Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 15

June 22

Today felt pretty normal. I’m still working from home, and my kids and husband are here all the time, but today my daughter needed less attention, and my son was in a cooperative mood. With school over, neither one of the kids is stressed out right now, and that contributes to a more pleasant atmosphere in the house. They spent way too much time on their screens today, but my son also spent a fair amount of time outdoors, and I managed to get my daughter to spend a solid hour helping me organize some art supplies and toys. I feel like this is as normal as it’s going to be for a while, and today’s rhythm seemed a lot more natural than anything we’ve experienced lately.

I’m glad my kids have the opportunity, for probably the only summer in their lives, to have a lot of unscheduled time. I can tell they are both enjoying it. We’ve managed to arrange several socially distant visits with friends, which counteract feelings of loneliness, and it is so wonderful to not be constantly rushing from place to place.

Without the pressure of school, it’s nice to have the kids around. I was very busy with work today, and we all kind of did our own thing, but at lunch-time and other points throughout the day, we had some nice moments together.

I remember feeling very bored at times during the summer vacations of my youth, and my daughter was expressing some of that today. But I also remember how nice it was to sleep in, or do creative projects, or just be carried along by the household’s daily rhythms of meal preparation, housework, or yard work. As a kid, summer was a time to see what grownups did around the house all day. Even though I’m not usually at home either, my kids are getting to see how my husband and I juggle our priorities and manage our time. I know they are noticing in subtle ways, and this sets a good example for them about what it means to balance work and home, and be a responsible adult.

I wouldn’t have chosen things to happen this way, but I’m glad for what we’re gaining from it.

June 23

A coworker and I have been tackling a tedious project that involves reviewing technical documents and answering a series of questions about the governance and fiscal management of our organization. When I realized the scope of the project and the fact that we would need to work together on this, I initially wondered how we could get the project done without being with each other in person.

Now, 15 weeks into working from home, you’d think I would have more quickly found a workaround, but it took a bit of thinking time for me to realize that I could learn to “present” in a Google meeting, so that we could look at the documents simultaneously. Before that, I was planning to e-mail my coworker PDFs of all the documents, and figuring out how we would make sure we were literally on the same page of each document as we discussed them in a phone conversation.

Instead, in about five minutes of playing with Google Meet, I figured out how to present my screen so we could look at the same things at the same time. 

I don’t think of myself as a techno-phobe, but this experience demonstrated to me that I am far from being a digital native. On the other hand, all of the creativity and flexibility we have developed in the last three months have apparently given me the ability to (slowly) find viable pathways to getting things done. As a bonus, I think my coworker and I were able to be more focused and productive in our video conferences than we would have been on a typical day in the office, where there are lots of interruptions.

When I stop to think about all of the Internet tools we have to help us work now, it’s really amazing. As difficult as this time has been, it would have been infinitely worse without these advances.

June 24

For the first several weeks of social distancing it seemed that nearly every time I was on a video conference call, my daughter would make an appearance to let me know that she needed a snack, or help with a school assignment, or she would simply pop in just to see who I was chatting with so she could say hello. Once, on a call, I mentioned sarcastically that my daughter rarely missed a meeting, and a colleague from another organization responded with the witty observation that my daughter was demonstrating impressive dedication. If only I could have extracted some work from her …

The novelty of the video calls eventually somewhat dimmed for her, and now that it’s harder for her to get around because of her leg injury, she is no longer interrupting my meetings (or at least not visually). I will know that she is well along in her healing when she starts popping into view again at the least opportune moments.

Meanwhile my son, who struggled mightily to focus with online school, and frequently disconnected from his Zoom sessions long before they were over, would steer clear of my online meetings. Quite comically, if he needed to walk behind me, he would duck down so that no one on my call would see him. If he wanted to talk to me, he would make sure he was out of the camera’s view.

Now that school is over, and he is in summer mode, he is suddenly the kid who is showing up in the background of my calls, and sometimes looking over my shoulder to see who I am meeting. More often, rather than speaking up, he is gone within seconds as he rushes off to play or watch a show. I suppose that now he doesn’t have to worry about me interrogating him about whether he is doing school work he feels more comfortable hanging out in my proximity, and he’s much less camera shy with my colleagues.

June 25

Some days my house feels like a three-ring circus, and today was one of those days. We had our HVAC guy doing annual maintenance on the air conditioner, neighbors dropping by with stuff to give us, or ask us to do, and a babysitter to play with my son in the backyard (this is an arrangement we have made for weekdays to keep him active). The doorbell kept ringing, which made it really hard to focus on work.

Fortunately, for me, my actual workload was reasonable. I was lucky to have a productive and relatively low stress week at work. However, several of my coworkers were having especially difficult weeks, which made them slower to respond to me, slowing down some of my progress. So it goes. In the work world, even remotely, one person’s lousy week can affect other people’s productivity.

Today was also the first time in more than three months that my kids and I got haircuts. Because my daughter is still using a walker and unable to bear weight on her right side, we had to enlist my husband’s help to drive us to the salon. We wore masks, and were the only clients when we were at the salon. Under the skillful scissors of our stylist, we all shed a few inches of extraneous hair. My son and I were both happy with our new hairdos, but my daughter fretted that hers was shorter than intended. I think it’s adorable (slightly above her shoulders) and reassured her that it will grow. I do understand the regret at getting a shorter than intended haircut, but given her mood of late, I am chalking my daughter’s feelings up to the general discontent she is feeling as a result of having limited mobility and socialization. This should be the worst of our problems!

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 14

June 17

Today was rough. I took off time from work on Monday and Tuesday because my daughter had surgery to repair her fractured leg. The surgery went well, but I knew I would be worn out and that I needed to be available to help my daughter even more than in the last couple of weeks. While she was relatively pain-free and increasing mobile last week, recovering from surgery has added another layer of (temporary) difficulty. While her pain has been manageable, and she has a good attitude about her recovery, I was still worn out today when I resumed working from home.

I knew that any progress I would make on work today would be slow and incremental, and that proved to be true, but I was successful in getting some things done — not too different from other first days back at work after a break — and hope to do more tomorrow.

At the same time, today was also one of those days when the frustrations of all being at home, invading each others’ space, was particularly difficult. For most of the weeks of online school my daughter spent the majority of each day in her bedroom on her video classes. Now, however, she is parked most of the day on the couch, just a few feet away from my husband’s home office. It’s not a sustainable situation, and in addition to being hopeful that my daughter will be able to gradually resume all of her regular activities, the rest of the family is beginning to feel that we really need her to be more mobile as quickly as possible so we can regain some personal space.

On the bright side, I am told that pain usually begins to subside on the third day after surgery, which is tomorrow. In addition, the surgeon indicated that as she feels able, my daughter can start to put some weight on the injured leg and to begin bending and straightening it a small amount to relieve stiffness. Just as I have since this working from home adventure began in mid-March, I am moving forward with cautious optimism. Things will get better in time, but the healing process feels long and difficult.

I know that everyone has their own sweet spot on the optimism/pessimism continuum for dealing with difficult situations. For some, cold, harsh perspectives help them strategize for getting through things. For others, focusing on best case scenarios is more comforting. As my readers will know, I lean heavily toward the side of optimism, but not to the point of being out of touch with reality. I am realizing as I think about my own thought processes (the very definition of meta?) that I am an incremental optimist. Rather than thinking big about all the great things that can happen, I try to see the little good things that happen every day. Soon, I tell myself, my daughter will be using her walker again without pain, as she did before the surgery. I know she won’t be running and dancing next week, but she will be stronger and more stable, making incremental progress to regaining full motion.

On the evening when my daughter was first injured, I could clearly see that she was hurt, but I doubted it could be anything serious. Within an hour or so, after trying icing, elevation, and Tylenol, I began to come to terms with the fact that something more serious than simple bruising had resulted from her fall. A part of me is still hurting that I didn’t immediately grasp what was going on. Clearly, no parent wants to deal with a serious injury because it’s awful to see a child in pain and, selfishly, it’s incredibly inconvenient to have to take care of a child who needs a lot of physical care. I am not concerned that we compromised her treatment, because within two hours, she was in the ER to treat an injury that was not life-threatening.

However, this experience is one of many that illustrates the pitfalls of blind optimism. When we calm ourselves in the face of difficult situations (my default response, rather than assuming the worst eventualities), and reassure ourselves that things are still globally going to be OK, we can’t ignore the urgent actions that need to be taken to address issues that are still quite serious. We are fortunate when there is clear guidance to responsibly tackling these issues. For an injured child, there are answering services for pediatricians and ERs open 24 hours. For public health crises, there is guidance about wearing masks, social distancing, hand-washing, and contact tracing.

Like a lot of people, I am fatigued by the necessary steps to combat the pandemic, and I want to believe that things will just get better on their own. However, the more critical side of me knows that there’s no denying the ongoing threat of the pandemic and the importance of continuing preventive measures, even if we doubt their efficacy, and even if we aren’t perfectly consistent in upholding them.

My daughter’s leg won’t magically heal, and COVID-19 is far from being totally gone, but following medical advice and daily, positive self-talk about optimistic news related to the virus will help us all get through this.

June 18

As some readers have surely surmised, the title of this blog series was inspired by the book “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s a book that had been on my “must read” list for a while, and I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. Because, if you’re going to live through a pandemic, it makes sense to have appropriate reading material, right?

It turns out that “Love in the Time of Cholera” doesn’t really deal directly with cholera, as in the main characters in the novel aren’t dying of the disease, it’s more of a backdrop and a metaphor. So, in that sense, I was a bit disappointed, and I was also disappointed by the love story that is central to the book. On the other hand, I was mesmerized by the gorgeous writing and the descriptions of a country that is presumably Colombia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with its complex social strata and racial politics. I also enjoyed the portrayals of deeply layered characters and relationships, though their colorful flaws also play to the aspects of the story line that I found disappointing.

As a consumer of literature, I was glad that I read the book, but as someone who also likes conventional happy endings I was disappointed. I was glad that last week I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on the book in the Bring Your Own Book club for my office, which met virtually last week. The group was part of the reason I decided to read this particular book, and it felt like a bit of closure to share my thoughts with my coworkers, whom I miss seeing in the office.

June 21

A brief update: my daughter’s pain level did indeed begin decreasing on Thursday, and she is now off pain meds, and slowing building strength and mobility. This is all a big relief, as providing care with daily activities is quite wearying for her parents. I keep reminding myself that we are fortunate that her injury was not worse, the surgery went well, and she is likely to completely recover. Really, it’s wonderful to know that she is not feeling pain, and it’s remarkable to see her improve a little bit each day. I hope when she is back to full mobility that we never take it for granted again.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 13

June 8

Last summer two of my coworkers gave me an orchid as a thank-you gift for helping with a project at work. I don’t have a great history of keeping plants alive, but the flowers were so beautiful that I really wanted to try. After a few weeks, the initial blossoms fell off, and for months, little seemed to happen. The plant sprouted some new leaves, but it seemed unlikely that it would ever grow new flowers. Still, it was alive so I kept watering it (or giving it ice cubes, as directed).

Then, in late winter, the plant grew a new stem, and suddenly there were flowers again. On March 16, when I stopped in my office briefly as social distancing went into place, I decided to bring home the plant. Even if the office were only closed for two weeks, I feared the plant would die. By this point I regarded the plant as something of a little miracle, and I didn’t want to abandon it.

Since I live close to work, I had walked in that day, so I hoisted the pot under my arm and headed home. About a half a block from my office, I looked down and realized that the flowers were gone. The stem had broken off. I back-tracked and found the flowers and brought them home to put in water. I was saddened, but decided not to despair. Over these last three months, I’ve continued to water the orchid, hopeful that it would bloom again.

Last week, my efforts were rewarded. A new stem emerged, growing from the mid-point of the original stem, and now there are blossoms again. It feels like a symbolic rebirth, and a hopeful sign. As an added bit of symbolism, as the new stem grew, forming a new branch of the original stem, the unused part of the old branch began to wither and turn brown. Its time had passed, and the plant needed to divert energy to its new life.

I don’t have to lay on heavy layers of metaphor to show the correlations to the times we live in. When COVID-19 spread, it laid waste to so many things we found beautiful. After a period of loss, social unrest, and uncertainty, new ideas are emerging, full of energy, ready to replace the withered ideas of the past. The plant is healthier and stronger than ever, as it has learned to adapt and thrive, despite its struggles. So will we.

June 9

The experience of social distancing has been an opportunity to think about many things, and has given me pause to be grateful for my health, my family, my home, my friends, and my community. I am particularly thankful that I have been able to use this blog to record my daily reflections (if only for four days out of every week). At the onset of social distancing, one of my coworkers suggested that I chronicle my experience, and I am so glad she did. I certainly did not anticipate that I would continue for so long, and because this period of disruption is far from over, I intend to continue. This daily exercise has been an emotional release and an opportunity to further develop my writing voice. Looking back on what I have written over the last three months makes me feel emotional, fortunate, and proud.

I am proud of how my family has dealt with this crisis, and also with my persistence in documenting what we have been through. In my late 20s and early 30s, while working for a weekly community newspaper, I wrote a monthly first-person column. In it, I shared general observations about life, Judaism, and my personal experiences. I received lots of positive feedback from friends and readers.

However, when I first set out to write the column, my editor wondered out loud if I would really have enough fresh ideas to fill a regular column. This comment both shook my confidence and also awoke within me a determination to succeed in the face of doubt.

It was not the first time I had been questioned about my ability to generate new ideas. One of my graduate school professors noted that I was not great at finding news stories, but that I did a thorough job of reporting and writing when stories were assigned to me. I never really set out to be the person who breaks big stories. Rather, I envisioned myself as a feature writer who develops in-depth stories to augment the big headlines. While I have learned to embrace my strengths, and accept my weaknesses, it still stings to be told that one is short on fresh ideas.

Similarly, I feared this series of blog posts would be interminably dull, with lots of repetition from day to day. While there has naturally been some repetition, I look back and am pleasantly surprised by the variety of content within my posts, and even, on occasion, the style and tone of the posts.

I feel validated that I have original thoughts to share, and that friends and family are receptive to what I have to say. Overall, my audience for these posts is small, but I am gratified that several people have told me they have appreciated what I have to say. Finding the words to express myself daily, and receiving appreciation from readers has helped me feel more confident in my ability to be original, entertaining, and thought-provoking. 

It has been beneficial to me to turn inward during this time, and I hope to continue building my confidence about the value of my own ideas and writing voice.

June 10

I knew it was a bad decision to stay up late last night, and I paid for it today. I woke up later than I should have, and spent the whole day feeling like I was rushing to catch up. Spending several hours with my daughter to get a scheduled MRI (to gauge the healing on her injured leg) only added to the insanity.

It was the third to last day of school, and while the last few days of school are always a breathless push to the finish line, this year has been the mother of all crazy school years, and at this point I am crawling to the end, burned out like never before. And I’m not even one of the students.

My son has a kind of Spidey sense for when I am frustrated and angry, which has the unpleasant effect of activating his own temper. Let’s just say that lack of sleep is not compatible with good moods for either of us, so this morning was especially challenging.

So why did I stay up last night? Because yesterday was busy, and when I finally got everyone to bed, I was tired and needed time to unwind and catch up on stuff. Before I knew it, it was ridiculously late.

This evening, to head off another cycle of this destructive pattern, my husband helped me get the kids bathed early, which facilitated earlier bedtimes. My “me” time started an hour and a half earlier than last night, so the potential is great for me to get to bed at a reasonable hour. So on that note, I will sign off for this evening.

June 11

I am finally sitting down to write my “June 11” entry on June 14. I rounded out the final week of school with equal parts exhaustion and relief. I am enormously proud of my kids, grateful for their teachers, and feeling released of the responsibility of helping to meet grade level expectations. Whatever they fell behind on this school year, my kids will certainly make up for in the fall (assuming that school resumes in some in-person format). I have an assortment of ideas about how to keep them intellectually stimulated over the summer, but know that many of those plans will fall through. And that’s OK.

We made it through the craziest school year ever. We did it. We squabbled and procrastinated, stressed out, zoned out, buckled down, and sloughed off, and now it’s over. Finito. Some of it was amazing, some of it was awful, and most of it was anxiety inducing, but we survived. The next phase of working from home with under-stimulated kids will certainly have its own challenges, but I have never needed summer “vacation” more than this year.

School, I’ll see you in September (I know it’s really August, but there’s that great song…). In the meantime, I’ll be eating ice cream and reacquainting myself with a little bit of laziness. 

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 12

June 1

Today’s back-to-work schedule included the additional responsibilities of helping my daughter with dressing, bathing, and toileting. I’ve appreciated in recent years that she is becoming increasingly more independent, so it is hard to take several steps back. On the bright side, I see daily improvement in her ability and desire to do more for herself, and with her pain becoming more manageable, I know this situation is temporary. One advantage of all of us being home is that I don’t have to worry about her missing school, or trying to figure out how she would get around school in a cast. 

The news outside our home is less optimistic. It’s surreal to see crowds of protesters on the news wearing masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. In places where they are maintaining social distance, that will help, but where there are thousands of people gathered together, even with masks on, there is a real risk of spreading the virus. This combination of a deadly virus and civil unrest is really toxic, and emblematic of so much that is horribly wrong in our society. 

It is encouraging that most protesters have been peaceful, and really beautiful that police in some cities have stood (or kneeled) with them in solidarity. However, it is scary and maddening that there is also rioting in many places. Destruction of property and endangering the safety of others is wrong and counterproductive. It is painful to see these events unfolding, knowing that rioting only further hurts those who are already hurting deeply, and does nothing to advance the cause of the protests. (Often, it should be noted, the rioters are capitalizing on the distraction of the protests and are not part of the protests themselves.) We so badly need leadership now to give us comfort and restore calm, but at so many levels of government, the leadership is not there.

June 2

Today was a beautiful day in Pittsburgh. Clear skies, warm sun, cool breezes. I wasn’t able to be outside for very long, but I treasured a few minutes here and there in the sun and air, taking a short walk by myself, receiving a lesson in how to play football from my son in the backyard. It’s a beautiful time of spring meeting summer, with all the advantages of each — long days, low humidity, sunlight that warms without scorching. I might be exaggerating a bit, but it was the type of weather that you want to breathe in, and wish you could bottle for a cold, gray, rainy day.

If only the circumstances of our world could match the weather. In less than a week, the non-stop news coverage of COVID-19 has taken a backseat to protests, riots, and an infamous photo opp created by tear gassing peaceful demonstrators. I learned in my days of practicing newspaper journalism that it is difficult to accurately portray public events because one reporter’s perception is limited. In times like these, there are not only events themselves, but events created to augment or detract from the main events. There are politicians spinning the news for their own purposes, and inciting passionate feelings and actions. At a time in which truth itself is challenged daily, it is more challenging than ever to portray unfolding history in a balanced way. And so, in my limited consumption of television news, I remind myself that the flashy events get the most coverage, even if they are not the most representative of reality. I say this more in sympathy with, rather than criticism of, those who have the incredibly difficult task of contextualizing these events. Historians will spill considerable ink in the decades to come as they analyze what we are seeing happen before our eyes. It may be decades before we know what all this means.

We don’t know yet what all of this will bring, but there are some important things my family is trying to remember. COVID-19 is still here, presenting all of the same challenges that it did last week. As we rightly grapple with how to make our society more just and equitable, we need to continue taking care of our health while taking measured steps to return to some of the activities we have been missing for nearly three months. And also, just as COVID-19 brought us together, and showed us our capacity for sacrificing and changing behavior in the name of protecting ourselves and others, perhaps we can approach the racial divisions in our society with the knowledge that change is possible, even though it may be inconvenient or painful. It is, in fact, necessary.

June 3

It’s complicated. Everything that we are living through now is complicated. I realized as I sat to reflect this evening that, among the opinions I bristle at the most on social media are the ones that try to oversimplify what we are living through. The ones that get worked up about the protests because they feel that criticizing bad policing negates the appreciation most of us feel for good policing. Or the ones who assume that their personal experience with law enforcement or race relations is emblematic of everyone else’s experience. Or the ones that apply a purity test to everyone’s opinions and actions, forgetting that all of us are frequently mistaken and sometimes change our minds.

It makes me sad when people interpret empathy for the experience of people of color with apathy for whites who are struggling. That’s like saying you shouldn’t help one of your children learn to read because his brother is reading below grade level. One person’s struggle doesn’t negate the other’s. Efforts to help one don’t automatically determine that the other will receive less support. In our fractured culture, we see our struggles in opposition to each other, whereas we are all affected by the same trends. Those with the fewest protections, whether of wealth, education, or race, are the first to suffer in a broken system, but they are not the last to suffer, and efforts to help them, if done correctly, don’t impoverish the rest of us. Systemic improvements have the potential to help all of us.

One of my Facebook friends shared a Venn diagram showing that it is possible for us to entertain complex thoughts at this time. You can believe most police are good, while also advocating for reform. You can support peaceful protest while opposing rioting and looting. You can mourn the death of George Floyd and also recognize that he was a flawed person. You can oppose police brutality while also recognizing that force is sometimes needed to contain violence and protect our communities. You can advocate for the rights of minorities while acknowledging that you may feel unsafe in certain neighborhoods. You can acknowledge that there are high rates of violence and incarceration in some communities, while also questioning if laws are fairly applied based on race.

You can be glad you can afford to live in a neighborhood where you feel safe while being troubled that others don’t have the option of living somewhere they feel safe. 

On a more positive note, you can be fearful about the unrest, the disease, and the division in our country, while being hopeful that things can and will get better.

June 4

First, a positive personal note: my daughter’s cast came off today, and was replaced by a leg brace. She still has many weeks of healing ahead, and we’re not sure what that will look like, but the brace is lighter and cooler, and makes daily life easier. 

In recent weeks, I have been surprised by some of my friends’ opinions about the black lives matter protests. Race and attitudes about race are not things most people typically discuss during social gatherings (or at least not up until now). When we like people and identify with them in other ways, we may assume that we and they also share attitudes about race. And so, when we find that’s not the case, it can be surprising and unsettling.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what has molded my attitudes about race, and I feel very fortunate to note that my elementary school education was significant, in a positive way, in shaping my opinions. I attended Piedmont Elementary School in Charleston, West Virginia. My family lived a short walk from the school in Charleston’s East End. We were a middle class, multigenerational family. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mom, sister and I lived with my grandparents in the house where my mom grew up. One of my aunts also lived with us. 

Piedmont had quite a few kids like me from families in the neighborhood around the school — diverse in both race and income — but a significant portion of the student body lived in a public housing project that was a short bus ride away. These students, and many others in the school, truly lived in poverty. The student body was also approximately 50% black.

Among the elementary schools in Kanawha County, Piedmont frequently placed at or near the bottom on standardized test scores. This had nothing to do with the quality of the teaching, which was stellar, and everything to do with the poverty and instability that students faced at home. From early elementary school, it was clear that the students from homes with educated parents and stable income, like mine, were more likely to be successful with academic subjects.

I wasn’t necessarily close friends with any of the kids from “City Park,” as the housing project was known, but through playground conversations and other interactions I learned a lot about kids whose lives were very different from mine. There were kids whose families couldn’t afford home phones (decades before cell phones made landlines less common), there were those whose clothes were visibly worn out or dirty, and there was lots of talk about feeling unsafe playing outside in the public housing complex.

A lot of these kids were tough, and many had little interest in being in school. The Piedmont teachers were amazing in their ability to create a positive learning environment and meeting students where they were, which meant dividing grade levels into different tracks to offer everything the students needed. Kids like me were in “advanced” classes, and others were in average or remedial classes.

I loved Piedmont as a student, and I look back with profound gratitude that I learned at an early age about the realities of living in poverty, and of living as a minority. Those two factors aren’t always correlated — not in general society and not among my elementary school peers, where there were some middle class black kids and plenty of poor white kids — but there is definitely overlap, often caused by generations of discrimination and limited opportunities to make life better.

Most of all, my teachers modeled for me the importance of treating everyone with dignity, and of understanding that life is not an even playing field where everyone has the same opportunities. Even though many of my classmates came from disadvantaged homes, I knew them as real people, not stereotypes on the news. They were just kids like me. For all of my life, I will never question the reality of the burdens of being disadvantaged, because I saw them first-hand.

I’ve realized in recent years that a lot of my friends, who perhaps grew up in posh suburbs, or attended private schools with little diversity, don’t have this experience to draw on. That may be why some of them are less sympathetic to the rage that has bubbled over in recent weeks. If they had seen what I saw as an elementary school student, I bet they would think about things differently.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 11

May 26

This week started off well because it started a day late. Having Monday off for Memorial Day was a welcome break from endless online meetings and appointments. It was also a particularly somber Memorial Day, as our nation reflected on not only the many thousands of brave Americans who gave their life in service to our country through the armed forces, but also the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. Just as our men and women in uniform sacrificed themselves for our freedom, the early victims of COVID-19 are helping to keep the rest of us safe through the medical and scientific insights that are being derived from their symptoms and care.

Coming into the week more rested and relaxed has improved my mood and focus. I had a productive work day, and my kids were mostly cooperative with their schedules. I am proud of all the effort they are putting into school and know this time has not been easy for them. I am amazed at the coping skills they have developed and recognize that they are strengthening a lot of non-academic skills during this time, in addition to keeping up with school assignments.

During a recent staff meeting for my job, we were encouraged to use our vacation time, as needed, even though our travel options are limited. I have always been a fan of the staycation, and feeling the relief of having yesterday off is making me think about when to schedule time off to be with my family without the constant demands of online meetings. We won’t be taking the beach vacation we had considered for this summer, but we can find other amusements closer to home that will help us relax and shake off the burdens of COVID-19.

We all need a break now, and whatever vacation time we use will not be “wasted” because it isn’t spent going to an exotic destination.

May 27

There are natural bookends to time on the Jewish calendar. The holiday of Purim is one month before Pesach (Passover), which is in turn seven weeks before Shavuos. After Shavuos, the summer unfolds with a period of mourning, known as The Three Weeks, whose conclusion, the fast day of Tisha B’Av, is seven weeks before Rosh Hashana. It all ties together and then begins again in an endless circle.

But, of course, no two years are alike, they just have repeating patterns. I find comfort in these patterns, and I have been thinking about social distancing and its parallels to the Jewish calendar.

It was a day or two after Purim when many of us began to grapple with the seriousness of COVID-19 and its imminent effects on our lives. Already on the holiday, some celebrations in my community were being canceled or scaled back, though it was unclear at that point what was precautionary and what was needed. By later that week, life had changed dramatically, with schools, houses of worship, and most retail businesses closed. As a result, the beginning of social distancing, in my mind, is indexed to Purim.

Pesach this year was at the height of the pandemic, with death rates peaking in many cities during the holiday or just afterward. And now, on the eve of Shavuous, restrictions are easing and life is beginning to return to normal. Every time it has seemed that life could go back to “normal,” we’ve had to cope with the realization that the virus will be with us probably for years to come. 

Now we’re all calculating our personal risks and comfort zones for returning to pre-pandemic activities. It’s not easy, because it’s not just about whether we ourselves get sick, but also how we affect others. It’s a huge responsibility.

Contrary to their usual themes, Purim this year was a time of concern and Pesach was a time of sadness and restriction. Shavuous has the potential of retaining most of its usual character, just with less communal gathering and more caution. Until this virus is no longer a threat, that’s probably how much of life will be — balancing normalcy with added caution. It’s much better than what we’ve been through, though not what we were hoping for.

May 31

I had planned to write an entry for May 28, but life — as it tends to do — interfered with those plans. On Wednesday evening, my daughter fell while riding her bicycle, resulting in a fracture below her knee. After a long night in Children’s Hospital, she came home with a full-leg cast and a set of crutches. Exhausted, I took a sick day from work, and focused on helping my daughter adjust to yet another “new normal” while completing preparations for Shavuous.

The 48 hours from Thursday evening through Saturday night were spent totally unplugged from the news, and quietly celebrating the holiday at home and resting. Then, last night, we were bombarded with news of our nation’s unrest.

At some point last week, I became aware of the horrible death of George Floyd. Like Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, and many other black men and women before him, George Floyd’s death was violent, disturbing, unprovoked, and unjust. I have been at a total loss of words for how to react to his death, and how to express my empathy for and solidarity with my black friends, who live every day with an awareness of institutionalized racism in our society.

Racism is not new, but I find its virulence of late to be incredibly disturbing. I am certain there were racist attacks by civilians and police in my growing up years, but we didn’t have smart phones then, so witnesses didn’t have the same power to document and share what happened. (A notable exception was the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, whose video-recording precipitated wide-scale riots.) As a result, most of us went about life with certain assumptions about whether or not the police used force fairly and appropriately with minority communities. These assumptions were influenced by our own interactions with police, which were in turn heavily influenced by race. 

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I became acquainted with the concept of “driving while black,” which means that dark-skinned motorists are much more likely to be pulled over by police for minor infractions, such as driving slightly over the speed limit, having a busted tail light, or simply driving an expensive car. Once pulled over, these minor infractions, or perceptions of infractions, could escalate to arrests, violence, and worse.

The ubiquity of smartphones in recent years has brought to light many injustices that in past years would have been quietly covered up, and has forced us to grapple with the fact that simply being born with dark skin in the United States places people, especially boys and young men, at greater risk of drawing the attention of law enforcement, whether or not they have done anything wrong.

This information is not new. There is a lot more awareness now of things such as “racial profiling” and “unconscious bias.” There are law enforcement protocols designed to prevent unwarranted violence and unjust application of police power. With all that is known, and especially considering most law enforcement officers do their jobs with integrity and respect for all, these horrifying events should be a thing of the past. But they aren’t.

I am haunted by the image of a police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s throat. I am disturbed that this could happen, and that anyone with police training could think that it was in any way acceptable. It happened in broad daylight, in a day and age in which we all know that any public act may be recorded. The flagrance of this killing is deeply disturbing. No wonder people all over our country, and all over the world, are protesting now.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 10

May 18

Yesterday I did a Google search regarding the supply chain and the availability of paper towels, which seem to be harder to find as the weeks go on, not easier. (At the moment we are fully stocked on the worst quality toilet paper on the market, which was all we could find last week, but we are dangerously low on paper towels.) I couldn’t find any news more than a few weeks old, but one nugget of information I found mentioned a trade dispute between the United States and Canada. Apparently Canadian forests are an important source of pulp for paper towel production.

In the grand scheme of things, paper towels don’t actually make the cut as a life and death necessity, but they are definitely second level on the hierarchy of needs for my family. If I had any influence in U.S.-Canada trade negotiations, I’d be groveling right now with the Canadians. Really, this is madness. (And, yes, I am privileged and wasteful, and I know there are alternatives to paper towels, but I like my Bounty full-sheets and someday I will have them again!)

And while we are at it, I continue to marvel at the greed and insatiability of the hoarders who put us in this situation. They must have basements and garages packed with paper products. Even if you were going to barricade yourself at home for a full year, how many paper towel rolls could you possibly need? It’s hard for me to fathom how it is possible to be that selfish.

As you can see, the scarcity of certain products, combined with limiting my shopping frequency, is starting to wear on me. And that’s not all. I’m worn out from the constant juggling act of working and schooling and social distancing. We need to get out, and have a little social distance from our immediate family members. I am starting to fantasize about sitting at my desk at work and being bored for an hour or so. At this point, that sounds like a vacation.

I am by nature a positive person, and I try to avoid complaining, but I felt today that I needed to vent some of my frustration, both to relieve my own stress, and to avoid painting a false façade of domestic tranquility. Even for those of us with the most fortunate circumstances right now, the little things in life are a whole lot more challenging than usual. I know this too shall pass, but not as quickly as I would like.

May 19

Shortly after writing yesterday’s post, I reached out to my sister for advice about paper-towel buying, and she told me she had recently ordered Amazon brand paper towels. I followed her lead, and should have a few rolls in my possession before the end of the week, and that knowledge has reduced my anxiety.

It’s really strange what we’re going through now, and how seemingly insignificant things can create so much frustration.

I’ve been lucky throughout this period of social distancing to be able to take my weekly ballet class through Zoom. (Shout out to Bodiography Center for Movement for being proactive in setting up virtual classes.) During normal times, when I have to get from home to the dance studio, I often run a few minutes late. I thought that with my commute shortened to a walk down the stairs I would be on time for class. But oh no, I am still frequently a couple of minutes late. This can be attributed to a lot of factors, not the least of which is my tendency to run late. But I realized today that there is something else at play.

With nowhere to go, and no break from our family members, we are missing the opportunity to have periods of transition throughout the day. When I drop my kids off at school in the morning, I typically have 5-10 minutes to myself before I arrive at work. This is time during which my mind can wander, and I sometimes think about items to add to my to-do list, or just have a breather to get myself into a work mindset, ready to tackle the tasks of my job.

During COVID-19, there is no time for transition. I go straight from giving my kids breakfast to answering work e-mails. One morning a few weeks ago, I took a solo walk around the block when I found it impossible to settle into my work day, but otherwise, my days are typically a blur of not only moving directly from one responsibility to another, but often handling more than one simultaneously. It’s exhausting.

I run late to ballet because there is no time buffer for travel from home to the studio, just as I have no time to organize my thoughts between settling my kids onto their Zoom lessons and hopping on to my own video calls.

My personal goal for the next few weeks is to create more transition times for myself (such as by taking more walks) so I have the headspace to handle my responsibilities more effectively, and to fortify myself emotionally so I am less impatient with my children. Wish me luck.

May 20

During this time when we are primarily at home, and when we don’t have access to many of our regular amusements, there is time to fill. Actually, I have been surprised by how little unfilled time I have had since work is as demanding as usual, and my kids need lots of attention. Still, with all that, there have been opportunities to do things we don’t usually have time to do.

Some people have embarked on baking projects (don’t we all have at least one social media contact who posts about their sourdough starter?), others have learned new skills, and others have tackled home improvement or bucket list projects.

I didn’t enter this time with any grandiose goals. I know from experience that “free” time is deceptive and is easy to squander, but it’s also surprising how much one can accomplish in little bits every day. On the other hand, with so much fear and anxiety attached to this time, I heeded the warnings that putting too much pressure on myself and my family could be psychologically damaging.

Like much of the back-and-forth about this trying time, there are strong opinions on opposing sides. (“Take on big goals” versus “just try to survive.”) True to my middle-of-the-road nature, our family made some progress toward modest goals, without adding too much pressure. Now that some of the fear is lifting, maybe we will conquer other goals.

I was moved by this blog post by Sarah Tuttle Singer, which one of my Facebook friends shared today. Ms. Singer’s writing is often raw and beautiful, and this particular blog post resonated deeply with me as it captured the gap between what we thought would come from this time, and what actually has happened in our home lives. She writes that she didn’t bake bread or do many of the things that characterized this time for others, but notes, in her poetic way, that she’s still here.

Unlike Ms. Singer, I did bake bread. On three occasions (so far), my daughter and I baked small batches of challah. We also baked blondies, muffins, cookies, and other treats. My kids both mastered riding their bikes, a long overdue goal. I spent some time reading books from my personal to-read list, though I’m a slow reader and haven’t had as much time as I expected for this goal. I also made modest progress in tackling some household clutter and doing a bit of gardening.

When I look back on this time, I may or may not remember those modest accomplishments. However, I think I will look back with pride on the relative feeling of normalcy in our home at this time. We have been so fortunate. This time has been sad and scary, but it has not been traumatizing for our children. They will rebound from their frustrations. They will have some catching up to do with academic subjects and readjusting to social dynamics, but they will be OK. They will still be here, ready to learn and embark on life’s adventures.

May 21

It’s been a long and busy week, and my kids’ tolerance for frustration is greatly diminished. As they tackled their school assignments today, one was resistant to even begin work, and the other worked so long and so hard that she was emotionally spent. Fortunately, the weather has been lovely and has been conducive to more outdoor time, which is exactly what we all needed.

I dragged my weeping daughter out of the house around 5:30 p.m., along with her reluctant brother, and we went for a longish walk. Along the way, they complained, taunted each other, and stalled repeatedly, but we got home with something closer to emotional equilibrium than when we left, and their moods at home afterward were more placid, so I will call that a win.

I read an article today about the severe lockdown in Spain, and the emotional toll it has placed on children who were not permitted to be outdoors for weeks. We are so fortunate that our “stay at home” order never had such stringencies. The ability to be outside is necessary for physical and mental health, though it’s often hard to convince our kids to go out. It’s clear that when they do go out, even for short bursts of activity, they feel better and ultimately sleep better at night. This is not rocket science, but sometimes as a parent, it’s good to be reminded not to just give into the inertia, but to continue pushing the kids out the door for everyone’s health and sanity.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 9


May 11

You know how the marooned passengers on Gilligan’s Island went on what was expected to be “a three-hour tour” and ended up living together on the island for three seasons of the television show? (I’m not sure how that translates to the passage of time in the real world.) That’s a bit how it feels to still be social distancing. We knew when we started this that we were in for at least two weeks, and probably longer, but we didn’t know at the beginning how long this would go on and that it would cause long-term changes in our society. Even as the Pittsburgh area is slated to move from the “red zone” to the “yellow zone” later this week, which will involve the gradual lifting of restrictions, we don’t know when or if life will eventually resemble what it was before.

Sometimes you buy a ticket for a short excursion, and you end up on a life-altering journey. That’s where we are now. Gilligan’s Island is a comedy, but other more serious works of fiction have explored the devastating effects of having our plans permanently uprooted, and of being taken far afield from our original itineraries. It’s deeply unsettling, and for some people, such as those in unsafe homes or relationships, it’s actually dangerous. 

I keep thinking about how we are living through history, and that our children, G-d willing, in the future will tell their own children and grandchildren about what it was like to live through this time. With the benefit of the passage of time, many of the aggravations and fears will be forgotten, and by that time, they will be able to look back with clarity about how this time changed our lives, for better and for worse. 

We didn’t get to choose this journey, or how it will change us, but like the good-natured folks of Gilligan’s Island, hopefully we can continue finding small amusements and every day pleasures to distract us until we are able to return to our former plans in life. And hopefully, we can continue to draw strength, hope, and humor from each other to pull ourselves through this time.

May 12

It’s only mid-May, but today I counted the number of school days left until summer break. I am not usually anxious for my kids to be done with school, and truthfully, I have come to dread the erratic summer schedules and gaps in child care. This year, however, it’s helpful to know how many more days I have to continue juggling virtual learning with my work responsibilities. (21 days if I am counting correctly.)

My kids have had wonderful teachers this year, and I am so grateful to them for the remarkable work they have done to keep their students engaged with distance learning. A big part of me is sad that they won’t have any closure for their school year, or the chance to say goodbye. Fortunately, my kids will be back in the same school when it eventually resumes, and they will be able to reconnect with their teachers. For students who are graduating, the separation from their teachers will be permanent, and that is truly a loss.

On the other hand, I will be glad to get my kids on some sort of schedule that works better with the rhythms of my work days. I am hopeful that we will be able to connect them with some kind of virtual structure for the summer (assuming day camps are not able to resume). Whatever they do over the summer, however, won’t have the intensity and importance of keeping up with school, and it will be a relief to worry a little less about what they are learning.

On the other hand, the summer is a long time to have the kids home with no regular structure. They are likely to be bored, and there will be a lot more responsibility on us, and them, to keep them amused and prevent them from becoming totally addicted to their screens. Like everything else in these crazy times, none of our options are really good ones. I keep reminding myself how fortunate we are to be healthy, to have two employed parents, and two kids who have benefitted from consistent online schooling. I know we are in the privileged minority, and I know that many others are struggling more than us right now. Still, it’s going to be a long summer. 

May 13

When one of my coworkers describes one of her kids throwing a tantrum, she says he “lost his bananas.” I love that expression because it captures both the out of control emotion and the absurdity of whatever set it off.

Today, I lost my bananas. My little tantrum was set off when my husband innocuously brought in a package from the mailbox and ripped it open. The problem was that this particular package contained a skirt that I had carefully prepared to send back to the company from which it had been purchased. I had placed it in our outgoing mail just an hour before. My husband was remorseful, and I was able to patch the package back together and leave it for the postal carrier, who took it later in the day. All was not lost, but for about 5 minutes I was flaming mad.

This is the type of situation for which I would normally have the composure to take a deep breath, laugh at the absurdity, and move on. Today, however, my fuse was much shorter than I realized, and apparently I was one straw away from losing it. I apologized to my husband, and to his credit, he said my feelings were justified. It’s nice to be validated, but I would prefer to be more in control. Life goals.

The rest of my day was really quite nice. The weather was lovely. I took the kids on lunch-time walks (they now prefer to walk separately from each other, with me, for daily 10-minute jaunts, which gives me the chance to have more outdoor time and to talk to them one-on-one), and I even got an additional walk in later by myself. I was also very productive at work and made home-made pizza for dinner, which turned out great. In a lot of ways it was one of the best days we’ve had lately, except for the lost bananas, which reared their slippery peels again during the interminable avoidance techniques my children employ around their bedtimes. But let’s not dwell on that failed experiment in anger management.

So, in short, today was another day of predictable ups and downs brought to you by COVID-19. Excuse me while I indulge in something chocolatey and totally devoid of nutritious value.

May 14

On our lunch-time walk today, my daughter and I had a discussion about why it is so hard to keep track of what day it is. “Is it really Thursday?” she asked, saying it felt more like Monday. I tried to explain that it’s confusing not to have our regular routines to keep us oriented, but she pointed out that she is having school days and weekends just as she usually does, except at home. The big difference, aside from the change of locations, is the people.

Being around people in the messy environments of work and school is what keeps us grounded in reality. It helps orient us to time and place when we would otherwise become unmoored.

While this extended period of social distancing is demonstrating how much of our daily functions can be accomplished remotely, we are also seeing how much we miss by not being with each other. I’ve come to realize in recent weeks how important physical proximity is to maintaining relationships with people. We are missing the non-verbal communication, and the unrushed feeling of just being in the same place together.

While our strongest bonds to family and close friends are relatively easy to sustain through virtual contact, it’s those coworkers you see in the hall, the acquaintances at recreational activities, or the fellow parents you see at dismissal for whom it is harder to maintain bonds.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, I learned of the death of an older man in our community whom I had last seen at the grocery store several months ago. He had asked me to be in touch with him about a writing project, and I had made a mental note to do so, but never followed through. I hadn’t known he was ill, and because COVID-19 is so swift and unsparing, especially for those who are already vulnerable, he was gone within days. I was shocked to learn of his death. 

But it’s not just the people we will never see again, it’s the people we will probably see, but not for months. I think of the people I often see at synagogue services, where we smile and say hello, but never really have a conversation, and of the coworkers I joke with in the office kitchen. I have a fondness for these people, and I feel a sense of disconnection from them now. While all of life’s main functions are intact for my family, those daily, pleasant interactions are missing, and we are poorer for it, in ways we probably can’t fully appreciate.

So, it’s not just that we aren’t leaving the house, it’s that all of life’s wonderful, frustrating and unpredictable interactions with our fellow travelers are so drastically depleted. Every day feels the same because our schedules are not brightened and clarified by the beautiful chaos of being in proximity to other people (with the wonderful exception of neighbors and friends we see when we are out on our walks). More than ever I appreciate how important it is to be physically close to other people. I hope I will remember this feeling when the social distancing rules are lifted.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the time of Social Distancing — Week 8

May 4

In recent weeks, my kids’ bedtimes have edged backwards to the point that it is rare for either of them to be asleep before 9 p.m. They are typically getting up each morning by around 7:30 or 7:45 a.m., which means they are still getting plenty of sleep, just on an altered schedule. I realized the other day that as a family we have shifted back, more or less, to Standard Time schedules. If we had not changed the clocks in March, the hours they are keeping now would be equivalent to going to bed around 8 p.m. and getting up around 6:45 a.m., which would make sense for school schedules. This presumption, of course, ignores the regulating influence of virtual school schedules and other routines, and a tendency that runs in my family to be night owls (i.e. even on Standard Time we might be staying up later and sleeping in these days).

But still, in spite of my family’s general restlessness because of social distancing, I can’t help noticing that our altered sleep rhythms seem to be more in tune with nature and that, while I am noticeably fatigued as a result of juggling so many things at home, I am not as tired as I usually am at this time of year. I am not alone in noting the silver linings of living at this time, such as clearer skies, and more time to be with loved ones, and it turns out that slowing down our pace is helping my family recalibrate our sleep cycles in beneficial ways.

I know that it is more than a little preposterous to think that this experience will lead directly to changes in Daylight Saving Time policies, but I am hopeful that, along with evaluating our impact on the environment, this time will give us pause to consider how living in tune with nature’s rhythms can physically be better for us..

May 5

It’s the first week of May, which means we are getting close to Mother’s Day, to be followed soon by Memorial Day Weekend and graduation season, not to mention the Jewish holiday of Shavuous. Normally at this time of year, the weather is becoming reliably warm, and we become more carefree as our thoughts turn to celebrations and vacations. But this year is different.

In addition to not having public gatherings, the weather this week is unseasonably cold, with a chance of snow in the forecast for later this week. It’s like nature is adding insult to injury as we slog through this. But that’s if we take a very narrow view of things.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. That was at a time when the U.S. population was around 103 million. Today, there are more than 330 million Americans, and, as of this writing, the projected death toll for COVID-19 is estimated at 135,000. (More than 70,000 Americans have already died from the disease.) The difference in the death toll may be a reflection of the severity of either illness, but also demonstrates the advancements of science and medicine.

First of all, it is deeply tragic that so many people are dying from this illness (more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War), and we need to continue doing our part to make sure that the numbers don’t go even higher than that.

However, as harrowing and difficult as this experience is for all of us, it is reassuring that the benefits of modern medicine and technology, while not able to completely protect us from contagious disease, are doing a lot to slow the spread and help those who are ill to recover.

A combination of improved hygiene, better nutrition, vaccines, and better treatment for chronic medical conditions help us in 2020 to be more resilient to illness. Scientific knowledge and the generally widespread access to cleaning products (despite the shortage of disinfecting wipes!) help us to prevent the spread of illness, and Internet connections and video conferencing allow us to do work safely from home that we could not have accomplished even a few years ago. These advances clearly are not enough to completely stop this virus, or to prevent devastating economic consequences for millions of Americans, but they go a long way in helping us in general.

If we had to be hit by a pandemic, right now in history is an easier time to deal with it than any time before now. Until recent decades, humanity was accustomed to dealing with waves of deadly infectious disease every few years. Until this spring, we had forgotten what that was like, but it turns out, we are vulnerable in ways most of us never considered.

In 2020, we are isolated at home, and scared for the future, much like people were in 1918, but we have the benefits of rapidly advancing medical research that is saving lives. Right now is a really difficult time, one that most of us never imagined would happen in our lifetimes. However, our great-grandparents survived in a world where this happened all the time. We should recognize how fortunate we truly are, and learn to never take the absence of illness for granted again. 

May 6

To build upon yesterday’s thoughts, I don’t in any way want to imply that we are “lucky” that 70,000 Americans have already died from this illness, and many more are expected to die. The mass casualties of this illness have been devastating, and the trauma of coping with loss and fear during this time will reverberate for many years. What is going on right now is not to be taken lightly. COVID-19 is a vile disease that has struck in unpredictable and swift ways, leaving families bereaved around the world. We are simply “lucky” to have better tools to manage this disease than were available in 1918. (And, truth be told, many of the lessons learned from 1918 provide the best guidelines for how to deal with COVID-19 since the world has not seen a pandemic of this magnitude for more than 100 years.)

I only met one of my great-grandparents, because the rest died before I was born. In my younger years I didn’t spend much time thinking of them, but I find myself increasingly connected to them. One hundred years ago, my great-grandparents had school-aged children, as I do now. They were young adults, younger than I am now, with the responsibility for managing large households without modern conveniences. They lived at a time of World Wars and great societal change. They had resilience and strength, ambition and determination.

In spite of the difficulties of life at that time, they also had incredible joy and optimism, and their love of life and family is what is recalled most clearly by my parents’ generation, who knew them in the waning years of their lives.

Thinking about my great-grandparents now gives me a lot of hope for the future. Despite the hardness of life, they persevered and lived happy lives. This gives me hope that we will too.

May 7

When I was 37 years old, I had surgery to remove a benign thyroid nodule. Such nodules are quite common, and are not usually cancerous. My gynecologist, who discovered the nodule during an exam when I was 35, and ordered an ultrasound to get a closer look, told me that it was unlikely to be cancerous. However, she sent me to a general surgeon for a needle biopsy.

The surgeon, for whom I have enormous respect, grew stern when I told him my gynecologist told me the nodule was probably not cancerous. He would not offer such a blanket reassurance without performing a biopsy and knowing for sure what I was facing. I knew that he was right, but this shook me up. For the first time in my life, I realized that there was a possibility that I could have a serious illness. (Fortunately, thyroid cancer has a very low mortality rate and is less complicated to treat than many cancers. But still, cancer is scary.)

The needle biopsy came back negative. No cancer. But I continued to see the surgeon every six months to a year to monitor the nodule. When it grew, he told me it was time to surgically remove it. The removed nodule would also be examined for cancer cells. The surgery involved an overnight stay in the hospital and a week-long recovery at home.

I was very lucky that the biopsy showed no cancer cells in the nodule, and I healed from the surgery and went on with my life. I have looked back on that experience with gratitude for the opportunity to contemplate, in a very real way, the fragility of my own life. Several weeks after my first meeting with the surgeon and the needle biopsy, I learned I was pregnant with my second child. I thought often during that pregnancy and the early months of my son’s life that I was so fortunate to enjoy these milestones without the complication of a cancer diagnosis. My son was 18 months old when I had the surgery, and he came with me to my follow-up appointment a couple of weeks later. The blessings of my life had never been clearer.

I’ve been looking back on this experience now, when all over the world we are dealing with the possibility of illness and the spectre of death in chilling ways. Usually we go through life without contemplating our mortality, but really none of us knows who among us will be alive from one day to the next. One benefit of this very difficult time is the opportunity to truly consider the blessing and fragility of life, the time of whose end is unknown for all of us.

Chronicles of a grant writer in the time of social distancing — Week 7

April 27

We have been social distancing for so long now that it is both “normal” and also surprisingly hard to maintain. Because today was sunny and beautiful, our family went for a lunch-time walk. I was practically giddy, and the improved weather made me momentarily forget that we are still under the ominous threat of a pandemic. 

And, really, when I say I forgot, I just mean that COVID-19 wasn’t pervading my thoughts the way it often does. My family continued social distancing, just without the emotional weight.

Even though our society has become unexpectedly adept at social distancing, there are limits to how long this can go on. It takes constant awareness to stay six feet away from others and to remember to wear a mask to go shopping, and wash our hands frequently (though that last piece of vigilance should become standard practice, and should have been already). It’s human nature to become more lax about these things. While there are signs that the levels of infection are beginning to abate, we are still in a phase in which it is critical that we maintain necessary precautions.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of “corona shaming” (embarrassing those who don’t appear to comply with social distancing) is pointless and destructive. Before we began social distancing, I had serious doubts about whether a significant portion of our society would comply with official recommendations. However, with widespread closures, and public education about the seriousness of this illness, people have been much more compliant than I would ever have imagined. Yes, there are those who are not complying, and that’s not insignificant because every social contact can help to spread the virus, but all around the world, people have come together (by staying apart) in ways I could not have imagined, despite the economic and emotional toll of doing so. 

As for those who are not complying, unless you are a public health official or other person charged with enforcing social distancing, I suggest that, at most, you offer friendly guidance to those who would be receptive about how to social distance, call the police for truly egregious violations, and otherwise stop focusing your energy on those who are not doing what’s right. If you think about all the things that are going wrong, and all the people who are not complying, you will go crazy. As a society we are not going to do this perfectly, and no one ever suggested that we would, but in addition to observing the restrictions on our own, we need a certain amount of generosity of spirit toward others to help us get through this. 

April 28

I have never known real food insecurity. I am incredibly fortunate that all my life, even when my family experienced financial difficulties, we never had an empty cupboard and fridge. We never had to wonder if we would be able to buy the food we needed.

While I have tried throughout my life to appreciate this good fortune, living through COVID-19 has given me my first real glimmer of understanding of what it means to be food insecure. Because of shoppers who hoarded various items, when we have gone shopping in recent weeks, we have done so with the knowledge that we might not be able to purchase things we want or need. In addition, we are limiting the number of times we shop and therefore learning to be a little more creative in making meals and substituting ingredients that are available at home, rather than making unnecessary trips to the store. 

This experience has shown me how very spoiled we have been. My whole adult life, I’ve cooked with the knowledge that I can run to the store if I find I have forgotten an ingredient for a recipe. With rare exceptions for special occasions, I have never had to worry that the stores would have the things I planned to buy, or if I could afford them.

Living through COVID-19 in good health and comparative luxury, I can begin to understand the pervasive stress of not knowing how or if one will be able to feed his/her family. It’s terrifying. And those who are truly food insecure are feeling the impact of this pandemic much more brutally than the rest of us.

My grandparents were young adults during the Great Depression. For the rest of their lives, they were extremely careful to never waste anything, especially food. While I have always aspired to minimize waste, with the busyness of family life, I have found that we end up wasting a lot more than I prefer. However, one bright spot of this experience is that I am paying closer to attention to how much we actually need, not just what we want. We are eating more leftovers, and cooking smaller portions. Again, we are grateful that this is not a financial decision. Rather, it is a recognition of the scarcity in our food chain, and the importance of not wasting. Instead of making one meal from a package of meat or chicken, in which at least one serving goes to waste, on a few occasions, we’ve cooked half the fresh meat, and frozen the rest to prepare another meal. This is good for us, the environment, and our fellow consumers. I hope this new focus on minimizing waste becomes a permanent facet of our family life.

If you live in Squirrel Hill and are experiencing food insecurity, please contact the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.

April 29

It’s a beautiful day in Pittsburgh, my kids’ school has helped our family remember to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day today (Yom Ha’aztmaut), and we are beginning to see the first signs of the economy gradually opening up. It feels like hope is returning, and so I have decided to be radically positive in my posting today.

I enjoy the environmental observations of NYTimes columnist Margaret Renkl. This week, she wrote about nature’s apparent resurgence during social distancing. With fewer cars and humans afoot, it is quieter and safer for animals to venture forth. The air is cleaner, the sky bluer. Renkl is careful to point out that none of these positive developments in any way represent a reversal of climate change, but she counsels us to think about our relationship with the natural world and see what we can do to reduce our negative impact.

Thinking about this suggestion, I have realized that now is a great time to think about what is possible. What are the things we can do to make our environment cleaner and safer for plants, animals, and humans? While by and large social distancing has been hugely inconvenient and in some ways devastating, it has also shown us what we are capable of when we work together (even when we are working individually because we can’t be physically close). During this time, great minds all over the world have come up with incredibly creative ideas to help people continue important services remotely, and this same creative brilliance can be used to come up with solutions to our climate crisis.

Throughout this experience, I have been amazed at the resilience of humanity. Over millennia, the human race has learned to adapt to horrible conditions, and has survived harrowing experiences. We have learned from these experiences, and found ways to prevent them from recurring. We can do that again. It’s time to shake off our malaise of believing that we have arrived and achieved the zenith of existence. Perhaps we have in some ways, but we have done so at the expense of harming our beautiful world. It’s time to change our behavior, in ways that may be inconvenient and difficult, so that we can create a future that is healthier for all of us.

April 30

I find that between getting my kids ready for their day of school from home, helping them deal with tech issues, and trying to settle in for my work day, I have a pounding headache by 10 a.m. (My husband does too.) In some ways, adjusting to the routine has made it easier, but in other ways, the fatigue of multi-tasking gets worse over time. The last couple of days, I have found it especially hard to focus on work. However, I am amazed that at the end of each day I am somehow, miraculously, continuing to make progress on work projects, even if the pace and quality are not what I would prefer.

Sometimes I feel guilty about being distracted, but I try to remind myself that I get distracted plenty when I am in my office at work, so I just have to continue doing the best I can.

The roller coaster of emotions of this pandemic continue to fluctuate between hope, despair, anxiety, and frustration. It’s a toxic brew. While I welcome the impending, gradual openings of various services, I also worry about things getting worse again, and needing to return to social distancing. I keep reminding myself that no one knows the future, and not to put too much stock in predictions, but also to stay the course of continuing to follow the recommendations of health officials. Yesterday, I was feeling radically positive. Today, I’m struggling to stay on task. It’s what’s to be expected in these challenging times.

Chronicles of a grant writer in the time of social distancing — Week 6

April 20

As planned, I took a two-week break from blogging to focus on the holiday of Pesach. While I continued to do some work for my job, the majority of my efforts were devoted to cleaning, cooking, shopping when necessary, and celebrating the holiday with my husband and kids. (Last year I blogged about Pesach cleaning, and this year a version of my post was published in Nashim Magazine. I submitted the piece before the spread of COVID-19, and worried that it would seem tone deaf in these changed times, but in the end, I think the ideas still held up.)

While Pesach involves tremendous exertion and can be exhausting, it is also typically an invigorating and hopeful time. I love the traditional holiday foods and enjoy having a break from regular routines during what is usually a particularly beautiful time of spring.

This year, my family had most of the usual holiday foods, and the flowers outdoors were indeed blooming. However, the background knowledge of the pandemic was constantly on our minds. I was deeply grateful for an opportunity to disconnect from the news, and found this break to be restorative physically and emotionally. However, the holiday was missing a lot of its usual joy, and when it ended, instead of feeling buoyed and energetic, I felt deflated.

I know that the feelings I am having now are not just because I am Jewish. In our sixth week of social distancing, as we continue to hear about spreading infection and death tolls, this is a point at which we wonder if life can ever get back to normal. Almost more upsetting than the illness itself is the devastating economic toll this is taking on those who have lost jobs. I am grateful to work for an organization that is helping our community to weather these difficulties, but the amount of need created by this disease in our country and globally is absolutely staggering.

Over the last few weeks, I have been repeating to myself that we are in the worst part of this disease cycle, with infection rates peaking or plateauing in many places, with hopes that they will soon begin to drop off. There is a lot of reason to hope, but there continues to be great uncertainty about how we will move forward.

Even in these dark times, there continue to be sources of inspiration and optimism. There are people donating blood or plasma to help those in need; our medical workers show up day after day with incredible energy and devotion to help those who are suffering and dying; and low paid grocery workers continue showing up, day after day, to ensure that people have food to buy. 

Looking at my closest circles of friends, I was encouraged to see friends on social media cheerfully preparing for and celebrating Pesach even though most were unable to be with extended family, and some had to unexpectedly engage in the arduous preparations for the holiday when their plans to go to fancy resorts were canceled. I hope they found this richly symbolic holiday to be even more meaningful than it would have otherwise been and I hope that some of them, despite the tremendous work involved, will decide in future years that they can forgo the fancy resorts in favor of the simplicity and beauty of celebrating Pesach at home.

For me, Pesach has always been a holiday of simplicity. We are restricted from eating many foods, and learn to do without others that are permitted but not really necessary or worth the hassle. Like a lot of things in western culture, even Pesach has been affected by the trappings of consumerism and aspirations of luxury. However, just as so much of our lives have been stripped down to basics by COVID-19, I think for a lot of people this year, Pesach was an opportunity to return to a basic, unadorned celebration. It was still a time of festivity, but a more muted one, recognizing the times we live in.

When we first began social distancing, I must admit that a big part of me hoped this would all end by the time Pesach was over. I tried not to pin my hopes on that, knowing that I could be setting myself for deep disappointment. I felt a big sense of let down as the holiday ended and there is still no clear sense of when this will end. So, now I am focusing on redirecting my thoughts in a different way.

I remembered that when we first knew that we would be distancing for at least two weeks, I felt overwhelmed and wondered how it was possible we would get through it. Now that we are a few weeks past the two week time marker, we have seen that we can do two weeks, four weeks, and soon six weeks. We can’t do this forever, but we’ve already done more than many of us ever imagined. Rather than focusing on the big unknowns, we can tell ourselves that we’ve done this for X days so far, and we know we can do at least one more, and then one more, and then one after that. We’ll keep social distancing, and looking for silver linings, and eventually things will get better.

April 21

You know when you are a kid and you watch a movie about someone overcoming something really difficult, and you think to yourself, “That’s really cool. I would totally do the same thing if I were in that situation”? As a kid, you look at people doing heroic things and allow yourself to believe that you have the same heroic capacity. The thing is, they’re called heroes for a reason.

Even though I was a good science and math student growing up, I never considered a career in health care. I knew that I couldn’t do it because I don’t have the stamina to work long and unpredictable hours, tend to be germ phobic, recoil at unpleasant odors, and am not great at dealing with other people’s problems. I probably would have done reasonably well in the academic science classes and failed miserably with any practical applications of medicine. The world is a better and safer place without me providing health services.

This is my way of saying that I have great admiration for doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, nurse’s aides, dentists, dental hygienists, and all manner of therapists (physical, occupational, speech, psychological, and anyone else I’m leaving out). Even in the best of times, I couldn’t do the work they do, and in times like these I would be a disaster.

It’s important to know yourself, and troubled times tend to bring out people’s true natures. So I know now that, unlike the heroes who rush into danger and save others from disaster, if I were in those hero flicks of my youth, I would probably be frozen in terror or running the other direction. Because that is how most of us are, and that should give us a deeper appreciation of the greatness of those who are putting their lives at risk now to protect the rest of us.

While I have found out that I am not made of hero stuff, I have also realized, again, like most people, that I am more resilient than I thought I would be. There have been so many times that I have felt “I can’t do this,” and then I find that I can. Most of us can, and if we know of someone who is experiencing real psychological danger in these times, there are resources available to help them. It is OK to not be OK, because, again, the heroes are out there to help people get through this, and the rest of us have the responsibility of keeping our eyes out for those who are suffering, and pointing them in the direction of the services they need.

One of the most encouraging messages of the social distancing era is that the passive act of staying home is saving lives. It really is, and when you think about it, that’s really cool. A meme I saw said that “Your mother told you that you’d never amount to anything just sitting on the couch, and here you are saving the world.” 

So, while I’m not out there with my sleeves rolled up to treat people who are dangerously ill, I am calling any day a success in which I am managing to function in a capacity that somehow mimics normalcy and in which I am able to fulfill basic human responsibilities. I allow myself to periodically freak out or take a break to sit in a catatonic state when I feel overwhelmed. I know I’m not alone in this. I know I am so much more fortunate than many people going through this. I know this will not last forever, but while it does, I’ll do what I can to passively support the heroes in the thick of things, and to continue flattening the curve.

April 22

I continue to frequently feel caught off guard by my own feelings. Today, a minor disappointment made me cry. I let the tears flow, knowing I needed a release, and knowing that my reaction wasn’t just about the little thing that went awry, but more about all the concentrated emotion underneath it.

Times are tough, and one of the toughest things is that we don’t know when or how they will get better. And, in the meantime, we keep hearing bad news. The magnitude of loss of human life right now is mind-boggling, and what is more astounding is that even with close to 200,000 global deaths, the toll still pales in comparison to many man-made conflicts. Yesterday was Yom Hashoa, which commemorates the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews.

With all of this sadness, I have found it helpful to acknowledge that we are all grieving. The New York Times offered this helpful piece today : https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/esther-perel-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.

And, then, I read this helpful essay from my friend, Dorit Sasson: https://www.kveller.com/that-anxious-middle-of-the-night-feeling-its-grief/

When it comes to grief, the only way out is through. We have to feel the sadness, and grapple with it, so that we can get through it. And we will. It’s just a matter of time.

April 23

I have realized in the last few days that I am starting to feel more normal. In the first few weeks of this crisis, I couldn’t eat much, and I felt as though I were doing a lot of things mechanically. I was fearful and trying to keep myself from panicking. I still feel that way from time to time (including some whole days at a time), but my appetite is more or less back to normal, and, quite the opposite of feeling an artificial removal from things, my feelings are hitting me with particular force.

I think this is a natural way of working through this difficult situation. And, while there continue to be a lot of very ominous unknowns about this pandemic, we are now well into the period of not just anticipating what will happen, but reckoning with all of the illness and loss. 

I am also gradually coming to grips with the fact that my hopeful ideas of this virus being contained quickly were misguided. All along I have heeded the guidance to stay home, but I kept hoping that the restrictions were more stringent than absolutely necessary. Now I see that I was mistaken, and it is difficult to truly grapple with the enormity of what we are experiencing. It’s not gone, and it’s not going away quickly, and the responsible thing is not to rush back to the way things used to be, but to proceed cautiously and slowly toward gradual restoration, knowing that some of the things we miss about our former lives will take a very long time to return and others will be permanently altered.

Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer susanjablow@gmail.com

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