Situation Not Normal
This post took me too long to write
I owe my readers several posts and have been back and forth on what to do about it. Because here’s the thing: I hate “personal update” posts. That’s what I’ve got Facebook (virtual) and lunch dates (IRL) for. This newsletter, I wanted to be different: not about me, but about the world around me. But the world closed in around me over the past few weeks and I’ve only started writing again.
I didn’t want to post this story. But here it is. Sometimes you have to eat the frog.
I was feeling cocky.
“Newsletter milestone achieved! I’ve got a post scheduled for tomorrow and one scheduled for next week. I’m getting ahead of myself I know but it feels good right now.” - a text I sent dated Sept 13, 2023
A week after that text, my fiance and I flew to Vancouver, WA for the first family visit since the COVID shut down. It was a long, multi-leg journey that we’d been looking forward to. The airports were lowkey and free of those frantic tantrum-prone travelers I’d seen posted to social media. It leant a sense of normalcy, and likely I let my guard down too soon, dropping my mask once on board for comfort’s sake. I was in a closed metal container with a hundred strangers and decided, yes, to breathe the same air. 🤷🏻
We arrived on Wednesday, Sept. 20th and I had another post scheduled for Saturday. That should keep the newsletter momentum going while we were on vacation, I thought. But I second-guessed myself; that evening when I tucked into bed, I sent the post back to drafts. It was all wrong. Not meaty enough. Broad but not deep. It was all hors d'oeuvres when I wanted to serve an entree. I was confident that I could rewrite it in an afternoon, smash the publish button and dive into my vacation like nothing happened.
I did my normal travel things: wrote in my red hardcover Moleskine that I keep as a travel journal, and read collected folklore of the indigenous peoples that have inhabited our destination. Stories from the Chinook and Salish among others. I met wolf gods, animal people, a grandmother and her raven child, outcasts of society.
The first few days were delightfully sunny, we spent Thursday and Friday with the parents, driving along some back roads that reminded us simultaneously of our Vermont landscape with its pastureland, roadside farm stands and fruit-laden apple trees and also of my family’s Florida neighborhoods, with its planned developments and tall tree trunks overgrown with moss and ivy.
I had forgotten about the agricultural aspect of the Pacific Northwest. But along those roads I remembered that Japanese American families were forced to relinquish their farms. I wonder how many Japanese American farms now operate.
My future brother-in-law took several days off to spend time with us while also on dad duty, shuttling his kids to daycare then coming by for a late breakfast and more touring. First order of business-–for those who know my fiance—a trip to a local comic book shop, where a wall of longboxes filled with 50-cent issues were there for the curious. I’ll need a couple hours here, he warned me. I walked around downtown. I found a costume rental place, a used bookstore, a consignment shop and relieved myself in the public library’s bathroom.
On Friday, we spent the day in Portland, Oregon. We started the day at the Portland Japanese Gardens, which is a fairly easy thirty-minute walk through a sloping and well-manicured hilly landscape. Bamboo was used in various decorative and functional ways, from fence and trellises to fountains to bonsai and low ground cover. I found a Laotian restaurant for lunch–which was very good. I craved my comfort foods so much I ordered two entrees! We spent the afternoon at Powell’s where I found a used copy of a book I’d been looking for back home.
Back in Vancouver, we went to a local wildlife preserve and saw many ducks, muskrats, raptors, herons, and a young wolf who, it seemed, was still learning to hunt. I was bodily tired when we returned to home base. Well-worn and in full relaxation mode by dinnertime, which was Laotian leftovers. I took a swipe at a rewrite of the post, but the pieces didn’t feel like they were part of the same puzzle. I decided that I could wait to get to it when I returned home. Maybe I’m not a good field correspondent and needed my familiar surroundings in order to tap into my zone of genius. 🤷🏻
All this time, I’d been thinking about my Dad. He passed away while sitting in meditation at the temple where he was a Buddhist monk. It was a peaceful death. His immersion into monastic life meant a forced estrangement from us. He’d long left my sphere as a father figure but of course had encouraged my spiritual life to grow.
As part of the funerary activities, my mother had arranged for one of the English-speaking monks to spend time with us kids to answer any questions we might have. Language being such a huge barrier to true understanding.
My nephew’s mother, a white American, asked about the significance of the color of the monk robes. I’d honestly never given it much thought. I’d read somewhere they were dyed with saffron, and so they’d always been referred to as “saffron-colored robes”, as if there was a monolithic one color. But it’s not like wearing a jersey on game day. The robes before us were many colors. A deep mauve, a bright orange gold, dull ochers that drifted into brown. Barely a saffron thread among them.
The monk reminded us that in a few short months the leaves would turn from green into their various deciduous colors. Yellow of aspen, red and mottled oranges of maples, and all the rest. This annual cycle of life and death of the leaves is a reminder of the impermanence of our own lives. It’s mutability the only constant. The robes reflect these leaves once their green vigor has been stripped and all that’s left is what we have always been underneath. As with the leaf, we need to let go of the branch that holds us in order to be free.
Every autumn since my father died, when the larch and tamarack gilt the hills, it feels like a solemn goodbye. Every time, the sumac and maple flare for the briefest moment and I remember that nature is a poet that composes without words.
It’s easy for non-Buddhists to relegate the robes to the saffron color, as the spice is likely also considered “exotic” in the standard Western pantry. “Saffron” takes on a lot of meaning. I wanted to write a whole post about this kind of exotification. I wanted to challenge observers with other colorful, more relatable descriptors: red as a sumac hedge drenched in cold rain, dusty butternut cloth, robes flowing lush like a perfectly-poached duck yolk. But I’m also tired.
Peak foliage season streaked through our zone a week ago, and I am left without the leaves as inspiration. Save it for next year, I tell myself. But heck, I’ll eat this frog too.
Saturday morning-–four days into our vacation—I awoke groggily, still worn, with a minor sore throat and congestion. I took ibuprofen and insisted on following through with our plans, never wanting to miss a local farmer’s market if I could help it. Vancouver’s was lovely with a solid mix of produce, crafts, prepared foods, and locally made products. After that, and a post-market cappuccino, we stopped off at a roadside orchard and cidery before heading home. I was depleted. My throat felt rougher, I was coughing and sneezing and my body reverbed with chills. My skin tensed with goosebumps and I felt it wheeze like an organ, overtaxed. I took a home test and was positive for COVID. I felt a fever coming on and called my doctor’s office. The physician on call phoned in to a local Walgreens for a Paxlovid prescription and I stayed holed up in the bedroom for the rest of the night.
My brain was a cloud and jostled against its hard cage with each coughing fit. It hurt such that the hurt flashed behind my eyelids with each shudder. Make it stop. But I couldn’t. The virus had me in its grip. With every cough, I imagined my brain was a dusty gray cleaning pouf that lost its dander with each shudder. I’m losing it. Whatever I was holding among the folds of my cerebellum were being shook loose. My mind was emptying; it frightened me.
I had not a single thought but for a basic survivalist need for comfort and ease. Ugh. I clutch my hot water bottle close. I was a mouth-breathing bag of salt water, crying. I apologized. It’s not your fault, I was reassured. I knew this. I apologized even still.
Is this what it is to die? Am I now losing the greenery of life? The flaming hot mess I always was will soon be revealed. I was being irrational. I knew I wasn’t dying. I texted a friend I’d hoped to meet up with that my plans had changed. She’d gotten it too, recently.
I want my death to be an exhale, not a lung-scarring commotion. I want to be at peace, like my father was, when my time comes. This physical onslaught is a problem unresolved. I must live through this.
At the very least, I had to pack. My future father-in-law and my intended refreshed their browsers looking for reasonable flights back to Vermont. We might have to leave tonight, he warns. He’d stashed his armload of comic books into his luggage. I was to take care of the rest—managing to stuff every souvenir into the carry ons.
We flew back home on an overnight itinerary. I immediately crawled into bed when we arrived and I slept for 24 hours straight with few bathroom breaks. I couldn’t think and I don’t believe I dreamed.
I did not plan to get this wrecked and have my wreckage cut short everyone’s plans. I am typically very healthy and asymptomatic. Practicing COVID safety has meant that I am less exposed to germs than the per-pandemic times. I had actually forgotten what it feels like to be disabled by sickness. Nor am I used to being the reason a new flurry of activity is occurring. I had to rely on others to pick up my prescription, fix and feed me dinner, rearrange travel plans and avoid me at all costs. I kept worrying about all the laundry they’d have to do just for the room to be clean enough to have the grandkids over again. Our niece Clara keeps her dolls there.
That post I sent to draft is a lot stronger now, but still in draft. It may languish there forever, I don’t know. I have to incorporate the latest comments. In the meantime, I have other posts I have to write for October too. More entrees coming your way. Some with dessert, too.
While the virus is gone, a strong lingering cough remains. I’ve got meds for that—though while the fits are less frequent, they are just as nerve wracking. They almost always start out as little kek, kek pushes from the back of my throat that deepen into the musical precision of a battering ram. And yes, my insides feel as if they've been pummeled and my body is sore, sore.
For those who paid for a little something extra, here’s a poem I wrote one fall, while in Brattleboro. Mount Wantastiquet was a place of solace for me—a daily hike to the top and an expansive view of my hometown. The landscape was seed for many a poem. This one was part of a sequence of Quarter Poems that I was publishing (and selling) at the time. And yes, the title is inspired by a Galway Kinnell poem, from the self-titled collection.