Saturday night, after taking our kids to church and nearly exploding with rage at their sullen attitudes, my husband and I decided we needed to get away from the kids for a couple hours, so we went on a date to Menard’s.
(Sidebar 1: this is a sign of the times: you need a date night, so you shop for home improvements. Date Night in a time of pandemic.)
(Sidebar 2: Why home improvements? Because at 3 a.m. a couple weeks ago, we were awakened by a terrifying crash. After fifteen minutes’ searching, we discovered that the upper closet rack and shelf had broken off the wall, disgorging all my husband’s suits, half my hanging clothes, and all the suitcases into a big pile on the closet floor.)
As we were venting about everything that had us hacked off at our kids, I had this moment where the irony of it all made me chuckle.
Because at the start of the stay-at-home orders last spring, all the jokes were about how we were entering a nirvana for introverts, and oh, those poor extroverts! And yet I know extroverts who are staying home quite comfortably, while I, a confirmed introvert–so confirmed, I go find the most remote spot on the trail to ride, because a truly successful trail ride is one in which I never see another human being for three hours–am really suffering. As in, I feel suffocated in my own house.
Because you see, I’m surrounded by people. All.The.Time. There’s always someone coming outside while I’m pulling crabgrass–bypassing Dad, who’s sitting at the kitchen table working Sudoku, mind you–to say, “Mom, where is the __?”
The 11-year-old is teasing the 13-year-old; he giggles, she yells, “You stop it!” But he doesn’t, because he’s getting a reaction.
The 15-year-old is annoyed by the 11-year-old practicing the clarinet.
The 8-year-old is making sound effects at all times, except when he’s playing One Direction at top volume.
And the chargers walking off, and the devices disappearing.
And the mess. Oh my word, the mess. And the whining about having to clean the mess.
And the following up with kids who didn’t do what they were told to do, or did half of it and quit (twice), or did a shoddy job.
This introvert has to leave home to get introvert time! (To say nothing of time to write!)
I know there are lots of you out there who are feeling the same way. Give me a “solidarity, sistah!”
When I was in middle school, my parents started a new endeavor on the farm. We’d always raised corn and soybeans (and hogs, cattle and chickens), but now Dad started growing seed beans. In other words, he grew the seeds that farmers would plant next year.
This meant the grain that was harvested had to be very, very clean (weed free). So every summer, we had to walk the bean fields and pull shattercane and cocklebur and cottonweed.
We were not given a choice. My parents paid us, but the work was not optional. We would eat supper and then go straight out to the fields. We worked until it was too dark to see anymore, whatever the outside summer temperature.
We’d take 5 rows apiece–3 when it was really bad–and work our way from the road to the tree line, where we’d wait for everyone else to finish their row. Then we’d reform for the pass back. Except when there was a bad patch and you stuck a surveyor’s flag in the row so you knew where to come back to, and we’d all converge on the patch and work together.
Sometimes it was just us. Sometimes we had neighbor boys working with us. (It was more fun then.) We had weed hooks and gloves and water bottles. We sang, we talked movies.
And of course, we groused and complained. Which is why I remembered this job this week.
Because this year, I am reclaiming my lawn from crabgrass. Or, more accurately, I am in Year One of reclaiming my lawn from crabgrass. Until about the 4th of July, I thought I was doing really well, but, um, nope.
So July 2020 has been all about pulling crabgrass. Thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of crabgrass plants. Mixing it up: pull, then spray some killer, wait a few days, then start pulling again. (Being a green person, I don’t like spraying, but occasionally one must bow to reality.) Two weeks in, I realized I couldn’t possibly win this battle without some extra labor, and I made my boys start pulling crabgrass, too.
They are not happy about it.
It didn’t take too much complaining before I began to wonder how much of the same I dished out to my parents. Then I started thinking how my kids have never had to develop the emotional stamina to do a job they didn’t like for longer than twenty or thirty minutes. Well, except for the approximately triennial Cleaning Of The Toy Room. Which is hell for everyone.
In any case, I realized that what I learned from walking beans was a lesson I have often needed in adulthood. So I no longer feel guilty about putting my foot down and hauling them outside to help fight the unwinnable war. In the long run, it’ll be good for them.
I went to a park to meet a friend and her son, my godchild, to social-distance celebrate a birthday. She was upset, and I didn’t immediately realize why. She had to lead me almost all the way there.
I have rarely felt the privilege of my own skin color so keenly.
Because unlike me, she and her son are not white. And while the events of the past week, beginning in Minnesota and spreading all over the country, are a source of grief to me, for her they are inescapable realities that she has to wrestle with on a daily basis.
What is the future for her child? For all her male loved ones? Can they not go running in their neighborhoods? Do they really need to be afraid every time they see a police officer?
The “I Am From” poems were a big thing a couple years ago, but this popped up as a distance learning assignment from for my daughter this week. And I thought, Hey, I never had time when these were all the rage. I don’t really have time now, either, but I need a break and this will be fun!
(Hint: it’s harder than it looks.)
I am From…. Kathleen M. Basi
I am from long walks on the farm, from home-grown vegetables and meat and from-scratch cooking.
I am from the fields and woods and hay barns
(the wind in the silver maples, dust drifting on the air, the roar of the grain dryer and the not-fragrance of livestock riding the west wind)
I am from Grandma’s peonies, so heavy they fall over every spring, impossible to mow under, and a one-acre lawn,
and from watching the sunset from the corrugated tin barn roof.
I’m from popcorn and soda on Sunday nights and jumping off hay bales, from talking to the Big Dipper through my window and a playground of farm equipment.
From the tree house where I read Ellen Tebbits
and the front porch where mosquitoes bit and cats nuzzled and stories were born.
I am from Grandma Anna’s player piano and Grandma Bernadine’s cinnamon rolls,
from the “one activity per child”s and the “if you want it done right do it yourself”s.
I’m from it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt and never go anywhere without your ID.
I’m from Midnight Mass followed by Christmas morning Mass, from all-three-nights-of-Triduum, choir practices on Wednesday nights, the soaring ceilings and the sound of the flute carrying over the arches.
I’m from north of town and south of the lake and related to everyone in the state of Missouri,
from fried chicken and the only potato salad in the world worth eating,
from the day Mom scared the rooster to death and the day the hay wagon shifted and split Dad’s head open.
There was a steamer trunk in the basement, still reeking of coal smoke a hundred years on, and a drawer in Grandma’s house I never knew held World War II ration coupons,
and a file box studded with burned matches, guarding the record of generations of German immigrants—lives lived fully, eventually to give birth to mine.
I realized recently that we’re all going through a universal set of stages as we cope with this abrupt departure from “normal” life.
First there’s the freak-out. The overbuying food and toilet paper, the lying awake at night envisioning scenarios in which your child with a disability is the one who will be denied a ventilator to save the life of a more “productive” individual. The terror that if you let your kids play with neighbor kids (this was before stay-at-home orders), your family will singlehandedly be the cause of the deaths of dozens or hundreds of others. The crying at everything. This is the “How can I survive X more days? What if it’s months? What if it’s YEARS? How do I live with the uncertainty?”
This is also the stage where you judge everyone else for their choices.
Then, you start to adjust. You start to see that life is not all bad, and that some days feel positively normal. There are still bad days in there, but you’re no longer lying awake and taking refuge in drink. (You know we’ve all done it!)
And then, the weeks start to fly by again, and you know you’ve reached equilibrium. This situation is not what you wanted, but you’ve figured out how to handle it. You’ve found your new normal.
Everyone is going through these stages, but some people get stuck in the freak-out-and-judge stage. Which I totally get. Where I live, the “curve” is a flat line. The sense of personal danger is gone… for the moment. What happens as we open back up is anyone’s guess. But of course, people in places where the body counts are sky-high are struggling to get past the freak-out-and-judge stage.
But there’s another dawning awareness happening, too.
I, along with every one of my friends, have been sending out feelers into a new understanding that goes like this:
I don’t like being isolated… I don’t like my kids not going to school… I don’t like home schooling… I don’t like social distancing… I need space and alone time… I miss hugs… I want my vacation/camp/conference… Zoom is a poor substitute for absolutely everything…
I kind of DO like this feeling of rest.
This feeling that I can up and go do a birthday parade for anybody, any time, because my body and mind are no longer like a rubber band stretched so far that both are both crying out, “No more! No more!”
This recognition that I have the mental and emotional space to pause and notice the mated pair of cardinals feeding each other on our deck.
This feeling that I have enough RAM to exercise some creativity to write birthday notes of appreciation to my kid, without it feeling like the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back.
The luxury of finishing with a kid’s lesson or meeting and simply….clicking an X. Not having to drive anywhere.
The luxury of cooking all those fabulous meals I love to cook, because the kids can do their thing WHILE I’M COOKING. Gasp! I can set aside every Saturday morning for nothing but exercise and cooking a big breakfast… because nobody has to go anywhere!
At the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo has this to say:
“I feel sort of…thin… stretched…like butter spread over too much bread.”
I know that feeling.
But I don’t feel stretched anymore. Not in that way, at least. Spiritually, emotionally, as a parent—yes. But in that familiar, I cannot do one thing more way?—no.
But you know what? The world is eventually going to open up again. And then… what?
Do I really want to go back to the same rat race I was trapped in six weeks ago?
We’ve been given a Grand Pause (to use a musical term). A lot of people are suffering, medically or financially or both. But a lot of us are just… on pause.
What if this Grand Pause is an invitation to reset? To ponder, to reclaim who we are at our core, and what we are meant to be? All that great stuff we do to enrich our kids’ lives is truly good, but it’s so much. If all that enrichment becomes a drain on our mental & emotional resources, it’s not actually enriching anything, is it? No matter how good the individual activities are in and of themselves.
We’ve allowed ourselves to be bullied by our activities into pushing for competitiveness, to be forced into attending EVERY practice and EVERY meeting, even when it splinters our family time. To what end? Our kids are not going to become professional dancers, musicians, or athletes. They’re just not. Can’t we do things in moderation and achieve all the same goals as we do if we push ourselves to the breaking point?
What if this Grand Pause is an invitation to say, “Hey, maybe what makes me me is to love and enjoy my family and friends. And all the rest of that stuff is fluff!”
I haven’t figured out yet how to put this into practice. I have some introductory thoughts, but no more than that, and this blog post is too long already. A topic for another day. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear what thoughts have been tumbling around in your mind on this topic.
In the month we’ve been on a stay-at-home order, I’ve realized a couple things.
First of all, everyone goes through a freak-out before settling into a new reality. I have seen it happen in many of my online friends and, more to the point, I’ve been painfully aware of it in myself. I tried to be pretty proactive in my own mental health (because I have 5 people depending on me to have *my* you-know-what together), and I think, at last, I’ve more or less found my equilibrium.
Second: This situation is, without a doubt, the most intense parenting I have ever done. Every one of my kids is reacting in different ways, all of them requiring intense creativity and problem-solving and prayer.
Finally: The big joke these days is about introverts vs. extroverts. Clearly, the extroverts are the real sufferers here, the cultural narrative goes. I would argue otherwise. There are some introverts who actually live alone, and who are perfectly content because they’re in their element. But this introvert, the one writing this post, depends upon time alone to recharge AND ISN’T GETTING IT AT ALL. See point two above. So don’t write off the introverts as not suffering!
All that being said, however, we have been trying to make good use of the time as family. And therefore I have a lot of photos to share. So here you go: a stay-at-home order in our family looks like this:
Late last week, I said the only good thing about the pandemic and stay at home order was snuggling with my children in the morning. Spring Break days didn’t start until 9 or later. Well, they did for me; I got up early to write, and let the kids sleep as long as possible. But when the kids got up I set it aside and we spent long, lazy mornings snuggling in bed: a true luxury. I’m very aware of how blessed I am to have five people to live with; I am not starved for tactile human interaction.
But early this week I realized, on the back side of two hours spent working in the yard, that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent outside. I would have gotten the yard work done regardless, but it would have been the only exercise I did in the day, and it would have felt rushed and guilty, with the knowledge of all the commitments waiting for me dragging down my soul time. Also, we had several days in a row when the wind carried the interstate noise away from the house instead of toward it, so it really was soul food in my own back yard.
Deprived of having to run the kids hither and yon, and with the publishing industry at a near-standstill, my own work feels less pressured, my time feels my own. I’ve doubled and tripled my physical activity in the past few days. Not that it’s all high intensity. But I’ll do Jazzercise On Demand with Julianna and then hike with the family for an hour later in the day and do some light housework or take a walk or bike ride with Alex.
When a friend first posted a meme that suggested viewing this enforced isolation as a Sabbath, I saw the wisdom of it but I hated it. I still hate it, but mostly because I don’t see an end point. And it hurts me to see my children’s childhood formed by this, a quarter of their schoolyear spent in isolation from the social growth that I lacked as a child, and which I’ve worked so hard to facilitate for them.
But two days into online schooling, when we’d established a routine at last, I saw my children respond with love instead of the bickering that has characterized so much of the last several years. There was laughter at our dinner table–all the way around–an easing of the tension and angst and negativity. It was such a balm to this weary, sleepless soul, I had to get up fro the table and grab the first “flower” from our stash of them to put on the Easter Tree (something we do from my Lent book)–the first thank you that has gone on our tree this year.
I told my teenager that this will be THE formative memory/event for his generation. And I realized that for most of us, the things we consider formative really didn’t impact us directly. 9/11 was crushing, but it’s a totally different thing to have experienced it from the heartland, far away from the carnage. The people who really suffered were my pastoral music friends who did weeks’ worth of multiple funerals every single day. The people who were in the buildings. The people who had loved ones they didn’t know if they were alive or dead.
I was on the outside of all that, and probably most of you were, too. I never really processed how different it is to be in the middle of a nightmare I can’t wake up from, faced with holding not only my own mental health together, but that of my kids. Kids who’ve been ripped away from their friends, their beloved teachers, their favorite activities. They’re suffering a hardship in childhood that the vast majority of us never did.
I’m processing my life right now by writing through it, and the thing that’s striking me is, once again, how close together the good and bad things in life are. So I figured I’d share some of those good-and-bad things. It’s turned into far too long a post… you know, every time you process one reality, it shifts… so I’ll do this in two parts and pray it doesn’t require a third!
1. Distance learning: bad. When this started, all those online resources insisted you create a dedicated space for learning to get you in the right mindframe. It sounds totally reasonable, but I’m telling you–this is not reality. Reality is that if you have four kids, there is no dedicated learning space. You can’t turn your kitchen table into a school. One of them is watching a video, another one’s watching a different video, the third one is trying to concentrate on reading and won’t be able to, and the fourth went downstairs because he couldn’t take it, and comes upstairs yelling every five minutes about who’s hogging the wifi bandwidth. (Item: it turned out to be a problem with his computer, not the wifi.)
2. Distance learning, addendum: If you’re thinking of recommending earbuds: we don’t have them because I think they’re bad for our hearing, but also, when you have a kid with Down syndrome, a parental unit has to watch the video too. So there is no ideal here. There’s only dealing with reality as best we can. We work at the kitchen table (with paper flowers and candles and napkins and centerpiece candles in place); we work on the couch; we work in Mom and Dad’s bedroom; and whenever possible, we work on the deck.
3. Distance learning: good. My husband took two days off work to help us get started, which was a godsend. (For him as well. It’s wearing on a person to be “on” as long as he has, communicating the university through the onset of the coronavirus era.) Something amazing happened on Day Two. We were all sitting at the table at dinner laughing together. No fighting. The morning was stressful, but we found our rhythm and the structure served everyone well. We even planned out Xbox time!
4. Distance learning: bad. I am reeeeallly ready to be off this emotional roller coaster. The hits just keep coming, and I’m not even watching the news. I reel, I cry, I freak out, I pull myself out of it (usually with help i.e. a serious scolding from my husband), and I think, Got it. But every time I adjust to the new reality, the next day brings another whammy. On Days one and two of distance learning, I got my freak-out out of the way and wrapped my brain around it. I went to bed with hope that the first good day we’d had as a family could, in fact, become the norm… only to be told, midway through the morning of my first day doing it solo, that they decided it was too much work and we were taking a complete pause in learning for three days.
I feel like the entire world is going to need PTSD counseling when this is over.
5. Distance learning: good. The Catholic school did not cancel, and my second grader lost his mind midafternoon, which required me to snuggle with him and help him plan out his “choice” activities. One of those ended up being sidewalk chalk, which turned into a family event.
6. Distance learning: good. I have learned this week that although I can’t help with geometry, I do, in fact, still find fractions relatively simple work; ergo, I *can* do fifth grade math!
7. Distance learning: mixed. The Met is streaming operas. (Good!) But no one who has kids on any kind of schedule can watch an entire opera that begins at 7p.m. and lasts nearly three hours. (Bad.) However, we did get to see the first forty-five minutes of the Barber of Seville.
Normally, I’d say I do pretty well at “adulting.” Let’s be honest, I was probably more adult at twelve than some people are at twenty.
But adulting is really kicking my butt right now. Last week, midweek, I had a really black moment. My oldest was mad at me–mad in a way every parent is conditioned to expect in adolescence, but which I’d never experienced. I wasn’t sleeping for profound anxiety, some of it connected with said teen. I’m crazy worried about my kids’ mental health, and my own ability to be the rock.
The trouble with adulting is that you have be the adult when it makes you the Bad Guy. And in the coronavirus era, parents have a lot of bad guy rules to enforce.
In my house, there’s been a lot of “guys! We are stuck with each other for AT LEAST a month. This is our opportunity to learn to love each other better.”
(Reality check: so far that message doesn’t seem to be sinking in.)
Then there was one particular email. I won’t go into except to say that it hit on my most tender spot–my relationship with my children–and I discovered the bottom of my well.
The kids were downstairs screaming at each other about Xbox time, but I was up in my bedroom, crisscross applesauce, bent over my legs and thinking simultaneously: “I’m going to get this cry out of the way” and “I didn’t know my body still bent like this.”
But I only got about three tears out of my eyes.
When Kate Basi can’t cry, it’s got to be bad.
I felt absolutely…AWFUL. I don’t remember EVER feeling that hopeless.
I said a whole lot of prayers that consisted of nothing but “Holy Spirit… please… please… please…”
I think I dozed off, staring at this raw, empty hopelessness that seems to have no expiration date. And when the next diatribe from downstairs roused me, I thought, “I need to go down and be with them. O God, I can’t do it. I don’t have it in me. I’m going to make everything worse.”
And the response came back clear and impassive:
I looked at the mountain of laundry piled in front of my bed. It had been put off four days already; it definitely needed to be done. Even so, I said, “You’re kidding, right? Do you hear those kids? I need to be downstairs being a mom.”
NO. FOLD LAUNDRY.
Now, I’ve made it my goal in life to pay attention when the Spirit speaks, and this was the clearest directive I’ve gotten in a long time.
So I sighed and threw up my hands and said, “Okay, your funeral.” And I turned on “In Want of a Wife,” a podcast on Pride & Prejudice, and folded laundry for forty minutes.
And then I went downstairs and out the door, because the Xbox wars had burned themselves out (you like my coronavirus reference? Yeah, me either) and the sun was out and it was warm outside. And there I dug up grass from around the willow tree, which needs more mulch and less grass, and transplanted plugs to other places in the yard that had no grass at all, only chickweed and henbit and crabgrass seeds salivating over the open space to wreak havoc.
And then I came in and made dinner, and I felt… better.
So what did I learn? Well, here’s what I did NOT learn. I did NOT learn how to make it less painful (on me!) to be the Bad Guy. I did NOT learn the magic words to make the child who resents the bleepety-bleep out of this whole situation to feel better and revert to his less-surly self. I did NOT learn how not to feel overwhelmed when contemplating the lack of expiration date for what we’re facing.
What I DID learn was that doing is next to godliness. And now that I know that, DOING is the focus of my next four weeks.
It’s been a week since the kids came home from school for the foreseeable future, and today is day 2 of an official “stay at home order” where I live–though we can still go hiking (and we intend to continue doing so as long as we’re permitted, weather permitting—which it hasn’t done much of lately).
Mental health is my primary concern—both for me (anxiety came home to roost again in the past week) and for my kids. It’s spring break right now, but the first three days of our Coronavirus Break were school days and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the anxiety hit at the same time. I am staring down the barrel of at least a month of trying to educate my developmentally disabled daughter on my own—a child who needs adult help for a significant part of her school day. And in the midst of all this, I am drafting a new novel. I’d *like* to be writing music, too, but I haven’t figured that one out yet.
I thought I’d use my blog to share a few things about this historic (blech, spare me from ever experiencing history again!) time, as they strike me. So here are some thoughts, in no particular order:
1. I’m struggling to keep coronavirus from entering the book I’m drafting. The characters keep wanting to touch each other—touch elbows, give hugs, you know, normal human contact things. And every time they do I feel like I’m committing a sin.
2. Also, I just wrote the line, “December passed into January; school restarted, and with it the normal routine…” Which opened up a big, queasy pit in my gut, because it reminded me how NOT normal the routine is now. The best times of my life right now are the ones when I forget this is all happening. But when it comes back to mind, it’s almost worse than never having forgotten at all.
3. Everyone says STAY AT HOME, and those who are shouting loudest never acknowledge that such admonitions don’t leave room for the “get outside, the park trails are open even if the playgrounds are not” (in many places, at least). So when I back my van out at 4:00 on a Tuesday afternoon to take the kids to the Bear Creek Trail for a walk around the wetlands to hear the peep frogs and throw rocks in the creek, my scrupulous self cringes.
4. Facebook is a welcome venue for ordinary human interactions—except no one is talking about anything except shutdowns and the virus. That’s not a criticism; it’s what’s on our minds. But it does mean if you need a break for human interaction, you likely aren’t going to get what you went looking for. The place you go for relief becomes a further source of anxiety. It’s a conundrum.
5. I resisted the idea of structure, because a) the earlier the kids get up, the more hours of the day I have to figure out how to keep them from killing each other, and b) structure is only structure if you follow it, and when the weather is crap 90% of the time, you have to throw the structure out and go outside whenever the weather decides to let you go outside.
6. I intended to spend the next weeks rehabbing my back yard: tearing up weed patches and sowing grass seed. But now it’s the only outdoor space my kids have for most of the time. I’m trying to find a solution, but I’m afraid there isn’t one. I may have to accept that the best laid plans for reclaiming the lawn from the weeds are just toast.
7. One good thing, I’m almost embarrassed to admit. I’ve said for years that things like toilet training are less about kids’ readiness than about “when the parents are ready to put in the effort.” I’m kind of an artsy, spacey person who remembers her own habits of cleanliness but have not necessarily been great about policing those of my kids. Thanks to coronavirus, our kids are currently learning all the habits of handwashing that I never remembered to enforce before. Surely this will be good in the long run.
8. On the other hand, the reason I’m so great at policing is because I feel constantly dirty these days. Constantly creepy-crawly, afraid to touch anything. For now, it’s not a bad paranoia to have, but the trouble is that such paranoias don’t follow logic. Once this is all over, I foresee a really big mental/emotional struggle to reclaim my independence from anxiety. Imagine how bad this time must be for people who *actually* struggle with OCD.