shifting normal during quarantine

 I slice my finger during the turmoil of getting dinner ready on time, with the help of an eager, clumsy child. 

There is a moment between the cut and the pain.

I’m doing quarantine wrong, I think. Some families maximize this time turning out full-length operas, manifestos, or alternative theories in quantum physics. Some families binge on food and film. 

I imagine them all collapsing on their lawns or on their couches end of day, breathing hard, exhausted. Sated in some way.

I am among the rest, insatiable in the wrong ways. Front lines multiply and we are there as we can be, as we must be, as we have no choice to be. We grieve for those we’ve lost and for those others have lost while acknowledging whatever good fortunes we hold. We mourn through screens and shift normal. I want something…not more… something else. Not quite before, but definitely not this. 

The world is bloated, partly from insistent optimism, partly from holding in how we’re not ok, mostly from fighting for the chance to breathe. 

The pain arrives in my finger and I suck in air sharply. My son, the kitchen helper, does not notice. 

Breath powers voice. Breath lets me say yes when malaise tries to morph into something resembling emotional atrophy. Breath has enough slip for me to rise to full-frontal nurturing. 

Yes, you can help. Yes, come sit with me. Yes, I’ll read your assignment over. Yes, we can go for a walk together. Yes, play me that song. Yes, we’re going to be all right. Yes, I’m here.

Sometimes yes is conditional. Yes, when I’m done. Yes, later. Yes, ask your father for help

Yes these days helps them regulate their breathing. I check the rise and fall of their chests as I once did when it felt like my entire life was watching them breathe in a mix of delight and wonder and slight terror. The deep, satisfied sighs moments before they drifted off on my shoulder. When my arms or my lap was their safe space, and they breathed slowly and deeply as they slumbered, assured nothing would harm them. 

My son looks up from the sauce he is stirring. “Mom, do you need a Band-Aid?”

“Yes, please.” I am purposefully mannered. The pain is intense and so stupid. It’s a little cut.

“Take a deep breath” is our mantra of this pandemic, and a mantra of health.

We breathe through the small inconveniences. We breathe through the tears and the sorrow and the school zooms and the confusion and the shakeups and the loss of certainty and the cancelled plans. Just at the time of year when things should speed up and fly by for the kids, we are in an allargando. Time fattens and slows. They think aloud during their waking hours for school work and to process whatever is in their minds, and I don’t — can’t — ignore. I don’t necessarily have deep wells of patience, so I dig fresh ones each day because this a definitive moment of their lives, and I am the decisive element. 

Sheltering in place forces me into a singular role, although it’s not like Me-the-Writer wants to come out to play. Not only is Pandemic Motherhood the role that feels most crucial and most fraught, but the keep-it-all-going-for-everyone also fills the cushioned spaces I normally leave open for creation. Words drip, dull and lifeless, squeezed out by Motherhood Writ Large. Words have been temporarily relocated to jagged, loud places that happily tell me I have other things to do right now. Every so often the words rattle around and let me know they’re still there in deep catacombs, having a blast without me.

I feel like I should write elegies or grand comedies, prayers or laughs, comfort or release, but whatever would dislodge the words is distracted by the worry that this writing does not rise to meet this moment in history with dignity. 

I can only carry on with my strengths: worrying, knowing where my support belongs and placing it firmly there, fighting fear, carb loading, shallow breathing. My body can’t tell the difference between what it wants and what it needs. Sometimes I indulge in a walk and sometimes in fudge-dipped things. 

Always my lungs fill and empty without effort, although sometimes it takes intention. 

The world overflows with stories of breathing. Of life. Of death. Breath fought for, breath taken. 

My son runs to get me the bandage, his face full of concern, and it is then I let myself cry fat, laden tears for the first time in eleven weeks. My husband comes running from his office. “It’s too much,” I sob. 

That’s not the entire truth. 

The truth is, I can’t find the place where it’s ok to climb into a pint of ice cream and stare at the same words in a book because there’s no room in the mental inn at this point. I cannot look away or engage in anxious inactivity while the world struggles to bloom into a new normal.

I can’t handle the type of social distancing which tells me to be grateful, tells me it could be so much worse. This pandemic and all that creeps in its wake is nothing to be grateful for. Blessings are tucked inside this wretched disease and its greedy tentacles. Blessings are tucked in the holy moments of bravery. People are sick, dying, scrambling, time-bending, risking, protesting, resisting, rallying, fighting, stressed, scared, unemployed, uninsured, unsure, unsteady. The luckiest among us are merely completely disrupted. The rest of us risk the world to add breath to the wind.

My kids come running to the kitchen, my dam having broken now, the knife slice also opening months of jumbled pandemic thoughts. Yanked back into motherhood, I catch my breath in little hiccups, laugh, and call myself clumsy. My son brings me a glow-in-the-dark band aid, and the rest of the family takes over dinner prep. 

We have a lot to discuss over dinner, necessary ongoing conversations about life.

There is a moment between the cut and the pain. That is the place to breathe, and each breath is the blessing to count.

Jackie Pick’s work has appeared in several anthologies, literary magazines, and around the web, including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Coachella Review, The Sun, The Belladonna Comedy. She has received commendations from the Mark Twain House and Museum Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Competition and WOW! Women on Writing. Jackie is the co-writer and executive producer of the award-winning short film “Fixed Up,” and was a member of the 2017 Chicago cast of Listen To Your Mother. She is currently working on her first novel.