A week ago, while listening to a book on FaceTime, Lord B told me that, in Alaska, “it’s not spring, but it’s spring break.” Snow still covers the ski mountain – making for great ski days without school.
Here it is spring – just days past the vernal equinox, blossoms cover cherry and plum trees, flowering daphne perfumes the air, anemone and a few cautious tulips join daffodils, whose insistent yellow declares the season begun. On my morning walk, a pair of small dinosaur hatchlings suddenly appeared at the end of a driveway – made of plastic and wearing masks, of course.
Resident birds noisily busy themselves, and V-shaped flocks of geese touch down on Eagle Harbor, then depart for northern climes. Unseen for months, rabbits appear from thickets to nibble fresh green grass. And in the human world, the garden center seems relaxed compared to this time last year, when a desperate air permeated the place – gone are many of the restrictions and plants are plentiful.
It’s a good time for a short spring break in “Her spirits rose….”
After being a click ‘n shipper for a year, last week I actually visited the post office. Bainbridge sports two post offices, one tiny and the other small. Just one person at a time may enter the tiny post office. But a line forms at the other – six customers and two workers in a small room, sort of spaced out, not really a crowd – but being there made me antsy.
And made me think about crowds, about how they used to be associated with exciting things: travel, performances, big cities, the Women’s March. How readily we accepted being close to an unknown person – and how long ago that seems.
And now I wonder what it will be like as things open up, will we ever again be comfortable with crowds? Will we come to a point where crowded moments – the cluster that forms as people wait to disembark the ferry, an airport waiting area, the aisle of a movie theatre after the show, the crush of a rattling, stuffy subway car! – will be normal again?
What do you most look forward to in our future? I love the very thought of a hug (or maybe a crowded hug) with grandchildren and their parents. Increasing acceptance of public crowds will mark a milestone in our COVID-19 journey – this one toward joy!
Because I began and continued to read Maggie O’Farrell’s new book, “Hamnet,” in bed for several nights in that liminal space between awake and sleep, I utterly failed to appreciate what a wonder it is. But I woke up to its pleasures about a third of the way in, and the next day began to devour it properly. I have loved Maggie O’Farrell’s books and now also this one – for her language and the scope of her imagining.
Despite the title, the crucial, central character in the book is Agnes, the name O’Farrell gives Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife. She’s a healer and herbalist, an outsider, a woman who at 26, married the 18-year-old Latin tutor, destined to become playwright to the centuries. The tale alternates between the book’s present time, when Hamnet, their only son, is 11 with the time of Agnes’s youth – beloved mother and wicked stepmother, meeting her husband, and the birth of their three children.
Replete with Shakespearean themes of death, grief, the supernatural, twins, mistaken identity and the natural world, O’Farrell wholly imagines the life of the family Shakespeare left behind (paying only infrequent visits) as he found his way in London. O’Farrell uses the everyday details of forests (hazelnuts are “dust-jacketed pearls”) and kitchens, herbs (“extract of valerian and tincture of chickweed) and animals, childbirth, in-laws, and houses.
And she writes specifically of tragedy, for Hamnet is felled by an unnamed pestilence, most probably bubonic plague. (O’Farrell’s rich recreation of the infection’s journey, via generations of fleas who voyage the world, is harrowing during our plague.) Hamnet’s death brings an unbearable grief to Agnes.
In the end, Agnes’s countryside and the playwright’s teeming London town collide – and also the griefs of mother and father – in the crowded pit of the Globe Theatre, during a production of “Hamlet,” four years after the death of Hamnet.
It’s a marvel of a book – worthy of a wideawake reading.
On the third of March last year, I first mentioned the coronavirus on the blog, wondering about its spread. Then gradually, with no real uh-oh moment, we learned new words and phrases: fomite, flatten the curve, shelter in place, social distancing, super spreader. It shocked when Italy shut down, but by mid-month Washington followed suit. Masks quickly became standard, as did virtual work, school, and social life. Hugging went the way of touching our faces.
But at no point early did I imagine that a year later COVID-19 would have killed upwards of 500,000 Americans. Now we can answer the questions posed as the year wore on: Will the winter of 2020 be better? Or the darkest winter we’ve ever known?
I just mark this anniversary, and for a moment think about then and now. It’s discouraging to face how badly the past administration did, but heartening to watch the new one attempt to set things right. At first vaccines seemed a matter of years in the future – and now everyone is scrambling to get one of three approved vaccines. (Speedy vaccine development made possible by scientific breakthroughs, and by the appalling amount of virus circulating in the country.)
And I try to appreciate that vaccine miracle as we negotiate the new uncertainties. We’ve grown familiar and comfortable with masks and distance, and I try not to think about the variants with their uncatchy number names. But nothing seems certain anymore. And we are a little numbed I think, very accustomed to Zoom life with family and friends, maybe a little nervous to actually be with them. With two shots aboard, my friend of longstanding visited hers, and commented, “it’s real life in an unknown time.”
I loved reading about happiness at vaccination centers. Surely the coming spring and summer will bring an easing of anxiety and return of trust – an end to this COVID year’s dearth of joy.
Last week I went to Seattle with my old friend who lives here (my longstanding friend of shared adventures). We decided on a whim the day before to travel (remember such thoughts?), to ride the ferry, be in the city and, after ongoing gray, make use of promised sunshine.
In a word, Seattle was grim. On our visit in December, holiday festivities buffered reality with a little glitter and cheer. This week all seemed grubby and crazy and more than a little sad. Hammering Man still pounds, and walking past I wondered if anybody considers putting a mask on him, thinking it would probably tangle with his hammer. But gazing up at him takes eyes away from the street scene – more shelters in doorways, blue tarps, tents, boarded up shops. No scurrying office workers clutching coffee cups.
Beyond curiosity and the desire to walk someplace else, our only target was The Crumpet Shop (hoping to recreate our holiday visit, eat some, take some home). But no, “closed due to COVID and winter business constriction.” We absorbed this sign, and kept walking.
Still bustling at Christmas, now the market was deserted, all the long row of stalls empty. People milled along the street through the market, small clusters formed in front of a few vegetable stands, the original Starbucks, noodle shops, and Le Panier. Corrugated iron shades shuttered the bakery I look for (because it has enormous vegan chocolate chip cookies that can be an indulgent meal in a pinch).
A mid-week, winter day surely explains the empty market (it must still bustle on the weekend, even on this recent snowy Valentine’s Sunday), but I’d hoped for a glimpse of the flower stands loaded with spring blossom, tall, galvanized buckets full of tulip and daffodil color.
We circled more blocks, then searched for a Mexican place my friend once mentioned as providing a memorable evening meal – a tiny taqueria on First Avenue. Beans and rice just when you need them – and guacamole and freshly made tortillas – at a metal table tucked just off the sidewalk. Suddenly we were doing the unheard of – eating at a restaurant, albeit outdoors. We talked about cities, about living in a city in a pandemic – how so many places no longer exist as we picture them in our memories.
We were glad we went. And glad to be home.
It’s mid-term in the U.K., so class took a break last week. In our break assignment, we painted random watercolor shapes, and then changed them into people by adding features and clothing using gouache – taking advantage of its opaqueness and layering ability.
The ladies below appeared out of the watercolor blobs, wearing their winter coats, and standing in a meadow of flowers. Maybe they are out of the city for the day.
When my friend who lives here on the island offered a chance to nab a vaccine appointment (momentarily available at Swedish in Seattle), I should have jumped. Instead, I passed. Oh, so cavalier at that point!
For a while I did the coulda, shoulda shaming number, but many people are in a worse position. I am not in a grocery store all day waiting for the mutant virus variant to come shopping, or living in a way that guarantees family sharing of the virus.
For days I kept sorting through the possible vaccine sites, and read last week of the first county clinic on this side of the water. Registration opened at 10 a.m. Monday, and by the time the twirly ball paused at 10:13, the registration page opened to read, “there are no appointments available.”
Then, just as I’d resigned myself to stay part of the “haven’t hads,” a local Instagram friend posted that she’d been vaccinated. Awestruck by her ability to negotiate the system, I inquired and learned of another clinic in nearby Silverdale, where the website announced, “no appointments but check back on Friday.” So I did – occasionally refreshing the page as I did other things. Suddenly, lo and behold, a little past mid-day, a schedule appeared. By the time I nervously signed up my husband and me and dashed next door to tell my neighbors to try, the appointments were gone.
I’m not sure this system should be so confusing, reliant on online access and time, threatened by inequities (like hospital donors getting early vaccine), nor so dependent on luck and chance (a fortunate Oregon few vaccinated while stuck in a snowstorm behind a jackknifed tractor-trailer). But my heart goes out to the people managing this rollout, the same public health workers who have coped with the pandemic for a year. It seems beyond hard to deal with last minute and uncertain vaccine allotments.
I hope, if your phase is open, you have had the shot or have an appointment! “Keep checking back” really does work.
One very happy thing during the endless month of January 2021 – Sweet Brother turned one last week. Only ever having known a pandemic and his whole family home together, he has one upper and two bottom teeth, a definite exploratory nature, and can walk everywhere – including a snowy totter on a birthday adventure!
It’s almost a week ago now, but what a relief-filled, celebratory inauguration morning – a coordinated, heartfelt event in the face of coronavirus restrictions and domestic terrorist threats.
For four years we have suffered anxiety and fear dosed out by a president bent on destroying the good in our multi-cultural democracy. From the day after his inauguration when we marched in pink hats, to the capitol riots by his supporters on January 6th, people have died and been terrorized on his cruel watch. He’s gone now, and on a morning spitting snow and flashes of sun, a set of real leaders changed the dynamic by word and music.
First Kamala, beautiful in her plum coat, pearls, and delighted smile, adding to her incredible history-making firsts the sight of loving husband, family (stepdaughter Ella Emhoff’s plaid coat with bedazzled shoulders!), this swearing-in brought tears and joy to many of us.
And President Biden (what a pleasure to say that) – the grownup we need – brave, caring, hard-working. Without naming names, he declared the end to lies and pledged truth. Not denying the pain ahead, but committing to pay attention, be a guardian, and bring planning and expertise to bear. You could feel echoes of “ask not” in his speech, as Biden made it seem we all have a part to play. Perhaps a constant and refreshing barrage of the truth might sway those who have been victims of destructive lies and fabrications. Biden offers and asks for common sense.
In that gathering of dark blue suits, and chosen for significance, jewel-toned wool coats of purple, plum, and ocean blues, sunshine shone from the young poet (and highlight of the morning) Amanda Gorman, in her dandelion suit and cherry red hat band. Her very presence, reciting her spoken word poem, faced our dark and showed the light – her words perfect and sparkling.
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.”
That phrase holds wonderous possibility and hard reality. Later in the day Biden got right to work on the latter, signing a slew of executive orders to begin the promised repair and replenish.
Last week hope lifted spirits. A genuine fight against the coronavirus lies ahead – tragically too late for hundreds of thousands of Americans – an economic and health crisis exacerbated by incompetence, but now we are led by a government promising to listen to science, and face – and tell us – the truth.
Lady B watched the inauguration, and her mom sent the drawing she made during it. She’s nine now, and sees one key to our future clearly. That looks like a knock-out punch to me!
A week or more ago, my painter friend said she felt she was always waiting. She’s right. We anticipate the inauguration (to be held in an armed encampment) and the other (another) shoe to drop. We are anxious for the vaccine – and for spring.
But Biden and Harris will be inaugurated tomorrow, several friends received their first jabs, and a frog sang in the garden this morning!
Lord B is OK with winter, and very happy his Alaska grandparents got shots “for the virus!”
In the Sunday morning darkness, I drove to the grocery for the weekly shop, before an 8-a.m. dawn. Bright lights and stars stretched across main street and the colored lights on the Green’s Christmas tree still shone.
Lights reflected in the wet parking lot around the store, and fresh green garlands and wreaths stretched out alongside pieces of tape that mark the pandemic-required six-foot intervals. Inside, nestled amongst the pots of poinsettia, I spotted bunches of red tulips. Instantly I was transported back many years, when in the snowy dark of an Alaska Christmas Eve, the florist delivered a totally unexpected bouquet of red tulips, sent by my father-in-law in Kansas. Red tulips are Christmas for me ever since, one of the small things calling forth thoughts of missing people and times.
So, we have memories and increasing light this week, as we pass the winter solstice, and prepare our distanced festivities in this bleak winter of a hard year.
But no matter the year – maybe because of the year and the daily reminder of the fragility of life – I wish you good cheer, warmth, and light!
That would be a rare December event in Washington, but snow comes in other forms. Last week I moved a large painting to hang years of our cards pinned to ribbons – homemade and very imperfect. They trace decades with images of houses, children, pets, hikes, travels, and Christmas joys.
And now two more rows – cards from our sons’ families fill out the wall, and those reduced me to tears, never far away these days. Not just for missing my family but for all the pain in the nation. (I’m with Bernie Sanders in his support for both direct payments to people, unemployment relief, and help to state and local governments. Now.)
Something slow motion haunts this month for me – time unstructured by longstanding traditions – years of going to Alaska in the early part of the month for real snow, and then later, the Californians coming. But not this COVID year.
The Christmas cards arrive though, maybe earlier than usual – the first one in October. I welcome hearing from faraway friends and love to see the holiday images on their cards – often including snow. One year I managed that on our card.
My drawing was made up, but this year Mrs. Hughes sent a real photo deserving “best of snow scenes,” showing the house she festooned with many white lights along the eves, glowing against bluish snow on rooftops and trees. With a lighted garland draping the snowy fence, the old red house has never looked better!
Talking to Lady B about snow a couple of weeks ago, I reminded her (I can still do this with Lady B, her father cringes when I start in on a memory of his childhood) of the time we sat in her dining nook staring out the window and calling out for snow – and then watched amazed as solitary flakes begin to fall. The conversation moved on, but she began to draw and made the most wonderful image:
My old friend reads to her grandsons on FaceTime and inspired me to try. It’s not the same – awkward to hold the phone to show the image and still read the page – not like a real cuddle by the Christmas tree with books. But needs must, and as Sweet B said: “I love to read these books – again and again.” A benefit to reading electronically is the chance for a one-on-one conversation on the side.
Like the cards, many of the best holiday books feature snow scenes, specially falling snow. We’ve already read “Santa’s Snow Cat” several times, a beautifully illustrated tale of Santa’s white cat who falls from the sleigh through swirling snow. (It ends happily.)
Sweet B suggested some ways to do it, when we talked about the difficulty of painting snow scenes, promised she would try when we hung up. Then I remembered that she already painted a snow scene with her dad when they made the beloved mural on our garage wall this summer:
And we opened a card from young friends with a terrific photo of their so cute, ruddy-cheeked toddler in a snow suit and a message inside:
One evening last week, as they began to decorate their tree, the Californians called us on FaceTime. It’s strange to watch without being part – like viewing a familiar movie – but also jolly. An excited Sweet B unpacked the boxes we sent one ornament at a time – an ordinary family assortment, many homemade – some have stories, and some are good for making up new stories.
A small slab of painted dough, tentatively identified as an owl, is a figure of awe – a creation surviving some 30 or 40 years! To see the son who probably made that owl, lifting his five-year-old to place the star, is weirdly like watching life go on without you.
In the middle of the decorating, I told Sweet B I wished we could be together to decorate our tree. She paused a moment, then said: “I know what we’ll do – you close your eyes and wish with your heart!” FaceTime might be more reliable, but we’ll make it work. I want to embrace this holiday, be grateful for the odd and the familiar.
And last week it began to sink in that a possible end to this pandemic exists – reading the New York Times’s timeline for vaccine dispersal, and hearing Dr. Fauci explain why the vaccines are both speedy and safe – I could feel spirits lift! Hope! Sacrificing togetherness, trading closeness this year for more years to come seems a worthy endeavor.
But, before the vaccine, a bleakness confronts us this winter – hospitals nearing capacity necessitates a new round of closures – the outlook on all fronts is awful. We could close our eyes and wish with our hearts, and I’d wish for those who disregard science to open their eyes – and open their hearts to the suffering of patients and medical people. What a muck we’ve made of this. What a triumph we’ve handed the virus.
To end on a positive note – back to the children and their holidays, both those in our lives and others, it seems a great year to up the support in all forms. I enjoyed getting things for Toys for Tots, in operation since 1947 and accepting donations until 18 December at drop off spots around our towns, or you can do it virtually. Books, art supplies, games, there is no specific list.
In the days before Thanksgiving, I watched a crew of volunteers erect a donated, 30-foot Christmas tree on the Winslow Green – a perfect fir, slim structural triangle, branches reaching up at balanced intervals, festooned with round red glass balls, and topped with a star. My heart soared at the sight.
At first, I thought, well that will do, that can be our Christmas tree, but on my walk the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I passed a woman stringing little white lights on three wire deer, awash in glitter, browsing under a patch of white-barked birch trees. When I said her display made me happy, she replied, “Well, I’ve been into this since the day after Halloween – there is more to come!”
She got her indoor tree from a local farm, and by the time I got home I knew we’d follow suit. Saturday being Small Business Saturday, supporting a local farm seemed appropriate, and at the farm – a rainy, but cheery place – big wreaths filled the arms of little children and big trees topped the cars of their parents.
The Los Angeles family is having a first Christmas in their own house, and last week I made a skirt for their tree and a stocking for Sweet Brother. I divided our stash of cookie cutters, stockings, tree decorations, and Christmas books in half, and packed their portion into three boxes to mail south. The boxes arrived on Saturday, and, by a chance video call, I watched the unpacking of one to fetch out a tiny string of lights for Sweet B’s doll house. Then, some hours later, a photo arrived of Sweet B in mask standing by her chosen tree on a Los Angeles tree lot.
By midday a photo pinged from Alaska – Lady B and Lord B standing (masked, and together holding a wreath), transfixed by some sight – maybe the fresh cutting and wrapping of their tree for the ride home? And later came a photo of their tree – gloriously lit and decorated. A snowy owl nestled at the top.
(The photos are treasured – thank you smart phones, thank you parents – they do help fill the void.)
That Saturday I also walked in town with my old friend – it’s fun to walk in town with her, because she knows many people and greetings are so friendly. But this day, I suppose because Governor Inslee lives on the island, a loud and obnoxious cabal of anti-mask protesters, walked off the ferry and onto Winslow Way with bullhorn and police siren, shouting that Bainbridge Islanders were brainwashed and masks were unconstitutional.
But never mind. (I did think of Lady B – one of her gratefuls at Thanksgiving dinner was for “those little pieces of cloth that keep the virus from spreading” – sensible child). It’s better to think about family trees blinking alight along the coast from Southern California to Alaska.
Do you think it might be questionable for two grownups to have a tree since neither family from afar, nor local friends can visit? But to do without that welcome presence seems sad when there is already so much sad. Trees stir happy memories for sure – and memories are not locked down this year – so I’m eager for the tree’s festive light and color!
Traditionally we split holidays with the Alaska grandparents. We do Thanksgiving, so this week would ordinarily bring feverish grocery shopping, planning and cooking for meals beyond turkey day, bed making, toy arranging, and ferry schedule coordinating. I love arrivals – that blissful moment of sighting one family or the other in the festive crowd disembarking the ferry – I’ll miss that.
And the little moments, when easy companionship happens amid holiday bustle, will be absent this year – making pies or reading books with children, a chance for an extra walk at evening with a willing son, laughing with Sweet B’s parents while wrestling the bird and trimmings, Mr. Carson arriving with a platter of colorful roasted vegetables, and last year, a poolside chat with Mrs. Hughes while kids squealed in the water. This distanced holiday provides no opportunity to plop down and annoy a visiting grownup child sitting quietly by the fire with his book. And the isolation of 2020 presents a real void when the video call ends, and the rest of the weekend looms.
But I think we can make that call and meal together celebratory – if not like the old days. As my old friend, who lives here and is a psychologist, would say I’ve been “somewhat directive” (seems a polite and professional term for bossy) – asking that the Zoom meeting be set up, suggesting maybe we could do vegan meals, sending boxes north and south to the grandchildren that contained possible table decorations (shopping in my linen drawers and realizing the chances were slim of 16 people at a big table again), candles (can you have a candlelit meal on Zoom?), and paperwhite bulbs for December.
I loved the N.Y. Times’s Style Editor, Vanessa Friedman’s, recent Open Thread Newsletter. She intends to dress up for the electronic event, and writes: “When the news around us gets worse and worse, dressing is a way to use the external to find a note of grace for the internal. That’s worth a bit of celebration.”
The “thankfuls” of the children around the table are always the best, and I’m curious to see what they make of this year. Sweet Brother won’t speak out, but his birth at top of mind. The young parents always warm my heart with their love for each other and their children. I’m hoping for a better performance than in the past, when I have mostly grown tearful and inarticulate. When the video goes dark, I’ll be glad the families are cozy together in their foursomes. And from this reimagined Thanksgiving, we get safety and the hope that next year we will be together again. Not small things.
And there is still much to be grateful for – health, those connection-saving video platforms(!), vaccines coming, state officials standing up to the president’s despicable attack on democracy, and a new administration!
And I add a heartfelt thank you dear readers. I have much gratitude for all of you – your comments and caring keep me going. I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving in this temporary incarnation!
And growing stranger and more worrisome and locked down yet again.
Recently the wordsmith used an expression she likes – “coming apart at the seams,” and maybe the country is. The absurd, dismaying sight of this defeated president refusing to face reality (supported inexplicably by his party), assaults democracy. Our nurses, doctors, and hospitals are overwhelmed by citizens’ failure to contain the coronavirus. The dreaded fall surge turned into the predicted winter disaster. How anyone can think the virus is a hoax or that masks impinge on freedom is so far beyond me as to melt my brain.
As the holidays approach, all seems disjointed – also speeded up. The natural world alone seems as it should be. Recent rain and wind tossed colored leaves into red, yellow, and orange circles on streets and sidewalks. The geese paused for a rest on Eagle Harbor, and continued south. Nasturtiums, blooming so cheerfully once the pumpkin vines shriveled, collapsed. But indoors, my aged wild amaryllis bulb (a gift in the 90s) is blooming now – a usual New Year’s event.
We had tentative plans to travel (each day the possibility grows slimmer), so in the meantime I’ve been shopping locally to gather the contents of Christmas boxes, readying them for the mail. It’s privilege of course – being able to shop.
I wish the legendary Christmas ghosts could appear to Mitch McConnell, and while pointing out his Scrooge-like refusal to help people, terrify him just a little, miraculously transforming him into a caring human! A generous federal stimulus package would be an appropriate response right now.
I keep trying to express here what haunts me, I suppose it’s the uncertainty. But many things are known to fortunate families like ours – we only need to “rethink these holidays” as Governor Inslee said in his plea to forgo in-person Thanksgiving celebrations.
My impulse is always to make plans, and realistic COVID influenced plans can be certain. We can adapt and do things to let our families know we care and guarantee some joyful, seasonal normality for the children. Assuming the Internet stays strong, we can promise festive Zoom exchanges, making them somehow different from the “regular” (and cherished) Zoom or FaceTime moments.
In a happy accident (born of trying to escape Alexa’s decision to play heavy metal music instead of a requested BBC show), we discovered “Their Finest,” a British movie from 2016. Beginning with jerky World War II footage of factories full of women making armaments, it settles into the story of Catrin, a young Welsh woman come to London with an artist love interest – and her unexpected transformation into screenwriter. From a book titled “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” it’s a movie about making a movie, about imagination, about women’s work – and about romance, of course.
In the story, Britain’s Ministry of Information Film Unit wants to make a movie to inspire the war effort, and decides on a fudged (by Catrin) version of a true story about two daring sisters, who nick their drunken father’s boat, and, heroically join the rescue effort at Dunkirk.
It’s fun to see the primitive sets and lights (movie magic being made in the olden days), watch the script being written on the fly using clunky manual typewriters and much verbal sparring (as many cups of tea are drunk from real mugs). Hired to write “slop” (the term for women’s dialogue), Catrin turns out to be more clever by far than her male writing colleagues.
I enjoy Bill Nighy’s flighty mannerisms, and his role here as a washed-up actor long past fame perfectly suits. He’s charming, old fashioned, and silly, full-of-himself and kind. He takes in hand the non-actor American hired for his good looks, and the hope he might inspire Americans to enter the war.
“Their Finest” seemed a wonderfully long movie, and we spread it out – grateful during our own scary and uncertain days (unleavened as yet by time and creativity) to have this escape each night. There is joy in Nighy’s version of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” sung around a pub piano with the whole film crew – and joy in the theatre audience’s reaction to the movie.