They have begun to die. Once bright green leaves no bigger than a pinkie nail, already shriveling to brown. I rushed. Didn’t read the instructions. Too much compost in the soil. Too early a move to the big containers. I’ve lost at least half or more. It’s a massacre.
The late morning beach requires windbreaker and hoodie both. Most human neighbors have not ventured out. We do, kicking off our shoes and regretting it almost at once. Dune grass and broken shells slice our reddened feet.
Out at the edge of the water under the low sun, the ground is uneven in a spot. Dark. Probably rubbish, a black tote blown away and left behind. But no, it takes shape as we near it. A bird. A black skimmer, one of the endangered of this island. White and brown feathers ruffling in the wind. It seems larger now than when its kind fly low, skating along the cresting waves. It is bent in a way it shouldn’t be. Large, like a Halloween pillowcase, like a wedding cake someone dropped. It gains substance in its stillness.
I overhear a woman outside chatting with two neighbors. She says, “Twenty-four years ago today, I lost my brother.” She slow-shakes her head. “It’s hard to believe, 24 years.”
One neighbor asks, “What are you noticing? What do you miss the most?”
“Having someone who cares.”
A year ago Thursday was the first day I kept my son home, one day ahead of the county-wide school lockdown. The previous evening, a Wednesday, we went out to our favorite Vietnamese place and sat down for bowls of pho. We knew something was coming to an end and that this could be our last time in a restaurant. For a year, now longer? I could never have imagined. Like the woman outside, I am slow-shaking my head.
Back in March, we knew it would be a little while. Night clubs shuttered along with gyms, studios, and all the rest of public life. No contra dancing at the Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom on Friday nights. No proximity to my absolutely favorite Zumba teacher at the rec center on Saturday mornings. We’d have to figure something out. For this old gal, keeping the spirit intact means movement. Dance is as much a necessity as toilet paper and reliable wifi.
The irony was clear from the beginning: the businesses keeping their doors open were not ones I wanted to support. A few of my more savvy Zumba instructors went virtual, offering Zoom workouts at no cost a couple days a week. It was oddly comforting to catch a glimpse into the kitchens and living rooms of people I’d only seen at the gym. I felt less alone in my own mess, swinging my hips in the tiny rectangle of space carved out in a condo which absorbed schoolroom, office, and the entire universe of entertainment options on two days notice last March.
That little while stretched into weeks. Then months.
The weeping willow tree stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. In spring and summer, its feathered branches play with light. Now, in the cold, it sways its head of bare tresses.
In the Beforetimes, the willow held my morning. Waiting for the 466 bus to the metro, queuing commuters angled their bodies towards the stop sign up the block where the bus would eventually appear. We do this without realizing it, don’t we? Pin our attention on some absence we want filled by something beyond our control? It eventually occurred to me that fixating on that stop sign was a tragic waste of a few wide-open morning minutes. Holding my packed lunch and metro card, I turned to look across the street instead. The willow. Right there. It gave my gaze a bite of intrigue, some sustenance to carry me through the workday.
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967
From this moment on, I choose the truth of connection. You here with me and me here with you. Even when you feel yourself most alone, I am holding you. And maybe you don’t know it, but you are holding me.
The way the kindergarten teacher called it on the first day of class.
The way the receptionist spoke it into the waiting room before the annual checkup.
The way the librarian whispered it when entering information on the card.
The way the coach boomed it during lineup.
The way the camp counselor hollered it at the YMCA summer Olympics.
The way the local newspaper listed it among the loving grandchildren she left behind.
The way the principal announced it during the graduation procession.
The way the future in-laws enunciated it during that first meeting.
The way the minister intoned it when asking the dearly beloved to witness this holy union.
The way the nurse confirmed it before writing it on the birth certificate.
The way the HR assistant checked its spelling when setting up the job interview.
The way the emcee declared it at the awards ceremony.
The way the children proclaimed it when asked who their people are.
For me, the honeysuckle does it. Out walking the dog, I pass through that place behind the apartment building where the vine-covered shrubs form a loose fence line with the neighboring townhouses. There, the scent lifts me up from whatever chaos is in my head. I pause and find one underneath, going for the yellow blossom. While the fulsome white catch the eye, I’ve learned from experience. The yellowed, crepey petals store astonishing sweetness.