Advice to myself at the close of a pandemic

tulips

Be gentle
with yourself.
Listen closely
to your heart
to the robins’ chirping
to neighbors, far and near.
Speak slowly,
and with intention.

Breathe in the aching beauty
of this strange world — open
restaurants, churches, playgrounds,
children’s laughter sailing in the breeze,
your son hugging his grandparents,
exhaling without fear of harming them.

(You can cry — it’s healthy to cry.)

Unmask your trauma:
name each wound, each loss,
and cradle it close
apply the salve of time
and progress. Remember healing
is rarely linear, rather, it unfolds
mysteriously.

Make plans but hold them loosely.
Let time stretch out before you like
a rolling wave. Savor it.

Stay humble,
and cultivate kindness.
Keep disrupting hate
in all its ugly manifestations
search your heart
call it out
call your reps
send a call up to your Creator.

Keep tending to simple pleasures —
yellow tulips on your table,
mint chip in a sugar cone
from the corner creamery,
a lazy morning snuggling in bed with them,
new library books to devour —
relish their sweetness.

Move at your pace;
don’t let the rush
of hustle lure you
into the race again.

The truth? There is no race.
But there is one sun
around which we all orbit
searching for meaning
and love, and
aren’t you glad you made it this far?
Can you feel the thrill of spring rising?

Dare to dream again
make it bold
make it juicy
make it lavish with hope.
This is your
“one wild and precious life”
said the poet.
Now what will you do with it?


// inspired by Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to myself”; final quotation from Mary Oliver.

How to survive a pandemic without losing it

The lightning bugs are gone. They’ve been replaced by the cicadas — blaring their calls of chicka-chicka, chicka-chicka, zaazz, zaazz. There are legions of cicadas, I suspect, hiding in the evergreens that overlook our backyard and in old oaks that line our neighborhood, aptly named Forest Glen. Some other writer might romanticize their singing, but me? I can’t stand it.

This week during dinner Jay spied a cicada hovering outside the window, watching us stuff ourselves with pasta. Our son Jack found one belly up in the backyard. I watched another land on my favorite tree outside our bay window and narrowed my eyes. “Move on already; I’ve had enough of you,” I sassed, as if the cicada could understand me. It stayed.

On this Saturday night in August, Jay puts Jack to sleep, I walk our dog Gus and the cicadas chicka-chicka and zaazz at Fortissimo. They are really belting it out and this is not what I want to hear after a day of relentless whining. I am tired of the noise. I am tired period, nevertheless I am walking because Gus needs it and I need it too. I’m only planning to walk him around the block when a slant of gold catches my eye. I realize it’s nearly sunset.

Gus is already trotting toward home, so I tug his leash and redirect us toward the horizon. We veer right at LaPorte, passing a homemade yard sign that says something like “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” which encouraged me at the start of COVID-19 and now reminds me of those cheesy motivational posters with kittens and eagles on them. I’m still thinking about that dumb sign when a gaggle of unmasked teens approach us, forcing me to swerve into the alley. The alley is nearly empty with a good view of the setting sun and I should find this calming, but the cicadas continue their chicka-chicka-zaazzing so I don’t.

Other things that are bothering me: Obviously this pandemic. I desperately miss our friends and family. We’re homeschooling Jack this fall and missing his village. Jay twisted his knee last Saturday and has been grouchy ever since then. Jack’s been especially rebellious, and if I’m not careful, I can let their moods sour mine and I spiral into darkness.

The glow on the horizon propels us forward, toward the train tracks. Gus and I jog up the stairs and take in the view. The last time I was here, Jack and I watched a mid-day train pull into the station. Tonight the sun hangs low, lighting up an entourage of puffy clouds. The cicadas’ song is nearly drowned out by nearby traffic, making Gus bark.

I sit down on the cool pavement, set my dog on my lap and stroke his fur, murmuring, “It’s okay buddy, settle down. Stay.” Gus quiets and his breathing slows.

North of us the sun casts light on cotton candy-colored clouds. This is all I can see from our backyard at sunset, however, up here on the tracks, my perspective broadens to include the city skyline, southeastern clouds blotted with indigo and the sun herself shining in the heavens.

Like a crack of lightning, I remember a mantra I recently heard from author Anne Lamott. Anne was on a podcast with another author I love, Glennon Doyle, and Glennon asked Anne how she found hope amid despair. This episode was recorded years before COVID-19, yet the question is strikingly relevant for 2020. Listening on another walk, I cranked up the volume.

Glennon said, “Anne, how do you find hope?”

Naturally Anne shared a lot of wise and witty advice. What she offered last was so revelatory and practical it stopped me in my tracks — a mantra I had heard before and forgotten.

Anne answered, “Look up.”

Now I tilt my head back and observe the expanse above, rimmed in violet. I imagine black space beyond us, our planet orbiting the sun, the Milky Way galaxy swirling through the universe, and there’s a plane cruising low in its flight path to O’Hare, bringing me back to earth, and there’s a blackbird, flapping across the sunset, and here’s the crescent moon, popping out from behind the clouds. This takes my breath. The moon had been here all this time and I missed him?

Eyes on the moon, arms around Gus, I sit still and keep looking. The constant buzzing — of cicadas and the cars and in my head — falls silent.

A couple strolls the platform and it seems they are on a date, so I stand, take one last glance at the moon and the fading sunset, and lead us home.

Walking Gus down our tree-lined streets, I believe that’s the last time I’ll see the moon, but I’m wrong. Just like Jack’s book, Max and the Tag-Along Moon, at every turn I spot a white crescent winking back at me, reminding me of my smallness in the order of creation.

Max doubted the moon when he couldn’t see it, then at the end of the book, it returns and he understands the moon is constant. This too I’d forgotten: What often appears as chaos is part of God’s cosmos.

The cicadas buzz and this time, I smile and look up.

Light follows us all the way home.

Momentum

It was a bright, warm day in early May. She’d taken her son to the train tracks at his request, let him meander along the platform and observe the scene. Clear blue sky juxtaposed thick steel beams and rugged asphalt; the Chicago skyline shimmered on the horizon. It was the type of day she might even describe as perfect, except for the whole pandemic situation, and that her son was edging too close to the end of the platform.

“Stop right there, buddy, that’s far enough,” she said, her breath quickening. The surrounding prairie grass shuddered in the soft breeze. 

“Why can’t we go on the rocks, Mommy?” he whined, turning around. She was already jogging toward him, the taste of metal in her mouth.

“It’s not safe there, buddy,” she said, snatching his hand and pulling him away. “This is too close to the tracks.”

“Mommy, can I see a train?” 

She glanced again at the tracks leading north toward the jagged Chicago skyline. She wanted to go back home. “I just don’t think there are a lot of trains running right now, you know, because of staycation.”

Her son’s face fell. “Staycation” was their word for the pandemic, for the endless hours of play they’d logged since sheltering in place, for a break from school for him but no breaks from Mommy and Daddy, for a break from plans and a social life that was slowly breaking them. First a fond word, then one that produced groans.

“OK, let’s check the schedule,” she conceded, pulling out her phone and locating Metra’s website. What had she expected bringing him here? That he’d be content to stare at empty railroad tracks? “Well, what do you know? There’s a train coming in seven minutes,” she told him. “We can wait here … but you have to sit with me.”

They plopped down cross-legged on the hot asphalt and waited, him snuggled back in her arms gazing ahead at rows of tracks. A white butterfly danced above their heads, perhaps searching for a flower or just enjoying the feel of flying.

Sunlight warmed her shoulders, and she felt something fluttering inside her, too. What was it, peace? Or maybe anticipation? She’d nearly forgotten the feeling.

Far in the distance a light appeared, first a pinprick then a widening beam. The train whistle blared, and it felt as though the ground beneath their bottoms began to rumble. She caged her arms around her son’s small body and shouted, “Jack, it’s coming!” 

He whipped his head toward the approaching train face. Dark and large it galloped toward the station, a rush of wind and sound and power. Suddenly their patch of platform now seemed far too close to the beast. The whistle sounded again and Jack pulled his hands to his ears, shaking under her embrace. She wanted him to look at the train but he’d shut his eyes tight so instead she drank in the sight for both of them.

The train’s brakes squealed to a halt, stirring up hot dust. A conductor hopped off, glanced around the deserted platform, and spotting Jack, waved. Jack still had his hands capped to his ears, but, recognizing the train’s conductor, he lifted them and waved back.

The train cars were nearly empty. She wondered what would happen if they up and boarded one. What adventures could they have? What people would they meet? Everything was canceled, but she was spinning a plan in her head. She could take a day off work and they would take the train to the city, then explore Union Station. They might visit the Field Museum via an extra train or bus ride, and he could revel at Sue, the T-Rex model. Of course, before training home, they’d have to stop at Garrett’s for a bag of cheddar-caramel popcorn. Her mind buzzed with possibilities. She wanted to take Jack on a train ride … once the pandemic was over.

Nearly as soon as it arrived the train bulleted away. Jack unwound his legs from her lap and watched it barrel under a bridge on the south side of the tracks. Standing tall, he looked as if he was ready for a new adventure.

“Mommy, that was cool!” he said, arms swinging. “Can we go to that bridge next?”

She smiled and contemplated his thought. “Absolutely.” 

“It’s a beautiful day, Mommy!” he said, already bounding toward the forest path where they’d eventually find the bridge. The prairie grass swayed in his direction.

She scanned the open sky, the train tracks and the wonder gleaming in his eyes. It was the kind of day she might describe as perfect.

“Yes,” she said, bounding after him. “It really is.”

Image by: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. To read the next post in this series, click here. 

Work, worth and paying attention in the time of coronavirus

Why can’t I focus?

I write this in my pandemic journal, because I read journaling is a gift during this time and because “you’ll want to tell your grandkids about the 2020 pandemic” and because I already keep a journal. 

Focus? The situation at hand requires me to “work” from home with my preschooler underfoot. Regular interruptions to “go potty with Mommy,” to “get a snack with Mommy,” to pop in on yet another Skype meeting — stilt my productivity. I shift one production schedule back no less than three times. It takes twice as long to edit an article.

Seems like a cruel joke that I picked “pay attention” as my 2020 intention. Now I’ve forgotten the question. Oh yes. I write:

Why can’t I focus? 
A: Your son keeps interrupting your workday.
A: Your work keeps interrupting your parenting.

Jay and I split up parenting shifts. When I’m with Jack during the workday, I find myself preoccupied by the tasks awaiting me in my inbox. 

Lately caring for him feels like tossing a stick of dynamite back and forth, neither of us wanting to get stuck with an explosion. We know this is hard for him, too, and we’re doing our best. But it’s not enough — we can’t replace his friends or teachers or grandparents. 

Uneager to dissect my failings, I set down my pen.

While unloading the dishwasher that evening I’d confessed to my husband, “I just feel so guilty all the time.” 

“Why?” he asked, collecting a stack of dishes. I tallied it up in my head: mom guilt, work guilt, too much screen time guilt, wife guilt, guilt that our home looks like the cross between a child’s birthday party gone awry and a war zone, guilt that we are safe while others suffer. 

For years I’d measured my worth as a Highly Effective Woman, meeting deadlines, achieving goals, caring for others, clearing clutter. She didn’t seem to live here anymore.

“Just… everything,” I sighed, holding up a grit-flecked glass that would need hand-washing. “Dishwasher didn’t do its job again.”

***

Jack’s at the dinner table finishing a slice of peanut butter and jelly toast while FaceTiming with my mother. My phone leans against a mega-sized jar of peanut butter reflecting just his face in the frame with his grandma’s, as if they’re chatting at our table. His eyes dance as he tells her about the birdhouse he and Daddy placed in our tree. I watch him smile wide; I grin too. Conversation slows.

“Okay, now, ask her how her day was,” I prod, gently touching his shoulder.

“Grandma, how was your day?” he says. I mouth, “Good boy!”

She begins to answer, but Jack’s already launching into another story.

“Honey,” I interject, tapping his shoulder again, “That’s all fine and good, but you need to listen. It’s Grandma’s turn to talk.” I catch myself sounding like Mama Bear from Jack’s beloved Berenstain Bears books. My son keeps talking, oblivious or ignoring me, and I repeat myself. 

“Honey, you need to listen.”

My own words startle me. What is my attention — or lack thereof — trying to tell me?

***

Days later, a colleague shares an article on productivity whose point seems so obvious I don’t know how I missed or dismissed it. It triggers a memory from last summer.

“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friend Seth told me over drinks at a work conference. His insight made me cringe. 

“No, I don’t think so,” I answered, swirling my pinot grigio.

Seth is one of my oldest friends. We’ve studied Kierkegaard together, he’s my husband’s fraternity brother and we see each other occasionally for work and social events. He knows me. “Yeah, you definitely are,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

I imagine telling him today that I’m failing. That my back is breaking under the weight of my pride and high expectations. Deep down I worry I never was a Highly Effective Woman — this proves it. I have no color-coded schedule, no sourdough starter, no stomach for offering at-home haircuts. I want to pay attention but most days, I’m a distracted mother. Most days, I barely cobble words together.

At this, Seth would just shake his head. 

The next time I crack open my journal, I return to the previous entry, drawing wisdom from the article:

Why can’t I focus?
A: You are in the middle of a pandemic. 

***

“Mommy, it’s rainy again,” Jack sighs, staring out our droplet-streaked front window.

I join him and zero in on puddles pooling across the pavement. I’ve taken the day off work to spend with Jack and I don’t want to waste it indoors. I ask, “Wanna go puddle jumping?” 

“Yay! Yay! Yay!”

I help Jack into his green froggy rain boots, throw on sneakers and grab our light jackets. We venture out our red side door and crack open the garden gate. Sidewalks — well-trafficked on fairer days — stand empty.

Rainwater-drenched grass overwhelms my nose. My son releases his grip on my hand and barrels straight for a puddle. A neighbor with a black Portuguese water dog waves hello before crossing to the opposite sidewalk.

The pearly clouds overhead temporarily dry up as we scour the neighborhood for the perfect puddle. This one by the street is too dangerous. This one on the sidewalk is too shallow. We keep going.

All the while, I catalogue beauty: Verdant green grass juxtaposed against crumbling city asphalt. Trees shifting from flowered to leaved. Violets sprinkled through common patches of grass. The tiniest drizzle of rain kisses my face, igniting my senses.

I’ll record this in my journal, I think.

Now the rain’s picking up again and I’m tugging Jack toward home and he’s tugging me the opposite direction, unwilling to end the search. In the middle of the alley, I stop.

“Jack, I think I’ve found it!”

He turns his head. “What Mommy?”

“Your perfect puddle,” I point. “Look!”

We rocket toward the puddle. SPLASH! Jack jumps in and stamps his feet while I stand back to observe, scanning the alley for cars.

Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. Black mud cakes the outside of his frog boots. 

Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. The rain grows heavier. His cheeks turn upward in delight. 

Mine do too. I keep watching: I want to imprint this moment to memory.

“It’s time to go buddy,” I finally say. “Why don’t you take one more splash in the puddle?”

SPLOTCH! 

Raindrops slice through the air. Holding hands, my son and I jog the full quarter-block to our house, never stopping until we reach the finish, hearts hammering in our chests.

I throw back the gate, unlock the red side door, usher Jack inside and pause, suspended between the glow and warmth of home and the wonder of a spring storm. Between dry and wet. Safe and wild. Failing and flying. Proving my worth and simply trusting it. Before every obligation comes tumbling back, I stay still, listening to the raindrops.

Something of value

rainbow

“There’s no treasure here,”
my son said, shaking his head
while we strolled city sidewalks,
taking in pink tulips and taking care to
keep 6 feet of distance from our neighbors.
(He’d been searching for an X marks the spot,
a close to our winding journey—
no luck.)

I wanted to admit Jack was right,
mind-mapping all the good things we were missing:
the playground and playmates and Grandma and
what it feels like to move about freely.

Then I spotted not an X, but a
1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 etched in pastels.
Jack hopped, giggled, whirled to me.
“Mommy, come on! It’s your turn!”
Even though I didn’t feel like it,
I leapt.

Later that day, he spied 
beams of light caught in raindrops, 
Hope
refracted across the sky.

There’s no clear end in sight,
and frankly, I’m weary.
But there’s hopscotch.
And rainbows.
And, arguably, treasure.

What flowers know

It snowed last Wednesday. Big wet clumps floated down, blanketing our hellebores, their full fuchsia faces turned up to the clouds as if to say, “Go ahead, test us.”

“Has it always snowed this much in April?” I asked Jay, glancing out the window, not waiting for an answer. “Seems like it’s snowing more than usual…”

Jay looked up from his excel spreadsheet — daily he’s been keeping track of the number of COVID-19 cases in Illinois, his means of coping — and shook his head. “It always snows in April, babe.”

“Yes I know, but I don’t remember this much!” I remarked, turning to protest. But Jay was already back in excel, consumed by the numbers.

The only thing I was tracking as of late was the view from our bay window — our flower beds, now decked in snow, the emptiness of the street, new buds poking out from our tree. So consumed was I with my busy life last spring I never stopped to notice the tree buds’ gentle unfurling.

I was noticing my son more too. He’s three, an age marked by darling utterances (“You are my best friend, Mommy!”) and searing attitude (“Mommy, you are being too loud!”). What a privilege to know the minutiae of his days. To see each breakthrough and breakdown. To watch him grow in slow motion. This is what I remind myself when my anger bubbles over. The federal money’s out and Jay’s small business loan application hasn’t been approved. People have been acting careless. Not enough has been done to protect front-line workers. Then there’s the widespread death and job loss. Feeling helpless.

Jay’s spreadsheet suggests we’re beginning to bend the curve. Yet I wonder, how long will this season last? And how can I taste sweetness alongside so much bitterness?

I considered the view from my window. The hellebores are a hardy perennial, no stranger to spring in the Windy City. I know how to face the winds of change, too. You root down, trust that light will return and keep blooming.

(breathe deep) find hope

inhale, rise. exhale, fold. 
stretch        float        flow
repeat. beyond your window 
winged wonders chirp, twitter, tweet

you, too, salute the sun, rest in its golden bright
before they wake, limbs tangled in the sheets,
before the headlines make you clench your jaw if
“hope is the thing with feathers,”
what is dread
a clawed predator,
lurking in the very air we
breathe deep, remember:
you’re safe in this nest

meanwhile essential birds flit to and fro
till the earth, tend the brood, fight death—
(breathe deep) what you’ve been asked to do
(nest) barely feels like sacrifice

still
you bow your head, weary
you close your eyes, wet
you fold your hands,
pleading
for miracles.
indoors,  your little one wakes
outside, a robin warbles

Saving daylight — with him

Sunset photo by Hoang Loc
Photo by Hoang Loc

Whenever I replay it in my mind, the scene starts here: Me at the rear car door, hovering. Him with his head craned back, stalling.

“Mommy,” he starts.

“What Jack?” My words are staccato. My toes aren’t tapping, but they might as well be. I’m sandwiched between my three-year-old and the daycare parking lot, the end of one workday and the start of another (Evening Mommy). What I want from him is complete compliance. What he wants, I think, is the same thing he’s wanted since day one of daycare when he rejected all of his bottles — to act in complete defiance.

“I see the moooon!” 

“Where, honey?” my voice softens. 

His pointer finger shoots up, his voice rises, “There! There!” and I follow his gaze to the crescent moon, barely a fingernail clipping, hanging low in the cerulean sky.

“It’s so shiny,” he remarks. And he’s right — it is. We linger, eyes up, heads tipped back, suspended in time. When I finally buckle Jack into his carseat, I thank him for making me notice the beautiful moon. He beams proudly. 

Now in the driver’s seat, I press the ignition button and notice the dashboard clock reads 5:55 p.m. Classical music floods the speakers. I punch the radio off. I can’t shake the feeling I’m doing this wrong — motherhood. That I’m missing out on most of it, the wonder and joy of my son being three, because I work. This hunger for what I can’t have — a different life — wakes with a grumble.

What if all I’m getting is just a measly sliver of the moon? What if all I’m giving is waning light?

“Mah-AhhM! Why are you not moving?”

“Sorry honey,” I say, my voice faltering. I don’t turn around to face him. Careful as ever I check the backup cam, reverse, signal and merge onto Pulaski. Pulaski divides a crowded, crumbling cemetery; tonight the western sky above the gravestones blazes with magenta and persimmon fading into blue. I want to slow the car to a crawl and gape, maybe turn into the cemetery lot to take in the horizon.

Eyes back on the road, I exclaim, “Look honey! Look to your right!”

“What, Mommy?” 

“Honey, there’s a sunset,” I say, motioning toward his window.

“It’s a rainbow!” Jack shouts with glee. Jack loves rainbows, and I hold this fact tenderly, knowing there may come a day when someone tells him it’s not acceptable for a boy to love rainbows. I hope he keeps loving them all the same.  

“Sort of,” I chuckle. “The sky lights up with all kinds of colors when the sun goes down. What colors do you see?”

“I see orange … and pink… and blue…” he trails off.

I glance back at Jack, eyes wide and smiling. I will tell him this, I resolve, that boys shouldn’t be ashamed to love this beautiful world with an open heart.

At Foster, I turn right and drive straight toward the sunset. The skyscape shifts to peach and lavender; the fading light silhouettes a crop of trees in shade. I recall a stanza from John Mayer’s song, “3×5”:

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world with both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it when
I’m in the mood to lose my way
But let me say
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life

“What do you see, Mommy?” Jack’s view is a bit obscured now, and I have the better vantage of the sunset. 

“Hmmm… I see new colors — peach and lavender and blue darkening above us.”

I hear him sigh and add, “Almost home, buddy.”

Pulling onto our street I realize Jack and I only have a few more sunsets to watch on our commute home before the light patterns shift. Daylight Saving Time is coming.

For the next three days, Jack will ask me about the sunset. Together, we’ll delight in bright hues painted across each evening sky.

A week after Daylight Saving Time, everything will be different. Daycare will be closed. I’ll receive a mandate to work remote — effective immediately. The social distancing and lockdowns will begin. The grocery store shelves will be picked over. I’ll call my elderly neighbor, my grandmothers and my parents, ending each conversation close to tears. I’ll cling to my husband’s frame in bed, mind churning over the COVID-19 pandemic, body starved for sleep. I’ll hold my head in my hands, stomach knotted with worry, and pray. My son will watch and mimic my motions.

I’ve read that three is when memory begins to form in children. Later, I’ll wonder if Jack will remember any of this — the food rationing, the “staycation with Mommy and Daddy,” the world as we used to know it turning. I hope he’ll remember learning to play Go Fish on the living room carpet, games of tag in the backyard, homemade bread, long baths and daily FaceTime with his grandparents. I hope he’ll remember relishing those sunsets from the car, a fleeting ritual, but one that brought us so much joy.

Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to lose my way with words

For the time being, I park the car in our garage, blissfully unaware of the changes to come. Hands busy fixing supper, I wonder:

Am I missing out on moments with Jack because I work too much?

Yes.

Can I still teach him how to savor the light?

Also yes.

Much later, when the pain overwhelms, I’ll return to that night and embrace its delicious normalcy. Old, insignificant worries. A new resolve. My son forever pointing me to beauty — light.

And here, maybe I can save this sunset for us, and maybe my son will read about it someday, when he’s in the mood to find himself in words.

Image by Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this part as part of a blog hop with Exhale, an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. To read the next post in this series, click here.