Diamond trails

On Saturday, the cabin fever set in hard. I thought I was doing quite well with the whole winter/pandemic/straight-outta-quarantine situation for my family, but it was like a tidal creep … rising slowly, slowly, slowly until I felt like I could barely stay above the water line. I just had to get out of the house. Immediately.

Pandemic weariness is familiar to all of us. The last month has been especially brutal. Between a 14-day isolation after a close exposure to COVID (everyone has since recovered, and thankfully Spencer and I stayed well) plus days of bad weather that later forced daycare closures, we’ve been looking for any opportunity for a change in scenery. Companionship. Life.

Of course, it’s 30 degrees. Even “safer” activities — hiking, playgrounds, visiting family masked and outside — are not pleasant to attempt at the moment. We knew it would be a long, dark winter after the desperate but hopeful cheer of Christmas 2020. The post-holiday letdown has definitely been real.

So I’ve tried to be proactive with my mental health. Already prone to anxiety and depression, I could feel my “keeping it together no matter what” shell starting to crack. To be honest? I’m amazed it stayed intact as long as it has. Some of it is the ol’ holding it together for the kids mentality; I don’t want to worry or scare them when so much has already changed. But the truth is that I have hard days, too, and sometimes I just want to curl up with a comfy blanket and hide.

I could feel that struggle taking place on Saturday. The idea of facing another weekend shut in our house, all four of us lost in our tablets and laptops and devices, accomplishing nothing, going nowhere, was just … awful.

“Let’s go somewhere,” I told my husband. “Anywhere. Where can we go?”

We settled on Flag Ponds Nature Park in Lusby, Maryland, just an hour east on the Chesapeake Bay. It was a balmy 32 degrees following last week’s ice storms, but we grabbed hats, scarves, and gloves recently dried from playing in the snow. Even I — nothing close to adventurous — unearthed my heaviest boots for walking muddy trails. We were acting on impulse, crackly with excitement (or maybe that was all the static electricity … either way).

We only saw a handful of other people on the icy trails and boardwalk leading down to the bay. Oliver and Hadley each took a map of the 500-acre property, taking turns “leading” as we set off for the shore. Above us, ice-crusted trees tinkled like wind chimes, sending their branch-shaped casings smashing to the ground. The paths were lined with these crushed diamonds.

Spencer and I had been there before for a sunrise shoot with our photography club, but that was easily a decade ago. It was completely different from anything I could remember in winter. With the temperature barely above freezing, the beach grass and trees dotting the shoreline all glittered and clinked in their wind-chime way. The kids were fascinated by the “ice leaves” their dad placed in their mittened hands.

I thought about how, a few years ago, a day like this would have been impossible. There would have been strollers to pack, formula to pre-portion, bottles to secure in a heavy backpack that would have made hiking feel even more arduous. Diapers, so many diapers — and diapers to change in the woods. Even a little while after, there would have been kids demanding a bathroom as we reached peak isolation in the woods. A bathroom and a snack.

On Saturday, Hadley and Ollie walked a few paces ahead of us — enough to offer the illusion of independence, which is so enticing for a 5- and 3-year-old. I could pull out my phone and photograph the landscape without worrying someone would wander off without my laser-focused attention. Spencer lifted the binoculars around his neck, scanning the horizon for signs of the Antares rocket lifting off from 100 miles away. We could be — just a little bit — alone together.

Salt carried up on a gusty winter breeze. I let it muss and draw out my long, tangled hair, finally recovered from my COVID cut. I felt more like myself again. A stronger self, even.

After the winter of our discontent? I needed this. … And was so grateful for it.

Warm-mug moments

Just before my kids closed their eyes last Saturday night, I broke one of parenting’s Ten Commandments: Though Shalt Not Make Promises For Things Out of One’s Control.

What can I say? I’m a silver-haired, tired mom rebel.

“Guys, it’s going to snow tomorrow!” I blabbed.

My son immediately looked up, eyes shining. “Enough to have a snowball fight?” he asked eagerly.

“Enough to make a snowman?” his sister echoed.

Yes! I boomed. Absolutely!

Like I could control the weather. Though I would if I could for my children, of course.

Oliver and Hadley have been talking about a good snow since Hadley’s interest in “Frozen” began in earnest last year. We were all ecstatic when a dusting fell on Christmas Day, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had magically appeared. No snowballs. No snowmen.

Last weekend’s “storm” — all of three inches — was the most the Washington region had received in two years. And on a weekend! By Monday, I was frowning at the same scene while contemplating my commute. Icy Tuesday was even worse. My second vaccine dose was scheduled for 9:20 a.m., and I had an hour-long drive ahead of me. “Be cautious, but drive with confidence!” encouraged my boss, an Ohio native made of sterner stuff than me. But I took her advice seriously, white-knuckle coasting most of the way south. I arrived for my shot just in time.

But none of that worry was served on my Sunday plate. I was immensely proud that I’d remembered to buy hot chocolate mix, thinking of how my dad always made cocoa with tiny marshmallows after my sister and I “helped” clear the driveway. I can still feel the ice coating the hem of my jeans before I had slipped into sweatpants, bounding downstairs to find that special treat waiting.

I want to create warm-mug moments with my children. At five and three, I’ve already seen how simultaneously fast and slow these years have gone. I’m fascinated by the idea that any of these simple events could actually solidify, proving to be the kids’ earliest memories. How can I make them good ones?

Through the pandemic, I probably join many parents in believing I have not been my best self. While I try to enjoy the little things, day-to-day life cannot be separated from the fear and heaviness of everything else happening in the world. I’ve had so much on my mind lately. We all have.

And yet. Already the boots purchased in anticipation of a day like this were snug on my children’s feet. I’m Mom, not Mommy, and the last of the toddler clothes have all been packed away.

We jumped into the moment. My husband, a New Yorker also made of stern winter stuff, packed snowballs and chased the kids on a gleeful mission. Each time they ducked behind a vehicle or skittered around a corner, Spence found a way to arc the snowball into a hit. Even Ollie, who hates being cold or wet or uncomfortable in any way, tolerated these hijinks. Enjoyed them, even.

After we’d all had our fill, cheeks red and toes chilled, we shuffled inside and shucked wet jackets just inside the door. I wrestled Hadley and Ollie upstairs for warm baths while Spencer got to work over the stove. By the time we returned, the kids’ hair damp and eyes shining, Spence had prepared four mugs of cocoa — with tiny marshmallows. It tasted like simple happiness, with memories settled at the bottom like coarse sugar.

We hadn’t received enough to build a snowman, as I’d naively promised … but we definitely made good on the snowball fight.

And you can’t go wrong with a day ending in chocolate.

Pouring from the pandemic teapot

Like everyone in 2020, I’ve had my ups and downs through the last nine months. There are times I slip the loops of my face mask on without blinking and just go about my business. Other days I make it all the way to the work elevator before realizing I’ve forgotten the mask completely. That feels like realizing your bathing suit top has slipped off, you know? Embarrassing. Wrong.

My, how quickly we can adapt.

Day-to-day life has developed its own strange rhythms. Though I miss plenty about our “old” lives (seeing my grandparents for more than a five-minute masked porch visit, for example), I’ve been trying to focus on everything for which I’m grateful. I have an entirely new appreciation for teachers and daycare providers. I marvel at the resilience of my children, especially my sensory-sensitive kiddo who wears a mask all day without complaint … while completing virtual kindergarten. (There’s a concept that would be amusing to explain to 2019-era me.)

Some of my optimism stems from vaccine news, of course. It’s hard not to feel hopeful with those first beams of light piercing the pitch-black of coronavirus. Hearing the phrase “vaccination roll-out plan” is definitely sigh-of-relief-worthy. We still have many miles to go before we sleep, of course. But with the recent presidential election blessedly behind us, too, I feel like the grown-ups are coming … and there might be a way out of this horrible mess.

Until then, I’ve been trying to focus on what I can control. I’ve recommitted to mindful eating and taken stock of my unhealthy habits. After gaining a good 10 pounds since March, I realized I was excusing all my unhealthy behaviors under the guise of being too tired or too stressed to make better choices. I joined Noom two months ago and have been examining the why of eating, rather than the what. It’s freeing to stop obsessing over calories and tracking points. I still track my meals, but it’s with a different mindset — more about portions, satisfaction, and being present. It’s been a great personal restart.

Buried in one of my daily Noom lessons was the ah-ha moment I needed to really consider why my snacking/junk-binging had gotten out of control. In all my weight-loss commitments over the years, I’d never even considered it. And it was this:

Pleasure. Joy. Tiny moments of respite. All needs I’d been ignoring or denying myself … before eventually seeking them in a bowl of ice cream at midnight, followed by the inevitable guilt.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I see that now. “Self-care” sounds like such a marketing buzzword, and I’ll admit I really thought it was a bunch of hippy-dippy bologna (name that kids’ movie!). Until I recently tried metaphorically pouring from that empty cup, anyway. Meg’s pandemic teapot? Bone dry.

So I’ve been trying to reframe my thinking about how I’m spending whatever down time I can cobble together. I need more joy. And for me? Well, that always means reading. Lately I’ve been escaping with Elizabeth Topp’s Perfectly Impossible … excellent distraction from the daily grind. On audio, I’m caught up in Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. Other recent favorites were Matthew Desmond’s incredible Evicted and Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

And, of course, there’s all the prep needed to help Santa get ready for the holidays. Though it will be a much quieter year in some ways, Christmas with a 3- and 5-year-old still promises to be bright and merry. Today we unboxed special advent calendars from my mother- and father-in-law, lovingly stuffed with treats for Oliver and Hadley. Our Elf on the Shelf flew back in last weekend. I decorated more this year than I have since Ollie was born, feeling cocky enough to set out some breakables within reach of tiny hands … and excited enough to want to go a little overboard with the tinsel and twinkle lights.

This just feels like the year for it, you know? Anything that adds sparkle right now is OK by me. I’m sure you feel the same.

So happy start-of-December, friends. It’s strange … but we can still make it beautiful.

Pandemic fall

We picked out pumpkins on Sunday.

It was a simple thing — something entirely normal in 2019, and 2018, and every year prior. But in 2020, the pandemic year, it felt amazing. Rebellious, even.

I keep thinking about Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. It was one of the first novels I read fresh out of college — back when the novelty of reading what I wanted to, whenever I wanted to was so exhilarating. Brooks’ historical novel — set in an English village during the time of the plague — is atmospheric, creepy, engrossing. It was deeply disturbing, too … enough that, though I’ve forgotten the exact language, I still remember the opening passages: how the fall of that year, the plague year, was redolent of rotting apples.

Man, I get it now.

Like just about everyone in 2020, I end most days exhausted. I fall asleep at 8 p.m. It’s not because I’ve had such a strenuous day … not physically, anyway. There’s the usual mental gymnastics of navigating full-time careers, the needs and desires of young children, the nurturing of relationships with family and friends. Then we spread on a layer of doubt and anxiety: the pandemic’s thick, unpredictable patina that seeps into and colors just about every aspect of daily life.

My 5-year-old son is in virtual kindergarten — “asynchronous kindergarten,” actually, given my husband and I are working outside the home full-time. So we try to keep up with the hours of daily recorded lessons from the school system at night, when I’m on my fourth cup of coffee. “Studying” is really just me scrubbing through the videos while the kids destroy the living room, or Spencer makes dinner, or I try to answer some emails.

I’m looking for any actual assignments … or some loose tidbit that could entice Oliver — a boy who barely pauses his activities long enough to eat, or use the restroom — to actually sit for a moment and watch. But he has no interest in observing his kindergarten teacher, a woman he’s never met or even seen in person, interact with 20 other kids on iPads who have no clue how to use the mute button. Because, you know … they’re five.

And can I blame him?

Of course not.

This is nuts.

Everyone is just muddling through as best they can. I trust that. But this sucks. He has zero interest in participating, and I have zero interest in forcing him. This is all weird and boring and unnatural for a naturally curious, busy kid. I don’t want to sour him on school before he’s ever actually stepped foot in a classroom. We also don’t have the wherewithal to attempt to develop a curriculum ourselves, and I’m barely hanging on as it is.

We’re not alone. I know this. The struggle bus is making all sorts of stops these days. Everything is weird and hard, and I want it to feel normal or find some sense of normal but I … can’t.

In the meantime, I’m in kindergarten again, jotting down sight words and studying math concepts. And it will be that way for the foreseeable future, at which time everything will change … again.

There are moments that I feel OK, though. Sunday afternoon was one of them. We weren’t out long, and didn’t do much … not even the morning on the local farm we’d planned, given the rain stuck around much longer than expected. But we made it to a tiny farm stand I’ve passed a thousand times along Route 5. Even in our masks, my fall-loving heart skipped a beat amongst the gourds and mums.

It isn’t a normal season. Not anything close to the fall we’d want.

But more than six months into this, the year of rotting apples …

Well, there’s still time to learn to make pie.

Hunting-birds in summer showers

Version 2

“Mom, can we look for hunting-birds?”

It was hot. Sticky. Thunder rippled overhead, randomly spooking my five-year-old. Oliver dashed inside. But his three-year-old sister was looking up at me, curls damp and eyes hopeful.

Dropping lunch bags and tote bags, junk mail and travel mugs, the kids and I settled on the porch while the mosquito welcoming committee rushed to greet us. I cringed. My idea of spending time in nature is ordering chips and salsa on an outdoor patio. But we’ve all taken a new interest in fresh air, rain, space. Our world got smaller this year.

My husband hung bird feeders years ago, around the time we first moved in. But working from home since the spring, and with little to distract from the kid mess and “Floogals” on loop, Spence has really committed to refreshing them. Every few days he’s pulling them down and mixing up a sugar solution, carefully rehanging them under the eye of watchful bird-neighbors.

The hummingbirds — Hadley’s <i>hunting-birds</i> — seem to be everywhere. Several duke it out for the prized feeder on the porch; others have laid claim to the back deck, where they alternate sips and squawk at one another. We can see them from our family table or Spencer’s desk in the office. He often took the kids out to watch the birds during COVID, when the days stretched with uncertainty. I was at work, watching drive-through lines for COVID testing stretch around my hospital building.

Oliver and Hadley’s daycare reopened two months ago. We worried about what to do, talking through multiple variations of the same thing … and ultimately decided it was best for everyone to settle them back in such a familiar and comfortable setting. And, you know … suffice it to say that everyone’s sanity felt like it hung in the balance.

So they’ve been happily back amongst some teachers and friends — back and as socially-distant as possible, anyway — since late June. The routines have been wonderful for everyone. Already I feel like those strange, scary first days have receded a bit in the mist. Everyone is happier; everything feels a little lighter. My anxiety dreams spin up less and less often.

COVID isn’t gone, of course. Of course. Face masks are now a staple of daily life, like temperature checks. So much of what would seemed absolutely unthinkable six months ago — canceling weddings, suspending sports, making all-important black-tie fundraisers “virtual” — is now all just so … unsurprising. Disappointing, yes. But just part of life in a pandemic.

As we’ve tiptoed into a “new normal” (do you hate that overused-but-apt phrase as much as I do?), at least for the moment, there are certainly glimmers through the rain. I now pick up the kids after school, and we talk all the way home. Before, with Spence on pick-up duty, I’d drag myself into a chaotic house with children already glued to tablets. “How was your day?” went largely unignored.

It doesn’t now. And we move slower. Each day begins with a kiss on the forehead — part affection, part diagnostic — and breakfast: string cheese for Hadley, pancakes for Oliver. I hug my husband in the doorway, step out into the heat. Begin the first of my two full-time jobs, starting the second as soon as I see those sweet faces again.

Version 2

On Wednesday, the day after a tropical storm ravaged the next county over, the air was damp and heavy. Hadley asked to see the hunting-birds. I felt the bugs clustering on my exposed ankles, then thought of the constellation of bites that would soon dot my skin.

But already I’m often “Mom,” not Mommy. Little hands don’t seek mine quite as much. I don’t remember the last time a child fell asleep in my arms (not counting my four-month-old nephew). And I think — fingers crossed! — that we’ve officially changed our last diapers … five-and-a-half long years after changing our first. (Not exactly sad about that, though.)

So we sank into our hand-me-down porch furniture — Oliver tall in a chair, Hadley and I snuggled on a bench. I tried to ignore the cobweb threads on my elbows while we watched the feeder intently. At one point we heard a mad buzzing, and my daughter and I jumped. The hummingbird was just a blur.

Spencer soon crept out. As our resident avian expert, he pointed out the tiny bodies bouncing between tree limbs. They were clearly watching us, too.

“Let’s try to be really quiet,” he whispered to our two squirming children — and me. “If we wait patiently, I bet they’ll come over.”

It took a few minutes. Thunder rumbled, but distant now — music from a storm that wouldn’t come. Hadley rested her head on my arm; Ollie settled his hand on the other.

And then, they did come. There and gone in mere seconds, but hovering enough for us all to clearly admire them. The iridescent green hummingbird, an emerald flash, was my favorite. Oliver was so excited that he jumped up, exclaiming that he needed his video camera (an Adam Goldberg in the making, for sure). The moment ended as Oliver lost it after he couldn’t find said camera … but calm moments these days are all precious.

“I love that smell,” said my husband, grinning as a soft rain started. “And I love that sound — just a summer rain falling.”

I didn’t know the last time I heard it. Or smelled it. Or … really noticed it at all.

“Me too,” I said, and mean it.

 

Sunset on the hill

8pfSS2UOSyezxhSRnpoC1A

XjgN5YSsQyq9dc9wbRw9xQ

DwU7T%iZQuyRVeR05rlY4Q

fullsizeoutput_5324

We took a drive on Friday, just needing sunshine and space. Fresh air. Ice cream. “Let’s go see the sunset,” my husband said, and we drove to Chapel Point — a great place to feel both opened up and small.

My feelings on faith are complicated. But there’s something about a church that still resonates with me — a key clicking into a lock.

I’ve never been inside St. Ignatius, a Catholic parish founded in 1641 — one that still thrives today. I have stood along its brick paths and gazed out over its cemetery on the hill, overlooking the Port Tobacco River. I have been in its shadows.

Everything I touch each day is chrome, glass, wood. We value “new.” I do, too. But there is power in the past. Standing next to the centuries-old church reminded me of all that the parish has weathered. Coronavirus (and live-streaming of Catholic Mass! Oh, if the Jesuits could see them now) … well, that’s just another page in a long story.

We whispered to the kids about sacred ground, tiptoeing only along the edges. We watched the sun sink lower. Ollie plucked a dandelion and made his wishes.

And we walked out — mosquito-bitten, grateful — hand in hand.

Making myself (un)comfortable

Beach babes

Ah, summer — you snuck on in and just made yourself comfortable.

After possibly the strangest spring of all time, Maryland’s hazy days and humid nights have settled in. Lifting some restrictions placed during the COVID-19 crisis has meant we could finally see the family we’ve missed so much in the last few months. I met my baby nephew (and can’t put him down)! Work at the hospital has pivoted from all coronavirus, all the time, to a few daily tasks as we resume some regular operations.

Normal life is slowly seeping back in, filling in the cracks of pandemic life.

Whatever “normal” means, anyway.

In many ways, of course, nothing feels normal right now. And it shouldn’t. Protests against racial injustice continue across the nation and world. The idea that it’s not enough to be simply “not racist” — that we must, instead, be anti-racist — has definitely changed my perspective lately. It’s gotten me thinking … and remembering times in which I should have said more, done more, been braver.

My own work will be partially in embracing discomfort and having hard conversations — with others and myself. It’s going to be in raising thoughtful, open, big-hearted children. And stepping forward when it would feel much safer to hang back.

And so, like always, I turn to books. I read to learn and grow and look beyond my bubble. My TBR is constantly expanding. Next up? Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. And there’s plenty more in store.

At home, we take it day by day. Spence continues to work from home with Oliver and Hadley until our daycare center reopens. While I’m eager for the kids to see their friends and get back into routines, it’s scary to imagine taking them back out into the world. Surreal, even.

I don’t know what this summer will look like. None of us do. But in processing what the last few months have meant, I return again and again to this poem by Leslie Dwight — likely circulating in a social media feed near you:

What if 2020 isn't cancelled

So far 2020 has been nothing if not uncomfortable, but it is time to grow.

I’ll keep reaching toward the sunlight.