I spent several hours this morning procuring and sanitizing two weeks worth of food for my family. I wore a mask and gloves and an outfit that I stripped off as soon as I stepped in the door. I sprayed all of the packages down with Lysol, a product I never used to use, while Scott scrubbed the produce in hot, soapy water. These new processes recommended by a doctor friend feel simultaneously excessive but also insufficient. Is all of this really necessary? Will all of this be enough?
But now I am sitting on the back porch in the sunshine with my notebook in my lap. As of yesterday afternoon, spring has given up teasing and finally touched down. Today it is almost too hot, which, after our long, troubled winter, feels obscenely luxurious. Silas is digging up worms to feed to our sick chicken, and Alyosha is devising some scheme I have yet to figure out which involves a pitch fork and a cooler full of dirt. Every once in a while, they will break from their projects and squeal around the yard like wild piglets. When I finish with this essay, I will spend the rest of the afternoon broadforking my garden beds and top dressing them with compost.
In this time of quarantine, I find that small things are carrying me so much farther—a hike in the woods, a crayfish sighting, a phone call from a friend, an afternoon spent working in the sun and the dirt. But the spring is no small thing; it is as big as the world. It is everything coming alive again with the promise that we will, too.
As of tomorrow afternoon, we homeschooling parents will have reached the end of our first quarter—a supremely comforting thought. Michigan schools shut down with twelve weeks to go in the year, and assuming they don’t open again until September, we’re one fourth done with our pre-summer duties. One fourth is a significant portion. At the end of next week comes one third. Two weeks more, and we’re halfway there (whoa-oa, livin’ on a prayer). And who ever knew Bon Jovi could be so prescient?
When it comes to life without the presence of an imminent threat, I try to resist counting down the days. I wasted years longing for an end to the epochs I was living through—the end of high school, the end of college, the end of an everlasting pregnancy. I have an unfortunate tendency to treat chunks of time as flat, colorless lands to be crossed as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, I gain nothing, and I lose the deeper experience of so many moments.
Right now, though, I’m taking a slightly different tack. Yes, I am trying to open myself up to this time, to truly live it in all of its strangeness and terror. But I am also grateful that our current anxiety is meted out in the small parcels of seconds that string themselves together and never, ever stop. I’m grateful that, even on days when our lives feel like they’re falling fantastically apart, we are still moving the needle one day closer to this all being over. Time will bring this epoch to an end, even if all we can do is wait.
I’m now using Tuesday mornings to teach my children to bake, and in baking there’s nothing more basic than bread. This morning Alyosha and Silas proofed the yeast and waited for it to bubble. They wore their arms out stirring in the flour. They threw their whole bodies behind the kneading of the dough. They beat the risen dough down with their fists.
Bread is beautiful to me because it’s just as much metaphor as it is an actual, physical thing. For a time, I lived in community with refugees, and literal bread bound us together. An Eritrean woman spent an entire day teaching us how to bake injera. The Bosnian refugees shared a recipe that they created in the camps using only the sparest of rations: flour, water, yeast, salt. Every culture has a tradition of bread, and that bread is half bread and half story. When we share bread, we share stories. When we bake bread, we write our own.
Years from now, when my children remember these days, I hope they remember the bread. I hope they sense the stories that gathered when we pulled the golden loaf out from the oven, warm and soft and smelling, more than anything, like home.
Yesterday there was a magnificent wind, so I took a long walk and let it push me forward and back. I watched the trees lean with it and the birds ride the invisible eddies of air. If trees didn’t bend, they would break, and the same is true for any number of things.
If I were a tree, though, I would make a disobedient one. I don’t like to be told what to do or where to go. It’s practically a Webster family birthright that when everyone else is going one direction, you go the other way. My people tend toward rugged individualism. We resist external controls.
But isn’t this pandemic so like the wind? It rose up out of nowhere, and it tossed our lives up into the air. It ushered us back inside and slammed our doors shut. We can’t witness it exactly, only its aftermath. It’s out there, everywhere, and it’s howling.
And here I am, still pitted against this wind. I’m spending most of my time resenting it for its destruction and disruptions, wishing it away. Naturally, this means I’m getting exactly nowhere—feet planted pointlessly, facing the roar. I wonder what would happen if I worked with it, like the birds, who ride sideways in great, gratuitous curves. Maybe I would end up somewhere new, somewhere I didn’t know I needed to be.
The four of us have been on top of each other for two weeks, and honestly, it’s getting old. The kids seem unusually loud and constantly ravenous, except after I spend an hour cooking them a healthy meal. I’m trying not to betray my annoyance, which today is triggered by almost everything they do—eating crackers on the couch, trying to walk down the stairs in roller skates, asking me over and over if I will set up an Etsy store to sell their perler bead creations. It’s supposed to rain all day, so I can’t send them outside. And it’s cold, and I am so done with the cold.
Here in Michigan, the cases of sickness are spiking. Scott and I have started the sobering process of sanitizing everything we bring into the house. A doctor friend of mine was recently assigned to the COVID ICU for the coming month, maybe more. My brother, a physical therapist assistant who works primarily with high-risk populations, continues to head out each day into this horror. There is an end to this, I know, but we cannot see it yet.
Still, the comfort of a bad day is that a better day almost always follows. So I am just going to let today be bad. I’m going to sit here on the bottom without trying to boost myself back up. I’m going to let the kids watch too many cartoons, and I’m going to take a long walk alone and read unchallenging fiction and drink too much hard seltzer.
And then tomorrow, I’m going to get up, and I’m going to try again.
We have lived here in Waterloo for a little less than a year. We are rather bad at mowing. We’re trying to turn our yard into a farm. We host a bass-heavy, Friday-night band practice in our barn. Also, our children like to yell and invite themselves over places and politely inquire as to the possibilities of food. If you were a stickler for neatness and predictable behavior, the Webster-Heins probably wouldn’t find a slot on your fantasy neighbor list.
And yet. Over the course of this past week, one neighbor has gifted me antibacterial cleaner. Another has dropped off literal pounds of free bacon. Another has left on my porch a Mary Kay Satin Hand Set to combat the deleterious effects of all this handwashing. And another has sent me a bottle of lavender calming spray, along with a card that made me cry.
I had already counted us fortunate to have landed here with these people. But now I’m much more cognizant of the great comfort that we’re all close by, if unseen, keeping watch out our windows, waiting together.
My daughter worries about unlikely things. She fears that I will somehow spontaneously vanish, or that we could get lost and never find our way back home. She fears that, if her 5-year-old brother gets angry enough, he will run away and never come back. That the cats will escape, even though they demonstrate no will to do so, and the dog will follow.
When I was her age, I had similar anxieties. Unlike me, my little sister was swift to fall asleep, and when she stopped responding from her post on the top bunk, I would climb up and shake her awake again to make sure that she hadn’t died. It’s funny now; it wasn’t then.
Worries rob us of our joy, I know that full well. I have hated my mind for what it can do – how it can take the dearest things in my life and transform them into figments of pain and loss.
But right now, my worries are teaching me something, too. They are showing me how much I love life in all of its dull dailiness. They are underscoring how much people mean to me, how good it feels to go freely out into the world. They are proving to me that if this was all I were given, it would be enough.
The days are beginning to bleed together now, and I’m doing my best to build in some routine. “School,” such as it is, at nine on weekdays. Math, writing, movement, reading. Snack and storytime, preferably outside. Then creative hour with Dad. By the afternoon, I am out of ideas. I sit with my tea and see what they will do.
It is always different, and it is usually messy. They gather all of the pillows in the house and dive-bomb them. They take turns dragging each other around by their ankles, which, to my surprise, doesn’t always end badly. My daughter has recently decided that marbles are sentient beings, and she’s been naming them and building them makeshift houses and molding them various pieces of furniture from clay. My son has developed a game where he puts together his entire collection of puzzles and uses them as stepping stones in a sprawling version of Don’t Touch the Floor. One of them will decide to write a letter to a friend, and the other will draw the love child of a monkey and an elephant.
Of course I’m leaving out the unsavory parts. Sometimes they dump the snack box all over and leave the caps off the markers and get in a shoving match over who sits in the special chair.
Still, this era is reminding me that, in many ways, my children know their own needs better than I do. While I follow along behind them, checking off invisible benchmarks, they are moving wherever they need to move, learning whatever they need to learn. It is good to be close to this again, and to remember that, just like them, I too can be trusted.
In these recent, open afternoons, the kids and I have been hiking through the wetlands behind our house and into the forest beyond. They spend the better part of an hour clambering over the fallen trunks of trees while I sit on a stump with my binoculars, waiting for birds. Generally at some point someone slips and falls and needs to be picked back up. Someone steps in swamp water up to their ankles. Someone finds something new and calls the others over, and we stare at it for a while and wonder aloud what it is.
I write a lot about nature, but slow is not my natural pace. Usually I am pushing myself toward some self-invented goal, plotting out my next measurable achievement. Now, though, I am limited to letting time do its work, which means I get to learn the art of wasting it. It feels a bit like life has given me an assignment—Learn what’s it’s like just to sit here. Learn to listen. Learn to wait.
The baby days do not dredge up nostalgia for me. I was too tired, too harried, too sad. I plowed through those years on an empty tank, burning fumes. I loved my babies fiercely of course, and I also loved those days in a manner of speaking, but I would not choose to live them again.
This past fall, my son started full-day kindergarten, and my daughter started third grade. This was to be my first year of hard-fought freedom. Before the schools closed, I was spending my mornings in my writing room, scribbling out chapters and essays and revising a novel for publication. In the afternoons, I would read or garden or take the dog for a long walk around the wetlands behind our house. Naturally, those days are now gone for the unforeseeable future.
Last night I was cooking dinner after another long, loud day, and my son started putting a puzzle together on the kitchen floor. I had to step over him as I walked back and forth, fetching ingredients and opening drawers. It jogged memories of my babies in their big-bottomed diapers – riding around on my ankles, banging pot lids with wooden spoons, dumping out the basket of measuring cups. Savor these moments, everyone said, and I tried and often failed.
But now, in the presence of an imminent threat, I understand better that these days, too, will pass, and I will not get them back. I am starting to learn how to live when the sky is falling – and it is always maybe falling. Do not begrudge the puzzle. Step gently around your son. Marvel at the spring as it comes, remembering that there is only one of everything.