The AND List

My husband is a frontline healthcare worker in the small town where we live.  As scheduled months ago, he did not work this week.  When he goes back to work on Monday, we do not know what will happen from that point forward.  We watch the statewide numbers rise each day, and we can only assume what that means for our community.  Like many other families, we are talking through difficult scenarios which involve things like how and when to isolate my husband from the rest of us and childcare if we both become severely ill.  We worry about the worldwide struggle for healthcare workers to obtain personal protective equipment, but we feel inspired by the number of people coming together to try to help. 

In the midst of us trying to prepare our family life for the range of likely possibilities, necessary calls, emails, texts, and updates have frequently interrupted.  We feel like we now live in a strange dichotomy between the virus and what we can piece together of normal life.  The often rapid shift between the two and the resulting emotions challenges our coping skills.

Many years ago, while helping me learn to manage anxiety, a psychologist taught me to use the word “and” during difficult times, and that word has helped me this week.  Instead of stopping and shutting down with whatever big emotion and situation I am dealing with, I acknowledge it and then add “and”.  The past week has presented many opportunities for me to practice using this tool.

I feel afraid that my husband will get sick due to the shortage of protective equipment, AND we will have a picnic in the backyard for lunch.

I feel overwhelmed by what I will need to manage alone if my husband is unavailable in the upcoming weeks and months, AND we will make s’mores over a campfire after dinner.

I feel unnerved by the empty shelves I see at the grocery store, AND we will spend the afternoon blowing bubbles.

I feel short on time to get the needed things completed, AND we will campout in the tree house tonight.

I feel consumed by discussions of the difficult, AND we will watch the stars from the hammock after the kids fall asleep.

I feel angry that we cannot go on the family vacation we planned, AND we will play boardgames, eat popcorn, and watch movies together.

I feel lonely because we cannot visit those we love, AND we will make up silly plays and puppet shows to share on video calls.

I feel sad because my life has changed in ways that I did not plan and cannot control, AND I will see how far I can jog in the beautiful spring weather today.

The story I hope to tell when this pandemic finally ends, and the one I hope my kids remember most, is:  

There was this virus, parts of life challenged us and the world, AND…

I hope that my AND list fills the page.

Windy Night, Windy Soul

I am writing this post from a sleeping bag in a tree house.

I spent most of today feeling overwhelmed. Our kids, like us, are struggling to find routine while longing for “normal” to return. A few days ago I sat on the floor holding our son while he sobbed for an hour as he begged and bargained for ways to see family. Our daughter, who is too young to understand the situation, clings to my arms and needs lots of hugs and cuddles leaving me lacking hands to accomplish what needs to get done.

My husband and I need space to think and process, and we struggle to find moments to ourselves in the midst of living the current reality and helping our kids understand what we cannot comprehend. I found a few minutes to myself while scrubbing algae off aquarium walls this afternoon, and I cried. I did not try to cry, and once I found myself alone, I seemed unable to prevent the tears.

A friend posted an article the other day from Harvard Business Review written by Scott Berinato that describes collective grief. I don’t know if that’s what we are experiencing, but I know I feel both loss and lost within that loss.

The wind around me is picking up and though a bit unnerving (I am in a tree), I find it strangely comforting. The wind seems to understand and express what I cannot. It howls. It swirls. I feel a little afraid when it gusts, and then after the gusts diminish, I can hear the melody from the wind chimes still ringing out.

Maybe that is important to remember. Regardless of the confusion and intensity of the emotions within us, those emotions will pause between gusts, and in that pause our souls’ music still plays.

Peace to you all.

Closed

For the past ten days, I watched the news headlines play out like a chess grandmaster preparing to seal my fate with his first move. International travel warnings. Travel restrictions. Flights grounded. Border walls sealed. Neighboring states shuttered.

Last night at midnight, my town closed.

Today, we join large parts of the world trying to learn how to do normal life when nothing feels normal. The wind will blow through the park swings looking for someone to push. The sun will shine spotlights on baseball diamonds, basketball courts, and skate parks waiting to see who will arrive for their moment of pick-up game glory. Highways and turnpikes will anticipate the bustling crawl of the morning commute. School zone lights will flash greetings for students, but no students will come. No frustrated horns will honk. No homeruns will be hit, no baskets will be swished, and no tricks will be landed. The swings’ cling clang melody normally reminiscent of spring freedom today becomes the anthem of our caged confinement.

Typically, when a place closes, everyone leaves and the last person turns out the lights. But, COVID-19 abides by no rules. Instead of allowing us to leave to go home, it sealed us in our homes and turned out the lights anyway. A couple of months ago after a season of busyness I longed for some time at home, but choosing to be somewhere produces a very different psychological impact than being locked in somewhere even when the where remains the same.

Yes, I can still go to the grocery store, but the empty shelves leave me with a lump in my throat and a queasy feeling in my stomach. I can get in a car and drive, but where would I go? I cannot visit anyone, sit at a park, or plan a fun adventure. I feel like pacing.

Checkmate.

Well played, COVID-19, but I’m not saying, “Good game.” I never agreed to play, and you cheat.

I See You

I feel afraid.  I feel overwhelmed.  Social distancing.  COVID-19.  Toilet paper.  Stock market.  Jobs.  Recession.  Closed.  Masks.  Hand sanitizer.  Flatten the curve.  Food.

I try to follow the steps of a logically thought out plan.  But, sometimes, while staring at the empty store shelves in front of me, I panic and buy odd things like shoelaces while trying to modify my plan midstream. I have nightmares.  I am unable to sleep.  I stay up late.  I go to bed early.  The days of the week have lost all meaning.

I see my concerns and anxieties mirrored in your eyes.  I want to reach out and hug you, shake your hand, and reassure you.  I want to befriend you, but I can’t. What if my body works for the enemy?  What if I, without knowing, carry your battle?  So, this distance must exist between us, but I feel so isolated…so alone.

You and I wander the aisles of stores wanting to ensure we provide for those in our care while not preventing others from doing the same.   But, how do we know what we “need” when we are uncertain of what we are preparing for and how long whatever it is might last?  The rules and layers of limitations and restrictions flying from news conferences and official proclamations change so fast they should collide in midair.  Instead, they land on us one by one, grounded indefinitely, and we struggle to breathe under their weight.

I stood in an aisle a couple of days ago near tears holding two packages of hot dogs uncertain if I “needed” both or if you, whomever you might be, might need one, too.  I am trying to love you, my neighbor, but I feel lost.  I don’t know how to navigate this road.  Am I still even on the road?


Please, offer me grace.  I am sending you the same.  Confused and directionless looking for an unmarked road, we pass each other going  opposite ways.  I see your confusion.  I see your worry.  I see the stoic, upbeat front you put on for those you support, and I see the desperation behind it.  You are not alone. 

I see you.  I am you.  We are in this together…six feet apart.

December 8th – Matinee Movies

My son’s current developmental stage includes an emerging concept of fairness. He and I often have differing opinions of what that concept looks like. I think everyone living in a house participates in chores. He thinks a parent telling him to do a chore represents a breakdown in democracy deserving an immediate protest. He did try to write a letter to Congress to change the voting age to four. I admire his passion and his persistence though sometimes I feel very tired.

Prior to having children, my husband and I watched movies at movie theatres that sometimes did not start until 10pm on a Friday night. We ate dinner out spontaneously without first viewing the menu online to ensure the availability of “kid friendly” food. We talked to each other often with time for pauses and deeply staring into each other’s eyes. We questioned whether we could have children, and the lack of certainty left me crying about life not being fair.

In our present season of life with young children, we watch a rare movie in fragments over the course of multiple nights on Netflix. We only eat at restaurants before 5pm so that we do not have to wait for a table because the bag of distractions will not get us through both waiting for a table and dinner. We communicate with each other with a combination of speech, spelled words, gestures, and an occasional phrase in pig Latin. Sometimes, in moments of exhaustion one or both of us whines that life is not fair.

So, my dear son, I want you to know that contrary to your foot stomping demonstrations, I do understand. I, too, whine about the fairness of life though in front of you I project calm acceptance. I, too, cry when I feel overwhelmed. I, too, want all the things I want right now though I try to teach you patience that I often lack myself. Unfairness exists in life, and grownups often do not cope with this fact any better than children. Watch a group of adults try to stand in line at the post office a week before Christmas. Today, I went to a movie with a friend at 1:30pm on a Sunday. We watched Tom Hanks excellently portray Mister Rogers, and received a parental pep talk from our childhood hero.

In this season of my life, I am unlikely to get to watch a movie at 10pm on a Friday night. You cannot swim in an outdoor swimming pool in December. We both have chores, and neither of us likes them. Are these things unfair or do we simply have misplaced assumptions that all people should exist in the same season of life at the same time? Either way, I do understand. I remember your season, and from your perspective, I must agree. Life is just not fair. From my perspective, I still agree. Life is just not fair. However, I have a new love of matinee movies because a momentarily escape from chores and responsibilities offers a special magic, different from the late night magic of Friday night, but magic just the same. All seasons present challenges, but all seasons also leave their own traces of magic. See the unfairnesses and the injustices. Keep speaking up, but remember to also find the magic.

December 4th – Summer S’mores vs. Winter S’mores

I could argue both sides of an argument about whether s’mores taste better in a summer campfire or a winter campfire. I could tell you stories about standing sweaty, swatting mosquitos, and singing Girl Scout songs around summer campfires of my youth. The fires danced in the dusky twilight of days that lasted so long they seemed to never sleep. I would smile as I recounted them and probably get so engrossed in the fond memories that I might absentmindedly scratch imaginary bites on my legs. I might smell the lake, the grass, and all the green, growing things that give summer a smell like no other especially when mixed with the scent of burning marshmallow. The warm breeze, welcome relief after the day’s oppressive heat, might make me reach for a pony tail holder to keep the sticky goo from my hair. The campfires blazed past my bedtime, each one a miniature celebration of summer.

Tonight, we had a group of my son’s friends and their parents over for s’mores. Mosquitos did not annoy us, and the scent of leftover November, layers of brown smashed in lingering leaf piles that never fully dry, blew in with the north wind. Twinkling lights on the roof danced to the retro “Christmas with The Chipmunks” album playing in the background. The sun went to bed so early that the campfire easily started by 6:30pm with everyone bundled in layers leaning into the fire’s warmth. Marshmallow torches lit the sky before melting squares of chocolate snuggled between two graham cracker halves.

In a month full of songs and ideals about joy and peace, I find that doing so many of the things that are supposed to be festive and relaxing one after another leave me feeling run down and worn out. Yet, when I took a bite of that s’more, I smiled, and I felt cozy and warm despite my shivering. I had no agenda and no traditions to be upheld. We simply ate s’mores while the kids ran around playing by Christmas lights. Though I love holiday traditions, I sometimes forget the most important things while trying to check off my holiday to-do lists like simply sharing time, kindness, and love with others.

So, which s’more tastes better, a summer s’more or a winter s’more? The answer depends on what you are looking for – a celebration or a hug. On December 4th, I needed a hug and a pause from the celebration. The small winter campfire with friends filled not only my stomach, but also my soul. I am grateful winter provides these moments of pause if I just look around and find them.

December 3rd

I did not feel like super woman today. I felt like I needed my mom, and I called her. I would have accepted advice, a plan, and an itemized to-do list, but what I needed most and what I got was the reassurance that she will answer the phone and listen on days when I struggle.

Parenting gets messy even without all the bodily fluids and leftover food goop. My six year-old nonchalantly told me today that he needed my sister for a project because she listens to him, follows kid rules, and is like a kid. That is the second time this week he has told me something similar.

My toddler is recovering from a virus and multiple sleepless nights. The tantrum count mounted early in the day and continued all the way to bedtime when she decided she did not want to brush her teeth.

My mom listened to me today. She did not offer suggestions or ways to fix anything. She simply said she is always on the other end of the phone.

So, I did not offer my son all the reasons he should cut me some slack because this mom thing is no joke, and I feel completely overwhelmed. Instead, I turned and listened to him without working on a grocery list or some other attempt at multitasking. In the midst of his story about building a pretend fire pit that he had no way to go to the store to buy things for s’mores, I asked him to wait a minute. I went inside, broke off two tiny candy canes and stuck marshmallows on the ends. He flipped a five gallon bucket upside down as a seat for me, and he grinned as we “toasted” our marshmallows.

My toddler positioned herself screaming and kicking on the floor of her room in protest of teeth brushing tonight. After a while, I crawled down on the floor, laid my head next to hers, and whispered that I love her. She crawled into my arms, I sang her a song, and she opened her mouth up for the toothbrush.

Thank you for reminding me, mom, that the most important thing I can do is simply pick up when one of my children calls for me. I do not need all the answers. I need to listen. I also might relate listening to winter’s quiet stillness, but I have not quite figured that lesson out. Perhaps another day. After all, winter will still be waiting for me tomorrow.