Quarantine Diaries Day 340: Metaphor? You bet.

February is always long and miserably cold in Chicago, but this year is in a category all its own. Here are some miscellaneous stats that aren’t that impressive on their own but seem more significant when you stack them like sheets of ice. February 14 was one of the coldest Valentine’s Days on record with a high of four degrees. February 16 was the ninth consecutive day of measurable snowfall in Evanston. It was the 17th consecutive day with eleven inches of snow on the ground. Here is a stat that stands on its own. On President’s Day, we got 18 inches of snow on top of the 12 inches of snow that were still on the ground.

I decided to go for a run. I know, I know. What kind of show-offy winter exuberance is this? Trust me, I was as surprised at myself as you are. I’m no stranger to running in unfavorable conditions, but I’ve been sticking to indoor workouts lately on account of the fact that it’s Dante’s icy fucking inferno outside. I don’t want frostbite. I don’t want to twist an ankle or a knee. I don’t want to deal. Yesterday wasn’t bad, though. I mean, the snow was up to my thighs, but it was almost twenty degrees outside which, for Chicago in February, is basically balmy. I got the idea when a Facebook friend posted about having legs like heavy iron after running through the snow. She also said that seeing everyone out shoveling off their cars and sidewalks made it feel like summer in the neighborhood. I’m a competitive kind of bitch, and easily influenced. If she can do it, I can do it, I thought.

LESSON: Brag about the cool shit you do; it might inspire someone else. 

By late afternoon, I figured most of the sidewalks would be cleared and, if they weren’t, I could take the roads, which would definitely have been plowed. I was right about the roads, but not the sidewalks. I would run the length of one or two houses before having to leap sideways over slush into the street to avoid smacking into a chest high wall of snow. This is not a complaint. Many of the people who hadn’t managed to dig out yet were actively shoveling when I ran by, and of course I have no idea about the circumstances of the rest of the residents. There are plenty of elderly and disabled people in my town and plenty more who work on the front lines. I pay $190/month in HOA dues and a crew shovels us out asap when we get so much as an inch. It’s money well spent, because I’m 100% sure I would be the neighbor whose sidewalks stay icy for days on end.  

LESSON: It’s a privilege to have time and money and gear to workout in the middle of the day, and to outsource my shoveling to someone else; it’s a service to shovel your walk and your neighbor’s if they can’t. 

A little less than a mile from my house there’s a paved trail that runs north/south alongside the North Shore Channel. It’s great for three to six mile loops and I use it several times a week during COVID because the trail is wide and when it’s cold I’m often the only one on it. I don’t know why I assumed the trail would be plowed, but I felt like an idiot when I looked north and south and found myself gazing upon a sea of white in both directions. I’ve lived in Midwest for almost fifteen years and Chicago for over a decade. How am I still learning things about winter? I started to turn back and then remembered that my Facebook friend probably didn’t end with “legs like iron” by sticking to sidewalks that had already been cleared. I decided to charge ahead. Running in the thigh high snow was a thrill. There was not another soul on the trail, so I pulled down my mask and grinned like an idiot at the cars driving by. I felt like fucking Bambi driving my knees up high and slicing through the snow on the way down. I felt like fucking Allyson Felix pumping my arms so hard to propel my body forward. My form has never been better. Three months into a brutal winter, I finally felt alive. 

LESSON: Go do something weird and hard just because you can; it’ll make you feel fucking great.

Less than a quarter a mile into running through powder, I started to break a sweat. This was good news, and half the reason I was outside in the first place. When I’m depressed, as I have been, a sweaty workout is the only thing that will get me into the shower. After half a mile, my lungs were burning. I was approaching a main intersection that would let me off the trail. I was reluctant. If I turned back now, the whole run would be three miles instead of the five or six I was aiming for, but I was panting like I’d been running sprints. My body was too tired to let my brain get away with calling myself lazy for scaling back on the mileage I had planned. I decided to head back home.

LESSON: It’s okay to adjust your plans when circumstances change; it is smart to take it easy when things get hard.    

Before I got off the trail, another runner materialized in the distance running in my direction. A kindred spirit! I had to restrain myself from gesturing grandly up the trail and proclaiming, “Behold! I cleared the way!” Instead I pulled up my mask and waved with both hands. The other runner, a lanky boy in his teens, pointedly ignored me. No matter. This happens often. When he’d passed, I scooted over and helped myself to the path he’d carved out. Huh. His stride was the right size but placing my feet into the holes he’d already made was throwing me off balance. When I turned left to cross the bridge over the channel, I had to slow to a walk to avoid tipping over the rails onto the ice. 

LESSON: Stay in your own lane; it’s easier to make your own path than to follow someone else’s.

After I made it over the bridge I turned left onto a quiet, residential road. My legs were like jelly, but they turned over easily. I quickly picked up the pace. As I wound my way through the neighborhood, I realized I could run in the middle of the street and not even deal with the messy sidewalks. I wondered if I should look for another challenge, maybe run through a park or around the track piled high with snow, or if I should take plowed roads the whole way home. Running hadn’t felt this easy in awhile. I was listening to music and endorphins were kicking in and I was feeling good

LESSON: You don’t always have to forge the way; let someone show you the easier, softer way. 

When I got close to home I checked my watch and was shocked to see that I’d barely clocked three miles in the time it usually takes me to run four. I could have kept going but I stopped the watch and called my mom instead. We walked and talked until I was shivering in the cold and went home happy. 

LESSON: Things that are worthwhile sometimes take awhile; three miles are better than none.* 

*Unless it’s a rest day or a sick day; on those days, no miles are better than any at all. Rest is part of training! Rest is critical to physical and mental health! Rest is your birthright! 

Quarantine Diaries Day 338: Regression

The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?” 

We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog. 

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 284: It’s Okay To Blink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Minute Memoir – Day 8 – Birthdays

My daughter’s birthday is in late April, which sounds like a spring birthday, but in Chicago it’s basically still winter. I know this because it snowed two days before she was born and it has snowed right around her birthday every year since. Nobody really believes me when I say this, that we’re going to get accumulation, actual inches of snow, in the last week of April, but it’s true. We always do. My birthday is in mid-May, which I will represent is also basically still winter. I know this because every year my husband plans picnics and hikes and walks in the neighborhood because the man knows what I like and every year it’s cold, frigid even, and I am forced to tuck my cute outfit under a wool coat and my cute hair under a ratty winter beanie. After May we get a break until August, which is when the real birthday gauntlet–I mean season–starts, and the special days start rolling in, one after another, mom’s birthday, brother’s birthday, other brother’s birthday, husband’s birthday, sister’s birthday, dad’s birthday, other other brother’s birthday. (We cannot talk about nieces and nephews right now because I am a negligent aunt. In laws? Good god, no.) Other other brother’s birthday takes us into Christmas and then New Year and then we’re in the drought, the dry spell, the lonely sad season, the endless miserable winter that only starts to end the day my daughter was born.