The Joy of Fewer Choices

 

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In a week and a half my son’s beloved preschool will reopen -with extreme precautions including temperature readings before they can enter their classrooms. I’m a teacher. I could keep him home with me. He’s been home with me since mid-March -longer even than my maternity leave when he was born. But I want him to go back. I want this for all of us. I think. Sending him back to school feels terrifying; not because of the virus necessarily, but because it’s a choice I’ll make. Despite what we may see on the news about people rioting to get their choices and freedoms back, I really haven’t minded having most of mine taken away.

Run to Target on a school night to buy some new socks for my kid? Dash to the grocery store because we’re out of someone’s favorite cereal? Take five extra minutes to get a coffee somewhere? The answers have all been so clear for the last two and a half months: no, no, and nope.

I started out in mid-March somewhat terrified of what my life would be like trying to balance my job, teaching middle school, with taking care of my 10 and 5 year old children. There have been some moments of extreme frustration for sure. There has been way more screen time than usual. But there’s also been baking and science experiments, art projects and family movies. Every day we went out and found a new trail, a  frog pond or a tide pool. There have been countless forts and fairy houses. 

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During this quarantine time I’ve been reading The Giver by Lois Lowry with my 7th grade students. This incredibly prescient book describes a society where choices, freedoms, and even strong emotions have all been eliminated in favor of safety, security, and sameness. The book’s main character, a twelve year old boy, learns that things in the past were different and rebels against The Community to forge his own path. In my 16 years of teaching, I’ve probably taught this book 10 times. And every time I’ve struggled to understand how members of the community could be satisfied with their limited lives, devoid of excitement, freedom and choice. This time I’ve read the book differently. 

As much as I miss my extended family; hugs from my mom and dad, snuggles with my niece and nephews. As much as 6 feet apart walks with friends aren’t the same as long dinners and ice cream cone walks on the beach…..I’m going to whisper this part….I really haven’t missed that many things all that much. I definitely don’t miss the pace of my pre-quarantine life. I used to rejoice if I had 20 minutes of downtime. My to-do list spanned two pages. My weekends were full of things I had to do. Also, I got squirrely with anxiety if I had too few things to do on a weekend. This time in quarantine time has helped me become comfortable with less doing and more being. I am hugely grateful for that. 

 I am also aware of the enormous privilege I have to enjoy quarantine in the ways that I have. I’m still being paid. I have plenty of food. I have access to technology, and I live in a beautiful place where a hike in the woods or a walk on the beach is only minutes away. 

Sending my son back to school feels like the beginning of the end of this time. There are positives for him, for me, and for my daughter whatever we decide; whatever we choose. I’ll be able to devote more time to wrapping up the year with my 7th graders. I might be able to get through an online teaching session without my son insisting on a snack or needing me to find the scissors. My daughter won’t have to share her zoom time with her little brother. 

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In spite of these things I can’t help feeling loss and a little lost.  Having my son around, with his needs for snacks and scissors, uno games and one-on-one basketball, keeps me out of my head, protects me from my anxieties. My daughter is old enough to give me plenty of space, but I’m not sure I want it. With space comes choices; things to do, to accomplish, to check off my burgeoning to-do list. We adapted to this quarantine world, I made schedules, we had a calendar, we made a giant chocolate chip cookie and bird feeders. Some days I counted the minutes until movie-time at 5:00, but 5:00 always came. I don’t know how to end this piece, any more than I know how to close this strange chapter of our lives. There’s no cure, no vaccine as of yet, but we are all starting to emerge, starting to make choices again. I am hopeful and I am scared and I guess I’ll just have to live that way, for now. 

 

So Much Depends on a Sweet Potato

“This sweet potato is burned!” my daughter said dramatically, holding up the offending bit of brown on her dinner.

“No it’s not, it’s just cooked. It tastes fine.”

“No, mommy, it’s really burned. I just ate some of it and it’s really burned!”

So I took it from her hand, ate a bite, and pretended to gag and fall out of my chair and die. Standard parenting stuff, right? Not tonight. Tonight my daughter decided that I am never to tease her again, about anything, ever. This is a childhood whimsy I’m not prepared to humor, not even for a night to get her to shut up and go to bed.

Tonight we went several rounds with her lashing out at me and then demanding a hug in her angry voice. Telling me that it seems like I don’t care about her and then having a hysterical crying bout in her closet.

“It seems like you might be ready for bed,” I suggested. This was not well received, as you might imagine.

Oh, and did I mention it’s the first night of Hanukkah? Whether or not you have children it’s impossible to miss the dramatic rise in the emotional barometric pressure this time of year. If you do have children, you can enjoy the fun of watching tiny little emotional pressure gauges explode right in front of you.

And who can blame them really? Everything about this time of year is about anticipation, excitement and potential happiness in puppy-sized packages. This is the happiest, happiest, happiest time of year and it’s everywhere! No matter how low key your holidays might be, the world is essentially a giant three year old drinking red bulls and snorting pixie sticks.

I haven’t figured out a way to translate this into language my seven year old will understand, assuming she’ll let me speak to her that is. But I think it’s important to find a way to explain to her that we are all spinning in the holiday maelstrom, at least until January 2nd.

What are you trying to win?

I recently read the amazingly funny book You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein which led me down a rabbit hole of reading other funny things she produced and wrote. Klein is the head writer on the Amy Schumer show and the writer of this sketch about a group of pregnant women sitting around trying to one up each other about how natural their births are going to be. If you don’t watch it I’ll give you the gist here:

Woman 1: I’m giving birth into a tub of organic quinoa

Woman 2: Oh, yeah, I’m giving birth on top of a high peak in Nepal to get away from western medicine. My doula is a Sherpa.

Woman 3:My doula is a 3 month old baby so she really gets it.

You get the idea. Klein mentions this in light of a friend of hers who asked her once when she was complaining about something child or career related and comparing herself to others -what are you trying to win? I think it’s a good question to ask oneself any time you get overly worked up in comparing yourself to others.

I thought about it a lot this summer when I was on the beach observing teenage girls and young women taking photos of themselves. I work with middle school kids. I’m well aware of the influence of social media and selfie culture. But I was still grossed out by the number of young women I saw spending all their time on the beach getting the perfect shot.

Who am I to judge?

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I included this picture that I’m sure a friend took of me in my bedroom at age 16. The poster, the hair, the come hither expression. I have no doubt that if I were a teenager today I would have posted this. Ugh, it grosses me out to even think about it. But that’s what the kids do. They work hard at posting. The various groups of young women I observed spent almost their entire beach time  working on getting the perfect -casual, sexy, good time image. If I were a kid not included in this outing, I would look at that picture and think, “Everyone is having a good time without me. My life sucks.”

As adults we’re not immune to this either. How many times have you looked at the photos someone else posts on instaface and thought to yourself, “Their vacation is so much better than mine. My life sucks.” A friend of mine recently posted pictures of her camping trip with two young kids. As a caption she added that the pictures did not include her driving home because they forgot the sleeping bags or the time spent chasing their fire-obsessed one year old away from the campfire. I really appreciate these attempts at realism. It made me appreciate and more fully understand her experience.

But why shouldn’t we curate our best lives on social media? No one wants to go to a museum and see all of Picasso’s crappy failure paintings? Right? Maybe not. I was recently given the gift of The Moth -a paperback version of 50 stories from the storytelling podcast. In the introduction I came across this gem, “The number one quality of great storytellers is their willingness to be vulnerable, their ability to tell on themselves.” Maybe it is in fact our rainy days, our toddler meltdowns, our flabby bellies that make the better story and endear us to those we love.

When we curate and photoshop our lives the way advertisers photoshop women’s bodies do we make ourselves as unattainable and unrelatable? Are we losing the present moment because we’re so busy composing the perfect shot? And to what end?

What are we trying to win?

I don’t know. I do know that I spent last weekend away from my family with plenty of time to mull these things over. I went for a walk on Sunday morning down a long scenic country road. At one point a deer walked out right in front of me. So of course, I reached for my phone.

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