Pulling pandemic weeds as time stretched wide

Rachel Hines


It’s been four years since the pandemic started, which means this will be my fifth season picking COVID weeds. Certain events have marked the passing of time for me since March 2020, when COVID inexorably entered our consciousness. For example, my mom’s birthday is in March, and we were visiting her when my work went virtual. Our last group gathering was a holiday carnival at the Asheville Jewish Community Center.

But one of the most tangible markers for me is the reemergence of a particular weed in my front yard every March. I never noticed it until 2020, but now I know it’s called ivyleaf speedwell and is among the first signs of spring in our North Carolina mountains. The weeds spread in clusters low to the ground that pull up completely with little effort — perfect for anyone who, like me, has a penchant for picking weeds.

When we returned to a changed world after visiting my mom, the weeds had already begun popping out under the two cedar trees in our front yard. And like parents everywhere, we suddenly had to improvise. We made a bowling game out of plastic cups and a soccer ball. We drew with chalk. We dragged two chairs and a water table out under the cedars and let our kids splash in their undies. Our front yard became the center of a very small radius in which to live our lives.

Imprinted memories

With no choice but to notice them, I started picking the weeds. After the first satisfying tugs at their roots, I was hooked. I picked one clump at a time near the water table. Then I donned gloves to get some near a thorny rose bush. Taking breaks to play with the kids or take one to the potty, I would inevitably find more speedwell to tackle. A pinch, a pull, a gentle rip. Pinch, pull, rip. Over and over. It was a meditation, my mental white noise. I’d pile it up, and the kids used it for their play, turning it into pretend potions or salads.

We spent at least an hour of our day, every day, in the front yard for six weeks (or was it eight?) while day care was shut down. I was obsessed with the weeds. Sometimes my husband and kids would go inside to clean up, and I’d hear myself say, “Just a minute!” in order to keep at my picking. With so much time on my hands, I felt compelled to control their spread. I was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of my front yard — a virus may have been making its way across the globe, but at home, I could spot new growth before it took off.

Those weeks are imprinted in my memory from the combination of anxiety about the pandemic and the eternity of each day. I remember the clothes that were in rotation for my kids, who were 4 years old and 19 months old at the time. My son sang Panic! at the Disco songs and seemed to finally notice his sister as a potential playmate. My daughter honed climbing skills on stumps, ran bowlegged down the steepest part of our street and resisted clipping wispy hair out of her eyes. I noticed things around us because they did — water dripping out of a drain pipe or pooling in a knot in a tree; an outdoor cat slinking by; trees budding at different paces. Not wanting to focus on pandemic news, we instead watched spring unfurl in excruciating detail.

If time were an accordion, it was stretched as wide as possible during the early springtime of 2020. But when we realized COVID wouldn’t be completely contained, we had to reenter life, masked and awkward. Later that spring when the weeds were gone, the kids went back to day care, and I went back to work in person. We spent time with friends cautiously, always outdoors. We got a pool membership with caveats for social distancing. I can’t remember what my kids wore or sang that summer.

The weed’s reminders

Each March since 2020, the ivyleaf speedwell has returned and reminded me of a time of simplicity, anxiety, joy and boredom. It is, in fact, a memory of time itself. In subsequent years, I felt surprised when I saw the first weeds pop up. I couldn’t believe we had lived with COVID for a full year, then two, then three. I picked some weeds with a familiar, satisfying rip, but since 2020, I haven’t come close to containing their spread. I always had to get somewhere when I scurried down the front steps, leaving the little green sprouts in place.

Now I long to pull at those weeds again. I had my last baby 19 months ago, and during the hot summer days of her infancy, I again tasted time expanded. There was no way to have an agenda besides what her needs dictated. I couldn’t plan laundry, much less venture out of my little home radius. I nursed her on my right, then left. Her little gulps and satisfied hums imprinted in my memory. I read a novel while I held her, cooled by a fan and the shade of the cedar trees. I stared at her buds of hair while she slept and swore I could see them grow from one day to the next. The accordion bellows opened wide.

When I returned to work after four months, I thought working only part time would allow me to savor her infancy. But even part time meant meetings, emails, a whiteboard calendar and child care. Those summer weeks in her early life were a slingshot, pulling time back only to go forward five times as fast. Life hurtled forward. Some days, I picked her up at day care and swore she had changed since the morning, the way flowers blossom or bow with a passing shift in weather. I missed the days when I lived my life at the pace of her fuzzy hair growing: a pace glacial and perfect.

I returned home the other day to find the first of this year’s COVID weeds sprouting in our front yard again. I had gone to meetings and for a run and was feeling productive and healthy. But upon seeing the weeds, it felt as if my energy had been misdirected. Surely I would have picked them into neat piles by now, had only I been confined to the front yard, ordered to stay home — whether by the CDC or a nursing baby on my breast and an abdominal wall weak down the middle.

Today I will pick my kids up, and they’ll have changed since this morning. I’m more fit and rested than after giving birth and certainly less anxious and freer than in 2020. But the ivyleaf speedwell beckons; it reminds me of the immense satisfaction in taking root in a time and place; it reminds me that spring will unfurl whether I notice or not. Other Marches will come with weeds and three children’s outfits and favorite songs. I may not remember it all, caught between unending choices to stay still or to run, but the COVID weeds remind me to try.

Rachel Hines is a family physician who works and resides in Asheville with her spouse, three children and one dog, all of whom have grown tolerant of her weed-picking and writing pastimes.


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