All good things

Parenting in 2021 is a lot of “Are you on mute?!” during midday kindergarten Zoom meetings.

There’s a sentence I could have never made sense of a year ago.

As expected, we’re all being clobbered with “pandemic retrospective” pieces right now. I’m … not here for it. Maybe 10, 20, 50 years from now — when my grandchildren or great-grandchildren ask what it was like to live through COVID-19 (so much searching for toilet paper). But not every March, just when the first tentative buds appear on the pear tree in the yard. Is this going to be an annual thing? Two years since COVID hit. Five years since COVID hit.

I love spring, but it’s also been associated with worry and trauma since my son’s early birth six years ago. It doesn’t take much to put me back into that scary place — though our little family has certainly come a long way since.

My daughter will be four this week. Last year’s birthday party was our last “normal” family gathering for months . . . or longer. I remember our governor pulling together a press conference to address the growing threat of coronavirus, and hearing the earliest murmurs of stay-at-home orders as we prepared for Hadley’s birthday dinner. So much of what seemed unthinkable then has come to pass.

But lately I find my fingers trailing along more and more delicate threads of hope.

Do you feel them, too?

  • A year after I first googling “novel coronavirus,” I’ve been vaccinated against the illness (I work in communications on-site at a hospital). Many family members, including all three grandparents, have also received their first or second doses. Though close relatives did get sick in January, they had mild cases, and somehow we managed to escape getting infected as well. I am truly grateful.
  • The days are getting longer. Sunshine does all good things for the soul. I’ve been listening to vintage John Mayer — as I always seem to do with the changing seasons? — while remembering the hopeful college kid I once was compared to the hopeful minivan-driving mom I am now. Considering it was nothing but the “Hamilton” soundtrack on repeat since last summer, it feels good to return to comforting tunes.
  • My son will be starting in-person kindergarten next month! I didn’t dare hope that he’d have any physical instruction this year. Though Oliver has done as well as could be expected with virtual learning, it’s … well. You all know, I’m sure. While I’m nervous about the transition, particularly given he’ll only have a few months of in-person school before summer break arrives (more changes to routine). But he has amazed me with his adaptability, particularly to face masks, which I assumed would be tough even without sensory sensitivities. He’s a surprising little dude.
  • It’s almost cherry blossom time. Even if we still can’t experience the Tidal Basin as we typically would, I hope I’ll be able to get a glimpse of my favorite trees with my mom and dad.
  • Our house is calmer. I’m actually typing this after dinner, when the kids are still conscious (though ensconced in “Despicable Me,” it’s true). We still have our fights and rough days, for sure. But it’s been months since I ran outside barefoot in the cold to stand alone in the dark night and contemplate life because I just needed five seconds to myself for god’s sake. At nearly four and six, Hadley and Ollie are settling into themselves as little people, and we’re learning how to communicate more effectively. Myself included. Also? They can use the bathroom without much help. Man, a diaper-less world is great.
  • We have summertime plans. Nothing crazy, but two nearby trips are in the works. I’m so excited at the idea of getting away and seeing something new. Like all of us, my daytime views largely consist of my office at work and my toy-cluttered living room at home. Obviously plans will adapt should the COVID situation change, but I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get to pack a suitcase for the first time in a year.
  • I’m writing again! After my newspaper column came to an end last year, I wasn’t sure when or if I’d be settling back here at ye old laptop. I was excited to begin a new bimonthly column for Southern Maryland Woman Magazine (my latest piece, “Making Rainbows Out of Rubbish,” is up now). “The Short Years” comes out every other month, as opposed to twice a week, so the pressure is far less intense than when I’d kept up “Right, Meg?” as a freelancer when I left the paper in 2017.
  • I’m narrating, too. My dad, Rick Snider, wrote and produced The Angel Among Us, a podcast series we cut just before COVID hit last spring. It’s a fictional multi-generational story that is, of course, free to download now. I pop up as Lilith, a demon with dark motives (surprising, no?). And it was really fun to act again, even for just an afternoon! And I’m proud of Dad for doing something outside the box. He has more in the works, too.

So that’s my good list. Capped off by the cup of coffee I’m currently sipping and a few episodes of “90 Day Fiance” stacked up on my DVR as bedtime approaches for two sleepy kids. I’ve got mermaid balloons ready to prep tomorrow night, in anticipation of my girl’s big day, and vanilla cupcakes soon heading into the oven.

Happy Monday, friends. ❤

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.

Smiling is our favorite

Like most folks (I hope, anyway), we’ve been spending more time at home than ever. Tired of staring at bare walls, I finally got around to ordering art for the living room a few months ago. We replaced the sole 10-year-old TV in our house, opting for a wall-mounted version that gives us more space below. And Spence and I have generally been cleaning, organizing, and decluttering like never before. We’ve only been in the house six years, but sometimes it feels … longer. Judging by the accumulation of stuff, anyway.

We’ve also been spending more quiet-ish moments together. (As quiet as it can be with a 3- and 5-year-old chasing each other at 9 p.m.). In the pre-COVID days, weekends were always crammed with plans and activities. Shopping, playgrounds, visiting parks and friends … enough commotion to get them both good naps in the van on the way home.

The past eight months have changed my perspective on that. Given my deeper understanding of Oliver’s sensory needs, in particular, I’ve come to realize that a little silence and “boredom” is A-OK for the Johnson kids — and their parents.

That’s not to say any of us are actually bored. I mean, first of all, the Leaning Tower of Dishes is always teetering precariously in the kitchen sink. And the towels used in this house. There is never a time we don’t have a surface in need of scrubbing or laundry in need of folding.

But that’s fine. I’ve been working on accepting that, too. Every moment of every day doesn’t have to be “productive.” It can feel that way — given the demands of jobs, home, family. When the weekend rolls around, I feel the need to “catch up” immediately: righting all the overturned objects of the house that get ignored Monday through Friday.

I did things differently this weekend, though. We didn’t have any major plans. I got stuff done, sure, but not at the expense of a few slow moments spent reading a book or watching a Christmas movie with the kids. I didn’t worry about tidying or working every moment.

After a busy and stressful week, Ollie asked if we could have a “pizza movie night” on Friday. I didn’t panic at the thought of Little Caesars given my renewed healthy-eating commitment (thanks, Noom!) — just settled in with a slice of Crazy Bread and enjoyed the evening as we introduced the kids to “Elf.”

Watching classic holiday movies for the first time with the kids is definitely an A+ experience as a parent. I had a moment of panic when Oliver and I watched parts of my beloved “Home Alone” together recently (too many ideas for my already-wild 5-year-old), but there isn’t much to fret over with Will Ferrell’s iconic character.

Giggling with them at Buddy the Elf is almost enough to make me not mind picking up the endless dirty socks left in Hadley’s wake.

You know … almost.

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.

Like mother, like son — or why I’ll never get my face wet in the shower

Our son has always been “extra.”

I don’t know how else to describe it. Well, actually, with lots and lots of parenting books dog-eared on my nightstand … I guess I do. Oliver is relentless, dogged, determined, laser-focused. He is perceptive, bright, curious, hilarious. In a word, Ollie is spirited.

Being our first child, one who arrived eight weeks early, Oliver came with no frame of reference or guide for his dad and me. Is it normal for babies to scream for hours on end? Is it colic? Gas? Is he cold? Wet? Hungry? Teething? Hot? … Why is he so mad?

When Ollie was around six months old, he once cried so hard for so long that my husband and I took him to the Emergency Room at two o’clock in the morning. I was delirious, despondent — I literally had no idea what was wrong, where to begin, how to help. I thought he must have broken a bone or something … without my noticing. Because I was a terrible mother. Obviously.

Ollie turned out to have a fever that eventually bloomed into hand foot mouth virus — the first of many illnesses in that first year that tested the limits of my sanity. He recovered well, thank goodness.

I did not.

The ER night was the eve of our second wedding anniversary. We’d planned for a day spent just the two of us — something we desperately needed, and I’d been looking forward to. Obviously a sick baby meant we were staying home, and I felt more isolated than I ever had.

It did not help, of course, that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression. Or that I was embarrassed to still be feeling rattled from Ollie’s premature birth and month in the NICU. I knew I “should” feel grateful to have survived such an ordeal with a healthy child, particularly as I began hearing so many terribly sad stories from the preeclampsia community.

Instead, I just felt jumpy, exhausted, and awful.

Having a baby who never seemed to just freakin’ relax and be a baby … that magnified everything else.

“Are we doing this wrong?” I kept asking Spencer, looking at friends’ infants curled up like sleeping cherubs in the middle of a boisterous get-together.

“Why is everything so hard?” my husband would whisper back, turning to face me in the darkness over the wails of a child who wouldn’t — couldn’t — rest.

One crystallized memory of this also happened around the ER night. We’d gone to visit Spencer’s friends for a baby shower. At six months old, I assumed Ollie would sleep in the car for the hour-ish ride there and also snooze on the way back to a family birthday party.

Two events in six hours. Two loud, packed events in a very pre-COVID world — with folks smashed in, passing Ollie around, cooing at the first grandchild and great-grandchild in our family.

We left my grandparents’ house way past Oliver’s normal “bedtime,” whatever that was. And he cried. And cried. And cried. He screamed for so long that I wound up stumbling outside in the dark, barefoot, just to get away from the noise. I felt like I was losing my mind.

“I need a minute,” I said, over and over. I need a minute. I need a minute.

“I need a minute” has become my catchphrase. I find myself saying it so often that Hadley actually incorporates it into her dolls’ conversations.

I need a minute, I say, and then I come back. Of course. And I came back then, holding Ollie and rocking him and murmuring in his ear. We gave him a bath, hoping the warm water would quiet his screams … and it did. Eventually, he passed out.

“You know, I think he’s overstimulated,” I remember saying — a word that shot out like a lightning bolt.

Overstimulated. Where did that even come from?

Takes one to know one, I suppose.

Ollie didn’t have the vocabulary to tell us something was too loud, or hot, or bright. Even now, when those things are weighing heavily upon him, I don’t think he realizes they are. He just knows something is “off.” Something feels wrong. Maybe it’s a scratchy tag in the back of his T-shirt, or socks with a seam that sits strangely on his toes. Maybe it’s a TV cranked past a comfortable level, fireworks cracking overhead, or a slice of cake with a crumbly texture he wasn’t anticipating.

No matter the source, these are the things that turn Oliver’s emotional regulation down to zero. Anything upsetting the apple cart becomes the impetus for a black-hole of a meltdown — one born of exhaustion and intense frustration.

Those are the rough ones. Hard to pull out of.

Oliver is 5 1/2 now. He is a loving, sensitive, clever kid … and every bit as intense as he was during his baby- and toddler-hood. Demanding. Serious. Relentless.

I know all kids go through the sorts of “no, I need the green cup, not the blue cup!” phases. And I know this because our second child, Hadley, is firmly there now. But Hadley does not fall into a well of despair if you ask her to wear jeans. Or a jacket is too tight, or too warm, or too scratchy. Or the milk she was expecting at a cafe had to be substituted with lemonade.

These things are tough to manage with Ollie. But we’re making progress … and I’m the right person to help him. Turns out I had to learn myself.

A friend whose child has autism once told me it can be difficult to examine a child’s behaviors because we may not be prepared to see so much of ourselves reflected back. No one wants to think of their child as “different.” And no one wants to place themselves in that category, either.

But as I began researching sensory processing disorder (SPD) and the many ways it can manifest in children and adults, I felt an overwhelming sense of recognition. Then: relief.

Emotional regulation has been challenging for me. Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you that my face speaks before my lips do. The two times I got detention in school were both for rolling my eyes. I was voted “moodiest” in my high school theatre troupe and had a reputation as a drama queen, on stage and off.

For better or worse, I’ve always felt the lofty highs and frosty lows of life. I am not one speed. I am 32 speeds, switching gears repeatedly.

Like many parents, I’d wager, I don’t often feel like I’m the mother I “thought” I’d be. Though I love my children fiercely, I often end the day totally depleted. I am not my best self. Even before the pandemic, I worried daily … about everything, but especially if I was doing parenthood “right.” Intellectually, I understand there’s no such thing … that all I can do is love them hard, tell them, and try. But it doesn’t always feel that way.

Why is my patience always so thin? My heart always pounding? Why do I feel so overwhelmed when my children cry, scream, or even just laugh too loudly? More often than not, I find myself walking away during Ollie’s meltdowns because I need to calm myself down. It’s a fight-or-flight instinct as powerful as anything else.

Of all things, my Facebook feed helped me figure some of this out. A friend from high school — who also happens to be a licensed therapist — shared this graphic, and it caught my attention. I studied it, saved it to my phone, texted it to my husband.

Omg, I wrote Spencer. It me.

Though I’ve never been able to get my face wet (not in the shower, not in a pool … not anywhere), cannot stand the feel of dirt (or anything really) on my hands, get extremely anxious in loud restaurants, and am constantly scraping my hair into a ponytail to get it away from my face and off my neck … I hadn’t ever viewed those behaviors through a sensory lens before.

Makes sense, I kept thinking, Googling more and more. Makes sense why I never learned to swim. Why I automatically butter toast with a clean “thumb hold” square in the corner. Why I often have to take a break at parties, lingering in the peaceful bathroom just a little too long. This … makes sense now.

I have so many examples. Suffice it to say that the more I read about SPD, the more I began to understand the coping mechanisms I’ve developed to overcome challenges … ones I can help Oliver hone, too.

Though nothing has actually changed, I give myself some grace now. I’m not broken. I’m not a bad mom. I’m frequently an overwhelmed mom, and often I can set myself up for success by planning ahead to prevent sensory overload.

Knowing how upset I get when I’m hot, for example, I dress coolly at home. Yoga pants, tank tops. Put my hair up. Turn on ceiling fans. Try to stay comfortable.

I keep the TV on low and minimize “background noise.” Noise is a major trigger for me — having Alexa streaming music, the vent over the stove buzzing, and “Peppa Pig” snorting away in the living room is just too much.

I walk around when I’m feeling anxious. Often, this means stepping outside in the dark when Ollie and Hadley are going at full-volume. Rather than exploding (my gut reaction) when they’re just being kids, I force myself to tap out and gulp cool air.

So what does this mean for Oliver? Well, we’re still figuring that out. I know I see progress; he’s grown up and changed so much in the last year.

For now, it means having a dry washcloth ready to catch rogue water droplets near his eyes at bathtime. It’s making sure I have a three-size span of the only soft cotton jogger pants he wears (cripes, what if they’re discontinued???) and ensuring his shirts are tagless. It’s providing ear protection during plane take-off at Gravelly Point and digging around at the grocery store for the smooth vanilla yogurt, not the fruit-studded strawberry that makes him gag.

More than anything, I hope learning to wade through these waters will be easier with my arm around his shoulder — the squeeze that says I understand, and I’m here, and my buddy, we’ll figure this all out together.

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.