A Stay-at-Home Astronaut’s Guide to the Galaxy
Week four of quarantine.
Not unlike everything else these days, the weather is unusual. It’s pouring rain here, and it’s snowing on the mountain. I’ve trained in life-changing events ever since the One Great Change I survived back in the early 90’s in Bulgaria, so I’m long and well prepared to look for silver linings. At least we won’t have wildfires soon (if we we clear the brush in the canyon, that is—note to self: hire someone local to do it soon and stimulate the economy in the process).
With head still full of foggy, slightly apocalyptic dreams due to last night’s feast on pot brownies, I get out of bed, resolute. I’m gonna take my horse to the old town roa— no, that’s not it. I’m gonna do ALL THE THINGS TODAY, because it’s Monday, aka time for the boys’ weekly visit to the Grandparents.
Pot is not something I do more than twice a year, if that, but nowadays anything goes. It’s just another link in the caffeine—alcohol formula we’re all using to solve the mysteries of Time. But according to True Detective, season 1 that I am currently rewatching, “time is a flat circle” and “nothing is ever solved”, therefore pot needn't really be justified.
At 8 AM sharp, Grandpa arrives in his big green pickup truck. He is eager to hang out with the boys and starts to load them in the truck along with their luggage. One thing that keeps surprising me about parenthood is that children have STUFF. There are bags of clothes, lovies, toys, a gallon of vinegar and a pound of baking soda for the experiments the boys are only allowed to do in Grandma’s kitchen. When they return, they will be wearing the same clothes they left in, and they will be feral-looking: dirt under their fingernails, sticky hair, and abundantly smelling of vinegar. If that’s not the definition of a happy childhood, I don’t know what is.
True to their mercurial nature, they’ve swapped attitudes and now Johnny is excited to go, but Julian is suddenly adamant he’d rather stand in the rain and pout than get in the truck. My back is achy from playing LEGOs hunched on the floor for two hours yesterday (great side effect of being mildly high), so I muster all my motherly superpowers and employ the art of persuasion I’ve wielded during endless battles over trivial things such as putting on shoes or brushing teeth. I’m determined to get this child in this truck, and I become a master of coercion, manipulation, and bargaining. I’ll hypnotize him if I have to, and I’m ready to lie, threaten, or physically swoop him off the driveway and strap him in his seat against his will. It’s paramount to remain firm and consistent for sake of everyone’s sanity. Finally John does just that; he carries Julian to the truck and closes the door on him, waves goodbye and walks to the house, soaking wet from the rain, but relived.
They will be okay, we tell each other. They will thank us one day, when they’ve gained the right amount of perspective. They will cherish their precious time with the Grandparents, and they will fondly remember the chance they were given to go wild on the mountain. Besides, they need to socialize with other people now that we are constantly stuck together. The Grandparents also need some company. But most of all, WE need this. We’ve been pouring love and affection, care and guidance into their little cups from an empty bottle for weeks, and while their little cups have runneth over, we’re depleted. And who enjoys having an automatic robot for a father and an empty husk of a mother?! We are overdue for the human equivalent of an oil change, tire rotation, and an overall maintenance checkup (and probably a nice long carwash). Having family nearby is our saving grace, and another silver lining in these strange, scary times this pandemic.
Side note: Let’s see how long can I go without writing Covid-19 or Coronavirus… though I firmly believe that we should call it as it is: a total and complete shitshow. They say narrating a traumatic event is a therapeutic overcoming mechanism, but I’m not so sure anymore. We’ve talked about nothing but the virus this entire time. For a minute I think I’ve gone through all the emotional stages, and that I have intellectually accepted the situation as a fact—the seriousness of it, the risk and the tragedy, and the entirety of its repercussions, but it turns out it’s an absurd game of whack-a-mole; I barely recover from one realization before another one hits me hard on the head.
THIS IS INSANE. It’s just crazy.
Elusive comprehension and emotional turmoil aside, one thing is certain: this is happening, and not coping with it isn’t an option. At what cost—personal and otherwise, only time will tell. For now, we stay at home and we stay healthy.
The boys have been away for less than 10 minutes, and I already don’t know what to do with myself. The stupor of the empty nest, I guess. It’s still early. Time passes differently when the kids are gone. Slower, kinder. I stare at the bubbles the rain makes in the pool for awhile. The cats crawl out of their hiding spots and reclaim the house, which is suddenly devoid of war cries and stomping feet. I talk to the cats, they are my babies now. I have my coffee, chat with John about some Amazon orders, and I check my IG feed. No rush, no worries. Once a week, I have the luxury of wasting my time as I please. It’s a delicious sensation, and I relish in it.
I’m smug. I’m smug in the shower. It’s one of those rare 40 minute showers. I lather myself with fragrant body wash (it says in the back “Sometimes meditation just isn’t enough”—great, now my cosmetics are talking to me!) and I start singing. Singing as bad as mine is, triggers some emotional response and turns into crying. I have a good cry. It clears my soul while the hot steam clears my pores. It’s healthy, crying it out. Quality self-care right there. I deep-condition my hair, shave my legs. Next, full-body exfoliation followed by massaging rich moisturizer onto every inch of my (bruised, scarred, stretch-marked) skin. I pluck stray hairs, put on a face mask, spritz a little perfume. I’m smug and smooth as a fuckin’ dolphin. I frolic out of that bathroom renewed, ready to be a human woman again, and not a snack-dispensing, butt-wiping referee, at least for a day…
I lie down on my bed wrapped in towels and stare into space some more, then check The List. That’s a note on my phone where I keep any current ideas and things I want to do. The List is long, ever expanding, never truly done. But it’s a good list, useful list. It’s like an external hard drive for my brain: a backup for the things my memory can’t retain while being used on mommying. Reading is on that list. So I pick up a book, ANY book, and I read. This isn’t supposed to be fun. Reading for fun is over. I read to make sure I can still do it, that I can still follow the plot, that I can understand the concepts. As usual, I notice a few words I like and want to use in my own writing. I collect words in another note on my phone. The words are:
I take my vitamins. I snack, hydrate, stretch a bit. Those are things I forget to do when I’m parenting, even now that I’ve become so much better at blurring the line between being a mom and being myself. My anger and frustration levels are almost normal again, I transcend messes and embrace the chaos, and my identity issues are by and large resolved, yet parenting still requires time and energy on a basic practical level, and I still find myself shrunken like a raisin some evenings, or craving a vegetable because I’ve only eaten pretzels all day. Stuff those hair-and-skin gummies in your face, take 1000% of your daily dose of Vitamin C, snort some saline, clear those sinuses, make a pitcher of green tea. Now is your chance! Who knows when you’ll be able to strengthen your immune system again.
I take a walk. I get my steps in. It’s Spring and it’s beautiful out. The airfield is drowned in wildflowers that grew three feet high overnight. The birds are singing and everything is blooming. I can literally see the pollen in the air. It doesn’t matter. I walk like I won’t be able to leave the house ever again. I say hi to the wild turkeys and the deer. Country life is the best life! That’s only a mile-long walk but it feels great. Cooped up, who?! Not me. I am one with Nature and I practically hover above the ground. That’s better than pot, probably. I’m high on oxygen.
Back home. My dream home, I remind myself. Just look around! The heat is on, the fridge is full, we still have toilet paper. Moreover, we have the Internet! I start to read the news and I learn that a tiger now has tested positive for Covid-19. Nope. That’s extremely nope. No more news, especially pertaining to the pandemic or to big cats. Watching the entirety of Tiger King in one sitting last week was all I could take.
Maybe I should clean the house. Again. Just in case. John calls me The Queen of Clean. Joke’s on him. I was a a germaphobe long before the outbreak. The house is already clean and tidy, with the kids gone. I briefly contemplate moving the furniture around. I already painted the bathrooms and gardened recently…
Before, I used to see the flaws in my home and obsess about the potential. I wanted white carpets, string lights above the pool, floor to ceiling book shelves, accent walls, mid-century cabinets, prints of Hubble rendered galaxies, balloon animal figurines, and an extra bathroom. Big whoop, ain’t it? My house is just perfect as it is. I mean, it’s perfect. It’s old and outdated, but still perfect. When I look at my view outside the window it seems like nothing is wrong, that nothing has changed. The Earth has always stood still here.
I think about that every time I am tempted to feel sorry for myself or complain about small things.
Thinking. A day without kids restarts my ability to think, to mull over a thought until it crystalizes into something coherent: a stand-alone, well-rounded idea that has so far just floated fragmented in the back of my mind, bothering me like a pebble in my shoe. It’s not necessarily an important idea, but it’s my idea nevertheless. I write up a short blog post about something or other (most likely pop-culture related), and I look at The List again.
Johnny’s 8th birthday is coming up. We wanted to celebrate with a visit to Cal Academy, take a day trip to the city and hang out. Since that’s not an option, instead I’ll surprise him with an acceptance letter from Hogwarts I printed out from the Internet and put in an envelope sealed with a genuine owl stamp and wax. I’ll use one of Julian’s stuffed owls to deliver it, and I’ll throw a small Harry Potter party (just for us) at home with banners and Gryffindor themed plates and napkins. That’s just how I roll: providing quality mommying since 2012.
It makes me wander what did I use to do with my time when the boys were at school full time, but my newfound resourcefulness is not all that surprising given we only reach our full potential when pushed to our limits and pressed for time. Nothing would matter if we knew we’d live forever; having a deadline, a framework, or some major limitation is what drives us to excel and overcome.
Speaking of which, homeschooling is a struggle. I use an hour to further optimize my methodology. On one hand I’m pissy about it. I’m not a teacher, and I have no desire to become one. Too much paperwork, and working with kids is a drag. I still carry a leftover fraction of my past “too cool for school” attitude, and I’m like, so what if they’ll miss a quarter of school? Everyone else will, too, and they are only in Kindergarten and 2nd grade; they are bright and fairly gifted, and this won’t affect them much.
Then I remember how insecure I was getting into college at 26 years old, and how marginalized I felt despite my affinity for language or my natural intelligence. It takes work to improve and learn, and my kids will need to learn a lot if they are to succeed in this crazy world. John told me not to worry about the curriculum as much as to try and teach them “love for learning”. Weaponize their curiosity, employ their little brains to labor on fun puzzles. This helps. I organize their learning space—the dining room table—and I make another List of Fun Ways to Learn. When they come back from the mountain, and after they get scrubbed good head to toe, we will pick up where we left off and learn. Maybe, somewhere in between watching nature documentaries and practicing multiplication strategies, we’ll also learn to be kind to one another, and form a closer bond.
We’ll probably yell at each other and cry. But we must try, either way. Another List: tools to help with attention deficit. I order a “wiggle sensory seat”, pencil grip holders, a book about managing impulsivity. Then I take a break to cuddle the cats.
There’s only so much you can do in a day. How do I waste time and utilize time at the same time?! Watching movies is good—Contagion is okay, World War Z is terrible. The sun has set but it’s still bright outside. The moon is full, a huge Pink moon. I dust off my camera gear and set up my tripod on the deck. Shoot for the moon! Some people howl at 8 pm outside their houses in solidarity with Health Workers. I suppose that’s one way to do it, though I personally prefer to enjoy the night owls and the sounds of the wild without a reminder that there are people around.
As for appreciating Health Workers, once this is over, we better instate a National Health Worker Day (preferably to replace Columbus Day); a day during which we shower Health Workers with gifts and free everything, and collectively praise them for their sacrifice. I’d be mad as hell if this does not happen. Health, Safety and Emergency workers are absolute SUPERHEROES, but better: they do extraordinary things, only they are human and do it without having superpowers.
I should call it a day. Not too shabby, I tell myself. The Grandparents have been texting us all day with cute pictures of the boys playing. We are the lucky ones. We’re getting through this. We’re healthy. There isn’t much we can do other than stay in our lovely home with our lovely family, and thus contribute to flattening the curve.
It’s a great opportunity to check my privilege while at it.
I am grateful for how things turned out for us. Solitude breeds contemplation, and I indulge in brief but sweet retrospection. The hard work and the sacrifices we made early on are paying off. We are textbook hashtags blessed for our choices—leaving the Bay Area, taking a financial risk to buy a house, starting anew, adapting and making it work even better than before—and here we are, naturally isolated in the country, able to wait out the end of the world in comfort, fairly worry-free about the kids’ safety.
Checking my privilege always does the trick of getting me going again. I’m sure I could squeeze another hour of doing stuff.
This isn’t about maintaining a false sense of productivity. It isn’t just about breaking out of the frustrating and tiring quarantine routine, either.
I have a debt to pay, to myself as well as to society. I am not able to send ventilators to hospitals or donate millions for the vaccine-developing efforts, but I can take this as a chance to reevaluate my life, and make sure I’m still aware, engaged, invested, and striving for enlightenment.
I’ve been conditioned to think that gratitude translates to obligation, and that I always need to try and deserve what I have. [Insert psychoanalysis of childhood here]
The truth is, I thrive on being challenged. Hardship is a huge motivator for me. It’s when everything is fine I struggle to keep going. I’m not built to be too comfortable, and complacency makes me sluggish and brings on bouts of depression. I love to have something to recon with, something to figure out. I’ve been kicking butt ever since the quarantine started—not that I need a pandemic or a fatal disaster to be “my best self”; that’s a horrible fate for the world to suffer… but I suppose I did need something to snap me out of my bubble. Lately, despite the added pressure of extra responsibilities (of maybe because of it) I find myself galvanized and ready to protect my family, to take care of things, to do my part. It’s a great lesson for me, this situation, and I am learning that when it gets down to brass tacks I am pretty resilient.
A ping of guilt makes me get online and message my parents (one personal goal during my quarantine self-reevaluation is to rid myself of guilt for doing well and for being successful).
My parents are thousands of miles away, in a big city, and it’s unclear when I’ll be able to see them again. I’m overly positive in my wording, and I assure them we are doing well. I reach out to my friends and neighbors, too. I like texting updates to people, asking after their health and state of mind, and pledging my readiness to be of help. Not everyone subscribes to my optimistic cheerleading; I was already told off by a close friend who I believed would stick with me through hard times, and the other day I was yelled at by a local man for getting too close to his property (in my defense, there was a peacock named Pikachu in his yard that I was dying to meet…)
The outlier of the “we are all in this together” motto is that we are in fact better off keeping our distance. All in all, I enjoy the self-appointed position in charge of keeping people’s spirits up, and most feedback is indeed positive. Here I go again, trying to save the world… But so what; it’s all in good humor—another thing we desperately need right now. I send out care packages and little notes in the mail, and I share funny pictures and words of encouragement rooted in my own, often ridiculous and challenging, experiences. Checking in makes me feel like I’m doing something, and if it brings a smile to someone’s face it’s worth it.
I truly want to give more of myself.
Sometimes I hold back, you see…. I catch myself instinctively holding things in—creatively, and as a person outside motherhood—because I’m trying to preserve energy and survive the long haul without losing my drive or running out of steam, which inevitably leads to severe physical pain from fatigue, or to emotional breakdown caused by my effort to connect to children who are on a different intellectual plain and have separate interests. Flashback to the recent past: cooped up at home with babies and small kids, in a terrible shape, unable to produce a single piece of writing that’s even semi-good. Aside from occasional nostalgia for the boys as cute, chubby munchkins, I shudder to think that I could go back to feeling as isolated, exhausted, and unstable as I did in the first years of motherhood.
I am not good at compartmentalizing, however, and this stifled part of me eventually finds a way out. My internal life has always been cyclical—for a week or two I put my head down, I push onward, I grind till I own it, and my focus and discipline usually pay off. During those weeks I keep it together and I keep on top of things. But then balance demands to be reestablished, and one day the crazies that lay dormant come flying out of me and take on any imaginable shape: I start to spaz out, embark on a massive cleaning spree, spontaneously burst into song and dance; I become even more critical to others than usual, I boss them around, and I stress-eat… you get the picture.
One can only go so long without smexy time ™ or, perish the thought!, alone time.
As the first months of self-isolation comes to an end, I’m discovering that I don’t need to hold back to get stuff done. The beauty of being thrown into such a uniquely difficult situation is that I make my own rules. It’s liberating to realize that I can actually channel my crazies, or better yet—distribute them more evenly. I can infuse my trivial life with creativity instead of trying to separate those two things. Life is art, my friends!
This concludes my, insufficient in expertise but rich in self-deprecation and sarcasm, account of a day in the life of me. I’m going to take a nap now, before the kids come back and prevent me from sleeping ever again.