Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome

The familiar symptoms – the internal undertow, a heaviness in my step, a general malaise. I can feel it like a cold coming on. It’s coming on Christmas. Again.

Math was never my forte, but I’m oddly gifted at factoring holidays based on how long my parents have been gone. This will be my 20th Christmas without my parents. Twenty fucking years. I counted it out on my fingers like a six-year-old to make sure I had it right. Twice.

I know a lot of folks my age don’t have their parents anymore and mine would be old now – Dad, 98, and Mom would be 89. She died at 70. When I was 45, I had no idea how young that was. Lord, I was stupid. Now I am keenly aware of my own mortality, and I think of treasured friends over 70 and cannot imagine a world without them. That’s the thing about grief. It is unimaginable and interminable. And, yes, a lot of people lost their parents at much younger ages and I ache at their social media posts on special occasions every year. It sucks.

I take a fair amount of solace in the knowledge that I was rarely careless about spending time with my parents. When I look back on it now, it is as if I knew they would be gone sooner than later. I never missed a Christmas with them, and I was fortunate that the furthest away I ever lived from them was a four-hour drive. I share this not to make myself look like a good daughter because I was a good daughter. I honestly enjoyed spending time, especially holidays, with my parents. And I still hold many of their traditions sacred – like making a very boozy eggnog on Christmas Eve. That’s what my mom and I did together. So, maybe it wasn’t the Waltons, but even the Baldwin Sisters had their recipe.

Behold the nog! Keep away from open flames.

My symptoms presented sooner this year. 2020 was such an aberration because of COVID-19 and a lot of people were in a holiday funk. Well, at least the ones who listened to Dr. Fauci and didn’t travel or gather with family and friends outside their bubble. It was a global case of misery not loving no company and I didn’t feel as solitary in my sadness. It seemed as if the entire world was hunkered down watching every Christmas movie ever made. Disclaimer: I do not watch the Hallmark Christmas movies. I love a white Christmas as much as anyone, but there is white and there is bleached. I’m not claiming a higher moral ground here. At least a couple of times during the holiday season I indulge in what I call Dead Mother Theatre and watch some dark holiday classics where the mother dies around Christmas. Stepmom and The Family Stone are a must and last year I threw One True Thing into the rotation. It might sound sadistic, but watching these films allows me a good cry – sweeter and more sentimental than sad. It’s cathartic for me. My dear wife just shakes her head and contemplates hiding the ROKU remote.

Stepmom. I’m not crying. Oh hell, who am I kidding.

That’s the wife who got her first COVID vaccination on Christmas Eve last year. It was a fantastic present, but she was feeling a little puny on Christmas Day, so, we cuddled up and watched Christmas in Connecticut, the 1945 black and white classic starring Barbara Stanwyck. As pandemic holidays go, it was a fine one. And for the record, no mom dies in that movie.

This Christmas we had planned to visit my sister in California. That was until we discovered that air fare would cost more than a trip to Europe or a small car. We will now visit her in January and have fun with all the money we didn’t spend on holiday travel. My brother lives in South Carolina, but we are no longer close and COVID revealed that gated communities can exist in our own families. I love my brother and it is an abiding sadness to me that what we share now is mostly memories. I’m grateful that a lot of them are good ones.

Christmas past. My brother looks like he got into the eggnog. And the cocker, too!

I was reminded of one of those memories when I was at the beach last month. The power of place can be like steroids for memory – the sights and sounds generating a slideshow of old photographs in the Viewmaster of your mind. One day my wife and I set up our umbrella near a big family group. There were at least ten adults and a couple of toddlers all huddled under several umbrellas creating a festive circle. I could hear them talking and laughing and playing with the littles. It was a breezy day, and I noticed a small ball rolling out from under their camp. One of the adults chased it down and returned it to a tiny happy face. Suddenly it was 1986 and I was on a family vacation in Sandbridge, Virginia. My niece’s beach ball, the classic old school blow up kind, was billowing across the sand at a mad pace. My brother bolted from his chair and chased it for what seemed like a couple of miles. The rest of our clan stayed glued to our seats and laughed ourselves silly as he would see the ball in his grasp and a gust of wind would send it scurrying away. My brother is 6’3” and the image of a tall man chasing a child’s ball was funny. He finally caught up with it and returned it to my toddling niece who seemed confused by the giggly grownups. My brother made a sarcastic comment or two thanking us for our support, but it was all in good fun. And I’m certain he would have chased that ball down into the next county. It is a sweet memory that shines as brightly as the sun did that afternoon so long ago.

You might be wishing you had some of my eggnog if you’re still slogging through this cheery post. The truth is that I have a bipolar relationship with Christmas. I almost always have a manic phase of decorating and making cookies and declaring that we must have more lights! I have several glass Christmas trees that belonged to my mother and when I carefully unwrap them each year, it is one of the most joyously peaceful moments of the season for me. My wife genuinely loves them, too, so that makes their presence even more special. After our first Christmas living together, we decided to leave them up through January – the month of a hundred days. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, and I know my mother would be most pleased – and no doubt a bit amused.

My favorite tree lot.

Those manic days are merry, and I savor them because I know there will be other days that are not so bright. The days when it feels like the entire world is smushed into an overdecorated snow globe singing Christmas carols between sips of their gingerbread lattes and I’m on the other side with my face pressed against the glass. Those days are the worst. I feel so exposed and vulnerable like my heart is only covered by tissue paper – every emotion seeping out.

Addy phone home. Me every December.

On those tender days, I try to retreat into the shelter of my own head. I spend quiet time with my memories, and they comfort me. I’m lucky that my memory is like the iCloud with unlimited storage. Bonus – I never have to change my password. My carousel of holiday memories is easily accessible and the images are sharp with those nice bright colors Paul Simon sang about way back when I was in high school. For all you kids born post 8-tracks, have a listen here.

Glee under the tree. The merry three.

Before my parents died, I was that obnoxious ninny who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t love Christmas as much as me. Pro tip this Christmas – don’t be that ninny. For some of us, finding a balance between joy and sadness during the holidays is like trying to catch up with that bright ball careening down the beach. We might get there, but it will take a few stumbling grabs.

What Ted said.

Baby steps

I don’t trust people who say they have no regrets and I lump them into the same category as the arrogant folks who swear that they floss every day. Come on now, EVERYONE has regrets, even Frank Sinatra had a few. Unfortunately, regrets cannot be removed as easily as plaque, and they can cause emotional decay if left unattended. I should know. I’m approaching a milestone birthday the end of the month and my regrets could use a good cleaning. Okay, I promise I’m done with the dental analogies – I know some of you are running your tongue along the back of your teeth to do a quick check. Too late – you missed a day or two.

Regrets are never one size fits all. Some are tiny – like wishing you had ordered the salmon instead of the tuna. That’s why I always order the salmon. Those regrets du jour are easy enough to get over. It’s the biggies that haunt you for a long time – like the rest of your life. I regret that I didn’t hold my mother’s hand more during the eight months she was dying. She had beautiful hands – so very feminine with long slender fingers. I saved a pair of her gloves after she died, and I’ve pulled them out and put them on from time to time in the 20 years she has been gone. I stretch my fingers out as far as I can and squint a little to create a soft lens and I can almost see her hands. Almost. So why didn’t I hold her hand more? Well, for starters, she wasn’t exactly the affectionate type. She wasn’t cold – affection was just never her love language. She also had a wickedly dry sense of humor and if I had held her hand too much, she probably would have said, “Do you think I’m dying or something?” I feel lucky that I got a bit of her humor and making her laugh was especially satisfying. One of the last times I entered her hospital room, she was awake but so very weak and laying quietly in her bed. She smiled when I came in and I said, “Don’t get up.” I could see her fragile chest shake with laughter. It is the kind of memory that can save you on a bleak day when regret is taunting you.

You can organize your walk-in closet of regrets in several ways – tidy bins of them – professional, personal, financial, and so on. I can honestly say that I only have one professional regret, but it’s a whopper that cost me a great deal. I gave someone a second chance and they used it for evil instead of good. They tried to destroy me, and they almost succeeded. It took me a long time to recover from such deception and malice and the acquiescence of others who I once respected. But I’m here to tell you that karma is real, and it almost always catches up with cowards. I invested way too much time in the whys and what ifs of that debacle, but that’s what regret does to you. It can make you doubt yourself, but it can also force you to do a deep dive into your own stuff. And maybe, if you are humble enough to pay attention, you can learn some things.

There are no soft landings for regrets and the deeply personal ones can shadow your whole life. You might think you’ve moved on – and you probably have for the most part, but then something out of the blue, the thing you just didn’t see coming – can make that faint scar feel like a gaping wound. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I came across an archived NY Times article on the actress Lili Taylor – one of my favorites. The article detailed Taylor’s time quarantining in upstate New York with her family in a rustic farmhouse that she purchased years ago. The home is pretty fantastic, but not in an opulent InStyle magazine sort of way. The original oak floor, doors and stonework were all retained and restored. And Taylor used great colors for a lot of the rooms. It reminded me of the eclectic style that my longtime former partner and I were always drawn to. My memory Rolodex was already racing when I came upon a picture of the staircase leading to the second floor of the house. The wooden steps were painted apple green. Sounds benign enough, right? But that’s when I felt that undeniable undertow of regret overcome me. I sat in front of my laptop and cried. You see, not many people would make that choice of apple green for a staircase. It’s a creative, bold, and confident choice. It’s a choice that doesn’t care if other people think is weird. And that was my former partner to a T. I suppose now is a good time to state emphatically that I am very happily married to my dear wife, the minimalist who favors experience over acquisitions – and having all those feelings about that staircase in no way diminishes the love I have for her. No, in fact, those feelings give me certainty. I know I will never have those same regrets with her. Other ones, no doubt, but not those.  My regret, the deepest one of my life, is that I wasn’t a better person all those years ago when I pulverized my sweet partner’s heart. I can make excuses – and I have made plenty over the years – both of my parents had died, and I was completely adrift in my own grief. I was lost and made some very bad decisions. And believe me, I have paid dearly for them. That was a lifetime ago and the afternoon I came upon that apple staircase, I think I finally found a balm for my regret – an odd mixture of memory, forgiveness, and gratitude. Not in equal parts, mind you – forgiveness is a stingy bastard.

I’ve always been a bit of a sentimental fool. I can still cry up my liver watching the Folger’s “Peter Comes Home for Christmas” commercial. Every. Damn. Time. And sometimes I can’t even make it through the opening credits of This is Us with dry eyes. My already flimsy emotional resolve took a beating during lockdown. I find that I cry even more easily now, and I tell people I love them whenever I get a chance – even if it makes them uncomfortable. I’m nicer to strangers and don’t hesitate to call out bullies and mean people. The pandemic illuminated my priorities in a Titanic lifeboat sort of way. I know the things I hold dear in a deeper way, and I have tried to let go of the things – and people – that will never be the way I want them to be. Turns out a mask can only hide so much, but man, letting go is hard – especially for someone like me who always tries to fashion a happy ending. And for the last time – yes, there was room for Leo on that floating door.

I recently had the pleasure of going to the Social Security Administration office to correct my date of birth in their system. Don’t ask me how after all these years that date somehow changed, but I think it might have been easier to just let everyone I know that I had changed my birthday. I had to provide them with my original birth certificate – which looks like it was run over by a horse and buggy and set on fire. I’m just grateful that I have aged better than it has.

Anyway, when I looked at that decrepit document, the first thing I saw were my parents’ names and I felt my eyes fill with tears. They have been gone so long now and it was startling to see their names in writing. And then I saw my tiny footprint – an inkblot floating in the corner of the certificate. My parents lost their first child, so my arrival was an even bigger deal to them and the sweet folks in the tiny town of Waverly, VA. The morning I was born, the doctor who delivered me drove down Main Street still in his scrubs yelling out of his car window, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!” And everyone knew that the Ores had had a healthy baby. I could hear my parents telling me that story as I looked at my tiny foot and my heart swelled like the cartoon Grinch. I felt so much love for them and that baby girl that I haven’t always been so kind to. And I regret that.

I know I’ve spent too much time thinking about the past and the things I might have done differently. The things I wish I had said – and the things I wish I hadn’t said. The other day I saw a trailer for the new Hugh Jackman film, Reminiscence. The plot of the movie is about as clear as Medicare Part D, but the tag line stood me still: Nothing is more addictive than the past. Damn. I know this to be true and my gift to myself this birthday is to be more present. Yes, I know that sounds like a meme just waiting to happen – prime fodder for Bo Burnham’s blistering parody White Woman’s Instagram. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and click here. That’s one of the perks of getting older, besides discounted groceries – you can laugh at yourself more easily. Burnham nails it/me – I really do like tiny pumpkins and goat cheese salads, and I have a bobblehead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and 20 years later, I still miss my mom beyond measure. Sometimes I am a cliché and that doesn’t bother me, because most days now I feel an abiding fondness for that older woman in the Instagram selfie. I’m damn grateful, too, because it took a lot of those inky baby steps to get here.

Present and accounted for.

Love is a mystery, from birth ’til we die.

It’s cross words at morning, by evening entwined.

It’s all that we dream of, sometimes it’s not right.

Love is white roses,

And you never ask why.

Lyrics from Roses on the 4th of July by Nanci Griffith.

Bring him home

I met Jim Croom on a cold rainy Sunday in late November of 2016. Donald Trump had recently been elected president and after a few weeks of almost comatose like despair, I decided I needed to do something. Anything. So, I went back to church – a place I had not been in a while since leaving my old church when I moved from Greensboro to Winston Salem. My wife and I had been searching for a new church and we had never been to St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. They were welcoming a new interim rector that day – enter The Rev. Dr. James Croom.

Father Jim – yes, that’s what we called him because I couldn’t imagine calling him anything else – looked like he walked out of central casting for Anglicans in America. He was in his mid-60’s, an elegant and graceful man with a warm smile and a clever sense of humor. He was slender and slight, and he walked with a cane that first Sunday, but his voice carried into every corner of the church. We would later learn that he spent thirty years as a professional opera singer before being ordained – which made sense after hearing him beautifully intone part of the service. He celebrated communion with a euphoric reverence. And he read some of the liturgy in perfect Spanish. We were smitten from that first Sunday, but we admonished ourselves to not get too attached because he would be leaving in less than a year. We were able to hold fast to that promise for about 20 minutes until we heard him preach for the first time. We were goners.

That Sunday Father Jim delivered the sermon I didn’t know I needed to hear. He talked about his own pain about the recent election – his own tears, his own disbelief over what had happened. And he dared to ask the question that I had been struggling with every day since election day – “Where was God in all of this?” I will never forget his answer. He said, “God is here with us, the real question is where are we in all of this.” I have come back to his words time and time again over the past four years – most especially when unfathomable things have happened in our world. On that Sunday he didn’t sugar coat our challenge – he said it would be terribly difficult at times, but our charge was to “be the grace of God in the world.” So much for that eye for an eye mentality I had been hoarding. His words draped over me that day like a shawl that I kept clutching more closely.

Father Jim would preach many memorable sermons at St. Anne’s – often sitting on a stool in front of the congregation. He was a formal man, but so accessible and generous with his spirit. I loved so many things about him but none more than his ability to be so vulnerable in the moment. Often while reading the Gospel, he would be so moved by a passage that his voice would crack, and he would stop speaking and gently rest his hand on his heart while he regained his composure. He cried easily without shame or embarrassment. He was a saintly Velveteen Rabbit – and he became more real the more we loved him – and we felt his love in return. He embodied authentic kindness in a manner I have rarely encountered, and I always felt a bit lighter when I would leave him – as if he had somehow absorbed some of my burdens.

Father Jim gave us a going away present before he left – a mini concert. He sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables. If you are not familiar with the Gospel According to the Tony Awards, this song is performed by the musical’s main character, Jean Valjean, as he pleads to God to save another man’s life. It is a show-stopping prayer and let me just say with all due respect that Hugh Jackman is no Jim Croom. There was not a dry eye in the church. And we’re talking a room filled with Episcopalians.

God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there.

He is young
He’s afraid
Let him rest
Heaven blessed.
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone.

Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy

You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.   

Father Jim went home yesterday afternoon after a long battle with cancer. I will mourn his loss as will everyone who ever knew him, but I take comfort in one of the last messages he posted on his rector’s blog at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Monroe, NC.

“Thank you, dear Friends. As we enter the new year, please love as hard as you can, and know that my love for you grows every single day. May your days be fully and richly blessed. And know that I miss you.”

The Choirs of Angels just gained one hell of a tenor.

Amen.

Behind the lens

My dear wife often jokes that I must hate something before I love it. The most annoying thing about her observation is that she is right. Perhaps the most blatant example of this quirk (I’m being generous to myself) is my change of attitude about tours. You know, like guided tours, the kind where you spend two weeks with total strangers on a motor coach with a guide covering a lot of ground in Europe. Nope, not for me. Or so I thought. Never underestimate the power of true love.

My wife and I were married in May of 2014 and her dream was to go to Italy for a belated honeymoon that September. I had traveled there a handful of years earlier with three friends, but one can never have enough Italy, so I said sure – until she proposed the idea of doing a tour. She made a strong case – tempting me with perks like no waiting in lines at sites, no stress of driving in a foreign land and the big one – no schlepping your own luggage. And she ran the numbers that clearly showed we could get a lot more bang for our Euros by going the tour route. So, I acquiesced and immediately started worrying about the boring obnoxious deplorables we would be sharing our journey with.

Once again, I was wrong. Are you sensing a pattern here? I call it the luck of the Australians, and we were blessed with over a dozen of them on our tour. Bottom line – toss in a dozen Aussies and you are guaranteed to have fun. You may need to enter rehab upon your arrival home, but meanwhile, you’re going to have the time of your life. We fell madly in love with our mates from Oz and remain in contact with many of them to this day via social media. A subgroup of them has a reunion every other year or so and always manage to include my wife and me in the festivities – like a drunken conference call at 2:00 AM in the US. That 14-hour time difference is tricky. The last time they got together they had two little dolls representing me and my wife and we made it into almost all the pictures – and some of the drinks.

We never think of these travel friends without smiling and we hope to visit them one day in the Land Down Under. My life is bigger and richer for knowing them and I have my wife to thank for nudging (shoving) me into saying yes to a tour. The downside to that trip was that the bar was set awfully high for future trips. I thought we’d never even come close to such a great group of companions. And then we went on safari to Africa in 2018. There’s really no way to travel in Africa other than a tour unless you’re Bear Grylls and/or incredibly wealthy. We are neither, so once again my wife researched the hell out of all the tours and picked one.

If you’ve ever been on a tour, you know that the initial meet and greet is fraught with anxiety. That’s when you first see who you’re going to be stuck with for the next two weeks. It’s like a blind date on steroids. We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania very late at night and rode on a shuttle van to our lodge with some others who were on our tour. I sat in front of a woman from NJ who never stopped talking. And she was a loud talker – one of my pet peeves. She droned on and on – her poor husband never said a word and I started panicking at the idea of being with her in a jeep on safari for ten days. I leaned into my wife and said, “I cannot be with her. I will lose my mind.” My wife is so much better at rolling with obnoxious people than I am. She smiled and told me it would be okay. I was not convinced.

The next morning our group of 13 gathered after breakfast for the moment of truth. Loud Talker was already there monopolizing the conversation and my palms began to sweat. My anxiety was interrupted by a woman from IL who started talking to me. Not loudly. She was friendly and interesting. Her name was Candy, and she was traveling with her husband Fred. Our host introduced us to the two guides who would be driving us and after an overview of the trip, instructed us to get into one of the two vehicles parked out in front of the lodge.

Candy and I wound up next to each other on the walk to the jeeps – Loud Talker was ahead of us. Enter Divine Intervention. Candy turned to me and said in a slightly desperate voice, “I cannot be in the same jeep with her.” I grabbed her by the arm and said, “Follow me!” like I was Indiana Jones leading her away from the Temple of Doom. We climbed into the open jeep – our spouses followed. Already seated were a brother and sister, Jim and Suzie, who I had previously identified as nice. We had one slot open – and then came Marge – a soft-spoken solo traveler. Our vehicle was full, and we were safe. Funny thing – the rest of the entire trip, the seating arrangement never changed. Our group – our fabulous group – was together for the duration.

My wife is prone to motion sickness, so she rode up front with the driver – she offered to rotate her spot, but everyone was so kind, and we all sat in the same seats each day. I was beside Candy and Fred was in the way back with Marge. They were the serious photographers in our pack. I mean really serious. Multiple cameras and long lenses. They liked being in the back because they could stand up when we stopped and have no obstruction as they were shooting.

Fred looked like he was on assignment for National Geographic. You know how some people look like they just bought an outfit for the trip that they will never wear in their real life? Not Fred. His safari wardrobe was well weathered. He looked like he could be in an ad for a safari or a model for the J. Peterman catalog. He was a quiet man – only speaking to add insights into what we were seeing. He was smart and well-traveled, and he was super sweet to his wife, so we liked him a lot right away. And he had the eye of an accomplished photographer and would spot animals long before we did.

Candy would take pictures with her iPhone like us, but then she would call out to Fred like she was Martin Scorsese, “Did you get the lioness on the rock?” Fred always dutifully and cheerfully got the shot. Later at dinner every evening, he would show us some of the primo shots of the day and we would wonder if we had been on the same game drive. Impressive zoom lens you got there, Fred. And we were so surprised after one of the first nights of the trip when Fred called our room and asked if we wanted to meet for drinks before dinner. We liked Fred even more then and we had some lovely conversations – mostly about some of the many places where he and Candy had traveled. We learned about their son and their two granddaughters and that they loved cats, too. The life stuff that helps you get to know someone.

Fred was one of those rarest of men – at least in my experience. He was a man’s man – an Eagle Scout/MacGyver kind of guy who I’m sure could have gotten us out of any sort of jam. He was also a gentleman who would help you up that first big step into the jeep without making you feel inadequate. He had a kind smile, and he would give Candy and me a sly grin when Loud Talker went off on one of her tangents at dinner. And I repeat – he was so sweet and attentive to his wife. Like he would always ask if she wanted another drink before he got the check. Little thoughtful things like that. I think my wife and I both had a little crush on him and I’m certain Candy wasn’t the least bit worried. They were one of those couples that’s just good together and you enjoy being around them.

I could tell that Fred was a good dad and granddad, too. At the airport on our flight to head home, my wife and I had spent all our shillings – that’s the Tanzanian currency – and we desperately wanted to buy a couple of bottles of water. Fred overheard our frenzied discussion and kindly came to our rescue and paid for our waters. Just like a dad to save the day.

The flight from Arusha to Amsterdam was packed and we never saw Fred and Candy again. When we got home, Fred sent me some amazing photos that he had taken and we exchanged holiday cards. Two years ago, Candy let us know that Fred had been diagnosed with cancer. Fuck cancer. He was in and out of the hospital and rehab and we had not heard an update in a while. Until yesterday. Candy let us know that Fred had passed away last Sunday.

I was at my desk when I read her message and I sobbed. Sitting by myself in front of my laptop, I just couldn’t stop crying for a man I had only spent ten days with. I think this pandemic has stripped many of us of any protective layers we might have had. I know I have been teary about a lot of losses of late. And honestly, it’s not a bad thing to be completely authentic with your emotions. I pictured Fred hanging off the back of the jeep to get the perfect shot, telling a good story, watching an amazing sunset. Fred. Happy being on a magical safari with his wife.

I gathered myself and responded to Candy how very sorry I was and that my wife and I would always hold Fred and her in our fondest memories. She wrote back, “Wonderful memories of the best trip ever. And our last together.” Gulp.

So, this is my long way of thanking my dear wife for making me not hate tours. If not for her, I would have never met Fred Brown.

Rest well, intrepid traveler. You got the shot.

Traveling light

I recently streamed the film Nomadland and it may just be the most perfect movie to view as our pandiversary approaches. Yep, one year – one endless year in lockdown. The movie is adapted from the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by journalist Jessica Burder. Fern, a sixty-something-year-old woman, played by the astonishing Frances McDormand, is a fictional character that does not appear in the book but is based on a composite of many of the real-life vandwellers Burder followed for almost two years. Here’s the basic plot – Fern puts most of her possessions in a storage unit, tricks out a weathered van to live in, and hits the open road of the American West. Her husband Bob has died and the town they lived in has been dissolved after the closing of the local gypsum plant. There is literally nothing left for her as she leaves Empire, Nevada to find seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center in Virginia. She’s got a few personal belongings and a good bit of unattended wanderlust as she heads out alone.

Are you all in? Okay, life can’t be all Bridgerton. Stay with me just a while as I connect some existential dots. I’ve always appreciated clever symbolism and Fern’s storage unit was a pandemic Pandora’s box for me. Most of her belongings are mundane – old furniture, some lamps, clothing – but one special box is filled with dishes her father gave her when she graduated from high school. The pattern is Autumn Leaf and we learn later in the film that he had collected the set at yard sales over the years. The only other item she pulls out of the pile of boxes is a denim jacket – her late husband’s – and she hugs it to her chest and smells it – longing for the scent of her lost life.

I had a storage unit for a couple of years after I moved in with my wife. I had owned a three-bedroom house and was downsizing into her condo. You’ll need some backstory here. My dear wife was a minimalist long before Marie Kondo made it fashionable. She values experiences over things. True story – the first time I came to her condo when we started dating, I thought it was the model unit. I’m serious – there was just not much stuff. I’m pretty sure I broke into a cold sweat wondering how this would ever work out if we got together for the long haul. I had some stuff. Quality stuff, but quantity, too.

I pared down when I moved in with her and rented a storage unit for things I would save for when we moved into a bigger place. The transition to minimalism was a rocky one for me in the beginning. I can laugh out loud about it now. Early on my wife said to me, “what you own, owns you.” Back then, I didn’t mind being owned by a lot of pottery. Today, I no longer have a storage unit and when it came time to get rid of it, I only kept a few antique pieces that belonged to my parents. I either gave away or sold the rest. And guess what? I don’t miss any of it. And I’m grateful for a spouse who would never say I told you so. Oh, and we never did move to a bigger place. We decided to live small and travel large. Okay, we may have questioned that decision more than a few times during the past 12 months.

We’ve all had to store a lot in our metaphorical storage units this past year – luxuries like trips and dinner parties and eating inside restaurants – and more precious things like visits with loved ones. I haven’t seen my sister in California in 14 months – since Christmas over a year ago. She works in healthcare and has had half a dozen COVID exposures at work. She is now fully vaccinated, and I am sleeping better at night. We speak on the phone every day and sometimes we get teary when we wonder when we will be able to see each other again. I always miss her but knowing she has been in the epicenter of the pandemic has been excruciating. That’s probably why I have little patience for those whining about frivolous matters like vacations. Not to go all Melania on you, but, no, I really don’t care that you haven’t been able to go to Europe in a year.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve been no role model for selflessness during this pandemic. I’ve had more than a few breakdowns over having to make dinner for the 18th time in a week. Those meltdowns have sometimes ended with an entrée of a peanut butter sammie paired with a nice Malbec. One night before bed a few weeks ago, I told my wife that the white dishes she has had for over a dozen years were sucking my soul dry and that I desperately needed some color in my dinner plates. I give her a lot of credit. After listening to my emotional nonsensical monologue, she paused a few seconds before responding and then said tenderly, “I didn’t realize this was so important to you.” I felt heard and sometimes that’s what you need most in the middle of a pandemic. Note: We still haven’t gotten any new plates because I seemed to have gotten over my deep dish anguish.

Some of us put hair color and professional cuts in our pandemic storage units. I haven’t seen my stylist in a year. If you had told me this a year ago, I would have laughed in your face. No restaurants are one thing, but no cut and color? Am I an animal? Well, now that you mention it, my wife now lovingly refers to me as a silver fox. The fox part is obviously quite generous, but the silver is accurate. I’ve gone a bit grey and I don’t hate it at all. 500,000 dead and counting really helps put one’s hair color in perspective. Now, I know I’m lucky that my wife discovered mad skills as a haircutter during lockdown. She’s cut my hair on the front porch, the deck and in the bathroom when the weather turned cold. She really enjoys doing it and it is has become a pandemic ritual that we both find quite settling. I’ll go back to my stylist eventually, but probably not for color. And with the money I’ll save, I too can go to Europe.

Frances McDormand cuts her own hair in Nomadland. I bet she cuts her own hair in her real life, too. She has long been one of my favorite actors and I am always drawn to her authenticity. I saw an interview with her the other day in which she recalled a review of her Oscar winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The critic wrote that “a close-up of Frances McDormand’s face is like visiting a national park.” McDormand loves that description and she loves the story her face tells. And it is a perfect vantage point from which to view the bare natural landscapes we see in Nomadland as Fern moves from park to park following the seasonal work.

While Fern’s journey in the film is a solitary one, she is buoyed by her new community of nomads. They share meals, help each other out and listen to each other’s stories of loss and love. Their grief is tinged with the shared hopefulness of wanderlust. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Fern has a soulful conversation with Bob Wells, the author and YouTuber who is a vandweller guru. She tells him that her father always told her that what is remembered lives. She says wistfully, “I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering Bob.”

I know I’ve been guilty of that – too much remembering. Losing my parents the way I did – only seven months apart from each other when I was still relatively young and the cascade of collateral damage that followed that loss – broken relationships and bad decisions – made me yearn for a happier time. Like Fern, I have been looking back for too long. This pandemic has made me turn my gaze more forward to something beyond my borders. No, this doesn’t mean I’m buying a van and hitting the road, but I’ve spent a lot of pandemic time working on emptying out some of my emotional storage units – the one filled with regret and shame for past decisions, the one filled with expectations of others that will never be met, and the one filled with burdens I no longer want to carry. I want to travel lighter when this lockdown is over. I want more room for discovery.

Near the end of Nomadland, Fern returns to Empire to empty out her storage unit. We see the back of a pickup truck filled with her belongings. “Are you sure you don’t need any of this stuff?” the owner of the facility asks her. Fern has a peaceful look of certainty on her beautifully worn face as she responds, “No. I don’t need any of it. I’m good. I’m not gonna miss a thing.”

Me either.