Note: I drafted the following essay before our country erupted in chaos in protest of the police brutality and murder of George Floyd. I felt a need to add an uplifting look at the pandemic-infused world. Now, our nation is even more in need of healing. Next month, I may address this canker at the heart of our society, but for now, I offer you a breather in the midst of uncertainty. Thank you for being there…on the other side of my words. You are always in my heart.
I have always loved pineapple upside-down cake. When the children were small, they napped while I layered the slices onto the brown sugar and butter lining the cake pan, added cherries inside each ring, then poured the batter on top. The best part of the cake lay hidden until the timer on the oven buzzed. Then, with careful handling, I would upend the cake onto a plate, waiting for the oohs and aahs as the bottom became the top. After dinner, whip cream dolloped in generous spoonfuls, we tasted the sweet goodness of the surprise: fruit below transformed into mouthfuls of delight. That which was hidden became clear. Bottoms up acquired a new meaning.
I don’t know for sure where you are these days – literally or figuratively. Most of my friends are still in the bunker. Translation: Staying at home. Vacations have been postponed or canceled. Summer plans exist only on paper. Decisions that once were easy to make now involve discussions about cleanliness and how to avoid contact with infected others. A simple canoe trip to a remote cabin has the added factor of how many stops will be necessary before the destination is in sight. What was once simple has morphed into complicated. On the other hand, calendars are clear. Days pass in serenity instead of flurries. I listen more, talk less, meditate often, write notes to friends. That which was relegated to the bottom of the list has moved to the top line. Maybe upside down isn’t so bad after all.
Planting a garden mimics the upside-down of the moment, as well. I bury seeds, along with faith, that the invisible process of regeneration will yield a bounty almost inconceivable. I shake each tiny promise into the furrow and cover it with soil. Transformation starts below the visible spectrum. When those seedlings pop their heads above ground, my belief in the underground miracle is complete. This growing season the unexpected uprooted all that faith — a killer virus accompanied by a killing frost over a six-day period after the threat of a freeze was supposed to be gone — grounded me at home and forced a restructuring of the normal. Now, I was rooted in place, and the garden bounty I had counted on had withered in the cold temperatures. I am disappointed in myself for not recognizing the danger and frustrated that, despite all my efforts to protect those plantings, I lost them anyway. The old normal disappeared. The season turned upside down.
But that’s the real lesson, isn’t it? Who of us can be totally prepared for the unexpected? When the world inverts itself, ravages with floods, hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, pandemics, we are caught unaware. But we are not helpless. We know what to do. The astonishing thing is that so many agitate a return to a ‘normal’ that no longer exists. We are witnessing a turning in the cycle of history. What’s around that bend is still to be determined. Yet we are not helpless. If the weather takes away my first planting, I adjust the schedule, adapt to the new order, and go on. As human beings, this is our strongest quality, our flexibility.
As a human in the grip of massive social and economic upheaval, I do not rely on nostalgia to chase away the changes. Instead, I put on my big-girl pants and lean into the challenge. I still bake upside-down cakes, knowing full well that this time, with food shortages and missing ingredients, what is hidden may not be exactly what I planned. As a writer, I continue to write my stories, hardening myself to the changes that accompany all creative endeavors. Decisions must be made on a daily basis: what to leave in, what to leave out, how best to publish this novel, which journal may accept this poem. Rejection is a constant, upending every plan. Even as I think and write and hope and dream, I return to a quote by Sylvia Plath. I do not have it memorized, but I understand the message. She took heart in her rejections, she said, because they proved that she was trying. After all the challenges we have already faced in 2020, I cling to the topsy-turvy cake I’m trying to bake, to the harvest I’m engendering, to the stories that I need to tell. No matter how much is down when it should be up, there are sunsets and sunrises, children’s laughter, bird songs and breezes, and joy to be found in the world.