July 2020 Newsletter

Opening Up to New Possibilities

It is just before sunset and ribbons of bright orange streak through low puffy clouds.

I am walking on a foot bridge across the breathtaking James River in downtown Richmond, Va. Water courses over barely visible boulders. Mama duck paddles her babies to a stand of weeds to search for bugs. An osprey dips and glides overhead.

A dramatic flash of lightning in the distance prompts me and the three teens I am chaperoning to head back to the open field where we pull out our picnic dinner.

Soon, they have kicked off their shoes and are dancing in the grass. They leap and giggle and shout. So carefree.

A loud grinding sound turns our heads back toward the river. We confusedly see a train snake across a set of tracks we thought were abandoned.

It’s so unexpected we watch for a long while as the dirty, graffiti-covered cars chug across a broken-down trestle.

In that moment, I realize: I can’t remember the last time I felt surprised.

My day-to-day in my small mountainside city is a good one, filled with friends and ease and more than I need and privilege. Even in the midst of a pandemic, I have felt fortunate to have a paycheck and a home with enough space for everyone and a backyard for us all to stretch into. We live in a walkable neighborhood with hiking trails nearby and good health care down the street.

But just because something is good doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leave it from time to time.

That’s what I’m starting to see as I begin week four of five weeks settled three hours east of my longtime home. Months ago, I signed on to be the parent-in-charge for three dancers who are overjoyed to spend their summer immersed in their art.

Even though I was expecting this get-away, it’s been harder than I anticipated to uproot. 

Here in Richmond, I have to calculate everything: how to get where I’m going, how the house where I’m staying functions, how to organize my day under new parameters.

I have mourned the loss of my well-stocked kitchen and peak-of-summer garden. I have staved off loneliness, missing friends and family left at home. I have felt shaken by the loss of routines perfected over years of trial and error.

But I’m discovering there’s value there. That by blowing up my carefully constructed everyday, I am creating a new clarity — and the opportunity to imagine new possibilities.

I am realizing that — perhaps for too long — I have craved sameness, predictability, familiarity. These weeks have taught me that I cling too closely to safety at my peril.

And that comfort can sometimes cancel surprise.

So, in my short time left, I am vowing to embrace my insecurities. I will be okay with being lost — yet again. I’ll not feel anxious at having to try to find the best place for a burger or a latte or a bagel. The view out my window might not be as pretty as it is at home. And there may be no backyard garden or even front yard flowers.

But there will be other gifts — if only I open my eyes to see them.

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Celebrated food writer and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl published a delicious recounting of her decade at Gourmet in the memoir, Save Me the Plums. It’s honest and interesting and a nice distraction from today’s day-to-day (trips to Paris, New York foodie parties lasting till dawn, David Foster Wallace writing about lobsters). I listened to Reichl read the audiobook; but the paperback came out in May. 

Last fall, I wrote about an intriguing project undertaken by Michael Hemphill. It was a television episode that paired nonprofits with marketing professionals, showing how a little branding could go a long way. On August 5, a newly reimagined BUZZ returns, with TV episodes airing on the BUZZ YouTube channel and Blue Ridge PBS each Wednesday for four weeks. These shows are chock full of feel good. Forgive my mom-brag as I tell you the first episode stars my talented dancing daughter and her wonderful ballet company.

It hasn’t been all work and no play during my Richmond stay. My favorite stops so far? Maymont’s elegant Japanese gardenhanging out along the James River, the astounding Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, the whimsical Virginia Museum of Fine Arts statue garden and witnessing the dismantling of the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue.

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Every now and then I write a story that shifts my thinking and sticks with me way beyond the weeks I’m working on it. This profile of Molly O’Dell — who, last March came out of retirement to take the thankless job of managing the Roanoke region’s response to the coronavirus — is one of those. Hers is an inspiring story and in-depth look at the difference public health can make in all our lives.

This was another interesting piece. Before researching, I did not know medical tattooing was a thing. I also love how the universe swirled around until artist Jeneen Wilson found her calling….

Here’s the tale of my brush with COVID — and how it made me realize what we’re asking of our kids at this moment: To grow up faster than children have in decades.

A truly fascinating look at our bodies’ microbiomes and one researcher’s findings re: arm pit bacteria. (For real. This is such a good read.)

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I hope, somehow, you’ve seen something new this summer. Or tried your hand at a new skill or picked up a new kind of book. It can be easy to fall into a fog of humdrum when seasonal routines and rituals have been interrupted and your scenery doesn’t change much. Even the crazy times we’re living through don’t feel new anymore. Just kind of wearing, right? Perhaps this newsletter has introduced you to something you wouldn’t have run across or thought about. If so, I hope you’ll share it. I’d love for this small project to stretch far and wide. As always, I cherish your insights and feedback. Thank you for the emails you send, letting me know what you’re thinking.

Published by christinanifong

A writer of stories. About kale and turnips. Seeds and dirt. And, you know, life. Find essays, recipes and writing samples at christinanifong.com