As a refuge, as a threat, as a place to live
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Back in the early 1990s, when people still had to pay by the minute for long-distance phone calls, I worked for a company that sold calling plans. I’d sit in a warehouse in Colorado with hundreds of other telemarketers and cold-call customers of our rival company, trying to persuade them to switch. As soon as I’d end one call — or, more often, when the other person would end it — another name would pop up on my computer screen, and the phone would start ringing again.
One day the computer dialed someone named Aaron. I could see his address on my monitor: Worcester, Massachusetts. The data didn’t include his age, but he sounded young. I was nineteen and harbored a dream of going to college in Boston, a place that felt far away and exotic. Though my job was to sell Aaron a phone service, what I did was ask what Massachusetts was like — the weather, the people, the culture. He was amused, and we talked easily.
At the end of the call Aaron said he needed to consult his roommates before changing phone companies, and he asked me to call back. I did, and we chatted for a while before he told me again he’d need to talk to his roommates. This became a pattern. Our conversations grew longer.
After a couple of months of this, I sat down one night at home and dialed his number. To my relief, he was happy to hear from me. For the next year and a half we talked almost every day, sometimes for hours. I had never felt closer to anyone.
When I was twenty-one and he was twenty-three, I flew out to meet him. As I exited the airport gate, I heard Aaron call my name. Then I saw him in person for the first time. His face, which I had seen in photographs, was now an animated presence with unfamiliar expressions. The dissonance was hard to take in.
That night, as we lay in separate beds in the dark, we began talking the way we did on the phone. I closed my eyes and listened to him. Here was my best friend again, that warm voice from far away.
“How long was your trip?” I ask Fernando.
We’re in Juárez, Mexico, at La Casa del Migrante, a shelter for migrants who have come north in the hope of being granted asylum status in the United States. On this particular day there are 213 migrants at La Casa, most from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, countries with some of the highest murder rates in the world.
“Nine days,” Fernando answers. He is fifteen, the same age as my grandson.
Fernando’s mother, Flora, and younger sister, Maria, join us. The family borrowed money from neighbors in their Honduran farming community to pay the “coyote” who would be their guide. After a day’s walk to a larger town, they took a series of local buses to Tegucigalpa, the capital, then traveled for four days to reach Mexico, paying bribes to customs officials at each border crossing. The journey to Juárez took another five days, partly by bus, partly on foot.
I could fly from my home in New Mexico to Tegucigalpa in a day. A ticket would cost under eight hundred dollars, far less than Flora paid for the coyote, bus fare, food, and bribes.
The other migrants are examining about a hundred pairs of shoes that my wife and I brought from a store in Santa Fe. Their clothing is ragged from their long trip, and many wear disintegrating flip-flops. They’re unprepared for the cold and brutal winds of Juárez. As they quietly select shoes for themselves and their children, some start to cry. I wonder if they know that it’s unlikely they will be granted asylum; that they probably will have to return to their impoverished and violent villages; that they may have come all this way for nothing more than a pair of new shoes.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
My husband and I have lived together for more than twenty years. For most of that time we shared our bed with our children. Toddlers sprawled out between us, rolling and snoring and taking up precious space. A baby was always suckling at my breast. My husband and I met in the shower for dates.
One by one the children got older and moved out of our bed. When we were finally able to sleep alone, my husband would spend hours on his cell phone. I would try to read a book by a night-light, and he would tell me the light was bothering him. With no one between us we grew distant.
We recently moved into a bigger house and decided to have separate bedrooms. I have filled mine with books. He lies alone in his, chatting online with strangers on his smartphone. We barely speak anymore. I want to leave, as our children have, but I haven’t figured out how. We are still together, but we have never been farther apart.
Several years ago my sister asked if I wanted to go to Spain with her and walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James the Apostle. I said yes before she had even finished the question.
“You know it’s five hundred miles, right?” she asked.
“We can do this,” I replied confidently. “We need a challenge.”
Several months later, after walking eighteen miles on the first day of our journey, I questioned my decision. How in the world was I going to do this for five weeks straight while carrying a twenty-five-pound pack? My sister and I each walked at our own pace and spent much of the day alone, coming together only for short breaks. The effort was as much mental as it was physical, and trying to silence the voice saying, What were you thinking? became just as important as stretching.
To distract myself, I conjured up memories from my childhood; went room by room through every house I had ever lived in; tried to recall all of my teachers’ names; and conjugated as many Spanish verbs as I could remember. I started counting my progress in kilometers instead of miles because that made the distance seem to pass more quickly. I quit wearing a watch. My daily reality was distilled down to putting one foot in front of the other.
After almost six weeks my sister and I reached our destination, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. With an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and exhaustion, we set down our packs and became normal tourists instead of pilgrims. Two days later in Madrid, we parted ways to fly home, my sister to Massachusetts and I to Kansas.
On the airplane I turned on the monitor to select a movie and saw the flight path we would be making across northern Spain. That’s when I grasped the enormity of what we had just done. I let my tears of joy, pride, and fatigue flow.
It was a long time before I stopped tracking distances on my car’s odometer, trying to wrap my head around just how far five hundred miles is. It’s long. It’s hard. And I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again.
I have spent my life trying to find a balance between being alone and being with others. I always thought there was something wrong with me, that my desire for solitude was a defect and I needed an extra push to live life fully. But now I see that distance from others means closeness with myself.
When the shelter-in-place order came, I felt my body sink into itself in relief. My shoulders moved down from my ears. I’ve never spent so much time alone, and I’ve never felt less lonely. When there are fewer stimuli around me, I feel more connected to the world. I don’t need to force myself to be social. It’s my nature to be solitary. I still connect deeply with people, just one at a time, with lots of space in between.
Los Angeles, California
I was braiding my hair when my arms began to feel like they were carrying fifty-pound weights. I didn’t realize at first that I was going into labor. I was barely seventeen, alone, and confused. Weren’t the sensations supposed to start in my pelvis?
Early in my pregnancy, on the advice of Sister Inez, I’d made the decision to relinquish my newborn for adoption. “Sometimes,” the nun had told me, “it is better to think with your head, not your heart.” Now I wondered if that was right. There would be no more intimate moments of singing to my unborn child while rubbing my protruding belly; no more feeling its movements and kicks.
I was offered the opportunity to hold my infant son after giving birth. I declined. I knew if I embraced him, I would not be able to let him go.
Twenty-five years passed, and my son never left my heart, not for one day. A friend of mine called it “psychic love.”
At the age of forty-two I had not had any more children, but I wanted one, so I sought medical advice from a fertility specialist. Dr. Green could not give me any hope. She asked if I would be open to adoption. “Yes, of course,” I responded.
I got home to find a letter in my mailbox with a return address in the state where my child had been born. It was from him, requesting information about his birth mother. I had believed I would never know anything about him.
Becoming acquainted with my son was a slow process. Over time we’ve developed a special friendship, and we now reside in close proximity. This isn’t on purpose; it just worked out that way.
Bainbridge Island, Washington
My high-school friends were rowdy guys. After we got our own cars, we would race each other around in the Hollywood Hills. My friend Mike acquired a classic two-seater MG convertible and bragged about how well it could handle hairpin turns. One Saturday around midnight, five of us jammed into the tiny car to see him prove it. One guy was wedged on top of the hand brake. Two were tucked into the space behind the seats that held the top when it was folded down. It crossed my mind, once we were squeezed in, that this was not a safe plan.
Mike chose a narrow road near the Hollywood sign. There were no streetlights, and we couldn’t see very far ahead. We hit a turn that was a lot sharper than Mike had expected. He lost control, and we flew off the road and over a cliff.
I would have been screaming if I had remembered how to breathe. As the car dropped, I berated myself for going along with this stupid scheme.
Suddenly an enormous sycamore loomed in front of us. We shot into the branches, and the car bounced off a big limb and fell ten feet to the ground, landing upright with a thud in deep sand.
We were badly shaken but unhurt. Mike, the genius who’d just driven us off a cliff, took off his pretentious driving gloves and claimed that his skillful handling of the situation was the reason we were intact. Little Phil, who never talked much, said, “Shut up, Mike.” Then we all looked up at those tree branches. Had the space between them been slightly greater, or the distance to the ground slightly farther, who knows if we would have lived.
Santa Barbara, California
In the summer of 2011 I worked on an ecotourism project in the cloud forest of Peru. My colleague and I stayed in a small room that smelled as if it had been doused in gasoline, a common cleaning product in the area. Our toilet was a hole in the ground; our shower, a bucket we filled with river water. We could get one meal a day at the town’s only restaurant: potato soup and fried chicken with white rice. The nearest grocery store was a two-hour bus trip away, a ride we often shared with chickens. After our first week on the project, my colleague and I had learned to limit our activity outside of work to avoid expending too many calories.
One day we walked our growling stomachs over to the restaurant only to find it closed. We couldn’t help but cry. After twenty minutes spent wallowing in defeat, we wandered to the bus stop to wait for the chicken bus. The two-hour ride felt like two days, but we eventually arrived in town and found a restaurant that served Peruvian-style pizza. We devoured it.
Upon my arrival back in Texas, I drove to the grocery store — a quiet, comfortable trip of less than fifteen minutes. Vibrant, fresh produce was piled all around me. My knees grew weak in gratitude at the thought of the short distance I had just traveled to arrive at this oasis of nutrients. I’d had to travel much farther to appreciate it.
I was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a white American father. My dad wanted to raise me in the U.S., so when I was six months old, we made the long flight to his childhood home in New Jersey.
As soon as I entered school, I realized I was different from the other kids. At lunch, when I began eating the seaweed-wrapped rice balls my mother had woken up early to make, boys would yell from across the cafeteria, “She’s eating that black paper again!” I became ashamed of my biracial identity. Once, I had to write an autobiography for an assignment; I omitted all mention of Japan. I called my mother “Mom” in front of my friends, instead of “Okaasan,” and I never defended her when store employees laughed at her accent or just ignored her.
When I meet new people now and mention that I am half Japanese, they often cock their heads and study my face. “I don’t see it,” they’ll say, laughing apologetically. I don’t think my discomfort at this unintentional erasure will ever go away. It reminds me of the physical and psychological distance I feel from the place where I was born, as well as my own rejection of my identity.
As a lactation consultant I have educated hundreds of women about the importance of breastfeeding and have spent thousands of hours supporting them. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, however, I have not had a single mother or infant in my office. Instead I hold appointments over the phone. I hope these conversations are helpful to the exhausted and vulnerable new mothers. Many end in tears of frustration as the baby wakes to nurse again. I sometimes cry myself after we hang up.
This morning I answered a call from a seventeen-year-old first-time mother. I could hear the desperation in her voice. Her nipples were bleeding, and she didn’t know what to do. I did my best to explain how to latch her newborn to her bleeding breasts, but she was on the verge of a breakdown. She said that her cries for help with nursing during her hospital stay had gone unanswered; she’d been told they were understaffed during the pandemic and she should just pump every two hours and give her baby breast milk in a bottle. When she told me she was failing her newborn infant, my first tear of the day fell onto my desk calendar.
I gripped my cell phone, wishing I could grip her hand instead, and told her she was an amazing mom. I told her to trust herself. I told her that it will get easier. But I couldn’t look into her eyes. I couldn’t hug her as she wept.
In retirement I applied for a summer job with Pacific Architects and Engineers in Antarctica for three years in a row. The recruiter said persistence was important, and I should work on my résumé and just keep trying. My wife, Clara, decided to apply, too. We thought this would be an interesting gig to close out our work lives.
Finally I got a job offer, but my wife didn’t. Her advice: take the job. She could always try again the following year, she said, and it was the chance of a lifetime.
I did. The work was hard — ten-hour days, six days a week. The temperatures often hovered below zero, and the winds blew the snow sideways, obscuring nearby buildings. I ascended a steep, snowy mountain by ropes and climbed into an observation tube that led below the ice, where jellyfish silently drifted by and the ethereal whistles and booms of Weddell seals filled the lonely silence.
The camaraderie with my colleagues was strong, the ridges of blue ice fantastic, the view of volcanic Mount Erebus serene, but I missed Clara, my companion of forty-two years. (I also missed her chicken and dumplings.)
A year later both Clara and I received contracts to work at McMurdo Station, but two months before our departure, we got into a boating accident that tore all the ligaments in my left knee. Our dream of working together on the ice was dashed.
This time it was her turn to go without me.
Although my mother is white and I am brown, genetically I am half her. “You are white, too,” she always tells me. I know this, but my brown skin — passed down from my Native American father — doesn’t reflect that. I move through the world not as white but as Native.
She and I are similar in many ways: our big feet, our habit of rolling our eyes at my dad, our confidence, our demand to be heard, our pain over my brother’s death. These things bring us together.
Yet, as we both age, I feel us drifting apart. I, a brown Native woman, have become a race scholar. She warns me against getting sucked into identity politics and “hatred against white people.” She worries that academia has pushed me to the “radical left.” I am still her daughter, but I feel we are worlds apart.
Our New York City apartment is next to the building super’s. This has not always been easy. He and his wife and their two small daughters love to throw all-night parties, with cacophonous voices and music vibrating the walls. Once the pandemic began, though, their apartment went silent.
One morning, a little over a month into quarantine, I found a piece of paper taped to the front door of the building. Our super’s face, unsmiling and serious, had been superimposed on a picture of heaven, with a Bible verse in Spanish and two dates printed below.
I was confused. I felt sure I’d seen him recently. I texted a picture of the sign to our neighbor across the hall: Did something happen? My neighbor called back to tell me the super had died after being on a respirator for three weeks.
I was numb, though I hardly knew him. Outside, it was breezy and sunny, but I couldn’t get out of bed, and when it got dark out, I couldn’t fall asleep. Trying to find distractions on my phone, I saw photos of people walking in the West Village with no masks and no social distancing, and I was so enraged that I began to cry. The disparity between the grief in my building and the carelessness in other parts of the city was too upsetting.
I found myself putting my ear to the wall to try to hear something from the super’s apartment. When a noise finally emerged, I didn’t have to listen at the wall to hear it. It was loud, uncontrollable sobbing.
Brooklyn, New York
Fifty years ago, when I was eleven, my father moved our family across Wisconsin, from one small town to another. It was only a seventy-three-mile move, but it might as well have been to another planet. I had to leave behind my best friend, Sheila. For four years we had spent nearly every day together. My warmest memories were of her kitchen, where her mother treated us to warm, liquid Jell-O and chocolate-chip cookies with cornflakes in them for extra crunch. Sometimes she gave us peanut butter and jelly on hot-dog buns. Everything we ate in that room felt like a culinary adventure.
After the move my visits with Sheila were rare. We wrote each other letters, and occasionally I was permitted to call her on the phone. This was a big deal because long-distance calls were expensive. My mom said I could only talk for a couple of minutes. At some point I discovered there was no charge if nobody answered the call. When I missed Sheila, I would dial her number, let it ring once, then hang up. I would picture their phone where it hung on the wall in the kitchen. For that one ring, I felt close to her again.
Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, my mother took me to Italy. I found the ruins of ancient Rome stunning, but no more so than the Italian men. I admit I found their brazen catcalls more flattering than offensive.
On the second day of our trip, Mom learned that we could see Pope Paul VI in a procession after he completed a Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Mom wasn’t Catholic, but she admired the pope and wanted to see him. We arrived early and stood just behind the velvet rope.
Hundreds of people began to crowd in behind us, and the crush of bodies became uncomfortably close and hot. Finally the pope’s canopied throne approached, carried by twelve footmen dressed in red. Just as he passed in front of us, I felt something hard poke me in the rear.
I hissed into my mother’s ear, “Mom! The guy behind us just goosed me!”
My mother turned her head and glared at the two tall men pressing up against us, then forcibly wedged herself between me and them. With her familiar bulk against my back and her arms around my waist, I felt secure.
In my twenties I no longer depended on my mother for protection. I had always been critical of her hesitant and insecure style of parenting and regularly rejected her offers of advice and support. She was the last person I’d go to with a real problem, and I’m sure she knew that.
But on that day in Rome, she instinctively took charge to keep me safe as only a mother can. I regret that I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, even to myself. I hope she knew that one day I’d be grateful.
An eight-hour drive over treacherous roads is the price my father and my aunt must pay to see me. Because of my drug-addled lifestyle years ago, our time together now consists of an intensely monitored afternoon holding hands and playing Scrabble in the visitors’ room at a Colorado state prison. They seem to be aging quickly. I let them win. At four o’clock the guard shouts, “Fifteen minutes! Wrap it up!” While my father and my aunt are led from the room to start the long and grueling trip home, I am escorted about three hundred meters to my cell.
A year later all in-person visits have been canceled indefinitely due to COVID-19. In an uncharacteristically compassionate move, the prison has allowed video calls to keep us connected. I am amazed to see how long my dad’s hair has gotten. It is good to see him again. His face on the screen fills me with strength, and I assure him I am safe and happy. He has stuck with me despite my moral failings. We still have a long way to go.
Las Animas, Colorado
A job opportunity led me to move from Minnesota to Wisconsin in the fall of 1986. At the time, my younger brother was in college in New York, and the two of us exchanged letters to share our homesickness and lift each other’s spirits. As a joke, because I didn’t know anyone in Wisconsin, he convinced three of his female friends to write to me, too. I sent responses to all three. Only one replied. We continued corresponding over the next year and a half, exchanging letters once or twice a week.
One day my pen pal called and asked if I would mind if she came to visit. I said I’d love to finally meet her. She confessed that her father was apprehensive about the whole idea, but her mother had told her she should go. She flew from New York to Milwaukee for a weekend, and we shared meals, walked by Lake Michigan, and talked about our lives. Somewhere along the way we fell deeply in love.
We celebrated our thirtieth anniversary last June.
Two years ago my daughter said she wanted to fly to California to meet this guy she’d been gaming with online for some time. What could I say? Despite my trepidation she went. He eventually moved to Minneapolis to be with her. I suspect marriage is soon to follow.
I stared out the back window of the realtor’s car, searching for the kind of neighborhood I was used to at the age of seven: swimming pools, playgrounds, bikes, kids. What greeted me instead were empty fields, farms, and cows.
My mom was set on a house in the country — just as she and my dad had dreamed of while he’d battled cancer. They’d planned for him to work less at his dental practice and spend more time with us. He’d been dead for a year now, and Mom had a new boyfriend, Randy. Still, she was trying to follow through on their dream.
The house Mom bought was on sixteen acres of woods. The closest neighbor with kids was a mile away, past four barking dogs and a goat.
Mom’s new boyfriend drank, and I never knew which Randy I was coming home to: Happy Drunk Randy, who wanted to teach me funny songs and dig a pond for me to swim in, or Mad Drunk Randy, who would throw plates and hit Mom. There were no neighbors to hear the dishes breaking or the yelling. I’d stay upstairs, willing him to pass out so Mom and I could leave for a hotel.
As soon as I made friends, I started spending weekends at their homes, helping with farm chores like stripping tobacco and feeding pigs. When I got my license, I’d drive to the mall right after cheerleading practice during the week and almost every Saturday. I loved seeing how fancy city teenagers dressed.
My first job was delivering pizzas. When I pulled up to others’ homes, I would peek inside to see how they lived. It made me feel connected in some odd way.
In college I didn’t meet any country kids like me, and I didn’t fit into the sorority scene or the Doc-Martens-and-flannel crowd. I dealt with the isolation by pushing myself hard in every class and workout. At the end of four years I had a 3.8 GPA and an eating disorder.
My bulimia followed me most of my adult life. I was terrified to be at home, where I was surrounded by food and roommates who asked questions about why the toilet was so dirty. I ran obsessively for years. On 9/11, after watching the first tower fall, I binged and purged brownies and ran the fastest seven miles of my life. When my best friend from high school died at the age of thirty-six, I was late for her funeral because I was running on a treadmill.
Thirty years and thousands of miles later, I’ve finally overcome my eating disorder. I no longer avoid coming home to my husband, my dog, and my life in the suburbs, surrounded by woods but just a bike ride from Washington, D.C. This morning, walking the dog, I saw three deer. Last night a neighbor stopped me (from six feet away) to point out Venus in the clear sky. I’ve found my place.
Falls Church, Virginia
My father lives 328 miles away. When I was in high school, we used to go for walks every night after supper. Now we talk on the phone at least once a week. We update each other on our lives — same pandemic, different day — and discuss politics and current events. He e-mails me videos he thinks I will enjoy. The last time I saw him was on his eighty-seventh birthday, the weekend before his independent-living community was closed to outside visitors. As I was leaving, he walked me to my car. We hugged and said, “I love you.” I promised to call him when I got home, to let him know I’d arrived safely.
My mother lives three miles away. She tells people that I am in jail. She believes I stole her money. The last time I saw her was right before Christmas. She was playing bingo at the nursing home where she lives. I held up the present I’d brought her, and she shook her head and waved me away. Yesterday I dropped off a bag of the candy I know she likes. I asked one of the staff to give it to her but not tell her it was from me, because I didn’t want her to reject it.
Sometimes distance can’t be measured in miles.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Whenever I see a red-tailed hawk, I think of my dad. When we were driving, he would point out hawks on power lines staring down at a field, looking for their next meal. Growing up, I watched him craft bird feeders, and he and my mom made suet cakes to feed the songbirds and woodpeckers every winter.
When I brought my dad home from the hospital on hospice care, I set up his bed by the bay window facing the hummingbird feeder. Even though I knew my father would likely not open his eyes, it was important to me to position the bed looking out. For years he had kept that feeder cleaned and filled with his own sugar-water recipe. The hummingbirds knew him and would land on his hand as he attached a fresh bottle to the hook.
Seven years have passed since my father’s death. I try to remember the good times and not those heartbreaking last days in his living room, giving him morphine.
I work at a winery, and at lunch I refill the goldfinch feeders in the parking lot. I regularly get buzzed by a hummingbird on its way to snack on nearby red flowers. Sometimes a red-tailed hawk swoops by and lands on one of the power poles, or a great blue heron will float low over the dry creek bed that separates the neighboring vineyards.
I miss my dad every day. Seeing these birds makes me feel that he’s still with me, protecting me, teaching me, rooting for me. That he’s never far away.
My baby is ten weeks old and has spent most of his life inside our house. His car seat has sat largely unused by the front door. For his first fourteen days he was touched only by my husband and me while my extended family gazed longingly at him through our sliding glass doors. Now they join us for walks around the neighborhood as part of our small pandemic bubble.
Before COVID-19 I had imagined myself showing off his tiny face at the grocery store and meeting friends for lunch while he slept in the stroller. Instead we have spent hours with him on the living-room floor; in the kitchen sink; in the bouncing seat; pacing the wooden floor with him wrapped tightly to my chest, feeling his tiny breath on my neck. He has stared at laptop and phone screens, gazing at the faces of people who love him from a safe distance.
I could worry that he has been too sheltered, that his development will suffer due to his limited environment. I could mourn for all of the times we have missed having friends marvel at his tiny toes and round newborn belly. But in our shelter he is safe and loved. We are all within earshot of each other. My husband has rushed in from his home office to witness a first smile, an attempt at a roll, a coo of delight at a toy. I have spent hours just watching my baby sleep, learning to accept this slower pace.
Had my son been born at a different time, maybe I would have been able to focus this completely on him despite all the distractions the world has to offer. I hope so. But this nest we’ve created has taught me to live for one purpose: loving this little boy. And for that I am grateful.
Chevy Chase, Maryland