What Is

I’ve taken some hiata before. I wish it was “hiata.”

There has been less to say.

But: I made all the boxes, left and came home to my disassembled home, hauled the boxes, profusely thanked the people who helped me move the boxes. I moved into my mom’s living room. I moved into my friend’s upstairs. He made nice cocktails and had other guests who could talk about science. We sat outside. “I know people don’t want to talk about it,” the guest said. “I want to talk about it.”

This was when the pandemic was theoretically over.

I went to a dinner party. To some extent, we had forgotten how to talk to each other. To some extent, no one wanted to talk about covid, but then, what else was there to talk about? Covid had run our lives for a year.

I politely drank some bubbly white wine, though I dislike white wine, and I hate bubbles.

I met new people, people who had been to Spain or once had an elderly dog or knew the former mayor well. I wore a new dress and no one said, “What a lovely dress,” which I didn’t take personally, at all, but noted as part of the hollow tin soldier way we were trying to go about things. We were noting who was plumper (me) and who was older (some), but also who looked mysteriously fresh (how do they do it).

People kept asking if I had found a job, and I kept telling them that I was sure I would soon, but thinking that I never would, that this was the world telling me my time and talents were useless, both as a woman over 40 and a human being who disliked the excesses of capitalism.

Around this time it turned out the pandemic was just taking a break. I was at my summer graduate class when the announcement was released for the United States: masks on. I will forever be grateful to have been in a room with other disappointed humans at that moment. We were crushed, but crushed together.

Then I had two interviews.

I got two job offers.

Both seemed like okay jobs. But while one was teaching English to ninth graders, an endeavor I had already accomplished three times, an endeavor that directly sucked life force out of my skin suit, the other was teaching English to kids who don’t know English.

My students, when they natter on to each other, are saying things I don’t understand. The cognitive load on me, to consider how to intervene, what to say, if the kids are all right… it’s gone. Their asides are opaque.

This is a perk.

Is someone speaking ill of a sexual orientation? Is someone referencing the female boy inappropriately? I just don’t know, and I can’t know.

I took the job.

I miss the light.

I lived in a light box, and now I live in a place like other people live.

But I love my bathtub.

I feel safer as an ESL teacher. I imagine some people might show up to my new class and say, “Jesus, they are learning the word ‘pirate’? They are still practicing ‘sometimes’ and ‘always’?” How do you communicate with them? YOU MIME?!?”

And then they might slink away, like, I don’t even know, man.

Lately: I try to figure out what is “safe”: masks, people, outings.

The virus will have its way with us. People keep testing their strength against it, and losing.

Nothing is okay. Some things are lovely. Some things are nice.

On a few occasions I find myself taking Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: “Every so often, say to yourself, if this isn’t nice, what is?” My porch is nice, getting coffee down the block is nice, having my cats back together with me is lovely, starting to make little art projects again is nice. I took a little bookshelf and assembled some of my treasures and then sat down with letters to turn it into the Museum of Small. It’s nice.

Again

“My friend, not only could it happen again– it will happen again.”

Last night I was reunited with my extended family. My enormous, gregarious family, wine and beer flowing, an even layer of attempts at laughs, here, there. The joke is my uncle doesn’t like my mom. The joke is all there is in life is pleasant and loose.

It was as if I could feel my serotonin levels rising, chemicals being pumped into my brain by virtue of me being a mammal who was with my troop. We were mirroring each other’s body language unconsciously. Everyone had such gravity. We were there.

One of my aunts has dementia, and she has made me notice how particular the cadence of our voices is. How even if she has stopped speaking, the way we structure a story, our family, our troop, is in common. We are speaking the way she taught us to speak, the way her mother taught her to speak, though I didn’t know her mother.

One aunt has a snort in her laugh. My uncles all sounds so similar we have to close our eyes and squint to think which uncle it is. One cousin has a booming voice weighing in.

These people who have known me since I was born. People who reminisced about visiting my parents’ trailer in the trailer park, before I was even a thought. Oh, yeah, we stayed there once, they say. Just like I’ve had nieces and nephews and siblings come stay with me.

Staying at each others’s houses is usual. I’ve stayed at the homes of almost all of my aunts and uncles: a house in New Jersey with a guest room where a doll from Singapore looked down on me, a modern hand-built house in Oregon, in the desert. A comfy old house in a green suburb of St. Louis. Only once did an uncle stay with me. But I’ve never had a guest room.

I’m moving into a place with a guest room in four days.

Truly if you asked me who I am right now, I would wearily recite the things culture has told me are my situation. I am staying with a friend. I have a place I am moving to. It has a fireplace and a big porch. I am looking for a job. I have one class and one portfolio to complete my master’s degree. I am tired. I am a little out of it, from dislocation, a sudden move, and the way the world burned down last year.

These strange times that my life feels like a novel, because everything that happens is of note. Where I wake up. The gush of rain last night. The unusual meetings of people, unusual groupings, when I stay at a friend’s house, and other friends see me there, or pick me up there. A friend, my sister, and me. We talk about “passing the open windows,” as John Irving would say.

My cat licks my nose twice.

I turn on the shower to steam my dress into a presentable state. My idea of a presentable state is not very smooth, but it was truly a wadded up mess.

I check on my dress. This lets out too much steam. I stand a minute and think, does steam relax everything, everyone?

Moments within the six hours of continuous conversation that I thought, I wondered if I would see all these people again. And each of their faces is here. We were lucky. Very lucky. Privileged and lucky, and science believers.

People recount kindnesses past, and fret over the futures of the young. My aunts and uncles give my mom a beautiful necklace for her birthday. I am especially relieved because I have been broke, and I couldn’t afford to get my mom a nice present for this big birthday.

A cousin’s kid tells me she has many special skills, including ventriloquism, stalling (“for hours”), and negotiating contracts.

Another cousin’s kid sits and discusses if someone will be allowed to pull his loose tooth. On the table: someone changing their name to his name, any toy under $127 (a figure mysteriously specific), and a Chipotle kid’s meal gift certificate. Towels and sheets are fetched to “catch the blood,” but the kid’s grandma ensures that the various volunteer tooth-pullers stop just short of pulling on his tooth even a little bit.

There are stairs in my friend’s house, and I am staying on the third floor. Up and down, up and down, the old wood creaking. The top flight is twisty, servant stairs twisty. The bottom flight has two options which I think should make for magnificent drawing room comedy. I hate drawing room comedies on stage. In life I think they could be charming. For the moment, though, it’s me, my friend, and my cat. Not enough characters.

I am back in a city. (I almost typed THE city, but of course that is The City, darling, I miss you.). An aggressive zoom on a trafficway can get you where you want to go. An old man sits in a triangle of cement, with two plastic bags and a book he is writing in. Hunched way over.

There is a sign in an alley that says, “These trash cans are for residents of 2452 Pennsylvania.” I’ve moved from a college town, where all the dumpsters and recycling bins are communally parked, and no one is directed to, or not to, use them, to a place where parking must be bickered over and left turns are frequently not permitted. There is the city part of me that has not been exercised. She feels enlivened.

Kansas City is not The City. She has messes, people who wait for busses, dramatic and terrible crime, risks that are real. She has need of a Level 1 trauma center, where gunshot wounds are treated regularly. She has a history of gangsters and corruption that a college town can only wrinkle its nose at. She has recent immigrants struggling mightily. She does not have easy access to things she needs by just posting in a Facebook group. People will suspiciously refuse to help. They will immediately assume advantage is being taken.

The news: a new variant of the virus flourishes. I have also moved from a college town where vaccination levels were high, to a city where a mix of people includes plenty who don’t want to be vaccinated. One of the national hot spots is just south of us. In the Ozarks, society frowns on anything unChristian, and uses that to contain the devil, rather than ordinances and hearings. And they flood together in tourist towns to exchange breath indoors.

Am I returning to mask wearing? I just know I’m vaccinated, and tired. I keep being told that my vaccine works.

I work my way through the novels I have to read for my summer class. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. I would not have read this book. It is set in India, in a region of water and land giving back and forth to the people. When discussing the nature of floods and earthquakes (and I’ll add pestilence and fire, and mud slides and tsunamis), the way those forces periodically overwhelm our lives, flatten what we know. The character says, “My friend, not only could it happen again– it will happen again.”

Image: Standard with Two Long-Horned Bulls, Hattian, ca. 2300-2000 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Back

This is the first time I’ve sat with a coffee, in public, in however long. Fifteen months?

Sitting out at coffee has been part of my identity for at least twenty years.

It’s the reason I have friends, I have at times not surrendered to depression, I have felt cared for, I have learned my new neighborhood. I’ve learned where I’m welcome, and where I’m not.

Having my coffee places taken away was the biggest change in my pandemic lifestyle. Lugging my books and laptop to a coffee place, that’s been my trick to accomplish work, to set goals, to feel a part of things even when my introversion demands privacy.

I did not know how I would accomplish anything during pandemic.

I have a longtime fear of a home work space. I have to feel nomadic to work. I have to feel my body is free when my mind is pinned down.

My first coffee back, out, alone. I’ve had coffees with friends.

First coffee back out, alone, at a place opened by someone I used to know, with the bagels I have always loved. Now I order oat milk.

The way strangers, bystanders, always impacted my day. I came to appreciate it. During the harshest days of pandemic, a quick exchange with someone, anyone, buoyed me. A wave from an old lady walking on the next block. A “hey” from a guy at the tire shop, who was standing still for just a moment, catching his breath.

So this is what we’ll write about for the rest of our lives.

Last night I sat on a beautiful deck with beautiful cocktails and heard about the work of counting covid deaths. “I’m such a bummer,” said the person who had done this work, and I said, “No. I want to talk about it.”

What else is there to talk about?

It was interesting, I felt some of my classic insecurities sneaking in. Insecurities that haven’t had much to trigger them for the last 15 months. Hm, how much have you traveled overseas? Hm, are you successful? At what? Do I know how to chat with someone about anything? About New York, our mother we’ve abandoned, or about Kansas City, a place I don’t know how I feel about. Can I chat about how I’m moving, how chaotic and disturbing it is, how I still haven’t finished my stupid degree, how I’m broke, how I am unemployed?

Moving and all its physical and emotional tasks took about a week.

I’ve had one full day of no moving activities. I embroidered. I took a bath. I went to an estate sale and realized the person who had died was some alternate version of me. The same books, pictures I liked. Books on writing, Buddhism, spirituality, books I hadn’t heard of, but probably would love.

In the basement I found five rice paper lanterns. My mom used to have a few of those in our den in the 1990s. Were they okay again? I had thought of lanterns on my new porch.

I can’t believe it’s settled I can live there. Partly because nothing seems real. I can’t believe I moved out. I can’t believe I can’t go home there.

I bought the five lanterns, for a dollar apiece, on the hope that I would have the apartment I’ve already signed the lease for. That I will have some kind of life there that will include lanterns.

I know the way it works is that at some point in the big life transition, I feel numb. It doesn’t mean anything. When I moved to New York, I didn’t feel anything but panic and exhaustion for months.

Five paper lanterns from a woman who, like me, studied and painted and put up paintings and had a fireplace.

Here at coffee I met a kid in a stroller who is maybe eight months old. I got him to smile, first, and then he started bouncing with the music here, looking at me as I bounced along.

Image: Canopic jar, ca. 1349 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cushion

I found it odd we all faced the same direction, where there was something pretty, yes, but not overwhelmingly so. When I had arrived, I had to fill out my name, and get instructions on where to sit, how to do.

Then I was in church again. You never thought they could take church, singing, spiritual people in the same room, but the pandemic did. Took it all.

The first lesson was God yelling at Job in the way only your dad can yell at you (and being kind of a dick about it, frankly). Then we heard some Paul, one of those Paul passages that’s like I KNOW IT’S ALL SHIT, PEOPLE… but I can make it sound pretty, and worthy. (Paul was definitely a yeller.)

Then the gospel about Jesus being like, I gotta get out of here for some self-care, taking a nap, and his friends waking him up all, do you even care? And Jesus is like, yeah, I care. Okay? Shit happens. I care. I get tired.

The priest focused on the cushion, which I loved. There musta been a cushion, that’s an unflattering detail, and one really charming aspect of our Judeo-Christian texts is that they retain unflattering details so often. Then there was talk of bad things happening to good people, and God perhaps helping people become more compassionate as a result of the shit that happens to them.

Sitting in the middle of a pew where the tape told me to sit.

Behind me, a family I remember from the before, and their two girls.

Pandemic made Christianity more like Judaism. My tradition has a strong tradition of practice out of the home, in the community. The last year and a half, home has been where I prayed, tried to observe and celebrate things, enacted some of the rituals of my tradition.

Having communion taken away, maybe the worst. For many Christians, including me, the whole purpose of church is to get the mysterious Jesus stuff. You don’t know what’s in it, but it’s good for you.

Today I went up, had the priest set a wafer in my right hand.

Our tradition is to use a common cup for wine, and we had little plastic shot glasses today, but that sure is okay with me.

When I was back at my pew, my eyes were full of tears, and I felt every cell in my body, where it was, how it was, what it was saying.

I walked past one congregant who had a plastic tube and the periodic hissing of oxygen.

I kept thinking about who was not there. I haven’t gotten deeply connected to my Lawrence church, so I just recognize a few people. But I recognized that the people there are the people who made it. Including me.

Saying all the words, the words. Apart from the confession, which I understand less and less, the tasks of the ceremony are more and more powerful to me. We hear poetry. We say poetry together. We are quiet together. We sing.

My favorite thing about this church is that it feels like a family, like, when announcements are made, things teeter on the edge… some people may talk too long, someone may say something that is wrong, it feels like the people are the church, and the church is a marching band on a bus to a competition and some people forgot deodorant and others are nauseous and others are full of glee.

It was a bodily experience, though we waved and gave peace signs, rather than handshakes.

It’s hard not to shake the priest’s hand at the end of the service.

I had revisited one of my favorite religious thoughts, stemming from the time I told my sister that Jesus would be at church that day. “Or he definitely won’t be, if that sounds scary,” I said. “Whatever you prefer.”

I remembered how strange I find this whole thing. The stories I feel very loyal to. The idea of a person being so loving nothing could destroy that love, good idea. Traditions for milestones and rituals that support humans, good.

I sang the doxology in church for the first time in a year and a half. And we ended with “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” which I would call, “For Those In Peril on the Sea.” I think the main purpose of church is to sing. I struggle with many decisions the church makes, many, many actions of its followers, particularly anyone who is somehow Christian and a Trump supporter. But it felt so beautiful to sing with an organ, its sound waves living and moving all the wooden timbers of the roof, the pews, the way a wooden church lives.

I don’t know where we are going (or even where I am going), but this poetry is a welcome point of focus: “peril,” “bidd’st,” “forevermore,” “brethren,” “rock and tempest/fire and foe,” “its own appointed limits keep.” Words and phrases we now save for the biggest moments, for talking about what we wear, what we carry, from thousands of years of ancestors, stories and rituals that they gave us, when they can’t give us anything else.

Image: Eucharistic dove, French, ca. 1215-35, Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to their description, “This dove would have hung over an altar as an evocation of the Holy Spirit. A tear-shaped door on its back conceals a small cavity once used to hold the bread of the Eucharist. Though many textual sources mention gold and silver doves, suggesting these materials were part of the standard liturgical furnishings for churches and communities that could afford them, few examples survive. “