A few years ago, I started cataloging idyllic summer weekends with a little mental hashtag: #summerinthesuburbs. This last weekend was one of those. I walked to the farmers’ market with my daughter and a few of our neighbors. At first the kids sprinted up ahead of us until they got to big intersections or, in my daughter’s case, until her shoes fell off. We just bought her a pair of kiddie crocs to combat a permanent case of Mama, my feeeeeet are hooooootttt. Her feet are still hot and her shoes fall off, but they are bright blue, so she is obsessed with them. Then the kids got tired and slowed down to hold our hands. We weren’t halfway there when they stopped to inspect a Hercules beetle and held the whole group up for a solid ten minutes. They flipped the bug right-side up and were relieved to see it was still alive, but my daughter noticed it had a bum leg and worried about it for the rest of the day. Mama, do you think the beetle will be okay?
At the farmers’ market we bought cheese, asparagus, and scones the size of a child’s head, and took them to a patch of grass on the other side of the street where we could strip off our masks and feast. The grownups talked about books. I confessed my tendency to read books that are a huge bummer and then complain about being depressed. The kids ran around flapping their arms and pretended to be birds. A toddler watched from down the way and the toddler’s grandma told us this was the most exciting day of the child’s young life. She was a quarantine baby and had never seen kids at play.
I went to the garden center with my husband and daughter. The sign out front said “I’m so happy spring is here, I went my plants.” My husband pointed out that they missed the obvious joke about soiling yourself. My daughter asked Does soil mean poop, mama? but she was already dying laughing, so I didn’t answer. We got cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cilantro, sage, basil, mint, six little coleus plants, and, for the first time ever, a flower: impatiens. I’m a fairly utilitarian patio gardener; I like highly productive plants and growing things that I can eat. With the exception of a money tree I picked up at Ikea in college and kept alive through the end of law school, I’ve never bought a plant just because it looked pretty. We keep most of the plants on our back patio, but we planted the coleus out front and put the impatiens in a pot right next to the front door. I’m hoping it will distract the neighbors from the peeling paint and piles of rocks and sticks my daughter brings back from every walk.
I stayed up way late on Saturday night. Date night, you know.
My daughter and I rode our new long boards in the high school parking lot, which was littered with crushed red and yellow carnations from graduation a few days before. My daughter kept stopping to watch ants and chase squirrels. I rode in huge circles, around and around. I could go on like this forever, I thought, but we left pretty soon after that when my daughter’s feet got hot.
I went out to the lake for the first SUP of the year. It was hot when I left the house but the wind blew in and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in the ten minutes it took to inflate my board. People were streaming away from the beach while I made my way in. The waves were high and I didn’t want to fall off because I’d left my life jacket at home and am still healing the excision site on my leg, so I spent a lot of the ride on my knees. At one point, I went cross-legged on the board and was just paddling around with a stupid grin on my face. I saw a fuchsia petal floating next to my board and a little while later I saw another, and then another. I was far from shore and there were three other people on the water. A man on a SUP and two men on a catamaran. Where did the flowers come from? What do they mean?
I slathered my arms and legs and face with SPF 50 and went for my first run in a month. It was eighty degrees and steamy and my lungs gave out fast. I trotted by a man teetering on a bicycle, moving almost as slowly as I. Is this just what life is? Do I just get to decide how I want to fill my days?Was it always like this? My recollection of my days before the pandemic is getting hazy, but I don’t remember experiencing this kind of autonomy. I was always living according to someone else’s agenda. The law firm. The program. The group. The influencer. The church. Will it always be like this? Maybe it can be. I still work. I still parent. I still exist in community. But the minutes and the hours and the days are mine.
We crept out of town for spring break without telling anyone last week. We even opted to let the trash rot in our garage for a week over asking our neighbors to take the cans out for us. At first I kept our trip quiet because it seemed so extravagant. Who am I to leave town just because I can? Was there ever a time when vacations were a normal part of life? After I told a few people about our plans and was met with reactions that ranged from underwhelmed to visibly disappointed, I saw that there was another reason to fly under the radar: our spring break extravaganza was actually boring as hell. When got back last weekend, our next door neighbor’s face lit up: “Did you get to see your family?!” When I said no, she sighed and slumped her shoulders along with me. “We drove to Michigan and stayed in a vacation rental in the middle of the woods. We saw no one and did next to nothing. We’re still waiting for everybody to get vaccines.”
I was playing up the simplicity of our trip for drama and virtue points. In truth, it was pleasant and picturesque and exactly what we needed. We rented a two-bedroom cottage with a wood burning fireplace at the edge of a gin clear lake. We took meals in the big eat-in kitchen and played games in front of a picture window with a view of the lake and kept a fire going at all times. There was a touch of adventure, too. We crashed around in the woods and plunged our hands in the cold water to fish out pearly shells and built bonfires in the backyard. My daughter scratched her arm on a piece of rusty metal on the dock and shrieked bloody murder when she almost stepped in a dead mouse exploring a pitch dark outbuilding. One day we even drove into town and went quiet as we passed one red-framed flag after another. We should’ve realized it when we booked the place, but didn’t. We didn’t live in Michigan long enough to get to know the state outside of the college town where we lived, and we left a long time ago. Anyway, we were deep in Trump country.
Howard City was a shit town with a terrific restaurant and we planned to get takeout. We pulled up behind the one other car on the main strip. The “Redneck” bumper sticker jumped out at us first, and then the rest materialized like shapes popping out of a stereogram. “Trump 2020.” “Make America Great Again.” “Beard Lives Matter.” “Let’s park somewhere else,” I told my husband. Was there really a time when differing political opinions weren’t cause for alarm? Or at least unease about my personal safety? You could be forgiven for not remembering if there was. You’d have to go back to before Trump tried to steal the election. Before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. Before a Michigan militia attempted to kidnap the governor. If you’re Black, you’d have to go back way before that, back before the beginning of this country. There was a time when I thought anti-Black racism was always coded to sound like a secret, or a joke. That’s how it was the way I grew up: white, suburban, middle class. There are places where and people for whom the hatred was always overt. There are people who have never been safe in small towns.
We didn’t mean to eat in the restaurant. It happened by accident, when we drove into town and realized there was nothing else to do and the wind was whipping us around and we looked in the dining room window and saw there was no one there. It was a weird time to be eating, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but, like I said, there was nothing to do. It was our first time eating indoors in a restaurant in over a year. When we walked in, there was nobody waiting at the host station. We waited for a long time, watching college basketball play on five different TVs. “This is awkward,” my daughter announced, loudly. I would have been embarrassed, but the host didn’t come for a full five minutes after that and I was pleased that my daughter had used the word correctly. Being able to identify situations that call for a joke is a skill that will serve her well.
In the car on the way to town, my daughter had asked, “What’s a forager?” That was the name of the restaurant where we were eating. “It’s a person that gathers food from nature, kiddo. You know, nuts and berries and plants.” Sitting at a table on the edge of the dining room, my daughter stared at something around a corner and out of my sight. “What’s a forager again, mama?” She didn’t look away from whatever she was staring at. I repeated the definition I’d given her in the car, referencing nuts and berries. “Then, um, what’s that person holding?” I craned my neck around the corner to see what she was looking at. There was a flat metal silhouette of a hunter on the wall next to what looked like the restaurant’s front door. Ah. We had come in the back. That explained the awkward wait. The hunter had a gun slung over one shoulder and an axe hanging low in the other hand. He was absolutely draped in game. There was what looked like a bison on his back, birds in the hand with the axe, and two good-sized fish dangling from the front of the gun. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my daughter’s had a hard time with death this year, with dead animals inspiring especially great distress. We’re raising her to be an ethical meat eater, though, so she knows where her food comes from. I adjusted the answer I’d given her before. “Oh. I guess he’s foraging for meat.” She didn’t balk, and ordered a burger with bacon and cheese from the adult menu.
We wore masks until the food came. The server brought out a bowl of steaming hot french onion soup first. My husband and I dug in and burned our tongues. My daughter slipped her mask down to try a bite but didn’t love it. “Why is it so scummed over?” she asked, pulling her mask back up until her meal came. I have friends who brag about their kids’ diligence with masking, holding them up as examples to either inspire or shame adults into behaving better, depending on your perspective. Believe me, that’s exactly the kind of self-righteous mom I am, and I’d brag about my kid’s masking too if there was anything to brag about. She hates wearing masks, though. Last year, she whined when I ask her to put one on and begged to take it off after playing hard for a long time. She says it makes it hard to breathe. Often, she simply chose to stay inside over going to the park or going for a walk. That changed when she started going to school in February. Now she puts her mask on as soon as she leaves the house and doesn’t breathe a bad word against them. I think she realized what she was missing and doesn’t want to risk losing it again. Masks are the trade off. I told my neighbor we didn’t see anyone in Michigan, but that’s not entirely true. We saw proprietors and patrons of small businesses and travelers and most of them were unmasked. We should have planned for it but we didn’t. Our love for Michigan is outsized. We see the forests but not the people. Anyway, the people walking around unmasked indoors with casual disregard for our comfort or safety made me see my daughter’s willingness to wear the masks she detests without complaint in a new light. There are ways in which my coddled city kid is tougher than the burly backwoods Michiganders I was afraid to park behind.
Back to the Forager. The waitstaff there were all masked, though our server’s cloth face covering drooped unfortunately below her nose. We reassured herself that she was probably vaccinated. As a restaurant worker, she would have been eligible, and I’d heard that vaccines were easier to come by in Michigan than Illinois. We told ourselves she was not an anti-vaxxer. We told ourselves she was someone who cared. She seemed like she cared about her job, anyway. We were genuinely unworried. We let our daughter take her time finishing her monster burger. While we waited, my husband wrote out a grocery list. He was making biscuits and gravy for breakfast the next day. The list, when it was finished, was pure Michigan, topped off with Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce. I’ve always hated the “Pure Michigan” slogan. It conjures up old Sunday School lessons about used gum and white temples and the squirmy feeling I get when adults talk about adolescent sexuality. The revamped “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan” slogan is even grosser. Loving how much it gives me the creeps, he scrawled “Pure Michigan” at the top of the grocery list, except he wrote it in slanty cursive, so it looked like it said, “Purl Michigan.” That gave me an idea. I grabbed the paper and drew a quick sketch of a quintessential lake girl with a flippy ponytail and a mask drooping underneath her nose. We giggled and when our daughter realized why we were laughing I put my finger to my lips and asked her not to say anything about the mask. I didn’t want to hurt our server’s feelings.
When it was time to go, I grabbed my daughter and danced in the empty dining room to the electropop that had been making me shake my shoulders all afternoon. We’d danced our way out of the almost empty beer garden at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids the day before, too. Our server at the Forager watched us and I think she was smiling.
We stopped for firewood and groceries before going back to the lake house. I waited in the car with our daughter, knowing we didn’t have any more risk points to spend, if we ever had them in the first place. When my husband got back in the car he said, “I hope I got everything. I left the grocery list at the restaurant.” I thought about our server turning over the paper and recognizing seeing herself in the lake girl with the droopy mask. I thought about how she would have seen our Illinois address when she ran the credit card. For the first time all day, I wondered, Are we the assholes?
It’s a good joke to end this post on that note, but I don’t really think it’s true. We live in a liberal bubble, but we never tried to insulate ourselves here. We have a way of seeing the world that’s influenced by where we live but we don’t pretend it’s the only way to live. We try to venture out with respect and live our values wherever we are. I never fail to think of ways we could do it better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our best. We’re trying, you know?
February is always long and miserably cold in Chicago, but this year is in a category all its own. Here are some miscellaneous stats that aren’t that impressive on their own but seem more significant when you stack them like sheets of ice. February 14 was one of the coldest Valentine’s Days on record with a high of four degrees. February 16 was the ninth consecutive day of measurable snowfall in Evanston. It was the 17th consecutive day with eleven inches of snow on the ground. Here is a stat that stands on its own. On President’s Day, we got 18 inches of snow on top of the 12 inches of snow that were still on the ground.
I decided to go for a run. I know, I know. What kind of show-offy winter exuberance is this? Trust me, I was as surprised at myself as you are. I’m no stranger to running in unfavorable conditions, but I’ve been sticking to indoor workouts lately on account of the fact that it’s Dante’s icy fucking inferno outside. I don’t want frostbite. I don’t want to twist an ankle or a knee. I don’t want to deal. Yesterday wasn’t bad, though. I mean, the snow was up to my thighs, but it was almost twenty degrees outside which, for Chicago in February, is basically balmy. I got the idea when a Facebook friend posted about having legs like heavy iron after running through the snow. She also said that seeing everyone out shoveling off their cars and sidewalks made it feel like summer in the neighborhood. I’m a competitive kind of bitch, and easily influenced. If she can do it, I can do it, I thought.
LESSON: Brag about the cool shit you do; it might inspire someone else.
By late afternoon, I figured most of the sidewalks would be cleared and, if they weren’t, I could take the roads, which would definitely have been plowed. I was right about the roads, but not the sidewalks. I would run the length of one or two houses before having to leap sideways over slush into the street to avoid smacking into a chest high wall of snow. This is not a complaint. Many of the people who hadn’t managed to dig out yet were actively shoveling when I ran by, and of course I have no idea about the circumstances of the rest of the residents. There are plenty of elderly and disabled people in my town and plenty more who work on the front lines. I pay $190/month in HOA dues and a crew shovels us out asap when we get so much as an inch. It’s money well spent, because I’m 100% sure I would be the neighbor whose sidewalks stay icy for days on end.
LESSON: It’s a privilege to have time and money and gear to workout in the middle of the day, and to outsource my shoveling to someone else; it’s a service to shovel your walk and your neighbor’s if they can’t.
A little less than a mile from my house there’s a paved trail that runs north/south alongside the North Shore Channel. It’s great for three to six mile loops and I use it several times a week during COVID because the trail is wide and when it’s cold I’m often the only one on it. I don’t know why I assumed the trail would be plowed, but I felt like an idiot when I looked north and south and found myself gazing upon a sea of white in both directions. I’ve lived in Midwest for almost fifteen years and Chicago for over a decade. How am I still learning things about winter? I started to turn back and then remembered that my Facebook friend probably didn’t end with “legs like iron” by sticking to sidewalks that had already been cleared. I decided to charge ahead. Running in the thigh high snow was a thrill. There was not another soul on the trail, so I pulled down my mask and grinned like an idiot at the cars driving by. I felt like fucking Bambi driving my knees up high and slicing through the snow on the way down. I felt like fucking Allyson Felix pumping my arms so hard to propel my body forward. My form has never been better. Three months into a brutal winter, I finally felt alive.
LESSON: Go do something weird and hard just because you can; it’ll make you feel fucking great.
Less than a quarter a mile into running through powder, I started to break a sweat. This was good news, and half the reason I was outside in the first place. When I’m depressed, as I have been, a sweaty workout is the only thing that will get me into the shower. After half a mile, my lungs were burning. I was approaching a main intersection that would let me off the trail. I was reluctant. If I turned back now, the whole run would be three miles instead of the five or six I was aiming for, but I was panting like I’d been running sprints. My body was too tired to let my brain get away with calling myself lazy for scaling back on the mileage I had planned. I decided to head back home.
LESSON: It’s okay to adjust your plans when circumstances change; it is smart to take it easy when things get hard.
Before I got off the trail, another runner materialized in the distance running in my direction. A kindred spirit! I had to restrain myself from gesturing grandly up the trail and proclaiming, “Behold! I cleared the way!” Instead I pulled up my mask and waved with both hands. The other runner, a lanky boy in his teens, pointedly ignored me. No matter. This happens often. When he’d passed, I scooted over and helped myself to the path he’d carved out. Huh. His stride was the right size but placing my feet into the holes he’d already made was throwing me off balance. When I turned left to cross the bridge over the channel, I had to slow to a walk to avoid tipping over the rails onto the ice.
LESSON: Stay in your own lane; it’s easier to make your own path than to follow someone else’s.
After I made it over the bridge I turned left onto a quiet, residential road. My legs were like jelly, but they turned over easily. I quickly picked up the pace. As I wound my way through the neighborhood, I realized I could run in the middle of the street and not even deal with the messy sidewalks. I wondered if I should look for another challenge, maybe run through a park or around the track piled high with snow, or if I should take plowed roads the whole way home. Running hadn’t felt this easy in awhile. I was listening to music and endorphins were kicking in and I was feeling good.
LESSON: You don’t always have to forge the way; let someone show you the easier, softer way.
When I got close to home I checked my watch and was shocked to see that I’d barely clocked three miles in the time it usually takes me to run four. I could have kept going but I stopped the watch and called my mom instead. We walked and talked until I was shivering in the cold and went home happy.
LESSON: Things that are worthwhile sometimes take awhile; three miles are better than none.*
*Unless it’s a rest day or a sick day; on those days, no miles are better than any at all. Rest is part of training! Rest is critical to physical and mental health! Rest is your birthright!
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?”
Last month, I finally made it to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the first time since the pandemic started. The Gardens are one of Chicago’s finest cultural institutions and, being almost entirely outdoors, are one of the only local destinations that is accessible right now. The garden paths have been beckoning me for months. I’ve been desperate to lay eyes on trees other than the ones I see waving outside my windows, the ones I pass on my loops around the neighborhood two, four, six times a day. What I really want is the wild, and the manicured lawns of the Gardens are not that, but they are sprawling, and I could certainly use a little space.
To cut down on the crowds, the Gardens are requiring visitors to pre-register for timed entry and are capping the number of visitors allowed in a day. The indoor greenhouses and displays are closed. Physical distancing is required, as well as masks when physical distancing is impossible. I brought our masks and told my daughter we would have to wear them when we entered the Gardens through a building and checked in at the membership desk. After weeks of wearing her mask all day every day at camp, she didn’t even complain, just pulled it up over her nose. We made our way through the entryway and check-in, grabbed a garden bingo sheet, and stepped out into the fresh air.
Under ordinary circumstances, we would would emerge onto the bridge that would carry us over a lily-pad spattered lake and onto the walking paths that wind for miles through acres of land, past millions of plants. We would admire the bulb gardens and native plant gardens and fruit and vegetable gardens and aquatic gardens and the sensory garden and the waterful garden and the dwarf conifer garden and the english oak meadow. We would stop walking and literally smell the flowers and then walk some more. My daughter would start dragging and we would sit in the grass and eat snacks. We would get lost behind the bell tower and suck honey sticks. We would look for fishes, frogs, and beavers in the ponds. We would head home sweaty and tired and feeling just a little bit more wild and free.
This time, the automated doors swung open and dumped us into a sea of people. Nobody was doing anything wrong. Family groups were clustered together. Everybody had a mask, even the kids. There were just so many people. It was impossible to walk more than a few yards without passing by another group with less than six feet of distance. I looked down at my daughter. “I’m sorry kid. We’re going to have to wear these outside, too.” She didn’t react except to heave a world weary sigh. Over the next few hours, every time I issued the order, “Mask up!” she stopped doing even that.
It was over ninety degrees and humid and we sweated our cheap cotton masks out too soon. I think D was licking hers, too. The day wasn’t a total bust, though. It had its moments. D took her shoes off and ran in the grass in the rose garden. She splashed in the fountain with a few other kids, got her dress soaked through. I wondered briefly if the water was safe, then dipped my own bandana in to wrap around my neck. We found a shade tree away from the crowds and sat down, ate snacks. We were delighted to stumble onto a bonsai collection set up in a hot brick courtyard. I hadn’t realized they would be there, and it seemed that nobody else did either. Inspired, D pulled out the old digital camera I handed down to her and took a picture of every single tree. I couldn’t believe she was saving me the effort. I can’t believe how obvious it is that she’s mine. D got tired before I did and I bribed her to keep going with honey sticks. “When the coast is clear,” I promised. Of course, there was a steady stream of foot traffic on the chain of islands that makes up the Japanese gardens, so we ducked off the path and snuck down to the water. We crouched under a willow tree and watched the minnows flit between the shadow and the sun. We heard the gallump-splash of frogs but didn’t spot any. We watched the cyclists on the other side of the lake and wondered if D’s dad had ridden here earlier today. We got sticky with honey. We wanted to never leave that spot.
Eventually we dragged ourselves back to the path. Against my better judgment, we walked through the indoor gift shop on the way out. We had to wait our turn outside a locked door. When the proprietor let us in we were grateful to be greeted by a rush of cold air and an empty store. We wandered longer than we needed to, gazing wistfully at the field guides and gauzy scarves and delicate jewelry and weird metal garden art. D fell in love with a stuffed eastern bluebird. We wanted to buy everything so I didn’t let us buy anything. It felt good enough to just look. I hadn’t realized how much I miss mindless shopping.
We headed up home sweaty and tired and feeling something decidedly less than wild and free. I glanced at D in the rearview mirror. “What do you think? Do you want to go camping next weekend? Spend some time in nature for real?”
When the pandemic hit, R and I were in the midst of the world’s most millennial house hunt. Our search was entirely self-directed, almost wholly online, and annoyingly noncommittal. We were exacting in some of our demands–not a speck of carpet, anywhere!–and whatever about others–“I guess we don’t really need a master bathroom/central AC/garage.” Our demeanor was similarly varied, as, depending on the day, we vacillated from “we kind of want to see this house but no rush and if someone else buys it it wasn’t meant to be” to “why the FUCK has Stephanie from Redfin not responded to the email we sent one hour ago?”
We poured through pictures of nearly every house to hit the market in our town over the last sixteen months and toured nine with an agent, on top of attending maybe another seven or eight open houses. We put a couple of offers. We were quickly outbid on the first house (a gorgeous gut rehab in the city) in a weird situation that could have been a bidding war but wasn’t because the sellers accepted the other offer without even asking us to raise ours. We backed out during the inspection period for the second house (a charming blue farmhouse in the suburbs) in a weird situation involving mysteriously soaking wet walls. There was a third house (a cute little split-level by the railroad tracks) that R loved and I didn’t but we didn’t even get the chance to argue about it because of a weird situation where we asked to see the house a second time and the seller preemptively accused us of wanting to lowball him and yanked it off the market.
Throughout this whole process I’ve been ambivalent about the prospect of actually moving. I’m a big believer in signs and serendipity (ew, I know), and the process of moving into the house we live in now was so stupidly easy it felt like it was meant to be. I might be glossing over a few details, but it basically went something like this: 1) R found a house listed online and went to vet it while I was out of town on a business trip; 2) R took me to see the house and when we pulled into the driveway our then-eighteen-month-old daughter” exclaimed “We’re home!” in her sweet little toddler voice; and 3) six weeks later we were signing papers at the mortgage broker’s office. I get that we were first time homeowners, kids, really, and that it’s bound to be more complicated this time around, what with a house we’ll need to need to sell and an actual kid in elementary school and all the inflexibility in our wants and preferences of people who are well on their way to middle aged.
Even with that understanding, the part of me that makes my decisions based on the “vibe” never got on board with our search. If the sheer amount time and energy we were putting into our search to yield only small handful of houses where we could even imagine ourselves living told me our timing might be off, the bizarre situations that kept us from closing on houses we did like were like alarm bells clanging. I was sick to my stomach for the entire two week were under contract for the blue farmhouse. I’d go to 12-step meetings and stories about people losing their houses would jump out and grab me by the shoulders. There’s this one story in the big book that really freaks me out, about a woman who buys a big house just to prove she’s not an alcoholic and then loses it in sobriety. The part that really gets me is that finds comfort in the fact that the house is replaced by “a townhouse that is just the right size” for her. We read this story in a meeting the day we put the offer in and I was certain it was the sign I’d been looking for, except that instead of telling me to go for it, it was telling me to go home.
I know that all sounds a little woo woo, but the truth is I knew it was foolish to drain our savings on a down payment on a 160+ year old house that couldn’t pass inspection that we couldn’t really afford. I knew we already had all the house we needed in a neighborhood that we love. I knew that, at least for me, the house hunt was a temporary escape from all the things I don’t love about my life–my messy house, loneliness, arguments with my husband. The fantasy of moving into a bigger house in a better neighborhood was a way of pretending to deal with those things without actually, you know, changing anything at all. It was easy to imagine that we’d be naturally neater in a house with more rooms, that we’d invite people over for cookouts when we had a backyard, that I wouldn’t resent my husband for daring to have so many goddamn things in his own house if I had an office that wasn’t in the same room as his exercise bike.
When the deal fell through last fall, I was relieved.
Of course we kept looking, so when the real estate market in our town dried up in the winter I was relieved there wasn’t much to look at.
When showings ground to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, I was relieved again. More than that, I was grateful. We had a place to live. We had a place we could afford. We had neighbors we knew. And, thank God, our savings account was still intact. And now, with the possibility of moving off the table for the foreseeable future, I had a few months to just be.
Old habits die hard, though. Looking at houses online is still a reliable coping mechanism, and I use it from time to time. Lately, when the prospect of another year or more of living like this–on top of my husband and daughter, unreasonably close to our neighbors, far from friends and family, with no outdoor spaces that aren’t stupidly crowded–starts to wear me down, I start chasing that geographical cure.
I pull up listings in Arizona, fantasizing about bubbling up with my sister and her kids and swimming in my parents’ pool. I scroll over to Michigan, dreaming about camping with friends and a house near a lake. I check out Colorado, and imagine myself running with the elites. I see what’s up in North Carolina and wonder if I could stomach the politics in exchange for a big backyard and a two car garage.
I can’t seem to lose hours online like I used to. It seems that COVID is infecting my fantasies, too. Everything that once bound us to Chicago–school, church, friends, sports, museums, concerts, festivals, restaurants–the things we’re missing so badly now, we’re not going to find them anywhere else. Wherever we go, a disappointing and inequitable remote learning plan surely waits. Wherever we go, the virus rages in bodies sheltered and masked to various degrees. Wherever we go, there we are.
Real estate is a helluva good drug, though. Obsessive Redfin searching almost stopped me from writing this post.
From the looks of it, things are getting better in Illinois. Testing for coronavirus is up. Case counts are dropping. The entire state is on track to move into phase four of the plan to restore Illinois, which is the final phase until we have a vaccine. We are cautiously optimistic. We are running errands but wearing masks, we are going to restaurants but sitting on the patio at tables six feet apart, we are letting the kids play but only outside. We are resigned to a summer without festivals, concerts, or sports. God willing, my daughter will go to day camp next month. I don’t want to overstate the positive. We have lost almost 7,000 people, and people are still dying every day. But the deaths are slowing and it feels like we’re turning a corner.
I’m not resting easy, though. With the recent surge in the southwest, I feel like the virus is getting closer to hitting where it hurts. I came to the midwest by way of the desert and the desert is where most of my family still lives. Most saliently, it’s where all of my older relatives live, including and especially the ones who will not appreciate being called “older relatives.” My grandma and my great uncle live in Phoenix. My parents live in Mesa. My in-laws live in Houston. They are all high risk.
My worry for my family isn’t unusual or new. We’re all worried about our older relatives. Since March, I’ve been troubled that state and local leaders in less densely packed states were apparently unwilling to make the same politically unpopular decisions that ours have in Illinois. Since March, I’ve been handling my daughter’s recurring nightmares about death by lying to her, reassuring her that her grandparents aren’t leaving the house unless they have to, aren’t seeing people outside their immediate families, and are religious about wearing masks, even though I have no basis for thinking that they are taking the same precautions on an individual level that we are taking in Illinois.
The rise in cases out west isn’t all that surprising. From my admittedly distant perspective, Arizona has basically been wide open since memorial day. From my admittedly biased perspective, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear about folks going to restaurants and churches and showers and parties and parties and bars. Make no mistake: I’m not frustrated because I want to do these things and can’t. I’m frustrated because other people don’t seem to get that they don’t have to do these things. There is a third way, a path between total lockdown and business as usual and we’re doing it in Illinois, which is what makes it hard to watch folks in other states throw up their hands and say, “Well, we tried!” As one science reporter put it: “There are ways to be responsible and socialize, but people don’t seem to be able to draw the line between what’s OK and what is not. For too many people, it seems to be binary — they are either on lockdown or taking no precautions.”
And look, I get it. As an ex-binge drinker, believe me, I get it. Moderation is a mindfuck. When I enjoyed my drinking I couldn’t control it and when I controlled my drinking I couldn’t enjoy it. What even is the point of two drinks? The aphorism isn’t limited to alcohol, either. I’m like this with everything! Food, shopping, television, the internet, cigarettes, sex, drugs, art, religion, other people. If it’s possible to derive pleasure from a thing, I want as much of it as I can get away with taking. This is how a 5k becomes a marathon, how a twenty-minute TV show becomes a Netflix binge, how a new acquaintance becomes an internet obsession, how a new single becomes a band’s entire back catalogue, how two squares of dark chocolate become a bag of Haribo and ice cream, how one Instagram post becomes three hours of scrolling. And you know changing the way I engage with the world feels impossible. It’s easier to just swear things off.
Here’s the thing, though. I can’t whittle my life down to one thin, virtuous core. Nobody can. It’s unsustainable. I had to cut my losses with the things that were killing me quickest in the order that I realized they were doing me in (drugs, cigarettes, booze) and figure out how to take a balanced, reasoned approach to the rest. It’s still a work in progress! But also–and this is key–completely doable. I can change the way I live. Life doesn’t have to be a series of wild swings between ego and id. I can suspend my personal desires, whatever they are–to eat at a restaurant, go to a friend’s house, hang around in a crowd of people sharing air without a mask on–to listen to somebody who might know more than me to help somebody who might need it more than me.
If a want monster (HT to my sister for that turn of phrase) can do these things, then you can too. You too can stay home for 103 days and not drink/eat/TV yourself to death. You can mask up at the grocery store. You can see your friends and your kids’ friends outside. You can do it even if your government isn’t forcing you to and when you see the death toll exploding you too can numb your despair with the smug satisfaction that comes with knowing at least you gave a damn.
Lately all my long runs have been up and down Chicago’s north shore. I start in Evanston and wind my way up through Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, and Glencoe and back down again. This isn’t my usual route. I vastly prefer to run south from Evanston down through Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park and back up again. The northern route is all mansions and empty streets and private beaches. The southern route is all high rises and crowded sidewalks and public beaches. The northern route is all kayaks and sailboats. The southern route is all kites and bikes. The northern route is all cobblestone and the southern route is all cracked pavement. The northern route is edenic gardens and manicured lawns and the southern route is fairy houses and public art. The northern art is wrought iron gates around the best beaches and the southern route is police cruising the beach for no goddamn good reason on a Saturday afternoon.
The first time I ran north, my eyes popped out of my head every mile as the houses doubled then tripled in size and the yards sprouted statuary that was truly bizarre. The last time I ran south I had to turn back when I hit the police barricade and realized Mayor Lightfoot was serious about closing the lakefront in Chicago. Damn. Since then, like I said, all my runs go north, which means all my runs are an exercise in coping with my class-based anxieties.
The first weekend in May I ran north and my mind was blown not by the wealth on display but by the flagrant disregard for social distancing. It was an unseasonably warm day and the beaches and parks and parking lots were swarming. Outdoorsy types on a stroll. Group yoga classes. Barbeques. Men in tight bike clothes just hanging out shooting the shit. College kids, limbs dangling all over each each other, spilling into the intersections. I wasn’t upset, really, just confused. Evanston was still locked down and this was before the data about the reduced risk of infection outside was being widely reported. Every week, sometimes every day, living on the north shore offers tests my commitment to living according to my values. The point of differentiation might be houses or cars or jobs or schools or summer camps or vacations or politics or religion or it might be the public health risks associated with the coronavirus: the outcome is the same. My family and I will be doing something different.
Still, the neighborhood seeps in. I have house envy and, these days especially, yard envy. I worry my kid isn’t in enough activities, even if they are all Zoom-based now. And when I saw all those families tumbling into each other on the sidewalk on a warm day in early May, something in me shifted, ever so slightly. It was my commitment. I knew that next time the neighbor kids ran up to us on the front porch, I wouldn’t go inside or steer my daughter away. This is how it changes. A person. A family. A city. A world. I hope this isn’t how it falls apart.
Edited to add: White privilege is being able to write a post like this without thinking of Chicago’s long and living history of racial segregation and redlining (refusing to grant mortgages and insurance to Black people, effectively shutting them out of the American dream of homeownership). White silence is the fact that I did think of those things and wrote the post without acknowledging them anyway. White silence is a manifestation of white supremacy. I thought I didn’t know enough to write about housing discrimination but the truth is I know plenty, just not enough to write about it as eloquently as I am able to do about other things. This too–the valuing of the aesthetics of my writing over acknowledging that my class-based anxieties living in Chicago are nothing compared to what any Black person living anywhere in Chicago under any circumstances at any time has had to face–is wrong. If you are a person of color and reading this post, particularly at this time, caused you any harm, I am sorry. I will try not to make this mistake again. If you are white and you want to read more about the devastating effects of discrimination in the housing industry, I highly recommend this extraordinary article by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case for Reparations.
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.
A List of Things Seen at the Park During Quarantine:
Kids climbing on the playground equipment while parents look on nervously, darting furtive glances over their shoulders (Week 1)
City employees removing the nets from the tennis court
Basketball nets tied off to the rims so nothing can get through
A 10-inch hand-painted model rocket stuck in a tree
A man with a 12-foot ladder trying to climb a 50-foot tree
A man and little girl chucking rocks and sticks into the branches of a tree
A woman craning her neck, staring up into a tree, muttering about a man
Dozens of people lined up outside the community center, six feet apart, to pick up the breakfasts and lunches their kids would normally get at school, including a classmate of the little girl’s that she has yet to see on video calls with the class
Playground equipment standing empty, caution tape flapping in the wind (Weeks 2-8)
Countless dogs, often running through the park off-leash; for once, this does not bother the woman
Families playing catch, badly
Families playing soccer well
Families playing with brand new puppies
Kids playing basketball, having torn the nets down
An old man playing tennis with an orange against a wall
A kite shaped like a neon triceratops stuck in a tree
Little libraries stuffed full with books that no one wants to touch
A raccoon running around in broad daylight
Basketball hoops blocked off with wooden planks
A middle schooler turning head over heels on the basketball court in a human-sized hamster wheel
Teenagers with skateboards and no shirts jumping off of a DIY ramp in the middle of the basketball court; they have a boombox, like it’s the nineties
Something disemboweled in the soccer field, guts in a neat pile, perfectly intact
A teenage neighbor running sprints
An older neighbor jogging slowly
A family the woman knows a little walking with a stroller; they were supposed to get together for dinner before the pandemic, but now she doesn’t say hi because it feels too complicated
Kids climbing on the playground, over, under, and around the caution tape while parents watch on, unperturbed (Week 9)
The little girl blowing every dandelion she get her little hands on, wishing over and over again for a dog
A tween chasing a pure white hedgehog through the grass
So many people the man, the woman, and the little girl know, all waving eagerly, eyes crinkling as they smile behind their masks