Ninth Day

I don’t care that it’s nice out. This is hard. Another account of the day in 50 words.

I think of kids with special needs, needs beyond supervision.

I think of teachers having to work two jobs.

I think of how easy it is for us to go for a walk and I know it’s so hard to have the energy to Do This for days on end.

Eighth Day

Even though we have All Day, we wait until Normal Time to practice. Then I look up and see it’s 8:15 PM and no one is in jams. Then I realize time doesn’t matter.

I remember distance learning kicking us into outer space where we spun – still alive, somehow – untethered.

Seventh Day

I am confident we won’t have school the rest of the week.

Here are 50 words about the day. This one is “No Change.”

The district e-mails. The subject line is, “Negotiations continue; classes canceled Tuesday,” leading me to believe they think we could be back on Wednesday. Which is when I read the e-mail and find that there is no change in the near future. Which means there is no change in mine.

Sixth Day

This one is “Snowmelt.”

Snowmelt flowed down the path at the nature center we visited. What a jerk, moving so freely like that, directly under my feet.

I’m tensing about the week to come.

Bedtimes never matter when we switch to Daylight Saving Time or the Sunday before the second week of a strike.

Third Day: Family in 50

Our teachers are striking. Today is the third day. Reporting is that the sides — the teachers’ union and the school district — remain far apart.

Let’s make things tougher and more satisfying by writing in 50 words exactly a snapshot of how daily life shows up with three little kids in the middle of a pandemic at the end of winter at the beginning of a teachers’ strike.

Teachers strike, parents themselves to kids home now. I brace for uncertain weeks. My three run circles, laughing, which won’t last. They’ll dissolve before screens; I don’t have energy to enrich them. We survive this like everything else. A pandemic with a strike on top, and no way to prepare.

My disclaimer is that I’m writing simply to exercise my brain and distract myself from daily annoyances which are minimal in light of the war, in light of our privilege, in light of the fact that I should be more thankful and grateful and happy and all that. Writing proves to be a necessary and accessible escape.

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.

Distance Learning As Intensive Mothering

What two weeks of intensive mothering (distance learning) with my second grader, my kindergartner and my two-year-old has taught me:

  • Waking at 5:00 AM to spend some time in a room occupied by no other human is a luxury that I planned very carefully for myself and was doing very well with for a few weeks leading up to the announcement that I was going to have to go back to facilitating distance learning. Somehow, the day after we learned of our new schooling arrangement, my alone time in the morning was replaced with waking at 5:00 AM to spend hours with two to four other humans in our bed. I attribute this sudden change to my kids’ plunging head- and butt-first into any and every crevice of air that was mine alone as an effort to accelerate the acclimation process. Did I have a panic attack that first morning? What do you think? Didn’t you?
  • Single serving Skittles packages left over from the garbage bag-sized Halloween candy stash that we forgot to give away are fantastic bribes for the kindergartner, until I remember that my second grader, who is also a student in this one-room schoolhouse, cannot tolerate the scent of fruit-flavored candy. “Is somebody eating Twizzlers!” he shouts from the upstairs bathroom. No, no one is eating Twizzlers. Twizzlers are a summertime treat that my husband and I have to gorge from inside the pantry while the kids are outside. But we don’t think of summer now, as it’s so cold in Minneapolis in the middle of January that my device shows a temperature of “-0” because at some point why bother being specific or even numerically accurate. Summer is right now an orangutan at a zoo, flipping around in a tree under netting and behind glass barriers. You can see it in your memory, but there is no way you can touch it, and even if you try, it will flip you off or throw its shit at you.
  • My two-year-old, who has a profound speech delay, can now say “Watch” pretty clearly. And “poop.” But the first one I blame on distance learning.
  • The noise-canceling feature in my earbuds is life-saving.
  • Jack from “The Shining” comes to mind not only because he loses his goddamn mind but because there were a few times where I would’ve broken down a door, in my case just to have my own space for a minute. I may have been cool with being shut inside a freezer too, except it’s a freezer.
  • In order to protect my knees, I have to keep a little bend in them in case the two-year-old decides to run into me while doing his hourly wind sprints.
  • My coping mechanisms include inhaling Pop Tarts and the Reece’s Peanut Butter Hearts that my mom sent the kids for Valentine’s Day, all while squatting in the kitchen so no one can see me do it.
  • I hope to God that everyone was on mute each and every time I tried to get my precious babies on their Google Meets at the top of whatever hour because inevitably nothing was working and there was swearing. Inevitably.
  • Somehow my kindergartner was way ahead of the assignments and would do work to catch up from previous bouts of distance learning (such as the four times they were in quarantine before this), and my second grader is three assignments behind in P.E. because he keeps misplacing the jump rope that he has to use to demonstrate his very-much-still-developing jump roping skills.
  • We are still at it. There is talk of teacher strikes and petitions for more masks and all sorts of uncertainty in the next few days. My husband is working wacky hours as he is in a new role with his work since the top of the year, but he still works very much from home and is exceptionally helpful when he is available. But holy hell, it’s been a long few days. Few years, really. We have trouble getting outside on a regular basis as the high temperatures are sometimes below zero and the process of clothing everyone for 20 minutes when they’ll be outdoors for 10 is overwhelming.

    We try. We fail. We keep going. This isn’t easy for anyone. Except the two-year-old. He has it pretty good, other than he’s bored. I’ll write something about the spectrum of guilt I feel in all of this, but not now.

    I hope you and yours are safe and well.

    Noise Canceling

    We are back to distance learning. Three kids, two of whom don’t read, one of whom doesn’t talk. All of whom need. I am not adjusting with any semblance of grace, but I thought I’d try to write something humorous or at least light in tone for each day that they are home, from the beginning of distance learning until the end. Seventeen days. Seventeen installments.

    Here’s the first one.

    I call it…

    Noise Canceling

    Don’t bother Mommy.
    She’s got her earbuds in.
    You know what that means.

    It means we can do what we
    want, and she
    won’t hear it.

    They’re noise-canceling.
    Did you know that?

    It means they
    cancel out

    That means noise
    doesn’t exist when she’s
    wearing them.

    I don’t know why she
    doesn’t wear them all the time.

    Yes, we can do that
    now while she’s got her
    noise-canceling earbuds in.

    And yes, we can do that,

    But probably not that.
    No, we shouldn’t do that.

    Not even if she has her earbuds in.

    That seems dangerous.
    I know, usually that’s fun.
    But really.
    Get off of there.

    No. No, don’t do that.

    Don’t unload the dishes.
    That’s OK.
    I know you’re trying to help.
    But I don’t think she’d
    like that.

    No, put that back.

    Hey, Mommy? Mama?

    No, stop it.
    Don’t do that.
    I mean it, don’t!

    Mom! Mom!
    Help! Help me!

    I said stop!

    Mom! I need help!
    Help me!
    Oh shit.

    I shouldn’t have said that.

    Glad she didn’t hear it.

    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. 🙂