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 importance of real pants

Social media memories are a blessing and a curse. I love looking back on times when my boys were cute and cuddly and my face had fewer wrinkles. But during a pandemic, it is heart wrenching to wake up, click memories, and be instantly reminded that we can’t do those things right now.

Three years ago today, the weather was beautiful, and we had a packed Saturday. I hung out with my family at our town’s annual Oktoberfest, where the boys participated (and ROCKED) a keg rolling contest, and then headed to our local library to celebrate the launch of my friend’s latest middle grade novel. We ate snacks from a communal table, sat next to each other, and hugged.

Hugged.

Now, I’m not much of a hugger to begin with, but I miss that human connection. I miss Wednesday night writing sessions at Wegmans and Friday afternoon gab sessions at Spot. I miss launch parties. My book releases next week, and I don’t have anything planned to help launch it into the world. Many of my writer friends continue to self-quarantine, and the thought of doing something virtual does not exactly thrill me. While I appreciate their ability to connect us safely, I am pretty burnt out on web-based social gatherings.

Our local writing group held its first meeting of the season (virtually of course) earlier this week. It was a craft session, which is always fun, 80’s themed – double bonus points, but I just couldn’t get into it. I missed the collective energy normally felt in a room full of writers. I stared at the blank page as it mocked me.

I had to finish a project in March/April due to a deadline, but since then? I’ve written once. And only because one of my Pennwriters friends organized a virtual write-in, and I felt like I had to write something in order to not be a complete fraud. I pulled out an old project, added about a page and a half, and that was it. The sum total of my writing output for the past six months.

There are projects. There are ideas. There is also a very tired mama who doesn’t wear real pants anymore. Who thinks, do my stories even matter? With so much hate and hurt in the world, what could I possibly add to the narrative? I keep waiting for the proverbial lightbulb to go off in my head. For the magical idea that will send my fingers tap-tapping again. Do you know how many blog posts I’ve drafted in my head these past several months? The sleepless nights I spent thinking, “This is what I have to say,” then instead of getting out of bed and writing it down, allowed my nay-saying brain to dismiss it all?

(A LOT.)

The world needs stories, especially now. Cheerful ones, sad ones, true ones, and fictional ones. We need to step away from social media, from the negative energy of everyone spewing their anger and ideals and also from the memories of all the things we can’t enjoy right now. I’m confident those days will return – the days of launch parties and writing/gab sessions. In the meantime, we need to keep doing the best we can, no matter how low the bar. This morning I put on real pants. They are uncomfortable. But I needed to send a message to my brain that this is serious. Life must move forward. Fingers must hit keys in order for words to get onto the page. They don’t do anyone any good swimming around in my brain like lost tourists.

So here we are. Doing that thing where the journey starts with a single step. Mask up and join me.

Time won’t give me time*

With all this extra time I should be writing more, right? I should be reading more, binging more shows, baking, organizing my house, learning a new skill. I’m not. I don’t know where the time goes, really. In the beginning it was spent watching daily news briefings, mindlessly scrolling through social media, and feeling hopeless. Recently? Who knows.

I’ve become an expert at wasting time.

Does that count as a new skill?

I’ve started a blog post in my head more times than I’d like to admit, but nothing ever gets to the page, and I wonder if perhaps it is because my brain can’t seem to handle more than bite-sized information lately. I no longer plan meals for the week, no longer coordinate who needs to be where/when, no longer need to hold a hundred things in my head because those hundred things have all been canceled.

Last night my critique group met for the second time during the pandemic. I’m embarrassed that I have had nothing to share, nothing to show for my three months with hours of empty afternoons to write. Part of the issue is that the space where I normally write became my home office, and as much as I love my day job, its accessories and post-it notes are not inspiring. The other part? I’ve been tired, and sad, and listless.

But I want to write.

I need to write.

My novel waits, eager for the next scene. It has become impatient.

Today, I set out to write something, anything. I wrote a journal entry that turned into a poem, and while somewhat gloomy, helped shake off some of the cobwebs and remind me of the healing power of words. I’d love to hear what you think, and to hear about all the things you haven’t been doing with all your extra time.

BRUISED

Sometimes,
the weight of everything
crushes me.

Husband asks what’s wrong
and I try to explain –
but the words all sound
trivial.

Each tiny problem
seemingly insignificant
until you pile them
all together
and begin to
suffocate.

He wants to compartmentalize –
take each one and solve it,
or if we can’t solve it,
push it aside like the basket
of bread at dinner.

He tells me to
control what I can control.

Therein lies the quandary.

There is so little
I can truly control.
So little predictability,
routine,
normalcy.

The only thing left are my reactions,
which – if I’m being honest –
are out of my control
most days.

For some,
these tiny,
insignificant things are
much larger,
much heavier.

Loss of work,
Illness, death,
Fear that pulls like a riptide.

I have suffered only one of these.

I am lucky.

But, whenever I stop
to think about that luck,
the weight of other people’s suffering
sits on my chest and refuses to budge.

We will crawl out
from under this.

We must.

With scars and bruises that may
never truly heal.

 

*the title of this blog post comes from my favorite Culture Club song, Time (Clock of the Heart)