I’ve been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to extricate myself from social media all year. My time on the apps is down to spot checks a couple times a day. Lately, every time I pop on, my feeds look different than they used to. They are flooded with messages of gratitude from the great many of my friends who, I guess, apparently, are still Mormon. It’s weird. I thought everybody left, but I guess they were just being quiet, or I wasn’t paying attention. I’m guessing the church told its members to #givethanks publicly this year. I want to roll my eyes, but in truth it’s been moving, illuminating, and uplifting to see so many people I don’t much hear from pouring their hearts out about their parents and children and partners and friends, about hospitals and health care workers and miracle cures, about pets and careers and cities and hobbies and art. I don’t pay much attention to what the church does since I left but it’s nice to see something that comes off as inspired. The last thing like that happened when I was still a member was the big move to embrace refugees five years ago or so. That was something, wasn’t it, for an inherently conservative religion on the cusp of Trump’s ascendance? It’s sort of funny, now, to see inspiration strike on social media, but then again, here we are.
What would I share if I were the type to participate in a hashtag challenge?
Today, my list looks like this: I am grateful for my husband. To have a companion, a partner, a friend, a champion, a co-pilot, and a co-parent right now is everything. It’s how I make it through. To have a lover is next level. That’s how I keep going.
I am grateful for my daughter. How she found her way into our family and fit right in feels like nothing short of a miracle. How she keeps on growing, changing, and becoming who she is in the midst of this long pause on the scariest scene in the movie is a gift I am privileged to witness.
I am grateful for my parents. They had a thousand opportunities to get it wrong but somehow they did everything right and raised a pack of kids who are all wildly different and weirdly the same. We like ourselves and each other and the world.
I am grateful for my five siblings, who are, they would be embarrassed to know, my best friends. I am grateful for each of their partners for making my favorite people as happy as my partner makes me.
I am grateful for a big ol’ family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of them seemingly on Facebook loving everything I do from afar. I feel it.
I am grateful for the family I married into, another gift, one I never even knew to expect and don’t deserve. They are shiny, solid in-law gold, loving and fun, warm and generous and wide-open. I didn’t know that could happen.
I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had, for the opportunity to have been so many versions of myself to have collected so many weird and wonderful people along the way. To the Mormons and Methodists and atheists and exes; to the scholars and students and teachers and profs; to the fighters and feminists; to the progressives and socialists and centrists and liberals and dems; to the mathematicians and doctors and scientists and engineers; to the lawyers and law students and project assistants and paralegals and all the big law refugees; to the artists; to the druggies and drunks, sober and not; to the readers and writers; to the runners and yogis; to the Highland Hawks and the Arizona Wildcats and the Michigan Wolverines; to neighbors and friends in every place I’ve ever lived; to anyone who no longer or never did fit into one of these categories but for whom I’ve somehow ended up in your orbit anyway: I am grateful for you. You have mattered to me and you matter in a much larger sense. Thank you for being you. I know it’s not easy.
It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.
I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.
Oh and while the king was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown The courtroom was adjourned No verdict was returned
I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:
I’m a white man living in a white man’s world Under our roof is a baby girl I thought this world could be hers one day But her mama knew better
“Society” by Eddie Vedder:
Society, you’re a crazy breed I hope you’re not lonely without me
Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.
I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.
The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.
Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.
Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.
The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?
Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?
Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?
The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.
If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?
These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.
Well the year that was last week is over and done. Where were you when the interminable, uncomfortably close race was called? I was on the couch with my family watching TV. We never watch TV on weekend mornings because my daughter’s childhood couldn’t be more different from my own, except when there’s an early football game or, as happened last week, we find ourselves hooked on watching ballots trickle in from Allegheny County and Maricopa, which, it so happens, is where I grew up. For four nights I stayed up late knowing the results weren’t likely to come in but waiting just the same. I wasn’t prepared for the sun to be shining when I got the news. I wasn’t prepared to be sitting next to my daughter. I wasn’t prepared to have nothing to do but react. Pennsylvania went blue on the map we’d been staring at with horror, disbelief, skepticism, and stupid, impossible hope all week and CNN called the race for Biden. My husband pulled out his phone to make a video and caught my face crumpling when Wolf Blitzer declared Harris the first woman and the first woman of color elected to the office of Vice President. I wasn’t prepared for how much that would mean to me. I couldn’t even touch the possibility with my mind after what happened to Clinton in 2016 and, to a far lesser extent but painful nonetheless, to Warren in the primaries. I don’t know everything women can do, but I know exactly what we can’t do in America in 2020. My husband sent the video to my family on the Marco Polo app. Only my sister responded, eyes and mouth wide with happy screams. We’d been texting all week, morning to night and riding out the anxiety together, sisters in arms on the same side, willing Arizona to flip and then watching it happen, was the second best thing to happen all week, maybe all year.
I was still laughing and crying and cheering when I heard a buzzing rumble, long and low and slow. I thought my phone was going off but it was the neighbors blowing some type of horn. We threw our windows open, too, and cued up Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen–all the victory songs the Trump campaign tried and failed to co-opt. We heard voices–a few neighbors had spilled out into front yards–and I ran out to join them in pajamas and sneakers and a mask. One neighbor explained the horn–a Shofar, or ram’s horn, blasted in ancient and modern Jewish religious rituals, and, in this case, to signal victory and celebration–before heading back inside to call his parents. Another neighbor laughed bitterly and said she wouldn’t be calling hers; her mom loves Trump, and I think her in-laws do, too. She laughed but I know this fact causes pain. I wondered where my parents were, in senses both literal and less so. I’d called my dad on Wednesday but he didn’t call back. I’d called my mom on Friday but it had been tense. She won’t share her political views, which means I never know where I stand. My parents don’t want to take sides. I get it. They have five kids who all vote differently. But not knowing means I’ll never know if they care or even understand how much this means to their daughters or how much it means for their granddaughters. I am close with my brothers but haven’t heard from any of them in a few weeks. It’s normal not to talk to my family on weekends but their silence on Saturday was strange on a day when people were dancing in the streets.
Still needing to be outside, I took my daughter on a hike in the afternoon. We sat on a log in the woods and sang The Star-Spangled Banner, start to finish. We belted it, really, bold and unembarrassed. Nobody walked by, but we wouldn’t have minded if they did; my daughter and I both enjoy an audience. The leaves were mostly gone from the trees so we could see everything coming up the trail, ahead and behind. The woods were filled with golden light and the sun dropped into the side of the sky early because it’s been a long year and the party’s starting late. When we got back into the car, I didn’t want to go back home. I wanted to drive downtown. I wanted to go into the bars so I could pour out of them. I wanted to be with people, popping bottles and hopping around and never sitting down. The streets were open but everything else was closed and it was just me and the seven-year-old, so we went back home. I fell asleep on the couch, a week of late nights and four years of watching my back, watching over my people, waiting for the other foot to drop catching up at last. I woke up to dinner on the table. My husband cracked the Martinelli’s. All three of us made toasts and clinked. We raised our glasses to what we’ve been through, personally and as a nation. We raised nodded our heads to how much we still have to do. We drank to starting this next leg of the race newly inspired and refreshed.
We let our daughter stay up past bedtime to watch Harris and Biden deliver victory speeches. She was giddy from the bubbles and good feeling and couldn’t stop bouncing on the couch and babbling over the TV. She practically bubbled over herself when the Biden and Harris families walked into the stage and started in with the hugging. I watched my daughter watch these families watching the fireworks exploding in the sky, all of us with shiny eyes.
I am not inclined to put Harris or Biden on a pedestal. They were imperfect candidates who disappointed me before they ran and whose administration will surely disappointment me going forward. We the people will need to hold them accountable. In the meantime, I am heaving with relief. I rest easier knowing there is no doubt that the President and Vice President Elect are decent people who love this country and care about the welfare of families other than their own. I trust that they understand the seriousness of the task that lies before them. I believe that they will restore honor to the offices from which they serve. I am confident that they will work on behalf of the people they serve. I pray that the next four years will be better than the last for every single one of my fellow Americans, but especially for the ones who have suffered the most.
The night before the election my daughter had a hard time going to bed. “What happens if Trump wins?” she worried. “Oh girlie,” I reassured her, as she climbed into my lap. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ll keep taking care of each other and working to make the world a safer, more loving place.” Since then, I wondered if I was wrong to let her in on so much of what’s happening in the world. Maybe I should have done more to shield her from the damage the Trump administration inflicted on so many, and the danger he still poses. Maybe I should have taken a page from my mom’s book and shielded her from the bias of my own beliefs.
Celebrating together this weekend, I tasted the first fruits of raising my child to be politically engaged. I try to teach her respect for her uncles and grandparents that vote differently than we do, mostly because I want her to know that I won’t love her any less if she grows up to believe differently than me. She will never wonder where I stand or where she stands with me. Today, I got another hint that we’re headed in a good direction. My daughter came downstairs and asked me if she could read a page from the book she’s writing for her non-fiction unit at school. It’s called “The 2020 Election!” and the first chapter starts like this: “2020 has been a crazy year. And I’m not making that up.” She dedicated her book to “all the people in the United States.”
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!”
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. My presence at home distracts my daughter from e-learning and throws them off their routine. When I come up for coffee or walnuts or cheesy puffs she looks up from whatever screen is working best today and says, “Hey guess what?” and then we chat over her teacher and he has to redirect her when I leave. When I join them for lunch, he says she’s like a whole different kid. When he’s being whatever, she looks to me as if to say, “see what I’m dealing with all day?” and I give her a look that says, “tell me about it.” I get to be the fun mom and he is serious business dad. I don’t think he likes that.
The downstairs room where I work and he works out is a mess of cords. I have work laptop and another work laptop and the tablet where I do my writing and last week I brought out the space heater. I keep talking about how I want to tell my firm to stop paying rent downtown and bring all my office furniture home. We could put the futon in storage, or just throw it away (it’s not like anyone’s coming to stay) and move is $$$ stationary bike into the garage. He really doesn’t like that.
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But I used to eat cans of soup for lunch and now I eat roasted vegetables and pasta. I used to scour discount shoe retailers for boots sturdy enough to stand up to several miles of sloshing through the snow, professional enough to stand up in court, and sleek enough to withstand the withering stares of ladies who lunch and now I wear slouchy socks all day. I used to get sexually harassed when I changed into leggings to go for a run and now I know the freedom of almost nobody looking at me at all.
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But, look, I tried to go back in June and the man on the other side of the wall was coughing into a phone while hawking his gluten free bread products and the other man with whom I was once locked in a silent battle over the thermostat in my office was sweating buckets at his desk and the receptionist was walking around with her mask dangling from one ear and every month or so I get an email that there’s been a positive test in the building.
My husband definitely wants me to go back to the office. But, like, would you go back before there’s a vaccine? Would you ever go back at all?
My neighborhood has loved spooky season as long as I’ve been here. There’s this house on the corner with a raggedy ghoul that they usually fix in a tree in their front yard such a way that it seems to be looming over the whole block and our first few Halloweens here I had to walk with my daughter on the other side of the street and distract her from the actual scariest image she’d ever seen. The ghoul is gone this year, though those neighbors still have an eight-foot spider inflatable on the porch, so I’m wondering if maybe they retired the ghoul for being just a little much for a neighborhood that’s crawling with small children. I hope that’s not the case, in part because in recent years my daughter has developed a weird affection for ghouls and now she misses it, and also because the rest of the neighborhood is so terrifying that one less creature of the night hasn’t made a whit of difference. The neighborhood–like much of America, I suspect–is hitting Halloween extra hard this year. COVID can take away fall festivals and trick-or-treat and parties, but it can’t kill the deep-seated human tradition of conjuring up spooks and spirits as a way of coping with the real-life horrors tapping on our doors, pulling up a chair inside our homes, rooting down inside our hearts.
My daughter loves Halloween as much as anyone and picked out our first legitimately creepy decoration this year: a strand of grimy looking skeletons from the Dollar Store that she asked me to put up above the dining table so she can see it when she is “at school.” Though her burgeoning love of skeletons, ghouls, and ghosts makes walks around the neighborhood easier this year, she still hates severed limbs and blood, a not unreasonable position for a seven-year-old, and closes her eyes when we walk past the butcher’s tree and the house with the foot hanging from the doorknob. She also has a severe fear of werewolves–irrational only because she loves big, vicious-looking dogs–but it’s bad enough that she straight up refuses to go down a street that I’m dying to show her with a ten foot skeleton and a motion-activated werewolf with huge feet and a ripped up red plaid shirt. She’s gets what we’re trying to do with Halloween this year, though, how we’re making the monsters beautiful before they eat us in our sleep. This week, when she popped her eyes open after the bloody tree and found herself staring right at Ghostface, she took it in stride. Her voice went up an octave and she squealed, to the delight of the woman sitting on Ghostface’s porch, “Ohhhhh look at that cute little ghoul! I LOVVVVVE HIM. He has PUPPY dog eyes!” So, no, we’re not in denial at all over here, folks.
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.
For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:
If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.
*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.
It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.
I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.
Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.
In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.
The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.
The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.
I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:
Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.
It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.
Scene: Class zoom call starts in five minutes, only a few kids are on the call.
KID 1: I’m going to take my iPad outside and show you where people live. This is my house. And KID 2 lives over there.
KID 2: Hey, that’s my house!
KID 3: Go to Lake Street! That’s where I live!
KID 1, ignoring KID 3 and directing iPad camera at sewer instead: Does anyone know who Pennywise is?
KID 4: I know who Pennywise is!
KID 1: Pennywise is a…
TEACHER: Let’s all go on mute until class starts.
Scene: Drama class. The teacher asked the kids to get off the zoom call and make a video of themselves acting like their favorite animal. DAD is in the same room listening but not looking. KID sets the iPad on a chair and starts crawling around on the ground and woofing like a dog. KID stands up, moves the iPad to to the floor, and crawls around in front of the camera. KID stands up, moves the iPad again, falls to the ground and rolls over. DAD looks over and sees KID on her back, rocking back and forth, legs in the air, party dress around her waist, flashing her underwear at the iPad.
DAD: Okay, KID, this looks great, but we’re going to need to record it again. Go put some shorts on under your dress.
KID: Do I have to?
KID, pissed: FINE.
KID, brightening considerably: I know! I’ll put on a second pair of underwear over these ones!
DAD: No. Put on some shorts.
KID, running up the stair: Second underwear!
KID: SECOND UNDERWEAR!
Scene: Class zoom call, it’s daily question time.
QUESTION ASKER: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
KID 1: Underground.
KID 2, tentatively: Like a mole?
KID 1: No, KID 2, NOT like a mole! I wouldn’t have a long skinny tail. I WOULD BE IN AN ARMCHAIR UNDERGROUND BECAUSE I WANT TO LIVE ALONE.
Teacher: Are you sure there’s not somewhere you else you might want to live in twenty years?
KID 1: Nope. I’ve already made my life decision.
Scene: In PE, out of nowhere.
KID 1: I like movies and things that are IN-A-PRO-priate!
KID 2: I know a movie that’s inappropriate!
PE TEACHER: I’m going to mute you all now.
Scene: Class zoom call, daily question time.
QUESTION ASKER: What kind of animal would you be and why?
KID 1: I would be a bear because they can kill a person just by pushing them and when I get really mad at someone, I could push them.
KID 2: I would be a shark that eats people on purpose.
The summer after high school I lived at home with my parents in Phoenix counting down the days until the dorms opened up and I could move down to Tucson for college. I was like a prisoner scratching days into the wall. That was a bad summer. I had no boyfriend and no romantic prospects, I had two friends and I was pretty sure they liked each other better than me, my parents were mad at me all the time or maybe I was mad at them, I was broke as a joke, and the state took away my driver’s license after I racked up my third speeding ticket before turning eighteen. I also had this terrible job. It was a job I could mention in passing without it sounding terrible. I worked at a photography studio, a fixture of the community that shot family portraits and engagement photos and senior pics. I was an artsy kid, always aiming my point and shoot at the clouds and chain link fences and art deco buildings downtown, so the job sounded pretty good, except that I never went near a camera, print, or prop. I never even saw the clients. I was a telemarketer.
The boss was an older lady who wore quite a lot of jewelry and shimmery, silky tops. If she wasn’t glamorous, she was at least reaching for it. If she wasn’t the owner, she ran the place within the inch of its life, and she kept a stable of girls in the back room wearing headsets and working the phones to get people on the books for a free sitting for an 8×10.
Does it sound like we were offering free 8×10 portraits? Yeah, that’s what the customers thought, too. There were no free portraits. We were offering a free sitting, i.e., we were waiving the $50 fee the studio usually charged just to walk in the door.
We had a few different lists–customers who had come in before and residential lists that the boss had recently invested in with the hope of reaching new customers. The warm contacts were not warm. Most of them remembered that for years and years, the studio had offered free 8×10 portraits to first time customers. Most of them had taken advantage of that deal to score a new family photo or picture of the new baby and not been back since. People loved that deal, but too many people didn’t buy anything on top of the free 8×10 and the studio was losing money, which is the reason it had to go and also the reason that the portrait studio had a telemarketing arm.
The boss had updated the scripts to be technically accurate but not explicitly clear. On the phone, I always tried to emphasize that I was inviting people to come in for a free sitting not a free photo. The offer was not enticing. Most people didn’t realize there was a sitting fee in the first place. The people who picked up on the distinction right away were pissed and disinclined to schedule an appointment. The people who didn’t catch on until the end of the call, after they had gone to the trouble of finding time on their calendars to book and I reiterated that we couldn’t wait to see them for their free sitting, were even more pissed and inclined to cancel or not show up. There were also people who sounded so excited about the appointment that I was pretty sure they had misunderstood. I felt bad about those people, but I couldn’t explain to them what they had done, warn them what was coming. It wasn’t in the script. Were they pissed when their pictures were printed and they got the bill with no free 8×10? I had no way of knowing–that was weeks down the line and the photographers handled their invoicing–but I could guess, and those were the customers that made me feel the worst.
The cold contacts may have lived in the desert but they were like ice. The National Do Not Call list had been signed into law that spring, just two months before I started working at the studio, and registration for it opened up while I was on the job. Enforcement wouldn’t begin until October, but the people who knew about the law were not shy about screaming “Put me on your Do Not Call List!” into my ear. People who didn’t know about the law were not shy about yelling at me, either. Of course, most people didn’t answer or hung up the phone when they realized I was selling something. The few people who stayed on the line long enough to hear my pitch seemed to understand that there was no free picture but didn’t think much of the offer and even if they did, weren’t about to take time off work to come in for a family portrait in the middle of the summer.
That was the other thing. The people who did schedule always wanted to book a few weeks or even months out but we were trying to fill empty slots in the next two days. The whole thing was weird and we all knew it, the people on the phone and the girls in the back room.
The job was embarrassing and demoralizing and the teeniest bit sleazy and I’m not in contract with a single former coworker, and when I think about it I have nothing but warmth in my heart. In my memories, it’s always golden hour and the strip mall studio is glowing in the desert sun. The call lists and fresh and the appointment books are full. The boss is beatific and bestowing us with dollar store goodies for a job well done. The radio is on, alternating between country and r&b. The girls are taking a break from dialing or covering their mouthpieces while the phone rings and telling jokes. We are all busting up.
Those girls, and the boss too, did a lot for me. The girls treated me like part of the team even though I had nothing in common with the peppy former cheerleader or the farm girl from the rural northeastern part of the state or the older girl from downtown Mesa who lived with her grandparents and loved The Temptations or the ex-meth addict who paid her utilities one week and lived next to a guy who gave people tattoos on his porch. The girls made me laugh all day at a time when the rest of my life felt bleak. The girls taught me that the cheapest place to get lunch was the cafe at the Target across the street. The girls told me not to trust the guy I’d met on a dating site for Mormon singles who would end up selling me drugs and ripping me off. The girls helped me call the police when I thought I wasn’t sure if I’d been assaulted by a different guy. The boss let the police come to the studio, let me make the report in her private office. The girls covered for me when I wanted to sneak out for the day and interview for what I thought would be a better job and comforted me when I came crawling back a few hours later, having realized that the better job involved selling knives door-to-door and required an upfront investment of $400.
My job at the portrait studio suuuuuuucked but it was 100x better than calling voters in Texas on behalf of the Democratic party, which is what I did yesterday afternoon. The answering machines and hangups that made up the majority of my calls were a relief. Every interaction with a person on the other end of the phone was painful. There was the woman who got pissed when she heard the word “Democrat” and refused to give any indication who she was voting for except that it wasn’t Biden. There was the troll who said he wanted to talk and then kept me on the phone while he pretended to take a piss and sighed and groaned into the phone. There was the Biden voter who said he’d only vote if we took him off our list, NOW. There was the woman trying to do e-learning with her child and the man at work who asked me to call back after five and I said I would knowing I had no control over when the software would dial their numbers again. There was the military guy who wasn’t planning to vote because he couldn’t figure out how to get a mail in ballot and I couldn’t help him because the script didn’t allow it. There were the names I butchered and the languages I couldn’t speak and the calls I didn’t know how to code. Turning out the vote sounds like fun when it’s a rock concert. Turning out the vote sounds easy when it’s on Facebook. Turning out the vote sounds self-important when it’s pestering your family. When it involves talking to real voters you don’t know, turning out the vote turns into a job.
It didn’t matter how badly a day at the portrait studio went, at the end of every two weeks I took home a paycheck. I’m not sure if I did anything worthwhile yesterday except save the campaign from wasting a few seconds on hostile voters and reassigned numbers. I didn’t even come out of it with a good feeling.
I’m going to do it again today.
Do you want to know why?
It’s sure as hell not love of the Democratic party. I support Democratic policies, but I can’t say that the party as an institution has done more for more than the girls at the portrait studio did.
I’m supporting Dems because the other side put a man on the Supreme Court who did the same thing to Dr. Blasey Ford that I reported to the police in the back office of the portrait studio.
I’m supporting Dems because the other side wants to shut down planned parenthood, which is where I went that summer when I was afraid I had been exposed to HIV.
I’m supporting Biden because the other guy paid less in federal taxes in two years in which he was running for and serving as president of the United States of America than I did in two years of working minimum wage job.
Calling people at home is rude as hell but not as rude as Trump was during last night’s debate.
Calling people at home is embarrassing but not as embarrassing as having Trump at the helm of our country.
Calling people at home sucks for everybody involved but I’m going to do it anyway because, unlike our president, I actually give a shit about Americans and want us all to have good lives.
Calling people at home might not make a difference but I want to live in a world where at least I can try.
Voters might not want to hear from the Democratic Party but at least I’m not offering them a free sitting for a $50 8×10.