Together Apart is an Orion web series of letters from isolation. Under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar.
This week’s conversation is an email exchange between author, poet, and Orion’s former poetry editor Aimee Nezhukumatathil and New York Times bestselling, Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña. This conversation took place in early May 2020.
Hello from Bluebird Landing! Don’t know if I ever told you that’s what my kids named our place here after our first spring in Mississippi. Our backyard was filled with a noisy bluebird family and various dramas of fledgling bluebirds not realizing they couldn’t fully fly and falling out of nearby tree branches and rolling down our stone fence and into our yard. Dustin was our hero who gently placed those birds back into a tree with a shovel so as not to have them smell like humans and be abandoned by their parents, but they loved to scramble up his arms and perch on his shoulders instead. True story—I’ve got the pics! Not sure if you remember the patch of woods just outside our small backyard when you visited a couple of years ago, but this spring especially we’re grateful for all the entertainment and drama it provides us while we are home a lot on our back porch.
One of the things I adore chatting with you about is how we try to navigate being an active present partner, parent, and professor all at once. But I know when we talked this past weekend, you mentioned how you (like me) had all of your spring and summer school visits and conferences rescheduled. So I have two questions for you: What do you miss the most about traveling, and what is a new surprising delight for you, now that you’re home so much?
I still can’t get over your slivers of ocean (the Pacific! the ocean I dream about!) from your house when we FaceTimed. How wonderful that your fam can walk to the beach. Our state parks have closed here, but the boys can still play basketball in our driveway and we have the 2020 bluebird dramas unfolding as I type. So glad for many things here, but today I am grateful for birdsong. And for bird names that my boys can both figure out now, a litany of names—just try saying all of these out loud and I dare you not to smile: cardinal, blue jays, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo warblers, doves, mockingbirds, Carolina wren, titmouse, house sparrows, robin, nuthatch, house finch, and some sort of woodpecker that we haven’t quite figured out. They keep mixing up sparrows and wrens, but they’re getting there.
Give me some happy names or sights from your sunny San Diego days. Does San Diego even have cloudy or rainy days?
I love picturing those baby bluebirds trying to figure out how to fly. And why am I not surprised Dustin found a way to return them to their tree limb without marking them with the human stain? That’s a good guy right there. I have to tell you, I’ve always been fascinated by Mississippi. Blows my mind to think of all the amazing writers who have come out of that state. I mean, William Faulkner and Jesmyn Ward? What’s going on over there? Any theories? And how has your own writing changed since moving to the south?
Speaking of birds, I’m writing you from Bird Rock, California. As you know, my family and I fled the concrete grid of Brooklyn last fall in search of a small yard for our two small children. The cool thing about writing children’s books is that I can do it from anywhere. Caroline and I took out a map of the U.S. and started circling cities we’d consider moving. But that kind of freedom can also be paralyzing. We just couldn’t figure out how to make that kind of big-ticket decision. Then a friend of ours randomly sent us a house listing. Caroline really liked the photos. On a whim we put in an offer from across the country. To our surprise, the sellers sent a counteroffer the very next day and . . . well, here we are.
Bird Rock is a quiet, coastal neighborhood in San Diego, named after this rock just off shore that is sort of shaped like a bird. Creative, right? And yes, sobering as this pandemic is, there are small delights. Every day we take a family walk through our neighborhood—our two-year-old in the stroller, our six-year-old on the buddy board, me pushing and my wife walking alongside us. And we talk about the birds singing in the trees, and how they must be so confused by the recent shift in human behavior.
We check out every lawn and flowerbed, dreaming of the things we’d love to one day do in our own yard (we actually have our very own yard!). We talk about how big some of the trees are, how fragrant some of the hedges are, how beautiful many of the flowers are. I breathe it all in on every walk. We’ve even planted vegetables in our sliver of garden behind our house. The world has slowed so many of us down. And I don’t think I’m the only one who’s turning to nature.
But there are also drawbacks, of course. Similar to you, all my speaking events were cancelled, and that was a good portion of my income. So we’re a little more cautious with our spending now. But I’m finding that I also miss interacting with people living in places I’ve never been. I’m lucky to hang out with young folks all the time. And I adore listening to the stories I hear from kids in places like Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and comparing them to the stories I hear the following week in places like El Paso, Texas. This country is so big and so small at the same time. And we’re lucky to be able to meet people in so many different places. What about you? What do you miss the most about being on the road? Anything that has really surprised you? And what are your walks like in Mississippi these days?
We’re in finals week now here and I just finished the last of the thesis defenses on Zoom. Such dazzling work made by them during a weird time, but I have such a sadness that I don’t get to hug or high-five them afterwards. And to my undergrads—no popsicles to share during the last week of classes, where we would talk about our fave and not-so-fave readings of the semester, talk about summer plans. The sadness of watching in “gallery view” a bunch of students slowly disappear from the meeting, their view boxes vanishing into the black screen.
Oh gosh, the bluebird drama continues: the dad bluebird is MIA, and we discovered this little sketchy bird—a nuthatch—was sneaking into the bluebird box when the mama was out looking for food, and stomping on the heads of the poor bluebird babies! It’s funny you asked about my writing and its relation to moving to the South, because I haven’t been doing much writing this semester—the first part of it was spent putting finishing touches on an essay collection, and then just when I was ready to write again, the pandemic struck. I’m feeling open and have been scratching notes on a new project, but I’m also trying to give myself grace as we have four people working and schooling at home now—whereas in The Before, Dustin and I were used to having 8-3 every day to work and write.
But one thing I will say is that being in the South has allowed me to be outdoors for most of the year, and that has helped me write to and about nature more often. Like, I’m not at all sure that a bluebird will ever show up in my poems in the future, but even just two years ago, I never knew that a nuthatch existed! Being able to be outdoors has loosened and lengthened my vocabulary in ways I’m just starting to realize.
For example, earlier this year, when we could still go to coffeeshops, I overheard a student say some guy was as “fine as frog hair,” and I about fell out of my seat with joy, I had to write that down in my notebook. Let’s just say there are some Hall of Fame colloquialisms here in the south.
You planted veggies! Tell the truth—did YOU or Caroline do the planting? What all did you plant? I should have done more veggies myself but I’ve been preoccupied with getting our native garden to grow for hummingbirds and butterflies. But we (okay, Dustin did, I pointed a lot) planted a “pizza garden” in our raised beds: tomatoes, peppers, basil—basically anything we could think of for a pizza topping. The kids love making their own personal pizzas now and, even though one can’t stand tomatoes (what?!), he makes up for it by loving every other vegetable we put in front of him.
I think I haven’t had a single summer staying put in Mississippi in our four years of being here, so that means actually being able to be with my family for make-your-own-pizza night and movies in the backyard. Today the boys had their annual piano recital and it was all on Zoom but you could see their friends’ families both near and far listening along, so there was something sweet in that too, even though it obviously wasn’t ideal. You asked what I miss about the road and, like you, I miss the students and faculty I get to meet at schools all over the country and how jazzed they are for poetry. (Anyone who says poetry is dead hasn’t traveled very much!). Especially in high schools, I marvel at the moxie and confidence of these young people with so much to say—and saying it! I wish I had an ounce of their confidence when I was in high school. And hey—if we are keeping it real, I miss room service, which feels like such a faraway luxury these days.
But our daily walks with the fam and Haiku (our hapless Chihuahua) are my favorite. We usually go after dinner, with that beautiful crepuscular light, and neighbors are on their porches more often, so we get to wave and remark on the weather. The boys ask questions about the stars, the moon, birdsong. Those I can answer. But they also ask questions about the pandemic and when they’ll get to see their grandparents again, and I’m afraid their questions hang there in the twilight—unanswered until someone gently swats them away with a new topic or a firefly sighting.
I hate not having answers for my boys. Are you having this problem too? What questions does your daughter ask that you can’t quite answer yet? Or do other kids stump you sometimes?
Our favorite donut shop opened back up for curbside pickup this weekend, so I’m writing you today next to an iced coffee and a glazed twist. To celebrate Mother’s Day, first thing this morning Luna and I loaded up into my well-rested car and drove twenty minutes north to VG Donuts. (You’ll never guess what VG stands for. “Very Good.” Very Good Donuts. Keep it simple). As excited as we were to get our donuts, the reality of the situation was pretty sobering. We had a specific pick-up time. And everyone was wearing masks—the employees wore gloves and visors. There was a box of disinfectant wipes set out for customers. As we waited for them to retrieve our pre-ordered box, I looked down at my six-year-old who was wearing her little mask, too, and my heart broke for all the kids out there who are just a little too young to fully comprehend what is happening in our world.
Sticking with the sadness for a sec, a couple days earlier, Luna was on her Zoom meeting with her class, doing a secret flower craft for Mother’s Day. She fell a little behind the group so she asked her teacher for a “pause” in order to catch up, but her teacher didn’t hear her. Luna asked several more times. Nothing. (We later discovered I had accidentally muted her). Now she was way behind, and I think she felt invisible, and everything sort of came crashing down on her in that moment. She stepped away from the computer screen and climbed into my lap, and began sobbing and repeating the same words over and over, “I don’t want the Coronavirus. I don’t want the Coronavirus.” I was so heartbroken as I held her. It was just like you said, I didn’t have any answers. Or words of wisdom. All I could think to do was hold her and tell her, “I know, baby,” and “It’s okay.” What a writer I am, right? That’s the best I could come up with.
I think young children are holding so much inside right now. They appear okay most of the time. And most young kids like spending this much time with their family. But they’re watching, you know? And listening. They may not consciously understand what this virus is all about, (not that we understand a whole lot more), but it hits them viscerally. And they know that everything has changed overnight: they’ve been pulled from school, and they can’t go to beaches or parks or stores or taco shops. They can’t see their friends. And most importantly, they recognize the anxiety on our faces.
But we have to hold onto the good things, right? Like pizza gardens and . . . uh, nuthatch murder? Honestly, Aimee, that was the most horrifying thing you’ve ever described for me. This thing stomps on the heads of baby birds? Nature is brutal!
But similar to your family, our daily walks through our neighborhood have become sacred. We really are paying so much more attention to the natural world. Our mornings are filled with the sounds of birds, and right after breakfast we head down to this small park where we can watch the ocean. It’s so calming. Because humans are mostly at home, the kelp beds have built back up, so the seaweed smell is stronger. At first Caroline and Luna would scrunch up their noses at the smell. But now they’ve come to see it as a sign of a healthy ocean. Each afternoon we chart the progress of our tomatoes, green peppers, cilantro, and avocados. Our guava and lemon trees are bursting with fruit, and little Miguel loves picking anything he can reach. A few days ago we dug up this bush that lined the short wall at the far end of our small front yard and we planted a row of roses and jasmine. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. And it smells wonderful. Sometimes I like to sit out there and just breathe.
I have to tell you, Aimee. I barely talk to anyone outside my immediate family these days. We’re trying to help with Luna’s education. And Miguel requires so much attention. And in my “free” time I’m just beginning to write creatively again. But reading your emails, and writing you back . . . this has been so good for my soul. I’m so happy to have you as a friend. And I love writing back and forth.
P.S. Sorry this one was a bit of a downer!
I didn’t know I missed them until your note. (And glazed twists are my favorite, so thanks a lot, ha ha.) And geez, that story about the sadness—that reminds me that I haven’t checked in with my boys in a bit. We talked about it so much when we all first started staying home but then school and the semester happened and you are totally right: I know they listen and watch our faces closely. I pride myself on having the kind of relationship where I can chat with my boys about just about anything. Dustin and I joke that they are our little Pinocchios—it’s near impossible for them to lie without contorting their faces in a very telling way.
But I’m fatigued by this worry. It’s a good reminder to keep checking in and to not stop asking if they have questions. My close friends and beloveds know I don’t really have a poker face when it comes to hiding sadness. Just this past week, I had a couple of grad students message me or send me little gifts because they could sense I was sad. I’ve had friends check in with me because they could sense something was off too. It’s so flipping hard for me to say out loud or to type out in an email, “I’m sad,” but just by having contact with pals during this time, I was able to admit what I thought I was holding in for over a month: I’m so sad about not seeing my elderly parents, sad for so many I know who are out of work until who-knows-when, sad for people I know dealing with loved ones who are sick, sad for students—their education and camaraderie with their friends, especially at the end of the school year, shouldn’t be ending like this.
But one thing I’m not sad about is there was no bluebird deaths after all! The nuthatch is still looming nearby and we all thought those baby bluebirds were goners, but yesterday—Mother’s Day of all days!—we heard the teensy chirps from inside the bluebird box again once their mama perched on top! Can you imagine how tiny the sound of a mama bluebird stepping on top of their nesting box is? And yet—the babies chirped so loud and strong. And best of all, the dad is back and finally helping out again so (knock on wood) we’ll expect them to fledge and fly soon.
Sometimes when the boys were done with their Zoom school meetings, I’d find them outside playing ladderball with each other or setting up their tent again, positioning it so their screen door faces the bluebird box. They had a whole pile of rocks they collected to throw, in case the nuthatch decided to sneak into the box again. They were such good sentinels—who needs Netflix when you look closely and find a drama in your backyard?
I loved hearing your garden report! I think if I would have told you that you’d be having a green thumb in 2020, you would have laughed me out of the room. I was just telling a friend the other day how I missed smells too—the husks of a magnolia pod from campus filled with red seeds the size of skittles, clear streams, ocean spray, and wheat sunbaked in the unforgiving Kansas sun. I miss farmer’s markets and all the free samples of fresh fruit jams from local orchards, everyone in the parking lot smelling like tomatoes. But you know what? When I sit here and daydream about donuts and the ocean and jam still warm in the jar—I feel a little happy. The sadness is there alright, so it’s not a pure joy like in The Beforetimes. But it’s a joy I get from remembering something so strong and so fondly, so wistfully, that even thinking of the smell of hot pavement on the first sweltering day of summer brings me such a joy and hope that I might get to smell all of that again someday. Without masks on, of course.
And let’s not forget about sounds: a few weeks ago, during the last full moon, our family took a night walk and we could hear the pinkletinks all over northern Mississippi. You might as well dust yourself with pink glitter (and you know me, I almost always have some sort of remnant of glitter on me at all times, lol) if you say you heard these here. But once upon a time, I liked a boy who used to “summer” in Martha’s Vineyard, who used this term, preferred it even—this name for the peeper, the common chorus frog. Just thinking about those tiny frogs makes me laugh at their audacity!
And maybe it’s a little like your previous note—so much of it was sad, and yet because you mentioned such specific smells throughout, it made me reflect back on little scraps of joy. And I just noticed I didn’t even address you properly at the beginning of the note! It looks like I called you “Donuts!” ha ha. So, okay, Matt, here’s my last question: when was the last time you found yourself laughing—like really laughing—since we’ve all been home, even despite it all? I’m faced with so much despair some days, I want to know your dear family is finding bits of joy sometimes too.
Okay, I just have to get this out of the way right up front. And then we can move on (because I know you won’t like this). Your descriptions of the world in your previous letter were just so beautiful. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be friends with amazing writers. I can’t wait to read your next book, World of Wonders. Sounds like the perfect book for a guy who is now fully committed to his fledgling, backyard herb garden.
Speaking of gardens. You asked me what makes me laugh these days. Miguel, our two-year-old, is obsessed with watering the garden. He will sit up in his crib, out of a dead sleep, and tell me, “Hose. Back. Mist.” Translation: I want to go in the backyard and use the hose, dad. You can put it on the mist setting because it’s less aggressive, and I know you want to conserve water. You should see him back there, watering our fruit trees. Okay, 65% of the water somehow ends up on his clothes, but he aims the nozzle with such intensity. You know we have a lot of landscapers in my family, right? Maybe he’s going to fall in line?
But to answer your question, Miguel makes us laugh all day. He’s just learning to talk, which is such a thrill. And he’s at the stage where he’s willing to try any word. Sometimes the sounds he makes are not even in the same universe as the word he’s shooting for, but he doesn’t care. And tonight we had movie night—which means Luna gets to watch the movie of her choice after dinner and drink a hot chocolate with marshmallows—and she was laughing so hard at all the scenes with the baby in Incredibles 2 she was in tears. Like, tears were legitimately rolling down her cheeks. Which made us laugh just as hard. These kids, Aimee . . . . They’re so much work. But they bring so much joy.
And Caroline made me laugh really hard this morning. During this time of self-isolation she has become obsessed with baking bread. Two months ago she had never baked a loaf in her life. Now she’s checking a dozen online grocery websites a day to secure flour and baking soda and yeast. She bakes loaf after loaf after loaf. She now has a bread machine and “bread pot” and something called a Dutch oven? She relentlessly “feeds” this thing called a sourdough starter. She makes pound cakes and rustic white loaves and multigrain rolls. I laughed this morning because I walked into the kitchen and she had—no joke—five loaves of various shapes and sizes displayed all over the counters. Our place constantly smells of baking bread—which is a good thing! We all have our own way of finessing our way through this pandemic, I guess. Miguel waters the fruit trees. My wife bakes bread.
I’ll leave you with this, Aimee. There’s a lot of sadness and worry these days, yes. But there’s also a lot of joy. You and I aren’t on the road right now, which means we’re at home with our families. We’re getting to know our kids on a much deeper level. Same with our spouses. And I’m finally figuring out how to write again. My heart breaks for all the people who have lost a job during this time. Or much worse, a loved one. Which sort of puts my own worry into perspective. Thank you for closing out this exchange by asking me to think about what’s making me laugh these days. Somehow you’ve managed to have me sign off with a smile on my face. So thank you. Except for one thing. I will forever be anti-nuthatch. I’m thrilled to hear the baby bluebirds are still thriving, but that doesn’t change my opinion of the nuthatch. I can just picture this little punk-ass bird waiting for the perfect time to storm the nest. Thank God your sons are there, standing guard. As long as that nuthatch is kept at bay, maybe we’re all going to be okay.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the former poetry editor of Orion. Her forthcoming book is a collection of illustrated nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed Editions Aug. 2020). She is also the author of four books of poetry. She is professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. She was recently named a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry.
Matt de la Peña is the New York Times bestselling, Newbery Medal-winning author of seven young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, and Superman: Dawnbreaker) and five picture books (including Love and Last Stop on Market Street). In 2016 he was awarded the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award.