No Longer the Conductor

On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram I see pictures and posts from my friends who are parents of young children. They are all scrambling to adapt their families to life in various states of quarantine. I see the photos of crafts and outings. I read about frustration and being overwhelmed. Occasionally I have words of support to offer. I have to admit that along with the sympathy I feel, one of the emotions in my head as I read these posts is jealousy. These families are struggling to contain young ones who want to be busting out into the world. They are building new structures and patterns. In my family the strictures of quarantine are requiring everyone to sit in old, depressive patterns that we were trying to escape from. Last night my 19yo had a bit of a cry saying “It is silly. I’m at home all the time anyway, this shouldn’t feel any different.” But it does, because there is a world of difference between choosing to stay home because of depression and being required to stay home because of mandate. Yes we were already sitting in a pit with depression, but now pandemic has slapped a lid on top of the pit trapping them in the hole with the depression. All of our solutions were aimed at getting them out of the pit, now we have to learn how to conquer mental health while being cooped up with it.

When my kids were younger, this quarantine would have been exactly the sort of challenge that excites me and spurs my creativity. I would have been researching optimal schedules, planning crafts, feeling overwhelmed, feeling guilty for letting them watch too many movies, making them help clean the house. I would have lamented difficulties and found moments of joy. All of which is exactly what I see in my friend’s posts. Through all of that, I would have given myself a structure because “the kids need it.” I tried to do some of that last week. I declared that each day would have a Mom Project in the middle of it. It would be the fixed point in all of our days that would give us structure. They could then plan their other things around it. Day one my attempts caused a meltdown, which wasn’t surprising since any expectation often leads to meltdown around here. The following days went better, but by day four I had a conversation with my 17yo where it became clear that my young adults neither wanted nor needed the structure of a daily Mom Project. I was the one who desperately needed some control lever on our new life patterns. As soon as I realized the Mom Projects were more for me than for the kids, they stopped happening.

I am no longer the creator of my family culture, not in the ways that I used to be. We all create it for each other. We used to be a musical ensemble with me as the conductor. Now we’re a quintet that really needs me to step off to podium and pick up an instrument instead of pretending to be in charge. I miss being the conductor. It was my role for so long and was a comfortable space for me. I got to choose and manage and plan. My current job is much harder. I have far less illusion of control. I care deeply about the happiness of my children and their futures, but I have to step back and let them make choices. Sometimes I can see where the choices they are making don’t lead them in the direction they say they want to go. Then I have to decide whether to allow them to experience natural consequences or whether to place myself as an obstacle trying to redirect their course.

We were just finding a balance for my 17yo attending school, going to therapy, and managing household chores. Then pandemic, and suddenly teachers are emailing me and expecting me to step back into a schoolwork supervisory role that I had carefully and deliberately stepped out of. Every time they email it pokes me right in the hurting guilty place where I’m not at all certain I’m making the best choices for my child, who is almost not a child anymore, and who definitely would like me to back off. Wanting Mom to back off is an important and age appropriate stage of emotional development. He is claiming his own identity and becoming responsible for his own life. It is difficult to try to honor his need for me to back off while being barraged with emails asking me to step in. So strange to have to withstand the barrage and hold space to allow my son to choose to fail so that he can (hopefully, eventually) learn from that failure in ways that motivate him to build a future he wants.

So among the other griefs that pandemic has dished out to me, I’m also managing the ongoing grief of figuring out parenting. I need to acknowledge this. Then I need to spend some time in the rest of today consciously noticing the gifts that being trapped in quarantine is giving my family, and the things I love about my kids being young adults and not small anymore. There are joys here and I need to focus on them.

Scattered Thoughts

You’d think that since we did partial homeschooling for a year an a half before Covid-19 that switching back to schooling online would be easy. Instead I’m watching increased likelihood that my teen will drop out and do a GED instead.

***

I’ve read books and seen movies about people living in times of upheaval. Often it is a war, sometimes a Great Depression. Those fictionalized accounts focus on people whose lives intersect with the most dramatic parts of their setting, like the way that somehow Rose and Jack manage to see every exciting moment of the Titanic sinking during the course of the movie. I never understood before how much of living through a major world shift is boring. Boring mixed with inconvenience and sprinkled over with uncertainty.

***

I’m glad that my state government and health department have created a cohesive plan with action points which trigger based on scientific data. That feels like the right approach to me. This is also a moment when I’m glad to have a state government that is separate from the national government and a city government that is separate from the state government. It creates a world of political wrangling, but there are people out there making hard decisions as best they can. I also think that Utah has an advantage in that our Governor had already announced he’s not seeking re-election. That means his choices are not being tugged at by needing to make voters approve of him.

***

Some people are posting their experiences using number designators (IE: Quarrantine Day 3.) I have no idea which day was my day one. Do I start from the day when Howard and I started pulling back and self isolating? Do I start from the day I canceled a trip? Do I start from when NBA was canceled? Or church was canceled? Or school was canceled? I suppose I could start with the official Utah social distancing instructions. It all rolled out in pieces without a specific day as Day One. I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere in week two, but we might have rolled over into week three. I’m watching updates and graphs, wondering if my state will also end up with a Stay At Home order. Right now many people are still going to work and many businesses are open. We’re prepared for it.

***

I don’t like wondering if tightness in my chest is anxiety or illness. So far, anxiety.

Leadership

I wish that in this time of crisis my country had a president who would choose a course of action and stick with it by explaining and educating the public on why the course was chosen. Instead we have a weather vane of a president who changes his position with every shift in societal winds. Sometimes he shifts his position halfway through a sentence or a thought. I watch the rippling reactions on social media to his every sentence. In the past 24 hours he’s started suggesting that we need to re-open the economy and just take the hit in lives lost. I would not be surprised to see him swing back the other way as the death toll climbs. He’s already wobbled in his course multiple times, I expect that to continue.

I think we were always going to have a broad spectrum of reactions to this crisis, but I wish we had a national leader who would draw us together into one country. Instead we have to look to more local leaders for inspiration to pull us together. I’m not just talking about elected officials, but also those within communities who step up to calm, explain, exhort, and organize. None of us knows what the future will bring. Every choice has consequences. All we can do is try to think beyond ourselves and help each other as best we can.

Emotional Reactions and Grocery Shopping

I read a twitter announcement of another state issuing a Stay At Home order. The thing that was most interesting to me was the responses to the announcement. There people angry that the governor had decided to participate in “this unnecessary hoax and farce.” There were people asking fearful questions trying to determine how their particular situation was impacted. Some advocated ending the craziness by letting people go back to work. Some were doing the terrible math of cost benefit and were more afraid of permanent economic damage than the body count. Some were grateful that the step was finally being taken. Some praised the decision. I did not spend too much time reading these comments, the first two dozen were emblematic of what I expect the remaining thousands would also say. As I read, I felt so much sympathy for all of these frightened people whose worlds have become uncertain. Yes I even feel sympathy for the ones who are defiant and angry about disruptions they consider unnecessary. I’ve heard each of these opinions inside my own head as I look at the world around me. I think all of these things and then I choose which of those thoughts get expression in word and action. I hope for the sake of the angry defiant people that they get to keep their angry denial rather than being a person who ends up in the hospital or being a person who loses a loved one.

This morning my church issued a statement to remind all the missionaries who’ve been pulled back home about the importance of isolating for 14 days. Apparently a large mass of missionaries came home all at once and they were greeted at the airport by a large mass of family and friends who came to greet them. The perfect mix for a transmission event. I understand this behavior too, the longing to hold onto some fragments of the things we expected to have. Missionary families look forward to that reunion moment for years and it has always taken place at the airport. In fact the new construction at the airport is designed to allow for exactly that. It hasn’t hit everyone yet how much has changed, how much needs to change. On a smaller scale, my family had to decide whether my married daughter and her husband are allowed to come into our house bringing their different germ exposures with them. It is the same decision as greeting at the airport, do we get to continue doing this thing the way we’ve always done, or do we have to lose this thing we enjoyed. The answers are not easy because the emotional need to retain what we can is critically important.

I set my alarm this morning so that I could be at Walmart when the doors opened at 7am. There was a line outside of about 15 people. Everyone entered politely and most scurried to the toilet paper aisle. I went for baked goods because the first item on my list was flour. Flour wasn’t available, but I was able to get a pack of toilet paper and a pack of paper towels. One per customer. By 8am the small supply was all claimed. Supply chains are still functioning and still trying to adapt to the shifts in consumer behavior. Flour will probably become available again in a week or two, but I’ll probably have to be present when the doors open to be able to get it. I had yet another expensive shopping trip, because we’re still doing our initial stock up on essentials. Flour is the last item. After this the trips will be smaller because we’ll simply be replenishing.

And now I’m off to learn how to run a Zoom meeting because apparently I’m drafted to run tech for TypecastRPG while they can’t meet in person.

Predictions, Realizations, Trolleys, and Metaphors

Unprecedented, that is the word for the pandemic experience. It is a hard word to live with because it means we don’t have a map for what to expect. Humans like maps and patterns and predictability. If A happens then B is likely to follow since that is what usually happens. I see this longing for predictability in news posts and graphs. The graph of the current state of Covid-19 in the US is compared to graphs from other countries: Italy, China, Singapore. These were the unwitting trailblazers. Their experiences are the only signposts we have in the fog. “We’re mapped to Italy, but about 11 days behind.” “We can get the Singapore graph if we’re more stringent about isolating.” Only US culture, geography, and necessity means that our graph will be our own, perhaps similar to some of the other graphs, but still unique. It will be the job of future historian/statisticians to explain to us why our graph looked the way it did. Why some segments of population were so much more impacted than others. From this end of the experience, explanations aren’t yet possible, only predictions and decisions.

On a smaller scale, I’m watching realization play out in the minds and hearts of people. For me the reality that the future is forever different first hit on March 11. I’ve had to re-recognize that experience as I try to come to terms with it. As I face the fact that there is no going back to the way things were, not even if the virus magically vanished over night. For my daughter, newly married and living with her husband in her father-in-law’s house, the realization hit on March 15. I’m watching others make the realization now. And I’m in communication with people who are still making plans for June and July in ways that suggest they think that normality will be restored before then. I see posts from people and recognize the emotional place I was in a week ago or two weeks ago. I’m sure others read my posts and recognize my emotional stage as something they’ve already been through. This is a rolling, growing, expanding crisis. My neighbor is one week behind me emotionally, which means I can empathize and be kind in helping them deal with where they are at. Italy is ten days ahead of us in crisis, which gives us a signpost and means government leaders have graphs to argue over as they try to decide whether to hold course or to swerve yet again.

A thing I saw on twitter and retweeted feels very true to me:

“It’s a trolley problem, see… if we stay the course we’ll hit all those old people, if we swerve too hard we could hit all those poor people.”
“Wait, who tied all those poor people to the tracks?”
“Not now, we’re in a crisis!”
@PhilipGarboden

We’re all on the tracks waiting to see if a trolley will hit us, if it will hit someone else, if collective action has made the trolleys evaporate, or if there are multiple trolleys and impact is inevitable. Government is frantically trying to put together legislation to get people off the tracks and frantically trying to convince people to stay home and remove themselves from the tracks. Only time will tell which actions saved lives and which caused them to be lost.

I suspect I have entirely too many metaphors in this post, ships and fog and trolleys and signposts. Which pretty much matches my state of mind, so I’m going to let the writing stand as it is and go think about other things for a bit. We have an in-home church service to run later today and a Skype call with my daughter to arrange so that she feels less exiled from her family by quarantine. No matter what the situation is or what the outcome will be, we have to help each other through it. That is how we survive.

Grief as a Creative Process

We are all grieving these days. Not just a singled loss, but a multitude of losses both big and small. We grieve for the fast food we can’t eat right now and the hair cut we wish we could get. We grieve for the graduations canceled and the weddings made small, for trips that are no longer possible. We grieve for the separation from loved ones and separation from the lives we used to have. We grieve the future which has diverted so far from what we expected and is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

All of these griefs, and more, overlap and collide in my head to the point where I wish my thoughts would hold still just for a moment. Somehow it feels that if they would hold still, I could see all the griefs and work through them efficiently. That isn’t possible of course. Grief by its very nature is slippery and sloppy. It spills out of containment and colors things it wasn’t connected to before the spill.

In my presentation Structuring Life to Support Creativity I have a section where I talk about creative processes. Any creative process you have will impact any other creative process. Raising children is hugely creative work, which is why it can wreak havoc on other creative pursuits A day job which requires creative effort will make maintaining a creative avocation more difficult. Grief is a creative process. It is the means by which we adapt and change ourselves and our lives. It deconstructs what we used to have and gives us pieces to create ourselves anew. The larger the grief, the more transformed we must become in order to pass through it. I can’t curl myself tight and move through quickly or efficiently. Instead I have to be open to the feeling of it. I have to cry and rage and despair. I have to let it permeate who I am and slop over into places I’m not sure it belongs. In this process the grief becomes part of the fabric of who I am and I carry it with me as I move forward.

At the beginning of this year, I found an image to carry with me (or perhaps to carry me.) It was a cloak of peace and joy. Now I think that grief also needs to be woven into this cloak. Thus the cloak becomes a way for me to carry that grief and acknowlege it while still leaving my hands free to do important work. By carrying my grief with intertwined with peace and joy, everything works together to shield me against anxiety and fear while I transform. Over time painful grief becomes wistfulness and remembrance of what might have been. Also I remind myself how all of the hardest parts of last year were directly causative to the brightest joys of the year. This grief-causing difficulty is source for future joy I can’t see yet.

At least that is the story I tell myself this morning as I try to let go of the way life used to be and accept the realities of living in a pandemic. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll need a different image and a different story. That’s okay too.

Managing Food Resources

I went to the store today because I needed to pick up prescriptions. I also went with a list of things to acquire if I could. We’ve changed the way we eat and plan meals. That changes the ways we need to shop and store food. I have to think about shopping differently. I have to choose what to buy using different criteria. Any time anyone wants to eat, we’re pausing and using up leftovers or cooking from scratch rather than defaulting to our habits of easy frozen food or fast food. Food is a fundamental portion of our lives and right now it is exhausting because we have to think about every step. In a couple more weeks we’ll have built habits which make our new food reality as easy (or as difficult) as it was before. As I re-calibrate our food management, I can’t help but feel that what we’re doing now is closer to what we should have been doing all along. It is going to be less wasteful and bring us together more.

We’re settling in for the long haul, assuming that food availability will vary from week to week. I’m also building our food system around the belief that money is only going to get tighter for us. Our finances aren’t directly impacted yet, but they will be and we’ll be better off if we cut out unnecessary waste right now.

A Hard Thing and a Happy Thing

Today I’m tired. Not sleepy, though I have been short on sleep due to anxiety, my heart is tired. My brain is tired. I have this creeping desire to abandon all these new habits because they are hard and retreat back into old familiar habits. I can’t of course. The world around me has shifted in ways that no longer allow my familiar habits. I have to deal with the tired until the new ways of being become my new set of familiar habits.

Yesterday was the official beginning of distance learning for my one kid who is still in high school. It didn’t go well. Rather it didn’t go at all because the kid looked at all the emails and had an overwhelming feeling of “there is no point to all of this.” Then he closed the emails and did none of the work. Him not doing assignment work is par for the course, it is what we’ve been struggling with for years. When he was in the classroom, he absorbed learning just by being there even though he was failing the classes by not doing the homework. Now it is all homework all the time. I’ve no idea how to teach a 17 year old to care about homework. Prior to this month he could have dropped out and gotten a job, but now we’re quarantined and all the jobs he was qualified for (fast food) have been canceled. So that is my hard thing for today. I’ve no idea how to map a road to self-sufficient adulthood for my young adult children. All the old maps are canceled.

My happy thing for today is food. I’m really liking the ways that Howard and I are banding together to manage our food resources so that I only go to a grocery store once per week. We’re paying attention to what we have in the fridge. We’re cooking from scratch. We’re eating left overs before they go bad. Howard has performed several instances of kitchen hedge wizardry where he grabs left overs and random ingredients and then through alchemical magic created the best foods ever. We had amazing pulled pork enchiladas last night and amazing beef stew on Sunday. This food management and cooking piece is lovely and I want to keep it even if other things go back to “normal.”

And Now Earthquakes

Because this past week hasn’t been unsettling enough, Utah had an earthquake this morning. I think the first quake woke me, but I didn’t realize it. I felt the aftershocks though. I’m pleased that my California upbringing had me correctly identify that the aftershock I felt was around 3.5 and nearby. The bigger quake was 5.7 and all the earthquakes were centered in Magna, Utah which is about 40 miles away. I actually find these small-ish earthquakes comforting. Small quakes release pressure in the fault and mean that a big quake is less likely to happen.

Funny how ingrained earthquake identification is in my brain, and how it doesn’t really panic me. The rest of my house slept through it except one of the cats who was wandering around looking puzzled when I got up to confirm earthquake.

Newsletter

This is the newsletter I sent out to my readers today. I wanted to post it here as well. If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter so it arrives in your inbox, you can do that by clicking here.

Dear Readers,

This morning my alarm went off and I rolled out of bed. It is never easy to roll out of the warmth of my blankets and my sleep, but morning called. Or beeped. Whichever. I was three steps toward the bathroom when I remembered that the world is changed. I no longer have to wake my son and feed him breakfast before taking him to school. That was last week. This week everything is canceled, and teachers are scrambling to figure out how to teach children who aren’t allowed to come to the school building. This morning the alarm was to remind me to put the garbage cans by the curb. The task had popped into my head as I climbed in bed and I’d set an alarm to remind me to do it before the first truck arrived. We have no patterns yet in this newly changed world. No habits to remind me to take cans to the curb. It is not so simple as applying our summer habits, though many of those will be adapted and put to use. I sat with my son before bedtime last night as he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” I looked at him and answered that none of us do. The whole world is off the map, swimming in uncertainty.

The sound of my rolling garbage cans was loud in the crisp morning air. My cul de sac had none of its usual morning activity. No one leaving for work, no kids off to school, just me adding my cans to the line of cans. A strange mix of normal garbage day and extra ordinary quarantine. On the way back to my house I saw a blue jay feather. There was no mass of feathers to testify of a feline attack, just a single blue feather laying perfectly centered on my doormat like a gift that had been left there on purpose. I carried it with me into the house and carefully taped it into my journal. Gifts should be acknowledged and honored even when it is the accidental gift of a dropped feather.

Among the hundreds (thousands?) of things I’ve seen written about living in various states of quarantine, the one that spoke most to me was a poem by Lynn Ungar titled Pandemic. In it she asks us to treat quarantine as the most sacred of times, a time to draw inward and connect more deeply with those closest to us rather than scattering ourselves thinly across the world. Her words are more beautiful than my summary of them. You should go read them when you’re done with this letter. I first read Ungar’s words on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week. I know it was during the first flurry of cancellations, back when I was agonizing whether to inconvenience a group of 50 writers by requesting to give my presentation via Skype rather than boarding a plane to California to teach them in person. That decision seemed so hard to make six days ago. Now the entire San Francisco Bay Area, including my parent’s house where I would have stayed, are under orders to shelter in place. I thought about Ungar’s poem on Sunday when those members of my household who still do church gathered together for prayer and sacrament. We fumbled around trying to figure out how we wanted to arrange it. The result was an intimate spiritual experience that I look forward to repeating next week. A gift dropped into our lives like a bright blue feather on the doorstep.

Today the poem reminds me to step away from the endless cycle of updates both personal and governmental, and to think of the accidental gifts this new life bestows. I have a unique opportunity to focus on the people in my house. We get to find ways to tend to each other while all the activities which were helping mental health and growth are canceled. We will find new ways to be healthy, new ways to engage with the world and with each other. We invent reasons to get up in the morning rather than sleeping until afternoon and seek ways to engage with our new existence. It begins with making lists of tasks that are still available to us. Then from those lists we will craft a flexible schedule that sits comfortably on our lives and doesn’t require a lot of will power to maintain. The schedule will fall apart of course. First drafts always require revision. From the pieces of that first schedule we will make a new one. The process will repeat until we have new habits and new rhythms of being.

Our house is fortunate in that our income is not disrupted yet. Howard and I already worked from home. We have enough resources both financial and physical to carry us through the coming months. So while the world is extra ordinary around us, we go about our regular tasks of telling stories. Howard draws comics, we both work on the next Schlock book, and I write my newsletter. I hope that you also have a place of relative security in this newly uncertain world. I also hope that you find gifts within it, either smaller ones like my blue jay feather, or larger ones like special times with those closest to you.
Wishing you wellness and joy,
Sandra

If you’d like to put a gift or two you’ve found into the comments, I’d love to read about them.