Quarantine Diary Day 139: Brain Freeze

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.

Quarantine Diary Day 133: Something Less Than Free

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?”

Quarantine Diary Day 139: A Week Without Words

I quit reading last week. I gave it all up, or tried to anyway, fiction and fact, print and online, social media and serious journalism. Let me back up.

About a month ago I started working my way through The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s guide to fostering creativity. The book is structured as a twelve-week course with readings and writing exercises and other tasks to do each week. Last week, one of the assignments was a total ban on reading. Cameron calls the exercise reading deprivation, if that sounds harsh it’s because it is. Cameron is clear that her intent is not to provide any loopholes, even going as far as to suggest that people procrastinate or otherwise worm their way out of required reading for work and school.

The idea behind the challenge is that we need white space, a break from the constant consumption of content, to allow our own creativity room to flourish. Reading deprivation is the first element of The Artist’s Way that I haven’t been enthusiastic about. I had just started reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and had less than two weeks left on my library loan; if I didn’t finish on time I was going to have to put my Kindle into airplane mode. I was tempted to skip the challenge altogether–I am a lawyer for God’s sake, I can’t not read–but decided to give it an honest effort, mainly because Cameron all but promised a big payoff:

If we monitor the inflow and keep it to a minimum, we will be rewarded for our reading with embarrassing speed. Our reward will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

As a person who obsessively inhales information and readily (although embarrassedly) identifies as a “blocked creative” (or at least with the “blocked” part of that phrase), I knew I stood to benefit from dialing down the noise. I’ll admit that I didn’t comply with the letter or even the spirit of the assignment. At the outset, I decided I was still going to read to my daughter before bed every night and I was still going to read for work to the extent necessary to do my job. Even with those caveats, a lot of words fell right out of my life.

Here is list (incomplete because I’m probably forgetting something) of things I usually read on a daily basis that I gave up:

  • Poetry;
  • Morning news briefings from the New York Times;
  • My personal email (including informational emails from my kid’s school an day camp, the HOA, the church, social justice orgs, the running club, newsletters, and whatever other shit I forgot to unsubscribe from);
  • The paper newspaper (currently: The New York Times);
  • Tarot guidebooks;
  • Audiobooks that I listen to on my fake morning commute (currently: Daring Greatly and Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered);
  • Facebook posts;
  • Instagram posts;
  • Twitter;
  • Direct messages on FB, Instagram, and Twitter (lol no one DMs me on Twitter);
  • Articles people share on social media;
  • Articles my colleagues share at work;
  • Books I read over lunch (currently: the big antiracist guide);
  • Podcasts I listen to while running or on my fake evening commute;
  • Recipes;
  • Books I read to my daughter during or after dinner (currently: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire);
  • Books I read after I put my daughter to bed (currently: The Great Believers);
  • Books sitting on my nightstand that I keep starting and putting down because it is SAD (currently: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead); and
  • Self-help books I read before bed (currently: Boundaries and Protection by Pixie Lighthorse).

I missed each of these sources of information, entertainment, and distraction almost immediately. In their absence, I didn’t know what the fuck to do with my hands or eyes or mind, let alone all my newfound time! Cameron was right though. My imagination found ways to fill in the gaps. 

Here is list (incomplete because I’m probably forgetting something) of things I did last week instead of reading:

  • Moved pictures from four old phones to the cloud;
  • Found and looked at/watched old pics and videos of D from when she was a baby;
  • Cleaned out drawers;
  • Inexplicably listened to Whitney Houston;
  • Wrote;
  • Worked;
  • Walked;
  • Stared into space;
  • Talked to my husband;
  • Watched TV;
  • Looked at houses on Redfin (just the pictures!) (this was probably a cheat and I did it a lot);
  • Organized my Google Drive;
  • Called my sister;
  • Called my mom;
  • Played LEGO with D;
  • Organized a box of staples that had spilled everywhere;
  • Played ukulele;
  • Listened to music;
  • Ran
  • Called Dan;
  • Learned a new song on the guitar;
  • Pulled tarot cards;
  • Did writing exercises from The Artist’s Way;
  • Organized my nightstand;
  • Played Monopoly Deal with D;
  • Cooked food without a recipe;
  • Cleaned out the fridge;
  • Made chalk art on the sidewalk with D;
  • Sat outside with my neighbors;
  • Went on a date with my husband;
  • Meditated;
  • Looked at pictures of art online;
  • Laid out in the sun listening to music; and
  • Braided grass into wreaths and left them at the base of a tree.

My efforts to stick to even my modified version of the reading deprivation challenge were imperfect. I slipped. I read comments on this blog. I read the email from my daughter’s school district announcing the plan for returning to school in the fall. I checked Instagram and Facebook more times than I care to admit and and when I saw a loose FB acquaintance reference reporting on “off-world vehicles not made on this earth” I did some frantic Googling and binge-read this whole article alluding to the existence of U.F.O.s once to myself and then again out loud to my husband before I realized what I was doing. I texted.

Not reading was only inconvenient a handful of times. I hated seeing the newspaper go untouched day after day so that it was still perfectly folded in a neat little pile at the end of the week; it made me feel unproductive, wasteful, and out of touch. I worried I would miss some critical information about my daughter’s school by not reading the 22 page packet that accompanied the email from the district. Someone from the church dropped off two neon vinyl strips with velcro on the ends and said they were for (virtual) vacation bible school activity that week and neither of us had any idea what they were for since my daughter wasn’t actually going to vacation bible school and I wasn’t checking the daily emails.

In the end, I didn’t miss anything. A fresh paper came the next week and all the news was the same. My husband read the packet from the school. And on the last day of the reading deprivation challenge I drove by the church and saw a series of brightly loops making a chain across the gate in front of the courtyard with messages from the kids in my daughter’s sunday school class. Ah. So that’s what the strips were for.

Quarantine Diary Day 138: Sanity Check

My daughter has been going to day camp at the YMCA for the last four weeks. The season is abbreviated this year so next week is her last. Summer camps in our neck of the woods started announcing their summer shut downs way back in April but the YMCA kept our hopes afloat by sending us regular emails, postponing instead of cancelling the camp start date, and continuing to process our direct deposits. By mid-May, we were convinced that even five weeks of camp would not happen. People told us not to get our hopes up. People told us not in a million years. I wondered if we were stupid for continuing to pay for membership at a facility we hadn’t swam or worked out in or used in any way for over two months, for not asking for a refund for the camp fees we’d paid for June, for worrying more about the money than the health risks, for holding out hope that D would go to camp in July.

In mid-June, the YMCA finalized the summer camp schedule. Five weeks, five days a week, with a shortened camp day from last year. Groups would be capped at 10 campers with limited and consistent staff assigned to each group. Eighteen days out from the start of camp, we did not have a clue about anything else, about safety protocols or about the camp itinerary, only the vaguely inspiring but also somehow unsettling promise that “now that we understand what we can’t do, we are focusing on what we CAN do.” People were still telling us camp would not happen, or that it shouldn’t. I wondered if we were stupid for not worrying more about the risks or the safety protocols, for putting our child in childcare that we didn’t technically need. I wondered if we were part of the problem, partially to blame for America not getting this damn virus under control.

The YCMA sent out the safety protocols on July 2: a regimented drive-up drop-off/pick-up procedure, daily health screenings and temperature checks, lots of hand sanitizer and hand washing, masks for campers and staff at all times indoors and any time six feet of physical distance could not be maintained outdoors, eating lunch in the classroom, no mixing with other groups, no personal belongings from home, a strict sick policy, and a harsh COVID liability waiver. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake, if the social and mental benefits of camp for our daughter would be wiped out by the social and mental strain of attending under these conditions. I wondered if we were underestimating the risks of getting someone sick or getting sick ourselves of our daughter getting sick.

Our daughter started camp on July 5. My husband does a contactless drop-off of our precious human cargo in front of the camp site instead of walking through the neighborhood like they did last year. D answers questions we had to explain to her the day before camp started about whether she has a new cough or shortness of breath, a sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea, chills or shaking, muscle pain, a headache, or new loss of taste or smell. Apparently no one ever told her what diarrhea was (this is why we need kids in school). A staffer holds a thermometer to her head. Apparently she runs lower than I realized, around 98 degrees. She wears a mask all day every day and when she comes home it is filthy with sunscreen and sweat and spit and mustard. When the bandana we sent her in the first week kept slipping under her nose the staff gave her a disposable surgical mask. Apparently we need to buy a lot more masks, and apparently decent ones are hard to find (this is why schools need to provide masks). She has a table all to herself in a classroom that only had five kids the first week, though it’s now up to ten. Each camper gets their own stockpile of art supplies. No sharing. An only child’s dream.

She comes home every day with a bag overflowing with paper airplanes and paper dogs and paper crowns and paper dolls and paper alligators and paper birds and homemade coloring books with scenes she drew from The Neverending Story. She comes home every day with scrapes and scratches and dirt under her nails and paint on her hands and tales about the weird and cool shit she saw: thousands of ants swarming a pile of spilled Cheetos, a bunny’s tail with no bunny attached, a cicada’s shell, a dead bird, a murder of crows, a tiny goldfinch perched on a flower, a katydid. I wondered if camp was glorified babysitting, all free-time all day, alternating between inside and out. Honestly, I wondered the same thing last year. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if it was. My kid’s got to learn how to be around other kids. She’s got to learn how to be bored. She’s got to get some distance from me and her dad, not for our sake and sanity but for hers.

At the end of the second week of camp, the YMCA sent home a video of the kids doing archery, dropping Mentos into Coke bottles, flipping cups, playing soccer and basketball, painting rocks, chalking the asphalt, listening to stories, and singing songs. “Do you do all this stuff?” I asked D. “Yeah, of course,” she said.

One day my daughter came home and announced that she had a best friend. When the staff noticed that they were dragging their chairs over to each other’s tables every day, they moved them into kitty corner chairs at the same table. “We’re still too far away, though, so we move our chairs closer.”

A few weeks after that she told us that her old best friend didn’t want to be best friends anymore so they swapped with another pair of girls. Now she has a new best friend.

When I tell people my daughter is in camp, I expect the for them to balk, and justify my decision. One day I called a friend in the middle of the day. “What’s going on?” he asked? “How are you calling right now?” “D is in camp.” He’s in another state, and was speechless. “What? How? How is that possible?” I launch into my standard speech, listing off the safety protocols the same way I did at the outset of this post. “The YMCA is doing a pretty good job. Fewer than ten kids per class. Health checks every morning. The kids are in masks all day. No touching.” He cut me off. “Hold on a second. To be clear, I’m not judging. It’s just that we don’t even have the option.”

Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has woken up in a good mood. She gets dressed and ready for the day without me asking. Sometimes she shouts, “I get to go to camp today!” Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has come home animated, energized, and excited. We spend the afternoons and evenings together watching TV, playing games, eating dinner, playing outside, going on walks, listening to music, reading, playing with toys, and making art. Every day of the last four weeks has not been perfect, but they have been pleasant.

Now, people are telling us that they would never send their kids to in-person school in the fall, even if the schools do manage to pull off safety protocols along the lines of what they’re doing at the YMCA. We just opted-in for in-person learning to begin at the end of September. We’ll see if that actually happens. In the meantime, I’m wondering, am I stupid? Am I selfish? Am I underestimating the risks? Am I opportunity hoarding? Am I part of the problem? Am I doing the best I can with the same set of limited information and admittedly different but ultimately all crappy options as everyone else?

Quarantine Diary Day 109: Yardsticks

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.

Quarantine Diary Days 37, 44, and 51: Slippery Slopes

This post is the third in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first and second posts here and here.

April 19: For the first month of shelter in place Sundays were the high point of every week, the mountain crest after last week’s long slog up, the top of the roller coaster before next week’s long slide down. With Easter, it felt like we were really building up to something. After that highest high point, this second Sunday in Easter is something of a let down. It is an effort to locate and name the good, but I do it anyway, because it’s good for me. D won’t walk with me before church, so she misses the crow cawing way up in a tall tree, the flash of robin red, the calico cat creeping in plain sight in front of a row of houses along church street, and the chance to wave at neighbors out walking with their dog. It’s hard to hear them behind their masks all the way across the street but the connection is there. I take many deep breaths. D does watch virtual church with me and she sees the bright side in the viewer count rising in the corner of the screen. People are logging in from all over the country and this is exciting. “People can watch church even when they’re out of town!” The church is trying something new, a virtual fellowship hour after the service is over. I make up my second coffee of the day and click the Zoom link eager to see some familiar faces, parched for conversation. The host lets me in and almost immediately kicks me into a breakout room. Hey, I know these people! There is a man from the parenting class I attended my second year with the church, the father of a hilarious little girl a few years younger than my D, who recently relocated to Colorado. There is also the pastor herself. We talk and talk even though the system is glitchy and our husbands and daughters keep wandering in and out of the frame. Actually, it’s hard to have this conversation in the middle of my living room. My daughter is annoyed that I am still staring at a screen and keeps asking questions about what we’re talking about. When we get kicked back into the main group I see my chance but it is with resignation that I drop out of the chat.

April 26: Pastor Grace says that God makes us family and today I feel agitated with mine. They are not doing what I want them to do. I want them to sit quietly and listen to the sermon or, if that’s too much to ask, I want them to quietly do the things I want them to do: read the paper, do the crossword, draw a picture, make sourdough. Instead my husband is sleeping on the couch and my daughter is hunched over on the floor, still in her sleep clothes, building with LEGO. I am annoyed, as though rest and play are not perfect Sabbath activities. I thought D wasn’t paying attention during Children’s Chapel before church but when Pastor Jane asked what water is for, D piped up, “Oh, I know!” and clambered over to the laptop to unmute herself. “Water is important because you get baptized in it.” I am surprised that baptism is on her radar, since she’s not baptized herself. I am surprised she’s been paying attention. Back to the sermon, Pastor Grace says that the church was born during shelter-in-place, that it found its voice during lockdown. She talks about Thomas like doubt is a good thing. D chimes in to chant “Hear our prayer” while I tune out. I am anxious because the day is unplanned. I have no Sunday School lesson for D, no art project, no family movie. I am running out of steam, patience, and ideas. At the end of my own rope it seems the only option is to observe Sabbath the way God intended and just let the day unfold.

May 3: I’m watching church alone today. My daughter finally opted out of church altogether and is up in her room listening to stories. My husband is on his bike. In spite of the silence, I can’t hear a word of the sermon because I am fixated on Pastor Grace’s stole. There was a time my mind associated grapes on the vine with kitchy kitchen decor your friend from high school or your coworker’s wife might pick up on a whim from TJ Maxx. My mom had a triptych of bottles and vines hanging over her last kitchen table, I guess because they look vaguely European. She doesn’t even drink wine. No one in my family does. The church is transforming the image, ruining it and then making it better, like it always does, I suppose. The church never knew how to let well enough alone, never let me leave my drinking alone anyway, and now it’s after the symbols too. Jesus labored in the vineyard. The grape is not God’s original fruit, but like all God’s gifts, it comes with a price, a dark side. The vines in the sanctuary aren’t closing around anyone’s neck, or least they aren’t closing around mine. In the church, the grape signifies abundance, fertility, celebration, joy. In the church, the grape is the fruit of my labor and yours. It’s been a long time since I found these things inside a wine bottle and two months since I went looking inside a communion cup. My teeth, my tongue, my sheets are still stained with the contents of both vessels.

May 4: I email a postcard from home for Mary to include in the week’s e-news.

Hello First Church Family. We are missing you and, along with looking for new life, we are looking for signs of you on our many long walks around town. Whenever we see a rainbow in a window or message of hope we wonder out loud if it is from one of you. This week, we noticed that the spiky red buds of a certain shrub near Mason park resemble the illustrated rendering of the coronavirus that’s dominated the visual news media for the last four months. This led daughter D to muse about how funny it would be to see a bush coughing, which led to a conversation about Moses and the burning bush, which led to me telling the story of the Israelites chasing a pillar of fire through the desert, which led to D recalling the tongues of fire flickering over the the heads of Jesus’ disciples, which led to us walking down the street hand-in-hand singing “Carry the Flame.” She didn’t know the words to that song before quarantine, but hearing it during virtual worship every week has seared it into our hearts. We are looking forward to the day we reach the promised land and sing with you in person. It will be a celebration.  

Quarantine Diary Day 135: Raising the Bar

When my daughter turned seven at the end of April drive-by birthdays were all the rage. Our community is all close enough to walk or far enough to fly so we asked our neighbors to hang signs on their doors wishing D a happy birthday. Our neighbors, even the ones we don’t know so well, even the ones without kids, showed up with signs and tapped hello from their windows and brought their pets to the doors and left cards and little gifts on their stoops and one beautiful child played her ukulele. It was enough to make D feel special and to make me cry. It is always a tall order to make a kid feel as special as they are on their birthday, and a making that happen in quarantine felt impossible. My neighbors took some of that weight off my shoulders and carried us for a stretch in the middle of a long at-home birthday afternoon.

The next day, we crossed paths with a neighbor by the mailbox, a dad with three kids of his own. He wished D a happy birthday. We thanked him and then asked if they had any quarantine birthdays coming up. “Yeah,” he said. “In July.” “HAHAHAHA,” I laughed in the face of this eminently reasonable man until I realized he wasn’t kidding. My amusement soured as my mind stretched, for the first time, out past the end of the school year. I hadn’t been thinking about summer or fall or winter or spring again. I hadn’t appreciated that all the birthdays could become quarantine birthdays. I hadn’t realized I needed to step back to understand the size of this thing. Up close it was already too big: countries hit, case counts, casualties of life and life as we know it. I wasn’t ready to face up to it being bigger than it already seemed.

Lately my daughter has started saying something that I guess I must say a lot. “Can you believe it? The year is halfway over and so is the summer and it feels like nothing’s happened!” It’s true! The summer birthdays are upon us, some already in the distant past. Drive-by birthdays are still a thing. The summer affords one thing spring did not, which is outdoor gatherings. In the spring, where we live, in-person gatherings outside would have been both frightfully cold and highly illegal. Now they are only frightfully hot and, if not entirely safe, at least safe-ish. The backyard birthday, once viewed by upper middle class parents as a throwback, a simpler and more affordable alternative to renting out a two hour block at whatever dangerous and diseased arcade/trampoline park/pool/gym/inflatable wonderland–your kids’ classmates are obsessed with this year, now feels like the height of luxury, like a walk on the wild side, like a damn good idea, albeit a little more complicated to execute than it was before.

This weekend our neighbors invited us to their son’s sixth birthday party. It was BYOB–bring your own bat for the pinata–and the kids came out in force, armed with baseball bats, hockey sticks, pipes, and, in one case, a long wood-handled broom. With their masks, they looked like they had wandered off the set of some post-apocalyptic television show, or like they might turn on the adults at any moment. With the adults all hovering around the perimeter trying to maintain social distance, we looked like we might be scared. When the kids all rushed of their own accord into a neat, organized, and tightly packed line–a feat that can surely only be attributed to the appearance of the pinata and the prospect of candy in the very near future–the mood transformed quicky from impressed to fearful and we started shouting at the kids–“SCATTER! SPREAD OUT! GO! GO! GO!”–until they dispersed into a loose clump. The pinata was an oversized LEGO brick, homemade, so well done you wouldn’t know it, strung up on a wooden beam a couple of dads held high above their heads. The kids went at it with everything they had, with four months of pent up energy and rage, and it still took them a good fifteen minutes, with many turns for each kid, and one close call between a broomstick and one of the dads–to break it down. When it finally collapsed, the kids instinctively leaned in before jumping back. The birthday kid’s mom had warned beforehand that there would be no candy strewn across the lawn, no reason to rush, nothing to gather, just one big ziplock for each kid, and now she was reminding them again. They waited patiently for her to hand the goodies out.

After the pinata we sang happy birthday to the birthday kid and helped ourselves to homemade cupcakes and retreated to our family units to eat with masks off. The kids played with the off-brand building bricks that had come out of the pinata. When the sun set, they cracked glow sticks and chased fireflies while the adults set up socially distanced blankets and chairs and distributed popcorn for a late showing of the LEGO movie on a projector screen. We weren’t going to keep our daughter up because she’s seen the movie a half dozen times and while she generally does perfectly fine with late bedtimes, her parents do not. Lucky for her, there was just enough magic for us to loosen our grip on the way things are supposed to be and give them a chance to be how they are. We curled up on our blanket and swatted mosquitos and laughed at our favorite lines. At the end of the movie when Elizabeth Banks’ character gives her inspirational speech to the townspeople to rise up against the fascist President Business, to rip up the ground and tear apart the walls and “build whatever weird thing pops into [y]our head,” the “things only you can build,” my daughter grabbed her glow stick and stuck it in front of my face to confirm that I was, indeed, crying.

When the party wrapped up, I took a minute to congratulate the parents on a top-notch quarantine birthday. Since I had my daughter, I always like to congratulate parents on another year of keeping their kids alive and, if applicable, on surviving the hell that is throwing a party for children, who are objectively the world’s’ worst party guests. Parents in 2020 deserve an extra round. Back in March, the bar for what qualifies as good time–let alone special and memorable–dropped so low, and parents everywhere are busting their asses to raise it back up. My neighbors literally raised the bar with a homemade pinata attached and gave their kid–all our kids, and the parents too–a summer day that stands on its own as special, pandemic or no. I am grateful to them for that and more. I am grateful to everyone who has, some just by virtue of being here and carrying on, made this world feel like one that’s worth fighting for.

Quarantine Diary Day 132: When Things Change Shape

There is no part of my drinking and sobriety that’s not covered over in religion. I was Mormon for all but the last couple months of my drinking career. I was a Jack Mormon and a Lapsed Mormon and a Cafeteria Mormon and an Unorthodox Mormon and Disaffected Mormon but I was always a Mormon. Much of the time I was a believing Mormon. People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Mormon alcoholic but that’s what I was. Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. I was born and raised in a religion that preached abstinence and I loved my church and the good life it gave me but I loved drinking more. Loving booze is not what made me an alcoholic, though. I knew I was alcoholic because drinking was a destructive force in my life and I kept drinking anyway and because when I tried to quit I couldn’t. That’s when I first really leaned into religion. I thought that being a Good Mormon would help me quit drinking. It didn’t. Or, maybe it would have, but I couldn’t quite get there.

My last time in a Mormon church was November 2015. I was serious about quitting drinking by then, too. I’d been to twelve step meetings, admitted I had a problem, started piecing together weeks without alcohol. I convinced myself I deserved to give drinking a shot without the influence of Mormonism, though, so I picked up intentionally on New Years Eve 2015 and drank my way through January. Even those first months of freedom from the religion were not free from religion. I went to the Unitarian Church, shaky, hungover, afraid. The wheels were coming off. My last Day 1 was January 30, 2016

When I quit drinking for good I dove headfirst into spirituality and, eventually, back into religion at a new church. I used to think that was because I needed God to get sober. Now, in the pandemic, I’m unmoored from all that. Not God, but the walls that gave my spiritual life structure. I don’t go to church. I don’t do devotional practices. Without that framework, I tell fewer and fewer stories about God. I really thought I needed all the accouterments of religious ritual and belief to not drink. But here I am not drinking and wondering if God was just something I needed to give my abstinence meaning.

These days, I am less inclined to search for meaning in not drinking. I am less compelled to tell a story with a grand overarching moral narrative about about my sobriety. Not drinking does not need to serve some higher purpose. It need not be preordained. It’s just, for me, a better way to live.

Truth be told, it’s only very recently that I’ve come around to this idea. For most of my sobriety, I was convinced it was the way I was supposed to live–it was an obligation, a duty, a should. I would have said that it was a better way to live but I would not have been talking strictly about life without booze. I would have been talking about the spiritual life I found in sobriety, a life abundant with purpose and connection.

Now, in the pandemic, I’m realizing that the benefits of the dry life stand on their own. Four months in, my spiritual life is drained. Connection is nil. Purpose is I don’t know what. I knew this was a possibility and I was terrified of what would happen if and when I washed up on this shore. Relapse was certain. A mental breakdown for sure. Last month, I came close. Without meetings, without community, without structure, I was starting to falter and fray. Frankly, I was coming apart at the edges.

And then I got sick, really sick, stomach sick. I was in bed for two days. It felt as bad as my first and last hangover and every one in between.

When I came out of it, I couldn’t believe it, how incredible it felt to stand up and walk around without the room spinning. Weeks later, I still can’t believe it. Here I am, clear-headed. Here I am, awake to my life. Here I am, alert to what’s coming down the pike. Here I am, alive.

Why wasn’t this enough before?

I thank God that it’s enough.

I thank God for a worldview that can change shape.

I thank God for a sobriety that doesn’t depend on God.

Quarantine Diary Day 78: Treading Lightly

The first time I took my daughter out of the neighborhood during the pandemic was May 30 and it was nerve-wracking. I was taking her to The Grove, a nature preserve in Chicago’s northern suburbs with a few miles of easy trails winding through acres of prairie and woods that had recently reopened to the public. I lectured my daughter on the drive up. “You have to listen to every word I say and follow directions. You can run up ahead of me but if I stay stop, you stop. If I say come back, you come back. If there are other people we need to wear our masks and give them lots of space. If there are too many people we’ll need to leave. I need you to do EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY.”

Reader, perhaps you are less surprised than I was that my daughter was not enthused to leave her safe and comfy cocoon of the last 2.5 months to go on a masked nature walk with her rigid and neurotic mom!

I lured her out of the house with honey sticks and a handful of Red Vines from the 3.5 lb bucket that my father-in-law shipped to us without warning, a gesture that was in equal measures ludicrous, considerate, delightful. I also let her put a mask on her stuffed dog, Golden.

When we arrived at the park I was pleased to see only a handful of cars and I triangulated the parking lot so as to put as much as many spaces between those cars and mine as possible. When we climbed out of the car, I wrapped a green paisley bandanna around my daughter’s head and tied it in a rough knot, tied a pink Carhartt for Women (what) “work handkerchief” (double what) around my own face and sprayed us both down with a layer of sunscreen followed hand sanitizer that smelled like gin because we’d ordered it from a distillery. The sunscreen was for us; the hand sanitizer for anybody we might meet on the trail. My daughter sported a backpack with a water bottle and magnifying glass and clutched Golden, in her arms.

She squinted at me over her mask. “When do I get a honey stick?” “When it’s safe, girlie.”

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a family–a heterosexual couple with a toddler and a baby in a stroller–headed for the park. They looked like they might be a little slower than us and that stroller was going to be hard to get around on the narrow trails. I grabbed my daughter’s hand. “Hurry hurry go go go.”

Inside, The Grove was gorgeous. Sun filtered through the leaves dappling the ground. Wildflowers bloomed, resplendent. The wetland pools were thick with green algae, nitrogen runoff from nearby farms. Birds hung around like lazy, oversocialized squirrels, content to let us watch them nest. Bugs buzzed by our heads and flew off before we thought to swat them away. We spotted robins and red-winged blackbirds and mallards and wood ducks and geese and swans and a chipmunk cavorting in a felled tree and turtles sunning themselves on logs and a snake slithering in a patch of dry grass and a black beetle with a red head. We pulled off our masks and sucked honey from plastic straws, sucked air through licorice straws. My daughter declined the fruit I packed to feel like a good mom so I grudgingly ate it myself.

We spotted other people, too. I was prepared to see and most concerned for older people in masks. I didn’t want to put them at risk and I didn’t want to scare them. Mostly we saw moms or moms and dads with young kids. Probably desperate to get out of the house after a long spring with nothing to do. My hunch that the trails would be too small to maintain six feet of distance while crossing paths with another group of walkers was right. Our first encounter with another family we were in the middle of a long wooden footbridge over a wet marsh. When we saw them step onto the bridge at the other end and start walking toward us we turned around and booked it back in the direction we came from, stepped off the bridge and waited for them to pass. We did that several more times with several more families, most of whom were masked to various degrees. When there was no space to step aside, I grabbed my daughter and forced her to walk single file right in front of me, or to stop altogether and press our bodies to the invisible edge of the trail to let the other group pass.

I didn’t see anybody else backtrack to give another group space to walk freely. I didn’t see anybody else grabbing their kids. The first older couple we ran into were unmasked and walked right by us, apologetically but seemingly more concerned about us than themselves. It was a relief to to see that people weren’t running away from us and our homemade masks my unbridled child. Even after it became clear that people weren’t going to lose it if the six foot barrier was breached, I continued to take as much care as I could to ensure that we respected it. I continued to step aside, to stop and wait, to go out of my way to let people figure out whether and how they wanted to enter our space. I wanted people to be comfortable with the risks we were all taking. I wanted to avoid at all costs forcing my risk call on someone else.

After an hour or so of doing this dance we reached the longest bridge of the day. Way over on the other side of the marsh I could barely make out a group stepping onto their end of the bridge. I decided we would wait for them to pass to avoid meeting in the middle and one of us having to double back. They had a long way to go but we had plenty of time. Minutes passed. My daughter and I pointed out the different types of purple flowers lining the path and sniffed a few. We looked at the duck houses in the water. We counted up all the animals we’d seen so far. Eventually I checked my watch. This was taking longer than it should have. Maybe the other group had spotted us and were waiting just like we were at the other end? I peered out over the bridge. Ah. There they were. An entire family had plopped down in the middle of the bridge to eat lunch. They hadn’t even noticed us. This was going to far. “We’re going out there,” I told my daughter. We marched out across the bridge and strode past the family, masks dangling around their necks as they dove into their sandwiches. When we got to the other side and spotted yet another group standing around looking at a map I decided we’d been there long enough. It was time to cede the trails.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been careful but not the most careful. My husband goes out for groceries and other supplies, which we stopped wiping down almost immediately. I have wandered longer than necessary in Target and, on one occasion, the art supply store. We have been considerate but not the most considerate. We have made decisions that put the wants and needs of our family above the safety of others. We drove across state lines to camp with friends, stopping at gas stations and for food along the way. My daughter is going to summer camp. Nevertheless, at every fork in the road, every juncture, every decision point, I have tried to open up my eyes to the people around me, both seen and unseen, and at least consider how my actions might impact them.

Before we left the Grove we stopped at a clearing with a cold firepit and rows of log benches. Usually we trace our fingers along the beetle galleries in the wood but this weekend we weren’t touching anything. Instead we hopped from log to log and talked about bugs. It took a few minutes to realize we weren’t alone. There was a backpack at the edge of the clearing. Down in the grass behind the logs a woman squatted scribbling in a notebook. A little boy skittered with a net around the edges of the nearby pond. Suddenly there was a splash and a yell. The boy had caught something! He ran to show his mom. My daughter, who’d been keen to leave only a moment earlier, was all ears. “Mama, I think that boy found a frog!” The woman overheard and urged her son to invite my daughter to look at his catch. He moved in our direction and held the net out. “Do you want to see?” I surveyed the situation, mom and boy without their masks, boy with his arm stretched way out, both at ease. I nodded at my daughter. “Go ahead.” We added one more sign of life to our tally for the day.

Quarantine Diary Day 130: When This Thing Is Over

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.