I spent a fair amount of time yesterday writing a post I’m not going to share.
Writing is my way of processing what’s happening, and it served that purpose, but even I am just not all that interested in my perspective on what’s happening in my country–so I’m not going to share it here.
I am weary of so many people I know pontificating on social media when, frankly, they don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. And, sorry(notsorry), their opinions (and mine) just aren’t as important as those of others who know more than we do. I’m thinking I don’t need to join the cacophany of white noise any more than I already have.
I think the best thing I can do as a white person is shut the hell up and listen.
Here are a few voices that need amplification far more than mine:
My daughter’s graduation celebration was supposed to be last weekend, but it was cold and drizzly out and I had a migraine and the graduation video I was making for her wasn’t done. She was only a few days into quarantine, and…the time just wasn’t right.
One of the rules of the pandemic seems to be that there are no rules of pandemic, so you can have your grad party any time you want to. Or when the weather and your migraines are cooperating. So we had it yesterday.
I would like to share heartwarming photos with you, but I didn’t take any. I was too busy being fully present in the moment. I might regret that later, but I might not.
There were only four of us, and we’re all pretty quiet by nature, so it wasn’t a rager. But it was really nice. For the video, I asked many people who have been important in my daughter’s life to record a message they’d like to share with her. In real life, we’d never have been able to gather all of them in our backyard (divorce, geographic distance), so we got to feel their presence without awkward tensions or social exhaustion. For the first time since 2008, my daughter got to have her whole family in the same place on a momentous occasion. Sorta.
We partied social distance style, which means imperfectly. Grace is still in quarantine (sorta), which means that we all sat outside at least 6 feet away from each other. I rearranged the cozy patio layout to put more distance between the seats. I served only takeout or individually wrapped food (no communal bowls of chips), using disposable plates and cutlery. Her best friend, B., and I reminisced at one point about her visit during the Christmas holidays, which feels so long ago, where I had made food and we had sat close to each other around a table, and she had been full of hopes and plans that have mostly evaporated.
Like everything right now, yesterday was both lesser and more than, simultaneously.
Would we have all teared up watching messages of love to my daughter in our pre-March world? Would the messages have been as heartfelt? I doubt it, and there’s a gift in that. I tried not to project ahead to the winter holidays, where we might not be able to gather even in this limited way. But I did, a little. I just glanced at that possibility in my mind, and then let it push me back into the present with more appreciation for it than I’d had even the minute before.
Yesterday was also the day the New York Times released a cover page with a list of 1,000 dead from C-19. (Click here if you’d like to be able to read it, not just see it.) That’s only 1% of people who will not get to attend any celebrations of any kind this weekend, nor will they get to live through a diminished holiday season come winter. My head today is full of thoughts and questions about the future. When I look ahead to the fall and winter, it is hard to feel anything but anxiety and fear. So I’m looking at my kitchen right now, filled with the remains of yesterday’s celebration, grateful to have such a mess to clean.
I don’t have much to offer this week. I missed my usual Sunday posting here, for the first time in months. I just couldn’t, and I gave myself permission to be OK with that, and this morning I reminded myself that earlier, I’d given myself permission to sometimes do this badly. So here I am, offering the best I’ve got right now:
Late is better than never. Doing something imperfectly is better than not doing it at all. We should do what we can, however we can, while we can. Later, we’ll be glad we did.
In July of 2003, my normally sanguine daughter took up crying jags. They came from seemingly nowhere, like afternoon storms on sunny summer days. I remember holding her 5-year-old self in my lap by the side of a pool, on our back deck, on the edge of her bed, rubbing her back with my hand to calm her ragged breathing. She couldn’t tell me what her tears were about.
Eventually, in mid-August, she could:
“Lindy is going to college, and I am going to kindergarten, and then I’ll go to middle school, and then high school, and then I’ll have to go to college, too, and then I won’t be able to live with you any more!”
Lindy, her older sister, was indeed preparing to leave us for college, and Grace was on her way to kindergarten.
“And you know I don’t like change!” she sobbed.
Me either, I thought, holding her close to me, full of my own feelings about all the changes bearing down on us.
As is usual, Grace was correct about how things were going to go: She did go to kindergarten, and middle school, and high school, and college. At one point–probably in early middle school–she told me she’d settled on Reed College as her preferred institution of higher education because it was both a good school and one that she could get to from our home on Mt. Hood using only public transportation, “so you won’t have to drive me.” She showed me the bus routes she’d need to take (she’d mapped it all out): a nearly two-hour commute one way, but that, she said, would give her plenty of time to study and read.
“You know, ” I said, “by the time you’re ready for college, you probably won’t want to live at home any more.” She assured me that I was wrong about that. She was too old for me to hold close the way I had when she was five and she had no need for me to, but I wanted to.
As it turned out, she did not go to Reed. She went to Georgetown, more than 3,000 miles from home. I suppose she could have traveled there by bus, but it has not been, in any way, an easy commute from our home to her school. Although she’d once been to DC on a trip with her grandparents, she’d never set foot on campus before she packed up her life into two bags she could take on an airplane and flew away with them. She did not choose this school because of a desire to be far from home. In the calculus of risk and reward, costs and benefits, Georgetown was the logical choice, and the girl we nicknamed Spock grew into a young woman who made all important choices from the head more than the heart.
The day she left, mine broke a little–with pride (what a brave thing she was doing!) and gratitude (what opportunities she would have!) and sorrow. Her new beginning was the ending of my most important and rewarding work.
As it turned out, once she left she never came back home to live. She got summer jobs in DC every year and made a whole life for herself there. It’s nice, sometimes, how we can’t know how things are really going to go. I don’t know how it might have been for me if I’d known on that day she walked out our front door that she wouldn’t come home to live again for her four years of college. Even harder than it was, I suppose.
Yesterday was supposed to be her graduation day. Her grandmother and I were supposed to fly east to watch her line up and march and get her papers and celebrate her work and accomplishments. Then, she was supposed to come home for a visit with her boyfriend before returning to DC to work this summer. Instead, she flew west alone, once again with her whole life packed into a few bags, to live with me at least through the summer, maybe longer. We can’t know for sure.
We can never know for sure, something I wish I’d understood when I was standing where she is now. At 22, I thought of life as being something like a novel, a cohesive narrative that could be broken into chapters, each one leading inevitably to the next. That is why it felt so important, especially then, to make the right authorial choices: each would create and eliminate a host of others. Choose wrong, and some beautiful plot lines (about love, children, work, home) would never be written.
Now I can see that if life is like a book, it is more a collection of linked short stories than a novel or an epic poem. It is filled with endings and beginnings, full stops and new starts and long pauses, episodes of living complete unto themselves. Some characters appear only once, while others drift in and out of the larger and looser narrative, sometimes at the center of the action and sometimes only at its periphery. The white space between one story’s ending the the next’s beginning is not empty: It is full of breath, rest, possibility, and actions so small or insignificant they aren’t worth noting–unless, suddenly, they are, at which point a new story begins.
My girl who hated change and clung to family and once charted her options in kaleidoscopic color-coded spreadsheets–a hedge against missed opportunities and lesser choices–has grown into an independent woman who still makes plans but no longer fits them into tiny digital boxes. I’m watching her lean into this moment in the world that is intersecting with this moment of her life, one that’s blown the boxes to bits in ways that are both terrifying and freeing, creating a horizon full of nothing certain but uncertainty and change.
The gift in this moment that has writ the future’s uncertainty large is that she can see clearly what many of us hard-working good students who once traveled through that profound transition between school and everything beyond school did not. We faced a similar horizon; we just didn’t know it. We looked out and thought we could see just how our stories would unfold, believed the major points of our plots were inevitable–or at least within our power to control. We didn’t pause long enough to see how wide open everything really was, to scan for roadblocks and pitfalls and possibilities of all sorts, to consider all the different destinations available to us. We just kept marching inexorably forward.
So, while I am sad, worried, and fearful about many things for all of our children, I’m finding a little something to be grateful for in this moment of unexpected endings and delayed beginnings and narrative threads that threaten to snap. What I might have given to have understood, much sooner than I did, that my most important choices were going to be about how to respond to plot twists I couldn’t control and never saw coming. I’m grateful, too, to know that my smart, strong, brave, thoughtful daughter will, as she’s always done, make the most of the gifts she’s been given, even the ones wrapped in the dark paper of this time.
“There’s not a lot of Rocky left of Rocky anymore,” the vet says, before I’ve even explained why we are here.
His eyes, all I can see of the face behind his mask, are kind. “I just want to prepare you for what’s coming.”
I realized recently that every morning, when I go to wake the dogs, I am holding my breath just a little. I don’t exhale until I see their blankets move, relieved that I will not start my day with death. So, I know what’s coming. Knowing doesn’t prepare me for it, though.
Last weekend Rocky woke up a little after midnight, barking. He never does this. I got up, let him outside. Put him back to bed. He barked and barked and barked. I thought about letting him sleep in my bed with me, but I didn’t want to inadvertently reinforce this behavior, dooming myself to nights of enduring either a barking dog or a dog in my bed. It occurs to me today that I don’t have to worry about that the same way I worried about, say, the way the kids conditioned both our dogs to beg for food while we eat, a behavior I’ve tried for more than a decade to change.
There won’t be years’ worth of nights to endure of anything with Rocky.
Rocky is one of two “divorce guilt dogs.” That’s what my daughter dubbed them when she was just a tween. She was not wrong. She knew the score. In less than a week she will be returning to this country from Sweden, where she’s been since early March. She will fly to DC, where she will pick through the physical stuff she’s accumulated over four years of college, performing a kind of material triage to determine which things she will put on another plane and which she will leave behind forever. Perhaps this will distract her from thinking about the scattered friends she never got to say good-bye to. She’s leaving behind her first real love, too, and although they have plans to reunite in Sweden again this fall, well…we’ve all seen what happens to plans, haven’t we? Plans are merely hopes, now more than ever. Then she will arrive here, her home but not her home, where we will figure out how to quarantine her, and how to live together again, for we don’t know how long.
A friend, one who has lived through catastrophes the likes of which I can hardly comprehend, tells me I should drive across the country to get her and drive all of her things back here, to spare her the trauma of going through such an experience alone. I am dumbfounded.
“I can’t just drive across the country,” I say. I sputter about work, risks of infection, lock-down orders, quarantine.
“Honey,” she says, as if talking to a child, “we’re all going to get it. You know that, right? You don’t really think you can avoid it, do you?”
The vet manipulates Rocky’s feet, turning them under as he props him up on the exam table, to see what his legs will do. After a pause, they move. A little. He says something to the tech making notes on the computer about nerve function. The vet’s eyes and mine meet over our face masks.
“His nerve function isn’t what it used to be. He’s having trouble knowing where his legs are in space.”
I’m having a harder and harder time with work. Technically, I am a teacher. I work under a teacher contract, but I don’t belong to any one school; I belong to ten of them (which feels like belonging to none of them). I am a librarian who serves those who serve the students directly. More and more, students feel more abstract than real. I know they are real–I hear about them from those who see them in Zoom meetings, I know they are muddling through this pandemic in varying states of wellness and distress, I know many are living in a purple zone of the infection map–but I haven’t seen any student faces since March 13, and I can’t feel them in the same way. I never understood, before, how simply seeing and hearing them grounded me in my work, in the world.
The only faces I see are those of other adults. They all look weary through my screen. Sometimes, not in our large group meetings, but in smaller ones of two or three, some of us share with each other how it’s really going, how we’re really doing.
“I’m trying to let go of things,” I tell someone I trust. “I’m trying to let go of things I know I can’t really affect.”
“Yes,” says the face on my screen. “I am, too. But there’s a difference between letting go and giving up. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m giving up.”
I think maybe I know a little bit about how Rocky feels. Sometimes, when he is walking, his stiff back legs that don’t really bend anymore skidding on the wood floor, something gives and he is suddenly on the ground, flailing, paws paddling in air. He reminds me then of a turtle on its back, the way he is unable to right himself.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the kind vet says. “Does he still like to eat? Is he still drinking water?”
I nod, hoping he’ll think that my glasses are fogging from the breath trapped in my face mask. That could be what it is.
“Yes, he still loves to eat.”
Daschunds are famous eaters. They will eat and eat and eat, going as long as the food lasts. When he and Daisy, the other divorce guilt dog, were younger and had teeth, I left dry food out in bowls to let them eat on demand. I was lazy. Or stretched too thin. Or both. I let them turn into fat, roly-poly pups who loved to lounge in patches of sun and sleep on our laps and burrow under our covers.
Neither dog has any teeth left (Daschunds are also famous for dental issues), and meals are now soft food given three times a day. Their need to eat might be providing the most consistent structure in my life now. Daisy is still soft, a round, warm bundle of fur and fat, skin and bone. She leaps vertically up and down while I scoop her food, often reaching nearly the height of the counter, whimpering and whining with what sounds like joy. Rocky stays grounded, usually putting one paw on my foot, his whole body quivering. He is not soft and round. I can count the vertebrae of his spine just looking at him.
The vet runs his hand over Rocky’s bony body. “There’s not much Rocky left of Rocky,” he says again, still kindly and gently, as if he knows he might need to say it more than once for his meaning to sink in.
Lately I’ve been unable to keep my mind out of the past. I long for my grandparents. I long for the beautiful, pain-free bodies my cousins and I once had, and for the summer nights when our strong, lithe legs gathered and tangled beneath our grandparents’ kitchen table. I long to feel again how I felt then.
In a phone conversation I try to tell my son, the Marine I don’t know when I’ll see again, how the world felt to me when I was growing up in my working class home. Although some definitely had more than others of us, I don’t remember any of the kids I went to school with worrying about food or living in cars or surfing for sofas to sleep on, the way so many do now. In my memory, almost everyone looked down upon racists and fascists and censorship and monopolies and religious zealots, and it was socially taboo to openly express that some of us were lesser than others of us–because we all knew such a belief was wrong. The people I knew respected science and education. We knew there were problems (racism, sexism, all the -isms), but there was such surety in our elders’ belief that we were forever on a march forward, that each generation would do better and have it better than the ones that came before it, their belief felt like fact.
No one I know feels that way now. “I’m worried for our kids,” we say to each other, not in large groups, but privately. Guiltily–not only for not passing on the same prospects, but for having had them when others did not. For not understanding, earlier, that not everyone had them and that others were working to strip them from many of us who did. For wondering what else we might not be seeing now, because having been profoundly blind once, we can surely be as blind again.
My son and I catalog all the ways in which his grandparents and I had it better than any other generations of Americans (including his), which, perhaps, makes us supremely unprepared for this time. “I feel soft,” I admit to him.
“I don’t want to go back in time,” I tell him. I don’t want to go back to an incomplete understanding of my country, or to a time in which so many people like me didn’t understand that only people who looked like us had the kind of security we took for granted. Still, I want my children–everyone’s children–to have what I had, and in profound ways they don’t. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” I say. “We could make so many things better for everyone.” I wonder if my belief is naive, as little tied to evidence as any faith.
“It would be nice in some ways to have lived when all of you did,” he says, “but I think I would have hated not having the internet.”
“No,” I say, “you wouldn’t have hated it.” I try to tell him, ground him in a concrete memory: “When my grandma would come home from a late shift–she was a Fred Meyer cashier–we’d sit at the kitchen table, my cousins and me and her. We’d play Yahtzee or cards, and eat ice cream, and watch Johnny Carson. We’d talk and laugh.”
I miss those people and that time and place so deeply, my eyes fill as I try to make him understand how it felt. I know my memory feels unremarkable to him. It’s hard to see what’s remarkable for what’s not in something–fear, anxiety–rather than for what is. “You would have liked it,” I say, knowing that I can’t make him see or feel it. You had to have been there.
I’ve brought Rocky to the vet because I’m afraid that he’s been in pain. He’s been acting the way he used to when his teeth would get bad: clingy, barking, weirdly stretching his jaw after meals. I’ve been giving him more lap time, as I’m able. Every night we watch something on TV together before bed. He’s sat in on a few Zoom meetings in recent weeks, and sometimes I reach over his body sleeping on my lap to work at my keyboard. There are no more teeth to remove, but he has a nasal fistula, a hole in his mouth that leads to the nasal cavity. I have been worried about infection. When I heard that vets are open for non-emergency visits, I called the same day.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the vet says again.
Rocky’s always been an anxious animal. We learned early on that he couldn’t be trusted around toddlers; he’d chase them and bark and jump on them. One of his ribs juts out at a funny angle, and if a foot ever brushes the middle section of his body, he shrieks. We don’t know what happened to him before he came to us, but he’s never been easy in the world.
He spends most of his hours in sleep, now. He and Daisy share a basket during the day, one I used to carry my preemie babies around in when they first came home from the hospital. It has a soft cushion in it, with a furry blanket for burrowing into. They each have their own bed at night, but most mornings I find them curled into each other in just one bed. Sometimes when I see them there, I think of my children, twins who spent the first months of their life sleeping within reach of each other’s limbs and breath.
What is it that we need for a quality life? Food, drink, a comfortable bed. Safety and security. Love and connection.
I think of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, which hang as posters on the wall of a local coffeehouse, Bipartisan Cafe. Used to be you could never get a seat there if you went too late on a weekend morning. I miss going there on weekend mornings or in the late afternoons. I don’t drink coffee, but I love the smell of it, and the hissing and clanging of the espresso machine, the low hum of voices, the sun streaming through windows, the sound of chair legs scraping against worn fir floors, the crust of their banana cream pie.
I miss a lot of small things. Estate sales, busy parks, food cart pods with picnic tables and twinkle lights.
I miss the sound of Rocky’s nails clicking on the floor as he ran to chase a toy thrown by one of the kids, back when he could run the way I could when I was a teenager, with a smooth, swift stride. I miss sitting down to eat dinner with my daughter and son every night. I miss my grandparents, who I will never see again, and my parents who I cannot know when I will see again. I’m planning to, but you know how hopes can go.
Yesterday we got take-out pastries and took them to a park. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. When a loose toddler veered too close, I tensed up. When a runner with no face mask passed us on a path, I wondered if an invisible cloud of disease trailed him, and if we were walking in it, breathing it in. “Let’s go home,” I said.
I miss feeling hopeful.
I miss freedom from want and fear.
“Rocky still has some life in him,” the vet says, “and it could be a little while yet, but I want you to be prepared for what’s coming.” I nod.
“I know,” I say, thinking: How do any of us prepare for what’s coming, really?
“His quality of life is OK for now, but it could change quickly. And when it does, it could go downhill very fast.” His eyes are still kind, but solemn, and I press what’s left of Rocky to my chest, nodding my head again, and I keep him close to me for the rest of the day after we return home.
How Anticipatory Grief May Show Up during the COVID-19 Outbreak: “A mourning process can occur even when we sense that a loss is going to happen, but we don’t know exactly what it is yet. We know the world around us will never be the same — but what exactly we’ve lost and will lose is still largely unknown to us.”
The World Is Taking Pity on Us: “A country that turned out eight combat aircraft every hour at the peak of World War II could not even produce enough 75-cent masks or simple cotton nasal swabs for testing in this pandemic.
A country that showed the world how to defeat polio now promotes quack remedies involving household disinfectants from the presidential podium.
A country that rescued postwar Europe with the Marshall Plan didn’t even bother to show up this week at the teleconference of global leaders pledging contributions for a coronavirus vaccine.
A country that sent George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower to crush the Nazis now fights a war against a viral killer with Jared Kushner, a feckless failed real estate speculator who holds power by virtue of his marriage to the president’s daughter.”
The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying: “The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence.”
McDonald’s Workers in Denmark Pity Us: “The golden age of American capitalism, from 1945 to 1980, was a period of high tax rates (up to 91 percent for the very wealthy), strong labor unions and huge initiatives, such as the G.I. Bill of Rights to help disadvantaged (albeit mostly white) Americans. This was a period of rapid growth in which income inequality declined — and in some ways it looked like today’s Denmark.”
I Am the Portrait of Downward Mobility: “Fully 92 percent of the Americans who reached their 30th birthday in 1970 earned more than their parents had earned at the same age, even after adjusting for inflation. But beginning in the 1970s, the economic ladder gradually became harder to climb, and fewer Americans were able to surpass their parents. In the cohort of Americans who turned 30 in 2010, only half earned more than their parents at the same age, according to research by a team of economists led by Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor. The American dream had become a coin flip.”
On April 21, a Tuesday, I got a migraine. It hung on through Friday; just as it was exiting the building of my body, something twinged hard in my right lower back, and I spent that weekend unable to move or sit or lie down without pain. By this Tuesday I was able to stop taking megadoses of ibuprofen and sitting/sleeping with a heating pad, and then the migraine returned. Today, Friday again, it is still here, for the 4th day.
Most of the time, migraine does not leave me writhing in pain in a dark room, because I have medication that usually works and keeps me able to mostly function. I can usually work when on my meds. They can make me slow and fuzzy, and fatigued, and feeling generally off, but after I take them the sharp, stabbing pains and the vice grip on my skull subside, so it feels like relief. Slow, fuzzy, fatigued, and off are a gift, when I consider the alternative. The alternative is entire days entirely lost to pain that literally brings me to my knees.
Most of my work meetings begin with a grounding activity, in which we are given some stimulus to help us center our ensuing conversation in our students and families, the majority of whom are people of color and/or living in poverty. The general theme when we are sharing our responses to the stimulus, since we’ve been closed, is this:
We are so fortunate, to be living in the privilege we do. We need to keep at the forefront our families who are not.
In comparison to those who are sick, out of work, working on the front lines (which increasingly feels more literal than metaphorical), and/or targeted by bigots, we white educators who are working are fortunate. As an educator who is not providing direct service to students, I am more fortunate (at least in some ways) than those who are. (More than one I know has shared this teacher’s post this week.)
The other day, I was setting out for a run. The thought came to me: “Death is all around us.” Then came the very next thought, as I took in the blossoming trees and greening grass: “So is life.” And right away, I knew in some deep place that these two facts are never not true. Death and life, always right here, all around us. It’s like Neruda wrote: Budding among the ruins.
Day 49: Budding among the ruins
Jena also offered this:
“And we also know that grief, like any painful emotion not given an outlet, does not just vanish. It goes inward. It takes up room in ways that remain invisible yet are everywhere, not unlike a deadly virus.”
We are all, right now, living among the ruins, of so many things. And even the relatively fortunate among us are grieving. That grief might look like frenetic activity. It might look like laughing inappropriately. It might look like weeping over nothing and everything. It might look like sudden fury over triviality. Or it might look like inertia, binge-watching, or chronic pain.
Mondays through Fridays, I don’t have much room to grieve. I suppose that’s why it goes inward and takes up space in my body, a place where it is largely invisible. Weekends, I get to let it out, so I can be whole enough to dive back in come Monday. Often that takes the form of writing here, but I’m feeling the call to do something different this week. I’m feeling the call to do nothing. I think this is going to have to substitute for the usual Sunday post.
Wishing you a weekend of whatever it is you need to be whole enough to keep going, to bud in whatever kind of soil you find yourself rooted in. Because we all deserve to bloom, even now. Maybe especially now.