There’s a shapelessness to these days that’s fatiguing. In my dreams, the ones that I remember, I’m always elsewhere, never at home. I’m out at a bar with my friends from high school, but something isn’t quite right, we aren’t supposed to be there. I’m visiting a cottage with my husband, children and extended family, but an angry bear interrupts the proceedings. Ariel races up the steps, away from the bear, I grab Elyse, as Dan goes for Penelope, and as I turn my back to flee there’s the unmistakable scream of my youngest child, but I can’t bear to look. There’s a recurrent theme of menace and imminent danger ever-present. Even my dreams are like nightmares.
And so we go through our days. I texted a friend to say that I have moments of positivity and bursts of productivity and the rest of the time is like trudging through mud. I feel bogged down, slow-moving. I’m not alone. Friends’ Facebook pages are filled with feelings of hopelessness and despair; it’s there, right below the surface of their posts. The sense of idleness is maddening, and this comes, in part, because every day feels the same. “Groundhog Day” my husband calls it.
Still, every day’s a new promise. I retain hope and gain strength with the rise of the sun. I try to focus on the idea, and write it down, that how I act and react during these uncertain times serves as a model for my children. I am mindful of the idea, but I am not so virtuous as to keep the premise in the forefront of my mind and act accordingly. My behaviour is less than ideal. Sometimes I’m just getting by. And getting by may mean I succeeded in planning dinner by asking my husband to order food by text while I ignore our children inside the house and go outside to play with our puppy by myself. The kids can come outside if they want, but they don’t always want to and I’m not inclined to force them. I’m not inclined to force anything, at the moment. At times work feels impossible – at others – life sustaining. There are ups and there are downs.
I am no longer competing in an ironman race this July. I trained hard for 115 days, and I wanted to look forward to the experience at the end of the tunnel. I deserved that; I earned it. But even if the race goes ahead as planned, and I fear it will not, I just don’t think the vibe is going to be the same. This is not what I wanted for my first Ironman experience, and so I’ve decided to push it to next year. I keep training…day 116, day 117, we’ll see what happens. I’m tired of the number of factors out of my control. When and whether I race or choose not to race was within my control and so I took action before someone else took that decision away from me. The training camp I signed up for is cancelled. Our cottage stay refunded. A summer of sameness lies out flat in front of me in the months ahead. Unless…
Unless. Are you familiar with that famous line from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax? The Onceler tells readers that, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Drudgery, misery, hopelessness, stagnancy…this is the easy route that takes us to no-man’s land where nothing ever happens. Nothing good, anyway. Those who are happy get pegged with making it look easy, but it isn’t. Happiness takes work. I’m not saying that everyone gets to choose; depression and mental health issues are real, but a person like me, an average person like me in good health gets to choose. I can choose happiness, which in difficult times takes work, or I can choose the easy route. I can choose despair. A pandemic and the loss of normalcy seems like the perfect excuse for despair. To do nothing. To be nothing. I dip down into despair from time to time. But I don’t want to stay there. My happiness is too important; it’s life itself. Everyone thinks that being miserable is hard, and yes, if you’re depressed or have experienced a significant loss be it physical or financial or emotional, then yes, it is hard, life will be hard for a while, but for the rest of us misery isn’t hard, it’s easy. You just let it happen. Happiness is hard. Happiness in the time of a pandemic does not arrive without grace and effort. You have to seek out happiness, you need to find it and hold onto it tight. You have to make it, break it, and create it all over again. There’s also a bit of luck involved and stumbling blindly in the dark.
I find happiness waiting for me down on the floor. I stretch out onto my back and a fifteen-pound pup comes bounding onto my chest and licks my face. Joy bubbles forth. I find it tucked into the pages of my course book, The Business of Becoming a Writer by Jane Friedman, or in my course work when I use my mind because I’m learning and I’m growing and I’m doing the things I love. I find happiness in a warm embrace with my husband. As I curl into his chest, and my fingers graze the skin of his lower back beneath his t-shirt and I feel his warmth. Our connectedness makes me feel happy and alive. I scribe conversations between my children, much to my own delight, like this one:
Ariel, the big sister, speaking to Penelope, the little sister who is highly attuned to any form of praise from her big sister: “You’re a genius!” This, in response to Penelope’s chosen painting methods. (Subtext, Penelope has long been referred to as our ‘genius baby’ – hard to explain the whole family backstory inside joke. You had to be there, I guess.)
So Ariel calls Penelope a genius.
Penelope’s response is genuine: “Am I? Because I would like to be a genius.”
Ariel: “You aren’t.”
Penelope: “I’m not?”
Ariel: “No, you’re not.”
Penelope: “Well, not anymore.”
I feel like Penelope got the last word on that one.
Then there’s the words, on repeat, that Ariel coached Elyse to say over and over.
“Mommy. Fell. In. Poop.”
Never have four words in the English language elicited more laughter.
I could succumb to sadness and pity and misery. So far during this pandemic, personally, I’ve had residencies and retreats relinquished. Speaker engagements eradicated. Time to write, erased. My family has had to change our vacation plans, cut trips short after driving across an entire country, and had future travel plans cancelled. We have dealt with lice and worms. My children had lice and it took multiple cleanings of our house, trips to the drugstore for lice shampoo, shampooing my own hair with the foul oily mess just to be double sure I didn’t have it, and weeks of effort to rid ourselves of the tiny beasts. Our puppy had worms. Ringworms. The kind that children can get that can lead to permanent damage, ravaging their little bodies. I saw the worms with my own eyes, wiggling in the mucousy feces freshly excreted from my beloved pet. What the hell! I want to rage and succumb to misery. Instead, I give my dog the dewormer pill we have on hand. I make a few trips to Shopper’s. I wash everyone’s hair and brush it with a fine-tooth comb that removes the eggs. I keep an eye out for bugs from the corner of my eye. I pick up poop the second after poop arrives so my children will not contract ringworms. I do NOT fall in it. I’m a mother-fucking warrior in my own home. Fighting back not only against bugs and worms, but the dark cloud that hangs over the living room. I do my best to push back the clouds and let in the light, like dusting away cobwebs from a forgotten corner. I think this is what every parent is doing right now or trying their best to do. And some days it just rains and rains. Other days we practically have to wear shades. I harness every bit of sunlight I can get, when I can get it. We are healthy and we are grateful. We are also a tiny bit lost.
I find happiness in the forest and in celebrating Earth day by reading about it with my kids and talking about conservation and making recycled crafts. I find it in the painted rocks left along the trail by strangers. I find happiness in making plans for the future, even as the future remains murky and unknown. There are certain factors within our control. While my family has picked up lice and worms, we’ve also gained a new member, our sweet puppy Louie, and who knows what else may come our way? Haven’t we all gained a new perspective on life?
I find happiness wedged into the deep crevice of possibility; with some exertion, hard work and struggle, I break it free, hold it up against the light, and take a closer look at my prized jewel. I see myself in the reflection; my well-being and that of my family. My greatest treasure. I do not have to look far to find what matters most.
I see myself reflected and I find hope and strength in the lyrics of a Leonard Cohen song:
There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.