Quarantine Diaries Day 412: Distilled

In a tarot deck, there are a handful of cards that have a bad reputation. Folks having their cards read see these babies in a spread and they get scared. A few of these cards derive their power over our imaginations from their objectively frightening names: Card 13, Death; Card 15, The Devil. Tarot readers tend not to be those cards, though, because the meanings they carry are not inherently bad. Death means change. The Devil means freedom and choice. There is one card that has the power to strike fear into the hearts of readers and querents alike, and that is Card 16, The Tower. The name is innocuous enough, though the imagery is generally upsetting. Traditional decks show lightening splicing a black sky, flames pouring from windows, a fallen crown, people tumbling headfirst toward a rocky ground, and, of course, the eponymous tower, cracking and crumbling down. The real trouble with this card is what it means in a reading, and that is destruction, disorientation, and shocking change. The card is not all ugly, though. Framing the chaos are dabs of yellow gold that could be flames but are actually golden yods–the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the presence of the divine. The crown, representing spiritual consciousness, is tipped over but still intact. The figures in the foreground are falling but they are not dead. The tower will burn but who’s to say what will be rebuilt in its place.

This last year was a Tower year. The pandemic ripped us from our lives and stripped our focus down to the barest essentials. Soap. Toilet paper. Daily breath and daily bread. For a time, everything that was deemed non-essential fell away. Businesses. Acquaintances. Routine physical maintenance.

My life certainly simplified in ways I didn’t expect it could. When I walked away from partnership at a traditional law firm to join a virtual firm in 2019, I insisted on still working out of an office. My new employer bought me a suite of all white office furniture–a large desk and bookcases and filing cabinets and multiple chairs–and all the IT I thought I’d need–a landline, a wide monitor, a printer/scanner, and a shredder for client PHI. I couldn’t imagine doing legal work without binders of documents, without stacks of paper, without a cup full of pens. I couldn’t imagine feeling like a lawyer without my law school textbooks lined up behind me and my diploma hanging over my head. I’ve been in my office exactly once since March 14, 2020. I take meetings at home. I print out nothing. And far from feeling like a pause, the last year saw me doing some of the most sophisticated, high impact work of my career. I don’t need the trappings of a traditional corporate job. All I need my brain, my training, my relationships, and time to work.

When my daughter was in preschool, we started throwing birthday parties. We don’t have family nearby, so we went all out to make her feel special and celebrated, renting party rooms at local play places and inviting every kid she knew. I found the whole event-planning experience–from selecting a date months in advance to plunking down a not insignificant chunk of cash, sending invites to parents I’d never met, tracking RSVPs, and acquiring snacks, cake, decorations, and favors all oriented around a theme–to be incredibly taxing, to the point that I was relieved when I realized that the COVID restrictions in place last April would make any sort of party impossible. When her birthday started to creep up on us this year, I was relieved again. Things had opened enough that we could probably get away with throwing a party, but certainly no one would expect it, least of all my daughter. Until my wonderfully thoughtful, generous, and unselfish husband opened his big genius mouth and suggested she invite a few of her friends over for cupcakes outside. April might seem like a reasonable month for an outdoor birthday party, but in Chicago it is not. In Chicago, April is cold, blustery, rainy, and, most importantly, wildly unpredictable. Without fail, it has snowed the week of her birthday every year since the year our daughter was born, sometimes a few flakes but usually a few inches. In other words, planning an outdoor party in April is an anxious person’s nightmare. Our daughter turned eight last week. We celebrated with family via Zoom on Friday and with friends outside on Saturday. In spite of my worst fears, it came together easily, if not entirely without effort. We invited all of the neighbor kids and a couple of friends from school and church. We scrapped paper and emailed invitations in favor of texts sent a week and a half out. We skipped serving any food other than cake. We briefly considered and then rejected a pinata. We were going to skip favors too, until my aforementioned thoughtful, generous, and genius husband scooped up some bouncy balls and finger skateboards at Target. We did not offer even try for a theme, or decorations. Rainstorms were on the radar, but we didn’t worry about the weather because outdoors was our only option. We didn’t worry about whether people would come because we understood if they didn’t want to. Day of, we put out bubbles and sidewalk chalk and kiddie corn hole and, what do you know, the sun came out and our friends showed up, and our daughter had the best time. She didn’t need the trappings of a traditional suburban birthday party. All she needed was her family, her friends, and time to play.

When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, I added new routines to my days to keep some structure in place, and keep myself sane. Mostly, I kept my body moving. A little yoga flow when I first woke up. A walk around the block before and after work, and a bigger loop around the neighborhood during lunch. Two minute planks and push-ups in the middle of the day. Running four to five days a week plus cross-training on the rower or with weights. This week, I had surgery to remove a precancerous mole from my leg and the most shocking thing about it, other than the size of the scar, was when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to exercise for three weeks. Not even yoga! Not even walking! The version of me that clung to running as an identity and to fitness as a signifier of health and discipline as a hallmark of my self worth would not have coped well with this development. When I got the news, I felt around for that version of myself, for the anxious lady that I was certain was lurking just under my skin, and, to my surprise, I couldn’t find her. She died when Lauren died. She died when my doctor told me the mole in my leg might morph into melanoma. She died when the tower went down. Since the surgery, my days feel eerily like the early days of the pandemic in that I’m not really leaving my house, but this time around I’m not losing my mind. I don’t need a million routines. I don’t need to always be moving and doing. I don’t need to be the best, healthiest version of myself. All I need is to, you know, be. Is this enlightenment? Is this what it’s like to be distilled into the most essential version of yourself?

Quarantine Diaries Day 365: Anniversaries Part 2

One year ago I went into lockdown with my family. It was scary and surreal. Do you remember that part of it? We were afraid to leave the house. We waved at neighbors through the glass. We were afraid to touch things other people had touched. There were long lines and short hours at the grocery store, and we were afraid the food chain would break. Almost everything else was closed. On the anniversary this weekend, I drove north to Lake County and went hiking by myself. I waved at strangers on the trail. I ran my hands on trees and tapped polypores with my feet. I went home and made an elaborate meal for my family. Life is hyperreal. I’m too tired to be scared.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks. What I can say about this last year, about what it’s meant to me, about what it’s done to me, about the lessons I’ve learned, and the kind of person I’ve become? I can’t. I can’t even. It’s too much, too big, too messy to write. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not even almost over, not for me. Not for most people. Vaccines are trickling into my town, but I’m at the bottom of the list. I realize that’s a good thing. It means my life has been easier than most for the last year. It also means I’m still risking my life and trying to survive. I’m still becoming the person the world will spit out when the pandemic ends.

The truest thing I can say about the last year is this: I got older. That’s it! Hardly unexpected, but it’s still hitting me hard. I tiptoed into early middle age in the early days of the pandemic. I didn’t notice it at first, because I’m in the period of life that has been nudged back and stretched out to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as middle age, thanks to the millenials who didn’t want to grow up and the boomers who didn’t want to let go. The generations have more in common than we like to admit. It’s undeniable, though. At 35, I’m squarely in the middle of my life and last week when I saw a video of myself that just didn’t look right. How could a jawline so indistinct sit beneath smile lines that cut so deep? Like someone turned up the contrast on only half my face. The signs have been piling up all year. I’m softer around the middle and my knees screech at me when I pull myself up from crouching on the ground.

Of course, the last year aged us all in more than the usual ways. The number the pandemic did on my body is nothing to what it pulled on my insides. A year ago, I related more immediately to the girl I was when I was five, fifteen, twenty-five than to the grown up in the room I had to be that day. A year ago, parenting my daughter was like re-parenting a version of myself. COVID slammed down like a wall, cleaving my childhood from hers and severing me from the person I used to be. COVID grew me up.

COVID grew me in in relation to my parents. As a once wayward child, my best trick for making them pleased with me was spending too much on plane tickets and showing up on their doorstep with a suitcase in my hand. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to travel this year, and I had to say no. Is there anything more adult than disappointing your family to protect the life you’ve built?

COVID grew me up at work. I used to feel restless, resentful that I didn’t have precisely the job I wanted, that my career didn’t travel in the direction I had planned. I couldn’t believe it when the city ordered me to move my legal practice into my home, but I had to say yes. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful to have work. Is there anything more adult than suiting up and showing up for the job you’re paid to do?

COVID gew me up in my marriage. We’ve always been good in a crisis, but day-to-day life could be hard on us, a series of battles over who was sacrificing more. In the year that asked the most of both of us, we acted like partners instead of combatants. Is there anything more adult than setting aside your pride?

COVID grew me up in my friendships. I missed the ease of seeing people around town and didn’t know how to sustain anything over a screen. I waited for the group chats and virtual book clubs to materialize or for somebody to at least check in. The loneliness almost did me in, until one day a friend brought donuts to my door and I realized people had been showing up for me all year long: with birthday signs for my daughter, with playdates outside, with plates of food and loaves of bread, with hand-me-down books and toys, with coffee in the front yard, and, yes, with phone calls and texts and “are you okays?” My friendships don’t exist behind screens, and my friends didn’t disappear during the pandemic; I did. They were there all along. I just had to pay attention and put in a little effort. Is there anything more adult than asking what you can give instead of what you can get?

COVID grew me up for my daughter. She needed me more this year than any point since infancy, and the need was so pressing that I had to gather up every part of myself of myself–the daydreamer child, the rebellious teen, the strident feminist, the serious lawyer, the tired wife–and coalesce them into a single being: mom, right here, right now. The presence of mind parenting demands in a pandemic is unlike anything I have ever known. Is there anything more adult than rising to the occasion?

That’s my anniversary post. It’s been a year. I got older, and so did you. I’m not complaining. When the thing we’ve spent the last year hiding from his death, another year is the most we can ask for. It’s more than what lots of us got.

Quarantine Diary Day 135: Raising the Bar

When my daughter turned seven at the end of April drive-by birthdays were all the rage. Our community is all close enough to walk or far enough to fly so we asked our neighbors to hang signs on their doors wishing D a happy birthday. Our neighbors, even the ones we don’t know so well, even the ones without kids, showed up with signs and tapped hello from their windows and brought their pets to the doors and left cards and little gifts on their stoops and one beautiful child played her ukulele. It was enough to make D feel special and to make me cry. It is always a tall order to make a kid feel as special as they are on their birthday, and a making that happen in quarantine felt impossible. My neighbors took some of that weight off my shoulders and carried us for a stretch in the middle of a long at-home birthday afternoon.

The next day, we crossed paths with a neighbor by the mailbox, a dad with three kids of his own. He wished D a happy birthday. We thanked him and then asked if they had any quarantine birthdays coming up. “Yeah,” he said. “In July.” “HAHAHAHA,” I laughed in the face of this eminently reasonable man until I realized he wasn’t kidding. My amusement soured as my mind stretched, for the first time, out past the end of the school year. I hadn’t been thinking about summer or fall or winter or spring again. I hadn’t appreciated that all the birthdays could become quarantine birthdays. I hadn’t realized I needed to step back to understand the size of this thing. Up close it was already too big: countries hit, case counts, casualties of life and life as we know it. I wasn’t ready to face up to it being bigger than it already seemed.

Lately my daughter has started saying something that I guess I must say a lot. “Can you believe it? The year is halfway over and so is the summer and it feels like nothing’s happened!” It’s true! The summer birthdays are upon us, some already in the distant past. Drive-by birthdays are still a thing. The summer affords one thing spring did not, which is outdoor gatherings. In the spring, where we live, in-person gatherings outside would have been both frightfully cold and highly illegal. Now they are only frightfully hot and, if not entirely safe, at least safe-ish. The backyard birthday, once viewed by upper middle class parents as a throwback, a simpler and more affordable alternative to renting out a two hour block at whatever dangerous and diseased arcade/trampoline park/pool/gym/inflatable wonderland–your kids’ classmates are obsessed with this year, now feels like the height of luxury, like a walk on the wild side, like a damn good idea, albeit a little more complicated to execute than it was before.

This weekend our neighbors invited us to their son’s sixth birthday party. It was BYOB–bring your own bat for the pinata–and the kids came out in force, armed with baseball bats, hockey sticks, pipes, and, in one case, a long wood-handled broom. With their masks, they looked like they had wandered off the set of some post-apocalyptic television show, or like they might turn on the adults at any moment. With the adults all hovering around the perimeter trying to maintain social distance, we looked like we might be scared. When the kids all rushed of their own accord into a neat, organized, and tightly packed line–a feat that can surely only be attributed to the appearance of the pinata and the prospect of candy in the very near future–the mood transformed quicky from impressed to fearful and we started shouting at the kids–“SCATTER! SPREAD OUT! GO! GO! GO!”–until they dispersed into a loose clump. The pinata was an oversized LEGO brick, homemade, so well done you wouldn’t know it, strung up on a wooden beam a couple of dads held high above their heads. The kids went at it with everything they had, with four months of pent up energy and rage, and it still took them a good fifteen minutes, with many turns for each kid, and one close call between a broomstick and one of the dads–to break it down. When it finally collapsed, the kids instinctively leaned in before jumping back. The birthday kid’s mom had warned beforehand that there would be no candy strewn across the lawn, no reason to rush, nothing to gather, just one big ziplock for each kid, and now she was reminding them again. They waited patiently for her to hand the goodies out.

After the pinata we sang happy birthday to the birthday kid and helped ourselves to homemade cupcakes and retreated to our family units to eat with masks off. The kids played with the off-brand building bricks that had come out of the pinata. When the sun set, they cracked glow sticks and chased fireflies while the adults set up socially distanced blankets and chairs and distributed popcorn for a late showing of the LEGO movie on a projector screen. We weren’t going to keep our daughter up because she’s seen the movie a half dozen times and while she generally does perfectly fine with late bedtimes, her parents do not. Lucky for her, there was just enough magic for us to loosen our grip on the way things are supposed to be and give them a chance to be how they are. We curled up on our blanket and swatted mosquitos and laughed at our favorite lines. At the end of the movie when Elizabeth Banks’ character gives her inspirational speech to the townspeople to rise up against the fascist President Business, to rip up the ground and tear apart the walls and “build whatever weird thing pops into [y]our head,” the “things only you can build,” my daughter grabbed her glow stick and stuck it in front of my face to confirm that I was, indeed, crying.

When the party wrapped up, I took a minute to congratulate the parents on a top-notch quarantine birthday. Since I had my daughter, I always like to congratulate parents on another year of keeping their kids alive and, if applicable, on surviving the hell that is throwing a party for children, who are objectively the world’s’ worst party guests. Parents in 2020 deserve an extra round. Back in March, the bar for what qualifies as good time–let alone special and memorable–dropped so low, and parents everywhere are busting their asses to raise it back up. My neighbors literally raised the bar with a homemade pinata attached and gave their kid–all our kids, and the parents too–a summer day that stands on its own as special, pandemic or no. I am grateful to them for that and more. I am grateful to everyone who has, some just by virtue of being here and carrying on, made this world feel like one that’s worth fighting for.

Quarantine Diary Day 63: Birthdaze

I turned 35 last week and celebrated like all the other spring chickens, in quarantine. Upon rolling out of bed, my seven-year old generously handed over the 12×12 sheet of bubble wrap that she has been (rather greedily, in my honest opinion) keeping to herself and gave me permission to pop exactly 35 bubbles, which I proceeded to do with great satisfaction. It was rainy in the morning and we ate donuts and coffee from a place with curbside pickup in the car. I worked a little and husband homeschooled our daughter for a few hours before giving her a half day. Midday they called me up and started singing happy birthday, to my momentary confusion–it was too early for cake–until I noticed the pretty plate on the table and on top of the pretty plate a baked potato with a candle stuck in it. I clapped my hands in delight. Later, on the phone with my sister, I tried to explain. “You see, I’m always complaining that [husband] never makes me baked potatoes.” Sister cut me off. “But…they’re so easy to make. And not that good.” She finished with her strongest point: “I would cry if somebody gave me a baked potato for my birthday.” Come to think of it, I did cry a little when I saw the potato, and my daughter called me like she always does, announcing in her singsong voice, “Mama’s getting eeeeMOtionaaaal!”

In the afternoon, Chicago blessed us with the best weather, 75 and sunny. I went for a run by the lake, listened to Chance the Rapper, and we planted our little patio garden, just some herbs and two tomato plants, and let’s take a chance on growing some radishes and beets from seed. I strummed my guitar, and talked on the phone to my sister and mom. I put on a dress and put makeup on my seven-year-old. There was a time, not too long ago, when I refused to put makeup on either of us on feminist principle, but now I figure what what the hell.

We picked up family dinner from our favorite gastropub and ate it on the front porch. We chatted with neighbors and friends. One miracle worker dropped off a mug with the hot priest from Fleabag not two days after I posted about him here and someone else who knows me well enough to know what I like dropped off a four-pack of craft soda. Husband and daughter sang to me again, and I blew out more candles, these ones stuck into cupcakes from our new favorite bakery, the one we fell in love with when they made us a gorgeous cake with an easy contactless pickup for my daughter’s quarantine birthday just a few weeks ago. I unwrapped a set of watercolors from a bespoke art supply store that we stumbled into, stunned, last fall and then forgot about. There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have said that another solitary hobby was not something I required, but I would have been wrong. Daughter gave me a book she wrote and illustrated herself and I couldn’t have been more proud. After I tucked her into bed and thanked her for a beautiful day, husband and I crept out to the back porch, where we sat watching a fire crackle in the chiminea.

I like being 35. I like not being the youngest person in the conference room, at the party, on the block. I sprinted through my 20s, grasping at brass rings–career, marriage, baby, house–trying to haul myself into adulthood, only to resent the responsibility that came with each new prize. I fumbled my way through all of it, feeling like a teenager thrust unwillingly and unwittingly into my adult life. At 35, this is no longer true. I’m not in over my head. I’m not faking it. I am every inch the grownup I never thought I would be. This is no great accomplishment. I know I came late to this. My mom had five kids by 35. It is only by the grace of God that I started crawling out of adolescence a few years ago, when I got sober, when my daughter needed me to grow up. I still have a lot of growing up to do. I still dress like a teenager, and talk like one too, but I like myself anyway, and I like my life. I’m not trying to run the clock out on it anymore.

how to celebrate a birthday in quarantine

Quarantine Diary: Day 40

Pastor Grace says 40 is no ordinary number. In the Bible, 40 is less a measure of time than it is a clue that God is up to something. 40 years in the wilderness before the Jews reached the promised land. Nothing but manna to eat. 40 days on Mount Sinai for Moses to come down with the Law. 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert before Jesus began his public ministry. Temptation under every rock. No food at all. 40 days with his disciples after throwing open the doors of death. 40 days before being restored to God.

40 days is a really long time. It is time enough to be lost and found, time enough to be tested and tried, time enough to come to an understanding, time enough to prepare and come out the other side.

When the men who wrote the Bible tell us something lasted 40 minutes, days, or years, they are telling us that God is behind whatever happened next.

And so it is that 40 days into quarantine, we are celebrating a birth. Seven years ago, I pulled my daughter into the world. Seven is a God number, too, it turns out. I didn’t learn that from Pastor Grace, or the Bible, but from Frank Black singing This monkey’s gone to heaven.

My daughter is my promised land but my waiting was not 40 years of wilderness. In the most literal of ways, I didn’t have to wait at all. I had her at 27. She was conceived the first month we tried. Still, her coming to us was not as easy as all that. The idea of a daughter was seven years in the making, conceived in New Orleans as her dad and I sheltered-in-place during a hurricane. “What if I get pregnant?” I whispered. We were children ourselves, only 20 years old. “We’ll have a baby and we’ll name her Dylan.” We did wander after that. We had to. We crossed religious differences that spread like a chasm to find a land hospitable to us both, to the believer and the skeptic alike, a place that would be safe for our interfaith family. Eventually, we found a way.
Dylan turns seven today.

The second wandering came after Dylan was born. We waited two years after she was born and then tried for four more to have another that never came. This makes people sad. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “I know you wanted another baby. At one point that might have been the case, but I am so far removed from that wanting it’s hard to know if it was really mine. What I know now: every passing month and year shined a light on the gold I already had. Dylan is everything I could ever want in a kid. Any heartbreak I have is for not being able to give her a sibling. Luckily for all of us, she never wanted one, and still doesn’t, even after a 40 days of being the only kid in quarantine.

Every year, but especially this year, I’ve been anticipating Dylan’s birthday like it was my own. The anticipation is ingrained. I didn’t wait to have Dylan but she made me wait to have her, through 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. That long week before she decided to join us on this plane of existence was its own kind of probationary period. We were prepared for an April 15 delivery. I’d had my hospital bag packed since Braxton Hicks kicked in around week 35. I’d taken the week off of work. My husband had checked our little dog into a very fancy overnight kennel. There was nothing left to do except wait and walk and wonder what life would be like on the other side.

I’m not waiting anymore, not for a miracle, not for a sign. For me, the miracle happened seven years ago, after 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. The miracle is every day I’ve spent with her since.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 8 – Birthdays

My daughter’s birthday is in late April, which sounds like a spring birthday, but in Chicago it’s basically still winter. I know this because it snowed two days before she was born and it has snowed right around her birthday every year since. Nobody really believes me when I say this, that we’re going to get accumulation, actual inches of snow, in the last week of April, but it’s true. We always do. My birthday is in mid-May, which I will represent is also basically still winter. I know this because every year my husband plans picnics and hikes and walks in the neighborhood because the man knows what I like and every year it’s cold, frigid even, and I am forced to tuck my cute outfit under a wool coat and my cute hair under a ratty winter beanie. After May we get a break until August, which is when the real birthday gauntlet–I mean season–starts, and the special days start rolling in, one after another, mom’s birthday, brother’s birthday, other brother’s birthday, husband’s birthday, sister’s birthday, dad’s birthday, other other brother’s birthday. (We cannot talk about nieces and nephews right now because I am a negligent aunt. In laws? Good god, no.) Other other brother’s birthday takes us into Christmas and then New Year and then we’re in the drought, the dry spell, the lonely sad season, the endless miserable winter that only starts to end the day my daughter was born.