Last week I went back to Arizona to see my family. Fucking finally. This trip was supposed to happen over the holidays, but my whole family in AZ, seriously, the lot of them, tested positive for COVID less than twenty-four hours before we were supposed to fly out. We had already checked-in for the flight and pulled the suitcases up out of the garage. It was so disappointing. My husband and I debated for an hour whether there was some way, any way, some sort of hidden loophole, that would let us see them them, but if there’s one thing that’s clear two years into pandemic living, it’s that you can’t fly to the COVID. My daughter sobbed for hours. Not too long ago, I would have cried too, but my own tears don’t flow like they used to since I started taking an SSRI in October. These days, my intense emotions manifest more often as exhaustion. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year at home. I’d already taken the time off of work and I slept in every day. We played a lot of video games on the Nintendo Switch my husband managed to snag at the last minute from a GameStop at the mall.
It’s possible my lack of emotional response was not entirely due to the meds. It’s possible that after two years of tragedy, I recognize missing out on a family holiday for what it is: not that big a deal. At least my family’s still alive. Not for any great amount of trying on their part. When they all came down with COVID, it came out that adults in my family had passed on vaccinating large swaths of their eligible children, and not one single member of my family (aside from my husband and myself) had gone in for a booster. It’s hard to cry over disappointments that don’t rise to the level of tragedy, especially if they were preventable.
It’s also possible that after two years of tragedy, I no longer recognize trauma with a “little t”. So we haven’t seen my husband’s family in over three years. So my parents are getting old. So my grandma’s hearing is so bad we can barely talk on the phone. So my conversations with my brother are reduced to arguments about the vaccine. So my daughter is growing up without her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. So whatever sense of community we once had fell apart and all of us (husband, daughter, me) are still trying to figure out how to cope with the social-emotional fallout of isolation. Maybe these are all tragedies and I’m too tired to cry.
We finally made it back to Arizona as a family last week. The two year anniversary of shut down came and went while we were out of state. When I realized we’d missed the date, I couldn’t believe it. How could my body let me move on without acknowledging everything we’ve lost? Well it didn’t. I came back to this space to write about our most recent trip to Arizona, but the only words I could find were for the trip we didn’t take.
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.
Lately, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the experiences I am not having. That’s what the pandemic did: it robbed us all of the new experiences we would have had and replaced them with a bunch of experiences we never wanted. Of course, I worry about what the isolation means for my daughter first. Even when she seemed fine, the nightmares told me it was making a dent. When she started acting out in new and surprising ways, that made sense. Now she’s just listless. Bored, you know? One of my strengths as a parent is exposing my kid to all kinds of new experiences. Would-be bohemians become adventurous moms. Pre-pandemic, I rolled out of bed with big plans every weekend, took my kid on food tours of Chicago, and stopped at new-to-us playgrounds just because. When the pandemic shut us up indoors and then released us back into the wild as long as we stayed away from other people, I took it as a challenge. I pushed and stretched way outside the box to find of things to do and when my daughter and I flip through photos I took last year, I think, Damn. We made some magic.
But now I’m all out of steam, and it’s too cold anyway. The Adventure Express has ground to a halt. Mom is tired. In the old world, that would be okay. Even without me going out of my way, new experiences would be transmitted to by way of ordinary day-to-day living. My daughter would be feeling the sting of rejection and the sweetness of belonging at school. She’d be sipping cloying grape juice from the communion cup at church. She’d be inhaling the pyramid of fragrant soaps stacked up by the register at the grocery store. She’d be tasting chlorine and steaming or freezing under the wildly unpredictable showers showers at the YMCA. She’d be pressing the cool glass of the window against her cheek on long car rides. She’d know a different kind of boredom waiting in line at the post office and stumble onto the curative properties of people watching. She’s not getting any of that now. She’s not interacting with anyone besides her parents. She’s not seeing anything but the inside of our house. In a turn both welcome and sad, she very recently and suddenly outgrew or tired of the imagination games that colored her world (and mine) for the last year.
Just in time, she turned a corner with reading, and started disappearing into books. We went to the library a few Saturdays ago and she finished a small stack of “Princess in Black” and “Ivy and Bean” and “Billy and the Mini Monsters” by Tuesday. I was delighted–I hadn’t realized she enjoyed reading outside of school–but she was disappointed. “I wish I’d gotten more books. I didn’t think I’d finish them so quickly. And I know we can’t go back so soon.” We’ve only been to the library a handful of times since it reopened last year, a marked change from the trips we used to take every weekend of of her life. Regular trips didn’t seem worth the risk points when we could just stockpile books. “Hey kiddo. It’s okay. We can go back this week.”
The library is open late on Tuesdays, so that’s when we went, after a hasty dinner at home. Bundling up in heavy coats and piling into the car after dark was something we haven’t done for a year. It used to feel like such a hassle. Now it was something to look forward to and something to do in the long stretch between the end of the work day and bed. Driving through the neighborhood, looking at the colored lights at houses hanging on to winter and peeking into people’s windows–hey look, a cat! a happy family!–had something of the familiar to it. “Hey kiddo. Remember when we used to do this every week for swim lessons? It seems absurd to think that we left the house after dark so often.” My kid’s response was matter-of-fact, maybe a little defensive, maybe a little sad. “No it doesn’t.” “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’ll get to take swim lessons again.”
Taking advantage of the library’s late hours ws a stroke of pandemic genius. The people counter glowing on the wall said there were only 5 patrons in the building, out of a maximum capacity of 100. When we went on Saturday it was at 70. We had the run of the place and took our time. We sat on the floor and browsed. We looked at the recommendations from the librarians. We checked out the new titles. My kid grabbed as many chapter books as she was carry, and a few that I forced on her. I even sniffed out the occult shelves on the second floor and picked up a few books on tarot and witchcraft. Why? Because I’m starving for new experiences, goddamnit, and how else am I supposed to get my kicks? Because magic is the exertion of a person’s will to alter their reality, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now? Autonomy. Control. A change of fucking scenery.
For a year, I’ve been cataloguing all we lost in the pandemic. Collectively: people, dignity, livelihoods, homes. Personally: relationships, security, purpose, a plan. I’ve written ad nauseum about all the things we used to do and had to stop. It’s harder to keep tabs on the new experiences we might have had but never materialized.
We were supposed to go to North Carolina last year. What would I have seen on that road trip with my family that might have changed me? “You’re going to fall in love with Asheville,” a colleague told me. “You’re going to want to pack up and move.”
My daughter and I had just started a volunteer assignment at the soup kitchen last January. Our first time there, we set up the dining room, and then greeted the guests. We welcomed them as filed in in a line that stretched out the door of the church and then, after the meal, bid them good night with bagged lunches pressed into their hands. The experience was jarring for my daughter, who has never seen poverty or anything like it, and boring because we were there for a long time. What effect might a year service and small talk had on her?
We were supposed supposed to see Josh Ritter play at Fourth Presbyterian. The show scheduled for last March was kicked to September and then canceled indefinitely. It would have been our daughter’s first concert and our first show as a family. How might the music have moved all three of us?
My daughter is the only kid at church who hasn’t been baptized. I was waiting for her to turn eight because that’s how old I was when I was baptized into the Mormon church. My daughter turns eight next month. I can’t say for sure whether she would have taken that step in the church we go to now, but a year ago that’s what she wanted. Baptizing her into a congregation we haven’t seen since then, into a belief system I’ve since deconstructed, seems unfathomable, like crossing the red sea. How might her spiritual path have unfolded if we hadn’t been ripped away from our congregation? How might mine?
I was supposed to celebrate five years of sobriety in January. How many hours would I have spent in church basements listening to people tell stories about traveling to hell and back and finding God, and how might they have helped me along the way?
Last Sunday, I got in my car and cruised for a few hours down Clark Street into Chicago and back up Broadway til it turned into Sheridan. There were so many restaurants, open of course, masked patrons spilling and milling around out front. A friend recently texted about a brunch we ate eight years ago. I had been thinking about it, too. It had popped up as a “memory,” courtesy of my phone. It the best fucking brunch. Decadent. Indecent, even. How many meals might I have tasted that marked me so indelibly?
How many transcendent moments might I have had with strangers and with friends?
I’ve changed in quar, but the change has been a wearing down, a letting go. But erosion doesn’t always leave things smooth. This last year has also seen a crystalizing of every one of my sharp edges.
What would I look like if I’d been in the world mixing it up, knocking into everyone, tasting everything? What if I’d spent the last year filling up on new experiences instead of drying out trying to get by on the old?
Might my life look more like how it used to feel–like an expanding balloon, a gas giant, a star burning off hydrogen and throwing light and heat in every direction–and less like it feels now–like a collapsed lung?
“How are you holding up?” That’s what I ask when I talk to somebody I haven’t heard from in a while. “How are doing?” That’s what I ask after we’ve traded pleasantries and Omigods and Can you believe it’s been a year? The emphasis, I hope, conveys that I really want to know or that maybe I already do know because I’m going through the same thing. When we sign off: “Hope you’re hanging in there.”
People ask me how I’m doing and I have to convince myself they actually want to know. I tell them about how my daughter’s been in virtual school for so long but I’m lucky to have a stay-at-home partner who can supervise e-learning. I tell them I’m lucky I can work from home, that I’m lucky to have had work to do, but that I’m looking for more. I might tell them I’ve been teaching myself to cook and hiking with my daughter and painting with watercolors. I might even tell them about this blog.
It only takes a few minutes of talking for a person to have a general idea of the structure of my days. It only takes a few posts to take in my emotional landscape. What you still don’t know is what late stage quarantine actually looks like. Or maybe you know because you’re going through the same thing.
Late stage quarantine means I’ve quit brushing my hair and putting on makeup for Zoom/Teams meetings. I’m still wearing clothes, but that’s about it.
Late stage quarantine means busting out the lap desk to my “work station” (futon and fleece blanket nest) even more comfortable. I’m still sitting upright, but only barely.
Late stage quarantine means stripping down to my underwear to exercise instead of using ten minutes to change into workout clothes and adding to the laundry pile. I’m still moving my body, but I’m doing less every day.
Late stage quarantine means I don’t shower until I can smell myself. I’m still washing my hands until the skin sloughs off, but everything else is greasy.
Late stage quarantine means giving up on high brow TV and just binge watching House Hunters. Real Housewives is up next. I’m taking time to “relax” at night, but indulging my worst impulses at the same time.
Late stage quarantine means my kid messes with her parents by getting real close to our faces and telling us that it looks like we have pinkeye. I have a hilarious kid, but I might gouge out my own eyes.
Late stage quarantine means I’m watching my friends and family get vaccinated and venture out into the world. I’m so relieved and so happy for them, but I’m burning with envy. When am I going to get mine?
I used to be presentable. I used to be good. I used to always be going up.
Late stage quarantine means devolution in every sense of the word.
The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?”
We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog.
Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine.
That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not.
I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid.
I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.
I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle.
This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something.