Quarantine Diary Day 132: When Things Change Shape

There is no part of my drinking and sobriety that’s not covered over in religion. I was Mormon for all but the last couple months of my drinking career. I was a Jack Mormon and a Lapsed Mormon and a Cafeteria Mormon and an Unorthodox Mormon and Disaffected Mormon but I was always a Mormon. Much of the time I was a believing Mormon. People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Mormon alcoholic but that’s what I was. Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. I was born and raised in a religion that preached abstinence and I loved my church and the good life it gave me but I loved drinking more. Loving booze is not what made me an alcoholic, though. I knew I was alcoholic because drinking was a destructive force in my life and I kept drinking anyway and because when I tried to quit I couldn’t. That’s when I first really leaned into religion. I thought that being a Good Mormon would help me quit drinking. It didn’t. Or, maybe it would have, but I couldn’t quite get there.

My last time in a Mormon church was November 2015. I was serious about quitting drinking by then, too. I’d been to twelve step meetings, admitted I had a problem, started piecing together weeks without alcohol. I convinced myself I deserved to give drinking a shot without the influence of Mormonism, though, so I picked up intentionally on New Years Eve 2015 and drank my way through January. Even those first months of freedom from the religion were not free from religion. I went to the Unitarian Church, shaky, hungover, afraid. The wheels were coming off. My last Day 1 was January 30, 2016

When I quit drinking for good I dove headfirst into spirituality and, eventually, back into religion at a new church. I used to think that was because I needed God to get sober. Now, in the pandemic, I’m unmoored from all that. Not God, but the walls that gave my spiritual life structure. I don’t go to church. I don’t do devotional practices. Without that framework, I tell fewer and fewer stories about God. I really thought I needed all the accouterments of religious ritual and belief to not drink. But here I am not drinking and wondering if God was just something I needed to give my abstinence meaning.

These days, I am less inclined to search for meaning in not drinking. I am less compelled to tell a story with a grand overarching moral narrative about about my sobriety. Not drinking does not need to serve some higher purpose. It need not be preordained. It’s just, for me, a better way to live.

Truth be told, it’s only very recently that I’ve come around to this idea. For most of my sobriety, I was convinced it was the way I was supposed to live–it was an obligation, a duty, a should. I would have said that it was a better way to live but I would not have been talking strictly about life without booze. I would have been talking about the spiritual life I found in sobriety, a life abundant with purpose and connection.

Now, in the pandemic, I’m realizing that the benefits of the dry life stand on their own. Four months in, my spiritual life is drained. Connection is nil. Purpose is I don’t know what. I knew this was a possibility and I was terrified of what would happen if and when I washed up on this shore. Relapse was certain. A mental breakdown for sure. Last month, I came close. Without meetings, without community, without structure, I was starting to falter and fray. Frankly, I was coming apart at the edges.

And then I got sick, really sick, stomach sick. I was in bed for two days. It felt as bad as my first and last hangover and every one in between.

When I came out of it, I couldn’t believe it, how incredible it felt to stand up and walk around without the room spinning. Weeks later, I still can’t believe it. Here I am, clear-headed. Here I am, awake to my life. Here I am, alert to what’s coming down the pike. Here I am, alive.

Why wasn’t this enough before?

I thank God that it’s enough.

I thank God for a worldview that can change shape.

I thank God for a sobriety that doesn’t depend on God.

Quarantine Diary Day 78: Treading Lightly

The first time I took my daughter out of the neighborhood during the pandemic was May 30 and it was nerve-wracking. I was taking her to The Grove, a nature preserve in Chicago’s northern suburbs with a few miles of easy trails winding through acres of prairie and woods that had recently reopened to the public. I lectured my daughter on the drive up. “You have to listen to every word I say and follow directions. You can run up ahead of me but if I stay stop, you stop. If I say come back, you come back. If there are other people we need to wear our masks and give them lots of space. If there are too many people we’ll need to leave. I need you to do EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY.”

Reader, perhaps you are less surprised than I was that my daughter was not enthused to leave her safe and comfy cocoon of the last 2.5 months to go on a masked nature walk with her rigid and neurotic mom!

I lured her out of the house with honey sticks and a handful of Red Vines from the 3.5 lb bucket that my father-in-law shipped to us without warning, a gesture that was in equal measures ludicrous, considerate, delightful. I also let her put a mask on her stuffed dog, Golden.

When we arrived at the park I was pleased to see only a handful of cars and I triangulated the parking lot so as to put as much as many spaces between those cars and mine as possible. When we climbed out of the car, I wrapped a green paisley bandanna around my daughter’s head and tied it in a rough knot, tied a pink Carhartt for Women (what) “work handkerchief” (double what) around my own face and sprayed us both down with a layer of sunscreen followed hand sanitizer that smelled like gin because we’d ordered it from a distillery. The sunscreen was for us; the hand sanitizer for anybody we might meet on the trail. My daughter sported a backpack with a water bottle and magnifying glass and clutched Golden, in her arms.

She squinted at me over her mask. “When do I get a honey stick?” “When it’s safe, girlie.”

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a family–a heterosexual couple with a toddler and a baby in a stroller–headed for the park. They looked like they might be a little slower than us and that stroller was going to be hard to get around on the narrow trails. I grabbed my daughter’s hand. “Hurry hurry go go go.”

Inside, The Grove was gorgeous. Sun filtered through the leaves dappling the ground. Wildflowers bloomed, resplendent. The wetland pools were thick with green algae, nitrogen runoff from nearby farms. Birds hung around like lazy, oversocialized squirrels, content to let us watch them nest. Bugs buzzed by our heads and flew off before we thought to swat them away. We spotted robins and red-winged blackbirds and mallards and wood ducks and geese and swans and a chipmunk cavorting in a felled tree and turtles sunning themselves on logs and a snake slithering in a patch of dry grass and a black beetle with a red head. We pulled off our masks and sucked honey from plastic straws, sucked air through licorice straws. My daughter declined the fruit I packed to feel like a good mom so I grudgingly ate it myself.

We spotted other people, too. I was prepared to see and most concerned for older people in masks. I didn’t want to put them at risk and I didn’t want to scare them. Mostly we saw moms or moms and dads with young kids. Probably desperate to get out of the house after a long spring with nothing to do. My hunch that the trails would be too small to maintain six feet of distance while crossing paths with another group of walkers was right. Our first encounter with another family we were in the middle of a long wooden footbridge over a wet marsh. When we saw them step onto the bridge at the other end and start walking toward us we turned around and booked it back in the direction we came from, stepped off the bridge and waited for them to pass. We did that several more times with several more families, most of whom were masked to various degrees. When there was no space to step aside, I grabbed my daughter and forced her to walk single file right in front of me, or to stop altogether and press our bodies to the invisible edge of the trail to let the other group pass.

I didn’t see anybody else backtrack to give another group space to walk freely. I didn’t see anybody else grabbing their kids. The first older couple we ran into were unmasked and walked right by us, apologetically but seemingly more concerned about us than themselves. It was a relief to to see that people weren’t running away from us and our homemade masks my unbridled child. Even after it became clear that people weren’t going to lose it if the six foot barrier was breached, I continued to take as much care as I could to ensure that we respected it. I continued to step aside, to stop and wait, to go out of my way to let people figure out whether and how they wanted to enter our space. I wanted people to be comfortable with the risks we were all taking. I wanted to avoid at all costs forcing my risk call on someone else.

After an hour or so of doing this dance we reached the longest bridge of the day. Way over on the other side of the marsh I could barely make out a group stepping onto their end of the bridge. I decided we would wait for them to pass to avoid meeting in the middle and one of us having to double back. They had a long way to go but we had plenty of time. Minutes passed. My daughter and I pointed out the different types of purple flowers lining the path and sniffed a few. We looked at the duck houses in the water. We counted up all the animals we’d seen so far. Eventually I checked my watch. This was taking longer than it should have. Maybe the other group had spotted us and were waiting just like we were at the other end? I peered out over the bridge. Ah. There they were. An entire family had plopped down in the middle of the bridge to eat lunch. They hadn’t even noticed us. This was going to far. “We’re going out there,” I told my daughter. We marched out across the bridge and strode past the family, masks dangling around their necks as they dove into their sandwiches. When we got to the other side and spotted yet another group standing around looking at a map I decided we’d been there long enough. It was time to cede the trails.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been careful but not the most careful. My husband goes out for groceries and other supplies, which we stopped wiping down almost immediately. I have wandered longer than necessary in Target and, on one occasion, the art supply store. We have been considerate but not the most considerate. We have made decisions that put the wants and needs of our family above the safety of others. We drove across state lines to camp with friends, stopping at gas stations and for food along the way. My daughter is going to summer camp. Nevertheless, at every fork in the road, every juncture, every decision point, I have tried to open up my eyes to the people around me, both seen and unseen, and at least consider how my actions might impact them.

Before we left the Grove we stopped at a clearing with a cold firepit and rows of log benches. Usually we trace our fingers along the beetle galleries in the wood but this weekend we weren’t touching anything. Instead we hopped from log to log and talked about bugs. It took a few minutes to realize we weren’t alone. There was a backpack at the edge of the clearing. Down in the grass behind the logs a woman squatted scribbling in a notebook. A little boy skittered with a net around the edges of the nearby pond. Suddenly there was a splash and a yell. The boy had caught something! He ran to show his mom. My daughter, who’d been keen to leave only a moment earlier, was all ears. “Mama, I think that boy found a frog!” The woman overheard and urged her son to invite my daughter to look at his catch. He moved in our direction and held the net out. “Do you want to see?” I surveyed the situation, mom and boy without their masks, boy with his arm stretched way out, both at ease. I nodded at my daughter. “Go ahead.” We added one more sign of life to our tally for the day.

Quarantine Diary Day 130: When This Thing Is Over

God I’m sick of talking about sickness and school and death and depression and safety and sorrow and transmission and testing and masks and mental health and fake news and fear. I’m sick of having to dig so deep to root up feelings that are at best bittersweet. I’m sick of flaying my emotional body and laying myself bare to get a moment of human connection. I want more than pockets; I want whole sack-fulls of joy. I want more than silver; I want all my linings to be gold.

Today my mom told me that my dad wants to go on a vacation when this is all over. I figured he was anxious to reschedule the family reunion we had planned for this summer and scrapped at the last minute. She figured he wanted to go to the resort in their city they’ve been to a bunch of times when they want a weekend in a room with a view they don’t have to clean. We were both wrong. Apparently my dad wants to go to Europe. My father is no Ron Swanson. He’s not a U.S.A.-chanting xenophobe. He’s not unrefined. It’s just that I always figured his ideal vacation involved more time on the open road than hurtling through the air, more time relaxing in a hotel than getting lost in a new city or standing around in a museum, and more time with his family than in a foreign land. If my dad were the type to have been to Europe, I imagine he would come back like Guy Clark, singing that verse from Dublin Blues:

I have seen the David 
I've seen the Mona Lisa too 
I have heard Doc Watson 
Play Columbus Stockade Blues

And I guess that’s one thing about the pandemic. Those of us who survive this thing might come out a little clearer on what what we want to do before we die, the places we still need to go, the people we can’t live without.

When this thing is all over I want to go out and dance to house music pressing up against hundreds of sweaty bodies.

When this thing is all over I want to drive across the country in a rented RV and stop at every roadside tourist attraction I see.

When this thing is over I want to eat breakfast at every fancy brunch place and stay up all night drinking coffee and eating pie at every hole in the wall diner in Chicago.

When this thing is over I want to hire babysitters with abandon and buy tickets to every concert in which I have an even passing interest.

When this thing is over I want to spent twelve hours at Six Flags Great America.

When this thing is over I want to take myself on dates to the Art Institute and the MCA and the National Museum of Mexican Art and LUMA and the Driehaus and the American Writers Museum and invite absolutely no one to join me.

When this thing is over I want to monopolize the mic at karaoke.

When this thing is over I want to see the Durkins in Massillon and Mesa.

When this thing is over I want to see the Fords in Houston and Tucson.

When this thing is over I want to see the Potters in Albuquerque.

When this thing is over I want to see the Bakers in Snoqualmie.

When this thing is over I want to see Dan in Leverett.

When this thing is over I want to see Ferrial in Annapolis.

When this thing is I want to see Rachel and Matt in Plymouth.

When this thing is over I want to see Elizabeth in Detroit.

When this thing is over I want to see Dan and Caitlin in San Francisco.

When this thing is over I want to see in Rebecca in Mesa.

When this thing is over I want to see Safia in Seattle.

When this thing is over I want to see Sean in Howell.

When this thing is over I want to take my daughter to London and look for Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

When this thing is over I want my husband to take me to South America for two weeks and show me Chile and Argentina and Peru.

When this thing is over I want to fly to Europe and meet my dad and when we’ve seen it all I want fly back home and play guitar on the back porch. We’ll run through every song we ever played together over the last twenty-five years and I’ll make him teach me every song we haven’t. We’ll stay up all night. We’ll play the rest of our lives.

Quarantine Diary Day 129: Fuck Politeness

I’m listening to the audio version of Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, the memoir/advice book by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, the hosts of the true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder. I don’t actually listen to this podcast and I only started the book because it had a catchy (to say the least!) title and was immediately available on my library e-reader app and I hesitated before checking it out. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I definitely do dabble in true crime in several of the formats via which the culture/my husband has sought to force it down our collective/my own throat–see: Serial Season 1 (murder), Accused (murder), Bear Brook (murder), Last Seen (art heist!), The Staircase (murder?), The Jinx (murder), The People vs. O.J. Simpson (this one was not that good, right?) and probably so many more I don’t even remember–but I don’t consider myself a fan of the genre. I’m sort of squeamish and I’m sensitive to how people, especially men, sometimes talk about violence in a way that seems like they glorify or get off on or are just totally unmoved by it. I can also have a short attention span so if the storyline of the murder and/or investigation is not immediately gripping, you will lose me in the procedure and backstory and tangents that go nowhere. Also, I once read this post from Ask A Manager about an employee who was sickened by how often and gleefully her coworkers talked about violent crime and, honestly, I related to the prudish letter writer!

Nevertheless, I am listening to Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, and I’m loving it because the authors are relatable weirdos, compelling storytellers, moving writers, and funny. They are also unabashed feminists, which, really, I think should be a prerequisite for any job that involves investigating/discussing/dissecting/preventing grisly crimes against women. The chapters in the book seem to be based on various catchphrases and credos from the show, one of which is “fuck politeness.” Fuck politeness because politeness will keep you stuck in dangerous situations when you are afraid of overreacting or being rude or hurting someone’s feelings. Fuck politeness because politeness will let you override your instincts, the alarm bells going off in your head, the red flags flapping your face. Please note: politeness is not the same as kindness. Do not fuck kindness. Never fuck kindness. Fuck politeness because politeness can get you killed.

As soon as I heard the Murderinos’ theory of why fucking politeness is a life-saving imperative, I knew it was true. Looking back over my own blessedly abbreviated history of finding my way into and out of all manner of nettlesome, nasty, and noxious scrapes, I see that the pattern was always the same: 1) I followed my own underdeveloped sense of self-esteem onto the outskirts of a shady situation; 2) social grooming to be polite and pleasant muted me as I followed someone else smack into the middle of the danger zone; and, eventually, 3) my survival instinct screamed at me to fuck politeness and get the fuck out.

I’m thinking of the time I let a fully-grown weather-beaten fifty-something man I met buying cigarettes at the 7-Eleven into the car with me and my nineteen-year-old girlfriends, let him tag along with for hours going to various parties, brought him into our house at the end of the night, nervously waved off my roommates as they disappeared into their bedrooms with their boyfriends, and then resigned myself to hanging out with this guy for however long he stayed at my house. I desperately wanted to sleep, too, and I was terrified that this man thought he was on his way to my room, but I was afraid to ask him to leave after spending the whole evening with him. I was convinced I owed him my company for as long as he wanted it. If my anxiety was through the roof even before we got high, it went stratospheric after. Somehow, my altered state made it clear: this guy needed to go. My mouth was moving a mile a minute but not saying any of the things it needed to say. I knew it was unforgivable to kick him out after taking his drugs and if I wasn’t going to have sex with him the least I could do was be entertaining. It wasn’t until he leaned over me that I figured out how to fuck politeness. I jumped off the couch, sprinted to the back of the house, and started pounding on my roommate’s door and screaming for her and her boyfriend to make him leave. They did. I woke up the next morning with huge bruises on my legs and no idea where they came from.

My conditioning for is so strong that when the man came back the next day I refused to see him but told my roommates to tell him I was sorry. My politeness drive is so strong that I put this man on a list of “people I have harmed” when I worked the eighth step years later. It really was shitty to smoke his shit and run. I’ve forgiven myself for the dumb choices that put me in that situation. It’s harder to forgive myself for not knowing a way to get out of it without acting like a bitch, a trainwreck, a hot scary mess, even though I knew in the moment that hopping that train was what it would take to save my life.

I’m writing this vulgar overshare of post for COVID-related reasons.

When the pandemic hit, I rarely wore a mask. I never went anywhere except for walks around the neighborhood and it was frigid for weeks, so I scarcely saw anyone. Even when the weather warmed up, it was so rare that anyone came anywhere near six feet and it was so easy to just cross the street if I saw someone coming my way. Around Memorial Day more neighbors started spending time outside. At first I tried to keep my distance and when their kids ran up to me I would panic and tug the bandana tied around my neck up over my nose. When the data started to come out about the relatively low risk of transmission outside compared to indoors, I started to relax. When experts started to suggest expanding shelter-in-place bubbles to include one or two other families as a means of preserving mental health and making this thing sustainable, I started to relax. When Illinois started to flatten the curve and move into new phases of reopening, I started to relax. I got comfortable talking to my neighbors outside without a mask. I got comfortable taking my daughter to the playground without a mask. I got comfortable leaving the house without even grabbing a mask just in case.

That’s changing, though. The summer–hell, the year–is halfway over and the pandemic is still going strong but people are pouring out of their houses onto the sidewalks, into the parks, onto the beaches and trails and streets. More people I know are getting sick. The potential long-term complications of the virus are starting to look scarier. Now, when I see people outside, I recoil like I did back in March. I reach for my mask. It feels awkward to don a mask outside when I’ve been walking around without one for so long. It feels rude to pull it up when I pass people who aren’t wearing theirs. It feels rude to wear it when I’m with people I’ve been hanging out with outside since May. Obviously, I know it’s not objectively rude to wear a mask, but it feels that way sometimes. Social conditioning is fucked like that. Even worse than feeling rude, it feels like an admission of fault for not wearing one in the first place. Luckily, I know how to override my stupid social anxieties to save a life:

Fuck politeness. Fuck what other people think.

It doesn’t matter if you think or know you should have done a thing a long time ago or if you’re embarrassed or afraid to just be doing it. It doesn’t matter how hard you committed to your earlier course of action or how far it took you off course. It’s never too late to course correct and do the right thing.

Quarantine Diary Day 121: Wait, What?

Last month, when salons and retail stores were open and playgrounds were still inexplicably closed, I started dropping hints to my daughter that I wouldn’t mind and it wouldn’t hurt to dabble around with the parks. Early in the morning we’d spot a renegade mom talking on the phone and a couple of toddlers climbing freely over the caution tape piled loosely on the ground, and I’d say, “I’m pretty sure the playground’s still closed, but we know it’s safer now.” Early evening, I’d nod at the neglected playground equipment, look over conspiratorially and ask, “You want to go down the slide?” She always said no. Had she outgrown the park, I wondered, her sense of childlike freedom and play another casualty of the coronavirus? Or was she just too young to cope with conflicting safety messages and peer-like pressure from a parent?

It must be the latter because the playgrounds have been open in Illinois for a little over three weeks now and play is back in a big way. It is, can I just say, a complete and utter delight to walk over to the park after dinner and set her loose. No more begging/bribing/cajoling her to leave the house! No more sad, contemplative laps around the neighborhood! Obviously, I still take plenty of those, but I’m not dragging my daughter with me anymore. Four months of shelter-in-place made my once “slow-to-warm-up” kid into someone willing to play just about anyone who asks, but the best is when our friends from the neighborhood are there. She loves seeing familiar faces and so do I! Hello, moms and the occasional dad! I never thought I’d miss you but I do!

Last week, we ran into one of D’s classmates from first grade with his parents. We didn’t get to know each other especially well during the school year, though perhaps we might have if not for (*gestures helplessly around*) all of this, but that didn’t’ stop it from feeling running into long lost friends! “D, look! Look who’s here! It’s ____ from school!” The kids quickly set up shop (literally–they started playing “stick store”) and I caught up with the parents. We talked about how the school year ended up (shitty) and how the summer was going (okay!) and how hard this has been on only children and how work is starting to feel normal and about how they are going all in on a pandemic puppy and how we all want to get away somewhere quiet in Michigan for a week in August. Eventually, the conversation turned what’s going to happen in the fall. I was still reeling from the options presented in the district survey and the then-realization we were likely facing a hybrid of virtual and in-person schooling. [Note: That was last week. This week, I suspect all-virtual is much more likely.] I shared my reservations about such a system and the other mom seemed to hesitate before responding. Maybe she has a different risk assessment. Maybe her kid is radically different than mine. Maybe she hasn’t heard. I tried to level set. “Did you see the survey from the district?” “Yeah,” she responded. “Yeah, I took it, and then I pulled ____ out of the district. We’re going back to Montessori.” The other mom went on, referencing her dissatisfaction with the school outside of its response to the pandemic, but she didn’t need to justify her choice to me.

The Montessori school is committed to reopening for in-person education five days a week. The Montessori school is installing an air filtration system. The Montessori school is making small class sizes even smaller. The Montessori school will hold class outside.

We stayed at the park for awhile after that and the conversation took different turns. We laughed a lot. We bought sticks from our kids. It was a lot of fun and I left thinking, “I really like that family.” When I got home I was bubbling over with the energy that comes from just the right amount of real life human interaction. “Guess what?!” I told my husband. “We ran into ____’s family! They’re getting ____ a dog! And they’re putting him in private school!”

Later that night, I tapped the impossible to spell name of the Montessori school into the search bar on my phone. I thought I’d clocked the tuition before, though I couldn’t remember why–we’re a public school family through-and-through–and I wanted to see if it was as high as I remembered. As I tried to navigate through the maze of promises and COVID pop-ups on the mobile site, I interrogated my actions. Was I counting other people’s money? Or was I counting our own? Finally, I found the tuition page. $20k for a year of lower elementary. About what I remembered. I clicked out of the browser, tossed my phone on my bed, went back to my real life.

The next day I woke up depressed. Depressive episodes aren’t unusual for me, but they still catch me off-guard every damn time. Talking it over in therapy, it wasn’t hard for me to chalk it up to uncertainty about what fall and winter are going to look like for my family. I hurried to reassure my therapist that things weren’t all bad. We’d had a great weekend. And that great playdate at the park, which I described in detail. I’m forever leaning into gratitude as the best DIY antidote for my particular mental twists.

“That must have been jarring for you,” my therapist said when I’d finished recounting our evening at the park, “to go from making all these connections with another person and then to realize that you weren’t in the same situation. How did that make you feel?” ‘

I paused, surprised. She was trying to connect the conversation at the playground to my low mood on Tuesday, when I started feeling so bleak about the future. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I tried to think about it, dig down beneath the gratitude. How did I feel? The answers came quick.

For one thing, I felt tricked. Here I was reserving judgment because I thought the district was doing everything it could to make the best of a bad situation. Here I was keeping an open mind because thought the options presented were the only ones available. Here I was setting aside worries about access and fairness and falling behind because I thought we were all in together. Here I was thinking my community was setting some kind of example simply having the conversation about about detracking math and removing police officers from the schools not realizing the locus of the fight for equity had already shifted to private schools and private tutors and co-ops. Here I was naive to the one maxim carried forward into every new world: money and privilege are power.

This week, all the parents online are weighing the pros and cons and putting out feelers to form their pandemic pods. Next week, the conversation will make its way to the playground and I’ll realize I’m behind in providing for my child again, though not as behind as the mom or dad who works longer hours than me, or the parent whose kid is disabled or neurodiverse, or the parent of black and brown kids facing segregation on a whole new front.

When I finally put it all together, I felt angry. I felt angry that I don’t have the option or ability to make school safer–or even to make sure school remains a possibility–for my child. I felt angry for the students whose options and abilities in this regard are more limited than mine. I felt angry when I realized that any parent who can is going to pull their children and influence from the district and leave the rest of us to to fight for…what, exactly? A few months ago I might have said equity or justice. It would have felt like overkill to say we’re fighting for our lives, but it’s clear now that’s exactly what all the anxiety is about.

Quarantine Diary Day 124: House Hunting

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.

Quarantine Diary Day 114: Surveys

One of the most restorative aspects of our week in the woods was that I took myself completely offline. This was entirely a matter of choice, not necessity. We camped at a major state park with decent cell service, or at least I assume it was decent based on the fact that other folks in our group were texting and streaming music all week, and my husband has probably half a dozen backup portable chargers, including one that is solar powered, so there wasn’t any real reason to conserve battery life. Even so, I turned my phone off the minute we pulled into the site (right after texting my mom “we’re here, we’re safe, love you, byeeeeee”) and left it off all week, only it turning it on once a day or so to snap pictures. I ignored texts. I didn’t check my email. I definitely didn’t look at the news.

On the email front, I didn’t miss much. A dumb Nextdoor post tagged “Crime and Safety” reporting two unmasked shoppers at a random Walgreens in the neighborhood. A bunch of emails about COVID protocols for my kid’s day camp and reminders to turn in outstanding paperwork. A survey from QuitMormon.com about LDS missionaries who got sick from drinking tainted water during their missions. Some political and social justice oriented calls to action. A notice that my dentist is open and I’m way overdue for a cleaning. Informational emails from all the places I’ve been ignoring because they no longer have any relevance to my life: the library, the gym, the running club, the book club, the church, the school. A week’s worth of morning briefings from the New York Times.

One of the first things I did when I came back to town was respond to two surveys sitting in my inbox about the possibility of returning to school and church in the fall. (I ignored the missionary health survey because I never served a mission.)

On the news front, I didn’t bother trying to catch up on what happened while we were away. I’m sure I missed a lot in the details, but the headlines were the same: it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Now that I’ve been back in the world long enough to remember that we’re still living in a deadly pandemic and to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, that it’s getting worse instead of better, I’m realizing that responding to the surveys when I was still high off the forest and family and friends might have been a huge mistake! I may have been a little, um, overly enthusiastic and, ah, unreasonably optimistic in my responses.

Consider the survey from the church, which was geared toward gauging interest in the following proposal for returning to in-person worship in the fall:

  • A shortened 30 minute worship service for 50 people;
  • Congregants would register beforehand, sanitize hands before and after worship, wear face masks, and maintain physical distance, including assigned seating;
  • Family members would sit together and children would stay with their parents;
  • No singing, communion, coffee, or fellowship hour; and
  • No sunday School for children or adults.

I skimmed through the limitations and didn’t even pause before checking the box to indicate “YES, I would be interested in attending in-person worship as outlined above.” Was I interested? Of course, I was interested. I was more than interested, I was desperate to get back to church. I thought we would be gathering for outdoor services back in June and here we are in July still meeting virtually. I would have checked the box a thousand times.

Having established my definite interest in attending in-person worship, I moved on to the next, and last, question in the survey: For those interested, are you willing to provide assistance ushering or reading? Again, I didn’t hesitate. Ushering? I’ve never ushered before, but sure, no problem, yes please, let me see my people. Reading? Again, I’ve never read from the pulpit before, but only because the church has never asked me. This, truly, is an oversight on their part; I am an impressive orator. I’d rather speak than read someone else’s words (even, ahem, God’s), but at this point, I’m as desperate to be of service as I am to interact with other people. Please just let me be useful.

A week after hitting submit, a week spent confronting the reality that life is not going back to normal in the fall (a reality that I am fully aware that people who are capable of taking life more than 24 hours at a time have probably already accepted), I’m feeling decidedly less charitable. If I had to check a box now, it would be the one that says, Oh shit, what did I do and can I take it back? If I could write my own survey and send it back to the church, it would look like this.

Parishioner’s Return to In-Person Worship Questionnaire:

  • Will ushers be permitted to maintain six feet of distance, hold their breath, and cross their fingers while welcoming people to church?
  • Will the people being ushed understand that I do not want to be anywhere near them?
  • Will readers be permitted to wear a mask at the pulpit?
  • Is there a mask that covers my mouth and nose and also hides the terror in my eyes?
  • If I volunteer, who will sit with my daughter–i.e., make sure she doesn’t wander out of our designated pew/holding pen and threaten the lives of the other brave and/or desperate churchgoers?
  • Are we worried about spreading the virus via the biblical floods of tears I am almost certainly going to cry from trying to pretend that this facade is anything close to what I want it to be?
  • Is church without singing, communion, fellowship, and coffee really church?
  • Is it worth taking my daughter if she hates it?
  • Do I have to go?
  • Do I want to go?
  • Does it even matter?

The survey from the school district was longer and more complicated and my responses were more nuanced. Suffice it to say that I indicated a strong preference for returning to in-person school five days a week for many reasons, including that my kid is the kind of kid who will likely struggle with a schedule that involves a mix of days in school and days out of school, and that I have serious concerns about the mental health implications of another year of entirely remote learning. Obviously, as a concerned citizen who tries to pull my head out of my own ass the sand at least occasionally, I’m second guessing the wisdom of that option now. Even if the risks to children seem low, I get that we can’t gamble with their lives, plus I don’t want staff to die! I don’t even want them to get sick! I only thought I had COVID for a couple of days, and it was terrible!

If I could redo the survey and send it back to the district it would look like this:

P.S. I’m sorry everything I want is bad.

P.P.S. Just tell me what the hell to do.

Quarantine Diary Day 118: Well That Sucked

Here is a list of things I thought I had the first time I got sick during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020:

Stress

A mild case of COVID-19

Anxiety

A severe case of COVID-19

The flu

My period

Food poisoning

Endometriosis

Viral gastroenteritis

IBS

Adrenal fatigue

Norovirus

A wanted pregnancy

Ulcer

A panic attack

Hernia

An unwanted pregnancy

Gastroesophogal reflux disease

A nervous breakdown

Here is what I actually had the first time I got sick during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020:

Not a fucking clue. (But also anxiety.)

Quarantine Diary Day 117: Day at the Park

EXT. MASON PARK, CENTRAL EVANSTON — EARLY EVENING

The playground is open but still as empty as it was when the pandemic shut everything down in March. A leaf bug skitters up an empty slide. A hot wind blows a leaf across the mulch. A few boys bounce a basketball on the court way on the other side of the park but we can’t hear them. We can’t hear anything. A MOM AND HER YOUNG DAUGHTER are sitting on separate spring rockers about 50 feet apart. GIRL, 7, faces away from MOM, 35, and hurls herself violently back on a plastic motorcycle. The metal spring screams as GIRL tips all the way back, body parallel to the ground, golden curls dragging in the dirt. MOM sits backward on a submarine, legs splayed, heels digging into the ground, staring into the middle distance and refusing to rock.

Out of nowhere, GIRL whips around.

GIRL

(shrilly)

MAMA! I caught you! I caught you red handed!

Mom jerks her head up, visibly startled.

MOM

Huh? Caught me doing what?

GIRL

(accusatory)

I caught you not. having. fun.

Quarantine Diary Day 105: Leaving the Bubble

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Next week I’m going off the grid for our fifth annual family camping trip. We’re going with another family and I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not so worried about picking up or passing on a viral load. We’ve been pretty damn careful and so have our friends and camping seems to be fairly low risk as far as activities go what with all the fresh air and separate family spaces. What I’m anxious about is transitioning out of this hermetic life I’ve been living.

I am so, so excited to leave my house, you don’t even know (jk, of course you know). But I’ve also become pretty attached to my couch, to soft clothes, to wrapping myself up in a blanket whenever I want even if its the middle of my workday. What if I’ve become too self-indulgent to rough it in a tent for six days? What if I’ve lost my grit?

I am so, so excited to interact with friends I haven’t seen for almost a year. But I’ve also become pretty wrapped up in myself and what’s right in front of me: my immediate family, my social media feed, the neighbors I see every day. What if I have nothing to talk about around the campfire? My friends might have a different take on the pandemic, on the election, on the racial unrest revolution. What if I’ve lost the ability to tolerate or engage different viewpoints?

My daughter is so, so excited for an adventure. But camping in the north woods is an adventure that comes with driving rain and sunburn pain and swimmer’s itch and biting flies and smokey eyes and long-leggy spiders and hypervigilant parents shouting “watch out for the fire!” She’s going to struggle with the transition, too, and I’m nervous about rising to the parenting occasion.

And, fine, I’ll admit it. I’m a little nervous about the virus. We’re stepping outside our bubble for the first time in months, and it’s bound to feel more scary than liberating to walk into a world with public toilet plumes and more dirt than soap and running water.