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Postcards from Here

Year-end notes on unexpected gifts, grief, and holy ground

Postcards from Here

Year-end notes on unexpected gifts, grief, and holy ground

Most of my life has gone digital, but I’m clinging to the tradition of sending Christmas cards.

I’m talking hold in your hand, pictures of the kids, year-end wrap-up Christmas cards.

It takes a fair bit of time and money—both in too-short supply—but I love that it forces me to check in on the people I care about. Air Force life has taken my family and many of our friends all over the world, and despite my best efforts to maintain our address list, a good portion has to be updated every year. I send an email or text to each old friend.

“You still on Cherry Lane?”

Sometimes I get much-needed updates. “No, we actually moved to New Jersey,” or “Girl, that was two addresses ago .” Often, the exchange will include a short catch-up about fast-growing kids, a new job, or an upcoming assignment. Other times it’s a somber process, as I remove the names of people we’ve lost that year.

Over the years, I transitioned from making my own cards at home to ordering postcards from an online office supply company to save on postage. A password-protected link to my personal website has replaced the paper letter that used to accompany folded, handmade cards.

Even in the face of all those changes, 2020 was decidedly different. When I sat down to start my Christmas post for this year, I found myself staring into the void, my fingers poised to type. What do our friends want to hear about 2020? The abrupt end to our school year just as the kids were settling into life in Washington? The part where I taught preschool through a Facebook group with wiggly three-year-olds who picked their noses while their parents laughed nervously? The part where Scott set up his office at home, crammed in the corner of our already small guest bedroom?

The Weight of the World

The truth is that all of our friends and family know some version of this story because it has been their story too. We skidded into pandemic life through Zoom calls to school and church, phone consults with our doctors, and an incalculable increase in the number of walks we took around our neighborhood. So did everyone else.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my good luck even in the midst of this year of crisis: We are a family with a stable income, and losing my job in the pandemic did not affect our way of life. My parents live in a basement apartment in our house, so we have familial support. All eight of the people who live in our house are relatively healthy. In reflecting on the year, I have to start there.

But these points of privilege do not mean I didn’t suffer and grieve personal losses. Two weeks before our corner of the world shut down, I received heaps of positive feedback about a work-in-progress manuscript, and I was more motivated than I’d ever been about pursuing publication. I was spending all my stolen hours moving forward with hope that my words might get wrapped up in a book cover. When my kids walked in the door from school on March 13, the bottom fell out of my motivation.

I had no more stolen hours.

Instead, I had hours spent working out how to properly feed and educate four children and how to manage the shifting emotions of the seven people living with me. This is the work of motherhood—pivoting, shifting, realigning priorities. It is holy work that has been life-affirming for me.

And it is hard.

In the early days of the pandemic, we shuffled around the house snacking on fruit and cheese (shuffling and snacking are optimal coping mechanisms). Between handfuls of grapes, we mourned the loss of the boys’ baseball seasons and the girls’ gymnastics and dance classes. We mourned with my grandma as she found out she would not be able to visit her husband in his memory care unit anymore. We mourned that it would likely not be safe to travel for some time to see our family members who live in the middle of the country.

As the summer wore on, we mourned the loss of decency as debates about the pandemic turned political. We mourned with our black friends as they asked for empathy and solidarity in their struggles. We mourned with our friends across the country who lost loved ones to the virus or who were affected by various natural disasters.

For two weeks in September, we couldn’t even seek respite in our own backyard here in Washington, driven indoors by thick wildfire smoke that turned the sun mustard yellow.

Every time we searched for ways to move through the grief, life felt more suffocating. In so many ways, 2020 became a year in which the entire world was asking for a breath.

A New Today

As I held in both hands our family’s personal grief and collective communal grief, I put one foot in front of the other. I was not consumed by the weight of what I was carrying because I focused on one day at a time.

As we moved from one day to the next, our family started making a paper chain. Each of us wrote the day’s high points on a small slip of paper and then stapled it to the chain. My mom added “Making breakfast together.” My dad added “Going for a walk.” Will added “Playing Settlers.” Ben added “Watching YouTube.” Our answers varied from day to day, some chronicling quality time as a family and others pointing to our need to escape. Our paper chain became a visual reminder of bright spots in the monotony.

Another way we worked on making a new today: creating together while we learned. Every morning throughout the spring and into the summer, we listened to complete albums one song at a time. The kids spent the length of each song drawing pictures in their art journals. The Alabama Shakes, Pearl Jam, and David Ramirez woke us up.

We bought some of those scrolls of paper that go on art easels and laid one out on the hardwood living room floor while we watched nature documentaries. As we traveled through from the arctic to the tropical rainforest with David Attenborough watching Our Planet, we made a mural filled with pictures and handwritten notes about the natural world that eventually stretched to 30 feet.

We baked cookies and dropped them at friends’ houses. People did the same for us. We decorated and sent cards to the members of our church who were confined to their nursing homes. The girls drew pictures for our neighbors, and my mom wrote notes on the back of them and then delivered them to the neighbors’ porches. One picture-note was for a neighbor we’d never met, complimenting her beautiful garden, which we passed several days a week on our way to pick up sack lunches at the elementary school. The day after we delivered it, a small vase of cut flowers showed up on our porch.

Most of our days were filled combating the sadness with beauty and socially distanced friendship and fresh air. Sometimes we coped with pizza and terrible TV.

Finding Here

We came up with a few new approaches to vacationing in 2020.

Midsummer, we paid someone to help us make sense of our jungle of a backyard, and my husband hunted for Adirondack chairs online; if we couldn’t travel to relax somewhere else, we would spend some of the money we had saved for vacation to make a little oasis in our home. Our new and improved yard gave the girls somewhere to dig in the dirt and soft grass to roll around in. Our dog, Bokonon, enjoyed the occasional dropped graham cracker as we stacked up s'mores around the firepit. The adults spent a few nights sipping beverages and dreaming up plans for post-pandemic life.

RV sales skyrocketed in 2020. I know this because I’ve read the articles from business industry leaders like Forbes and Business Insider. I also know this because after accepting the fact that vacations were going to look a little different for a while, we decided to buy one—a 30-foot class C rig. When we went to the dealership to look at one we found online, ours was sitting in the parking lot as a trade in. We couldn’t let it go. The salesman told us they couldn’t keep them in stock, and we bought it before they’d even had time to clean it.

Thanks to that RV, we could be at the beach or in the woods in a couple of hours with minimal effort, curing our cabin fever and giving us a little space. Over the late summer and fall, we took the RV out two to three weekends every month. A couple of times, those weekends stretched into longer trips.

One four-day trip over Labor Day took us to Long Beach, a tiny coastal town in southern Washington. The skies were not yet dulled with smoke. On the way, one of the boys asked, “Are we there yet?”

Our three-year-old, Case, parroted, “Are we here?”

Laughing to myself, I answered, “We are here. We are always here.”

She repeated the question every few minutes. “Are we here?”

And each time I repeated, “We are here.”

I realized in that moment that that’s what much of the year felt like. So many of us have been along for the ride and asking, repeatedly, “Are we here?” We need someone to tell us that this strange time is real, that what is happening is what it seems to be.

The RV park at Long Beach is separated from the shore by a stretch of tall grass. A small man-made path connects it with the same ocean that our friends on the other side of the globe can dip their toes in. The path is probably 500 feet long at most, but every time we made our way to the sand, Case would stop and say that her legs were tired. Our five-year-old, Bea, would give her a little pep talk, repeating back to her sister the words she herself had used in the car. “You can do it, Case! You’re almost here!”

The second day of our trip, I started out ahead of Scott and the boys as they packed a wagon with towels and snacks and sunscreen. Bea and Case ran maybe 20 feet ahead of me, and I could just make out their tiny voices over the wind whistling through the grasses.

“I can’t hear the waves,” Case said, stopping short and cupping her ears with her chubby preschool hands.

Bea put a hand on her sister’s shoulder and answered, “I can’t hear them either, but I walked here with Daddy yesterday. They are over that hill.”

While the details of 2020 were new, the struggle was not. I heard the waves over the hill because I’ve been here before. Being a military spouse and foster parent prepared me for chaos, uncertainty, and disappointment. More times than I can count, we have made the proverbial lemonade, kept on the sunny side, and focused on our positive mental attitudes. We have also learned how important it is stop and rest when our legs are hurting.

Family Circles

As summer ended, we slowed down and eased into the new schedule every September brings. We enrolled our kids in classes through Washington Virtual Academy, a K12-powered school. We were familiar with K12—we had used it once for our oldest, Will—and knew their curriculum was solid and their system was easy to navigate. As our local school system continued to debate in-person versus virtual learning, returning to K12 was one way I could bring a little bit of predictability to our lives.

Just as we were shifting back into a school-day routine, the West Coast fires were starting to make headlines. While we were not in imminent danger of losing our lives or our house, we were stuck inside by the increasingly dangerous air quality. People in Washington typically keep their windows open in the autumn—air conditioning isn’t common here—but we had to close the house up tight to keep out the smoke. The weird pressure changes gave several of us headaches and sore throats.

While the details of 2020 were new, the struggle was not.

A friend of mine from Oregon lost her home. A few of the kids’ fellow online students shared that they were doing their best to turn in assignments while evacuating. I watched with the rest of the world in horror as huge swaths of land burned, and I recalled a trip we’d taken years ago.

Scott had come home from a four-month deployment to southwest Asia only to be sent away again almost immediately for a six-month program stateside. I was at home on my own with two small children and a dog, trying to get our house ready to sell so we could move from the East Coast to the West Coast. When our little family was reunited after those ten months, I told Scott something had to change.

I was depressed and overwhelmed. He was worn out. Our marriage was suffering, and I needed to know that he was committed to putting in work to get us back on track.

One of the things we tried was a cross-country road trip. We stopped often, doing everything from white water rafting to riding roller coasters at Legoland. We drove 42 hours over the course of 17 days, and I banned everyone from devices the whole time. (Almost the whole time: I packed a portable DVD player and let the boys watch a movie on one of the longer stretches because while I was committed to quality time, I’m not a glutton for punishment.)

As we drove through Northern California, we stopped at the Muir Woods National Monument for a day among the redwoods. We packed a brown-bag lunch and set off to hike through the kid-friendly trails. We stopped now and again to let Ben talk to the chipmunks or to watch Will throw rocks into a stream. We read plaques along the way detailing the history of conservation in Northern California and the ties both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt had to Muir Woods.

While I appreciated the history represented throughout the park, nothing struck me quite as much as the plaque that described the life of one particular stand of redwoods.

The plaque was titled “Family Circles” and it read:

Hundreds of years ago a single large redwood grew here. Then disaster struck. The trunk of the large redwood was killed, perhaps by repeated and severe wildfire. From here you can see the original tree trunk still standing upright, now a dead and blackened snag.

The tree behind the sign was as described—still tall, but gray or blackened in spots, splintered as if the top had snapped off. The sign continued:

Despite such terrible damage, the tree did not die. Below the ground, its massive root system was full of vitality. Before long, hundreds of young, bright green burl sprouts began to come up around the circle formed by the root crown of the original tree. Some of those sprouts have grown into the full-sized trees that today stand in a circle around the original trunk.

When I read the plaque, my heart beat faster, and I fumbled to get my camera out of the backpack to take a picture. This was it. A perfect illustration of what it felt like to be burned yet still alive—to have roots so deep and full of vitality that no storm damage could wipe us out, to look like death even as new life was sprouting. I choked back tears thinking that one day, I’d be surrounded by all that new life, reminded of the fire but focused on the majesty of a family circle.

Another sign not far away read:

These features reflect the ability of redwoods unlike most other trees to reproduce not only from seed but also from their own burl growth. Even redwood logs lying on the forest floor are apt to sprout long after the parent tree has fallen.

Nature is full of these life-after-death metaphors—in the sprouting of new seeds, in caterpillars emerging from the darkness of the cocoon reborn as butterflies, and in these redwoods, damaged but still alive. 2020 has left many of us blackened on the edges, and the scent of smoldering wood lingers, but history teaches us that we have gone through trials like this before and survived.

Releasing Rotten Wood

In her book Love Lives Here, Maria Goff tells the story of her house burning to the ground. It had been more than a house, actually—more a lodge their family had built as a refuge for friends and strangers alike.

Maria describes her thoughts as they surveyed the damage. “The intensity of the fire even destroyed the foundations. That takes a lot of heat. But you know what? I’m kind of glad it did. If there were even one old charred beam still standing after the fire, I’d be tempted to use it to rebuild.”

Since reading the book years ago, that line has returned to me again and again. There is nothing that will wipe the painful parts of 2020 from our memory, and I wouldn’t want that even if it were possible.

“Each experience,” Goff tells us, “is a chance to expand our borders.” As we move forward, there is no reason to try to rebuild with rotten wood. One foot in front of the other, stopping when our legs hurt, let’s remind each other that we are here, that we’ve been here before, and that new life exists in the next today.

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