human being, human doing

In the onslaught of texts I passed back and forth with two friends of mine this summer, one of them said And just think, we’ll remember this as the easy part. We were trading questions and worries about the upcoming school year, and though I knew she was right, I couldn’t truly swallow that fact and sink my heels in the pace of summer like I usually do. As a teacher, my years are marked in summers, and it feels like this one was stolen from me. I “borrowed troubles” from tomorrow as some people say. I was too consumed with questions about what was coming to see the relative ease of what was in front of me. And yet here I am, writing this post hurriedly among the frantic pace of an August weekend when I should be reviewing The Scarlet Letter instead so that I feel ready for Monday.

I started school July 31st. My students came back August 6. My own two kids in the public school system here began the week after that. We are in Georgia, with the highest per capita infection rate in the country, and for the first few days back at work, I felt violated by so much human contact after five months of relatively intense caution. I was watchful of my body temperature and every tingle in my throat. But now, to be honest, I never even think much about getting sick because I’m just too busy moving from one task to another to ruminate on it. This is good, maybe? I’m focused on other things. Or maybe it’s not good at all, and it’s ridiculous that I’m chugging along as usual when most epidemiologists say this isn’t the best idea. Masks are encouraged at my own kids’ school, and most students there wear them. Masks are mandatory at my school, and I enforce them in the classroom. There is extra sanitation and a large portable plexiglass shield that I teach behind. There is that bit of added protection, but at the end of the day, is this a sustainable plan to be in classrooms full of people when infection rates are spiking? Probably not. Right now it just feels like I’m waiting on the other shoe to drop.

We are all having a hard time in this, every single one of us. I am not saying anything you don’t know. It feels pointless to be writing about it when we all know what this chapter feels like, and I’m telling you nothing new. But half the reason I write here is for my own self to look back and know what happened and hopefully see the thread through the larger story that connects all these months and years. So here we go.

This is hard. I have been through hard times before, lots of them. Like that time I started over all together, or that time I lost someone irreplaceable, or that time the ceiling fell in, or just a few months ago when my son was so sick. But this is hard in a different way because I cannot see the end of it, and none of us can. I can’t say when we get to that next season around the corner, things will be fine. Or well things are hard now, but at least we have that trip planned soon or those concert tickets or that dinner with friends next weekend. There is no now and later. There is just now, and it stretches to some unknown end we cannot see yet.

That is hard enough, but add the parenting piece of this equation — the school decisions (or not even truly a decision if you’re a working parent) and trying to constantly choose between their physical health and their mental health as we decide whether or not to participate in an activity or play with a friend. It’s so much to carry everyday.

I heard someone in a podcast this week say that this time is the “Great Pause” that we can use to sift out all the things we don’t need in our own lives. Usually that way of thinking is helpful for me, and I cling to those ideas as a way to search for meaning. But when I heard her say that, I felt an unfamiliar resistance to it. Covid landed in each of our lives at its own time, and like grief, it’s affecting each of us a little differently depending on whatever other things are circulating in our lives. But for me, I can’t help but feel that I paused enough. I’ve sifted enough. I have spent the better part of 2015-2018 pausing and sifting and rearranging my whole life and then spent 2019 doing the heavy lifting and beginning to stretch my arms wide enough to take in whatever was coming for me. When I look back at last year and the amazing ways I stretched and moved — traveling internationally with the kids, spending a monumental week with other writers, finally securing a literary agent, taking a leap of faith to start a new job — it feels like some other lifetime, some other person, some other world where new things were not only possible but the momentum was building and new things were coming. And then this abrupt stop. It feels like I was cheated which is such a selfish thing say when I am healthy and my kids are okay, and as I write this 176,000 Americans have lost their lives. It is selfish to say that, but it is the truth of this moment in time and the way this landed on my particular life, so I will say it anyway and lay it all down here.

I am not sifting and reordering my life much these days, and maybe I’m missing the point by not doing that. But I feel like I have done what I can long ago in that regard, and I know where my priorities lie and what I want. Instead I’m beauty hunting as Jen Pastiloff says, I am looking anywhere I can for inspiration and that nameless feeling that happens when your heart moves a little. I’ve binged television (Outlander and Poldark and then Sex Education and Better Things) and I’ve played new albums on repeat. I’ve tried new recipes. I’ve pulled out old paper journals and read through my ramblings on past years that felt hard, and I have added new words there to mark this one. I’ve stretched creative muscles in lesson planning this past few weeks to try and make each day something fun. Sometimes survival mode is laying on the couch under a weighted blanket for a day and sometimes it’s voraciously searching for artistic inspiration like I’m starving. I seem to waver between those extremes at all times.

Everything about me is changing shape to something without structured edges. I cannot pin down my calendar with any certainty. I cannot tell you where I will be on that spectrum between weighted blanket and artistic hunger. In January when I scribbled in my 2020 journal that my words were allow, soften, create, I didn’t expect to arrive at it this way. I thought it would look a lot more graceful, like some beautiful surrender. But I arrived here nonetheless.

For once, I am not searching for meaning in this challenge. I’m sure it’s there, and maybe one day I’ll see it, but I am not looking for it now. Instead, I’m being more forgiving with my own self. I didn’t accomplish my usual summer list of tasks, and I’m okay with that. I spent July watching more television that I have in years, and I’m not ashamed to write that here. I’ve generally been outrageously cautious, but there were a few times this summer that I broke the rules of distancing to forget, just for a moment, that we are in this chapter of history where we fear closeness to other people and to remember what it feels like to be human. And I don’t regret those moments at all. The kids had a summer that felt a whole lot like 1988, climbing trees and riding bikes, and coming in with layers of dirt caked on their hands from playing in the creek in the woods. It was the summer of no rules and of finding pockets of happiness anywhere we could. For the first time in years, my body feels softer, and my pants feel a little bit tighter, and I think I’m done with resenting that and decided to embrace it instead.

We are in the waiting and life is hard enough outside with the unknown and the scary and the relentless news cycle. I guess in hindsight, though I resisted the urge to search for meaning here, I found it anyway by writing this, and I can see that now that I am arriving to the end of these words. I’ve jumped off the train of productivity because it’s going nowhere right now anyhow. I’ve dropped down from my head space to my heart space and sometimes further still until I’m back in my body again and I remember what it feels like to be a human being instead of a human doing. It is not here to stay, but maybe it’s alright for this one moment in my life to just let it all go.

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