12 Lessons from a Year inside My Head
In the midst of the pandemic, whenever my husband and I argued, I called our disagreements quarantine quarrels. Light-hearted or heavy-handed descriptions of them populated my journal kept over the past year.
Twelve months later, re-reading those entries, I discovered the disputes were, thankfully, less about my husband, and more on figuring out my role in the wide, yet suddenly narrowed world. For some, allowing our hair to grow out along with the gray was the extent of revealing our imperfections. For others living in close quarters, imperfections played a starring role.
From the beginning, my standard line was, “There’s no one right way to do this pandemic. But there’s a million ways to get it wrong.”
1. As my husband reached for a dish on the pantry shelf, plastic containers spilled onto the floor. Tripping on them, he cursed while I argued he could have easily organized them. Until we fought, he had little idea the organization of the pantry stood for finishing a list I didn’t think I would complete after being hit by a car six months’ prior. Later that night and on to the next days, we held extended conversations about step-parenting, what we wanted from our marriage. What we didn’t get and what we still needed.
We don’t have to open a Pandora’s box of Tupperware to show everyone who we are in the inside, just those we love.
2. In January of 2020, I had begun taking Italian language classes, a long-time goal. In the first classes, teachings were focused on the relatable topics of food and eating, especially signature Italian dishes. A few weeks into the pandemic, I made aglio i olio. I had instructed my husband to slice the garlic. He chopped it instead. Again, cursing ensued (it’s an Italian kitchen). With echoes of my now deceased Italian mother surrounding me, I wanted this dish to be perfect, to get something right while so much was going wrong.
It’s okay to welcome the ghosts into our lives. We need them now more than ever.
3. Our last vacation right before lockdown was a magical one to Puerto. My husband and I rented kayaks to tour a bioluminescent bay called Laguna Grande in Fajardo. After stroking out to the middle of the bay to witness microscopic dinoflagellates light up in the water, we paddled back through the channel in the dark. I was seated up front with Mark in the back. Given my erratic navigating and other kayaks bumping into us in the dark, we tangoed with many vines and embankments, and tangled with each other.
A fourteen-year marriage still needs work to paddle through the dark.
4. Due to the coronavirus and shifting expectations at the hospital, my husband’s schedule became inconsistent. He worked more frequently from home, which involved meetings he participated in via speakerphone on the first floor, as opposed to using his third-floor office. In our 150-year-old house, voices reverberated up the staircase and into my second-floor study, where I had always left my door open. I had already quarantined enough.
We should always defend our discipline and space. Also, Bluetooth earbuds can save a marriage. Also, learn to love a closed door.
5. My writing group met up every other Tuesday for over eight years. Through the use of Zoom, we sent out writing prompts even for those who missed. One recent prompt asked us to regard the notion of second place. As a seventh-grade track participant, I always lost to Carol Bittner, an 8th grader. The list of also-rans includes homecoming, class officer positions and writing competitions. I’d even been a second wife — twice. As a writer and author, my external work had been cancelled due to the pandemic. Fighting the imposter in me became a daily chore.
In these times, no one wants to feel left out or behind.
6. My husband used to say my best writing was about loss. In reality, I wrote best when mad. Volunteering for training to work Election Day polls and spending time on the day of at the precinct location imbued my writing with meaning, prompting me to write a slew of op-eds. Despite agreeing with countless writers who complained about a lack of productivity, in looking back, I was rather prolific during quarantine, forcing my actions to measure up to my words.
When we’re angry, it’s sometimes an acknowledgement we can do better.
7. Given the stoppage of extracurricular activities and lack of human interactions, my subconsciousness produced unsettling dreams populated by loved ones no longer accessible: Dad and Mom, my first husband, Devin, my older sister, Laura. Some imaginings were tender. Others filled with angst. In one, my parents backed out the garage on Lincoln Street and drove off in a convertible with a back seat brimming with presents. “We’ll be back after Christmas,” they said. In real life, they never missed Christmas. As for Laura, in my dreams, we fought about her disappearing from family events. In real life, I wished we could have made up before her debilitation set in.
The pandemic laid bare our collective grief. And also gave us time to move through it.
8. I experienced so many disappointments related to Italy. First, and foremost, watching the devastation the virus wracked upon my grandparents’ country of birth. Prior to the pandemic, I had made plans to revisit their hometowns in the fall and embarked on a legacy project of identifying ancestors and applying for Italian citizenship. That voyage had been wiped from the books and I was angry. Continuing my research and the language classes, and joining the Stanley Tucci gang watching Searching for Italy, saved me from despair.
We still need to believe in something next.
9. As a walker, I regularly flew out the door in the brisk early dawn to be first on street. Those walks were part mental therapy, part creative inspiration, part need to be alone. In the shutdown, those walks became something everyone did. Everyone took pictures on their strolls and called them “#morningfinds.” Everyone posted to social media about discovering the same lilac bushes in bloom. I transitioned some outings to the evening hour, or often, didn’t go at all, and stopped taking so many photos. I felt relief at giving myself some grace.
Strangers and friends are more alike than we imagine.
10. Over the course of the year, I’d mostly given up on alcohol, except for maybe a drink per week. It wasn’t planned, but due to therapy for a broken knee and medication, I chose not to drink to maximize my recovery. It’s still easier not to. Recently, when I did consume a glass of wine at a small Italian restaurant, I woke to a tired self, challenged to focus on the day ahead.
If you don’t drink, you don’t have to forgive yourself in the morning.
11. I have certain fears about sundowning, which is a restlessness that begins or worsens as daylight fades. During December and January, shadows crept into the kitchen at all hours. I was reminded of my mother and her aloneness while she moved furniture in the yellowing lights of her care home. My hands trembled. I had to push through the anxiety, by witnessing people on the street, buses, cars, anything that resembled life going forward.
We are not always our parents. Also, a long walk at the end of night can cure us of those fears.
12. My husband and I started playing a round of cards every night. For Christmas, our kids gifted us the game Five Crowns. One night, Mark was unstoppable at Cribbage. His hand was flush with face cards and fives. Runs. He nearly skunked me by pegging in twos. I tossed my cards down and stomped upstairs to watch TV on my laptop without speaking to him before sleep. In the morning, I realized how tired I had been the night before.
Don’t throw all your cards away. There might be a Jack (or a husband) worth saving that lures you back in the game.
13. To tempt fate, I’ve added a 13th lesson. Last month, we thought our insurance was dropped due to bills showing up late (thanks, USPS). After some reconciling, our account was reinstated. In this discourse, my husband and I fought over whose job it was to pay certain bills. The use of the word “job” did not go uncommented by me. Writers are tender about word choice. Our partners, not always so.
We’re all trying. Sometimes, we’ll get it wrong. But we can always find a better way (or word) to make it right.