Quarantine Diaries Day 239: I Hope You’re Not Lonely

It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.

I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.

Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her mama knew better

“Society” by Eddie Vedder:

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me

Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.

I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.

The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.

Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.

Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.

The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?

Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?

Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?

The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.

If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?

These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.

Quarantine Diary Day 98: On The Porch

Work is picking up again, leaving me with less time to let my mind wander during the day and less energy to write at night. Parenting remains all-consuming, in a way I didn’t expect. As the physical requirements decrease, the emotional demands run high. Like, we sleep through five nights out of seven, but I have to be emotionally available all day. Like, my kid will eat almost anything I put on the table but bursts into tears if I look at her sideways because “are you frustrated mama?” Like, she talks all the time. On Friday night after a long day at work and at home I put the kid to bed a bit early so I could do some writing. It was still hot outside with another hour of light so I set myself up on the front porch, which is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time weekends when the weather is nice.

Have I explained where we live yet? I think I need to set the scene, since we’re going to be all summer. We live in a townhouse community with thirty-nine other families. The units on the west side have back porches and the units on the south and east have front lawns but everybody’s outdoor space is small–six feet square, tops. The buildings are arranged in a triangle around a grassy common area shaped like a slice of pie. There’s a driveway that runs between the buildings and then wraps around behind the units on the east. Our neighbors run the gamut from young couples to empty nesters, from single people to single parents, from tiny babies to teenagers, from families in the thick of raising school-aged kids to retirees. Our first year here there were more than twenty kids under the age of ten. Five years later I don’t know how many kids there are, but it’s a lot. Communal living is a dream come true for our little family living as far from we do from grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; all we have to do is step out the front door and there’s someone to play with or talk to. It’s also worth noting that living in close proximity to dozens of people under an active HOA pushes every single one of my buttons.

The first thing I saw when I went outside on Friday night was a gaggle of kids eating cupcakes in the common area. Immediately I felt bad, first for shuttling my daughter off to bed and then because I realized we hadn’t been invited to join in whatever special occasion precipitated the cupcakes. I still remember the injustice of a summer bedtime before the sun went down and the loneliness of my voice not being part of the evening cacophony. The twin memories linger and sting. I considered returning to the kitchen table to write, but didn’t. I was determined not to cede the last of the light to my childish resentment of people having fun without me, or the night to my deeply maternal habit of projecting my insecurities onto my daughter. I decided to stay outside.

As soon as I opened my tablet, a neighborhood kid, a friend of my daughter’s, buzzed over like a moth to a flame. She paced around my camp chair chatting and chatting and intermittently asking “Where’s D___? Why don’t you go get D___?” and reacting incredulously every time I repeated (also incredulously), “She’s in bed!” At first I resisted the pull of the conversation. I put my own kid to bed so I could write and just think for a goddamn minute and here I was doing neither. I kept looking down at my the keyboard and rifling through the pages of notes also on my lap, but the kid refused to leave for more than a few minutes, and the one kid was followed by another who also wanted to know where D was, and then by the second kid’s mom, who just waved, and then by the first kid’s older sister who just wanted to talk, and then by her father who wanted to check in, and eventually by her mother, a dear friend who I haven’t seen for more than a few minutes since the pandemic started. When I finally closed the computer and gave myself over to the family dynamic spilling onto my front porch, the first kid came back and put an actual puppy on my lap.

I never ended up finding out what the cupcakes were for or if there was some party to which we weren’t invited. I never wrote the essay about being lonely, about struggling to feel like a good mom, about the challenge of maintaining my sense of self when living in close enough quarters to watch other people’s lives unfold. Instead, I spent a few humid
hours being a neighbor, a friend, a trusted adult, making the neighborhood a better place for someone else’s kids. I went inside when everyone else did, sticky bug-bit, and satisfied with the way the summer is going, with my tiny front porch, with my great big life.

Quarantine Diary Day 64: FOMO

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I’ve heard it said a couple of times that being forced to shelter-in-place put an end to fear of missing out. Before this all started, fear of missing out drove us to overcommit and overextend ourselves, to say yes to things when we really wanted to say no, and to stay out longer than we should have. When we did find ourselves at home, fear of being left out drove us to scroll through tagged photos on Instagram and Facebook with knots in our stomachs, and swirling thoughts like, “What was I doing that weekend” and “Why didn’t I know about this?” Now that are our feeds are filled with our immediately family members, at-home graduation, birthday, and anniversary parties, and endless loaves of bread, it’s clear there’s not much going on to be jealous of.

Or is there?

Perhaps I suffer from a more virulent strain of FOMO that everybody else, stemming from a more deeply-rooted insecurity, but I don’t have to look too hard for signs of life carrying on without me.

The underground dinner parties for the DC elite were easy to dismiss; that was never my world and, frankly, I ate up the backlash against people flaunting their privilege in the early days of the pandemic with a healthy side of schadenfreude.

An early suggestion that parents cope with the no playdates guidance by picking a “best friend family” stung a little. There are lots of families with young kids in our area, but we’re no one’s best friend. As my daughter’s budding social life died on the vine, kids from her class reported during Monday Zoom calls that they’d spent the weekend playing with “just one” friend. We tended the hurt with salve we picked up up on the moral high ground and reassurance that this was temporary.

The first time I video chatted my family out west and found my siblings and parents and nephews all together in one place I hung up the phone and cried. They were all outside, all properly socially distanced around the pool, around the firepit. They weren’t doing anything wrong, but they were together and I was starting to come apart.

At the park, I play with my daughter near but not exactly with other families who are less vigilant about keeping their kids apart. Like all kids, my daughter has a violent sense of justice. Usually I try to tamp it down, complicate her view of the world, model empathy and open-mindedness, remind her that we live life in our own lane. Other days, I let her screams of “WHY AREN’T THEY SOCIAL DISTANCING!” go unanswered because I’m as pissed as she is.

In the house, I hear voices drift in from outside, peek out the window and spy my neighbors barbecuing with friends. The good smells good but what I really crave is the conversation.

I attend virtual church with 150+ other people and virtual AA meetings with people who may or may not know my face and my name, but I have yet to be invited to a virtual happy hour.

I know I’m not really missing out. I know we’re all struggling differently, even the people who seem to be taking this all in stride. I know I have a lot and that there are a lot of people who look at the pictures I take and the words that I write about my life and they ache, because they want what I have.

I’m just lonely.

What Am I Afraid Of?

Now that I am consistently attending the same recovery meetings with the same core group of people, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as much as I love the changes that have occurred in my life since I committed to a specific program for recovery, I remain somewhat ambivalent about the logistics of that program. I haven’t formally “worked” the steps (although I feel comfortable saying I’ve done some version of the first three). I don’t have a sponsor. I don’t do service work. I’ve never picked up the phone. I haven’t shared my story with another member (except in bits and pieces at meetings). I just started reading the Big Book. 

I don’t have any philosophical reservations about these aspects of the program. I don’t question that I could seriously benefit from them, and maybe even need them if I want this run at sobriety to stick. Even if I don’t need them, I want them. I do.

But I am scared to do them. I am scared that if I immerse myself in the program, delve into the literaure, open up to the people in it, I will discover that I don’t belong. I fear that my nagging insecurity that I am not good enough, or, in this case, that I am not bad enough, will be confirmed. 

Every time I read or hear something that challenges my belief that I am truly like other people in the program–in the Big Book, on the internet, at a meeting–old anxiety rises up, squeezing my chest, constricting my throat. 

It is the same feeling I got when Nick G. said that members of the LDS church who support gay marriage aren’t really Mormon. 

It is the same feeling I got when I read a comment on a feminist website saying that Mormons aren’t Christians.

It is the same feeling I get every time somebody questions the reality of my experiences or the accuracy of my perceptions (especially the ones that are already fuzzy): 

When Sarah and Ben referred to my being raped as a “fling”; 

When Stephen said that men and women are equal recipients of the “can’t have it all” rhetoric; 

When John said it was sexist for me to be nervous about being alone in a dark alley with a man but not a woman; 

When my therapist said “but it doesn’t seem like you drank that much.

I don’t care for this feeling, but I am strong today, so I finger the bruise, push a little harder. I learn that this particular wound is shot through with shades of hurt and rejection that are not unlike: 

The feeling I got when the Millers passed me and my daughter in the grass on the way to Heidi and Bob’s house for dinner, having never been invited over ourselves;

The feeling I got when Jake asked if my daughter was going to a birthday party that we’d heard nothing about;

The feeling I got when I realized I was dropped from the group text that’s always going back and forth between the moms in my neighborhood;

The feeling I got when a man at the LDS church let a door swing shut in my face as I was carrying my daughter through and then denied it happened when his wife pointed out how rude he was;

The feeling I got when a woman at the Unitarian church told me I should have taken my wiggly girl outside during the service because we were a distraction.

What am I afraid will happen if I tell my story at a meeting or to a sponsor and someone thinks I don’t qualify for a seat in the rooms?

At first I thought I was afraid that I would drink again. That is sort of true. I really don’t want to drink again, but that’s just how I feel today. 

What’s more true is that, with or without the program, I can’t go back to how I was. It is not an option. What I am really afraid of  is having to do this thing–learning to live a sober life–alone.