Pariah of Motherhood-What It’s Like to be a Single Mom of a Severely Autistic Child

Written by Jeanene Lyons

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, I never imagined becoming a single parent.  Despite my affinity for 1980s TV sitcoms, I knew single parenthood was NOT a Who’s the Boss, Punky Brewster, or Diff’rent Strokes scenario. I was raised by a single mom and knew the poverty, struggles, and obstacles associated with real single parenthood.  But now I find myself alone, trying to raise a child by myself with no family and little help.

But he isn’t just any child. He has severe autism and struggles with severe anxiety and has been hospitalized due to his aggressive behaviors.  Like most kids with autism, transitions are hard. And this school year would welcome many changes because he was about to start high school and face a new environment. A new teacher. A new morning routine. New aides. New restrictions with masks.  A new afternoon caregiver.  Plus, he hadn’t had direct instruction in six months due to COVID school closures.  

But he seemed fine. In the back of my head, I thought he would be fine. The old aggression was a thing of the past, right?   I had nothing to worry about, right?  And during the first week, I did get great reports.  “What a pleasure,” his teacher wrote to me on the first day.

The life of a single mom with little support is always teetering on the edge.  Life as a single mom with a child with severe needs makes it so that I’m always on high-alert. Always in survival mode.  Always waiting for the axe to fall.  So, I should have seen what was coming.

I had just finished my first week teaching high school in a “hybrid model” where kids in person learn with kids at home on their computers simultaneously.  I felt like a rock star because I had such low expectations of myself with this new way of learning, but I somehow pulled it off.  Sadly, that feeling was shattered when I got the call from my son’s afternoon sitter that first Friday afternoon.

 With weak cell service on my end and frantic-out-of-breath words on her end, I could still clearly hear, “He pooped on the floor…he’s throwing paint….he’s spitting on me…He knocked the TV over…He won’t stop….I can’t do anything….I’m afraid for my life.”  When we were disconnected, she kept texting that she couldn’t control him. 

Running to my car, I cradled my laptop which I pulled from the wall only seconds before, and that cord dragged on the parking lot blacktop.  My backpack was unzipped, and a hodgepodge of my teacher things was visibly crammed in there.  I tried balancing all of this while holding my phone and rushing to my car and trying to console this poor girl who was trying her best to help my son calm down.  I called back and told her to call the police. In that instant, I knew the severity of the situation. She feared for her life. And I feared for them both.

After carelessly throwing my many bags in the car, I put my car in reverse and also called the police to tell them what was happening. I wanted them to know the situation and that my son had autism because I didn’t want them to shoot and kill him.  As I sped down the road, my head was swirling. I was only 25 minutes away, but I felt like I was 250 miles away.  I envisioned my son’s dead body on the floor, shot by a police officer.   I envisioned the sitter screaming at the scene, watching silently as the gun smoke billowed in the air.  And I held back my tears because I knew if I started to cry I might not stop.

When I arrived, I surveyed the damage and realized the stability I had created since his last aggressive episode (three years ago) had broken. Everyone, including my son, was silent. My head was a blur. I felt numb.  I think I had to feel numb in order to not completely break down. I spoke matter-of -fact to the police and to the EMS who took him in an ambulance. I must have sounded like those “refrigerator moms” I heard about in old studies on autism. I apologized to the sitter and appallingly gave her hundreds of dollars to replace her clothes which were covered in orange paint. No money could replace the trauma, I know.

The ambulance took us to a children’s hospital where my son was observed for several hours. At one point, he tried to bolt, and for the first time in his life, he kicked me and hit me.  It was then that I finally cried. I broke. He had broken me. 

He was eventually discharged with a safety plan. Hide the knives. Hide the medicine. Watch him at all times.  The social worker came the next day to remind me of the plan and set up some services.  But of course, there is a waiting list for behavioral services, and he would be getting help through Telehealth anyway. 

The 1980s would have thrown out a TV sitcom pitch at a show with a kid with aggressive behaviors and autism.  Even the year 2020 would not accept such a story. But this is the reality for me and for many parents living with a child with a severe disability while trying to work full time.  To me, it feels like there is no place for moms like me.  Moms like us are isolated in nearly every way.  Pariahs of motherhood.  Outcasts.  We are unknown.  And so I write this to help people see the truth. It is not easy, but it is real.

Teaching in a Pandemic

What is it like to teach during a pandemic? Truth? It’s a poop show. I thought concerns about COVID-19 spreading would dominate my daily thoughts. They don’t. It’s not that I don’t think that could happen. In fact, I think it is entirely possible COVID-19 could spread in my school, perhaps even likely. I just don’t have time to worry about that. 

My time is spent troubleshooting technological problems. Presently, we teach in a hybrid model and lack the technology to synchronously teach half of the students in front of us and half the students at home. There are no cameras in our classrooms to live stream our classes to remote students. So, many teachers try to live stream classes with our school laptops and have our remote students join us in some virtual meeting platform (we’ve tried them all). Allowing our in class students to see or interact with our remote students is a challenge because our laptops don’t connect to the classroom projectors. I bought a Google Chromecast and tried connecting the two. It didn’t work because the school WiFi kept dropping the connection every few seconds. So, I bought a 25 foot HDMI cable to physically hardwire the classroom projector to my laptop. That worked EXCEPT my remote students couldn’t hear my in class students when they spoke. The workaround? I brought in a karaoke machine and set it up in the middle of the classroom to amplify in class student voices. That failed miserably. Next attempt? Rummaging through my college son’s closet to find his old laptop and setting that up in the middle of the classroom to pick up student voices. If I join virtual meetings with my son’s old laptop and turn the volume COMPLETELY up, the students in class can kind of hear the remote students and the remote students can kind of hear the in class students. I can’t hear the remote students well, but luckily they can hear me because I bought a personal voice amplifier with microphone headset. THEN I join the virtual meetings with my school laptop, but have to mute the sound to prevent high pitched, screeching feedback. Then, and only then, can I actually teach my students using my laptop for presentations, directions, visual supports, etc. Because I can’t have students working closely in collaborative groups, I tried having in class students join the virtual meetings and put all students in virtual breakout rooms to collaborate. That was an utter failure because the school WiFi kept dropping my in class students out of the breakout rooms. Awesome, right? But even more awesome is the fact the program our district purchased for teachers to live stream classes, do virtual presentations, push out electronic tests/quizzes/websites to students, and monitor student computer use (because I am supposed to do that too) hasn’t worked with most student computers. Should I mention that there’s a good chance when we try to plug earbuds into our school laptops they don’t work and the sound continues to play out of our laptop speakers flooding our virtual meetings with even more feedback or have you gotten a good enough sense of the chaos school has become? I couldn’t make it up if I tried. Every day I manage to defeat one problem, a new one pops up. It’s equivalent to an endless school technological whack-a-mole game and it is exhausting and demoralizing. Yet, every day I walk into my classroom, put on a smile (not that students can see a smile from behind my mask), and try to fake it, pretending that everything is okay. 

Most of my “teaching” time is spent technologically troubleshooting. Because of the social isolation and stress the pandemic has brought on, teachers are expected to support the social and emotional needs of our students—more than ever before. We are also supposed to address the social unrest in our country and the inequities of centuries of systemic racism. And, of course, we are expected to teach the content and skills of our classes—while providing real time remediation for the loss of learning students experienced last spring when schools were closed. I am on board with ALL of that. It will not be easy, but bring it on. I can and will do all of that because I care about kids. I can’t, though, if I have to spend the precious time I have with my students fighting with technology. There is no excuse for the technological shitshow students and teachers are being subjected to. If our schools didn’t have the technology and resources to support hybrid learning in the midst of a pandemic, then we should have continued with distance learning until proper technological infrastructure was put in place. Sorry, but our students and teachers deserve so much better than this.

Unquiet Earth

By Allyson WuerthContinue reading “Unquiet Earth”

Some Words are Worth a Thousand Pictures*

By Melissa Beck 

*This post first appeared on Melissa’s blog, thebookbindersdaughter.com 

What a difference a day makes. Isn’t that how the song goes?

On July 1st I was in the garden reading poetry, lots and lots of poetry and Esther Kinsky’s book Grove which is newly translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and thinking about a review of it for Music & Literature; I had finally just gotten my hair done since the moratorium on such things because of Covid had lifted. And I stopped at the pet food store to buy more (a lot more) food for the birds and chipmunks I’ve been feeding on our deck.

On the afternoon of July 2nd my daughter and I were just about to go swimming when we noticed a car in our driveway which startled both of us. We live in the country, out in the woods, and have a quarter mile long driveway so random, unannounced visitors are a rare occurrence. It was my daughter who first said, “That’s a state police car” and my heart started beating even faster. Different things began to go through my mind as to what the police could possibly want with us. Was I speeding somewhere? But I hadn’t driven on the highway, or much at all really, because of Covid. Did I go into a business without wearing a mask? But, once again, I had barely left the house since the pandemic. When I think back on all of the petty and ridiculous scenarios going through my head I feel silly and naive. When the officer asked me to identify myself and to speak to me alone without my daughter I was still clueless.

“Your husband was riding his motorcycle on US-24 east in Indiana ma’am and there was an accident.”

And desperately, “Well where is he now?

“At the coroner’s in Wabash County, ma’am. You’ll have to contact the Indiana state police.”

Alan had left on June 20th for what would be his third cross country trip from our home in New England to Montana. On that horrible day, July 2nd, a Thursday, he was on his way back home to us and was expected to arrive on Friday. He was a serious and avid motorcyclist and camper and enjoyed every minute of planning his trips and taking them. Locally he would meet with his friends from the Connecticut Rockers to ride and talk bikes but he also had a wonderful network of friends he met through Adventure Rider that were scattered across the US and Canada. A tough, stoic, yet gentle and kind group of men, their meet up in Montana had become a yearly tradition that they enthusiastically looked forward to. Alan considered them brothers—as an only child he always said that friendships were particularly important to him.

I met Alan in 1997 when we were both graduate students in the PhD program for Classics at the University at Buffalo. We liked each other instantly and like quickly grew into love. He had a bike, a Honda CX 500, when I met him so his passion for this hobby is something he had for more than 20 years. He learned everything he could about motorcycles and was meticulous about maintenance and repairs. He was also obsessed with safety, researching and discussing with his friends the most up-to-date safety gear. On the day he was killed it was 90 degrees f. and he had on a brand new, full-face helmet, a custom made Aerostich riding suit, and the highest quality gloves and boots he could find. He had certain rules about riding as well: he never went over the speed limit, he didn’t ride with other groups of bikes, and he didn’t ride at night. To say that he was careful would be a gross understatement.

But he was killed anyway. Yes, killed. He didn’t just die. He didn’t have bad luck, it was not an “accident”—I hate that word. The driver of the truck that killed him went through a yield sign and pulled across the highway–yes, the highway since such things are allowed in Indiana—directly into Alan’s path. A “failure to yield the right of way.” Negligence, stupidity, carelessness.

Two broken legs, two broken arms, a fractured pelvis, a fractured skull, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, internal bleeding, lacerated organs and a complete atlanto occipital dislocation. A destroyed Triumph Tiger and all of his carefully packed belongings broken and strewn across the highway. And in that moment my life—our life together—was shattered as well.

November 18th of this year would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. We were happy, very happy. Our relationship wasn’t perfect. No relationship is, especially if it lasts 20 years. We both made mistakes. But there was a lot of kindness, and patience and forgiveness and love. A lot of love. We both taught Latin in secondary schools in New England which is where we decided to move after our days in Buffalo. I always thought it was hilarious that we did well for ourselves as teachers of what people call a “dead language.” But Latin, and sometimes Ancient Greek, sustained our household quite adequately and, more importantly, we both loved what we did. In 2006, after suffering an initial miscarriage, we had a daughter who is the best of both of us. She is kind and funny and smart and adorable.

And now my 14 year-old daughter asks me questions like, “Is daddy in heaven?” “Are we going to be poor?” “Will we ever be happy again?” “Are kids going to treat me differently at school because I don’t have a dad anymore?”

A failure to yield the right of way….

I keep having these conversations with him in my head about what happened to his precious bike and his camping things and what paperwork I have to file and who I have to call and how his students and colleagues and motorcycle friends have all been stricken with such grief by his sudden death and how to carry on now. But there is no “we” anymore. Just a mountain of paperwork and chores and decisions that need to be made on my own. The little routines we had are what I miss most—going to bed together, him making me coffee in the morning, watching silly TV, sharing bad jokes, debating over who Henry our tuxedo cat liked better. The loneliness and the emptiness without him is the worst pain I’ve ever suffered. Truly unbearable.

Now that our daughter is about to begin high school we had had many discussions about what we wanted to do when we retired. Various ideas about moving farther north in New England or closer to where our daughter might attend college were always tossed around. But no matter what we decided to do, it would be together—just the two of us, empty-nesters.

But these plans, too, were shattered on that highway in Indiana.

Alan really had a dislike for social media—the only place he really engaged with people in a meaningful way was on his Adventurer Rider motorcycle forum. So out of respect I never posted about him or shared photos. But since he was killed it has felt cathartic and therapeutic for me to post photos and memories and anecdotes—a small glimpse into the man he was and our happy life together. His quick and sardonic wit were unmatched—one of the qualities that attracted me to him the most. He wore bow ties to work (when we were at work) nearly every day; he was a gifted teacher who connected with students and prided himself on his ability to lecture and engage kids at every level (he was voted faculty member who is most quotable three years in a row); he loved notebooks and fountain pens; even in winter he would work on, improve, and maintain his two motorcycles and camp in the woods on our property. And more recently he took up blacksmithing and set up a makeshift forge in the yard. I’m still not sure what to do with the anvil and giant bag of coal I have sitting in his workshop.

Alan’s belongings, scattered across that highway, have been respectfully and lovingly packed and returned to me by one of his motorcycle friends—the last person to see him alive—who happens to live in Indiana. Today his travel journal arrived and I began reading it and looking through his various notebooks. He had an obsession with notebooks and today, alone, I found a dozen of them around the house and in his workshop. They are mostly filled with to-do lists, travel plans, travel descriptions, packing lists and notes for teaching. His wit, his talent as a teacher, and our everyday life together–those little routines I mentioned—are all present in these notebooks. I felt closer to him reading these than I have since he was killed—as he wrote in one of them, “Some words are worth a thousand pictures.” And a passage he composed for a lecture to first year Latin students felt like he was speaking to me now:

“The Greeks and Romans thought of the universe by picturing it as a tapestry—one that was constantly being woven, but never to be completed. Three divine weavers called the Fates created the tapestry of the universe—Lachesis, Clotho, & Atropos—who spin the wool, measure the thread, and cut it. Each thread is a human life. And all of these threads interconnect. You cannot tamper with one without unraveling the others. Although individual life-threads come to an end, they still have their place and interact with others.”

That thread, Alan’s thread, cut too soon on that highway in Indiana. And my thread and my daughter’s so interconnected with his own. And all of the wonderful people interconnected with me—friends, and colleagues and Twitter people and readers of this blog who have reached out with love and support. Proof that his theory of those interconnected life threads is so true.

Teacher, friend, colleague, husband, father.

July 2nd.

A failure to yield the right of way.

How should I talk to my white son about racism?

How should I talk to my white son about racism? This is a question I am struggling with. My son is eight. We’ve always talked about equality and fairness. We celebrate people who promote equality for all. We read the words of Dr. King, watch videos of his speeches, and bake “equality cupcakes” each year on Martin Luther King Day. I look back now and can’t help but think how woefully inadequate all of this has been. How do I explain what happened to Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (and that list could go on and on and on and on)? And what happened to George Floyd—how the HELL do I explain that?

As much as I wish I could shelter my son from all that is bad in this world, George Floyd’s murder and the mounting protests made it clear that we needed to have a deeper conversation about racism. So how do I go about explaining 401 years of systemic racial oppression in our country to an eight year old white child in an age appropriate manner? I’m going to be brutally honest here—I’ll be damned if I know. Best part? I’m a history teacher who actually gets paid to do that for a living. Because I didn’t know the right words to say, I found myself avoiding the conversation. CNN teamed up with Sesame Street to host a virtual racism town hall last week (https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/app-news-section/cnn-sesame-street-race-town-hall-app-june-6-2020-app/index.html) and it gave us a place to start.

Before we watched the racism town hall, in simple terms I tried to explain what happened to George Floyd, the connection to racism, and that people were protesting across the country. My son had LOTS of questions about how George Floyd died and I tried my best to answer them without giving him details that he really didn’t need to know. I thought that would be the hardest part. Well, it wasn’t. Confused and disappointed, my son said “I thought racism ended with Martin Luther King.” I had no choice but to admit “Sweetheart, racism still exists today.” “Maybe people are just confused about what happened,” he said. I explained there was a video. “Are you sure it isn’t an old video from the segregation days a long time ago and people are confused and think it’s from today?” he asked. “I’m sure it’s not an old video,” I told him. The look on his face made me fear his innocence was dissipating by the second. I felt like I had failed my son. In promoting the ideal of equality, I left him completely unprepared to deal with the reality of racism. I could hear the fear in his voice when my son asked if what happened to George Floyd could happen to his teacher. My son adores his teacher. His teacher is kind, patient, supportive, humorous, unconditionally accepting, positive, friendly…all of the things you would hope for in a teacher. He also happens to be an African American man. Why hadn’t I anticipated that question? Crap! I can’t speak for my son, but I guess I’ve never given his teacher’s race a second thought. As if to soothe himself (and fill the void of my incompetent speechlessness), my son quickly answered his own question by stating “That could NEVER happen to him because cops wouldn’t be able to see into his car windows when he’s driving.” Then with a shaky voice he asked “Right?” I looked into his big, brown eyes filled with tears and uncertainty and I did something I hadn’t done before…I lied to my child. “Right,” I said “that could never happen to him.” The thought of anything else made me sick to my stomach and I didn’t want my son to worry about his beloved teacher.

Together we watched the racism town hall, which was excellent by the way. Practical advice was offered to children and parents, but more importantly, lots of good questions were asked…many of which don’t have good answers yet. My son asked lots of questions of his own. He also told me he isn’t racist and asked if he should feel bad because he is white. The weight of four centuries of racial injustice shouldn’t be carried by a sweet, eight year old white boy. Yet, I know we will need to talk about privilege at some point too. I certainly understand this isn’t going to be a once and done conversation about racism. I have no doubt that we will have ongoing conversations for many years to come. In response to his question, I told my son that everyone should feel proud of who they are and that it is our job to try to understand and stand up for one another—no matter what our skin color is. I know that may be an incomplete, inadequate response, but it is a start. When is comes to discussing racism with my son, I can’t promise I understand everything or that I will say everything right. What I can promise is that I will try my best, learn as much as I can, and keep the conversation going.

After talking, my son and I decided to make something tangible to show our support for racial equality. We used a burning tool to sear the words “EQUALITY,” “JUSTICE,” and “ALL” into a wooden block. If only that could magically sear those words into reality. For now, they sit in our living room as a reminder of what we value, what we will have hard conversations about, and what we will stand up for.

Photo credit, L.B.

More Time for Being

By Allyson Wuerth

So many days have I wished for a slower pace—even just one day where I could breathe in and breathe out, a day when I didn’t run out of my house at exactly 6:21 every morning, dart off to Starbucks for my Venti English Breakfast hot tea, and then to school (usually arriving by 6:40) to start my work day. It was only just a month ago that I’d stand outside my classroom door, arms loaded with all the trappings of a long week ahead: books, papers to grade, lesson planner, snacks for my club meetings, gym clothes for the end of the work day, etc. I’d stand there frozen, knowing that to shift my arm and grab the door key from my coat pocket would upset the delicate balance of all that I held in my arms, angry with myself for *yet again* forgetting to wrap the lanyard around my wrist. Sometimes, I’d carefully squat down and place each bag, each item, gently onto the hallway floor. Drop all of it—tea, books, purse, snacks, bags—and just luxuriate in the moment of all those lost things, all that heaviness left to the side while I unlock my door and walk, unencumbered, inside the dark room behind it. Only then, after I turned on the lights, switched on my computer, would I go back for that stuff and bring it into my classroom in small, manageable batches. Other days, I risked it all—too rushed even to take that one moment of weightlessness. I’d position my Starbucks against my chest, force my chest against the classroom door (gently, so as not to squish the cup and burn myself on all that hot tea), while with my left hand (bags still saddled to my wrists) I fished around my right coat pocket until the key could be procured and jammed in the door. Then I’d leave the key in the lock so I could reclaim the Starbucks cup and carefully use my right thumb and index finger to twist the knob just enough to crack the door open. Those mornings I’d burst into the room, exasperated by all the things I held. I’d plop it all down in a big scrambled pile on my desk chair. Then I’d sort through the bags, items, everything and organize accordingly. By 9:36am, my FitBit had already logged nearly 4,000 steps—from home, to car, to Starbucks, to school, to copier, to a working copier, okay ONE more copier (for the love of god, this one better work), to mailbox, bathroom, class, copies, bathroom. You get it. When the school day ended at 2:49 pm, I’d either advise a club until 3:15 or work out in the school gym. This is when my FitBit would send me a congratulatory vibration for hitting my 10,000 steps. What next? Pick your day. Do I have a doctor’s appointment (diabetics always do)? Do my kids have sports (kids always do)? Can I squeeze in an errand anywhere in my day? Needless to say, by 9 pm, I’m showered and comatose in bed, ready to start it all over tomorrow. Every day a gauzy blur bleeding into the next. 

But not anymore.

Now, my life is a stopped clock, a suspended thought bubble waiting to be filled once again. The entire world is this same clock, this same empty thought. We all lie in wait for someone to hit the buzzer, shoot the gun, plug us in again. It occurred to me the other day, I didn’t think I’d feel this level of awareness ever again—the kind of hyper-awareness you feel as a teenager, only without the hype. But now, I’m noticing it all—the birds surrounding our bird feeder aren’t just birds; they’re grackles, Eastern blue-jays, female cardinals, goldfinches. I know this because my 10yr old and I look them up in the Field Guide of Birds of North America book we never had time to open before. 

The framed cross-stitch and embroidery I collect from thrift stores and hang up all over my house isn’t just someone’s discarded ephemera that I happen to love the look of—it was crafted by a grandmother, a child or a mother—a pattern followed with precision and grace, given as a gift or as a very tangible imploration  “Please never forget who I was or how much I loved you.” Some initialed. Others left anonymous as any mystery is, but professionally matted and framed by stores in New Haven or Boonton, New Jersey that went out of business fifty years prior. A floral piece in my living room has a pink note attached to it, dated August 13, 1972. It’s from a girl named Marylou and gifted to her (friend? Teacher? Neighbor?) Mrs. Meyers. How did I hang this picture without noticing the letter taped rather conspicuously to the back of it? Did I see the letter but just not bother to read it? Marylou wanted to do something special for Mrs. Meyers, something “unusual but original.” She thought about it long and hard before putting needle to fabric. The gift had to be handmade, because Mrs. Meyers was that special to Marylou.

One by one, I take them down from my walls, checking each for messages,  incommunicable feelings unraveled into flowers and small animals.

Another piece hangs above the French doors in my kitchen: a cat blowing bubbles. It was a Christmas gift from a great-grandmother to her “new” great-grand daughter. The year is once again, 1972. Already, she loves this baby girl, creates her something lasting and tagged with the initials of a forgotten old woman. As I begin my very first embroidery project (the simplest pattern I could find on Amazon), I think about finishing it and then being proud enough of my effort to get it framed, and prouder still to give it to a loved one. And then, fifty years later, there it is at Goodwill for $2.99. And no one is left alive to remember how very much one person loved another, how wholly love could endure in such stitches and seams. 

Great-grandmother embroidery

Marylou’s letter taped to the back of her framed embroidery

 

Please don’t misread this. Covid-19 is changing lives in terrible ways. I live in terror of the people I love, or any people, really, contracting this awful illness. For as much as I loathe Covid, I love being a teacher and having the resources and support from my administration where I can still communicate effectively with my students every day despite our physical separation. Unlike other public servants, I can still do my job without putting my life in danger. For that, I am endlessly grateful. 

As hectic as life can be, most of us, including myself, would not change ours for the world! But buildings and stores are closed. The baseball season is cancelled. Gymnastics—cancelled. Routine doctor visits—rescheduled. So, I’m going to use this time to open myself to my senses, to learn more about my children, to watch them—even smack dab in the middle of a brisk, sunny Tuesday—play basketball together in the yard: a moody teenager and his exhaustively energetic little sister, together for the first time in longer than I can remember. The thought of it catches in my throat, pools in my eyes. Their laughter cutting into the blustery day around them as the wind blows their ball off course yet again. It’s a collage of moments I harvest and sink deep inside me: the woven laughter of my children, the mid-day sun, the wind knotting up my daughter’s long hair—all of it fastened to my heart no matter how fast I need to go. 

Why I Won’t Complain

These are hard times. Who can argue otherwise? A third of the world’s population is in lockdown because of coronvirus. With that comes massive unemployment rates and business decline. Close to two million people have contracted coronavirus. Over 100,000 have died of COVID-19. The days, weeks, and months ahead look bleak, but I’m not going to complain.

Why? I’ll start with the MOST important reason–my family is healthy. Not everyone can say that, so I choose to be thankful. While my husband is furloughed, I am still working. Because of this we have health insurance and a steady, albeit reduced, income. We’ll get by. Not everyone can say that, so I’ll count my blessings. We have a roof over our heads and plenty to eat. After he left his dorm in Boston because his college shifted to online classes nearly a month ago, my oldest son sat at the dinner table and said “We really live a privileged life. We are eating steak for dinner in the midst of a global pandemic.” He wasn’t wrong. I instantly thought back to stories my grandfather told me about growing up in Italy during World War II. I remember him telling me how hungry he was and because there was nothing else to eat, he ate acorns. Acorns. He said they gave him terrible stomach aches, but he ate them because he had no other choice. My grandfather ate acorns and I am eating steak. I’m pretty sure, I’ve got nothing to complain about.

I am a teacher and, like many teachers, I am learning oodles of new technology to make distance learning bearable for my students. That’s right, bearable. I understand that my students are going through a lot right now. They are emotionally adjusting to this screwball ‘new normal,’ missing out on seminal high school moments, and some have increased responsibilities like cooking and caring for younger siblings because their parents are health care or other essential workers putting in crazy hours. Some have inconsistent online access. Some are struggling financially because their parents are no longer working. Some have family members with the coronavirus, which means they will likely become infected too. So, I think bearable is a reasonable bar for distance learning. I am simultaneously helping my youngest son with his distance learning work. He’s eight with an uncommon medical condition. It’s a challenge to balance it all and most nights I am up until 1 a.m. I’m exhausted, I’m not going to lie. I’m also not going to complain about it because it’s not going to make the situation any better. In fact, it’s going to make it worse by placing the magnifying glass over all that is wrong instead of all that is right. I’m not a health care worker putting my life on the line to care for those infected with coronavirus without adequate protective gear. I’m tired. They are putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good. There is NO comparison.

I keep reminding myself that this isn’t forever. This is for now. I can do this for a few months. I can do hard things. We all can do hard things. My all time favorite quote is from Paulo Coelho–“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” We fell. The world fell. We will get up though. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow…but eventually we will get up. I’m trying my best to be patient until then. I’m also trying to find as much beauty as I can…and I see it everywhere. It’s in the daily walks I take with my family…a trilling bird, violet and golden budding flowers, the warm sunshine. They are all medicinal. I see pictures of my friends’ children frolicking in nature. Beautiful. Tyler Perry is paying for senior citizens’ groceries. Dolly Parton is reading books to children online. Americans are sewing protective masks for health care workers and the Patriots sent their plane to China to pick up more disposable masks. Neil Diamond and Dennis DeYoung are singing to us from their living rooms. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Did you happen to catch the Hamilton cast Zoom-bomb John Krasinski’s SGN (or the Hamilton sing along!)? Beautiful. I just watched Andrea Bocelli’s live concert from il Duomo di Milano and when he sang “Amazing Grace,” I wept. They weren’t tears of joy or tears of pain. His gorgeous tenor voice resounded “was blind, but now I see” and I couldn’t help but think about how much adversity Bocelli had to overcome in his life. My tears were of admiration and of hope. They were tears of resilience. If Bocelli can theoretically overcome blindness in his music, then we can overcome this insidious, unrelenting virus. I refuse to let it break my spirit. Refuse. For now, I’m going to immerse myself in the beauty of nature, the arts, and random acts of kindness. For now, I’m going to take each day one by one until the time comes for us to get up again. And in the meantime, I’m not going to complain about it.

We can do hard things. Photo credit, L.B.

A new kind of village

I’m an extrovert. My cup gets filled by spending time with my people. I need them to laugh with, to cry with, to tell stories with, and mostly, to raise my kids with. I am a village person. My ideal living situation would be to join up with three or four other families whom I love and buy one big house together. 

I have always been this way because this is how I grew up. My parents’ friends became our aunts and uncles, and their children our cousins. We ate big taco dinners together on Sunday nights, played together all weekend long, and relied on each other for everything. If my parents were away, I slept at Aunt Cinda’s house. If I needed to go home sick from school and couldn’t find my mom, I called Aunt Terri. Uncle Jimmy was the only person I let pull my teeth out when they were loose. We were a tribe, a family. 

And it wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized how important this is to me, how necessary to my own survival. With both of my girls, I suffered from postpartum depression. With my second, it was much less intense because the second time I had a tribe. 

I was the first of my girlfriends to have a baby, so with my first daughter, I was alone a lot of the time. Friends who visit, but no one really understood what I was going through, and the loneliness mixed with the depression nearly destroyed me. The second time around, two of my best friends had babies within weeks of my daughter’s birth, and each day we would rotate whose house we would spend time in. Mostly, we sat around feeding babies and crying and laughing and sharing our deepest, darkest feelings. Sometimes, my best friend Amy would force me to leave the house even when my anxiety was at its highest. One day, she called me and said, “Today we are taking the babies to the movies. I don’t care what we are going to see, but we are going. Get dressed.” We ended up seeing the Entourage movie with our two month old babies strapped to our chests. It was just what I needed. 

And this is why the last three weeks have been so challenging for me. Because everything I need in order to nourish my soul right now has been stripped from me. While I need physical connection to heal, the world needs just the opposite. As a good citizen of the world, I will do my part, but it’s killing me. 

And I know that I am lucky. I am in a privileged position: I still have a job and so does my husband. We have internet access to do our work, food security, a house. No one in my home is immunocompromised. We can weather this storm more easily than many other people. But knowing all of that doesn’t stop me from inching closer and closer to the kind of sadness I have experienced many times before. Only this time, my medicine is out of reach. 

There have been some dark and hopeless moments in the past three weeks, but there have been other moments, too. And I am trying desperately to cling to those ones more than the others. 

Like last week, when both of my girls had to celebrate their birthdays in quarantine, but their friends still drove by and beeped and left presents on our doorstep. Like when my daughter had trouble with her math homework, and my colleague Facetimed to help her with it. Like when I took an online yoga class with my favorite teacher whom I haven’t practiced with in months, or when I had a girl’s night on Zoom with some of my very best friends, and we toasted each other and thanked God for the ability to see each other’s faces. Like today, when I will join my school friends for lunch from the safety of our own homes but where we can still laugh at each other’s terrible jokes. 

I am reminded in those moments that I am not alone, that we are not alone, and that in some ways, we are even more connected to each other than ever through this shared experience of fear, and loneliness, and uncertainty. We can find new ways to lean on and connect to each other. The village is still there. Just a little further away, just waiting for you to reach out and say, “I’m here.” 

Find the Silver Linings

I’ve been staring at this page pretty much for the past few days and I’m struggling, hard.  I just cannot come up with something to write about.  Well correction, I suppose what I mean is, something that is uplifting or enlightening or hopeful. It’s a strange time.  Usually my life is going 100mph, and truthfully has been for years, although a little more insanely since mid-January.  I’ve also been fighting colds since mid-January and honestly still am.  Can’t say I haven’t questioned all of it at this point given our current state of the world and not had to talk myself off the ledge.  My life and my family’s lives have come to a grinding halt.  I overthink everything and with every cough, sneeze, ache, pain, headache, and so on…Thankfully I’m able to work from home and have been for a while now but there is no shortage of worry.  My folks live with us, schools are closed, my husband is not working, making my girls quit their jobs and seeing friends and businesses struggle.  The last month has made me question everything in this life to try to figure out what is “right”.

I have found myself emotionally distraught in all the spectrums of emotion one can encounter.  Much like the stages of grief but all at once and sometimes multiple times a day.  We have all lost something or had a dream shattered in some way and feel like we are continuing to lose. They say only 2 things are certain in this life, death and taxes…..well dammit, not really even sure on the taxes part now.  But the death part…I’m not ready, for any of it, for anyone.  It has forced me to take stock of where I have been, what I have done and what I have yet to experience in this life. I’m not even close to fulfilling my purpose.  I want more.  I want more for my parents, my husband, my kids, my brothers, my whole family, and my sweet friends.  And by more I mean, more joy, more love, more experiences, more memories, more laughing and crying, more time.  I want my heart to feel more and theirs too.

I find myself afraid, anxious, and concerned.  I’ve decided it’s ok to feel all of this.  We need to feel all of this.  But we also need to find the silver lining in the fear.  I need to find the hope.  That involves making some tough decisions.  Changing our lifestyles for a while.  Moving to a simpler time in a complicated world.  At the end of the day, I believe we all choose life and family.  This time is going to test many things.  Our resilience, our patience, our commitments, our love, our energy our willingness to put aside criticism and bolster our ability to lift each other up because god only knows NONE of us were meant to spend THIS much time together in one place. But god, we get to spend THIS much time together in one place!  In the end, we only have each other.  The goal would be to find “emotional correctness” in how we respond to one another.  Let the best parts of ourselves shine brightly to keep out the dark.  Procuring the best parts of humanity like what we are seeing in our first responders, our nurses and doctors who give all they have.  It comes in many forms and that is what I’m choosing to focus on.

I choose to be purposeful with my words.  I choose to check in and reach out to as many of you that I can each day to make sure you are doing alright and to offer what I can.  Whether it is to listen, to find an alternative, share food, share a laugh, fill your soul with music, anything I can do to lift a burden or ease anxiety.  I will share all that I have.  And I hope you will do the same with me. The biggest gift, yes I’m going to say gift, with our current reality is that for better or worse, we have to trust that we will be there for each other in ways we have not been before.  The world is stopping to take a breath and we are all forced to take that breath together.  Don’t let it be for naught.   Take it as the opportunity for the “more” I mentioned above.  Make good decisions.  Protect your families.  Protect my family.  Be your best selfless version.  Share your gifts and your gratitude abundantly.  Let your tears and your fears flow out and breathe in a higher vibration of life and love.  We will need this in order to hold on.

I choose to find hope in the corners.  I hope you will join me.  Big love to all your hearts today and every day.

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