This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
Celebration; grief. This is me, right now.
How to hold two extreme emotional states within one mind and body, all at once? I can’t do it. Instead, I seem to have landed somewhere in the middle, in flatness that speaks of protection, flatness that is an antidote to fear, but also to joy.
I can’t reveal more, and recognize that it may seem disingenuous or deceptive to hint at drama without offering details. I apologize. I don’t mean to be locked down, or to seem vague or untruthful; but also, this is too much of me not to speak of it at all. The depth of grief involves a personal situation, close to my heart, and I’m unlikely ever to reveal details outside my very closest circle. The height that deserves celebration involves my professional life; and this, I think, will be revealed more widely in due course, just not yet.
To say that I am distracted would be an understatement.
To say that I am challenged is accurate, but not strong enough.
To say I’m hanging in here, staying focused on what matters, jettisoning temporarily all that can be let go, surviving, feeding myself, breathing, reaching out to ask for help as needed, is true, all true.
I look forward to sharing my good news, in good time.
Saturday morning, just as kids were gearing up for soccer tryouts (parents too, as we’re both coaching rep teams), Kevin came into the kitchen and quietly said, “The vet just called.” I could tell from his expression that the news wasn’t good. One of our beloved dogs, DJ, has a suspicious lump in her mouth, and the vet thought it might be cancer.
And it is.
And so, with tears in our eyes, we told the kids, all of them gathered around the dining room table playing a board game together, in their soccer gear. There were many tears. We don’t know what will happen next, but as F (age 11) and I walked the dogs later on that day, she had many questions, many thoughts. “DJ doesn’t deserve this!” (No one deserves this.) “Do you think DJ knows she has cancer? I don’t think she knows. Maybe it’s good that she doesn’t know.” “I don’t want DJ to feel any pain!”
We decided that we would be grateful that DJ is currently her usual self, not showing any signs of pain or distress, eating well, and enjoying her walks and naps. But it is still hard not to worry about the future.
I have no time for this post, it has been written in a hurry. But I must explain that photo at the top of this post.
The kids had the Terry Fox run at their school last week, before we had DJ’s diagnosis, and CJ (age 8) came home with a large sticker which he stuck onto our kitchen counter. It reads (and I’m correcting his spelling): “Terry ran for me. I am running for … my step-grandma and maybe my dog.” F also ran for her step-grandma.
There are too many people to run for. I’m sure you have your people too.
Sending love and hope out into the universe.
“I don’t see why you have an office, Mom, when you’re so happy writing in the car.”
My laptop was the best investment I’ve made, writing-wise. It comes with me to the pool, to the backyard, to the couch, to various soccer fields, to parking lots, and of course, to my pocket-sized car, aka the Chub-Chub.
I spent this past week driving my eldest daughter to a soccer camp about an hour away. That meant I had to stay for the day, which, trust me, was all part of my master plan. In this way, I carved out a writing week (or four days), mostly spent sitting in the back seat of the Chub-Chub. I napped there. I ate snacks there. I read stories there. And I wrote there. Next week, I’m off to a writing workshop in New York State, where I will be an anonymous participant: camping with a friend in our family’s enormous ten; eating vegetarian meals; doing yoga at dawn (if the mood strikes); and writing, of course.
On Sunday, I put that tent together all by myself. I was perhaps unreasonably proud of the accomplishment, as you can see from my body language, above. I’m not mechanically minded and this is the sort of endeavour I happily off-load onto to Kevin, but I did it with a little help from a YouTube video (an elderly couple lifting up a tent that vaguely resembled ours), and a lot of thinking, and some jumping and throwing (the tent is very tall and I am not, and getting the fly on is really a two-person job). It took over an hour, I will confess. In the end, I observed that seeing behind the scenes to the mechanics of production does not inspire confidence. I preferred not knowing that this airy structure over my head was made merely of thin rods and poles stuck through nylon sleeves. There is knowing, and there is knowing. There is knowing in a theoretical, yes, dear, way. And there is knowing in a visceral, I hammered those stakes myself way. And the thunderstorm that threatened the afternoon seemed much more threatening when I’d built the damn tent myself, and knew its materials intimately.
To be responsible is to be forced to confront vulnerability. That is my observation about growing up, generally. The older I get, the more fragile the structures around me seem. The more tenuous. The more invented, in a way. What I mean is that the security of everything I hold precious and dear, even my beliefs, is supported by a certain level of cognitive dissonance, but also by the suspension of disbelief. To dig in, to help build, to get my hands dirty, to make or unmake, is, for me, to witness the complexity and arbitrariness of experience, of life itself, against which there can be no absolute assurances of safety and security.
All of this from putting up a tent in our back yard.
And, also, from sitting with my laptop and thinking and thinking and thinking.
PS Yes, I have my voice back. It is weak and a bit raspy and rough, but it exists, and I am once again in the world, where it is so much easier to participate with working vocal chords.
I miss my voice.
There are so many common, every day interactions that just aren’t the same without a voice.
I can’t parent very effectively. “Mom whispered sternly at me,” Albus said on Monday, which cracked me up; but as of yesterday, I’m not even whispering. I’m clapping or stamping my feet to get children’s attention. I’m gesturing and writing notes or texts. But mostly I’m just letting things go by, because it takes so much energy to express the smallest idea. It means I’m not speaking my mind, often.
I can’t coach soccer very effectively. Earlier this week, I made it through a practice and a game using the three whs: whisper, whistle and whiteboard. The girls were great, respectful and helpful and understanding, even seeing the humour in our situation, but I can’t get all of the important messages across without a voice.
I can’t lead conversations around the table that draw everyone in, and bring us together as a family.
I can’t talk on the phone (not that I like talking on the phone, but it’s useful).
I can’t make small talk with strangers or kids or parents by the soccer field or people at check-out counters, or say thank you to a friendly swim instructor, or a person who is holding open a door. I can’t make that connection. I can’t start amusing little conversations, stand up for myself in complicated situations, or contribute to shooting the shit. I can’t make light because I can’t noise.
I can’t have long rambling chats with AppleApple as I drive her to soccer games.
I can’t talk to Kevin. We haven’t been able to have our tea-on-the-couch evening catch-up chats, or our dog-walk chats.
I can’t sing.
I can’t do anything social with friends. I’ve missed both runs with friends this week and will miss boot camp with friends tomorrow, all because I can’t talk, and I don’t want to strain my voice by whispering, and I know that if I go I will definitely whisper, because it’s really hard to be silent in situations that require at least a minimum of conventional social interaction.
It’s amazing how forced silence makes me feel as if my behaviour is rude, intransigent, unfriendly, unwelcoming. I’m not to blame for my silence, but my silence makes me feel that I must be to blame. I feel immense guilt for not being able to respond or reach out.
I have been without a voice since Sunday. Only five days, and already I feel more and more invisible, isolated, lonely, self-pitying, discouraged, and down. I am not myself without my voice. What am I learning? Compassion, I hope. Compassion for those in a new place, learning a new language, or silenced by circumstance. Speech is a gift. When speech returns, I’m going to remember how wonderful it is to CONNECT, to be UNDERSTOOD, to ACKNOWLEDGE, to THANK, to ENCOURAGE, to DRAW OUT, to QUESTION, to LEAD.
I have no voice.
After writing my previous post, I promptly got sick and spent most of last week shivering on the couch, feverish and dizzy. I dragged myself off the couch to coach a soccer game on Tuesday evening, heavily dosed with Tylenol. I’d recovered enough by Friday to embark on our trip to Kingston, with a detour to Sauble Beach to pick up CJ at camp. Kevin and I drove separately; he spent the weekend with AppleApple’s team, and I spent the weekend with Fooey’s team — same tournament, two different teams. Thankfully, we played at the same field, so we could spend Saturday near each other. The boys stayed with their grandma. It felt like we were all dispersed. One of my happiest moments of the weekend was during game two, when I looked across the field and saw a whole bunch of redheads watching from the sidelines: it is the only time everyone has come to see Fooey’s and my team play. Everyone got to see AppleApple play the following afternoon, when her team made it to the semi-finals.
Coaching was fun. I still had a voice, and I was feeling much better. The girls started the day slowly, but played a solid second game, and by game three they were firing on all cylinders. It was exciting to see the team play up to their potential. They played like I’ve imagined they could, with intensity and togetherness, and skill. It was thrilling.
We ended the day with a swim and a pizza party, and some late night goofing around at the hotel.
I woke up on Sunday with laryngitis. I could still speak raspily enough to be understood. But after another long day that included a family brunch, supervising five children (we had an extra child on the trip with us), three more soccer games, dinner out at a pub to watch the Euro Cup final (photo above), and a five hour drive home (many pee stops), my voice was done.
I woke up yesterday with nothing. A whisper.
I picked up the dogs from the kennel using this whisper. The women at the kennel whispered back. I saw friends at CJ’s swim lessons and explained my voicelessness in a whisper. My friends whispered back. The woman at the pharmacy whispered back. The chiropractor whispered back. My kids whispered back. With help from a whiteboard and a whistle, I coached a practice yesterday evening with my whisper. The girls huddled up to listen to instructions. “Why are we all whispering?” one asked, and I told them how everyone had whispered to me all day long, and they thought it was really funny. Tonight I will attempt to coach a game with only this whisper available to me.
I shouldn’t even be whispering, as it’s hard on the voice and will slow recovery.
Oh, how I miss my voice. I miss its command. I miss its humour. I miss its participation and connection. But there’s voicelessness and there’s voicelessness. Mine is temporary.
I want to comment on the way the world is blowing up all over the place. No justice, no peace. That’s the phrase that keeps running through my head. No justice, no peace! But what else have I got to say? I don’t always need to speak. Sometimes, like now, I just need to listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer. I don’t know what it’s like to own a gun, or to live in a country where gun ownership is so prevalent. I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone, or to lose my home to war. I keep reading articles, watching videos, trying to understand, trying to imagine.
What I’ve been reading
- My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation, by Shane Bauer (July/August, 2016). Long form piece, difficult to read, about the hell on earth of the for-profit American prison system, both for prisoners and for those hired to guard them.
- An American Void, by Stephanie McCrummen (Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2015) Another long form piece, also difficult to read, about the man who killed black worshippers in a Charleston church last year. It’s a window into poverty and disconnection.
- Making a Killing, by Evan Osnos (The New Yorker, June 27, 2016) An article on the reframing of the gun industry from selling guns for hunting to selling guns for “self-protection,” all in the name of profit.
- full transcript of Obama’s speech in Dallas (added July 13, 2016) This speech left me weeping. Then I went and read some of the ugly commentary critiquing it, and I felt more hopeless than ever. The president is saying what needs to be said: that Black Lives Matter is not a movement based on paranoia but on real experience, and also that police officers are asked to contain all the evils caused by systemic poverty, lack of jobs, and a starved public education system. That we are imperfect in our humanity. But I disagree with him on one point, and that is when he says that “In the end, it’s not about forging policies that work …” Yes, it bloody well is! Go on and forge consensus and fight cynicism, by all means, but policies force necessary change. There’s no other way — precisely because we are utterly imperfect in our humanity.
- Remembering Sandra Bland’s Death in the Place I Call Home, by Karen Good Marable (The New Yorker, July 13, 2016.)
What I’ve been watching (too many to list, so here are just a few)
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