Our wounds from the trauma of the pandemic have begun to flatten into a kind of scar. My grief is softening, and the boys, 12 and 9, are less like drafted rebels and more like dusty soldiers, marching through blue window after blue window to the end of each day, to the end of the school year, as if walking home after a war that no one has won.
At 11:30 each day, we always get outside, whether the kids’ work is done or not. “Let’s play soccer on Fort Reno!” Diana, 6, says, and the boys agree. Soccer is in, bikes are out.
“You guys go ahead and I’ll meet you there with lunch,” I tell them. I pack a Sullivan’s Toy Store tote with 1 poppy seed bagel sandwich, 2 sesames, and 1 bialy wrapped in foil, plus a half clamshell of strawberries, ice water in 2 old sippy cups, 4 paper towels, and just for fun, 3 Kinder Sorpresa eggs sent by their grandfather in Italy.
When I leave for the park just a block away, Virginia, 16, is sitting on the floor of the deck eating her vegan pasta bowl, and in the basement a CorePower Yoga on-demand teacher demands heart strength and deep breaths from students who once sweated with her in a white-washed loft, and the ones like Sofia, 18, that she will never know.
I climb the hill and see the kids on the far soccer field. After days of cold and clouds, the sun bathes the hill and our tiny figures in a dome of golden light.
As I get closer I can see Diana kicking the ball toward the goal, and Mark missing it and falling down like a clumsy marionette.
They spot me and the boys run to me as they did when they’d see me waiting for them after school. ‘All gas, no breaks,’ as the graffiti on the retaining wall says.
“We were playing world cup soccer,” they tell me. “And sometimes one of us is an A.I. player.”
We select a picnic spot near the community garden. I am drawn to the unusual things in this ocean of grass — the orange-red poppies, bright as my grandmother’s cakey lipstick, and clumps of white irises, standing around like lieutenants.
On the courts beyond the garden, a pair lob a tennis ball back and forth. A guy hits a baseball — TING! — in the batting cage. A woman smiles at us as she walks by with a small dog on a leash.
“Yummm,” I say, and a small chorus echoes me, as we bite into bagels spread with salty buttery cream cheese. A pair of fat carpenter bees bump into each other, dive into the grass, and then fly away in a drunken helix dance.
“Why do they fight?” Diana asks.
“Who knows what they are doing?” I say. “Maybe they are playing,” or maybe they are mating, which I don’t say because I’d rather not talk about sex.
After lunch, Mark sits on the soccer ball, the stitching busted at one of its joints. “Luke pumped it up too much,” he says.
We pack up the bag and walk home for siesta, just the 4 of us, and I feel we are like the buttercups we walk through, insignificant and yet a part of everything.
I love this peace. Not that long ago, I fought against the breakdown, the shuttering, the quarantine as if it were a militia I had to beat back so I could live. Maybe I never understood what is an enemy and what is a friend, or that maybe something can be both and neither.
I climb into bed at noon. I want to feel relief that I am here, not on the street trying to explain myself to a police officer, my kids’ faces still damp and red. The muscles inside my face feel as if they were pulled with a draw-string. Crying might help, but tears don’t come.
I can hear Sofia, 18, downstairs opening and closing cabinets and banging pots — it’s her turn to make lunch. And even farther down, the sounds of Luke and Diana playing in the basement.
No matter how long I lie here, the ache in my face doesn’t ease. I close my eyes again and see visions of relieving the tension by slashing the muscles with a knife.
Last fall we stayed in a cabin in the West Virginia woods, and I found a book on the shelves called The Secret Life of Water. My family thought I was cuckoo as I took notes on it like it was a treasure map.
Photographs of stunning snowflake water crystals were interspersed with pictures of lopsided runny crystals. The difference, the Japanese author Emoto Masaru said, was the words that the water was exposed to right before it was frozen. Words like “thank you,” “I love you,” and “beautiful” resulted in glorious designs. “You’re no good” and “I hate you” made incomplete, malformed crystals.
From my bedroom, I hear Luke and Diana come upstairs and say to Mark who must be in his bunk bed, “Why hasn’t Mama come back yet?”
This day was not supposed to go this way. It’s Friday, the end of the fourth week of distance learning, and I was going to help the boys tackle the assignments that had haunted them all week. The essays, math workbook pages, and Powerpoint presentations that had been tangled up with dread, avoidance, and paralysis would get swept up and hauled in, just in time for the sweet rest of the weekend.
I sat on the living room couch with Mark, 12, a little before our normal 9 a.m. start time. “Writing in a notebook is like normal spinach,” Mark said, as I insisted he write his climate change definitions on paper. “Then it shrinks when you put it in type.”
Luke has assured me that he doesn’t need help with his 4th grade essay comparing two short stories, but I look over at him on his dad’s laptop. He looks gluey and I see that he is scrolling through emojis in Microsoft Teams chats. “C’mon, Luke, let’s get started,” I say, digging in against the familiar resistance. “You have to get this done done by lunch.”
I go back to Mark, this studious 6th grader who used to tell me that he could take care of his homework on his own. He has fallen backward onto the couch like a pencil, groaning, “I don’t know what to do!”
Some of the miniature boxwoods in our garden along the flowerbeds look almost dead, the kids and I notice. Unlike most plants in spring, they are missing the light green flush of new growth, their leaves dull and tinged with orange. We need to say encouraging words to them, I tell the kids, but I feel kind-of ridiculous as I rustle the little shrubs and say, “C’mon guys, you can do it.”
Diana at 6 years old is a natural. In a high-pitched voice she tells them, “You need to grow buds so you can be bigger and stronger like your daddy.” Then I see her go to the old boxwood by the fence, notice its branches lit with new green and say in a sweet voice, “You need to encourage your babies to grow buds.”
It’s almost 10 a.m. now, Mark is still frozen and Luke is fiddling with text sizes and fonts, but it’s time to get Diana logged in and ready for the check-in with her teachers and two other kids from the Blue Table. She is wearing an astronaut costume for spirit day and is excited to be paid attention to and get to hold an iPad. “Run up and get a book you’ve read this week — but not Captain Underpants!” I tell her. Faces appear in the panes around the screen, and I set her up in a sunny window seat in the foyer, and soon first-graders in meandering voices begin to tell about their week.
I’m supposed to stay close by, but the dishwasher is not that far, so I put in the rest of the breakfast dishes and then check email. My husband has forwarded me an alert from the mayor: distance learning is now going through May 29 when school will end for the year. So many casualties in this pronouncement, including 2,400 cases and 86 deaths in the District, but all I can think of is myself: how can I do this for another 6 weeks?
Mark is still lying upside down over the arm of the couch. I say, “Why not tell the story through the life of a tree, or a rock?” My suggestion is met with snarled lips, so I move over to Luke, who has apparently already learned the art of switching browser tabs when someone comes near. “If the computer is too distracting,” feeling like a witch as I speak because I know that even CEOs and rocket scientists get waylaid, “you can write it by hand.”
By 10:25 I haven’t seen Sofia and Virginia yet, so I go upstairs, creak open the attic door and say, “Hey guys, you up?” Establishing a regular routine for at-home learning was important, all the experts were saying, so at our Sunday night family meeting before distance learning began, I had proposed a 9 a.m. start time. The teens balked, arguing that it was better to not have everyone together at the same time anyway, and negotiated a later bedtime and a 10:30 a.m. start. Let’s see how it goes, I had said.
The window seat conference has deteriorated quickly. I come in after Mark, draped like a rag over the computer chair, has already said loud enough for the teacher to hear, “Your friends are so boring,” and Luke has retorted, “What? She doesn’t have any friends.” And then Mark, this boy who has never gotten in trouble at school, sticks his butt into the circle of faces in the iPad and makes a loud long farting sound.
The subtle energy that exists in all things vibrates in unique frequencies or waves. The synchronization of energy waves — love, fear, acceptance, loneliness — can be sent and received by others. Similar patterns can be found all throughout the universe — from the spiral in a snail to the spiral of the galaxy. The human body is a miniaturization of what is going on in the grandeur of nature. All things are in flux. Nothing is permanent.
My notes from The Secret Life of Water
The kids run in and out of the house to get masks and coats, and then bikes. Luke comes out crying saying that Mark has thrown the card that opens his safe behind the bed and now he can’t get the $6 he was supposed to give him for his birthday.
“I guess Mark won’t get his present today,” I say.
We usually get out of the house by 11:30 a.m. — by then everyone is woozy and pecked over by their siblings and I’m breathing shallowly. We had to leave today with so little accomplished that the boys didn’t even want to ride bikes.
“This is so boring,” says Mark as we get going up the middle of the street toward CVS to get groceries.
“I don’t want to go either but there’s nothing else to do!” says Luke.
Diana is motoring up the hill in her starter bike and the boys loop around her, cutting her off, knocking her off balance, and she screeches over and over, “Stop!”
I can feel the cement that had been hardening inside me all morning become a solid block. And if I am honest, I know it’s not just about the schooling and the fighting.
This morning, before the kids woke up, I had opened my laptop and saw a long-time hope about my writing be shattered. Words were uttered so quietly I didn’t hear them: Nobody cares . . . You’re all alone. For a beat I felt like I had been swallowed by a gulf. Then I swallowed the gulf, clicked the computer closed, and sealed it all up.
Mark, who had to be pulled away from the desk and forced outside, had a warped look on his face. “You don’t have to come,” I tell him. “You can stay home and play.”
“You mean we can stay home and play video games?” asked Luke.
“And eat a bunch of candy and go crazy?” said Mark.
“Do whatever you want,” I say.
“And we won’t get points?”
“Whatever. Do whatever you want.”
Collapsing, like over-exerting, is a form of violence, says the Sunrise Yoga teacher that I see every morning at 7:00 a.m. in the TV in my basement.
I want to kill them with this freedom. They keep riding up the hill with me.
In nature, water is always in motion. Even when it seems to stand still, it is slowly sinking into the earth or evaporating into mist, rotting leaves, or sheltering water creatures we can’t even see.
When the kids ride past the entrance to CVS, I don’t call them back, thinking they’ll realize and turn around. Through the automatic glass door that has just closed behind me, I can see them chatting with Duane, the homeless guy in the parking lot.
Olive oil, milk, eggs, walnuts, granola: the list in my hand says. I don’t even smile at the employees I know as I walk by, figuring they’ll think it’s because of my mask or that everyone is grumpy these days.
Passing through the 50%-off Easter section, I grab a box of egg dye for next year, and glance back, not wanting to admit that I’m hoping that they will come in any minute and call, “Mama?”
I feel like a criminal, my whole torso is now churning. In the magazine section, I don’t find any maze books for Luke and Diana but stop to examine a Penny Press “On the Go” Word Seek.
More furious now with myself than with them, I take 2 of the word search booklets and head to the grocery aisles. An employee with a blue surgical mask sets a box down on the ground and begins unpacking.
I see a flash of the three of them with their bikes at Whole Foods, Diana sobbing and frantic.
“Remember when the waves were really big in Italy?” Diana said recently on an evening walk. “That was so, so, so fun!”
I was afraid of those waves — I’d been clobbered too many times by the sea. But she, who had just turned 5 and couldn’t even swim and only had a floaty that we called her ciambella, felt joy. “It was like you were riding a wave to the sun!”
Don’t struggle when you’re drowning. Don’t try to fight the waves. Don’t swim against the tide, you’ll wear yourself out. Just let go and float.
They only had to cross one intersection with a stoplight — they’ll be fine. I find generic olive oil and get two because the second one is half off. Mark is 12. He can handle this for everyone. Semi-trucks on the avenue rumble like a herd of elephants charging a watering hole. I grab the dried mango slices I know they like, and then head to the self-checkout.
Like a vase full of cracks, I gingerly scan all the items myself, something the kids would have loved to have done — jockeying to push buttons, scan bar codes, and insert the credit card. On the walk home alone, the cold sun feels like an x-ray.
I get to the house, the two heavy plastic bags now cutting into both hands. I don’t see any bikes or coats tossed in front, and I know I’m in trouble.
Sofia is taking a baking sheet out of the oven when I walk in. “What happened?” she says. “You should bring your phone with you when you go out. They’re here but they didn’t know where you went, and I was trying to get a hold of you. I thought you would be worried.”
Living in this world is not so much like walking in air but like swimming in water. The waves I create affect everyone around me, and the waves of others affect me.
Holding back feelings like fear, sadness, and disappointment prevent me from healing. Being happy all the time would be like a wave that never falls.
If you have been offended, forgive the offender. And if you feel oppressed for your own offenses against others, forgive yourself.
“Lunch!” Sofia calls after about an hour, and then gathers her laptop and cord and notebooks and heads down to the basement for a class, leaving me and Mark and Luke and Diana alone with each other and our plates of lentils, kale, homemade hummus, and rings of watermelon radishes.
“Where were you?” says Luke. “We went into CVS but didn’t see you.”
“I was holding a bunch of stuff and I was too angry to go running after you,” I say. So many pent up emotions inside me. Enough to power Las Vegas.
What would it be like if, instead of starting my day with, “This is not working,” I started it with, “You’re beautiful”?
Diana looks into my eyes, her eyes wet with empathy, comes over to me and kisses my face.
I begin to open a spillway. Let the lights go dim in Vegas. There’s probably no one there anyway.
The late afternoon sun casts a golden glow in the sunroom where I sit watching the kids at the table, bent over scratch art boards that have just arrived in the mail from my mom in Ohio. Sixteen-year-old Virginia is sitting with her laptop, scrolling and listening to The Weeknd, and Sofia, 18, is soaking porcini mushrooms at the counter for dinner.
My husband has just come home from his work at a psychiatric hospital (still considered an essential employee), cheerful and jokey, tickling and teasing the kids. He’ll drink the espresso I prepared for him, check email, and then head off to his second job at a clinic where he now sees patients via Zoom.
It’s the third day of distance learning at our public schools, and my new job is running this home school. I want to feel satisfied after a good day’s work, but I don’t. My chest is heavy with a pulsing heat and a gloom has settled in.
It should be easier by now. Why don’t I have a better handle on this? I hear about how hard distance learning is for teachers — struggling to learn how to teach online, constantly responding to questions from students, trying to take care of their own children at the same time. We have so much — a whole house and a yard, an at-home parent, a secure income — that it’s hard to feel compassion for myself.
I thought we were doing well when my first grader, Diana, who is often the last to get my help with schoolwork, was seated at the table — dressed, fed, teeth brushed — at 8:50 a.m. drafting her A to Z book. She was writing three facts about ‘C is for Caring’ while her 11-year-old brother Mark snarked about each one. “I guess you want to do a lot of jobs today!” I told him, as I kept writing points next to his name.
“Is this how you spell ‘example’?” Diana asks.
“It has two Ms,” her 9-year-old brother Luke tells her while doing his morning chore of emptying the dishwasher. She erases and rewrites “example” with two Ms.
Crash! A glass shatters and Luke freezes, his hand still poised over the shelf. “It’s OK, it happens to everyone,” I say as I get the dustpan. One of the teens floats by and heads into the basement for a class conference call, and I get the vague feeling that neither are getting enough sleep these days, but it seems like a quaint concern from the past when I worried about parties, where they were, and what they were doing with their friends.
Upstairs Diana tries to finish the ‘D is for Drawing’ page of her A to Z book on her shaggy rug, while I try to log into Microsoft Teams to find out what else she is supposed to be doing, but realize her username and password are not saved on my computer.
“Crunch, crunch. Yum!” she began her page ‘A is for Apple Picking’ on Tuesday when we first started this project. Because I’ve been writing these days, it felt natural to help her try the strategy of hooking the reader with sound words, as her teacher suggested in her daily Powerpoint.
Luke is supposed to be brushing his teeth and starting school too, but he keeps going into Diana’s room and messing with her toys and criticizing her homework. She whines and cries repeatedly, and I start threatening to send anyone who can’t stay in their own area to an outdoor study space.
Finally he starts brushing his teeth, but when I hear him tell her to write, “You can draw many things” for a supporting fact, a suggestion that seems idiotic and passive-aggressive, I blow up. “I don’t need your help,” I tell him, and realizing I have to follow through on my threat, send him to study on the porch.
I feel bad when tears come to his eyes, but I can’t accommodate everyone, and I am beginning to question whether I can accommodate anyone. Every morning Diana looks at me smiling and says, “School!” and I feel like every day I disappoint her with my repeated failures to make logins work, to have the time to spend with her, to get her set up on a computer.
Today I finally get into her first grade Microsoft Team and find in the Class Files folder a ‘Would You Rather’ YouTube video check-in from her assistant teacher. She is so excited to see his name, so I click play and head downstairs to get the boys settled.
I drag an old table from the garage to the porch and pull a chair in front of it. It actually looks kind-of inviting, with a view over the flowering peach tree in the garden and the neighborhood houses across the street. “Get your coat on and come out, Luke!”
Yesterday I had set up a child account for him with parental controls on my husband’s laptop, but every time he would log in, it would list about 15 random utilities that he was not authorized to use, and every time I had to enter the administrator name and password he would duck his head under the table, a sign that he appreciates the privilege he once tried to steal by guessing our passwords.
He plops down grumpily on the porch swing in his coat and shoes. I tell him he can log on now, and he brightens for a moment, and pulls the computer on his lap. The mesmerized look on his face doesn’t assure me, but he says, “I just have to go to Teams, Mama.”
I’m still dizzy trying to move around in the Office 365 platform the school district is using for virtual classrooms, but he does seem to know where to find his assignments, which are also coming in from his specials teachers — make a video puppet show, code a new game, design an American Revolution persuasive poster.
I go inside and check on Mark. As a sixth grader, he might be the most independent, but the amount of information and channels and teachers and schedules he is dealing with is overwhelming. He often walks around in circles saying, “I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”
After a relatively disastrous first day, we had sat down together for over an hour in the evening to try to understand the expectations of each teacher — English, Math, Geography, Science and Spanish — reading through the team newsletter and various emails and following links leading to PowerPoints, PDFs, Office 365 Teams, Clever, YouTube, and the online grading system.
“What do you have to do today, Mark?” I ask, coming in from the porch. He tells me that he has nothing to do. “Thursday…” I say looking at his agenda, “you have a live lesson with Ms. T at 9:30. That’s in 5 minutes!”
He finds his Period 1 Team window and clicks on a Join button and miraculously, his teacher appears. Other kids are joining in as video squares begin piling on top of each other — some with faces, some just black screens with a name.
Once I see that he and his classmates are involved in a discussion with the teacher about how to copy, transfer, fill out and turn in digital reading logs and other assignments — a process that will take almost an hour — I go upstairs to check on Diana, then to Luke on the porch, then back to Mark, out, up and down, making rounds among the three kids, responding to cries for help, conflicts between siblings, or that dazed look when someone has fallen down an internet rabbit hole. I kind-of feel useful, but I also have the sensation that nothing is getting accomplished.
Diana, who has scarcely used a computer until this week, spends 20 minutes typing, “I would rather eat pasta, swim at the beach, and bake cookies,” but when it all disappears, I am so tense that I yank the computer towards me, retype her words in half a minute, and don’t give her a chance to even click “Post.”
By 10:30 a.m., Mark looks bleary-eyed, Diana has watched four math videos and collapsed beside her A to Z book pages, and Luke has spent most of his time tweaking a video game he already designed in his digital communications class, so I say, “OK, everyone outside!”
I dig my hands into an open bag of Virginia pines mulch, and toss handfuls into the flower bed as if I were bailing myself out of a flood with buckets. The kids argue and whine, but eventually I hear bikes and scooters being dragged up the gravel driveway, and then the sound of laughter and calling from around the block.
About 20 minutes later, when I am pulling up wild Queen Anne’s lace around the daylilies, Diana’s face appears, and she says, “My head hurts.” Not sure if it’s an excuse to go inside, I tell her to lie down on the porch swing. Ten minutes later I find her on the living room couch sucking her thumb. Her forehead feels a little hot, and I remember how she had a tummy ache last night, and wonder — could these be symptoms of the virus?
I ask Virginia, who is tending to several pots and pans on the stove while checking her phone and playing Jhené Aiko on her laptop, if she could also set the table because Diana doesn’t feel well. She doesn’t seem happy but starts getting out the cloth napkins, and asks “What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know,” I say, and go outside to clean up the rake, shovel, and bucket of weeds, thinking what will happen if she is sick, who else will get it, who we have infected, how will I be able to take care of everyone.
When I check the thermometer under her tongue, it only reads 98.4 degrees. Diana gets up and eats all of her sister’s new healthy vegan-style cooking — green lentil pasta with basil pesto and a side of sautéed broccoli — and then jumps down and starts doing a puzzle on the floor. Filled with caloric energy, Mark climbs on the couch grabbing onto the curtains, and Luke throws Diana’s shoe in the litterbox, and she begins crying.
“Sofia, can you enforce the dishes rule?” I ask, as I get up and say, “C’mon guys, outside in 10, 9…”
“Why are you lying on the ground?” Diana asks, when she finds me on my back in my winter coat on the brick circle in our front yard next to the yellow and red tulips. The boys, after digging up dandelions in the driveway as jobs, had started shooting each other with the hose, calling each other genitalia, and wailing, so I sent everyone in for an early quiet time.
“It feels good to have the sun on my face and the earth under me,” I tell her. Diana lies down next to me for a while, her head in the crook of my arm. If someone walks by and sees me, I figure they will understand. In a time when everything is weird, nothing is weird.
We are saturated with sunlight, and the world looks blue when we open our eyes, and we go in to lie down in our beds. I read the paper from cover to cover as I do every day now and then take a nap.
When I get up, I will make coffee for me and my husband and the kids will bound down the stairs like a herd of bisons to open the package of scratch art that has just arrived from their grandmother in Ohio. When they get up and wander towards screens, I will notice my journal on a pile of magazines.
I will start writing about this day, and my journal, like a therapist listening to my angst, receives everything without judgment. And I begin to feel better.
Before the schools were closed, I used to spend my mornings writing in a quiet room. Now my laptop is used to log into Microsoft Teams where one-inch squares represent my children’s classes, and I feel like a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on a desolate prairie who is beginning to lose it.
But another thing has changed. Before I was too scared to share my writing. Now I need to share to survive. Here, ease has sprouted from difficulty. From scarcity, a bewildering abundance.