Every year around this time, boxes appear on front lawns, paper signs poking up from them that say things like “free” and “please take.” Inside the boxes are all kinds of pears—Bartlett, Asian, Anjou—picked from neighbors’ garden trees. I have begun to hunt for and hoard signs of normalcy like a dragon plucking gold from villagers’ homes. I don’t even realize I’m doing it, until I come upon something like a box of pears on a lawn, and instantly, my heart unfurls from its fist. A remnant from a time before the strongest thing we felt was fear—fear especially of each other—before the strongest thing we knew was a deep, abiding animosity for anyone who did or said or thought something different from the vein of reason we’d decided was correct. Never have I ever felt truth to be such a fleeting, fickle thing: shape-shifting and elusive as a curl of purple smoke. Never have I ever wished to leave the house and hear people talking about anything else. Several years ago, I was on a bus, crawling through the countryside of Croatia, homes and walls still revealing signs of former wars. We witnessed structure after structure that had been blown to bits, and then, out of nowhere, there’d be a sagging but in-tact cottage, a woman on the porch flapping a tablecloth in the wind. Instantly, a wave of relief would roll through me. So it is with the box of pears. So it is with the group of senior citizens who meet at the park to attend a dance class, reggae pumping through the trees. So it is with the people I wave and say “good morning” to as I run past them, who don’t have time to tell me who’s right or wrong today. So it is with the streets that change only with the seasons, the trees who drop their fruit for everyone, and always have, and always will. On my way back, I choose two pears from one of the boxes and hold them in my open hand.
I’m reading a book right now called Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. She’s a very intelligent, very scientific writer, whose work I first discovered when she wrote a memoir about grappling with her father’s sudden death. It was the first thing I read after my own father’s sudden death that made me feel as though someone else might understand. This new book is like that other book, but different. I am not scientific. I would sooner set myself to relearning calculus than take another biology class. But I love the natural world, love especially the trees—things that became, years ago, my primary reason for staying in Portland, after suffering a terrible heartbreak that made me want to jettison myself into another life, another skin, another world. But I could not say goodbye to these trees. The place where I live now is surrounded by trees and ivy (so much ivy), and this evening, I lie out flat on my deck and read Macdonald’s book, pausing every page or so to look up at the trees. It’s been hot, and I haven’t been sleeping well, and life with all its major and minor grievances has put me in a foul mood. I have come outside, despite the heat, to escape the oppressive drone of the air conditioner. I’m reading an essay about Macdonald’s expedition to a remote location in Chile, studied for its resemblance to Mars, or what Mars once was. Billions of years. Microscopic forms of life. Extreme cold. Extreme wind. The scientist, who is the subject of Macdonald’s essay, who feels most at home in this harsh terrain. I look up at the trees, my trees (such as they can be). While I’ve been out here, the temperature has dropped, and a breeze begins to slip across my skin. It was supposed to be just as hot today as it was yesterday, wasn’t supposed to cool down until late tonight. Yet, here we are. How little we still know. How much we try to predict, to control this world, our worlds, and still, they slip through our fingers. And really, thank God. All the unknowing drives me mad, but I am also convinced it is the only thing that keeps me sane. I return to Macdonald’s story. The trees sway and settle. The wind slips over me again.
By now, I’ve learned to recognize the signs: restlessness, listlessness, a sense of impending doom. These may, I think, be the same signs as those of clinical depression, but it isn’t that. It’s month eleven of a universe upended, for which the only remedy is to put on shoes and real pants, get in the car, and drive. Today, it’s through the woods and over the river to the eastside Powell’s, the runt younger brother of the behemoth downtown, which I still can’t bring myself to visit. I am only slowly able to accept how much the city has morphed, and today, it isn’t the graffiti or the slickly built chain stores that sour my stomach: it’s the “for sale” sign on Hawthorne Theater. I’ve never been inside it, but there isn’t a night I can remember when there wasn’t a crowd, lining up to be let into a show. Now we line up to be let into Powell’s, neat little squares taped to the sidewalk. I came prepared, zipped in the warmth of a new winter coat, but I’m let right in. “Just one?” the employee-turned-door-monitor asks. I might say yes or just nod or say nothing at all, the ache of “just one” pushing into my bones. At any rate, I’m given a lime-sized dollop of foaming Purell and told they’re not currently accepting cash or checks. Okay, okay, I think, just let me look at the books. It’s something I learned after my father’s death: when the world becomes a different world, do not expect broad swaths of normalcy. Look only for small pulses of comfort. I walk up and down the aisles, reading titles, pulling them off the shelves, if only to hold them with my sterilized hands. I get to the Ts, locate War and Peace, pick it up and put it back, then pick it up again. I’ve been thinking it’s time—that if I’m ever going to take this on, it’s now—but I can’t bring myself to admit it’s come to this: that I have the space to digest 1,200 pages of Russian literature. I put it back. Give me a couple more months, Leo, I think, and instead go up a few aisles and happen upon a collection of the letters of C.S. Lewis. I take it to the counter, greet the woman behind the plastic partition, pay with my plastic card (more hand sanitizer), then slip the book into my purse. “Thank you,” the door monitor says. “Have a good day.” I walk out into the bustle of a busy street, the winter sun playing tricks behind the clouds. “Better” is not a word I use anymore, but I feel a bit lighter, the weight of a book on my shoulder, my feet, for these moments, knowing their purpose, as I walk with fogged glasses back to my car.
The thing I love about Portland is, after ten years, it can still surprise me: a shock of blue sky in the middle of rainy December. Truth be told, I’ll run in whatever, but only sun can send out the weekenders with their dogs and bikes and children, and for those 3.5 miles when I’m outside among them, the world feels like the world again. In the house next to the Lotus Preschool, a man comes walking out in full-on Santa garb, real white beard and all. I smile at him, and he smiles at me, then chuckles and says, “Merry Christmas,” as though it would be weird for him not to. “You too,” I say, and mean it, because these days, we have to mean everything that comes out of our mouths. If a woman falls down in a neighborhood forest, and there’s no one there to hear her, does her fall still make a sound? A question I ponder as I bolt down a hill, 35-degree breeze on my face. Truth be told, sun and wind still have my heart, the one remnant of Californian left in me, though I prefer the chill of them in winter than in the dry dead heat of summer. Inflatable snowmen bend on lawns, cutesy bears and penguins bursting with “happy holidays.” In one front yard, otherwise unadorned, stands an old wooden post, topped with an even older looking letterbox. “Believe in the magic of the season,” the sign above it reads, half-rusted so I have to come close to make it out. The thing I hate about New Year’s is the false promise of a fresh beginning, like the turning of a calendar is all it takes for life to right itself. But there is no hope in counting the days, thinking maybe then we’ll get what we want. There is only here, now: a greeting from a stranger, the gift of lovely weather. There is only trying to be the kind of person who can find magic in even this season, drag it outside and say it aloud, and make someone else want to believe it.
If you are a fantasy nerd, you joke with your brother about setting sail for the Undying Lands and leaving the people of Middle Earth to their fate. You say it because there is nothing left to say. But in the absence of an elf-driven ship, you head out on a run. Most of the campaign signs have been removed from people’s lawns, and the ones that remain have begun to tilt sideways in ground softened by these last days of rain. Through windows, you catch glimpses of televisions turned to experts pronouncing prophecies, as only experts can. Even so, November is still your favorite month, every tree decaying in its own special way. No matter how many years you live through the seasons, your eyes never stop hungering for the riot of colors. Leaves clog the streets, and geese call from on high, unperturbed by the clamor of that noisiest of species who thinks we have it all figured out. Down another street, you see the elderly man who once let you take shelter in his garage during a downpour, and ever since, he greets you by name. He’s running his lawnmower over mounds of leaves, three houses away from where he lives. He looks up as you run past and waves, his face wide with a grin. Love your neighbor as yourself, you think. It shouldn’t be so hard. But like everything we ought to have the strength and decency to do, it is one of the hardest things of all. Who is my neighbor? an expert asked Jesus, and He told a scathing story of a man wounded in the road, ignored by the ones who ought to have known better and cared for by a person from the enemy camp. Go and do likewise, Jesus said, always getting to the meaty middle of things. Down another street, you pass a young mother with a stroller. Good morning, you say to her, and she greets you back. Middle-aged men wearing air pods, teenage girls walking dogs, so much of our species out in the road, just trying to take it all in. You smile, say good morning to everyone you pass, pausing as each set of eyes meets your own. All of us are so utterly powerless, you think, and yet, we are powerful enough.
I keep buying houseplants. I have asked myself why. Maybe I’m doing what the pagans did when they brought evergreen branches into their homes during winter: an act of sympathetic magic meant to protect the life force of the trees until spring. But I don’t think it’s that. Maybe it’s the original reason: I need to share the space between these walls with something, anything other than myself that breathes. I still think it’s partially that. But I think now it’s closer to the days I spent sitting by my father’s bedside while he lay in a coma, and a whisper of digitized music, like the sudden opening and closing of a noise-making toy, kept punctuating the air. The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of many alarms erupting from one of the many machines he was hooked up to, but no, the nurse said, “They play that every time a baby is born.” Right, yes, I had forgotten: because good things happen in hospitals, too. A lot of babies were born in those three days, or maybe that’s just how I remember it—the claustrophobic pulse of unknowing interrupted, so often, by some signal from another sphere of existence. But those days, it was death in the room with me, and these days, the death is out there, and I am staying inside, I am told (I’m not sure any longer what I believe), to keep that death from coming to me. Oh, but it will come, has come already, the life we once had leaking out of us all as we wait, wait in the pulse of unknowing. And that is why I keep buying houseplants—some signal from another sphere of existence. Some whisper that reminds me it’s all intertwined: life and death, blood and leaf, and we can watch one part of it crumble, and still, the world goes on, merciless in interrupting our tragedy with beginning, a green still worthy of a song.
Four and a half months into the quarantine, you find yourself rearranging books in the middle of the day, hands clotted with dust and sweat beading on your forehead, the summer sun pouring in through the skylight. This, after spending the last three days trying to determine if it would be viable to keep a frog in your apartment, to keep a chinchilla, to keep anything other than yourself that breathes, before settling on a handful of house plants. Thus, the rearranging of books. You’ve read Ovid, you’ve read Marquez, you’ve read and reread Lewis. You’ve failed at planting seeds and semi-succeeded at planting things Better Homes and Gardens assured you would grow in the shaded, barren plot of dirt beneath your windows. So far, so good, but slugs have been noshing on one of them, despite the coffee grounds you’ve been dutifully sprinkling around its base, which are supposed to deter the slugs but may only be spurring them on. Your only hope is that the plant will grow at a faster rate than the rate at which it’s being consumed. There is, you are certain, some sort of metaphor in this. Oregon is still in Phase 1 of reopening, though this means next to nothing, since everything you care about is either closed or modified beyond recognition, every person is still keeping their distance, every step out the door means donning a disposable mask because you refuse to buy a reusable one, refuse to spend money on what, years later, will be a reminder of that time in 2020 when everyone got shut inside their homes, and every day, you waited for the plague doctors from the 14th century, with their long black robes and bird beak masks, to come parading down the streets. But whether or not you want to, you will remember this. You will remember, every two weeks, taking your car all the way down Terwilliger from the base of the OHSU hill to where it dead-ends at Lake Oswego, what you’ve come to refer to as “the quarantine loop,” a drive you take so that your car, itself caked in dust, remembers its purpose. You are trying to remember your purpose. You are trying to be grateful to work and to write, and you are, but God, how the edge of it all—this world, its sickness, its bloodbath of arguments—seeps into the heart of each identical day. “How are you holding up?” we ask each other, and what a question. We answer with a shrug. We rearrange our living rooms, we sit on interminable Zoom calls, we make weekend trips to the hardware store. We look out the windows, our windows, the only place there is to look, and pray that, whatever we see there, will one day once again make sense.
This morning, a Sunday, I wake late, despite the light pouring into the room, a habit I’ve fallen into since church has been cancelled. Unnatural, unwelcome, but already, a behavior I can’t pull myself out of. This morning, my heart thick with a mood. I pull myself out of bed, and the first thing I see is a text from a friend, something I’d posted on Facebook seven years ago today—a reminder from St. Augustine to sing. In spite of everything, no matter what. Sing! I smile, but I do not sing. I know which book the quote came from. It’s the same book I’m currently rereading, the book I was reading, it seems, at exactly this time, seven years ago. Just yesterday, I read in it that the most often repeated command in Scripture is to sing. From something I read some time ago, I know the other is “do not fear.” Not what we’d expect from the Bible, perhaps not even what we’d expect from God. This morning, I read Exodus, God coming down on Mount Sinai in darkness and smoke. The people afraid, telling Moses, “You talk to Him for us.” How God is all things at once: smoke and darkness, light and clear skies. How we are all of this because He is all of this—we, made in the image of God. I open my laptop, and there, on the home page, is the command again: “sing.” This time, from a Psalm, “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” Yes, God, I get it. You want me to sing. I sit down on the couch, and I cry. I had been planning today to rip out ivy and sew seeds of wildflowers, my first foray into growing something since I tended succulents as a child. After days of rain, today, sun. Perfect, but I look at the ground, my heart filled with smoke, and I think, why? How will I know if they’ll even grow? Yes, the Lord says. Plant them anyway. I sigh, which, okay, is one letter away from singing. Sing, St. Augustine, the Psalms, God Himself commands us. Sing, perhaps, so you do not fear. Maybe planting a garden, like writing, like loving, is one more act of faith. God in the seed, God in the dark. “You talk to Him for us,” the people told Moses, and he did. Who knows if he felt like it or not?
Quarantine life is not that different from ordinary life, except that it is entirely different. I have always stayed home more often than not, but it takes on another flavor when I have little choice. Every week, the grocery store (like most of us, my only outing) seems more replenished, and yet, every week, something cuts through the assurance. This week, it was blue Xs on the floor at the checkout stands, topped with bold white letters screeching, “Please stand here.” This week, it was periodic announcements over the loud speaker, telling us to wash our hands and cover our coughs and generally keep away from other humans. When I walked down the still-empty aisle where the grains and legumes should’ve been, there was a young guy standing in the middle of it, staring at the barren shelves in exasperation or disbelief or both. “Sad times in this aisle, huh?” I said to him. He turned to me, and with that same stricken expression, he said, “I just want f*cking rice.” I think that is the emblem of our collective feelings at this point. We just want f*cking rice. We just want our crazy world to go back to garden variety crazy. It is a curious thing, to be entrenched in collective trauma. I am more accustomed to being entrenched in my own trauma—to feel the world within me crack and slide away, while the world without continues on. But now, it’s as if that world has been yanked inside out. I log into Facebook, to my bank account, to YouTube, to anything, and I’m ricocheted back and forth between attempts at reassurance and a kind of wild panic I have only seen in animals trying to outrun a forest fire. Over the weekend, my neighbors had a load of dirt delivered, which has since been residing on the side of the road, covered in a sad white tarp that is no doubt designed to protect it from the rain, but which strikes me as far too similar to the white sheets laid over dead bodies. I have since been fighting the urge to leave my house and stride across the street with a homemade headstone, emblazoned with the epitaph, “Here lies the earth, in a heap on the floor. We no longer know what to make of ourselves. Perhaps, if we stay very still, this downpour will not wash us all away.”
In Poland, there’s a grove of pines known as the Crooked Forest, so named for the one hundred trees whose trunks bend at ninety degrees just above the ground, then after a few feet, curve back to the sky. They were planted in the 1930s, and no one knows why they grew, or more likely, were cultivated to grow this way. It’s hard not to find the symbolism in that: the way we bend ourselves, our world into unnatural shapes, so assured of a purpose that, years and years later, no one can recall. Or, to take it another way, the way the world bends us—the pressure of storms that push us into angles we have no choice but to adapt to. In Portland, it’s spring, the buds erupting on the trees after a long winter’s absence. It’s hard not to find the symbolism in that: how every year, we forget to expect it, and every year, God revives our world, ourselves nonetheless. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of mistakes, how much we’re bound to the consequences of what we’ve done. Are we condemned to live at crooked angles because something, someone, even our own untraceable logic pushed us this way? Or can we course correct, accept the angle but only for so long, before we straighten back up to the sky? I like the cherry blossoms because, most often, they are one of the first things to bloom, sometimes even before the winter has fully passed. I like the defiance of a Northwest spring—the riot of pink, purple, yellow, white against the backdrop of rain and mud and leafless trees. I like the singing of the birds in the still-dark morning, the quiet stirring of “things as they are” not content to become “things as they will be.”