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.)

Isolation: Day 4

A week ago today, Thursday the 12th of March, is the day I felt everything change.

I’d been following news regarding the coronavirus since January. I knew it had the potential to be bad for everybody – not just the people of Wuhan – when I saw the measures the Chinese government took to contain it.

A virus that shuts down a whole region within days of its leap to humanity – that’s a virus to be reckoned with.

And a virus with access to people who step onto airplanes – that’s a virus with the potential to affect the world.

At first, I simply read and listened and prayed. My concern was mild; my prayers were directed outward, for the benefit of those far away across the world.

But as the coronavirus began to leap China’s borders and spread to new continents, my concern became more acute. This thing could become personal.

In mid-February I stocked up our freezer and pantry. I bought paper goods. I thought about what I’d need to keep our household running for a month without opportunities to replenish.

I didn’t tell anyone I did it. I couldn’t tell whether I was being responsible or lavish. I was worried, but I’m a news junkie – I’m used to being worried. How relevant would the coronavirus ultimately be to my day-to-day life?

A few weeks later – that Thursday – it dawned on me that I had actually been thinking too small. I’d prepared in order to make myself feel better. I hadn’t expected to need it.

I went to bed on the 11th nervous, anxious, wondering how bad this might get. I felt like we Americans weren’t taking the virus seriously enough and that we wouldn’t begin to do so until President Trump did.

And then I woke up on the 12th to the news that Trump had shifted his tone. His supporters had permission to worry. From then on, everything moved quickly. Texts and emails and rumors were flying. By the end of the day we learned that our kids would be home from school for the next two weeks.

Every day since seems to have contained a month’s worth of news: shortages, telework, cancelation of public Masses, financial markets diving, business closures, changes to public transport, emergency actions taken by officials at all levels of government.

In a week we’ve gone from freedom to restriction, from plenty to scarcity, from opportunity to threat. Or at least it feels that way.

Maybe this seems dramatic. But this week has been dramatic. And I think it’s important to say so, for the record. Most of us have never lived through a period of such swift and extreme change. Please Lord, may we never have to again.

(Not much to report here at home today. We stayed inside. I lagged. All our meals were late and I barely kept up with essentials. But we watched Mass together and I talked to some relatives on the phone and the kids were good and helpful and pretty diligent about their homework. They didn’t even fight that much. I’ll take it!)

Isolation: Day 3

Digging through my (long-neglected) filing cabinet the other day, I came across an old paper from my freshman year of college. It was a homemade certificate, evidently awarded to me by my dorm-mates. The honor? Apparently, I was “the ‘if you need it, she’s got it’ girl.”

I don’t remember receiving the certificate, but I wasn’t surprised to read it. Yes, if there’s something College Julie would be recognized for, it would be the ability to search through her stuff to find things for people. Later, my college friends dubbed me “Mama Julie.” I think I must have had the mom purse packed with every possible necessity a good ten years before my first child was born.

That clean-line-loving, paint-everything-white, purge-it-all minimalist who’s so popular these days? I am not her.

There’s something in me that finds comfort in having stuff around. I like the warmth and coziness that comes from being surrounded by a few too many things. I’m not talking about expensive things or fancy things; I’m talking about that afghan from my grandmother’s house. I’m talking about those solid wood chairs that nobody else wanted, that bowl engraved for my great-grandparents’ anniversary, those mason jars that are sure to come in handy someday.

I hate to throw away anything that could be useful. I like to be able to dig into my drawers and find colored pencils and birthday cards and old, empty journals tucked away for moments like this.

I used to say that I had a bit of the Great Depression in me. I have always had the bogeyman of scarcity in the back of my mind. It is in my nature to squirrel away stuff and information in preparation for a leaner time.

I thought of that line today – “a bit of the Great Depression” – as I listened to my favorite newsy podcasts. They said that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic could be so severe that the unemployment rate reaches twenty percent. That’s Great Depression-level unemployment there.

The thought jived with my anxiety about finding milk for my kids and watching grocery store shelves emptying, quickly and repeatedly. It fit with my worry over my husband’s job. It brought up my usually-unacknowledged concern about whether we made the right decision to rely on a single income.

In all likelihood, my family will be fine. We are more secure than most. But watching the swift decline our country (and the world) has suffered in recent weeks, I am increasingly nervous about what we’re beginning.

And I’m thinking that maybe we could all do with a bit more of the “Great Depression” mindset. I’ve been thinking harder about what my family consumes and what we waste. We’ve been so wasteful, especially when it comes to food. This week I’ve been paying closer attention, looking for efficiencies, strategizing on how to be a better steward of our resources.

Today I made a big, hearty Guinness beef stew. I served it over mashed potatoes and I baked a soda bread to go with it. The work felt right and good. There’s something about feeding people – about providing for that most basic need. It’s tangible. It’s essential. It’s universal.

Assuming this thing goes on for a while (and it sure looks like it will be going on for a while), I’ve got a lot to think about. I suppose a global emergency has a way of refocusing your priorities, doesn’t it?

(On a more mundane level, today I’ll report that the kids and I all watched Mass together, the big boys did some homework, the girls napped while the boys played outside, and I accomplished some laundry/dishes/cooking. Oh, and my kitchen looks far worse tonight than when I woke up this morning. C’est la vie!)

Isolation – Day 2

Today was stressful. Because of the mundane things – the spilled glass of water, the recipe not looked at closely enough, the orthodontic device that decided to detach on the very day the orthodontist’s office closed for two weeks.

But today was also stressful because the enormity of our situation finally caught up with me.

This morning my cousin came to babysit so I could run to the grocery store. I felt guilty bringing someone into our home – I’m trying to take this isolation thing to heart – but I figured it was probably better for humanity to have one adult come into my home than to bring five touchy-feely children into a public space.

Last night when my husband tried the grocery store after work, the milk was pretty much gone.

I’ve never had to worry about not being able to find milk before. But now I did, and I was anxious. Getting up, getting ready, getting on the road – the only thing I could think about was getting that milk. Then there was an almost total lack of traffic – 8 AM Sunday traffic at 9 AM on a Tuesday – and my anxiety mounted.

Later, (back home with my milk, thank goodness) the enormity of what we are facing began to unravel within me. I felt unmoored.

Homework packets be damned. I wasn’t going to worry about that today, on top of everything else. Instead I rushed the girls to naps and the boys outside. I needed to be alone. I needed to restore a little order to my surroundings. I needed to feel like I was in control of something.

Ultimately, I gave up on my complicated, Irish-themed dinner plans and just set the box of Hungry Jack on the counter. Green pancakes it would be.

Then in the early evening, thank goodness, I did the best thing I could in the moment: I went outside. I let two eager little girls lead me out the door and show me the wonder of grass and rocks, of flowers growing where they were never planted. We explored, we marveled, we breathed the fresh, clean air.

Today the boys wrote in their journals again, but did pretty much nothing else of conventional value. And I am completely fine with that. Today was a day for mourning. Tomorrow is a new day. Maybe it will be for getting a grip on this new way of living.

P.S. For the record, I’ve got to share that the kids had Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast this morning as a special St. Patrick’s Day treat. They were super, amusingly excited to try it. It was a joy to watch.

Isolation – Day 1

This afternoon I handed each of my boys a journal and told them that they’re entering a remarkable time – a time that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. I told them how unusual it was for a story like this to be lived by so many people all over the world. Millions upon millions of children home from school, millions upon millions of people confined to their homes, millions upon millions of people worried about the same thing.

I told my boys that when they’re adults they’ll want to look back on what their child-selves thought of this time, and so I directed each to write one journal entry per day. I told the fourth grader to write a page, the second grader to write at least a paragraph, and the Kindergartener to write a sentence. I suggested they might want to sketch some pictures too.

I told them they could write about anything they wanted – what they do here at home while we’re isolated, what they think about what’s going on in the world, what they fear, what questions they have. The boys were excited at the prospect; each set straight to work.

I picked up an old, mostly unused journal of mine and thought of doing the same. But I write better on a keyboard. And anyway, if I’m going to spend time writing up my own thoughts on this remarkable time we’re in, perhaps I ought to share them on the blog. So here we are.

I plan to share a bit here each evening, telling about my day and my own thoughts, fears, and questions. I want to have this record to look back on when (God-willing) these weeks are a distant, dull memory. And who knows – maybe you’d like to have a peek at them too.

For that record, I must note that today, our kids’ first day off from school (and therefore my Day 1), we did decently well. I baked banana bread and pear bread, fed the kids, did two loads of dishes and two loads of laundry, read stories to little ones, guided the five-year-old through some homework, put two children down for naps (one of them multiple times), talked to my grandparents on the phone, made a grocery list, and prepped food for tomorrow.

The kids watched a movie, played with Legos and Lincoln Logs and puzzles, drew, read, did schoolwork, and wrote in their journals. They enjoyed a lunchtime Doodle date with Mo Willems. They played outside for hours. (And they fought too – I won’t deny it.)

They did not play on their tablets, because they lost that privilege the day before by waking their sister from her nap. (A certain Mama might have told one of her boys that she would lose her mind if the girls didn’t nap in these weeks while the boys are home from school. A new rule was instituted: If one wakes a napping child, no one gets his tablet for two days.)

But we (the boys and I) also watched daily Mass together, and that was wonderful. Our archbishop has canceled all public Masses in our Archdiocese, so yesterday (a Sunday) felt strange, and strangely empty. While watching a livestreamed Mass said by our archbishop, however, it occurred to me that if we can’t attend Mass once a week in the flesh, maybe we could attend every day online. And maybe it might be fun to check out different online Masses, celebrated by different priests in different places. Today we watched a Mass said by Cardinal Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. We’ll see where tomorrow takes us!

Okay, that’s more than enough for tonight. Tomorrow, when I don’t have to intro this whole thing, I hope to get to some deeper thoughts on what we’re all facing.

Good night!