Quarantine Diaries Day 375: Will There Really Be A Morning?

The snow that blanked the ground at the start of March melted suddenly this month. We had a few warm springy days in the sixties. I walked around without a coat, went running in shorts and a t-shirt. It was glorious, but I knew not to trust it. I warned everybody who dared to talk to me about the weather about the couple of big snows coming our way in April, guaranteed, and kept mentioning that meme about the many stages of winter and only being in fools’ spring. Sure enough, it got cold again the next week, but not as cold as it was in January and not cold enough to keep me from my first hike of the season. This last weekend it warmed up again, not really enough for my daughter to play in the mud without a coat on, but I let her do it anyway because there were other kids outside with their parents and we were both hungry for a little human interaction. We went for another hike and I warned my daughter not to expect much more than “dead leaves on the dirty ground” but an older couple stopped us in our tracks to point out a patch of purple crocuses blooming on the side of the trail. Not too long after that, we spotted a red-tailed hawk in flight. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself we wouldn’t get a spring this year. Not that the world would stop turning, but that winter would be brutally long and then one day we’d slip into a disappointing summer, still miserable, still scared, still stuck at home. I really couldn’t see anything good on the other side of what we’d been through. Certainly not anything as earnestly hopeful as spring. I can admit when I’m wrong. All week, I’ve been cooking, playing, fucking, sleeping with the windows open wide.

The other thing that happened this weekend was that I snagged an appointment for a vaccine. I didn’t think that could be real either. Certainly I didn’t expect it to happen so easily or so soon. I didn’t even wake up early on Saturday, but when I checked the Walgreens website around eight o’clock in the morning, there were at least a dozen appointments only three days away. I tapped one and then it was gone. Damn. Too slow. I tried again and it went through. I slid through the screens filling in my information until I reached a confirmation page. Tuesday at 12:00 PM. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t be vaccinated for many months. I prepared myself to be turned away. I’d read about glitches in the enrollment system. I’d read that some pharmacies were declining to vaccinate people with appointments, notwithstanding their eligibility, to prioritize people over 65. I would understand if that happened. They need it more than me. I was doubly ashamed about the basis on which I’d qualified: former smoker. Usually, I’m proud of the fact that I quit a half pack a day habit, but realizing it made me eligible for a precious dose of the vaccine felt like sneaking in through a loophole. I think I would have felt more legitimate if I was still sneaking cigarettes on the sly like I did the first three years after I “quit.” I was prepared to be turned away, but I wasn’t about to count myself out. Nothing about the last year has been fair. It’s been a lot of short straws and shit luck, for others more than me. I don’t know how to draw a circle that leaves out my hatred of the fact that the system is rigged for people like me and captures my profound gratitude that the wheel spun in my favor for getting a vaccine. The best I can do is this: Getting the vaccine feels like welcoming another spring. I could never earn this embarrassment of life-giving, life saving riches, but I deserve it just the same.

When I went to get the vaccine on Tuesday, I quadruple checked for my state ID, insurance card, confirmation email, and eligibility documentation and doubled up on masks. Anticipating a long wait before and after the shot, I also packed a laptop (for my MEMWAAHS), my phone (for the ‘gram), and a slim volume of Emily Dickinson (for appearances). At the pharmacy I got in line behind a handful of people. I read a few pages before closing the book over my fingers and trying to strike up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me. “Hey. How far did you have to travel to get here today?” Once upon a time I was the kind of person who shit talked on small talk but after a year of isolation I can’t resist it. My line buddy was game and we chatted amiably about our respective neighborhoods until he made it to the front of the queue.

When it was my turn, the young man working as a pharmacy technician passed a thermometer over my head. I’ve been through this drill dozens of times in the last year and never clock over 99, but this time the pharm tech pulled back like he’d put his hand on the stove. “Okay, lady. I’m going to need you to take off your coat and hat. Sit down. Breathe.” He had a point. I was coming in hot in more ways than one. I stripped off as many layers as I could get away with in public. I fanned my armpits and willed my body to cool down. I snuck water under my mask. I filled out the forms and checked the boxes indicating my eligibility with zero guilt or qualms. After an interminable wait, the technician handed me a vaccine card and cleared me to advance to the next waiting area. After that, it was only a few minutes before he called me from behind the privacy screen set up in the corner of the room. As he was giving me my shot, I asked, “Do people ever cry back here? From, like, emotion?” “Yeah,” he said, as he smoothed the red Walgreen’s bandaid over my arm. “I’ve had a few people break down.” I stood up to leave. “Thank you. Just…thank you. Thank you so much.” When he saw the tears in my eyes, he “awwwed” at me like I was a cute puppy but the smile on his face was sincere.

I didn’t have time to process what had just happened or take a vaccine selfie before I saw my line buddy waiting for me on the other side of the screen. We were supposed to stick around under observation for 15 minutes in case of adverse reactions and we were glad to have each other’s company. As we talked, we discovered we work in the same industry. When he told me where he worked, I couldn’t believe it. His company had been my biggest client for over seven years at my last law firm. When he told me the name, I jerked my head around and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” any shred of decorum I might once have maintained in a situation with a potential professional colleague destroyed by the last year of living like an emotional animal. The 15 minutes passed and then some. We stayed put, talking and talking. The only reaction we were experiencing was the thrill of human contact, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away. By the time I’d left, we’d exchanged emails and made plans to meet for drinks. We promised to look for each other in line for our second doses in three weeks. I didn’t crack the Dickinson in my bag again, and I don’t think there’s a more fitting image for coming out of quarantine than choosing an hour with a stranger over the vast interiority of myself.

Quarantine Diaries Day 265: Light in the Dark

In my family growing up, we never put a tree up, hung a strand of lights, or breathed a word of Christmas before December 8. My brother’s birthday is on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, yes; we have a few birthdays that coincide with tragedy and loss of international proportions in our family) and my parents never wanted him to feel overlooked. I continued to observe the first week of December as a neutral zone long after I no longer lived with my brother and started celebrating holidays with my own family. We only first put a tree up the first week of December a couple of years ago and I loved it so much for how it stretched out the season and gave me time and space to breathe.

When I was working my way up the ladder at a big law firm, I inevitably had massive multi-week trials scheduled to begin in December or January, and it was a fight to flip the switch and make room for Christmas in my work-obsessed mind and overbooked schedule. The cases always settled–year-end has a way of bringing people together, for the shareholders, you see–and I spent meaningful time with my family every holiday season, but I could never count on that and the first few weeks after Thanksgiving always felt like being squeezed. Bringing a tree inside the first week of December was like magicking a whole extra week out of thin air and it helped. In the lights of the tree, I could sit still and see past the next twenty-four hours without holding my breath. I wondered if maybe the Christians, with their four weeks of Advent–a whole season of waiting–were onto something.

If the idea of a month of Christmas makes you anxious, I get it. I get that this month sucks for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the millions of Christians who don’t observe Christmas (including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ). I get that this holiday sucks for people whose lives don’t look like the Hallmark specials. Christmas can suck when you live alone. Christmas can suck when you are estranged from your family, whether you asked for the separation or not. Christmas definitely sucks when you are physically separated–by virtue of work, sickness, disability, immigration status, military service, addiction, or imprisonment–from people you love and with whom you very much want to be. Christmas sucks when you are the one who is sick or addicted. Christmas sucks when your family is in the process of changing shape. Christmas sucks in a pandemic.

I don’t want Christmas to eat the end of the year for people for whom the holiday brings no comfort. And believe me, what I want to draw out for myself is not the hustle bustle or the making merry. I’m not spending the extra week shopping, for Chrissake, or blasting Pentatonix, or slamming nog. I’m staying home with my family. I’m bringing the wild outside in. I’m turning on the lights and turning up the heat. I’m freeing up a weekend day to take my daughter, in better years, to see the Joffrey Ballet perform The Nutcracker downtown.

This year, Thanksgiving came late enough that it made sense for us to get a tree the weekend after, which means we had it up in November. My spouse was cranky about it. Behind his back, I rubbed my hands together, greedy with anticipatory glee, already relishing all the extra time. The tree we picked out had a wonky branch on the bottom, so we lopped it off and wound it in a circle for an Advent wreath. I held off on lighting a candle, though. Surely, it was too early to start waiting in earnest. I didn’t realize my mistake for a few days, when I flipped the calendar to December and counted up the Sundays left before Christmas. We’d missed the first Sunday in Advent, the one where we remember to have hope.

Of course, we could have lit the candle on December 1. There’s no meaningful distinction between Sunday and Tuesday anymore, now that we don’t go to church, and there’s no wrong time for ritual. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. When my daughter popped out of bed on December 1, she shouted “Merry Christmas” at the tree, the lights of which are hooked up to a smart plug, which is connected to a smart speaker, which is programmed to play thirty seconds of Deck The Halls followed by a feel-good news story. She ran around the house playing with a plastic figurine of Buddy the Elf that she got out of a cereal box last year. She built Santa’s workshop out of LEGO. No sooner did we have the decorations up than it hit me: I couldn’t come close to matching that energy. Not this year.

When I think about Christmas, I feel overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of shopping or parties or travel–obviously we’re not doing any of that–but by the task of manufacturing Christmas magic on my own in a house that is still reeling from the trauma of this year. I am scraped clean of belief, wonder, and joy. Those feelings are currently inaccessible. I was not a literal believer when the year started, but I found meaning and value in the Jesus story. Now the waiting season is upon us, but it’s been eight months since I set foot in a church and the story has lost all relevance to my life. It’d be going too far to say I’m angry at God, because you can’t get mad at an absence; all the emotion just disappears.

Later in the week, I seized on an upswing in my mental state to light a candle with my daughter and read aloud the devotional materials from the church. They gave us this poem by Maya Angelou, “A Plagued Journey,” and it was so distressing I did a double take. No doubt, I could relate to every miserable turn of phrase (“bone of fear,” “bonds of disconsolation”) but I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it in the first place. The Advent reflections spelled it out for lost readers like me: candles do their best work in the dark. Hope is most valuable when we are utterly without it.

This is a dark time, but that’s okay. We were never meant to walk entirely in the light. Preparation takes time to pay off. Anticipation takes time to build. Hope is a thing we can hope for.

Quarantine Diary Day 191: Crafty Bitch

When I was a baby lawyer I made a friend who made music for people at death’s door. 

I felt a kinship because the guidance counselor who discouraged me from applying anywhere but State U told me that was a job for someone who liked music 

and I guess I looked like someone who liked music. 

My new friend told me she was in a crafting group for girls.

Like a book club with glue! 

Newly domestic, rolling napkins and making placards for our first Thanksgiving dinner for two, I asked if I could join.

She cocked her head and smiled, quizzically, 

a crafty beaver,

and my friend who was not a friend asked, 

But what would you make?

***

Bitch, I don’t know. A painting? A song? A pile of tiny clay foods? 

A poem? A collage? A bracelet made of plastic beads? 

A book? A blog? A life? A love?

***

It took ten years and tens of thousands of words to see she was the one 

without any imagination. 

…And I appreciate that winter

long pointless drives, late at night
talk of better lives, light and physics.
My favorite friend always seemed to see
the particles like I did
and we hoped their patterns wouldn’t change.
I hoped that sobriety would last.

And I appreciate that winter
maybe for its lack of gray
colder air blew clear and crisp between
bars of light, far beneath a pristine sky.
Daytime drives with my dad and
talk of school plans, and John Prine’s guitar.
I hoped my playing would impress him.

And I appreciate that winter
in a final sort of way.
Elliott Smith kept time for me
those days I liked staring at the ceiling
watching shadows and the fan
vaguely spin and move my things around.
I hoped their images would not fade.