the batter kept sticking to the pan like an immoveable, inedible feast.

When I am frustrated, I sigh. A lot.

Eric offered to help. And then he took a pan and scrubbed it while I watched more youtube videos and read more about injera making.

Eventually, slowly, and with a little patience, and with Eric scrubbing the pan and also keeping an eye on the kids, the flat breads started to come together. Not perfect. Far from it. But certainly edible. And at least recognizable to the children as injera.

Sunday was beautiful and so, once I had cooked all the batter, we spent parts of it outside; I, with one eye on a clock to make sure that I had enough time to make the rest of the meal. “What time do you need to get started?” Eric asked me. I told him 4:30.

It was nearing 4:30 and we still had to straighten up the house. And I had to get cooking. Eric needed a shower. And there was still the spiced pineapple topping for the cheesecake, which was not otherwise safely ensconced in the refrigerator. The girls helped to clean. “I’m going to take a shower,” Eric announced to me.

“Ok…,” I said. I was standing in the middle of our kitchen floor doing the calculations on how all of this would get cooked. Eric hesitated a moment. He looked at me.

“How are you feeling about getting all this done?” he asked.

“Well, I guess I’m just a bit worried about getting the pineapple finished. Once I start cooking, all the space in here will be taken up. It’s just… things are going to be a bit….” I trailed off. This is the part of meal prep, especially when we are having people over (even if they are “just” my parents) when I start to imagine what it would be like to have a proper, large kitchen, one where the pineapple could be chopped and roasted while the beef tibs were being tossed in the wok and we chatted with our friends and family, holding their glasses of beer and wine. It’s pure fantasy.

“I”ll just make the pineapple topping now,” Eric said decisively so that I snapped out of it.

“But what if the caramel hardens as it cools?” I asked him.

“It won’t. And if it does, we’ll just warm it up again.”

And so he finished the cheesecake topping while I had the cup of tea I had been craving. And then he went off to take a shower and I started cooking dinner.

And at some point, both of the girls (10 and 6) came in and asked if they could help. So often, I look at our two square feet of counter space and so, “No, thank you,” but this time I said, “yes, please.” And one of them cut potatoes and then cabbage. And then they both measured out spices, following the recipes and practicing their fractions, and playing “sous chef” so that when the time came, I could just thrown in pre-measured spices from charming little bowls just as if I was on a cooking show. I was a celebrity in my own tiny kitchen.

MsA (10yo) even took a picture of some of her work.

And my parents arrived early and the girls offered them drinks and then put out cheese and crackers for them and they doted over the birthday boy. And then they asked Eric to turn on some Sam Cook. And I even sang along while finished up the lentils and quickly cooked the beef on a high, high heat.

And the food was a success (although next time I will put less cardamom in the lentils and I will actually ferment the injera batter rather than using the half-the-time cheat) and the birthday boy was very happy. And we “zoomed” with our family near and far and they watched him devour two pieces of cheesecake as if he was in a competition. Or, as my niece pointed out, like he was Bruce eating the chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

And it was lovely. And when I think about my tiny kitchen, I am always reminded of what my brother says, “‘Tis a poor carpenter that blames his tools.” ‘Tis love that makes a home.

Six Spring Considerations

Forsythia remind me of my grandmother who died when I was a little child. I suspect that my mother at some point (or multiple points) must have said, “Forsythia were Nana’s favorite.” Or perhaps she said, “Forsythia are my favorite” and several memories merged into one impression as they are prone to do. “They’re the first sign of spring,” someone said. Or maybe that’s just what I said to myself.

This jewel in DC’s spring floral crown, the cherry blossom, is a family favorite in spite of its moodiness, or perhaps because of it. “It looks like a weeping willow!” Ms6yo exclaims, affirming her father’s declaration that this particular specimen is one of the prettiest on our neighborhood walks. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival has been cancelled in the name of physical distancing. I’ve only been once or twice anyway. “Locals don’t go to the Cherry Blossom Festival,” my mother used to say. As a local, I follow the directives of my local mother. But there’s nothing in local DC doctrine that precludes us appreciating the flowering trees in locales other than the Tidal Basin on a specified weekend and perhaps especially on these days when flowering tree appreciation can be practiced a safe distance from our neighbors. This time three years ago, we were appreciating the cherry blossoms/ “sakura” in Tokyo, Japan, where my dad went to medical school before following a near-direct latitudinal line to DC to complete his training. Locals don’t go to the Cherry Blossom Festival, but apparently admiring the pink blossoms with the charming, foreign doctor from the hospital where you both work is not against the rules. (Or, if it is, photographic evidence indicates that my mother was a rule-breaker.) No doubt, they had much to talk about as the original trees had been a gift from the Japanese government, which had also gifted my father a scholarship to attend medical school. I have much to thank Japan for.

Is this the specimen to which the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas referring? I am struck by how unseasonal it feels to be talking about Pear Trees right now. I have nothing else to say about this tree or its flowers.

The Tulip Magnolia possesses larger petals and potential growth than the Cherry Blossom, which overshadows it only in name recognition. I love this tree and the way it reminds me every spring that we really are south of the Mason-Dixon here. As the saying goes, “DC combines the congeniality of the north with the efficiency of the south.” I’d heard this characterization before, but it was only when a Midwestern transplant to the east coast said it after I had introduced myself as being from DC that I realized just how mean a thing that is to say, on par with “no one is from DC” after you’ve just said you’re from DC. Does this look like a swamp to you?

The girls call these ones “blue bells” (which makes me think they’ve been reading too many victorian diaries or poetry) and collect the errant ones to place in fairy houses. An offering for fairies or bait? I’m never quite clear. Nor are the fairies. Gardeners and botanists call them the more luscious “garden grape-hyacinth“, which unfortunately sets one up for an inevitable disappointment of inedibility. I have no memory of substance with these little wine cups hanging as if from bar rack (a familiar sight from my childhood at the family restaurant) to say about these ones as I do not recall them from my youth.

I thought this might be the resurrection of a dead hive, but my husband insists these are robber bees. Ours absconded (ok, they died, not their fault) some time ago, and as such I think “scavenger bees” would be more generous and more accurate for these honeybees visiting our hive.

Feast of Saint Joseph

Today is the feast of Joseph. It is also the day that Italy surpassed China in the number of COVID-19-related deaths. Still, we celebrated Saint Joseph, as best we could, with pasta and bread crumbs approximating the sawdust at the feet of a carpenter.

My paternal grandparents were from China. Poor (and perhaps seeing the writing on the wall?), they left far before even my father was born and before the revolution. We have no known ancestry from Italy. Still, “celebrate everything,” as our pastor instructs. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of Italy and my husband’s confirmation saint. As a father and husband, he has a particular devotion to this quietest of biblical figures.

This morning, I dared to venture out to the grocery store for provisions for my parents including ingredients for a linguine dish on the recommendation of my mother’s Sicilian friend. By default, all Catholics are some sort of honorary Italian. After Mr 2yo fell into his afternoon nap, I beat eggs and sugar and flour into a warm, shiny submission on the stove top. The girls injected pastry cream into these puffs of baked dough to form zepolle de San Giuseppe (aka much less romantic sounding “cream puffs”). Were our Italian counterparts doing the same from their confines of their homes and to prepare their altars to Saint Joseph, loaded with treats and sweets that would not be shared in the way that they were meant to be?

Music by Ms6yo.

This time last year, we made cream puffs and rice fritters for a Saint Joseph altar to share with our small community of faithful at our daily mass. But this year? Verboten. (Pray, you’ll pardon me for mixing cultures in these trying times.)

We had let Saint Patrick’s day slide by with nary a “pray for us” in spite of the fact that we are Irish “on both sides”. Like many of these days, this Irish feast slipped by us before we could catch it with a shot of Jameson or a pint of Guinness. We now know that these days call for preparation and forethought but we hadn’t yet learned that lesson before March 17. Before March 17, we still thought that we could run out to grab a corned beef and a trip to the beer and wine store (this is still Montgomery County, after all) wouldn’t mean quite as much hand sanitizer.

Saint Joseph. Pray for us!

The Visitation

Yesterday morning, I prayed the tail and the first decade of the rosary on an app on my phone. It was a Monday, so the joyful mysteries were the prix fixe, and the first is “The Annunciation”. For lent, I’ve been praying all five decades once a day which, for me, has meant lying in bed at the end of the day, trying not to doze off between, or during, Hail Marys. Most nights, there’s the inevitable near slippage of the phone out of my hand, the jolt awake. “Did I already finish this Hail Mary? Well, better do it again, just to be safe.” Which is, of course, ridiculous and not the point at all. I’ve heard it said before that if you fall asleep while praying the rosary, angels will finish it for you. I hate to bother them. The rosary doesn’t have to be prayed all in one sitting — or in one “lying” in this case — so I figured a decade here or there through the day might mean fewer opportunities for the phone to slip from my lazy fingers and topple onto my face. My phone is not light, but no one ever said praying the rosary was without danger and risk.

Later in the day, an old friend called from his truck on his way to work where he lives in upstate New York. He practices Zen Buddhism and so, over the phone, he shared some of his experiences with meditating using Ko-ans. At one point during our conversation, I laughed. I had thought, I explained to him, that Zen Ko-ans were sort of parallel to the mysteries of the rosary. “I was wrong,” I told him.

Ms10yo said to me today, “It doesn’t even feel like lent.” I asked her if she meant because we were staying in and social distancing. We haven’t been to mass in a few weeks. “It’s like we gave up mass for lent,” I told her. She laughed. “Which is totally the opposite,” she said. But maybe this time is even more “lenten” in some ways: giving up so many “things”, even mass, to rely on each other and what we have present in our own homes. Do we need a ko-an to see God? Do we need mass to know him?

I consider the alternative to praying the rosary before falling asleep; to spread it out during the day so that I’m not fighting sleep. But I also consider, “what would I do if I weren’t praying the rosary in my bed at the end of the day.” Would my mind be racing, reviewing every interaction I had during the day? Trying to find the meaning behind two tweets I’d stumbled across. Would I be forcing meaningless words and phrases into awkward patterns of meaning? Would my mind be working, overtime, deep into the night to make sense out of fear or other senseless emotions and experiences. Better, I suspect, to consider the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” and the messenger angel who spoke them. Better to picture two cousins, John and Jesus,: one pouring baptismal water over the head of the other. Better, even, to contemplate the pillar and what was perpetrated there.

After I hung up the phone with my friend in New York, my daughter’s Godmother texted me. She would be working from home for a while. She asked for prayers that her and her room-mate wouldn’t kill each other. “I’ll be praying the second joyful mystery later today,” I texted her. “I think The Visitation might be an appropriate decade to offer for you and your roommate.” In The Visitation, Mary learns that her cousin, Elizabeth who is “advanced in age”, is pregnant and she quickly makes her way to take care of her. Elizabeth and her son, John, know who Mary carries in her own womb as soon as they see her. “I’ll pray that you guys get a little Mary-Elizabeth vibe going between you.” Not that I hoped both of them would become pregnant, but that they would take care of each other in the way that the two biblical cousins did. Hail Mary, indeed.