I spent the first Pandemic Summer in my backyard, a plot of unruly grass with a collapsing garden box spiked with perennial weeds. I’d built the box from leftover fence panels, checked out a stack of gardening books from the library, but resigned after two unsuccessful growing seasons. I lacked the time and focus for coaxing vegetables out of dirt. Without the garden, young children or a dog, I mostly kept my yard mowed and watered for the handful of summer days when I made time to swing in the hammock or write at my secondhand patio table.
Like everyone else on the planet reimagining space and time, my routines incorporated the outdoors. Breakfast scrambles and afternoon coffee. Emails and poem drafts. Virtual events and classes. Recorded killing of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake. Newsreels of national protests.
By and large, bugs had mitigated my temperament for the outdoors. Pandemic Summer reorganized my ideas about our shared space.
It started with the bees. They busied themselves in the dandelions in the afternoons. When I stopped flinching at their every drone, I could see that the bees were not concerned with me. An ant might amble past my toes and into the blades with a corner of chip or pita bread. A second ant would appear to assist in the transport. For the first time, I escorted a spider out of the house instead of smushing it. They anchored their webs to the fence posts and worked throughout the day. They also were not concerned with me.
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I wasn’t so sure about the wasps. I sprayed a new nest every year, joking that they were stubbornly attached to their summer home location. Now, the active nest was inside a buckle of roof. The swarm carried on with its wasp business from day to day, paying no attention to me or my laptop or my lunch. From my table, I counted half a dozen dormant nests along the eaves, porch railings, and high windows. Their traffic and attention had always been yards above my head and out of my path; I bought cans of insecticide every summer.
I spent the second Pandemic Summer learning to catch salmon in Alaska. My husband and I fell into a local sporting goods store on one of our trips to get a temporary fishing license for a visiting friend. We entered mid conversation, laughing. I crossed the threshold first, my husband holding open the door. Our voices filled the store and I registered the peaking eyebrows of a store clerk, maybe 19. I squeeze my outside voice to an inside giggle, stopping at a circular rack of leggings. From the rack, I watched the young clerk’s eyebrows fold into darts as my husband strode in, asking about his day and temporary fishing licenses. An older employee emerged from the rear of the store as my husband asked a third time about licenses. He said that they no longer sold fishing licenses. My husband and I held hands walking back to the truck, shaking our heads at the palpable tension and probable deceit.
And we were accustomed to our Blackness interrupting a space, usually with little incident. This was the first exchange that quickened my heart before heating my blood. With each repeated question and shift of body weight, I grew uneasy. It was how the boy’s jaw and shoulders instinctively stiffened at my husband’s 6’ 3” Black body and exuberant joy, how his clipped responses sounded more indignant than confounded, how his boss stood protectively beside him. The encounter was a reminder of the automation spinning behind a thinning veil of etiquette that our nation has dangerously mislabeled as progress.
I meandered an internet search on most of my insect neighbors, especially the wasps. I learned they are more ecologically essential than bees, that they attack only when threatened, that they can recognize faces and will avenge their smushed brethren. I learned that I’d been conditioned to fear and despise them. Watching the wasps, I thought of the white teen who had just opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing two people and injuring another. About the officers who observed and abetted him; about the donors from around the nation covering his bail and legal fees; about the unreasonable expectation for mistreated people to suffer with noble silence and gratitude. Watching the wasps bustle and float, I considered the American minds that have similarly programmed – if not explicitly instructed – to fear and despise Black and brown bodies. To normalize their killing, from up to 27 feet away.
I was nauseous watching the ticker tape throughout the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Disgusted by the choral efforts to dismiss the boy’s behavior and defend, instead, what Rittenhouse represents: white boys who claim to love America. I wanted to be furious at the verdict. The egregious bias of the judge. The slippery Legislature of my home state. The duplicitous declarations of “justice” for white boys who murder, steal, rape and terrorize and still go home. Kyle and his sympathizers have been conditioned to prefer and preserve the America that protects her white boys foremost and at any cost. Black and brown boys who love America also expect her to do better, to protect all of her children who dare to be alive and full throated about their freedom.
If there must be another pandemic summer, I will spend it outside again cherishing every breath and challenging the assumptions I’ve absorbed about the creatures all around me and their unalienable rights to simply be.