A year ago, as part of my goal to eventually kill most of the lawn in my backyard, I removed a section of sod and tossed it in a back corner behind a tangle of rose bushes and what becomes a stand of ginormous lilies by late summer.
It felt like a slovenly thing to do, but no one could really see it much back there, and I didn’t know what else to do with it. I figured it might break down and turn into some good dirt. Somehow. (I don’t really know how such things work.) I focused on the more pleasing parts of the yard and figured I would deal with this problem later.
I hadn’t looked at it since last fall sometime, but a few weeks ago, I noticed that my piles of sod/dirt had undergone a bit of transformation:
This was not the kind of transformation I’d hoped for. Funny how much things can grow when you’re focused on other things, isn’t it? One day it’s just a pile of grassy dirt, and then it’s a pile of fast-growing weeds.
This part of the yard looked way too much like another section looked when I moved in two years ago:
While part of me kind of loved the wild weediness of this, it made the garden beds pretty unusable and it meant that nasty, spiky thistles were propagating into other parts of the yard. I didn’t want them to take over everything. It took me two summers to finally tame it, and I did not want to relive that experience.
So at the beginning of last week, on the heels of the previous hard one, I spent a sunny afternoon transforming that weedy sod dumping ground into what will become (I hope) a vegetable garden. It felt good to pull things up and whack at clumps of dirt with a metal rake. It felt good to get dirty and sweat. It felt good to look forward.
It’s not there yet. There are still quite a few large clods of rooty dirt, and it could use some compost mixed into it (I think). But it’s going to be a nice place for me to learn how to grow vegetables. It gets a lot of southern sun, and almost every time I’ve been back in that corner of the yard lately, I end up in a conversation with my neighbor Oshra (who you can see on the other side of the fence).
I wish I already knew how to grow vegetables. I wish I were more self-sufficient, in the most fundamental of ways. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers, and I have memories of visiting the farm and raiding my great-grandmother’s vegetable garden for carrots. But I don’t know how to grow food, not really. I grew up a suburban child of the 1970’s, and most of the food I ate came from a box. I can’t tell you when I realized that orange juice could be squeezed from an orange rather than a cardboard cylinder, but it was long after I should have.
“I don’t understand why this all feels so hard,” I said to a friend near the end of week 3, about my life in this pandemic. “In any day, the truly important things in my life aren’t significantly different, and nothing in it is that hard. In some ways, it’s easier.”
I hesitated to say the words I thought next: “In some ways, I like it better.”
Without a whole lot of further reflection, I realized that what’s hard is not (for many of us, but certainly not all) how we are actually living now. What’s hard (for me, anyway) has been seeing and understanding clearly, without any buffers, why we are living the way we are.
In some piece I read somewhere last week a writer posited that the United States we once knew and believed in does not exist any more; a new one is emerging and it is going to be a different one, one in which our old norms and systems will not prevail. Anyone who has been paying any attention since at least 2016 must know this is true, but I think it’s taken this pandemic–and our current government’s response to it–to tear down any walls of denial about the truth and impact of this shifting.
And that is scary. A president promoting quackery in the face of pandemic is scary. A makeshift hospital in Central Park and mass graves in New York are scary. A political party that openly states it will suppress votes because otherwise they couldn’t win is scary. A federal government seizing medical supplies but not saying why or where they are going is scary. An economic crash and a prolonged spread of disease in such conditions is scary. It feels like a kind of breaking down that will take years, maybe decades, to recover from, and recovery is not going to be a return to what was our normal.
I am hearing, from various corners and different voices, that perhaps that is just as it should be. Normal wasn’t working for many of us–even those with some privilege, like me–and we don’t necessarily want to go back. Not to the way things had become. But what I know about transformations and the emergence of new orders is that they are hard, and prolonged, and there are always people who are crushed by them. That is scary, too, and it is fear of what might come that has been the true source of difficulty for me.
While digging in the dirt, I thought about the stock market crash of 1929, and what it meant to those who were my age when that life-changing event happened. It was followed by the Depression, and then WWII. A person who was 55 in 1929 would have been 72 by 1946, the beginning of a return to life not being lived through prolonged, world-wide crisis.
I realized then that ever since the pandemic reached our continent, I’ve been living on hold, feeling as if these days are some time outside of my real life, a time apart. But the pandemic’s effects and what they have revealed about us aren’t going to to be over in a few weeks or even months. After decades of daily, relentless erosion to the institutions and systems that, in real ways, gave me a kind of security that allowed me to live without developing life skills and dispositions that might now become essential, here we are. We are in the thick of the weeds, and I can no longer ignore them and focus on the pretty parts of the yard. I need to learn how to survive–maybe even thrive?–while living within them. Because they have grown so, so tall, and it will take a long time to eradicate them.
If a person my age at the time of that earlier crash lived “on hold” until the crises ended and things felt like some good kind of normal, they would, in important ways, miss most of the last years of their life. And I don’t want to do that. Out in the garden, I resolved to stop living through my days as if they are, somehow, lesser days than any others I’ve had. I don’t know that it will be years until we feel as if we out from under this, but I do know I don’t have enough left to me to wait for some normal to start really living again.
I resolved, through week 4, to start saying out loud, “There are things about this that I like.” I resolved to find and revel in what I’m enjoying, which is not replacing the anger and fear in my days, but is living alongside it. Things like:
I like that I am waking and sleeping at hours that are more compatible with my body.
I like working from home and being in my home more.
I like spending more time with the person and dogs I get to spend this time with.
I like having more time and energy for things like laundry and yard work and house projects.
I like spending time on frivolous creative pursuits.
I like walking more and driving less, and seeing things I can’t through a windshield.
Last week I claimed to be an optimist, and I know that might seem at odds with resigning myself to a long haul of hard times. But I don’t think that optimism means having blind faith in good outcomes, or seeing only the bright side of every situation, or denying scary truths. A friend suggested to me this week that an optimist is a person who doesn’t believe in premature closure; in other words, an optimist is someone who, in the face of a challenge, remains open to new and different possibilities emerging from it. While they may see a place as dark and hard and wrong and broken, they don’t believe that’s the end of the story about that place.
I like that definition. It could be easy for me to look at when and how I grew up and the life I’ve lived thus far and conclude that I am probably not very well-equipped for where we are and where we might be heading. In light of that, I could curl up into a ball and wait for this all to pass, hoping any fallout doesn’t land too hard on me. Or I could continue to toss all manner of things into some out-of-the-way corner of my life and resolve not to look at it. Or I could sink into a hopeless pit and spend the time I have left looking backward to some good old days (the ones of my youth that were, in many ways, pretty good for me and many others).
But I don’t want to do any of those things. It has always been true that all we really have is the day we are in. I don’t feel like giving away any that I get. I’m alive right now. There’s no pause button, no stepping away. This is how we live now, and at the risk of being terribly corny and out of character, I’m going to end this entry by quoting from a TV show about football (of all things) that characterizes how I want to enter into week 5:
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose
(Can’t get much more American than that.)
America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why.
“America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades, but broad measures of the nation’s economic health conceal the unequal distribution of gains. A small portion of the population has pocketed most of the new wealth, and the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the consequences of the unequal distribution of prosperity.”
Social Distance: We Can’t Go Back to Normal
“We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.”
Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting
“Well, the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open.”
The Nordic Theory of Everything
“Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problems the system creates. Seen from a Nordic perspective, the United States is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future….And whether the United States wants to admit this to itself or not, staying stuck in the past is putting itself at an ever-increasing disadvantage in the world.”