All at once, our February days in South Dakota feel almost like springtime, with bright sunshine and breezy temperatures in the forties. Birdsong swells at dawn as cardinals, finches, chickadees, and nuthatches tune up for courting. Jihong bikes off to work at the university, unafraid of ice. Giggling children splash in puddles, muddying their pink and blue boots.
I’m trying not to get too excited. Around here, we can have blizzards into May. Still, I’m happy, watching the snowdrifts around the neighborhood shrink down to grass and soil. Our yard, encrusted by a thick blanket of snow only a week ago, is now a palette of tans and browns, interrupted by dabs and smears of white.
The bare patches of earth are a welcome invitation. Here’s my RSVP: I accept, no regrets. I’m ready to pick up sticks beneath the trees. I’m ready to clean up the leaves that got buried by snow, last October. I’m ready to plant those bushes along our east property line. I’m even ready to rev up the tiller and dig up the garden.
“Go ahead,” Winter says, with a laugh. “I dare you.”
I’m ready and willing, but not yet able.
Last year, you may recall, our family joined with friends Ruby and Jim to grow a huge “pandemic victory garden.” We’ve agreed to do the same in 2021. At some point this summer, we hope, we’ll all be vaccinated and able to hang out together in the bean patch or between the rows of pepper plants without fear of COVID. We don’t know when that point will arrive. For my part, I’ll probably stop wearing a mask and socially distancing when Dr. Fauci does.
The five of us had loads of fun in our garden plot, last growing season. Our masks and the space between us didn’t stop us from cracking bad jokes and talking politics and telling stories. When we tired of banter, we weeded and picked through an easygoing silence. Now, all these months later, we’re still enjoying fresh potatoes, carrots and squash, along with produce from the freezer. We munch and simmer and bake and boil. Every bite of our crops tastes of friendship. Once in a while, in a stew, our palate catches a nip of humor or a hint of sorrow. Eating is a celebration of survival.
I’ve been wondering lately: Which aspects of my pandemic life might I wish to continue, like gardening, once it’s over? Better to ask now, I think, than to wait. Better to start mulling it over.
We don’t have to go back to doing everything like we used to. This is a prime opportunity to change—to plan more deliberately what to grow in the garden plot of our existence, and what not to.
Here are just a few changes that I’ve committed to, so far. Professionally, in my post-pandemic life, I want to write more poetry, which this plague prompted me to do. And, though I enjoy traveling, I want to be home more instead of constantly on the road for public engagements. Meanwhile, because virtual events allow me to connect in exciting ways with people around the world, I want to host them more often.
Personally, I want to hug more. I want to invest more time in friendships. (As a lover of solitude, I’ve always found that difficult.) I want to send more snail mail and drop off more goodies, just for fun. I want to dress more casually than I used to. (Is that possible?) I want to wear make-up less often. (Someday I’ll get brave enough to ditch it altogether.) I want to make more music. I want to gain more insight into my own racism and my participation in systemic oppression. I want to cherish each day as my creative playground. (Cherish. Each. Day.) Oh, and did I mention that I want to give more hugs?
These are some of the good fruits that I’ve harvested from my pandemic life. To be honest, I’ve reaped some bitter fruits, too. For one thing, it might be a while before I can enter a crowded elevator without my mind screaming “No!” But that’s okay. I can sort the bitter and the spoiled fruit from the sweet. Whatever isn’t worth saving, I’ll bury in the ground; compost, you know. Nothing will go to waste.
If you doubt that anything in your pandemic life is worth keeping beyond it, I ask you to reconsider, with an open mind. For curiosity’s sake, if nothing more. Play with this question: Beneath the melting snows of this past terrible year, might there be fertile patches of earth waiting to be seen?
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