Newest Chart: Joy and Sadness (or shelter-in-place Weeks 8 through 11)

May 29, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

We’ve been doing this for 11 weeks now.

Eleven.

I had to look at my calendar to confirm that number, and when I did I realized two things: first, how I’ve slightly neglected Growth Chart. I felt a stab of guilt, because in the weeks I was supposed to post I thought of it with the best of intentions. Then another task would get in the way, or I would let it get in the way, or…something. Parenting is hard at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s the equivalent of climbing Everest.

I promise to do better.

On a broader level, 11 weeks is almost three months. Am I the only one who still finds that number hard to believe? I mean, we’ve been staying at home, going to school at home, not meeting with friends, not arranging get togethers for almost three months.

I feel like the language around these topics is changing too. Thirteen finished 8th grade yesterday (and, believe me, I will definitely be posting in the coming weeks about what it means to be the mother of a high schooler now.) Earlier this week my husband asked if we should do something to celebrate her graduation from middle school.

This topic actually started back in January. My parents came to visit, and my mom teased Thirteen about throwing a full-blown desi, or Indian, party. Think lots of food, lots of adults standing/sitting around talking about the food, getting all dressed up, and little kids running around the house. All with the soundtrack of Bollywood’s latest hits or the evergreen ones, depending on who’s controlling the music at the moment.

I grew up attending parties like this one and even had a semi-desi party for my high school graduation. I remember that night with a lot of fondness. It was filled with music and singing, a big cake, me coming down the stairs with another family friend, who was also graduating, in our caps and gowns (at my parents’ insistence, even if I felt a little silly,) and my mother crying while I was cutting the cake as if I was going off to war.

I’m a parent myself now, so I get the emotion she felt, but still. I was going to college. Not the front lines. 😀

In any case, it was easy to throw a party. No doubt Mom probably spent days planning the menu and the flow of the evening. But my parents didn’t hesitate. They didn’t wonder, “What if…” or have to contend with the government about whether it made sense to hold a celebratory event.

That night, when my husband asked about the graduation, I hesitated. What could we possibly do? How could we possibly “celebrate” when the most important part of that concept—sharing the joy with other people—wasn’t allowed anymore?

I still don’t have an answer to that question. At the time, I just said we’d think about it, spend some time brainstorming. Come up with some sort of idea.

Our worlds have contracted to those immediately around us in our dwellings. While “family time” is great, the inability to bring others into our lives for good occasions and bad has become almost stifling. The opportunities that arise—attending an author event in a bookstore almost 250 miles away via Zoom—are something of a solace, but they can’t replace person-to-person interaction.

Even as I write that, I know my family is incredibly fortunate to be healthy and safe. There are so many across our country and the world who have had to fight this out alone, either due to personal life choices or being sick and in quarantine or getting stuck in a location due to travel that got upended by COVID-19. It’s hard enough to come to terms with the fact that our world has been like this for 11 weeks now. I can’t even begin to imagine fighting this out with no one else or in unsafe conditions.

In a philosophical way, it almost seems silly or childish—or maybe even selfish—to ask for the opportunity to share exciting moments like graduation from middle school with others. I’m amazed at Thirteen’s poise and good humor during this entire time. She’s disappointed, yes, and she wishes more than ever that she could have finished out the school year with friends, dispensing hugs, slamming locker doors for the “end-of-the-year locker slam” their school does.

Yet, she doesn’t let her intense wish for normalcy sully the good things: weekly Zoom meetings with a dear theater friend. A surprise gift from a classmate who, due to social distancing, didn’t linger long enough to talk, just dropped the gift on our doorstep and then texted from her mom’s car that she’d left something. The plans for a poster to hang on the van, as well as other items to decorate it, for the parade we’ll drive through later today at the school, the first time any of the students have converged on the parking lot en masse since mid-March.

Through the last few weeks, I’ve thought of that moment toward the end of Pixar’s Inside Out when Joy learns that Sadness actually helped create one of Riley’s favorite memories. One of her happiest memories. And, of course, we’ve had conversations about perspective, about keeping our eye on the bigger things, the important things. Safety and health.

Eleven, admittedly, has struggled with this entire concept and situation more, but that’s because she processes emotions and expresses them to a different degree than her big sister. Yet, she, too has found moments to laugh and get involved and make jokes about being stuck at home. Maybe it’s from having a sister who handles herself with poise, consciously and subconsciously, all the time. Maybe it’s because she understands that her sister has had to give up more, as an 8th grader, than she does in 6th grade.

Maybe Joy and Sadness can, and do, work together, so that when we turn the orbs of our memories one way, we experience one side of the event and when we turn them the other way we can appreciate the other side.

Maybe it’s time to get brainstorming in earnest.

Latest Chart: Weeks 3 and 4 of sheltering in place

April 10, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

And we’re one month into shelter-in-place!

Okay, so I know that statement doesn’t warrant an exclamation mark, but, really what else can we all do? I think we should hand out exclamation marks and buckets of glitter to everyone. Go to town, parent friends!

(I know what you’re thinking: you’ll never get the glitter off the floor. Seriously, I think along with finding a vaccine for the coronavirus, we should ask a small team of dedicated scientists to discover the secret behind the way glitter gets into everything. Into. Everything.)

If it sounds like I’m a little punchy, maybe I am. We’ve now spent a month sheltering in place, doing our part toward the greater good of society to help our first responders, healthcare teams, and essential employees work as hard as possible on stopping the spread of COVID-19. Teachers have rewritten lesson plans, restaurants have offered curbside options, and parents have discovered a new facet to the meaning of “parenting.”

Things are no different around our house. The kids have had their highs and their lows during Weeks 3 and 4 of staying at home. Thirteen and Eleven have shown a tremendous amount of resourcefulness and also their ages. Some days I’ve been able to deflect bad moods by distracting them with a joke or redirecting them to a new task. Some days I’ve shared memes or funny videos. A few days I’ve retreated to the writing studio to shed a few tears because I’m a little overwhelmed myself, only to hear someone asking whether I can help with a craft project or science experiment.

In the past two weeks:

*We’ve played Checkers (where Thirteen beat me in four or five games, and I had to muster every brain cell—really—to beat her in two games.) This girl is really, really good at this game.

*We’ve accidentally baked sugar cookies to deliver to six homes (which happens when you don’t read the recipe ahead of time and realize it makes more than 12 dozen—yes, really—bite-sized cookies.) When we ended up with so many, we went the homes of some good friends, put the bags of cookies on their doorsteps, and backed away by about 10 or 15 feet, chatting with friends and their parents from that distance, grateful to see them at all.

*We’ve watched old Bollywood films (much to our children’s chagrin, but much to the delight of all the adults in the house) and watched newer Bollywood films that make us laugh even though we’ve seen our favorite parts too many times to count. Ooh, Ranvir Singh. How we love the way you point out that butter knife in “Dil Dhadakne Do.”

One instance stands out, though, from these past two weeks that shows the paradox that is our current times.

School online has worked almost seamlessly. While we’ve experienced a few tech issues, like most of you, we haven’t had any issues. Not really.

Until Wednesday, April 1.

The night before, I’d stayed up late reading, so I woke up later than I normally do these days. By the time I got up, the kids were tucked into their rooms and there was little sound, so I assumed they were well into their school days already. I went downstairs, made my tea, and brought it back up to the studio to write my book review.

Not long after, Eleven stomped into the studio. She told me the internet had been patchy at best since she first tried to sign into Zoom that morning. The home network kept failing, kicking her out of her classes. Her face showed frustration, embarrassment, and anxiety. Eleven has always worried about what others think of her, and she didn’t want to look bad in front of the teachers and her friends.

I looked at the digital clock on the wall. It was just past 9 a.m. With a sigh, I left the book review on my screen and started trying every DIY trick I knew to get the internet running again.

For almost three hours, I kept at it. I shut down the router, turned it back on again, tried to get a hot spot on my phone so the kids could connect their iPads to it, found the internet running almost reliably on my desktop and tried to do an online chat with Comcast. They just kept rerouting me to the website. When the internet was working on my computer at all, that is.

I had no idea what was wrong, and the way the girls’ anxiety started to level up with each passing half-hour didn’t help.

I managed to email one of the teachers and explain the situation; he emailed back with a kind, patient note saying he understood. I racked my brain. What could I do, what could I try that I hadn’t already?

Then I heard it: ukulele music.

Before the shelter-in-place order, Eleven had brought home a ukulele from school as part of her upcoming music unit for arts this quarter. I went to her room and then to Thirteen’s room and found the two of them playing and singing an original song. They were writing lyrics about the coronavirus, how awful it was, and how it was ruining their day.

And they were laughing.

As much as the sarcasm of the song bugged me, I decided not to fight that battle. They were in better spirits, and that counted more. A last-ditch attempt to find the hotspot on my phone actually worked, so I ran it to Thirteen’s room, plugged it into the wall, and left it there for the rest of the school day. Neither of the girls complained about me interrupting their ukulele concert for two.

I managed to call another expert for help, someone here in town, and he was also very patient as he explained how I needed to fix the internet. Since the hotspot kept working, I decided not to touch anything until the end of the school day. As soon as 3 p.m. came around, I trotted down to the basement and followed the instructions the expert gave me. The internet came back, stronger than ever and steady ever since.

So. If you’re finding yourself in need of a laugh—even if it’s at your own expense—try a ukulele. I have proof it works.

Latest Chart: Weeks 1 and 2 of Shelter-in-Place

March 27, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

As I sit here writing this, my kids are in school.

No, not that kind of school. The kind where they get to wear regular shirts but pajama bottoms. The kind where they see their teachers’ homes, because everyone’s in a different location but in the same place online.

The kind that separates the majority of the population due to COVID-19.

Last week Thirteen and Eleven were on spring break, but it was a vacation out of the Twilight Zone. On the Friday before their break started, the school had announced it would go exclusively online once we came back from our days off. By then the governor of Illinois, too, had asked everyone to shelter in place.

So that’s what we did last week. And this week. And, now, for the foreseeable future.

Now, mind you, we didn’t have grand spring break plans before all this even started. Our family had no travel plans. I was supposed to go to Louisiana for a wedding, but other than that were going to stay home. Catch up on our sleep. Watch movies. The girls both need hair trims, so I’d earmarked that for vacation. The middle school dance was supposed to be in April, and we’d discussed dress shopping.

We did catch up on sleep and watch movies, but that was the only thing that felt normal.

We didn’t leave the house. On the second or third day, Thirteen received word from some of her classmates of an online chat in Google Hangouts. She spent hours every day talking to her friends, all of them teasing one another and comparing notes on their experiences at home.

Eleven moped a bit when she heard her big sister’s voice ring through the house with excitement. I encouraged her several times to email her friends and video chat with them. They’d all be home, I reasoned, so she had a pretty good chance of catching someone.

Although she did talk to some of them, by the end of the week she’d hit her limit for the whole situation. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when school started Monday online. Sure, it was weird not making the short drive to the school building, but it was closer to “normal” than last week.

On Monday, at the end of the school day, Eleven came downstairs sparkling with energy. She and Thirteen talked about how organized everything was. Her face exuded relief and gratitude to see her teachers and to follow the same routine she does during the normal school day.

That’s due solely to our amazing administration and teachers; they worked hard all during spring break to make this transition as smooth as possible.

By last night, however, the energy and optimism had diminished. Like the rest of us—like the rest of the world—Eleven is not just tired but weary. She wants to do normal things, and here the definition of normal, as all of you know, is incredibly basic.

Last night during dinner, without even thinking about it, I said, “I was supposed to be in Madison today.”

Madison as in Wisconsin where I go every year for my favorite writers’ conference; I was supposed to be there this week.

And just like that, like a series of blocks tumbling to the ground, we started mentioning in short bursts all the things we were supposed to be doing this week. Eleven took it the hardest. I suppose that’s my fault; I shouldn’t have made the comment about Madison or that Eleven was supposed to be starting her soccer season this week or that both she and Thirteen were supposed to have their school’s quarterly arts showcase last night.

Yeah, now that I’m thinking about it, it definitely was not my finest parenting moment.

“Coach was going to start me as forward,” she said, disappointment in her face and voice. “We were going to send off [all the senior players]. This was going to be their last season.”

The more she let all these things out, the more stunned she looked. It was as if she hadn’t gotten around to counting exactly how many life events had skewed to “abnormal” during this time. I tried to salvage the situation at one point.

“Just yesterday…or was it the day before?” I interrupted myself. “Anyway, I filled out a survey from the park district in which they asked if you could play in May or June or, if they made the season longer in the fall, if you could play. I said yes to everything.”

She seemed a little mollified by that, but not by much, and even as I said the words I knew how hollow the promise sounded.

Thirteen has her share of disappointments too. For the school’s Maker Faire (in which kids learn a new skill or improve an existing one and then do something creative with it,) she was building a dragon. Originally all Maker Faire projects were being completed at school, but when the shelter-in-place order ramped up I brought the dragon’s head home.

But this was no ordinary dragon. He was going to be a major prop in the eighth grade play that the school produces every single year. And Thirteen, our improv-loving actress, was committing her lines and the music to memory as if she were premiering on Broadway.

There was also the middle school dance, her last at this school before she moved on to high school, and the talent show. Not to mention her dance recital has now been postponed indefinitely. In some ways she, should have been more dejected.

Last night, though, she didn’t speak up, and she didn’t seem overly upset by anything. Instead it was Eleven who needed an encouraging word, and we offered many. I could see in my younger child’s face the same questions we’ve all been asking: how long is this going to last? Are we ever going to be able to see our friends face to face again?

When does life go back to being “normal”?

None of us know, of course, but my husband and I reassured Eleven as best we could. He’s got his entire medical career to back him up. I’m a mom, and a former cheerleader to boot, so I have optimism and encouragement in spades. Acknowledging for Eleven that we’re just as worried and anxious as she is for life to go back to normal made her steel herself against what she knew might happen next: the dreaded parent hug.

She finished sweeping the kitchen, which is her chore every night after dinner, and escaped to the solitude of her room. Thirteen finished wiping down the counters and strolled upstairs after her. I washed the dishes and went up to say good night to them both.

Eleven had already fallen asleep, but Thirteen was still awake and I asked her how she was doing.

“Fine,” she said.

“We talked a lot about how [Eleven] is feeling about all this, but we didn’t really talk about what you’re thinking. If you need someone to talk to, you can always come to me.”

“I know,” she said in that quick way teens use to get their parents to stop bugging them.

“Hey, it’s either Daddy or me,” I joked, “and you know what you’re going to get there.”

“Yeah,” she said with a chuckle, “I know.”

This time I heard the sincerity in her voice. She and both Eleven know they can talk to us at any time, about anything. After all, in this time of shelter-in-place, that’s what we have, right? Each other. Time. And, within the confines of our homes, space to talk.

All of us, I know, are eager for this to pass, to get back to life at its regular speed. I’ve had a few moments this week where it’s all overwhelmed me, like it did Eleven. But I’ve also gained a lot of comfort from the fact that when we say “we’re all in this together,” this is one of the few times in history that the “all” is literal.

So let’s stay strong. For each other. For the kids. For the everyone.