I’m back in the Midwest after an epic eight-day excursion to the desert and I expect that I’ll be processing the experience of seeing my family for the first time in eighteen months for awhile. In the meantime, what I want to say about the trip is this: I’m so glad I waited.
I’m glad I waited until both my husband and I were fully vaccinated. I’m glad I waited until my daughter was done with school. I’m glad I waited until everyone in family who wanted a shot had the opportunity to get one. I’m glad I waited until Arizona fell off the orange list in Chicago’s travel advisory for people traveling stateside. I’m glad I waited until the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated folks. I’m glad I waited until the country re-opened.
It was almost impossible to say no when my family asked me to fly out back in November to celebrate my dad’s sixtieth, and only slightly less difficult to say no when my sister asked if she could come visit in March. It killed me to watch my daughter turn seven and then eight without hugging her grandparents or playing with her cousins. I missed them all so much I re-visited the decision to raise my own family in Chicago–a decision I once held fast and firm and close to my heart–on a near-daily basis. I may have been a black sheep, but my family always wanted me around, and I hated being stranded on the other side of the country from them. I hated staying put. I hated being stuck at home. I spent every minute of the quarantine gnawing the bars of my self-imposed cage and now that the latch has been lifted, the only thing I can think is that it was worth it.
It was worth waiting so that I could sit with my 88-year-old grandma at her kitchen table instead of outside in the hundred-degree heat. It was worth it so we could huddle together over old family photo albums instead of passing them back and forth between lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. It was worth it so she didn’t have to nod along pretending to hear me while I tried to make myself heard through a mask. It was worth it watching my daughter approach her so tentatively, nervous in the way that kids often are, and lean in anyway for a hug.
It was worth waiting so that when my sister hesitantly asked if I was up for taking the kids to an outdoor pool, I could scream “YES!” before she finished her sentence. It was worth it so I could let all four kids cling onto me like sea monkeys without worrying about germs. It was worth it so we could crash around with our eyes closed playing Marco Polo with strangers. It was worth it so we could line up like sardines waiting for the tube slide and the high dive.
It was worth waiting so that when my brother made reservations in downtown Gilbert, I could go along and enjoy the meal instead of freaking out, forcing him to cancel, or staying home while everyone else dined inside. It was worth it getting dressed up in my dressiest shorts and squeezing around a too-small table to eat too much food with my too-big family.
It was worth waiting so that I could walk around the swap meet in Mesa without passing judgment on the maskless hordes. It was worth it so that instead of boiling over when I walked past the double-wide stall hawking Trump memorabilia, all I did was laugh.
It was worth waiting so that I could flip through records at Zia and play heirloom guitars at Acoustic Vibes without feeling like an asshole, without having to reassure myself “at least I’m shopping local.”
It was worth waiting so that I could say yes to an impromptu invitation to from a dear friend.
It was worth waiting so that I could stay as long as I wanted and stay up as late as I wanted night after night without feeling like I was pushing my luck.
It was worth waiting until the trip back home felt like a reunion instead of a calculated risk.
For all the havoc it wreaked on our lives over the last year and a half, except for the occasional mask in businesses that required them, the pandemic barely registered last week. June in Arizona may be scorching, but the trip wasn’t all sunny. When COVID cropped up in conversation it was for the worst reasons. An old family friend on a ventilator, for more than ten days, improving only incrementally, according to the text updates my mom read out loud throughout the week. She didn’t trust the vaccine. My dad’s colleague also in the hospital, and doing even worse. In his case, it was his wife that was anti-vax. It’s senselessly tragic that they are suffering in the final stages of the disease for no reason at all.
I’m glad I waited long enough to know I’m not contributing to any of that.
Tonight I’m flying to see my family for the first time in eighteen months. I’ve been dying for this day to come, cried buckets of tears over not seeing my grandma and parents and little brothers and sister and nephews for so long, and now that it’s here I’m uneasy.
I’m uneasy about leaving my town. I thought I’d grown to loathe it over the last year, but last night I took my daughter to the library to stock up on books for the plane and as we walked around downtown I felt a pang thinking of not seeing all the little restaurants and storefronts even for a week.
I’m uneasy about leaving my plants. It’s going to be hot as hell here next week. Will my husband remember to water the vegetables? Will he think to drag the hose all the way through the house to hit the decorative plants in the front? Will he know to move the impatiens into the shade when they wilt? Will be remember to sun the little cactus our daughter bought with four of her very own dollars (crusty with tooth fairy glitter, natch)? I iced the orchids, so they should be good for the week, but they’re precious and finicky enough that leaving them doesn’t feel quite right.
I’m uneasy about navigating the airport. We’re leaving absurdly early because it’s impossible to predict when Chicago will be a snarl of traffic and when it will clear shot. Will we be racing through security or will I be scraping the bottom of my bag for ways to entertain my kid for three-plus hours? Will we eat?
I’m uneasy about being out of my element. I poked fun at my daughter for packing ten stuffed animals and nary a sock for an eight day trip, but I packed three housecoats, three sets of joggers, a pile of soft shorts and tees, and every mask in the house. I considered the risks of flying with edibles–legal in the state I’m leaving and the one I’m flying too, but apparently still frowned on by TSA–from every angle. We’re both clinging to comfort.
As many times as I’ve wished I could uproot my life in the Midwest to rejoin my family in the desert, I’m uneasy about being with them again. Eight days is a long time. Will we remember how to act with each other? Will we have anything to say? Will they like the person I’ve become? Will I accept the ways they’ve changed or stayed the same? Am I prepare for the more likely scenario: that the week will fly by and I’ll find it impossible to leave.
We crept out of town for spring break without telling anyone last week. We even opted to let the trash rot in our garage for a week over asking our neighbors to take the cans out for us. At first I kept our trip quiet because it seemed so extravagant. Who am I to leave town just because I can? Was there ever a time when vacations were a normal part of life? After I told a few people about our plans and was met with reactions that ranged from underwhelmed to visibly disappointed, I saw that there was another reason to fly under the radar: our spring break extravaganza was actually boring as hell. When got back last weekend, our next door neighbor’s face lit up: “Did you get to see your family?!” When I said no, she sighed and slumped her shoulders along with me. “We drove to Michigan and stayed in a vacation rental in the middle of the woods. We saw no one and did next to nothing. We’re still waiting for everybody to get vaccines.”
I was playing up the simplicity of our trip for drama and virtue points. In truth, it was pleasant and picturesque and exactly what we needed. We rented a two-bedroom cottage with a wood burning fireplace at the edge of a gin clear lake. We took meals in the big eat-in kitchen and played games in front of a picture window with a view of the lake and kept a fire going at all times. There was a touch of adventure, too. We crashed around in the woods and plunged our hands in the cold water to fish out pearly shells and built bonfires in the backyard. My daughter scratched her arm on a piece of rusty metal on the dock and shrieked bloody murder when she almost stepped in a dead mouse exploring a pitch dark outbuilding. One day we even drove into town and went quiet as we passed one red-framed flag after another. We should’ve realized it when we booked the place, but didn’t. We didn’t live in Michigan long enough to get to know the state outside of the college town where we lived, and we left a long time ago. Anyway, we were deep in Trump country.
Howard City was a shit town with a terrific restaurant and we planned to get takeout. We pulled up behind the one other car on the main strip. The “Redneck” bumper sticker jumped out at us first, and then the rest materialized like shapes popping out of a stereogram. “Trump 2020.” “Make America Great Again.” “Beard Lives Matter.” “Let’s park somewhere else,” I told my husband. Was there really a time when differing political opinions weren’t cause for alarm? Or at least unease about my personal safety? You could be forgiven for not remembering if there was. You’d have to go back to before Trump tried to steal the election. Before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. Before a Michigan militia attempted to kidnap the governor. If you’re Black, you’d have to go back way before that, back before the beginning of this country. There was a time when I thought anti-Black racism was always coded to sound like a secret, or a joke. That’s how it was the way I grew up: white, suburban, middle class. There are places where and people for whom the hatred was always overt. There are people who have never been safe in small towns.
We didn’t mean to eat in the restaurant. It happened by accident, when we drove into town and realized there was nothing else to do and the wind was whipping us around and we looked in the dining room window and saw there was no one there. It was a weird time to be eating, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but, like I said, there was nothing to do. It was our first time eating indoors in a restaurant in over a year. When we walked in, there was nobody waiting at the host station. We waited for a long time, watching college basketball play on five different TVs. “This is awkward,” my daughter announced, loudly. I would have been embarrassed, but the host didn’t come for a full five minutes after that and I was pleased that my daughter had used the word correctly. Being able to identify situations that call for a joke is a skill that will serve her well.
In the car on the way to town, my daughter had asked, “What’s a forager?” That was the name of the restaurant where we were eating. “It’s a person that gathers food from nature, kiddo. You know, nuts and berries and plants.” Sitting at a table on the edge of the dining room, my daughter stared at something around a corner and out of my sight. “What’s a forager again, mama?” She didn’t look away from whatever she was staring at. I repeated the definition I’d given her in the car, referencing nuts and berries. “Then, um, what’s that person holding?” I craned my neck around the corner to see what she was looking at. There was a flat metal silhouette of a hunter on the wall next to what looked like the restaurant’s front door. Ah. We had come in the back. That explained the awkward wait. The hunter had a gun slung over one shoulder and an axe hanging low in the other hand. He was absolutely draped in game. There was what looked like a bison on his back, birds in the hand with the axe, and two good-sized fish dangling from the front of the gun. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my daughter’s had a hard time with death this year, with dead animals inspiring especially great distress. We’re raising her to be an ethical meat eater, though, so she knows where her food comes from. I adjusted the answer I’d given her before. “Oh. I guess he’s foraging for meat.” She didn’t balk, and ordered a burger with bacon and cheese from the adult menu.
We wore masks until the food came. The server brought out a bowl of steaming hot french onion soup first. My husband and I dug in and burned our tongues. My daughter slipped her mask down to try a bite but didn’t love it. “Why is it so scummed over?” she asked, pulling her mask back up until her meal came. I have friends who brag about their kids’ diligence with masking, holding them up as examples to either inspire or shame adults into behaving better, depending on your perspective. Believe me, that’s exactly the kind of self-righteous mom I am, and I’d brag about my kid’s masking too if there was anything to brag about. She hates wearing masks, though. Last year, she whined when I ask her to put one on and begged to take it off after playing hard for a long time. She says it makes it hard to breathe. Often, she simply chose to stay inside over going to the park or going for a walk. That changed when she started going to school in February. Now she puts her mask on as soon as she leaves the house and doesn’t breathe a bad word against them. I think she realized what she was missing and doesn’t want to risk losing it again. Masks are the trade off. I told my neighbor we didn’t see anyone in Michigan, but that’s not entirely true. We saw proprietors and patrons of small businesses and travelers and most of them were unmasked. We should have planned for it but we didn’t. Our love for Michigan is outsized. We see the forests but not the people. Anyway, the people walking around unmasked indoors with casual disregard for our comfort or safety made me see my daughter’s willingness to wear the masks she detests without complaint in a new light. There are ways in which my coddled city kid is tougher than the burly backwoods Michiganders I was afraid to park behind.
Back to the Forager. The waitstaff there were all masked, though our server’s cloth face covering drooped unfortunately below her nose. We reassured herself that she was probably vaccinated. As a restaurant worker, she would have been eligible, and I’d heard that vaccines were easier to come by in Michigan than Illinois. We told ourselves she was not an anti-vaxxer. We told ourselves she was someone who cared. She seemed like she cared about her job, anyway. We were genuinely unworried. We let our daughter take her time finishing her monster burger. While we waited, my husband wrote out a grocery list. He was making biscuits and gravy for breakfast the next day. The list, when it was finished, was pure Michigan, topped off with Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce. I’ve always hated the “Pure Michigan” slogan. It conjures up old Sunday School lessons about used gum and white temples and the squirmy feeling I get when adults talk about adolescent sexuality. The revamped “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan” slogan is even grosser. Loving how much it gives me the creeps, he scrawled “Pure Michigan” at the top of the grocery list, except he wrote it in slanty cursive, so it looked like it said, “Purl Michigan.” That gave me an idea. I grabbed the paper and drew a quick sketch of a quintessential lake girl with a flippy ponytail and a mask drooping underneath her nose. We giggled and when our daughter realized why we were laughing I put my finger to my lips and asked her not to say anything about the mask. I didn’t want to hurt our server’s feelings.
When it was time to go, I grabbed my daughter and danced in the empty dining room to the electropop that had been making me shake my shoulders all afternoon. We’d danced our way out of the almost empty beer garden at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids the day before, too. Our server at the Forager watched us and I think she was smiling.
We stopped for firewood and groceries before going back to the lake house. I waited in the car with our daughter, knowing we didn’t have any more risk points to spend, if we ever had them in the first place. When my husband got back in the car he said, “I hope I got everything. I left the grocery list at the restaurant.” I thought about our server turning over the paper and recognizing seeing herself in the lake girl with the droopy mask. I thought about how she would have seen our Illinois address when she ran the credit card. For the first time all day, I wondered, Are we the assholes?
It’s a good joke to end this post on that note, but I don’t really think it’s true. We live in a liberal bubble, but we never tried to insulate ourselves here. We have a way of seeing the world that’s influenced by where we live but we don’t pretend it’s the only way to live. We try to venture out with respect and live our values wherever we are. I never fail to think of ways we could do it better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our best. We’re trying, you know?
Some topics are too big. I can’t tell you about a time I slept outside without telling you about every time I slept outside. In Utah, we set up the big tent in our backyard and a windstorm whipped it around so hard that we ran inside, scared. In the morning, the tent was gone. The Grand Canyon was colder than we thought and our gear was flimsy but there was nowhere to go. We zipped our sleeping bags together for warmth. Somehow, Lake Powell was hotter than we ever imagined. We peed in a pit toilet set inside a canvas shelter. I saw an ancient, scaled lizard. Our dad burned his eyeballs. We went back in bikinis in high school and I burned everything else. We went to Pinetop with a tent but no flashlights and no food. No campfires allowed. The forest was already burning and ash rained down. We went to Michigan with everything a family could need. We even had a plastic carton for eggs. We watched the sun set on the water. We ate beautiful food. We read in hammocks and played on the beach. We made our daughter’s whole life. We went back again and again and again.
I can’t believe it lasted this long. Not the pandemic in general, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about the public health restrictions. I feel every one of the 233 days since my town ordered us to shelter-in-place. What I can’t believe is that it took me this long to work up enough feeling about masks to take to my blog with a petty politicized invective. Is this even a COVID diary if I don’t defend my masking choices by slamming someone else’s? I mask up in accordance with local mandate, which means I wear one in public indoor spaces and outside when I can’t maintain six feet of distance between myself and others. I haven’t written about this because it is eminently reasonable and thus utterly boring.
I’ve had thoughts about masks, of course, but they haven’t been all that interesting. I’ve had opinions about masks, obviously, but they haven’t been especially charged. In the spring I wondered why so many runners bothered with pulling a neck gaiter up over their noses when they are made of sweat wicking material specifically designed to pull water droplets through and out. Later, I felt validated when I saw the (misleading) reports about that study that supposedly showed that neck gaiters are worse than no mask at all but also sad when I saw people use those articles to shame parents who put their kids in gaiters because they were the only masks their kids would keep on. In the summer I felt frustrated trying to find and buy masks after holding off on buying them all spring because I thought they were in short supply. Later, I felt embarrassed and ashamed when I realized that the valved N95s that my husband managed to track down did not filter air going out and were, in fact, worse than no mask at all. I’ve felt like a badass in a bandana but afraid people would judge me for not having a more protective mask. I’ve worried that the cheap masks from Target are too thin. I’ve worried that the stretchy masks from Costco are exacerbating the eczema behind my kid’s ears. I’ve worried about the big wet spot that appears on the front from her constant tonguing of the fabric. I’ve felt cute and political in my ankara print mask from Akese Stylelines and also worried that I was appropriating. I’ve worried that basically all the masks gap too much around my jaw because it turns out that I have a small face on the front of my large head. I’ve flipped out when I catch my daughter outside without her mask on and tugged it up over her nose when we’re in public. I’ve given my husband the wild eyed look with palms turned up in the air that means “. . . MASK???? . . .” when he steps into the common area in front of our townhouse without one.
With all my trying to get it right, I’ve had a hard time getting worked up over whether and how other people mask. Would I prefer people to wear masks in semi-crowded public spaces? Sure. But the way I see it is, I don’t have to be in those spaces. I don’t have to run on the lakefront trail. I don’t have to walk downtown. I don’t have to go to the apple orchard or the coffee shop. When I choose to venture out of my bubble I assume the risk of running into someone who interprets the guidance differently than I do or left their mask at home or just doesn’t care.
Living in a state that responded to COVID with strict public health measures, it can be easy to judge the rest of the country. When my family camped in Michigan this summer, we drove out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park for a day at the beach. When we got out of the car I immediately thought, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” The beach was crammed and nobody was wearing masks. We considered leaving, but we’d driven a long way, and wanted to try to make it work. Our friends, who have mastered the art of staying calm in stressful situations, found a shady patch of grass up on a hill away from the crowds and spread out a few blankets and we spent a happy afternoon playing frisbee in the sand and swimming in the lake, which was rocky, frigid, and mostly empty. Before that, though, when we were walking up and down the beach looking for a spot, I wore a mask, and I wore a mask when I took my daughter to the bathroom and made her tie a bandana around her face, too. On our way back from the bathroom, two park employees stopped to thank us. “We’ve seen over five hundred people over the course of two days and only five in masks,” is what they said. Well that made me feel pretty virtuous, and I felt damn near holy when the cashier at the camp store thanked me for complying with the “mask, please” sign hanging on the door after dealing with another customer who had gotten grumpy after being asked to leave. The afterglow dissipated when the friends we were camping with–Michiganders, but the kind who wear masks, not the kind who plot to kidnap their governor–pointed out that all those hundreds of people at the beach weren’t out of bounds with the law or a single park rule. If the park wanted people to wear masks on park grounds, it should make people wear masks on park grounds. If it wanted to cap admissions, it should start counting and kicking people out. But the National Parks don’t require masks and, at the time, Michigan didn’t either.
I heard from a friend that lives in a college town that students aren’t getting tested when they have COVID symptoms because they don’t want to be responsible for their friends, roommates, classmates, and teammates having to quarantine. I know, I know, college students are so stupid and short-sighted, right? Generation Z, the worst. But here’s another take: why are we asking eighteen-year-olds to make these decisions and then getting mad when they act like their frontal cortex isn’t fully developed? It’s not entirely different from the absurdity of asking essential workers who get sick to choose between a paycheck and protecting the health of the public and expecting that the vast majority of them won’t choose to feed their own families. These are not decisions people should have to make on their own.
I’m not willing to hold citizens accountable for failures of leadership. Do I think it’s dumb dumb dumb to run around Target without a mask on? Of course I do, but if you’re in a state or a city that permits it, I understand how a person might think it’s okay. That’s not to say my approach to masking is solely grounded in what’s legal. I wore a mask when we camped with my family in Michigan and when we went apple picking in McHenry County last week. I like to think I’d wear one if I lived in a state where it wasn’t required, but the truth is, I have no idea. It’s easy to be out of step with the people around you for an afternoon or a week. It’s harder to be vigilant over the long haul, especially when the people around you seem to be having more fun and not getting sick.
If I lived in another state, or worked in a job that required me to interface with the public, I might have a less charitable view. It must be infuriating to be doing your part to get cases down and see people flaunting their disregard for other people. It must be genuinely scary to be forced to deal with people who post a direct threat to the health of you and your loved ones. Earlier this week, I was talking to my sister who lives in Trumpland. We were on the phone and I was walking around my neighborhood. It was a cold, cloudy day and I saw maybe five people in ninety minutes. I gave them all a wide berth, as I always do when I’m not wearing a mask. My sister was telling me about people who refuse to wear masks to church. She was frustrated, and rightfully so. I was in the middle of telling her how different it is where I live when a man stuck his head out of a storefront I was walking by and screamed, “Put your mask on!” Well, damn. I guess different isn’t always better.
I didn’t respond because I was absorbed in my phone call, and I was glad I didn’t because there’s no easy comeback to that kind of calling out. I’ve known there are people in my town who think you should don a mask every time you step outside. I know it because I’ve watched them go at it in all caps on the local groups on Facebook and Nextdoor before I got off those apps for mental health. In this man’s mind, and probably a lot of people’s minds, he was right. He was the good person, expressing the righteous view. I was complying with our (relatively strict!) local ordinance, I was outside with nobody else around (he opened his door just to yell at me!), but he was the only one wearing a mask in a pandemic.
I had a hard time shaking the encounter. It made me angry, frankly. I’m comfortable with the approach I’ve taken to masking. It’s legal and reasonable and, I think, respectful of others. I thought I was okay with the fact that people disagree with me, but apparently my okayness was more in theory than practice. The truth is I want people to approve of my choices. Of course, that’s functionally impossible when it comes to an issue as polarizing as COVID in a country as polarized as the United States. If I lived in my parents’ America the mask I wear most of the time would invite a suspicious side eye or worse. In my town, the mask I leave in my pocket on a life-saving mid-day walk around my quiet neighborhood invites open condemnation. This makes me want to hate both states and both sides, but I know this is a failure of leadership, too. People shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate shares of the burden of protecting the public health based on where they live and their tendencies toward perfectionism.
If I can’t make everybody happy, I at least want people to understand my choices, the way I try to do for them. My therapist asked me what I would have liked to say to the man who had yelled at me if I hadn’t been on the phone, and the best I could come up with was an annoyed “ugh” combined with pointed gestures up and around at all the fresh air and many feet of distance between us. It wouldn’t have been satisfying, though. It wouldn’t have communicated a fraction of what I wanted to say. What I want people to know is that I read the federal, state, and local guidelines and try to follow them. What I want people to know is that my daughter won’t go back to school before the end of the calendar year and probably not before the end of the school year. What I want people to know is that I haven’t seen my family in almost a year and probably won’t see them for another full year after that. What I want people to know is that I haven’t set foot in another person’s home or eaten in a restaurant or worshipped in public or worked in an office or worked out in a gym or shopped for groceries in person or flown on a plane or done all kinds of things that have been technically allowed for a long time (at least until my town reinstated restrictions last week). What I want people to know is that I’m doing my part to stop community spread. What I want is a stamp of approval from the progressive community whose validation I value and whose judgment fear. What I want is a verdict in my favor: I am not the asshole. The alternative is too upsetting to contemplate–is it possible that everything I’ve done is not enough?–until I spy the failure of leadership. If following every applicable law, regulation, and order is not enough, we need new guidance and somebody besides the loudest lady on Facebook to enforce it.
I know there’s an easier way to get what I want than writing this screed that will mainly be read by my out-of-state family. I could just wear a mask, like, all the time. Am I an asshole if I acknowledge here that masks work to stop the virus from spreading but they are also highly effective as a virtue signal? Once I ran a little ways down the lakefront trail after it opened back up in the city until I got to a sign that said “Please wear face coverings.” I stopped and pulled the stretchy headband I’d been using to keep the sweat out of my eyes over my mouth. Running with a mask is terribly unpleasant so I turned around and ran back to the street, pushing the headband back up as soon as I got off the trail, but not before I snapped a picture of myself making a peace sign with my face all covered up.
I wrote most of this post last week, when I was simmering in judgment, resentment, and anger. I was mad at the guy who yelled at me. I was mad about people in my community passing around that viral Facebook post from a mom who said she was “over” hearing people complain about how much their kids had lost during the pandemic. I was mad at every house with a “We’re in this together sign” hanging in the window. When I saw those houses, I fumed. “We’re not in shit together. All I know the fuck about you is that you live in a million dollar house and aren’t afraid to stake out safe political positions with your yard signs. You don’t know I exist.”
In twelve step recovery they say that resentments will kill us faster than a drink, but I didn’t hate that agitated state. Anger, in doses, is easier to live with than depression. Anger is fire. Depression is a heavy bog. Anger is something to talk about. Depression is a closed mouth. Anger moves up and out. Depression is here to stay. Anger is. Depression is a lack. Anger is dangerous–I might hurt someone I know, or someone I don’t. Depression is dangerous too, except it only hurts me. I should have tried rage ages ago. Honestly, I’d like a little credit for the fact that I didn’t.
I’ve mostly cooled off now. Halloween was a gorgeous sunny, blustery day and my neighborhood were perfectly wonderful. Shockingly, the city let people trick-or-treat. I took my daughter out with a few friends, masked and socially distanced. Lots of families turned their porch lights off and celebrated at home but the people that opted to participate in a community Halloween pulled out all stops to make the night safe and festive with homemade staircase candy chutes, jury-rigged pulley systems, elaborate tables, Mardi Gras-style balcony drops, treats delivered by fishing net and lacrosse stick and pushed across a shuffleboard table, and candy-lined fences and graveyards. A few houses used chalk and tape to mark socially-distanced paths up to the porches, but they didn’t need to. Kids know the drill now and when they forgot, their parents screamed it for the neighbors’ benefit: “OLIVER/CHARLOTTE/LIAM/OLIVIA! BACK UP! WAIT YOUR TURN! GIVE THEM SPACE!” I had to scream at my kid a few times, too. “HOLD UP! SAY THANK YOU! GO STAND OVER THERE IF YOU WANT TO EAT A PIECE OF CANDY!”
There was one time I wanted to scream and didn’t. At the end of the night another family started riding up on us. I looked back, startled and annoyed. It was a weirdly attractive couple, a mom and dad with three kids, one in a stroller but two definitely school-aged. None of them were wearing masks. It took everything I had not to scream in their faces, “PUT YOUR MASK ON!”
After a disappointing day at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, we booked a weekend at a campground tucked inside the Cook County Forest Preserves just outside Chicago. We’d camped there just once a few years ago and stuck it in our back pockets as a quick and easy weekend getaway that we never took again because, logistically speaking, camping is not actually the easiest way to spend a weekend, even if the site is close to home. We had plenty of energy, though, stockpiled from doing next to nothing for two-thirds of a summer, and executed the planning and prep with just a few days turnaround, booking the site on Monday and driving out there on Friday afternoon. It would take over an hour to cover less than forty miles because Chicago traffic is miserable even in a pandemic and a city doing it’s best to keep everyone at home, but I didn’t even mind. I sat in the front seat, cracking sunflower seeds and blasting a science podcast with D in the backseat losing her mind over her first-ever 7/11 Slurpee and sketching with a little set of waterproof notebooks and colored pencils we’d given her that morning.
The Slurpee was my husband’s idea. We both grew up on a gas station food but his drug of choice was (is still?) the sickly sweet syrupy slush of Slurpee in the most alarming flavors and colors available. Even as a kid, I dismissed Slurpees as a vile. True to my mountain west Mormon heritage I was nursing a 32 ounce Diet Dr. Pepper by twelve. If pressed, I will slurp a reasonable flavor, like Wild Cherry. My husband on the other hand. I’ve seen him purchase with his own hard earned adult coin a slime green Shrek Slurpee. Though buying my daughter her first Slurpee on the way to camp was my husband’s idea, he was not there it execute it, having decided to turn the trip out of the city in a pandemic into a feat of a different kind: a 100-mile bike ride that started with him leaving our house at 8:00 am and riding way down through Chicago’s south side almost to Indiana before looping west and rolling into the campsite at 3:30. That left me on my own at 2:30 to brave the inside of the 7/11 with my seven year old. We stopped at the store in Skokie, spritzed our hands with sanitizer, pulled on our masks, and stepped into the cool, familiar smell of the corner store and breathed in deep. Ahhhh. Advisable in a pandemic? Probably not, but I will never not love that smell of sweetness tinged with rot as long as it’s in a corner store and not, say, in the top notes of a wine I once tried in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Could we, should we, have beelined for the Slurpee machine in the back of the store? Probably, but I walked us up and down the four long aisles first. We didn’t need snacks but we definitely needed to see the snacks. I would have bought a bag of Werther’s Original hard candies but they only had the worthless sugar free kind and the soft caramels which taste amazing but I wanted something I could suck.
I tried to explain to my daughter why I wasn’t getting anything but she will never understand how I can be so particular about candy. To a kid, or to my husband for that matter, junk is junk is delicious junk. For my, junk food is life giving, but only if it’s my junk food–Cheetos, Cheez-Its, those fried Hostess Fruit pies that disappeared from the shelves sometime in the last decade but that I still look for because they turn up in small towns once every few years or so, Skittles but only the purple bag, LifeSavers but only Wild Cherry or Butter Rum, sunflower seeds, but only only David’s and none of that flavor blasted shit that wrecks the inside of your mouth even more than plain, no ranch, no sour cream and onion, and, it pains me that I have to spell this out, but no, I do not want the pocket of seeds and spit I’m storing in my left cheek to taste like Jack Daniels.
We walked along the back wall peering into every cooler, but they didn’t have vitamin water triple x zero, so I kept on walking. Finally, we found the Slurpee machines. I had been mildly worried they wouldn’t have them or they wouldn’t be working, even after I saw posters advertising them on the front of the store, because that’s generalized anxiety disorder at its best, but there they were, whirling away in a corner next to the checkout. I scoped the layout, did some quick math. There were only four flavors but two of them were Coke-based, so my daughter’s options were Cherry and Blue Razz. She picked Blue Razz immediately. Of course she did, I don’t even know why I was surprised. The cup situation was more confounding. Styrofoam cups were sticking butt out from six slots lined up underneath the machines but the cups in five of the six stacks were all equally huge and the cups in the last stack were tiny. The fountain drink machine on the other wall had a wider range of cup sizes, but they were plastic not styrofoam. Do Slurpees require styrofoam? Would 7/11 even sell me a Slurpee in a soda cup? I glanced at the prices printed on the side of the Slurpee machine for help but they offered none. For one thing, they didn’t match the cups. For another, they started at large and went up. Not for the first time that day, I wished her dad were here with us instead of pedaling around the city. A pair of middle schoolers strode purposefully over to the fountain drinks and poured themselves 32 ounces each, in plastic cups. I envied their confidence and quickness, but wanted them to get the fuck out. We were all masked but they were too close and, anyway, they were making me doubt myself. My daughter waited patiently while I puzzled over my–her–options. Tentatively, she suggested that I get the bigger cup and not fill it up all the way. Bingo bango bongo, you’re a genius, kid! I grabbed a large (???) styrofoam cup, filled it 5/6 of the way full, put the <$2 charge on my card, and stuck the cup in her hand with a straw in it. “Can we document this for papa? You can stand in front of that mural.” She looked back, saw that the painting had a dog in it, and chirped, “Okay!” I snapped the picture.
We were supposed to get on the road right after that, but D had forgotten her stuffed owl, so we had to go back home, and we hit Chicago weekend traffic when we got back on the road. By the time we made it to camp, we’d been in the car for over two hours, listened to an entire podcast about trees, read aloud from the Neverending Story, stopped at another gas station to pee and buy Cheez-It Duoz (cheddar and parmesan), and made one wrong turn. My mouth was raw from the plain David’s and my daughter was freezing from the Slurpee and the A/C and my husband was waiting for us with a bundle of wood in his sticky cycling clothes. We were ready to camp.
Last month, I finally made it to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the first time since the pandemic started. The Gardens are one of Chicago’s finest cultural institutions and, being almost entirely outdoors, are one of the only local destinations that is accessible right now. The garden paths have been beckoning me for months. I’ve been desperate to lay eyes on trees other than the ones I see waving outside my windows, the ones I pass on my loops around the neighborhood two, four, six times a day. What I really want is the wild, and the manicured lawns of the Gardens are not that, but they are sprawling, and I could certainly use a little space.
To cut down on the crowds, the Gardens are requiring visitors to pre-register for timed entry and are capping the number of visitors allowed in a day. The indoor greenhouses and displays are closed. Physical distancing is required, as well as masks when physical distancing is impossible. I brought our masks and told my daughter we would have to wear them when we entered the Gardens through a building and checked in at the membership desk. After weeks of wearing her mask all day every day at camp, she didn’t even complain, just pulled it up over her nose. We made our way through the entryway and check-in, grabbed a garden bingo sheet, and stepped out into the fresh air.
Under ordinary circumstances, we would would emerge onto the bridge that would carry us over a lily-pad spattered lake and onto the walking paths that wind for miles through acres of land, past millions of plants. We would admire the bulb gardens and native plant gardens and fruit and vegetable gardens and aquatic gardens and the sensory garden and the waterful garden and the dwarf conifer garden and the english oak meadow. We would stop walking and literally smell the flowers and then walk some more. My daughter would start dragging and we would sit in the grass and eat snacks. We would get lost behind the bell tower and suck honey sticks. We would look for fishes, frogs, and beavers in the ponds. We would head home sweaty and tired and feeling just a little bit more wild and free.
This time, the automated doors swung open and dumped us into a sea of people. Nobody was doing anything wrong. Family groups were clustered together. Everybody had a mask, even the kids. There were just so many people. It was impossible to walk more than a few yards without passing by another group with less than six feet of distance. I looked down at my daughter. “I’m sorry kid. We’re going to have to wear these outside, too.” She didn’t react except to heave a world weary sigh. Over the next few hours, every time I issued the order, “Mask up!” she stopped doing even that.
It was over ninety degrees and humid and we sweated our cheap cotton masks out too soon. I think D was licking hers, too. The day wasn’t a total bust, though. It had its moments. D took her shoes off and ran in the grass in the rose garden. She splashed in the fountain with a few other kids, got her dress soaked through. I wondered briefly if the water was safe, then dipped my own bandana in to wrap around my neck. We found a shade tree away from the crowds and sat down, ate snacks. We were delighted to stumble onto a bonsai collection set up in a hot brick courtyard. I hadn’t realized they would be there, and it seemed that nobody else did either. Inspired, D pulled out the old digital camera I handed down to her and took a picture of every single tree. I couldn’t believe she was saving me the effort. I can’t believe how obvious it is that she’s mine. D got tired before I did and I bribed her to keep going with honey sticks. “When the coast is clear,” I promised. Of course, there was a steady stream of foot traffic on the chain of islands that makes up the Japanese gardens, so we ducked off the path and snuck down to the water. We crouched under a willow tree and watched the minnows flit between the shadow and the sun. We heard the gallump-splash of frogs but didn’t spot any. We watched the cyclists on the other side of the lake and wondered if D’s dad had ridden here earlier today. We got sticky with honey. We wanted to never leave that spot.
Eventually we dragged ourselves back to the path. Against my better judgment, we walked through the indoor gift shop on the way out. We had to wait our turn outside a locked door. When the proprietor let us in we were grateful to be greeted by a rush of cold air and an empty store. We wandered longer than we needed to, gazing wistfully at the field guides and gauzy scarves and delicate jewelry and weird metal garden art. D fell in love with a stuffed eastern bluebird. We wanted to buy everything so I didn’t let us buy anything. It felt good enough to just look. I hadn’t realized how much I miss mindless shopping.
We headed up home sweaty and tired and feeling something decidedly less than wild and free. I glanced at D in the rearview mirror. “What do you think? Do you want to go camping next weekend? Spend some time in nature for real?”
We left for our annual family camping trip in Michigan at the end of June. We thought we might have to pusht the trip back or cancel it altogether because I got sick with some weird symptoms and wanted to get a COVID test. When the results came back early and negative, we thought we might be on track to leave on the day planned, and started hustling to get packed. That’s when the lock on cargo box on top of the car broke with half our stuff inside. The cargo box was done for–my husband had to saw it open to get inside–and there was no way we were fitting a week’s worth of camping gear into our hatchback sedan. After some mild panicking at all the ways this trip seemed to be doomed we rented a mid-sized SUV that was available for pickup at noon the next day and, in the end, we ended up on the road only a day late.
As we drove, my husband gave me the lowdown on this year’s site, passing on all the details he’d gleaned from our friends who spearhead and book the trip every year. We were going to a new site in a new campground in a new state park. New to us, I mean. The park has been a Michigan institution for over a century. The campground is situated between two lakes like a set of lungs in Grand Traverse County and we had booked two sites to accommodate three small groups. The rest of our group had set up camp the day before and we’d be rolling in around mid-day.
Five years ago, the first time we went on this trip we were late, too. A hot potato had landed in my lap at work and I had to stay late in the office so that we ended up leaving on Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon. That year, we had three sites booked, and I worried out loud that I hoped we didn’t end up stuck with the worst site because I had to work late. I hadn’t seen any of the sites yet, had never been to this park, hadn’t camped in years, and had no idea what might qualify a rustic campsite that my friend that had to be booked six months out as “the worst.” Truthfully, I was the one that was “the worst.” I was newly sober, still white knuckling it at five months, dry enough that the billboards for Michigan vineyards were making my mouth water, and I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I couldn’t have. I was still anxious when we arrived late in the afternoon, scouring the simple drawings on the campground map to glean what I could about the place, but I needn’t have been. Two of the sites were right up on Lake Michigan and were big enough for all our tents. We never even used the third site.
This year, I wasn’t worried about where we’d pitch our tent. My only concern leading up to the trip had been whether the water would be swimmable–we’d heard rumors about a nasty sounding something called swimmer’s itch–and how I’d keep my daughter out of it if it wasn’t. After the high drama of getting out of Chicago COVID-free with all our gear in a car that worked, even that mild worry barely registered. All I wanted was exactly what I was going to get: five days of sitting around the fire cooking food and shooting the shit with my family and friends.
There are a few yardsticks by which you can measure a person’s sobriety. There is the time passed, the days, the months, and the years. There are the symbols you can hold in your hand, the plastic chips and the metal coins. There are the milestones, the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holiday seasons. There are the friends you’ve lost and the friends you’ve gained. All of these measures, are meaningful in their own right, but none of them are particularly useful for measuring the quality of sobriety, which is rarely a steady upward climb. It oscillates. It is hills and valleys. It is a fluctuating thing.
There is progress, though, and sometimes it’s visible. I can see mine in five years of tent camping with a kid and some friends.
For me, recovery is going from:
Wanting the best spot for your tent no matter what and saying so…
to wanting the best spot for your tent but keeping it to yourself because you don’t want to seem selfish…
to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s needs matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s wants matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
to wanting a good spot for your tent and knowing that other people’s needs and wants matter more than yours to and wanting to be generous…
to wanting a good spot for your tent but not worrying because you know it will work out fine…
to just being happy to be there pitching your tent among friends at all.
The campsite was stunning, right on the water. We hopped out of the car, air hugged our friends from six feet away, and threw up our tent in the flattest, shadiest spot we could find. We talked a mile a minute catching up on the last twelve months of life and news. Eventually we made our way down to the water. D jumped right in. I took my time, dipping my feet in and then wading up to my shins and eventually dove all the way under crossing my fingers that we wouldn’t end up itchy. We didn’t. Everything worked out. It always does. I count myself lucky that I get to be there for it.
God I’m sick of talking about sickness and school and death and depression and safety and sorrow and transmission and testing and masks and mental health and fake news and fear. I’m sick of having to dig so deep to root up feelings that are at best bittersweet. I’m sick of flaying my emotional body and laying myself bare to get a moment of human connection. I want more than pockets; I want whole sack-fulls of joy. I want more than silver; I want all my linings to be gold.
Today my mom told me that my dad wants to go on a vacation when this is all over. I figured he was anxious to reschedule the family reunion we had planned for this summer and scrapped at the last minute. She figured he wanted to go to the resort in their city they’ve been to a bunch of times when they want a weekend in a room with a view they don’t have to clean. We were both wrong. Apparently my dad wants to go to Europe. My father is no Ron Swanson. He’s not a U.S.A.-chanting xenophobe. He’s not unrefined. It’s just that I always figured his ideal vacation involved more time on the open road than hurtling through the air, more time relaxing in a hotel than getting lost in a new city or standing around in a museum, and more time with his family than in a foreign land. If my dad were the type to have been to Europe, I imagine he would come back like Guy Clark, singing that verse from Dublin Blues:
I have seen the David
I've seen the Mona Lisa too
I have heard Doc Watson
Play Columbus Stockade Blues
And I guess that’s one thing about the pandemic. Those of us who survive this thing might come out a little clearer on what what we want to do before we die, the places we still need to go, the people we can’t live without.
When this thing is all over I want to go out and dance to house music pressing up against hundreds of sweaty bodies.
When this thing is all over I want to drive across the country in a rented RV and stop at every roadside tourist attraction I see.
When this thing is over I want to eat breakfast at every fancy brunch place and stay up all night drinking coffee and eating pie at every hole in the wall diner in Chicago.
When this thing is over I want to hire babysitters with abandon and buy tickets to every concert in which I have an even passing interest.
When this thing is over I want to spent twelve hours at Six Flags Great America.
When this thing is over I want to take myself on dates to the Art Institute and the MCA and the National Museum of Mexican Art and LUMA and the Driehaus and the American Writers Museum and invite absolutely no one to join me.
When this thing is over I want to monopolize the mic at karaoke.
When this thing is over I want to see the Durkins in Massillon and Mesa.
When this thing is over I want to see the Fords in Houston and Tucson.
When this thing is over I want to see the Potters in Albuquerque.
When this thing is over I want to see the Bakers in Snoqualmie.
When this thing is over I want to see Dan in Leverett.
When this thing is over I want to see Ferrial in Annapolis.
When this thing is I want to see Rachel and Matt in Plymouth.
When this thing is over I want to see Elizabeth in Detroit.
When this thing is over I want to see Dan and Caitlin in San Francisco.
When this thing is over I want to see in Rebecca in Mesa.
When this thing is over I want to see Safia in Seattle.
When this thing is over I want to see Sean in Howell.
When this thing is over I want to take my daughter to London and look for Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
When this thing is over I want my husband to take me to South America for two weeks and show me Chile and Argentina and Peru.
When this thing is over I want to fly to Europe and meet my dad and when we’ve seen it all I want fly back home and play guitar on the back porch. We’ll run through every song we ever played together over the last twenty-five years and I’ll make him teach me every song we haven’t. We’ll stay up all night. We’ll play the rest of our lives.
Next week I’m going off the grid for our fifth annual family camping trip. We’re going with another family and I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not so worried about picking up or passing on a viral load. We’ve been pretty damn careful and so have our friends and camping seems to be fairly low risk as far as activities go what with all the fresh air and separate family spaces. What I’m anxious about is transitioning out of this hermetic life I’ve been living.
I am so, so excited to leave my house, you don’t even know (jk, of course you know). But I’ve also become pretty attached to my couch, to soft clothes, to wrapping myself up in a blanket whenever I want even if its the middle of my workday. What if I’ve become too self-indulgent to rough it in a tent for six days? What if I’ve lost my grit?
I am so, so excited to interact with friends I haven’t seen for almost a year. But I’ve also become pretty wrapped up in myself and what’s right in front of me: my immediate family, my social media feed, the neighbors I see every day. What if I have nothing to talk about around the campfire? My friends might have a different take on the pandemic, on the election, on the racial unrest revolution. What if I’ve lost the ability to tolerate or engage different viewpoints?
My daughter is so, so excited for an adventure. But camping in the north woods is an adventure that comes with driving rain and sunburn pain and swimmer’s itch and biting flies and smokey eyes and long-leggy spiders and hypervigilant parents shouting “watch out for the fire!” She’s going to struggle with the transition, too, and I’m nervous about rising to the parenting occasion.
And, fine, I’ll admit it. I’m a little nervous about the virus. We’re stepping outside our bubble for the first time in months, and it’s bound to feel more scary than liberating to walk into a world with public toilet plumes and more dirt than soap and running water.