For me, the honeysuckle does it. Out walking the dog, I pass through that place behind the apartment building where the vine-covered shrubs form a loose fence line with the neighboring townhouses. There, the scent lifts me up from whatever chaos is in my head. I pause and find one underneath, going for the yellow blossom. While the fulsome white catch the eye, I’ve learned from experience. The yellowed, crepey petals store astonishing sweetness.
Our governor gave us the stay-at-home order yesterday. With presumptive positives surpassing 1000 in the state, it’s a wise directive. That said, judging by the volume on I-66 right outside my condo, only a handful of my fellow Virginians are complying. And no, they still have not finished replacing the sound wall as they ravage the land around us for new express lanes. Which means even as spring explodes from the tulip poplar and cherry trees all around the complex, my balcony door stays sealed tight.
I am ashamed to admit that even after listening to the Governor Northam’s press briefing, I headed out. When home is the office, closing out the work day means throwing a bolt across it. At 5:00 every evening, I heed the call to flee. Yesterday, I headed to the W&OD trail and ran a hard 4-1/2 miles alongside dozens (hundreds?) of my neighbors. The sun’s glory and run’s boost notwithstanding, that was my last afternoon visit to the trail. It’s impossible for swiftly moving humans to maintain a 6-foot distance on a recreation path no wider than a train track. That sprinting cyclist breathing hard as she passes a hair’s breadth from my shoulder? How much of her exhalation is landing on me as it falls to the ground?
We’re finally seeing all the neighbors outside. Everyone. All the preschoolers on training wheels, parents jogging with tweens, old women held steady by their daughters. Everyone outside, yet everyone a possible vector. Everyone floating inside their personal outdoor 6-foot bubble.
I notice that inside my outdoor bubble, I keep my eyes down. When passing someone even at the recommended distance, my gaze shifts away. It’s as if the call to keep ourselves physically apart has translated into pulling back emotionally, relationally. Pulling back attention. Pretending we aren’t sharing a physical environment which we very much are. As if the bubble has actual material dimensions.
The effort to combat this turning away, to push against a calcifying of the walls, is momentous. The long days teleworking alone with the dog tax my spirit. On the other long days when the kiddo is here and the partner comes back early, I feel crowded and irritated and desperate for space. I want quiet so I retreat to a corner with my book. I curl up inside the bubble, then immediately grow squirrely, lonely, and end up scrolling messages for connections with friends.
None of the emotional responses make sense. Of course, the entire world is topsy-turvy, so maybe a little discombobulation is rational.
Every institution is cracking along the fracture lines that have been deepening for decades. Our national leaders are a bunch of buffoons drunk on power and hoarding wealth. Feeding our most vulnerable children requires them to be in school. Having health care requires us to have salaried jobs. Protection from a deadly virus only applies to that small percentage of the professional population whose work involves no direct contact with people. Education, income, 6-foot distancing, social connections with mental health support or recovery resources all require a home environment with privacy, high-speed internet and functional devices for everyone who needs them. Our prisons and immigrant detention centers can’t even protect their wards from sexual assault and violence, let alone from a viral infection that thrives on crowding and lack of sanitation.
So yes, it is understandable that mind is troubled. That the heart hurts. Of course I both long for and recoil from company. Of course the bubble both protects and suffocates.
And yes, it makes sense that staying inside and fussing over the kid’s writing exercises feels like an utter waste of energy.
Which is exactly why staying inside and fussing over the kid’s writing exercises is what I need to be doing.
In times of upheaval, small acts of service matter most of all.
The big world is reeling, and no one of us alone can set it right. What we can do is create a little order, healing, and spiritual nourishment in the places we touch. Even if it’s just a little pocket of goodness touching down before alighting again. Even if it’s just staying home.
I have been trying. I will keep trying.
With the thirteen-year-old, we set up a loose structure for schooling and implemented it at the end of last week. He does a little reading every day. He writes 150 words on any topic he chooses. He engages in some creative activities (so far, all have involved cooking or baking). We engage together in learning activities across subjects available through our county’s school website. We even have PE every day, which so far has involved bike rides around the neighborhood. After all this and a few chores, he can Google hangout with his girlfriend or chat with his gaming buddies on Discord.
Meanwhile, I am back to setting work goals for every day. I write them big on a piece of unlined paper and cross them off aggressively (and joyously) when each is done. When I reach the bottom, I give myself a check+. Gold stars are next.
I have also begun The Artist’s Way again after my last attempt 11 years ago. Julia Cameron’s magical re-introduction to the creative force is exactly the structure my simultaneously spinning and viscous brain needs. Her morning pages and exercises are working their way past my defenses and into my stubborn spirit. Every day, the writing comes, even though it is about nothing more than my complaints, my bad dreams, my terrors. No matter. It is writing, it scatters wildflower seeds all over the muck and stuck-ness of the deep places.
The body also requires its care. My partner has seen me doing my living room dance fitness and has decided to join in. We have gone back to the beginning, learning the basic Zumba steps and giggling breathlessly as he oils the hinges in his long-rusted hips.
Other small quarantine activities in our makeshift family: We play board games, prepare meals we’ve never had before (lentil dal, shahi chicken), make bold yet ultimately failed attempts at the pastries we’re most craving (brioche muffins, cinnamon rolls), take long walks with the dog, participate in Zoom conversations through church and with our dear ones, and read side-by-side at bedtime.
And I will keep trying. Trying to lift my vision. To make eye contact with the other human walking a dog on the other side of the street. To hold the gaze. To breath through the porous, lumnious, transparent skin of this protective bubble, which is only a temporary creation. I will keep trying to pay attention to what’s blooming outside the sealed balcony door, to name what’s gone missing, the to grieve the losses that are coming.
I will keep trying to welcome the world as it changes. And keep trying to notice — and honor — how each of us, even at a 6-foot distance, is changing the world.
Temperature pushing 100. Shaking, nauseated, dizzy, and a little green. He sleeps for nearly 13 hours, so motionless at daybreak I have to rustle the blanket to make sure he’s breathing. When I call the school, they tell me Flu B has been making it past the vaccine.
He sleeps on. Sometime after 10am, he creaks out of bed and shuffles to the kitchen with a blanket draped over his shoulders. I am parked at the dining table plodding through cut-rate wifi to VPN into work. As he passes, I look up at his sallow face and ask him how he’s feeling.
“Sick,” he rumbles, his voice dipping even lower than the adolescent tenor which is emerging with increasing frequency these days.
Old shortcuts lead to dead ends. Minor annoyances to major road blocks. Drifting off during the boring parts of class, crumpled papers forgotten in the bottom of the backpack, goofing off in the hallway. D grades. Closed doors.
As he fails, his world shrinks.
Only the first quarter of his first year of middle school, and hard lessons are giving my boy’s psyche a good scraping.
On my son’s first birthday, a stomach virus knocked him flat. For the next few days, he couldn’t keep anything down. Even though he begged for the comfort of nursing, I had to ration his time on the breast. We fed him Pedialyte from a dropper. He screamed in protest until thirst overcame his resistance.
After a few days, he rallied. Small portions of pureed food stayed down. Great quantities of breast milk too. He resumed scooting all over the house and tormenting the dog. The doctor had said he’d get over it, and this seemed to hold true.
Except that he kept losing weight.
Sense skates over the damp oil of detangling spray. The film coats my son’s raveled mat. His head is a summer hayfield bleached gold and heavy with dew. At the tips, tendrils going to seed thin and fall away.
Down under all that flower and dust, the stalks twist into themselves. Pile up. Snarl. My fingers burrow to the base of his skull and find the nest there. I begin to brush. Starting at the ends, the gesture is one short stroke. Then another. The brush barks over the ragged rope. Its plastic bristles chatter as if scraped across a guiro’s ridged wooden belly. The boy tolerates this, gripping his nerf gun and re-reading Sunday’s comics.
Little holes in the bag of rice gave it away. Three and half years living in this place, and here was the first sign of uninvited guests. On our next trip to town, we stopped at the hardware store for traps. Despite Bug’s insistence that we buy the $39 ultrasonic pest repeller, I opted for Tomcat traps. A four-pack for four bucks.
We smeared on peanut butter and tucked it into the cabinet corner. The next morning, we heard a snap. Big brown eyes, white fuzzy belly, limp broken body. “Oh, he’s so cute,” Bug said sadly. Into the weekday rush we crammed this death. We shrank it down to fit. School, work, a morning meeting and already late. I dumped the trap, mouse and all, into the garbage. Another dab of peanut butter on a clean trap, and off we hustled into our overfull day.
On the drive to school, regret hit hard.
He asks. I fumble. Events crash past, plowing under a vocabulary both dated and outgunned. My words like vestigial limbs grasp at an extinct terrain.
As we drive the short distance home, NPR wallops us with our nightly load of federal ordure. The new Congress just voted to pave the way for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Our representatives exhumed an old law which will allow them to slash the pay of any federal worker down to $1. In a stage play of quasi-constitutionalism, those who ask the toughest questions wield no power. The men in charge anoint a public opponent of civil rights as the nation’s Attorney General and an oil tycoon as Secretary of State.
He slides into bed next to me, his left side far warmer than his right. His chilled skin presses in as he drinks from my heat. “Can you put your arm around me?” He asks.
“Sure, scoot down.”
A shifting. The sheets tangle and we kick ourselves back to softness. Dark lingers. December morning takes her sweet time stretching awake. We wait her out.
“It’s funny how the neck is shaped,” he says in his dreamy murmur.
“It’s like it’s designed exactly right so someone’s arm can fit underneath.”
He blocks the dryer, wild eyes and a grin. I duck, pump, shoot. His wet boxer shorts whip past his ear and splat against the back wall of the drum.
“Oh man!” He turns and yanks a shirt from the washer tub, untwisting its rope of an arm from a pillowcase. He cuts in front of me and pivots. Past my block, he fakes then scores. “Yes!” Fist in the air.