I listened to a wonderful interview with Katherine May, author of popular books Wintering and Enchantment earlier this week, and emerged charged, full. She gave words to experiences of pandemic living that, I realized, lay dormant, unprocessed in my mind — not exactly suppressed, but, simply, too wide and unwieldy to shape in any way. She talks a lot about disconnection. About listlessness, wordlessness. About the ways lockdown both expanded and collapsed time. Listening to her was like being greeted at the door of a familiar house and being escorted in. I didn’t know I needed to enter, but I walked inside and thought: I’ve been here before. I know the kitchen will be around that bend, and the grandfather clock will be at the stair. Her words just fit.
They encouraged me to think more directly about a major grief I carry: the deletion, or diminution, of several months of my boy’s babyhood. He was not yet one when we entered lockdown and I feel that I lost the days that followed — those baby days that are typically rich and sweet as cream, with belly laughs and firsts clustered so close together you can hardly get your bearings. Instead of sweetness, there was the acridity and fear of that time. I will never forget the wail of ambulances down 86th Street, its own morbid morse code. Some times, during that long March and April of 2020, barely a minute would pass between them. People were dying, and there were no north stars, and even my unflappable, assured father didn’t know what to make of it. I can think of only one other time in my life where I have felt the net snatched from beneath me in that way, and it was on 9/11, and, aside from the terror of watching the twin towers fall and the Pentagon (twenty minutes from where I was sitting in biology lab in Georgetown) go up in flames, the streets of D.C. were gridlocked with Washingtonians in flight, cell phones weren’t working, and the sky was an ill-starred pattern of helicopters. It was a horror movie. “What’s going to happen?” I asked my Dad. I remember where I was standing: in his study, the one with taupe window treatments flecked with tiny mallards. The pattern seemed absurdly sanguine — almost obtuse — that day. He looked, for the first time in my entire life, worried. “I don’t know,” he said. He’d echo the same thing at the dawn of the pandemic, and then I didn’t get to see him for nearly a year, and I grieve that loss, too. Oh! It is a futile business, these mental subtractions. What possible good can they do?
Still, I return to the till, peering back.
Still, I mourn those days, the way it felt that I was just marching from daybreak to dusk, passing time, to get through. Did I hug my son enough? Did I laugh at his burbles? Did I sing to him the way I normally would? There is a morose part of me that thinks: If only I had been better at subjugating my own worries and exhaustions, I could have been a better and more present mother. I could have saved those days. I figure myself as Soteria, if only I had tried harder. I conveniently forget she belongs to mythology.
I spent an afternoon reviewing many of the photographs from that time, and they tell a different, and more auspicious, story. Perhaps I wasn’t the Soteria I wish I’d been, but I leaned hard into art projects, crafts, and sensory play with my children. We made play-doh and slime. We took baths with Duplos, and bath bombs, and food coloring — not so much for cleanliness, but because it was an easy way to delight and contain two young children. We discovered water beads, and kinetic sand, and artificial snow, and sensory play with beans and dyed rice and soap foam and even, once, dyed (cooked) spaghetti. We built and decorated houses out of cardboard boxes. We baked cookies and painted with with every variety of paint I could find: puffy (homemade and purchased), watercolor, tempura, fabric! We ran through umpteen activities with dot markers. I arranged sorting exercises with letters jaggedly clipped by toddler hands. Household and pantry products became new and often unsuccessful art materials: we used ice, jell-o, salt, shaving cream, flour, hand soap, oats in our productions. We used dot stickers in countless unintended ways — I recall posters on the wall and my daughter selecting which color dot to place in which column, but can’t remember the prompt. We made penguins out of water bottles and cotton balls and caterpillars out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners and used an entire bag of craft googly eyes over the course of three months. We ran through glue like water. We used painter’s tape to create race tracks and villages for Matchbox cars. We made necklaces, we painted nails, we did science projects to varying degrees of success. We used so much baking soda and vinegar that I still feel faintly nauseous at the smell. We grew butterflies from caterpillars and released them into Central Park. We made suncatchers for the windows and necklaces from beads and macaroni and feathers.
These daily activities gave me focus during that wild, unspooled period. They never lasted as long as I wanted them to, but they temporarily delighted us by giving us something to do with our hands. They were about exploration and play and putting out small, makeshift offerings and only now do I see that this was in a sense the exact survival strategy May ultimately espouses: the way out is through enchantment. Finding magic in small things. Using our senses to generate meaning.
When you are a child, the world is full of romance and adventure and possibility. Rocks and twigs are the grist of imagination. May encourages us to reclaim those enchantments. I see, now, that what started as a way to make the time pass evolved into a determined profession of life. We are alive! We are making things with our hands!
If all of this sounds a little woo!, well, I agree. Because nothing can mitigate the memory of those challenging times, and nothing can return my baby’s “lost” days to me. I still wish I’d had the opportunity to take him to all of the mommy and me classes I escorted my daughter to. I feel I’ve let him down by not having more mornings where we’d share a $6 Manhattan muffin and run errands — just the two of us. I know we had uninterrupted access to one another during lockdown, but I worry that the excess cheapened the experience, and his older, more voluble sister was always present and intercessory anyhow. I lacked the mental tranquility to fully soak him up, because I had no breaks, and I was still working in desperate hiccups throughout the day, and I felt simultaneously trapped and isolated.
So what then?
This year, I continue to return to the concept of flow, the intention I set for myself at the outset of 2023. Writing this essay has been an exercise in “flow.” I have been aware of the bruise of the lockdown experience and my attendant grief over the loss of my son’s baby days for years now, but have never had the prompt to inspect it. May invited me to do so. And sitting here, I have let all of these conflicting, fair and unfair, sad and happy thoughts coalesce. I have held them in my hands. I have turned them over. I have let myself feel it all in its wildness, which was scary, because some of it felt like failure. I have tried not to assign any value to these sentiments, or to contradict any of the raw emotions they have stirred. Even if the bruise remains, it feels good to have let the air in.
+It’s their day, too. I feel I forgot that for large chunks of lockdown. It was so, so hard.
+A Magpie recommended I check out Old Navy’s new arrivals for some seriously eye-popping finds and WOW, she was not wrong. This navy dress reminds me of Veronica Beard, and is sure to be a workhorse. Also love the look of these $10 tanks and these high-waisted linen shorts (!!).
+I have this one old long-sleeved Patagonia tee I stole from my Dad’s running closet when I was in high school that I still wear ALL the time over my favorite leggings and tanks. I just love the look and feel of an oversized LS tee over skintight athletic wear. This tee and this one deliver a similar effect — I would size up to ensure a really boxy, oversized fit.
+The Magpies have spoken: four self-tanning products came up time and time again when I reached out to you, and I’m going to try them all, but I’m starting with this Isle of Palm mist and the classic Jergens gradual glow lotion.
+STOP. This $25 jacket is too cute as a spring topper for a little lady. TOO CUTE.
+This Mirth skirt is so chic! I’m in love with the unexpected color pairing, pattern, and buttons down the front. Still also eyeing the scalloped skirt of theirs I shared earlier this week. I love the idea of buying them with their matching tops, but they’d also look adorable with a simple white tank/tee.
+Tarte is offering 30% off sitewide — I have been kind of wanting to try these wildly popular lip balms for a while, and this buffer brush has been in several carts of mine for awhile after seeing multiple beauty TikTok-ers rave about it.
+These $40 sandals are so elegant. I had a pair just like these that I wore until the soles gave out — perfect with maxis, jeans, shorts in summer.
+This little woven bag is SO cute. $30 and love that bamboo handle.
+This engraveable birthstone necklace would be such a sweet gift for mother’s day / a birthday. I want one with my children’s initials on it! The brand also makes customizable “pup” tokens — you can have your dog’s breed engraved on it. Such a cute remembrance of a good boy 🙂
+This sunhat! Oh my goodness. I wish I had a baby girl to put it on! I have received so many requests from moms with daughters who have grown out of toddler sizes and have been asking for good brands for ages 8-12. It’s on my radar and I will try to find more options but The New Society (maker of the aforementioned sunhat) goes up to size 14 in many of their styles, and I love pieces like this cute skirt and these striped shorts. Pink Chicken also has some really sweet finds, and they also go up to a size 14. How adorable is this swimsuit, or this tiered floral dress?
+I’m not a big graphic sweatshirt person but I keep thinking about this Prince x Sporty and Rich sweatshirt, now on sale. I just love the retro vibes, the color — !
+These shortalls are currently in my cart for micro this summer. SO cute. They remind me of the Busy Bees’ George shortalls that my son lived in for two summers. I think he’s too old for them now but I love the slightly shorter leg length.
+Thinking ahead to summer…these inflatable pools are just the best. A really thick material, hold their inflation, and such fun patterns/colors.