• Clean Hands Save Lives

    I was a child, just a child, when I started to worry about adult truths, when my bleeding heart began to beat for the tragedies of the world, and when I first started scrubbing my hands raw until they cracked and bled. 

    I was a child, just a child, when I figured out it wasn’t a good idea for me to watch the late-night broadcast news, when I learned to escape inside books to recoil from worldly atrocities, and when I had my first anxiety attack.

    I was a child, just a child, when sleep first eluded me, when insomnia grew stronger than my prayers, and when vivid nightmares recurred: of realizing I forgot to attend math class all semester long, of werewolves hiding behind curtains with their furry feet sticking out in wait, of enormous tsunami waves rolling in and washing the earth away. 

    Empath [em-path] Empaths understand the mental or emotional states of others in a way that defies conventional science and psychology. Empaths have the ability to sense the feelings, thoughts, and energies of people, plants, animals, places, or objects. … Empaths often experience stress or illness if they are bombarded by too many negative emotions. (Source: American Empath Association)

    Since the pandemic hit, I’ve had nightmares. I wake before the traumatic event resolves and ponder whether I should write these unnerving dreams down in a journal. I never commit to the process. I’d rather forget the sordid scenes my mind’s eye conjures up in the twilight. Lately, my subconscious seems to be fixated on ominous animal species and becoming stuck.

    The most terrifying of my COVID-19 dreams felt more like a hallucination and starred a ferocious snake—an enormous, jewel-green eyed one of muscular form, thick and gargantuan, with elongated, razor-sharp fangs. The dream begins when I’m alone in my house and the ominous screams of a child stop me in my tracks. To the depths of my soul, I know the frightened, shrieking child is one of my own. 

    Dashing out the front door, I hurdle my triad of rosebushes and break into a full sprint toward the torturous cry. The spooky shrill is heightening in decibels and desperation, calling out to me like a beacon, a siren alerting me to action. The reason for the desperate howl unfolds as I witness my oldest son wound tightly in the grips a colossal constrictor snake. He makes one failed attempt after another to wiggle free. 

    Scared, stuck, struggling to breathe, he spies me and squeaks out, “MOM! HELP!” 

    Body frozen, I am stuck in cement as I witness the horror of my son nearing his death. The demonic snake shimmies and shakes my firstborn as his tormenting eyes fixate on mine. I realize this reptile has emerged straight from the pit of hell to ruin me, and feel as if I’m dying alongside my son. Out of nowhere, a neighbor emerges with a gun, army-crawling toward the underbelly of the snake. With precision, he pulls back the trigger of his pistol and aims it at the serpent as I squeeze my eyes shut and pray. 

    Shocked by the piercing of metal shot through his scaled reptilian form, the snake lurches in such painful hysterics he releases his life-ending hold on my son. Filled with uncontrollable rage, the constrictor now lunges toward me where I remain stranded, alone. He opens his jaws so wide I can see straight down to his empty stomach. Swiftly, this evil species takes my whole head inside his filthy mouth, sinks his poisonous teeth into my neck and the back of my skull, and attempts to swallow me whole. 

    Before my fate is known, I am awake and screaming loudly. Drenched in sweat, heart-pounding, and panting in the dawn light hour, my husband rubs my back with care as tears stream down my face. I drink from the Kleen Kanteen on my bedside table before making my way to the bathroom to splash cool water over my face and lather soap between my hands. I scrub my palms repeatedly until my skin is shiny, pink, raw, exposed. 

    If serpents have started appear more frequently in your dreams as of late, you’re not alone. “I have found snakes, and in particular, snake bites a very common dream symbol lately,” Loewenberg told the Cut, which she believes is due to the venomous nature of snakes. “These days, it seems the collective subconscious is giving this virus the form of a snake because it literally is poisonous and we all want to avoid getting bit by it,” she continued. (Source: The Cut)

    It’s 5:00 AM on September 30th—the morning after the Presidential Debate—and I’m jolted awake from another terrible dream. This time, my husband and I are sitting, transfixed, watching a documentary about the rise and fall of the Great Lakes. The narrator informs us the video was captured over five decades of filming the same spot on Lake Michigan. My husband aims the remote at the screen to increase the volume. Instead of increased sound, the waters of Lake Michigan rise and spill forth from the edges of the T.V. rapidly filling the entire first floor of our home. 

    “Turn it down! Turn it off! Make it stop!” I scream to my husband. 

    “I can’t! It’s not working! It’s stuck!” my husband yells back. 

    In a flash flood, we are lost to one another, underwater, gone. Desperately, I search for my husband in the murky water as my lungs fill with salt-free liquid. Before I succumb to my fate, I wake up, gasping for air. 

    To dream that you are drowning indicates that you are feeling overwhelmed by emotions. … To dream that your house is flooded suggests that you are becoming overwhelmed by your emotions. (Source: Dream Moods )

    I’m at the kitchen sink, scouring pots and pans when my youngest daughter shares a recent dream. She and her schoolmates are eating lunch in their classroom, per COVID school policy. Two boys sit down beside her. 

     “What are you eating? she asks. 

    “Peanut butter and jelly,” one boy replies. 

    “You can’t eat here. I’m allergic to peanut butter and all nuts,” my daughter responds with urgency. 

     “She’s right. You can’t be near her. She has food allergies,” a teacher says.

    In an act of defiance, the boy leans over and smears peanut butter all over my daughter. Instantly, red bumps form, the hives spread, the swelling begins. Nobody will help her, so she tries to convince herself she’ll be alright. Then, she is back home, wanting to hide. She knows if I see the allergic reaction I will administer the Epi-pen. She fears what’s coming but knows her life depends on that shot. 

    Putting on a brave face, she states, “Then I woke up.”

    I pull her into my arms and let the tears fall. Once she is calm and I am relatively calm, I return to the kitchen sink where I fiercely pump soap into my hands and silently recall, “Clean hands save lives, says the CDC.” Though, what cleanses the persistent fear?

    Lather, scrub, rinse, repeat. 

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  • I Am Not Writing

    I am not writing

    I am not writing.

    I am wiping down the counter again. I am feeding the dog, I am putting clean dishes away. I am checking the clock, checking my child’s schedule, and then checking if my child is in front of his computer upstairs.

    I am not writing. I am eating another Oreo cookie. I am searching job postings using keywords that sound like things I once did or might know how to do. I am feeling a panic like bees in my chest as I determine there are no jobs I am qualified for. I am entertaining the notion that there is no job I will ever be qualified for again. I am shutting my laptop.

    I am not writing. I am taking the dog for a walk. I am saying hello to my neighbor. “How’s it going?” they ask. “Oh, you know, it’s going!” I say from the other side of the street. I am counting my steps with the device on my wrist. I am comparing the steps I took against the calories in the cookies I ate. I am eating another cookie. I am taking the dog out again.

    I am not writing. I am cajoling my younger son to do his math homework. I am stage-whisperscreaming at him to not scream as he runs past his brother’s closed door, away from the math homework. I am apologizing to the brother, my older son, who sticks his head out the door and asks “Can he NOT SCREAM while I’m in class?”

    I am not writing. I am circling the house, picking up dirty socks, picking up probably-used masks. I am carrying a bundle of socks and underwear and masks down the hall and dropping them in the washing machine. I am taking the clean clothes out of the dryer, the same five sets of clothes each of us have been wearing for the last six months.

    I am not writing. I am yelling.
    I am yelling about the dirty socks, and the shoes left in front of the refrigerator, and the granola bar wrappers on the floor.
    I am yelling up the stairs: “Get on your Zoom meeting!”
    I am yelling through the bedroom door: “Get off your tablet, that is enough screen time!”
    I am yelling from the front steps: “Come outside, it’s a beautiful day. You’re not going to spend it playing video games!”
    I am yelling into the yard: “Guys, no playing football, please! Only one person on the trampoline, please!” “Keep six feet between you and your friend, please! Do you need a mask?”

    I am not writing. I am thinking about what to make for dinner tonight, rifling through the refrigerator for ingredients I could put together into something everyone would eat. I am adding the ingredients we don’t have to a list. I am heating up hotdogs for lunch, again, and when that is done, I am checking my purse for hand sanitizer and going to the store to buy the things on the list. To buy more Oreos. To buy more hotdogs. To buy more hand sanitizer.

    I am not writing. I am scrolling Twitter, always. I am posting funny memes on Facebook and saying “Because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.” I am crying. I am reading the news; I am raging. I am mentally composing searing rebuttals to science-deniers. I am fantasizing about compelling arguments, pithy retorts. I am receiving texts from my sister, from friends.

    “This is hell,” they say,
    “WTF?” they say. “Can you believe this asshole?” they say.
    “I know,” I text back. “OMG, I know.”

    But I am not writing.

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  • The Case for Becoming a Quarantine Knitter

    the case for becoming a quarantine knitter

    I began knitting in college.  This was in the mid 80’s, before knitting became cool and funky.

    Knitting was for grandmothers, but I was drawn to the soothing presence of knitters in my dorm who remained calm during even the most heated floor meetings.  They sat there, smiling benevolently while clicking away on their needles, occasionally offering rational, compassionate advice.  I wanted to join them, and so I did.  During those years, I made nothing of any significance, just an unwieldy uneven swatch of garter stitch, but it didn’t matter.

    Knitting, the process, brought me peace. 

    For the next 30 years, I knitted off and on, picking it up and dropping it again. I managed to make some things.

    This past November, after another hiatus, I picked up my needles again.  I can’t remember why, but I do know this time was different. I knitted with a ferocious intensity, every night before I went to bed, during the day when I needed a break from grading essays, in the car when I waited in the school parking lot to pick up my youngest from wrestling practice.  Within a three-month period, I produced multiple scarves, hats, and headbands for the people in my life.  I read books about knitting.  I surfed the internet for patterns. I joined an online knitting community. 

    In February, while other people were stocking up on water and toilet paper, I was stocking up on yarn. 

    Again, I wasn’t sure why except that I was suddenly in love with the many textures of yarn. I drooled over colors.  I learned I loved bamboo needles. 

    My family members, colleagues, friends teased me.  Why suddenly, was I obsessed with knitting?

    I had no answer, but now I understand.  I was preparing for Quarantine. 

    I am ashamed to admit I was blindsided by the shutdown. On a seemingly random March Tuesday, a student ran into my office, frantic that Harvard had shutdown.  Would we go next?  She didn’t want to take classes online.

    “Oh no, that won’t happen,” I said.  Two days later, it happened.  

    And then my days exploded. 

    Pre-quarantine, I hadn’t ignored teaching technology or our university’s online classroom management system.  I posted assignments and readings.  I bombarded my students with announcements and reminders.  Students uploaded their essays, and I graded them and reposted them with typed comments (since my handwriting is atrocious). However, while I understand the appeal for many, I never aspired to teach an entire class online I am old-fashioned, a Luddite, a classroom teacher who thrives on eye contact, syncing brainwaves and the energy in a physical classroom.  I don’t know how to do what I do in a class that only meets online.  

    Then suddenly I had to learn, and that learning while teaching took time. 
    I didn’t know I could fit more into twenty-four hours, but suddenly I was spending at least ten hours a day online but not continuous hours.  I ran back and forth from the computer to feed my teenagers, to console them, to help them manage their online coursework.  I ran loads of laundry, picked up cups and plates and dirty socks mushrooming around the hours. I went foraging into the grocery stores looking for the toilet paper that I hadn’t bothered to buy earlier.  

    And then I worried.  I worried not just about my family but about those who live alone, those who lost their jobs, those without emotional, medical, financial resources.  I worried about those locked at home in abusive situations. I worried about those stuck in dormitories who could not go home or had no home to go to.

    I could not and cannot think about quarantine in silver-lining terms as a time of peace and reflection.  While my family and I were fine, (we had work, each other, access to resources), I knew we were privileged.  All around me, there was and is so much need.  My neighbor and I discuss this.  Sometimes it is easy not to see, and then when we look closely, we see that need surrounding us, threatening to swallow us all up.  There is much we can do for others, but there is much we cannot do, and that powerlessness, the inability to reach and help so many is overwhelming.  One might shut down and not try to do anything anymore.

    But that can’t happen.  Somehow, I told myself, we have to figure out how to serve and help while not burning up in our own worry. 

    And so I turned to knitting.  This was not planned.  I just did it.  My usual method of self-soothing – reading – has not worked as well during this quarantine, and initially I found that detail unsettling. Who am I if not a reader?

    Apparently, at the moment, I am a knitter.  

    Every night, after shutting my computer, I knit, and quite unintentionally, I have found myself knitting for others. I knit fingerless mittens for friends whose hands are always cold from chemo, a scarf for a friend who lives alone and craves hugs, hats for friends whose company I miss, a sweater for my daughter, as I anticipate the day, now looming (or so we hope, for her sake), that she will leave our house for college. 

    While my college knitting seemed to be about calming down, my middle-aged Quarantine knitting is about that but also very much about connecting in physical and emotional, even spiritual ways.  

    Knitting is so very tactile, an antidote to the overwhelmingly virtual world I now live in.  

    Knitting is connection.

    I knit for other people. If I make myself a scarf, it is because I am practicing, to make it for someone else.  In this period of social distancing, I miss my friends, my students, all my people.  I watch my children miss their friends.  That loss hangs over all of us. When I knit, each stitch binds me to another person.  I think about the person for whom I knit.  I put that love into something tangible, something I can hold. 

    Each stitch provides a moment of focus, on that person, on our time together.  It is so easy for my mind to race, particularly at night, scanning the horizon, moving from one worry to another.  When I knit, I can only focus on one idea, and that idea is that person I love.  And there are so many I love.  I am fortunate to have them, and I feel fortunate to recognize their presence in my life.

    I have just turned in my final grades for the spring semester. I am preparing to teach online, but just one class.  Our state, our city, is slowly opening up, but still no real socializing or interaction.  Who knows what’s coming.  What will happen in a second wave?  No doubt each day will reveal the effects of this crisis on those in our community.

    Aren’t we all bracing ourselves. 

    Meanwhile, I am still knitting. 

    Maria Jerinic is a contributor to and co-editor of Finding Light in Unexpected Places (Palamedes Publishing 2019) and a co-editor of Finding Light in Unexpected Places Volume 2: Covid 19 Edition (Palamedes Publishing, forthcoming).  Her essays can be found in the following anthologies, Cocktails with Miss Austen, 9 Lives: Life in Ten Minutes AnthologyKnitLit the Third: We Spin More Yarns, and in a collection of online journals. She teaches in the Honors College at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is the mother of three teenagers. She needs to knit. 

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  • If It’s Not Too Late

    As a child I would lay in my bed and imagine strange men knocking the door down, dragging my family into the street, murdering us under the streetlamp.

    I was afraid of this, but not in the way I fear spiders that dropped silent on their threads in my basement bedroom, or the sound of my father shouting. It was a weary, practiced fear, more preparedness than paranoia. It didn’t matter what I planned, I could hide in the drawer under the bed or climb through the window, I could fight and scream, but it wouldn’t make a difference. When they came for us, if they came for us, it would already be too late. I lay in bed, the imagined sounds of Auschwitz in my ears, and made myself ready to die with dignity if I could not find ways to flee.

    To get away, though, would obviously be best. But by the time they’re knocking down your door and dragging your father into the yard to put a bullet in his head, that time has passed. You have to make a hasty exit before you actually need one. That’s the lesson I took from the books I read, the stories I was told, the history of my people’s oppression. You had to get out before you believed the last moment was at your heels. I couldn’t understand how people could wait so long. How they could be so tied to a place that it meant more to them than their lives, their family. Could a house be so important? Could a village? A country?

    I am older now, and I no longer lie awake imagining the Gestapo. I lie awake imagining Brionna Taylor, sleeping peacefully in her bed. I imagine her waking at the sound of her door being knocked in, clutching her blanket as her boyfriend leapt from the bed to defend her. I imagine her feet, soles full of bullet holes. I imagine her lying back in the bed and wondering what had happened in the moments before she lost consciousness again, and I wonder what the paramedic dreamed while she waited in vain for the police to attend to her wounds.

    She was tied to Louisville. Her family was there. Her boyfriend, who she was waiting to propose any time. She had a home. A job. A life. A black woman in America, in the south, she must have carried the weight of constant implied threats everywhere she went. I do not know if, as a child, she lay awake wondering how close to disaster she would have to come before she fled, if she imagined Nina Simone and James Baldwin in France, free from American oppression but always carrying it with them.

    In any other season of my life, I would have spent the summer and fall protesting, carrying signs with Brionna’s name, with George Floyd’s name, with the names of the men who killed them, Derek Chauvin and Brett Harkinson and Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove. I would have protested in my suburban town, in downtown Chicago, I would have driven to Minneapolis to and protested there, I would have gone to Kenosha the same night as Kyle Rittenhouse.

    But in this season of my life, I can’t. With my husband morbidly ill with brain cancer, pulmonary embolisms, blood clots, a stroke, another new and terrifying complication and condition nearly every other week, I can’t. With my children learning at home, I can’t. All I can do is try to keep them alive and as healthy as possible, and stay awake with my jaw clenched, wishing I could do more, for anyone.

    Swastikas appear on synagogues and Jewish graveyards. The president goes to Minnesota and preaches eugenics. People in my local Facebook groups call me a pedophile for calling it that, and then call me a Jew bitch for getting upset  at their performance of caring about sex trafficking.

    It’s time to leave, I know that. Every fiber of my being knows that. There is still time to get out of the country, to go somewhere that might be safer, to get away from the rising tide of antisemitism, of fascism, of totalitarian violence against protesters, of the bigotry and racism that I watch kill brown and black Americans almost every day. Only I can’t.

    I am tied to this place, tied so tight that yes, it means more than my life, my safety. It’s not the house. It’s not the town. It’s not the country. These are meaningless distinctions.

    It’s my life, my circumstances. The details of medical care and education, friendships and family. My life is worth less to me than it was thirty years ago, it’s only a life, after all, but it is infinitely more complex, and it is tied to this place.

    The voices of my ancestors ring in my ears. Run, they say, because time is short, because I am watching the same patterns I have listened to my whole life, because it is clearly unsafe here. Only where is it safe? What does “safe” even mean, anyway? Where is safe enough?

    It’s not too late to leave, I know because we are still here. And if we are, there must be something we can do. Something to make it safer, or something to bring on the reckoning faster.

    I say her name to myself, Breonna Taylor, and my skin feels hot with rage over the injustices of her death. I hold my daughters foot in my hand, soft and small, and my stomach lurches as I imagine bullets tearing through, erupting past the perfect, golden skin. I pull my children into my bed and imagine the doors being knocked down, all of us murdered before I can splay my useless arms in front of my children, my blood soaking the bed as it did when I went into labor the first time, my blood bringing them both into the world and out of it.

    “No justice, no peace,” I tell my girls, and we light candles for Shabbat.

    “Black lives matter,” I say to them, “We have white skin, and that means that because of our society we have been led to believe we are better, that we are more important, and we have to look within ourselves for that belief all the time. All of us. Yes, even me. Yes, even you.”

    “Go outside and run,” I tell them. “The world and the weather are changing, my loves. Go run, while you still can.”

    Lea Grover is a writer, book coach, and speaker in Chicago. She published her first poem at nine years old, a sonnet inspired by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Her writing is featured in a dozen anthologies and textbooks, including “Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now.” She speaks on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.

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  • How to Stay Friends For the “Long Haul”: A Review of BIG FRIENDSHIP

    BIG FRIENDSHIP: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. A review by Nina Badzin.

    As a friendship advice columnist and a longtime listener of the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend (“a podcast for long-distance besties everywhere”) co-hosted by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, I was eager to read Big Friendship (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Sow’s and Friedman’s recently-released memoir about the ups and downs of their friendship and the need to take friendship as seriously as we take romantic and familial relationships. 

    In other words, I am the ideal audience for this book.

    Big Friendship, has the tagline, “How We Keep Each Other Close” in large capital letters. Readers shouldn’t be surprised that staying close takes work. Even the best of friends like Sow and Friedman have to fight internally to move on from layers of real and perceived slights. Reading about their real-life examples, however, could help people who are tempted to let a friendship drift apart when things get hard to the point where a friendship ends.  

    Sow’s and Friedman’s strong chemistry and mutual desire to become and remain close didn’t spare them from actually drifting apart at one point for a variety of reasons. If not for their willingness to work on their issues—in their case, in therapy—I could see a scenario in which they went their separate ways. I have an inbox full of anonymous letters for my column from people whose friendships are beyond repair. Many friendships do end, and at least one party is haunted by the friendship for years, even decades. 

    Sow and Friedman take us through highs and lows of their friendship and talk to experts who speak about friendship in general to discuss how at certain times the work to keep a friendship on track feels harder than others.

    I especially liked the chapters that introduced logical and helpful friendship lexicon to describe the ways we get along with those close to us such as “stretching” to accommodate others, but being careful to know the difference between “stretching” and “straining.” Shine Theory (“I don’t shine if you don’t shine”) gets an entire chapter. The term “Big Friendship” is its own special term describing a friendship like Sow’s and Friedman’s, one so central that drifting apart permanently is not an option. I could see some readers asking themselves if a friendship should be this much work, and it’s a fair point. The answer won’t be the same for everyone. 

    Big Friendship is part memoir, part self-help, and it’s written in a “we” voice, which Friedman mentions in one of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast episodes this summer was an interesting exercise in seeing things completely from someone else’s point of view. Some readers might connect with the memoir chapters more than the self-help ones and vice versa. 

    I enjoyed the details of how Sow and Friedman met then acted on their friendship chemistry to become more than mere social media or “friendweb” acquaintances. Of all the specific details of their friendship, however, I most appreciated the chapter on how Sow and Friedman navigated being in an interracial friendship, including the challenge of making sure the person of color in a friendship isn’t the one doing all the “stretching” to use Sow’s and Friedman’s term. I would have liked more on that topic and less details on their childhoods and work lives in the early chapters. I also found the parts about the pettiness and jealousy and complication that can happen in the “friendweb” particularly compelling as well as the challenges of chronic illness and geographical distance in a friendship. 

    As I read, I was eager to get to the part mentioned earlier in the book about Sow and Friedman going to therapy to repair their damaged friendship, and I do wish it had arrived sooner in the narrative. I fear some readers will grow impatient and miss the essential chapters. When we finally get to that piece of the story, we see that it isn’t a dramatic event that caused a rift in their friendship. More so and realistically for so many friend pairs, it was a build up of small hurts that added together made each feel distant from the other. In many cases, this is where friends drift apart, and I appreciated the pushback on taking the easy road of dropping a friend. 

    Overall Big Friendship made me think about what it would be like to write about certain friendships in my life from the-how-we-met, to the-how-we-got-estranged, to the-how-we-came-back-together (or in some cases, didn’t). Readers who have struggled to understand what it really takes to give platonic bonds the care they need to thrive will learn quite a bit from this book. Readers who know about that hard work already and want to feel affirmed in the time and energy they put into their friendship will enjoy Big Friendship, too.

    Nina Badzin wrote the friendship advice column at HerStories for several years before continuing the column at She’s still taking questions and is ready to tackle your friendship dilemmas. She leads creative writing groups at ModernWell in Minneapolis and reviews books on Instagram at @readwithninaB. You can also find her on Twitter @NinaBadzin.

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  • Shifting Normal During Quarantine

    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.

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