COVID risk is manageable enough for me to do all the things I really want to do while remaining enough of a threat for me to skip out on the things I didn’t want to do anyway. Yeah, I understand people are still dying, but on my personal risk map, the levels are near perfect. In August, I passed up tickets to see the Mountain Goats at SPACE because I didn’t want to risk a breakthrough infection when Delta was peaking. We saw the Drive-By Truckers at an outdoor venue in September and I spent the next week two weeks second waiting for every tickle in my throat to morph into something worse. Somehow I stayed healthy; plenty of people didn’t. In recent weeks, my reticence is dropping with the case rates. Here’s what I am doing these days: working out at the gym, hosting indoor play dates, going to book club, going to church, eating in restaurants, getting massages, and going to the doctor. Here’s what I’m not doing: getting my hair done, shopping when I don’t need anything, traveling for work, traveling for the holidays, hosting dinners, going to the dentist, or seeking out crowds. COVID is a lot like religion, it turns out. A convenient excuse to live exactly as you were going to live, a way to justify decisions you were already going to make, and a source of moral high ground to judge anybody who’s doing it differently.
Life’s not exactly back to normal. Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at Sunday School and found myself with nowhere to go because the group I used to meet up with on Sunday mornings is still meeting virtually. They met weekly all through the pandemic and, from what I hear, became closer than ever. I wouldn’t know. I logged in all of twice. As my friend J says, Zoom is for the birds. I’m not about to complain about an hour to myself, though. I thought about settling into the pews early to do some writing and maybe strike up a conversation with church people but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning sweating behind my mask while the radiators worked overtime to heat up the old stone building. Also, truth be told, I wanted to be with people, but didn’t really want to talk to them. I walked out the door, feeling brazen, and into the coffee ship across the street, where I ordered a small drip, parked myself in a seat by the window, and read a magazine mask- and guilt-free.
Last summer, my friend M stopped by for a few hours on her way from Michigan to Iowa. We sat outside in camp chairs, distanced and masked, and she told me what she’d been up to the last few months, which was a lot. Besides quitting her job and moving cross country she was planning a wedding and had gone home for a funeral. She told me about what it was like to fly during lock down. “Nobody wanted to wear masks for that long, so we bought food and took a really long time pretending to eat.” I loved that story. I laughed out loud when she said. It was so honest. And if I was being honest, I could relate. Wasn’t I on my third beverage of the night? Looking for loopholes, taking cues from people around you to see what you can get away with while staying with in the bounds of social acceptability, what could be more human? Acknowledging that the new restrictions were deeply shitty while making an 80% effort to adhere to them was a relief after striving for 100% and perpetually falling short. Yet when I shared my friend’s story with other people, they didn’t get it. To me it was an offering of absurdity and relatability. “That’s horrible,” they said, wagging their fingers. “That’s why I’m not flying. That’s why people keep getting sick.”
My god. Can we not admit that this sucks? Can we not talk about what’s going on without squeezing out every opportunity to shame somebody who made a different choice? Even if it was a morally questionable one? I used to get off on being morally impeccable too, but that way of living is not sustainable, especially if your values are not your own, and the rules keep changing. It’s also unbelievably isolating. You might think you’ve found a pack in the people who hate the same things you do, but they’ll turn on you as soon as you crack. And you will crack, believe me. You’ll find a way to live the way you want to live, and it might meet your standards, but if you’re honest about your motivations somebody else will shake their head.
On Sunday, I wanted a coffee but I also wanted to sit inside with other people without a mask. I reckon plenty of other people did, too. Actually, I know they did, because I saw them, and when I saw them I smiled.
A few years ago, I started cataloging idyllic summer weekends with a little mental hashtag: #summerinthesuburbs. This last weekend was one of those. I walked to the farmers’ market with my daughter and a few of our neighbors. At first the kids sprinted up ahead of us until they got to big intersections or, in my daughter’s case, until her shoes fell off. We just bought her a pair of kiddie crocs to combat a permanent case of Mama, my feeeeeet are hooooootttt. Her feet are still hot and her shoes fall off, but they are bright blue, so she is obsessed with them. Then the kids got tired and slowed down to hold our hands. We weren’t halfway there when they stopped to inspect a Hercules beetle and held the whole group up for a solid ten minutes. They flipped the bug right-side up and were relieved to see it was still alive, but my daughter noticed it had a bum leg and worried about it for the rest of the day. Mama, do you think the beetle will be okay?
At the farmers’ market we bought cheese, asparagus, and scones the size of a child’s head, and took them to a patch of grass on the other side of the street where we could strip off our masks and feast. The grownups talked about books. I confessed my tendency to read books that are a huge bummer and then complain about being depressed. The kids ran around flapping their arms and pretended to be birds. A toddler watched from down the way and the toddler’s grandma told us this was the most exciting day of the child’s young life. She was a quarantine baby and had never seen kids at play.
I went to the garden center with my husband and daughter. The sign out front said “I’m so happy spring is here, I went my plants.” My husband pointed out that they missed the obvious joke about soiling yourself. My daughter asked Does soil mean poop, mama? but she was already dying laughing, so I didn’t answer. We got cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cilantro, sage, basil, mint, six little coleus plants, and, for the first time ever, a flower: impatiens. I’m a fairly utilitarian patio gardener; I like highly productive plants and growing things that I can eat. With the exception of a money tree I picked up at Ikea in college and kept alive through the end of law school, I’ve never bought a plant just because it looked pretty. We keep most of the plants on our back patio, but we planted the coleus out front and put the impatiens in a pot right next to the front door. I’m hoping it will distract the neighbors from the peeling paint and piles of rocks and sticks my daughter brings back from every walk.
I stayed up way late on Saturday night. Date night, you know.
My daughter and I rode our new long boards in the high school parking lot, which was littered with crushed red and yellow carnations from graduation a few days before. My daughter kept stopping to watch ants and chase squirrels. I rode in huge circles, around and around. I could go on like this forever, I thought, but we left pretty soon after that when my daughter’s feet got hot.
I went out to the lake for the first SUP of the year. It was hot when I left the house but the wind blew in and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in the ten minutes it took to inflate my board. People were streaming away from the beach while I made my way in. The waves were high and I didn’t want to fall off because I’d left my life jacket at home and am still healing the excision site on my leg, so I spent a lot of the ride on my knees. At one point, I went cross-legged on the board and was just paddling around with a stupid grin on my face. I saw a fuchsia petal floating next to my board and a little while later I saw another, and then another. I was far from shore and there were three other people on the water. A man on a SUP and two men on a catamaran. Where did the flowers come from? What do they mean?
I slathered my arms and legs and face with SPF 50 and went for my first run in a month. It was eighty degrees and steamy and my lungs gave out fast. I trotted by a man teetering on a bicycle, moving almost as slowly as I. Is this just what life is? Do I just get to decide how I want to fill my days?Was it always like this? My recollection of my days before the pandemic is getting hazy, but I don’t remember experiencing this kind of autonomy. I was always living according to someone else’s agenda. The law firm. The program. The group. The influencer. The church. Will it always be like this? Maybe it can be. I still work. I still parent. I still exist in community. But the minutes and the hours and the days are mine.
We crept out of town for spring break without telling anyone last week. We even opted to let the trash rot in our garage for a week over asking our neighbors to take the cans out for us. At first I kept our trip quiet because it seemed so extravagant. Who am I to leave town just because I can? Was there ever a time when vacations were a normal part of life? After I told a few people about our plans and was met with reactions that ranged from underwhelmed to visibly disappointed, I saw that there was another reason to fly under the radar: our spring break extravaganza was actually boring as hell. When got back last weekend, our next door neighbor’s face lit up: “Did you get to see your family?!” When I said no, she sighed and slumped her shoulders along with me. “We drove to Michigan and stayed in a vacation rental in the middle of the woods. We saw no one and did next to nothing. We’re still waiting for everybody to get vaccines.”
I was playing up the simplicity of our trip for drama and virtue points. In truth, it was pleasant and picturesque and exactly what we needed. We rented a two-bedroom cottage with a wood burning fireplace at the edge of a gin clear lake. We took meals in the big eat-in kitchen and played games in front of a picture window with a view of the lake and kept a fire going at all times. There was a touch of adventure, too. We crashed around in the woods and plunged our hands in the cold water to fish out pearly shells and built bonfires in the backyard. My daughter scratched her arm on a piece of rusty metal on the dock and shrieked bloody murder when she almost stepped in a dead mouse exploring a pitch dark outbuilding. One day we even drove into town and went quiet as we passed one red-framed flag after another. We should’ve realized it when we booked the place, but didn’t. We didn’t live in Michigan long enough to get to know the state outside of the college town where we lived, and we left a long time ago. Anyway, we were deep in Trump country.
Howard City was a shit town with a terrific restaurant and we planned to get takeout. We pulled up behind the one other car on the main strip. The “Redneck” bumper sticker jumped out at us first, and then the rest materialized like shapes popping out of a stereogram. “Trump 2020.” “Make America Great Again.” “Beard Lives Matter.” “Let’s park somewhere else,” I told my husband. Was there really a time when differing political opinions weren’t cause for alarm? Or at least unease about my personal safety? You could be forgiven for not remembering if there was. You’d have to go back to before Trump tried to steal the election. Before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. Before a Michigan militia attempted to kidnap the governor. If you’re Black, you’d have to go back way before that, back before the beginning of this country. There was a time when I thought anti-Black racism was always coded to sound like a secret, or a joke. That’s how it was the way I grew up: white, suburban, middle class. There are places where and people for whom the hatred was always overt. There are people who have never been safe in small towns.
We didn’t mean to eat in the restaurant. It happened by accident, when we drove into town and realized there was nothing else to do and the wind was whipping us around and we looked in the dining room window and saw there was no one there. It was a weird time to be eating, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but, like I said, there was nothing to do. It was our first time eating indoors in a restaurant in over a year. When we walked in, there was nobody waiting at the host station. We waited for a long time, watching college basketball play on five different TVs. “This is awkward,” my daughter announced, loudly. I would have been embarrassed, but the host didn’t come for a full five minutes after that and I was pleased that my daughter had used the word correctly. Being able to identify situations that call for a joke is a skill that will serve her well.
In the car on the way to town, my daughter had asked, “What’s a forager?” That was the name of the restaurant where we were eating. “It’s a person that gathers food from nature, kiddo. You know, nuts and berries and plants.” Sitting at a table on the edge of the dining room, my daughter stared at something around a corner and out of my sight. “What’s a forager again, mama?” She didn’t look away from whatever she was staring at. I repeated the definition I’d given her in the car, referencing nuts and berries. “Then, um, what’s that person holding?” I craned my neck around the corner to see what she was looking at. There was a flat metal silhouette of a hunter on the wall next to what looked like the restaurant’s front door. Ah. We had come in the back. That explained the awkward wait. The hunter had a gun slung over one shoulder and an axe hanging low in the other hand. He was absolutely draped in game. There was what looked like a bison on his back, birds in the hand with the axe, and two good-sized fish dangling from the front of the gun. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my daughter’s had a hard time with death this year, with dead animals inspiring especially great distress. We’re raising her to be an ethical meat eater, though, so she knows where her food comes from. I adjusted the answer I’d given her before. “Oh. I guess he’s foraging for meat.” She didn’t balk, and ordered a burger with bacon and cheese from the adult menu.
We wore masks until the food came. The server brought out a bowl of steaming hot french onion soup first. My husband and I dug in and burned our tongues. My daughter slipped her mask down to try a bite but didn’t love it. “Why is it so scummed over?” she asked, pulling her mask back up until her meal came. I have friends who brag about their kids’ diligence with masking, holding them up as examples to either inspire or shame adults into behaving better, depending on your perspective. Believe me, that’s exactly the kind of self-righteous mom I am, and I’d brag about my kid’s masking too if there was anything to brag about. She hates wearing masks, though. Last year, she whined when I ask her to put one on and begged to take it off after playing hard for a long time. She says it makes it hard to breathe. Often, she simply chose to stay inside over going to the park or going for a walk. That changed when she started going to school in February. Now she puts her mask on as soon as she leaves the house and doesn’t breathe a bad word against them. I think she realized what she was missing and doesn’t want to risk losing it again. Masks are the trade off. I told my neighbor we didn’t see anyone in Michigan, but that’s not entirely true. We saw proprietors and patrons of small businesses and travelers and most of them were unmasked. We should have planned for it but we didn’t. Our love for Michigan is outsized. We see the forests but not the people. Anyway, the people walking around unmasked indoors with casual disregard for our comfort or safety made me see my daughter’s willingness to wear the masks she detests without complaint in a new light. There are ways in which my coddled city kid is tougher than the burly backwoods Michiganders I was afraid to park behind.
Back to the Forager. The waitstaff there were all masked, though our server’s cloth face covering drooped unfortunately below her nose. We reassured herself that she was probably vaccinated. As a restaurant worker, she would have been eligible, and I’d heard that vaccines were easier to come by in Michigan than Illinois. We told ourselves she was not an anti-vaxxer. We told ourselves she was someone who cared. She seemed like she cared about her job, anyway. We were genuinely unworried. We let our daughter take her time finishing her monster burger. While we waited, my husband wrote out a grocery list. He was making biscuits and gravy for breakfast the next day. The list, when it was finished, was pure Michigan, topped off with Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce. I’ve always hated the “Pure Michigan” slogan. It conjures up old Sunday School lessons about used gum and white temples and the squirmy feeling I get when adults talk about adolescent sexuality. The revamped “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan” slogan is even grosser. Loving how much it gives me the creeps, he scrawled “Pure Michigan” at the top of the grocery list, except he wrote it in slanty cursive, so it looked like it said, “Purl Michigan.” That gave me an idea. I grabbed the paper and drew a quick sketch of a quintessential lake girl with a flippy ponytail and a mask drooping underneath her nose. We giggled and when our daughter realized why we were laughing I put my finger to my lips and asked her not to say anything about the mask. I didn’t want to hurt our server’s feelings.
When it was time to go, I grabbed my daughter and danced in the empty dining room to the electropop that had been making me shake my shoulders all afternoon. We’d danced our way out of the almost empty beer garden at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids the day before, too. Our server at the Forager watched us and I think she was smiling.
We stopped for firewood and groceries before going back to the lake house. I waited in the car with our daughter, knowing we didn’t have any more risk points to spend, if we ever had them in the first place. When my husband got back in the car he said, “I hope I got everything. I left the grocery list at the restaurant.” I thought about our server turning over the paper and recognizing seeing herself in the lake girl with the droopy mask. I thought about how she would have seen our Illinois address when she ran the credit card. For the first time all day, I wondered, Are we the assholes?
It’s a good joke to end this post on that note, but I don’t really think it’s true. We live in a liberal bubble, but we never tried to insulate ourselves here. We have a way of seeing the world that’s influenced by where we live but we don’t pretend it’s the only way to live. We try to venture out with respect and live our values wherever we are. I never fail to think of ways we could do it better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our best. We’re trying, you know?
Last summer I bought a stand up paddleboard. It didn’t arrive until almost the end of the season. I waited too long and everything was backordered. I got the hang of standing up on the board pretty quickly when I tried it a few years ago; it was the learning curve for introducing a new element into my life that made me hit the brakes. There was so much to research. Inflatable versus fiberglass, for example. Hand pumps versus car. I would need a life jacket and maybe a wetsuit. I needed to figure out how to transport and store the beast, where I could launch legally, and how to get a permit and a parking pass. By the time the SUP shipped to my house and I’d practiced inflating it in the living room and made a trip to the beach office in the middle of the workday, I was this close to be over the whole endeavor. My husband suggested I watch a few videos of people paddling so I could learn the technique before I got on the water, but I was already on information overload. I couldn’t take in a single other new thing. I went out on a Sunday afternoon, nabbed the last available parking spot, and realized I’d left behind the SUP’s detachable fin. I tried again on a Wednesday morning. I was on the water before the sun peeked up over the horizon. I splashed down into the water three times in a row before managing to stand up successfully. I paddled around for over an hour. I watched the sun come up, a ball of fire in the sky. I felt the water splash around my ankles. I heard dragonflies buzz around my head and swatted them away. I swear I saw a fish jump. Later, I’d figure out I’d been holding the paddle backward, that my posture was all wrong, and not care. The learning was in the doing and I had all the time in the world.
This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.
Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”
On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.
Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.
Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”
Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”
I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.
A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.
A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.
A year ago I was slammed at work.
A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.
A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.
A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.
This year I gave up giving things up.
The pandemic took too much.
A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.
In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.
A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.
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.