Faith Gong: On change and summer

FAITH GONG'S NEIGHBOR'S house was largely destroyed by a freak tornado that cut a mile-long swatch of destruction in March 2021.

The “classroom” where I homeschool my two youngest daughters is an open space with sloping ceilings built on top of our garage. There are windows on all four sides of the room. Throughout May and June, as our school year wound down, I had a view of two things just beyond our yard that seemed to represent the changes happening in the larger world.

It was early spring when I first noticed the surgical mask caught on a bush at the edge of the woods. My daughter’s desk is directly underneath a west-facing window, and as I glanced outside one day while helping her with a math assignment, a flash of blue caught my eye. We’ve all become far too familiar with this particular blue during these years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m still not sure how a surgical mask came to be tangled up in the branches of a bush several meters from our house; my best guess is that it blew out of someone’s car.

I didn’t remove the mask. For starters, it was just far enough through thick brush to make it an unpleasant chore. But I was also curious to see what would happen to it if left to its own devices. Would the wind, which often blows quite strongly through our yard, dislodge it? Would future archaeologists find it, preserved in our heavy Vermont clay, and date it back to the time of the pandemic?

Against all odds and weather, the mask clung to that bush. Every school day I’d look out the western window and see that tenacious flash of blue. At first it stood out in stark relief against the bare grey branches. As the leaves began to emerge, it became more difficult to discern. And then, one day, I looked outside to discover that it had been swallowed entirely by the lush green of new summer leaves.

Whether it will reemerge in the autumn when the leaves fall, I don’t know. But its disappearance seemed particularly well-timed, coinciding as it did with the sense that the COVID-19 pandemic has — if not disappeared — at least become something that we live with, something that no longer needs to occupy our entire consciousness. Something that, like that mask, is still around, but obscured by summer.

If I crane my neck enough while looking out that same west-facing window, or if I look out the windows that face south, I can see a corner of what was our neighbors’ house. This will give you some idea of what the past few years have been like for our family: As I was updating someone on our lives since 2019, I mentioned the adoption and hospitalizations of our baby boy, the challenge of pandemic life, the transition from homeschool to “regular” school for several of our children, the minefield of parenting teenagers… and then I cried, “Oh, wait! I forgot the tornado!”

Our neighbors’ house is in the past tense because it was largely destroyed by a freak tornado that cut a mile-long swatch of destruction across our front yard in March 2021. I say largely destroyed because much of the house was left standing, albeit in tatters, for the past year while insurance companies were wrangled with and plans were made. We grew rather fond of the unoccupied wreck next door; “It’s like a metaphor for… something,” my eldest daughter mused.

But this May our neighbors hired a crew to dismantle the house and salvage any materials that could be repurposed. For the past month we’ve been watching with fascination as the entire building is being taken apart systematically, from the outside in. And it is like a metaphor for…something. The deconstruction reveals how fragile and flimsy houses really are: We assume that we’re living in solid and stable fortresses, when in reality our homes are mostly plywood, particleboard, and insulation, easily toppled by a strong wind or guys with hammers.

As I write this, only the brick chimney and some two-by-four frames remain of the house next door; in a matter of days, when I look south, I’ll see only an empty field.

Just like that, time moves on. The leaves cover up the evidence of a pandemic that shook our world for over two years; a dump truck carries away the last remnants of the tornado that rocked our neighborhood. Neither of these events is a particularly happy memory, so why is it that I feel a certain wistfulness as they fade into the past?

Change, whether good or bad, knocks us off-kilter. Summer is always hard for me. I’ve lived through enough summers now to expect a rocky transition. On the one hand, isn’t everyone excited about summer? Warmer weather, ice cream, no school, vacations…

Not me: I like sweaters, school, and structure. When June rolls around every year, I feel like our family life is the house next door: We’ve spent months building up a stable — albeit exhausting — routine that works for us, and summer vacation bashes it all to the ground. We stagger around for the first week or so, eyes glazed, unsure of when to eat, how late to sleep, what to do with all this free time.

But whether I like it or not, change is guaranteed. The seasons turn, the leaves flourish and fall, houses are built and torn down, global pandemics flare and recede. I used to rail against change, to attempt to impose more stability on my life. Now, in my fifth decade, I’m considering surrender. If change knocks us off-kilter, then maybe it’s time I learned to walk with a limp.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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