Quarantine Diaries Day 180: Something Wicked

After a sweltering August, summery sun like liquid gold, I was fully expecting August to stick with us through September. I was counting on more beach days with my daughter and more early mornings on the paddleboard for me and more weekday evenings walking around the park with a popsicle listening to the cicadas drone. September, it seems, has other plans. We went to the beach early on Monday, too early, we were almost the first people there except the sunrise watchers and the volleyball players and it was like the beach wanted to turn us back to where we came from. The sand at the edges was covered in seagull shit. A different pair of hostile bees guarded every couple of square feet we tried to lay our towels. I watched a woman walking her laps down by the water with a halo of bees flitting around her crown. After we settled, chased away the birds and nervously eyed the bees, we jumped in the water and, good Lord, I have never known such a hasty rejection. Just four days ago the water was fine; now it was frigid. I tried to fake it for my daughter–I always think the water is too cold and it always warms up when I go under–but today even her thick kid skin was not impervious to the change. “It’s cooooold, mama. Can we go back to the sand?”

Since labor day, the sky’s been gray and drizzling rain and it’s cool enough to trade short shorts and baggy tanks for the fall uniform: leggings and a cardigan and a pair of rubber wellingtons for walks. I felt the season shift before the weather did. Truth be told, I’ve felt it since the full moon last week. It feels like something wild inside me being summoned by something wilder outside. It wants to break out. It also feels the opposite of that, like something yawning open inside me wants to pull the wild in. I wonder, briefly, if this sensation is new, something I’m only noticing since I started studying the wheel of the year and the witchy holidays: Imbolc in February, Beltane in May, Lammas just past, and Samhain still to come, I can practically feel it crackling under my skin.

I know I’ve been sensitive to the shifts longer than that, though. Fall is always a darkening. First I was nostalgic for something I never experienced–crunchy leaves and football games and pumpkin ales–and even after my life did look like that the fall still made me sad. I marked the days with sad songs and rain tracking down the window of the bus, the car. I never wanted to be where I was going. In the fall I wanted to get blotto, to disappear in a cave of pills and TV and not come out ’til Christmas and even then only briefly, reserving my rights to go back under until spring.

So, summer to fall always messes me up good and this year we have so little to look forward to, no back to school, no tailgates, no fall festivals or trick or treat, no nights out with my mom friends and, I fear, no police reform, no new administration, no justice, no peace. I was sad at first, but under the sadness I feel something more savage rising up.

This Sunday is Rally Day at my church. Usually, there would be balloons and a procession of children to start the service and a picnic and a pledge drive to kick off the new church year. I can’t worship in my church right now.

I can leave offerings for the trees.

I can clear space on my altar, start bringing the earth inside.

I can source ingredients for simple spells.

I can burn sandalwood and brew tea for dream magic.

I can light a fire under my intentions and will the world to change.

I can sit inside a sacred circle, stand up, and take a step in a new direction.

I can practice the craft the craft that carried women where Christianity refused to go, that served women when Christianity wouldn’t, that let women and the world be wild.

The world is rewilding itself now. I’m still civilized enough but hating it in this new incarnation. Without all the barbeques and picnics and parties to trick yourself into thinking there’s a point, I’m thinking, what’s the point? Maybe in the midst of another month of stupid sameness, it’s time for something radically different. I’m not talking about purple hair or a new house. I’m talking about a whole new worldview.

Quarantine Diaries Days 58, 65, 72, 79, 86, and 93: The Great Fall

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

May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.

May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.

May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.

May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.

May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.

June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.

June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.

Quarantine Diary Day 174: From Bad to Worse

Like most kids in the states, my daughter is officially “back” in “school” as of last week. Our district is all virtual or electronic or remote or whatever you want to call it for at least the next month, probably the whole semester. Nobody in our household was happy to see the summer come to an end. Definitely not me with my mountain of worry about the impact this year is going to have on my daughter’s social and emotional well-being. Definitely not my daughter who misses her teachers, misses her friends, and misses school the way it used to be. Definitely not my husband who is supervising at-home school on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis.

We tried to preserve some of the old back-to-school activities like shopping for new school supplies and replacing the sneakers she grew out of in the spring and picking out a new outfit for the first day of school. Our seven-year-old hasn’t been in school long enough to recognize these as traditions, but they are familiar to me and my husband and seemed like a reasonable way to build a sense of happy anticipation into an otherwise bleak time. My husband and daughter took a trip to Target in their masks and she picked out a long-sleeved shirt with a poodle on it, one of those shirts with the flippy sequins that little girls can’t enough of that and that, stupidly, are always all-white. She got a few notebooks and a new set of colored pencils and at least her fifth set of safety scissors. They did a drive-by to pick up her school-issued iPad. On the last official day of summer vacation, I took her to our local ice cream shop for cones and watched her drip chocolate all over the brand new poodle shirt.

One back to school tradition we completely forgot about was class assignments. I’m old enough to remember my mom driving me to school at the end of summer to find my name on a list hanging on the wall but my kid is young enough that everything having to do with her schooling still feels unfamiliar and overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting the letter with her class placement for the upcoming school year to show up in my inbox in the middle of August. I remember that information being kind of a big deal when I was a kid, with the potential to make or break my whole year, but as the working parent of an only child and being relatively new to the school, I didn’t have enough context to generate a reaction to the placement. Maybe in a normal year I’d start asking around about the teacher, trying to figure out of we knows any of her classmates, but staring up the steep hill of the upcoming year and not knowing whether my daughter will ever even set foot in her classroom, I couldn’t muster up the motivation. Is Ms. ____ a good teacher? Do kids like her? Does it even matter?

My husband had gotten the email too and neither of us mentioned it for a few days. Eventually, we realized we should tell our daughter who her teacher was, see if we couldn’t drum up some excitement for her, but we kept forgetting to do it and, when we remembered, we realized we also kept forgetting the teacher’s name. Our daughter adored her first grade teacher, but the way virtual learning went in our district the teacher more or less dropped off our family’s radar when the school shut down. It was hard to imagine how a teacher we might never meet would be any kind of significant presence in our daughter’s life.

Last year, my husband handled e-learning in a manner that inspired awe and envy in our friends. It as like he’d been running a home school for years. The resources from the school were minimal and our daughter could have blown through them in under an hour but he had a six hour schedule blocked into a mix of instructional time, individual work, rest, and play. He shifted the whole school day back an hour to start at ten instead of nine. Our daughter was reading the chapter books he kept ordering for deliver and doing math workbooks he’d found to supplement the worksheets from the school and researching whatever animals she wanted and launching model rockets and using the 3D print design studio for art and, yes, finishing all the assigned work and showing up for the handful of video calls set up by the school. We ate lunch together as a family most days. They had outdoor time every day. Meltdowns were minimal, and my husband was confident, competent. I’ve never been more grateful to have a stay-at-home partner in my life.

By the end of the first day of school this new year, he was a mess. To its credit, the school is trying to create a more engaging environment for the kids. This is critical. Not everybody has an at-home parent who is able or inclined to step into the role of teacher, fine arts instructor, lunch lady, recess aide, principal, nurse, and janitor for six hours a day. As well as last year went, he was hoping for more involvement and resources from the school. Faking it til you make it for a few months is one thing; making up a curriculum for a year with no end in sight and doing it from scratch with no guidance, desire, compensation, or training is another thing entirely. My husband was looking forward to being a little more hands off this year.

A week in, it is apparent that while my husband will be ceding all his autonomy and influence over our daughter’s day to the school, he will also be in no position to take his hands off any aspect of what’s going on in our home any time soon. She’s too young. He spent the first day of school sitting at the kitchen table getting her in and out of back-to-back zoom conferences, interpreting inconsistent and unclear instructions, trying to deal with broken zoom links and other tech issues, navigating the unintelligible learning platform our district selected for K-2 (fucking Seesaw), printing off assignments that are unreadable on the iPad, corralling her into doing as much of her assigned work in the five- to ten-minute blocks allowed by the impossible schedule, and trying not to freak the fuck out. There was no time for recess and they didn’t step outside once. From my office downstairs I kept an eye on the email traffic from the teacher and opened up an email with the subject line “Tech Help information.” It was empty. When I stepped out of my office to do a load of laundry, I heard the teacher critique the kids for not spending enough time on their work, not putting enough detail in their drawings. “You’re second graders now. You can do more when you were in first grade.” I tried to keep an open mind, consider how my daughter might benefit from a little push from someone other than me. When I asked my husband about it in the evening, he exploded. “It’s the first day of school and they’re drawing on the fucking iPad.

There is, in fact, no better symbol for e-learning than the school-issued iPad. It’s aspirational for many families, including ours. We’ve never owned an iPad and our daughter never had a device until the school forced our hand last spring. Its compact form seems to promise that we won’t be adding much to the landfill of elementary worksheets and kid art that amassed in our house in kinder and first grade. Its corporate sheen throws light on how a year or more of learning alone at home is preparing our kids for a future in late capitalism: working in front of a computer, showing up to meetings on time, interfacing with colleagues for a screen, and then getting right back to work. These kids will be maximally efficient. At the end of the first day of our life for the next however long my husband went to plug in the iPad. The battery was shot, dead, totally drained. He rummaged through the box of supplies from the school. They hadn’t given us a charging cord.

That was my husband’s first day. It might have been better for our daughter. During the last video call of the day, which they’re calling Sunset Circle, the teacher asked the kids to share one or two things that they learned that day. Six months of video calls have taught my daughter how to use her voice and I could hear her shouting into the microphone all the way in another room. “Today I learned that I have a nice class and that you’re a good teacher!” I could end this post now and leave my friends and family feeling hopeful about the possibility that this year will be okay for us. I could leave you feeling hopeful that maybe this year will be okay for you and your kids, if you have them. Instead, I’m going to tell you my daughter broke down crying in the bath at the end of the second day of school. She said she hated e-learning. She said there were too many calls and she didn’t have enough time to do anything and her teacher was too strict and her papa got too frustrated when things didn’t work. She said she just wanted to go back to school.

I don’t know what to do with any of this. It’s only a week in and I’m hopeful things will improve, but but surely some of what we’ve experienced would be valuable for the school to know as it moves forward with this new way of learning. The school set up a helpline for tech issues but has not designated a person or place for feedback about the virtual learning in general. I don’t want to dump all my feedback and fears on the teacher. I don’t want to go to the principal and invoke the defenses of the administration or say anything that will come down on the teacher. I don’t think I’m unreasonable in wanting more than what we’re getting. I’ve already given up on academics. I don’t care if my daughter learns anything this year and I don’t expect her to. All I want is for school not to inflict further trauma on her or on our family. Is that too much to ask?

Quarantine Diary Day 167: Breakfast for Dinner Part V

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage was doomed from the start. My church taught me that that we would be “unequally yoked,” righteous and unrighteous, light and dark, because I was Mormon and you were not, and I never could shake the image of you and I, two beasts burdened with a plow we’d never be able to drag. The bishop said he’d marry us in a church but not in the temple. The bishop said he’d marry us for time but not eternity. A church leader’s wife asked, pity shining on the surface of her eyes, “What about your poor kids?” The internet said you’d never convert and we’d end up divorced.

We are so unalike it’s a wonder we ever manage to haul anything in the same direction.

I am a lawyer who’d rather be an artist. You are a stay at home dad who should be an artist but won’t admit it. We both work our asses off for our family but manage to fight about who does more.

Your are non-religious, agnostic, a technical Catholic, less lapsed than never really get started. I’m a former Mormon cultural Christian universalist more spiritual than religious but also still weirdly religious.

You like clean lines and modern, minimal aesthetics. I want to live in an old bookstore with piles of rugs and a cat (you know I don’t like cats, but that’s just the kind of old hole I want to cozy up in, maybe throw in a pot of beans for your mom).

You spend all your internet time in subreddits. I spend all of mine on Instagram.

You are a skeptic, a cynic, and a news junkie. I am a believer, a truster, and a social justice warrior.

You’ve wished COVID on more than one Republican politician but bristle when I talk about the prison industrial complex and these are just two ways our political and moral compasses diverge.

We may not see eye to eye, but we sure as hell have a lot talk about.

On the other hand, there’s also this: during her wedding toast, my sister said she couldn’t think of two people more perfectly suited for each other, and she wasn’t wrong.

When we were getting to know each other over AIM we kept trading answers on those stupid personality quizzes and we both answered trapezoid for our favorite shape, west our favorite direction, and you and I both know these are not meaningless preferences. Trapezoid is a way of being in the world. West is a state of mind.

These days you ride centuries and I run marathons for fun. The shared value is not physical fitness but going as far as we can and leaving it all on the road.

We go all out on every holiday, vacation, special occasion. April Fools’, Festivus, and weddings and birthdays for all of our daughter’s stuffed animals are all cause for celebration. The shared value is not pleasure but family.

When people come to visit you get stressed out cleaning the whole house and I lose my mind planning the perfect itinerary. The shared value is not perfection but hospitality.

We are both voting for a Biden/Harris ticket. The shared value is not Democratic politics but love of country.

You trusted me to raise our daughter in a church you didn’t believe in and I trusted us enough to leave the church of my childhood the moment I realized it would drive a wedge into our family. The shared value is faith in each other.

You’d kill to protect me, our marriage, our daughter. I’d walk through fire to save us all. The shared value is love.

Last year, one of our shared friends claimed he figured it out, the glue that binds us fast, two people who are so remarkably different from each other. “You’re both nerds who think you’re smarter than other people, but it’s okay because you are.” I look around at the comic books and records and Lego bins stacking up against our walls and I think he might not be wrong about the first part, and if we’re not smarter than anyone else at least we have better taste. He also observed, “You live in your own world. It’s hard for anyone else to get in there with you.” That’s true, too.

We’d both do anything to sit down at a diner again, wolf some hash browns, pick at some carrot cake, sip bottomless coffee. Breakfast is not a value but it is a shared language. I’d drive a long way with you to eat a real brunch these days. Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club. Publican. M. Henry. Tweet. It could be any diner, though. I’d risk COVID to eat at one of our places that closed. Duke’s. Melrose. That greasy spoon in Tucson with the pictures of John Wayne on the wall. It doesn’t have to be good. Those meals were never about the food. We just liked each other’s company and the idea of a shared life.

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage works because we want it to. It runs on creativity and resourcefulness and a willingness to help each other out. I picked up the croissants at Bennison’s yesterday, and D woke up early to stuff them with melted chocolate, honey, and pepitas. I could have bought croissants with chocolate already inside them, but D insisted on plain so she could doctor them up herself and now she knows how to use the microwave. You ordered the fruit with a grocery delivery last night and D sliced the berries herself this morning and drizzled them with more honey, plus powdered sugar. I’ve never had berries so sweet but now she knows how to use the sifter. We both wondered how she’d manage the big pitcher of sun tea and the heavy tray with everybody’s plates but she delivered a perfect breakfast and a pile of gifts to the foot of our bed at 7:30, which means we got to sleep in, the greatest gift of all.

The miracle isn’t that we found each other. Since the beginning, we were drawn to each other like honey to D’s little hands. The miracle is that ten years ago we decided to make a family and every day since then we’ve made it stick.

Happy Anniversary, Love.

This post is the fifth in a series. See Parts I, II, III, and IV.

Quarantine Diary Day 166: Summermania

The first time I experienced depression in a way that I could confidently describe as depression was six years ago. Of course I’ve known the lowlands just about my whole life, I just didn’t know what they were called. I was a moody child before I was an angsty before literature turned me melancholic and then nihilistic. Music made me emo but I called it the blues. For the whole of my late teens and twenties I thought I could blame my suffering on my bad choices, on stress. It wasn’t until I was living the life I always wanted, apartment in the treetops in an old brick neighborhood in Chicago, working a big job, married to the man I’d loved since I was nineteen, mom to the daughter of my dreams, and I still felt total shit that I admitted maybe something was going on with my brain. I thought I needed I diagnosis to call it depression and I didn’t have the bandwidth to do get myself to a doctor back then so I called it seasonal affective disorder, ordered a happy lamp, and called it a day. Did you know that the original studies on seasonal affective disorder involved patients with bipolar illnesses who experienced an inversion of the winter doldrums in the form of extreme high moods and energy in the summer? The flipside of seasonal affective disorder is summer-mania. For me, depression felt manageable because it really was seasonal. Winter was brutal but spring was like waking up again. Winter was the price I paid for glorious summer and summer was like a months-long high. Fall was fine as long as the light came through the leaves and there were apples to pick and cider to drink but also dangerously nostalgic and increasingly apprehensive as the sun fell back. The highs and lows have ebbed and flowed over the years but the seasonality of my moods persisted through marriage and parenthood and illness and work–all manner of things that are no respecter of the calendar.

The novel coronavirus might have disrupted the cycle. It sure fucked everything else up, and it came close to killing spring. All those flowers blooming out of the trees and mama birds breakfast out of the dirt and I just wandered around town sobbing openly. A friend reached out awhile back, one who had sussed out that I wasn’t well. We talked about this blog and how much it’s helped me. He suggested that random crying jags would make a good post. “I hope you aren’t,” he said, but he “had a feeling.” I almost did write about it but I was embarrassed to admit that on the worst days I was listening to Lana Del Rey who not only was actively being cancelled for racist and incomprehensible posts on social media but is like shooting depressants straight into my brain. Is asking a depressed person what music she’s listening to like asking a victim of sexual assault what she was wearing?

When I responded to my friend, I didn’t tell him about the Lana Del Rey. What I did say: “I’m trying not to make my blog too much of a cry or help even if that’s totally what it is lol.”

There are people who have thanked me for my openness, who’ve said it helped them. There are more people who haven’t said anything at all. For most of those people, it’s fine, whatever. Not everybody needs to read my blog and not everybody who reads needs to comment. For others, silence is its own statement. There are people who’ve asked, reasonably, “Um, don’t you have a job?” I would’ve hoped the widespread conversation around vulnerability that Brene Brown ushered into the cultural zeitgeist and the ensuing shift in viewing vulnerability as an asset rather than a liability would preempt some of those questions, but I get it. I do. I’m aware that emotional volatility isn’t a good look, emotional exhibitionism even less so.

What is it, exactly, that I’m doing here?

I haven’t thought about relapse since I got sick, but by god I mentally beat that horse to death in the spring. Perhaps contrary to pandemic logic, my thinking about drinking had little to do with numbing or escaping or feigning a return to normalcy. I didn’t drink like a lady and I don’t want to, not even in my dreams. Instead, at their height, my drinking fantasies looked like me drinking too much and somebody I love scooping me up and taking me home. They were their own cry for help.

What I wanted then is what I want now is what I wanted always. I want you to see me, to see that it’s hard to be me, and to love me anyway.

Of course it’s easier to beg for love than to receive it. Months ago my mom tentatively suggested that maybe this time of isolation has been harder on some than others and I bristled. I know this is hard for everyone. I know my life is too easy to go on and on about how hard it is for me.

I’m actually doing okay right now. The pandemic has amplified every part of the seasonal mood cycle. This winter was longest and darkest and coldest it’s ever been. Spring too. But summer, oh summer, summer was a honeyed gift from the gods. COVID was no match for the summer sun. Obviously that’s not true in any kind of technical sense. The virus lives on in heat and light and kills people on vacation, but the news that the fresh air disperses the virus pulled us out of our houses and into a new form of community. The ability to say yes to some things made me want to say yes to everything. Playdate in the front yard? Yes! After dinner trip to the playground? Yes! Early morning beach trip? Yes! Weekend mini-golfing? Yes! Lunch dessert? Yes! Is how I ended up overextended and overexposed, literally, after doing too much last weekend? Also yes? Is this summer-mania? Is this just what it feels like to not be depressed? Is this a communal phenomenon, a moment of much-needed relief from pandemic fatigue, a last gasp of freedom before we settle into our first fall and second winter still in the grips of an unpreventable untreatable disease? Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

The only reason I’m writing this today because I don’t need your help today. This is not an accomplishment. My present current okayness is not of my own virtue or volition. I haven’t figured any of this out. I am not going to give you a listicle about how I hauled myself out of a COVID summer slump or cured my pandemic fatigue. I’m not healed, for god’s sake. The only thing going on here is that depression is cyclical and I’m all jacked up on vitamin D and a bit of human interaction.

I will probably need help in the fall.

I will definitely need it in the winter.

I might even need it tonight after I hear from my husband how our daughter’s first day of school went.

Quarantine Diary Day 164: Waking Nightmare

If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know about my daughter’s nightmares (all about dead animals, recurring since March), but you don’t know about mine. I’ve been a terrible sleeper since childhood, when I started hearing footie pajamas with nobody inside them shuffling around in the basement at night and facing my own recurring dreams about oversized disembodied faces looming out of the walls and hands scuttling across the floor. In high school, the demons crawled under and over and through my bedroom door and started visiting. There was the sensed presence, the shadowy figure that stood at my bedroom door or sometimes the foot of my bed or sometimes right next to my bed, staring down at me. There was the girl with all the hair from The Ring lying in my sister’s bed. There was the sinewy humanoid crouched on my chest pressing down so I couldn’t breathe. There were the actual demons getting up in my face, breathing, leering, readying themselves to steal my soul. The creatures visited at all hours of the night whenever I was in the liminal state halfway between wake and sleep and when they came I couldn’t move or scream, though I tried to. Sometimes I hallucinated myself flipping and spinning bodily getting all tangled up in the blankets in my bed of an accord another than my own, like the little girl from The Excorcist, but I was mostly immobile save for my fingers twitching on top of the sheet. Sometimes I imagined that I was groaning loudly enough to stir my sister or summon my parents but in reality I was silent save for heavy breathing that didn’t disturb anyone but me. These nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were, scared the living shit out of me, but I never breathed a word of them to anyone. I guess the nightly battle for my soul seemed like something I should keep private? I couldn’t fathom what help anybody could give me. I already knew how to banish the demons. I never remembered the trick until the terror just about overtook me, but eventually a bit of religious folklore I’d picked up being raised in the church would come to me and I’d start praying the demons away like my life depended on it, casting them out in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It always worked. Not right away,but eventually.

Ironically, the incubus crawled in and landed on top of me around the same time Incubus was dominating the radio airwaves with Make Yourself, without me having any idea it had a name, a history, or scientific explanation, and the waking nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were stayed with me for years, even after I got on the internet and figured out that what I was experiencing was sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that is well-documented, well-understood, and common. Well, how about that. I wasn’t uniquely haunted. I hadn’t broken my brain with teenage substance abuse.

I mostly sorted my sleep problems out when I learned about sleep hygiene from a therapist some five years ago. When I collapsed on her couch I was a hot, tangled mess of anxiety and depression and compulsion and fear, and the only homework she gave me out of that first session was to fix my sleep, which made me figure it was pretty important, so I did. I’m still a light sleeper and vivid dreamer but the nightmares are mostly gone and I haven’t had a bout of sleep paralysis in years.

Until this week. You know that was coming, right? You know this pandemic is clawing back all our hard-won mental health victories. You know the novel coronavirus isn’t the only part of this pandemic that’s deadly.

This past weekend was great, really great, it felt almost like a regular summer weekend. We went mini-golfing on Saturday morning and it felt safe enough being outdoors, with timed entries, masks on until we got on the course, one group to a hole. Afterward, we drove out to Dairy Queen for Blizzards to celebrate our seven-year-old’s hole-in-one, a pandemic miracle for a kid who swings her club like a granny with a bowling ball, and that felt safe enough, too with the restaurant rejiggered for people to order and pickup at the side doors with masks on and six feet of distance between customers in line. We are our ice cream in the car. Saturday evening we hosted an old friend driving through Chicago on our porch and stayed up late into to night chatting a little about the last decade and a lot about the last six months. Sunday morning, I had promised my daughter a beach day, and I worked hard to make it a responsible outing, waking up stupid early and throwing breakfast in a ziploc baggie for the car so that we could be at the beach by 7:30 and out in under two hours. We kept our masks on until we found a good spot for our towels far away from the other early risers and I was vigilant about maintaining a buffer between us and everyone on the sand, in the water, all the time. Sunday afternoon I saw that our town’s summer art fair was still on for that weekend–another pandemic miracle–so I signed up for a late afternoon entry and spent a glorious masked hour talking to artisans and looking at art (including dropping serious money here and picking up a print from here). Sunday night we grilled. The rain was coming down hard so we ate inside just our family but first we dropped a plate of food off at the neighbors’ since they’ve been sharing all manner of cheesy, chivey breads and braised pork with us since May. God, it was such a good weekend. Before bed, my husband and I sat on the couch drinking tea and half-watching our current go-to series for comfort TV and one of us mentioned how much this winter is going to suck when we are all stuck inside the house again and our favorite festivities are cancelled and my seasonal affective disorder kicks into high gear.

Drifting off to sleep on Sunday night should have been easy, I was so worn out. Instead my brain lit up with rapid-fire images of death and fear, scenes from every horror movie I’ve ever seen and every violent news article I’ve ever read plus some grisly originals courtesy of my own overactive imagination. Lots of Pennywise, lots of children suffering, spliced with shots of evil men and psychologically tattered mother figures. I’ve learned a lot about how to get along with my mind in the last half decade so I practiced not resisting the thoughts but letting them float in and out like clouds against a blue sky. I reassured the scared child inside me that it’s okay to be scared, and perfectly understandable, because we live in scary times. The pictures peeled away and I fell asleep.

I woke up screaming silently at 2 am. The dream had been disturbing. I was trying to make tea in the kitchen but kept fumbling, dropped the bag, spilling the water, knocking over the mug. Every time I righted the mug and looked away it was upside down again when I looked back. I turned to call out to my husband in the next room to laugh with me and reassure me that I was clumsy not crazy, but he was staring in horror at something off to the side behind a wall I could not see. I knew without knowing that it was an intruder, that someone had let himself into our house and come up stairs without either of us hearing, and I knew from the way my husband wasn’t saying anything that we were in trouble. When I joined him in the living room I saw that I was right. The creature was huge, hulking, a man without a face, just stubble sprouting out of the vast pink expanse on the front of his head. He turned his mass toward me and, unable to cope with the menace, my brain startled awake. Unfortunately, my body didn’t, and I found myself pinned to the bed with the old hallucinations, clawing the sheets with stiff fingers and moaning my husband’s name through closed lips. After a miserable eternity he came to and pulled my physical form to safety.

The dream logic is obvious. The faceless intruder is COVID, impersonal, invasive, impervious to locked doors. The return of the sleep paralysis is my powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. The reel of death as I drifted off to sleep is because the tradeoff for a fun summer weekend is a whole lot of risk. Nightmares are the new hangovers, inflicting maximum shame and regret for too much fun the day before. Even if we were careful, even if each activity felt safe, even if we followed all the protocols, we did too much. Last year, cramming too much into a weekend meant we’d end up exhausted and grumpy. Now, someone might die.

I don’t know how to strike the right balance between preserving my own mental health and somebody else’s physical safety. I don’t know if it’s unforgivably selfish to even consider the former in the same breath as the latter. What’s the line between catastrophizing and respecting the severity of the global health crisis? What’s the line between anxiety-induced hypervigilance and obsessive over-responsibility and being a good citizen? How do I responsibly care for myself and my family and you? If mental health starts with a good night’s sleep, what do we do when the nightmare of daily living infiltrates our dreams?

Quarantine Diary Day 156: Slowdown

Running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I used to run a lot, five to six days a week, forty miles or more, plus strengthening and conditioning and cross training and prehab and rehab, all to support the running. Non-runners in my life probably thought I was sort of a freak how early I went out and how reliably, rain or snow or shine, how far I’d go on a weekend run, half marathons just for fun, how hard I worked to hit my paces on the track, 800 repeats for no reason, how far I drove to run up and down hills until I was just about to puke, again, all just because. There was usually no race on the horizon, and even if there was, I was never in line to take home any prize other than my own satisfaction. Here’s the thing non-runners didn’t get about the running, or about how it was for me. Running was easy. Running was fun. I don’t even really like to work out.

I’ve been a runner for twenty-three years. Almost a quarter century! In seventh grade it killed me that I had to wait until spring for track and field to start because I knew I was an athlete even after getting cut from volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter. I knew I could run. I knew it from how I finished the mile ahead of every kid in my classes in lower elementary, from how I was the only girl who didn’t walk. I knew it from how laps in P.E. never felt like a drag, never made me tired, from how suicides never felt like their name. It turned out I was right, too. I killed it in track and eventually cross country, earned a duffel bag full of medals and ribbons that I never hung on the wall, qualified for regionals and states, set a few school records, earned a spot on the varsity team my sophomore year.

I quit sports halfway through my junior year when I started drinking cough syrup and stealing pain pills but I never stopped running. I kept running even when I was suicidally depressed freshman year of college and listening to Elliott Smith in a bouncing discman. I kept running even when I was hacking up a lung from smoking a pack a day of unfiltered cigarettes. I kept running even when I was lying to campus health about a fake back injury to score more pills. I couldn’t run fast or far or with any frequency in those years but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt like the biggest most absolute piece of shit because running–unlike addiction and crippling depression and losing my religion–was easy.

Of course, running got a lot easier when I quit smoking and drinking and getting high. I ran my way through all nine months of pregnancy, well past the point when people stared at me with open alarm on the gym treadmill, when people commented that I must be due “any day now,” when people asked if I was carrying twins (nope, just one 9.5 lb baby). I ran my way through postpartum, past the stage when people kept asking if I was pregnant (nope, just a new mom), past the stage when I kept checking to see if my baby was still breathing in the night, past the stage when the depression and constant, soul-clenching anxiety could be attributed to hormones. I couldn’t run all that fast or far in those years either but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt scared or sad or trapped because running–unlike parenting and managing multiple mood disorders–was easy.

I ran my way through the good stuff too. I ran my way into to better apartments, better jobs, a healthier lifestyle. I ran my way through all the days of my marriage and my daughter’s childhood and all the golden moments that make up a life. The road wasn’t always easy–over the years, I’ve suffered my share of shin splints and stress fractures and tendonitis and bursitis and road rash and rolled ankles and run of the mill colds and flus and other illnesses–but the running was. Whenever I was laid up, I felt like that seventh grader chomping at the bit for the weather to turn so I could get on the track and prove myself. Life was hard; running was the easy part.

This summer, running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I got burned out from all the running and going nowhere back in the the early days of the pandemic and realized I needed to rest, so I did. Then, in June, I got sick and running hasn’t been the same since. It’s harder now. It’s hard to get myself out the door. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to get my legs to turn over. It’s hard to run far. I used to have to make myself stop as planned. I was always wanting to tack on an extra mile or two. Now I’m looking at my watch for the last half mile of every run asking, can I stop now? It’s hard to run, period. The first mile is hard and so is every mile after that. I’m having stomach issues for the first time in my life. I’m exhausted. I can’t get in any kind of zone.

The running isn’t the hardest part, though. The hardest thing is not knowing what changed.

Am I burned out from twenty-three years of the same sport?

Is the stress of living in a pandemic finally catching up?

Is the endless anxiety loop wearing me down?

Is the prospect that the next twelve months the will look and feel as bad as the last six starting to take a physical toll?

Is it too damn hot and humid outside?

Am I adjusting to the shift of running in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning?

Am I still getting over whatever illness I had back in June?

Do I have permanent lung and potentially other damage from undiagnosed COVID?

Am I just getting old?

All this not knowing has me pretty sure I know why we humans like our gods to be omniscient. All my powerlessness over how I’ll feel tomorrow, what will happen with school in the fall, when I’ll see my family again has me pretty sure I know why we made them omnipotent too (though as a woman raised under patriarchy, I always had an easier time with all-knowing than all powerful; just give me the answers please and I’ll be fine, a girl like me wouldn’t know what to do with the power to fix things anyway).

You might think the hardest part of this shift would be losing something that reliably brought me purpose and joy for over two decades. I’m doing alright, though. I’m still running, for exercise if not for pleasure, and hoping this will pass. I don’t run as fast or as far as I used to, but I don’t miss it. Now that it’s not easy, I don’t really want to run at all.

In the time I used to give to running, I’m finding new ways to start the day, and new ways to play. I bought a standup paddleboard, for one thing, and I’m living for the challenge of just trying to stay upright, speed and even forward motion be damned. Running got me through a lot of things, but it’s not going to get me through this.

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.