Beginnings and Ends (an Announcement)

I thought about calling this post “Ends and Beginnings,” but where’s the fun in that?

Because really, I’m here to announce a beginning to you. It’s an overdue announcement, too – of a beginning that has been unfolding for nearly six months (no, I’m not pregnant), and has been dominating my mind and my schedule (as much as five children will allow) for at least four months.

Friends, I have started a podcast.

podcasting equipment on desk

Now, those who follow me on Facebook or Instagram will already know this. (My sincere apologies, blog readers, that you’re the last to know. You’ll understand why in a moment.)

But so far, very few people know the story behind the podcast’s genesis, or how much it has already changed my life. You see (as longtime readers have probably already gathered), it is SO HARD for me to keep up with regular writing.

I love writing. I love sitting down to a blank page and sorting out my thoughts through my fingers. I love finding just the right way to put something. I love sending my ideas out into the world, in my own, deliberately-put voice.

But writing is such a struggle for me. I usually feel like I have to wrestle the words into place, through many drafts and dozens of interruptions and much angst. I am a perfectionist. I require silence to write. (Noise shuts down my brain. Highly inconvenient for both writing and motherhood.) I am sloooow.

So as much as I love writing, and this blog, I have rarely been able to keep up a decent posting schedule. Try as I might, I seem not to be able to stick with it for much more than two-week spurts.

And yet I have felt so drawn to the thing! With every fiber of my being, I have felt called to speak out on politics, society, faith, morality, motherhood, and various combinations thereof. And for so many years, I have thought that writing was the only way I could answer that call.

But then this spring I read Jennifer Fulwiler’s latest book, Your Blue Flame: Drop the Guilt and Do What Makes You Come Alive.

I have been following Jen for ten years now, so I will admit that I didn’t think I had much more to learn from her. She gives a lot of encouragement to people (particularly moms) to find their “blue flame” – the activity that enables them to use their creativity and passion to add something to the world.

But I already knew what mine was! And it wasn’t working! I was miserable, because here I knew I had this call, and I was unable to answer it. It felt like mental and spiritual torture.

To add insult to injury, Jen always says how your blue flame – though it requires time and work – should give you energy, better enabling you to engage in the rest of your life. But mine most definitely did not give me energy. Writing, though I loved it, left me drained and cranky. It made me a worse mother, and more dissatisfied with my life as a whole.

So I began the book expecting to feel as hopeless about the situation as ever. But as I made my way through it, the unfolding began.

In particular, Jen’s seven questions in chapter three helped me to shift my perspective, to consider that maybe I’d been going about things the wrong way. Questions like: “List all the times you’ve felt truly alive,” “What is something your friends hate to do that you love to do? “What are some occasions when you’ve helped another person?” “What did you do for fun when you were a kid?”

Every single one of my seven answers included the word, “talking.”

Talking, not writing. I never dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid. I never tore through notebook after notebook in my teenage years. I never loved the writing parts of my jobs. I loved talking.

All of those things I felt called to do, all of those ideas I longed to put out into the world, all of those questions I wanted to ask – maybe I was supposed to do them through talking, not writing.

What about a podcast? Because I’m a voracious podcast listener, I had occasionally thought of podcasting before, but I’d always brushed aside the thought: too much work, too much money, “Who do I think I am, anyhow?” (What a sad thought to have. I’ll admit it’s really the one that holds me back.)

But Jen’s book got me to think seriously about the idea. I started researching, I started jotting down ideas, I started reaching out to friends for feedback. And a couple of months later – microphone and software and a general plan in-hand – I launched it:

More Than Politics

I consider More Than Politics a podcast for those of us who want something more than what we’ve come to expect from politics – and from our political discourse.

In it, I aim to provide context on today’s political issues and environment, have civil discussions on the issues of the day, and encourage a political discourse that builds up rather than tears down. Listen to my introductory episode for the fullest explanation of what I hope to do with the podcast.

I have published thirteen episodes so far, in which I speak to a number of friends both old and new, and which touch on the pandemic, race, international politics, abortion, political parties, the election, executive power, the Supreme Court, running for office, and more.

A fourteenth episode, with Laura Kelly Fanucci, about how to speak to children about politics and current events, will post this week. I am so excited for you to hear it.

And really, I’m just excited in general. Because this podcasting thing seems to suit me so much better than writing ever did.

Blogging, I’d be lucky to produce fourteen posts in a year. Podcasting, I’ve been able to produce fourteen episodes in three months – posting one, sometimes two, episodes per week. It’s been a lot of work. (And yes, my house looks like I have been pouring work into something other than housekeeping.) But podcasting seems to be work that I am better suited to than writing, and I am finding it so fulfilling.

I love thinking up new topics, I love connecting with leads, I especially love the conversations themselves, and I even love editing (a task I find that I can do surrounded by a little household activity, which I could never tolerate while writing). It’s been pretty amazing.

And yes – just as Jen promised – this activity actually gives me energy. My house may be a mess, but I am happier (and more energetic) looking after it, and my family, than I have ever been. Don’t get me wrong – this podcasting thing has been super hard work – but it feels like it is bearing fruit in me, and I hope it will bear fruit in others too.

So that’s my big, new beginning! And with beginnings, come ends.

The beginning of More Than Politics is likely the end of These Walls as it has been. The site will stay, but I’ll probably only be posting podcast-related content. Maybe this will change in a few years when my kids are all in school. But for now, I’m just going to focus on the podcast. I am so grateful to have found a creative outlet that works for me in the stage of life I’m actually in.

There are other ends, too. I feel compelled to wrap up my little “Isolation” series on the blog, but of course there’s no neat way to do it. This pandemic drags on. Life has not returned to normal. I am long past believing there will be a clearly-defined “end” to the thing.

Our kids (other than the preschooler) are still home from school. (Virtual learning FTW.) We’re still not seeing much family. We’re still not doing sports or camps or in-person extracurriculars. We took no vacation. We’re not going out to eat. Our kids haven’t been in stores in seven months. I haven’t been in a store for anything but essentials.

We are home, home, home, home.

But we are doing a few things here, at home. We see my parents every now and then. Our kids are playing outside with a few neighbors. Between all of our yards the kids probably have five or six acres to wander, and it’s been pretty magical to see what they get up to. Give kids a bit of freedom and soon enough, they’ll create their own world.

That’s a train. Can’t you tell?

For now, at least, we’ve seen an end to the overly-busy, overly-scheduled, 21st Century model of family life. But even that, somehow, feels like it could be a beginning too.

~~~

I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast! You can find More Than Politics on all major podcast apps, or you can listen directly from the website. If you like it, please leave a rating or review, and please share it! And if you have ideas for potential topics or guests, please comment here or email me at julie.walsh.thesewalls@gmail.com. Thank you for your support!

Focus on Him

I’ve been quiet here, maybe for too long. My mind has been full-to-brimming of thoughts about George Floyd’s death and its aftermath, but they have all seemed insufficient.

This will be insufficient too.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about our reactions to such events. Or at least my reactions and those of my fellows. (By which I mean white, conservative-leaning Americans.)

I think we white conservatives have gotten into the habit of thinking we have to hold on to something in these moments. We feel like we have to grasp at something we can be right about. We focus on the riots because they’re an opportunity for us to make a point. We focus on the good cops because they’re an opportunity for us to diminish the importance of the bad ones. We feel compelled to salvage our collective reputation.

In previous iterations of this police killing/riot ensuing phenomenon (how terrible that it should be a phenomenon), I fell into this pattern myself. I focused on the riots. Not because I didn’t think the killings were awful, but because some sort of face-saving instinct kicked in. I didn’t want to be grouped with the bad guy. And it was easier for me not to think of myself as being on the side of the bad guy when I focused my attention on the riots.

This time, by the grace of God or the honing of my conscience or some other happy development, I have been freed of that instinct. I have not felt compelled to diminish the horror of a killing by comparing it to a separate, if related, tragedy.

This time, I’ve been able to say “George Floyd’s death was awful,” and stop at that. I haven’t had to add a “but.” Not, “but the damage is awful too,” Not, “but the riots are a disgrace.” Not “but people are taking advantage of the situation.” It’s just been: “George Floyd’s death was awful.”

I think more of my fellows should try to do the same.

When you think of it, there’s not much point to us focusing on the riots. It’s not like our Facebook posts are going to stop them. We can’t tweet them away. Unless we ourselves happen to be police officers or elected officials or community leaders in the affected areas (or unless we happen to be friends with rioters), nothing we say on the subject is going to matter. It’s not constructive. It doesn’t build up or change a thing.

There is nothing you or I can do about the rioting. But there is something we can do about the racism.

We should keep the focus on Mr. Floyd’s death not only because it’s the decent thing to do, but because it’s where we can be constructive. The racism that contributed to Mr. Floyd’s death (and Mr. Arbery’s and Ms. Taylor’s and so many others’ deaths) doesn’t belong solely to one person. It belongs to a society, and we’re part of and responsible for that society. We have a role in changing it.

That’s a big task and I won’t be so naïve or presumptive as to imply that you or I can do the bulk of the work required. But we can surely do some of it.

I can begin with myself. I can mourn. I can feel the pain of the situation. I can think on the family and friends of Mr. Floyd, what they lost and what he will miss. I can learn. I can pay attention to the voices of black Americans who speak out against racism. I can read essays and books and watch documentaries about the history of racism in this country and the experience of Americans facing racism today. I can seek context. I can examine my conscience, sitting honestly with myself to discern my motivations, my biases, my contributions to racism in our society, my sins. I can pray. I can meditate on all the pain and sin and ask the Lord for healing. I can make mental adjustments so that the next time I’m faced with an awful example of racism, I can deny that face-saving instinct and instead react in a holy, loving way.

I can continue with my nearest family, friends, and neighbors. I can speak up when I witness comments and actions born of racism. (And let’s not fool ourselves that we never witness such things. I’m sure we could all make lists of them.) I can talk to my kids about racism and help them to understand their role it combatting it. I can be purposeful in setting a good example for them in my actions and words. I can remain committed to fairness, and stalwart against racism, in my personal conversations and social media interactions. I can, prayerfully and purposefully, write posts here.

I can next (and I’ll admit that I haven’t yet) move on to actions directed at my broader community and its leadership. I can write letters, I can make phone calls, I could protest. I could, I’m sure, do so much more than I can currently imagine.

But that’s all got to start somewhere. And for me (and I think for you) it should start with remembering and mourning and focusing on the human being at the heart of these weeks’ events – a father, a son, a brother, a beloved child of God – a black man named George Floyd.

P.S. That photo there? I didn’t know which to use. No photo I’ve taken can convey the heaviness of these past twelve days. But this one, taken on a walk this past weekend, represents to me the inner struggle against racism. I prayed on that walk. I mourned. My mind struggled with all that has happened and will happen. And that’s as good as I’ve got right now.

Litany of Sadness (Isolation: Week 8)

Can I tell you how sad I am?

There’s so much to be sad about these days. There’s so much to push your shoulders downward, to sink that sorrow deep down into your bones. The news. Fear. Conflict. Blame. A phone call. Loss. Worry. The past. Hate. Mistrust. The future.

The thoughts hang heavy and dark, like last week’s rain clouds. (Last week, Week Eight of our coronavirus isolation, was mostly dark and cool and wet – fitting weather for sadness.)

Let me tell you what I’m sad about.

I’m sad about our coronavirus dead. About lives taken too soon, about deaths that went unwitnessed. I’m sad for all those who longed to be with their loved ones, who didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

I’m sad about our other dead, too. About those who suffered at home, who were too scared to go to the hospital. I’m sad about those who felt too desperate and hopeless to go on. I’m sad for those who must mourn without funerals, who won’t have anything resembling closure.

I’m sad about Ahmaud Abery. About his future and promise, stolen. About the fear and desperation he must have felt in his final moments.

I’m sad for Ahmaud’s mother. For his family and friends. For his community at home and across the nation. I’m sad that so many people live in fear of what others might do to them because of their skin color. I’m sad for all those black mothers who are terrified to send their children out into the world.

I’m sad that lynchings can still happen in 2020. I’m sad they ever happened at all. I’m sad to think of all those victimized by them. I’m sad to think of all those who gathered to watch. I’m sad to think that any person could do such a thing to another.

I’m sad for those who are sick. For those who sweat and shake, who watch their temperatures rise. For those who struggle to breathe.

I’m sad for those who have lost jobs. For those who can’t pay the rent. For those who struggle to feed their families. For those whose prospects have evaporated.

I’m sad for those who have lost business. For those who contemplate shutting down, who may never again find themselves whole, financially or professionally.

I’m sad for those at their breaking points.

I’m sad for the churches and charities that want to help, but may themselves be undone by this crisis.

I’m sad for those of us who long not just for community, but for Communion. I’m sad for all the millions of souls without access to the sacraments.

I’m sad for our priests and ministers and rabbis and imams.

I’m sad for our nurses and doctors and medical technicians.

I’m sad for our emergency personnel. For our frontline workers who have never before been considered frontline.

I’m sad about the communities and families divided by this crisis. About the hard feelings. About the misunderstandings, the miscommunications, the blame. About the desperation and fear that drive some to want to extend lockdowns and others to want to end them.

I’m sad for those who seek answers in conspiracy theories. For those who push and profit from them. For those who fall victim to them. For those who are harmed physically, emotionally, or reputationally by them.

I’m sad for our children, who won’t get to walk into their classrooms or hug their teachers again this year. I’m sad that school will look different next year, too. I’m sad that our kids will have to keep learning under a cloud.

I’m sad for their teachers, who we can’t thank in person.

I’m sad that I can’t see my grandparents, that I can’t touch my parents. I’m sad that what I want most right now – physical contact with those I love – can’t be made safe by loosening shutdown restrictions.

I’m sad about all those little things you hardly dare group with everything above: missed school plays and concerts, field trips and field days. Missed playdates and lunch dates and glasses of wine with friends. The prospect of a lonely summer.

~~~

Toward the end of last week, I sat in our front yard at sunset. I stared at the trees against the darkening sky and I recited this litany of sadness like a prayer.

I am so sad, Lord. There is so much to be sad about.

Lord, allow me unite my sadness to yours.

Lord, have mercy.

Photo of sky in evening

My Mild Dystopia (Isolation: Weeks 6 and 7)

In thinking over the past two weeks, all these images flash to my mind – moments that resemble something normal, but aren’t quite. They’re off. They’re distorted. They’re like glancing at some mildly dystopian version of my life.

I dress up my daughter to be flower girl in a friend’s wedding, but instead of strapping her into the car for the ride to the church, I take pictures of her in our backyard. I post them on social media, congratulating the bride in my caption.

I change my daughter back out of the dress before she can get it dirty. She wears it for maybe thirty minutes.

The author's daughter in a flower girl dress

I drive my son to the doctor’s office for his fourth case of Strep in two months. We arrive, I pull into a special parking space, and I call the office. A few minutes later a masked, protective-gown-wearing doctor comes out to us. He opens the back door of my car, tests my son for Strep, and walks back into the building.

This is our second pandemic visit for Strep. The first time, a week into our isolation, that doctor looked scared. This time, six weeks into our isolation, this doctor seems lonely. He comes out to report the test results and stands there for a while, talking. He acts like he doesn’t want us to leave.

I go to the grocery store for the first time in five weeks. I’m worried about how different it will be inside, so I sit in the car for a while. I finally work up the courage to go in by repeatedly saying “You can do this!” out loud, to myself, alone in my car. I don’t even feel ridiculous.

Our dryer breaks and I’m not even that annoyed about it. My kids are pretty much just wearing pajamas all day anyway. It’s not the worst timing to only be able to wash as many loads as you can dry on a couple of wobbly racks.

I come across an old photo in a Facebook memory of my son asleep in a grocery cart. The kid is cute, but what I can’t take my eyes off of is the huge package of paper towels behind him. They seem decadent. It feels like a great privilege to be able to buy a honking package of paper towels without thinking anything of it.

The author's son asleep in a grocery cart

A few days later, my husband walks in from the store with an identical package. He says he can’t believe he got so lucky.

My parents stop by to drop off some things for us. They are careful; we are careful. We give air hugs and blow kisses. We remind the kids (over and over) to give Grandma and Grandpa plenty of space. They handle it well, except for the moment when the six-year-old accidentally touches Grandpa’s shirt. The adults tense up and the boy melts down. We’ve told the kids not to touch Grandma and Grandpa so as to protect them, in case we have the coronavirus. He wants to protect Grandpa. He’s distraught to think of his mistake.

A few minutes later, we say our goodbyes and watch them pull out of our driveway. I hate that I can’t hug my parents. I hate that my son was upset by something so simple as touching his grandpa’s shirt.

~~~

I’m finding my emotional capacity to be very thin these days. It takes so little to throw me off. A week ago, I was concerned that a dear friend might have Covid19 and a cloud came over me. Everything was grayer, darker, more scary and worrisome. News reports took on more weight; social media interactions became more strained.

But then she tested negative for the virus and the world brightened.

Other, smaller anxieties weigh on me too, almost unacknowledged. Then they’re relieved and suddenly I realize they’ve colored my whole day.

In the past two weeks I’ve had a few really hard days and a couple of good ones. Last Thursday was a good day. It was cool, dark, and rainy, which I sometimes find to be the weather that heals me best. I like the quiet and calm.

Schoolwork went well that day. Two children had Google class meetings, three napped, and three built forts in the family room. Dinner was warm and fattening and satisfying. I served it to the kids picnic-style, in front of a movie. I made a blackberry tart for dessert.

In the Kindergarten Google meeting, one boy showed off his new kitten. One girl hugged her stuffed horse. Another announced that, “My tadpoles are growing lots of legs!” A week earlier, my Kindergartener had attended his Google meeting as Batman.

The author's son dressed up as Batman

Outside these walls, the world sure seems scary. Not just because of the coronavirus: because of the economy and the unrest its decline seems to be generating. Because of division, deepening every day. Because of others’ fears, driving them to blame and cast aspersions and seek solace in storylines that confirm their beliefs. Because of my own fears, my own tendency to blame and cast aspersions (in my mind, if not out loud), my own drive to seek solace in my preferred storylines.

Inside these walls, life can be overwhelming. It can be loud and busy and messy and just too much for me some days. But it is also so, so good. These kids are creative and resilient and all-around amazing. I am enjoying having them all around, all the time, more than I could have predicted. I am learning to better love my home. I am paying attention to how my husband loves us – working his day job, doing the shopping, building the kids a playset.

As much as I mourn what’s been visited on this world of ours, I am so grateful for the small, plain gifts this time of isolation has given us. They are consolations for my mild dystopia.

Family outside

That is an “air hug.” Social-distancing norms were respected.

The Novel Normal (Isolation: Week 5)

On Sunday I drove for the first time in nearly four weeks. It felt strange. My body was unused to moving along the earth at high speed, cradled in a chair of fake leather, carried in a machine of metal. Every hill and curve seemed exaggerated. I struggled to stay in my lane.

The experience made me think about how we’ve grown used to something so unnatural – our bodies transported, quickly, across surfaces that would take ages to cover on foot. A hundred miles by car, a thousand miles by plane. We travel farther from our homes to get to Ikea than many throughout human history ever traveled in their lifetime.

I was driving to our parish to drop off a casserole I’d made for Our Daily Bread. (Parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore take turns contributing casseroles to the program. Ours does so once a month.) I was glad for the excuse to be out of the house, out on those hills and curves. My brain hardly knew where to settle – even the familiar seemed novel.

I was glad for the excuse to be on the church grounds again. There was all that red brick. There were the flowers and the trees in bloom. There was where we should have walked from Mass to the kids’ faith formation classes. There was where my son should have posed for First Communion pictures and there was where my daughter should have pranced about in her flower girl dress.

There was the building that held the tabernacle that held Him.

On my way home, I stopped in the middle of the road (no other cars to be seen – I promise) to take pictures of a landscape I can’t see from my house. Fields, barns, cattle, a lovely little family graveyard surrounded by a stone wall.

Normal and novel, all of it.

I came home to a family ready to sit down with me to watch online Mass. This time we watched Bishop Barron’s. A previous time, my four-year-old asked if “that pink thing” was part of Bishop Barron’s head.

Picture of Bishop Barron celebrating Mass

All seven of us snuggled on the sofa. Two were very wiggly, passed from mother to father to brother and back again. Normal Mass behavior, a novel way to be experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to think of how to characterize last week, Week Five of our coronavirus isolation. I called the first week a week for shock and the second a week for mourning. I didn’t call weeks three or four anything; they were too scattered. I was too scattered. But in considering week five, I think I’ve got to call it the week for beginning to feel normal.

Not that we went back to feeling the normal we felt before this all began. No, I think last week was when we began to forget that old normal and reside in the new one.

Last week, Week Five, I worked on the house and the meals and I helped the kids with their schooling. One day I’d do well with the former, another I’d do well with the latter. (Not both on the same day. Never both on the same day.) By the end of the week we’d achieved all the essentials, and that was good enough.

Last week the preschooler stopped asking when she could go back to school. The older kids stopped expecting the freedom to play all day. I stopped expecting my beloved afternoon quiet time. We all seemed to have grown used to this novel, unnatural normal.

Except for in those moments. There are still those moments that seem to hold especially still, that last a little longer, that are so very novel they ring louder and clearer than anything else.

I experienced one of them while watching my children participate in their classes’ Google meetings last week. They’re really pretty sweet to witness, until they’re heartbreaking. Kindergarteners are tiny and adorable and attend while holding stuffed animals. You could die from the cuteness. Second-graders are so happy to see each other! They show off their pets. They radiate joy.

But the fourth-graders. Fourth-graders are old enough to have a decent grasp on what’s going on. They ask questions about the crisis. They want to know if they’ll go back to school this year, whether they’ll have to go to summer school, and how they’ll get back the stuff they left in their desks and lockers. One wants to know what it feels like to have the coronavirus.

I hear that question and the moment holds really, really still.

Another moment comes when I read on Monday (bleeding into Week Six here) about Governor Hogan’s acquisition of 5,000 coronavirus test kits from South Korea. I’m stunned. I read that the kits have the capacity to run half a million coronavirus tests – “roughly equal to the total amount of testing that has been completed by four of the top five states in America combined” – and I cry. The moment seems to take every feeling that has deadened over the course of this crisis and whisper life back into them.

I have been convinced that our kids will not go back to school this year, that we won’t see family or friends through the summer and maybe into the fall, and that the beginning of the next school year could be altered too. If that proves not to be the case, I am going to be a blubbering, grateful mess. Even now, at just the hope of it, I cry a messy thank you to the Hogans.

It is strange to be sitting in my room crying with joy and hope at the prospect of returning to our normal lives – our real normal, the one we’ve left behind.

I soak in that still, loud, clear, life-giving moment before getting up and walking downstairs, back into the novel normal.

Picture of the view from the author's car

 

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Your Moment Does Not Define You

Have you ever seen a flock of starlings? They fly in concert, soaring and swooping together to create the most amazing shapes, like some sort of fluid sculpture. They look like waves, or leaves on the wind, or mercury spilled on a table. They’re mesmerizing.

The image sprung to my mind last night while I was thinking about how complicated and tortured and breathtakingly beautiful people can be.

Passion, fear, resentment, pain, reckoning, love, redemption, humility, kindness – we’re capable of them all. A single person can experience each in turn, acting out some soaring, swooping shape of emotion and action over the course of her life, or even a short span of time.

I see one person indulge his anger and resentment for years, nurturing it, acting it out, encouraging others to do the same. Until one day something breaks in him. A word of love breaks through. And his struggle, though still there, has taken a new shape.

Another person, angry at the first, doesn’t recognize that she follows his swoop. Anxiety and resentment drive her downward. She has not yet pulled up.

One person glides along gradually, her experience an undulating line. Another has spent her whole life swirling and diving, soaring and rising. She knows more pain than most. But she also knows salvation.

We are not static creatures. We grow and change and make mistakes. We learn. We seek. We crash and get back up again.

We must remember, when encountering others in the world, that each is on his own course. The person you’ve just clashed with may be on a downward swoop. He may be in a hard place. But he’s not done. That moment does not define him.

You’re not done either. Your moment does not define you. You’re somewhere on your waving, winding way, heading up or down or around.

We do not ride a rollercoaster. Our course isn’t set in steel, devised by a team of engineers for maximum fright. We soar and swoop like starlings. Our course is adjusted by the wind, the landscape, the creatures around us, but we fly it. We have agency. We can choose whether, over a stretch of dips and leaps and swirls, we are heading toward the heavens or the earth.

People, man. People can be stubborn and complicated and difficult, but back up a bit, take it all in, and you’ll see the beauty too. Breathtaking.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Walter Baxter / A wedge of starlings. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)*

*This is my first time posting anything from Wikimedia Commons. If I did it wrong, I’m happy to correct my mistake!

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Past Everybody Else’s Bedtime (Isolation: Weeks 3 and 4)

I don’t know what to tell you about the past two weeks – weeks Three and Four of our coronavirus isolation.

I was going to tell you about my Lenten sacrifice, the one where I gave up wasting time and indulging in escapism. How I gave up escapism just before the world turned upside down and the schools closed and grocery shelves emptied and suddenly all I wanted to do was escape.

How I felt like God had rounded up all my weaknesses and insecurities and thrust them in my face.

I could tell you about my quickly-trashed “homeschooling” schedule and the fifteen million computer programs my kids are supposed to use to do their schoolwork. How I’ve only very slowly progressed from a “This is never going to work” mindset to a “If we work really hard, maybe we can do the bare minimum” mindset.

And how I truly mean the “we” in that sentence, because for Kindergarteners, second-graders, and fourth-graders, remote learning requires great, big, heaping helpings of parental involvement. Which is hard to fit in when you’re cooking three meals a day and running the dishwasher twice a day and changing five diapers a day and trying to keep laundry moving so you don’t drown in it.

And how I don’t know how teleworking parents are managing it. Except I imagine that most of them have fewer than five kids, and maybe it’s easier to telework and oversee remote learning when you’re not doing it with five kids.

And how, when I stop to think about that, I experience a brief, wistful daydream of an easier, more peaceful, one- or two-child quarantine. For about five seconds, at which point I remember that I have never been more thankful for our large family than I am now, during this pandemic.

You should see these kids, rolling around the house and yard like a pack of laughing, half-drunk rugby players. They are enjoying each other so much. They are loving each other so much, growing in kindness and consideration for each other even as they howl about somebody knocking over somebody else’s Legos.

I feel like I’m getting a glimpse at how much they’ll enjoy each other as goofball teenagers (and hopefully adults?) and I am so very grateful for it.

I could tell you about the playset Brennan is building for the kids or the bunkbed he just finished or how he keeps having to detach and reattach the sink in the powder room because plumbing is horrible. (This weekend I literally heard him say, “Die, sink!” to the thing. That’s how bad this has gotten.)

I could tell you about our low-key but lovely commemorations of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the latter of which happened to be my birthday. (Good Friday during a pandemic! Probably the least cheerful day for a birthday, but blessedly quiet and pleasant nonetheless.)

I could tell you about our unexpectedly sweet Easter, and how much more relaxing a holiday can be when you’re not allowed to go anywhere.

I could tell you how we seem to not be the sort who can pull off liturgically-themed crafts or foods or activities, but we do ask a lot of questions and talk a lot of things through, and I’m beginning to see the fruits of that in my kids’ religious devotions. And how amazingly hopeful that makes me feel.

I could tell you about the things that are not making me hopeful right now, all coronavirus related. The continued inadequacy of testing, the upswing in grocery workers falling ill with the virus, the dearth of solid plans for reopening the economy. (Plans, not dates. There seem to be plenty of dates, but few plans for making them workable.)

I could tell you about any number of these things.

I could write for hours and not be done telling you all I have to say. But these days, from the moment I wake until the moment everyone else falls asleep, my time seems to belong to someone other than me.

So here I sit, in the still, sweet, quiet of Past Everybody Else’s Bedtime, and I try to just say something.

Happy Easter, friends. He is risen! He has defeated death, and we have hope.

Isolation: Week Two

You know it, I know it: I was never going to last long at daily blogging. But maybe I can do weekly entries about our lives during this time of coronavirus isolation? It’s clear now, anyway, that we should be measuring this pandemic in weeks, even months – not days.

That first week, the one I already blogged about, felt like a week for shock. Shock at what we were beginning, shock at how swiftly our lives had changed, a million little shocks to the system as we tried to adjust to our new reality.

Last week, Week Two, was for me a week of mourning. It was slow, low, gloomy, and gray.

I mourned over the deaths I was hearing about in the news, the job losses, the families separated by illness and worry. I mourned over the smaller things that feel huge to those experiencing them: high school seniors unable to experience the proms and games and graduations they’d been working toward, college seniors unsure whether they’ll ever see their classmates again, new parents unable to share their tiny babies with the grandparents and aunts and friends who love them.

I couldn’t focus much on home or schooling or writing. I seemed to trip over myself and everyone around me. I wanted to be alone and I wanted to scoop up my children to hold them close. All at once.

Wednesday and Thursday evenings, I took my boys for walks. The older two went with me one night, the youngest the other.

The first evening was gloomy and misty. We snuck out while Brennan made dinner and gave the three littles a bath. (Winner = Julie.) It was the first time the boys had been away from our property in twelve days. Walking along a hilly path, the nine-year-old spun in a circle and said, “I feel so free!”

We walked past each of the boys’ schools and the eight-year-old got to peek into his classroom window. He felt strange, looking into it after so long. I felt strange, watching my son look into the window of a classroom he’s not allowed to enter.

Thursday evening was a little brighter, lit up gold in the sunset. My littlest guy smiled broadly, looking around him in excitement. I peeked into windows as we walked neighborhood streets, wondering what those homes are like right now, with their inhabitants stuck inside just as we are.

Everything was so quiet in town: the schools, the sports fields, the walking paths, the streets. We hardly saw any cars on our walks, let alone pedestrians. It was hard to process just how empty and strange things felt.

By the end of the week, it was clear that our two-week period of no school would be extended significantly. We learned that the kids would be home at least another four weeks. We understood that they might not go back at all.

Over the weekend my husband finished a project he’s been working on for some time: building the two big boys a bunkbed. He got it all set up for them – a big, solid, hulking thing made possible by months of hard work. Hours upon hours of thinking and planning, sawing and sanding, priming and painting. The boys were thrilled, climbing up and down the ladder, arranging their favorite stuffed animals just the way they liked.

It felt like something of an antidote to the week. Here, before us, was the fruit of all that hard work, all that time, all that mess. We’d come to the other side of a project that had monopolized our garage and our foyer and Daddy’s attention.

It’s nice to see a result when you’re sunk in the drudgery of process. It’s nice to be reminded that things pass, that stages can be finite. And it’s nice to see something built up at home when you know you’re not going anywhere else for a good, long while.

(To report on the little things too: We kept up with our bare-minimum homework routine and missed several days of online daily Mass. Things will have to pick up next week when remote learning begins!)

Isolation: Days 6-9

Apparently there’s a limit to how many nights in a row I can stay up late writing blog posts, even with the opportunity to sleep in every day. (That limit seems to have been five.) But now I’ve had a few decent nights of sleep and I’m back for more.

By the end of last week I was feeling pretty burnt out. There had been too much stress, too much noise, too much uncertainty, too little time to myself, and way, way too little laundry accomplished. So I asked Brennan (who’s normally tied up on the weekends with home improvement projects) if he’d mind the kids on Saturday so I could get caught up on things upstairs.

God bless the man, he took charge of the kids all weekend, which gave me the opportunity to bring our second floor from “unmitigated disaster” status all the way up to “needs attention.”

Let me tell you, it feels pretty darned great to be able to stand comfortably in front of my dresser, open its drawers without anything getting in the way, and pull out neatly folded clothing. I can even see the top of the thing! Amazing.

I got through several loads of laundry, that overgrown dresser, and a couple of beds that sorely needed changing. Brennan cooked a bunch of delicious meals, winning him heaps of praise from overexcited children (“I don’t like this food Daddy, I LOVE IT.”) They liked his cooking so much, they drew a picture of a trophy, cut it out, and taped it to the wall. (Have these children ever awarded their mother a trophy for her cooking? No, they have not.)

As far as I’m concerned, Daddy’s just won himself the honor of cooking dinner every night.

Sunday morning the seven of us cuddled up on the sofa to watch our pastor’s Mass on Facebook Live. It was a little hard to hear, but pretty wonderful to see that familiar place and a few familiar faces. I was kind of emotional about it.

That evening I needed a break from home, so I took a solitary walk through town. It was cool and empty and sad. Shops were closed, restaurants were either closed or converted to carryout, and I saw a grand total of two individuals outside their vehicles. We stayed away from each other.

Before long I ended up at my aunt’s house, where she and my cousin and I caught up a bit, standing at safe distances in the front yard.

I am a social person. As much as I love a little alone time, I get great joy from interacting with people, even the strangers I encounter out-and-about in the world.

I just love people.

And my kids love people. When my oldest was a toddler I used to race to the front door as soon as I realized we were about to get a delivery. I’d try to open the door before the deliveryman could ring the bell, because if my boy heard it ring, he’d race to the window and beg the man to stay.

But now it all feels different. Yesterday another deliveryman brought us a package and I tensed up when my three youngest kids ran outside to greet him. “Stay away!” I wanted to scream to them.

What a time we’re living in, when we grow unused to seeing any faces but those under our own roof. What a time, when we miss seeing people in stores and on sidewalks, when the friendly deliveryman makes us nervous.

This new lifestyle has required quite a mental shift to adapt to. I think it will be similarly difficult when we emerge.

(Regarding schoolwork, so far we’ve just been sort of limping along – the boys have done the bare minimum of the homework they’ve been assigned. But today we finally got a computer up and running for them and I finally finished moving some things around to create a dedicated area for schoolwork. So tomorrow! Tomorrow we’ll be more ambitious, right?)

Isolation: Day 5

I was less than a mile from the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was sitting at my desk in a block of office buildings chock full of military and civilian federal workers. My colleagues across the office felt the boom of the airplane’s impact; we all smelled the smoke. I’ve written about it before.

Later that day, and in the days immediately following the attack, the thing that most struck me was that wherever you went, people were thinking about the same thing. Going down the elevator, walking through the halls, sitting on the Metro, driving the back roads toward home – you knew that everyone around you was thinking about the attack and wondering whether it was over.

That’s how I feel now. I’m struck by the fact that pretty much everyone you encounter – in person, on the phone, online – is thinking about the coronavirus pandemic and its extraordinary impact on our everyday lives. And we all know that it’s just begun.

Like last time, it’s the weight of that shared experience that gets me. Events have got to be super, crazy bad to dominate everybody’s attention at once.

I may be a worrier, but I don’t usually struggle much with anxiety. I have a tendency to think things will turn out well in the end. Maybe I’m an optimistic worrier.

But this thing? It feels heavy. And though I know we’ll someday get past it, I also know there will be plenty of people for whom it will not end well. Who will get sick? Who will we lose? Which businesses won’t reopen? Whose job won’t come back?

This morning, like much of this week, I was a little aimless in my gloom. I was distracted and the kids were fighting. One was screaming her pretty little head off. She was being left out. (But she was also being a pill, and it was hard to see which came first – the being left out or the being a pill.)

I couldn’t muster any words to comfort her. But it did occur to me that a change of scenery might do her some good. So I whispered for her to put on her rain boots and sneak outside with me. “Shh! Don’t tell anyone. Let’s go find some flowers to cut.” It was drizzling; she grabbed her umbrella.

A few steps out the house and my girl’s entire demeanor changed. She quieted. She smiled. She put up that umbrella and walked slowly and looked around in wonder. We found some flowers; she twirled her pink, polka-dotted umbrella.

It was magic.

And soon enough, her siblings caught on. One by one, children appeared outside with umbrellas in-hand. Soon they were marching around the yard together, a funny little springtime parade.

I pulled a chair out of the garage and sat there for a while, staring at them. How wonderful that even when all the adults everywhere are thinking about the same horrible thing, children can still be caught up in raindrops and umbrellas.

(That rainy-morning romp was one highlight of today. Another was our shared viewing of daily Mass. This time everybody seemed to want to be close; five or six of us clustered together on the sofa for most of it. I’m really pleased, so far, with how the kids are reacting to this new practice. Besides Mass, the kids watched the daily program from the Cincinnati Zoo. They drew, they wrote, and the two bigs did a little homework. I need to get better about doing schoolwork with the Kindergartner – and next week I think I’ll need to be a little more diligent about homework, generally. It would be good for us on a number of levels.)