No wonder we can’t wait to get back to the lives we lived before, as if they have been waiting for us unchanged. As if they’ve been sitting in that sad little office in baggage claim where they keep the roller-bags and duffels that no one pulled off the carousel, as if we can show up with our little luggage tickets and retrieve them.
I get it. I understand the sense of longing. I understand the impulse to get back into a car we haven’t driven for over a year and just floor it — just go, and go anywhere, because we’re making up for lost time. Many days I feel it myself, and I know my kids feel it, too. They can’t wait to go to school again. They can’t wait for birthday parties and movies in the theater and all the other things we did in the pre-pandemic world.
But this journey is not the same for us all. I am fully vaccinated, as are my parents. Thankfully, my middle-schooler is fully vaccinated too. But my youngest is younger than 12, and there is no vaccine available for him yet, so we remain vigilant. I think a lot about his health and about how it must feel to be the most vulnerable person in the family. Yes, I feel less imminent doom than I did in the summer of last year, but I don’t talk about the pandemic in past tense. I feel prickly when I hear someone use the term “post-pandemic.” We’re still “in it,” even if the “it” is less dire than it once was.
In this strange moment of “almost safe” and “not quite over,” it’s hard to know how to feel. Sometimes it’s exhilarating — finally hugging a friend or a family member, inviting a neighbor inside your home, or going back to a favorite restaurant. But the news is full of stories about alarming variants. Not everyone has easy access to a vaccine, and many Americans are still feeling unsafe — physically, emotionally, financially. I can only assume that many families are looking toward the next school year with a mix of trepidation and hope, because this is how I feel.
I am hopeful that my children will have a more normal school year, with pizza parties, school dances, art shows, sports. Now that she is vaccinated, my daughter is looking forward to having sleepovers again, and I bought us tickets to see one of her favorite bands in the spring. Once my son is vaccinated, he’ll have more than outside or masked-and-distanced play options, too.
I am hopeful that they’ll enjoy many of the things we took for granted before, but I also wonder what are we taking for granted now. I wonder if we’re missing the magic of the present moment by focusing so much on what we used to be able to do and what we might be able to do again someday. The past is past, and the future is uncertain. The present — this precarious time we’re living right now — is what we have, as imperfect as it is. I’m feeling the need to slow down and be in it, not simply moving through it as quickly as I can.
So now, I want to be still. I want to take a beat, breathe, and pay attention.
In my last book, “Keep Moving,” I wrote about beauty emergencies — those moments that happen so quickly, you must look now or else you’ll miss them. I cherish neighborhood walks with my son and daughter, noticing the clouds, the flowers, the insects, the birds. My 8-year-old son is an avid collector of what we call “nature treasures.” Sometimes I’ll slip my hand into the pocket of a coat or purse and find something he left there for me — a stone, a dried flower, a shell. Sometimes I’ll empty his pockets when I do the laundry and find a feather, an acorn, a leaf. (I have been diligent about checking pockets before putting clothes into the washing machine ever since the regrettable Silly Putty Incident.)
Walking in the woods, standing on a beach, looking up and marveling at the clouds, or trying to distinguish the neighborhood birds’ various songs — these are the moments that quiet the noise in my mind, and that make me feel small in the very best way. They remind me that I am part of something bigger than myself. This sense of perspective is something I need right now. I want to absorb the quiet moments of wonder, the moments I’ll overlook if I’m speeding toward what’s next or grieving what — and whom — we’ve lost.
I’ve found that one of the best treatments for worry is also one of the treatments for nostalgia: trying to stay grounded in the present moment. To really see, sometimes we need to be still. Or else we’ll miss things — the fragments of a bright blue robin’s egg on the sidewalk, or the bee with crumbs of golden pollen on its back legs, or the cloud in the shape of an elephant — and not just the little things. Recently scientists discovered a fifth ocean. Not some tiny species of insect deep in a rainforest but something enormous, something we’ve all been looking at all along. It’s been on maps and atlases, hiding in plain view as part of something else when really it was always itself; we are just only now recognizing it.
Being a poet — like being a parent — requires me to pay attention. Above all else, being open and attuned to the world around me is my work, because I can’t articulate or describe what I don’t notice. I want to set this example for my children, too. I want them to know that the time we have together matters, whether we’re playing catch or walking the dog or cooking together. Life is made up of these small, ordinary moments. And what a life it is — beautiful, sometimes hiding in plain view. It’s plenty, when we’re still enough to notice.