A Place to Start

My book club read Antoine de St Exupéry’s Night Flight this month, and as I hurried to finish the book last night, I was struck by this quote:

Even though human life may be the most precious thing on earth, we always behave as if there were something of higher value than human life.”

The narrator was talking about a pilot, lost to the skies, the value of his life – or any individual life – held in balance opposite the value of his cargo – but this reflection runs parallel to so much of what’s happening in our country this week – a vocal, visible, occasionally violent acknowledgement that for far too long, Black lives have been treated as less valuable than property (unless those Black lives actually were property).

A place to start is by saying the words: Black Lives Matter.

As a white person raised in a white family in a white neighborhood, a white church, and white schools, it is safe to say that I have a lifetime of deeply ingrained white supremacy to unlearn. In America, but particularly as a white people in America, white supremacy is inseparable from the streets we walk, the food we eat, the laws we follow, the air we breathe. There is nothing that we do that is not informed by white supremacy, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we can start the difficult and necessary work of becoming anti-racist.

A place to start is by saying the words: I am racist. I want to become anti-racist.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably been overwhelmed with information about things to do, books to read, or places to give. Here are a few things that have been meaningful for me:

Finally, in the interest of sharing information with people who want it (vs people who I think might want it), I’m going to try putting together a little newsletter with links and things. Perhaps you’ll join me?

April Around Here

And that is where we are, almost exclusively: around here.

I go running to the points of my compass: north, along what the big kid calls “the loop run”. West into the park. South to campus. East in hopes of catching a glimpse of the lake. A mile or two out and then back.

The guys wander to the Botany Pond, to the lagoon in Washington Park. The big kid collects dandelion greens for our salads. The toddler chatters at squirrels and birds.

We return home to rigorously wash our hands, everyone’s new favorite habit. (The toddler loves it; the rest of us have scrubbed our knuckles raw.)

The toddler, lavished with books and attention during our quarantine, has made huge strides in his language acquisition – as has the big kid, who has learned enough Latin to make small talk at the breakfast table (which is also the school table).

I miss the rhythm of our weekends Before, but I’m loving the new rhythms as well: crepes topped with jam or foraged greens, games of Bananagrams or Solitaire during the toddler’s naps, loaves of bread fresh from the oven, trips to the mailbox with letters and postcards for loved ones greatly missed, a tiny cocktail and a book club book in the armchair after bedtime.

 

Weeks 4-5

I keep waking up from anxiety dreams that are very much Of These Times: I am in a busy shop. I am in a crowded grocery store. In my dreams, I feel panicked because I am somewhere I am not supposed to be.

I am finding that our February spending fast prepared us well for this period. It doesn’t feel difficult to avoid shopping or eating out because we did that for the four weeks Before, though I miss buying coffee with nearly the same intensity. But also when I find myself pulling up the website for the grocery store multiple times a day, I know how to stop myself, and what questions to ask: what am I trying to soothe by loading this shopping cart? What does having good butter in the freezer mean to me? Do we need these things, or can they wait a few more days, and what will waiting feel like?

But also: I am struggling to reconcile the urgency with which we were tightening our belts in service of debt reduction – our priority in the Before – with a new sense of abundance in this moment when we are tremendously fortunate. While my employer has frozen salaries for at least the next fiscal year, I expect to continue to be comfortably employed, and so the stimulus payment warming our checking account, along with temporary student loan forbearance, feels like an embarrassment of riches at a time when so many others are in personal and financial jeopardy.

This week has felt heavy in different ways than the previous weeks. I miss my family and my friends, and wonder when I’ll be able to see them again in person. I am mourning the loss of small things, like my older son’s cancelled swimming lessons, or the opportunity to take the toddler to the zoo or the beach at this specific wondrous age. I am deeply grateful that we were able to go to Belgium before Christmas – and wonder how that will be possible again in an entirely changed world. I read a farewell post from a friend preparing to leave Chicago after many years, and found myself trying to imagine our vibrant city without its festivals, with the beaches closed, with no lakefront path for summer long runs. And then I found myself feeling guilty for experiencing these passing waves of sadness in the face of so much horror and suffering in the world.

So much of adulthood seems to involve holding contradictory things in balance: dreams for the future and realities of the present, the flaws of the systems in which we operate and the need for those systems to continue, the immediate needs of our loved ones and the also painfully pressing needs of the whole world.

Take a deep breath. Exhale. One thing at a time. One step forward. Sending love.

Week 3

I have found myself thinking a lot about my grandma over the last few weeks. She was born in the spring of 1918, during World War I and the Spanish flu. By the time she was my age, she had lived through the Great Depression, married a husband who soon went off to war, moved around a bunch of times, had seven pregnancies and four children, and settled into a comfortable middle class Midwestern life.

I mention this not to invoke the “Greatest Generation”, a construct that honors the sacrifice of a generation while ignoring its sins (for example, celebrating the liberation of concentration camps in Europe while whitewashing the camps created by our own government), but because as I have moved through the motions of preparing and caring for my family in the last few weeks, I have thought of her at odd moments.

On a very practical level – and she was a very practical person – I have thought of her while buying groceries and stocking my makeshift pantry in our storage locker. I have pictured the orderly shelves of canned goods, the basement freezer stocked with summer’s bounty, and the baskets and boxes of empty Mason jars, and have wondered what kind of future might call for literally gallons of mayonnaise, but also when, if ever, this scarcity mindset (and associated guilt) goes away.

I have read about the intergenerational aspects of trauma and poverty and wondered if this season will linger in my kids’ memory, protected as they have been against the worst of it, at least so far, or will this just be one of those half-remembered footnotes on the history of their childhood, the year that spring was canceled.

In the interest of thinking about Something Else, here are a few things to read, and one thing to eat:

Week 2

This year, for some reason, I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions. I don’t know why. I think at the time I felt like I was coming up on 40, and that I would make a list to go along with a milestone birthday. And then my birthday came and went, and I still hadn’t made a list, and so I decided I would just give myself another year to finish all the fun things I had set out for myself last year. And then life changed so dramatically that aspiring to finish that list became impractical, if not unimaginable.

So now what? We’re a quarter of the way through a year that has already felt like a decade – though I hear that for some, time feels like its speeding up rather than slowing down – but at a juncture where writing down anything beyond an intention for the day feels like an exercise in frustration.

We are far from the point when After might come into view, but despite that, I have started to make – not quite a list, perhaps more like notes for a more hopeful time:

  • Rainbow Cone, still on my bucket list, with my friends Alisa or Ashley or both.
  • Coffee made by someone other than me, consumed from a ceramic cup, preferably somewhere pleasant and outdoors.
  • Smelling other people, which, while not always pleasant, currently feels incredibly novel when it happens in passing.

In the interest of thinking about Something Else, here are a few things to read, and one thing to eat:

Week 1

This is the new normal. Is this the new normal? When will we have a sense of what will be normal? We don’t know.

On the other hand, in my household, it feels almost normal. I wake up and go to work, even though my commute is five steps from the kitchen to the big kid’s bedroom. The guys start schoolwork after finishing their oatmeal. We check in with each other throughout the day. Some days I go running in the afternoon. Some days they go to the park (but not the playground). A more abrupt than usual transition into home life at 4:30, after which point everything is as it was two weeks ago: Sarah and Duck while I make dinner, children clamoring for chocolate and stories, the bedtime routine, maybe an hour to watch TV or read a book before collapsing into bed.

This week has felt like a lifetime, and planning feels like a fool’s errand. Is it reasonable to do the groundwork for a conference in October? A meeting in May? Should I try to approach my work as if everything is as it would be in a normal March? To some extent, I have to, as it neither makes sense nor am I able to function in an environment where my work has to be reinvented day-by-day.

I am sad. And scared. And overwhelmed. But I am also home, and safe, and privileged.

In the interest of thinking about Something Else, here are a few things to read, and one thing to eat:

Take care of yourselves, friends.

Strange Days

I’m feeling flooded this week, struggling against the tide of uncertainty as events are canceled, universities closed or effectively moved online, countries quarantined.

Like everyone else, I waver between preparation and skepticism, between worry and calm. Do we really need giant jugs of water in our storage unit? How are the therapists that come into our home avoiding transmitting viruses from family to family? How many bags of cat litter are too many?

It feels strange to not know how to make plans for six weeks from now – or if we even should. I came into work on Monday planning to prepare for a large meeting that I chair each month. That meeting was scheduled for Tuesday. A few hours later, I was told that we would need to make alternate arrangements for that meeting. Can I plan to move March’s agenda and presentations to April? Should I be planning for May? I don’t know.

Like everyone else, I’m weighing the known against the unknown. I’m in good health, and have a job that I can do from home, and an employer that will hopefully be supportive of those arrangements (even if my kids are not); the risks for me are minimal. My kids are in good health and don’t go to school; the risks for them are minimal. But my husband is immunocompromised; the risks for him are very high. So it’s rational to be simultaneously calm and anxious, to want to do whatever I can to protect our family in the face of uncertainty while also feeling a little like I’m losing my mind.

– – – – –

I started writing this three days ago. How much has changed, and how quickly. How strange to think that a week ago, I was brokenhearted because my candidate withdrew and a hip injury meant I probably couldn’t run a race next month.

I packed up my office yesterday, ferrying my books and snacks home on my bike in perfect weather, and today am working from a desk in my son’s room, where I will be surrounded by blocks and stuffed animals and books of mythology for the indefinite future. This will be an adjustment; I am doing my best to practice kindness and patience. The latter is not my strong suit.

I went to the grocery store this morning, hoping to beat the crowds if I went early enough. I did not beat the crowds, but we all waited with our full shopping carts, concerned but calm. Everything will get worse before it gets better; for now, the sun is shining through the open windows and it feels perverse to have a care in the world.

Winter Around Here

I’ve spent the last month-ish deep in the SADs. That’s the best explanation for it – which isn’t to say that it would be irrational to feel sunk down deep in muck and mire with the world simultaneously on fire and on the edge of a pandemic, with every minute shift in public opinion in an unending primary being reported in excruciating detail and to the detriment of probably the most competent and prepared candidate in American history, with rampant corruption laid bare but unpunished, with people being unfairly struck from the voter rolls and bees dying and the lake reclaiming the lakefront. In the same week, I talked to a friend about their divorce, and another about fears for their child, and another about a pregnancy much wanted, and another about the failing health of a loved one, and another about workplace challenges, and the weight of it, while a burden I’m honored to carry, is all too much in a season already so bleak.IMG_20200213_200345_271

And also: my baby is 18 months, and 18 months feels halfway to A Real Boy, and so every night I hold him close and bury my nose in his curls and cover his face in kisses and tell him, again and again, how precious and loved and wanted he is, how lucky we are to have him, how grateful I am to be his mama. This season, the one of his toddlerhood, feels all too fleeting, except for the moments when he is simultaneously stealing apples from the fridge to roll them across the kitchen floor and dropping onion skins in the cat’s bowl and tossing toys in the trash. I scooped him up after a tumble the other morning and the smear of blood from his mouth on my shoulder was a visceral reminder of his fearful fragility.

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And also: my big kid is five and a half and is every day full of surprises. He’s obsessed with Latin and soccer and some days wants to be a Math Detective and others tells me about how his baby will go to daycare so that he and his wife can go to work. Some days he is an emotional maelstrom and others he reads my moods and surprises me with pictures and letters that I tuck into spots where they will catch my eye in the moments when I need to see past my 28 open tabs and stacks of paperwork and unwashed coffee mugs to remember the things at the heart of it all.

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Assorted Reading

We’re nearing the end of January and I have yet to write about Belgium, or December, or my 40th birthday, or probably other things that merit time in this space. In the interest of ever getting to any of it, here’s a year-end link dump for your mid-week perusal.

Reading

Parenting, kids, motherhood

Relationships, self care

Food, cooking

Work, working

2019 in meme

1. What did you do in 2019 that you’d never done before?
Hired a babysitter; served on a conference planning committee; traveled internationally with two children; saw a world record being broken; wore a stick-on heart rate monitor for multiple weeks; successfully made falafel and a trifle and fish and a bunch of other semi-ambitious dishes; lost a kid in a crowded public place; got mastitis (twice!).

2. Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I made a 40×40 list, but finished less than half of it, so I’m extending the deadline until my 41st birthday.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Several friends, but no one in my inner circle.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
My last grandparent died in August.

5. What countries (or new places) did you visit?
No new places this year. We spent 3 weeks in Belgium, including a day trip to Holland to visit family. I went to Champaign 3 times for work, and Iowa 3 times for sad reasons.

6. What would you like to have in 2020 that you lacked in 2019?
Financial independence (or at least a path there)

7. What date from 2019 will remain etched up on your memory, and why?
A lot of stuff happened this year, and as a result, many of the dates are fuzzy. I remember very clearly where I was when I learned that my grandma died, but I couldn’t tell you the date – it was the first week of August, and the funeral was a few days before the baby’s birthday, but that’s all I’ve got.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Mostly keeping my shit together from August through mid-November. Graduating from therapy. These things are related.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Patience. With myself, my partner, my big kid.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I’m very grateful that 2019 was medically very boring.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Weleda Skin Food. My Get to Workbook. The no frills men’s jeans I bought at C&A after yet another pair of pants failed me.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My kids are amazing, even if they drive me bananas at times. The big kid, age 5, is an avid letter writer and is doing 4th grade math and can play chess and poker and piano (if he pays attention to what he’s doing) and ran 5K on his birthday and has been drawing all of these involved pictures depicting all of the important things from our trip to Belgium. He plans to move to Belgium when he is 18, but he also plans to open a coffee shop near Boston called CoffeeFish. The small kid, age 16 months, is clever and naughty and irrepressibly joyful. He has a head of curls and adores his big brother and runs to the door and yells MA! when I come home.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Most elected officials’, same as in previous years.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Food and rent and debt and travel.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Wasbar. Beni Falafel. The Vogeltjesmarkt. NYT Cooking. Getting out of debt. Sesame noodles.

16. What song will always remind you of 2019?
I really didn’t listen to much music this year beyond random Spotify playlists. This track came up often:

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
i. happier or sadder?
Happier

ii. richer or poorer?
Poorer.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Sleep, running, time with friends, lying on the couch doing nothing – same as it ever was.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Worrying about money, dealing with moving and apartment disasters.

20. How did you spend Christmas?
We were in Belgium for Sinterklaas, so the big kid enjoyed all manner of chocolate and surprises, while the small kid was delighted to get to eat little cookies off the floor.

We shifted our family’s celebration to December 23, when we celebrate our dating anniversary. We opened stockings and exchanged books:
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates for me
The Landmark Thucydides for N
P is for Pterodactyl by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter for the big kid
Never Touch a Dragon for the small kid

I worked Christmas Eve before watching the big kid perform in his choir at the Christmas Eve Tableau at Rockefeller Chapel. He was a donkey in the pageant.

We spent Christmas day in Rockford with my family – snacks and presents at my sister’s, more gifts and brunch at my parents’, then a mostly leisurely afternoon with the family.

21. Did you fall in love in 2019?
With the view from our Belgian apartment and the convenience of having actual appliances in our new Chicago apartment.

22. (Adding a new question in place of one that no longer applies!) What was the best thing you ate?
Rijsttafel. Kale sauce pastaMushroom “shawerma”. BENI FALAFEL.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
The Expanse

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
Hate is a strong word.

25. What was the best book you read?
Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
I can’t think of anything ground-shattering. I mostly listened to a bajillion podcasts.

27. What did you want and get?
3 weeks completely checked out from work

28. What did you want and not get?
Entry into the 2020 Chicago Marathon

29. What was your favorite film of the year?
I watched two movies in 2019: The Post (on the flight home from Belgium) and The Secret of Kells (on the big kid’s birthday). I would like to watch more movies, with and without my kids.

30. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
Brunch at The Gundis, coffee at Intelligentsia (where we took surveys in exchange for future free coffees), cupcakes at Molly’s, emergency water shut off at home, baby in a bear suit napping on my chest.

31. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Sleep

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2018?
Whatever fits.

33. What kept you sane?
Nicolas, my sister, Eva, Karen, Kim and Angie, Anne and KZ, long walks

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Who has time for that?

35. What political issue stirred you the most?
Another terrible, terrible year.

36. Who did you miss?
Everyone

Previous years: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011