The COVID Sunday Drives

1

My friend once saw wildflowers in an alley and a purple string mop set out to dry, its mop head up, seemed to her like wisteria—its dangling purple strings—but I always want roaming to transport me, and I hope to be alone with trees, to be do not disturb with trees, admiring their smallest, highest branches waggling, and I’d have noticed instead a cast-aside Gatorade bottle or plastic trash cans or broken lawn chairs, and here I am imagining interferences with my transcendence and I wasn’t in that alley, but if I had been I’d have begrudged the human middens, human evidence, would have recalled not wisteria but a job I had cleaning vacation cabins in which guests left behind trash, and by the time I mopped my way out the door I was aggrieved, hoping what came next would be better.

2

I always called the order to shelter in place lockdown, quicker to remember and say, though my stepmother who uses quotation marks like others use underlining, for emphasis!, wrote a letter from Wisconsin to say her “lockdown” was “worse” since she was “trapped,” not due to “COVID,” which was “fake news,” but because the house she shared with my father was a “prison.” Meanwhile, my husband and I cleaned our house in Austin, Texas on Easter Sunday, vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing, and we finished early and took the first of our Sunday drives through pandemic-empty streets to open land where cotton-puff clouds rolled, no smog, the car rocking in gusts as trees bowed and swayed.

My husband told me that over the next hill was a church he remembered from decades of bicycling, decades of muscles stretching and contracting, days, weeks, years, miles recorded in inky columns of notes on a wall in our garden shed, a church he’d bicycled past before the city got expensive and people bought houses in what used to be country towns, which became exurbs, and commuters filled the roads, too dangerous for bicycles then. But the roads were empty on COVID Easter, the only COVID Easter, we believed, lockdown soon to be over, we believed, as empty as when he’d bicycled them with their blind hills and curves but no traffic except a solitary truck or tractor, its driver nodding, salute, before giving him room enough to ride, he said, as we crested the hill and saw white clapboard crisp against a periwinkle sky, a tin-roofed steeple flashing silver.

I had on ragged jeans, a T-shirt streaked with dust and cleaning powder, my husband’s sunglasses, mine on the desk where I’d left them a month earlier, and I stood on the church’s porch, properly called a parvis, from the Middle English parvys, from Old French parevis, from Latin paradīsus, from Greek parádeisos, and maybe congregants earlier crossed it to sing and pray, thinking COVID was a city problem, or service got canceled but an impassioned flower-lover wanted the church bedecked all the same, because at the top of steep stairs on the parvis was a flower-cross as tall as me, a chicken-wire cruciform studded with flowers starting to wilt, and wind whipped my hair like banners, so it seems in a photo my husband took, and the cross quaked and petals scattered.

At home I wandered nearby gullies and thickets in what used to be ranchland but got carved into lots for houses with acres saved for mostly empty trails through branches and mud, trails where I found a treehouse begun and abandoned by kids no doubt grown now, an occasional orange plastic tag marking someone else’s progress. At first I had trouble finding my way in, and out, but learned to see veiled portals, to ignore the sound of the expressway, and if I walked far enough, past trees and boulders, past a stretched-out remnant of rusty wire attached to old posts, past a sprawling cactus into a meadow of tall weeds, I would hear just birds and wind, and once I ended on a highway on the edge of the city, stepping out of a tangle into light where people, after I rounded the corner to the sidewalk, stared. Because I had a too-private look on my face, having been recently ecstatic.

3

The ancients found the sublime in celestial bodies. The Romantics found it in remote vistas, inaccessible canyons, mountains, oceans. Then the external world got demystified and the inner world mystified, the self with its tricks and caprices a site of reverence, inciting a speculative new theory of self, a theology of self. Depth psychology didn’t get invented overnight, but the sublime is now deep inside and has been for over a century.

Arroyos, hummocks, groves, towering trees, creek bed.

Branches flexed. Grasses draped. I found flowers I didn’t yet know, widow’s tears. I found summersweet, which I bumped against and blossoms released, aroma therapy. Humming insects made a sound like one of those spa sound-machines tuned to a channel maybe called “peacescape.” I wasn’t lost but I’d find myself two miles from home having already walked for four. I wanted to be deep outside. I’m not all that intrigued by the accidental fusion of biology and personal experience, my unknowable self. Who’s to say a unique self isn’t also uninteresting? “Surely we’re not revisiting childhood now?” I once said to a helpful expert. Also, “Eventually everyone is post-traumatic.”

COVID spring became COVID summer, and I recalled Easter, the mesmerizing wind and strange highway. Every Sunday, I decided, we’d pack up surgical masks, hand sanitizer, silverware for carry-out meals, and drive. We couldn’t escape the pandemic, nothing so bad since 1918. We couldn’t escape the rest of the confounding muddle of history inside of which we’d found ourselves stalled. But we’d get respite by driving, looking out our car windows and stepping outside for a closer look while keeping our social-distance. As a child in a backwater town I’d roamed for better glimpses of moss, ferns, keyholes of sky through small and highest branches waggling, and I still displace onto rural backdrops the desire to live as undisturbed as Thoreau, whose mother, FYI, delivered his meals and fresh laundry. Desire displaced, or projection, was described by Freud.

4

            I wasn’t fixated on the bucolic when I was living in it, taking for granted the sensorily curated world, a peacescape, lakes, fields, horizon, sights, sounds, smells, and textures. Yet conversation stalled. I tended to blurt something I’d discovered while reading. “Communism has good ideas badly delivered,” I said in Phys Ed once, a fine fall day, tennis day. “I feel blithe,” I said to a friend of my mother’s I’d passed on the sidewalk, hurrying to my after-school job on a slushy-sunny early spring day after long winter.

I didn’t yet understand I’d give up what I’d thought was the whole world: the pinging of frogs; heart-shaped or star-shaped or elliptical leaves in infinitely varied shades of green; sunbaked rocks; birch bark unraveling dry yet sticky in my hands; the stinging-wet smell of snow; honeysuckle tips melting sweet in my mouth. The collectively atomistic life and the local economy, physical toil, regulated small talk. If I put into words a vagary, an unexpected wondering, someone might take me aside to tell me I was trying too hard to be different. The linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath found that most people become lifelong readers because a parent or parents modeled the habit. But the occasional “social isolate,” she noted, relocates community, kith and kin, in books.

During COVID walking, I remembered how, in the very first novel that a thoughtful schoolteacher gave to me, the protagonist Heidi is rushed back to the Swiss Alps from a city where, because she couldn’t hear wind in trees, her health has failed. I pause when I’m far enough from the sound of traffic and osmose this medicine, wind in trees.

As an adult I settled twenty miles from my job at a university and two miles outside a village where the cost of living was low. I consorted with birds, cicada, lightning bugs. When I went out at night, deer sometimes approached me. I’m white, the village was white, a demographic fact that barely registered when I’d made it my home. Then I became a single mother in a conspicuously interracial family, my daughter the only black child in a classroom or on the school bus, and adults and children on the playground mostly pried and sometimes kept us at arm’s length. When she was a baby, she looked only at my face or at the sky or tall trees or—wonderingly, eyes focusing and startled—at the moon. We needed to live somewhere differently imperfect, part-Eden minus the lush garden, where the majority-minority dominant tribal loyalties, the social habitat, would be conducive, more cordial. Karl Marx left behind his village idiocy, preferring a teeming array of people and ideas, outsiders absorbed and flourishing. After I fell in love with a man in a city, with a son and a good life underway, my daughter and I moved.

I live and will likely die without enough wind in trees, with solitude that ends at the house’s edge, the property’s edge, enforced by privacy blinds and privacy fences, anonymity in a crowd a consolation. The rural and urban divide, the never-the-twain-shall-meet divide, is a national and political problem and a private and personal problem, mine.

5

I projected comfort onto Comfort, population 3,350. We got there by crossing the escarpment and passing through Blanco’s white stones and blue-green waters, past Sisterdale’s shingle mill and vineyards, onto plains wide and high, toward the sky about which my neighbor Roy, when I lived in the country, used to say: “People think there’s no scenery and I tell them, ‘Stop looking down, man! You got to look up! Look at the sky!’” Hills, berms, cliffs, mounds, valleys are in the cloud-roiled sky; rocks and bleached grasses mere groundwork. We rolled across a series of hills then downward into Comfort.

History is written by winners, of course. Part of Comfort’s was written by European arrivistes, Freethinkers who didn’t build churches, just small Greek Revival civic necessities, using quarried stone: a school, a hotel, a store, a post office, a bank.

The Confederate States of America imposed martial law due to these abolitionist Freethinkers’ resistance to the Civil War. James Duff’s Partisan Rangers killed some Freethinkers in battle, executing others. Two-thousand escaped, some never returning.

 

My smartphone said that. We drove through town as I envisioned life before and after the war, preferring not to conjure what my phone called the Confederate sympathizers’ reign of terror—inflicted on lives spilling out of these houses onto porches, into gardens, toward the town square. I approved these Freethinkers, their message. If I’d lived among them I’d likely have believed what they believed due to social pressure, influence, having attuned my values to match, but if I’d lived among Confederate sympathizers, who can say.

In 2002 when the state erected a historical marker about Comfort’s founders, citizens protested, circulating a petition: “No Monument to Atheists in Comfort!” That Sunday as my husband and I turned toward home, soothed by verdant evidence of spring, vines cascading, river cascading, we crossed a bridge and saw under it a crowd, not as big as crowds on Florida beaches that weekend during the COVID spike, but maybe fifty people drinking beer, wearing bright swimsuits and no masks. All the downtown shops had been closed, governor’s orders, except for the ice cream shop outside of which masked clerks served unmasked customers. We wore ours as we sidestepped, warily regarded.

The next Sunday we drove between wind-swept pastures to Serbin—the remains of a colony established by Wends, ethnic Slavs who’d objected to Frederick William III’s Prussian Union of Churches, which meant communicants would ingest bread and wine as symbols, not as transubstantiated body and blood. Descendants emphasize religious freedom as the motive for emigration.  Yet historians note that Wends had dire economic need. Serfdom ended in 1819, but land still belonged to former landlords, and so Wends were receptive when an exhorting, firebrand preacher told them science was replacing religion. Startled by the long list of the dead, parents instantly childless, children instantly orphaned, my husband said: “The threat of starvation. Or you’d stay home, doctrine or no.”

Soft rain fell as we sat in the original church, a dog-trot cabin. Then we walked through the cemetery. Gravestones absorb groundwater and soluble salts. Limestone is susceptible to surface loosening (“sugaring”) and stains. We found the children’s section, lichen-covered stones covered by rose bushes as big as trees, rows of infant graves a testament to the ruthless swath of disease before antibiotics. Wendish brides wore black to remind them of assured suffering ahead. Decades later, they were allowed to wear gray, then white. Wends ostensibly moved because of theological distinctions now lost in the mist of time; if they’re known at all today, it’s for their fall festival and ethnic food, noodles.

6

Every Sunday I studied the confounding muddle of history.

Science and anti-science factions: people wore masks in the city and didn’t in the country. Protests as likely to have occurred a hundred years ago as now erupted in cities, including Austin, and white supremacists counterprotested. Placards dotted city lawns: “Black Lives Matter” (frequent) or “We ❤️ the Police” (infrequent). City-dwellers mostly endorsed one presidential candidate. In the country, 8′ x 3′ banners on barbwire and 3′ x 5′ flags flying from poles in stake pockets on tailgates endorsed the other. We saw a barn painted with one candidate’s name, painted the way barns used to be to say “Gold Medal Flour” or “Mail Pouch Tobacco.” Ads on barns are prohibited since the 1965 Highway Beautification Act unless the ad is folk heritage, but rural barn-owners object to rules for barns.

Memories of times I’d lived in the country when it was still easy to ignore who’d voted for whom overrode recent memories, for instance that in 2016 my daughter left home for a tiny college in a town surrounded by fields and farms and endured bias-motivated vandalism and finally an assault, hate crimes, the vandalism two nights after the 2016 national election, with threats and slurs and a converted political slogan “Make America White Again” on her residence door and parked car, and the worst incident months later, all of which made the sudden post-election uptick of verbal incivility in the tiny town’s stores and restaurants harder, incivility a minor affront compared to the rest, but wrong and cruel, as in two women—“with that blue-gray, church-lady hair, Mom”—who told her to give them her table in a coffee shop. “Get used to it,” one said. “A new broom sweeps clean.” She lives nearby now and we both try, albeit in different ways, to forget.

On Sundays I let myself believe I’d moved away from a hushed and welcoming landscape for my daughter’s formative years and might still return. I’d look at maybe a farmhouse with a porch, big access to wind and sky. “I want to live here,” I’d say involuntarily. My husband didn’t bother answering. He knows that I moved to Austin—progressive but ethnically a monoculture—for a tolerant if not diverse school for my daughter, and because back then either he or I needed to commute and it couldn’t have been him since my stepson lived parttime with his mother. But after the kids grew up, I missed wandering while blithe, wandering into starlight or dew, and my husband told me we’d move back if I must. I mustn’t. I can picture ordinary days in the country, but not holidays.

Imagine. I’ve bought groceries in a nearby small town to cook the family feast and maybe my daughter is on her way, driving, and I text her to stop for a last carton of milk or pound of flour or another package of wrapping paper. It’s not likely she’d be assaulted, yet low-grade worry that she will be (again) remains. More likely, she’d be subjected to a few surly stares. I’d have bartered away her sense of welcome for wind in trees.

7

One Sunday my husband and I drove to Castroville, stucco houses crisscrossed with timbers hand-hewn by Alsatian immigrants after a long voyage. We sat in the park, pecan tree branches creaking, clematis and moonflower leaves stirring. The town was deserted except for white people going in restaurants, some wearing masks, thereby obeying the governor’s order for partial reopening that stated restaurant customers wear masks until they’re inside when—defying logic—they take them off, open their mouths, and dine. A few brown and black servers in masks carried Styrofoam cartons of food to cars.

Once, we drove through High Hill, Ellinger, Praha, to see churches nestled in trees in summer light but we couldn’t go inside—tours canceled, COVID—to see walls painted by Czech immigrants in tromp l’oeil to simulate the carved medieval sanctuaries they’d left behind. At Queen Mother of the Holy Rosary & Saints Peter and Paul in Hostyn we stood in an outdoor grotto, the horizon staggeringly beautiful, as if filtered for Instagram.

Another Sunday we drove through Lampasas and San Saba where historical markers describe hangings and shoot-outs. Homemade signs dog-whistled: “Jobs Not Mobs.” Though this is the West, not the South, Confederate flags flew next to MAGA flags. An unmasked man stared at my masked husband swiping a credit card at a gas pump, then walked antagonistically too near. I recalled an advice-column letter I’d read:

Dear Amy,

We have seen negative comments congregants have posted on Facebook, such as, “Wearing a face mask does not help,” “Stop wearing underwear on your face,” and, from our minister, “If I see you wearing a face mask, I’ll laugh at you.” We are naturally uncomfortable.

 

And yet the next Sunday—fifth month in the year of our pandemic—we went for another drive.

Navasota was almost too far, but we’d passed through our same-old living room, kitchen, hallway, bedroom all week. So we drove, first to the edge of Austin, passing through neighborhoods where masked people hurried down crowded sidewalks. Then we drove through suburbs, exurbs, until the view got wider, panoramic, green cornfields tremoring, ready for harvest, the sky faded cobalt in midsummer heat. From behind the windshield, I watched fields of vision moving like on a streaming TV show my husband and I had discovered, a documentary we thought, but, no, a camera fixed to a boat lets viewers feel as if they’re on a river, not urgently searching for new TV due to COVID lockdown.

Navasota is the South, not the West. Houses with historical registry plaques have sweeping porches, gingerbread, and turrets. Brick and stone buildings with iron trim line the downtown streets once so overrun with ruffians that white women and children were advised to stay inside. Tucked between two buildings was a mural, Blues Alley, because music is the ethnic influence people like, no sectarian arguments there. I read my phone:

The 1858 tax roll listed forty-two residents as holders of twenty or more slaves, the index of wealth often used to define a “planter.” By 1860 there were 4,852 whites in the county and 5,468 slaves.

 

A historical commission website reprinted articles from The Central Texian, the town’s first newspaper. January 24, 1857, “Slavery Agitation,” the standard arguments: reports of mistreated slaves were essentially fake news; slaves were happy; outsiders interfered; God approved. February 14, 1857: “Perhaps you can spare able negroes to work on the road.”

My husband and I stood on the sidewalk. The sun beat down.

Hypocognition is a term from linguistics that describes how concepts don’t seem to exist if words to describe them don’t exist. If a culture has no word for “grief,” people might report “sickness” or “strangeness.” The opposite is true. If you have words for a concept but no experiences to match, you might report skepticism. We have several words for racism, discrimination, systemic oppression, bigotry. But whether someone who has no experience to match believes these words describe reality depends on what else they’ve experienced, who they elected to trust, how tied they are to a like-minded own kind.

In the interest of middle ground, I sometimes try to grasp the refusal to know. All I can report firsthand is perhaps just this early evening in my front yard the year before my daughter was born. My father and stepmother had come for a visit and they’d spent the previous night in Tulsa, a nice city with nice people they said, the sun sinking behind trees. Tulsa was in the news, the 75th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The Oklahoma legislature had appointed a committee to make a historical record, to establish a probable body count, to search for mass graves. My dad, with his vague faith in experts but instinctive objection to history that isn’t about the courage of great ancestors, winced. My stepmother said, “It’s long ago. I don’t know why anyone cares.” I wondered whether to answer. She turned and went inside. That day in Navasota, my husband and I went home.

8

            We returned by a different route, through green glens and remnants of small towns, empty storefront buildings clustering then vanishing, then open land that looked familiar. We were near where my daughter went to college in 2016. How pretty it had seemed when we drove her for a college visit. A year later, after dire and also sometimes merely unpleasant events, my fond first impression dissolved. Driving home, my husband said we’d run out of country. I was holding ice on my face—I’d stumbled over a carriage block while reading Navasota facts on my phone. Unmasked people had rushed to help me. My husband waved them genially away and assessed my injuries. “Nothing broken. Bad bruise. Split lip.” In the car, we wondered what future escapes from lockdown would be.

The next Sunday we didn’t drive.

City parks with lakeshore, sculpture, or legendary views were too crowded. We picnicked in a nondescript pocket park built as a hedge against amassing noise, density, pollution, heat. The next day, while riding his bicycle on a shady street—random bad luck—my husband was hit by a car. In my kitchen, I held my phone, listening as the ER doctor finished an emergency intubation, then sent him to a trauma hospital. I heard her shouted instructions because the person answering the phone hadn’t put me on hold. COVID disrupted protocols. For a week—no visitors allowed—I had little information. One day he was in surgery. A nurse: “It must have been urgent. Someone will phone you.”

I don’t remember days that week, my lockdown a prison. I remember nights. The moon waxed toward full as I lay on the floor to see above roofs of houses, above yard lights and streetlights—you’ve got to look up!—and saw textured and phosphorescent clouds racing across the moon, and then clouds would break and the moon glimmered, a silver coin. I went walking at night under trees entwined with streetlights, and one shook its lit white blossoms. In the valley of the back yard, rimmed by tall houses, I watered plants in pots, midnight gardening, turning on the tap to listen for the whoosh of water rushing into pipes rhythmic, pinched, and squeaking, like maybe a snipe winnowing then singing.

9

My husband came home and, after several weeks, started walking city blocks, at first using a cane. I looked at photos I’d taken on trails I’d walked in the spring. A path framed by graceful branches, trees with new buds silhouetted against a damp sky, a clump of red flowers, a spray of yellow—all time-stamped at the start of the pandemic. Paradise means “near” or “around” (para) “god” (dyēus). With the country in lockdown, which is history, three-and-a-half years after the 2016 election, history, having seen my daughter’s life changed in the years since, family history, I’d walked trails to avoid thinking, willing away human evidence because the worst human instincts had been inflamed.

I surrender to history. I miss sights and sounds from the other side and visit them as a tourist on Sunday drives. After youthful optimism, Herman Melville abandoned the idea that order and justice are achieved through willed human action and believed instead that survival is buoyancy and adaptation. “Let go and let God,” a nineteenth-century, splinter-sect Methodist, a Keswickian, advised. “History is a nightmare,” James Joyce wrote.

I returned to the trails in autumn 2020, COVID now surging in rural settings, the 2020 national election over, and one day at a fork in the path I turned, not away from the city as I instinctively used to before, but toward the city, so through a deafening overpass, past a discarded cooler, past a smashed pallet flown off a truck and swatches of winking and glittering trash, onto a flood plain never cleared and regrown, and so found myself under a swaying canopy of trees over a mudcrack trail—mud tessellating like a mosaiced floor—and onto a footbridge. I gave myself over to a fallacy of bridges and decided to believe that the bridge had been created for me, as were stairstep rocks rising out of bottomland.

I walked further into sunlit and shadowy sights, whispering and trilling sounds, humid smells thickly fragrant, and I headed into trees, deep outside, toward the awe-source, as my friend who loves wisteria likes to say, then came to a hairpin curve, headed back, and I heard the drone of traffic, shouts from late-afternoon football practice on the other side of the creek—no peacescape without distraction—and I was sharing the trail with a dog with a plume-like tail, I thought. It was a fox, giving me a head-shaking glance.

My phone rang, and I answered it, standing on a path strewn with bright stones painted by children bored with lockdown—one red-and-black-dotted like a ladybug, one with an American flag, one orange with a school mascot, one blue with a butterfly. My daughter had called me, she said, because she was “flustered,” a stopgap word she’s used in recent years to describe her new surges of worry or dread over trifles, surges a helpful expert would call displaced panic. But my daughter so far will not. She’s fine, she insists from the hub of her unnamed grief, feeling sickness and strangeness, and then she talks in a jagged voice and breathes rapidly, describing a minor problem, and then she relaxes again.

This was just after the 2020 election, the vote-count extending because of the hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes due to COVID, election officials laboriously opening envelopes, smoothing and scanning ballots, and the losing candidate hadn’t conceded. Protesters on one side: count every vote. On the other: don’t count. The week before, in the country, ten miles from my daughter’s apartment, a convoy of pickups with armed drivers flying 3′ x 5′ candidate-name flags in tailgate stake pockets had forced a campaign bus for the other candidate off the road. She’d heard about it on Twitter, she said, inexplicably refusing to feel flustered about that. Twitter is bad news, BTW, not birdsong.

We said goodbye, and I headed home.

When options narrow, people who have the freedom and opportunity migrate. I had to believe in somewhere: that there’s less to fear somewhere, more witnesses and more allied help when sectarian loyalty turns ugly, with no guarantees, the city a partial answer to an unsolvable problem. I arrived here, with parks and trails, with my daughter nearby, and, according to the precinct data on my smartphone, a seventy-two percent majority of neighbors who share my detailed hopes but no surety that what comes next is better.

 

 

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