Was that okay?
Missing my instincts in the time of coronoavirus
(A quick update, dear reader, on the little yellow book. My friend relays that it is safe and sound and getting a ton of use on the avocado farm where she is taking care of her mother while she endures chemo. My mother-in-law surprised me with a new little yellow book, that I will no doubt be turning to often in the coming days and weeks. And this week’s On Being episode is a beautiful, improvisational conversation on Pema’s work, not to be missed.)
One block over from ours, there is the sweetest tree-lined, one-way street you’ve ever seen. Every Friday evening, at 6:30pm, one of the neighbors throws a giant speaker out in the street and DJs for an hour--Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston and all the other greats. The empty nesters come out and dance on the street. The kids bike and scoot. Even the little gray pug, named Napoleon, waddles around with what just might be a smile on his face.
We joined last Friday. It was the perfect almost-summer night. The light was fading. The breeze was gentle. Two palm trees towered above us as we swayed and smiled at one another and pretended the world wasn’t falling apart.
I’d just had a perfect Mezcal cocktail of some kind that my neighbor made me (was that okay?) and the girls and I moseyed on over (was that okay?). I forgot my mask (not okay; see aforementioned Mezcal), but John brought it to me.
We made it to our friends’ house at the end of the block. We often stop there during a neighborhood bike ride and chat with them from the sidewalk while they remain on their porch (is that okay?). This time, a few families had gathered there just as the last song played (was that okay?). Teo, the little boy who lives there with the best bowl cut and lowest center of gravity you’ve ever seen, wanted to show the kids his stomp rocket (was that okay?). Which, of course, led to each kid trying it out and all of the tipsy adults cheering, especially when the littlest ones managed to aim their chubby little bodies right on top of the yellow plastic, sending the styrofoam rocket on a lackadaisical loop into a car nearby (was that okay?).
Teo, an only child, began reveling in the company, directing my eldest: “Make an excited face! Make a candy face! Make a toy face!” She obliged in hopes of getting another chance to stomp the rocket and hear the parents cheer.
Eventually, we wandered back to our block. And the further we got from the euphoria of a spontaneous social moment, the more I wondered if we’d made a mistake.
I am finding this new era of constantly defining my own and assessing other people’s distancing practices befuddling and often uncomfortable. So much of it betrays my most beloved instincts.
We pulled all the bikes strewn across the lawn inside, hung our masks up on the hook outside our front door, threw our grubby children into the bathtub, and read books. Stella chose The Velveteen Rabbit, which, if you don’t remember, and I didn’t, has a chilling scene where the rabbit is thrown out with a heap of other toys and the gardener is ordered to burn it. It has been infected with scarlet fever. “Why do they have to burn it?” Maya asked me. “Why can’t they just wipe it down?”
I stupidly reply: “I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t have disinfectant back then.”
We’ve been wiping so much down--usually right after we ask ourselves, “Is this okay?” Is this box of cheddar bunnies we just got at the grocery store okay? Is this letter that came in the mail from your kindergarten teacher okay? Is it okay to give our one-year-old neighbor a strawberry from the garden? Is it okay that the kids are using the same chalk? Is it okay for me to take a hike with a friend, with masks? Is it okay to let me kid hang out on a zoom call where there is no password? Is it okay to meet up in the designated slow street in front of our house with friends, where some of those people show up without masks? But what about when the kids inevitably wander over to the loquat tree and start ravishing it and lose sight of the six feet rule? (Note: dear reader, I adore you, but please don’t answer any of these questions.)
I hate this. It defies so much of what I hold dear. Since becoming a mother, I have become allergic to assessing other people’s parenting. We’re all just doing the best we can, as I see it. Sugar, screen time, whatever. Just keep your kid alive and make sure they don’t think they’re the center of the universe, and I’m ready to give you a mother-of-the-year award. But now I’m supposed to watch and be weary of other people’s parenting.
I love holding other people’s children. I love feeding them. I love touseling their hair. But now I’m supposed to stay away from them.
It feels as if there’s no dimmer switch these days. The new epidemiological reality of our lives is an off and on switch with a blazingly hot, blinding light.
I like to feel things out. When I proposed to my husband, after a long repulsion to marriage, I decided I would ask him and then see how my body felt. Felt fine. Felt good, eventually. That’s how I figure some things out--a baby step at a time, through my body.
Not this. This virus turns our health, the health of our families, into the steepest slide off the biggest cliff. You take the step and, before you know it, you’re plummeting down. There’s no time to second guess.
The strawberry that I just watched pass from one kid’s pudgy fingers to the next--was that the moment we become part of the stories we read in the paper about mysterious additional symptoms showing up in kids? Or was it just a strawberry? We won’t know, until and unless we know (because our kids are sick, like, really, really sick), and then it will be too late.
Without my usual instincts, I feel easily influenced. A friend biked over with his two girls to the slow street in front of our house and we chatted. He wasn’t wearing a mask. He’s married to a biologist and said that they both feel like the sheltering-in was necessary for a time, but has gone too far. He ranted about Sweden, after reading a Thomas Friedman op-ed on their approach. He swore the coronavirus is not airborne. I was surprised, but intrigued. I Googled some of his facts. The jury is still out on how airborne the virus is; Sweden is not doing so well, and even its leading health experts don’t purport that the most commendable aspects of their approach are universal.
But even so, the next day, I went on a walk with a diminished commitment to the mask. At one point an older woman passed by me when I had it off and said, “I just have to ask: why aren’t you wearing a mask?” in a scolding tone. I didn’t know what to tell her. Because I don’t want to die, but I also like unimpeded fresh air? Because my friend, who is very confident and maybe a little wrong, made me feel like maybe it wasn’t so perilous? Because I’m not married to a scientist, but a very anxious architect, who reads a lot of news to me late at night while we lie in bed until I tell him to stop, and then he curls his body around me, and I love him so much, and it’s hard to be so careful, and maybe there’s no amount of careful that will make him feel safe? I said, “I’m sorry,” and put my mask on.
The loss of my own knowing, the rejection of so many of my most humane impulses--it just sucks. Which is not to say I won’t keep doing it. It’s a hardship that doesn’t compare to so many others that people are enduring right now. Worrying about their essential worker kids and parents and friends. Losing their jobs. Losing their loved ones. Grieving alone. Losing their lives.
But the stifling of our own generous, loving, spontaneous, corporeal instincts is not to be overlooked either. We are the sum of these beautiful moments and gestures with one another--the drink mixed, the strawberry offered, the rocket flying--and it’s hard to know how to be a person while denying all of that.
Or not denying it, for even a moment, and then wondering if you’ve made a fatal mistake.
I long for spaciousness--empty rooms where I can hear myself think and the time to think in them. But even more than that, I long for the day when I can rest in the goodness of my own generous instincts again, fully and without caveats or regret. It’s part of what makes us real, ala The Velveteen Rabbit.
Teo’s momma texted me after the Friday hang and said that it was heartbreaking to see how alive Teo felt among his friends again, especially his best bud next door. He told her, “I miss him. I want to put my arm on his shoulder.”
And we know exactly what he means.