Quarantine Diary Day 102: This Land

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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.

Quarantine Diary Day 98: On The Porch

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

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

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

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

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