Why we need new roads

Dear bread friends,

I like to take a walk every morning. I used to ride my bike daily but a combination of arm troubles and fear of riding after I crashed and broke my pelvis keeps me off my wheels. I regret that I can’t see the Cohoes Falls, which is where I usually went, an 11-mile round-trip with a serious hill and a beautiful vista. This place was important to Native peoples, as it was the location of where the Great Peacemaker, Deganawida,bargained with people to stop fighting with other tribes. “If I jump into the falls and survive, will you listen to me?” he asked. People said yes, and because he survived the jump, the Great Peace began.

Feasting my eyes on the water felt like a balm, as I watched its bounty after storms, and compared the flow from one day to the next. The place also had family resonance. “Let’s take a look at the falls,” my dad would announce to his father, whom we called PaFrank. And we would get in the huge Plymouth station wagon or modest Dodge Dart and drive the small distance from his house to the cataract. My grandfather didn’t have many words, but he liked the little trip.

Now that walking is my exercise, I struggle with wanting to go somewhere beautiful and settle for just walking in my neighborhood. It feels silly to drive somewhere just to walk, so I mostly walk a steady route from my house up to what a friend called the Top of Troy, a hill overlooking the Hudson, near married student housing for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  

In August, as people returned to campus, I got less comfortable with this route. There were signs to wear masks, which felt Big Brother-ish on a public street. Watching cleaning and food service workers tend to people who were quarantining in the dorms was disturbing. The worker waving a key card was always white. The worker carrying trash bags or cleaning supplies was always a Black person. The intense reminder of racial hierarchies sent me on a different path, and I started to walk elsewhere.

So now when I get up and walk out of the house, I’m not on automatic pilot. At the corner I have to choose whether I’m going uphill or downtown and along the river. The choices are, surprisingly, more rewarding than taxing. What I loved about my bike ride was that I never had to think where I was going. I just was going, and for the longest time I’ve thought that I also needed routine in my current exercise.

Monday morning, I started to walk downtown and then I decided to go uphill after a bit to escape the rush of traffic. I was walking up College Avenue, studying the buildings for signs of occupancy, when a dog darted across the street and into the woods beside me. Well, I assumed it was a dog until I saw it was a deer! I decided to change my path again to follow where it went.

I went down a decrepit set of stairs, looking for the deer. This little patch of woods is full of falling down trees, and a giant tree trunk has blocked the stairs for a few years. I couldn’t see the little doe but over to my right there was a buck. He stood still, regarding me, and I admired his gray coat. There are lots of wooded areas around my city so deer are not unusual. Back in March as we all got used to being home, I took a video of several deer clip-clopping through my neighborhood. The lack of cars and the presence of this animal family, owning the sidewalk and street of our suddenly shuttered life, was eerie .

In other words, deer are almost common, but always a delight. Monday, the doe disappeared, but she made her mark on my wandering. I’ve been thinking of her lesson in detours and curiosity, and taking her cue of going and being, ever since.

Yesterday, like many days, I noticed how many steeples there are in the city, and I thought about what we are lacking now that churches are not a feature in our lives. Spying a bunch of white flowers on a bush, I was so excited! How could there be any more flowers left at the end of November? Of course, they were not petals, but silver and white leaves clinging to slender branches of spindly trees, against a tangle of brush. Not what I expected but lovely all the same.

The morning before the big dinner, I was feeling especially restless, so decided to go to the cemetery where my mother’s parents are buried, wanting to touch base with them.

We used to eat Thanksgiving with Grandma and Grandpa, in their little ranch house on Garden Avenue in Albany, or at our house on 2nd Avenue in Troy. I remember tubes of crescent roll dough, and begging for the right to whack the package on the counter to open them. [MOU4] A first generation American, my grandma knew how to make everything from scratch. A working woman, she valued prepared foods. My mom says she took me and my sisters for private pie-making sleepovers. I wish I could remember her lessons.

When I was nine my grandparents were hit by an ambulance. My mom was 38 and she became the executor of their estates. She had to go to court for years it seemed; the ambulance driver sued my dead grandmother’s estate, and the judge found her partially responsible for her own death[MOU5] . This was in 1976, before mandatory alcohol testing, and the thought was that the driver had probably been drinking and driving. 

The Thanksgiving my grandparents died, we took the train from upstate New York down to Virginia, where my Uncle Jack lived. After that, we started going to Rochester to be with Uncle Terry and Aunt Grace and their kids. In my 20s, I had goofy Thanksgiving dinners in Seattle, and was deeply thrilled to explore other people’s recipes through cookbooks. But I never made a serious, Norman Rockwell style meal until 2004, the year a family friend died and the funeral interfered with my parents’ pilgrimage to Rochester. Then Thanksgiving switched to my mom’s house, and now that I look back, that’s 15 years of Thanksgivings in one place. So why does this holiday feel so unsettled? Is the necessity of staying home and everything being such a threat to so many people this year coloring my anticipations and my memories?

Holidays are stacked impossibly high with expectations, even without the event actually happening. My feelings are loud inside me. Vampire bats of old family squabbles suck the rest from my sleep. I have a sense of loss, not just because we aren’t doing what we’ve often done, but because my dad’s body continues to decline. He had strokes 16 years ago and now has Parkinson’s disease, so his body stiffens and stiffens. Everything is hard for him and for my mom, who is his caregiver.

So, I went to St. Agnes’s cemetery Wednesday morning, seeking connection. I wished I’d brought some bread, something to give my relatives, but I was in too much of a hurry to get out of the house. I stood above and below my grandparents’ graves, looking at the views, as if this is what they’ve seen these many years. I was tempted to lay down on the grass between them, as if this might help me recall my pie lesson. I thought that I might get some peace seeing their resting place. Instead, I just felt more unsettled.

In lieu of accessing my grandmother’s wisdom, I am reading lots of recipes, and gathered remotely to make crust with friends. Such joy to talk about ratios of flour to fats, and the tenderizing effects of vinegar, milk kefir or yogurt. We talked and worked. Sometimes the screen was just other people’s kitchens as the camera lost track of the action. I loved the sound of their lives happening elsewhere, and I think that my grandmother is still living that way, somewhere else. Maybe I’ll be able to bake with her in my dreams if I can chase off those vampire bats and let the love flood in.

I am craving routines and release. My bike ride was about doing the same thing over and over again. I studied the differences I saw at the midpoint: how much water was rushing over the falls, how little; moss on the stones; frozen cascades! I’ve missed so much about that ride, the way my muscles instantly relaxed when I got on the bike, the hard, fast propelling of self through life. Yet I love my walks now too, and I think I’m learning that my walk should be about doing a different thing daily, and finding the beauty in silver and white leaves, in a fat buck in the middle of the city, and detours in general. Finding ways to find surprises. Building routines to seek unusual things, as I found at St. Agnes’ Cemetery.

When I am there, I marvel at the many kinds of grave markers, and how many of the fancier stacked ones have tumbled. Grass grows over parts of the disarray, and there’s no sign of anyone trying to set them back together. There are lots of upright monuments, too. My grandparents have ground-level brass markers, and I am awed by how many people could afford big monuments in the 1800s. How rich did you have to be, to be buried with such notice? St. Agnes is adjacent to Albany Rural Cemetery and one of my great grandfathers, who died of the Spanish flu, is buried there in a pauper’s grave.

Wednesday I saw a path between graves that looked enticing, and I followed it, just as I had the deer. My detour led me to this marker for a burial site for remains of enslaved people from a place nearby, Schulyer Flatts. I felt humbled by finding the marker. 

What if I had been hidebound to a plan? What if I hadn’t had the itch, or had not obeyed the itch to go off course? To follow the deer, so to speak? I wouldn’t have found this.

I see something in this of course, something about the expectations of the holidays and the expectations we’ve had about life, pre-pandemic. Routines and hopes keep us going, but there’s beauty and discovery beyond them. And there are plenty of important things to see beyond what we originally expected on the detours that are occurring this year. I am welcoming the time away from traditions to listen to necessary perspectives on these very traditions, like the All My Relations podcast, and a discussion of the Indigenous habits of incorporating thanks into daily life.

We need to keep seeing new roads and building new roads of being. The problems I face this year are so few compared to so many Americans. 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, or 40% of the total death rate so far, are from people who lived in and worked in long-term care facilities. Additionally, the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples reflect America's racialized stratification of health care and wealth. As I feel my feelings, I try to keep sense of these realities.

I hope that your hopes are settling beautifully for this trying season. Stay safe, give what you can, and love bread!

Yours, Amy