Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Bearing Fruit

A week ago, my daughter Jessica flew home from Boston. Due to a couple of wrong turns en route, she'd arrived at Logan only twenty minutes prior to takeoff, with two bags to check. The airport was vacant. No one on the escalator, no line to check bags. Jessica put on her face mask and approached the counter.

"I think I've missed my flight," she told the agent.

"They're still boarding," the agent said, checking her computer screen.  "You can probably make it."

Checking bags took less than a minute, and Jessa raced off to security, where she was the only traveler. Quickly through the scanners, she grabbed her bags and boots and ran barefoot through the empty airport, past closed shops and kiosks, wearing her protective mask. She posted an image to social media just before take off: row after row of empty seats.

As the plane reached cruising altitude, she pulled out a notebook and pen to write a poem. 

Since March, my daughter has written thirty poems about the pandemic, publishing one in an online art exhibit and producing a video for her directing class with another. This past weekend she gathered craft paper, glue sticks, and floss to hand-stitch bindings for her own limited-edition chapbooks. 

With one semester of college left to go, Jessica isn't sure when she will return to campus to finish her degree or, if she takes a gap year, what will happen with her scholarships and financial aid. She has grieved her losses (tempered by and born of privilege) and both embraced the uncertainty and converted it into artistic records of this historic moment.

Today, another publication for Jessica. The final project for her public history class was to be a hands-on project in a historic home in Salem, Massachusetts. Jessa's professor shifted online like everyone else, offering alternate projects. Jessica opted to write an entry for an archival project called Historians Cooking the Past in the Time of Covid 19.

Blackberries by Jessica Harris
Jessica was nine when we moved to Oregon. Our new home backed to a creek, where wild blackberries had taken over the opposite bank. That August, Jessa learned to wade in the creek so she could reach the berries on the other side. Those vines somehow jumped the creek several years ago and soon swarmed up the Doug firs, crept through the pines, across what we used to call a lawn, and all the way up to the back porch. When I gaze down at them from the back deck now, I think of Sleeping Beauty's fortress of thorns. I think of my little girls, now grown, and how different the yard and creek look now.

In her "Blackberries" essay, Jessica weaves her own memories with Northwest history and landscape, seen through the lens of this present historic moment.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Following Instructions

Photo by Andrej LiĊĦakov on Unsplash
Last week I planted tomato seeds and snap peas in egg cartons to germinate. The spinach and carrots my kids planted three weeks ago are an inch high now, living in pots on the back deck. Isn’t it interesting that I refer to these tiny bits of seed and sprout as carrots and tomatoes, as if they are already vegetables ready for harvest? 

I spooned soil into an egg carton and pressed a hole in the center of each scoop. Don’t plant too many, my mother advised me. Most will grow, she said, and you really only need a couple of well-bearing plants to keep you in tomatoes. Mom plants every year, but until now I’ve ignored her good example of self-sufficiency, relying instead on the produce stand and the grocery store and the generous neighbors whose gardens bear more than they can eat. But this year I’m listening to the experts. I’m doing my best to follow their instructions, even though I sometimes feel a bit silly. But I did it anyway. I slit open the packet of seeds. 

With the very tips of my fat fingers I coaxed out the tiny specks. A slight rub of thumb against forefinger slipped each seed into its own dome of soil. Mom says once they sprout I’ll need to transplant quickly because the roots will want to grow. Give them room, she tells me, and they will be healthy. 

My mother speaks with confidence, from experience. I have neither. Even after I’ve put my fingers into the soil, even after I’ve touched and watered, I still doubt. Each morning when I go to the windowsill, I don’t really expect to see green. But I check every day. I am both unbeliever and believer. 

My seventeen-year-old dribbles water into the egg cartons with no great care or concern. She’s in no hurry. She’s not worried. Many things in her life may be uncertain, but this thing with seeds is simple and sure. All we can do is water and wait. So that’s what we’ll do. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

In Like a Lion

This past month has turned our expectations upside down, coming in like a lamb and out like a lion. No, the lion hasn’t gone out yet, the experts tell us—hasn’t even arrived. We’re still on the upward slope of the curve and those roars you hear are still far in the distance.

Photo by Stefanos Kogkas on Unsplash
A month ago, my daughter Jessica was finishing midterms and spending every day with friends—so happy that all her besties were in the same residence hall this year. Now, four weeks later, she’s finishing out her semester alone in a dorm room, one of the few students remaining on campus. She picks up a boxed meal from the dining hall and brings it back to her room. She’s set to graduate in December but thinking about taking a semester off or a year off, so she can perhaps finish her last semester on campus rather than online.

Down in Albuquerque, Ashley is completing her final semester of college from the kitchen table of her off-campus rental. She graduates in May. The ceremony has been canceled, but Todd and I are still holding onto our flight tickets, just in case. Last week, New Mexico asked that anyone coming from out-of-state isolate for 14 days, which doesn’t make a 5-day visit at all realistic. I tell Ashley I haven’t changed our flights yet. She says, good, she doesn’t want us to cancel. I say if we can’t come in May, we will come another time. That’s good, she says. We both know that nothing is certain, despite our pretense that all might go according to plan after all.

Last Friday, when I was in the middle of texting Jessica, Ashley called. 

“Hey,” I said. “Some timing! I was just texting with your—” 

“Mom,” she said, and at her tone I immediately got scared. She was crying. I thought first of her boyfriend, Mitch, an ER paramedic. Had he gotten sick or hurt?

“Crow Canyon called,” Ashley said through her tears, and I knew Mitch was okay, but my heart sank just the same. “They said they would have loved to hire me but … they’re not running programs this summer.”

“Oh, Ashley,” I said. 

Back in high school, she had applied for a scholarship to Crow Canyon’s teen archaeology camp. She’d been accepted for the camp but not offered a scholarship. We couldn’t afford to send her. 

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash
When she applied for the graduate internship at Crow Canyon this past spring, I saw the possibility of literary symbolism: the internship would be a fitting bookend to her college years—a symbol of her resilience, of finding another way through even when the path seemed completely blocked off. The literary symbolism is still there, framing Ashley’s college years with a tangible disappointment, though not a lasting grief, I think. 

Earlier this semester, Ashley organized her CV and started applying for National Park internships. She’s had two interviews since the middle of March. Then, this past week, an email from one and a phone call from the other: Not hiring after all. Closed for they don’t know how long. 

Ashley doesn’t know what’s next. The customary advice one might give a college senior is unreasonable for this season. I told her I was so sorry and that this was a hard season to be finishing college. 

“I don’t know if anyone will be hiring,” Ashley said, no longer crying. Perhaps archaeological field work will still move forward even if sites are closed to the public. “I’ll check into that,” she said. “But not today.” We said goodbye and a while later she texted me the photo of her meal—a bowl of noodles in broth, topped with broccoli and a soft-boiled egg, halved. Comfort food for a world traveler who’s now stuck at home? Maybe. She’s taking care of herself as best she can. 

Photo (and food) by Ashley Harris
Three days pass. Ashley sends a picture of a round loaf of sourdough bread. She’s baking almost every day now, trying things she hasn’t had time for with work and classes and volunteering. Homemade black bean burgers on homemade sourdough buns. Her favorite breakfast bread from Morocco, mssemen. Dinner to share with Mitch when he comes home from a long shift at the hospital. 

The roommates have made a plan for when one of them gets sick. They know who will isolate where, with a different plan depending on who gets sick first. With two out of the four working in hospitals, they assume when rather than if. Ashley’s thinking about volunteering to support first responders by pet-sitting and getting groceries—if there’s a need within walking distance. There’s still money in her bank account, and the museum is letting her work from home for now. Life during the pandemic is oddly peaceful, even restorative. No one in the house is sick. Yet.

The lion paces, stalks outside. Ashley washes her hands, pulls up a recipe on her phone, scoops out some starter for today’s bread. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

From Thy Bounty

A text just informed me that Victoria, my Instacart shopper, has begun shopping. I don’t know Victoria, but I’m grateful for her. I wonder how crowded Costco is today and whether people are maintaining social distance. I wonder if Victoria is scared and would rather stay home. Another text comes in. Victoria just substituted Colby-jack for my Havarti, okay? I reply in a direct message to Victoria: Thank you for doing my shopping. I really appreciate it. My pleasure, she replies.

Because I know Victoria’s name, I think of her as she collects my groceries. Knowing that a real person is selecting the items on my list makes me glad I resisted the temptation to overbuy. I hope Victoria has what her family needs during this time. I imagine her entering the produce walk-in and placing in my cart the carrots and broccoli and mushrooms that a hardworking Costco employee restocked overnight. I will never know the names of those who stock the shelves or unload the trucks. Are they getting enough sleep? Working double shifts to cover for colleagues who cannot or will not work? I think about provenance of my cheese and peanut butter, tracing back link by link: the truckdrivers, away from their own families; the folks who loaded those trucks; the factory workers and farm laborers—all of them working together in a long-distance relay that in the end brings food to my family. 

This morning a Facebook friend shared a video of how to sanitize groceries that might be carrying coronavirus. The doctor wasn’t suited up in protective gear—he simply sprayed household cleaner on a paper towel until saturated, then went about wiping down. Also making the rounds on social media these days is a scene from Scrubs showing how germs spread from person to person via handshakes, tissues, and touch. This pandemic is helping us comprehend the invisible—for better and for worse.

My phone buzzes. Victoria just left my Costco box on the front porch. I text back a thank you and as I hit send, I also pray for Victoria to be kept healthy and safe. When I finish writing, I will bring my grocery items in a package at a time, wiping down and putting away. And as I do so, I will consider the ease with which I did my week’s shopping: a dozen clicks, a credit card number, and the patience to wait a week for delivery because Instacart was so backed up. I will also give thanks for the many fingerprints on this bounty we have received. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Harder for a Rich Man

Today marks day eight of staying home. I take a walk nearly every day, grade papers, bake something nice, clean out a drawer, check in with family and friends. I placed my first Insta-cart order, which is a lovely option if you have a credit card and lots of patience.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash
Ten days, two weeks, three weeks ago, I didn’t panic shop. I spent my regular grocery budget on regular-sized weekly shopping trips, though I did buy an extra tub of dishwasher detergent and extra hand soap. A couple of extra cans of refried beans. I read in the news and our community Facebook group about bare shelves in the toilet paper aisle, and I had my own private tug-of-war over whether to panic buy or stay on budget. About ten days ago, the panicky me pulled out my credit card and made an early morning trip to the grocery store. I spent my regular weekly amount, but I shopped a week ahead of the coming paycheck. The next day, our governor closed the schools and the shopping locusts swarmed.

In my community page on Facebook, there are now several posts a day reporting which store does or doesn’t have toilet paper. A few days ago, an employee from one of those stores posted a request that people not announce when TP is back in stock, please, because then people rush in and buy everything in a short time. One woman rejoiced that she’d come into the store just as they were stocking the shelves and she’d scored a case of toilet paper. 

On that same community Facebook group, a young mother posted that she’d finally gotten paid and had gone to get much-needed groceries, but the shelves were bare and she wasn’t able to get much. Another woman posted that she, too, had waited for a paycheck before shopping: she’d needed formula and wipes, but there were none to be had. Replies came almost immediately with recommendations to check with this or that charity, even offers from individuals saying they had extra and could drop off or leave items out on their porch for pick up. 

That kind of community spirit initially makes you feel like we’re really rallying and helping one another. But when you think a little harder, you realize that the folks like me with the credit card and the cupboard space were essentially snatching groceries away from those who had to wait until payday. 

My daughter Ashley is a senior at University of New Mexico, living off campus and finishing the semester online. Her boyfriend of three and a half years is an ER paramedic. One of her roommates is a nurse. Their household of four is down to their last four or five rolls of toilet paper, Ashley told me last night. They usually wouldn’t think about getting more until they were down to two rolls, but she’s probably going to walk to the store on Tuesday or Wednesday in hopes of finding TP and disinfectant. They have no stockpile because they have no extra space. 

If you’re still going to the grocery store these days, please remember that there’s someone coming in behind you who just got paid. Think of the college student walking to the store for disinfectant because her boyfriend needs the car to get to and from his twelve-hour shifts at the emergency room. 
Photo by Ozgu Ozden on Unsplash

When you see the last three bottles of painkiller on the shelf and you’d intended to buy just one—do you go ahead and grab all three because there might not be more tomorrow or at least you’ll have them share when someone you know runs out? I’m speaking to myself now even as I’m speaking to you. Leave the bottles on the shelf. Buy one if you have to, but don’t buy all that remains. Leave some for the next person and trust that they, too, will take only what they need. 

All of us can shop with dignity.