Today, I stopped, breathless, watching the sunlight stream through our streaked windows and catch in my 3-year-old daughter’s halo of frizzed hair. Her legs were splayed to either side as we hemmed and hawed over a brightly stained wooden puzzle on the floor of the playroom while her baby brother slept, finally, in the crib that used to be hers. Later, too, I stopped at the top of the stairs, and the verdant green of a world bursting into springtime. It was the kind of green that is always the archway I walk through at the beginning of any book I am compelled to write — this vivid color set for me in the English novels I read in my childhood, an entryway to magic and wonder in a knoll around the bend. I thought back to the walk I took with the kids earlier in the day, to the vivid purple flowers poking through moss-enshrined bark, and that patch of wind-strewn yellow flowers, which I threaded through my daughter’s hair and gave to the baby, just so I could watch the wonder unfurl over his face as he rolled the petals through his fat little fingers and cooed.
For as much as windows are about looking out, they’re also about looking inward — what’s looking in at you. And so as I tried to stay with these trinkets of wonder and delight, I could see a kind of darkness pressing in.
There are numbers in the ether. Fatality rates. Stock market losses and rebounds and losses again. The looming unemployment rate. Numbers of hospital beds and respirators and face masks and hospital staff and guns bought in the event of a mass hysteria. It’s all there, in dark wisps of cloud arching through the branches of trees weighted heavily with beauty.
On our walks we pass dogs at the ends of short leashes, nodding at owners from the supposed safety of six feet. (Six feet, another number in which we shroud ourselves, as if it is iron and impervious rather than a thing that’s always just one study away from rusting through). They wag their tails as they ever did, bemused at the hullabaloo.
It’s the same with the birds, the avian choir, layers upon layers of conversation and song. Are you there? I’m here. Are you there? I’m here. The flit of wings. I wonder, watching as the red of a cardinal streaks by, if they’re watching us and thinking, “What, now, are they playing at?”
What a time to be alive! To live when the intellectual exercises from the ethics classes attended by the sheltered and the privileged become reality. To see the starkness, the shape, the many layers of our complacencies. How easy we had it when it was all “over there,” when caring was a moral obligation rather than an immediate fact of our own survival. What would our ancestors think, the ones that fled poverty and war and sacrificed their lives to build us worlds of flimsy false exceptionalism?
Looking back at what we had just two weeks ago, I think of how I felt once in Seattle, kayaking beneath the thick legged girding of a freeway, neck craned up at the cars and trucks thundering through the sky. I remember feeling astonished at the miracle of the specter, at the steadiness and strength of the architecture, and yet ever cognizant of the shifting of tectonic plates, poised at any moment to fracture every last ton of human ingenuity into its component pieces.
How tenuous it all seems, these cement structures that ordered our society. All the rules, the cans and cannots. The threads we, the middle class, were told to cling to. What lies! What fragile, fracturable lies.
For now, my anxiety manifests in little ways — in the number of times I check the stove, or the freezer where I keep hard won breastmilk for the baby, or the back door we never open — and yet, if you were to ask me, I wouldn’t say I feel anxious. I feel, I don’t know, stunned, if anything, that I’m alive at one of Those Moments in Human History. How did it feel in 2020 when the Great Pandemic hit? The Great Pandemic, the Great Recession, that thing that shifted and threaded itself through the trees.
And? Then? What will we say next when they ask us? That it crashed through our windows like the trees I used to watch on blustery winter nights from my childhood bedroom, the hairs on my arms electric as the branches danced, threateningly, into the dark? That we spent it shuddering under covers at home where no one could help us, or drowning in our own fluids in a hospital bed, oblivious to the doctors and nurses rushing, panicked, past beds stacked one against another in fluorescent lit halls, calling for ventilators that would never come?
Or that we spent it looking out and wondering, our children in white fairy dresses beside us, puzzling over puzzles, yellow flowers beneath our fingers, ensconced in family and verdancy. Tiny fingernails grown and cut and grown and cut all over again. Wondering if we would be forced to fold our shutters up against the light. If we would find upon the day we gathered the courage to crack the window open again, a world thunderously remade.
Or, perhaps, a world that will have carried on with carrying on, in the greens and the purples and the yellows and the pinks on the bark of a tree that will always have been growing.