It’s now been eighteen days since I last taught and thirteen days since six Bay Area counties, ours included, ordered shelter-in-place orders. Two weeks of N working in the office/guest room, while Rebelle Harmony stomps around the house looking for mischief and wondering when she can see her newly-adopted brother/friend, Bijan. Where would my mind be without our weekday 10:00 AM-12:45 PM meeting (not on Zoom, but in real life!) with Aaron and Bijan. Aaron is a teacher and father who lives up the street. Bijan is Aaron’s three-and-a-half year-old boy. Rebelle Harmony has quickly taken to the daily Bijan time. It has been wonderful for both of our families during this shelter-in-place chaos.
Over the last two weeks, most of the country has followed the Bay Area in sheltering-in-place. Looking at the U.S. Map, only the least populated and most stubborn states (the South, the Southwest, Texas and Florida) are continuing to let their citizenry frolic about during the pandemic.
From the NY Times:
This means at least 229 million people in at least 26 states, 66 counties, 14 cities and one territory are being urged to stay home.
When we say we are lucky, we usually say it out of a brief glimmer of awareness. We are very lucky. We have savings, jobs, a house, food and shelter. Our life in the Bay Area is only possible because of N’s job and income. My teaching income, with another moderate-income job wouldn’t have allowed us to consider buying a home out here (anywhere close to SF or Berkeley) without a huge loan. Our society compensates technology and finance workers well. Not so much for those in education. We are also lucky we moved in 2014, before the real estate in places like El Cerrito (10–15 minutes north of Berkeley) really jumped. We’d initially hoped to buy a home in Berkeley, but between 2010 and 2014, Berkeley real estate began climbing as Silicon Valley crept northward. We wanted a backyard, which is where we are sitting on this sunny Sunday afternoon, where the squirrels are climbing the trees and the dogs sitting in the breeze, one of whom is compelled to bark at the squirrels, have no knowledge of COVID-19.
When we moved here in 2014, it was mid-June. The school year had just ended. We were planning on trying to have a baby soon. We tried in 2015. We tried in 2016. Rebelle Harmony arrived two days after school ended (as we’d hoped) in June, 2017. Becoming a father was something I was sure I wanted by the time I was 20, but I’d also known I wouldn’t be ready for a long time. In another era, we wouldn’t have had a chance to decide when we were ready. We might have had a baby too young, and had all kinds of trouble working things out. We waited a long time and then she arrived that June of 2017, after I went through a serious respiratory illness that ended up in double pneumonia and a hospital stay. I am a very lucky father and partner.
Back in June, 2014, our older dog Boumie was 5. Our new pup, JoJo, was three months old. A tiny female Keeshond, Joey was an escape artist. She was the first of her litter to leave the box. When we brought her home from her Keeshond family in Yuba City (past Sacramento) into our old apartment, she was a started packing for our move.
We’d been in that apartment for eight years, on the northwest edge of SF, not far from Ocean Beach or Land’s End, the trail overlooking the cliffs and the water that turns from Pacific to the Bay where we very occasionally saw Dolphins down below in the warmest months.
When you move to a new place, there’s always an adjustment period. When you move into a house, you feel lucky and like something permanent has happened. After spending much of my early-to-mid twenties in various kinds of inner turmoil, moving across the country, working various jobs (restaurant, bakery, Whole Foods, catering, Kumon Tutoring, better tutoring positions, etc.) while paying off student loans, I gradually finished my undergraduate degree. N moved out to the Bay Area and we started living together. We moved into a tiny apartment near Golden Gate Park in the Inner Sunset district. We worked our way toward a better apartment, my graduation and teaching credential, and N’s progress in her job, which involved taking the earliest bus from one edge of SF down to the Embarcadero.
My teaching career got off to a lackluster start. The economy tanked. It was 2007 into 2008. I pieced together tutoring jobs, driving all over the hills of SF and substitute taught at a high school in Daly City, getting sporadic short-term gigs as a fill-in English teacher. Tutoring on Sundays in the early evenings was especially frustrating, as our weekends together were broken up early.
I don’t think back on those days often anymore. Having a toddler and juggling parenting and teaching and keeping up the house and the yard while trying to find time to write…it doesn’t leave much time for dwelling…which is what I used to do often.
Depression and anxiety go together. Without time to be stuck in my head, I got less anxious…which kept depression away most of the time. I spent half of my teenage years and half of my twenties dealing with swings of anxiety and mood and childhood resentments. Talk therapy helped. When we brought home Boumie in 2009 and shared the responsibility and love of a new puppy…that helped us both. By the time we moved to El Cerrito, we were closer to ready for parenthood. Nobody is ever fully ready, but there are certainly levels of preparedness. Psychologically ready as individuals and as partners, financially ready, and mentally ready for the avalanche of time and responsibility an infant then toddler demand.
A house demands upkeep, which costs money and time. Whether its water underneath, or a clogged sink, you might need to rent a wet-vac and suck the water out of a concrete pool that formed in the crawl space…on an annual basis. You might find yourself with mice who scavenge only at night. You take care of the small lawn in back (until your tiny, electric lawn-mower breaks and you have to replace it), and you pull weeds throughout the late winter and spring (and throughout the summer, who are we kidding?) and rake leaves in the fall and winter, and pick the apples from the small tree in the summer and fall, and maintain the weekly duties of the yard…you still might need to call a tree-trimming service or a landscape company to remove some greenery with enormous roots and they will charge you a fortune.
But then your daughter scampers around in that backyard and it is worth every drop of sweat and dollar spent.
None of this includes the work each of you do inside the house, which involves cooking, cleaning, laundry, and groceries. If you do the outside and inside work yourself, it keeps you busy enough to realize how hard it will be after you bring a child into the equation.
But none of this is work after a while. It is the stuff of domestic life. Without doing any work on the yard, I wouldn’t feel the same level of appreciation for having it. It’s just green when you’re sitting in a chair. It’s grass when you’re bending down to pick up the dog shit and the old, rotted apples. It’s grass that looks lush and verdant in a beautiful way every February when you mow it. When Rebelle Harmony was five months old..on those first crisp late fall November mornings, I walked with her around that yard, and told her about the giant Redwood next to the little creek that runs between our backyard and our neighbors. We would say “Good morning, tall tree. Good morning, birds. Good morning, squirrels.” JoJo would inevitably bark her good mornings to the squirrels as they scampered up the gigantic trunk of the tree, or when the crows swooped down and landed on the roof.
I write about the house and the yard as a way of appreciating this rare shelter-in-place situation, where all five of us (N and I, Rebelle Harmony, Boumie and JoJo) are home together. Life over the last three years has become so busy that recognizing our home as a sanctuary hasn’t always been easy. Sleep became precious. Nerves became frayed. Nap-time became a precarious dance. The flow of packages that landed at the door which led to fits of Boumie barking…sometimes put me over the top no matter how much I practiced focusing on slowing down my thoughts and breathing and letting go of my irritations. None of these feelings were eased by the political climate we’ve found ourselves in. Some of these feelings were eased when I forced myself to slow down…and more were eased when I channeled my sleep-deprived days into words, strung like lights from the sky down to our little house.
Here we are now, as the world shrinks and the economy sputters and we head toward a November election with so many unknowns.
We cleaned up the garage this weekend. We made a space for N to work with some separation from the hollers of joy and frustration that come from our little girl. We set up an area for exercising, with interlocking foam pads that had previously been in our living room for playing on the floor with an infant. The garage now feels usable rather than a space to contain stuff we don’t have the time or energy to get to.
We are lucky to be here. To be alive. To be educated. To have curious minds. To have friends and family and children and pets.
We give so much of ourselves to our children, because we know they give us so much without even trying to. Life is both bigger and smaller when you can’t leave your home and your distractions (sports, entertainment, commuting, eating out) have been limited. You can’t leave your self at the door the way you’re used to. You don’t get a break from your own sense of self or your consciousness.
Instead, you have to let it expand to notice the nature around you. You let it expand to see your children and pets more honestly and with more vulnerability. You recognize how much you need connection when life slows to this pace. This is a silver lining we’d all be wise to hold on to.
When the pace picks back up, will we have learned from all of this?