My neighborhood has loved spooky season as long as I’ve been here. There’s this house on the corner with a raggedy ghoul that they usually fix in a tree in their front yard such a way that it seems to be looming over the whole block and our first few Halloweens here I had to walk with my daughter on the other side of the street and distract her from the actual scariest image she’d ever seen. The ghoul is gone this year, though those neighbors still have an eight-foot spider inflatable on the porch, so I’m wondering if maybe they retired the ghoul for being just a little much for a neighborhood that’s crawling with small children. I hope that’s not the case, in part because in recent years my daughter has developed a weird affection for ghouls and now she misses it, and also because the rest of the neighborhood is so terrifying that one less creature of the night hasn’t made a whit of difference. The neighborhood–like much of America, I suspect–is hitting Halloween extra hard this year. COVID can take away fall festivals and trick-or-treat and parties, but it can’t kill the deep-seated human tradition of conjuring up spooks and spirits as a way of coping with the real-life horrors tapping on our doors, pulling up a chair inside our homes, rooting down inside our hearts.
My daughter loves Halloween as much as anyone and picked out our first legitimately creepy decoration this year: a strand of grimy looking skeletons from the Dollar Store that she asked me to put up above the dining table so she can see it when she is “at school.” Though her burgeoning love of skeletons, ghouls, and ghosts makes walks around the neighborhood easier this year, she still hates severed limbs and blood, a not unreasonable position for a seven-year-old, and closes her eyes when we walk past the butcher’s tree and the house with the foot hanging from the doorknob. She also has a severe fear of werewolves–irrational only because she loves big, vicious-looking dogs–but it’s bad enough that she straight up refuses to go down a street that I’m dying to show her with a ten foot skeleton and a motion-activated werewolf with huge feet and a ripped up red plaid shirt. She’s gets what we’re trying to do with Halloween this year, though, how we’re making the monsters beautiful before they eat us in our sleep. This week, when she popped her eyes open after the bloody tree and found herself staring right at Ghostface, she took it in stride. Her voice went up an octave and she squealed, to the delight of the woman sitting on Ghostface’s porch, “Ohhhhh look at that cute little ghoul! I LOVVVVVE HIM. He has PUPPY dog eyes!” So, no, we’re not in denial at all over here, folks.
When the pandemic hit, R and I were in the midst of the world’s most millennial house hunt. Our search was entirely self-directed, almost wholly online, and annoyingly noncommittal. We were exacting in some of our demands–not a speck of carpet, anywhere!–and whatever about others–“I guess we don’t really need a master bathroom/central AC/garage.” Our demeanor was similarly varied, as, depending on the day, we vacillated from “we kind of want to see this house but no rush and if someone else buys it it wasn’t meant to be” to “why the FUCK has Stephanie from Redfin not responded to the email we sent one hour ago?”
We poured through pictures of nearly every house to hit the market in our town over the last sixteen months and toured nine with an agent, on top of attending maybe another seven or eight open houses. We put a couple of offers. We were quickly outbid on the first house (a gorgeous gut rehab in the city) in a weird situation that could have been a bidding war but wasn’t because the sellers accepted the other offer without even asking us to raise ours. We backed out during the inspection period for the second house (a charming blue farmhouse in the suburbs) in a weird situation involving mysteriously soaking wet walls. There was a third house (a cute little split-level by the railroad tracks) that R loved and I didn’t but we didn’t even get the chance to argue about it because of a weird situation where we asked to see the house a second time and the seller preemptively accused us of wanting to lowball him and yanked it off the market.
Throughout this whole process I’ve been ambivalent about the prospect of actually moving. I’m a big believer in signs and serendipity (ew, I know), and the process of moving into the house we live in now was so stupidly easy it felt like it was meant to be. I might be glossing over a few details, but it basically went something like this: 1) R found a house listed online and went to vet it while I was out of town on a business trip; 2) R took me to see the house and when we pulled into the driveway our then-eighteen-month-old daughter” exclaimed “We’re home!” in her sweet little toddler voice; and 3) six weeks later we were signing papers at the mortgage broker’s office. I get that we were first time homeowners, kids, really, and that it’s bound to be more complicated this time around, what with a house we’ll need to need to sell and an actual kid in elementary school and all the inflexibility in our wants and preferences of people who are well on their way to middle aged.
Even with that understanding, the part of me that makes my decisions based on the “vibe” never got on board with our search. If the sheer amount time and energy we were putting into our search to yield only small handful of houses where we could even imagine ourselves living told me our timing might be off, the bizarre situations that kept us from closing on houses we did like were like alarm bells clanging. I was sick to my stomach for the entire two week were under contract for the blue farmhouse. I’d go to 12-step meetings and stories about people losing their houses would jump out and grab me by the shoulders. There’s this one story in the big book that really freaks me out, about a woman who buys a big house just to prove she’s not an alcoholic and then loses it in sobriety. The part that really gets me is that finds comfort in the fact that the house is replaced by “a townhouse that is just the right size” for her. We read this story in a meeting the day we put the offer in and I was certain it was the sign I’d been looking for, except that instead of telling me to go for it, it was telling me to go home.
I know that all sounds a little woo woo, but the truth is I knew it was foolish to drain our savings on a down payment on a 160+ year old house that couldn’t pass inspection that we couldn’t really afford. I knew we already had all the house we needed in a neighborhood that we love. I knew that, at least for me, the house hunt was a temporary escape from all the things I don’t love about my life–my messy house, loneliness, arguments with my husband. The fantasy of moving into a bigger house in a better neighborhood was a way of pretending to deal with those things without actually, you know, changing anything at all. It was easy to imagine that we’d be naturally neater in a house with more rooms, that we’d invite people over for cookouts when we had a backyard, that I wouldn’t resent my husband for daring to have so many goddamn things in his own house if I had an office that wasn’t in the same room as his exercise bike.
When the deal fell through last fall, I was relieved.
Of course we kept looking, so when the real estate market in our town dried up in the winter I was relieved there wasn’t much to look at.
When showings ground to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, I was relieved again. More than that, I was grateful. We had a place to live. We had a place we could afford. We had neighbors we knew. And, thank God, our savings account was still intact. And now, with the possibility of moving off the table for the foreseeable future, I had a few months to just be.
Old habits die hard, though. Looking at houses online is still a reliable coping mechanism, and I use it from time to time. Lately, when the prospect of another year or more of living like this–on top of my husband and daughter, unreasonably close to our neighbors, far from friends and family, with no outdoor spaces that aren’t stupidly crowded–starts to wear me down, I start chasing that geographical cure.
I pull up listings in Arizona, fantasizing about bubbling up with my sister and her kids and swimming in my parents’ pool. I scroll over to Michigan, dreaming about camping with friends and a house near a lake. I check out Colorado, and imagine myself running with the elites. I see what’s up in North Carolina and wonder if I could stomach the politics in exchange for a big backyard and a two car garage.
I can’t seem to lose hours online like I used to. It seems that COVID is infecting my fantasies, too. Everything that once bound us to Chicago–school, church, friends, sports, museums, concerts, festivals, restaurants–the things we’re missing so badly now, we’re not going to find them anywhere else. Wherever we go, a disappointing and inequitable remote learning plan surely waits. Wherever we go, the virus rages in bodies sheltered and masked to various degrees. Wherever we go, there we are.
Real estate is a helluva good drug, though. Obsessive Redfin searching almost stopped me from writing this post.
From the looks of it, things are getting better in Illinois. Testing for coronavirus is up. Case counts are dropping. The entire state is on track to move into phase four of the plan to restore Illinois, which is the final phase until we have a vaccine. We are cautiously optimistic. We are running errands but wearing masks, we are going to restaurants but sitting on the patio at tables six feet apart, we are letting the kids play but only outside. We are resigned to a summer without festivals, concerts, or sports. God willing, my daughter will go to day camp next month. I don’t want to overstate the positive. We have lost almost 7,000 people, and people are still dying every day. But the deaths are slowing and it feels like we’re turning a corner.
I’m not resting easy, though. With the recent surge in the southwest, I feel like the virus is getting closer to hitting where it hurts. I came to the midwest by way of the desert and the desert is where most of my family still lives. Most saliently, it’s where all of my older relatives live, including and especially the ones who will not appreciate being called “older relatives.” My grandma and my great uncle live in Phoenix. My parents live in Mesa. My in-laws live in Houston. They are all high risk.
My worry for my family isn’t unusual or new. We’re all worried about our older relatives. Since March, I’ve been troubled that state and local leaders in less densely packed states were apparently unwilling to make the same politically unpopular decisions that ours have in Illinois. Since March, I’ve been handling my daughter’s recurring nightmares about death by lying to her, reassuring her that her grandparents aren’t leaving the house unless they have to, aren’t seeing people outside their immediate families, and are religious about wearing masks, even though I have no basis for thinking that they are taking the same precautions on an individual level that we are taking in Illinois.
The rise in cases out west isn’t all that surprising. From my admittedly distant perspective, Arizona has basically been wide open since memorial day. From my admittedly biased perspective, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear about folks going to restaurants and churches and showers and parties and parties and bars. Make no mistake: I’m not frustrated because I want to do these things and can’t. I’m frustrated because other people don’t seem to get that they don’t have to do these things. There is a third way, a path between total lockdown and business as usual and we’re doing it in Illinois, which is what makes it hard to watch folks in other states throw up their hands and say, “Well, we tried!” As one science reporter put it: “There are ways to be responsible and socialize, but people don’t seem to be able to draw the line between what’s OK and what is not. For too many people, it seems to be binary — they are either on lockdown or taking no precautions.”
And look, I get it. As an ex-binge drinker, believe me, I get it. Moderation is a mindfuck. When I enjoyed my drinking I couldn’t control it and when I controlled my drinking I couldn’t enjoy it. What even is the point of two drinks? The aphorism isn’t limited to alcohol, either. I’m like this with everything! Food, shopping, television, the internet, cigarettes, sex, drugs, art, religion, other people. If it’s possible to derive pleasure from a thing, I want as much of it as I can get away with taking. This is how a 5k becomes a marathon, how a twenty-minute TV show becomes a Netflix binge, how a new acquaintance becomes an internet obsession, how a new single becomes a band’s entire back catalogue, how two squares of dark chocolate become a bag of Haribo and ice cream, how one Instagram post becomes three hours of scrolling. And you know changing the way I engage with the world feels impossible. It’s easier to just swear things off.
Here’s the thing, though. I can’t whittle my life down to one thin, virtuous core. Nobody can. It’s unsustainable. I had to cut my losses with the things that were killing me quickest in the order that I realized they were doing me in (drugs, cigarettes, booze) and figure out how to take a balanced, reasoned approach to the rest. It’s still a work in progress! But also–and this is key–completely doable. I can change the way I live. Life doesn’t have to be a series of wild swings between ego and id. I can suspend my personal desires, whatever they are–to eat at a restaurant, go to a friend’s house, hang around in a crowd of people sharing air without a mask on–to listen to somebody who might know more than me to help somebody who might need it more than me.
If a want monster (HT to my sister for that turn of phrase) can do these things, then you can too. You too can stay home for 103 days and not drink/eat/TV yourself to death. You can mask up at the grocery store. You can see your friends and your kids’ friends outside. You can do it even if your government isn’t forcing you to and when you see the death toll exploding you too can numb your despair with the smug satisfaction that comes with knowing at least you gave a damn.
A few weeks ago I met up with a few friends on Zoom, my mom friends. Technically, they were my book club friends, but then we all had babies and stopped going to book club and started getting together instead for noisy brunches during which we talked incessantly about cloth diapers and sleep schedules and baby led weaning, so they became my mom friends. These women also happen to be the most progressive and strident feminists I know. You might not think that’s what a person wants in a mom group, but trust me, it is. These are the people you want in your corner when your baby refuses to nurse or sleep or when your marriage is on the rocks or your career implodes or career precisely because, when it comes to women’s choices, it’s not possible to find a more thoughtful, less judgmental bunch.
Of course, they’re not entirely without judgment. When it comes to injustice, these ladies are righteously angry, and when it comes to politics, they don’t pull punches. This is why I was not surprised when, about an hour into our recent call, after we’d thoroughly trashed the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the institution of policing and the far right’s response to both, the subject of patriotic gestures–specifically, flying the flag–came up, and my friend J said, “Absolutely not, no way, not a chance.” I nodded emphatically, in wholehearted agreement. There aren’t a lot of American flags in my neighborhood, but one of the few that I walk by with regularity is flying upside down, consistent with U.S. law prohibiting the flag from being displayed union side down “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” Truth be told, that’s the only way I’d display a flag today, and not because I don’t love America, but because I love it so much I want to save it from itself.
A few weeks ago, when the Black Lives Matter protests were raging in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a family member (whom I love) sent me a video of a sixty-something white man talking about how much he loves America, along with a note encouraging me to share it. I declined to pass the video along for reasons too numerous to delve into here, except for the main one, which is that it would be, in my view, racist to use an American Dream narrative to try to hijack a movement that was born out of the fact that Black people in this country have never, not for one moment in the last four hundred years, had even a fighting chance to experience the America that white people know and love. I knew where my family member was coming from, though. Like I said, I love America, too.
Last week, a neighbor sent an email to the community listserv inviting us join him in a national anthem sing-along in our common area. This neighbor is a professional musician and he offered to play the tune on his viola using an original arrangement and to make a video recording of the performance. My first reaction was delight. I remember tearing up over news reports earlier in the year about Italians under lockdown throwing open their windows to belt the national anthem while the virus ravaged their country. That was back in early March, when it still felt like we were watching the horror from afar, when we had no idea that lockdown was possible here, or that the death toll in the U.S would still eclipse that of every other country in the world. When I got my neighbor’s email, I thought about how lucky I am to live where I do, to be sheltering in place alongside so many good people. I thought about how much my daughter loves the national anthem, which she calls “The Banner.” I re-read the email for the time and place, all set hit reply to let my neighbor know he could count us in, and then stopped, my eyes snagging on the word video.
Did I really want to participate in a public display of patriotism for a country that has been and remains complicit in the daily death and terror of its citizens? Did I really want my participation to be recorded for posterity at the precise moment when so many (white) people are finally opening their eyes to the fact that this country was–is–built on white supremacy? Absolutely not. No way. Not a chance.
This morning, my neighbor emailed again. He’d be outside this afternoon to play some music for us in the common area. At 4:00, I put my work down and joined my family on the front porch. Neighbors slowly made their way outside, some setting up chairs in the common area, some sitting down in the grass, others standing way in the back. A few folks wore masks, though most didn’t. The kids all clustered together around the picnic table. There was one dog. For over forty minutes our neighbor played beautiful music for us. The adults were riveted. The kids danced. I stared at the sky and then closed my eyes and felt just so happy and lucky and grateful to be alive. As it drew close to five, my neighbor said that he was going to play the national anthem now, and that we could sing if we wanted to. He set up his phone to record. I stood up and joined everybody else on the lawn. He started playing, and I opened my mouth to sing.
Lately all my long runs have been up and down Chicago’s north shore. I start in Evanston and wind my way up through Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, and Glencoe and back down again. This isn’t my usual route. I vastly prefer to run south from Evanston down through Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park and back up again. The northern route is all mansions and empty streets and private beaches. The southern route is all high rises and crowded sidewalks and public beaches. The northern route is all kayaks and sailboats. The southern route is all kites and bikes. The northern route is all cobblestone and the southern route is all cracked pavement. The northern route is edenic gardens and manicured lawns and the southern route is fairy houses and public art. The northern art is wrought iron gates around the best beaches and the southern route is police cruising the beach for no goddamn good reason on a Saturday afternoon.
The first time I ran north, my eyes popped out of my head every mile as the houses doubled then tripled in size and the yards sprouted statuary that was truly bizarre. The last time I ran south I had to turn back when I hit the police barricade and realized Mayor Lightfoot was serious about closing the lakefront in Chicago. Damn. Since then, like I said, all my runs go north, which means all my runs are an exercise in coping with my class-based anxieties.
The first weekend in May I ran north and my mind was blown not by the wealth on display but by the flagrant disregard for social distancing. It was an unseasonably warm day and the beaches and parks and parking lots were swarming. Outdoorsy types on a stroll. Group yoga classes. Barbeques. Men in tight bike clothes just hanging out shooting the shit. College kids, limbs dangling all over each each other, spilling into the intersections. I wasn’t upset, really, just confused. Evanston was still locked down and this was before the data about the reduced risk of infection outside was being widely reported. Every week, sometimes every day, living on the north shore offers tests my commitment to living according to my values. The point of differentiation might be houses or cars or jobs or schools or summer camps or vacations or politics or religion or it might be the public health risks associated with the coronavirus: the outcome is the same. My family and I will be doing something different.
Still, the neighborhood seeps in. I have house envy and, these days especially, yard envy. I worry my kid isn’t in enough activities, even if they are all Zoom-based now. And when I saw all those families tumbling into each other on the sidewalk on a warm day in early May, something in me shifted, ever so slightly. It was my commitment. I knew that next time the neighbor kids ran up to us on the front porch, I wouldn’t go inside or steer my daughter away. This is how it changes. A person. A family. A city. A world. I hope this isn’t how it falls apart.
Edited to add: White privilege is being able to write a post like this without thinking of Chicago’s long and living history of racial segregation and redlining (refusing to grant mortgages and insurance to Black people, effectively shutting them out of the American dream of homeownership). White silence is the fact that I did think of those things and wrote the post without acknowledging them anyway. White silence is a manifestation of white supremacy. I thought I didn’t know enough to write about housing discrimination but the truth is I know plenty, just not enough to write about it as eloquently as I am able to do about other things. This too–the valuing of the aesthetics of my writing over acknowledging that my class-based anxieties living in Chicago are nothing compared to what any Black person living anywhere in Chicago under any circumstances at any time has had to face–is wrong. If you are a person of color and reading this post, particularly at this time, caused you any harm, I am sorry. I will try not to make this mistake again. If you are white and you want to read more about the devastating effects of discrimination in the housing industry, I highly recommend this extraordinary article by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case for Reparations.
I turned 35 last week and celebrated like all the other spring chickens, in quarantine. Upon rolling out of bed, my seven-year old generously handed over the 12×12 sheet of bubble wrap that she has been (rather greedily, in my honest opinion) keeping to herself and gave me permission to pop exactly 35 bubbles, which I proceeded to do with great satisfaction. It was rainy in the morning and we ate donuts and coffee from a place with curbside pickup in the car. I worked a little and husband homeschooled our daughter for a few hours before giving her a half day. Midday they called me up and started singing happy birthday, to my momentary confusion–it was too early for cake–until I noticed the pretty plate on the table and on top of the pretty plate a baked potato with a candle stuck in it. I clapped my hands in delight. Later, on the phone with my sister, I tried to explain. “You see, I’m always complaining that [husband] never makes me baked potatoes.” Sister cut me off. “But…they’re so easy to make. And not that good.” She finished with her strongest point: “I would cry if somebody gave me a baked potato for my birthday.” Come to think of it, I did cry a little when I saw the potato, and my daughter called me like she always does, announcing in her singsong voice, “Mama’s getting eeeeMOtionaaaal!”
In the afternoon, Chicago blessed us with the best weather, 75 and sunny. I went for a run by the lake, listened to Chance the Rapper, and we planted our little patio garden, just some herbs and two tomato plants, and let’s take a chance on growing some radishes and beets from seed. I strummed my guitar, and talked on the phone to my sister and mom. I put on a dress and put makeup on my seven-year-old. There was a time, not too long ago, when I refused to put makeup on either of us on feminist principle, but now I figure what what the hell.
We picked up family dinner from our favorite gastropub and ate it on the front porch. We chatted with neighbors and friends. One miracle worker dropped off a mug with the hot priest from Fleabag not two days after I posted about him here and someone else who knows me well enough to know what I like dropped off a four-pack of craft soda. Husband and daughter sang to me again, and I blew out more candles, these ones stuck into cupcakes from our new favorite bakery, the one we fell in love with when they made us a gorgeous cake with an easy contactless pickup for my daughter’s quarantine birthday just a few weeks ago. I unwrapped a set of watercolors from a bespoke art supply store that we stumbled into, stunned, last fall and then forgot about. There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have said that another solitary hobby was not something I required, but I would have been wrong. Daughter gave me a book she wrote and illustrated herself and I couldn’t have been more proud. After I tucked her into bed and thanked her for a beautiful day, husband and I crept out to the back porch, where we sat watching a fire crackle in the chiminea.
I like being 35. I like not being the youngest person in the conference room, at the party, on the block. I sprinted through my 20s, grasping at brass rings–career, marriage, baby, house–trying to haul myself into adulthood, only to resent the responsibility that came with each new prize. I fumbled my way through all of it, feeling like a teenager thrust unwillingly and unwittingly into my adult life. At 35, this is no longer true. I’m not in over my head. I’m not faking it. I am every inch the grownup I never thought I would be. This is no great accomplishment. I know I came late to this. My mom had five kids by 35. It is only by the grace of God that I started crawling out of adolescence a few years ago, when I got sober, when my daughter needed me to grow up. I still have a lot of growing up to do. I still dress like a teenager, and talk like one too, but I like myself anyway, and I like my life. I’m not trying to run the clock out on it anymore.
A List of Things Seen at the Park During Quarantine:
Kids climbing on the playground equipment while parents look on nervously, darting furtive glances over their shoulders (Week 1)
City employees removing the nets from the tennis court
Basketball nets tied off to the rims so nothing can get through
A 10-inch hand-painted model rocket stuck in a tree
A man with a 12-foot ladder trying to climb a 50-foot tree
A man and little girl chucking rocks and sticks into the branches of a tree
A woman craning her neck, staring up into a tree, muttering about a man
Dozens of people lined up outside the community center, six feet apart, to pick up the breakfasts and lunches their kids would normally get at school, including a classmate of the little girl’s that she has yet to see on video calls with the class
Playground equipment standing empty, caution tape flapping in the wind (Weeks 2-8)
Countless dogs, often running through the park off-leash; for once, this does not bother the woman
Families playing catch, badly
Families playing soccer well
Families playing with brand new puppies
Kids playing basketball, having torn the nets down
An old man playing tennis with an orange against a wall
A kite shaped like a neon triceratops stuck in a tree
Little libraries stuffed full with books that no one wants to touch
A raccoon running around in broad daylight
Basketball hoops blocked off with wooden planks
A middle schooler turning head over heels on the basketball court in a human-sized hamster wheel
Teenagers with skateboards and no shirts jumping off of a DIY ramp in the middle of the basketball court; they have a boombox, like it’s the nineties
Something disemboweled in the soccer field, guts in a neat pile, perfectly intact
A teenage neighbor running sprints
An older neighbor jogging slowly
A family the woman knows a little walking with a stroller; they were supposed to get together for dinner before the pandemic, but now she doesn’t say hi because it feels too complicated
Kids climbing on the playground, over, under, and around the caution tape while parents watch on, unperturbed (Week 9)
The little girl blowing every dandelion she get her little hands on, wishing over and over again for a dog
A tween chasing a pure white hedgehog through the grass
So many people the man, the woman, and the little girl know, all waving eagerly, eyes crinkling as they smile behind their masks