Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
If you’d asked me this past February, here are the things I’d have told you I’d be doing this summer: Launching a fourth book of poetry and going on tour with said book. In June, I was going to be in Seattle, Chicago, New York and LA. In July, I was going to teach for a short stint in Paris. My husband was going to come with me to Europe; we were going to leave our kids with the grandparents – a blessed week alone together after nearly a decade of raising kids. Then I was going to give a reading in Edinburgh. Finally, in September, after the kids were back in school, I had a residency in Ireland.
Gentle reader, I assure you, this globetrotting was all a Big Deal. It was, in my small world, a Moment. My book tour had been elaborately planned over 18 months. There were 42 cities and 4 countries represented. I had a cute blazer, one great lightweight carry-on case. I had travel-size hair balm in my favorite brand. I was ready to roll.
Ah well. It’s funny, opening my calendar each week, to remember the would-have-beens of the formerly planned world. They seem positively decadent, vaguely amusing, even exhausting to contemplate. Not one of those plans came through. They came down like so many sandcastles, washed to the shore amid much, much greater tragedy.
We started slowing down in late February, when an epidemiologist friend called and warned me “that something big was coming,” and told me that in her circles, people were already preparing to rent houses in the country, or hunker down in self-quarantine. What she was saying didn’t yet compute. “What about my book tour?” I remember asking naively. “The world has other plans,” my friend said.
She was right: At one last talk in Chicago in the middle of March, I felt as if I were watching a tsunami arriving, and I felt like it was already too late to get off the beach. Travel felt reckless: It was time to be home. I got home. I quarantined. Our family stayed safe. I worked from the garage. My book tour got canceled piece by piece, month by month. I Zoomed into a few online readings, mailed copies of my new book to friends, waved goodbye to a huge chunk of next year’s income. I taught my kids from home, got low, and prepared to wait.
And we are OK. Not great, but OK. So lucky, so grateful to be lucky. Like so many people, I’ve cycled through sorrow and confusion and fear and boredom and fury and terror and rage at incompetent leaders. The exhaustion of homeschooling. The world in which it seems that everything I loved once is gone and all that’s left is an enormous pile of laundry. Also: Praise be, knock on wood, in the grand scheme of things, our small corner has stayed safe.
I want to be clear: this is a hard, sad, heartbreaking time in America. We could each write tomes about our fury. We each carry enormous grief. When I can be, I’m also fascinated by what this moment has made possible, what smaller forms of joy and resilience are possible as a counterweight. And I’m also interested in what these long months have brought.
To be clear again: Other than a brief, sweet camping trip to a national forest a few hours north of here, we did not go anywhere. I was not on airplanes. I was not somewhere else. I and my family have been here continuously, for six months circling one small bungalow. I have been home in this place longer than I can remember being any place continuously – since when? 1994?
And while we were not traveling this summer, here are some things we did instead: Learned the names of birds and the birdcalls. Sketched the skyline of our city. Painted a watercolor of hummingbirds. Installed a compost bin and a worm bin. Nerded out on the art of making dirt. Made biscuits. Made pie. Harvested the plums off the plum tree. Harvested the blackberries off the bike path. Made sweet jam. Made savory jam. Made candles. Made that craft where you draw colors on a piece of paper and coat on black wax and scrape off the black wax selectively.
I remembered many rounds I learned at camp, including the one about the black socks that never get dirty. I taught the rounds to my kids. We marched for Black Lives Matter. Made a countdown chart to the next election. We discussed the legislative, judicial and executive branches. Instituted a civic action hour where we each trade off picking a form of concrete action to take to help something we care about. My son cares about oceans. I want police out of the public schools. My husband is working on down-ballot races. My daughter is only four and wanted to do “activism for unicorns.” We laughed a lot. I helped my daughter learn to read. I helped my son learn to write. My son began to skateboard.
We found a new hiking trail. We found a new urban beach that we could bike to. We found a new urban beach in the city next door. We went swimming in the Bay. We watched a lot of sunsets. I learned more bird names. Learned more plant names. We built a coop and put in backyard chickens.
We converted the driveway into a front yard sitting area, with planters and Adirondack chairs and string lights so we can sit out and drink wine and talk to the neighbors at a distance as they pass by. We made friends with our neighbors. We learned the names even of their dogs. We harvested the tomatoes. We marched for Black Lives Matter some more. We learned who was running for representative of the parks district and asked him to work to build more bike paths to the parks; about his policy for building resilient shorelines that will withstand sea level rise. I sat on the back porch and noticed that one of my plants really does attract native swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. I showed my kids the caterpillars. We watched the chrysali. We felt awe when we saw the swallowtails come.
By now, we’re at the far end of the summer of staying put. The would-have-beens feel long gone. There is only this broken world to notice and survive in. What feels left is figuring out how we can live now, what can sustain us. Some days I just hope we don’t lose our jobs, our health or our minds. But other days I hope we can rebuild a more beautiful, just and daring world when we have the chance. I wonder: What can repair us? What should we hope for? What world will we want back?
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The world I want back has more bike paths; less freeway. It’s a world where we understand that racism, child poverty, and mass homelessness are national liabilities; that these are the epidemics that weaken us. I also wonder if I can keep living in a way that lets me savor where I am just a bit more, where I can root and deepen my belonging. Don’t get me wrong. I miss the wide world. But I’ve also discovered how to invest a lot more in the world right here. And that, I think, is a good first step.