It would take a thousand photos to really explain a year of Covid. We had one slideshow.
New Year’s Eve, 2021. We enjoyed a Covid-style masked backyard cocktail with friends and came home for a decadent fondue dinner just the four of us. I’d thrown the photos together an hour or two before. The slideshow started with the boisterous New Year’s Day 2020 party we’d attended, traveled on through the last picture I have of my parents standing in front of our old house, the one we said goodbye to in 2020. And then my leg, all marked up with Sharpie before I had my varicose veins removed last January. Valentine’s Day (26 Valentines, glued by the preschooler, and a heart-shaped cake). The last in-person show my band played at Ale Industries. The trip on BART to I-don’t-remember-where, the kids looking hella East Bay in Warriors gear and caps.
And then, a blurry image of us and some friends surrounded by empty booze bottles and take-out containers the night they announced the schools would be closing, the last night we gathered inside with others for almost a year.
The slideshow rolled on, the photos imprecise, unstaged. List after list, schedule after schedule. One entitled “Basic Rules” (the gem: BE NICE TO EACH OTHER!!), one named, simply, “Projects.” Then, photos of said projects: “Ancient Room,” the flower-collections, the swirl paintings. The hikes and makeshift sensory table. All those days of homeschooling. The Elsa-from-Frozen dress I sewed for my four-year-old. Easter, the kids’ hair already floppy. Making jam with the last of the plums. Black Lives Matter protests, masked and distanced. I could go on and on and I kind of want to, because more than a trip down memory lane, the slideshow felt like a testimony to the difficulty and occasional beauty of a year spent completely under wraps.
This past week, the news, the blogs, and the sosh are all filled with retrospective accounts of the pandemic year, with incredibly depressing death toll numbers and more bolstering reports of vaccines delivered (I’ve had my first shot, even!). We’re headed, I think, out of this thing, and I have a feeling it will take us a few weeks, months, maybe even years to get used to our resumed freedom. Sometimes, now, when I find myself out two nights a week (a birthday gathering around someone’s fire pit, say, and an after-dinner walk), I’m exhausted afterwards. I’m exhausted anyway, let’s face it, but somehow the socializing is so novel and extroverted that it completely takes it out of me. The other night when my 11-year-old and I were discussing the great disappointment of a sixth-grade-year spent almost entirely online, I tried to introduce the silver lining: “school’s starting on April 12th,” I reminded him. “I know,” he said. “Scary.”
And I so got where he was coming from: it’s wonderful to think of life getting back to normal. Of school starting. And for a hundred reasons, it also feels scary.
On New Year’s Eve we watched a 2020 slideshow, and I decided I’m making a slideshow every year from now on. I want to remember every silly photo we took: the last of the plums, the double rainbow that made my kids grin. The incredible fall colors that showed up in late November. And the time my little one dressed up in a gold cape, a floppy green hat, and ring after ring of leis, and posed, grinning, in my bedroom, as though he didn’t even know Covid existed.
What memories will YOU take away from this year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
We made it through two weeks of homeschooling, two weeks of working from home with two kids around, two weeks of The Spring of the Virus. Even if the Shelter in Place order lasts into summer, into fall?God forbid?it will be springtime in my mind when my future wise self and I look back on this global Coronavirus pandemic. Covid19 shut us all down right as the tulips and asparagus burst forth. The other morning, eerily quiet since traffic has so slowed and Bart is running shorter hours and fewer trains, I heard a flock of Canada geese flying over the house. Heading North for summer? Choosing a different path in quieter skies? It was nice to hear them.
Things at our house are going better than expected, much better than I?d feared. When we made it to last weekend, I could even say, honestly, that we were doing okay. This after a desperate and depressed couple of days; the shops were overrun with people (but devoid of toilet paper), and I ran into a teacher from my son?s school and we both burst into tears. Governor Newsom had just announced that our kids might not go back to school this year, and that was the reality that hit me the hardest both personally and globally: all these children, for whom school is structure and lifeline, are now floating, aimless, free. My son?s got his best teacher so far, and as Ben put it, we wanted the whole year with him?we needed the whole year!?and we don?t get it. It?s hard not to feel betrayed and devastated.
Except that my kid is, basically, fine.
At ten, he?s both sensitive and oblivious, and nothing if not an introvert. He admitted last week that he?s not much missing anyone, and he?s happily reading, doing his math, shooting hoops, and driving us nuts. The three-year-old seems to be thriving, too, which is confusing to me since he loves his preschool so very much. But he?s easier to be around, less exhausted, more cheerful, sleeping better, and thriving on our makeshift routine: every day at ten, when the morning work shift (mine) ends and I start on kid duty, we cook something together, then have experiential learning time (the endless project of making an Ancient Rome diorama) before family lunch. PE is every day from 2:30-4:00: we scooter, or we bike ride, or we meet up with friends outside and keep a careful six feet away. Or we trek up to Indian Rock and climb around.
The running underlying thread of dread. The confusion and guilt of doing okay: am I faring better than some of my colleagues, than some of my friends? Should I feel bad about this? Is this time the calm before the storm, before the colleges and non-profits close and our income disappears? Will all of our favorite businesses go under? Are the kids who thrived on the routine of school going to back-slide during this time and be forever behind, perpetuating the achievement gap in our city? Will we plummet into a global recession that has consequences so long-lasting my kids will feel them in their early adulthood? And will we get and survive this thing? What about our loved ones?
It?s almost unnecessary to outline these fears. We all have them. Even on the good days, they?re there. It?s like this brilliant quote from that show ?The Good Place,? when the Eleanor character is trying to describe what it?s like being human to someone who?s immortal. ?We humans know about death,? she says. ?So we?re all always a little bit sad underneath.? We humans know about Coronavirus, so we?re always a little bit sad underneath. None of us will ever be the same after this spring of the virus.
?It?s good to keep knowing yourself,? says Alicia Keys in this delightful video. The strangest/most magical part of The Spring of the Virus? Really seeing the four people who make up our family in clearer ways than usual. When all the schedules are wiped clean, when we?re the only people we see, somehow I know us all better, and differently. L is shyer than I remembered, and consistently happy to entertain himself. Ben takes deep solace in growing things. I?m alive if I?ve got my early mornings and a cup of tea, writing poems. And little S thrives on being needed, on being cherished, more than ever.
Sending love and light, readers, for your Spring of the Virus. We?ll get through this.
High, Low, Buffalo, similar to Rose and Thorn, is a dinnertime game that was introduced to me by my friend An Honest Mom. Over dinner, you share your day: the high, the low, and the magical, or strange, or odd thing you?re still mulling over: the buffalo.
Need some recipe ideas while you?re stuck at home? Check out:
**And remember that it?s very likely that your local, independent bookstore is doing online orders. Mine is! Amazon will survive this crisis. Your local bookstore might not. So buy your books indie, friends.
In Norway, this time of year is called the M?rketid, the dark time, and the Norwegians, who are used to it, light candles at four pm and have dinner early and snuggle into their warm houses. Or, if it?s snowed, they put on their skis and head to the lighted trails that exist all over the country and ski and ski and ski. They cheerfully get up in the dark at dawn and go to work. Their creativity in dealing with more than 12 hours of darkness is impressive.
When we lived in Oslo, I started a new teaching job at a public high school just after New Year?s. I was three months pregnant with L and terribly morning sick, and two days a week I had class at eight. So I rose at six in the pitch black and attempted not to vomit as I navigated the shower, some clothes, a cup of tea, and the Trikk, the streetcar that took me to Majorstuen, where I would hop on the subway for two stops. By the time I arrived at Berg Vidergaendeskole there was a gray light, but the sun didn?t really rise until the end of first period.
We humans can romanticize all kinds of things.
We?re in our own dark time in California, which is never sure how to be winter, but tries, and I?m still setting the alarm for six as many mornings as I can muster. It is a strange sort of push and pull, for I really do loathe getting up early, but ever since I learned that the poet Lucie Brock-Broido calls the morning being ?wet from the other side? I?ve been unable to shake the notion that this time, this liminal time between night and day, is when the creativity is awakening and the words best flow?or sputter, or crawl. (And, because life is so busy, sometimes it?s the only time of the day, anyway.) Sure enough, I?ve been getting at least a poem a morning, though which are any good, it?s hard to say.
But creativity is a funny thing. Earlier this fall, I took a poetry class and vowed to just write, to generate work, to make, for as long as it took. And I did, all fall. It was glorious. But now, mere weeks later, I feel a familiar antsyness as I start to worry, to push, to want to force that raw, unfinished work into something meaningful?a book, a record, a testimony to the world that I am not lazy, that I am not, uh, bad, that I EXIST. In September, when I read up in Portland with the poet Stephanie Adams-Santos (who taught me about Lucie Brock-Broido), she said that when she writes she tries to scratch some metaphorical itch, to find something inside herself that needs fulfilling and, well, fulfill it. (She actually said this much more clearly and beautifully than that!) In answer to the same question, I said that I turned to my readers to tell me if something was any good. And then I thought about what she said and wondered, what if I did that, too?
So, I guess here I?ve answered my own personal logic puzzle: because I have taken a little break from reading from Little Prayers,?because I don?t have something else to publish NOW, because I always feel the glow from a published essay for about a month before it fades, I have been inhabiting this space, on and off here in the December dark, where I don?t feel like I?m any good. Hence the rush to publish something, to finish something, to frantically get out into the world a thing that isn?t even ready yet, just so I can prove something to?to whom? I don?t even know.
How stupid I am, sometimes.
I?m still learning to be a writer: to chase the joy and to find that balance between playful, creative inquiry and brass tacks. And I feel enormously comforted here at the end of this blog post, because somehow writing all of this down, I feel like I have permission to be in the playful inquiry stage a while longer. Brass tacks, be off with you. Glad we had that little chat.
So! In the meantime, while you (and I) are waiting for my second book of poetry (!), if you need a great little gift, you can buy my first, Little Prayers, and I?ll sign it for you. There are more good gift ideas for writers here and here.
And here?s to the beauty and the difficulty of this season. If you want to share what you love or loathe about December, I?d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Warmly and with my best wishes for happy holidays and a fruitful new year,
I wanted?to?plug a just-released book by my brilliant friend Ruth Whippman, which I had the good fortune of reading parts of in utero (uh, the book’s utero, not my own, though, fun fact: Ruth’s book release date was the same as my due date for Baby #2: October 4). America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks is out now, and it’s a doozy of a read: laugh-out-loud funny, incredibly insightful, at times infuriating in the way that things you know are true but don’t quite want to believe about yourself are infuriating, and above all, smart. Ruth’s premise? That here in the good old U.S. of A., we’re so concerned with making ourselves happy that we’ll try absolutely anything to get there?even when the tactics (yoga, mindfulness, self help, slavish devotion to work) leave us, ironically,?incredibly uptight and anxious.
Of particular note is her chapter on parenting, in which she gently disembowels the American practice of attachment parenting (frankly, on most points I’m with her) and illustrates with research and hysterically funny vignettes from the playground how American parents sabotage their own possibility of happiness by putting their entire emphasis on making their kids happy instead. My jaw dropped when she?described?a Facebook post in which a mom?laments telling her child to “wait a minute” while she finishes doing the dishes, and when the child cries, realizes that she’s mistakenly given her the (wrong!) message that cleaning comes before her own flesh and blood.?Ultimately, the mom reports, she’s decided she will “never make [her daughter] wait” again (and all her Facebook friends praise her for her selflessness). Talk about a nation of nervous wrecks.
This witty, from-the-trenches reporting is the hallmark of America the Anxious. Part memoir, part research study, it’s a thought-provoking and terrific read. Check it out!
I mentioned last week that I had an essay in a new book anthology called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness (In Fact Books, 2016).?I felt like a million bucks when the essay was accepted. I’d responded to a call for submissions that a friend sent?with a lightning bolt of an idea, and then I wrote the essay with something of that same lightning-bolt intensity. There is nothing better than those moments, when you’re a writer, when the work kind of pours out of you and you can feel that it’s good, that it’s powerful, that it’s?flowing. To?have that recognized, with an acceptance letter from a reputable literary journal?there may be?nothing better. When?I learned that ultimately, only 20 essays were chosen from over 600 submissions, and mine was one (I think publishers like to tell writers stuff like that to stroke their very fragile egos, and it works!), I felt, again, just great: proud and honored and humbled and?grateful.
But when the book arrived last week, there was that title staring me in the face: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness?and a catchphrase that went something like: “In these pages, you’ll meet twenty people surviving mental illness”?and I was one of those twenty people.?It was enough to make a girl feel a little, well, vulnerable, especially when I excitedly emailed my mom and my mother in law and people close to me to tell them and then wondered if I’d freaked them out.
“What interesting company you keep!” my mom said. I understood her hesitation to be really excited for me; if L. published?an essay?about something deeply personal?I’m sure I would feel a similar sense of disquiet. So?I immediately felt this urge to qualify, e.g.: “the essay isn’t about MY mental illness, of course…”
But of course, it is.
The?mission of SMAYS?is to demystify mental illness, which is still, in this country, roundly feared and loathed. To talk about it. To admit to it. And so, while my essay in the book, it’s true, is much more about someone else’s mental illness?about a romantic friendship I had in my twenties with a guy who’s a diagnosed schizophrenic?it is also about my anxiety, and my belief that at the end of the day, even those who suffer from the deepest kinds of madness have something in common with those of us who suffer from more “acceptable” forms of it (depression and anxiety).
As I say in my essay, “We are all at least a little bit crazy.”
Last August, right before I left California to spend two weeks with my family in Maine, I got an email from an editor at Creative Nonfiction?(the literary journal that houses In Fact Books) saying that they liked the essay I’d written and were interested in publishing it, but that they?needed me to strengthen and revise one part before they decided for sure. So off I went to the East coast, to be with my close-knit and very boisterous family, all of whom were on vacation, while I also had a two-week deadline to revise this incredibly personal essay that I’d come to care very, very deeply about. And so, for those two weeks, I lived a double life. I was half-present with my family, drinking wine in the evenings, laughing, joking, going for paddle board rides in the ocean and attempting to relax, but inwardly, I was completely obsessed with?the essay. Every spare moment I had, I was holed up in my room, writing. Or at least, shifting commas around and looking for entryways into what felt like dark and difficult territory.
Then I’d emerge, smiling and happy and in my bathing suit, ready to go for a swim.
It was all a bit?jarring. What felt so difficult about it, I think, was that even then, in the writing stage, I felt some sense of shame for the work. I was writing about meeting?a man who was obviously troubled, at?a time in my life when I decided to take on some of his trouble, because I was troubled, too. I was in grad school at the time we met; I was learning that I suffered from anxiety; I had bestowed upon myself this weird eating disorder that involved not consuming an ounce of fat and running for an hour every day; and I was also learning how to be an adult (read: making choices I wasn’t sure my parents would approve of). I was learning that something that sounds just terrible, and terrifying, on paper?I am sleeping with a diagnosed schizophrenic who’s on welfare?can, in reality, be something safe, real, and very much?okay.
It had taken me fifteen years to get the opportunity to really reflect on?this strange and powerful friendship that I had kept from most of my family at the time, sure that they wouldn’t understand. And there I was on vacation with them, writing about it.
But I did it, and the revised essay was accepted.
And so, at the great risk of freaking out my mom, here is a short excerpt from my essay?”A Little Crazy.” Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider buying the book (details below). It’s full of powerful stories.
“My friend did not seem like the stereotype of schizophrenic that I knew from movies and television. He did not hear voices anymore, at least as far as I could tell, and he was never violent. He was obviously depressed, though?depressed in a way that suggested sadness from some place far beyond the present. Sometimes, he became slightly manic, and he frequently became confused. Often, when we talked, I wondered if we were having two separate conversations. He might, for instance, lapse into sullenness, into silence, as though he?d forgotten I was there; then, all of a sudden, he?d brightly ask a question only tenuously related to what we?d been talking about. Some days, his veneer seemed so thin he was almost translucent, like the smallest insult or hurt would break him.
“Many times I wondered if our friendship was worth it: the bad moods, the sudden decisions that our evening was over, the weird outbursts of criticism.
“But at other times, Will behaved like an endearing child, entirely genuine. Unlike most of the guys I knew, he did not resort to ironic retorts or mannered responses. He had the laugh of a ten-year-old, this sweet, bubbling peal. One day, he invited me over to play a rented video game. It was a Saturday, and I had planned to spend the day relaxing after a week run like boot camp: exercise, teach, fast, write. So I said yes. Will couldn?t handle any hint of violence, and the game was a lush but G-rated fantasy, something about a princess who needed to travel through a maze to reach her castle. We played it on his aging, thrift-store television for hours. I remember the day as though we spent it happily, goofily stoned, but we couldn?t have been: Will didn?t put any substances into his body besides chromium picolinate and copious amounts of vitamin C. But being with him sometimes felt like an altered state.
“And after we?d played the video game, we pushed aside the controls and had sex on his bed. We had this implicit understanding: that we would still have sex. Not always; months went by when we were, simply, platonic friends. But then we?d fall into bed together again. I welcomed this. I had no compunctions about it, no hang-ups. I didn?t care or know if he slept with other people. I didn?t possess jealousy or longing where he was concerned. For the first and the last time in my life, I didn?t equate a sexual relationship with love or the pursuit of partnership.
“Not that I didn?t love Will, in my way. We shared a rare kind of intimacy. We made gluten-free toast in his kitchen at 2:00 a.m., eating it, giggling, in our underpants. I saw him through a fractured, dissociated breakdown in my apartment after a thunderously loud Lucinda Williams show, the only time I saw him approach behavior I might call aggressive, though all he did was yell. We wrote an article together once. (He insisted I take the whole byline, though he had paced around my apartment feeding me lines like I were his secretary: ?No wait, write this, write this??) I watched him engage with the world as if he were doing everything for the first time: trying out a job, losing a job, finding a new apartment, beginning a new project. Because Will?s life had once shattered to pieces, he didn?t care what it would take to make it presentable, defendable, normal. For me, every venture felt like an obligation, a step on a ladder that led somewhere I was supposed to want to go. With my anxiety and my stupid eating disorder, I spent all my time climbing, and climbing, and climbing. What was at the top? I don?t think I knew.”