Quarantine Diary Day 55

In the parallel timeline in which coronavirus never made it into human bodies, I’d be in the final week of tapering for my fifth marathon, which I was scheduled to run this Saturday. The taper is the final phase of a marathon training cycle when a runner gradually decreases the mileage and intensity of her workouts in the two to three weeks leading up to a race. The taper is critical to recover from the accumulated fatigue, repair muscle damage, and restore the glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, and hormones that have been depleted during training. A lot of runners have a hard time with the taper. It is kind of a mindfuck to slow down, to back off the training, after months of buildup and go go go. I don’t. The taper, in my humble-braggy opinion, is the best part of marathon training. It is explicit permission–nay, instruction–to rest.

Remember March? Remember what it was like back the early days of our efforts to flatten the curve, when we still thought the kids might go back to school and the we might all keep our jobs? We were babes in the woods. The IOC was still refusing to admit that the Olympics were postponed. The organizers of the marathon I was planning to run certainly weren’t in any rush to cancel their event, a tiny little thing with less than 1,000 runners in all three races (5k, half, and full marathons) an hour and a half outside of Chicago, and still two full months away. If there was a chance the marathon was still on, I was running it. Training, I figured, would be a breeze with all the extra time on my hands. The first Saturday after we started sheltering in place I ran 15 miles.

Running has always been something I had to work to fit into my life, around family and work and recovery, but I worked hard to make it happen, because I love the sport to a degree that borders on obsessive. Ever since I became a mom, I’ve wished there were more hours in the day, assuming that I’d use the time to run, maybe train for an ultramarathon. All I needed was more time, and then the miles would add up faster than I could count them

For the few weeks of shelter-in-place, they did. My usual six miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays turned to eight. An easy four miles on Friday turned to ten. Cross-training on Mondays turned to more running. Even after it became undeniable that the marathon could not possibly go forward in May, I stuck to my routine of running long on Saturdays, twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles.

I was so grateful to be able to run. In those early weeks I thought, “How lucky I am that I have this sport that I can do outside and all alone? How lucky am I that I don’t need a gym or an instructor or a group? How lucky am I that I have this sport as a coping mechanism, a healthy outlet in which to shoot all my screaming fear, skyrocking anxiety, and scary depression? How lucky am I to have an excuse to leave the house? How lucky am I to have something that lets me turn all this time on my hands into time on my feet, a ritual that magics idleness into productivity.

As my weekly mileage started to creep up, something weird happened, at least it was weird for me. Running started to feel less like fun and more like a task. I was starting to dread waking up early for weekday runs. I was starting to get bored on long weekend runs. I was starting to get tired. Lots of experts have written about how the conditions we are currently living under are, counter to intuition, exhausting. Rolling Stone called the phenomena moral fatigue. Health policy wonks chalk it up to stress and anxiety. I knew this was something different, though. Even pre-quarantine, my body and mind had been giving me inklings that I might be pushing too hard. One of the last conversations I had with my therapist before COVID-19 took over all our conversations was about my ambivalence about going out with my local running club. They run fast and all I wanted to do was run long and slow. Also, even though I was training for them, I kept putting off signing up for races, because that level of commitment felt like too much. In hindsight, I can see that these were early indicators that I was burning out on running.

This kind of burnout is new to me. It’s not like I don’t know about rest. I keep a strict bedtime and take two full days a week off from any type of exercise. In quarantine, I am working less, not commuting, eating nothing but home-cooked meals, and getting closer to eight hours a sleep a night than any previous point in my adult life. So I took a hard look at my training schedule and realized I’d been building or maintaining my mileage without scaling back for about six months, and running without any meaningful break for over year. In the past, injuries and life events had forced me to take hiatuses, which I always resent, but I’ve been blessedly injury-free and able to run as much as I want for a long time now. In other words, I forgot about the concept of periodization, or the process of dividing training into smaller periods of varied volume, intensity, and frequency. The body needs easy weeks every three to four weeks. I also forgot about seasons. The body needs time off. I knew I needed a break, but I resisted giving myself one. Running was habit. Running was an escape. Running was, if you’ll forgive me for perpetuating disordered thinking in the name of honesty, an excuse to eat more indulgently than I otherwise might.

A few weeks ago, my body and mind conspired to put a stop to the madness. I woke up early on a Monday morning and put on my tights and sweat wicking gear, instead of heading out the door to run I sat down on the couch to write. My legs were tired but my mind was firing off ideas. 45 minutes later, too late to finish the miles I had planned,vI was posting my first Quarantine Diary on this blog. That night, I noticed how much energy I had. I was excited about my new writing project. I was, for once, not completely wiped out. It was hard to get to sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to wake up and write again. Ahhh, I sighed. So this is what I’m meant to be doing right now.

Old habits die hard, though. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, squeezing in time before and after work and parenting. In the evenings, my husband would call up the stairs, “Am I going to see you tonight?” After bottling up my words for so long, I had no shortage of ideas, until very recently. Yesterday morning, I mined the well in my mind and came up dry. I wasn’t overly worried. Something would bubble up before the day was done.

I turned my attention to my tarot deck. I don’t know how to say that it feeling like a hard left turn or without sounding like a flake, so I’ll just acknowledge it and move on: I have a tarot practice. Usually, I just draw a card for the day without thinking asking a specific question, but yesterday I asked, “What is the next right thing in regards to my writing?” I pulled the four of arrows, or swords. From the guidebooks: “Rest and sleep are vital to restore stamina and vitality.” “It is not a weakness to require rest at times.” “This card may also be advising you to keep some new idea to yourself.” The imagery of the card blatantly subverts the ethos of “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and warns instead “Rest now, or you last long.” Sometimes tarot is so on the nose it’s annoying.

fourofarrows

fourofswords

I’ll admit I could stand to wrote more sustainably, and that I probably should if I want to keep doing. And, fine, since the tarot insists (okay, okay, invites), I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s not just the work or the running or the writing that’s wearing me down. My whole life has been an existential sprint from one thing to the next, from college to law school to big law to marriage to parenthood to homeownership. You might think I slowed down when I got sober, but I didn’t, I just changed directions. That’s when I started waking up at I’ve been at 5:00 am to pray and meditate and exercise. When I slept in, inadvertently or intentionally, I felt like a lazy piece of shit. My discipline in matters both physical and spiritual was not just a point of pride, but a matter of life and death in my mind. If I let go of my vice grip on my schedule, what else would slip?

These days, there’s no reason to wake up that early. Work is slow. Running is slower. I have nowhere to go. What if I slept in? What if I took it easy? What if I stopped running, kept eating, and put on five pounds? What would my life feel like if I ran but not a marathon, if I wrote but not a book, if I worked without trying to impress people, if I parented without trying to be the best, if I gave up my endless quest to achieve? I think it might feel like waking up after a good night’s sleep.

Quarantine Diary Day 54

What are we wearing these days? For the first two weeks, I was still reaching for things that you put on a hanger in the closet. You know, blouses and button downs and cardigans and slacks. Work clothes. When it dawned on me that nobody I know in a professional capacity was going to see my lower body for a very long time I switched to jeans, but kept the work shirts because the threat of spontaneous home invasion via Skype, Zoom, and Teams loomed large. But the video calls did materialize in the numbers I thought they might. And when they did, I was startled to realize that it is not a forgiving head and shoulders shot that people see, but rather an unfiltered image of my whole head that dominates the screen. When the weather shifted a few weeks ago, I realized I have a whole drawerful of perfectly good baggy t-shirts and tanks just begging for their time in the sun. My whole professional life I’ve mourned the fact that I can’t just wear a fifteen year old raggedy concert tee to work, and now that time is here. So, these days I wear t-shirts to work, and oversized housecoats, because that’s the kind of future crazy old lizard lady I am. I gave up bras years ago, so nothing’s changed there except for any residual guilt I might have had about, well, you know. As yet unclear as to the next time I’ll have to appear in court or take a client to dinner or speak at a conference, I packed away my suits. And if you’re worried about weekdays blending indistinguishably into weekends, don’t. Remember we’re not leaving the house on weekends, either. They are, therefore, suitable for athleisure and by athleisure I mean full body sweatsuits. There’s still the matter of the ultra closeups of my face and head, but I can’t do anything about the fact that the pixie cut I was so stoked about in November is growing out into a floofy triangle and it’s not like I’m about to start wearing makeup now. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the people who have to look at my face to look at it the way I do every morning, which is to say, with admiration and appreciation and understanding that this is just how I look. Now, I know I had a head start on my sartorial unschooling, having left my office job over a year before social distancing started, but still, I’m eager to see what happens to professional mores if work from home continues for much longer. I hope we all go feral.

 

Quarantine Diary Day 53

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In January 2019, I walked away from an offer of partnership at the law firm where I’d worked for seven years.

I traded the tenure-like job security of equity partnership at an established firm to become an at-will employee, and the most junior attorney at a six-person firm.

I downsized from a fancy office in downtown Chicago to a shared workspace in an industrial part of town where I had a month-to-month lease and logged in to connect with my new coworkers, who were mostly all remote.

I gave up the prestige of a traditional firm with a storied history to join a progressive, woman-owned boutique with an alternative compensation structure and a niche practice area.

I gave up 40% of my salary. 

Partnership at a law firm was not the plan when I went to law school or when I graduated or when I accepted my first job offer or even when I started working at the firm that would become my home. I stuck it out through the grueling associate years, paying my dues, because I liked the people and I liked the work and I was good at it. When it became apparent that I was on the partner-track, and that I had what it took to be successful (i.e., manage cases and bring in business), I figured I’d be there for the rest of my career. That was the model. Most of the partners I worked for had been there for ten, twenty, thirty years.

The prospect of partnership was, on one hand, a relief. I graduated from law school at the height of the recession. Former classmates of mine are still underemployed, a decade later. I was lucky to get a job in private practice, one that paid well, but being an associate is like an eight-year job interview. I spent most of it anxious and afraid.

As much as I craved security, the notion that I’d spend the next 35 years working at the firm was, on the other hand, panic-inducing. I couldn’t put together an image of it in my mind that wasn’t bleak. The trouble was, I knew that law firms didn’t get much better than the one I was at. Like I said, the people were good, and so was the work. I was well-paid. My work-life balance was miles better than my peers at other firms. I knew I could stay as long as I wanted and be pretty happy. 

When I left the law firm I shocked myself. The reasons I left are manifold and beyond the scope of this post but suffice it to say that I discussed them ad nauseum with almost every person I know and, in the course of those discussions, one point kept rising to the surface: the new job might not work out over the long-term. As much as I wanted it to, and as much evidence as I had that it probably would, I had to admit and accept that I might not be at the new job in five years, or even one. I had to give up the dream of security.   

The only way I was able leave behind the kind of security the law firm gave me is because having the rest of your life mapped is its own kind of death. Certainty in a future you didn’t choose is another, as is certainty in a future you know you don’t want. Walking away from that kind of security was like setting myself free. 

I left the law firm terrified and excited for the future. I thought everything would change. Imagine my surprise then, when the first thing I noticed about my new job was how easy the transition was. The nature of my clients and my work, the fact that I was good at it, all of that stayed the same.

What did shift dramatically were my feelings about my job. I was happier, less anxious about the future. Stepping into uncharted territory was not, it turned out, like stepping off a cliff. True, I did not know what would happen in a year, but I knew what I would be doing for the next few weeks and I was excited about it. Embracing the uncertainty freed me from my fears about the future so that I could enjoy the present. 

The security of the law firm was, of course, an illusion. The law firm I left ceased to exist the same day I started my new job, which is when it merged with, folded up into, another firm. If I’d stayed, I would have joined the new, larger entity as a non-equity partner, not so different from an at-will employee. The big salary was only guaranteed for one year. It turned out that what I was leaving behind wasn’t so different from what I was walking into. 

I have been at the new job for a year and a quarter now. There have been some shake-ups, some twists and turns, in that time but I’m still here. Every time something like that happens, my boss checks in with me. “How are you doing? I know this isn’t what you signed up for.” My response is always the same: “I knew what I was getting into. This is exactly what I signed up for.” 

Now, with the all the upheaval from the global pandemic, the future is hazier than ever. Will we have a vaccine? Will my daughter go back to school for second grade? Will my elderly relatives survive? Will I see my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews this year? What will happen with my job? Will our clients still need us? Will my firm still need me? At one point, all this uncertainty would have been too much to bear, would have made me a veritable flight risk from my own life. At the moment, though? I’m doing okay. I might not know what I’m doing next year or even next month, but I know what I’m doing today, and I’m excited about it. I’m okay in the harder moments, too, because I know that the future never was clear, not even before COVID-19 came along and fogged up all our windows. Today was all we ever had. 

Quarantine Diary Day 52

A few years ago my husband and I tried to rescue a dog, a short-legged long-bodied lil’ tough guy with the face of a lab and the broad chest of a bully breed. He’d made his way to Chicago by way of kill shelter in Alabama and somewhere en route the name on his papers changed from Studley to Study. Stupidly, we brought our then three-year-old to the rescue to meet him and she fell in love.

We brought Study home knowing he had separation anxiety and having a sense that it could be pretty bad but committed to doing whatever it took to welcome him into our family. The first time we left him home, for maybe an hour tops, he tore the doorframe to shreds he was so scared. We hired the best trainer in Chicagoland who gave us a system she all but guaranteed would cure him. The only problem was that we couldn’t leave Study home alone for even one minute a day until he was ready, a point that could be weeks or even months away.

We worked the separation anxiety protocols for months, eventually building up to being able to leave him for 45 minutes, at least during the training sessions. During the months leading up to that point we stayed home. My husband and I took turns leaving the house to run errands or get some exercise. I took our daughter to church alone on Sunday mornings and ducked out of services early to be home in time for my husband to get to the last gym class of the day. While I was at work, my husband had to drive our daughter to her preschool, only half a mile away, because Study had to come with them. Because the preschool required parents to drop their kids off in the classroom, they couldn’t walk. The only option was to leave Study barking his head off in the car for five minutes and hope he didn’t hurt himself. For five months, except for walks with the dog, we only left the house as a family a handful of times, to celebrate my husband’s birthday or take our annual trip downtown for the Christmas market, each time dropping Study off at doggie daycare at $35 a pop. We didn’t mind spending the money. What we couldn’t handle was spending the day sick with worry that Study was scared or anxious or otherwise not okay when he was out of our sight. We stopped taking him when he threw up hard black plastic and we discovered that the daycare had been crating him during “nap time” against our instructions. Study had resorted to trying to eat his way out through the tray at the bottom of the kennel.

The same week that Study graduated to 45 minutes at home alone without panicking, Study bit someone, a friend visiting from out of town. The next day, Study bit him again. Study had been uneasy with people in our house since the beginning, sometimes barking from beginning to end of a visit from a friend, a babysitter, or even the trainer. Because of the separation anxiety, we couldn’t put him upstairs or downstairs or in a other room. So, we stopped inviting people over. Study had also begun lunging at dogs and people, snarling and barking, when we took him outside, so except for solitary walks, we’d stopped taking him out to parks and other public places.

After the bite, we called the trainer and shifted gears from separation anxiety to fear-based aggression. The trainer gave us more protocols, but no promises that they would work. We would need to acclimate Study to our friends and family over six to twelve carefully-controlled sessions each. We practiced with a few friends, but couldn’t figure out how it would work with our families and many friends who live out of state and visit not infrequently, or how we could safely allow other kids, our neighbors and our daughter’s friends into our house.

As hard as the last five months had been, we loved Study. He was part of our family. We spent our days training and playing and walking with him. At night we cuddled him on the couch. Our daughter adored him and he adored her. We knew he would never harm a hair on the head of any of the three of us. We loved him so much that we seriously considered how we could make it work: a life in which we could not leave the house and in which nobody else could come in. Eventually, we realized, that was hardly a life at all, and not fair or what we wanted for our daughter. With broken hearts, we gave Study back to the shelter, and prayed that he would be okay. In what was surely the best possible turn of events, the family that had fostered Study before he came to us–a young couple with no kids and with another dog to keep Study company–offered to take him back. Not too long after that, they adopted him. We failed to rescue Study, but he found his forever family anyway.

Three years later, everybody who didn’t already have a dog is fostering or adopting a fluffy puppy or an adorable mutt and we are–to our dog-obsessed daughter’s chagrin–still without any pets at all. It is not lost on us that Study would have been the perfect quarantine pet. Indeed, here we are, living a life in which we do not leave the house and in which nobody else comes in. It is not fair or what we wanted for our daughter. Still, I can see that our initial assessment–that such a life would hardly be worth living–was wrong. Our new life may be being lived out in close quarters with little family, but it is not small, and it is not time wasted. Those five months at home with Study built us, made us solid. We worked together to solve a problem, to weather a hard time, to make an impossible decision, and to move through grief. These next five or ten or twenty or however many months at home with each other will see us growing still, already a forever family.

Quarantine Diary Day 49

For most of our relationship, my husband and I were brunch people. This is a claim I make knowing full well it tells you next to nothing about us. After all, who, if pressed, can deny the appeal of brunch? Brunch offers indulgence for any palate at a variety of price points. Brunch works will work with whatever social structure you are embedded in, your gang of drunk girlfriends, your church group, your grandparents. Brunch is a European vacation at the end of a long American workweek, with American portions. What I’m saying is, brunch is basic, but it is basic for a reason.

As brunch people, we went out for brunch almost weekend. Among the many reasons we loved brunch:

Brunch is perfect for young parents because there is bottomless coffee plus your kids can scream pretty loudly and probably no one will notice.

Brunch is perfect for homebodies because you can be home before noon and still feel like you got out there and did something fun.

Brunch is perfect for people with complicated relationships with booze because you have the option of drinking a little or a lot early in the day but it’s not mandatory.

Brunch is perfect for people with social anxiety because it has a defined start and end and also you can always talk about the brunch.

If brunch is for jerks, we are the worst. Sadly, in recent years we gave up our habit. I can’t say for sure why. I could blame the worst aspects of the institution of brunch–long lines, crowded dining rooms, and expensive checks, but we were undeterred by those for so long that it wouldn’t be accurate. If I had to point to one deciding factor I would say it’s that we got pretty good at serving excellent breakfasts at home. Pancakes, waffles, french toast, breakfast sandwiches, eggs any way you like, avocado toast, sweet potato hash, over-the-top oatmeal. Four beverages per person, minimum: coffee, bubbly water, juice, tea. As our family life got increasingly busy, indulging at home in our jammies was just more appealing.
Early this year I got a hankering for real brunch, consisting of both savory and sweet, made and served by someone that wasn’t me. It kept not happening, though. Every Saturday morning I came home from a long desperately hungry, my husband had already signed up for a morning class at the gym. Every Friday night my husband asked, “Are you going to want to get brunch tomorrow?” I stupidly said “No.” I don’t know why. I suspect that at some point during our brunch hiatus I had come to think of breakfast at home as morally superior. Look at us, saving money, cooking our own food, eating vegetables. Brunch was for the morally weak. The last time I turned down brunch on a Friday, I regretted it before 7:00 am on a Saturday. I was finishing up my run, a 14 miler, and I was so hungry. I told my running group, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
That was in March. Since then, I’ve eaten every breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and coffee at home and I’ve come to see the error of my ways. There is no virtue in denying ourselves the things we love. When this is all over, I swear to the gods of all that is good in this life (Demeter and Dionysus, think) that I will never say no to brunch again. I’m over this hearth and home business (sorry Hestia).

Quarantine Diary Day 2

The first weekend of quarantine went better than expected. After our initial panic in the wake of school shutting down and the run on the grocery stores, our first Sunday at home was surprisingly peaceful, even beautiful. We slept in, ate a late, leisurely breakfast, read the paper, streamed church services, played board games, baked challah, walked around the neighborhood, spent some quiet time reading and napping, straightened up, and shared a family dinner. We were just finishing dessert and about to head upstairs for an early bedtime, when my daughter reached around and rubbed her neck, and pulled her hand back, puzzled. “Hey mama,” she said quizzically. “I found a bug on my head.”

I jumped out of my chair, ran around to my daughter’s side of the table, and started picking through her long, curly hair. Sure enough, there they were: dozens, maybe more, of little white nits. 

LICE.

FUCK. 

After all our hard work to get our house in order so we could stay there, I found myself driving back to the same downtown Target where I’d had a panic attack a few days earlier with no mask, no gloves, and no practical experience or understanding of how to practice social distancing. This was still early on. We were still reluctant to purchase PPE that was in short supply. The idea of homemade masks had not occurred to us. We’d only heard of social distancing a few days ago, and had yet to see it implemented in essential businesses. I had no idea where the lice medicine would be. I lingered at the top of relevant-seeming aisles until they emptied out. I studied the shelves. Eventually I gave up and asked an employee for help. She looked it up on her handheld computer while I hung back, hoping I looked more apologetic than guilty and desperate. When she found thrust her computer toward me so I could verify that she had found the right product, I recoiled. This was when I was still more worried about getting the disease than spreading it.  

Back at home, we stayed up late into the night, treating my daughter’s hair, combing out nits, and washing laundry.

The next day, I was scheduled to do a bunch of back-to-back witness interviews for a case that was still in the investigation stage. We were supposed to meet on-site at the client’s office in the Chicago suburbs, but decided to do video interviews at the last minute. Before we started, I mentioned to my boss how relieved I was not to have had to wake up early to drive out to Schaumburg after my stressful night. The interviews went all day, and it was fascinating to see everybody working from home, in their whatever clothes. I felt grateful that I’d been working remotely for over a year, that I still had an office I could go into, that I was wearing a suit. It was only after the day was done, when my boss called and asked, with sympathy in her voice, “How’s the lice situation?” that I realized I’d been picking at my hair on camera the entire day. 

I ran into the bathroom, got close to the mirror, and started frantically examining my hair at the roots. Sure enough, there they were: nits. 

I HAD LICE.

FUCKING FUCK. 

Back at home, we had another late night, re-combing my daughter’s hair, treating my own, finishing the laundry.

The rest of that week passed in a blur. Every night stretched on for hours with no promise of rest, a whole day’s worth of responsibilities tacked onto the end of the regular day. More lice treatments, hours of combing, hours of blow drying and flat ironing, hours of laundry, hours of research. I made my scalp bleed, my daughter’s hair sizzle. We washed and re-washed every sheet and stuffed animal and towel in the house. 

I hit up every mom I know for advice. At some point, somebody suggested that the lice might be helping us cope with the pandemic by allowing us to focus on something within our control.

FUCKING FALSE. 

The lice were uncontrollable. Every night I found crawling bugs and fresh eggs. And still, every night I found crawling lice and fresh nits. The treatments didn’t work. The worst part was that with lice inside the house and coronavirus outside, nowhere was safe, not my home, not even my own body. I was already neurotic, a picker, and now I spent hours leaning over the sink pulling at my hair and obsessively eyed my daughter’s hair. Hugs became fraught. My daughter needed me to comfort probably more than any time since infancy but I was afraid of passing bugs back and forth and had to fight the urge to socially distance myself from my family. 

I looked forward to the day that the the only thing we had to worry about was COVID-19.  This was before I knew that a mild case could still mean serious illness. This was before I knew that not everybody I loved would take the threat seriously. This was before I knew about the economic impact. I was myopic in my misery.

On my phone, I toggled between reading the news and personal experiences with lice. In each case I was looking for good news but kept getting hit over the head with worst case scenarios. One night, I was sitting on my bed reading about a family who dealt with lice for months on end–every time they thought they had it beat the bugs came back stronger–when my husband came into our room with the latest coronavirus projection: up to 2.2 million Americans, dead. I clawed my head, fell into the fetal position, and sobbed. 

By the end of the week, we were ready to try anything, even the insecticide solution available by prescription only that Google told us was for gardens and animals. Given the public health crisis, it took days to get the doctor to call in the right prescription and even longer to track it down at a pharmacy. I was careful not to use too much on my daughter, but I soaked my hair and left it on for twice the recommended time. The next day my brain hurt. It worked, though. It would take me several more days and increasingly acute outburst from my daughter for me to stop picking at her hair, and a few more weeks to stop checking mine, but the lice are gone.  

A mom I know said, if it comes back, I should talk to her. Her kids had it a lot. You get used to it, she said. I shuddered, refusing to even wrap my mind around that. 

More recently, my boss, the one who watched me pick lice out of my hair for six hours of video calls, called to check in. “How’s the lice?” “Oh that! It feels like a million years ago.” My daughter and I laugh about it now, too. “Remember how freaked out we were? Remember how we cried? Remember I couldn’t stop combing your hair? Remember how all we needed was the right medicine and it went away? Remember how we thought you’d be going back to school in three weeks? Remember how we thought we were going on a spring break trip? Remember how we thought you would still get to have a birthday party? Remember when we could still go to playgrounds? Remember when we didn’t have to wear masks? Remember how we thought the doctors would find a vaccine within the year? Those were the good old days.”

Quarantine Diary Day 47

Earlier this year, I had a dream that my wedding band partially fused into my finger. When I looked down, I could see half the band glinting silver and the other half embedded under the skin. My engagement ring is unconventionally flashy, a large emerald solitaire, but the wedding ring is simple, just a thin platinum loop. In the dream, I fingered the silver ring with my other hand, twisting it round on round, watching with fascination and fear as it slid into and out of my body.

When I told my husband about the dream the next morning, I tried to spin it as a compliment instead of a horror show. “It means that our marriage is so fundamentally important and unshakable that it’s part of me.” He looked skeptical. “It sounds more like you feel trapped.”

We’re coming up on seven weeks of sheltering in place together with our school-aged daughter in a modestly-sized townhouse. I feel trapped at home, because I am a person who likes to be out, but I don’t feel trapped with him. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s homeschooling our daughter. He buys all of our food and essential supplies. He found toilet paper when there was none to be found and sanitizing wipes. He had reusable masks delivered before the Evanston’s face covering order went into effect. He makes lunch and dinner five nights per week. He wakes up and makes breakfast early on Sunday mornings so I can attend virtual church. He bakes sourdough. He washes the dishes cleans the bathrooms. He planned our daughter’s birthday top to bottom. He remembers to make things fun, with board games and video games and snacks and toys. He packs our go bags. He listens to play-by-play reports of my weekly therapy sessions, which has to be deeply boring, and he listen when I recount my dreams, which is even worse. He tells jokes, some bad and some good. He always has music playing. He is always a solid partner, but in a crisis he’s the best.

About a week into quarantine I woke up in the middle of the night, rubbing the fourth finger on my left hand. My wedding band felt itchy and tight. This happens with most jewelry I wear–I’m allergic to heavy metals and have sensitive skin–but rarely with my wedding band, which never leaves my hand. It was uncomfortable enough that I worked the tiny ring off over my knuckle. I slipped it into a jewelry box and went back to sleep.

When I woke up, I forgot all about it. In fact, I forgot about it for weeks, only noticing the other day that my finger was still bare. “Huh, that’s weird.” I’m still not wearing the ring. When I’m not seeing anybody but my family, there just doesn’t seem to be much point. Will wedding rings, I wonder, go the way of makeup and bras and pants and shoes in this new world where we know no one but the ones who already know everything about us?

Quarantine Diary Day 46

I commuted over an hour a day for the first nine years of my career. For the last half of that, I was in transit over two hours a day. For many years, my route to work included a long walk, a train, and a water taxi. When I changed jobs a few years ago and moved into an office a few miles north of downtown and closer to my home in the suburbs, I thought the trip would get better. Instead, I had to take two trains each away, and almost every day included multiple 20+ minute waits on the platform. I defended my commute to people balked at how much time I spent getting to and from work. Sitting on the train with a book, walking on the riverwalk with a podcast, cruising down the Chicago river with music in my ears, that was my me time, the only time in my long days that I wasn’t busy with work, or childcare, or chores. Still, more often than not I arrived at work already exhausted, and by the time I made it home for the night, I was done. It’s no wonder that I spent so many of those train rides home, especially after I got sober, thirsty and resentful, envious of the men in suits drinking Daisy Cutter from a can with another in a paper bag. I wondered if it was the beer or the suits or the fact that they weren’t going home to a second shift that made them able to cope with a life that was grinding me into the ground. 

Last summer, my employer allowed me to rent an office in my town. After that, I walked to work, about twenty minutes each way. It was still a commute, but it didn’t feel that way, except on the coldest days, and the rainy ones. I marveled at the pleasure of watching the seasons unfold in my own community, up close. More than the walking, I embraced the gift of time. Moving my office gave me 1.5 hours back on my clock every day. Before I got that time, I assumed I would use it to work. I’m an attorney; there are always more hours to bill. I thought I might spend the rest of it with my daughter. I’m a working mom; there is always more to do at home. So for the first few weeks, I rushed off to work early on days that I had client calls and walked my daughter to school on days that I didn’t. I raced home for family dinners. As the weeks wore on, and I adjusted to not having a train to catch, I started to wonder why I was rushing. I also started to wonder if I wasn’t still entitled to a little me time that didn’t consist solely of listening to podcasts while hauling my ass to and from my job. I decided to reclaim the time that I’d been so eager to return to my family and my job. I let my morning runs go longer, up to seven, eight, and nine miles from five or six. I let my husband get our daughter ready for school while I played the guitar before work. I did daily tarot pulls.   

When I realized that I’d be working from home last month, I knew it would be a challenge. Our home is small, with no dedicated home office, and I’d be sharing the space with my husband and newly homeschooled daughter. But I was excited about the prospect of another gift of time. My forty-minute walk commute was going down to zero! Imagine all the quality family time, all the productive work hours! Imagine all the writing! I could barely contain myself.

Of course, you know what happened next. The first few weeks of self-isolation were more about surviving than thriving. I stopped waking up at 5:00 a.m. to work out because what was the point. I stopped making my kid get dressed for the same reason. I woke up late, walked downstairs, and arrived at the futon that is now my office already exhausted. I spent the day trying to maintain a veneer of business as usual with my coworkers and clients and by the time I made it upstairs for the night, I was done. I powered through dinner and bedtime and then collapsed on the couch to eat ice cream and watch comfort TV.   

It was my therapist who suggested that I bring back the commute, on the theory that our pre-pandemic routines can offer much-needed stability in a time of crisis. So I started walking, first around the park, and then around the block, and then around the neighborhood. Sometimes I call a family member on the phone. Sometimes I listen to a podcast. Sometimes I do nothing but walk. After years of wishing my commute away, I’m finding that most days I cannot walk enough. Walking outside, when I can’t go anywhere else, is a pleasure. I like watching the trees bud and the flowers bloom. I like peering into my neighbors’ yards and waving at people walking their dogs. The thing that drained me is now giving me life.    

At the beginning, I invited my daughter with me every time I left the house. She needs to get outside as much as I do, and I like her company. In fact, our walks our glorious. We collect sticks and rocks. We photograph flowers. We race as fast as we can. At least once every walk, my daughter peels ahead of me or drops back, lost in thought or in the wonder of it all. When she remembers I exist, she sprints back to me shouting, “I love you mama!” 

Lately, though, it’s getting harder to get my daughter to leave the house. As much fun as she has when she’s out there, she is getting tired of walking. She is tired of our neighborhood, tired of me. She misses other kids, and playing on the playground. Feeling obligated to make the most of this time, I keep pushing her to join me, and the walks are turning into a battleground. I think, if it were up to me, I would be walking four or five times a day, but I can’t, because I am a working parent and my time belongs to my family and my job. I start to get bitter. 

Just in time, I remember that the gift of this season is the gift of time. This weekend, we finished dinner, and I asked my daughter to pick up her toys. The family room was a disaster and she was starting to fuss. Outside, it was a gorgeous spring evening. The sun was setting, and the neighborhood was all gold. I thought about how much I’d rather be out there than in here. I thought about how there was no reason to rush through the evening, from dinner to chores to bathtime to bed. I walked upstairs, told my husband I was going for a walk. “Supervise the clean-up,” I said. “I’ll be back in fifteen for dessert.” I came back in twenty minutes to a clean house and ice cream sundae ingredients lined up on the counter. 

I am entitled to time to myself. I am entitled to do something enjoyable without turning it into an opportunity for my child. I am entitled to a life that doesn’t feel like a grind, that doesn’t turn me into dust. If I want to go for a walk, I can go for a walk. I don’t have to have a reason. It doesn’t have to be a commute. 

Quarantine Diary Day 45

My daughter has always been a kid that preferred the company of adults, or at least the company of me, to that of other kids. Typical oldest daughter, maybe. Maybe a typical only child. Of course, nothing about our own children ever feels typical. Most days, our bond feels special. I love how clearly she prefers me when it looks the way I want love to feel: sweet and easy. I’m talking mama-daughter dates at the museum, sushi dinners, and endless walks around the neighborhood. I worry and chafe when her attachment demands what love actually requires, which is to say, patience and sacrifice. When the neighborhood kids graduated from their parents’ arms to side-by-side play to careening around outside in a big, bonded pack, I longed to send her off with them so I could talk freely with the other moms. All through preschool, my girl stayed glued to my side, whined when I paid more attention to other adults than her, and cried when other kids came too close, touched her toys, or asked me a question.

When she started kindergarten, her world exploded. I was still her sun, but now she was crossing paths with dozens of other little planets. The planets were other kids, and she resisted their pull. She puzzled over their varied atmospheres, their rings, their moons, always too many or too few, their very existence. By the time she realized she might actually like the other planets, they were all spinning in time and she didn’t know how to sync up. We spent a lot of time at parks, her surreptitiously watching other kids play, me gently encouraging her to join, and both of us pretending we didn’t care when it didn’t happen.

Last summer, in the grassy common area between our houses, one of my more brutally honest friends put me on the spot: “Why doesn’t D play with the other kids?” Inside, I jerked at the pain of being found out. Outside, I answered honestly, nonchalantly: “She has a hard time working up the courage to join them. She is waiting for them to invite her in.” My friend dropped her chin and looked at me in disbelief, like I was asking for the moon. “But…kids don’t do that. They just…play.” “I know,” I shrugged. “She’ll figure it out.”

In the fall, my daughter started first grade in a new classroom, at a new school, and her world blew open again, and this time the pieces landed just right. After just a few weeks of trepidation about being the new kid, she settled into her new orbit, and she thrived. She ran around with a pack of kids on the playground, led a friendly war against the boys in her classroom, and came home everyday bubbling over with stories about her day. When she told me her favorite subject at school was recess I about died with pride and relief at the normalcy of it all. Kids without friends never like recess.

By the time winter rolled around, she was planning her own playdates and I breathed another sigh of relief. My only child would not be lonely. The playdates did not go perfectly smoothly. She would have a terrific time for two, three, even four hour stretches, but when it was time to go home, she would break down, devastated that the fun had to end. It was like preschool social interactions in reverse: she cried when I came too close, touched her arm, or asked a question. If I tried to grab her hand, or nudge her toward the door, she’d go alternately boneless or stiff as a board. Eventually we’d make it out the front door, but she’d be inconsolable the whole way home.

After a few of these scenes, I figured out what was going on. Having friends was still so new to her, she didn’t know if she could count on it to last. On our way home from a classmates’ house one evening, I tried to reassure her: “Honey, this is just the beginning. You’re going to get to play with M again.” She wasn’t so sure. She sniffed and tearfully asked, “Do you promise?” I take promises seriously, so I took my time before responding. When I felt sure, I said, “Of course. You’re going to have lots of playdates with lots of friends. I cannot think of any reason in the world you wouldn’t play with M again. We’ll invite her over next week. I promise.”

That was Monday, March 9. By Thursday, school was cancelled through April 12. On March 31, the district announced that schools were closed through April 30. On April 17, we got notice that schools are closed through the end of the year.

We hung D’s class picture on the wall next to the kitchen table where she does her schoolwork now. The first week of quarantine, I’d catch her staring at it throughout the day. Sometimes she’d climb up on her knees in the middle of a meal and start reading her classmates names out loud. Sometimes she’d touch their faces. Six weeks in, she’s hardened. She’s still willing to admit that she misses school and church and choir and swim, but when I ask her who she misses, she says “No one.”

Quarantine Diary Day 41

Pre-pre-pre-quarantine, I lived in a prison of my own making. As is always the case with prisons of our own making, I had the keys, two sets in fact, to two different doors. One door had a sign on it that said “Keep drinking.” I really wanted to open that door. It was sleek and shiny and papered in notes that said, “Get it, girl!” and “You’ve got this!” and “Everybody else is doing it!” I knew exactly what was on the other side of that door. First a warm and fuzzy welcome home party, then a black tunnel, then death (“then prison/then the madhouse/then the grave“). The other door said “Stop now,” and looked like it would open into a house in the suburbs in the desert of my youth. It looked like my parents’ front door. In other words, worse than death. I wanted nothing to do with it. I had no idea what was on the other side.
Some four and a quarter years ago, I opened the boring door. Counterintuitively, I started counting days when I left the prison. I guess it took me a long time to realize I was free.
There are a lot of people to worry about right now: the dying, the grieving, the at-risk, the sick, the starving, the stretched, and the scared. Right up at the very top of my list are the people who are counting days. The people who were trying like hell to get sober when the rug of their lives was ripped out from under them. The people who are trying like hell to stay sober without support. The people who are bottoming out right now or who will in the coming months. The people for whom sobriety still looks like a black cloud on the horizon, a fate worse than death. These are my people–the ones who are now living in prisons inside of of prisons, who are isolated in isolation, who are trying to shelter inside the storm.
The good news: I’m pretty sure we still have all the keys. We just need some help finding them, and each other. You don’t have to leave your house or your prison to find a sober alcoholic who will help you. We’re everywhere.