may 23, 2020 — carpenter ants, covid and me

black ants

Photo by Syed Rajeeb on

When asked how I’m holding up “in these strange times,” I probably answer a little too quickly and honestly, “I’m doing alright, all things considered.” Which is often followed by, “Yeah, but you’re—alone,” eyebrows skew, head tips with heartfelt concern. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be now. At least I have {my kids, my spouse, a job…}” Voice trials into a long sigh. I shrug, nod in agreement to keep things simple, suspect that their concern might speak more of their state of affairs than mine. I may be a lot of things lately: scared, unsure, awestruck, sad, amused, lonely, downright pissed off sometimes—just wear the fucking mask, you ignorant fucks—but I’m hardly alone.

Do I tell them about the carpenter ants that live in my bathroom? That I rescue any ant that I find frantically, futilely scrambling-sliding-scrambling up the slippery sides of my tub, by dangling a length of toilet paper for it to cling onto, then I airlift it to the spider plant or peace lily perched on the windowsill? That tears spring from my eyes every damned time I see one struggling, knowing it’s not long for this world? The first time that happened, I was startled—what strange force compels me to perform teary last rights as those tiny limbs go sluggish and its segmented body curls into itself? Surely it’s not simply because I’ve been literally alone for ten weeks and counting (is anyone counting?), that I gently pinch the ant between folds of TP and lower it into a plant with a blessing. (I once flushed a barely moving ant down the toilet and immediately regretted the careless act; surely, even to a lowly ant, to be surrounded by green leaves and moist dirt is a far more peaceful place to die than succumbing to the turbulent rush of toilet water). 

It’s not an infestation or anything—just a random ant now and then. But what do I know about ants and infestations? I live in a charming, borderline-decrepit, one-hundred-and-twenty-year old house that’s been reincarnated into various configurations over the years; nowadays it’s a triplex. God knows there’s more than just four humans contained within these walls; to report errant ants might warrant an over-the-top extermination that results in burning down the house. I’d hate for that to happen. So I watch for signs of infestation, and keep plucking errant ants from the tub.

But the bigger question is: why do I care so much about something so small and seemingly insignificant? Is this how it happens? I wonder. That I’m losing my mind in self-isolation? Maybe it’s best not to admit any of this publicly. When my landlords (who are also related to me) learn that I’m not using the ant traps they bought for me, or the mouse traps they left under the sink for the mouse that appears in winter, for that matter, I imagine a family conference where I am suspiciously absent, before they kindly ask me to pack my things and go live with one of my sisters. I anticipate someone else reading this will say, “You have to kill! all! the ants! or your whole house will! collapse!” or “You don’t have to use Raid—there are organic ways to kill! all! the ants!” As writers, it’s a risk we always take, that someone will miss the point of what we’re trying to say. But someone else might say, “oh my god, I so get it…thank you for writing the thing that I have such a hard time expressing.” It’s why I keep at it—to find better ways to say what I’m trying to say, to examine if what I believe is truly what I believe, if for no other reason than to know that I’m not losing my mind—that ants matter to one other person, even if that other person turns out to be me. It’s for that person, whomever they may be, that I keep trying. Oh, and for the ants.

You won’t readily find good news about carpenter ants if you Google them, which yes, I did because 1. I have ridiculous amounts of time on my hands these days, 2. I am truly curious—are ants as wicked as we’ve been lead to believe? and 3. for real—have I lost my everlasting mind because I don’t want to intentionally mass murder crawly things with more than four legs?

Number one is a given for many of us lately, I won’t belabor the point. Number two took a bit more work. Loads of negatively-biased assertions from endless pest control companies populated my Google search, hammering the point over and over again, in graphic detail, that ants of any kind are a threat to humanity and must be eliminated at all cost: seek and destroy before they seek and destroy us. We accept this as gospel truth in part because repetition is a simple yet highly effective way to get any message across. So is fear. 

To learn anything objective about the carpenter ant (who coincidentally, I might point out, shares the same trade as a certain savior of a certain religion whose commandments include thou shall not kill, and passionately lauds all creatures great and small; not that any of that means anything, just a thought I had while researching carpenter ants) you have to be persistent and industrious, channeling deep to get to the facts—not unlike the way a carpenter ant channels into wood, one could say. Did you know that carpenter ants are indigenous to many forested parts of the world? That they excavate intricate tunnels in wood worthy of the name galleries. Their appearance isn’t a personal attack — to a carpenter ant, wood is wood. Like anyone, they just want a place to live; when you see them scurry like mad to escape your wrath, you can’t help but know on some deep level that they, like us, are capable of something akin to what we might call anxiety or even terror, as any creature, great or small would in the looming shadow of a fast-approaching shoe heel. 

Curiously, one pest control company contradicts itself about the very creature it’s hired to assassinate. From their website: Let’s set the record straight: Carpenter ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) are not “evil” or “bad.” They play a positive role in forested environments, nesting in both living and dead trees, as well as rotting logs and stumps…carpenter ants have a significant role in starting the degradation process in dead trees. By tunneling through wood to excavate nest galleries, the dead wood is opened to fungi, bacteria and other wood-destroying organisms to begin decomposition and natural recycling of materials.

Their galleries and passageways have a smooth, sandpapered appearance…carpenter ants also are a vital link in the forest food web. They play a key role as predators of forest defoliators and other insects — and in turn, are prey for fish, reptiles and birds such as the pileated woodpecker.

All of that is captivating but this line is what stopped me cold: When houses are built in and near forests or natural areas, carpenter ants may become a threat—wait a minute. This story sounds suspiciously familiar, an unintentional parable—who encroached on whose land here? And for the love of God and all creatures great and small—after extolling the virtues of these tiny critters, how can XYZ Pest-ridders possibly go on to make a living slaughtering whole communities of these environmental do-gooders? I mean, I get it—we don’t know what we don’t know, right? But once we know, we can’t go back to not knowing, y’know? At the crossroads of not knowing to knowing, what we do from that point on becomes a conscious choice. I’m gonna be working through this thought for a while…bear with me…

Validation, if not an outright answer, to my third concern arose serendipitously as I rooted around the internet for more facts about the carpenter ant. I came upon an essay titled On Smushing Bugs, where author-cartoonist, Tim Kreider ponders my very dilemma. He writes: “A bug may be a small, unimportant thing, but maybe killing or saving one isn’t. Every time I smush a bug, I can feel myself smushing something else, too — an impulse toward mercy, a little throb of remorse. Maybe it would feel better to decide that killing even a bug matters. Does evading tiny, insignificant lives lead to callousness about larger, more important ones, like a karmic broken-window theory? People running for cover on the ground must look ant-like from a bomber or a drone. As flies to wanton boys.”

Indeed, it seems the farther removed from our own existence another being is, the easier it is to not think of that being as something worthy of existing. I’m still in the process of processing so many connections to other facets of life—something about the worth of an ant’s life and the current state of the world, but I’m gonna need more time…I haven’t yet made up my mind about the lost mind part, but at least I now know I’m not alone in my odd compulsion to rescue ants from the tub (and turtles from a highway and implementing my Operation Spider Relocation program, and one day hope to start Prosthetics for Footless Pigeons of Chicago nonprofit—another essay for another time). And probably explains, at least in part, why I’m no longer a homeowner and am alone in a pandemic.

Maybe carpenter ants are too weird to relate to; I continue to ruminate my state of aloneness and others’ concerns as it relates to current affairs. Maybe I should tell them that the early morning tree hugging man and I have taken our relationship to the next level—that I saw him again the other day, hugging that same tree in the same park in the same early hour of the morning as the first time I saw him, a few weeks ago. This time, bandana masks hanging around our necks, from a good twenty feet apart, we make eye contact, smile. I flash my dead mother’s signature peace sign, he gives a little wave, then hops on his bike. I continue walking with my dog in the opposite direction, gliding my hands along rough bark, drawing a branch down to my face to take a deep inhale of lilac essence. I stop to wrap my arms around the waist of a tree, and I swear, I feel its spirit move through me, and I know I am not alone. But all of that sounds weird, too.

Do I tell others that I stopped drinking at the beginning of the year and when I did, I felt a stirring in the nucleus of all thirty trillion of my cells, a collective whole-body sigh, like the heavy loneliness that has occupied me for too long finally drifted up and away from my body and for the first time in maybe ever in my life, I never felt so light, a quiet foreshadowing: keep going, woman, this superpower is going to come in handy very soon, just you wait and see. That when I was drinking, even when I was around people, I was unbearably alone, but at the same time, it was the only way I knew, to stave off the acute loneliness that was gnawing at me from the inside out. Kind of like a carpenter ant, I guess you could say, but another part of me says, no, it was not at all like a carpenter ant—they break down old to encourage new life; drinking eroded me from the inside, out, leaving nothing but a barren wasteland inside. That now, even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, I’m constructing a net of support, through family, online communities (who knew thousands of strangers online could be a source of so much empathy, encouragement and even joy?). Like a spider—yeah, that’s it…(okay, another essay for another time…) I may be alone but I’m far from lonely—don’t you see the difference? I want to say, but I already anticipate the bewildered, “Shit…sorry I said anything” look in their eyes.

Right now, when someone asks, “How are you holding up in these strange times?” I find it easier to say, “I’m doing alright, all things considered,” and leave it at that. It’s still true. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell the more complicated story, about the difference between alone and lonely. For now, I will continue to rescue ants, I will continue to wear the fucking mask, I will continue to allow myself grace for things I did not know at the time, and  continue to always, keep working to know more, and in turn do better, the next time. 

may 9, 2020—walking in the woods

Weird day today. Not bad, just weird. But aren’t they all some variation on weird lately, even the good ones? 4 months and some odd days alcohol free for me; today is the first day I was hit with very strong cravings that I just couldn’t shake.

This morning, my two sisters and I, along with a baker’s dozen or so others, got together for a Zoom celebration for an acquaintance’s college graduation, an amazing story in its own right—I don’t know this this young woman well; she’s the first recipient of a scholarship my siblings and I set up in memory of our beloved mom who died just after Christmas in 2018; in the 80’s, our mom was a single parent and poet, in her 30s, hardscrabbling her way through her BA and MA at the same university; by a series of serendipitous events, thirty years later, the scholarship recipient is also a single mom in her 30s who’s also endured mindboggling hardships, an emerging poet *and* weird coinkydink, hails from our hometown—if one didn’t believe in divine intervention, one might suspect the scholarship dealio was rigged…

Anyhow, I was honored to be invited to this gathering this morning, to watch the pre-recorded commencement ceremony, part of which included my gifted friend’s commencement speech. At 9 am, most of the attendees were already celebrating with mimosas and bloody marys, laughing and toasting the guest of honor with laughter and joy. I didn’t know anyone except my friend and my sissies, and suddenly, I felt conspicuously like the odd woman out, as I toasted the new graduate with my lame plain black coffee, startled by my visceral reaction…

I’ve invested enough skin in this game to recognize that this kind of discomfort will show up again and again in my life—a call to grow, as Victoria Valli calls it—and I need to just stay with it and work through it, unsettling as it can be…but I’m also still green enough to think, “Fuck it. I’m a grown-ass woman. Why didn’t I grab a bottle of prosecco and some OJ, and join the party like a real woman…I could call it a data point and move on…” As the morning celebration continued, most of it us talking about nothing and everything; it really was a joyous occasion; though the cravings never really subsided, I held on tight as the waves carried me along. About an hour into the gathering, a woman drinking mimosas cracked open another bottle of bubbly, the group cheered her on. Laughing and bantering back, she filled her glass, all bubbly this time, no OJ…

Toward the end of the gathering, I noticed the bubbly woman was no longer bubbly or engaging with the group the way she had been at the beginning of the event. She was listless, withdrawn, looking off-camera, her eyes flitting from one unseen thing to the next, her smile now tightened into a flat line. I didn’t think much about it, a fleeting notice is all, but it struck me deeper than I was aware of at the time…

After the event was over, the cravings were still front and center in my brain, so with a big bottle of water, I tossed (not literally) my dog in my ol’ Jeep and headed out to a state park just beyond edges of the metro area where I live, and we hiked for a good couple hours. In that time, I breathed in deep cool spring air, exhaled long and warm. I felt the rough ground underfoot, hugged a tree or two (have you ever, literally, hugged a tree? I swear to God, you will feel its strong spirit move through you when you do), listened to bird chatter and wind song and smiled back at the occasional fellow hiker.

As I walked, I asked myself, “Okay. As much as I know that alcohol doesn’t do any of the things I used to think it did for me, clearly, there’s something about today that struck a sour chord. What’s up?” I walked myself through a process that Annie Grace calls the ACT (Awareness, Clarity, Turnaround, inspired by Byron Katie and others): obviously, I still associate celebrations with alcohol. Being so new to the alcohol-free world, and smack-dab in the middle of a fucking pandemic, too—we can’t forget this very critical element—it didn’t feel quite like any other celebrations, since we were all sitting in our living rooms, all dressy on top, pjs beneath, so maybe that’s why it ambushed me. I realized that I had yet to be in a celebratory setting, until today. Of course old feelings would come flooding back in, because all of my life, alcohol always went along merrily with a celebration. Always. Even as a young kid, I remember relatives’ booze-soaked weddings and other gatherings—everyone laughing and dancing and having the time of their lives, it seemed to this kid (we were whisked away for bed before the fights and the DUIs and such ensued). I couldn’t wait for this to eventually become my life as an adult…I recalled my own college graduation, some of it, anyway. Photos of the time reveal a young face already leaking signs: puffy cheeks, glassy eyes, a vacancy in my smile. But I still recall the times as mostly fun, surrounded by friends I loved, proud of my accomplishment, an electric mix of fear and excitement for what lay ahead…

Today, as my feet pressed into a blanket of flattened prairie grass and my hands slid against rough bark, I acknowledged that, until I collect a few more AF celebrations in my brain, it will defer to the deeply grooved, familiar path. I thought about the bubbly woman, and suddenly I knew why she affected my subconscious so powerfully. She was too familiar, like an out of body experience with someone else’s body, watching her morph from cheery and joyful, to withdrawn, disengaged, disappearing expression…

I know this is conjecture, I can’t know anything for certain except what I observed, still, I imagined how the rest of her day might have played out, based on my own experiences. That she continued to drink after the zoom session ended. That she got into a ridiculous argument with her mom, or a sister, or someone—maybe the asshole cable company phone technician, that she wouldn’t remember. That she eventually passed out in the early afternoon, waking hours later as the sun was sliding down the horizon groggy, in rumpled clothes, sticky make-up still on her face, sour, pasty mouth. That she didn’t get anything done she’d wanted to get done for the day; maybe she’d eat crummy junk food, or she’d be too nauseous to eat at all. The rumble of voices that would begin: “How can you get so out of control at 10 am?! In front of all those people? Do you think you’re in college again? God, you’re a grown ass woman, for fuck’s sake. This day wasn’t even about you, but without even trying, you went and made it about you. Again…” I know I’m transposing here, using “she” instead of “me,” because I still want to defer this to other things. How may celebrations have I attended in my history, that ended on a variation of this theme? Hell, how many times have I decided to open a bottle of wine or prosecco, or an IPA or pour a tall gin and tonic on the first warm day of summer, or because I don’t have to work the next day, or because a friend called, or… too many to count.

My mind then wanders over to the territory of envy: that my friend has a beautiful, powerful network of friends in her life, who have surrounded and supported her on her journey, bubbly woman included. They’re all clearly very close, and have been rock solid anchors for each other through various waves of life. How my own journey of the past several years has been so different—that after my husband died, I imploded and cut myself off from everyone, except the bare minimum. My mom, my sisters, a very few select friends. That this self-imposed isolation became a driving source of my own drinking—an unbearable loneliness unwittingly made more unbearable by drinking.

Life is a delicate balance of so many things that are always shifting and reshaping and sliding and settling, things  known and unknown, seen and unseen. It’s a beautifully tragic shapeshifter, incomprehensible and infuriatingly simple at the same time. I know this today, because I am not drinking. Even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, I feel my life shifting from disconnect to connected, from running to staying. From imploding to expanding, like the stand of aspen bowing in the wind, we are stronger and more tender than we appear.

If I had given into my cravings today, I would have taken the simple path that only leads to the incomprehensible. I would have missed walking soooo close to the geese and their fuzzy little tennis ball goslings sliding into a pond in the reedy wetlands, I would have missed the stand of aspens glowing raw and green as I am, and the tiny anemone, a deceptively delicate spring wildflower, defiantly push tiny pink faces through deep layers of winter detritus. I would have missed hugging a tree and feeling spirit move through me…I wouldn’t have known that I can, authentically, celebrate a friend’s spectacular accomplishment, without alcohol. I wouldn’t have known that I could offer grace and empathy, rather than judgment, toward a woman I don’t know. And get more from the day than I could have imagined.

please, don’t ever give up. xo

may 3, 2020—lucky man

My husband was a lucky man. Even with smart phone reminders, I still manage to not remember birthdays or anniversaries or hallmark holidays, so I never got bent out of shape on the rare occasion that he’d forget. He’d say something like, “Oh shit, I’m so sorry—I forgot our anniversary!” and I’d say something like, “Huh? It was our anniversary?”
Which is probably why I don’t get too bent out of shape on the anniversary of Bob’s death (“Bob who?” I tease my sister when she mentions it; she’s always mortified, I think I’m hilarious and so does Bob. My mom just rolls her eyes and says, “oh that old joke again…”). Of course, I always remember the day, though the pale green halo around trees this time of year, more than a date, reminds me. Yes, there’s a cascade of feelings to be felt and memories to remember, but it’s not a day that throws me off kilter with a particular dread or sorrow—not any more than any other day might.
The day he died, May 3, 2011, was achingly beautiful, a day much like ones we’ve had lately: the sun was slowly sliding down the sky, dragging reluctant shadows with it, washing the world with a golden-pink glow that photographers call sweet light. In a long-ago life, the kind of day that would entice him to sling a camera bag over his shoulder and slip into the woods or a tall grass prairie, and capture luminous trees, pasque flowers, bloodroot, sunsets burning through big bluestem. If he were lucky, he might find a pair of great horned owlets huddled together on a low branch, or a fresh fawn curled tight beneath a pine.
Today, I can look back at that day, and say it was a perfect day for Bob to take leave; nine years ago, however, I would have said it was anything but perfect. I was gutted, by the nineteen months that lead up to that day. Nine years ago, I stared out the patio doors into our wooded backyard, aglow in sweet light, bewildered, that something so exquisite could exist at the same time my husband was dying. My grieving mind couldn’t reconcile the incongruence—that breathtaking beauty and breathtaking sorrow could coexist peacefully, equally, at the same time, in the same space. Nothing in my world had prepared me for the intensity of this truth. For a long time after, horror would overshadow beauty.
Three days after Bob died, I hastily assembled a celebration of life service, at the same reception hall that, a year earlier, my youngest sister had been married. To the casual observer, the scene might have looked like a celebration—hundreds of people milling about in good clothes, a curious blend of Elvis, Steve Vai, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bob Mould, Mozart, Weird Al wove through the murmuring bodies. A long table set with an impressive spread of what? I don’t know—sandwiches, salads, expansive trays of fruit and vegetables, likely. In the center of the table, I do know, was a bouquet of Tootsie Pops.
You wouldn’t have been able to pick out the widow in the crowd; I stood in the middle of the room in shiny red stilettos, the ones Bob called “fuck me pumps;” a Mardi Gras-worthy flower print dress of crushed satin and black lace hung from my body, an eruption of watercolor splashes of red and pink and orange. I didn’t feel like I was celebrating my husband’s life, as the dress might have implied; I felt like an implosion, all that was left was fragments of color, the edges burned black; the dress was both evidence and a feeble attempt to defy the repelling label, widow, that now clung to me. At least that’s how I remember it.
No one took pictures of the day, as far as I know, and for that, I’m grateful. I’d rather not have hard evidence of the hollow woman I was, trapped in the snare of the second receiving line of the day, an endless assault of hugs and condolences—no one told me there’d be goddamned receiving lines at a funeral…I wanted to writhe from the arms that held me. I wanted to run and lock myself in the bathroom, or better yet, keep running. I wanted the day to be over. I hated the dress and the shoes and the reason I was wearing them. I hated what my world had suddenly become, and there wasn’t anything that any of the hundreds of people could do or say that could change this, no matter how hard they hugged or what they said. But that didn’t stop them from trying. All I could do was stand there and take it.
A woman stepped in front of me and grabbed both my hands. Before I could speak, she began gushing exuberantly, as though at a wedding, “Oh, Jen! Think of this as a time to reinvent your life—how lucky you are! We all wish we could have a chance at a re-do like this!”
My body instantly seized with fury that was quickly deadened by a new, lead-heavy lag-time. I stared at this woman, who stood next to her very alive husband, shaking my head slowly. My husband was just here—less than three days ago—now he’s gone. The skewed landscape I was standing in was familiar but unrecognizable, the conversations I was having in plain English were incomprehensible. I stammered, “No, that’s not right—” but I didn’t have the right words to counter hers.
Of course, this woman was right, but she was also so very wrong. Sure, if given the chance, we’d all love a redo at life, if—that “if” is the condition most would insist on—we’re given a say in the matter. A forced reinvention is not what I’d call lucky—not then, not now. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, I might have told this woman to take her lucky redo and fuck off. Lucky for her, I wasn’t, so I didn’t.
But her words had staying power in my mind. Over the years, I often wondered why hers, more than anyone’s, struck me so viscerally that day. Even deeply grieving, I knew that she, like everyone at the service, only wanted to help ease the pain of my loss, but I also knew, at the time, no such words existed. Deep in the heart of a great loss, there simply are no magic incantations or switches to flip or wands to wave that can suddenly make everything better. As much as we’d desperately wish it otherwise, it’s not the way things work—the timing of her message couldn’t have been more off. Maybe three years after Bob’s death, I’d have eased into that enviable shift in perspective, from gutted to #blessed!, but three days after? That expectation is impossible, if not outright cruel to suggest, even for the most put-together of us.
Sometimes, I fantasized about tracking that woman down, so I could tell her face-to-face, in vivid detail, what this lucky re-do has looked like for me. Sometimes I’d fantasize that everyone I knew would be forced to go through something like this, so they’d know, first-hand, how hard a lucky re-do actually is. Maybe it would stop people from saying insensitive things at funerals, and instead simply say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe it would help people be better prepared to face their own lucky redo, if and when it shows up in their own life.
My lucky redo involved losing not just my husband, but a career and a business, our life savings, our house, one of our dogs, most of our friends, a lot of my hair, and definitely all of my mind, and it required that I somehow salvage a life—that “new normal!” everyone’s so smitten with—out the few scraps that remained. Like one of those cooking shows, where chefs are given strange and random ingredients, and are supposed to create something not just aesthetically appealing but palatable, from an incomprehensible mess. I didn’t want new, I wanted my old life back.
My redo involved trauma and an eventual diagnosis of PTSD, a condition I thought was reserved for combat vets and survivors of violence. Who knew caregivers (and others) are susceptible, as well? I resisted therapy for a long time, and instead, coped by drinking—to quell the nightmares that kept me from sleeping, to blur the sharp edges of grotesque memories of Bob’s illness that filled my days, to quiet the incessant rage I had for Bob’s medical team, to lessen the shame over losing our house, to mute the incessant, internal critics that told me again and again that if I had done things differently, my husband wouldn’t have suffered so terribly, or that I should be doing a better job at this re-do that’s taking way too long—why wasn’t I happily remarried and nestled into a new life by now? Why do I have to do everything the hard way—I could stay in this haunted house, I could go back to doing hair, but nooooooo—instead, I’m wasting so much time and money going to grad school and monkeying around with a new career that probably won’t make me any money, and cutting off friendships and moving more times than I can easily track anymore. I’ve made so many mistakes at reinventing it’s not even funny, but sometimes it struck me as exactly that, not just funny but downright ludicrous—that anyone would wish for this chance that I’m blowing at every turn. “Lucky” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think about these past nine years. “Shit show” is more like it.
Fast forward to nine years after Bob’s death. I’m beginning my fifth month, alcohol free (I could say “sober” or “recovering” or whatever, but I don’t, which is another essay for another time). When I stopped drinking in January, my life was pretty ho-hum (which is a big part of why I decided to stop—not because of an epic, rock-bottom crash and burn, but because I felt like I was slowly decaying, from the inside, out). I didn’t just quit; I’ve done and continue to do a shit-ton of ‘behind the scenes’ work to get here—again, another essay for another time…toward the end of my first AF 30 days, I wondered how I would handle a crisis without alcohol—not that I was looking to stir up drama to find out, just wondering is all. Didn’t see that fucking pandemic looming on the horizon, that’s for sure. But here we are, and here I am, four months free of the substance that stunted my growth for a very long time. I’m not saying my life is all puppies and rainbows over here in AF Land, in the middle of a pandemic—let’s be real, things are pretty scary. I’m alone, in unemployment limbo, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life going forward—I can’t even go back to doing hair if I wanted to—these uncertain times are the stuff that makes us want to crawl out of our skin. But instead of running to squelch the discomfort with a bottle of wine, I am learning to sit with it, let it burn over me, the way lightning strikes a prairie, burning old growth that chokes, to make breathing space for new. Allowing horror and beauty to exist in the same space.
For the first time in my life, I can look at the past nine years and see beyond the darkened edges, and find flashes of color—big patches, even—evidence that not everything I’ve done has been a complete failure, as I’d believed for so long. “Holy shit—I did all of that?” Instead of being awash in shame or embarrassment at how long everything’s taken, or what I did to cope, I recognize, with truth and grace, that alcohol did exactly what I needed it to do for me during a time of searing, relentless pain—it anesthetized me. Until it didn’t. But frankly, I don’t know if I could have withstood the ordeal otherwise. We do the best we can, with what we have at the time…once we know different, we can start to do different.
Today, nine years after Bob’s death, I still don’t know that I’d define what I’ve gone through as lucky, or blessed or anything, really. I’m okay without confining it to a label, and instead, just sitting with it, on a day that is so much like the day that he died, and revel in the mystery and magic.

April 29 2020—pandemic parade

It’s not every day you get to have your birthday smack-dab in the middle of a #&%*ing pandemic (I’m taking this time of isolation and reflection, btw, to not just clean my living space but my mouth, too, and let’s be real. It’s not fucking easy. And my home hasn’t seen much improvement, either). But anyhow, that’s what happened to my dear, oldest niece, Amanda, whose 33rd birthday was yesterday, and I’m sure she thought that her special day would blur, undistinguished, into any other ho-hum day of late, given the current state of the world. I’m also sure she probably forgot who she’s related to, given she hasn’t seen any of us in at least few months…

We are happy to report that even smack dab in the middle of a #$@*ing pandemic, Hildebrandts are always up for a party, even if it has to be drive-by parade style. (and I’m still over here, trying to do the math—how the $#%* can Amanda be 33, when I’M still 33…)


april 28, 2020—your table awaits, madame

I live next door to my cousin, Erin, and her lovely family in Minneapolis. Last fall, I moved into the apartment where her mom, my beloved Auntie Pattycakes, lived, until her death almost exactly a year ago, just a few short months after her only sister, my own beloved mom, took leave of this earth. Little did I expect, when I moved, just how essential being close to family would come to be.

Every now and then, I’ll get a text from Erin, something to the effect of, “hey, we’re having tortellini soup tonight, want me to bring some over?” to which I’ll reply, “hey, yes, please!” because one less night of cooking for one is, well, one less night cooking for one, which is a welcomed reprieve when you’ve been cooking for one not only while quarantined, but for a good nine years now, which gets to be a drag when you have no one to blame when the cauliflower goes to mush or for the mess in the kitchen, so maybe you opt for cereal or popcorn more that you care to admit.

Erin’ll alert me via text when she’s dropped the goods off in my entryway; lately, when I open the door, I’m met with the comforting aroma of disinfectant before I smell the soup, because those conscientious neighbors of mine take the shelter at home protocols seriously, which is more than we can say about a certain arrogant, willfully ignorant VP who visited the Mayo today.

So, last night was one of those nights. Erin’s text comes in: “Hey, we’re making ribs on the grill tonight, want some?” My answer is the same as always” “yes please!” thinking she’ll wander over with a carefully sanitized container at some point. Then I get a phone call from her daughter, Elise, who tells me in that endearingly nonsensical way that only a 9-year-old can execute, something about tables and ten feet and food and such, and from our convo, I come to the conclusion that they’re setting up a ten foot buffet-style table and I’m to bring my own tupperware to pack my own food. Cool, I thought, works for me.

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting and outdoorBandana across my face and tupperware in hand, I wander up the drive and turn the corner to their backyard, scanning the setting for the buffet. Instead, I see a small card table set up, draped in black, topped with a candle and plate of ribs. I’m confused—surely they’re not expecting company?
“Hey Jen!” the whole family—Erin, Kurt and their two kids, Quinn and Elise—already seated, joyfully greets me from their table, a good ten feet away, “Your table is ready, complete with your very own tub of Clorox wipes!” I stand, dumfounded, taking in the scene, with probably the biggest, dumbest smile on my face and maybe a hint of a tear at the corner of one eye. I gratefully take my place at the table set for one. In spite of feeling like the only kid at the kid’s table on Thanksgiving, I couldn’t have felt more connected in such a disconnected time, here at my neighbor-cousin’s impromptu backyard gathering. And that is how we stay sane, safe, and connected—by being Image may contain: one or more people and fireinventive, not dismissive.

And just wear the #$%# mask, okay? Whether or not you’re the VP of the US. Whether you’re in a hospital or any public place. Not just for yourself, or the love of God even, but for your fellow humans. xo

april 26, 2020—southern MN drive by

We’re all doing what we must these days (except huffing Lysol, right?), to help flatten a silent, deadly threat that’s creeping across the globe. Still, I hope we never get to the point where donning a mask before heading outside becomes as reflexive as grabbing for the keys. I hope we never get to a point where spacing ourselves six feet apart from loved ones becomes more intuitive than gravitating toward one another. I hope we never get to a point where flinching and darting across the street is a more acceptable social grace than smiling and saying hi as we pass on the sidewalk.

I am dangerously close to exhausting my sad supply of hand sanitizer, and if there’s any to be found in the Twin Cities, no one’s letting on (or maybe I was just longing for an reason to break out of the city limits for a day…). Recently, my sister, Gretchen, scored a gallon from Drummers Garden Center in Mankato and offered to split her bounty. Since Gov. Walz’s shelter-in-place order allows leaving one’s home for “necessary supplies” “pleasure driving,” “outdoor activities” and “essential intrastate travel,” a drive down to St. Peter to acquire the goods seems to fit for each of those edicts. My plan: cruise to St. Peter, get the goods, cruise back home.

But, typical me, I never stick to a plan—I tend to wander far and away and back again, and today, in spite of tight restrictions, was no different. First stop: Gretchen’s, where we stand too far apart in the parking lot; Rocco strains at his leash, I release my grip and he tears across the lot, nearly knocking Gretchen over with his over exuberant greeting. Out of the back of my ol’ Jeep, I fill spray bottles with 80% ethyl alcohol that smells like tequila gone bad (which is either redundant or an oxymoron depending on your thoughts about tequila), thinking this is another scenario that I hope to never repeat. I toss Gretch a few handmade masks to give to her apt. building handyman a kind, funny man, nearing, if not already in his 80s, who shovels snow from her patio and plucks litter from the parking lot, and fixes doorknobs that fall off and light switches that don’t switch, and doesn’t watch much news—he’d asked Gretchen the other day, with great concern, what’s the deal with this virus and should he be worried and what should he be doing, which broke my heart. The least I could do is offer a couple of masks to help ease his worry. I try calling Jill and Kurt, to pay them a quick visit while I’m in town, but neither answer.

Instead of turning back toward Mpls, I get a wild hair to swing into Mankato, where I am graced by the blessed sight of Joe and his dad, Jesse, who come out to the front step of Joe’s apartment building to say ‘hi.’ Joe’s dad, likely the sweetest man on the planet today, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor just as the pandemic shit hit the fan; by a divine grace of something that no one will ever be able to explain but we fully, reverently acknowledge, Joe was able to bring his dad, who lives near Madison, WI, to Mankato to be with Joe for home hospice care. Other than bare-bones hospice staff, and brief, scarce outdoor visits from much farther than 6 feet away, they are robbed of so much that should be part of Jesse’s care and Joe’s support right now…still, they’re managing hospice with a side of pandemic with grace and wisdom, quiet times and humor, lots and lots of movies and home cooked meals …I hand over another couple of homemade masks and a goodie bag of treats from the co-op; after a too-short visit and a reluctant good bye, I buzz over to my brother Mikey’s, on the other end of town, where I catch him coming out of the garage, about to tackle some lawn work.

It takes more than a few minutes to catch up with Mikey (he and Kim have a big blended family so there’s a lot to catch up on, and Mikey’s a talker and a joker, so much like our dad in that way, he always has a great story or three to tell), still, our time goes too fast. I finally let Mikey get back to his yard, then suddenly realize I’ve been so busy being elated at seeing everyone in person, I’d forgotten to take photos to document our visits. I snap a few of Mikey, then quickly back-track back to Joe’s, for a couple pics of him and his dad, before heading back toward home.

In the meantime, Jill learns of my appearance in southern MN and wants to take a social-distancing walk. She, Gretchen, Rocco and I converge on a corner in St. Peter, then meander the small city, taking note of green buds, tulips and crocus that have burst open, the aroma of magnolia laced with grilled brats and burgers fills the air. Everything about this scene—my sisters and me walking and talking and laughing and taking photos—feels normal, but everything feels more than slightly off-kilter, too, and I hope the off-kilter part is another thing that we never have to get used to. We keep our walk short, and at the end, perform a traditional Hildebrandt good-bye that’s as long as the spaces between us, before Jill takes off for her home. I walk Gretchen back to her place, and after more goodbyes, finally slide into the Jeep, to head back to Minneapolis.

As I leave St. Peter, I swing by my brother, Kurt’s house on the edge of town, hoping to catch them at home (where else would they be?). My niece, Katy, emerges from the house and breaks into a big smile when she sees me pull into the drive. Her brother, Shea, appears, another big smile, Kurt and Teresa, also smiling, appear soon after; they’re in the middle of a big landscaping project—why hire out help when the kids are around possibly forever, Teresa says. They fill me in on their vision for the gardens, that Noah’s back up in Mpls, that Teresa’s picked up a new pastime—quarantine hair cutting. One more too-quick visit, another quick photo op, another lump-in-my-throat farewell, before I finally climb back into my Jeep and point it toward Minneapolis, for real this time.

april 24, 2020—tree hugging in the city

If it weren’t for my dog and our daily trips to a dog park or a local state park (only on weekdays—weekends, the parks turn into a horrifying Disneyland), I’m not sure I’d ever leave my home. I head to the woods to take a break from the laptop and triggering news, to allow the muscles that tighten around my eyes to release, to feel a carpet of pine needles under my feet, wrap my arms around bark, to hear rushing of wind through branches, and bird songs in my ears. To feel something other than uncertainty and fear.

But more often than not, Rocco and I walk in the city (mornings and after dark are best times—who knew a city could be so quiet?), around our neighborhood, taking care of business before I get down to business, or to puncture holes in the monotony of solitary confinement, or to squeeze the last of the day before slipping off to sleep. This morning, we meander over to the playground of Whittier International Elementary, a few blocks from our home. We walk past its small wading pool that will likely stay empty all summer, through the playground draped in warning signs that dangle in the cool, early morning breeze, along the abandoned basket ball court. We end up at an expansive baseball park at the far end of the park, that takes up at least a quarter of the giant city block. Later today, probably even within the hour, the ballpark will be dotted with others and their dogs, others and their children, the basket ball courts shuffling with urban ballers, offering a space to burn off the energy surplus that accumulates rapidly within four walls of confinement, to connect from a distance (though my judgy social distance eye has noted there’s a lot of room for interpretation…), to breathe outside air, crowded as it gets.

Early enough in the morning, though (even back in a time when school was in session), the playground is forgotten land. Early in the morning, it is a soft, expansive place bathed in morning sunshine, draped in long shadows, with lots of room to breath.

Because we’re now living in a lawless land, I look around carefully, make sure no one else is in the park (I’m a conscientious lawbreaker), then unclip Rocco from his leash. We run across the ball field with reckless abandon, zig-zagging and quick stopping from one end to the other. I pick up a long stick and fling it across the field, it sails end over end, Rocco tears after it. The stick barely lands before he pounces, ripping it apart with his jaws. We repeat this a few times with other sticks, until I notice a man on a bicycle in dark, dusty clothes, a large bulky backpack strapped to his back. He looks like a tortoise on wheels, as he slowly winds his way down the sidewalk to a bench at the edge of the playground. I quickly clip Rocco back to his leash as the man dismounts his bike, props it up against the bench. He slides the pack from his shoulders and places it on the bench. We wander around the greening lawn, Rocco sniffs around bushes, lifts a leg here and there, as I glance occasionally toward the man, losing sight of him momentarily, until my eyes readjust.

He is standing next to a pine tree, one arm arm wrapped around the trunk, as though it’s a loved one. His brown face is turned toward the sun, the only part of his body illuminated by light, his eyes are closed. I catch my breath, and look down at the ground, a lump grows in my throat and tears well in my eyes, and I can’t help but feel I’m witnessing something holy. We stand like that for only a few moments, sharing this morning space, he hugging his tree, my eyes cast down, slowly walking my dog around the edges of the school building. When I look up again, the man is back on his bike, pedaling away in the opposite direction. I pull the bandana around my neck, up over my face and cry into the fabric, on my walk home.