A sharp November chill slips under the crack at the door and numbs my nose while I type this, but when I arrived to my hometown of Durham for a sabbatical semester four months ago–three school-aged children and a Tico husband in tow–the days were so swampy, hot and long that it was hard to know where our bodies began and the sunscorch ended. I recall that in our vain effort to go without air conditioning in those days, the milk in the fridge kept going sour before three kids could pour it over enough bowls of cereal.
The pictures in my phone tell the same story of time, only chromatically. Zoomed way out on my photo app, I see squares of colors from each month that we have been here – crystalline azure pools in July, heavy Spanish moss green in August, sky blue and cloud white over lakes in September, soft yellow sunsets through the trees in October, and now the flaming ochres of November.
Time has passed and now, on the eve of my departure, I’ve been invited to share some reflections on what it has been like to return to my hometown of Durham for this sabbatical semester.
Well, to begin with, July 2021 was not my first trip back since the pandemic began. I actually returned solo to Durham in October 2020 for two-weeks to be a daughter and sister and aunt during an impossible year. It was . . . heavy. I could sense it from the first moment I stepped into the country in Miami. Usually on my flights through southern Florida, I see crowds of sunburned, duty-free toting, loud tourists, but this time there were no bachelorette party crews or couples headed off on cruises. Just single, double-masked travelers, quiet in their quests. One woman was valiantly traveling with her severely disabled adult daughter. Another woman told me in tears that she was going to attend her 18-year-old grandson’s funeral. For the rest of my time in the US–the grocery stores, the back porches, the walks along the Eno River – everywhere, the energy was inward, humble, quiet.
During those dark days, my main project had been to help my dad clean out a shed with boxes in it from as far back as 1992. Together, we sorted through our family’s story–the letters, the chemo bills, the unprocessed mail, the girl’s unicorn sweater, the boy’s scout badges. I was closing up a box when my dad called me over to dig out some old wood under the bush next to the shed. Only it wasn’t just some old wood. There on my hands and knees, I felt down to where the earth worms wriggled, and I grabbed onto the corners of an old canvas poster, mostly buried and decomposed in dank dark dirt. It was barely legible, but when we held it up to the afternoon light, the words on the poster were unmistakable: “HOPE. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”
After that trip, I returned to our rainforest hillside home in Costa Rica and, in the black of night, sat down in the damp grass and wept for my home country. I realized that what I had been experiencing during my time in the US was grief. The heavy, endless, murky grief of an entire proud society brought to its knees.
Nine months later, here I was back on American soil. Pictures online showed people on vacations, smiling together at brunch, hugging outside a church. And I wondered to myself, did it ever really happen? Did we ever despair, did we deny, did we shame, did we rage, did we get scared, did we suffocate, did we cry out, did we point our angry fingers, did we beg for help, did we go on our knees in the humus scraping at the earth until our fingers touched that buried promise of hope in the darkness?
I think we did.
And the reason I think so is because we are not the same. The US is not the same. The seasons and stages of righteous denial, raging anger, grating depression, and heavy grief are still here–how could they not be?–but they seem to have opened the way towards a softening or an acceptance, like the low light that shines through barer trees this November evening. I see this softening in the shifting language of anti-racism work where we are training ourselves to call in instead of calling out. Or in the endless Help Wanted signs throughout our communities where employers are reckoning with the true value of labor and where employees are sometimes choosing not to go back to thankless work. I see it in my friends who say, I’m just tired of judging my loved ones for not being vaccinated. It has even seemed to me at times that capitalism itself has softened. A few weeks ago, on the drive back from a somewhat-subdued New York City, we stopped at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop that was operating at about 40% capacity. As I walked hand-in-hand with my 6-year-old through the weed-encroached parking lot, his eyes suddenly got big and excited and he said, “Do you think snakes live here?” At a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop? I laughed to myself. But then I looked around at the tall grasses, the unkempt tree line, the wild milkweed overgrowth, and I thought, yeah, maybe they do.
But it doesn’t stop there. Acceptance isn’t a stage that is easily won. I was reminded of that a few weeks ago while sitting next to my husband in a completely saturated Duke ER waiting room. For eighteen hours, he sat there with COVID pneumonia without ever being seen by a doctor due to many preventable reasons: overworked and exhausted healthcare employees, a racially and economically unjust healthcare industry, lack of faith in science and leadership (you choose!). We are still angry. We are still bargaining. We are still denying. We are still depressed.
But, amidst the overgrowth, the undergrowth, the brown skirt under the barren trees, there might be something alive worth looking for, and, if you’re lucky, there might also be a six-year-old dragging you away from the turnpike to go explore.