Musings + Essays

The Slimmest of Griefs.

By: Jen Shoop

Today, I am republishing a modestly-edited version of an essay from the archives, originally released on April 30, 2020. At the time, we were two months into COVID, marooned in Manhattan, staring out across a landscape of catastrophe. I’d already caught and recovered from a violent strain of the virus, and still, so many unknowns circled us. I did not know when I would next see my family, or spend any meaningful time with anyone outside of our small Shoop party of four. I did not know whether my children would get it, or whether I could get it again. I feared the “long haul COVID” symptoms I was beginning to read about. I had already cried on the phone to my father, capable only of the following admission: “This is hard.” Those were impossibly long and lonely days.

I sometimes feel that we’ve not properly processed that time in our lives — collectively, I mean. One day we were told to stay indoors with no contact with the external world and then, months later, we emerged from that cocoon and began to trepidatiously meet friends in parks, honoring a five-foot gap between us. Then, two years later, “COVID is over,” via some dull press release. It felt as though we were meant to “get over” the wrought culture of fear, of loss, of alienation, of contagion, of guilt without any fanfare.

It’s remarkable, how resilient we are. I, too, nearly forget the agony of those days — the dull, plodding headache kind. And yet there were so many days when the only thing I wanted was to take a Subway downtown to meet my sister for dinner.

I bring this up not to embroil us in the past, and not to reconcile with it, either. I bring this up because sometimes it is important to look at where you’ve been and think, “Huh. I did that. And I made it out the other side. And I celebrated birthdays, and read meaningful books, and kept in touch with my sisters along the way.” There is a fantastic quote in the new Patchett book where she says: “There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else.” Another quiet reminder, today, that you are tough. You will find a way to metamorphose through nearly anything life puts in front of you.



This is what I want:

A Friday night.

Mr. Magpie comes home from work early, around 5, greeted by an exuberant toddler; a bouncy, drooly 10-month-old; a loyal Airedale terrier; and a wife who grows more devoted by the day.

We have been through things together. Children (childbirth…!), home-buying, business-building and business-shuttering, losses, recessions, illnesses, deaths. Most recently, a pandemic, during which I have shaved his head multiple times in the bathtub of our master bathroom, while our 10-month-old son and three-year-old daughter have watched us, entranced. This: the slenderest and most insignificant of intimacies, and yet —

Why have these little nothings occasionally undone me, made me feel alien in my own life?

But — there he will be. Or, there he is. I cannot disguise my irresolution with the future, or conditional, or present tenses in this post, if that tells you anything about the level of uncertainty in which we are living today.

No: there he is.

In his usual way, shockingly unruffled by the day, by the subway, from which he has just emerged. One of the miraculously attractive things about him is that he always looks as though he has just showered. He materializes in the door, unperturbed by Manhattan. His briefcase in hand, his smile ready.

After the usual flurry of greeting — “daddy!” “who’s that, dada?” “dadadadadada!” “hi!” “the mail–” [shrieks, feet padding] “how was your day–” “dada!” “daddy look what I made!” [shrieks, laughter] —

We pour a glass of champagne — because. I am in my bathrobe, having washed and blow-dried my hair just an hour or two earlier, while micro was napping and mini was watching her iPad on my bed, feet from me, our parallel activities occasionally intersecting in conversation:

“Too loud,” she will have occasionally chided, looking up angrily at my blow-dryer. Other times, our exchange will have been punctuated by her laughter at a show. And still others:

“Can I have some wipstick, too, mama?”

I slip into my dress. We clink glasses.

A sitter arrives.

We rush around:

Instructions on formula and bedtime and whether mini may have one or two cookies if she finishes her supper, which I have already placed on the counter, waiting for a quick zap in the microwave:

Buttered orzo, roast chicken, peas — all diced up small for my young son. One of those meals that I know, from the aggregate experience of having prepared every single morsel of food these children have eaten in the past many months, while under quarantine, that they will eat, soundly and without complaint.

Spritzes of perfume. Splintered conversation as we drink sips of champagne, linger in front of the closet mirror, select earrings and belts. Mr. Magpie complaining about what he should wear, tsk-ing me for not letting him know I’d be so dressed up as I slip into an inappropriately formal dress for the occasion —

Wife!” he yells out, in part playful reproach and in part admiration, as I emerge from the closet in my new dress. His head is cocked, though, so I know it’s more of the latter.

We scurry out the door, kissing foreheads and leaving money for pizza and —

We are into the elevator, and everything feels quiet and hopeful as we run past Edwin at the front door:

“A taxi?”

“No thanks, Edwin!”

“Four minutes til the next 1,” Mr. Magpie informs me, grabbing my hand as we walk-run toward the Subway.

We make that stilted New Yorker small-talk on the train: conversation in shorthand or even in silence, locking eyes, for example, over the man leaning against one of the poles, preventing anyone else from comfortably hanging on without rubbing her fists all over his tweed jacket. Mr. Magpie knows, instinctively, why I am making these eyes, and he rolls his own, and grimaces.

We emerge in TriBeCa, or West Village, maybe — ascending to a restaurant that makes us feel terribly alive and in conversation with the world. We note the discreet maitre d’ and the overlong list of complicated cocktails and the $27 appetizers and —

Mainly —

There is my beloved sister and my brother in law, my cousin and her husband, our dearest friends, my Mr. Magpie. All of us at a table, exchanging small-talk and laughter and the occasional hand squeeze or knowing sigh over a perfect meal in the most romantic of cities (when it wants to be).

The clink of glasses, the swish of dresses as my sister and I walk to the restroom, giggling — always! — over inside jokes that mean nothing to anyone but everything to me, her pretty face lit up by the candle at the sink in the restroom mirror —

Oh! Her face, so familiar to me —

It is the slimmest —

most inconsequential —

Of griefs but —


I miss it fiercely, the incandescence of being among people I love, in the embrace of good wine and good food, Mr. Magpie’s arm slung around my shoulder, the way time just slows into a honey trickle of happy conversation and the clank of forks borrowing spears of asparagus on neighboring plates and “could I have another glass, please?”

Surely moments like these will return, but in the pettiest of ways, I find myself grieving their utter irredeemability right now: the lost perfume spritzes, the missing eye rolls over the airhead leaning against the pole on the subway, the absence of clanking glasses, the mirage of my sister’s face in that mirror next to me.

Tout me manque.*

Post Scripts.

*I miss everything.

+The resin of memories.

+Smoke signals — a difficult essay for me to write.

+A fictional story to fall in love with.

If you want more Magpie, you can subscribe to my Magpie Email Digest for a weekly roundup of top essays, musings, conversations, and finds!

Shopping Break.

+We’re hosting a Mexican-themed dinner party this weekend, and I’m making two paletas (popsicles) for dessert: one chocolate-cinnamon and one lime. I’m using this mold set to make them. Both recipes are from this cookbook!

+A perfect LBD.

+This sweet wool bow jacket for a little girl!

+These might SEEM like a lot but they’re totally wearable! I’m contemplating wearing my feathered set to my dinner party. Just pair with a dressy heel and own it.

+My favorite juice glasses. More of my favorite drinkware here, and I also just discovered this chic set of mini tumblers I’d serve wine out of. 12 for $36!

+This scarf jacket is giving Toteme vibes, for under $150.

+Classic Lacoste sweatshirt for boys, on sale.

+These remind me of my Vibi Venezias, but only $30!

+LOVE this top and skirt set.

+Looking at some new Tracksmith for fall — this top and these shorts.

+We have and love these planters on our back patio.

+Fun scallop-trim shams.

+Cute sherpa vest for a little one — $25!

+Another great cropped, woven cardigan.

+Great gifts for littles.

+My favorite audiobooks.

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28 thoughts on “The Slimmest of Griefs.

  1. Loved this post then and love it now. I have mostly pushed down the memories of those months of isolation. I distinctly remember reading this post right after my mother and I had driven into the city for our weekly grocery drop off for my sister (a 22 year old nurse then and I’m proud to say, still a nurse on the same floor now!) — my mom is a true New Yorker and knows that there are a million ways to get from point A to point B in the tri-state area and is always trying to beat traffic. That Wednesday night in April, one of the first mild, sunny-ish, softly breezy nights that Spring, the fastest way to get from the Henry Hudson to my sister’s spot on the UES was to take Broadway all the way down, and then cut across 59th. The craziness! The Billy Joel lyrics “I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway” have never rang more true. On a balmy evening, there was no revelry or traffic or magic in the air of a New York night in Spring. How I wished to be enjoying a glass of wine with my sister in the bar across the street from her apartment, instead of the 10-foot removed wave that had to suffice.

    This is all to say — thank you for always capturing and articulating what so many are feeling!

  2. This is exactly what I’m missing as well, from the admittedly privileged perspective of waiting this out while working comfortably from home. What a beautiful, spot-on description of it! Last weekend I got “fancy” takeout so I decided to get ready as if I were actually eating at that restaurant (my boyfriend did as well!). When I bounded out the door to go pick up the food, I forgot for a split second that I wasn’t actually eating there and it definitely stung to remember that no, I would be back inside in a few minutes. But it will be that much sweeter when those moments return, and in the meantime (inspired in no small part by you!) making the most of home happy hours and dinners does help 🙂

    1. So true. Love the idea of getting dolled up for “fancy” takeout — sounds so fun 🙂


  3. Oh Jen, I LOVE this post! I felt like I was right there, watching that evening unfold (does that sound creepy? Ha!) Your storytelling is a gift, during quarantine and otherwise, but *especially* during quarantine.

    Your arftful use of the em dash… so lovely. The poetry within the prose made me pause. I read and re-read that part wistfully more than a few times, as I thought about the last evening I spent with a good friend B.C. (Before COVID), lingering over dinner and tea with conversation that nourishes my soul, until we were the last ones to leave the restaurant.

    “the incandescence of being among people I love” – YES. A 100x yes.

    Even my two and a half year old, to whom I can’t fully explain the reality of the situation, expresses every single day how she misses this friend and that friend, and all I can say is, oh sweetheart, I miss them so much too.

    It’s exactly what your other reader said: “the slimmest of griefs. Barely giving it space, and yet, knowing it means everything.”

    Yes. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. We can be both grateful and mournful at the same time.

    Thank you for putting all these complex emotions into words, in the unique way that you do.

    1. Hi Mia – You are so right in the way you phrased this: “we can be grateful and mournful at the same time.” That’s so how I feel right now — aware of my blessings and also mourning what I’ve lost. Thanks for this generous note, and for reading along. xx

  4. I so long for this! Your writing is beautiful as always. We will be so grateful for these joys when they return.

  5. Such lovely (and poignant) words. It is so very weird to think about the last time I did quotidian yet such important things: yoga in the studio, a library visit, weekly coffee with my friend who lives less than a mile away. And then just a day later, it all shut down.

    I’m recovering from cancer surgery and radiation treatments and would very much love to be hugged by my friends (and hug my medical providers, who have been so great). Those hugs will have to wait…such strange times. Onward!

    1. Oh, Sherri — so deeply sorry to hear you’ve had to endure these treatments and surgeries without the touch of friends, but — wow! Go you. So brave, so strong, so resilient! You will no doubt enjoy those hugs more than most of us when this is all over.

      Thank you for sharing this. Thinking of you.


  6. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. This puts into words things I did not have the words for – that disquiet that while we are with our families and safe and healthy, that there are monumental things we are missing. I love the way you phrase it – the slimmest of griefs. Barely giving it space, and yet, knowing it means everything. I keep dreaming about the things I look forward to post quarantine and I realize they are all parties, in various ways. But will that even be an option? Will we feel the same? How do we explain to the littles in the future that sense of losing the essence of a thing?

    1. Ahh – yes. I don’t even know how to explain, or if there’s a reason to explain, what’s been lost to our children?! I have to trust that things will return to some kind of normalcy, but maybe it will be like pre- vs post-911 in airports, where we can’t even remember what it was like when we could drop our loved ones off at the gate?

      Thanks for writing in and sharing this experience with me.


  7. I LOVE THIS PIECE. It’s so evocative! Thank you, thank you for reminding us about the simple pleasures of nights out, and giving us hope for future gatherings! They seem so far off at the moment …

    I love that WAYF floral dress! Definitely gives me Horror Vacui vibes 🙂


    1. Thank you, MK! I don’t think I’ll ever take a dinner out with loved ones for granted again…!


    1. Thank you, Dana! So sweet of you to say. I also choked up thinking about my sister in particular. She lives in Brooklyn but it’s like she’s back in London, where she lived for several years prior to relocating here — just too damned FAR from me right now.


  8. Ugh, yes. I keep thinking back to the last restaurant meal I shared with a friend, sitting at the bar of a natural wine place, tasting weird and funky wines. And the last workout I ran with my run group, elbow-to-elbow as we pulled each other through the last tough interval together. The last time I saw my parents, over Christmas (!). All these things, and more.

    1. I know — I know! Sometimes I think back to how blissfully unaware I was, how much I took for granted. A week before we started going into self-quarantine, we were out in Brooklyn with my sister and brother-in-law, drinking rose and laughing and talking about where we might eat out next. AHH! What I’d give for that.


  9. I loved this post, it captured perfectly all the small movements and moments that make for a perfectly lovely evening. Thank you for this ten minute escape into a tbc (time before corona), it is immensely appreciated as I sit at my desk, studying once again, and watch the rain fall.

    1. Hi Charlotte — Thank you so much. It was a poignant escape for me, too, taking the time to think about all the tiny details that used to go into a night out, all the frenzy of getting ready and leaving the children and all that.

      Thank you for taking the time to write in, and for reading along in the first place.

      Good luck with your studies!


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