The summer days have been full of dry, suffocating heat. Too hot to do much of anything outside, our days have been packed with too much TV and not enough playing in the room filled with toys. I am suffocating under the weight of our new reality. After four months of having all three children home, I’ve reached my breaking point. We, rather I, need something to fill these long days, something to occupy all of us and keep our minds off the state of our country and the blistering heat.
Back in the early months of this pandemic, I was hoping everything would be back to normal come this time. I was looking forward to getting my preschooler and second grader ready for school, friends and teachers awaiting them every day and a few peaceful moments of quiet for me to read and write while my toddler napped.
The kids are fine. I’m the one struggling.
I have been stuck in a rut the past few weeks; my writing feels stagnant, and I’d rather scroll through social media than attempt to put pen to paper. So I am taking a writing class with one of my favorite writers. She’s having me read essays and dissect them, teaching me to read better so I can write better.
The first week, she gave me an essay by Jeanne Murray Walker called “Alice Munro: A Quiet Grace.” It’s a memoir essay in which Walker weaves her stage of life at the time she wrote the essay—raising a young child while attempting to write her dissertation—with the works of Alice Munro.
In Walker’s essay, she writes about the desperate need to Do Something Important, even though she wasn’t sure what that was. She shares the social landscape of the seventies: the Vietnam War, protests, and civil rights. “Calamity threw its shadows all around us, and it was not easy to figure out what to do,” Walker writes. “My confusion made me feel it was all the more urgent to do something fast.”
She goes on to say that losing her father at a young age made her understand the brevity of life. Here comes the part that has stayed with me: “the pressure for a choice, the high stakes, the bad odds, and above all, my inability to do anything to fix it, made me wild.”
This pandemic has made me wild.
I don’t know what to do, but I am coming to terms with reality: there is no returning to normal. Homeschooling my children is now the only option I feel comfortable with; add on to that, we are immersed in a toxic social landscape, which is a stark reminder of how desperately I want to raise kind and decent humans.
At the same time, I don’t want to lose the person I have worked so hard to become as I throw myself into this new normal. Writing brought me back to myself, and it continues to be a mirror, showing me who I am. I wonder how I am going to fit my writing goals into my already sparse free time. I need to see a finished product. I need to know I still have a semblance of control.
My writing time is early in the mornings and during my kids’ daily quiet/nap time. These moments of quiet are my saving grace; I am not needed or wanted, the thoughts in my head are not competing with the shrill sounds of my children. But my mind is tired. My heart is tired. I sit in the silence and wait for the first sounds of my children stirring, the sounds that tell me I’ve wasted this time and I won’t get another shot until tomorrow.
I know this struggle is not something only I face, so I turn to the words of Jeanne Murray Walker once again. Walker says that the stories of Munro, which are steeped in details of everyday lives, were stories that allowed Walker to make sense of her past. “That’s part of why they seemed to me bearers of grace,” Walker writes. “And there was another thing. Reading them didn’t merely assuage my impatience at not being out in the world, doing something—it also made me consider (and sometimes appreciate) the jewel-like value of the anonymous life I was leading.” Through Munro’s ordinary stories of ordinary people, Walker found meaning in her own quiet and solitary life. Walker calls these stories “a means of grace.” With social media, it can be easy to fall into the trap that I am not doing enough because I stay home with my three children, so I underline her use of the word grace and apply it to my own quiet existence. Within the walls of my home and the pages of my notebook, I am doing something important.
She mentions good writers move to where the energy is: “In the crosshairs of a story, [Munro] locates a person who can change.” A good story shows us a progression, how one person can change, either for better or worse. Throughout her essay, we see Walker’s growth, her desire and search for grace.
It takes me nearly a week to work through this essay, along with the prompts that were given to me by my writing mentor. In the early morning hours, I sit at my desk, papers, notebooks, and books scattered all around the small surface, and I try to write. My eyes keep traveling behind me to the children sleeping in my bed. Try as I might to keep my thoughts focused on the stories in front of me, I can’t stop wondering when they will begin to stir and my time here will be finished for the day.
I am on a search for grace during the quiet morning hours. Never an early bird, I laughed at the advice given to writers to wake early. I’d sleep until noon if I didn’t have responsibilities. Rising before the sun is just one small way I have changed my lifestyle to be a more efficient writer, a mother who can write in the margins of raising three small children. And, apparently, homeschooling them too.
I never wanted to be a homeschooling mother. The hours I sent my kids to school were, sometimes, the only time I could sit in a quiet house. As an introverted, highly sensitive parent, those hours allowed me time to reset and refuel for the second part of the day. I tire easily, and am overwhelmed by loud noises—it shows itself as anger. The sounds of basketballs being dribbled down the hallway, the arguments over toys, and the incessant need for water went out the door every morning with my children. Once the children left for school, I could exhale the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
“I don’t want to go back to school while COVID is here,” my seven-year-old tells me anytime the topic comes up. He wraps his arms around my waist and buries his head deep into my stomach. I catch myself on the corner of the kitchen table, attempting to steady this shakiness I feel in my legs, from his weight or the weight of the world, I’ll never know. I wrap my arms around his shoulders, caress his thick, black hair, and whisper “I know” into the air. I wonder whose fear he has attached himself to, mine or his own.
I sit at my desk, notebooks open and pen in hand, but my thoughts are miles away. I can’t seem to focus, so I change my scenery to another room. Yet, I can’t shake the voices telling me to do something. His fear just brings to my attention that I don’t have any good or valuable solutions to fix any of this. The need to do something is making me wild. I scroll through Amazon and find books on homeschooling, workbooks, sensory fidget toys—anything to reassure me I am capable of homeschooling—and add them to my cart. I spend the time I could be writing to linger in the aisles of Michaels and Target, searching for anything to transform our barely used playroom into a classroom.
When life feels out of control, I shop. I organize. I keep my hands busy and do anything other than write. I need to see completion. I need instant gratification. I don’t get that with my writing; it takes me weeks of thinking, writing, revising to see any fruit of my labor. I ignore the pull toward my desk, ignore the words stirring below the surface. I attempt to Do Something Important: prepare.
I control the things I can, like revamping our playroom. My anxiety is high as I wait for my school district to decide about fall. I wait even though I have already decided my kids will not go back in person. I write a schedule on the chalkboard in our kitchen, boxes with activities that need to be checked off. I buy summer workbooks from Target and sit with my children individually to work on them.
“You need to focus,” I snap at my son.
His eyes are filled with tears. “I just don’t know.”
I roll my eyes and point my finger at the section he needs to complete or the words on the page he needs to read; I know he is capable, and what we are working on is not above his head in any way, but baseball is the only thing his mind has space for right now and I am low on patience. I threaten to end his season early.
I believe I’m ruining them. I’m afraid they’re going to resent me.
My behavior plays on repeat in my mind. I change the scenarios and the ways I could have behaved better, ways I could have given my son, and myself, grace. When I am overwhelmed with life, I return to the page. But, I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to put pen to paper right now, and it shows in my attitude.
Instead of writing, I read books on homeschooling while I watch my son throw balls to his little sister, the baby splashing in the little pool in our backyard. Guilt and grace melt into one another with every page I read. I know there is a learning curve to most everything, homeschool included, I just wish I was one of those people who knew how to do things well right off the bat. When it comes to mothering and writing, I am not a natural; it takes a lot of work. I am always rewriting my stories.
I keep a book on homeschooling downstairs, picking it up in intervals and writing notes in the margin that will fuel an essay idea somewhere down the road. I soak up the philosophy the authors bring to the table: There is no need to strive. Teach with a restful heart. We know what our children need.
“It’s not that we can’t try and Do Something Important. . . . One has to peel potatoes and take care of children. One has to get joy out of those things. One has to enter this kind of detailed life of service in a spirit of love and forgiveness,” Walker writes.
I try to rest in this idea that everything will fall into place. Eventually.