Quarantine Diaries Day 356: What We Can’t Know

Lately, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the experiences I am not having. That’s what the pandemic did: it robbed us all of the new experiences we would have had and replaced them with a bunch of experiences we never wanted. Of course, I worry about what the isolation means for my daughter first. Even when she seemed fine, the nightmares told me it was making a dent. When she started acting out in new and surprising ways, that made sense. Now she’s just listless. Bored, you know? One of my strengths as a parent is exposing my kid to all kinds of new experiences. Would-be bohemians become adventurous moms. Pre-pandemic, I rolled out of bed with big plans every weekend, took my kid on food tours of Chicago, and stopped at new-to-us playgrounds just because. When the pandemic shut us up indoors and then released us back into the wild as long as we stayed away from other people, I took it as a challenge. I pushed and stretched way outside the box to find of things to do and when my daughter and I flip through photos I took last year, I think, Damn. We made some magic.

But now I’m all out of steam, and it’s too cold anyway. The Adventure Express has ground to a halt. Mom is tired. In the old world, that would be okay. Even without me going out of my way, new experiences would be transmitted to by way of ordinary day-to-day living. My daughter would be feeling the sting of rejection and the sweetness of belonging at school. She’d be sipping cloying grape juice from the communion cup at church. She’d be inhaling the pyramid of fragrant soaps stacked up by the register at the grocery store. She’d be tasting chlorine and steaming or freezing under the wildly unpredictable showers showers at the YMCA. She’d be pressing the cool glass of the window against her cheek on long car rides. She’d know a different kind of boredom waiting in line at the post office and stumble onto the curative properties of people watching. She’s not getting any of that now. She’s not interacting with anyone besides her parents. She’s not seeing anything but the inside of our house. In a turn both welcome and sad, she very recently and suddenly outgrew or tired of the imagination games that colored her world (and mine) for the last year.

Just in time, she turned a corner with reading, and started disappearing into books. We went to the library a few Saturdays ago and she finished a small stack of “Princess in Black” and “Ivy and Bean” and “Billy and the Mini Monsters” by Tuesday. I was delighted–I hadn’t realized she enjoyed reading outside of school–but she was disappointed. “I wish I’d gotten more books. I didn’t think I’d finish them so quickly. And I know we can’t go back so soon.” We’ve only been to the library a handful of times since it reopened last year, a marked change from the trips we used to take every weekend of of her life. Regular trips didn’t seem worth the risk points when we could just stockpile books. “Hey kiddo. It’s okay. We can go back this week.”

The library is open late on Tuesdays, so that’s when we went, after a hasty dinner at home. Bundling up in heavy coats and piling into the car after dark was something we haven’t done for a year. It used to feel like such a hassle. Now it was something to look forward to and something to do in the long stretch between the end of the work day and bed. Driving through the neighborhood, looking at the colored lights at houses hanging on to winter and peeking into people’s windows–hey look, a cat! a happy family!–had something of the familiar to it. “Hey kiddo. Remember when we used to do this every week for swim lessons? It seems absurd to think that we left the house after dark so often.” My kid’s response was matter-of-fact, maybe a little defensive, maybe a little sad. “No it doesn’t.” “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’ll get to take swim lessons again.”

Taking advantage of the library’s late hours ws a stroke of pandemic genius. The people counter glowing on the wall said there were only 5 patrons in the building, out of a maximum capacity of 100. When we went on Saturday it was at 70. We had the run of the place and took our time. We sat on the floor and browsed. We looked at the recommendations from the librarians. We checked out the new titles. My kid grabbed as many chapter books as she was carry, and a few that I forced on her. I even sniffed out the occult shelves on the second floor and picked up a few books on tarot and witchcraft. Why? Because I’m starving for new experiences, goddamnit, and how else am I supposed to get my kicks? Because magic is the exertion of a person’s will to alter their reality, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now? Autonomy. Control. A change of fucking scenery.

For a year, I’ve been cataloguing all we lost in the pandemic. Collectively: people, dignity, livelihoods, homes. Personally: relationships, security, purpose, a plan. I’ve written ad nauseum about all the things we used to do and had to stop. It’s harder to keep tabs on the new experiences we might have had but never materialized.

We were supposed to go to North Carolina last year. What would I have seen on that road trip with my family that might have changed me? “You’re going to fall in love with Asheville,” a colleague told me. “You’re going to want to pack up and move.”

My daughter and I had just started a volunteer assignment at the soup kitchen last January. Our first time there, we set up the dining room, and then greeted the guests. We welcomed them as filed in in a line that stretched out the door of the church and then, after the meal, bid them good night with bagged lunches pressed into their hands. The experience was jarring for my daughter, who has never seen poverty or anything like it, and boring because we were there for a long time. What effect might a year service and small talk had on her?

We were supposed supposed to see Josh Ritter play at Fourth Presbyterian. The show scheduled for last March was kicked to September and then canceled indefinitely. It would have been our daughter’s first concert and our first show as a family. How might the music have moved all three of us?

My daughter is the only kid at church who hasn’t been baptized. I was waiting for her to turn eight because that’s how old I was when I was baptized into the Mormon church. My daughter turns eight next month. I can’t say for sure whether she would have taken that step in the church we go to now, but a year ago that’s what she wanted. Baptizing her into a congregation we haven’t seen since then, into a belief system I’ve since deconstructed, seems unfathomable, like crossing the red sea. How might her spiritual path have unfolded if we hadn’t been ripped away from our congregation? How might mine?

I was supposed to celebrate five years of sobriety in January. How many hours would I have spent in church basements listening to people tell stories about traveling to hell and back and finding God, and how might they have helped me along the way?

Last Sunday, I got in my car and cruised for a few hours down Clark Street into Chicago and back up Broadway til it turned into Sheridan. There were so many restaurants, open of course, masked patrons spilling and milling around out front. A friend recently texted about a brunch we ate eight years ago. I had been thinking about it, too. It had popped up as a “memory,” courtesy of my phone. It the best fucking brunch. Decadent. Indecent, even. How many meals might I have tasted that marked me so indelibly?

How many transcendent moments might I have had with strangers and with friends?

I’ve changed in quar, but the change has been a wearing down, a letting go. But erosion doesn’t always leave things smooth. This last year has also seen a crystalizing of every one of my sharp edges.

What would I look like if I’d been in the world mixing it up, knocking into everyone, tasting everything? What if I’d spent the last year filling up on new experiences instead of drying out trying to get by on the old?

Might my life look more like how it used to feel–like an expanding balloon, a gas giant, a star burning off hydrogen and throwing light and heat in every direction–and less like it feels now–like a collapsed lung?

Quarantine Diaries Day 362: Anniversary Part 1

This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.

Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”

On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.

Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.

Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”

Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”

I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.

A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.

A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.

A year ago I was slammed at work.

A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.

A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.

A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.

This year I gave up giving things up.

The pandemic took too much.

A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.

In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.

A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.

Quarantine Diaries Day 341: Late Stage

“How are you holding up?” That’s what I ask when I talk to somebody I haven’t heard from in a while. “How are doing?” That’s what I ask after we’ve traded pleasantries and Omigods and Can you believe it’s been a year? The emphasis, I hope, conveys that I really want to know or that maybe I already do know because I’m going through the same thing. When we sign off: “Hope you’re hanging in there.”

People ask me how I’m doing and I have to convince myself they actually want to know. I tell them about how my daughter’s been in virtual school for so long but I’m lucky to have a stay-at-home partner who can supervise e-learning. I tell them I’m lucky I can work from home, that I’m lucky to have had work to do, but that I’m looking for more. I might tell them I’ve been teaching myself to cook and hiking with my daughter and painting with watercolors. I might even tell them about this blog.

It only takes a few minutes of talking for a person to have a general idea of the structure of my days. It only takes a few posts to take in my emotional landscape. What you still don’t know is what late stage quarantine actually looks like. Or maybe you know because you’re going through the same thing.

Late stage quarantine means I’ve quit brushing my hair and putting on makeup for Zoom/Teams meetings. I’m still wearing clothes, but that’s about it. 

Late  stage quarantine means busting out the lap desk to my “work station” (futon and fleece blanket nest) even more comfortable. I’m still sitting upright, but only barely. 

Late stage quarantine means stripping down to my underwear to exercise instead of using ten minutes to change into workout clothes and adding to the laundry pile. I’m still moving my body, but I’m doing less every day. 

Late stage quarantine means I don’t shower until I can smell myself. I’m still washing my hands until the skin sloughs off, but everything else is greasy.  

Late stage quarantine means giving up on high brow TV and just binge watching House Hunters. Real Housewives is up next. I’m taking time to “relax” at night, but indulging my worst impulses at the same time.

Late stage quarantine means my kid messes with her parents by getting real close to our faces and telling us that it looks like we have pinkeye. I have a hilarious kid, but I might gouge out my own eyes.

Late stage quarantine means I’m watching my friends and family get vaccinated and venture out into the world. I’m so relieved and so happy for them, but I’m burning with envy. When am I going to get mine?

I used to be presentable. I used to be good. I used to always be going up.

Late stage quarantine means devolution in every sense of the word.

Quarantine Diaries Day 335: What Is Real?

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?”

Quarantine Diaries Day 334: When Home Is Not A Haven

Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I  thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine. 

That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not. 

I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid. 

I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.

I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle. 

This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something. 

Quarantine Diary Day 317: Tiny Victories

So what have I been doing while sheltering in place for the last eleven months? Like a lot of people, I’ve been cooking more. I don’t want to overstate my efforts. I did not undertake any ambitious projects. I did not, could not, would absolutely never commit to cooking a certain number of meals per week. I did not, could not, will absolutely never try a new diet or meal plan. I did not resolve to save money. I did not decide to work my way through a cookbook of note. I have no interest in being a more helpful partner, a more nurturing mom, more well-rounded person, or a healthier eater. I just had a little more time and energy after work and decided to spend some of more of it in the company of one of my favorite things: food.

I don’t have much to show in the way of results. At best, I have become a slightly less mediocre cook. Truly, the list of things I have not accomplished in the kitchen in the last year is neverending, but here is an abbreviated to give you the flavor:

  • I do not have a camera roll of well-lit and eye-catching dishes;
  • I did not make the perfect sourdough loaf;
  • I did not refine my knife skills to the point that they no longer make my family extremely nervous;
  • I did not successfully bake chocolate chip cookies under the broiler when our oven went out for three weeks;
  • I did not cook a single meal without a consulting the recipe many times and my more culinarily inclined spouse at least once;
  • I did not cook a single meal within the time allotted in the recipe; and
  • I did not find a single food blog or recipe site that did not make me want to pull my hair out or die from scrolling.

Lack of photographic evidence notwithstanding, I have amassed a small stockpile of wins:

  • I can respond to question, “Do you want to cook dinner tonight?” without having a panic attack or becoming irate;
  • I can poke through the fridge and track down a recipe that works with my skill set and the ingredients and time we have on hand;
  • I can roast any vegetable on a sheet pan;
  • I can braid and bake a gorgeous golden challah;
  • I can deviate from the recipe when it makes sense;
  • I can anticipate what flavors will go well together;
  • I can properly season meat;
  • I can make a meal that my seven-year-old likes;
  • I can make a meal that I like.

That last one is the reason I keep going back to my cookbooks and to the kitchen. In the early days of the pandemic, the frivolous thing I missed the most was going out for breakfast. Now I hardly think about it. If there’s one thing I have in common with my own mom, it’s that my family doesn’t appreciate my cooking. Most Saturdays my daughter asks for whatever sugar cereal is in the cabinet and my husband eats whatever it is that he eats and I take 30+ minutes to cook myself the perfect eggs over easy and the perfect bacon and perfect pan-fried hash browns and sit down to breakfast mid-morning with a huge mug of black coffee and, for the next twenty minutes, my life is exactly the way I want it to be.

Now that I can cook, though, I find myself missing things I never cared about before. The other day, my husband pointed out that we can’t just run out to the store for a fresh baguette. He used to ask me to do that occasionally, and I would complain about the extra errand. Now, I can’t get the idea out of my mind. Can you even imagine the luxury of making a trip to a public place for a single ingredient? Of perusing the aisles? Of picking up a loaf of bread and squeezing it and putting it back down? I’m drooling just thinking about it.

Of course, the real reason I can cook for fun and pleasure is because I don’t have to. I will make breakfast tomorrow morning, yes, but tomorrow night we will get takeout. When Sunday rolls around, I’ll pass the ball back to my husband to figure out breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and when the pandemic rolls around and I’m back in the office, I’ll pass all the balls back to him to figure out weeknight eats. I doubt I’ll give up cooking entirely, though. My breakfasts are really getting pretty good.

Quarantine Diaries Day 314: Worn Down

Last year, I wrote minimum an hour a day five days a week. Notable exceptions include the week after the pandemic shut down the U.S. (which I spent picking nits out of my hair and doom scrolling), the week I got really, really sick (which I spent freaking out), the week I went on a real vacation (camping in Michigan), and the weeks I spent “on vacation” in my house (spring break, winter break). This year I have big goals. I want to finish my memoir and start a novel. I want to keep writing these diary entries and, if this pandemic ever ends, I want to publish every single sad puppy posts into a book. I want to start a newsletter. I want to write about all the cool stuff I do when I’m not ruminating about my life choices and place in the world. I want to post about tarot on Instagram because nerding out about a niche hobby is me in my purest form. We’re only two weeks into the new year but instead of writing I’ve mostly been, uh, staying up too late and sleeping in and writing nothing at all. Last year, this diary was the easiest place to show up. This year, I have nothing to say.

What is there to say about parenting? My life with my daughter is a mixed bag of joyful, mundane, hilarious, excruciating, and poignant moments. None of it is new. My daughter is really into jokes. Knock knock jokes and puns and dad jokes and and jokes she made up that are actually pretty funny. She’s always been this way, and we support her habit with joke books that she reads to us page by page like she’s telling a story. When she was a tiny baby, her dad and I had a stupid running gag about how she would disappear every night to do blue comedy at a club in the city. The jokes have taken on a life of their own this school year. One of the rotating jobs in her second grade class is joke teller. The joke teller is supposed to come to class prepared with one joke–just one!–but when it was my daughter’s turn, she had three at the ready and my husband reassured me that’s how it goes. The teacher lets the joke teller get away with telling at least two or three jokes and then the next twenty minutes is a free for all with absolutely anyone who wants to chiming in with their own jokes. Once, I came home from a walk and heard my daughter saying “knock knock” and the teacher responding “who’s there?” and my daughter saying “banana” and the teacher asking innocently “banana who?” and my daughter repeating “knock knock” and the teacher asking, with trepidation this time, “who’s there” and my daughter (daring girl) answering “banana” and that’s when I turned around and walked right back the door because I know exactly how long my daughter can carry on with this joke before she lets everybody off the hook with an “orange you glad I didn’t say banana?!” I don’t know if the teacher gets anything else accomplished during morning meetings and I don’t care because somehow she’s building rapport between twenty kids sitting in twenty different houses who spend the bulk of their days staring at twenty different screens. Thanks to the daily comedy routines with her class, my daughter has a ton of material, but, like a touring comic before the advent of the comic special, she tells the same jokes over and over again. Because there are so many and because half the time I’m only half listening, I forget the punchlines over and over again. “Hey mama. What room does a ghost not need?” “Ummmm, I dunno, let’s see. . . The bathroom?” “No, mama. Why do you always say that? It’s the living room.”

What is there to say about navigating life outside during a pandemic? Functionally, life looks a lot like it did last March, which is to say, I barely leave my house. Emotionally, it is both more and less terrifying. We’re not wiping down groceries anymore and I’m not worried about supply chains breaking down, but people in my family are finally getting sick. They are recovering from it, thank God, but we know enough about COVID long haulers and about the unpredictability of this disease to know they’re not out of the woods. The worst part is, ten months ago, I believed that life would go back to normal in a few months. Now, even with the vaccine going into the arms of healthcare workers and people who are high risk, I have no hope that life is going to get better anytime soon. Maybe not even this year. The neighborhood, the extended family, the church, the school, the district, the city, the state, the country–they’ve all broken trust too many times. I know plenty of people aren’t living like this anymore, but there is nowhere to go in Chicago. It’s cold out and restaurants, museums, and parks are back closed. Anyway, you couldn’t play me to step into a room with other people inside. I had to run to Target to pick up on online order over the holidays and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Last year, I stayed home to protect other people. I was trying to do something for my community, my country. Fuck that noise. It’s evident now we’re all in this for ourselves. This year, I’m staying home for me.

What is there to say about staying home? It’s lost its novelty. A few years ago, I took two weeks off work during the holidays. I didn’t travel anywhere and nobody came to visit, I just stayed home and celebrated Christmas and New Year with my little family of three. The time was restorative –I hadn’t taken that much time away from work since maternity leave–but it was also the longest two weeks of my life. That was the year of the polar vortex and it was mostly too cold to leave the house. I got so bored that I joined the YMCA just for a place to go. I hit up family swim and gym with my daughter every morning and went back to work out by myself every afternoon. When it was time to go back to work, I was more than ready. This year, I blinked and the holidays were over. Staying home was easy. Who needs a gym when you’ve got snow on the ground and warm clothes in the closet and art supplies and books and music and board games and television and a kid’s wide open imagination?

What is there to say about politics? I have no unique vantage or new insights. I’m watching our democracy crack like everyone else. It makes me sick what happened at the Capitol, but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s never not been cause for despair.

What is there to say about religion? I have none. I have something; you could call it spirituality and I’d cringe and say, “Ugh, I guess,” but it changes shape faster than I can track and I’m no longer interested in offering it up to the masses. I turned myself inside out for years and I’m not sure there’s any more marrow to suck from those bones.

What is there to say about (not) drinking? I gave up. I drank a few months out from what would have been a five year anniversary. I’m still working out whether I still put any stock in the concept of recovering out loud when the recovery is not a straight line.

Last year, I tied up every one of these quarantine diary entries like making meaning is my job. This year, the best I can offer you is a loose container for all the thoughts and events rattling around like the wooden blocks my daughter played with when she was a toddler. They never quite fit back into the package they came in. My mind is a cardboard box worn soft and coming apart at the corners. This blog is a slightly bigger box.

Quarantine Diaries Day 283: Family Planning in a Pandemic

This is the post I haven’t wanted to write. I couldn’t stop it, though. It’s been leaking out of me in dribs and drabs–the offhand comment here, the sad self-reflective Instagram caption there–for so long that it’s no secret, but I haven’t been ready to put the words on bones. I thought I’d wait until I could make it into something beautiful–an essay, a whole book of essays–but I haven’t known how to think about it in narrative form and, in the meantime, it’s making me into something ugly.

This is a post about infertility in which I will not use the word infertility because that’s a journey I did not take. This is a post about family that will not make you feel good because I am not grateful for mine and I resent you for yours. This is a post in which I refuse make meaning for you or for me. My only aim is to expel the disease. What I don’t want is to create a record for my beloved only child to find of me wanting any family other than the family we have, of me wanting any child who was not her, but that’s exactly what I have to do.

I come from a big family that didn’t feel big. There were seven of us, two parents, five kids, and it was us against the world. Our extended family was huge–I stopped trying to count cousins when the number hit the forties–but they were scattered and we mostly weren’t close, and our nuclear family felt like it had been blown out to sea. At church, our family didn’t even fill up a pew. I’m talking about the short ones on the side of the chapel. The most righteous families spread their seed end to end across the long benches in the middle of the room, sometimes spilling over into a second row. The most righteous families had big baptismal blowouts with grandparents on grandparents on cousins on uncles on on aunts. We always just had each other.

I was not a girl who dreamed of being a mother. Babysitting anybody who wasn’t directly related to me was annoying and hardly worth the cash. My parents didn’t pay for watching my siblings, so the only thing I got out of it was high on the power trip. I loved my siblings, though, fiercely. My brother and sister, two and four years younger than me, were my main playmates. When my other brother was born, eight years after me, he was the cutest baby I’d ever seen, and the only living thing besides various plants and precious few dogs and my own eventual daughter to ever trip a nurturing instinct in me. He was four when I was twelve and I used to come home from the ego-destroying shitshow that was middle school and entertain him for hours with my own versions of the silly mysteries Steve Burns solved in his green rugby shirt on Blue’s Clues. When my other brother was born, two years after that, I was like what? and why? and okay, I guess but he was a weirdly cute kid too and I liked having him around.

My mom always wanted a sixth baby, a girl named Hannah. It was like she’d already met her.

I only wanted four kids. Four was an even number, an easy number. Four filled two rows of a minivan and left the middle seats open. Four gave everybody someone to sit with on the roller-coaster. Two parents and four kids spaced perfectly around the dining room table without having to jam in a janky plastic school chair that you straight up took from the church. (Actually, I think my parents paid for those chairs). Four kids is enough to feel like a crowd, a party, an accomplishment, but not so many that you look like fundamentalists.

In college I met and fell in love with a man who poked fun at the size my big fat Mormon family even though he had more siblings than I did. There were six of them in total, for a family of eight. His dad had nine sisters and a brother. Catholic, of course. (Lapsed, even more of course.) My love was the baby of his big family so he had a different view on the chaos and only wanted two. It was easy for us to adjust our numbers up and down before we got married and land on three.

Three wasn’t perfect. People said three was the most stressful number of kids to have, enough to outnumber the parents, enough to lose hold of one in a parking lot, enough to need a bigger house and a bigger car, but not enough that you stop counting and start letting them keep tabs on each other. Three seemed like just a little too many in the city we’d decided to make our home, and like not quite enough enough in the western suburbs we fled. Three is odd. We were an unconventional couple, though. We can debate about anything. We never had to argue our way to three, though, so it felt like a good compromise. Three won’t hold up a tabletop, but it can be a stool.

People also said that three is just for spacing out kids. Three years is long enough to get the older one of diapers but not so long that the kid feels like a king kicked off the throne when the new baby comes. That settled it. Three kids, three years apart. I figured I should have the first by the time I turned thirty.

From the beginning, I sensed that it wouldn’t be easy for me to have kids. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was the infertility blogs I inhaled back then because they were sharper and darker and funnier and more interesting than their shiny sisters, the mommy blogs. There had been a few physical signs that gave me concern–a stabbing pain here, a cycle that ticked off its clockwork course there–but mostly it was just a feeling. “It could take up to two years to get pregnant,” I told my husband when I turned twenty-seven. I was knocked up a month later. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that I didn’t know getting pregnant could be easy. I’d be stupid not to look around at my big family and all the bigger Mormon families around us and all the human families growing up over and over again all over the world and not realize that some women having been falling into pregnancy since the beginning of time. It’s just that I didn’t think it was possible that anything I wanted so badly would come easy to me.

I wanted my daughter badly.

Pregnancy was not easy. I wrestled with forced sobriety. We couldn’t find her heartbeat. I did everything in my power to change the Mormon church before bringing a girl into the world.

Labor was not easy. I had group strep b so I was tethered to an IV. The doctors used three different methods to induce labor, after stripping the membranes and before breaking the bag of waters with a knitting needle. My daughter’s heartbeat kept dropping. There was meconium in the fluid. I labored for thirty hours and pushed for three and the doctors still had to cut me open. At least four different doctors laid hands on my daughter before I laid eyes and my husband held her while they stitched me up. When a nurse finally put her in my arms I puked from the drugs and they tried to take her back but I wouldn’t let go.

New motherhood was not easy but my daughter was. She screamed like a beast but she also slept like a dream and ate like a champion. Infants are not easy, and babies are not easy, and toddlers are not easy, and preschoolers are not easy, but the first years of my daughter’s life were some of the best of mine.

When the time came to grow our family, I was still in the thick of it with my first, but I was ready. My body was ready anyway, still not sleeping, still packing pregnancy weight, and still making milk months after my daughter weaned. There was never a question about doing it all over again. Having another baby was the plan, and I wanted to stick to the plan, but I also wanted that baby. I wanted a baby inside me and I wanted her in my arms and I wanted her in a bassinet next to my bed and I wanted her strapped in a wrap to my chest and I wanted her in the back of a double stroller and I wanted her playing on the floor with my daughter and I wanted her in the backseat of the car on family road trips.

I wanted another badly.

We couldn’t settle on a name, but I was partial to Taylor, after my dad’s guitar, not Swift. For a boy, we leaned toward West, but was pretty sure our second would be a girl. My assumption was more lack of imagination than a preternatural mother’s knowing. The girl I had was all I knew of parenthood. Surely, if we tried again it would turn out the same.

That was six years ago. We adjusted our plans up from a three year gap to four then five. We adjusted our plans down from three kids to two, but the second baby never came. We could have gone to the doctor earlier than we did, but life came at us hard and I’m weird about doctors, so we put it off, and by the time I had a clear vision of the next steps toward growing our family, I wasn’t so sure I wanted I wanted to take them. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of my resistance was physical. The battery of tests had been a lot. I wanted a baby, but not the interventions, not even the easy ones. “Clomid is not without its side effects,” the nurse-midwife mentioned when she sent me out the door with an order in my chart. There was also a spiritual component. I’d was deep into a twelve step program rooted in acceptance. I’d thought I was running the show when it came to family planning and it was a relief to admit that maybe I didn’t have to jackhammer my body into making a baby just because I wanted one. Mostly, though, it was a knowing, on par with the inkling I’d had years back that getting pregnant would not be easy. I knew fertility treatments worked miracles in the lives of people who got their babies. I knew they could wreak havoc in the lives of people who didn’t. I knew, regardless of the outcome, it wasn’t a journey I was meant to take. Call it mother’s intuition.

Life went on and my ache for a baby subsided. The gut punch of not getting pregnant turned into a slap and then into a pinch and eventually into cramps and a headache–typical symptoms of PMS. I’d started to see the benefits of a family that looked like mine. After my daughter gave up naps, weekends were for all-day jaunts around the city. We haunted museums and parks and coffee shops and stores and I gave up my pricey jogging stroller because my kid could walk for miles. We never used a babysitter for special occasions because, living with two adults who indulged her palate, she developed a taste for fine food and learned how to sit still in a nice restaurant. She outgrew car seats and cribs but we never outgrew our little red hatchback or our two bedroom townhouse. With only three plane tickets to buy, we could afford to travel. We flew across the country to see grandparents and cousins and road-tripped everywhere we could and started planning our first trip out of the country. With only three schedules to juggle, we put her in every activity she wanted to try. When she started first grade, my husband and I looked at each other and high fived. We’d gotten our baby into full-day school and the world looked like our oyster.

The farther away I got from pregnancy and nursing and diaper bags and nap schedules, the less I wanted to do it all over again. And then there was this: my daughter’s friends and neighbors and classmates all had little siblings by this point and she had figured out that she wanted no part of that. She actively campaigned against a baby. Eventually the pain of not getting pregnant became a relief.

Then COVID hit and the world shut down and all the advantages of having one kid seemed to slip away. The weekend adventures. The family travel. The after-school activities.The free time for the parents. Even worse, we lost our ability to offset the drawbacks of being an only child with playdates and visits with extended family. Confined at home for months on end, our family started to feel really small. Daily, I saw little groups of kids–siblings–playing in their front yards while my daughter sat alone in her bedroom. I saw other families out walking or riding bikes or going on hikes and noticed brothers and sisters laughing or pestering or pointedly ignoring each other while my daughter tried her hardest to match my pace and get me to act more like a kid. I resented the families who stretched across the whole sidewalk for daring to take up so much space. I envied the families who could throw birthday parties while sheltering in place and have more than three people to celebrate. I mentally went off on the people who shamed parents for using the playground or planning outdoor playdates. I hated everybody who told me to just stay home and enjoy my family, like that was so easy, everything about life in the pandemic wasn’t dredging up my deepest insecurities, like they hadn’t just stuck a finger in my oldest wound.

For years, I couldn’t stomach the sight of pregnant women and infants. This year, I found myself turning away from any family bigger than my own. I couldn’t stand to look at school- and teenaged siblings: relationships my daughter would not have. Intellectually, I sympathized with people who had to deal with family planning in a pandemic. Emotionally, I went back to hating pregnant women and their babies, too. I hated anybody who could give their already-existing children what I couldn’t give mine: siblings; family; more people to love and to be loved by.

I keep talking about how lonely I am and I know it confuses people because I have community. I know my neighbors. I have friends. But my chosen family is my actual family and what hurts is that they live in a different state (and if you don’t know what to make of this, then we will not relate).

I keep talking about how lonely I’m afraid my daughter is and I know it confuses people because she has me and she has has her dad and we’re trying to give her everything she needs and shouldn’t that be enough? And the thing is, I am trying. I am trying to give her everything I never had: a hometown; a house she remembers growing up in; a faith community that will accept her for who she is; a community that is wider than her immediate family. It kills me, though, that I can’t give her the thing that sustains me: a small army of people who love her unconditionally, the kind who of people who will risk infection to bubble up during a pandemic or at least make an effort to keep in touch, the kind who will still be around when this thing is through.

Quarantine Diaries Day 271: Burnout

There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.

The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.

Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.

Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.

I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?

The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.

In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.

I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.

Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.

Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.

Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.

Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.

Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.

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.