I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who says something helpful in times like this. I say to myself “Janelle! You have created this channel to the world, now do something with it. Say something profound or insightful or at least funny.”
I want to be the person who rises up, scans the world, and speaks to the soul. Instead, I’m more the person who starts eating a lot of gruyere and watching YouTube videos of groundhogs eating carrots.
Like Dan Rather. Fucking Dan Rather always knows what to say. You read Dan and you think, now this guy, this guy knows how to stay chill in the apocalypse.
All I did was start a free blog in 2011 while I was supposed to be working, and then I wrote what I wanted to read about motherhood but couldn’t find (to paraphrase Toni Morrison), and I never expected anybody other than my mom to read it. And she always has.
So, I’ve never been prepared to be the voice of anything, though clearly I have no trouble using mine. I’ve written things I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole now. I’ve regretted my flippancy. I suppose I’ve “grown,” but I’ve never known what to say when the world feels so raw, so burning, so without a place to land. When kindergarteners are shot at circle time. When a young black American holds a cardboard sign that reads “I can’t breathe” for the fourth or hundredth year in a row. When California burns.
When we’re all thrown into the cosmos, untethered, clinging to hope in the future; and in the meantime, to people singing to each other on balconies while their elders die in overcrowded hospitals.
You see, I hate the fucking platitudes. I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you to be strong or take care of yourself or go outside each day (I literally did that the other day on Instagram), because the fact of the matter is I’m not doing anything that’s elevated or enlightened or demonstrating some greater self.
Any talk from me about how to endure this with grace or deep knowing is just sort of funny. I suggested that people really TRY to go outside because we went to a park and I felt like a fucking warrior for putting that together (with Mac).
But it did help. And I made myself go because so many people had insisted that it helps, so I try to write if I have anything to offer.
But in general, I’m more the one looking at “helpful suggestions” and thinking “oh fuck off and let me play Two Dots” than I am the one picking myself up and Doing Better.
Although I always, eventually, pick myself up and do something, which is better I guess than doing nothing.
You’re welcome. I’m available for life coaching if anybody is interested.
Lately my mantra has been “Just don’t make anything worse.” Because sometimes I start fights with strangers in Wisconsin or lash out at people or use my tongue to slash people because I feel like shit and I’m tired and my head hurts and they crossed my path at the wrong time.
Luckily, I’ve learned how to own that shit and apologize, but I get sick of the apologizing, too.
The truth is I’ve spent most of my time staring at walls or my phone, playing games on it (the phone, not the walls) and listening to audiobooks. I’ve been preferring old, sweeping novels like Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov, and nonfiction that really fucks me up, like Noam Chomsky’s collected speeches or Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
The novels are entertainment. The nonfiction a desire to understand. Both are escape.
In my house, I’ve told myself that the ONLY thing I absolutely must do each day is keep my dishes washed. Everything else is extra. And when I wake up, I say to myself “I’m going to do the dishes,” and then I can’t seem to get off the couch or dressed or out of bed, but I tell myself “just do the dishes.” And I do. And then, once I’m up, I seem to do other shit.
I turn the television off for a few hours a day. I turn the music up loud. I send the kids outside no matter what to ride their bikes. When I run out of underwear, I do laundry. I invite the kids to cook with me. But the dishes are my only real goal now.
Ava was supposed to come next week for her Spring Break. I’ve been looking forward to it since Christmas. It is a strange, strange feeling to be separated from my daughter in a legal way. As in, the EU won’t let me. It is a strange feeling to wonder if she’d be safer here.
She’s a senior. Her prom, senior trip, and graduation ceremony may be cancelled. She is angry, heartbroken, unsure, and without her Mom, her Dad, her brothers and sister.
The other day she and I got in a big fight, and when it was done and she was chatting about her day, and the kids were yelling “goodnight, Ava!” over my shoulder, I just dropped my head and cried in a way I haven’t in a long, long time. She couldn’t see or hear me. She didn’t notice it in my voice. Mac watched me from across the kitchen table.
Here I am, away from my baby and my parents. Here I am. Why.
I wasn’t doing so hot before any of this happened. I was barely functioning after having done that slow march into apathy and gray isolation—five hours a day in bed, ten hours a day on a screen. I’m ashamed, sort of, but it is what it is.
After our neighbor and a friend independently told Mac they thought I was depressed (and I thought I was hiding it so well!), and I started wondering if maybe I should start drinking again because I’m in a new country and fuck it and the relief might be worth the destruction it would bring, I started making some changes that were helping a lot.
I got into a physical therapist for my pain. I signed up for a little Dutch class. I got a therapeutic lightbox (thanks, renegade mothering Facebook page). And I found a therapist.
She asked me what I wanted out of our work together. I said I wanted to be nudged into new perspectives just enough to survive this. I don’t want the pain gone. I don’t want to be “fixed.” This isn’t a fucking self-empowerment seminar at a Los Angeles Marriott (why am I like this).
I know these things pass. I know we get through them.
I just want slivers of light in my brain to keep me going, to keep me from blowing up my life.
I want to not make this worse. I want to maybe help somebody. I want to not miss time with my family. I want to not scream at them. I want to face the shit inside myself instead of run from it. I want to write to my friends on that blog I created.
“Janelle,” she told me. “Look what you’ve gotten through. There’s strength and resilience in you. You just can’t find it right now.”
And she said that when we’re all numb and down in the black and terrified, we lose access to our own inner strength. We just can’t find it. We look into ourselves and seem to find nothing but confusion, fear, that insidious flat-lined gray.
So we look outside ourselves: To screens, to booze, to fights with loved ones or strangers in Wisconsin. We look to control things. We look to understand things. We look to politics and the tribes they create. We look to Russian literature or the news. We look, really, to anything.
And none of it works.
She reminded me we already have what we need. She reminded me we always have. She reminded me that it’s not that I don’t have strength, it’s that I’m looking for it in the wrong places.
It’s good news, I think, to know that the grit and love are within us, and we just forget sometimes. We forget about the resiliency we’ve demonstrated the entirety of our lives or even the nine years we’ve been together here on this silly website, living through those babies dying in kindergarten and the crumbling of our nation and all the times we thought for sure this time there is no way out.
Yet we’ve always gotten out, or through, haven’t we? Until it passes.
“I live a hope despite my knowing better,” said James Baldwin.
I’ll meet you there.
Need a distraction?
I’m teaching two online writing workshops in April and
offering a $50 quarantine discount.