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.

Kettle call

For as long as I can remember, I have subscribed to a dangling carrot approach to life. I’m always looking forward to the next special thing, whatever it might be – a vacation, a birthday party, a visit to a winery. This never-ending pandemic that we find ourselves in has made me question the sustainability of such an outlook. In short, the carrots these days are in short supply.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe this is a silver lining to my life in lockdown. I’ve had to search for smaller carrots – like the perfect cup of tea on a grey winter afternoon. English Breakfast with a touch of cream. Making tea has become a bit of a meditation for me this past year. It’s a quiet ritual – just me and the kettle. I should say that I’m a lifelong coffee drinker, but in the pandemic, tea has become the thing I look forward to a couple of times during the day and always in the evening. I guess you could say that my tea has become a daily cup of tiny carrots and that’s probably enough of that analogy.

I should have been on to the magic powers of tea long before now. My dear wife and I watch a lot of British television and we’ve noticed that the Brits first response to any dramatic or emotional incident, ranging from the confession of an affair to a grisly murder, is to put the kettle on. This has become a running joke for us, and we often call the phrase out loud when some poor bloke gets knocked off on one of our shows. In British films and television, no grave news can be processed without a cup of tea. We’ve noticed that the standard American response to the same news is to offer a glass of water. I’ll take me cuppa, thank you.

I’ve observed that tea pairs well with a pandemic. There’s something inherently comforting about putting the kettle on and waiting to hear the familiar whistle. And after you drop your tea bag into the cup, the one you pulled out of the cabinet because it’s just right for tea, you must wait a bit. Tea requires more patience than coffee – a helpful quality during these trying times. Tea feels more intentional – more like a journey – coffee feels like a destination. You never really hear anyone say, “I’m going to grab a quick cup of tea.” No, tea is a stroll and coffee is a run. Coffee would text if it could and tea would send a handwritten note.

Okay, you might be worrying that I’ve run out of things to entertain myself with in this pandemic – just because I’m analyzing the personalities of hot beverages. Not true at all. In fact, I’ve found that the art of tea drinking has made me more present to things around me – small things, like the soothing shade of butterscotch that my tea turns when I put the cream in. And I often look out the kitchen window as I wait for the tea bag to steep. I may see a neighbor walking by and wonder how they’re navigating this bizarre time. When I drink my tea in the evening, I’m usually sitting beside my sweet wife and I am as aware of my gratitude for her as I am the warmth of the cup in my hand. Tea is thoughtful.

I must admit that tea feels fancier to me than coffee and I’m here for it. Years ago, a lovely young woman in Stoke-on-Trent introduced me to the splendors of a full English tea. She had me at clotted cream. You see, the Brits have snacks with their afternoon tea – proving once again that they are a more civilized nation. Tea is usually served on a two-tiered tray with both savory and sweet snacks. And, of course, at a proper tea, the tea is made from loose leaf tea and not a tea bag. I’m much too lazy for that and besides, I enjoy the dunking of the bag. In a pandemic we take our pleasures where we find them.

The joy of tea drinking has been one of the rare, pleasant surprises of the pandemic for me. It has provided me with a daily peaceful respite from the anxiety of the past 11 years months. It makes everything around me feel quieter and more centered and I’m happy to have been lured by the kettle’s whistle. The Brits are famous for another bevvy that my dear late father was fond of – the gin and tonic. And I’m so fortunate that I married a woman who can mix a G and T that would make Winston Churchill weep. Bloody hell, summer can’t be that far away. Things are looking up, mates. Cheers!

Wed locks

We’ve all learned a lot about ourselves during this pandemic. Some of these things have come as a big surprise to me. For starters, I haven’t missed live sports at all. And I love sports. They just don’t seem all that important to me anymore. Well, at least not as important as almost 130,000 Americans dead from COVID-19.

Now don’t think I’m pining for sainthood or anything. There are some things I do terribly miss – like the movies – and I knew from day one of lockdown that the cinema would be high on my Most Missed List – right up there with haircuts. But guess what? I don’t miss them either. Now to be clear, I do miss my hairdresser, Kelly. I’ve been with her for almost 15 years and she is one of my favorite humans on earth. We talk about everything from Jesus – we are both big fans – to brow lifts – I’m on the fence. I adore her.

So, I thought for sure that once restrictions were lifted, I would be the first one dragging my raggedy roots back into the salon. My last appointment with Kelly was on February 25th – ten days before I was to leave on a long-planned trip to the Holy Land with my dear wife and several friends. Yeah, well, you know how that worked out – just one of a bazillion Corona cancellations. All of this is to say that I headed into quarantine with a nice fresh cut and color. I was Zoom ready. Well, at least from the neck up.

I will confess to an unhealthy amount of vanity when it comes to my hair. I blame my father – Daddy with the good hair. He had a head of thick black hair and it remained that way until the day he died at 79. Friends would tease him about coloring it, but he never did. He always laughed and said they were just jealous. I am lucky that I got his hair – and to be honest, it is one of the few aspects of my self-image that I’ve never felt bad about. I love my hair and God knows I’ve invested a lot in it over the years – and I have the products to prove it.

Funny story. My wife and I had not been dating long when one afternoon she told me she was going to get a haircut. I asked her what time her appointment was, and she said, “Oh, I go to Great Clips – you just walk in.” I was grateful we were speaking on the phone and she couldn’t see the color drain from my face. She might as well have told me she was going to Starbucks for a kidney transplant. I was shocked and for a moment I questioned the future of our relationship – then I reminded myself that she has pretty hair and I did a quick ballpark accounting of the amount of money I would save in a year if I went to Great Clips. I’m not great at math but that trip to Machu Picchu would have been nice.

My hair grows very quickly and my wife has often trimmed it a bit between appointments for the past few years. I even ordered her nice scissors from Amazon – an upgrade from the dull drugstore pair she was using.

I guess I should tell you that my wife is a psychotherapist by trade – she just happens to have mad skills with scissors. Friends have joked that her salon would be called Hairapy. She giggles and thinks that it might be a nice career change with a lot less paperwork.

Anyway, as this pandemic wore on – and on – she started cutting my hair and these times have been some of our loveliest moments in lockdown. There is something very intimate about having your hair cut by your person – the one you love and share your life with. I think it is a bit like a trust fall – with a slightly less chance of injury.

My wife cuts with confidence so I’m never the least bit nervous. And she is quite conscientious about the whole thing so there’s not much talking except when she tells me to be still. I am pretty sure I am smiling the whole time because I feel so safe and cared for. These quiet times have been a sweet and gentle bubble during these anxious months. No one is in a hurry and it’s just us and some trees and a few birds. It is a very Zen salon even if the amenities are lacking – you must sweep up after your cut and there’s no cucumber water. But I’m not complaining – I know I’m lucky. Not everyone has access to a live-in Edward Scissorhands and I never take that for granted.

I have colored my hair since the first Bush administration. It was a pretty auburn color when I was younger but gradually faded to a dull brown over the years. I went through a blonde highlight phase in the ‘90s – hey, everybody was doing it – and I never even considered not coloring it. I thought for sure that I would be the old gray mare by month two of lockdown but somehow, I’m not. I’m not ready to commit to a colorless future, but for now – it feels easy – and so few things feel easy these days.

Kelly texted me about making an appointment just before North Carolina moved into Phase 2 and salons were preparing to open with new guidelines. I have no doubt that her salon is doing a good job of protecting clients and staff, but I am not ready to go back. My wife has chronic asthma and has not been in any public spaces – except her office – since the beginning of the pandemic and I don’t see any reason to take any unnecessary chances when it comes to this wicked virus.

That all probably makes me sound more thoughtful than I really am, and it is a little disingenuous. The truth is that I’m not ready to give up my deck cuts. You see, I have a big crush on the social worker with the scissors. Oh, and those brochures on Machu Picchu just arrived in the mail. Adios!

Night swimming

This might sound strange, but I have been sleeping better during this pandemic. Of course, there is a low bar for strange these days – and months. I’ve suffered with insomnia for several years. I fall asleep okay and then I find myself eyes wide open at 3:00 AM. I usually drag myself to the couch while my dear wife sleeps like a drunken sailor. She sleeps better than any person still alive and it makes me freaking jealous.

Pandemic sleep for me has been very deep. Remember diving for quarters in the deep end of the pool when you were a kid? It was such fun and I loved that sensation of swimming closer to the bottom – feeling the water getting colder and the sounds from above becoming more muffled. I could hold my breath for a surprisingly long time and I often went home with the most quarters.

My dreams have run the gamut from sweet to crazy to frightening to funny. Just last night I dreamed I was hanging out with Nicolle Wallace from MSNBC. Yes, she is my spirit animal but that’s just funny. I call these my Insta Dreams because I follow these folks on Instagram. The best one so far was a few weeks ago when JLo and I were sitting on a patio and I was telling her how much I loved her Super Bowl appearance and that I named my new car after her. She got me.

I have dreamed a lot about my dead parents over the past few months. I am grateful that these dreams have been peaceful and comforting. In most of them, we are together and doing something quite ordinary – like making dinner.

The other night, I dreamed I was with my mother in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. I was telling her goodbye because I was heading back home. In this dream, I lived in California which is pretty cool because I’ve always dreamed of living there. I guess that falls under wishful dreaming. Anyway, my mother was wearing a dark blue velour robe – which was historically accurate – and we hugged for a very long time. Almost as long as I could hold my breath in the deep end all those years ago.

I’ve dreamed of former partners – one sweet, one not – again, historically accurate – and friends I haven’t seen in years. A few nights ago, I was on the Metro in DC with Ann and Cathy, two much younger women I worked with over 20 years ago. We were chatting away like it was yesterday, and the cherry blossoms were in bloom. That period I lived in DC was one of the happiest times of my life and it was lovely to revisit it in a dream.

Of course, not all my dreams have been sweet. I’ve dreamed a lot about broken relationships with family and friends that remain unmended. Some nights I feel like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life reviewing all the what ifs of my life. These dreams are distressing and yet I linger in them and when I wake, I am often filled with regret and despair and this pandemic feels even more ominous to me. The hangover of these dreams can last a while and I carry a heaviness throughout the day. I feel like I’m wearing one of those lead aprons they put on you when you get an X-ray at the dentist’s office. Those days are longer than most.

I have spent a lot of time pondering what these dreams mean and I always come back to mortality and the unfinished things in my life. Light, right? Sometimes I wish I were a puzzle person – that seems like a far less bleak pandemic activity than pondering one’s own mortality, but I don’t have the patience for that. I think about trying to put the pieces of those broken relationships back together, but it feels so overwhelming – a 5,000-piece puzzle of the color white.

So, I write to try and help me make some sense of these things that make no sense these days. My friend, Jen, is a professor of English literature at UNCG. She is the kind of smart that makes you feel like your brain is not set on the same speed as hers. She is always taking notes – as if to not miss anything – and she recently wrote a beautiful essay, “Finding the Courage to Write.” Click on the title to read it – and I really hope you do. Jen talks about writing against the despair of this pandemic and connecting with as many others as you can. I love that phrase – “writing against the despair” – it feels hopeful and makes me feel like if I keep writing, I can hold my breath long enough to make it back to the surface with that quarter safely in my hand.

Taking flight

I don’t know about you, but for me, this pandemic has been a daily roller coaster ride. And I hate roller coasters. I try to start out most days with a moderately positive attitude so I can navigate the deep dips that may come – as they invariably do. Yesterday, was a most pleasant reversal of this ride – more like a Ferris wheel. And I love Ferris wheels.

Yesterday morning, I was below ground level after my weekly trip to the grocery store. And honestly, it had nothing to do with the grocery store, but the unmasked shoppers I encountered. I just don’t get it! What is so hard about wearing a mask? I had a running conversation with myself as I passed person after person without a mask. The twenty-something guy without one – stupid or just arrogant? Probably both. The old – like really old people – not wearing one. Death wish? Resignation? I had no answers, but plenty of side-eye as I passed the unmasked. Unfortunately, my side-eye, rather legendary, has apparently been rendered ineffective behind the veil of a mask.

I was just so damn mad and disgusted when I left the grocery store that I decided I needed what my dear wife likes to call a “corrective” experience. I ran home to give the groceries a quick Silkwood scrubdown and decided to take a drive to a local strawberry farm to pick up some seasonal deliciousness. This farm advertised drive-thru pickup, so I felt relatively comfortable with the outing.

It was a magnificent spring day – a Tarheel blue sky that NC is famous for. I made myself not listen to MSNBC on my Apple CarPlay on the ride out to the country and went with the Joni Mitchell channel on Spotify. Good call, right? I could feel my mask malaise dissipating as I turned down the little dirt road to the farm. I was greeted by a young man – wearing a MASK, thank you – holding a box of beautiful strawberries. He greeted me kindly and asked what I would like. I said, “Those.” I gave him my debit card – he ran it – and just like that I was driving home with my strawberries riding shotgun.

Mother Nature is a remarkable thing. As I looked back at the field of strawberries, COVID-19 felt far away – sort of like when you look down at the ground when you get to the top of a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling as sweet as those berries on the seat next to me.

I kept listening to music on my way back to town and decided to really live it up and go through the Starbucks drive-through for a cappuccino. I pulled into the parking lot and there were just a few cars ahead of me. I was on a roll. I ordered and when I got to the window, a very friendly young man – MASKED, thank you – handed me a perfect dry cappuccino – just like I like it. For the uninitiated, a dry cappuccino has less milk than a standard one and is topped off with a thick layer of milk foam. You can tell immediately if it has been made correctly when you lift the cup – it feels half-empty – just like the one in my hand. How high could this day go?

I was feeling so good that I decided to leave my bestie Carla a Marco Polo message. Marco Polo is a video chat app that lets you send messages back and forth with folks. As a dinosaur, the only Marco Polo I was familiar with was that annoying tag game we played in the pool when we were kids, but Carla keeps me young and on Day 2 of quarantine, she made me download the app. It has been our most used mode of communication these past two months. I like that it is so in the moment – good, bad, and ugly – and it has really kept us connected. A few weeks in of Poloing (our word) – Carla upped her game and started sending me videos of her playing the guitar and singing. This was a surprise to me because I didn’t know she could do either of those things, much less so well. We call these videos “Kiki’s Coffeehouse” – and I love them. It’s so fun to get a personal tiny desk concert now and then.

My last few Polos to Carla had been rather blue, so I wanted to share my up morning with her. While I was recording my video, I noticed that a lot of people were pulling into the parking lot next to Starbucks. Then I noticed two firetrucks and several police cars. I finished my chat and looked around to see lots of people standing by their cars staring up at the sky. Did I miss a pandemic eclipse? Then I remembered that the NC National Guard’s Airlift Wing was conducting flyover salutes to medical staff and other frontline workers. Somehow, I had landed smack dab in the perfect viewing site. Could this day get any better? Yes, it would.

I got out of my car – with my MASK – and surveyed the crowd. And it was a crowd. Families with little kids, lots of law enforcement as spectators, but running the lights on their cars to make it all a bit more festive. There was that excitement in the air you feel on the 4th of July while you’re waiting for the fireworks to begin or the parade to start. People were happy and talking to each other in that benign friendly way we speak to strangers. I had a nice chat (socially distanced) with an older man wearing a Marine baseball cap.

I looked over across the street to the parking deck of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and saw a huge group of hospital workers (DEFINITELY MASKED) standing by the wall looking up toward the sky. And that’s when I got the first lump in my throat. Then I heard a loud roar from the sky and there it was – coming right at us – a huge C-17 airplane. Disclaimer: I know less about planes than I do about cars – which is nothing. I looked it up. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft.

It was so close I felt like I was ducking when it raced over my head. And then I heard people clapping and cheering. And that’s when the lump in my throat came out as tears – lots of them. What was this familiar feeling that started in my toes and rose to fill my heart? It was that feeling you get when the National Anthem plays before a football game. Goosebumps. That feeling of being an American. God, I haven’t felt that feeling in so very long. It was glorious and I didn’t want it to be over. No one did. Everyone lingered long after the plane was gone – not wanting to go back – to where we are now.

This pandemic has felt so different than 9/11. I mean, of course, it is different, but there has not been that tsunami of unity that a lot of us felt after that unspeakable tragedy. It might have been for just a few weeks, it’s easy to romanticize compared to our current shit show, but it felt like for a very long time, we were connected as Americans. I wonder if those not of age then will ever experience such a feeling. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever know that feeling again.

But I did – yesterday. And after I had sucked in every breath of that magical moment, I finally got back in my car to drive home. I turned Spotify back on and what song was playing? Carolina in My Mind. Even I couldn’t make that up.

I stayed in the top car of that Ferris wheel the rest of the day, letting my feet dangle with not a worry in the world – smiling down at what I had been so deeply missing. My country.