How We Live Our Lives

There are two Canada geese nesting on the pond, but only one mate. My son and I go out in the kayak in the middle of May. The frogs are mating. Guttural and loud, the sound echoes from the shore of the pond. We watch them in the shallow water laying on each other. There must be hundreds of them who have traveled to the water to mate. The male holds the female in a hug called amplexus and she releases eggs that the male fertilizes. Some frogs laze alone at the water’s surface as though relaxing before looking for another mate. The males appear smaller than the females.

Mo in the canoe

            We paddle along the shore. Mo sits in the little indent behind my seat, a perfect perch for an eight-year-old. He notes the animals he sees: fish, turtle, Canada goose, duck, sandpiper, blue heron. Five baby turtles sunning on a log in the pond, slip under the water as we approach. They dive into the murk to hide. We are hot enough to wear t-shirts and worry about burning.

            As we approach the first nest, the two mallards—a male and female pair—swim off. They’re often visiting the goose but depart abruptly when they see we’re coming. She lays out flat with her long black neck along the ground, still and lifeless, waiting for us to move on. We paddle past to the deer head; its hide looks like clean white rubber from its time under the water. It’s face, barely recognizable—blackish mouth, eaten back and teeth protruding. My husband saw it there a few weeks ago on his maiden voyage in the new kayak. It appeared as a kind of horror-movie omen at first. But now, Mo and I like to visit it. We also visit the racoon carcass near the old cabin. We are waiting for it to decompose so that we can take the skull home, like treasure.

            In the time before, he went to school every day and I worked. At night, we ate dinner together, I read him and his brother stories, they went to sleep. On the weekends, I mostly graded papers or wrote or worked on other employment, but, we often walked to the pond or went to a movie, for sushi, to visit friends. Time now has changed. Days pass like afternoons. Yesterday, my husband sat on the porch reading all day. He wasn’t in a good mood. I went for a run and he and the boys came to pick me up at our friends’ goat farm. We chatted outside with our friends while the boys went with their two girls down to the pond. I fed the newest baby goat in their herd of nearly 300 with a bottle and discussed the library plant sale with Holly—no browsing this year, call ahead to order and then pick-up.

Will came back alone from the pond and Holly gave him a cup of fresh, warm goat milk, which he gulped down. I’m very thirsty, he hinted for more. I cherish these brief visits with friends even as I fear what may come as we begin to socialize again.

Back home, we eat dinner, we bring in the chicks, we tuck in the boys, we get into bed. The day passes, and little is accomplished in the way we had once imagined tasks should be completed, days filled with plans and lists. But we no longer rush. We sleep for as long as we can, we rise at seven or eight. We sip coffee in bed for an hour while scrolling on our devices or out in the garden listening to the birds.

The children play imaginary games with animals. Sometimes dragons. The games emulate what they know about the animals—territory, family units, conflict and friendship. Sometimes there is screaming and ranting and whining and so on. The regular sort of expected behavior during a time of difficulty or abnormality. But mostly we don’t mind because time stretches out and releases itself from limits.

Time moves back towards the cyclical kind of time that John Berger writes belongs to another era, one long ago. He writes of two kinds of experiences of time passing. “Our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation.” He says that time seems to move at two different rates. The experiences of deeper meaning, he insists, accumulate and therefore stop the dissipation of time. I interpret this as meaning we remember them more. The springtime hours are much more accumulative because plants grow rapidly, offering a physical sense of passing time, a way of holding it in our mind’s eye.

It is really only our bodies and the things we make that hold up time. Everything else lives in cycles that include and absorb death. It is the physical changing of our bodies alone that creates this concept as far as I can tell. Perhaps too, the desire to thwart death with posterity.

*

All week, I have felt quiet. I’ve reached a shore of silence. Please, sometimes I think, don’t speak to me. Then there are times I look over at my husband in bed, wrapped in his elephant blanket, and wonder who he is. Speak to me, I say, poking him. He grunts and rolls away.

On and on the days go, flowing out towards summer, a time when I usually pack up and head to Minnesota with the kids. Where I sit on the deck and drink coffee with my mom or lounge beside the lake with my siblings and their kids or spouses. Everything about this slower, sunny season in Minnesota or Vermont, feels like a luxury, and affirms my life choices, which are normally a source of anxiety for me.

I wonder what this different life would be like. One in which we are farmers or makers or stay-at-home teachers of children; one in which we value our relationships with our family and the landscapes that surround us so deeply that we refuse to work excessively in offices spaces or the like, and it’s somehow possible to live this other way. I wonder if Berger’s concept of time applies here. But, though I have read and re-read his passages on time in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, I can’t quite distill them. I only sense an affinity to his words, a knowing that I have held like water through my hands. A flickering that once passed can’t be made into words. There is a different way of knowing death, a way to make it a part of life. To draw up close to it and hold it gently near to you and it is in this way of knowing we return to another way of life lived close to the land, close to each other, in quietude. Our constant longing for more, fed by living. All our loss absorbed in the soil of the body, renewed.

Shelter in Place

sap boiling

My husband and I take turns sleeping in everyday. He is careful not to stay up too late on nights before his wakeup day. He’s like that.

Our littlest climbs into bed beside me around 6am. He takes most of the pillow.

By 6:45, our oldest wakes and wants a bath or a podcast. Today I roll under the covers like a bear and sleep on while my husband tends the children.

Sometimes mid-day I wonder if I’ve already drunk my coffee. I want more of everything.

Outside I feel more alive.

in the woods

My children find certain things exciting: a paper airplane they fly into a bonfire, a documentary about the wolf pack in Yellowstone, ice cream with maple syrup they boiled in a pot on the bonfire.

We are bracing for the death of at the least 100,000 of us. Probably more.

So far, most people are in the denial stage of grief.

No one panics anymore because it’s too exhausting. We’ve acclimated.

During online AA meetings people complain about work or grocery shopping.

Showing our homes to each other feels like a shameful exposure.

I watch a video of the author Glennon Doyle saying, “This is grief.” I find her intimacy difficult. I find intimacy difficult right now or maybe always. Maybe I just find her difficult.

But it is true. This is grief.

I’ve eaten chocolate covered coconut bars every day, sometimes two a day. They were a gift from a friend. But I just ate the last one. Now I’ll eat the chocolate chips. I think my husband has a bag of oreos hidden somewhere.

The president is mentally ill. I shouldn’t write this. It’s offensive to those of us with mental illness. Daily we get a report from him on how well he is doing. What a great job. It’s embarrassing. I don’t watch.

Here is a secret: I rarely cry because I’m on an extremely high dose of antidepressant medication. I don’t really like my therapist. I have felt stuck in my life.

Today I’m listless.

Only five students show up to the online Zoom checkin for class. Seven in the second class. I don’t blame them. I did say it was optional. But I miss their faces. I miss their thoughts and jokes and complaining. I miss their stories.

We make bonfires here. Today we’re burning brush. The smoke billows. Last week we boiled sap for the first time. I love the smell of campfire. I love fire.

Burn it down, is a phrase we once used: patriarchy, capitalism, rape culture, racism, homophobia … fear, I suppose we were talking about the way fear gets manipulated or used against others in greed. Or the way greed destroys everything that is good here, including people. The way some think they can take what they want but their wanting consumes us all.

We may know this. But we can never agree on how to change it. So, now we have a dictator and a pandemic.

I’m not saying it’s someone’s fault. But it is.

Every day the children spread their toys across our home. In every corner of the house a pile of toys, pillows, peed pants freshly stepped from, dirty socks, pajamas, towels, cracker wrappers, empty cups… it’s unreal the spread.

Mostly I hide in my room or go for runs. Avoiding work.

There are two sweaters splayed on the floor beside the closet, one on top of the other–arms outstretched but also piled. They seem to be making love. The rusty brown cardigan kisses the nape of the deep rose cowl neck, my current favorite.

Last night I couldn’t sleep, worrying that the children would die, thinking of their small bodies alone in hospital beds. How I wouldn’t be allowed in to see them. Every other death pales in comparison.

Yesterday, at my desk, I saw my little boy gallop by the window. The older one followed, giving chase: a wolf hunting an elk. I don’t see the wolf take down the elk, wrestle it into the grass, pretend to devour… but I picture it and know this is the best part of the game.

I’ve always wondered what it was like to live through a pandemic. It’s not as scary as I imagined. As movies and TV imagined. Not yet.

I stare out the bedroom window at the field, the dead tree standing, the forest of pines, and gray sky. Soon spring will arrive and green will rise up like a god.

How is anyone getting anything done? Only what’s necessary.

How many will starve, lose housing, die by the hand of abusers, overdose, work themselves to death? How many? What do these numbers mean? I keep a running tally in the back of my journal.

In the middle of the day I fall asleep. It is the kind of half conscious sleep that feels delicious.

Greif exhausts us. I will not feel ashamed for sleeping.

sleeping child

I wait for night. The long dark beauty of sleep. The Netflix, Hulu wash.

I listen to birdsong. Follow the mourning dove through the field. Chase a flock of starlings that swarm the trees. We find the stream. My son falls into it. We tromp home to take a bath.

War games are their favorite.

An old cabin in the woods beside the stream leans earthbound. Inside, a floor covered in droppings, walls torn and insulation shredded. A photograph of an old man holding a little girl lays on the floor. I pick it up but do not take it.

My husband disassembles a shed in the woods near the cabin. The work makes him sweat, his muscles sore, his heartsong red like a fierce hawk, a warrier.

We are all warriors now.

I run up the hills in the woods. Up the mountain. I run out to Black Pond and Half Moon State Park. For days I run and then, suddenly, I quit. I don’t want to anymore.

It rains. Then the sun. It’s cold then not. We can’t remember what day it is. We can’t remember what we had hoped for or planned or what we had worried about before now.

I wish I had a thing of beauty to offer you. I’d lie it down at your feet and weep.

The geese collect in the sky, long bodied and fluid on their return migration. The water rises in the creek. The frogs awaken. We are close to the earth now. We are waiting. She’s calling us back. Calling us forth–resurrect yourselves, transform or I will shed you, she whispers. Her love like that of a womb where we wait quietly in the darkness, unknowing.

Bless you all.