Like everyone else, we’ve been getting some extreme family time around here. We’re having our ups and downs in terms of how we’re handling it.
JC is, as usual, entirely unflappable. His regular routines are the least affected; he rarely sees people anyway, and works remotely most days. I work remotely as well, for my “day job” in software development, and the kids have always been homeschooled. But for the kids, and for me, the cut off of social contact has been a lot harder to deal with. Although they have been homeschooled for forever, that never has meant being home. In the course of a normal week, they have two half-days at Forest School. a two-hour session of “Funschool” (a play group), church, D&D club, LEGO League (for Silas), and at least one extended visit with a friend. And I have all that time when I’m driving them to one thing or another, but while they are at the thing, I have some quiet, focused time to get my work done. All of that is gone, and it’s hard on all of us.
Silas, as the most social of our family, has been having the hardest time. Petra gets exhausted from his constant demands to play with him. She’s introverted, and needs her time and quiet. The other day, Silas was sitting on the couch, just crying. Not big sobs, but just a quiet, steady stream of tears. I sat next to him, and he curled up against me. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“I just feel like an empty feeling in my heart. I can’t create anything or do anything and I don’t want to, but I also don’t not want to.”
I said, “It sounds to me like you’re feeling depressed today. Does it feel like after you broke your arm, and you just sat on the couch and didn’t even do the things you probably could have done with just a little thought and effort, like reading a book or writing something?”
“Yes,” he said. “It feels like that. I miss my friends and I feel empty. I’m depressed about not seeing my friends.”
Naming the problem seemed to help. He started doing frequent video chats with a few of his friends. I suggested that he send an email invite for an asynchronous D&D game to the gamers in his circle. And after a couple weeks of insisting that a video chat D&D club meeting would not be the same (he’s right, it wouldn’t), he agrees it’s better than nothing, and he’d like to try it this week if the others are interested.
Petra has done less connecting with her friends. She doesn’t have as many, anyway, and I think her need for time with them is less intense. She has tried to video chat with a couple of them, but she doesn’t seem to know what to say. I think that her play still requires objects as a scaffold for imagination, and that is the developmental thing that keeps her from having a satisfying experience with her friends at a remove. Silas and his buds can play talking imagination games, which is much more adaptable to video chat. Petra is handling this whole thing better than he is, though, overall. She’s been pulling out all the craft kits she got for Christmas and birthdays, helping with cooking, asking me to set up science things for her. She seems mostly content, certainly less distressed than Silas. She does not seem to understand the magnitude of this whole event yet. I think it’s abstract to her.
We see my mom and Gary frequently, in the course of a normal month, and not seeing them at all has been a big adjustment. My mom set up a thing where she does a brief video chat with them every day and reads a chapter of a book. Silas is into it, but Petra sort of says hi and wanders off.
We’re grateful for the massive number of things people are putting out on the internet to help us stay sane and entertained in this difficult time. I was able to watch plays, streaming, from Theater Wit in Chicago, City Theater in Pittsburg, and the American Shakespeare Center, just down the road in Staunton. We’ve been enjoying the Cincinnati Zoo’s daily livestream, Sofa Shakespeare, and, just yesterday, a video call with Mya Gosling, of Good Tickle Brain, about how she adapts Shakespeare into stick figure comics. We haven’t caught the Mo Willems lunch-time doodles, but we’ll get on that this week. Petra and Silas even did a dragon poetry workshop with local legend Mike Deaton. Their friend Emmy participated, too, which was exciting for them.
Our tiny lighting designer was thrilled when the Grand Opera House in Delaware put out a coloring contest to design a light show for their facade. When he gave me his drawing, I said, “Why did you just color in the windows? They light the facade.”
He replied, “No, I think the lights are in the bottoms of the windows. The color on the facade is just spill.”
He was talking about an image I showed him for about thirty seconds, days before he sat down to do his coloring sheet. He was right.
We’ve been teaching the kids new games. The other night, we got out Granny’s Oxford English Dictionary (condensed edition) and taught them to play Balderdash, which was fun.
Petra and I have been working a difficult puzzle with kittens in it that she got for Christmas. It’s been a while since we’ve worked a big puzzle, but this seemed the right time for it.
JC bought a copy of Pandemic: Legacy Edition and they’ve been playing that every night. I jumped in last night. It was fun—the game is set up so that as you play, you make permanent changes to the board and pieces (for example, the red virus now is untreatable and incurable, and will be so every time we play). The game is never the same twice. It’s an interesting mechanic. Silas says that playing it has helped him understand what’s going on and why we have to stay home. “The cities that are quarantined don’t get worse, and then you can go there and deal with the virus,” he said. Petra likes to be the person to turn over the cards and see where the next outbreak is, which is giving her a good sense of world geography.
We’ve been spending a decent amount of time outside. We’re lucky to live out in the country, so it’s easy to be outside. On Saturday, we went out to Hone Quarry, and were surprised at the number of people out there. It wasn’t crowded, exactly, but more so than we might have expected. We took the lower trail, and found a spot they deemed an excellent Kutelope camp. “We’ll have to bring our friends here when this is all over,” they said. “When do you think that’s going to be?”
For me, the hardest part of all of this has been the “when will that be?” The uncertainty is ramping my anxiety way up, as I imagine is true for so many of us. Will it be a few weeks? A few months? A year? How long will we have to do this? If we stop too soon, will we have to start all over?
Experiencing the impact on the theater community has been particularly devastating. Major companies are canceling entire seasons. Everyone I know is watching opportunities they worked so hard for just…vanish. I’ve had my spring show canceled, my summer shows as a dramaturg and director in jeopardy, and who even knows about the fall. Every cancellation announcement, whether at a theater I’m involved with or one I’ve only heard about, feels like a stab in the gut. I hope that, after this, people will be so hungry for authentic human connection, and grateful to theaters for their creativity during this crisis, that they will flock to live performances. After the 1918 pandemic, that’s what happened. I’m hopeful, but deeply sad. I also am extremely lucky, for a theater artist, in that my day job is in an industry (software development) that is, at least for the moment, unaffected.
More than being concerned for my home team, I’m worried about friends and family members who work as doctors and nurses, or who work in other essential jobs, or who are just not taking this seriously, I’m frustrated with the administration’s slow response, with their downplaying the early threat, with the continued refusal to engage with the science or to set aside political pettiness for the good of the country.
I’m bothered by all of this. But as a historian, there’s some part of me that is just fascinated. I’m trying to give that piece of my brain enough space to enjoy itself; the rest isn’t having much fun right now.
I’m discovering that the situation is draining my emotional energy in an extreme way. Things that would have felt like minor setbacks a few weeks ago are knocking me flat, because I don’t have the extra capacity to deal with them. It’s hard, because I rely so heavily on my ability to get as much done in an hour as most people do in a day, and I’ve been so scattered that I just can’t. Which means that I’ve overcommitted myself. Good Mental Health Aili wrote a bunch of checks that Anxiety Aili can’t cash. But Enneagram 1 Aili can’t deal with the idea of not doing the things she definitely promised to do. So fun.
I’m trying to do better at taking care of my mental health. I’m spending more time journaling, arranging regular calls with friends, and trying to cut myself a little slack (the thing, of all things, at which I am the worst). I’ve also been going for long walks early every morning. Since I tend to process anxiety in my body, this helps me work out whatever nervous or cranky energy is hanging around. I’m listening to audio books while I walk, which gives me something to focus on instead of letting my mind just spin.
As I walk, I notice especially the smells of my community—the damp greenness of new leaves, the sawdust at the lumbermill, the distinct milk-and-bleach of the dairies. I’m recognizing the dogs and the barn cats and the particularly handsome rooster on my route. The young heifers come to the fence to greet me with their foggy morning breath. Robins scatter from the road as I walk toward them. I see neighbors on bicycles going home from the milking shift, and others on tractors starting their day of preparing the fields. It’s a grounding, centering experience. A reminder that the earth continues, in the face of our fear.
I’ve gotten some surprise gifts in this time, too. They seem to always come when I’m particularly struggling. Jennifer made herself a t-shirt with a Shakespeare quote on it, and thought I might like one, too. Jacob invited us to join him in a wholesale food order, just when I was starting to feel a little panicky about the empty grocery store shelves. Bethany gave me some flowering quince from her garden, a peaceful bit of beauty in the middle of the chaos that is my house when everyone’s been home too much. My stepdad told my mom about a shirt I had admired in a store window when we were walking in downtown Winchester the last time we were all together, and she went back and bought it for me right before they shut down for the duration. Miriam offered me a cross-stitch kit she had an extra one of. A couple of playwrights I admire sent me new work to read.
The shirt from my mom, as seen in a still from a monologue video I made for a virtual theater project (I’m not an actor, this may never see the light of day). “But there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” Puzzles and flowers.
I’m trying to return the energy back into the world, writing cards, sending small gifts, encouraging my kids to do the same. All we can do, right, is try to stay hopeful, encourage each other, and wash our hands.