new york city kid in arkansas
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Facebook loves to show me how cute Huck was on this day ten years ago, five years ago, one year ago, and never have I been more struck by the phrase “a lot can happen in a year” than now. One year ago today we saw “Hamilton” in Chicago, my mom still lived at home with my dad, Pandemic was the name of a complicated board game I avoided, face masks were something Huck collected with names like “Charcoal” and “Life of the Party,” and the Sahara Desert wasn’t in Arkansas.

Fast forward to today and, well, you know the story.

I don’t feel like I have adequate words to describe anything right now. Like most of you, 2020 is the year of so many pleasures and plans being taken away as we adjust to face masks and staying six feet away from strangers and people we love. Like many of you, the nationwide protests against racial inequality has given us deep sadness mixed with a smidge of hope. And like some of you, we think celebrating Pride is more fun in person.

But it hasn’t been all bad. A couple weeks ago we traded in our trusty old Civic for a newer Camry. After getting his learner’s permit, Huck began driving lessons with Troy in a nearby parking lot while I stay back at home chanting thousands of Hail Marys. Instead of a family vacation to France, my sister Jeni and I each drove solo to Kansas to celebrate our dad’s birthday and visit our mom through her window. More and more people can say Black Lives Matter and mean it. Here at home every morning Troy puts on his farmer costume to build his wooden compost contraption and water his corn, beans and flowers. Huck convinced me to join him in the cyber world of Stardew Valley where our avatars live next door to each other planting and watering our shared crops each day. In real life, we got a new fence, I chopped off my long hair, and we installed a backyard kiddie pool. And by installed I mean we filled it with air, water, floaties and my body. Pride Parades, book clubs, play readings, church and happy hours have officially transitioned to online, and it’s better than nothing.

I wish I could fast forward to the documentary on the year 2020 and find out how it all turns out.

This beautiful mural was painted by local artists here in Fayetteville this month.

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This picture taken at The New School’s first ever high school graduation perfectly captures these last few months. Stuck in our orange car with our grey hairs, laughing pretty hard while waving blue pool noodles around, Huck quietly in the background. I did a Zoom webinar (Zoominar?) yesterday and we participants were asked, “What is the title of this chapter of your story as a school?” The chat box became full of hilarious, universal truths like “Put the Kitty Down” and “Embrace the Suck” and  “The Importance of Muting All.” Mine was “This Too Shall Pass.”

I mean, it will. Right?

At least this school year has passed, and Troy, Huck and I are kicking off Memorial Day weekend where we always are these days … at home. We have smothered our students with love in the form of notes, emails, parades, home visits, videos and songs, begging them to feel good about this weird end-of-year. Right as our France flights, car, hotel and AirBnB reservations became officially canceled, reimbursed, credited or postponed, Huck was notified of ranking among the first in the state and sixth in the US on his National French Exam. I’ve suddenly become a voracious reader who averages a book a week. Our backyard is overflowing with wood chips, hostas, wildflowers and drunk bees. Huck made the Fayetteville High School A Capella Choir for next year, though we can’t imagine a choir singing together anytime soon. We’ve celebrated birthdays, Easter, Mother’s Day and our 28th anniversary. We’ve taken many walks. We’ve watched every show on Netflix, Hulu and Prime. I hardly recognize mouths anymore, only stylish face masks. Huck took his first AP Exam in the comfort of his bedroom followed by filming himself giving CPR to a pillow for PE. I can describe the bookcases of every PBS News Hour reporter’s home. My arms are so tan from sitting in the backyard that they don’t match the rest of my body. I’m in danger of planning next year’s entire curriculum before Memorial Day.

The Delhi writer Arundhati Roy said this on “60 Minutes” last week: “Right now it feels as though we have no present, you know? We have a past. And we have a future. And right now we’re in some sort of transit lounge. And there isn’t any connection between the past and the future.” To me, this is exactly how life feels right now. Like we’re all experiencing a huge layover in an airport of a strange city, unable to really get on with life because we’re waiting for our delayed flight. We’re pretty sure we’re not going to be stuck here forever, but where is that airplane?

Luckily, I like the travelers I’m stuck with most of the time. Happy Summer, everyone!

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Every Christmas morning Santa surprises us with a homemade calendar for the next year, each month filled with beautiful pictures from the current year, carefully matching the seasons and special occasions. We always hang it in the same spot in the kitchen using the same old nail year after year after year. But 2020 isn’t like all the other years, and it didn’t take us long to notice that this calendar, like this year, had a terrible glitch. Every single corner curled inward stubbornly, and nothing we did could fix it. The calendar became unreadable and a source of family tension and regret. “This is the worst calendar Santa ever gave us!” I shouted on particularly difficult days.

And to make matters worse for this useless thing, in mid-March I began crossing things out with a Sharpie. Trip to Texas for spring break, canceled. Arts Month, canceled. Junior High play, canceled. Kansas visit, canceled. Huck’s choir concert, canceled. Huck’s piano competition, canceled. Middle school play, canceled. 50th birthday party, canceled. Pre-K play, canceled. Huck’s spring piano recital, canceled. Trip to Washington, D.C. with the 8th graders, canceled. Graduation ceremony, canceled. France vacation, postponed.

This was the saddest calendar you ever saw.

I finally took it down and carefully tore out each page. Without the entire year burdening each month, the corners began to relax. I put April’s collage of amazing memories on the fridge with a couple magnets. The other day I replaced it with May’s. In its place on the wall we put up a totally blank pig calendar that used to live in my now empty, dark office. The slow passing of days and canceling of plans became less obvious and painful. Family tension faded away. We forgave Santa.

In place of our big bash and France trip, we planted a Japanese maple and celebrated the first ever peony bloom in our ever-growing lovely back yard. Now we have a dry erase calendar that says things like “Driveway Concert” and “Middle School Birthday Parade” and “Zoom Faculty Meeting.” We’ve figured out how to occasionally see friends by Bringing-Our-Own-Everything and sitting far apart from each other. Instead of performing plays, my students are writing them. Instead of going to work, we’re watering flowers. Instead of swimming every morning, Troy’s singing live on Facebook.

Most things got canceled, it’s true. I’m going to go enjoy the things that didn’t.

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My junior high students and I watched the 2010 outdoor London production of “Into the Woods” on Digital Theatre during our first week of “distance learning.” If you’re not familiar with this beautiful piece of theatre, it takes all the best fairy tales and puts the main characters into a story together. Act One is hilarious; Act Two is tragic. (I saw the 0riginal Broadway production as a high school junior and did not understand why everything had to go so wrong. A sign of age, I guess, is accepting the second act.) Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel and others are being pursued by a giant and life as they know it has ended. In a particularly devastating moment the Baker hopes for a better future when he sings:

“No more giants
Waging war.
Can’t we just pursue our lives
With our children and our wives?
‘Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
The reverses,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?”

These same students have been rehearsing a one-act play all semester about modern technology replacing personal interaction. As I sit at my dining room table running lines with them on Google Hangout, an optimistic gesture at best, I’m reminded of one of the better lines in the play:

“Face to face is so yesterday.”

Here’s what’s today: Our guest room has been delightfully transformed into Mr. Troy’s Songtime music studio as he entertains young and old alike with pop-up Facebook concerts during the long days. Huck, our introverted homebody, is keeping himself on a tight schedule of school work and tea-drinking downtime without any plans to ever return to the outside world. Sunny has been displaced from her usual spot (see opening sentence about guest room) but is genuinely relieved to have her pack at home 24/7. And while I miss normal life and feel for everyone who is terribly affected by this giant pandemic, hitting the pause button on regularly scheduled events has been really good for me. Still, I seem to get teary eyed pretty easily lately. We were supposed to be driving to Austin today to join friends from San Francisco, New York City and Texas at Shannon’s house for a few days. We’re meeting on Zoom tonight instead.

Just like everyone else.

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Huck just celebrated his 15th birthday the usual way: with lemon-lemon cake & Aunt Jeni. Her yearly March visits are family highlights, and we are once again left wondering if she will spend March 7th with him for the rest of his life. We had no way of knowing back in, say, 2008, that he would be a high school freshman counting down the days until her visit. (Actually, looking back at pictures maybe we did have a way of knowing.) This time around we got sunburns, ate Indian, settled Catan, killed werewolves, ignored the news, drank tea, got steps and celebrated musical theatre. You know, the usual.

In a terrifying world, it’s pretty great to have an Aunt Jeni.

March 2008

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“And it’s not the thought that she must miss them, but that she’s no longer capable of missing them, that makes me sad. What we miss – what we lose and what we mourn – isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”

This quote from Sigrid Nunez’s book THE FRIEND makes me think of my mom, who moved into a memory care facility last week following a very terrible month. My nearly 50 year old body with super-ability to feel stress released my childhood chickenpox virus into the nerves of my arm, shoulder and upper back, adding intense pain and an impressive rash to all the terrible. My sisters and I share a text thread that could probably be made into a movie of the week. There have been many unexpected drives (and even flights for Jeni) to Kansas these last four weeks, and we’re all a little touchy and tired. When we start laughing, it’s terrifying.

Last Thanksgiving my dad secretly handed me a bottle of perfume he’d found in the trash, and I recognized it as a gift I’d given to my mom a few birthdays ago. He then dropped his voice to a whisper, took me into a dark room like we were hiding from the police and told me that one of my Christmas presents was an expensive Starbucks coffee cup he also found in the trash. “She had just bought it for herself. I don’t know why she throws everything away. I thought you’d like it.” When we were all in the hospital together in January and things weren’t looking so good, my mom said to no one in particular, “Janelle never required love and affection.” It’s not true; of course I did. But it was like a drunk person saying something crazy and you know they kind of mean it. Everyone in the room slowly turned their eyes to me as I smiled awkwardly.

Toward the end of her second hospital stay when she was finally stabilized and ready to move on, my sister Lori found her a new home, relieving my dad of being her one and only caregiver. My parents’ sons-in-law did the heavy lifting and moved her bed, night stand and dresser into her new room. Now my parents are 97 miles apart, and I’ve lost the ability to sleep. The three of us made a very quick trip from Arkansas this last weekend to see her, sing to her, give her chocolate, reminisce, laugh, thank her for the many letters she’s written lately, answer her questions and urge her to eat. We met her fellow residents (all of whom make her seem very youthful) and aides, and we may have set off an alarm or two. I predict that by the end of the week she’ll be helping the staff run the place. As Troy (with ukulele in hand), Huck and I began our goodbyes right after lunch on Sunday my mom smiled and said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” causing Troy to give a brief Shakespeare lecture and my arm to ache.

I pretty regularly wear that perfume and drink from that cup.  Sweet sorrow, indeed.