Quarantine Diaries Day 284: It’s Okay To Blink

“Look at my legs, mama. They won’t stop wiggling.” For a full week leading up to Christmas, my seven-year-old was a hot jangly bundle of nerves. Bouncing up from her chair in the middle of meals and virtual school and racing around the room has been her M.O. for months now, but her energy was off the charts in the week leading up to Christmas. I started preemptively pulling out the mini trampoline before dinner and encouraging her to burn off some energy. She was so excited. She talked about Santa with such fervor that I had to refrain from crooning “Santa’s my boyyyy-friend” every time she asked, “Do you think Santa likes me? Do you think he’ll write me back?” For her dad and me, the days practically fell off the calendar as we rushed headfirst into Christmas trying to get everything done in time. For her, the days dragged: so single-minded was her focus on the big day that she couldn’t do anything wait.

I know what it is to wait like that. I remember waiting like that when I was a kid for Christmas and birthdays and summer vacation. I still know how to wait like that. Once upon a time, I waited like that for family trips and parties. All last year, I waited like that for election day and an effective vaccine. Last month, while my daughter counted down the days to Christmas, I watched the moon shift around in the sky while I waited for the solstice. Admittedly, solstice has been on my mind a lot longer than that. As an early riser, I started missing the sun when it started disappearing from the sky a little bit at a time back in June. As a longtime sufferer of seasonal depression, shit started getting real when daylight saving time ended in November and sky was dark by four. As a lover of ritual, I am always on the lookout for chances to mark the passage of time by stopping it in its tracks, and as a refugee of religion, I am hungry for ways to do it that haven’t been corrupted by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. How would my northern european ancestors have marked the darkest day of the year? With candles, of course.

I cannot state clearly enough how wholly uninterested my daughter was in the solstice preparations. She tossed the pinecone altar together haphazardly. She wanted to mute the sound on the fake yule log video I had streaming on the TV because the crackling was “annoying.” She eyed the candles nervously, perhaps remembering the time her hair caught on fire when I first started to embrace hygge as a lifestyle a few years ago. Her reluctance turned into full on resistance when we went outside to leave an offering under a tree. She took her irritation out on the squirrels. “You know the squirrels are going to eat ALL of this. They’re not going to leave ANYTHING for the birds. Squirrels are the WORST. By the way, it’s COLD OUT HERE.” I couldn’t help but think of my mom making the whole family wake up early to read the Book of Mormon in the dark. I couldn’t help but think of my mom on her knees next to her bed. I couldn’t help but think about yanking stretched and sagging tights over my little girl legs and shivering in the back of a cold van as we drove to the other side of town for church on dreary winter mornings. In Mormonism, men are supposed to be the spiritual leaders, but it was my mom who set the religious rhythm in our household, who was always trying to nudge us up onto a higher plane. I left Mormonism, but it still feels like I’m trying to haul my family with me into some version of heaven. It doesn’t matter if I’m asking my daughter to give 10% of her allowance to the church or a handful of her snacks to the squirrels, if I’m making her wear a dress to church or a hat on a nature walk. Mom’s rituals are weird and pointless and she doesn’t want to do them.

Fortuitously, my interest in the natural world overlapped with my daughter’s love of all things Christmas when Jupiter and Saturn traveled across the sky and came into alignment in an astronomical event closer and brighter than any humans have seen in nearly eight hundred years. Astronomers called it the Great Conjunction. Believers called it the Christmas Star.

The planets were at their closest on December 21st and I wanted to incorporate them into my solstice observance, but the atmosphere down here did not cooperate with my careful planning. To wit: it was cloudy, we couldn’t see jack. My daughter stomped back inside and I chastised myself for not getting my act together earlier. Both planets had been visible for nearly a week–more dedicated skywatchers than I had already spotted them from Illinois–but I’d put it off. Like a foolish virgin, my lamp was dry. I’d thought I had more time.

The next night was clear when I went for my usual sunset run. I’m mildly embarrassed to admit I wasn’t sure if the conjunction would still be visible to my naked eye. The planets had taken twenty years to get into this position in the sky. What did I expect them to do, bounce off each other like pinballs and disappear from view? Even if the planets moving as slowly as it seems like planets must, I wasn’t sure how bright they would be at twilight or if they’d be high enough in the sky to see over the treeline to the right. I scanned the skies like a magi, rubbernecking every wavering orb and turning away in disgust when they gave themselves away as cell towers and airplanes. For awhile I had my eye fixed on two points of light that seemed promising, but I didn’t trust they way they seemed to be traveling with me as I ran. I know our moon pulls tricks like that, but I thought the gas giants would be more predictable. At last I had to turn away from the southwest horizon to make my way back home, resigned and trying to convince myself that looking for the star and not finding it was more in line with the Christmas story than anything. I didn’t need to see it to know it was there. I didn’t need to witness it to experience the magic of a most singular event.

When I got home, I turned and took one last look at the sky behind me. The two pricks of light I’d spotted on my run were now fixed exactly where they were supposed to be, low over the southwest horizon, but well above the treeline, farther than any airplane and brighter than anything in the sky. I threw open the front door and called up the stairs. “D! Do you want to see the Christmas Star???” “YESSSSS,” she screamed back, barrelling down the stairs and out the front door without a coat. She followed my finger pointing at the sky, finding the lights for herself and letting out a sigh. “We’re just like the magi,” she said. “Yes we are girlie. We found what we were looking for.”

Finding those lights in the sky when I thought it wasn’t possible anymore was the best gift I got this season. The Christian narratives about preparation and blind faith were neat but unsatisfying. Can being a believer mean so little? To drag my child kicking and screaming through ritual that only means something to me? To toil away preparing and afraid of missing out? To hold out hope for things I might never see? I don’t think so. The greatest leap of faith I can take is to believe that the gifts of the universe are here for me too. The greatest act of devotion I can make is to live, to look up, to receive.

Quarantine Diary Day 133: Something Less Than Free

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?”

Quarantine Diary Day 109: Yardsticks

We left for our annual family camping trip in Michigan at the end of June. We thought we might have to pusht the trip back or cancel it altogether because I got sick with some weird symptoms and wanted to get a COVID test. When the results came back early and negative, we thought we might be on track to leave on the day planned, and started hustling to get packed. That’s when the lock on cargo box on top of the car broke with half our stuff inside. The cargo box was done for–my husband had to saw it open to get inside–and there was no way we were fitting a week’s worth of camping gear into our hatchback sedan. After some mild panicking at all the ways this trip seemed to be doomed we rented a mid-sized SUV that was available for pickup at noon the next day and, in the end, we ended up on the road only a day late.

As we drove, my husband gave me the lowdown on this year’s site, passing on all the details he’d gleaned from our friends who spearhead and book the trip every year. We were going to a new site in a new campground in a new state park. New to us, I mean. The park has been a Michigan institution for over a century. The campground is situated between two lakes like a set of lungs in Grand Traverse County and we had booked two sites to accommodate three small groups. The rest of our group had set up camp the day before and we’d be rolling in around mid-day.

Five years ago, the first time we went on this trip we were late, too. A hot potato had landed in my lap at work and I had to stay late in the office so that we ended up leaving on Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon. That year, we had three sites booked, and I worried out loud that I hoped we didn’t end up stuck with the worst site because I had to work late. I hadn’t seen any of the sites yet, had never been to this park, hadn’t camped in years, and had no idea what might qualify a rustic campsite that my friend that had to be booked six months out as “the worst.” Truthfully, I was the one that was “the worst.” I was newly sober, still white knuckling it at five months, dry enough that the billboards for Michigan vineyards were making my mouth water, and I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I couldn’t have. I was still anxious when we arrived late in the afternoon, scouring the simple drawings on the campground map to glean what I could about the place, but I needn’t have been. Two of the sites were right up on Lake Michigan and were big enough for all our tents. We never even used the third site.

This year, I wasn’t worried about where we’d pitch our tent. My only concern leading up to the trip had been whether the water would be swimmable–we’d heard rumors about a nasty sounding something called swimmer’s itch–and how I’d keep my daughter out of it if it wasn’t. After the high drama of getting out of Chicago COVID-free with all our gear in a car that worked, even that mild worry barely registered. All I wanted was exactly what I was going to get: five days of sitting around the fire cooking food and shooting the shit with my family and friends.

There are a few yardsticks by which you can measure a person’s sobriety. There is the time passed, the days, the months, and the years. There are the symbols you can hold in your hand, the plastic chips and the metal coins. There are the milestones, the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holiday seasons. There are the friends you’ve lost and the friends you’ve gained. All of these measures, are meaningful in their own right, but none of them are particularly useful for measuring the quality of sobriety, which is rarely a steady upward climb. It oscillates. It is hills and valleys. It is a fluctuating thing.

There is progress, though, and sometimes it’s visible. I can see mine in five years of tent camping with a kid and some friends.

For me, recovery is going from:

  • Wanting the best spot for your tent no matter what and saying so…
  • to wanting the best spot for your tent but keeping it to yourself because you don’t want to seem selfish…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s needs matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s wants matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent and knowing that other people’s needs and wants matter more than yours to and wanting to be generous…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but not worrying because you know it will work out fine…
  • to just being happy to be there pitching your tent among friends at all.

The campsite was stunning, right on the water. We hopped out of the car, air hugged our friends from six feet away, and threw up our tent in the flattest, shadiest spot we could find. We talked a mile a minute catching up on the last twelve months of life and news. Eventually we made our way down to the water. D jumped right in. I took my time, dipping my feet in and then wading up to my shins and eventually dove all the way under crossing my fingers that we wouldn’t end up itchy. We didn’t. Everything worked out. It always does. I count myself lucky that I get to be there for it.

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.