We met up in Lexington, first for lunch and then an afternoon of catching up that dribbled over into the evening, and ended with most of us staying over, scattered over two stories of our friends’ new house.  This is the group I see three or four times a year, often more if someone is reading or giving a presentation or just happens to be in the area. If we can, we flock to the place wherever the others are, even if for an afternoon, or  a quick lunch just off  I-64, I-75, the Bluegrass or Mountain Parkway.  

An entire year and then some has gone without us clapping eyes on each other.  A year with illness and deaths in the family, new homes and weddings and retirements to celebrate and there we all were, stuck in our homes, Zoom a sorry substitute for our old lives, but we were grateful for it, even so. 

And then, on a perfect Saturday in mid-May, we met up at Dudley’s in Lexington, just as the farmer’s market was in full swing outside the open doors. Everyone out in shorts and t-shirts and their fancy little dogs, or their sweet rescues with fancy leashes, or babies in fancy strollers, and it was almost an assault to the senses all those people and all that color concentrated in one small space. We aren’t used to it anymore.

We arrived early and were shown to our table where we waited for the others to join us.   It was graduation day at UK and the restaurant seemed full, although tables were still fairly spread out.  Maybe it was the celebratory feeling chasing around the room that made it seem full to overflowing. There was more than graduation to celebrate this Saturday, as mandates eased and the world cautiously opened up.

When the last of our group arrived it was hugs all around.  We had been talking about those hugs for weeks, and they were worth waiting for.  No shoulder bump/air kiss embraces these.  These were full-on funeral hugs, homecoming hugs, the greeting and parting hugs of every wonderful Christmas gathering all rolled into one.  We rose from our seats and stood in the middle of the restaurant, in other people’s way, announcing who was coming after whom for their long overdue embrace. 

We luxuriated in those hugs.  And then we ordered drinks. 

There is something about the brunchy time of day that just screams for some kind of pretty drink.  Even if you don’t drink, you kinda want one, and one of our pals who rarely imbibes, if ever, decided she wanted one, too.  We spent a long time discussing what she might like, talking in that indulgent way one does with a child.  Do you think you want something fruity? Fizzy?  Orange?  Peach? 

We ordered for her, making sure it was something we all would like, knowing we would probably be polishing it off for her, which we did. We shared that drink like we share desserts.  We passed it back and forth, smacked our lips and struck poses, attempting to discern the elusive flavors and ingredients like the experts we think we are. 

In the afternoon we met up with the rest of us who didn’t make it to lunch.  We sat outside as the shadows lengthened, talked for hours about what, I can’t say.  I just know the conversation never dragged, we took turns speaking like well-behaved kindergarteners, we brought each other water and soft drinks, crackers and cheese after any trip inside. 

At some point we talked about books we were reading, things we were writing, what other friends were up to.  There was a huge yard to explore, a creek, a hammock-y kind of swing no one could get in or out of gracefully. We laughed at everyone who tried it.   Finally, pizza. 

In other words, a normal, lovely day.  A day that in the depths of our isolation, we thought might never come. And yet, here we are. We have a holiday weekend just ahead, one of the little holidays, which is perfect for testing the waters, with no big expectations but some family or friends around, some potato salad and barbecue, maybe.  Which is great, really, because a simple backyard gathering leaves so much more time and space for all those hugs.

Masks No More

I took my first small steps toward living life as a vaccinated person last week, planning a quick trip to Cincinnati with my friend, Donna.  We had a small window to travel since necessary events like doctor’s appointments and graduations have hopped back on our calendars. 

But we dared to take our vaccinated selves a little bit north, to visit the aquarium in Newport, check out a museum or two in Cincinnati,  and shop at Jungle Jim’s. 

We figured we would see the aquarium first, since it was just this side of the river before crossing over into Ohio.   We spent the afternoon wandering around, oohing at the pretty fishes, ahhing at the colorful ones, and eeking at the truly horrifying, Moray eels getting most of those. 

 The museum was death on masks, with teenaged staff on patrol, checking faces, peeking around pillars to make sure the four-year olds in front of me had their little noses covered.  

I was chastised once and I didn’t take it all that well. 

Because I was hot and sweaty and couldn’t breathe. 

Barely into the first room of tanks I began to question my choices of the past year.  How did I let myself get so out of shape? I struggled to breathe, could feel my heart pounding in a disturbing way, and I wanted to sit down.  As soon as I ripped off my mask once outside, I could breathe and I felt instantly better. I’m so suggestible, I thought. 

The next day and the same thing, but this time in the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Hot.  Sweaty.  Cranky. Faint. Miserable after two hours and here I was hardly moving at all, just sauntering,  when I wasn’t floating, from one painting to another.  And again, instant relief in the fresh air. 

What was happening here? 

What was happening was this.  My mask wearing up to this point had been brief.  The grocery.  Doctor’s appointments, where, somehow masks seem less burdensome.  I thought this little getaway would be a good test for living a little larger life, masked though I may be. 

So, last Thursday afternoon I parted ways with Donna, off to take a nap, feeling sad and disappointed. If Michelangelo himself came back to give a lecture on the trials and tribulations of painting the Sistine Chapel, if he asked me to sit in the front row so he might turn to me for encouragement, being scared of public speaking as he is, I would have to turn him down. 

Because I can’t wear a mask that long.

Then, in the course of an afternoon nap, my world changed. 

New guidelines were announced while I slept and the vaccinated can ditch the mask.

Two hours later and we can’t find a place to eat.  Every hip restaurant is packed, waiting lists piling up, the front of house staff shaking their heads, unable to explain why they are so slammed, so suddenly, on a weeknight.  

I can explain it. 

That there, that was freedom in the air.  

Release and relief. 

Freedom for those who wear one mask and another one, and a third on top of those. 

Freedom for the reluctantly compliant, of which I number myself.  I will do what I am asked, even while my head is reeling with conflicting data, mandates contrary to commonsense, and a nagging fear, larger at times, smaller at others, about getting sick and what that might mean.  

Freedom, too, for those who hate to be told what to do.  They don’t have to fight about it anymore. 

The announcement came so quickly, and was so general, it will take a while for states and businesses to catch up.  But each day now corporate masking orders are dropping like flies and it is fun to watch.

Some will keep wearing masks, I suppose, and that is fine, as long as they don’t cut those shaming eyes my way.  Or anyone’s way, really.  Because for now, the worst is behind us and we can make decisions for ourselves and our own safety.  I’ll hang on to that package of disposable masks for the occasional times I might need them.  But I plan to walk bare-faced into the sunlight, and into Target, the first chance I get. 

Right now, the biggest task before us is finding something other than Covid to talk about.

Won’t that be something?  No more Fauci, CDC, WHO, all of them having worn out their welcome in my conversation rota long ago. On to better, which is to say, normal, things.

Early May Gardening

I post a photo a day on social media, have done it for over a year now. Every day, at least one photo.  Lately, because I am lazy and also because I love the newness of this season, I post images of the flowers I am planting, the pepper plants and herbs.  I never have to leave the yard, and there is the added bonus of a photographic record of my early intentions as I welcome summer. 

But it isn’t summer yet, and the spring flowers, my favorite, are still making their appearance. Some home repair last summer threatened my Annabelle hydrangea, so I separated it into three plants, which I now call Sad, Sadder, and Saddest.  But maybe after a good settling in they will survive and even thrive in their new little plots of land.

The peony has bloomed and it looked lonely.  It needs company but it is such a lovely peony I hesitate to give it any because I am convinced no other peony will compare and a less than gorgeous plant will bring down the neighborhood, knock some of the shine off this one, out there, doing its beautiful thing. 

The porch and patio table still heave with flat boxes of things I need to get into the ground.  The packets of zinnia seeds sit on the mantel by the side door in a vain attempt to remind me to scatter them in the beds that have been prepared for weeks. 

But what I don’t have, what I long for more than anything, are my grandmother’s bearded iris.  There was an ancient bed of them along the side of her house, a part of the yard we were seldom in.  There was a cherry tree near by, perfectly scaled for children to climb, and I imagine that figured into our lack of unsupervised time there.  

But no matter, her elderly neighbor, Annie Starks, had iris, too, on the other side of my grandmother’s yard, and they stood in dense and uneven rows in the cool early mornings, dripping with dew and heavy with scent, a scent I will always think of as purple. I used to sit among them, feeling the cool dry dirt that anchored them, the morning damp on my bare legs.  

But surely this isn’t right.  Perhaps I just wanted to nestle down with them, to search for the little faces of yellow that played hide and seek deep in their throats, to drink in the coolness, the rich earth, the good place for hiding and being alone.  

The iris of my heart is purple, deep purple, I think, but maybe not.  I can’t remember now the exact color and no photos exist that might tell me. They may have been lighter, lilac perhaps, and I have searched for them in garden centers and other people’s yards, and I am surprised by the amount of time I dither over this. But it seems important, that color.

For my friend, Silas, the color is yellow. He has moved several times since his aunt, Sis, died, and always she moves with him in the irises he dug from her yard, the ones he transplants and tends and tears up over each spring.  She is miles and years away from him now, but never closer than when her yellow iris bloom, filling a vase with bursts of bright and elegant color, filling the house with the particular scent, swelling his heart for this aunt who was more than an aunt to him. 

I post photos of peonies and people post photos of their peonies back.  Or share stories of their grandmother’s peonies, how they wish they had them still, long swaths of them lining the driveway of a house no longer standing. I post close-ups of sage and Greek oregano, again, out of laziness, but also because the leaves are delicately edged and intricate in a way we never notice when we harvest them in a hurry, something simmering on the stove requiring their attendance. 

There will come a time when the weather will turn hot, which is hard on me, but not as hard as the humidity that will come with it. I give my plants and flowers as good a beginning as I can, knowing that neglect is coming.  In the sweltering, asthma-inducing height of summer, my approach to gardening is Darwinian. 

But for now, for a little while longer, let the tenderness continue. 

Bicycles, Lost and Found

My bicycle, my beautiful English bike, was stolen a few years ago, lifted from my garage in the night, just as summer was arriving.  The policeman who took the report explained it.  It was the time of year when bikes went missing, kids or professional thieves casing neighborhoods, striking while we slept. 

I blame myself, in part, for the loss.   I had workmen in to shore up the listing walls of the garage, and I gave a fleeting thought to moving my bicycle inside, away from falling objects and the eyes of people I don’t know.   And the back gate by the alley didn’t latch properly at the time and some mornings I would wake to its wide-mouthed gaping, blown open in the night.  These may have been factors. 

But mostly, I felt wretched about the loss and mean-hearted toward humanity, whichever particular members were involved in nicking my bike.  It was distinctive and easy to spot and I never saw it again, although I prowled the streets and stopped by the police station once a week. 

I decided I didn’t deserve nice things.

I had fallen in love with the British “sit up and beg” bicycles while staying in Oxford, but who doesn’t fall in love with bikes there?  They are everywhere, chained to gates with signs saying  DO NOT LOCK BIKES ON GATE, they sit shoulder to shoulder in bike racks throughout the city, in front of every college, library and quad.  At the train station a sea of bicycles, shiny bikes, rusty ones, leather saddles here, saddles wrapped in plastic Tesco bags there. 

I wanted one. 

A shiny black one. 

An old-fashioned one.

So, I bought one. 

But I bought it in the States and at the time there was only one place to get such a thing and only in one size.   If I am honest, it never fit me quite right.  It was too big, but I convinced myself it was perfect.

Now, I think I want another bicycle.  But I don’t know. 

If my own friends are any indication, the statistics aren’t good.  Most of my pals who ride have had accidents.  And this is the worst part, the part that depresses me.  Most of the falls have occurred as they were getting on or off.  

Basically, standing still, which seems too cruel to contemplate.

Even so, I see myself plunking along quiet side streets or cruising the greenbelt, maybe, helmeted and slow moving, taking the air.  Never mind that my balance isn’t quite what it once was, that my reaction time now is leisurely and vague.  I am searching the English and Dutch websites for big, beautiful bicycles that weigh a ton but just roll, and roll, and roll. 

But then.  


In my garage, leaning against the ladder and rakes, is my old Schwinn Suburban, the bike I’ve had since college.  I held it upright, and even accounting for the deflated tires, it fit.  The way the seat hit me just so at the hip, the perfect height for momentum and stability. Holding the handlebars I could feel, even now, the curve of every turn, the arc of the front wheel lifting as I jumped a break in pavement or took a curb. The geometry of this bicycle the mirror image of my own geometry.

In her memoir, “Ghostbread,” author Sonja Livingston describes her sister, Steph, as kind and strong, and the reader experiences her this way, too.  Heroic, even.  But what I love best about her, Steph, is the way she commandeered the cobwebby basement, spruced it up in order to set up shop building bicycles from old and broken parts she and a neighbor kid scavenged.  Rusted and bent pieces found in empty lots and alleys, perhaps, and then—how on earth — they crafted rideable, like-new shiny bikes.

I’m thinking of Steph as I balance my old bike against my hip, inspecting the rims and wondering  how long have they have sat there, flattening on the concrete floor. Could I restore her to something serviceable?  What would it take besides new tires, a better seat and replacing the ossified gear shifts?  Surely, this wouldn’t be beyond me.  

What I can’t fix myself,  I can hire out.  Which, even as I channel Stephanie, I know is likely to be most of it.  I even like the way the paint is worn and dull, scratched up, a place rubbed raw on the front fender where the basket used to sit. This good old girl, left too long and unloved in the dark.