The Apartment in Budapest

There were so many problems with the apartment in Budapest.

The electrical wiring dated from the 1970s. It had half the amperes of a modern apartment, if that’s the right way to say it — renovating the apartment was my first introduction to amperes. The outlets were in illogical places, the sockets were fifty years old. No one had actually lived in the apartment since my grandmother, after my grandfather’s death, had gone to live with her daughters in America. It had stood mostly empty.

The floors had probably not been refinished since they were first installed, in the early 1950s, when my grandparents moved in. They were hardwood parquet, built over a layer of slats and sand. My mother tells the story that when they first moved in, the parquet was not yet completed. My grandmother simply put a rug over the slats, and my mother used to pull up a corner, play with the sand underneath. There were spots where the varnish had worn off long ago, spots where the floor sagged because of damage to the underlying slats. There were bare spots where the old kályhák had stood (singular kályha, the ceramic stove that heats a room). One had stood in the bedroom — that one had been electrified. The one in the living room had still burned coal. They had been taken out ten years before, leaving spots in the floor that were partly bare, showing the slats and sand beneath, partly damaged wood.

The walls had not been painted since my grandfather painted them, perhaps thirty years before. The old yellow paint was chipping and peeling off the plaster. He and my grandmother had lived there since shortly after the Second World War. Like most people at that time, they had been quite poor. They had done everything themselves. The gas stove in the kitchen was still the one my grandmother had cooked on. I had to light the burners with a match. I was not brave enough to try the oven.

The kitchen and bath had been partly renovated after both of my grandparents died, enough to make them functional. But now that renovation had itself become a problem — the toilet leaked, the sinks were too small, the hot and cold taps in the kitchen had somehow been installed backwards. The washing machine was a hulking presence in the bathroom, the only room where it could be installed. The tile on the walls, while functional, was a swirling green that made one feel like the Little Mermaid, longing for land. It had been installed generously, in places that needed tile and places that . . . did not.

The biggest problem was the windows. They were at least a hundred years old, damaged by water and time. The window in the bedroom did not close properly, so the new radiators — the one new element in the apartment that did work, beautifully — struggled to do their job. The furniture was still my grandmother’s, a mixture of magnificent old pieces and cheap but convenient additions she had picked up where she could. There were three single beds with uncomfortable mattresses, one with a headboard that was broken and needed to be propped against the wall. One of them served as a sofa.

That was the status quo ante when I started renovating the apartment. I did not, exactly, take into account a global pandemic that would keep me from traveling to Budapest while all the work was being done. I would not be able to see it — the work — except in photographs sent to me by the designer. I would have to pick out lamps, paint colors, bathroom and kitchen tiles from websites. I would have to trust that the people doing the work knew what they were doing — which they did, of course, far better than I would have. After all, I’m not sure what an ampere is, or how many of them you need in Europe. Is a European ampere different than an American one? Do we count amperes differently here, like our insanity about length and weight and temperature? (I have recently learned to appreciate centimeters, kilograms, and celsius. They make life so much easier.)

By the time I am in Budapest again, which I hope will be sooner rather than later, vaccines willing, the apartment will be renovated. There are already new insulated windows. The floor has been refinished, the walls repainted. The bathroom has beautiful beige tiles, a shower and tub, a proper sink and cabinet. It looks reassuringly normal. The kitchen is still waiting for cabinets, the lamps are on their way, the curtain rods are coming. There are still things to do, and thank goodness for IKEA, the one-stop-shopping source for all things kitchen and bath. When I arrive, it will be to a mostly empty apartment, with only the magnificent old furniture left. That will have to be refinished and repaired at some point, once I write another book and earn more money, since this renovation was funded by the girl monsters in my first trilogy. (Thank you, Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine. There was a reason I made that building Dracula’s house in Budapest!)

Right now I’m just grateful that I could do this. I’m grateful for the designer, architect, electrician, plumber . . . the company that manufactured the windows, whoever builds things for IKEA, everyone who bought my books so I could pay the bills. Anyone involved in any way, large or small, with this renovation. During a time when it feels as though nothing is happening — it is February, I am teaching, it has always been February, I have always been teaching, February will last until the end of time — at least I know that something has been happening, even if it’s across the Atlantic ocean, in a fabled country I have not seen for months and months. But I hear it has excellent cake.

(This was the apartment the last time I saw it. The beautiful old furniture is still there. The Communist-era lamp will be replaced.)

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The Isolated Life

I think many of us are suffering from a kind of low-grade depression, as though we had a fever of 99.6 Fahrenheit. We don’t feel sick, exactly, but we don’t feel well. We feel tired, but it’s hard to sleep. We get headaches, are easily irritable. We forget what day it is, or what we were doing, or what we meant when we started that sentence. Sometimes we wonder why in the world we’re doing this, whatever this is.

It’s partly the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but for me, not much has changed since March. I’m still teaching classes, mostly online although this fall my university went to a hybrid format, so I taught some classes on campus. Every day I had mandatory symptom monitoring, and once a week I had mandatory Covid testing. I’m still going to the drug store and grocery store, still waiting in line outside when I need to. One important change is that the book store is open now — that is a kind of blessing.

It’s partly our politics, which seems to consist mostly of wealthy people in power, comfortable in their stupidity, who do nothing to help us — along with some brave souls, many of them scientists, doing what they can in a government that has grown toxic. The fact that so many politicians are catching the virus seems like a metaphor — although Covid may be less harmful than their selfishness, greed, and desire for power, which have made this pandemic so much worse.

Last Monday I taught on campus, which is always harder than teaching from home. I had to pack my lunch, course material, laptop. I had to put on winter clothes, because it’s winter now, and walk to campus — about twenty minutes, since I won’t want to take public transportation, now that cases are rising in Boston. There were only a few students in class, since most of them went home for Thanksgiving, and not that many were coming to physical classes even before the holiday–it’s so much easier to Zoom in from your dorm room. So it was a harder day than usual, but as I walked home from campus, I felt a sense of exhilaration, simply from being outside in the cold air, seeing the trees without their leaves, their branches exposed and architectural. I felt alive.

The way we live now is not healthy, for any of us. I’m enormously lucky, and I feel it–able to work from home most of the time, although all that time on Zoom and online is causing terrible problems for my back (which was injured long ago — even under ordinary circumstances I have to make sure I’m stretching and exercising). I have food and a roof over my head, and books and Netflix. But it’s winter now, and the darkness comes earlier. There are days when I wake up, get ready to teach, teach my classes online, and then it’s already dark — too dark to do anything outside. I realized recently that there were entire days when I did not leave my apartment, even though it’s the first floor of a house on a very pretty street, with parks and shops within walking distance. This summer was easier, because I had a garden that always gave me a reason to go out, whether to water the plants or just check and make sure their new leaves had not been eaten by rabbits.

And of course I used to travel, to conferences and conventions. I used to see friends. I think we are all missing motion, purpose, the sense that we are going somewhere, rather than suspended, waiting. We are missing real people, rather than faces on a screen. Yes, there are online events, but after teaching so much online, I can’t bear the thought of spending another moment in that unreality. If there is a lesson of this year, it’s that the virtual can’t replace the physical. We crave the real.

Sometimes I ask my daughter how she’s feeling, and she says, “Oh, you know, blah.” I think that’s how many of us are feeling right now — somewhat empty, like a summer house during winter, waiting for our lives to begin again. (I mean those of us who are not ill — the people who have caught Covid are feeling much more, have been through much more. May we keep them, and the healthcare workers who are working so hard right now, in our hearts and thoughts . . .)

But I wanted to write because I felt this blahness in myself, and I thought, what is this? What does it remind me of? It reminds me of how I felt when I was truly and seriously depressed, the last year of my PhD — only milder. I can feel the fog around me, but I can see out of it, and I know it will pass. (Back then, I could not and did not.) My brain still knows that things are getting better — soon, there will be vaccines available. Soon, I hope, the political situation will get better, although many selfish, corrupt politicians will remain in power. I am not a good enough person to wish them well — they are too harmful, to us and to life on this beautiful planet. Spring will come, and the garden will bloom again. We will see our friends again.

I wish I had more wisdom than that, but the only wisdom I have right now is hope — no, rather the certainty that things will get better, which is more than hope. It’s faith.

In the meantime, take care of yourself. Get some rest, drink some water, wear a mask when you go out. Find a source of joy, whether it’s knitting or cooking or cat photos on the internet. Human history tells us that this too will pass.

(This little plant and I had a talk this morning. “Look,” I said. “It’s only December. You need to go back to sleep for another three months.” But I was glad to see it, because I planted a lot of bulbs, but the squirrels dug and dug in my garden this fall, and I don’t know how many bulbs they dug up for squirrel feasts. I hope some of them are left . . .)

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The Edge of Overwhelmed

I’ve been thinking about what it looks like, the edge of overwhelmed. Does it look like a forest, when the trees get thicker and thicker, and there you are among them, in the darkness? Or does it look like the edge of a cliff, where you look down and see rocks below? I’ve decided that it looks like both.

When I was in college, I worked as a counselor in a summer camp for gifted children. One weekend, between two of the sessions, a group of counselors went for a hike in the mountains. In Virginia, the mountains are covered with forest. We climbed and climbed through the trees, until we were high up. They were oaks and beeches and pines, mostly — tall forest trees, so we could only see the path in front of us, covered with fallen leaves and pine needles. And then we came out of the trees, to a place where large rocks jutted out of the mountainside — that had been our destination. Below, we could see the slope of the mountain falling away, like a green skirt made of more forest, with a road winding through it. In the distance were more mountains.

Below us was a cliff — if we had fallen off, we would have fallen into air. And that, I think, is what the edge of overwhelmed feels like. It’s not actually dangerous. You can sit comfortably on the rocks, looking out at the view. But you can’t go any further.

I write this because I’ve been to the edge of overwhelmed many times in my life — who hasn’t? Who with children, who with a job that involves responsibility for other people, who with an ordinary human life in which we must try to manage so much? But I’ve been feeling it especially in the last few weeks. Part of it is workload — the university semester has started, and I have so much to do. I’m already behind because it’s taken a while simply to figure out how to teach my classes during this strange semester. I’m using technology more than ever before: Blackboard, Digication, Zoom. The technology has been integrated, so that it works together, except . . . when it doesn’t. And since I have fifty-four undergraduates, the technology fails on a weekly basis for at least some of us. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I teach from home on Zoom. Sometimes students have problems with WiFi. Sometimes they have problems uploading assignments to Blackboard. Sometimes Digication crashes and isn’t available at all. Mondays I teach in the classroom, to half my class in the room and half online, and that has its own problems. In the classroom, we are masked and socially distanced. Mostly, I lecture — it’s too hard to do the close, collaborative work I’m used to. So it’s a new way of teaching for me . . . And my daughter, who is in high school, is also in a hybrid program — half remote, half in the classroom. It’s a difficult year to be a junior, just starting her college entrance exams.

But there’s something else as well. In the past, when I’ve felt almost overwhelmed, it’s been partly workload, and partly people. When my daughter was very young, it was sometimes overwhelming to care for just one child. I remember going to high school myself and feeling overwhelmed by the crush of people in the halls, the constant interactions in the classroom. When I was a lawyer, the demands of the partners could be overwhelming — as well as the need to act and think and even dress in a way that fit into the corporate law culture. Sometimes, as a writer attending conventions, I could be overwhelmed at the end of the day simply by all the people I had talked to — writers, readers, editors. They were lovely people, but after a day of professional conversations with even lovely people, I would be exhausted.

Part of it is being an introvert, I suppose. Being with people sometimes drains my batteries. Often, I need to recharge alone.

And now, we are with people but not with them — we are interacting with them constantly online. In some ways it’s easier, in some it’s more difficult. Sometimes I feel as though energy is flowing from me into my laptop screen, like a constant stream of particles — but particles of soul. And reaching people through the laptop screen takes more of that soul than if they were physically present. By the end of a day teaching on Zoom, I am drained.

The problem with the edge of overwhelmed is that you feel sick and tired and as though you just can’t anymore. In the past, I’ve gotten to a place where I couldn’t even talk anymore, where I couldn’t face another person, another obligation. I just needed to lie down somewhere dark and sleep or read or think. I’m not there, at that edge — but it’s been very difficult lately to do any of my own work or keep up with friends. There is always another obligation — and sometimes I’m not even keeping up with those! It’s life as a process of triage, figuring out what absolutely needs to be done. It’s life as a to-do list.

Of course I don’t want to get to the edge of the cliff, the place where you look down and there is nothing but air under you. The place where you simply have to stop. So I’m trying to find some sort of balance. I think the antidote to that sense of being overwhelmed is joy. So I’m trying to find all the joys I can, whether it’s a bowl of ice cream or a walk in the rose garden or ordering tulip bulbs for spring. Or stealing an hour to read a book, really read, going deeply. Or talking to a friend. Or writing a poem.

We are all going through such a difficult time, and I don’t have much wisdom to give, because I’m trying to deal with it myself. All I can say is, when you get to the edge of overwhelmed, stop. You can’t go on — there is no on to go, without losing yourself. Sit on the rocks. Look around, admire the view if you can. The world is still lovely. Have a bowl of ice cream.

(The image is Interior with Young Woman from Behind by Vilhelm Hammershøi.)

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Walking on Air

Lately, I’ve had the strangest sense: as though I’m walking on air. I know that phrase is supposed to mean I’m happy, but that’s not what I mean by it. I mean that it feels as though I’m walking on something insubstantial, as though there is no ground under my feet. I’m walking on the uncertainty of our lives right now.

This time last year, we were not wearing masks or lining up to enter the grocery store. This time last year we were not reading statistics about how many people had died. We were not facing a future in which we did not know what life would look like a month from now, a year from now. Or maybe we were, but we did not know it. We assumed the world would continue as it had for a while, that we lived in a stable, ordinary world. Whereas of course we live in an extraordinary world that can change in a heartbeat. We know that now.

By “extraordinary,” I don’t just mean extraordinarily good. It can also be extraordinarily bad, just as people can be extraordinarily bad. I think we’ve seen that in the last few months — the callousness and incompetence of some. But also the daily heroism of many. We were going about our lives, largely not noticing, but here we are now, noticing: the loveliness, the ugliness, the stupidity, the courage, the kindness. Not just of people, but also of the larger world around us, of which we are a part. The loveliness of trees, of night with its stars. Of silence. The kindness of bread. The courage of dogs. The stupidity with which we have paved over the natural world, so that now we are stuck in concrete valleys when we long for butterflies.

As I was writing this, I remembered something Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, a quotation so famous that it has been shared many times. And yet it still feels important to me: “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

It was as though he knew there would be days like this, when we are all walking on air: when we look down, like Wile E. Coyote, and realize there is no ground under our feet, not really. We could die tomorrow. We could live to a hundred and one. We could live in a country where people care about each other and the world we inhabit, or where they stop caring — a nation of poverty and disease and violence, where only the wealthy have freedom and power. Who knows what will happen? Who knows where we will be, next September? Sometimes I find this uncertainty paralyzing.

Rilke reminds me to keep going. Just to keep going, because the point of life is to live it, to experience it. To do what you can with it.

After all, his words were written to a young poet, who was trying (and failing) to create art. I have, lately, been failing to create art. At first, because there was so much other work to do. Last semester I had to shift, abruptly, to teaching online and trying to make sure all my students passed my courses. But later, after the semester was over, because I felt as though I had somehow lost the point of it. What was I writing for, if eventually my words would also go into the silence that waits for everything?

I have always known, since I was fairly young, that we are all walking on air. I think it was the uncertainties of my childhood — I have always known that you can lose people and countries. We are held up, like the Coyote, by our ignorance of the nothing under our feet. As long as we think we’re walking on solid ground, it’s there, under us. Don’t look down . . . I looked down at an early age, so I always knew that ground was insubstantial. But I also knew that I could keep on walking. That after ignorance ended, we could keep walking on belief.

One expression of that belief is art, in whatever form. Whether it’s creating a cake, or a garden, or an opera. In creating something, we also create the path we walk on. It may be no wider than a ribbon, but there it is, in the air before us, showing us the way. And showing others the way too, if we share it.

Honestly, I feel as though I will be walking on air for a while — as though the uncertainties of the world will not end anytime soon. So I will try to spend more time on the actual ground, the one I can stand on, created by Mother Nature, covered with grass and flowers. That gives me a sense of reality, even though I know we’re on a planet hurtling through space. I will try to stand in the moment, without thinking about what the next moment will bring. I will try to breathe now, and now, and now, because when I think about the future, my heart feels as though it can no longer beat from the anxiety. And I will try, as best I can, to create the things that are in my head, to bring them out into the world. It may feel like walking through mud. But maybe that’s better than walking on air, for a while.

(The image is The Witch’s Daughter by Frederick Stuart Church.)

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I Planted a Garden

In the summer of the pandemic, I planted a garden.

I was supposed to be in Budapest that summer, renovating my grandmother’s apartment. I was looking forward to months of planning the renovations, talking to contractors, practicing my Hungarian. Instead, the coronavirus came and disrupted all my plans.

In March, I was scheduled to be at the London Book Fair. When it was abruptly cancelled, I wondered what to do with my tickets. The virus was already circulating, but no one was particularly worried — we were told the problems would stay in China. Europe and the United States would be safe. Rather than cancelling my flights, I decided to purchase the extra tickets from Heathrow to Budapest. If I could not be at the book fair, I could at least check on the apartment. I was not worried, exactly — not yet. But I think at some level I sensed that the world was shifting on its axis, that we were entering a new reality I did not yet understand. No one wore masks then, but I brought hand sanitizer on the plane. Just in case.

It was the week of Spring Break, the only week during the semester when I could have made such a trip. In the middle of the week, I received an email from the university: the students were being sent home, teaching was going online, and my department was holding a meeting to plan for the next two months. I joined that meeting from Budapest and spent the rest of the week training on online platforms. When the travel ban was announced, I confirmed, with relief, that my plane would be landing an hour before the borders were closed. If it arrived late, I would be fine — my American passport would let me into the country anyway. Citizens could still fly home, we were told. Nevertheless, I did not want to test that assurance. When I left the apartment in Budapest, I was sad that I would not see it again until May, or June at the latest, or July at the absolute latest.

My flight from Heathrow to Boston was filled with college students sent home from study abroad programs and panicked Americans worried they might not be let back into their own country. I landed at Logan and took the metro system to my apartment. The next day, I started teaching my scared and scattered students online. They were already all over the world, from China to California. Some of them joined the class from mandatory quarantine. And that was the next two months: teaching to faces on my laptop, trying to recreate the community of the classroom on a computer screen. Going to the grocery store and pharmacy, since we were on lockdown and those were the only places we were allowed to go. Trying to find flour and toilet paper, since they were in short supply. Taking walks in the park or the streets around my apartment. For a month after I returned, I checked my temperature three times a day, just in case I had caught the virus while traveling. But it remained normal.

My apartment was the first floor of an old house, probably the oldest on that street. Once, a friend pointed out that above the back door was an insulator for an old telephone system. Written on it was New England Telephone and Telegraph, a company that existed for only one year: 1878. The living room had wide plank floors with square nails in them. It was on a curving one-way street of apartment houses, none of them more than three stories, many with porches. The street was lined with ancient linden trees that shaded it in summer and filled the gutters with yellow leaves in autumn. They reminded me of the linden trees in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum, across the street from the apartment in Budapest. That was possibly why I had rented my apartment, which was too expensive for me. But then, all the apartments in that area were expensive. It was a town that had long ago become part of Boston, but still retained its own character and independent identity — its own government, library system, and town center. It had bookstores and café and small shops, all of which were closed because of the virus.

But my apartment was quiet and sunny, and I liked having a floor all to myself. I even had a back porch! The previous year, I had hung up a bird feeder, and it was amusing to watch, in the mornings, as all the birds came — little gray junkos, a male and female cardinal, raucous jays. And of course squirrels, who were as funny as they were destructive, knocking over the few flower pots I had put out there. They were still empty — there had been no time to grow anything, since I was a busy teacher and writer. I could enter the building through the front door or walk around to the porch and enter though a back door into the kitchen. If I chose that way, I would pass a long bed of mulch and weeds, then walk on concrete pavers through grass and weeds, to arrive at a rectangular area of more grass and weeds where the previous tenants had kept a large grill. Of course the grill was gone — only the grass and weeds remained. As winter turned into spring, the weeds grew taller, but that was not my problem.

Then May came, and the semester ended, but the pandemic did not. By this time the European borders were also closed, and there were still no flights. Flour and toilet paper were still in short supply. We were all wearing masks to go outside and keeping our distance from one another. We were waiting for the virus to peak so we could return to something like normal. I had started reading the news compulsively, for any sign that conditions were improving. That was when I sent my landlord a message: “May I plant a garden?” I knew I would not be able to travel until later that summer, and I thought I could at least put in some raised beds for herbs. I was feeling anxious, sometimes even depressed, and I needed something to do — something physical that did not involve staring at a computer screen. I assured him that I was an experienced gardener. “Go for it,” said his email in response. So I walked out to that back rectangle and looked at it. The soil was not good — the dying grass told me that. If I wanted to grow anything, I would need raised beds. And half the garden was shaded by the high wooden fence of the apartment building next door. This would be a challenge.

Between the time I wrote to my landlord and the time I received that response, my plans had already become more ambitious than a few herbs to cook with. I wanted flowers, lots of flowers. I needed to know that beauty and joy existed, and flowers would be a visible reminder of that. I thought of what Sherlock Holmes had said to Dr. Watson in “The Naval Treaty” “as he held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green”:

“Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

That was what I wanted: some assurance that Nature, if not Providence, had her benevolent side, that she created flowers as well as viruses. And so I planted a garden. How I did it, and what happened during that process, I’ll describe in future posts. But for now, here are some pictures of what the space looked like before it was my garden, and my garden as it looks today. It’s not finished of course. It’s only two months old, a gangling puppy of a garden. But it makes me happy.

This is what the rectangular plot looked like, before I started. High wooden fence on one side, chain link fence in the back, porch to the right.

And this is that same rectangular plot, today. The grass still looks straggly because the ground had been reseeded and it’s growing in. There are five raised beds (one not in the photo), seven galvanized tubs, and two hanging baskets.

This was the long bed on the side, when I had just started working on it. I had already cleared the weeds and put in a few plants.

This is that same long bed, today. I call it the woodland bed. I’ve put in hostas, azaleas, astilbe, heucheras, a bunch of irises and daylilies. And at the far end there is what will someday be a magnificent peonie.

This is a small raised bed on the other side of the porch steps, not shown above. It has a miniature lilac, lavender, and pinks. I didn’t know if the pinks would bloom this year, but they are all blooming now.

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Planting a Garden

My garden keeps me sane.

I write that even though I count my blessings every day. Almost two years ago, I moved into this apartment, worried that it was too expensive for me. It was, really — and still is. The rent takes a significant bite out of my monthly income, and if you saw my apartment, you would ask why. It’s three rooms, a living room and two bedrooms, or rather a bedroom and my office, plus a small kitchen and bath. But it takes up the entire first floor of a house, so I have windows all around, and it comes with a back porch. Around here, that much space is a luxury. It’s close to parks, a town center full of charming little shops, and two tram lines. Best of all, it’s on a quiet street lined with trees that are at least a century old. My rent pays for all that.

At the time, I justified it to myself because I don’t have the expense of a car, and the office is a workspace, where I do all my writing. It definitely has its drawbacks — it’s in an old building, as old as the trees, and there have been a series of maintenance issues. But I’ve been feeling particularly lucky recently, because of the garden.

In March, the world changed. I was in Budapest at the time, for Spring Break. There was a virus somewhere, far away . . . but we were going to keep it out of the United States with travel bans. And then suddenly it wasn’t far away, it was here. From the apartment in Budapest, I started training to teach my university courses online, meeting with colleagues for the first time on something called Zoom. I flew back to the United States the day the ban against travel from Europe went into effect, arriving an hour before the deadline. It wasn’t a deadline for Americans, but at first no one realized that, and the plane was filled with college students who had been summoned home by their parents. They had gone to study abroad, and would now be finishing their courses from suburban bedrooms.

The spring was a confusion of teaching on Zoom and trying to make sure I knew where my students were — from China to California, since they had all been sent home. We all got through it, and when the university semester ended, I breathed a sigh of relief. I still had a lot to do, but at least I wasn’t frantically turning handouts into PowerPoint presentations so I could screenshare them on Zoom. At least I wasn’t spending twelve hours a week, or more, sitting in front of my computer and making sure my face was visible on camera (nine hours of classes, three hours of office hours, but often it was much more, especially when it came time for individual paper conferences).

When the semester ended, I had time to rest . . . and that was when the sense of limitation hit me. The sense that there was nowhere to go anymore, except the grocery store and pharmacy. The bookstores, museums, and cafés were closed. I could still go for a walk in the park, and I was grateful for that. It was still spring, with birds and flowers and sunshine . . . but it wasn’t the same. I could not get on the tram — even aside from the health risks, it was better left to essential workers. And anyway, there was nowhere to go. It felt as though my world had shrunk to the streets immediately around my apartment. I sewed masks and made banana bread, and wondered why I felt so down, despite how very fortunate I knew myself to be. But knowing something intellectually and feeling it aren’t the same thing.

That’s when I wrote to my landlord and asked if I could create a garden in the space beside the house. It’s not the best space for a garden: it’s fairly narrow, and only a strip of it about four feet wide gets consistent sun. The rest is shady. But I did not want to grow vegetables. No, I just wanted plants and flowers, and many of those tolerate shade well. He wrote back to say “Sure, go for it.” And so my garden began. I knew at the beginning that I needed to have some raised beds, because the soil was rather poor and rocky. In the raised beds, I could add the sort of deep, rich soil that many of my plants would need. Now, as I walked around the neighborhood, I looked to see what other residents were growing. What would grow well here, in the relatively cool, rainy summers of Boston? What would survive the winter? Most importantly, I walked around my favorite park, a small wetland preserve with a pond and woods. What grew wild? What could I adapt to a garden?

There is no garden center where I live. I bought plants at the hardware store and on Etsy. I started with hostas, periwinkles, and violets. Once the raised beds arrived, I ordered bleeding hearts, heucheras, geraniums — all plants for shady gardens. Then I got extravagant with irises and daylilies. I made some investments, plants that would likely not bloom for a while: a hydrangea Annabel, an azalea. Finally I splurged on flowers I was not at all sure would make it, but that I wanted anyway — foxgloves, columbines, two roses (Iceberg and Souvenir de la Malmaison). Instead of scrolling the news, I scrolled plants. I researched hardiness zones and light requirements. As packages arrived, I unpacked them quickly so I could get each new plant into the ground. Every morning, every noon, every evening, I would walk out in the garden, seeing what had grown, making sure the new plants were watered just enough to get through hot days.

It kept me sane, amid the craziness of early summer — it’s keeping me sane now. There is something gardening provides, that sewing and baking do not. It’s the engagement with life, a life different from your own. It’s the sense that some things are out of your control — how quickly a plant grows, the weather. It allows you to participate in something larger than yourself, the slow march of summer and the year. It forces you to be patient.

Of course, it presents problems. At the beginning of summer, I took down the bird feeder, because I wanted to put up a bird bath. But without the feeder, the birds stopped coming, so I put it up again. With the feeder came birds — sparrows, cardinals, jays. But also squirrels,those forces of chaos, those havoc-wreakers. I have plants on my porch as well, in pots, close to the bird feeder — there is really no other place for either the bird feeder or the pots. But the squirrels like to investigate them, perform intricate acrobatics among them, sit on them. (I have seen them sitting, staring at me, in a pot of basil — with their furry gray butts planted comfortably among my herbs.) Should I try to get rid of the squirrels? But then, they are so funny! There are three, evidently a family, who visit every day. They sit on my porch furniture. The jays scream at them, when they want their turn at the bird food. On the theory that at least one of them is probably male, and at least one is probably female, I’ve named them Lara, Moe, and Curly. Anyway, they are only one species among my menagerie. I have birds, as I mentioned, and one morning I met a bunny hopping behind the house. There are worms, bees, and in the evening mosquitoes of course.

My garden is small, but it’s also a neverending sources of adventure. Will the phlox, which arrived looking like a bunch of sticks with dead leaves on them, survive? Is the peony Sarah Bernhardt growing yet? Will slugs eat the violet leaves? Do I have space for a dwarf lilac — perhaps if I move the lavender? Suspense, tension, even danger (I mentioned mosquitoes), but also beauty and comfort. A garden provides everything a good novel should. And it’s given me a sense of meaning and purpose, through this strangest and most difficult time.

These photos are of my garden, just after the raised beds were put in. They’re much fuller now, and the long woodland border is slowly being filled with hostas and other shade plants. It’s still a young garden, so it looks as awkward and gangly as an adolescent. But wait and see . . .

The long woodland border. I have since planted irises, daylilies, and a peony. More hostas are coming.

The raised beds in back. Roses Iceberg and Souvenir de la Malmaison just moved into the one at the right.

The other raised bed — the sunniest in the garden. If I move the lavender, can I fit in a dwarf lilac?

The pots on the porch, the last time they were growing beautifully, before the squirrels started sitting on them . . .

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The Fox and the Hedgehog

Sometimes I am a fox, and sometimes I am a hedgehog.

When I am a fox, I am restlessly curious. I nose about in the woods, finding one thing and another: mushrooms, moss, tree stumps. I want to smell everything. I want to feel the wind in my fur, so I climb to the high hilltop. I wander for miles every day. I watch the sunrise and sunset. I walk through streams, get my paws wet. Chase mice and rabbits through the grass. Jump back when I see a snake wriggle over the rocks. I am always surprised, exploring, discovering.

When I am a hedgehog, I do none of those things. I curl in on myself, tuck my nose into my belly. My outside is spiked, impenetrable — or at least I hope so, because there are so many animals out there who might like an Erinaceous snack. There are thunder and lightning out there. Rain, snow, wind. When I am a hedgehog, I retreat into the house of myself. I don’t want anyone’s dreams but my own. The world is too big, and all I want is a small corner to sleep in, under last year’s fallen oak leaves.

In the last few years, I’ve been more fox than hedgehog. While I was researching my books, I went to the Freud museum in Vienna, to St. Michael’s Mount off the coast of Cornwall. On the island of Great Blasket, off the coast of Ireland, I looked down at the Atlantic. In Barcelona I walked along La Rambla until I saw the Mediterranean. I sat in cafés in Budapest. In all these places, I felt like a fox slipping through the forest, sniffing and observing, as unobstrusive as possible. You would not have noticed me, but I was noticing everything.

But lately, I’ve been a hedgehog. It started especially in March, when we were all called home to shelter in place, to tuck ourselves into our homes and not come out for a while — to hibernate. I was working all that time, teaching online, so I was not really hibernating, but it felt like a long sleep. If I had not been teaching, I would have lost track of the days, the hours. It was difficult, intense work, yet it had a stillness to it — conducted from the fixed point of my chair, my desk. My motion was motionless enough to fit within a camera frame. I chased my students by sending emails.

And now that the semester is over, I am still a hedgehog, because the world feels twice as difficult as it did before. It’s no longer possible to slip through it like a fox, or like water, or wind. Now I have to walk carefully. The sidewalk becomes a ballet of avoidance. The grocery store becomes a calculated risk. No one is unnoticed anymore–we are all possible disease vectors. Sometimes the news, and other people, feel overwhelming. My university is already planning for the fall, and who knows what that will look like?

So to keep myself sane, I clean the house, and plant a garden, and listen to the birds, which seem so much louder this summer. I try to avoid reading the news seven times a day — I try cutting it down to six, then five. Maybe I’ll get to four soon. If I can make it to three, maybe I’ll stop dreaming of airports that turn into academic conferences. Maybe I’ll sink into a deep sleep, rather than the strange half-sleep of hibernation. Maybe I’ll remember what day it is.

I have always had this hedgehog side, since I was a child — I was more of a hedgehog then, shy, timid, curled in on myself because the world was too large and didn’t understand. I’m not sure the world has understood much since. It seems the same old world, driven by the same fears and impulses. When I am a fox I slip through it, observing. When I am a hedgehog, I curl in on myself and ignore it, dreaming my own dreams.

That is what I am doing now.

(The image is by Milo Winter, for an edition of Aesop’s Fables.)

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