One of the few things that doesn’t suck about elearning with a second grader is that my daughter already knows how to read. Don’t get me wrong. We’re a family of readers but not, like, prodigiously early readers. She just learned, barely squeezed under the COVID wire that shredded her education before she finished first grade. This summer was my first experiencing the parental pleasure that is reading a book on the couch while your child reads next to you. I think that happened once. She gets her best reading done before I wake up and the Echo Dot in her room is still disabled because nobody needs to hear Kidz Bop before 6:30 in the morning. Last summer she woke up every day with the sun and ran immediately into my room. I couldn’t tell you what time she wakes up now except that it’s sometime before I do and that when I peek in her room she is sitting cross-legged on the floor with a book.
Both enthusiastic about this new development, my husband and I took different approaches to molding our daughter into a kid who, we hope, will read even when she doesn’t have to. A former literature major, I pulled all our Roald Dahl off the high shelves with no regard as to whether stories about kid munching monsters and kid munching witches and fox shooting humans would be disturbing to seven-year-old sensitivities. A journalist by training, my husband subscribed her to National Geographic Kids and Highlights Magazine. She promptly hid National Geographic under her bed when they sent her an early Halloween issue with a horror movie mummy on the front, but she adores Highlights. Highlights! Do you remember Highlights? Highlights with godawful Goofus and goody two shoes Gallant? Highlights with the Look and Look Again puzzles with five differences that are impossibly easy to spot and one that’s always straight up impossible? Highlights with the Pinterest crafts before Pinterest was a thing that don’t require mom to have to reset her password? Highlights with the endless supply of knock knock jokes? Maybe you’re not in the Highlights target demographic or your parents couldn’t afford magazines or your grandparents didn’t buy you a Highlights subscription for your birthday and you’re wondering if I’m talking about the cartoon-y magazine at the pediatrician’s office. Don’t worry, you’ve got it, that’s the one.
Last month my daughter ripped a postcard off the spine of the magazine, the kind you usually fill out and send back in to resubscribe, and started scraping ink off the images on it with a quarter, like it was a scratch off lotto ticket. How did she know to do that? I wondered. We’re a buy your snacks at the gas station family, but not, like, a scratchers family. A minute later my daughter waved the card in my face. “I won, mama! Look!” I grabbed the card and studied it, suspicious. Sure enough, Highlights was introducing my kid to the dopamine hit of an easy win with a Scratch and Match promotional program. She didn’t have a match, but the card was clear enough that scratching off one image of a book, as she had done, meant that something called Mathmania would be coming her way. Never one to say no to something that might make math fun, I checked to see if we needed postage. In the meantime, my daughter pulled off another postcard from last month’s Highlights and started happily scratching away. A moment later: “Look mama, I won again!” She definitely did not win again.She must be missing something. I studied the second card and it was as clear as the first. She hadn’t won the big prize that came with three matches, but she definitely had won another magazine called Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye. “Wow, sweetie! That’s awesome! Congratulations!”
I half-hoped she’d forget about the prizes because I did not really want to fill out the postcards and track down stamps but she proudly carried the cards downstairs and set them right next to my spot on the kitchen table. I let them sit for a few days until it was clear that they were not going to mysteriously disappear without parental intervention and I was never going to magically feel like doing this tiny chore. I quickly scratched out our name and address and my email address and put them in a stack of outgoing mail for my husband to send off.
A few weeks later, an invoice for $10.55 showed up in my inbox. Hmmm. A copy of Mathmania arrived in our mailbox a few days after that with a paper invoice for the same amount.
I didn’t read the fine print. I should have read the fine print! I don’t trust anybody who’s trying to sell me anything (unless it’s a God thing and then I’ll buy whatever you’re peddling). I’m not a skeptic but I am a cynic. Ialways read the fine print. I have to! I was raised Mormon in the mountain west in a hotbed of multi-level marketing and get rich quick schemes. My internet search history is smattered with “DoTerra + scam” and “LuLa Roe + scam” and “Usborne books + scam.” My distrust extends to subscription-based services and wellness product and anything that seems a little too popular. “Ritual vitamins + scam” and “Stitchfix + scam” and “Caroline Calloway + scam.” You can’t trust anything coming out of capitalism. Even as a believer, I interrogate the institutions that made me and changed me and saved me. “Joseph Smith + scam” “Alcoholics Anonymous + scam” “law school + scam.” You can’t trust anything and you can’t trust anyone.
The only reason I didn’t read the fine print this time was because it was Highlights for Children for god’s sake and I couldn’t imagine the Highlights of my most innocent childhood years would take my daughter for ride a like that, tricking them into thinking they won some kind of grand prize and then putting parents in the position of having to say, “Sorry, honey, you didn’t really win.” That seemed like the kind of dirty trick Goofus would pull.
I wasn’t about to tell my daughter she didn’t win and I’ve spent more than $10.55 on more worthless crap than math games so I figured I’d pay it and chalk the loss up to experience. It stung a little more when the invoice for Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye but she loves those puzzles so whatever. $20 is less to me than it was to my parents and is well worth it if it means I don’t have to get on the phone and demand a refund while confessing my ignorance to a stranger.
Before I got around to paying the bill, another invoice popped up in my email. I checked my Highlights account, because apparently I now had a Highlights account, and saw that not only did I have a new charge of $17.94 for a second volume of Mathmania but I also had pending charge of $17.94 for another issue of Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye that was about to ship.
Uggghhhhhh.They were going to make me call customer service. A lady answered the phone. She sounded sweet. She sounded older. She sounded like the kind of lady that works at Highlights. She sounded like Gallant’s grandma. I explained the situation in elaborate detail, but I didn’t need to. She knew exactly why I was calling. She cancelled the subscriptions to the two magazines and, without my even asking, removed the pair of $10.55 charges for the first two issues. She couldn’t cancel the charges for the new issues, which had already shipped, she said. We’d have to refuse delivery or send them back. I paused. I’ve missed dozens of packages over the years and had them returned to sender but I’ve never turned one away on purpose. “How does that…work exactly?” “Just write ‘refused’ on the outside of the package and put it back in the mailbox,” she explained patiently, like she was talking to a child. I thought about the plastic wrap that magazines sometimes come in and wondered how I’d write on it. “Like…with a Sharpie?” I asked, wanting her to spell it out. “Sure. Or a pen. And then you can call back and we’ll remove the charges.” Lord help me. I considered giving this nice lady a piece of my mind. Then I thought about how that never makes me feel good and how I’m trying to move through the world with a little less drama and a little more grace. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.” “You’re welcome!” the Highlights lady chirped, sounding ever so slightly surprised. “Now that we’ve taken care of that, can I interest you in any of our other gift packages?”
This week, Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye came in the mail again. Before I could intercept and send it back, my husband brought it inside and waved it in the air. “Your new magazine is here!” He put it on the table in front of my daughter. “Hooray!” she exclaimed, tearing into the plastic wrap that I could not possibly have marked up with any kind of legibility. Sigh.
$17.94 is less to me than it was my parents but not that much less and at this point I feel like Highlights is setting me up to fail. It looks like I have at least one more phone call in my future. Perhaps many more, judging by these customercomplaints. In the meantime, at least my kid is reading.
It took over a decade for me to fall out of love with my church. I’m an ex-Mormon and my exit narrative is not one of escape. The church was where I was from and where I was going, my home and my promised land, my mother and my father, my sibling and my cherished friend, my first language and the only one I wanted to learn. For ten years I moved from ward to ward and my religious beliefs morphed with me. I was young and impossibly idealistic. I wanted to be an intellectual, a radical, a revolutionary, and I wanted the bohemian lifestyle that came with, and I wanted it all as a Mormon girl. Mormonism was such a part of me, and I was so wrapped up in the fold, that I saw no conflict, though I had to be careful with my beliefs, shape them just right so that they I could fit them neatly in the body of the church and hold them close to my body at the same time. Remake something malleable enough times eventually it becomes formless. That’s what happened to my beliefs. I prayed and read my scriptures and paid my tithing and sat in the pews and took the Sacrament and taught Sunday School and did my visiting teaching and made an honest effort to try to live the life of an active member of the church, but I dared not let another Latter-Day Saint peek into my head for fear they wouldn’t recognize what they saw: universalism, skepticism, a great big formless god.
When I decided to leave the church it was all at once. On November 5, 2015, a few short months after the Supreme Court of the United States recognized marriage as a fundamental right belonging to all God’s children, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declared same-sex marriage to be apostasy–so anathema to the teachings of the church as to be tantamount to a total renunciation of the religion. The church barred the children of married gay parents from baptism absent special permission from the church president in Salt Lake City and denouncement by the child of her parents’ marriage. I went to church on November 8, 2015 to register with my bishop my disagreement with the policy and walked out never to set foot in the building again.
The November Policy has since been walked back, but I haven’t.
I clung to the trappings of Mormonism in the days and weeks after I left. I read the Book of Mormon and saw myself in the prophet Moroni, the last of his kind who foretold and witnessed the destruction of his people, who wrote their stories and carried them with him to the bitter end. In my grief in the wake of the November Policy, I cried out to God and felt peace in my heart. I prayed for direction and felt the spirit telling me to go. That surprised me. I didn’t expect to hear God outside Mormonism’s brick walls.
I followed this revelation into other churches. I worshipped with the Unitarian Universalists. I liked their spare sanctuary, their earnest intentions, their white take on world music, and their mind-bending sermons, but they didn’t like me, a messy woman with a wiggly toddler, both of us crying in the back row. A woman told me to take my daughter out, because she was distracting, so I did and never went back. I wondered if leaving churches would become my new thing.
I found my way into a United Methodist Church. I trusted the rainbow flag out front and was heartened to see activity bags for children hanging on a coat rack outside the chapel but I was wary of putting my family and my heart on the line again. I kept my emotional distance but brought my body and my daughter’s back week after week month after month until the years piled up and I knew we were safe.
I spent thousands of hours in church basements fortifying myself against the demons that had been threatening to wrest me away from love since I was a teen.
Mormonism became just another place I used to live, an interesting story to tell. I trotted it out at second step meetings. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. “You think you’ve got religious baggage because you grew up an alcoholic Catholic family on Chicago’s west side? Let me tell you about a story that starts in Utah.” I dusted if off when the United Methodists faced their own moral reckoning, threatened to split down the middle over gay marriage. “You think your religion has it out for gay people? Let me tell you a story about Proposition 8.” or “You think it’s hard to feel betrayed by your religion? You’re right. It’s the hardest thing there is.”
By the time I told my stories they’d been drained of all their emotional weight, but I still identified as a Mormon. People asked why I didn’t leave the church for real, pull my name from the records in Salt Lake. I didn’t see any reason to leave. The church stopped hurting me the moment I stopped offering myself up to it. The grief and rage died when I left and my world kept turning. You need love to keep a fire burning. In the after I felt nothing for the church but relief that I was no longer part of it.
I am nothing if not thorough, though, so when I worked the fourth step I dredged up all my old resentments against the church and wrote them down. Prop 8. The November Policy. A lifetime and an eternity of subservience to men. By twelve step logic, my list of fourth step list of resentments I nurtured automatically populated a separate eighth step list of people I’d harmed. I needed to make amends. As I worked to clean up my side of the street, I had to admit I had not been a perfect Mormon. I judged the church for judging me. I picked fights about everything from politics to policy, culture to theology. I insisted I knew better and blew up when people disagreed. I refused to see the forest–shelter and sustenance for millions of people–for the copse of diseased trees poisoning me. I saw that there were other reasons not to leave. The church gave me my family, and my membership meant something to my parents. I might have been a lost sheep but I was still part of the fold. I might be destined for outer darkness but there was a chance we’d be together in heaven. Besides, what could it possibly cost me to keep my name on the rolls of an exclusive heaven I no longer believed in?
A little over two years after I started worshiping with the United Methodists, I decided to finally, formally join the congregation. Early on I’d been nervous about commiting to a new church, but I’d been attending long enough for the church to feel like a safe second home. I was already raising my daughter there. When I realized I was already living out the membership vows–upholding my local congregation with my daily prayers, my weekly presence at services, my gifts of dollars and time, my service to the children’s program, and my witness of God somehow at work in this church, too–I figured I had nothing to lose. It was well past time for me to start checking “member” instead of “visitor” on the sheet inside the welcome folder at the end of each pew. I emailed Mary, the membership coordinator and the first person who’d ever greeted me at church, excited to make it official. Mary’s response was tactful but the message was not. Due to differences in beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, the United Methodist Church does not recognize Mormon baptisms. To join the congregation, I would need to be re-baptized first. To avoid the apparently dire consequences of double counting, UMC strongly urged me to initiate my formal removal from LDS membership rolls.
I couldn’t believe it! I thought my baptism was good. I’d gone all the way under, like Jesus, at eight years old. The idea of denouncing my Mormon baptism, I was surprised to discover, crushed me. The sensation of finding myself severed from the body of Christ a second time was akin to shock from blood loss. I was pissed, too. The hypocrisy coming from a church that serves communion at an open table–one where all are welcome without regard to age, race or ethnicity, gender identification or sex orientation, without regard even to membership in the United Methodist Church–made me want to scream.
My sorrow and anger told me I’d fallen in love with this new church. “I need some time,” I told Mary, “to think and pray over how I want to proceed. Of course I will still be attending services. I look forward to deepening my involvement with the church and community in whatever form that takes.” Unlike Mormonism, official membership in the United Methodist Church didn’t seem to come with any special privileges, so I decided to stay and act as if I were a member. I wore a nametag, served on committees, showed up early for Sunday School and stayed late for fellowship, volunteered to teach the kids, washed coffee mugs, tithed a portion of my income, put my daughter in the children’s choir and the Christmas Pageant, and went to all the services, even the unpopular weekday ones during Lent. I became a regular church lady and my heart only broke fourteen times a year: on the semi-annual new member Sundays and the first Sunday of every month when the pastor led communion with her open table spiel. People asked why I didn’t join the church for real, put my name on the records as a member. I explained that I couldn’t without cancelling my Mormon baptism, they understood and agreed. Besides, I lied. I don’t see any reason to join.
That I didn’t leave either church is a testament to my twelve-step work. Sobriety taught me to show up for my life and to take responsibility for it too. Inside the church basements I discovered other character defects–festering insecurity, deep-seated fear, and a mean perfectionistic that made parenting terrifically difficult–and worked tirelessly to address them. There was no problem in my life that I couldn’t resolve by taking a long hard look at myself and fixing up what I saw.
I clung to this maxim until January 2020, when a particularly sustained and severe winter depressive episode, when I was scratching tiny frowny faces into the calendar at the front of my planner more days than not, made me admit that I needed to call in reinforcements. I called the number on the back of my insurance card and a week later perched carefully on the edge of my new therapist’s couch. Not sure where to start, I offered that I was sad, deeply, unspeakably, unshakably sad. Not all the time, I told her, but much of the time it felt like I was living in a dark room. My new therapist thumbed around the bruise, trying to find where it hurt the most. I confessed that I was tired of fighting with my husband about our roles, about my job and everything he does at home. I was tired of snapping and screaming in front of my daughter and hating myself after. I was afraid I’d done irreparable damage with our explosive fights with my ruinous temper. I’d ruined so much already. Haltingly, I told her I thought my family was better off without me. Before I left, she told me about suicidal ideation.
In that first session, we honed in on my family relationships, my greatest gift and biggest priority, as a trigger point for all my pain. The problem was with my expectations of my marriage and myself as a mother. They were too high, and when I fell short I went down hard and fast. I mentioned the church only briefly, by way of background. “I left the Mormon church four years ago. They have a few ideas about marriage and family. That might be where some of this is coming from.”
In later sessions, I told my therapist about the church’s teachings about the “ideal” family. My therapist visibly reacted to that word, with a sharp inhale and a straightening up in her chair, but she regained her professional composure quickly and I went on. The ideal family is made up of a husband and wife who have been married in an LDS temple and their children, born and raised in wedlock. In an ideal family, the husband presides over the family and provides for them, while the wife nurtures their children. Not all Latter-Day Saint families are ideal, but they should all strive to be.
My family is not ideal. My husband is not Mormon. I’m not anymore, either, but he never was. We did not marry in the temple. I work and he stays at home. We only have one daughter. We tried to have more but it didn’t happen and we decided not to pursue fertility treatments.
I told my therapist I didn’t believe those teachings anymore, but that I was still convinced my marriage was doomed to end in divorce and that my daughter had no chance at a good life. I was still convinced that families with more than one child were happier than mine. I was convinced that every family was happier than mine.
We talked about the same things week after week after week. Our sessions moved to the phone and then to video when the pandemic hit and I was grateful I’d found a therapist before the world shut down. I was especially grateful for the timing because the pandemic put my most tender hurts on display. On my endless walks around the block I saw so many happy families, so many kids playing together in front yards, so many couples riding bikes together, so many driveways chalked with rainbows and hearts. In our house, all I saw was a tangle of mental health issues, a husband and a wife getting on each others’ last nerves trying to share the same small space all day, and a sad, lonely, and scared little girl. Intellectually, I knew other families were struggling too, that other kids had nightmares, that other moms felt like they were failing, but I couldn’t feel my way out of the lie that mine had it worse, and it was all my fault. On my walks, I started averting my eyes from the happiest looking houses and crossing the street to avoid other families even when it wasn’t strictly necessary to maintain social distance. I pretended not to see my neighbors who were stay-at-home moms. I was walking in the light of day but living in a shadow, hiding in plain sight.
It was on a weekday walk in mid-May, when the sun was starting to shine with a little more warmth and the dogwoods were out in full bloom, that my mind turned off in a darker direction. I was sunk deep in an audiobook and the narrator introduced a new character as a writer, a therapist, and a mom. My ears perked up, as they always do when I hear about working moms who are described in ways that make them sound happy, rather than harried, and I thought “Hey, I’m a mom and a writer! I wonder what she writes about?” Immediately, my brain turned on me, attacking the comparison. “She’s probably a real mom. Not like you.”
What in the world? I’d had some practicing fact-checking the voices in my head from therapy and this particular thought was so blatantly untrue stacked up against the physical evidence of my parenthood–the scar on my pelvis, my daughter watching Puppy Dog Pals at home, the thousands of insurance dollars going to therapy so I could figure out how to be a better mom–that I tested it. What distinction between me and this unknown woman could I possibly have seized upon to feed the idea that I was not, in fact, a mom? My mind supplied the answer in seconds. “She probably has more than one kid. She probably works part time. She’s probably home with her kids right now and you’re out wandering around the neighborhood talking to yourself.” Well then. I had me there. I gave up the fight and walked home, head hung impossibly low.
Back at home, I climbed onto the couch with my daughter and curled up behind her. I held her as the clock ticked past nine, nine-fifteen, nine-thirty. I was supposed to go downstairs and start working, but I stayed by her side until my husband came down from his own appointment ready to start another day of at-home school. Downstairs in my makeshift office I prepared to start by workday, but there was one thing I needed to do first. I pulled out a notebook and made a list of the lessons from Mormonism I thought I’d left behind. Having a family is the most important thing a person can do. God wants parents to have as many children as they can. Raising children is the most important thing a woman can do. Big families are more righteous. Small families are selfish. Women who work are selfish. Fathers who don’t work are lazy. Children whose mothers’ work will suffer.
This is the soil that grew me up, the dirt in which I laid the seeds for my own family. I might have stopped paying tithing but my church membership was not free.
I registered for an account at quitmormon.com that day and filled in the forms to have my names removed from the records of the church. I was dismayed when I realized that the process wasn’t automatic. I got the completed forms back in my email inbox. I’d have to print them, get them notarized, and mail them off to church headquarters in Salt Lake City myself. I looked up the closest notary public. Illinois was still shut down except for essential business, but the UPS store downtown was open. I weighed the risks of possible exposure to the novel against continued exposure to the virus that had already made me sick. I hadn’t been inside a building other than my own home in two months. There had to be a better way. I looked at the forms again and noticed that they’d been prepared for a law firm. I’m a lawyer, too. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t need a lawyer to leave my church. I dug up an email address for the bishop of my old ward and shot him off a note. “I’m writing to tell you that I’d like to end my membership in the church and have my name removed from the church’s records. Please let me know what I need to do to facilitate this process.”
I fell out of love with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on November 4, 2015. On May 20, 2020 I decided to leave. I had my bishop on the phone within a day and a week later I had in my hand a letter dated May 22, 2020. “Per your request, your membership resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been accepted and processed. Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.”
I didn’t have to leave my house to leave the church but I would have if the bishop hadn’t helped me out. If I wanted a chance at sticking around to love the family I made, I needed to start hacking at the roots of the weed threatening to choke off our tree.
A few weeks after I left, I saw on Facebook that the pastor of the United Methodist Church had performed her first pandemic baptism with a garden hose in someone’s front yard. It occurred to me that I was finally eligible to join the congregation I’d been part of for the past four years. I thought about sending off another email, but decided to keep scrolling. Now that I know what essential looks like I know that joining another church is not. I think I’ll just shelter in place.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?”
My daughter has been going to day camp at the YMCA for the last four weeks. The season is abbreviated this year so next week is her last. Summer camps in our neck of the woods started announcing their summer shut downs way back in April but the YMCA kept our hopes afloat by sending us regular emails, postponing instead of cancelling the camp start date, and continuing to process our direct deposits. By mid-May, we were convinced that even five weeks of camp would not happen. People told us not to get our hopes up. People told us not in a million years. I wondered if we were stupid for continuing to pay for membership at a facility we hadn’t swam or worked out in or used in any way for over two months, for not asking for a refund for the camp fees we’d paid for June, for worrying more about the money than the health risks, for holding out hope that D would go to camp in July.
In mid-June, the YMCA finalized the summer camp schedule. Five weeks, five days a week, with a shortened camp day from last year. Groups would be capped at 10 campers with limited and consistent staff assigned to each group. Eighteen days out from the start of camp, we did not have a clue about anything else, about safety protocols or about the camp itinerary, only the vaguely inspiring but also somehow unsettling promise that “now that we understand what we can’t do, we are focusing on what we CAN do.” People were still telling us camp would not happen, or that it shouldn’t. I wondered if we were stupid for not worrying more about the risks or the safety protocols, for putting our child in childcare that we didn’t technically need. I wondered if we were part of the problem, partially to blame for America not getting this damn virus under control.
The YCMA sent out the safety protocols on July 2: a regimented drive-up drop-off/pick-up procedure, daily health screenings and temperature checks, lots of hand sanitizer and hand washing, masks for campers and staff at all times indoors and any time six feet of physical distance could not be maintained outdoors, eating lunch in the classroom, no mixing with other groups, no personal belongings from home, a strict sick policy, and a harsh COVID liability waiver. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake, if the social and mental benefits of camp for our daughter would be wiped out by the social and mental strain of attending under these conditions. I wondered if we were underestimating the risks of getting someone sick or getting sick ourselves of our daughter getting sick.
Our daughter started camp on July 5. My husband does a contactless drop-off of our precious human cargo in front of the camp site instead of walking through the neighborhood like they did last year. D answers questions we had to explain to her the day before camp started about whether she has a new cough or shortness of breath, a sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea, chills or shaking, muscle pain, a headache, or new loss of taste or smell. Apparently no one ever told her what diarrhea was (this is why we need kids in school). A staffer holds a thermometer to her head. Apparently she runs lower than I realized, around 98 degrees. She wears a mask all day every day and when she comes home it is filthy with sunscreen and sweat and spit and mustard. When the bandana we sent her in the first week kept slipping under her nose the staff gave her a disposable surgical mask. Apparently we need to buy a lot more masks, and apparently decent ones are hard to find (this is why schools need to provide masks). She has a table all to herself in a classroom that only had five kids the first week, though it’s now up to ten. Each camper gets their own stockpile of art supplies. No sharing. An only child’s dream.
She comes home every day with a bag overflowing with paper airplanes and paper dogs and paper crowns and paper dolls and paper alligators and paper birds and homemade coloring books with scenes she drew from The Neverending Story. She comes home every day with scrapes and scratches and dirt under her nails and paint on her hands and tales about the weird and cool shit she saw: thousands of ants swarming a pile of spilled Cheetos, a bunny’s tail with no bunny attached, a cicada’s shell, a dead bird, a murder of crows, a tiny goldfinch perched on a flower, a katydid. I wondered if camp was glorified babysitting, all free-time all day, alternating between inside and out. Honestly, I wondered the same thing last year. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if it was. My kid’s got to learn how to be around other kids. She’s got to learn how to be bored. She’s got to get some distance from me and her dad, not for our sake and sanity but for hers.
At the end of the second week of camp, the YMCA sent home a video of the kids doing archery, dropping Mentos into Coke bottles, flipping cups, playing soccer and basketball, painting rocks, chalking the asphalt, listening to stories, and singing songs. “Do you do all this stuff?” I asked D. “Yeah, of course,” she said.
One day my daughter came home and announced that she had a best friend. When the staff noticed that they were dragging their chairs over to each other’s tables every day, they moved them into kitty corner chairs at the same table. “We’re still too far away, though, so we move our chairs closer.”
A few weeks after that she told us that her old best friend didn’t want to be best friends anymore so they swapped with another pair of girls. Now she has a new best friend.
When I tell people my daughter is in camp, I expect the for them to balk, and justify my decision. One day I called a friend in the middle of the day. “What’s going on?” he asked? “How are you calling right now?” “D is in camp.” He’s in another state, and was speechless. “What? How? How is that possible?” I launch into my standard speech, listing off the safety protocols the same way I did at the outset of this post. “The YMCA is doing a pretty good job. Fewer than ten kids per class. Health checks every morning. The kids are in masks all day. No touching.” He cut me off. “Hold on a second. To be clear, I’m not judging. It’s just that we don’t even have the option.”
Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has woken up in a good mood. She gets dressed and ready for the day without me asking. Sometimes she shouts, “I get to go to camp today!” Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has come home animated, energized, and excited. We spend the afternoons and evenings together watching TV, playing games, eating dinner, playing outside, going on walks, listening to music, reading, playing with toys, and making art. Every day of the last four weeks has not been perfect, but they have been pleasant.
Now, people are telling us that they would never send their kids to in-person school in the fall, even if the schools do manage to pull off safety protocols along the lines of what they’re doing at the YMCA. We just opted-in for in-person learning to begin at the end of September. We’ll see if that actually happens. In the meantime, I’m wondering, am I stupid? Am I selfish? Am I underestimating the risks? Am I opportunity hoarding? Am I part of the problem? Am I doing the best I can with the same set of limited information and admittedly different but ultimately all crappy options as everyone else?