Approaching the lockdown anniversary

March 3, 2020 was a big day for the van clan. Youngest got his braces off, and he celebrated with a bag of microwave popcorn. Plans were in the works for an epic Blue and Gold dinner to commemorate his Webelo Den earning their Arrow of Light awards, and he looked forward to his first year of Boy Scout camp. (Hubs and I were excited to spend that week celebrating our 20th anniversary.) Oldest had earned Life Scout and was elected to serve as Troop Guide, which meant he would help navigate the new class of scouts. He planned to finish his last remaining Eagle required merit badges during summer camp and had begun to toss around ideas for his Eagle project. That night, his artwork was featured in the annual district art show and had been nominated for one of the top pieces. Winners would be honored in a special ceremony. He smiled with pride as he showed us his artwork, a smile I haven’t seen much of in the past 12 months. We’d finally agreed to get him a cell phone, so he would have a way to check in with us during his class trip to Washington DC. We joked about whether or not his chorus teacher would let them sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at the eighth grade chorus concert.

Oldest smiles in front of his winning art piece

You know where this is going. None of that happened. The Blue and Gold dinner – canceled. Washington DC trip – canceled. Eighth grade chorus concert and graduation – canceled. Summer camp – canceled. Anniversary trip – canceled. His artwork was chosen as one of the top pieces, but instead of a reception, we received a letter in the mail. Oldest had already coined a phrase to reflect his newfound apathy: I don’t care. And why should he care? Everything he’d looked forward to was taken away. He slogged through the remaining Eagle merit badges after hours and hours of nagging, and says he has no plans to complete his project. He started freshman year in his pajamas behind a computer screen, where he now spends most of his day.

This past year, there have been a mountain of disappointments and a river of tears (mostly mine). Sorry for the clichés, but this year has sapped a large chunk of my creativity energy. Sure, we’ve been blessed – friends and family have fallen ill, but no one we know has died. (That doesn’t stop me from worrying 24/7.) My husband and I still have our jobs, although I have never felt more stressed. Enrollment declined significantly, budgets were slashed, and the constant back and forth of working from home and going into the office has been an ongoing challenge. Working parents, and working moms especially, have faced nearly impossible tasks this past year. My kids have been learning from home since mid-March, and we are all burnt out, we are all desperate for a return to normalcy. Whatever that even means anymore.

When I think about the events from last March, it is hard to imagine I would be sitting here a year later, still wondering when I would be able to hang out with my friends in a coffee shop, watch my kid sing on stage, celebrate work birthdays in person, see students walk across the quad. Hug my parents without worrying about making them sick. Instead of doing those things, I’m planning for our one year work-from-home-iversary. Trying to keep my teenager from sinking. Pushing forward day after day toward an uncertain future.

It’s exhausting. And I’m tired.

I thought about ending my blog post there, but I can’t. Because, to paraphrase President Snow, the only thing stronger than fear is hope. The past 12 months have been full of fear, disappointment, heartache. I want more than anything for the next 12 months to be full of hope, resiliency, love. We can’t change the world. We can’t singlehandedly fight illness, alleviate depression, create peace. But we can change ourselves. For me, that meant a recommitment to the things I love: reading (something I had trouble doing in the early months of the pandemic), making time to write, practicing yoga daily, dancing. Checking in with friends and family. It hasn’t been easy. Most mornings I argue with myself about getting out of bed and getting on the mat. It’s so much easier to cry, complain, doom-scroll – but all those things leave me empty. It occurred to me a while back, as I sat staring at the blinking cursor of an empty word document, that when we lost everything to lockdown, we lost our joy, we lost our sense of purpose, we lost our muse. Our wells were quickly tapped dry and there was nothing to fill them up. I kept reaching into mine and coming up empty, and based on the high number of social media posts referring to the “pandemic wall” I know I wasn’t alone.

So what do we do? My advice? Start small. Look for joy in unexpected places and hold onto it. Like I tell my boys with some regularity, lower your expectations. Celebrate tiny victories. Make space for grief, but don’t let it swallow you. Remind yourself what it means to be human. I get the feeling we’ll be spending the next several days looking backward, at how this year has changed us. And it has. But we should also look forward. What will you do when the world reopens? What will you never take for granted again? Who will you hold tighter than ever before?

Stay well, my friends. ❤

We’re all in this together (alone)

Despite my propensity to dance, sing off-key, or challenge strangers to pushup contests in public, I truly am an introvert at heart. I know this because if given the choice between going to a party or snuggling up with a book/cat/cup of tea, I choose the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hanging out with friends and having fun, but at the end of the night I need to be alone and recharge. Raised in a loud, outgoing, Italian-American family, I often hid in my room during parties, scribbling in my journal, feeling simultaneously content and depressed for missing out on the festivities. Therein lies the conundrum. I like to be alone, but I’m also desperate to feel included. Ah, the dilemma of a socially awkward, attention seeking introvert.

The pandemic has been a blessing and a curse. Okay, mostly a curse. The up side is extra time spent with my family, being able to do my job with a cat on my lap (when we return to the office I may have to bring him with me), and considerably more free time now that everything has been canceled. The down side is, of course, that everything has been canceled. No more activities for the boys means they never leave the house, and now that our area is seeing a rise in cases, hybrid school became remote school once again. Coupled with the colder weather means they truly never leave the house. Ever. Or change out of pajama pants.

I worry, pretty much on a constant basis, that the next few months will make or break us. We survived the initial shock of the pandemic, the phase I like to call, “Fear overload.” I watched daily news briefings, tracked cases and deaths on a spreadsheet, and sanitized everything. I cried in the parking lot of our local grocery store after watching a teenage clerk in full PPE look completely shell-shocked as he wiped down the checkout lane. I worried about getting sick, about my family getting sick, about losing our jobs, about the people who had gotten sick/lost their jobs/lost their family members. It was a downward spiral that landed me face down in my pillow nearly every day.

When things began to improve, both the weather and our numbers, my worry subsided. We took advantage of a soccer-free summer and enjoyed extra time at the lake. I finally started reading again, something I hadn’t been able to do since the pandemic started. But I missed my friends, my co-workers, eating inside restaurants. And in the back of my mind, I knew things would get bad when the weather changed.

It has. Our county is breaking records in daily cases and the hospitals have filled up yet again. My nurse friend assures me that it is better this time around because they know what they are dealing with, but the media and government push out fear like candy. We’re back on lockdown again, not completely, but on the cusp, and with the long, dark, cold winter months still ahead of us. Before? I didn’t know a single person with the virus. Now? Every week someone else in our circle tests positive. Thankfully, they are all surviving, but it feels like the walls of inevitability are closing in, and I’m worried I won’t be able to keep my family safe anymore. Or sane.

How do we stay positive when everything is constantly so bleak? I don’t have the answer. I’m taking each day as it comes, and looking for ways to find joy. I’ve started volunteering at a local cat shelter because it gets me out of the house once a week. (Also, cats!) I try to walk outside when the weather isn’t terrible, but that’s getting more difficult with each dropped degree. I joined our local online Buy Nothing group, a movement that encourages the free exchange of goods among neighbors. It’s helped me declutter a bit and also provides the opportunity for safe social interactions. Last weekend I watched a movie simultaneously with two friends and we chatted along the way via text. It was a tiny shred of normal, and it gave me hope.

The isolation has changed us, or at least it has changed me. I will never take my local coffee shop for granted, ever. Or the library. Or any of the front line workers who face this beast every day. I make a conscious effort to be kind to any human I interact with, because we are all carrying worry and heartache, some far beyond what I can even imagine. What we need now isn’t government control, or mudslinging commentary. We need compassion. Empathy. Patience. We need to unite for the good of humanity. We need to get through this together (alone).

Peace to all my friends, family, followers. Stay safe, and be kind. ❤

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.

2020 Hindsight

Ah, the first day of a new year and a new decade. I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media recently about what people have accomplished/gained/lost over the last ten years and what they hope to accomplish in the future. Cute side by side pictures of what they looked like in 2009/2019. I chose not to participate.

Instead I’ve reflected on how things have changed over the past ten years. In the final months of 2009, we received the referral for our youngest son and were in the throes of bureaucratic preparations. Oldest was three years old and so damn cute and precocious. I had no idea what sort of roller coaster ride I was in for.

Parenting has been amazing and heartbreaking, and I know there are many more heartbreaking moments to come. When I look back on the past ten years, I wish I had held their hands a little longer. Snuggled them harder. Taken more pictures before they started making ridiculous faces for the camera and had to be bribed with toilet humor. They are on their way to becoming independent beings, and it is really freaking scary. I can only hope the next ten years fare well and we survive teenage-dom.

Sometimes you need to let go and have faith.

My career has ended up in a completely different place from what I expected in 2010. Back then I was substitute teaching in the district I had attended as a kid, with dreams of landing a full time position. Life had other plans. After four years of subbing, I failed to get a renewed position and spent nearly a year unemployed and trying to figure out a plan B. During that time I started to write a book and volunteered at the elementary school. Those two things led me to my friend Dee, an amazing human being and writer, who led me to other writers and a whole new set of opportunities.

Some days I really miss teaching. But if I hadn’t been passed over, I never would have met Dee and written my first novel. I never would have joined BNCWI and met my editor, never would have published SECOND IN COMMAND. An entire network of friends who I love with all my heart would have remained strangers.

Sometimes you have to trade one dream for another.

While I was unemployed, I attended a networking class for out of work teachers and cast my net wider in hopes of finding something to help cover our bills. (I didn’t make any money from writing until this past year.) In May 2014, I received an invitation to interview for a local community college. Part time, barely above minimum wage, and totally out of my comfort zone, but I went for it.

Sometimes you have to take chances.

I got the job, which led to a promotion, and then another, and even though I’m still not back to full time and I’ll never have summers off or long holiday breaks, I love what I do, and I get to make a difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most to me.

These past ten years have been full of ups and downs, as everyone’s lives have I’m sure. People and animals have left my life and others have arrived, I’ve seen more of the world, gotten a bit wiser and a bit wrinklier, learned to not give a crap about what others think and revel in joy when I find it.

As for the next ten, who knows. I’ve learned to stop fighting with the universe. My boys will become adults, hubs and I will start planning the next phase of our lives, and my books will grace the shelves of libraries around the country. I will have lost friends and family members, endured physical and emotional pain. But I vow to take more pleasure in the little things and be the best human I can during my short time here.

My wish for everyone: may you find health and happiness in the new year, and when you face heartache and setbacks, may they lead to growth and new opportunities. Be grateful. Be present. Love when you can and ask for help when things get difficult.

Most importantly: take care of each other and the planet. Happy New Year!