Quarantine Diaries Day 338: Regression

The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?” 

We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog. 

Cool Mormon, Not Like A Regular Mormon

I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for all of my life until I turned thirty years old. Some members might object to my use of the term “active.” There were a few stretches in college that I didn’t darken a church door for months at a time, but I was always trying. There was always a Book of Mormon on my nightstand. I always prayed. I always answered the door to the missionaries and picked up the phone when my visiting teachers called. Before I ever left the fold, I was already on my way back.

When I made it back to regular church attendance, I tried even harder, but I never saw myself as a full-fledged member in good standing. All I could see were the ways I didn’t measure up to what I thought were the church’s standards:

  • I went to church but not every week.
  • I taught Sunday School but I prepared lessons at the last minute.
  • I did my visiting teaching every month, but I let my companion plan it.
  • I prayed every night but not on my knees, and never in the morning.
  • I read the Book of Mormon every day, but nodded off a few verses in. I still hadn’t taken Moroni up on his promise that if I read the book all the way through and prayed, with sincere intent, I would know it to be true, but that was only because I didn’t need to; I already knew.
  • I subscribed to the church magazines, and read those too, but never all the way through.
  • I listened to General Conference every six months, but skipped the Saturday morning sessions for brunch, and there was always at least one talk that made me furious.
  • I quit living in sin but I never confessed anything I did.
  • I quit using drugs and getting drunk but there were so many slips that I rewrote the Word of Wisdom to make room, as Brigham Young did, for beer and sparkling wine.
  • I quit drinking coffee but I couldn’t stay away from tea. The truth is, I never tried. After (aspirationally) giving up every other earthly vice, I figured the church could meet me on the other side of the veil and pry my hot cup of leaf water from my freshly resurrected hands.
  • I wore skirts that went to my knees on Sunday but bared shoulders and legs all summer long.
  • I wore a prairie diamond ring from Nauvoo, but never donned the undergarment.
  • I put the Family Proclamation on my wall, but the wall was inside a closet.
  • I got married but not in the temple.
  • I planned Family Home Evening and family scripture study and family prayer but my husband was never going to join the church.
  • I had a baby but I couldn’t quit my job.
  • I was a Mormon who cursed, laughed at dirty jokes, read erotic fiction, and watched R-rated movies and all the shows that aired on HBO.

Mormons pride themselves on their ability to be in the world, but not of the world. Even when I was most ashamed of the church, I was proud to be a Mormon. I also believed it. I knew my purpose was to build God’s kingdom on earth, but I was so afraid belonged better in Babylon.

I know better now. Looking at that list, at all those things I thought were so bad, I see that there’s nothing on there that’s so shocking; they just didn’t fit with the vision of Mormonism that had been bestowed upon me as a child. And why would they? I was a child and as soon as I wasn’t, I was supposed to start having children and raising them up in the church. I never would be exposed to a more mature version of the faith.

Looking at that list, I see so many things that I’m sure other Mormons did; I just didn’t know. And why would I? I kept myself at a distance because I was afraid of what would happen if other members of the church knew the real me. It’s not all on me, though. They kept themselves at a distance too. If anyone ever struggled with the things I did, or laughed at the jokes I did, I never knew, because no one ever told me. That was the fellowship I needed, and the kind of faith I needed, too–the kind that could stand to talk about sex and sin and sorrow (“and all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird“) and how to move forward through it all. If I ever went back, that’s the kind of fellowship I’d give.

I stopped going to church five years ago. I pulled my name off the records last May. It’s only now that, for the first time, I can claim my former status as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because the time and separation finally cleared it up for me: that’s exactly what I was. I was not a perfect Mormon, but I sure did live the hell out of my faith.

Quarantine Diaries Day 330: Feel Good, Inc.

“How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” That’s what my therapist asked me last week after I spent the first half of our session cataloguing the fears and anxieties that are currently dragging me down and eclipsing any hope that things will ever get better. People have been giving lip service to the importance of mental health since the early days of the pandemic, but I saw the writing on the wall the day the first stay at home order went into place. At the time, I was newly in therapy, working my way through a mental health crisis that had started the previous fall, but really that I had been living through, in a cyclical fashion, since I was 18 years old. In winter, the world goes dark and I can’t see my way out. It’s not just about the sun and the seasons. The first time it happened, I tried to end it all in Tucson, and I’ve been suicidal in June, too. It’s never been quite that bad again, but last winter it got close enough that I scared myself back into therapy after four years of trying to twelve step my way through all my problems. By March, I was working my way up and out of the latest deep hole. I felt more optimistic about my marriage, my parenting, my work–my life. I wasn’t thinking about dying. 

Then the pandemic hit, and death was imminent and everywhere. Even if COVID wasn’t coming for me, it was gunning for my grandma, and my parents, and my in-laws, and even if they survived, somebody else’s grandparents, somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s children would not. I read those early projections in horror: 200,000 to 2 million Americans could die before this thing was over. Faced with the threat of disease, something inside me shifted, and I started actively trying not to die, and to not kill anybody around me, either. I stayed home.

That’s not to say my mental health during the first part of the pandemic was great. It was absolutely not! Luckily, my weekly counseling sessions transitioned relatively seamlessly to phone and then video, and I was able to keep doing the hard work of carrying on in these difficult times. Therapy was a lifeline. Knowing I had space to talk about intense feelings enabled me to set them aside and live my life in the meantime. Therapy helped me respond to ordinary stressful situations, cope with the additional challenges of the pandemic, and even address issues that I didn’t even realize were still lurking in the background (read: leaving Mormonism). Therapy helped me hold it together.

The cracks started to show in the summer. What happened was I got sick. It came on suddenly. In the morning I was running around in the summer sunshine with my daughter. By lunch I had a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than to take a nap. By mid-afternoon, the room was spinning, my stomach was churning, my temperature was spiking, and I couldn’t stand up. As my physical symptoms mounted, so did my panic. I was too tired to move and feeling guilty about it. I was snapping at my family and feeling shame about that. We were supposed to go camping with friends in a few days and I didn’t know what the hell to do about that. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know how much of what I was feeling was real and how much was a physical manifestation of the deep anxiety that comes with getting sick in a pandemic. I didn’t know if my symptoms warranted a COVID test. I didn’t even know where to get a COVID test. I didn’t know if my non-COVID symptoms warranted a doctor. I didn’t even know if I could get an appointment with a doctor. Even if I wasn’t really sick, my anxiety was so off the charts bad that I knew I needed to talk to someone. You see, sometime after headache came on but before the gastrointestinal issues set in, my thoughts had turned toward self-harm. As the hours wore on and I got sicker and more confused about what to do, it started to look like the only way out. 

It is my professional and personal opinion that one of the best things to come out of the COVID pandemic is expanded access to healthcare through telehealth. Unfortunately, when I was in desperate need of a virtual appointment, I was too sick to figure out how to navigate the health plan website to request one, and it remains unclear whether I would have been able to get one as urgently as I needed it. Instead, I pulled on heavy sweats (because I was shaking from chills), an N95 mask, and rubber gloves and drove to urgent care, barely managing to not throw up on the way there. When I got to the front door, I was met with a sign telling me to go back to my car and call instead if I had any symptoms of COVID. I had to sit on the ground and catch my breath before mustering up the energy to walk back to the parking garage. 

From the safety of my car, I called the urgent care practice and spoke to a nurse practitioner. I told her I had a fever, chills, nausea, cramps, and vomiting. I told her I couldn’t breathe, but that might be because I was also having a panic attack. I told her I wasn’t okay, that I was anxious and depressed and didn’t know what to do. I told her I needed help, I needed to talk to someone, anyone now. I stopped short of describing exactly how bad things were in my mind because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go the ER in a pandemic. The NP told me none of my symptoms were typical of COVID so she couldn’t recommend a test. I could get one if I wanted but I wouldn’t get results for five days. She didn’t say a word about my mental health. I took the jab in the nose and it came back within 24 hours negative for COVID, but I stayed sick for weeks, cycling between anxiety and depression the whole time. I still don’t know if I had COVID. The fatigue I labored under all summer makes me think “Yeah, maybe.” It’s the aftereffects of the encounter at urgent care that I still can’t shake, though. I know our healthcare system is broken, and I know COVID has put it under unbelievable strain, but I am a white, married, cisgender, able-bodied, employed, and insured. I never dreamed I could walk into a doctor’s office begging for help and be sent away. 

I had to wait for my next therapy appointment to start to process that trauma. I identified the root of my panic as not having a place to go or a person to call when I am thrust into a medical crisis.  My former reliance on urgent care and the emergency room to address any serious pain or scary-seeming thing was not viable in a pandemic. With my therapist, I made a plan to finally get a primary care physician. I haven’t had one since I was living under my parents’ roof. When you have a history of abusing prescription pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor is fraught. It took awhile to find a doctor covered by insurance (fucking insurance websites!) and it took even longer to get an appointment (fucking COVID!). By the time I got in the door, I was desperate enough to fill out the intake questionnaire honestly. Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Yes, many days.  Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Yes, most days. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way? Yes, some days. At my appointment, the doctor broached the subject gently. “Your depression screening was positive. “Really?!” I chirped. “You mean I don’t have depression?” “No, that’s not what I mean.” I deflected some more. “I mean, doesn’t everybody feel hopeless right now? It’s bleak out there.” The doctor couldn’t disagree. She raised the issue of medication. I had a lot of resistance, but I asked the doctor what she thought. She looked me straight in the eye. “I think you could probably feel better.”

It’s not like I hadn’t thought medication about it before. You don’t plumb the depths as long as I have without wondering if one of the pills everybody else you know is taking will pull you up and out once and for all. Like going to the doctor, taking medication when you’ve been addicted is complicated. I’m afraid if they give me the good drugs, I’ll abuse them. I’m afraid if I tell them about my concerns, they won’t give me the good drugs. The good drugs, of course, are the only ones that seem worth the trouble. I don’t want to alter with my brain chemistry if it’s not going to get me high. I don’t care if it will make me feel better. I want to feel good.

My doctor told me to call her if I wanted to revisit the conversation about medication. I agreed, but was renewed in my commitment to toughing it out on the basis that my brain is not always a scary place to be. I have more good days than not. I generally enjoy my life, except when I’m sick, and in non-pandemic times, I really enjoy my life. 

That was six months ago. I knew this winter would be hard, and it’s been so much harder than I thought. At this point, I am completely devoid of hope that the world will go back to any semblance of normal, that my daughter will go back to school, that I’ll go back to church, that I’ll see my family on the other side of the country, that we will get together with friends, that we will be free to walk around outside without me freaking out when my daughter strays too close to a neighbor, that we will be able to gather in groups, that we will stop wearing masks. The light on the horizon is gone, and operating in this context is getting to be too much. I’ll spare you the grisly details and family dramas and leave it at this: I’m worn down, and it feels like I’m going lower than I’ve ever been before. I was explaining all this to my therapist when she asked me, “How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” I mulled it over for awhile. My knee jerk response is that I want to feel good, goddamnit, but I know that’s asking too much. It would be weird to feel good right now. Really, all I want is to feel better than I do. I hearkened back to the doctor’s words last summer. “You could probably feel better.” I hearkened back to my own words back to her. “Doesn’t everyone feel hopeless right now?” 

Maybe I’m glutton for punishment, but I’m not going on meds. Not right now. I can’t do it, not during the pandemic, for the same reason I’m not buying a bigger house or moving to the country or adopting a puppy or putting my kid in private school. I don’t want to make life-altering decisions in reaction to circumstances that, God willing, won’t last forever, and I don’t want to introduce another variable into the hot mess that is life today. I don’t want to wake up in a post-COVID world and wonder why I moved to a red state. I don’t want to wake up happy and wonder if I could’ve gotten there on my own. I might wake up in a post-COVID world and decide I still want to feel better after all, but at that point I hope the decision will feel like mine.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 13 – Your Most Important Hair Moment

When I was three and rocking a mop of Shirley Temple curls, I grabbed a round brush and tried to pull it through my hair. It stuck fast. Lesson learned! My hair was not and never would be straight, shiny, glossy, or easily managed. That was far from the whole lesson though, because what I left out is that when this happened I was at the mall with my mom and we didn’t own the round brush and when my mom tried to pull it out of my hair it was really stuck and I went red all over and kicked and screamed and cried and my mom had to haul me out of there with the brush still stuck to my head. I remember sitting on a bench, watching shoppers walk by with their bags and paper cups of Orange Julius and heaving those heavy post-tantrum sobs, and the stinging in my scalp while my mom tried to work it out. Lesson learned! My feelings were not and never would be quiet, polite, sensible, or easily managed. I stayed afraid of round brushes for years, and to this day don’t trust a complicated hair tool.

Quarantine Diaries Day 335: What Is Real?

Winter is here. The real winter. The scary kind of winter they kept talking about in Game of Thrones before I quit watching in season three. The scary kind of winter I kept talking about on this blog last fall when I realized COVID wasn’t going anywhere. I’m talking about the bone freezing, finger biting, face slapping stuff. The forecast for last weekend looked like this: 3 degrees, 5 degrees, 4 degrees, and those were the highs, which tell you nothing about sub-zero lows or the the wind howling through alleys, battering trees, and knocking around the trash bins in front of the house, along with anybody unfortunate enough to step outside. There’s a full foot of a snow on the ground that’s not going anywhere and more on the way.

The other day I was achy and running a slight fever, a not infrequent occurrence these days–Lord knows why; nobody in my household goes anywhere or interacts with anyone–and the combination of cold and slight illness kept me inside for three days straight. It’s hard to skip the daily walks that have become more ritual than habit over the last eleven months. If I can walk, I’m not trapped. If I can walk, I see things change. If I can walk, I can get through this. But anyway, it’s too cold to walk. Instead, I stare out the window like a sickly child or a woman pining for something lost. There isn’t much to see. The ground is white, the trees are bare, the sky is low and dull. The birds are either none at all or a murmuration of starlings, looking like pestilence.

On Sunday, a dove landed on the sill outside our draft living room window and just stayed there, shooting my daughter a beady side eye when she drew close to examine its feathers through the glass, but unwilling to give up its proximity to warmth.

On Monday morning, I spotted a small dark mound on the wooded hill behind our house. It looked like a largish rock, but I didn’t think it was a rock. One, I’ve been watching that hill for close to a year now, and I was pretty sure there wasn’t a rock there before. Two, there was no snow on the mound and everything else had a fresh dusting. Three, I could have sworn some of the contours looked like limbs folded in on themselves. I didn’t think I was hallucinating, but I watched the mound for so long that when it didn’t move, I started to hope it was a rock, and not one of the feral cats that prowls around the neighborhood in warmer months.

On Monday afternoon, the mound was gone. Thank god, I thought. I’m no cat lover–I’m highly allergic and dislike anyone that thinks they’re better than me–but it didn’t seem right for a cat to be curled up on top of the snow like that. Also, dead animals are nightmare fuel for my second-grader.

On Tuesday morning, the mound was back. That’s it, I announced to the world. I’m going out there. I planned to go out with a bowl of milk and some food after breakfast to try to lure the cat onto our porch. I wasn’t exactly planning to bring the cat inside–I figured it could leech some heat from the side of the house, like the dove on the windowsill–but I wasn’t exactly planning on not bringing it inside, either. I could see myself nursing it back to health, if it didn’t fight me off first.

Look, I know it was a bad plan, but I’ve been wanting, no yearning, for animal companionship–a familiar, if you will–for so long that I was ready to take whatever scrap heap the universe dropped off behind my house. I was prepared for the critter to be rabid, or vicious, or dead. I was prepared for it to bite or scratch or run away.

I was not prepared for it to be a rabbit. When I went back to the window, after riding the wave of my earth mother daydream, the little mound had popped up onto its hind legs, an eastern cottontail, clear as anything. Was it too cold out for the rabbit? I don’t know. It seemed like it should be hibernating or at least in a burrow somewhere, but as far as I know, rabbits have been surviving Midwestern winters longer than I have. Was the rabbit hungry? Probably. It was eating twigs straight off a tree, which hardly seems satisfying, but it was going at it with gusto. There were a few things I knew for sure: a wild rabbit was not going to wait around for me to trek up a snowy hill and through the brambles; a wild rabbit was not going to let me scoop it into my arms; a wild rabbit was not going to lap milk out of a bowl; a wild rabbit did not need to be “rescued”; this wild rabbit was not going to be a means for me to live out any of my fantasies.

I shook my head and called out to my seven-year-old–the living, breathing, fragile creature in my care. “I’m going downstairs now! What do you want for breakfast, kiddo?”

My Top Ten Gifts of Mormonism*

*That you don’t lose when you leave the church

  1. A magical worldview
  2. A willingness to be weird
  3. An outrageous origin story
  4. An outsized perspective on the transience of earthly matters
  5. A family tree stretching forward and backward in time and spanning the width of the world
  6. A language for the divine
  7. A love of knowledge for its own sake
  8. A big stupid courage and enough of it to die for what is right
  9. A host of heroes and the wild notion that I can be one too
  10. An ego the size of a planet and a drive strong enough to make gods

Quarantine Diaries Day 334: When Home Is Not A Haven

Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I  thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine. 

That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not. 

I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid. 

I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.

I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle. 

This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something. 

Quarantine Diaries Day 327: Pep Talk

A big law firm is recruiting me pretty heavily to join their ranks. I know. I’m as surprised as you are. Isn’t it obvious from my resume that I ran from Big Law as fast as my legs could carry me? I did that during the Great Recession, too. My antipathy toward Big Law runs deep. The lawyers I’m talking to are messing with my head, though. They are testing me. The people seem so nice, and the work so compelling, the hours expectations so reasonable, and the money so tempting. It’s the security I’m really after. Watching the world get rocked for the last year makes has a way of making me want to fold myself into a big company that will carry me and my family through the worst waves. My commitment to charting my own course, I fear, is not pandemic proof. I think I’ve made up my mind to stay put and then every interview throws me off. I can’t see if the behemoth I’m looking at is a storm or a freighter with a lifeline. The only thing that’s clear is that they want me.

“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” my husband puts out there, his foot halfway to his mouth, “but why do they want you so badly?” That, at least, is easy to answer.

  • Because there aren’t that many people who do what I do.
  • Because I have a unique set of skills and experience.
  • Because I have a stellar reputation.
  • Because I have a killer resume.
  • Because I have valuable industry contacts.
  • Because I interview really well.
  • Because I’m smart as shit.
  • Because I’m personable as hell.
  • Because I have a track record.
  • Because I’m a good firm citizen.
  • Because I’m a woman.
  • Because I would make them a ton of money.

It’s that last bullet point that’s driving the day, for them and for me. Big law is a numbers game, a leveraging, a squeeze. It’s exploitation, point of fact. Looking at that list, I can’t help but think, if I’m such hot shit, why don’t I make all that money for myself?

Quarantine Diary Day 323: Skin Deep

There was a time I would have described myself as low maintenance and thought that to be accurate self-assessment. There was a time when I thought low maintenance was something to aspire to. There was a time when I thought that low maintenance–in relationships, in friendships, at work–would keep me from getting dumped or fired. I was wrong on all counts. I am not low maintenance in any meaningful sense. I demand a lot from my relationships. I require attention and engagement and emotional intensity, or at least a degree of tolerance for my emotional intensity. There’s nothing remarkable or impressive about being a woman with no needs. Disappearing yourself will not keep people around.

I do, however, enjoy making as many things in my life as I can as easy–as low maintenance–as can be. I don’t dye my hair. I get cuts that can grow out for six to twelve months (or more!). I bite my nails down to the quick. I shop for clothes maybe once a year and when I do I spend too much money so I don’t have to do it again. Remember how at the beginning of COVID, introverts were like, “Social distancing, oh please. I’ve been prepping for this my whole life?” That’s how I felt when the salons closed and women started showing up in Zoom with their natural hair. I’ve been like this my whole life.

Periodically, relentless insecurity will collide with my penchant for wishful thinking and I’ll try to be somebody other than what I am. I’ll find myself at a J. Crew outlet trying to be my sister-in-law. I’ll find myself at an overpriced downtown salon asking for an undercut. I’ll find myself drooling over women with dewey skin on the internet and ordering $85 worth of product from Glossier. The skin care regimen was the thing, the brass ring, the hallmark adult womanhood I could never quite figure out. Surely, I thought, there must be a causal connection between the fact that I had yet to dedicate the time and money to figuring out what combination of products work best with my skin and the fact that I was still breaking out like a teenager. Surely, there must be a magic formula that would shrink my pores, calm the redness, and dry out the cysts on my temples, cheekbones, and chin. Surely the fault was mine and commerce was the answer.

Glossier was my gateway drug. I tried all the serums: Niacinamide + Zinc serum to “sort out texture issues,” Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin b5 to “ease any tight, dry feeling,” and Vitamin C + Magnesium to look “fresh, recharged, and [of course] glowy.” Did they work? I don’t know. They definitely changed my skin, made it somehow…thinner…so I couldn’t pick my face anymore without making it bleed. I figured whatever it was doing, it had to be better than nothing, so I reordered the serums when I ran out, and kept doing it, though I eventually started buying inexpensive dupes from another company. In the meantime, other products kept showing up in my mailbox, after my husband bought me one of those subscription beauty boxes. He only meant to get me a year but forgot to cancel so the products just kept coming. I incorporated morning and evening toners into my routine, more vitamin C, expensive moisturizers and primers, masks, and yet more serums for morning and sleep, including one that I really liked that was fittingly called “Self Esteem.” I may be cheap and low maintenance but I’m not a total novice. I did my research. I didn’t use them all at once and I gave them time to work on my skin. I threw out the products that clearly reacted badly with my skin (okay, fine, I threw them into a drawer, not the trash because, like I said, I’m cheap). Eventually, I had a skincare regimen that…I don’t know…felt like it worked…I guess. Maybe? The products were expensive, and the steps were complicated and changed every other night, and my skin was smoother but still weirdly thin, but maybe I could chalk that up to aging, and I still broke out a lot, but that was probably hormonal and also I realized I need to wipe the screen of my phone down more often after stroking it with my fingers all day and then sticking it to the side of my face to use as an actual phone.

A couple of months ago, I cleared all the products out of sight and went back to the routine I used in my early twenties, when washing my face at night and wearing moisturizer with sunscreen felt like the height of responsible living: face soap + drugstore moisturizer. No toners. No serums. No primers. No vitamins. It was just a test, born out of taking a closer look at my finances. A couple of more expensive products were close to running out and I didn’t want to reorder them if they weren’t actually doing anything. Within a couple of weeks of putting down the products, my skin went back to the way it used to be, which is to say, not great, but normal, at least for me. I still have visible pores and blackheads and scars, but my skin isn’t so fucking fragile anymore. I can pop a zit without it looking like a crime scene. Breakouts happen and then they pass. I do use a clay mask once a week. I look in the mirror and I like what I see.

The serums were worse than snake oil. They actively made my skin worse.

What other pointless pastimes have I been pursuing because I thought I was supposed to? What other hopeless habits have I picked up because I thought they looked good? What other random and purely imitative rituals did I mistakenly think were for me?

Years and years ago, after college but before I got married, I made short and sweet list of resolutions at the beginning of a new year. There were only five items on the list. I don’t remember three of them. One of them was to be better at writing thank you notes. The last one was to learn how to make a “heart healthy muffin.” What the fuck? Back then, I gave a shit about the size of my thighs, but not my heart, and I’d never baked a thing other than chocolate chip cookies using the recipe on the back of a Nestle bag. I was probably 22 and saw the phrase in a SELF magazine at the gym and latched onto it as a symbol of the kind of women I wasn’t and, therefore, the kind of women I should aspire to be. That resolution stayed on my list for years until I realized I didn’t want to waste the little bandwidth I have for cooking on a recipe that’s defining characteristic is that it’s good for your heart. I buy all my muffins at coffee shops, anyway.

Pandemic life offers some easy answers to the question “What kind of person did I think I was that I no longer have to be?” I don’t miss shopping for shoes and purses; I don’t miss getting the odd pedicure once a year and feeling guilty about the state of my nails the rest of the time; I don’t miss accepting every invitation for lunch, coffee, and happy hour that comes my way; I don’t miss waiting in line for brunch; I don’t miss going somewhere every weekend; I don’t miss working out every day. I’m not low maintenance, but I sure do like having my life that way.

Quarantine Diary Day 317: Tiny Victories

So what have I been doing while sheltering in place for the last eleven months? Like a lot of people, I’ve been cooking more. I don’t want to overstate my efforts. I did not undertake any ambitious projects. I did not, could not, would absolutely never commit to cooking a certain number of meals per week. I did not, could not, will absolutely never try a new diet or meal plan. I did not resolve to save money. I did not decide to work my way through a cookbook of note. I have no interest in being a more helpful partner, a more nurturing mom, more well-rounded person, or a healthier eater. I just had a little more time and energy after work and decided to spend some of more of it in the company of one of my favorite things: food.

I don’t have much to show in the way of results. At best, I have become a slightly less mediocre cook. Truly, the list of things I have not accomplished in the kitchen in the last year is neverending, but here is an abbreviated to give you the flavor:

  • I do not have a camera roll of well-lit and eye-catching dishes;
  • I did not make the perfect sourdough loaf;
  • I did not refine my knife skills to the point that they no longer make my family extremely nervous;
  • I did not successfully bake chocolate chip cookies under the broiler when our oven went out for three weeks;
  • I did not cook a single meal without a consulting the recipe many times and my more culinarily inclined spouse at least once;
  • I did not cook a single meal within the time allotted in the recipe; and
  • I did not find a single food blog or recipe site that did not make me want to pull my hair out or die from scrolling.

Lack of photographic evidence notwithstanding, I have amassed a small stockpile of wins:

  • I can respond to question, “Do you want to cook dinner tonight?” without having a panic attack or becoming irate;
  • I can poke through the fridge and track down a recipe that works with my skill set and the ingredients and time we have on hand;
  • I can roast any vegetable on a sheet pan;
  • I can braid and bake a gorgeous golden challah;
  • I can deviate from the recipe when it makes sense;
  • I can anticipate what flavors will go well together;
  • I can properly season meat;
  • I can make a meal that my seven-year-old likes;
  • I can make a meal that I like.

That last one is the reason I keep going back to my cookbooks and to the kitchen. In the early days of the pandemic, the frivolous thing I missed the most was going out for breakfast. Now I hardly think about it. If there’s one thing I have in common with my own mom, it’s that my family doesn’t appreciate my cooking. Most Saturdays my daughter asks for whatever sugar cereal is in the cabinet and my husband eats whatever it is that he eats and I take 30+ minutes to cook myself the perfect eggs over easy and the perfect bacon and perfect pan-fried hash browns and sit down to breakfast mid-morning with a huge mug of black coffee and, for the next twenty minutes, my life is exactly the way I want it to be.

Now that I can cook, though, I find myself missing things I never cared about before. The other day, my husband pointed out that we can’t just run out to the store for a fresh baguette. He used to ask me to do that occasionally, and I would complain about the extra errand. Now, I can’t get the idea out of my mind. Can you even imagine the luxury of making a trip to a public place for a single ingredient? Of perusing the aisles? Of picking up a loaf of bread and squeezing it and putting it back down? I’m drooling just thinking about it.

Of course, the real reason I can cook for fun and pleasure is because I don’t have to. I will make breakfast tomorrow morning, yes, but tomorrow night we will get takeout. When Sunday rolls around, I’ll pass the ball back to my husband to figure out breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and when the pandemic rolls around and I’m back in the office, I’ll pass all the balls back to him to figure out weeknight eats. I doubt I’ll give up cooking entirely, though. My breakfasts are really getting pretty good.