A Year From Now: Everyday Magic, Day 1014

A year ago, driving a mountain cabin to Denver to see old friends, we had no idea. It just seemed that life would go on like this with annual vacations 500 or more miles from home, easy forays into restaurants, and being able to enthusiastically hug pals. Yet there’s something heartening in realizing how much can also change for the better in a year, so here’s what I woke up imagining for a year from now.

In August, 2021, it’ll still be hot in northeast Kansas, and I’ll be sitting exactly where I am now: on the porch with the ceiling fan above and the floor fan beside me. When I head into town, I won’t bother to make sure there’s a mask in my purse because, by the dog days of summer ’21, there will be an effective and safe vaccine widely disseminated. I’ll head to the city pool to cool off, and this time, it will be full of water and people (it’s empty of both now). Heading back home, I’ll stop at the Merc, our food co-op, to pick up some sweet corn to grill along with the zucchini and potatoes we just harvested from the garden.

I’ll listen to NPR telling of how President Biden has now, seven months into his term, completely reversing all the previous occupant’s executive orders that diminish and threaten the environment, immigrants, healthcare, small businesses, and so much more. Vice President Kamala Harris will be giving a news conference on how the United States, now firmly back in the Paris Agreement on climate change, is making big headway on the economy through the growing renewables industry. Some familiar voices from the campaign trail of 2020 will pepper the news, including cabinet members Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker or secretary of state Susan Rice, and progressive conscience of the party Bernie Sanders. I’ll delight in the relief I feel when it comes to evolving policy and resources for education, healthcare, police reform, commerce, and so many other aspects of American life. I might even send a note to our new senator Barbara Bollier to thank her for supporting Biden’s initiative to start Medicare for people at age 60.

Back in my kitchen, I’ll marinate vegetables just like I do now as I feel a greater lightness (or perhaps it’s just because I’ll be better rested from not waking at 2 a.m. to worry about things like the post office). While Ken is heating up the grill, some good friends will show up for the first time since B. P. (Before Pandemic) for dinner, bringing some homemade bread with them. I’ll hug them long and tight, all of us laughing in joyful relief. We’ll soon head to our table on the back deck to watch the expanding thunderhead to the southwest. Just before dessert, maybe a peach pie I make with local peaches, the rain will start, and we’ll rush inside, clutching glasses and balancing plates.

Later, just as the sun reaches the horizon, we’ll head out again to find a double rainbow to the east. We’ll stand in the sun shower laughing and pointing to the sky, joking with each other that, sure, the world is still a mess in a million swirling ways, but look at all that happened, that could happen, in a year.

Hours later, I’ll step out on the deck in my nightgown, the soft wind and loud katydids doing their thing, look out at our farm, spread my arms, and say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

We’re Just Passing Through the Fire Swamp: Everyday Magic, Day 1011

The fire swamp in The Princess Bride has at least three known dangers, but at first Westley (played by Carey Elwes) mistakenly believes there are only two: the flame spurts and lightning sand, which can both be spotted ahead of time and avoided. “When Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) asks about the ROUs, Westley tells he doesn’t believe they exist. Cue Rodents of Unusual Size, rats the size of footballplayers, to attack.

It’s kind of like that for us now. First, there’s the coronavirus, but we’re learning more each day about the signs (fever, cough, difficulty breathing, loss of smell or taste, etc.). Then there’s the lightning sand — the places that will swallow you up fast and deep, so it’s best to avoid them — which I interpret as any indoor gathering with a lot of people, especially if they’re packed close and, unlike some of the characters in The Princess Bride, maskless. Now it seems the ROUs are out in force with the pandemic aggressively pinning down whole communities and swatches of this country and many others.

Add to that the heat and humidity, the spectrum of fear (from mild worry to abject terror) about schools and universities opening back up a little or a lot, the lack of any vaccine or super effective cure available to all, and I wonder how many more terrors there are in the fire swamp. Yet wonderng doesn’t give me a leg up on preparation so I go back to looking at where I am, as Westley did when he said he wouldn’t want to build a summer house in the fire swamp, but is habitable and even has its charms.

On what I count as Day 128 of the pandemic, we still have no idea how we’ll get to the other side. I can’t yet imagine eating indoors in a restaurant, having friends over for a potluck, or casually going on a long road trip, stopping whenever we need food, gas, or sleep. But here in the fire swamp, there’s some lovely moments amid the certain dangers we need to avoid, most of all, by staying put.

Right now, it’s in the 90s with humidity that feels like 200%, but with the ceiling fan, floor fan, and big sweeps of wind, I can sit on my porch and be okay. Like many of us, I’m more attuned to the phoebe’s chirps, the hummingbird’s buzz, the barred owls “who-cooks-for-you” call, and many manner of cicadas and katydids. I’ve had more frequent and in-depth conversations with friends — by phone, Zoom or Facetime — than at just about any other point in my life, all of us sharing the matching pieces of this puzzle time. And certain things seem to be more possible (such as really grappling with systematic racism, and on a more individual level, what our life’s work is).

I think about the most tender times in my life, usually involving hospitals or deathbeds when our hearts are blown open by finally seeing our vulnerability and mortality. These are the times some of the least expressive among us might easily repeat “I love you” late into the night. The moments we show up for each other are so often when one or more of us in the fire swamp of uncertainty, fear, dread, and sadness.

While I don’t know when and how we’ll get out, I trust we won’t follow the plot of The Princess Bride (which involves torture and almost death before coming back to life and triumph), but instead find our own plot twists to greater safety, freedom, and love. Meanwhile, we need to remember, that while it might feel like we live here forver, we’re just passing through the fire swamp.

What is a Year?: Everyday Magic, Day 1009

The porch I’m on June 17, 2020

A year ago, I was positively radioactive. On June 14, I had surgery to insert a tiny gold disk of radioactive pellets in my right eye, and on June 19, I had surgery to have it removed. That span of days, I was scared and exhausted by unremitting pain (that would go on beyond the radioactive phase), yet I was also on my front porch, drinking iced tea, watching hummingbirds dive-bomb each other, and occasionally eating a lemon cream croissant from the fabled 1900 Bakery that Kris brought me. I couldn’t pet the cat, get within 10 feet of Ken, or endure any sunlight.

A year later, I’m on the front porch of the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, my feet on a chair, my computer on my lap, and my eyes — one that can see relatively normally and that other that sees an impressionistic, soft-edged, floater-crossing world — are fixed on the sparrows, jetting from fence ledge to tree branch. We regard each other while a white-skinned sycamore tree looks on. I’m drinking iced tea and thinking about eating some leftover beef bourguignon for lunch. A whirly-gig — a little thin leaf swirling unevenly all the way down — catches me. Because of the pandemic, I’m alone here, and it’s okay.

The view from June 17, 2019

A tale of two Junes is just a sliver of all the Junes I’ve lived and hope to live. A year from now, I envision a widely-distributed, extremely-effective, and vividly-safe vaccine, and life not going back to the the old normal, but opening back up. Maybe I’ll be back here, but when the trolley passes by, as it does every 30 minutes, the driver and riders won’t be masked. We’ll go to restaurants again, peruse book stores, consider air travel with ease, and think nothing of stopping at a gas station to use the restroom. I see us talking about how strange it was, still is actually, to have lost so much and so many while also — I hope — saying what we can see now that we couldn’t see pre-pandemic.

A year ago, I had to wear a towel over my head as well as two pairs of sunglasses under that towel when riding in cars to go for medical follow-up appointments. Light hurt so much that many evenings, after I lay on the couch with an ice pack over my eyes while we watched (me watching by listening) a Northern Exposure episode, we went to the porch in the dark to listen. My ears learned to see 6 varieties of cicadas and even more of katydids. I couldn’t see what I would see.

A year from now, I wonder what we will see and deeply hear in new ways, trusting that with all we lose, there’s some compensation of vision, beauty, wisdom or compassion even if it’s not often enough to erase the pain. There’s also this wind ruffling these leaves while a branch trembles under the weight of a young sparrow, just out of the nest and ready by instinct for what’s next.

What is a year? We don’t know, but we will find out.

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Breathe In Peace, Breathe Out Love: Everyday Magic, Day 1008

I thought a global pandemic was enough: enough pain, suffering, fear, restriction, uncertainty, and dread. Turns out I was wrong. We now have violent riots (most of which, from all I’m reading in the news and hearing from eye witnesses, seem fueled by outside forces bent on division and hatred) topping off hundreds of peaceful protests, the national guard called into 20 states (as of this morning), a president ratcheting up the tension with deadly threats, and a whole lot of people being further exposed to the coronavirus. I don’t dare ask if attack monkeys are about to fall from the sky or dog-size locusts will soon sweep across the land.

In the world of cognitive dissonance, which is our world writ large lately, there is also this: the wind sweeping up and across the cottonwood tree in that way that tells me summer has landed. Three indigo buntings on the ground under the bird feeder. Carpenter bees floating above the windows. Moxie the dog pressing her jaw into the deck and falling asleep. The early evening shadows competing with the last long rays of afternoon across the grass, which is full of ticks, chiggers, and other summer pests.

There is all of this: “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words as well as the last words of too many others murdered out of hatred and bigotry — and all this summer air inhaling and exhaling us, day by day. I understand that I can’t fully understand what it is to have my life threatened because of race, to live with the weight of that for days, years, generations. But I can respect the rage and pain, and for all those suffering, I can, remembering a song Kelley Hunt leads us in at Brave Voice each year, breathe in the peace I’m so privileged to find right here and now, and breathe out love for all who are hurting. I can also do the usual things: march, write, give money, support people acting for the good, and keep educating myself on what it means to be an ally.

I can also embrace another slant of cognitive dissonance as I wish for the peace that surpasses understanding to take root everywhere right now.

The Peonies Where a Tornado, Cancer Diagnosis, and Pandemic Meet: Everyday Magic, Day 1007

Peonies from the Pendletons the day before the tornado

As I watch the Pendleton’s peonies I just bought rush from tight little balls to full-throttle fireworks of blossoms, I keep thinking of three impossible things: the massive tornado that tunneled through our area last May 28th, my eye cancer diagnosis right before the tornado, and the pandemic that ups the ante on anxiety and the longing to live . In short, it’s been a helluva year. In long form, there’s a lot to say about how all three events can grow into greater resilience, courage, community, and imagination in a hurry.

When I went to the Pendleton’s farm last Memorial Day, I was their last customer of the day. I bought some asparagus (which they’re deservedly famous for) and plants for the vegetable garden, but mostly peonies. Poet Mary Oliver describes this explosion of a flower as unabashedly mortal with “their lush trembling,/ their eagerness/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever?” I was reeling from my diagnosis through a maze of scans and tests toward what would be very painful surgery to insert radiative pellets in my eye, then remove them, and I knew the bold and brave peony was what I needed on my night table.

I spoke with John and Karen Pendleton that afternoon about the times they had to rebuild (such as when a microburst wiped out their farm) and the long hours and slim margins of the farming life. We also covered the care and feeding of the peonies, heavy balls on the ends of long sticks Karen fetched from the refrigerator for me to take home, plop in a vase, and voila! Magic happens. But only because the Pendletons, like so many local farmers, stick it out and put in the time.

The next day, the afternoon air was so weighted in humidity and danger that it was hard to think straight or breathe freely. Then the sirens started in earnest and didn’t stop for over an hour. I ran up and down the stairs to the basement many times, urging Ken to come join me in a protective underground space while he insisted he could stay outside a little longer watching the huge wall of rain approach. The only problem was that this wall held a rain-wrapped tornado (or more accurately, a bevy of tornadoes snaking together and apart), making it impossible to see what funnels of destruction were heading our way. Our son on the phone, tracking Kansas radar from his Wisconsin apartment, assured us whatever was coming was coming straight for us.

The last time we experienced this was shortly after I completed chemo 17 years earlier to poison-cleanse all the breast cancer out of me. I remember, when Ken asked what I wanted to save, just shrugging and suggesting the animals, kids, and photo albums. That tornado lifted back up and didn’t touch us. This time I was angry, yelling at the sky, “Really?” along with a bunch of curse words.

The tornado just missed us, downing and twisting trees a tenth of a mile north. But it grew larger and stronger as it drove northeast, overtaking the Pendleton Farm. While they were safe in their basement, the home and farm they climbed upstairs to was devastated, and they were faced with the decision of whether and how to rebuild, not to mention a massive mess. People came out of the woodwork for them and for our other neighbors who lost roofs, windows, whole houses, and certainly a sense of safety in the world.

This year’s Pendleton peonies co-mingling with my irises

Since then, I’ve finished my cancer treatment, and although I’m mostly blind in what I call my magic eye, I’m okay….for now. But that’s how it always is with life and certainly how it is with the pandemic for many of us. But oh, so many losses for so many this year, the kind you can’t rebuild or just use your other eye to mitigate. There’s also the overwhelming economic and economic security losses (how high can you count?), the fear and dread of how to stay safe in this long interim between pandemic and remedy or vaccine, and so much we took for granted no longer part and parcel of routine life.

But there’s also these peonies, this year’s bouquet I bought from the Pendletons now that they’re rebuilt and rebuilding. There’s this world full of tight communities coming together to help and support their members. There’s this human tendency to start over, exhausted and heartbroken, and make something good or good enough out of brokenness.

“Do you love this world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “Peonies.” Yes, I do, so much, especially now when the tender beauty and intoxicating scent of a flower is surprisingly strong enough to hold me, even with the possibilities of wild weather in this body and across this land and nation. I wonder what next year’s peonies will tell us.