Quarantine Diary Days 37, 44, and 51: Slippery Slopes

This post is the third in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first and second posts here and here.

April 19: For the first month of shelter in place Sundays were the high point of every week, the mountain crest after last week’s long slog up, the top of the roller coaster before next week’s long slide down. With Easter, it felt like we were really building up to something. After that highest high point, this second Sunday in Easter is something of a let down. It is an effort to locate and name the good, but I do it anyway, because it’s good for me. D won’t walk with me before church, so she misses the crow cawing way up in a tall tree, the flash of robin red, the calico cat creeping in plain sight in front of a row of houses along church street, and the chance to wave at neighbors out walking with their dog. It’s hard to hear them behind their masks all the way across the street but the connection is there. I take many deep breaths. D does watch virtual church with me and she sees the bright side in the viewer count rising in the corner of the screen. People are logging in from all over the country and this is exciting. “People can watch church even when they’re out of town!” The church is trying something new, a virtual fellowship hour after the service is over. I make up my second coffee of the day and click the Zoom link eager to see some familiar faces, parched for conversation. The host lets me in and almost immediately kicks me into a breakout room. Hey, I know these people! There is a man from the parenting class I attended my second year with the church, the father of a hilarious little girl a few years younger than my D, who recently relocated to Colorado. There is also the pastor herself. We talk and talk even though the system is glitchy and our husbands and daughters keep wandering in and out of the frame. Actually, it’s hard to have this conversation in the middle of my living room. My daughter is annoyed that I am still staring at a screen and keeps asking questions about what we’re talking about. When we get kicked back into the main group I see my chance but it is with resignation that I drop out of the chat.

April 26: Pastor Grace says that God makes us family and today I feel agitated with mine. They are not doing what I want them to do. I want them to sit quietly and listen to the sermon or, if that’s too much to ask, I want them to quietly do the things I want them to do: read the paper, do the crossword, draw a picture, make sourdough. Instead my husband is sleeping on the couch and my daughter is hunched over on the floor, still in her sleep clothes, building with LEGO. I am annoyed, as though rest and play are not perfect Sabbath activities. I thought D wasn’t paying attention during Children’s Chapel before church but when Pastor Jane asked what water is for, D piped up, “Oh, I know!” and clambered over to the laptop to unmute herself. “Water is important because you get baptized in it.” I am surprised that baptism is on her radar, since she’s not baptized herself. I am surprised she’s been paying attention. Back to the sermon, Pastor Grace says that the church was born during shelter-in-place, that it found its voice during lockdown. She talks about Thomas like doubt is a good thing. D chimes in to chant “Hear our prayer” while I tune out. I am anxious because the day is unplanned. I have no Sunday School lesson for D, no art project, no family movie. I am running out of steam, patience, and ideas. At the end of my own rope it seems the only option is to observe Sabbath the way God intended and just let the day unfold.

May 3: I’m watching church alone today. My daughter finally opted out of church altogether and is up in her room listening to stories. My husband is on his bike. In spite of the silence, I can’t hear a word of the sermon because I am fixated on Pastor Grace’s stole. There was a time my mind associated grapes on the vine with kitchy kitchen decor your friend from high school or your coworker’s wife might pick up on a whim from TJ Maxx. My mom had a triptych of bottles and vines hanging over her last kitchen table, I guess because they look vaguely European. She doesn’t even drink wine. No one in my family does. The church is transforming the image, ruining it and then making it better, like it always does, I suppose. The church never knew how to let well enough alone, never let me leave my drinking alone anyway, and now it’s after the symbols too. Jesus labored in the vineyard. The grape is not God’s original fruit, but like all God’s gifts, it comes with a price, a dark side. The vines in the sanctuary aren’t closing around anyone’s neck, or least they aren’t closing around mine. In the church, the grape signifies abundance, fertility, celebration, joy. In the church, the grape is the fruit of my labor and yours. It’s been a long time since I found these things inside a wine bottle and two months since I went looking inside a communion cup. My teeth, my tongue, my sheets are still stained with the contents of both vessels.

May 4: I email a postcard from home for Mary to include in the week’s e-news.

Hello First Church Family. We are missing you and, along with looking for new life, we are looking for signs of you on our many long walks around town. Whenever we see a rainbow in a window or message of hope we wonder out loud if it is from one of you. This week, we noticed that the spiky red buds of a certain shrub near Mason park resemble the illustrated rendering of the coronavirus that’s dominated the visual news media for the last four months. This led daughter D to muse about how funny it would be to see a bush coughing, which led to a conversation about Moses and the burning bush, which led to me telling the story of the Israelites chasing a pillar of fire through the desert, which led to D recalling the tongues of fire flickering over the the heads of Jesus’ disciples, which led to us walking down the street hand-in-hand singing “Carry the Flame.” She didn’t know the words to that song before quarantine, but hearing it during virtual worship every week has seared it into our hearts. We are looking forward to the day we reach the promised land and sing with you in person. It will be a celebration.  

Quarantine Diary Day 132: When Things Change Shape

There is no part of my drinking and sobriety that’s not covered over in religion. I was Mormon for all but the last couple months of my drinking career. I was a Jack Mormon and a Lapsed Mormon and a Cafeteria Mormon and an Unorthodox Mormon and Disaffected Mormon but I was always a Mormon. Much of the time I was a believing Mormon. People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Mormon alcoholic but that’s what I was. Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. I was born and raised in a religion that preached abstinence and I loved my church and the good life it gave me but I loved drinking more. Loving booze is not what made me an alcoholic, though. I knew I was alcoholic because drinking was a destructive force in my life and I kept drinking anyway and because when I tried to quit I couldn’t. That’s when I first really leaned into religion. I thought that being a Good Mormon would help me quit drinking. It didn’t. Or, maybe it would have, but I couldn’t quite get there.

My last time in a Mormon church was November 2015. I was serious about quitting drinking by then, too. I’d been to twelve step meetings, admitted I had a problem, started piecing together weeks without alcohol. I convinced myself I deserved to give drinking a shot without the influence of Mormonism, though, so I picked up intentionally on New Years Eve 2015 and drank my way through January. Even those first months of freedom from the religion were not free from religion. I went to the Unitarian Church, shaky, hungover, afraid. The wheels were coming off. My last Day 1 was January 30, 2016

When I quit drinking for good I dove headfirst into spirituality and, eventually, back into religion at a new church. I used to think that was because I needed God to get sober. Now, in the pandemic, I’m unmoored from all that. Not God, but the walls that gave my spiritual life structure. I don’t go to church. I don’t do devotional practices. Without that framework, I tell fewer and fewer stories about God. I really thought I needed all the accouterments of religious ritual and belief to not drink. But here I am not drinking and wondering if God was just something I needed to give my abstinence meaning.

These days, I am less inclined to search for meaning in not drinking. I am less compelled to tell a story with a grand overarching moral narrative about about my sobriety. Not drinking does not need to serve some higher purpose. It need not be preordained. It’s just, for me, a better way to live.

Truth be told, it’s only very recently that I’ve come around to this idea. For most of my sobriety, I was convinced it was the way I was supposed to live–it was an obligation, a duty, a should. I would have said that it was a better way to live but I would not have been talking strictly about life without booze. I would have been talking about the spiritual life I found in sobriety, a life abundant with purpose and connection.

Now, in the pandemic, I’m realizing that the benefits of the dry life stand on their own. Four months in, my spiritual life is drained. Connection is nil. Purpose is I don’t know what. I knew this was a possibility and I was terrified of what would happen if and when I washed up on this shore. Relapse was certain. A mental breakdown for sure. Last month, I came close. Without meetings, without community, without structure, I was starting to falter and fray. Frankly, I was coming apart at the edges.

And then I got sick, really sick, stomach sick. I was in bed for two days. It felt as bad as my first and last hangover and every one in between.

When I came out of it, I couldn’t believe it, how incredible it felt to stand up and walk around without the room spinning. Weeks later, I still can’t believe it. Here I am, clear-headed. Here I am, awake to my life. Here I am, alert to what’s coming down the pike. Here I am, alive.

Why wasn’t this enough before?

I thank God that it’s enough.

I thank God for a worldview that can change shape.

I thank God for a sobriety that doesn’t depend on God.

Quarantine Diary Day 78: Treading Lightly

The first time I took my daughter out of the neighborhood during the pandemic was May 30 and it was nerve-wracking. I was taking her to The Grove, a nature preserve in Chicago’s northern suburbs with a few miles of easy trails winding through acres of prairie and woods that had recently reopened to the public. I lectured my daughter on the drive up. “You have to listen to every word I say and follow directions. You can run up ahead of me but if I stay stop, you stop. If I say come back, you come back. If there are other people we need to wear our masks and give them lots of space. If there are too many people we’ll need to leave. I need you to do EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY.”

Reader, perhaps you are less surprised than I was that my daughter was not enthused to leave her safe and comfy cocoon of the last 2.5 months to go on a masked nature walk with her rigid and neurotic mom!

I lured her out of the house with honey sticks and a handful of Red Vines from the 3.5 lb bucket that my father-in-law shipped to us without warning, a gesture that was in equal measures ludicrous, considerate, delightful. I also let her put a mask on her stuffed dog, Golden.

When we arrived at the park I was pleased to see only a handful of cars and I triangulated the parking lot so as to put as much as many spaces between those cars and mine as possible. When we climbed out of the car, I wrapped a green paisley bandanna around my daughter’s head and tied it in a rough knot, tied a pink Carhartt for Women (what) “work handkerchief” (double what) around my own face and sprayed us both down with a layer of sunscreen followed hand sanitizer that smelled like gin because we’d ordered it from a distillery. The sunscreen was for us; the hand sanitizer for anybody we might meet on the trail. My daughter sported a backpack with a water bottle and magnifying glass and clutched Golden, in her arms.

She squinted at me over her mask. “When do I get a honey stick?” “When it’s safe, girlie.”

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a family–a heterosexual couple with a toddler and a baby in a stroller–headed for the park. They looked like they might be a little slower than us and that stroller was going to be hard to get around on the narrow trails. I grabbed my daughter’s hand. “Hurry hurry go go go.”

Inside, The Grove was gorgeous. Sun filtered through the leaves dappling the ground. Wildflowers bloomed, resplendent. The wetland pools were thick with green algae, nitrogen runoff from nearby farms. Birds hung around like lazy, oversocialized squirrels, content to let us watch them nest. Bugs buzzed by our heads and flew off before we thought to swat them away. We spotted robins and red-winged blackbirds and mallards and wood ducks and geese and swans and a chipmunk cavorting in a felled tree and turtles sunning themselves on logs and a snake slithering in a patch of dry grass and a black beetle with a red head. We pulled off our masks and sucked honey from plastic straws, sucked air through licorice straws. My daughter declined the fruit I packed to feel like a good mom so I grudgingly ate it myself.

We spotted other people, too. I was prepared to see and most concerned for older people in masks. I didn’t want to put them at risk and I didn’t want to scare them. Mostly we saw moms or moms and dads with young kids. Probably desperate to get out of the house after a long spring with nothing to do. My hunch that the trails would be too small to maintain six feet of distance while crossing paths with another group of walkers was right. Our first encounter with another family we were in the middle of a long wooden footbridge over a wet marsh. When we saw them step onto the bridge at the other end and start walking toward us we turned around and booked it back in the direction we came from, stepped off the bridge and waited for them to pass. We did that several more times with several more families, most of whom were masked to various degrees. When there was no space to step aside, I grabbed my daughter and forced her to walk single file right in front of me, or to stop altogether and press our bodies to the invisible edge of the trail to let the other group pass.

I didn’t see anybody else backtrack to give another group space to walk freely. I didn’t see anybody else grabbing their kids. The first older couple we ran into were unmasked and walked right by us, apologetically but seemingly more concerned about us than themselves. It was a relief to to see that people weren’t running away from us and our homemade masks my unbridled child. Even after it became clear that people weren’t going to lose it if the six foot barrier was breached, I continued to take as much care as I could to ensure that we respected it. I continued to step aside, to stop and wait, to go out of my way to let people figure out whether and how they wanted to enter our space. I wanted people to be comfortable with the risks we were all taking. I wanted to avoid at all costs forcing my risk call on someone else.

After an hour or so of doing this dance we reached the longest bridge of the day. Way over on the other side of the marsh I could barely make out a group stepping onto their end of the bridge. I decided we would wait for them to pass to avoid meeting in the middle and one of us having to double back. They had a long way to go but we had plenty of time. Minutes passed. My daughter and I pointed out the different types of purple flowers lining the path and sniffed a few. We looked at the duck houses in the water. We counted up all the animals we’d seen so far. Eventually I checked my watch. This was taking longer than it should have. Maybe the other group had spotted us and were waiting just like we were at the other end? I peered out over the bridge. Ah. There they were. An entire family had plopped down in the middle of the bridge to eat lunch. They hadn’t even noticed us. This was going to far. “We’re going out there,” I told my daughter. We marched out across the bridge and strode past the family, masks dangling around their necks as they dove into their sandwiches. When we got to the other side and spotted yet another group standing around looking at a map I decided we’d been there long enough. It was time to cede the trails.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been careful but not the most careful. My husband goes out for groceries and other supplies, which we stopped wiping down almost immediately. I have wandered longer than necessary in Target and, on one occasion, the art supply store. We have been considerate but not the most considerate. We have made decisions that put the wants and needs of our family above the safety of others. We drove across state lines to camp with friends, stopping at gas stations and for food along the way. My daughter is going to summer camp. Nevertheless, at every fork in the road, every juncture, every decision point, I have tried to open up my eyes to the people around me, both seen and unseen, and at least consider how my actions might impact them.

Before we left the Grove we stopped at a clearing with a cold firepit and rows of log benches. Usually we trace our fingers along the beetle galleries in the wood but this weekend we weren’t touching anything. Instead we hopped from log to log and talked about bugs. It took a few minutes to realize we weren’t alone. There was a backpack at the edge of the clearing. Down in the grass behind the logs a woman squatted scribbling in a notebook. A little boy skittered with a net around the edges of the nearby pond. Suddenly there was a splash and a yell. The boy had caught something! He ran to show his mom. My daughter, who’d been keen to leave only a moment earlier, was all ears. “Mama, I think that boy found a frog!” The woman overheard and urged her son to invite my daughter to look at his catch. He moved in our direction and held the net out. “Do you want to see?” I surveyed the situation, mom and boy without their masks, boy with his arm stretched way out, both at ease. I nodded at my daughter. “Go ahead.” We added one more sign of life to our tally for the day.

Quarantine Diary Day 103: Peaches in the Summertime

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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.

Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall; if I can’t have you all the time, I don’t want none at all.

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.

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 Days 2, 9, 16, and 23: One Month of Virtual Church

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March 15: I tentatively click the link that the church sent around, wondering what I’m going to see. It’s a live video, streaming on Facebook. Hundreds of people are watching. I see so many names I recognize popping up in the chat box. D and I wave and thumbs up the families we know. D goes crazy with the reaction buttons, but she is indiscriminate, and sends dozens of hearts and smileys and frownies and even rage faces floating up and off the screen. Pastor Grace is preaching into an iPhone and is almost impossible to hear. Brian, the music director, is playing the piano at home and his phone is doing something weird to music. It actually sounds demonic. I don’t turn it off, though. I watch all the way to the end and can’t wait to see what they come up with next week.

March 22: I heed the pastor’s call to prepare a space for worship. I clear off the long ottoman that is actually a storage space–filled with all the DVDs and CDs that my husband not only refuses to give away, but inexplicably keeps buying–and set up an altar. My altar includes: a Bible, a King James Version that I bought earlier this year to replace the Joseph Smith translation that I used from 1993, which is when I was baptized into the Mormon church, to 2015, which is when I left; a notebook and pen; a tablet for streaming the services; and a candle shaped like an owl. The prelude music sounds better, or at least not evil, but I still have to lean in close to the tablet to hear the sermon. I rustle up a portable bluetooth speaker that we use for camping and picnics–miraculously, it’s still charged–and suddenly I have ears to hear.

March 29: D signs into virtual children’s chapel and when her little face pops up on the screen with all the other kids waving eagerly I think it doesn’t matter that she’s not baptized. I print out activity sheets to keep her attention during the main service, connect-the-dots to make a candle, color a shepherd, find all the words in Psalm 23. If we were at church, Pastor Grace would call the children to gather at her feet and tell them stories about Kenya, show them pictures, remind them that they are mpendwa (beloved), and bless them with a prayer. We are not at church, but Pastor Grace still brings the children in, calls them close to the screen, shows off the stuffed bears she brought into the sanctuary, reads a story, and closes with a prayer. After church, I sit down with my daughter for Sunday School at home. I note the irony. All last year I resisted volunteering to teach the kids at church because I don’t like preparing lessons and I’m reluctant to give up the company of other adults, even for a week. Now D still wants to go to Sunday School, and I’m the only one who’s going to make it happen. We make a sign to hang on our front door, a heart with a rainbow of hearts inside, all decreasing in size. We declare in Sharpie that we are a First Church Family and I think it doesn’t matter that we can’t see our friends, pass the peace or set foot inside the building. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t technically members of this church. I have never felt more connected.

April 5: Holy week is here, right in the middle of what Trump warned would be “a hell of a bad two weeks.” That’s what he said. “Lots of death.” The virus is supposed to peak in Illinois later this month, which means that people are dying and more people are going to die. The CDC says we’re supposed to wear masks now, though of course we don’t have any. We were saving them for the front line workers. The governor says don’t go out, stay at home, so that’s what we do. At home, we eat sourdough pancakes for breakfast and listen to the Palm Sunday sermon. Did you know that the message of Hosannah is “God, Save Us!”? After church, D and I dump all the clean laundry on the floor, a motley carpet for Jesus. We trace palm leaves onto paper and tape them onto straws and wave them back and forth as we parade around the neighborhood, singing Hosannah. It’s cold and D is afraid the virus is everywhere, so we run home quickly and stay put. We dwell in the shelter of the most high.

Quarantine Diary Day 94: What Even Is This?

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Something about my quarantine diary has been nagging at me. I keep worrying that the day counts are slightly off. I don’t write every day and my entries aren’t always chronological, so it wouldn’t be obvious if my entries were off by a few days. Hell, I could be off by weeks and nobody would know. The piecemeal nature of the response in the U.S. means you don’t know when I went into lockdown mode, and human nature means that you don’t care about the minutiae of my life. I pulled out my calendar this morning to count up from March 14 anyway and confirmed my suspicions. My count was off, but only by one day. It was bound to happen, especially since fudged the numbers on purpose once or twice. What can I say? I wanted to write about my daughter’s birthday on on Day 40, and I needed the heft of a godly history behind me. I know you get it.

Lately, something else has been bugging me, too. The failure of leadership from the federal government and the resulting state-by-state, town-by-town, person-by-person reaction to the pandemic means that you don’t know what quarantine means to me. What am I even doing over here? Quarantine diary was never a wholly accurate moniker, but it’s starting to feel strained now. For the last two weeks, my daughter has been playing outside with neighbor kids without strict regard to social distancing. This weekend, I met up with friends and went for an early maskless run. I’ve been sheltering-in-place for 94 days, but what does that even mean? I mean, I’ve been trying to tell you what it means to me, but I can’t tell you everything.

What else haven’t I told you? How often I cry. How much it hurts.

What kind of diary is this anyway? I bend the timeline to my will but am compelled to fact-check myself later. I play fast and loose with people, places, and things but find it imperative that I communicate my innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires so accurately and absolutely as to leave no room for possibility that I will be misunderstood.

In the parlance of first year English lit, I tend to think of this diary as being closer to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography than James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, by which I mean: Could a scholar of my life find some inconsistencies between the way I lived and what I wrote? Probably, but I’d stand by it as memoir even if Oprah herself tried to take me down.

In deep-Mormon vernacular, I’d say that this diary is more like the Doctrine & Covenants than the Book of Mormon, by which I mean: Look at this extraordinary life I lived, the people I’ve known, the things I’ve built. You will know my history. Can I prove I talked to God? Probably not, but you can’t disprove it either.

In my heart of hearts, I believe this diary is more like the Bible than anything else, which is to say: I’ve got a lot of fear, a lot of love, and a lot of nerve.

I am Eve in the Garden, the Woman at the Well, the Boy in the Grove. I am the Finger pointing at the Moon.

Quarantine Diary Day 82: No More Pencils No More Books

Today was the last day of school, for my daughter and for my husband who was conscripted into being a homeschooling parent. All three of us are feeling the absence of fanfare that ordinarily comes from the school. There was no fun run or field day or end-of-year picnic or class party. It’s bittersweet to watch my daughter try to navigate the transition by creating her own rituals: specifically, a special meal, a party with confetti and balloons, posed pictures, and a certificate for her favorite stuffed dog, who totally coincidentally “graduated from obedience school” the same week that she finished first grade. “Golden is so excited to be done with school!” she’s been saying all week, over and over again.Last night before bed, she got quiet and I wondered if she was feeling sad that her dad and I weren’t making a big a deal of her last day of school. “Hey, D,” I said as I tucked her into bed, “What do you want for your special dinner tomorrow? Pizza? Burgers? Sushi?” “I don’t know,” she mumbled. A moment later, she burst into tears “I’m just going to miss having papa as my teacher.” I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been so worried that she is sick of her parents and suffering from the absence of any meaningful interaction with other adults and kids that it didn’t occur to me that this time has been as much a gift for her as it is for us. I thought about pointing out that she has a long summer ahead of her at home with no camps and the decent odds that she won’t get to go back to school in the fall, but thought better of it. Rites of passage exist for a reason; the least I can do is not yank her through them just because I’m uncomfortable. “You and papa had a really special time together, didn’t you? You’re a pretty lucky kid.” My words were cold comfort. After I left the room, I stood outside her door and listened to her cry herself to sleep.Somehow, even without having set foot in a classroom for almost three months or a clear idea of what summer will like this year, she woke up today as exuberant any other kid the last day of school. She put on a pretty summer dress without any parental pleading to please change out of her pajamas already. She picked out all the letters to spell out “D’s last day of first grade” lightening fast. Oddly (or not) She put on her backpack, the one that’s been hanging empty by the front door since March, and wore it while she skipped and jumped around the neighborhood on our morning walk. At least a dozen times I told her, “I’m so proud of you” and every time she responded, “I know. I’m proud of me too.”Her dad and I did try to import a little ritual into the day. He printed out a certificate and presented it to her while I played pomp and circumstance on YouTube and clapped. We took pictures and she posed with a real smile. We did order a special dinner (pizza). The best part of the day was wholly impromptu, though. After dinner, we headed outside with a soccer ball and some candy and found a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around, all buzzy from being cooped up for so many months and the prospect of being released for the summer. We stayed outside, playing near enough but not-quite-next-to other families for an hour and a half. I chatted with the other parents, asking everybody, “What are your plans this summer?” and nodding as all of them answered in the same way. “None. Nothing. We’ll be here.” I wondered if, against all odds and expectations, if this could be the best summer ever, for a kid at least, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and a bunch of neighborhood kids in the same boat.

Quarantine Diary Day 81: Fulcrum

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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.

Quarantine Diary Day 77: How To Stay Sober In A Pandemic (Part 2)

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I had all kinds of contingency plans when I first started trying to get sober. I’d drink if my husband left me. I’d drink of he cheated. I’d drink if my daughter became gravely ill. I’d drink if I lost my parents. I’d drink if I lost my job. I’d drink if my sponsor drank. I never planned for what’s happening now. I had no “I’d drink if the entire world turns upside down and the schools shut down and I can’t go to work or church or meetings and I have no idea when I’ll see my grandma, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, or in-laws again” loophole, though if I’d known what was coming I certainly would have considered it bad enough to drink over.

Well, now it’s happening and, yes, a drink sounds better to me today than it did three months ago, but I know that even if I want to drink, I don’t have to. I’m one of the lucky ones. When society shut down to contain the killer disease, I might have done the same thing if I didn’t have my own killer disease. The thing about alcoholism is that I already know how to treat it, and when I do what I’m supposed to, I not only don’t drink, but I’m also relieved of the fear that might otherwise take me down.

I went 1,504 days without alcohol in the free world and another 77 under lockdown. Here’s what worked for me:

Maintain Your Routines

The first thing I did when I started working with a therapist was institute an evening routine with a strict bedtime and good sleep hygiene (no screens!). The first thing I did when I started working with a sponsor was adopt a morning routine with an early wake-up call and practices that are good for my body, mind, soul. The first thing I did when the pandemic hit was throw both routines out the window! For a week, I stayed up late eating ice cream and watching TV and scrolling scrolling scrolling and for a week I slept in skipping morning prayer, meditation, writing, and workouts. I thought I deserved the break to compensate for everything else I was losing in the moment, but I felt terrible, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It took talking it over with my therapist to understand how beneficial maintaining routines can be in times of crisis, but once I brought them back (albeit with a little more time to sleep built in) I felt a lot better. I still eat ice cream a lot of nights but I’m not having panic attacks anymore.

Try Something New 

During the first week of quarantine I didn’t have access to AA meetings. If groups were meeting in-person or online, I didn’t know about it. So I took what I could find. I saw an advertisement for an online sobriety support group hosted by a sober influencer and I signed up for it, even though I’m wildly skeptical of most influencers. The meeting was totally unlike any other I’d ever been to. The host read poems and led us in meditation. The invited speaker shared a wild yet totally relatable story about getting off opiates with physical fitness and without working the steps or going to meetings. After an hour, I felt at peace, connected, and hopeful about the prospect of staying sober in a strange new world.

Ditch What Doesn’t Work

During that first week of quarantine I also signed up for two email-based AA groups, which are essentially listservs that members can use to read and share messages relating to sobriety at their convenience. I was overjoyed when I was admitted to the groups quickly and thought the format would be perfect for me since, at that time, I was spending most of my days at work and all of my free time battling lice and reading live news updates. Within days I received dozens of welcome emails from other sober women and I felt instantly buoyed by their support. One message took me by surprise, though. The woman said she hoped I’d stick around long enough to see what a great group it was. I scratched my head, and not just because of the lice. I’d mentioned in my intro email that I’m not new to the program. Why wouldn’t I stick around? A few days later, I understood. There were just too many emails. I couldn’t keep up with all the new women coming in and the old women sharing out. I couldn’t follow a thread of conversation or an individual email address long enough to feel connected to either the message or another person. I tried filtering all the emails into separate folders to check later but ended up feeling guilty for ignoring them. As soon as I realized the groups were making me feel worse instead of better. Within a few weeks I found myself asking to be removed from both groups. I made amends to the administrators for taking up their time, but felt no guilt upon leaving. If I didn’t find a meeting, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t try.

Go To A Zoom Meeting

It took a minute, but the alcoholics finally got on Zoom. It took another minute for me to find them, but I finally did. Now I have access to meetings every day of the week any time of day. I can go to meetings anywhere in the world! Apparently this is a terrific feature for sober alcoholics who are well-traveled, which I am not. I am meeting virtually with the group that was my first home group, where I got my first phone numbers, met my sponsor, made my first friends, first stuck my hand up, first shared my story, and celebrated by first, second, and third sober anniversaries. They only meet ten or so miles away in downtown Chicago, but I haven’t seen them since I moved my law practice up to Evanston and seeing them again was like stepping out into a spring day after a long, miserable midwestern winter. Folks who were shipping off to rehab and struggling to string more than ten days together a few years ago are celebrating anniversaries now. Folks with decades of sobriety are still around. Virtual meetings are one of the greatest pleasures of quarantine, and I hope they stick around even when the restrictions lift. Message me if you need help finding one.

Reach Out

In quarantine, I’ve mourned the loss of my support networks–my group of mom friends, my church community, folks from my twelve-step meetings. I’ve thrown myself many pity parties over the fact that most of my friendships haven’t transcended past the level of hanging out in an organized group setting. I wondered why nobody from the neighborhood or church or AA was calling me. I didn’t have to wonder too long before I realized that lots of people had called (and texted and emailed) in the months before the pandemic and, er, I hadn’t called them back. Shit. I needed to make some tenth step amends. I called one friend who I’d blown off and then another and then I started texting anybody I hadn’t heard from in awhile on the theory that they might be as lonely and freaked out as I was. I apologized when it was called for and didn’t when it wasn’t. Nobody held a grudge or acted like it was weird that I was reaching out after so long. Instead, I had a bunch of great conversations. I also started taking evening walks and calling a different family member every night. I’m close with my family but, with the exception of my mom, don’t call any of them unless it’s a special occasion. In the last few months I’ve spoken to my grandma, my brothers, my sister, and my mom more than I did in the entire preceding year. I still feel lonely, and I still hate that I can’t see anyone, but I know I’m not alone, not really.

Be of Service

In my old life, I found plenty of ways to be useful in my community. I made sack lunches with my daughter at church. I volunteered in the soup kitchen. I chaired AA meetings. In my new life, it’s almost impossible for me to be physically of service to anyone except my immediate family and I’m not spiritually mature enough to find peace in picking up my daughters toys or unloading the dishwasher or folding the laundry for the millionth goddamn time. Of course, the greatest act of service I can perform now is to stay at home and reduce the chances that I will be a vector for this disease. You don’t need me to tell you that. But I will say that reminding myself that none of this is to protect myself and my family and all of it is for the greater does make staying home a hell of a lot less depressing. I wish I had a long list of examples of other ways I’ve found to be of service over the last few months but I don’t. I can count them on one hand. I shared information about meetings with other alcoholics. I donated money to a few organizations. I gave away toilet paper (that I had HOARDED). These things are so insignificant they wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that in each instance they shifted something in me enough to pull me out of some of the darkest places I’ve ever been. If something as small as donating $5 to a mental health organization for a friend’s birthday fundraiser can ward off suicidal thoughts for me, imagine what a little service could do for you.

Remember You Are More Than Your Addiction

In my case, I am also my anxiety and depression and trauma! I wish this wasn’t the case, but one positive aspect of quarantine is that I’ve had time and opportunity to explore and heal other aspects of my mental health. With the time saved from not commuting and fewer AA meetings and a bit of a slowdown at work, I am able to attend weekly therapy sessions for the first time in my life, and thanks to changes in the healthcare system in response to the pandemic, I can access my sessions via telemedicine and they are covered by my insurance. It’s not fun work by any means, but it’s productive, and if I stick with it I stand to come out of this quagmire healthier than I went in.

Start A Gratitude Practice

I write a list of five things every day. I do it in the morning before I start work. Here is a list of five things I am grateful for about quarantine:

  1. Listening to windchimes while I work from home.
  2. Wearing housecoats and slippers.
  3. Watching birds (and actually learning the names of the birds of the state I’ve lived in for a decade).
  4. Masking with bandanas and feeling like a badass old-timey train robber.
  5. Eating homemade food for every meal.

Writing things down helps me see my life is good, which means I am less apt to throw it away.

Get A Hobby

When I tell my story at AA meetings, I usually say that the first thing I did when I decided to quit drinking for good was get my ass to a meeting. That’s only sort of true. I went to an AA meeting on my second full day of sobriety, not my first. The first day, I went to an art museum, and I made or looked at art as often as possible for the first year of my sobriety while I was still working out how I felt about AA. Getting sober was like waking up, and art gave me something worth waking up for.

Art saved me again a year later. When all my friends were losing their minds after the 2016 election and after Trump took office, I unsubscribed from all the lefty political podcasts and lost myself in words. I had always been a reader as a kid but I lost the capacity to concentrate on a novel when I became a drinker. In sobriety, I recovered the love of reading and books gave me a way to escape the world for a little while without losing myself.

Art is saving me again now. There is so much time and only so much TV to watch. I pass the hours listening to music, dancing, playing guitar. I’m learning to watercolor. Art is opening up a whole world inside my own house.

Know This Won’t Last Forever

As the world is reshaping itself around me and I am resituating myself in response, my relationship with my sobriety is changing. Sobriety was once the solid center that held my life together. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. It feels less important, less inspired, more fragile. But I know that won’t always be the case. In this time we have lost so much, individually and collectively. I don’t know what the world will look like when we come out of this, and I don’t know what I will have lost, but I know I will regret it if I lose this thing I’ve worked so hard for. Let’s not lose more than we have to.

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Many of the last 77 days have been difficult and all of them have been long. But one of these days we won’t have to count days anymore. In the meantime, counting days is only torture when you’re doing it alone. Together, it’s a triumph.