All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

Isolating: Week Three

It was hard to move last week, although I managed.  I sat on the sofa watching the news all day, every day, and only broke up the routine to wander off to do laundry, taking my phone with me, so I could keep up with the news.

I stayed in touch with friends and family via social media, and often the chats were full of forwarded news reports announcing new numbers of infections, the lack of test kits, the heroic work of the medical profession, and maddening reports from the fringes, both left and right.  I was not soothed.

Then, I remembered my friend, Linda’s,  advice, that 1950s staple of lazy afternoons, the Sunday drive.  I planned my weekend around that, marking my calendar with intention.  As I thought about where to go, I began to see some flaws in the plan.  Gas is cheap, yes, and the open road is a perfect place to isolate, but what about pit stops? 

I adjusted my itinerary to include a countryside meandering that could be completed in about an hour, giving me plenty of time to get back to my Cloroxed and disinfected home for any of my personal needs.  Sunday turned out to be a gloomy day, so an hour was just about right.

I headed south, looking for the road to take me to Habit, Kentucky, and ending up at the crossroads where sits Bethabara Baptist Church.  Established in the 1880s, it is simple in design, with its tall arched windows and white painted brick exterior.  It might be at home in New England.  There is something about it, and I took photos from different angles, never quite capturing the thing that draws me there a couple of times a year. But still, the windows reflecting the still-bare trees were haunting and matched the mood of the day.

Flowing down a small hill in the back of the church was a purple carpet of deadnettle, the weed that arrive early to tell us spring is coming.  Because it is in the mint family, deadnettle is invasive and hard to get rid of, but it is lovely to look at blanketing the earth, and I took photos of it, too. 

It has dawned on me slowly that isolating doesn’t mean I can’t be outside, as long as staying in means staying in my own backyard.  On the first nice day I took to the flowerbed, pulling weeds and my own deadnettle. I raked leaves left over from fall, spent more time than was strictly necessary sitting in the dirt.

I need compost and seeds, more mulch, but they will have to wait until I receive the all clear to venture out.  I feel fine, and think I am healthy as a horse.  But I am also in a high risk group, being of a certain age and having asthma—mild asthma, and intermittent, but still.  After a week of congratulating myself for being so compliant, grocery shopping when the parking lot was almost empty, it occurred to me that even that might be risky behavior.

My friends in the medical field assure me that it is. 

It has taken a while for this to sink in. 

So I read “The Beautiful World Beside the Broken One,” Margaret Renkl’s recent essay in the New York Times.  She tells us the birds don’t care about us, or this virus.   They are too busy doing bird things.  They prepare their nests, they sing as they are meant to, and we can listen and take comfort.  Daffodils are on the way, and tulips, hyacinth.  Peonies are shooting up, red and ragged, to thrill us in a month or two.  My lilac is wanting to bud, but it is playing hard to get.  The grass is that particular spring green, as vibrant as it will ever be until it dies away in fall.

We struggle to make sense of it all, in our fear seeing only chaos and dread.  Yet we have power, too.  We have control over what we have always had within our power to control, ourselves.  We can work to be kind, considerate, helpful.  Be patient with the ways in which our family and friends are frightened. We can work to control our own fears, our anger, our outlook.  We can marvel, as Renkl would have us do, at the natural world, which has rules of its own.  A world of awakening and new growth and hope.  We only must get out of its way, and wonder.

In Like a Lamb

Please, March, in like a lamb.  Also, out like a lamb, if you don’t mind.  It’s just that I have much less tolerance for extremes in all things, and where I once enjoyed a good storm standing on the porch as if lashed to a spar, all dramatic with wild hair dripping spray, now I just want to nap.

It was a family trait, this standing in the open door as soon as the tornado sirens sounded.   My father started it, and then my siblings and I gathered close behind him, pushing for advantage to be the first one blown off to Oz.

I think it disgusted my mother, and she figured the sensible ones, if there were any, would return to the safety of, if not the basement, an interior room, and she never called for us, yelled at us, or pleaded.  She  wasn’t wasting her well-being or her breath on such a spectacular group of nincompoops.

I get my kicks on Netflix now, where I help my Scandinavian and British colleagues solve crime. I am in actual danger only rarely, like when I drop the remote and I have to crawl around to find it.  It hurts my knees and sometimes I get wedged between the wall and sofa, where I spend several upsetting minutes, contemplating my derisive attitude toward the Life Alert necklace, and feeling shame for how often I made fun  of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

I hope for a March of calm, one where the patio furniture stays put and the rains are gentle and restorative. I enjoy the sun slanting in that particular way as it arcs toward its summer home and the nights are cold, but only blanket cold, not big socks, down comforter, wear a toboggan to bed cold.  I hope for March mornings, brisk and bright.

March is meant to be spent wandering the home stores and Rural King. There are packets of seeds to peruse, new garden gloves to try on, hoses to access.  Hoses are the bane of my existence.  I used to buy cheap ones, but they kinked so horribly I bit the bullet and purchased a heavy duty hose.  While I was at it, I thought I should get one a hundred feet long, and I could barely drag it around my yard.  It crushed my tender flowers and I had to sit down throughout the chore of watering, because it exhausted me.

Now I pick up those lightweight pocket hoses when I see them on sale.  I treat them as consumables, knowing eventually they will rupture and die, and then I go to the garage and get another one from the shelf where they sit, stacked up like surplus paper towels.

March is for cleaning windows, the better to watch the fledgling spring arrive.  It is for sprucing up around the yard, raking, buying bags of mulch, painting the wrought iron on the rare warm day.  March gives us our last chance for snow, which will be thrilling to await, but disappointing upon arrival.  It will be a heavy snow and short-lived, and in a huff we will wonder why it didn’t have the good grace to show up on Christmas Eve.

March gets props because it puts an end to February, and we love that about it.  March prepares us for Easter, for planting, for moving our lives outside. We get that extra hour of light in the evening and we get to put away our heaviest clothes.  March points us, decidedly, toward spring, with dogwood and redbud and the scent of slowing warming earth. And about time.

Hearts and Flowers

There was a time when I had a suitor of such passion, bordering on obsession, that my mailbox was filled with Valentines, all with his name scrawled across the bottom.  I was “the apple of his eye.”  He pleaded, “Please be Mine!” The cards, pink and festooned with hearts, or red and lacy white, begged, complimented and angled to butter me up to cast an accepting eye his way.

I was secretly pleased by the attention, but a little embarrassed, too, and I did nothing to encourage him.  This only seemed to fuel his ardor.  His mother was concerned. I know this because she accosted my own mother one afternoon at the grocery.

“I want to talk to you about the children,” she said.  “This is getting out of hand and I am concerned.”

“They are just too young.  He must concentrate on his education,” she said, all fierce and insistent. 

Mother listened, standing there in the middle of the cereal aisle, and she was stunned, unsure how to respond.

We were eight.

Her son’s valentines had been stuffed in the shoe box I had decorated the day before, all red construction paper and doilies.  You hoped to get one valentine from every child in class, those flimsy cardboard things, stuffed in even flimsier envelopes.  My haul that year was magnificent, thanks to Mike.

Another Valentine’s Day, and I am away at college.  There, on the counter of the front desk of the dorm were flowers for me.  A dozen long-stemmed red roses, in a box.  A box. With a little cellophane window, and a card attached to it.  I rearranged the card so my name was more visible to all who passed by, and left them there for over an hour for full effect.

I wonder now what I would have done with long-stemmed roses.  In a tiny dorm room, cell-like and spartan, I can’t imagine I had a vase sufficient to hold them.  Perhaps the hall director loaned me one.

But to this day I can attest these were the best flowers I ever received for the sheer drama of it, and I remember them, and the boy who sent them.

And then, this other Valentine’s Day. 

My pal, Alice, and I were in the habit of spending Thursday afternoons together, under the premise of writing our great works.  We wrote together exactly once.  We continued to meet each Thursday—her husband was out of town every Thursday night, so she was a free agent —and we took advantage of the time to poke around town and go out to eat.

We are not particularly fussy about where we go, yet we are indecisive.  We spend lots of time not caring and then rejecting every suggestion made by the other, until we finally settle, half an hour later, on our destination.

This one rainy February Thursday we headed out into the dark, looking forward to our dinners at a place we agreed upon quickly.  The parking lot was full.  People were huddled under the awning.  We didn’t even bother pulling into the parking lot.  We were surprised, but flexible, so we headed toward our second choice.

Same thing.  Overflowing parking lot.  People spilling out the door.  And the third place. Same.  The traffic, too, just terrible for six o’clock on a Thursday night.

We settled on our favorite Mexican place because there were spaces left to park.  We stood crushed against the patrons waiting to be seated, the door half-open, letting in waves of cold air and rain. I wondered out loud what was going on, we had never seen it so crowded on a weeknight.

“It’s Valentine’s Day,” a helpful woman said.  We laughed at ourselves for not knowing, our lives so pitiful the day slipped our notice.  They laughed at us, too, those couples who were making the questionable choice of Mexican on this night, but perhaps they couldn’t get in their first choice, either.

And now that one, too, is a memorable Valentine’s Day. When Alice and I think we are in the mood for Mexican food, we no longer call it by its name, but rather “our special place.”  If we are out tearing up the roads and we see the restaurant is having a busy day, one of us might mutter,  “Must be Valentine’s Day.”

And that is just fine, too. I’ll take it all—the little cards from smitten boys, the flowers, old friends, and dear hearts.  Just as St. Valentine intended.

A New Decade — Here We Come

Wednesday marked  not just the new year, but a new decade, at least it seems that it is marking the new decade. In truth, 2020 is the last year of the teens—the last year in a series of ten. But there is something nice and round, satisfying pleasant about beginning a decade or century or millennium with a number ending with zero, so that is what we do.

If you are a stickler, you can view this as the last year to get it right, prepare and reshape yourself for the new decade to come. Or you can jump right in with wild declarations and bold plans and good on ya, I say.

I have chosen a hybrid approach, taking this new year as a time of fine-tuning, casting off some worn out ways, adopting some new ones. I think of 2020 as the first year in a fresh decade but it will be a year of transition, too, so I have some practicing to do to get it right before the ’20s begin in earnest.

I spent much of the past eighteen months working on my health, my weight in particular, and I had some small success. Then I went to France. They celebrate food there, and wine, and both are fabulous. I did my best to fit in.

I fit in very well.

It wrecked what small accomplishment I might have made, and over a year later I am trying to get back to the plan that worked for me, sans French bread and cheese, paté and aperol spritzers.

After a lifetime of obligation and work and taking everything very hard, 2020 will see a bit of change in my free time. You would think this is a joyous thing, but trust me when I say, I am not so sure. I enjoy a good gripe, and there is nothing more satisfying than complaining about the terrible constriction of time you are under, to the concerned cooing of caring friends.

It lets you off the hook for the beds being unmade, the vacuum sitting in the middle of the floor, a sink full of dishes. You are an object of pity and concern.

However, be able to go to bed without setting an alarm, have most of the day at your disposal, at least the flexibility to plan as you see fit, and those dishes in the sink — and you — become objects of scorn.

I scorn myself.

A decade yawning before you is a long time and the changes it brings are huge. That two-year old toddler will be twelve at the end of it. A delightful, or more likely, sullen, child working on the perfect combo of sneer and disgust and ennui that every teenager masters. Ten more years and they are grown, facing the world as a newly minted adult, a little fearful but excited.

If you are just starting work and a career, the 2020s will represent one quarter of your work life. Sit with that a minute. Sobering, no? If you are mid-career, the next ten years will represent the time of your most fruitful earning, the time when you arrive, whatever that means.

For some of us, the last of the baby boomers, the new decade will see the end of work and the start of retirement. Some of us will putter around our yards, some of us will putter around Europe, some of us will putter around quietly while the grandchildren sleep.

The decades I passed in my early life came and went without much notice. I didn’t even know what a decade was until I was fourth grade or so. Then time was marked by weeks, with Christmas and birthdays and summer holidays gauzy dreams in a land I couldn’t quite imagine.

Most of my adulthood I made note off decades approaching, made big plans, declared my intentions for self-improvement, career moves, lifestyle changes, and then abandoned most of them in the moment of expediency, practicality, or distraction. We say we want certain things, but the universe doesn’t always agree, and sometimes we are just too tired or bothered to put forth much effort.

I’m wondering, baby boomer that I am, what the next decade will bring, what it will look like, as one kind of work ends and another begins. I am making plans, of course. I have new pens and notebooks to keep track of it. For a month or so, anyway. Let’s get cracking.



Spooking Ourselves

We have a new crop of Czech students in, working away in their community agencies, adjusting to a new environment, learning a great deal. The Czechs are surprised by the number of churches, and so close together. This seems a natural observation, as they stay on the Brescia campus and their stomping ground is the oldest part of town, with a church on nearly every corner.

But what really thrills them, gets them punching each other and drawing attention are all the Halloween decorations. From the first day of arrival they have had plenty to gawp at. One afternoon, the first rainy one we had had in months, they spied the old Victorian house on Frederica all done up with ghosts in the yard and stuffed figures of people with machetes on the porch. I slowed to a crawl, hoping the light would catch us so we might stop for photos; they had their phones out in three seconds flat. I lowered the rain-splattered windows, but the results were unsatisfactory.

Luckily, this fine old house and its fine decorations are on our regular route. Every time we pass it they take pictures. Any old drive around town produces plenty of pumpkins and witches and giant spiders on tree trunks, cobwebby shrubs and bushes. They thrill to the sight of all the Halloween goings-on with the same kind of thrill they experience when they see a yellow school bus.

They can’t quite believe we really celebrate Halloween like they have seen on TV, in the same way they don’t really believe the roads and streets of American towns are full of school buses. They think school buses only exist in the movies.

Halloween seems to be one of those iconic American events, like Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday. The Czechs, under Communism, didn’t celebrate it.  Many of my friends over there are religious and the holiday never quite caught on, Halloween seeming, well, perhaps unseemly.

They don’t quite get the frivolity of an American Halloween, the kind of Halloween we celebrated as children. I was a princess exactly once, in a flammable nylon-y store-bought costume, loaded with glitter down the front and on the plastic wand and tiara. It got in my eyes and I couldn’t breathe nor see out of the plastic mask, which dripped with condensation. Good times.

Mostly we were hobos or Army men, because we had old clothes and my dad collected World War II memorabilia. Those standard issue gas masks were a nice touch.
The ancient Celts may have started all this Halloween business. They celebrated the New Year on November 1, a day to mark the end of the growing season and the hard winter to come. On the eve of the new year, the Celts believed the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin, which  explains the ceremonies, bonfires, and special costumes to ward off the bad and beckon the good.

I’m not sure where the candy and treats came into it, but I am grateful.

Since All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day as it was once called, is on November 1, followed by All Souls Day on Nov. 2 which is a day to remember those who have died, it makes some sense that on Hallows’ Eve we might want to cut loose a little and scare ourselves a bit with some foolishness.

It is a little like whistling past the graveyard or scaring ourselves with ghost stories to take our minds off the monsters lurking under our beds.  Is there a person reading this who, as a kid, couldn’t leap into bed from four feet out, an attempt to avoid the boney and grasping hands reaching for your ankles in the dark?

Our Czech students will have some typical late fall experiences. They have been to the Apple Fest and last week they attended Soup Day at Brescia, which will be interesting for them, since the Czech eat soup all the time but never, ever as an entire meal. They will help pass out candy on Halloween, and get to experience that. Maybe there will be a party for them to attend.

Their classmates who have come before them have gotten in the spirit of Halloween. I know because I’ve seen the rubber snaggle teeth, the pointed witches’ hats, the packages of fake cobwebs they leave behind. For the girls next year, they always say. They will need these things.


The Big Boom — July 4, 2019

Today’s  the big day, with cookouts and parades in some places, those little home-made parades around neighborhoods and small towns, with dogs dressed up and riding in wagons, little kids in red, white and blue, and grandmas on the sidelines in lawn chairs.

It is the day of waking with John Philip Sousa marching around your brain, and maybe the 1812 Overture, a day of rising early to check the weather, because of all our holidays, this is the one we spend outside, with swimming, and hotdogs and watermelon.

It is a day of firecrackers.


A day of those booming things that have been going off for over two weeks now. It starts early each year, those trial runs. It is fairly infrequent in the run-up to the Fourth and easy to overlook or ignore the late night boom and pop..pop..pop that could only be fireworks. It is annoying, but tolerable in small doses. It will reach full crescendo this evening, when all over town we will hear the shriek and whistle of explosives—such fun!—sounds that will send dogs under beds, cowering and shaking and will irk the rest of us if it continues past 10:00 p.m.

Which it will.

We will be irked, that is, unless we have gotten our own hands on some fireworks, have gathered in our back yards or out by the street where children are standing around with their lips stuck out because their fathers are setting up tubes jam-packed with gunpowder and lighting fuses, because, you know, it’s too dangerous for kids. They will hog the bottle rockets.  And these grown men, why, there is nothing of the big kid in them, just the epitome of mature and responsible oversight.

When I was a child, firecrackers, wrapped in the thinnest of paper with Chinese characters written all over it, were hard to come by.  Sometimes, with great pleading and coercion, a dad might stop at a fireworks stand on some family trip through Tennessee. Just across the bridge in Indiana firecrackers could be had, but only for a few weeks a year.

A rickety wooden stand with a large hand painted sign would appear in the empty lot right off the bridge, and it looked a little fly-by-night and iffy. Word of its appearance would spread like a rash among adolescent boys and clandestine trips were planned.

It was a simpler time, when just driving across the bridge constituted leaving town and was forbidden for most new drivers. It was forbidden in my house. It was if, upon receiving our permits, my parents presented us with a map on a piece of parchment with the town and a crudely drawn river, and just beyond, in the void, the words, “Here be dragons.”

Boys, though, the cool ones, always seemed to have a ready supply of firecrackers. Girls were relegated to playing with “snakes”—those little black disks we lit on sidewalks to watch grow and writhe into long trails of black ash.

We managed to procure sparklers most years, but they weren’t all that much fun. The thrill is in the lighting of it, and then the thrill is gone. You wave it around a bit and then stand about self-consciously until it goes out, at which point you burn yourself on the wire and your mother harps on and on about not dropping the spent sparkler in the grass where your dad might run over it with the mower and put somebody’s eye out.
Sucks all the fun right out of the endeavor, that image.

I suppose this year will be no different from others. Leftover fireworks will go off all weekend. Dogs, bless them, will shake and convulse, no matter how tightly we cinch their thunder shirts. We will drift off to sleep at ten, or eleven, or twelve, and be jolted from sweet slumber with hollow booms and the popcorn bursts of firecrackers lit all in one go.

And I will be cranky. Or maybe not cranky.. I used to spend the Fourth with my sister and her tribe and all their neighbors, with a communal cookout, and lawn chairs and grandmas, and the dads hogging all the best gear. The kids are grown now, new neighbors live in the homes of those who have moved on, or left us. Things change.

Maybe the fireworks of last week, today, this weekend, remind me, and what I really feel is a little sad.

Lake Cumberland at a Certain Age

My girls’ annual weekend getaway has come and gone, and I must tell you, being of a certain age places undue burden on us.  We deign to share rooms as long as the bed configurations are sufficient.  This means, single or double beds apiece, and on the rarest of occasions, a couple of us might share a king.

But really, given our druthers, we would each have a bed, a bath and a room of our  own. It is hard to come by since there are so many of us, so we work to make do. We manage quite well, as it turns out, each of us having a preferred roomie, and we don’t fight over who gets the biggest room with the best bath. We are models of courtesy and generosity and we only pout for a little bit when we don’t get our way.

We act all organized and send out copious emails about food and arrival times and links that include the code to the gate, check-in times, and so on.  Soon there is a stack of undecipherable  “reply all” messages, and no one can remember who said what about anything. Someone gets superior and emails, “I sent that information in an email two weeks ago…” and then we all scurry to find it,  only to discover it came as a text, and was sent five days ago —which must then be called to everyone’s attention.

This leads to even more complex communications—texts about emails, emails about emails, texts about phone calls…it just never gets old, this confusing, frustrating and convoluted checking in with each other.

Somehow, we manage to arrive about the same time, and we spend a happy hour or so unloading the cars, disgorging coolers and cooking pots and bags and canvas totes of junk food,  fancy crackers, cheeses, dips, drinks, breakfast casseroles, fruit, whole watermelons, homemade cookies, breads and cake, appetizers and raw veggies, coffees and tea, other fine potables.  All this for less than three days of isolation in the woods. 

Which aren’t even woods.

And at least two evenings we plan to eat out.

Because we can, you know, since, again, we are not really in the woods.

This year we rented a house on Lake Cumberland, in Nancy, Kentucky.  We traveled down narrow lanes, past Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, rolling through a landscape that would not be out of place in the Midlands of England.

We stayed up late laughing, but mostly talking about our immunizations and shingles shots, the Hep A and MMR booster, our statins and steps—some of us were quite dedicated to our steps—and after an evening of categorizing our ailments and health concerns, we decided we should all go…


And why ever not?   All of us had seen boats, a few had even been on one—what could go wrong?  I was against it from the very beginning, had vowed I wasn’t getting on a boat with any one of them at the helm, but would stay safely on shore so that I might point emergency services in their direction.

Maybe it was the sugar high, maybe it was the fear of missing out, maybe it was the fact that we rented a pontoon which even I could out-swim.  Whatever it was, I tagged along and enjoyed it immensely.    It was fun even when the young turks in their fast boats pegged us for exactly what we were and created awful wakes to toss us about like the USS Minnow.  On purpose.

Some of the water babies among us swam a little when we stopped in a quiet spot.  We stopped again to watch three fit young men scramble up a cliffside looming over the lake, as a drone hovered around and above them, photographing the whole thing.

You could see them sitting all loose and cool a good thirty feet or more up the cliff.  They shook their arms as they stood up, more a nervous gesture than one of preparation, I think.

Then, catching the afternoon sun, they jumped to the cheers of their girlfriends waiting on their boat below.  If they had been listening, they might have heard another cheer go up from another boat, a little way off, one overflowing with women of a certain age who still remember warm summer, and lakes, and beautiful boys showing off, just for them.

The Low Country and Being There

I chanced to wander through a delightful garden recently, a large and lovely thing in South Carolina’s Low Country. Because Brookgreen Gardens lives in the South, there is something blooming year-round. They have even placed a little table outside the welcome center with samples of what to look for on your ramblings.

The day I visited the table displayed several varieties of hydrangeas, their half-bloomed heads drooping in the heat, some salvia shoots looking brave, coleus and sweet potato vine. It was a nice touch and I halfway longed for some kids to be tagging along, because what child doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt?

I fiddled around with my phone, not because I had to check a text or make a call, but to let my friends get a head start on me. We are an amicable bunch, but you know how these things go. If you start off as a group, you have to stay as a group. It is almost an unconscious reflex, the turning around to locate the pack, the silent counting of heads, the mama duck/baby duck aspect of it.

I brought a camera and wanted to take some pictures and didn’t want them waiting on me. I didn’t want to feel rushed, either, so the phone trick worked just fine.

The figurative backbone of the gardens is The Live Oak Allée. Here is a grove of 250 year-old live oaks that were around in the 1700s when this spot was part of Brookgreen, one of the four rice plantations from which the gardens come.

The Live Oak Allée gives the impression of a cool and dark green park, the trees massive and gnarled, with branches scraping the ground and seeming to intertwine overhead. The eye is drawn instinctively upward and there, in a soft breeze, long beards of Spanish moss sway back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, hoary and dramatic, rolling in waves, an entire canopy of gauzy gray.

It is possible to wait a minute for the path to clear in order to take a photo unobstructed by the human form, to take a photo of the masses of Spanish moss, the likes of which I’ve never seen.

And so I did. I checked my camera eagerly, smugly, even, because it had to be a perfect shot, and when I looked…it just simply wasn’t.

I tried the photo again, this time with my iPhone, and again, I came up with an accurate depiction that wasn’t accurate at all. The trees stood in the same place, the general color of the grove was more or less accurate, and if I looked closely enough I could see the moss, but it was no more true of the place where I was standing than the interior of a Paris salon might have been. There was no breeze, no birdsong, no sense of a creeping humidity quietly slicking my skin. No undulating moss, just static gray, like a smudge.

There is a decision to make, standing there like that. I could keep trying, doggedly rendering one mediocre photo after another.

Or I could put my camera away.

I could take a deep and cleansing breath, happy to have sent my friends on ahead, not because they are irritating, but because without them I can be quiet, to be completely and singularly in the garden, mind emptied and mind expanded—odd how that works—as I saunter through the deep green grove, entranced by the swaying moss, eerie and comforting at once, sheltering me from high above.

I think all this manic urge to record every aspect of our lives is an insidious thing. It looks like memory keeping, but I don’t think that is what we are doing at all. We are wooing and wowing our social media fans. We are experiencing events once, twice, three times removed even when standing it the big middle of them.

I am reminded of an image of an elderly woman at some race or parade, surrounded by young people. She, alone, has no phone pointed at the action. All the others have their phones out, watching the action coming at time on their screens, all with faces beaming. She, too, is smiling, if not exactly beaming. Her smile seems to go deeper, taking in the event joyfully, first-hand and from the inside out.

It is a striking image, a cautionary tale and I am reminded of that, every time I see it. I thought of her again while standing with the trees.

Oh, I took photos of statuary from odd angles and sent pictures to friends with funny captions, I took images of flowers I want to find for my own yard. But mostly, I worked to just be there, alone, and to let that little bit of stillness be what I remember, what I will share with friends.

The Burning of Notre Dame

I was messing around in the yard and didn’t know a thing until a friend texted our group she was watching Notre Dame burn. I rushed in, flipped between news channels and watched in disbelief and something akin to grief as the Paris sky, not yet the evening sky, glowed orange with the impossible flames.

The spire fell as we fired off texts, this virtual moral support we use in times of distress, the modern day equivalent of gathering on porches to share news and commiserate. We each checked our preferred news agencies and sources, texted updates as we watched almost nine hundred years of history and tradition go up in smoke. Beth, who lives in France, told us the news from there, what she was hearing, the insider speculation.

During lulls we sat in our separate places, holding our phones like each other’s hands, texting out words our grandmothers might have uttered with neighbors as they sat in some long distant living room, adjusting to shocking and horrible events.

“So sad.”
“I’m just sick.”
“Oh, the pictures of that spire burning.”
“I know! Just awful.”

Then Beth would give us new information on the city’s planning for just such a disaster, and how this fire was too big, too high, and caught too quickly to get water above the flames, so they were regrouping in an effort to save part of the lower structure. We shared our stories of Notre-Dame de Paris.

It seemed we all had one, even if we hadn’t visited. Some had photos of themselves outside the cathedral, or inside lighting candles, silhouettes of parishioners backlit by the stained glass. Others had stories of only seeing the outside, saving a proper tour for a later visit, too late now. I grieved the prospect of losing the rose windows.

One friend went looking for her copy of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” One friend sent Willa Cather’s poem, “Paris,” with the lines,

The towers of Notre Dame cut clean and gray

The evening sky, and pale from left to right.

Another sent us words from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,”

“And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…and the fire and the rose are one.”

Even as the spire fell, as the two towers’ fate seemed precarious, we moved on to how it might play politically in the days ahead, how the blaming would begin, such is the news cycle and the world we live in.

I have memories of Notre Dame, too. I was there in the early 80s, when cars and buses and scooters and motorcycles could still pass by the little square in front of the cathedral. The towers loomed over the Point zéro routes de France, a marker that is said to be the exact center of Paris, and the spot from which all distances in France are measured.

I couldn’t find any photos. In those days, Kodachrome slide film was all of it, and now my memories sit fading away in boxes, somewhere in the basement. But I remember lighting a candle, though for whom or what I no longer remember. I was new to the whole candle lighting thing, and my prayers on that trip ran along the lines of “thank you, thank you, for letting me be here, letting me see this.”

As crowded as it surely must have been, my recollection of moving through the space was one of solitude, as if I had passed into a moment of grace, all time suspended. It may not be the most magnificent of structures, the esthetes can debate that, but it means something to us, and it is that which we come to see and experience.

I climbed up to see the gargoyles and looked out over Paris, the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. I posed for a picture as f I were feeding them grapes, a silly touristy thing to do, like holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa with one finger.

But oh, those rose windows. The soaring vaulted ceiling. Art as I had never seen, the relics of saints. And me, there, so small, with the world, and the ghosts so large around me.

As the fire raged, many speculated total devastation. The windows surely will break or melt or explode. If the 20 ton bells fall—supported as they are on gargantuan wooden beams— it will likely bring down both towers and the collapse will be complete.

It would be several hours before news would come the windows survived. The towers stand. The pieta, reliquary, the cross survive, enough structure to salvage and restore. Millions, a billion euros pledged. For a moment, though, on a Monday afternoon, a reminder that nothing lasts, exactly as it is, forever. A fact we can face, if we are brave, and together.

Winter Into Spring

We are on the downhill slide of the endurance race that is weathering a Kentucky winter. So far we have experienced a couple of half-inch snows, disappointing in their brevity and depth. Really, they were hardly worth the hot chocolate and chili we threw at them.

A quick peek at the prediction for the first two weeks in March is just plain disheartening in its monotony—mid-forties, some fifties, cloudy, rainy, a little dip into the thirties, some shower/rain events, and so it goes for as far as the eye can see.

Or as far as the eye cares to look.

This is that weird, not-quite-any season that takes hold along about now, and it is hard to take most years, but this year I am taking it harder than usual. I am one of the lucky ones who likes winter and when there comes a big snow, I am excused from showing up at work. I suppose I might feel differently about it if I had to rise extra early, struggle into a parka and gloves, a hat, boots, scrape the car, slide around, curse the cold.

I get to watch snow from a window, hands wrapped around a coffee mug, Netflix screen saver bouncing around on the TV. I might stick my head out the back door and pant as I try to see my breath, and if I manage it, I run back inside and congratulate myself on being so hardy, what with my prairie stock genetics and all.

But this late winter we have had rain, rain, and then some rain. A few frigid days—dangerously cold and frightening—and then, for fun, more rain. And now I gaze glumly at the forecast and see little hope of that last ditch snow, and likewise no promising signs of spring.

How shall we cope with these last days of winter? Surely it will be just days, a couple of weeks at most—before we get glimpses of spring, some faint hint of budding in the yard, a return of birdsong, that awareness, all of a sudden, that yes, the days are getting longer.

I like my signs obvious, even when I am too dense to catch on right away.

A few years back, on one of my trips with Caritas College of Social Work colleagues, we traveled to the Monastery Želiv, where we stayed overnight for a spiritual retreat and then some meetings. It is a beautiful place and they run a successful monastery hotel and restaurant, and where, as luck would have it, they also brew their famous unpasteurized beer.

It is made as it was in the 1300s, and we took a tour of the surprisingly small one-man operation. The beer is brewed in three or four different alcohol contents and we were served generous and redundant samples as we sussed out our favorite. After such taxing work, we decided to take a short walk through the village to clear our heads and enjoy the landscape.

Martin, always the taker of the longest strides, led the way, pointing out trees, details of architectural interest, infrastructure and other things. He stopped at the small wooden fence separating us from a family dwelling, and pointing into the back yard he said,

“Look. Spring.”

I didn’t get it. It was a gray afternoon, threatening rain, and cold. I saw upturned buckets, the ghost of a garden plot, outdoor furniture scattered about.

“No, look. Spring. Mama sees spring.”

There, almost invisible in the grayness of the afternoon, was a clothesline stretched between two slanting and rickety posts. Marching across it were sets of mittens, a dozen or more small mittens to large ones, waving winter goodbye. Then came the gloves, still waving, and finally woolen hats and scarves, fluttering in the damp.

The Czechs seem to me a cold-natured bunch, bundled up at the first little drop of temperature, their homes and offices baking chambers of nice steam heat, students blowing on their hands to warm them and scarves wrapped to their ears in sweater weather. The good Czech mother must have been certain about the approach of spring for surely she would not have snatched her family’s woolens prematurely.

So, you see, a sign. Perhaps our signs of spring are lurking, just there, waiting for us to notice. Something tangible but subtle, a promise and adieu, winter into spring, as easily as that.