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Hi, loves. 🌿
About a year into the pandemic — so I guess a year ago now — I got away for one solitary night alone. It was more like late February, now that I think about it, cold (by LA standards) and dark and bleak. LA had been the epicenter of the virus for the previous few months, schools were still closed, we were seeing almost no one. But this was a turning point: Biden was now president, vaccines were being rolled out slowly, and there was some vague hope that change was on the horizon.
That said, I couldn’t wait. Couldn’t wait for a vaccine, couldn’t stand being in my apartment for one more minute, couldn’t stand the same old routines, couldn’t stand making one more meal, finding one more game to play, taking one more walk. When the thought of escape would not subside, my sister offered me her in-laws vacant apartment an hour away and I fled.
On the nighttime drive south along the 405, I wept. Perhaps for all the things I hadn’t wept about for a year, perhaps because I was finally truly alone and would be for not even 24 hours, perhaps because I was just so fucking overwhelmed, perhaps because I was scared by my own impulse to flee, perhaps because I already missed my husband and daughter or maybe I didn’t miss them enough. What had my life come to? Weeping on the 405 as I ran away from my family for, like, 18 whole hours?
The apartment was perfect and lovely and offered me almost nothing. No wifi. No TV I knew how to turn on. I had brought coffee and overnight oats and that was it. I slept like the dead and in the morning no one asked anything of me and I stared out the window and thought, I should do something, but couldn’t think of a single thing I had the energy or will to do, so I went back to bed and took a nap. I woke up and listened to a podcast in bed with my eyes closed. I didn’t even read. I needed the world to come to me, to ask nothing of me. I was alarmed by how exhausted I was. Left with the chance to do nothing, I took it down whole, apple core and all.
I told none of my mother friends about this escape. I felt too bad. Guilty, even. Here we all were, trapped and stressed and managing work and at-home school with small children bouncing off the walls for the second year in a hellish row, and I’d found an escape hatch for a night. I had run away and allowed myself to feel my grief and my tiredness and my need for solitude.
I should say it replenished me, but the truth is that I needed so many more nights. One felt like the tip of some iceberg that went so far below the surface of the water I was afraid to dive under and see its contours. One night was, of course, something. It was precious and I was eternally grateful. But it was nowhere near enough to make up for all I’d lost over the last year: time, energy, sleep, will, ambition, creativity, resilience, play, depth, silence, flow. The proverbial tank was flashing empty and had been for so long. One night had given me back a drop, but I was so much thirstier than this. To demand more felt selfish and unfair and greedy.
Of course I could return to my life and all its joys and complications and obligations. Of course I could handle it, and I would. I did.
I’m thinking about this now, a year on, because I got another one of those nights this weekend, but at my own apartment this time, which is almost better. My husband sensed that I was about to blow and he lovingly, quietly, without fanfare, whisked himself and our daughter away. And once again, alone — no obligations to cook or care for anyone, to keep tabs on the time or the endless, round-robin tasks, or fight with anyone about anything — I felt my utter and complete exhaustion from keeping those balls suspended in air for yet another year of living in this utterly ridiculous, high-alert way. Again, I longed for more, more, more. More nothingness, more space, more of myself alone.
Perhaps what keeps so many of us going at this pace is never having a moment to feel how hard it all is. Because once you let yourself stop, how do you possibly rev up the engine again? Why would you want to? Who wants to stand there with her hands forever open, arms tensed, eyes locked on balls flying into her palms?
And yet, sitting here, alone, with my coffee and my silent home and the birds actually chirping outside the window, and the ability to take a moment to just stare off into space — this all feels necessary. Well, honestly, it feels luxurious, but should it? Should being alone with my thoughts and no thoughts at all without interruption for less than 24 hours feel special? How have I — how have so many of us caretakers — pushed these vital moments of nothingness to the very edges of our lives and deemed them luxurious rather than vital?
These moments of aloneness feel radical — and radically necessary — because they finally allow us to recall and experience ourselves as a people. Not as a mother, not as a wife, not as The Enabler of Other People’s Lives. Does this sound stupid to say? It certainly feels odd to point out something so obvious, but it feels like it gets forgotten when meals and clean clothing and playdates just appear.
I had an odd flash this weekend — these are the things you think about when you have time — of wondering whether my old friends see me differently than my newer friends do. This question came to me in the context of pondering whether, perhaps, only my oldest friends know me well, truly know me. But why did I think that? And did I really believe that? And I think it was about this very thing: those friends of yore knew me only as me, not as someone’s wife, someone’s mother. They knew me as a person.
I don’t want to run away. I adore my family and the life we’ve made together. The best definition of self-care I ever heard was building a life you don’t feel the need to escape from. But what does that actually look like in the world we live in now, pandemic receding and then reemerging, normal life starting up and coming to a halt again, endless logistics to work through, both partners working and stressed and needy, our vigilance on overdrive? How can I build a life that I don’t feel the need to run from once a year?
Maybe the answer is to build in the running, the escape, and not see it as an escape so much as a breath, a deep one, a necessary one, part of the routine. A touching back in to the self. I know mothers who spend a night alone every month, every few months, just to come back to themselves. Or, even better, perhaps those breaths can be worked into life on the ground — equal distribution of labor and all that. That old song from the 1970s that so few families have actually learned to sing in harmony (and the government has done nothing to support). But I don’t think someone else doing the dishes — as happens around here — keeps us from wanting some time away. And, more to the point, perhaps it shouldn’t.
Maybe it’s okay to acknowledge that we all need the space once in a while. We need the getaway. We need a moment to, as a character in Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Days” does, just sit on the bed and contemplate what we want to do next. “Back at home,” she writes, “I sit down on the neatly made bed. I put my hands over my ears and shut my eyes to clear my mental field.” A small voice tells her what to do: she wants to eat, so she takes herself to lunch. That simple. But she needs the space to identify something from deep within. To even start to know what comes next.
How often do we even allow ourselves a breath to ask: what do I need? And can I give myself that?
ALL THE THINGS
I am having the most wonderful escape with Kate Spencer’s In a New York Minute. This frightening piece by Anne Helen Peterson. “In Turning Red, I Finally Saw Myself Reflected in a Main Character.” “How One New York City Restaurant Fought to Survive.” Did you watch Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings? (Here are just her beautiful remarks; will never get over her husband’s Marty Ginsberg vibes, sobbing behind her in pride.) Anita Hill on the Supreme Court’s future. This interview with Dr. Aliza Pressman about how to talk to kids about war was so helpful.