The Arc of the Present
Spring has turned to summer, and beyond summer I can faintly see fall. My older kid still divides her memories into "before the germs were here" and "when the germs were here," and I've just uncovered a new flavor layer in this everlasting gobstopper of a crisis. It's my first taste of "oh my god, this is going to change our lives forever."
A couple afternoons ago, I was walking around the block and talking to my mom on the phone. It was hot and bright, my feet were slipping around on flip-flops, and I was trying to explain to her our daycare dilemma. The daycare center where we used to send our kids is, currently, only open to the children of essential workers, and with safety protocols in place: fewer than ten people per classroom, curbside drop-off and pickup, and, I think, no mingling between classrooms, even outdoors. The state of Maryland announced on Friday that it has entered Phase 2 of the recovery—the phase in which daycare centers were supposed to be allowed to reopen—but Baltimore City is on its own timetable, and we're still in Phase 1. Anyway, for the full three months of this thing, I've been hanging on, waiting for "daycare to reopen," as if that would deliver our family back to the shoals of normalcy. But that morning I'd gotten some unsettling news, which I guess I could have known sooner if I had cared to find out. Maybe I was repressing it. It's that, even after the center reopens, every time a Covid case happens, the center will have to shut down for a prolonged period, probably two weeks. There might or might not be firewalls between classrooms, but with two different kids in two different classes, that's a lot of possibility for upheaval. (Also, the city could go back to Phase 1 at any time, if cases surge.) Refunds won't be given. And, of course, good luck trying to get any work done during those couple weeks when your kid is at home.
The news came like a smack in the face. People have been saying for months that life won't get back to normal until there is a vaccine, but I've been resisting absorbing what that means. Now I'm starting to get it: daycare won't really be daycare, work won't really be work, and a sure thing won't be a sure thing for a very long time. Since March, we've been talking to our daughter about "when you go back to school,"because it seemed inevitable to us that she would, eventually, go back to the preschool she'd been in. Only now does having made this promise this start to seem to me like a potential misstep.
This is the week that I've begun to think seriously about saying "fuck it," canceling the freelance and adjunct gigs I had lined up for the remainder of the year, and becoming a stat-at-home mom. This is the week I've heard about three or four families making similar decisions, where one or another parent basically takes on childcare for the foreseeable future, and the other keeps on in the activity that's bringing in money. In short, right now is when I'm starting to see that the Covid crisis is going to be something other than a three-month disruption that we all lived through, as if it had been a very long snowstorm; instead, it's something that's leading people to change how they live, in ways that'll become a bigger part of the story of their lives. It's going to be "your mom stayed home with you," rather than "you went to this really great preschool." It's going to be whatever the upshot of stepping back from paid work is, for me, if I go through with it. Maybe not something with permanent consequences, but then, you don't know.
Earlier this morning we finally got the long-awaited update from the kids' school. It's hard to parse but it sounds as if they're still only open to the families of essential workers at this time, or at least to families that are experiencing a pressing need because someone is being asked to go work on-site rather than at home. There is a prominent note that families returning to the school need to be ready for school closures, to think of them as a question of When, not If. Planning my life these days, I feel like I'm running through tar. Everything's slow, and thick, and gooey.
And, of course, this is just a faint and belated penumbra of what folks with less resources fewer experiencing. The uncertainty, financial ruin, and loss of things long worked-for are heartbreaking to consider. These days, I don't have predictions about how the crisis is going to shape life or politics in America—I trust it's gonna, but I've got less idea of how than I did on the day it all started. During my quiet, atheistic prayers at night, I try to take a moment to say god help us all.
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An earlier installment of this newsletter had a bout of success; it was published, in a revised form, as an essay on n+1, and then that essay was later quoted by Parul Segal in the New York Times Book Review, in a piece on coronavirus writing and the handling of time. You read it here first!
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