The beginning of the end and the beginning of the beginning
This was going to be the summer when I got it all back.
My discipline. My outside-the-house outfits. My social life. My friendships. Maybe I would even bring back a few of the traditions from all those previous summers, back when my kids were little — the strawberry picking and long gorgeous drives. Going to see bands playing in fields so kids could run free and adults could sip beer out of thin plastic cups. The thrifting trips, chasing rainbows and sunsets, and ferry rides across the lake to New York state. Days that contained three stops in a row and required lunchboxes and water bottles, sunscreen and hats, and a change of clothes for everyone including me. Maybe I’d even sneak out of Vermont, finally, for the first time in a year. I came out of the gate hot and although I knew I wouldn’t really do all those things or even most of them, I trusted that I was at the beginning of a gradual ramp-up to my new-normal life. Not nearly as busy as pre-pandemic life but certainly not less busy than lockdown life.
But almost none of it came back.
Here we are, at the end of summer, and it’s felt like the shortest summer since I became a mother. What stretches summer out, I’ve realized, is the continuous act of leaving. Leaving home for the day, leaving the state for a week, kids going to camp, me going out for drinks or coffee, the whole family going to Maine for almost a month. Going to parties or concerts, visiting family and friends in other states. Leaving expands and distorts time. It allows you to look back at photos from the beginning of summer and admit, ok fine, I guess we did do a lot. Ok fine, I guess summer was pretty long.
Instead, this summer, the few photos I took in late June or early July feel like they were taken only a few days ago. I didn’t leave Vermont at all, not even once. After the rush to see and hug people in the first half of June, I saw fewer than a handful of friends over the rest of the summer (and all but two of them were ones I had already seen.) I reached out to almost no one. And almost no one reached out to me.
The strange thing is, I didn’t care. Well, that’s not entirely true. My auto-reaction was to care very much indeed. From the time I was a teenager I’ve invested more energy and attention in my friendships than almost any other relationships in my life. So I had to pause, back up, and ask myself did I really care? Or was it all just habitual emotional bruising, easy to return to and press? Turns out, I actually didn’t care. I still don’t know how to feel about this.
Many, but thankfully not all, of the relationships outside of my own home unraveled to varying degrees through the separation of the past 18 months. Layers and layers of them. Close friendships, in-between friendships, the loose “see you every six months for lunch” friendships, and the “see you once a year at your Christmas party” friendships. A few had begun unraveling even earlier, when my husband and I announced our divorce. People who were offended that they didn’t hear the news first, people who thought divorce was contagious, people whose behavior made it easier to care just a little bit less with each passing month. Then came a pandemic when I didn’t have to pretend I cared about any of it at all.
But with the people I did care deeply about, it was a cumulative push-pull. It felt unsettling to no longer have a mental appointment book of their lives. I used to know how they were doing day-to-day. I knew how their kids and marriages were doing, how their jobs and lives were going. I knew when and where their next vacation or family visit would be. I know almost none of that now, for almost any of them. What was unsettling over time has now just become normal. I don’t expect to know any of it anymore. I often don’t even think to ask.
And none of them know those things about me either. I guess that’s what I keep coming back to. It’s not that I’ve solely withdrawn, becoming a hermit against the pressing demands for my time and attention from others. But instead it’s been a two-way street of disappearance, for so many reasons, mundane reasons, barely coping reasons, all-hands-on-deck DEFCON 1 reasons, and reasons I’m sure I’ll never know.
I’ve thought, too, about the stories I’ve read from older women about how once they got past menopause they felt as if they had returned to who they had been as a young girl. Just a body free in the world, before that body became the focal point of every interaction, ounce of scrutiny, and continuous cultural and political policing. Before intimate relationships, the power of sex and sexual attraction, and the implied duty of facilitating relationships became the measure of one’s fulfillment and personal success. Before the internal was consumed by the external. Through that lens, and because of the pandemic, I can see that perhaps this is happening to me ahead of schedule. I’ve felt this slow return to that girl who lost whole summer afternoons reading in a hammock. Or hanging out with animals, staring at the ocean, picking wildflowers, poking the dirt with a stick, and more often than not, just wanting to be alone.
Almost everyone I know seems to be tumbling deeper into the rabbit holes of their own lives and few of us seem to have the will or energy anymore to throw an extra rope ladder down into someone else’s rabbit hole and say, “What’s up, Doc?” Maybe because some struggles are serious or structural, and feel completely insurmountable. Maybe because if you’re actually doing ok you feel like you should just keep your mouth shut. So what is there to say? Sometimes there’s no bridge to build and nothing to be done.
In sharp contrast, my kids (now teenagers), had a full, social, independent, adventurous, all-in kind of summer. The kind of summer they should’ve had last year. The kind of summer they deserved. And they had it almost completely without me. This is what I used to get emotional thinking about when they were little — how could they move through this world without me? But I’ve actually felt none of that now that we’re here in this spot. It’s been a strange release and a surprising rush (an 18-year-long breath I’ve begun to exhale) to witness them at the beginning of their leaving. I don’t take it personally, like I thought I might. Or not personally just painfully. Instead I simply take it as evidence of them beginning to go, as they should. This is the job.
They made spontaneous plans with friends that stretched across days and nights, reappearing at home a couple days later. Happy, satiated by friendship. They both got their first jobs this summer. They camped and camped again and camped one more time and flew cross-country to see family. They biked to get ice cream or walked to get coffee and they saw as many friends as they could possibly see. They were able to get close to them. They were able to see them outside of those rounded corners of FaceTime and without masks. All of those things that none of us thought were a big deal, until they became a very big deal indeed. Last summer all we had was each other. And it was enough, for a time. But it couldn’t be everything. It shouldn’t be everything. For them last summer was an amber pause. This summer became a blue-streaked fast forward.
It has been both the beginning of the end of my time with them and the beginning of the beginning of whatever the rest of my life will be.
Last summer, I thought I might have a shockingly clear path ahead of me in the next two or three years. A potential full-time job. A potential (eventual) move cross-country. A new start, the next chapter. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere, and as much as I love Vermont I’ve also looked forward to leaving it. But as it turns out I happened to live in something of a climate change and pandemic haven (to a point) (and, also, please dear god don’t move here.) Now I wonder if I’ll actually just be stuck here forever. Not just in this state, but in this actual house. People rushing here from all over have snatched up garbage pile houses for the dumbest prices imaginable. Thanks for the 40% higher house appraisal, I guess? There is nothing to buy. There is nothing to rent. There is nowhere to go.
Lockdown was a time of coming together, of knowing we couldn’t be anywhere else with anyone else. We created occasions so we wouldn’t lose our minds — dress-up dinners and Zoom parties, the most decadent Mother’s Day brunch I’ve ever had and a comically distanced 4th of July BBQ. But now, in being temporarily set free, my mind and heart can’t find their way back to what life felt like in 2019. It’s too long ago now. It’s somehow inexplicably too far in the past, less than two years that now feels like ten. Please don’t mistake any of this for lockdown nostalgia. It’s just that I don’t think I ever imagined there could be anything more emotionally cattywampus than being locked down in my house away from almost every relationship in my life for months on end, yet here we are. Here I am.
I thought this summer would be about building and repairing all the bonds that had been weakened by mental and physical absence. Instead this summer is ending with me realizing that I spent these weeks leaving my life behind without actually going anywhere. To let everyone around me fall away, even my children, without fighting it. To let people just do what they’re going to do, what they want to do, without asking for their attention and care. It’s okay, I tell myself. Those early summer weeks were a window I didn’t realize would close so quickly. And without having taken advantage of it, I’m accepting that I may have permanently lost almost every reference point, the muscle memory, for how any of this is supposed to work. I no longer trust it will all come back, only different. I’m beginning to grasp that most of it probably isn’t coming back at all.
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