The Novelty Has Worn

Last year at this time I had our whole summer planned and on the various Google calendars. Last year at this time the novelty of a pandemic summer was a curiosity and an adventure, a challenge of creativity. Last year at this time I was sick of being inside, but I wasn’t burnt by it all quite yet.

Today, I have a two-year-old, unvaccinated and climbing the literal walls of this house. Today, we’ve endured an entire new year of school, of quarantining from school, and from distance learning while in quarantine and a hybrid of all of the above. Today, we are operating under the assumption that maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a chance to have the toddler vaccinated some time in April.

Mask mandates are being lifted and the reporters don’t even mention the fact that there are kids out there who remain vulnerable and innocent. This pandemic is a different animal for those of us with little kids.

Last year at this time I was excited about the idea that life might change. Today, I can’t bring myself to register the kids for any summer classes or camps without the explicit instruction from their friends’ parents (hey, did Sam sign up for this yet?). I just can’t see that far. I return to the tornado that hit my parents’ home in the middle of Iowa in the middle of December. What else could happen?

And yet. We shuffle onward. We go to school and we come home. We wear our masks. We emerge when the temperature is above 10. We learn to read. We learn to practice new instruments. We try harder on our handwriting when there is a threat of extra handwriting practice at home. We chase each other around the house. We sleep and wake and do it again.

It’s fine, really. We’ve adjusted so hard that I don’t know that they’ll ever go indoors without a mask, and I don’t think they mind. It’s just fascinating to me how little interest I have in planning very far in advance. The calendar of our whole life will flip once the baby can get a shot. That’s when the new year begins.

Vocal Improvisation and Functional Empathy

I hear the two-year-old growling in the other room and I hope the eight-year-old will entertain him long enough that I can squish together some words here. I think about how he just turned two, and that maybe in a year we can introduce to him the trajectory onto which I was delivered as an almost-two-year-old: Violin lessons. And then I think about the fact that he is growling right now, in the other room, hopefully at his brother and not at some (other) scary thing hunched the corner, waiting to tackle him, and I wonder, “When will the growling turn into words?” Because, frankly, inserting into Suzuki Method violin lessons a toddler who still naps and maybe even still nurses (leave your judgment at the door, please) is borderline impossible, but to do so with one who isn’t using words yet has crossed said line and is firmly planted in the realm of absolutely batshit.

I started violin lessons before my first memory. I learned how to hold a crackerjacks box between my chin and shoulder before I knew how to tie my shoes or to sleep through the night without waking my sister, who unluckily slept in the same room. (“She’s crying!” she’d yell at the baby monitor. Whether or not anything was done about this, no one recalls.) I stood for hours on a cardboard circle with little feet traced in different colors to represent where rest position and ready position were. Practicing played out in about the same way each attempt. It always began with the prelude:

Mom: “Erin, it’s time to practice.”
Me: Either ignoring her or responding by leaving the room
Mom: “Erin, it’s time to practice.”
Me: Planting myself in the rocking recliner situated in the corner of the sunroom, a long way from anywhere Mom was, and putting on my headphones
Mom: “Erin, where are you?”
Me: Rocking in my chair
Mom: Coming to find me rocking in a chair in the dark corner, headphones essentially strapped to my ears
Me: Straight up refusing, which looked different depending on the phase of childhood
Mom: Enlisting outside help (ie, Dad)
Me: Pissed. But giving in.

Am I ready to do this with a toddler of my own? One whose only modes of communication is foot-stomping, screaming and, apparently, growling?

Whether or not I submit to such suffering is beyond my ability to predict right now, especially given the fact that I have, up until very recently, a confusing relationship with music.

Clearly, I grew up playing (rather, trying to play, or at least learning to play) classical violin. In fifth grade, I started percussion in school. A little after that, I took off singing. I went on to study classical vocal performance in college. Now, I work as a music therapist. Before the pandemic, I’d been working with adults with developmental disability, most of whom do not use speech to communicate. I aimed to use the music, and the clients’ vocalizations, to serve as a means of communication. I improvised with my voice and guitar and worked to match with the music how I perceived the clients to be feeling or interacting. It was hard. It is hard.

A few weeks ago, I attended a Songtaneous session, born of and facilitated by Sarah M. Greer. Four or five strangers Zoomed into a room wherein we improvised with our voices. The whole session was vocal improvisation, which is (for some) intimidating in person and (for many) terrifying online. (Greer is a professional; she took us through the audio set-up beforehand.)

There is something about this facilitated discomfort that teaches me how to listen and when to lead. To seek the struggle of vulnerability in this way is maybe the closest I might come to experiencing the frustration of silence when I want to speak (perhaps in my clients’ cases) and inability to express in a way that is seemingly so easy and common (in my toddler’s case). To practice this discomfort is to come closer to empathizing in a useful way. I can learn to sit in something difficult, to endure the anxiety, and know that the time inside it will pass, just as everything passes.

I often grumble that I don’t remember how to learn new skills. Because I was so little when I learned to play violin, I can’t recall the difficulty of acquiring all of the skills that need to be broken apart into bite-sized segments to be chewed on for months before they can be combined to make any kind of sense. I do remember my mother working diligently to get me to practice (see above), and I know I didn’t like that. But the actual act of skill building, and the sometimes painful pieces that that involves, is not really part of my repertoire. So now, as an adult, I am immediately pissed that I can’t do a new thing well. I am easily frustrated and annoyed. Don’t ever try to coach me on anything, especially if you’re my husband.

Vocal improvisation affords the opportunity to practice all of this; singing, with strangers, songs that aren’t songs that haven’t been composed yet. In this, I’m learning how to be uncomfortable. I’m learning to engage my discomfort in order to imagine how other people might live in the world. Not everyone has words at the ready. Not everyone gets to be heard, or to have others’ attention. Maybe I can best serve others by learning better how to step out of my comfort.

Here’s hoping my two-year-old continues making his voice heard, however that may be.

By the way, Sarah M. Greer is facilitating a Songtaneous session this coming Saturday, December 11, at 2:00 PM CST. I’ll be there. I challenge you to attend.

Also: I offer a bi-weekly newsletter I call Stories About Telling Stories. In it, I list podcast recommendations, journals and newsletters to follow, stories I’ve found out in the wild that you might love, and a general round-up of all the things I’m doing lately. Here is the last one I published, so you know what you’d get. I’d be thrilled if you’d subscribe. 🙂

But It’s Iowa

We kept the kids home. We un-enrolled from our lives. We ordered little kid masks. We took them out of swimming lessons. We didn’t go to parks for a time. We put up a playset in our yard. And then a pool. And then two other pools, after the first and second ones broke. We didn’t go to Thanksgiving or Christmas last year. We turned a room or two into a “school room.” I facilitated distance learning for my then-first grader while trying to get my then-too-little-for-traditional-school online school options via I did this while the baby transformed from an infant to a toddler to a climber.

We wore special masks. We turned down social invitations. We tried to enroll the kids in special vaccine trials. We got vaccinated as soon as possible. We kept our kids up-to-schedule with their other vaccinations.

We kept our oldest home from school, even after the district opened up in February of this year to going back to in-person. Finally, at the end of March, we did send him back.

We didn’t do traditional camps over the summer. We did do a lot of outdoor stuff, like mountain biking, and in my case, running.

We haven’t been to an indoor restaurant for a long ass time. Years? But really, who wants to dine indoors (or anywhere, ever) with kids. We don’t go to movies. We don’t go to the fucking Frozen musical that would be so cool for my six-year-old daughter to see.

All of the adults and old-enough kids with whom we socialize are vaccinated. Some are even antsy to get a booster.

My husband took our older two kids to a Cub Scouts camping trip (outdoors, clearly). I took my toddler to Iowa to see my family. Who is grieving. Who is sad. Who has lost so much.

In Iowa, my toddler caught COVID-19. My toddler. Who doesn’t go to daycare. Who doesn’t go to ECFE. Who doesn’t go to Sunday School or playdates. Who follows me around, day and night. He caught it from family who have, now confirmed, breakthrough cases.

And now I have the virus. As does my husband. My big kids, so far, do not.

But they’re out of school for the next two weeks and, woe is me, I will be facilitating some lackadaisical version of distance learning for a second grader and a kindergartner while keeping my mask on and my toddler upstairs. Maybe I will employ Alexa somehow.

We have mild symptoms. Other than anger. My anger (and self-pity) is pretty severe.

Plus, it’s my birthday on Friday. And I had special plans.

In Iowa.

In Grief: Day 40

Today, I’m in the bright sunshine of my favorite season in my favorite month. I’m digging out some inspiration like it’s the crust around the lid of the yogurt container that needs to come out or damn it my kids will disown me for having to resort to another kind of breakfast; I’m trying, man. I’ve come up with two story ideas and a challenge for myself. I’m re-connecting with my Creativity Matters group and my Short Story Club.

And then I have the thought: I’d like to get a tattoo of my family tree on my left collarbone (which, yes, is over my heart. But that’s not even what I was thinking, originally. I wanted words across the bone.). When I finished that thought, I burst into tears. I wouldn’t say my mood darkened. I’m just feeling somewhat fragile, I guess.

This weekend, my toddler and I went down to my parents’ and saw my sister. We cried a few times. We laughed, too. But then we cried some more. And then my mom and I saw a YouTube video that some friends of my nephew’s created in honor of him. And then we wept and wept, even though my dad said it was a happy thing.

Yes, it was so happy. My nephew had so many friends. They loveloveloved him.

Now I’m crying in the car while my toddler sleeps (we are parked).

I have a new sensation in my chest and throat. It arrived on Saturday. I feel like I swallowed several jumbo cotton balls and that they’re wedged at the base of my throat. I have some trouble breathing deeply.

This is how the 40th day feels to me.

Patreon Launch

I launched a Patreon campaign.
Is that you call it?
Well, that’s what I call it.

Find it and all its offerings at

I’m challenging myself to write one 30-word story for each day this month. Day 1 is complete.

I’m also looking forward to reading three short stories for the Short Story Club this month:

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
“White Rat,” by Gayle Jones (1977)
“Staying Behind,” by Ken Liu (2020)

Here’s to summer. School’s out for us on June 11. And then what? Lots of finding things for three kids to do all … damn … day …

Notes on Everything and Nothing At All

I am liking this new quiet(er) routine.

I just typed that Q word and my toddler started crying.

So nevermind all that.

And I was just listening to a podcast (Girls Gone WOD) about how kids sense when you wake up in the morning, so “getting up before they do” is an impossibility for lots of moms…

Notes, read in a whisper:

    Isn’t “Girls Gone WOD” about CrossFit? Do you do CrossFit? No. No, I don’t. Do I even really know what it is? Also, no.
    Is that even the name of that podcast anymore? Also no. I am way behind on nearly all my podcasts, and I believe that particular one has changed names now.

What I mean(t) by “quiet(er)” is that now that my oldest is back to in-person learning, I have some space to breathe a bit. I do have a toddler directly under my leg right now — he is right now kicking my foot — but I don’t have a toddler underfoot, a five-year-old to entertain AND a seven-year-old to bribe into doing his “school” all at the same time.

All of this is to say that I’m running a couple of groups, if you’re interested.

    Short Story Club. We had our first virtual get-together this past week. We will meet monthly. I choose two short stories — one classic, one contemporary — and we chit chat about them.

    Creatives for Creatives. This is an ongoing accountability group for all kinds of people wanting to start, maintain or build their creativity in whatever way fits. We check in daily and we are meeting once or twice per month online. There are prizes for meeting certain goals and achieving milestones.

Reach out in the comments if you wanna know more.

Looking ahead

I am excited lately. I wrote a short story that I submitted to my writers’ group that got great feedback. I’m looking forward to submitting it to a few journals this week.

Also, I’m starting a group and partnership with a handful of other people out there to stay accountable to my writing practice. Such that it is with three little kids indoors in the Minneapolis winter in the middle of a pandemic. We’re starting this up tomorrow. I’m aiming for it to go six weeks at least.

In the middle of the summer in the middle of the pandemic

I have re-done this website yet again because it’s a Sunday and no child is on top of me and I have millions of things to do but I am refusing to do those things.

Also I haven’t been here for… some time.

And here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of the summer in the middle of that pandemic, and I have a seven-month-old and a four-year-old and a six-year-old and a husband and I don’t know where I fit in between all of them. Living in the cracks, lately.

What will we do this fall, when we have to decide whether I become a full-time home educator? Will I lose it? Will my kids? There is no way, as I see it now, that my kids will be safe if they go to in-person classes, nor will their teachers nor our older family members.

I can’t work right now because the music therapy clients I was seeing are not accepting non-essential visitors. So I guess I’ll be a teacher! Yikes.

I should probably write about it. There are lots of obstacles to doing that, but really it’s the only thing I like to do. So I should do it?