Autumn sneaks in in the desert

Autumn sneaks in in the desert. Not with changing leaves, but with the shifting angle of the sun. With a hint of coolness in the mornings and evenings, while the days continue to burn.

Autumn sneaks in in the desert.

So too, Rosh Hashanah, the new year, sneaks up on me, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that follows it.

All summer–and in the desert, this desert, the summers are long–I long for change. Yet as the light shifts, as the holidays come, some part of me always says, Not yet. I’m not ready yet.

But change comes ready or not, and sometimes I think that’s why I need the new year. To force me to see this change, this shift. To acknowledge it, with trepidation and with joy, as I otherwise might not. To move mindfully into it, whether I’m ready to move or not.

The heat ebbs. The shadows lengthen. We are here.

We are here, and the year is new.

Shanah tovah. A good season of change for us all.

Meet Bob, our pandemic spider

We first noticed the spider sometime in summer of 2020. He was long-legged, but not long-legged enough to be a daddy longlegs. Fuzzy, but not fuzzy enough to be a wolf spider. Startling, but clearly not one of the poisonous varieties that need to be removed from the premises immediately.

[Spider on the ceiling]
Just a spider hanging out.

He wasn’t doing any harm, hanging out there on the ceiling of the family room. He might even be doing some good—spiders eat bugs, after all. So we let him stay.

For about three weeks the spider alternately hung out on the ceiling and walls or else hid somewhere in the cracks of the house. Then, at some point, he just disappeared. My husband, daughter, and I assumed he’d either moved on to better habitats or made his way to the great cobweb in the sky (though he didn’t seem to be a web-spinning sort of spider), and we mostly forgot about him.

That fall he was back again, though, or else a spider that looked very much like him and that had also grown slightly bigger was back, hanging out on the ceiling again, eating more (we assumed) bugs, and slipping in and out of view. Again he stayed for a few weeks, then disappeared until spring.

He was braver by spring, hanging out in not just the family room but also the kitchen and my daughter’s bedroom. We’re a bug-friendly family, so we were happy to have him back. Though it was startling to one day open my child’s underwear drawer—and see a spider crawling out.

We were all briefly more wary of him after the underwear incident. But we didn’t want to evict him, so instead we did what any sensible family would do. We let our daughter give the spider a name.

[Spider on the wall]
Hi, Bob.

Meet Bob, our pandemic spider. We admitted when we named him that he might well be female, but still, Bob seemed like the right name, so Bob he was.

Bob wasn’t disconcerting at all, once he had a name. He was a known entity, a member of the family, almost, even, a pet. We all smiled when we saw him after that.

One day, Bob got brave and moved down from the walls to the family room floor. We realized he’d moved from the walls to the floor when our cats suddenly became very, very interested in something moving on that floor. “Bob!” we all shouted and, with the help of a stiff piece of cardboard, helped him skitter out the front door, away from curious teeth and claws.

We figured once he’d seen the outside world, Bob would move on to the nearest viable outdoor habitat, but only a couple of days later we found him cheerfully hanging out on the wall of our daughter’s bedroom again. The world is a large place, if you’re a spider, and we hadn’t even really expected him to be able to find his way back inside, especially after the stress of having so recently fled for his life—but there he was. He might be an indoor-outdoor spider, but apparently this was his home, and not just some place he’d conveniently landed.

I finally sent Bob’s picture on to a friend who works with insects at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and she identified him as Olios giganteus—a giant crab spider, also known as a huntsman spider. She also identified him as definitively male, something the other Olios giganteus pictures I turned up on the web also made clear.

[Missing spider poster]
Have you seen Bob?

Bob spent another few weeks in our house and then, in his Bob way, disappeared again.

My daughter posted a Missing Spider poster on the front door. But male spiders don’t live all that long. In the giant crab spider world, even females usually only last two to three years. Weeks went by, and we took the poster down. At some point in this story, after all, Bob will disappear for good.

But this is not that day. Because this day, more than two months after he last disappeared, Bob showed up again, calmly chilling on the kitchen ceiling, once again a little bigger than the last time we saw him, but otherwise the same old spider we now knew.

Welcome back, Bob. We’re all glad to see you again.

[Giant crab spider closeup]
Oh, there you are, Bob.

Rain and darkness. Darkness and light.

It rained yesterday.

It’s been raining a lot this summer, here in my corner of the desert Southwest, drenching rains that make doors swell and stick shut, that cause foot-tall weeds to spring up seemingly overnight, that turn dry washes into temporary raging rivers as water struggles to soak into soil baked hard by decades of drought. We tell one another how grateful we are, to see water in this land defined by its lack, hoping our gratitude will encourage the rain to keep coming.

But until yesterday I didn’t feel grateful, as the rain fell with startling regularity, filling our blue skies with clouds for hours, even days, on end and shrinking our usually distant horizons. Instead I felt like those skies: dull and soggy and gray. I felt like surely it would rain forever.

It’s been a rough couple of years. There’s nothing particularly special about my pandemic story—my family and I are as safe as anyone can be, safe and sheltered, and I’m keenly aware of how many people can’t say as much. Yet I’ve been slogging through these Covid says, feeling alone as so many of the ways I used to escape isolation—sharing a meal, going to a movie, catching a plane someplace else to visit far-flung friends—have turned from everyday luxuries to foolish, even dangerous acts. Watching others happily continue to engage in these activities, often without even basic safety measures, only deepens the sense of isolation, prolonging the pandemic and making it feel like these days are never going to end.

Like this rain is never going to end.

There are new stresses this fall, too, as I send my child back to school in a state that’s actively fighting to deny districts those safety measures, putting classrooms full of unvaccinated children like mine at risk. Yet keeping children at home carries risks, too, leaving families without any good choices, but only bad choices and slightly less bad choices.

Loneliness. Depression. Stress. These days have been gray since long before the summer rains began.

I’ve been working to pull my feet out of the soggy mud of where-we-are for what feels like a very long time. Working on sleep, working on exercise, working through therapy, working, finally, with medication. Working to accept the up days and the down days, working to understand why my instinctive “fight” response has gone into stress overdrive, working to remember that, deep down, I’ve always believed that light shines through the darkness, rather than the other way around—a belief that’s informed nearly everything I’ve written.

I’ve not been writing much, during these pandemic days and months and years.

Yet yesterday, something shifted. Just a little. For just a bit.

The rain had been slowing down, dousing us every few days instead of every single day. The Sonoran Desert is moving toward autumn, slowly, inevitably. There are more blue days than gray ones now.

But yesterday the clouds got up a full head of steam early, and by mid-afternoon our weekend family gaming and reading and web-surfing were interrupted by first a rumble, then a crash. And because it was mid-afternoon and not night, my husband, my daughter and I all spontaneously ran out beneath our carport as the rain began to fall.

It was a wild rain—full of wind blowing trees, full of water that whooshed beneath our feet as the carport turned into a puddle, full of lightning flashes and bright bolts that bridged the gap between earth and sky.

And for once, something in me leapt up to meet that wildness. To enjoy it. To revel in it.

[Video of rain storm]
During the rain.

I stood outside getting splashed by cold gusts of rain, and for the first time in what I only then realized was a long time, I felt something that wasn’t anger or exhaustion or fear, something that was, tentatively, inching toward joy.

I splashed with my daughter in the growing puddle at our feet. I watched the mesquite tree in our yard whip back and forth in the wind. I laughed when the storm rumbles gave way to a series of loud cracks. 

It was a just-wild-enough storm, fierce but not dangerous if one had shelter nearby. It was a storm that could be enjoyed, and so I enjoyed it, as I hadn’t enjoyed the summer’s other storms, for no better reason than that when this storm came, something inside me was, at last, ready for it.

As I splashed and laughed I thought about the last time I was recovering from a depression this deep. There came a point, as I fought that depression, when I saw a full moon rising over the mountains, and looked at it, and felt the brilliance of its silver light someplace deep inside me, where for countless months before I’d appreciated the moon and everything else with only a distant sort of intellectual knowledge.

That startling moonlit moment wasn’t the end of the tunnel I’d found myself in. But it was a start—a reminder of Before, a first hint of a way out.

Here in the desert, as in the rest of the country, Covid cases are still rising, and a great many people are still ignoring or denying the fact, and all of us are paying the price. There remains cause enough for fear and despair.

But it rained yesterday. If I can hang on to the feeling of a wet, cold storm just wild enough to wake me up a little, maybe I can find a way out of my own personal tunnel this time, too. Maybe I can chart a course through those parts of the current darkness that come from within, rather than from without.

And maybe, just maybe, I can find once again the brilliant silver light that knows how to shine through the dark after all.

[Clouds reflected in rain puddle]
After the rain.

From Spring to Spring: A Pandemic Year

It’s been more than a year since I last believed in normal.

A year since the ordinary spring afternoon when we left our jobs and our schools behind for the weekend, not understanding, yet, that on Monday we wouldn’t return.

From the start, even as I settled in to remote learning and remote working, I knew, deep down, that this was going to last longer than we were admitting, but I didn’t know just how much longer. A month? A season? Surely by the end of summer, the beginning of fall, we’d be able to get on with our lives.

We all settled in to remote learning and remote working.

Summer and fall seemed such a long time to wait, back then. Three months. Six months. A lifetime. There was so much that we didn’t understand. How this new virus spread. How we could stop it from spreading. Whether the entire food supply chain was about to collapse, or whether a few short-term pasta and toilet-paper shortages would be the worst of it.

I tried not to think, in the beginning, about just how much there was to fear. I tried to laugh at it all, and sometimes I even succeeded.

I also hunkered down, because there wasn’t much else to be done. I went for walks. I painted rocks. I planted vegetables and learned to make sushi. I struggled through remote learning with my child.

Painted rocks and painted bricks.

I dreamed of escaping into the mountains for the summer, until the mountains began to burn.

Really, wearing these things just isn’t all that hard.

I learned to wear a mask and despaired as others refused to learn. I met friends outdoors, in socially distant lawn chairs, and worried even that was a risk best avoided. I watched as businesses closed, then opened too soon, then closed again and opened too soon again. It seemed no one wanted to admit that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon.

I watched as the cost of that denial came to be measured in human lives. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. I watched as too many people kept eating out, kept gathering with family, kept talking vacations, all for no better reason than that they’d always done these things before and couldn’t bear to live without them.

I’d always done these things and couldn’t bear to live without them, either, but somehow I lived without them anyway.

It wasn’t enough. Those who followed the rules still died because of those who ignored them. There was no longer any such thing as an action that affected only the person taking it. Everything we did now affected everyone around us, affected strangers we’d never meet, affected our entire community. That’s how pandemics work.

That’s how life works. It’s just that when everything seems normal, some of us have the luxury of forgetting that, some of the time.

Some of us have the luxury of forgetting all sorts of things.

Maybe normal was always an illusion. But illusion or not, too many people kept insisting on doing too many things, just to prove that no one could tell them which things to do. Our Covid numbers rose, then fell, then rose again and just kept rising.

Time blurred. A blistering, wildfire-fueled Arizona summer. An autumn overwhelmed by more remote learning. A careful, careful return to learning in person.

An actual view from my backyard last summer.

An election. A riot. A transfer of power that no one called peaceful, because free and fair elections had become one more thing to deny in spite of the evidence.

A winter spent feeling angry and helpless, despairing that it didn’t have to be like this. But it was like this, and nothing I did could change the fact.

When the first vaccines came, months and years ahead of schedule, I should have felt hope, even joy. But I was suspicious of hope by then, and scarcely dared believe in it. If this was hope, it was literally in short supply, anyway, as hope too often is.

So instead I argued with strangers who refused to wear masks at the post office and insisted on holding birthday parties in the park. I yelled at family members for eating out. I lost friends when I told them they had no business going on vacation, not now.

Yet in the end, despair had no more power to change reality than denial did. Spring came, because spring does, whatever we do or fail to do. Arizona’s Covid numbers started to fall again, first slowly, then faster. My backyard irises bloomed—a gift from a stranger I’d never met, the stranger who owned my house before me.

No matter how badly I treat them, they come back every spring.

I began going for walks again, and wondered when I’d stopped. I planted more vegetables. I volunteered at a local vaccine clinic, and kept volunteering even after I was vaccinated.

My vegetables are less forgiving than my irises, but sometimes, they grow too.

I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, this hope thing was real after all.

I struggled–still struggle–with forgiveness. All the restaurants and other businesses who opened or re-opened too soon, because the rules said they could and they decided their economic survival mattered more than other people’s literal, physical survival. All the individuals who refused to wear masks or shelter in place because they decided their personal struggles mattered more those lives, too. So very many people who just decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the same basic precautions I’m weary from following, and who with their refusal made this all last so much longer.

I tell myself their decisions came from weakness. not malice. I tell myself that carrying so much anger only hurts me, not them. Yet I wonder—how do we forgive when no one is sorry, when so many have made clear they would do it all the same way again? This isn’t over yet, and some days it seems that even after so much time, no one has learned anything after all. Even as I write this there are Arizonans pushing to relax the rules, too soon, yet again.

Still, it is spring, and there is hope, and I’ve finally come to the part of this story where at least I believe these things are real.

Now I just need to push through a little further, on to the part where I learn, once more, how to trust them.

Smoke and haze

A few days ago I woke to a muted orange sun, shining sluggishly through layers of haze. This wasn’t the orange of sunrise—the subdued light lasted well into the day—and it wasn’t caused by the clouds of a late-season desert thunderstorm, either.

It was wildfire smoke. Again.

It’s been more than a month since Tucson’s Catalina Mountains burned. That fire, too, filled the daytime sky with smoke. It made my eyes itch and left ash on our backyard trampoline.

[Orange smoke over Catalina Mountains at sunset]
Those look like rain clouds over the Catalinas, but they’re not.

My eyes have been gritty this past week, too, but it’s no longer Arizona’s mountains and grasslands that are burning. Now California, and Oregon, and Washington burn instead.

The fact that these wildfires are hundreds of miles away doesn’t matter. Air moves, after all. Wind blows. Ash and smoke travel. The entire planet is in motion, and what happens in one place affects all places, in small ways and in large ones. Smoke in California becomes smoke in Arizona, and New York, and Europe.

If your air is polluted, my air is polluted, too.

[Sun through wildfire haze]
California smoke or Arizona smoke? They look the same.

This is, of course, the lesson of the current pandemic, as well. I breathe air out. You breathe the same air in. I cough, and where that cough lands determines whether someone I’ll never meet lives or dies.

It’s not enough to keep ourselves safe and ignore everyone else. It’s not enough for you to wear your mask if I don’t wear mine. It’s not enough to only douse the fire we can see, not if we ignore everything else that’s still burning.

Judaism has taught me that, “If you save a life, you save the world.” As I move toward Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I’ve been thinking about that teaching a lot.

Thinking about the ways it is may be literally, and not just figuratively, true.

It didn’t have to be like this

It didn’t have to be like this.

I wasn’t happy when schools closed last March, but I understood and accepted it—accepted that we had to hunker down for a few months to get this virus under control. By August, the worst would be over, and my daughter would be back in school.

For a month, two months, it seemed we’d get there. Arizona’s Covid cases were rising, but our total numbers remained relatively low. Sheltering in place and enduring daily remote learning meltdowns seemed to be working. It hard, but just a couple more rough months now and we could back to normal in the fall.

One day, we’ll even get to play on the playgrounds again. This is not that day.
(Photo by Allie on Unsplash)

And then, in mid-May, Arizona—like so many states—just gave up.

Our Covid cases were still rising, but suddenly no one seemed to care. The governor’s stay at home order expired in mid-May. By the end of the month, pretty much everything was open: restaurants, gyms, beauty salons, the mall. The governor wouldn’t even allow cities to pass mask mandates to mitigate the harm until several weeks later.

Only schools remained closed. Only teachers and families seemed to get that there was still a pandemic going on. The school year was almost over. I hung on to the faint hope that staying home now would let us break our isolation in time for the first day of school. Getting in-person school back up and running was the one, the most, important thing right now.

But too many people didn’t understand that. Too many people just had to eat out, go to the gym, hang out at the bar, and get a hair cut immediately, rather than waiting another month or two. Our numbers kept rising, more steeply now, and too many didn’t seem to care. Arizona took it’s turn as the world’s Covid19 hotspot, but unlike most of the hotspots before us, we had time to see it coming. We knew what would happen.

It didn’t have to be like this.

I mean, it could have been like this. We could have already been at the rainbow-after part of the story.
(Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)

Our family, like so many families, did all we could. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough, when so many others were doing nothing at all. Even now, when bars and gyms have finally closed again, restaurants and retail stores remain open. I guess the people filling those places think their right to eat out with their friends is more important than my kid’s right to get an education and hang out with her friends.

So we’re not going back to in-person school this August. Of course we’re not.

And people still don’t get it. Instead of embracing the selfishness and sacrifice needed to get kids back to learning and their parents back to work, too many have doubled down on their own selfishness instead. Too many keep insisting they have the right to skip the mask, to eat out, to party with as many friends as they wanted.

Too many seem to believe, at the exact same time, that teachers and children have no rights at all, that we’re the selfish ones for not sucking it up and returning to a highly contagious, potentially deadly, environment just so that everyone else can keep on pretending everything’s back to normal.

The people refusing to wear masks or order takeout—the people who got us into this mess to begin with—couldn’t possibly be to blame. Only those of us unwilling to live with the consequences of the situation they created were to blame.

I hope that was one hell of a steak dinner you all had, one hell of a haircut, one hell of drink, one hell of a workout. Was it was good enough to be worth convincing yourself that no one but you matters, that actions don’t have consequences, that there can be freedom without responsibility or the basic community-minded patriotism of Americans looking out for one another.

I’ve always tried to avoid dividing this country into us vs. them, always tried to understand that everything looks different depending where you’re standing, that everyone deep down believes they’re doing the right thing.

But today—today I’m just angry. Angry that my governor and my legislature and far too many of my fellow Arizonans couldn’t be patient a few months more. Angry that my state values its restaurants and gyms and bars and malls so much more than it values its people.

Angry that, next week, my daughter isn’t going back to school in person after all.

Tomorrow, I know, I’ll get back to enduring. Remote learning will probably be a little better this time around. Even if it isn’t, I’ll make it through, somehow. All of us with school-age children will. We’ll manage for as long as we have to. We have no choice.

But the rest of you could at least help us out here. While teachers are trying to teach without the in-person interaction they excel at, while kids are trying to learn without the in-person interaction their development demands, while parents are trying to somehow juggle work and the stress of helping their kids through it all, for the most part without childcare or even the occasional babysitter—while we’re getting through, day by day—you can wear your damn mask. You can keep your damn social distance. You can party over Zoom like the rest of us. You can cook your own damn meals.

I don’t care anymore what sort of denial you’re relying on to convince yourself this is all no big deal. I do care that you’re more concerned with your right to continue doing whatever you want uninterrupted, without a thought for those of us whose entire lives will be interrupted that much longer as a result.

I need for you to be the ones to grow up, make sacrifices, and hunker down with the rest of us so that we all can get back to normal sooner rather than later.

I’d love for my daughter to get to meet her new teacher in person by January. But I can’t make that happen alone.

I need all of you there with me.

It’s too late to start at square one. But maybe, if everyone gets it together now, we can jump into the school year at square five or so instead of missing the game entirely.
(Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)

Masking up

Confession: The first time I stepped outside wearing a face mask, I almost took it off again.

I try not to care what other people think, but walking through my neighborhood, mask covering more than half my face, it felt like surely everyone I walked past was staring at me.

I could have taken the mask off, if I really wanted to. Outdoors, it was easy to keep my distance from my fellow quarantine walkers, and the main thing my mask was protecting me from was probably seasonal allergies. But this was a trial run. If I couldn’t wear a mask now, out in the open, walking by myself, how would I wear it all the other, more critical, places I needed to wear it?

I kept my mask on. In the U.S. we were just beginning to understand how important mask wearing was in protecting our communities from Covid-19. I knew this was something I had to get used to.

[Me in a dark pink mask]
It’s really not that hard. And yet …

I did get used to it, and now, a couple months later, it’s a habit. A couple months has also given me time to think about where my initial resistance came from.

Before Covid-19, I’d only very occasionally seen anyone wearing a mask in public before. When I did see someone wearing a mask, my first thought was, “I wonder what’s going on with them?” I would have denied it if you asked, but I realize now that masks were, to me, a sign of frailty, of physical weakness.

I didn’t understand, yet, what those in a great many other countries where masks were more common knew instinctively: that you don’t wear a mask to protect yourself, but to protect those around you.

Indeed, I also realize now that I thought of mask wearing as something that people did in other places, but not here, as if we didn’t all share the same biology, the same vulnerability to disease.

I wonder whether some of those refusing to wear masks have had similar thoughts, consciously or unconsciously, but have failed to recognize and push past them, and so have grown defensive instead.

In the end, knowing masks were necessary made me push past my own resistance, but it didn’t make me feel comfortable doing so.

It was seeing others wearing masks that did that.

On that first walk, mask wearers were few and far between, but I wasn’t the only one. Whenever I saw another walker wearing a mask, I waved, and they waved back, and as I walked on, I felt more at ease with my own mask, and less self-conscious. I wasn’t alone, and neither were they.

As masks have become more widespread, that feeling has grown stronger, and wearing a mask doesn’t feel all that awkward now.

[Four masks with various patterns]
My growing mask collection.

There’s a need to for more messaging, more education, on why masks are needed, as well as more political will, in my community at least, to enforce mask mandates.

But I wonder whether, in the end, the most effective way to get others to wear masks is simply to continue wearing our own.

“Once more, we’ll all remember where we were”

Of course, the burning mountains are only one of many things I’ll remember about this pandemic year. There’ve been so many changes, small and large.

Shortages of basic items. Hand sanitizer. Toilet paper. Flour. Minor inconveniences, which could mostly be replaced by other items. But the rationing demanded by earlier crises was slipping out of living memory, and we’d grown unaccustomed to minor inconveniences, to being unable to get what we want, when we want it.

Shortages of more critical items, of masks and other protective medical gear, shortages that left home sewers and crafters trying to fill gaps.

The fact that those homemade masks with their random prints actually were pretty charming, as well as a symbol of people pulling together to take care of one another. They were also more than a little dystopic, especially the kids masks, advertised as back to school items or made with cartoon-character prints.

[Stormtrooper mask]
Okay, so it’s not only kids wearing character prints.

Watching events get cancelled, one after another, conferences and community events falling like dominos. At last even the schools closed, something that had seemed impossible even a few days before, and then we understood that our world really had changed, that a sharp line had been drawn between then and now.

Things we’d done just a few short days or weeks or months ago seemed part of another world after that, things like shaking hands, or seeing a movie with friends, or making a grocery trip for just one or two items, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake without worrying about germs.

The increased awareness of community, and the knowledge that you can be socially distant but emotionally close. More phone calls. Virtual happy hours. Outdoor meetups with neighbors and friends, our lawn chairs carefully spaced at least six feet apart.

The realization that all the remote connection in the world couldn’t replace a five-minute in-person meeting, or a hug.

Cooking. So much cooking. The combination of temporary food shortages and quarantine lockdowns meant we all did a lot more cooking at home, and for a while flour became another item that was hard to find.

[Homemade bread, noodles, and sort-of onigiri]
Sourdough bread was only the beginning.

Our attempts at hasty crisis homeschooling were much less successful that our baking. So were our attempts to replace our kids’ friends as their playmates. All the imagination in the world couldn’t make us play as well as a child could play, and all the good intentions in the world couldn’t make us teach even a fraction as well as our children’s teachers could teach. If we’d ever forgotten, no one doubted now that teachers were essential.

We realized lots of people we’d mostly been ignoring were essential. Those who treat the sick. Those who grow and distribute and sell our food. Those who package and deliver the mail.

Quarantine walks through the neighborhood, because you can’t stay inside all the time, each household keeping to its own group, crossing the street to avoid coming too close to one another. Yet also waving to one another, too, making clear that we’re still a community, that we still care about one another.

Painted rocks, left in front of our own houses or anonymously in front of neighbors’ houses, another way of saying that we’re still here, that we still care about each other.

I don’t know who painted these, but I feel connected to them.

The understanding that police brutality doesn’t magically stop during a pandemic, so fighting that brutality couldn’t stop, either. All the many layers of social and economic inequality that the pandemic laid bare.

What the brick says.

Political campaigns run by phone, by text, by virtual town hall. It was an election year, after all. But also political campaigns run in person, as if nothing at all had changed. Somehow, the basics of public health had become as political as everything else, as if ideology could somehow stop viruses from infecting us.

Graduation ceremonies held at a distance, or not at all. Signs on lawns and stickers on cars congratulating recent graduates in place of graduation parties. Also, an epic senior prank.

The wait and hope for a vaccine. The attempts to navigate life without one. The loss of the comforting myth that we already had treatments for all the really bad diseases, that we were somehow ahead of science and history and the fears that had troubled the generations before us.

The longing to step back to the past, to the way things were, the way it still felt they should be. The need to appreciate the gifts of the present. The desire to find a way forward, into the future.

The knowledge that we’re not apart from history, but part of it, after all.


Subject line borrowed from John M. Ford’s “110 Stories,” written during another uncertain, challenging moment in history.

The mountains are burning

The mountains are burning.

That’s not unusual, this time of year. Wildfires are a normal part of life in the west, and in Tucson, where mountains ring the city, we can often watch them burn from our homes on the valley floor.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains]

Some fires are distant, a puff of smoke behind a distant ridge. Some are nearer, near enough to turn into orange snakes of flame after sundown. Every fire is different, and in memory, many fires get tied to the times of their burning.

Like the smoldering gray fire that made the Catalina Mountains look volcanic, watched from my back porch shortly before a trip to Iceland to see real volcanoes. After that, Iceland’s volcanoes and that fire were linked in my mind, and future fires seemed a little more volcanic, too.

Or a closer fire, also in the Catalinas, during which I watched the flames flare upwards in bright orange pillars I would later learn were the result of propane tanks exploding as the fire reached the Mount Lemmon retreat town of Summerhaven. Months later, when we were finally allowed to drive up the mountain, we found large stretches of once-familiar terrain laid open to gray ash and bare, blackened trees.

Less than a year later, a friend’s ashes were scattered on the same mountain. My friend and that fire—and my friend and that mountain too—were inextricably intertwined in memory after that. They still are.

Or this year, the pandemic year, when the Catalinas are burning again.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains at sunset]

This time the fire threatens not just Summerhaven, up in the heights, but also nearer houses in and around the mountain’s foothills. The smoke is visible deep into the city, billows of white and gray and brown smoke that move like stormclouds over the peaks. At sunset, as I walk through the neighborhood and wave to our socially distant neighbors, the smoke turns pink, just as clouds do.

One day, I watched as firefighting planes dumped streams of fire-retardant red slurry into the smoke. The next day, the mountains bore the scars, lines of red clearly visible across their gray slopes.

How can the fire not become tied to the pandemic, to the protests for justice in its wake, to this entire long, strange, summer?

The slurry will fade, given time, as scars do. As the ashes of earlier fires have faded, becoming buried beneath years of new growth.

One day this moment in history will fade, too, slipping from living memory into stories and from stories into books. Like mountains, people heal and regrow, given enough time.

But I don’t live in that future. I live here, now, and I don’t yet know which houses will be lost, and which will be saved. I don’t know which landscapes will be remade, and which will remain the same. No one does.

All we really know, as we stand outside and watch the smoke, is that today, the mountains are burning.