On Guard

It is Wednesday at 5am and my husband Jon is already talking.  In whole, long sentences. I wait for him to take a breath, then I slink out of bed, as usual, to make coffee. It appears to be a wifely, domestic chore but really, it’s my escape to six minutes of solitude. But on this morning neither the quiet, the sun rising on the water, the rooster’s crow from the farm across the creek, or the gentle putt of a crabbing boat’s departure fail to clear the swirl of smoke over my head. My mid-week slump settles over me like skunk mist. These are the stay-at-home days when I am irritable and inconsolable.

Exercise often eases my angst, so I put on my Asics and trot out for a run. I chat with neighbors. I ogle dogs. I arrive home feeling a bit lighter. Still there is an inexplicable foggy residue. Perhaps some downward dog breathing and stretching will loosen this grip of grayness. I grab my yoga mat, my mediation book and my glasses, then head to our rickety dock, confident that this next act will sun salutate me through the wet blanket of my isolated mascara-less existence. Striding down the three deck steps toward the pavers which lead to the rear gate, I am closer to recovery. My glance falls to the ground, off to the left, and there alongside a large decorative rock is a thick, slimy snake.


I reverse scream, (which is when you suck in air loudly, rather than expel it) run back into the house, drag Jon from the shower to the window and yell “LOOKIT!” I Google “Maryland snakes.”

What is it doing here?

But I already know.

It is here for brunch.

On the Sunday before, we’d returned from a three-day weekend of hiking and relaxing in western Maryland. We’d let Lillian and Delilah out of the car so I could lead them into the yard. I’d swung the gate open, and there feasting in our bird feeder, were two fat rats. My reverse scream almost sucked my husband’s hair off.

Now, there is a reptile, one which must be permitted to sunbathe, thrive and dine in our beautiful rose bushed and mulched yard—our sanctuary, our COVID safe place, our stay-at-home get-away.  I want to throw up.

My refuge is ruined. I can no longer read, lounge, sip coffee, watch my dogs frolic or do anything which requires me to close my eyes, in my own back yard. I am vigilant. I am anxious. I am jittery. I am scared to death of bird feed.

I am uncomfortable.

And then I think: is this what they are talking about? Are there people in this country, black people, who always feel this way, this wary, this edgy, just walking around?

I happen to be reading a book of Rebecca Solnit’s essays right now. She says, “Comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware, the right to have no twinges of one’s conscience, no reminders of suffering, the right to be a ‘we’ whose benefits are not limited by the needs and rights of any ‘them.’”

We’ve called an exterminator to rid ourselves of our temporary discomfort. The snake  will politely dab at his lips with his napkin and leave on his own. Good snake. But what can I do to help exterminate the discomfort I may cause others?

My long-time friend, Greg, who is black, referred me to Emmanuel Acho’s new video series, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.”  (@thEMANacho)

Acho says we white people are the ones who have to solve the problem.

Greg suggested I start by engaging in uncomfortable conversations with my fellow white folks. I began with a family member. Yep. It was uncomfortable. It gave me the willies. Was it as bad as rats and snakes in the yard? Nope. And I think it was the right thing to do.

I understand that my duty as a very white chick is to listen. But I’ve also decided to borrow the TSA motto, See Something, Say Something, (they’re not using it much right now anyway) and when I see something that is clearly hurtful to others, especially to black people, I’m going to say something—without being righteous or indignant.  I’d like to simply make a  point. Do I think my comments will change anything? No. Not singularly. But it’s possible that others might join in. Then it’s a chorus, and then it’s a song. And maybe not everyone’s singing but deep below the skin, there’s a vibe and everyone just might nod along.







Stick a Bonnet On It

It is the fourth week of our forced isolation and I’m just back from a legal field trip—I’ve been to the grocery store. My two washable, reusable bags are lumpy and overstuffed, one hanging from each shoulder as I negotiate my way through the front door and between two Rhodesian Ridgebacks who smell meat. As I hoist the bags to the kitchen counter one falls open, revealing its coveted contents.

“Hey, you got toilet paper!” my husband exclaims, dancing about like a Charmin bear.

Suddenly I am “Ma” from Little House on the Prairie, who’s come home from the mercantile with a piece of cheese.

I smile victoriously, pulling my sweat-soaked makeshift mask up from where it’s slid around my neck, and use it to dab at my forehead. There’s one more bag out in the covered wagon so Pa goes to fetch it. Alone for a precious 17 seconds, I do a quick inventory of things lying around the house that I might wrap up and give him for his birthday, which is next week. Nothing seems appropriate. What would Ma do? I glance outside. An acorn, perhaps? Maybe a stone from our abandoned pond? Half-pint would have been happy with that. She would have carried it around in her apron for the rest of her life.

We are living in simpler times, but the vestiges of our former lives remain.

Currently, my husband derives untold joy from running to the mailbox as soon as the mail delivery person drives away. I suspect Pa was much the same when the Pony Express came by. Simple pleasures, right? But in much the same way, it’s ill advised to step between my husband and the mail’s modern upgrade, an Amazon delivery, lest you be trampled. Thus a modern solution to the birthday present problem, Amazon, meets simpler times: deliveries are big doins. I cannot prevent him from intercepting his own gift.

We all can recall what harried frenzies a morning work meeting could incite. A 9:00 am meeting was the worst. There was the whole getting out of the house on time thing, followed by the commute thing, complicated by the traffic thing, planting oneself at the meeting table thing (shall “I Lean In” today, or oh f**k it, I’ll take a chair by the wall) then remembering when you’re supposed to talk and when to  shut up.  The online meeting solves so many of those dilemmas. The automobile situations are obviously eliminated (unless the only quiet place you can conduct a call is from your car) but perhaps not as obvious is the equalizing nature of The Zoom. Everyone has their own box in which they must stay. All boxes are the same size and appear in no particular order.  And everyone talks out of turn and over each other anyway, no matter who’s got rank. (Ma would have shushed everyone.) Particularly delightful is that no one can see if you are writing “good idea!” or “Nellie= ASSHAT!” in your notes. In those ways, Zoom technology is actually taking us back to simpler, less frenetic times. Those who would complicate things, however, are beginning to flood our inboxes. I cannot for the life of me discern what it is about the blouses Ann Taylor is marketing that will look better on a zoom call than anything else in my closet. (Please, not a return to the Pussy Bow!) And Facebook keeps trying to sell me hair color. As a professional video-ish-type person, I can tell you that the proper backlighting will eliminate not only the appearance of your blossoming roots but will render the tired details of your whole face equally undiscernible.  The bottom line is that no one looks good on a video call. NO ONE. Ma would just stick a bonnet on her head and get on with the butter churning. So be Ma. Use the technology at hand to simplify.

Lillian, like Ma, is simplifying

It’s nighttime and Jon and I are getting ready to turn in. As I turn out the light, Jon tells me that due to several factors I’ll not get into here, there could be a shortage of meat. I spend the next few hours staring out the window, wondering how unhealthy we will be when forced to live on pasta and baked goods. How mortifying it will be to have to phone Russia for a delivery…to stand in line with our plates while the local farmers peel rabbits. It’s been a source of pride for me that we’ve remained healthy eaters and exercisers through The Covid and in fact, Jon has lost about ten pounds. (As head of the food Gestapo I am taking partial credit for this.) We have relied heavily on protein. Good, yummy protein, not the shit of nutrition bars. This is my anxiety. I can stand strong in the face of a scratchy throat, a canceled graduation and all of the personal career and mid-life crisis threats that come with a weakened economy. Meat, apparently, is my trigger.

On “Little House,” Pa would say something disturbing about a bear or Mrs. Oleson just before Ma blew out the candle, triggering Laura to express her anxiety by asking a bunch of dumb questions. “Do bears eat people?”  or “Why does Nellie act so mean?” Mostly, she got a lot of trite answers, but finally Pa would say, gun in lap, “Do as you are told, and no harm will come.” The simpler living lesson here? When asked, “Is it okay if we go ahead with the Maypole licking contest this Saturday?” Dr. Fauci simply channels Pa. “Do as I say. Keep your distance.  Don’t lick things.” And maybe you’ll be okay.  Unfortunately, and maybe like Fauci, Pa would crawl up on the roof during a cyclone to nail on some extra boards to save his family, but in the end he wouldn’t be able to save himself. Only time and tweet will tell. Maybe one of those Michigan protestors should send the doctor some ammo.

Many of us are triggering all over the place. (Another of mine was the positive tests on lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo—which snowballed in my delicate mind to a ban on dog snuggling.) I am reminded of that meme, something about not knowing what another person is going through except we do know and it’s The Covid. So we need to take it easy. On ourselves. On others.

So onward. Stop checking your stripe in the Zoom square, throw on a bonnet and head on up to the roof with some nails. Slice yourself a nice piece of cheese and enjoy the view. You’ll see that some things are better at a distance.