Quarantine Diaries Day 412: Distilled

In a tarot deck, there are a handful of cards that have a bad reputation. Folks having their cards read see these babies in a spread and they get scared. A few of these cards derive their power over our imaginations from their objectively frightening names: Card 13, Death; Card 15, The Devil. Tarot readers tend not to be those cards, though, because the meanings they carry are not inherently bad. Death means change. The Devil means freedom and choice. There is one card that has the power to strike fear into the hearts of readers and querents alike, and that is Card 16, The Tower. The name is innocuous enough, though the imagery is generally upsetting. Traditional decks show lightening splicing a black sky, flames pouring from windows, a fallen crown, people tumbling headfirst toward a rocky ground, and, of course, the eponymous tower, cracking and crumbling down. The real trouble with this card is what it means in a reading, and that is destruction, disorientation, and shocking change. The card is not all ugly, though. Framing the chaos are dabs of yellow gold that could be flames but are actually golden yods–the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the presence of the divine. The crown, representing spiritual consciousness, is tipped over but still intact. The figures in the foreground are falling but they are not dead. The tower will burn but who’s to say what will be rebuilt in its place.

This last year was a Tower year. The pandemic ripped us from our lives and stripped our focus down to the barest essentials. Soap. Toilet paper. Daily breath and daily bread. For a time, everything that was deemed non-essential fell away. Businesses. Acquaintances. Routine physical maintenance.

My life certainly simplified in ways I didn’t expect it could. When I walked away from partnership at a traditional law firm to join a virtual firm in 2019, I insisted on still working out of an office. My new employer bought me a suite of all white office furniture–a large desk and bookcases and filing cabinets and multiple chairs–and all the IT I thought I’d need–a landline, a wide monitor, a printer/scanner, and a shredder for client PHI. I couldn’t imagine doing legal work without binders of documents, without stacks of paper, without a cup full of pens. I couldn’t imagine feeling like a lawyer without my law school textbooks lined up behind me and my diploma hanging over my head. I’ve been in my office exactly once since March 14, 2020. I take meetings at home. I print out nothing. And far from feeling like a pause, the last year saw me doing some of the most sophisticated, high impact work of my career. I don’t need the trappings of a traditional corporate job. All I need my brain, my training, my relationships, and time to work.

When my daughter was in preschool, we started throwing birthday parties. We don’t have family nearby, so we went all out to make her feel special and celebrated, renting party rooms at local play places and inviting every kid she knew. I found the whole event-planning experience–from selecting a date months in advance to plunking down a not insignificant chunk of cash, sending invites to parents I’d never met, tracking RSVPs, and acquiring snacks, cake, decorations, and favors all oriented around a theme–to be incredibly taxing, to the point that I was relieved when I realized that the COVID restrictions in place last April would make any sort of party impossible. When her birthday started to creep up on us this year, I was relieved again. Things had opened enough that we could probably get away with throwing a party, but certainly no one would expect it, least of all my daughter. Until my wonderfully thoughtful, generous, and unselfish husband opened his big genius mouth and suggested she invite a few of her friends over for cupcakes outside. April might seem like a reasonable month for an outdoor birthday party, but in Chicago it is not. In Chicago, April is cold, blustery, rainy, and, most importantly, wildly unpredictable. Without fail, it has snowed the week of her birthday every year since the year our daughter was born, sometimes a few flakes but usually a few inches. In other words, planning an outdoor party in April is an anxious person’s nightmare. Our daughter turned eight last week. We celebrated with family via Zoom on Friday and with friends outside on Saturday. In spite of my worst fears, it came together easily, if not entirely without effort. We invited all of the neighbor kids and a couple of friends from school and church. We scrapped paper and emailed invitations in favor of texts sent a week and a half out. We skipped serving any food other than cake. We briefly considered and then rejected a pinata. We were going to skip favors too, until my aforementioned thoughtful, generous, and genius husband scooped up some bouncy balls and finger skateboards at Target. We did not offer even try for a theme, or decorations. Rainstorms were on the radar, but we didn’t worry about the weather because outdoors was our only option. We didn’t worry about whether people would come because we understood if they didn’t want to. Day of, we put out bubbles and sidewalk chalk and kiddie corn hole and, what do you know, the sun came out and our friends showed up, and our daughter had the best time. She didn’t need the trappings of a traditional suburban birthday party. All she needed was her family, her friends, and time to play.

When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, I added new routines to my days to keep some structure in place, and keep myself sane. Mostly, I kept my body moving. A little yoga flow when I first woke up. A walk around the block before and after work, and a bigger loop around the neighborhood during lunch. Two minute planks and push-ups in the middle of the day. Running four to five days a week plus cross-training on the rower or with weights. This week, I had surgery to remove a precancerous mole from my leg and the most shocking thing about it, other than the size of the scar, was when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to exercise for three weeks. Not even yoga! Not even walking! The version of me that clung to running as an identity and to fitness as a signifier of health and discipline as a hallmark of my self worth would not have coped well with this development. When I got the news, I felt around for that version of myself, for the anxious lady that I was certain was lurking just under my skin, and, to my surprise, I couldn’t find her. She died when Lauren died. She died when my doctor told me the mole in my leg might morph into melanoma. She died when the tower went down. Since the surgery, my days feel eerily like the early days of the pandemic in that I’m not really leaving my house, but this time around I’m not losing my mind. I don’t need a million routines. I don’t need to always be moving and doing. I don’t need to be the best, healthiest version of myself. All I need is to, you know, be. Is this enlightenment? Is this what it’s like to be distilled into the most essential version of yourself?

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 217: When Yes Means No

Four fat tan doves sitting in a tree. Four gnarly coyotes prowling down the street. Husky robins churning up the dirt right in front of our door. A muted cardinal practically ringing the bell. October rabbits running underfoot. Daytime raccoons trashing it up. Dozens of unleashed dogs and not one wagging finger. This is the rewilding.

I wore lingerie for date night for the first time in I don’t know and as I rifled through the drawer I dangled a bra between two fingers like, “What is this? What is it good for? How long am I going to let it stick around?” I was loathe to peel off the layers now that it’s getting cold, sweatshirt, t-shirt, leggings, all thick cotton, armor against the elements and acceptance of the life I now live. After kid bedtime and before adult dinner I considered a swipe of lipstick, some drama around my eyes, but then I’d have to wash my face against and I already did that in the morning. This is the rewilding.

My daughter is playing with the neighbor girls and their dad is watching over. I’m just back from a run with dinner to make and my kid is the only one without a mask. I make the right noises, put a mask in her hands, and disappear in side my house without so much as a wave at anyone outside my family. Other neighbors stop to talk about the weather. It was so nice until it wasn’t. Their dog, one of the difficult ones, reactive toward animals and children, lunges on his leash and I bolt like an October rabbit. This is the rewilding.

My mom asks if I’m coming to Arizona. No. A lady from church isn’t so sure about Black Lives Matter. No. A lady I don’t know tells me to call her after this meeting is over. No. Another lady offers to be my sponsor. No. A woman I know well offers to take me to a good meeting. No. A friend invites me to come back to Sunday School. No. Another mom asks I have the link to children’s chapel. No. The pastor asks me to join a small group. No. The school asks me to join the PTA. No. The PTA asks me to chalk the walk. No. The district asks me if I feel well-informed. No. My doctor asks me to start a course of physical therapy. No. A friend asks if I’m coming back to running club. No. Three people text in an hour to ask me to phone bank for Biden. No.

I’m still mostly civil. I got my flu shot. I smile behind my mask, force my mouth and cheeks up so it shows in my eyes. I try where it matters–at home, at work–but even there I’m saying yes less and less. My daughter asks if we can go to family swim at the Y. No. My daughter asks if we are going apple picking. No. My daughter asks me to get out of bed before my alarm to look for a missing toy. No. My husband asks me to put nuts in the brownies. No. Are you okay? No.

Last week I drew the strength card reversed. The lion was on top and the woman, brawny and beautiful, hung upside down, hands reaching up. The card said, Maybe you can do this alone, tap that well til it runs dry, but nobody ever said you had to. I put my hand up because, um, excuse me, yeah they did.

I didn’t ask to isolate and I don’t like it, which is only hard to believe because it comes so easily to me. The world asked this of me. In my scrupulosity I said yes and because I said yes I started saying no. This is not the rewilding. This is the disappearing of the lonely from public life, from any semblance of a life at all.

Quarantine Diary Day 55

In the parallel timeline in which coronavirus never made it into human bodies, I’d be in the final week of tapering for my fifth marathon, which I was scheduled to run this Saturday. The taper is the final phase of a marathon training cycle when a runner gradually decreases the mileage and intensity of her workouts in the two to three weeks leading up to a race. The taper is critical to recover from the accumulated fatigue, repair muscle damage, and restore the glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, and hormones that have been depleted during training. A lot of runners have a hard time with the taper. It is kind of a mindfuck to slow down, to back off the training, after months of buildup and go go go. I don’t. The taper, in my humble-braggy opinion, is the best part of marathon training. It is explicit permission–nay, instruction–to rest.

Remember March? Remember what it was like back the early days of our efforts to flatten the curve, when we still thought the kids might go back to school and the we might all keep our jobs? We were babes in the woods. The IOC was still refusing to admit that the Olympics were postponed. The organizers of the marathon I was planning to run certainly weren’t in any rush to cancel their event, a tiny little thing with less than 1,000 runners in all three races (5k, half, and full marathons) an hour and a half outside of Chicago, and still two full months away. If there was a chance the marathon was still on, I was running it. Training, I figured, would be a breeze with all the extra time on my hands. The first Saturday after we started sheltering in place I ran 15 miles.

Running has always been something I had to work to fit into my life, around family and work and recovery, but I worked hard to make it happen, because I love the sport to a degree that borders on obsessive. Ever since I became a mom, I’ve wished there were more hours in the day, assuming that I’d use the time to run, maybe train for an ultramarathon. All I needed was more time, and then the miles would add up faster than I could count them

For the few weeks of shelter-in-place, they did. My usual six miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays turned to eight. An easy four miles on Friday turned to ten. Cross-training on Mondays turned to more running. Even after it became undeniable that the marathon could not possibly go forward in May, I stuck to my routine of running long on Saturdays, twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles.

I was so grateful to be able to run. In those early weeks I thought, “How lucky I am that I have this sport that I can do outside and all alone? How lucky am I that I don’t need a gym or an instructor or a group? How lucky am I that I have this sport as a coping mechanism, a healthy outlet in which to shoot all my screaming fear, skyrocking anxiety, and scary depression? How lucky am I to have an excuse to leave the house? How lucky am I to have something that lets me turn all this time on my hands into time on my feet, a ritual that magics idleness into productivity.

As my weekly mileage started to creep up, something weird happened, at least it was weird for me. Running started to feel less like fun and more like a task. I was starting to dread waking up early for weekday runs. I was starting to get bored on long weekend runs. I was starting to get tired. Lots of experts have written about how the conditions we are currently living under are, counter to intuition, exhausting. Rolling Stone called the phenomena moral fatigue. Health policy wonks chalk it up to stress and anxiety. I knew this was something different, though. Even pre-quarantine, my body and mind had been giving me inklings that I might be pushing too hard. One of the last conversations I had with my therapist before COVID-19 took over all our conversations was about my ambivalence about going out with my local running club. They run fast and all I wanted to do was run long and slow. Also, even though I was training for them, I kept putting off signing up for races, because that level of commitment felt like too much. In hindsight, I can see that these were early indicators that I was burning out on running.

This kind of burnout is new to me. It’s not like I don’t know about rest. I keep a strict bedtime and take two full days a week off from any type of exercise. In quarantine, I am working less, not commuting, eating nothing but home-cooked meals, and getting closer to eight hours a sleep a night than any previous point in my adult life. So I took a hard look at my training schedule and realized I’d been building or maintaining my mileage without scaling back for about six months, and running without any meaningful break for over year. In the past, injuries and life events had forced me to take hiatuses, which I always resent, but I’ve been blessedly injury-free and able to run as much as I want for a long time now. In other words, I forgot about the concept of periodization, or the process of dividing training into smaller periods of varied volume, intensity, and frequency. The body needs easy weeks every three to four weeks. I also forgot about seasons. The body needs time off. I knew I needed a break, but I resisted giving myself one. Running was habit. Running was an escape. Running was, if you’ll forgive me for perpetuating disordered thinking in the name of honesty, an excuse to eat more indulgently than I otherwise might.

A few weeks ago, my body and mind conspired to put a stop to the madness. I woke up early on a Monday morning and put on my tights and sweat wicking gear, instead of heading out the door to run I sat down on the couch to write. My legs were tired but my mind was firing off ideas. 45 minutes later, too late to finish the miles I had planned, I was posting my first Quarantine Diary on this blog. That night, I noticed how much energy I had. I was excited about my new writing project. I was, for once, not completely wiped out. It was hard to get to sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to wake up and write again. Ahhh, I sighed. So this is what I’m meant to be doing right now.

Old habits die hard, though. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, squeezing in time before and after work and parenting. In the evenings, my husband would call up the stairs, “Am I going to see you tonight?” After bottling up my words for so long, I had no shortage of ideas, until very recently. Yesterday morning, I mined the well in my mind and came up dry. I wasn’t overly worried. Something would bubble up before the day was done.

I turned my attention to my tarot deck. I don’t know how to say that it feeling like a hard left turn or without sounding like a flake, so I’ll just acknowledge it and move on: I have a tarot practice. Usually, I just draw a card for the day without thinking asking a specific question, but yesterday I asked, “What is the next right thing in regards to my writing?” I pulled the four of arrows, or swords. From the guidebooks: “Rest and sleep are vital to restore stamina and vitality.” “It is not a weakness to require rest at times.” “This card may also be advising you to keep some new idea to yourself.” The imagery of the card blatantly subverts the ethos of “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and warns instead “Rest now, or you last long.” Sometimes tarot is so on the nose it’s annoying.

fourofarrows

fourofswords

I’ll admit I could stand to wrote more sustainably, and that I probably should if I want to keep doing. And, fine, since the tarot insists (okay, okay, invites), I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s not just the work or the running or the writing that’s wearing me down. My whole life has been an existential sprint from one thing to the next, from college to law school to big law to marriage to parenthood to homeownership. You might think I slowed down when I got sober, but I didn’t, I just changed directions. That’s when I started waking up at I’ve been at 5:00 am to pray and meditate and exercise. When I slept in, inadvertently or intentionally, I felt like a lazy piece of shit. My discipline in matters both physical and spiritual was not just a point of pride, but a matter of life and death in my mind. If I let go of my vice grip on my schedule, what else would slip?

These days, there’s no reason to wake up that early. Work is slow. Running is slower. I have nowhere to go. What if I slept in? What if I took it easy? What if I stopped running, kept eating, and put on five pounds? What would my life feel like if I ran but not a marathon, if I wrote but not a book, if I worked without trying to impress people, if I parented without trying to be the best, if I gave up my endless quest to achieve? I think it might feel like waking up after a good night’s sleep.