The first week of official online school was rough. Four of us work and learn from home now, and, until today, our internet connection was woefully unprepared. It was the only thing that broke down more than the rest of us, which is saying something. Emotional stability, intellectual inquiry and disciplined self-direction were not strong in our wheelhouse last week, our abilities to hold it together as permeable as the airspace in our house, as our walls to sounds of simultaneous classes and conference calls.
First off, the executive functioning skills required to figure out our various remote learning platforms, each with its web of applications, links and assignments, challenged my husband and me, let alone our 9-year-old. The plethora of awesome(ly overwhelming) COVID-19 activity ideas nearly threw me over. I feel guilty for not crafting or staging daily scavenger hunts—although that would probably help my kinetic and tactile-learning children.
My fourth grader, in particular, misses on levels she can't articulate the abrupt stop to recess, soccer and swimming with friends and teammates. She's sad, frustrated and angry, often devolving to grunts and screams of outrage. On the upside, she's getting a lot of reading done. My son's tweendom fits more easily with screen-based learning and chatting; but, for the first time ever, I'm worried about his hours on the computer. Thankfully, his assignments have included cleaning a bathroom, ironically writing haiku about technology, and making Andy Goldsworthy-like land-art sculpture.
We are learning things about ourselves and each other that we didn't attend to before. For example, aside from our kids' activities, it turns out we were pretty socially isolationist anyway. Our dog is THAT dog—the neighborhood one that barks all the time. And we consume staggering quantities of cheese. Cheesy eggs, quesadillas, grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, cheese and crackers, cheese dip, nachos, enchiladas, cheese tortellini, pizza, apples and cheese, pears and cheese, and just plain slices of cheese at all times of day. I had cheese-induced nausea for years; but, thankfully, that era is over. Otherwise, I'd starve.
In between work and school monitoring—and accelerated cheese slicing and kitchen cleaning—I check the news. We don't watch TV and even the radio feels intrusive at home now, so I flit among online newspaper reports and study graphs of projected mortality peaks.
I feel insulated here in our small city in the rural intermountain West, but I know that I'm not. As much foresight and proactivity as our governor has shown, New Mexico is still short on equipment and logging hundreds of cases. Daily updates are heavy and head snapping. People are grieving in myriad ways.
I remember learning about the doppler effect when I was around my kids' ages. It involves a moving source of a wave—sound wave, water wave, any kind of wave—and how the waves' frequency changes for an observer depending on where she stands relative to its moving source. As an ambulance moves toward me, its sirens are louder; as it moves away, its sounds diminish. The sirens sound at the same frequency the whole time, but the frequency at which I hear them changes as the vehicle approaches me and then continues on.
COVID-19 feels like this: The moving pandemic in doppler effect. We all hear the sirens, but those closest to it are reaching for their ears. And "closest" means different things: We know someone who has it, we know someone who's died, we work in a hospital, we work in a clinic, we see the shortage of PPE hourly, we live in New York, we live in Seattle or San Francisco, we live here. In this quietest of times, the noise is the virus and our proximity to it.
Virus-time unmoors us when our lives change so quickly and schedules fall away. Spring is its usual self, a meteorological grab bag; but now time has joined it. January, which my students said felt interminable, seems impossibly remote; our spring-break travel deliberations couldn't have been just a month ago; I hardly know what day it is anymore, and I keep forgetting lunch until the kids get irritable and we're all hangry. It can be maddening.
It can settle my frame of mind, too, if I let it—if I remember the benefits of suspended schedules and open space, of quiet, of how recently our family enjoyed this.
Just before New Mexico called for staying home—mere weeks ago—we ventured into Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory for isolation camping. Out there, on a mesa top in canyon country, we saw no one, slept to stars and woke to snowflakes. Bundled up, we drank morning coffee and cocoa, listened to flickers and crows, drew in the dirt. A hike meant rock-hopping along an intermittent stream. Bike rides involved views, snacks, picnicking, sagebrush and cows. Time wasn't super fixed outside of the angle of the sun and grumbling tummies.
Out there, I was more likely to write in my journal; my husband more likely to play his guitar. We had to work together, and treats were important: We got hot chocolate in the morning and at night. We cuddled in our tent. These are things we can also do at home.
Of course, neither home nor camping is all smooth sailing. My husband and I bicker over stupid stuff. The kids push each other's buttons as only they know how, fight, yell, whine, cry—and I quickly react instead of patiently respond. But being alone together on a far-flung mesa adds some grace to the discord. Reaching for remembered grace is helpful now.
Outside, we get creative more quickly. We're flexible. There is time and space in which siblings can erupt and then come back to build a bike drop together, chart a circuit in the nearby wash, and cheer when one engineers a good obstacle or completes a bike trick. Hearing them work in sync and laugh is one of the best sounds in the world.
"I think it's better when we're outside," my daughter says. "There's more room and we aren't cooped up."
Sometimes, we just need space. Space to look up past the ceiling and beyond our screens. Space to ride way ahead of the rest of the family because, when you're 12-and-a-half, sometimes there are few things as irritating as the rest of the family. Out there, space is more about going out and coming back than about closing the door to one's room; more about stretching out than shutting out; more about inhabiting time than serving the clock.
That particular desert, with its dramatically exposed geology and hardscrabble vegetation, invites perspectives on time—the time we inhabit, that which belonged to peoples before us, that stretching beyond any horizon we imagine. Out there, we embrace the bigness of space and time, as well as the smallness of our time, in our spaces, and as lived within our families and communities. Our landscapes here can teach us, too.
As we settle—bumpily—into what can feel like confinement, I want to create space for ourselves and each other, to lean towards calm and creativity instead of pin-balling around our few small rooms. I want to remember how much we need to go outside, to look up and out—and to look at each other with compassion, care and little extras right now. Cocoa in the morning, cocoa at night.