The New Normal

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020.

Three weeks ago, I danced in a crowded club while a DJ spun songs from The Cure and The Smiths, two of my all-time favorite bands. I hung out with the mom who would be chaperoning my oldest son on his class trip to Washington DC, and we laughed about how crazy she was to spend the long weekend with 20 teenagers. We were all acutely aware of a virus that had been spreading through other parts of the world. I washed my hands several times during the night, as I always do. I drank from glasses that other people had touched, shook hands with strangers, breathed in communal air.

We had no idea what was coming.

Two weeks ago, my family went to two plays; Friday night at our local high school and Saturday afternoon at a community theater. People’s behavior had started to change. Restrictions against large gatherings. Hand sanitizer everywhere (but not a bottle to be found on store shelves). Ushers wearing gloves. When we went to the theater on Saturday, I washed my hands before and after the show, and then again before we ate poutine at a local restaurant across the street. I made sure my family followed suit. “This may be the last time we’re out in public for a while,” I said. And it was.

On Sunday of that week, the first case of COVID-19 hit our county, and a few hours later the schools were closed down for five weeks. My youngest was due to participate in his crossing over ceremony for scouts, an event we’d been planning for months. With a heavy heart, I sent out the cancellation notice.

“Crisis school” began Monday. (It is not homeschooling. Homeschooling is a choice.) Oldest had a meltdown the first day. Youngest on day two. Mom nearly every day. I went into work on Tuesday, where the air buzzed with fear, despite the industrial sized bottle of New York made hand sanitizer. I worried that I would be sent home without pay, or worse, lose my position entirely. I worried about our office plants and packed them into my van to bring home. I worried about my mother-in-law, who was recovering from pneumonia and refusing to stay home. I worried about my parents down in Florida, especially my mom, who has a heart condition and recently had her spleen removed after a terrible car accident.

I am an anxious person by nature, a worst-case scenario person, the sort of person who was already wiping down grocery carts and door handles, washing her hands frequently, and being leery of strangers. Who imagines her spouse in a ditch on the side of the road when he doesn’t return from work on time. Who can’t stop thinking about all the people in the world who are suffering and how we need to save the planet before it destroys us. That’s me on a normal day. Before I began to consume far too many news reports and articles on social media.

Late Tuesday night we got word that our jobs were deemed “non-essential”, which seems like it would be a disappointment but meant that we could work from home. I struggled the first few days to balance work with home/kids/school. School was slow to send over plans (understandably so seeing how quickly they were forced to improvise), and the boys balked at my attempts to teach them. There were fights and meltdowns as we adjusted to life together 24-7. My husband works for a plant that manufactures pumps for power generation, so he was deemed “essential”. Classifications became important as each day more and more businesses shut down. By the end of the week, the state declared only essential employees could go to work. (He is now working from home two days a week to minimize the number of employees on site.)

One week ago, oldest would have been on his DC trip, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. Instead we stayed home, played games, ate takeout, and watched movies. We tried to make the best of our new found family time, as weekends are typically spent running around to practices and other events. Now, the calendar is completely empty. It is a blessing and a curse, but it is a necessity for survival.

The only public place I have been in the past two weeks is a single trip to the grocery store on March 19. I wiped down the cart, as always, and washed my hands when I got home, as always, but in the store my behavior had changed. I avoided aisles with people in them, waited for the person before me at the register to clear before proceeding, and anything I picked up to examine went into the cart because I could be an unknowing carrier. I tried to be extra nice to the cashier, a high school senior who said she was bored because she was only allowed to go to work and nowhere else. My heart broke for her and all the other seniors missing out on their final year of high school.

Last week I consumed more and more media, the daily updates my safety net in these uncertain times. My anxiety continued to rise, and with it sleepless nights and a lack of desire to start each day. There were pockets of joy – virtual chats with my writing friends and my parents/siblings/nephews, laughing with my family as we invented new games to entertain ourselves, lots of extra cat snuggles. And I guess at the end of each day, I need to concentrate on the joyful moments and pray they will help me get through the anxious ones. Every time I reached out to a friend, they too expressed anxiety, worry, fear. We are all united in the unknown of what lies ahead. People have become more paranoid, yes, but also friendlier, at least from afar. We all want to get through this, to get to the other side and return to normal. We all want to survive.

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020. It is raining outside. I am still wearing the same clothes I put on yesterday morning. It is almost noon. I am worrying about the doctors, the nurses, the patients who are dying. I am worrying about friends and family members who are struggling, emotionally and financially.

But my husband and children are here, and they are safe and healthy, and today we will play board games and make brownies. And maybe I’ll chat with a friend or two. And I will try to focus on those moments instead.

Summer camp is not punishment

I want my kiddos to try new things, to eagerly embrace the unexpected, the unknown, the new. I want them to venture forth without fear because I spend so much of my life buried under it. Fear keeps me from all sort of things — new opportunities, relationships, adventures, and frankly it sucks. I will openly admit to having social anxiety and laugh off my misfires in public, but the reality is I miss out on things all the time because I’m afraid to leave my comfort zone. And I don’t want the same thing to be true for my boys.

Youngest fears nothing. He waltzes into new situations full of confidence and spunk. People think he’s charming and funny and he makes friends everywhere we go. With him, I’m more worried he’s going to be lured into a dangerous situation and have to constantly remind him that no, he should not help a stranger find his lost dog, and no, it’s not okay to take treats from someone you don’t know (or pick up candy off the ground and eat it. True story.) Oldest is a mixed bag. He’s friendly and outgoing some of the time, and other times he builds an invisible wall around himself and refuses to let anyone in.

This morning I dropped them off at a camp they’d never attended before. Held at a local college, I thought it would be a fun opportunity for them try something new. Youngest was apprehensive at first and asked a million questions (as per his MO), but quickly joined a group of kids his age and began passing around a beach ball. Oldest stood, hunch-shouldered, earbuds in place, and alternated his gaze from his watch to a scowl directed at yours truly.

Actual conversations from this morning:

Him: This is stupid.
Me: Keep an open mind. Isn’t that [boy from school]?
Him: (eye roll). Great. And [two other boys from school he apparently hates]. Just great.

Him: I’m bored. Why did you make me wake up at 8 am and come here?
Me: I want you to try new things. Because I love you.
Him: (scoffs) That’s doubtful.

I drove away, and as I passed the group of campers waiting to get started, there was my boy, standing alone on the edge of the sidewalk like he hoped it would swallow him whole. And I started to worry that I’d forced him into something in order to satisfy my own fears — the fear of my children not fitting in, or being liked, or finding success in life. I used to think he was an extrovert. He loved being around other kids when he was little and enjoyed the attention from my large, loud family. Naturally I assumed he’d be fine in new situations, but it often backfired. He’d clung to me during library story hour and screamed the first time I took him to soccer practice.

And now? He loves going to the library and soccer fills up a huge part of his daily life. So how far do we push our kids, or ourselves, into the unknown? If we don’t take that first step we may never stumble upon something we come to love. If we don’t say, yes, I am anxious about this new situation but I am going to try it anyway, we may never meet the person who becomes a lifelong friend. We may never discover who we truly are.

I don’t expect this camp to be a life changing event for my boys, but I hope they at least come home today not completely mad at me for making them go.

Fingers crossed.

What’s the worst that could happen?

A common approach to dealing with one’s fears and anxiety is to imagine a worst-case scenario. What is the worst thing that could happen if you do X? For some reason this approach doesn’t seem to work on me as I have already imagined not only the worst-case scenario but also the slightly less troublesome scenarios on a sort of sliding scale. Want to know what I’m worrying about at any given moment? Pull up a chair, I’ll make you a list.

We’ll start with this one: I have a slight car wash phobia. The car wash in Buffalo is not simply a place you go every once in a while to get your car cleaned. It’s a way of life. If you think I’m kidding, stop by a car wash in Buffalo on a sunny day in January-April. Better yet, try to drive down the main road that leads into said car wash. People around here are very serious about salt removal.

And for good reason. My last van rarely saw the inside of the car wash due in large part to my irrational phobia, and it suffered from extreme rust. When we bought the new van, hubs decided I needed to get regular washings. He signed up for the unlimited car wash club because you get to go through the express lane, and he didn’t want to wait three hours every time we came to the car wash. Whenever it needed to be cleaned, which is pretty much every day for the entire season, I politely asked hubs to take my van please and drive it through so I don’t have to. Why, what’s the problem? he asked.

What’s the problem? I’m afraid of the car wash. Obviously.

We’ve known each other for 26 years. He’s used to my laundry list of ridiculous things that send me into a panic. Bees. Parking garages. Ordering food on the telephone. Making any phone call at all for that matter. So he didn’t seem all that phased by my car wash phobia confession. Didn’t tease me about it. Took my van when he could and would make sure he was driving if we went through together. At one point he asked what it is exactly, that makes me nervous?

Me, slightly embarrassed but nevertheless pleased he seemed to be trying to understand my phobia: Everything.

How do I even attempt to explain — it’s the social construct of getting into line and negotiating exactly what needs to be cleaned on my car and how, lining the tires up perfectly on the track and then relinquishing control of the steering wheel, the claustrophobia of the actual car wash, and of course my environmental brain that can’t help but wonder how many gallons of water pump through that place all day. Oh, and then getting out of the parking lot safely and back onto the busy street while a pile up of anxious drivers in clean cars accumulates behind me.

See? Everything.

He made no fuss and continued to take my car in dutifully, until he left for three weeks. And it snowed. A lot. I had to face the demons in my mind and just go through the stupid thing by myself. So I did. After a lot of deep breaths and a quick pep talk on the way in. I even went back a second time with my son, who happens to LOVE the car wash for some strange reason. One of the things that has helped me face my anxiety is having to parent with it. I refuse to allow the panic to win when I’m with my kids. It’s not always easy, believe me, and I got super lucky to adopt two outgoing boys who aren’t afraid to ask for things or stand up for themselves.

But the experience got me thinking. Living with anxiety is a daily struggle, but there are things I can choose to control that will make it easier. For example: when it comes to socializing and making small talk, I’m — oh what’s a nice way to say this — I suck. But I’ve learned through attending conferences and my job as an admissions counselor that it is a skill one needs in life. I’ve been working on it and (hopefully) getting a bit better. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still gone to parties recently and stood awkwardly by myself staring into my glass or walked away from a conversation thinking, why the hell did I say that?

Baby steps.

I decided to do a bit of a life experiment. When sometime comes up that makes me anxious, instead of asking myself what’s the worst-case scenario, I ask myself, would you feel better/improve the situation by doing the thing currently making you anxious? The car wash still makes my heart race, but I love seeing my clean vehicle and feel better knowing I’m protecting it against rust damage. There have been times when I felt the fear creep in during a situation — say I was nervous about asking someone for help or directions, or to clarify something, and I asked myself, will the information I need make the situation better? Yes? Then ask.

There are a lot of layers in my psyche full of worst-case scenarios. I already told my oldest that he better get used to checking in as I will regularly be imagining him in a ditch on the side of the road. I can’t alter the fundamentals of my brain. But I can take small steps toward not letting my fears keep me from the good things in life, like a clean car, new friends, or instead of the worst thing — imagining the best thing that could happen.

Weekend retreat

The idea of coming together with other writers — some friends, some strangers — for an entire weekend away from the stressful realities of life felt both exhilarating and terrifying. It is something I need: space to think, to read, to write, without distractions and in a place that promised inspiring scenery. At home, I try to carve out time to write but there is always something else that pulls at my attention. The house, the cat, the never ending list of things I should be doing. At a retreat, there will be peer pressure. I will be forced to sit and write.

I will also be anxious. Anxious about the unknown, the societal expectations of such things, the way my brain doesn’t always filter what exits my mouth. The pressure to produce something wonderful, something that will make the trip worthwhile.

I drove down with a local friend, and hurray, we only had to turn around once. There were five other women there, three I know from the Pennwriters conference and two I met upon arrival. Everyone was nice. Our porch had a view of a beautiful lake, and we sat and enjoyed complimentary cottage wine.

20180928_182236

Sunset wine. Photo inspired by my Lake O cottage neighbor, Phil

We shared a wonderful meal together. Eventually, I heard the nag in my head asking for a break. People don’t always believe I’m an introvert. They see me stand in front of crowds, comfortable in theatrical performance. That’s the thing: it’s theater. It’s me putting on another persona, someone confident and in control of her speech and surroundings. It’s not small talk with others, deciding what to reveal about who I am and what I believe. I’d rather tell stories, sing repeat after me songs off-key, explain the way something works. Otherwise I’ll just listen if that’s okay.

And it usually is. For a while. Then I need to be alone and in the quiet. And the great thing about other writers is that they get that, they understand. Most of us are introverted or at least need to go into that space of stillness and quiet in order to tune into the stories in our heads.

I slept, more or less. As much as one can in a strange place with unusual noises (like a toilet grinder that sounded like an angry monster) and light coming in from under the doorway. I missed the sound of my husband’s breath and the feel of a cat at my feet. It was lonely. But in the morning we woke to coffee and pumpkin bread and the stillness of the lake. The air was cold and full of fall. I wrote, I read, I took a walk in the woods with my friend. We climbed into a tree stand and talked to chipmunks. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.

20180929_125935

Findley Lake

20180929_125805

Took a lovely hike just beyond this outhouse

We gathered in the common area and wrote, a collective of creative energy. I worried about my story but tried to let the words flow without judgement. When we weren’t writing, we talked and laughed and ate amazing food. A group of us went on a mini adventure and embraced the idea of taking the time to do what makes you happy. I am thankful for that time, for the beautiful place, for a family that supports my passion and gives me space to pursue it.

I am thankful for other writers who are not afraid to share in their vulnerability. We are all on our own journeys, yet we are all committed to words, and I love how that bonds us. Love that I can spend the weekend with people other than my family and feel safe and comfortable.

Bonus: amazing food

20180929_190750

Pasta with pumpkin sauce, sauted mushrooms and onions, ratatouille with vegan mozzarella, and homemade herb focaccia. YUM.