“I need a band-aid!”: 2021 in Retrospect

Ariel has always been fascinated by band-aids. She believes they have magical healing powers. At two and a half, she tattooed all her favorite toy cars and stuffed animals with them—a small Daisy Duck once boasted fourteen. If you’re around and get a scrape, you’ll be able to choose from Wonder Woman, Charlie Brown, and every color of the rainbow in neon.

Wounded toys recovering

Band-aids can take many forms. This year, for me, it meant finding the right physical, mental, and nutritional therapies. At first 2021 was just “Long 2020,” as a friend called it, but then 2021 took its place as a year so hard that it rivaled 2016, the year that turds literally fell on me as I put up the Christmas tree.

Last year I wrote about having better wings. But early in 2021, I felt the wings had disappeared completely. The winter was cold and dark; in a low moment, we were iced in for seven days in a frigid house. Getting vaccinated was a relief, but it also meant coming to terms with the survival mode I’d been living in and the emotions I’d pushed aside to push through. In the longest nights, sleep came only sporadically. My days were spent teaching from a distance—large classrooms, plexiglass, a sea of masked faces. Without much student interaction, teaching was mechanized and draining. My own challenges were similar to what many teachers experienced, and it felt wrong to complain amid so much global suffering. But I simply could not find my footing.

In spring our community began opening up, with a couple of masked outdoor literary events. In June our family finally had a break from a series of bad colds, and we vacationed to a cabin in the Ozarks.

S’mores in the Ozarks

In July I reclaimed the self-care routines that had fallen away, and it’s a good thing—I needed something to tether me during several family health scares, which included a day-long ER trip to a hospital so overflowing with Covid patients that the ER had no available beds.

This fall was as busy as any pre-Covid semester. Though I enjoyed my classes and students this semester, expectations were still centered around everything being back to normal. I felt like a sports team whose talent had all graduated but whose fans still wanted a winning season. I tried to deliver but was just relieved when the buzzer went off and the semester was over.

I’m doing better. I’m coping with the insomnia. I’m working on a second collection of poetry now that my first, Wading Through Lethe, is coming out. When I’m not fixating on each word of a poem, I write screenplays, usually about people traveling and discovering themselves as they discover a new place—things I haven’t been able to do in a while.

Last year I hoped for better wings. This year it turned out I needed to completely reassemble them. I hope they’re better—more resilient, longer-lasting. Even if they are covered in band-aids.

Farewell 2020

This time last year, I was writing about 2020 as the “year of vision.” If anything, 2020 was a year of re-vision as we watched a new version of the world unfold.

The idea of 20/20 vision was an attempt to offer a focal point for the year—a challenge in even the best of times. That soon proved to be beside the point. It’s hard to find a focal point in a year without a center.

In spring, teaching remotely without childcare wasn’t so much a blur as an indecipherable smudge, though the science fiction film class I taught stands out since we were living in sci-fi times.

Summer was full-swing “quarantime,” though our staycation of daily films, dishes, and music from around the world was a great coping mechanism. We imagined a future world that looked something like the one we used to know, and we used the arts to help us create order and meaning out of chaos.

We planted a small garden, destroying the perfect suburb grass the previous owner had worked so hard to maintain. It’s wonderful to watch the tangle of tomatoes take off—our most successful crop since root rot and squash bugs took most everything else. But before, when the flowering plants were still full of possibility, Ariel and I spent mornings observing the bugs they attracted—and the birds attracted by the bugs.

We soon turned back to school work, trying to prepare for a semester whose particulars we didn’t know. In August the on-campus forward march into the semester began, a sensation akin to the burning one feels after prolonged numbness: you just have to endure it. Time was collapsing and expanding—two days could be two minutes, or conversely, as Emily Dickinson said, “Eternity in an hour.” My feet hardly touched the ground—I was held up by all the external forces pushing in.

2020 wasn’t all bad. We connected with friends and family in new ways. We enjoyed the quiet of no place to be. Though I didn’t make it through my 2020 reading list, I did read other books—hundreds and hundreds of times—to Ariel. I collected old family recipes and made my grandmother’s famous lemon bars (and found out the recipe actually came from my aunt).

One night as Ariel was stalling before bedtime, she asked me, “Can we go to the moon?” I told her it was pretty far, that I didn’t know if we’d be able to reach it. She replied with confidence and conviction: “Mom, we’re going to need wings.”

I spent a lot of time with my three-year-old, who believes anything is possible with the right tools. She hasn’t learned that some things, once broken, can’t be fixed. During a pandemic, it’s nice to live with someone with such optimism.

It seemed to me something like Icarus might have said to Daedalus as they were stuck in prison. Daedalus’s wings would have worked had Icarus not flown too close to the sun, melting the wax. The myth can be interpreted as a cautionary tale for not reaching too high or daring too much. But director Stanley Kubrick, who often created the technology he needed to achieve a certain visual effect in his films, had another perspective—maybe we should simply build better wings.

My daughter reminds me, day-in and day-out, of how imagination helps us find another way forward by giving us another way of seeing. May 2021 be a year of better wings.

Changes

Ariel and Mommy on the stoop

My husband and I recently reflected that the last seven years have been years of transition. Graduate school, job changes, cross-country moves, the death of a parent, and having a baby . . .

In 2019 it feels like we’ve landed—working at the same place, living together and in the same city in which we work. We rented for a year, hoping to finish the tiny cabin. Life, it’s no surprise, was a constant juggling act. The daycares were full, so Chuck and I alternated our teaching schedules and had students watch Ariel a few hours each week when our schedules overlapped. It was a wonderful first year as a full-time professor, and let’s just say I survived.

The cabin, among the other demands of family and work, has begun to feel like an albatross. Four years ago Chuck was driving 100 miles a day to work, and we hoped to quickly build a cabin where he could stay during the week. The two of us would rough it until we worked out the solar/water kinks. The stakes were low then, and the two of us were up for the adventure. We underestimated the task, not to mention unforeseen challenges such as Chuck falling off a ladder. With his late diagnosis of a torn bicep tendon, surgery, and months of physical therapy, we never regained our momentum, especially after I became pregnant.

In addition, these rainy years have not been kind to the low-lying delta—our land is at best muddy but more often resembles a rice paddy. It’s not exactly the pastoral scene I’d hoped for. The tiny cabin was supposed to encourage us to spend more time outside. Contending with water is bad enough without the entourage of mosquitoes that follows wherever we go. After Ariel was born we designed an addition for the cabin, but we wondered how wise it would be to sink more money into a precarious plot of land.

And let’s face it, the energy and mobility of a toddler can hardly be contained in such a space without a safe place to play outside. Had the cabin already been finished, had we been living there with our routines in place, we might have figured out how to make it work.

Ariel playing with chalk May 2019

Exploring our option felt like more of a maelstrom than a whirlwind, but to cut the saga short: we found a house we really love and bought it. We wrestled with the decision, and I’m still making peace with it. We want to finish the cabin. We want to cultivate that part us—living in the woods, being completely self-sufficient. But the decision to simply buy a house, I’ll admit, has brought relief. Ariel now spends hours outside each day playing in the back yard and making chalk drawings in the shade of our carport. We’ve also brought our three cats who’d been staying with a family member, so now we’re all back together under one roof.

Since the blog has been sporadic, the news probably feels sudden when measured against the last few posts. But the inner journey has felt long and winding, if not dizzyingly circular. I’m still measuring what building the cabin has taught me, and I’m searching for how to live by those principles.

Future cabin updates will continue to appear here, but the overall blog will now be about new adventures.

Ariel with a white cat summer 2019