More Pandemic Life, and Light, One Year Later

Last Passover I thought the Jews might break the internet. I did not yet know that this “Zoom” thing could handle our bandwidth. Miraculously, it could and did. Some fifty relatives waved at each other from our own homes, believing surely we would be together this year.

That was not to pass. Rather than resume our pre-pandemic mass gathering, our familial organism divided into smaller cells spread across counties and states. Even so, I felt a real liberation from the narrow places of last year: for the first time in a year I was sitting with my parents inside their house, eating at their dining room table, maskless, and vaccinated. We chose to open a laptop to Zoom as our rabbi led a Seder from her home and we joined a congregational family of hundreds. She closed the Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem,” and we affirmed, “next year in Tarzana.” Even this felt like a step forward.

More signs of light? For my 2020 birthday, one month into the shutdown, my friend left a very special gift on my porch, rang the doorbell, then hightailed it to the safety of her car.

My birthday month has come around again, and last night we walked to this friend’s house, rang her doorbell and did not back up but stayed on her welcome mat. Five of us went up to the roof in time to see the sunset, and toast how far we have come; the world isn’t talking about where to source toilet paper, but vaccines! Earlier in the day, I had told my son that I sensed a light coming — though I hedged, acknowledging that my feelings could change in a day or an hour. Last night on that roof, with darkness settling over us, Christopher summarized the sentiment of the moment, saying, “I don’t know what comes next.”

We have never known what comes next. The last year has taught us that. I hold at bay the knowledge that anything could happen still, a fourth wave might crash over us and wipe out plans for summer or even fall. And it might not. I focus on the light streaming through my window right this moment, as real as anything.

Introducing Spring, and Maria

The bees are having an orgy with our bottle brush tree.

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It’s blooming like mad. Needle thin magenta red flowers are exploding all over the place.

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They land in my hair as I trim its branches to unblock the backyard gate – crucial for quick bike getaways and the kids’ friends direct access to the trampoline. I prune its branches until I’m covered in sweat and tiny red needles, or until the bees get too angry. I’ve never liked this tree.

Maria sees the tree differently. Just yesterday she pointed with reverence to dozens of buds about to bloom.

Allow me to introduce Maria.

Maria is from Guatemala, and has been part of our family since January. She is the older sister my sons never knew they were missing, whom they embraced faster than I’d ever imagined possible. She has a family back home — younger brothers, older sisters, mom and dad. But it is not safe to be a teenage girl there. That’s enough said about that.

Maria helps me see many things differently, not just the loathsome bottlebrush tree. Through her eyes I see abundant, under-appreciated privileges: walking alone at night in our neighborhood; living near a public high school so desirable that kids take a bus two hours to attend it; having books in our house; enjoying freedom from fear.

It is easy not to notice the bounty you have when everyone around you has the same, and expects it. When everyone wants more. 

It’s easy to forget to appreciate the red flowers.

The blooming tree announces spring’s arrival, and the arrival of Passover, with exclamation points.

Maria helps me see Passover with new eyes, too. This year when my family gathers for a Seder, when we read our Haggadah (including MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, and a song about Pharaoh sung to the tune of the Brady Bunch), one fundamental Jewish mandate will rise above all else: that we were once the stranger, and that we have a sacred duty to welcome the stranger now.

The star of the Passover story is Moses, of course, leading those Hebrew slaves out of oppression. This year I will be thinking a lot about Moses’ mother, who placed her helpless infant in a basket and floated him down the Nile to save his life. I think of the courage it took to spare him. Of the heartbreak. I think of Maria’s parents, who had to do the same. And I think about the woman downriver, who happened to be at the river’s edge at the right moment. Who plucked the child out, who acted on instinct to save him.

My grandmother reminded me recently that her mother, Mary, was also sent away to save her, from Vilna, Lithuania, to America’s saving arms. Like my great-grandmother, our Maria was an “unaccompanied minor” seeking the simple promise of ordinary: to live and study and work in peace. My great-grandmother ended up living a blessed life. My heart is filled with hope that Maria will have a measure of the same. And it echoes with sorrow for their selfless mothers and fathers.

As for the red flowers, I think I’ll let them grow.

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