Spring Fling

Spring is the horniest season, horticulturally speaking. One day it’s nothing but dirt the color of an ashtray left unattended at a casino slot machine and the next—shazam! Nature is all heavy-breathing and green tumescence. Tightly coiled buds pulse, eager for release like sweaty teens awkwardly pawing each other on the basement couch. No judgment. Spring is all about the freaky fling, horticulturally speaking.

The randiest seasonal offender is, without a doubt, the magnolia tree. Even before they bloom in earnest, they get you with this come hither move. Their buds look like fingers drawn up together as if rubbing something achingly fine between their tips. And when they bloom in full: shameless. Creamy pink, white, or yellow tea-cup sized blossoms audaciously unfurl themselves on the edge of branches, gleeful in their wanton arbor lust. I do believe they would make even Monsieur Toulous-Lautrec blush.   

I had never really experienced magnolias until I moved close to Boston. What in the world would a tree synonymous with southern belles and sprawling Mississippi estates be doing in the almost unseasonably cold Northeast? The short answer: science. Though originally acclimated to the southern states when they were brought to America in the 1780s, magnolias have spread and bred up the northeast corridor from Virginia to Maine. Then again, these saucy minxes are wired for resilience. They’ve been around for more than 90 million years (so, only slightly younger than Keith Richards). They existed before bees. Though we’re rapidly approaching an alarming moment when we might make that statement true again, it’s still mind-bending to think about. The trees we see today form a direct line to a world that included duck-billed dinosaurs and, of course, Keith Richards (just ringing every drop from that joke). That’s some serious staying power. Maybe we’ve done at least a small thing right by our weary earth.

In the early-1960s, a woman named Laura Dwight began a beautification project in her Back Bay Boston neighborhood. What began with planting a handful of magnolias around Dwight’s street grew into a large-scale effort to plant the trees throughout the Back Bay neighborhood. As a result, for a precious few weeks each spring, the magnolias drape themselves over the doorways of stately Boston brownstones. They caress the sides of buildings. They lure you underneath splayed canopies, your face upturned like a hopeful young thing waiting to feel their soft pink lips graze your cheek. At least that’s been my experience. The magnolias are the joyful riot and the sweet exhale of Mardi Gras. They seem to show up every year just when you need them most. Attention must be paid.

I recently learned about floriography: the language of flowers. A cryptology crafted from genus and species, a conversation conducted through petal shape and color and variety. “There’s rosemary,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “that’s for remembrance.” The enduring powers of folklore and myth given to us in stems and leaves and roots and fruits to help us say what we can’t easily say ourselves. This seems worth hanging onto, especially in the spring when the harsh edges of the world start to soften, when our own selves become more pliable and we feel capable of gentleness again, and we find ourselves stopping in front of a luxurious cascade of pink and white and yellow blossoms that seem to murmur. And we find ourselves listening.  

Not Reentry Ready

I’m not ready. Are you?

Apparently the pandemic is coming to a close. Only four episodes left before the 3-hour series finale with limited commercial interruptions sponsored by Progressive Insurance. Streaming live. Tweet about it with your friends.

Aside from the hours and weeks spent paralyzed by palpable dread and anxiety, that sure went by pretty fast! And here I am rotating my three pairs of soft pants (denim? Isn’t that the new Coldplay album?) and finally realizing my childhood dream of being able to sit on my hair. Is this all I have to show for myself? Split ends growing their own split ends and a slavish devotion to stretchy, breathable fabrics? It’s like, what have I been doing this entire time?  

All this talk of reopening malls and movie theatres and Chuck E. Cheeses has me in a bit of pit sweat because, honestly, I’m so behind. I haven’t started a podcast and my closets are full of the same junk they were in 2012. I haven’t used a funny or ironic or vaguely offensive Zoom background and now I fear I’ll never “accidently” click on something that turns me into a pig or chicken during my congressional hearing. I’m still buying my bread at the grocery store like it was 2018 and have barely made a dent in my toilet paper reserves. Slacker, thy name is me.

While we’re on the subject of abject failure: I didn’t write the next King Lear. I know. I KNOW! I had over a year of mostly uninterrupted time–it was practically a retreat, right? If that retreat was held in the scorched remains of a dystopian nightmare novel—to write a book or screenplay or opera (also set in the scorched remains of a dystopian nightmare novel), but have come up empty handed. I’m a flop, an embarrassment to creatives who are thinking, feeling humans and not cyborgs like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton and, I’m guessing, everyone at Apple (even a pandemic can’t slow the rollout of tech junk we don’t actually need). While there’s still some time left, maybe I can master watercolors or learn Farsi—you know, knock a few easy things off the list so I at least have something to talk about at all the cocktail parties I’ll feel obligated to attend.

That reminds me of something else that I’m not ready for: peopling. How do we say words in the right order toward other humans while also reacting, wait, responding, wait rejoindering (new word?) to the mouth words coming out of their face spaces? Can I still put you on mute? Can I put me on mute? WHERE IS THE MUTE BUTTON ON THIS THING? Once I have it sorted out on how to do the peopling talk-talk again, that brings me to my next worry: What do I say? Of course we will both want to rehash in great and painstakingly finite detail the nuances of our experiences weathering PANDEMIC 2020 (Anderson Cooper and Tina Fey sit down with the entire cast following the series finale—don’t miss it! YouTube with your friends!). What’s left? I suppose there are old standbys of polite chit-chat like climate change, reproductive rights, and baseball (Boy, those Ravenclaws are going to have a tough season without Gandalf pitching. Am I right?). What I’m saying is I feel ill-equipped to downshift out of conversations related on how to get Icelandic citizenship to ones about the avocado shortage. A Pandemic Reentry Guide to Successful Reentry would be helpful. I’d write it, but I only have a few months or weeks left and this sci-fi screenplay about King Lear and Isaac Newton isn’t going to write itself.

It feels like a lot. The pressure to expel yourself back into the world. Not just to a movie or a reopened indoor restaurant, but to vacation in Bali, to commit to the pilgrimage to Mecca, to cash in the 80’s Heavy Metal Rock’n Cruise voucher and get back out there. Go big and do not go home, this is the message I’m receiving. Because we’ve suffered so much and gone without for so long, we deserve to let loose, spend all the money on non-essential items, and crack some ribs hugging people again. I want that, too. I’m just not all the way there yet. Aside from finally getting around to fixing the chimney and falling in love with the art of scrapbooking, I simply feel poorly prepared for reentry and all that comes with it. I don’t know if I want my memory wiped like a new SIM card. I guess I didn’t do much, but I’d like to hang on to what I learned.  

So maybe we can pump the breaks, just a hare, a scooch, really. Maybe there is a reentry-lite option that exists somewhere between MTV Spring Break Booze Beach House ’97 and going to a place that isn’t the grocery store or post office. And maybe it would be enough if we could still wear soft pants while sitting just a bit closer together and laugh more easily and still listen to the birds and talk about the million different nothings or maybe not talk at all and instead just be okay with being okay together.

365

In the last 365 days I have seen more wildlife than I have in all my years on the planet—eagles, cardinals, herons, swans, deer. Some of them incongruously skulking around the city.

In the last 365 days it seems pretty clear that humans are the incongruous ones.

In the last 365 days I felt the air grow sweeter, the silences open up to allow us to hear again, the natural world become softer and more like its wild self.

In the last 365 days I fell in love with my neighborhood, my local surroundings. I met Magnolia trees, with their pink, sugary blossoms, in the yards of houses just blocks away. I discovered footbridges and wooded trails and sunrise views I never knew existed and will not forget anytime soon.

In the last 365 days I have seen our best selves on display. People showing up for one another in big and small ways. People caring about strangers living on another continent. People remembering what it means to be human.

In the last 365 days I have seen our worst selves on display. People turning away from one another—angry, huddled behind a barricade of fear. People hurting and so hurting other people. People willfully blind, stubbornly prejudice to the simple fact that there is no you without me.

In the last 365 days I have seen way too much litter that wasn’t in play before-c’mon, now, folks. You can despair the end of days and pop that Poland Springs bottle in a receptacle. This is not that hard.

In the last 365 days I have cried more often than I’ve laughed. This math is no longer acceptable.

In the last 365 days I have accessed a deep well of anger I didn’t know I had.

In the last 365 days I wanted to unsee banners and signs and effigies in praise of a morally bankrupt human tragedy. Even more, I wanted to unfeel the disappointment with you, camped out over there on the wrong side of history. And maybe, what I really wanted was empathy to be easy, connection uncomplicated, understanding a zero risk endeavor.

In the last 365 days I witnessed the next evolution of the civil rights era arrive on a wave of white hot pain, rage, anger, and grief. I was challenged to reconcile with my privilege and position and role in the long drama of injustice. I am still rising to and falling short of that challenge.

In the last 365 days I realized I know very little about so very much.

In the last 365 days I surrendered to the cult of soft pants, and I am never looking back.

In the last 365 days I deeply regretted not investing in some video technology company called Zoom.

In the last 365 days I wondered how it was ever going to be okay.

In the last 365 days I realized there are still worse problems, bigger tragedies, and more terrible, toothy beasts under the bed than this shared health crisis. And that made me realize over and over again that perspective is more than just something you learn about in art class.  

In the last 365 days I saw how we repurposed the scraps of rituals and celebrations to make new forms of joy. One day from my upstairs window I watched as a line of cars slowly snaked their way in front of my neighbor’s house. Pink and white balloons trailed from open windows. Streamers fluttered from tailgates like tails on Chinese dragons. The street filled with the sounds of car horns. I saw the young woman, the fiancé of my neighbor’s son, come out on the porch. With one hand she cradled her baby bump. With the other she wiped away tears. One by one people got out of their cars, yelling, waving signs, blowing kisses as they gently laid cellophane wrapped baskets and gifts papered in cheerful patterns on the front lawn. The world may have stopped, but love did not.

In the last 365 days I realized we haven’t forgotten what’s important.

In the last 365 days I deeply appreciated the hard work and dedication of the toilet paper manufacturing industry.

In the last 365 days I wore the mask, gladly. Finally, no one was telling me to smile more.

In the last 365 days I worried over the very real possibility of losing American democracy.

In the last 365 days I understood in ways that I never have before what it takes to preserve and fight for this democracy. The short answer: it takes all of us.

In the last 365 days I did not join the cult of the sourdough starter.

In the last 365 days I drifted a little from some friends and a lot from others. I am working my way back.

In the last 365 days I have never felt so grateful or so indebted to the people who have made it their business to make us laugh and think and laugh some more—Sarah Cooper, Trevor Noah, Randy Rainbow, Caitlin Moran, Sarah Silverman, Alexandra Petri, the entire cast of Schitt’s Creek, the GIF-makers and meme-creators and Tik-Tokkers, the people gleefully sharing their Zoom filter fails. Funny people are right up there next to all the other heroes without capes.

In the last 365 days I let go of a lot: grudges big and small, habits that wasted my time, beliefs that didn’t serve, parts of myself that I used to think were essential, but were just taking up space (sort of like an emotional appendix), expectations, demands, and haircut appointments.

In the last 365 days I discovered that clearing clutter is not just reserved for closets.

In the last 365 days I stood in awe of the resilience and unrestrained joy of children.

In the last 365 days I multiplied my respect and reverence for teachers and child raising people into the triple digits. Coffee providers of the world, four words: Free. Java. For. Life.

In the last 365 days I slowed down. I went dark. I retreated. I unraveled some days and on others I glued the pieces back together. I stopped looking for answers and started finding acceptance. I sent my roots down, searching for nourishment, seeking something to hold onto in the free fall.

365 days later we are still falling.

365 days later we are still standing.

365 days later we are still here.  

Haunted

New England is haunted. I suppose you could say the same for places like New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago. But I’m a life-long New Englander and have the most experience with this area. And besides, it’s almost required by law around here for us to be ego-centric jerks about this kind of thing.

Take a step in any direction around one of these towns and you’ll inevitably come upon the resting place, dwelling place, or meeting place of the deceased folks who lived and worked and fought there and probably invented something annoyingly vital like shoelaces or love songs. I only recently discovered a new piece of history hiding in plain sight on a busy boulevard in a town just a couple of miles from where I live. It’s a granite plinth that marks the spot of The Black Horse Tavern. On April 18, 1775 The Committee of Safety (very believable name) met in The Black Horse Tavern for a heated discussion about British oppression. I assume they were just about to get their act together and really, we mean it this time, do something about those crap policies when they woke up the next day to find the Revolutionary War was happening. Talk about your two birds, one very, very large stone situation. The granite piece sits at the edge of a sidewalk alongside a BP Gas Station. Maybe one day they will add another marker: This site once a shrine to fossil fuel, late capitalism, and man’s audacious stupidity.

I like encountering these traces of our forebearers. It’s nice to know that we’re not the first ones to screw things up or make some solid improvements that just might outlive us. I enjoy standing in front of a house clearly removed from this century. Maybe it’s a neat, boxy Georgian-style house with its regimented window placement and demure, chaste doorways (suck it Federal-style with your lofty balconies and fancy friezes). I read the little sign that tells me this house belonged to William Braddock, 1770 and make my brain squint trying to imagine Mr. Braddock at home. Maybe he’s seated at his desk, oil lamp burning low, his head tilted toward a piece of paper, a quill in hand as he ardently writes—a letter, a poem, a treatise against those damn, oppressive British policies. A life runs outside the lines of history.  

It was a friend of mine who told me about The Black Horse Tavern. She was doing some ancestry research and discovered family ties to the place. She asked if I wouldn’t mind going over to photograph the marker to give her a better perspective of the surroundings. As I stood there, I realized I had probably walked by this spot dozens of times without noticing the granite post. To see or not to see, that is the question. I apologize for nothing, Shakespeare.

Ghosts always announce themselves. But is it the wind? The cat fooling around with something? The back stairs settling? Better not to look too closely, not to notice too much. How comfortable we’ve become substituting whatever is bleating from our pocket-sized technology for wonder and curiosity and astonishment. And so New England spoils me with its old timey, spooky burial grounds pressed up against regular houses and its moss-covered statues and deserted hulls of textiles mills waving as if to say “Look at me! Look over here! Wrap your dumb mind around something completely different for a change!”  

Because once you start noticing, you can’t not notice (I apologize for nothing, English teachers). It adds up. All the weird, interesting, unsettling, funny, beautiful things—past and present littering your everyday—jumble together in the strangest and most interesting mosaic. You tuck these things away in little storage units like old library card catalogues. Without even trying, your cache of brilliance and creativity and introspection and insight and empathy and curiosity and appreciation and idea-having balloons. It’s the best kind of bloat you’ve ever experienced: all of the pleasure and none of the guilt. No, it’s definitely not the wind or the cat. It’s just you—haunted.  

Quitting Winter

Winter, I’m giving notice. I’m quitting. I’m out. I’m done-zo. No need to bring in HR for an exit interview. I barely have anything in my desk anyway—a packet of tissues, a pair of mittens, a small box of festering despair. You can burn my file. I was about to do that for warmth anyway.

This is the time of the season that breaks me. I think if you conducted an informal poll of New Englanders, the non-skiers, non-snowboarders, non-cold-weather-activity-enthusiasts, and I’m including the people who think it’s perfectly fine to jump into the ocean in the middle of January all in the name of charity (I see what you really are: equal parts decent and Vulcan), you’d find that many of us start to come apart at the seams right around now.

It’s the cold, the cold, the savaging cold. The raw, icy, forever damp, splits your skin, freezes your lungs shut like a vault, fuses to your goddamn bones, cold. There’s a lyric from a Patty Griffin song that comes to mind: “Where I come from/winter’s long, gets into your boots.” I hear that line and instinctively my toes curl to escape the swampy chill. Griffin knows what she’s talking about. She grew up in Old Town Maine, a small, rural town located about 3 hours from the Canadian border. Single digits make for a balmy October. In January and beyond, the thermometer plunges and stays well below zero. It comes as a shock to no one from around here that Griffin ended up settling in Austin, Texas.

It’s also the weather, the weather, the unforgiving weather! The wonder and novelty of the early snowfalls in December and January have faded, or as B.B. King sang, “the thrill is gone.” Those storms made us all briefly entranced. Like Dorothy stepping out of her house and past the unfortunate remains of the witch she just smoshed, into the glorious landscape of technicolor OZ, we marveled at the world transformed. We gawked at how the snow turned the gnarliest, sickly-looking house on the block into an iced gingerbread castle. We blinked at this newly made place in astonishment even though it happens every year; it’s remarkable how the first snow of the season manages to feel like the first discovery of snow itself. If only all of life held even a thimbleful of that kind of mojo.

But now: the cold air turns stubborn, refuses to give us more than a few degrees in either direction. The snow, the beautiful, sparkling stuff that looks like it belongs in a diamond engagement ring commercial, turns mean, unyielding. It gathers itself into small icebergs that squat on street corners. Sometimes they marshal themselves in a chain along the edge of a sidewalk like security guards standing at the apron of a stage at a Taylor Swift concert. The snow becomes leaden and dense; it fuses into a special type of hardpack with a polymer make-up of cement and Gorilla glue. In the city, streets shrink to half their width. Cars parked on the street become ensnared. Up and down the block, they look like insects wrapped neatly in spider webbing. Some are tilted uncomfortably on banks, as if The Hulk was in mid-lift when he got a phone call that his wife was going into labor and he dropped everything and ran. Driving is a dicey situation. These are the days that try men’s souls and side mirrors.

Why do I live here? This is also a question that circulates among us on Facebook and in text messages, accompanied by crying emojis and images of places like Bali and Costa Rica. It’s like we’ve collectively given birth and forgotten the pain and hardship of the experience, cheerfully signing up for the next one. It’s seasonal amnesia. Because prior to this period of winter slog, we are chirpy assholes about how lucky we are to live short distances in nearly any direction from the coastline and mountains and lakes and national parks and big cities along with small, historic towns. We’re eager to brag about the seasons—like, we have all four, you guys—as a selling point: #leafpeeping, #NewEnglandFall, #NewEnglandblossoms, #beachday, #ShutUpNewEngland. If there ever is another civil war, New England will get preemptively kicked out of the union for our unsufferable elitism alone.

I know there are plenty of other states with a love/murderous rage relationship with winter. Minnesota, Nebraska, Alaska, both Dakotas—you win a prize for hardest seasonal pounding. I’m not unsympathetic. I just think you know what you signed up for moving to places where the wind doesn’t just come sweeping down the plains, it wrecks them and everything in its path. You clicked “agree” after not reading the terms of service. New Englanders are both gold-medal level whiners and stubborn old goats. You’ll never get us to admit you have it harder than us.

But this year I mean it; I’m not playing around. That’s it—khattam-shud, the end. I pile on my padding to take my usual morning walk and consider my options. I could live on a houseboat in the Aegean sea. I could become one of those RV people who rove the nation, their homes on their backs like diesel-fueled turtles, visiting places to get enough of my season on before splitting. A few more far-fetched ideas come into view: join Space Force, learn to hibernate like a grizzly, grow gills and take to the ocean.

My mind is so busy sketching my escape that I hardly notice coming to the fork in the bike path. Most days I veer left, a little on autopilot, following the natural continuation of the route. For some reason, that morning my feet turn me right. I cross over a busy road to pick up this other branch of path that I’ve never been on before. There’s a sign at the edge of a wooden fence telling me I’m at the edge of a wetlands preservation and restoration area.

This might not be startling if it weren’t for the fact that the bike path bisects city territory, only slightly insulated from the urban junkscape—highways, apartment complexes, shopping centers. But here I am, suddenly transplanted to Narnia. Wooden footbridges snake over marshy inlets serviced by the nearby river. Snow covers much of the landscape, but stalks of tall, tan reedy things and bushes palming bright red berries growing all over the perimeters create a painterly scene. Stone markers announce the habitats of animals, insects, and native plants. As if to give it all the touch of an attraction at a Disney park, I encounter a stoic blue heron, a squadron of ducks and geese, more cardinals than I’ve ever seen in one place, and a burly hawk perched in a tree.

I visually gobble up all of it, but it’s the hawk that makes me stop and really ogle. She literally doesn’t have to do anything but sit there to be fearsome, awe-inspiring, totally badass. She indulges me anyway. Arching her wings she drifts a few feet away to settle on a nearby utility pole. She swivels her head in a way that feels like a challenge, as if to say: “Yeah, I can make this thing my tree if I want to. You got a problem with that?” No ma’am, I do not. I’m standing off to one side as joggers and people out walking dogs breeze past me. Are they getting any of this? I take what feels like a million photos of this majestic bird, not registering that my hands are freezing. I’m too busy marveling at this incredible landscape, that should not even exist, but has been hiding in plain sight all this time, right where I live! And there is nowhere else I’d rather be than in this sublime, wild place, here, in the middle of winter.