I am heavy on quarantine, feeding myself with abandon those comforting and delicious foods that were forbidden in the before-times: often starchy, laced with fat, sugar, and salt, and served with something foamy and fizzy and of a decently strong ABV to quell my constant, low- to mid-grade panic at the world falling apart around us.
Not all of my consumption has been driven by the existential crisis of pandemic. But pandemic has carved out time—time for food. The district where I’m a high school teacher moved to distance learning in March, per the state mandate. My husband was still working as a delivery driver, but I was teaching from home, and my two middle school sons were learning from home, and we suddenly had nowhere to shuttle anyone to late each day. The old relentless schedule used to leave us rushing home most evenings to throw whatever together for dinner or grabbing at takeout to inhale before homework and bedtime.
Suddenly we were home all day, every day. I would rise each morning, steeling myself for the challenges of distance teaching, while simultaneously managing the boys’ distance learning. After my stretch of office hours in the afternoon, I would answer emails, try to plan for the next day, and be pretty much done and clapping down the lid of my laptop by 3:00 p.m., having worked through lunch and breaks.
I loved that feeling that came next: the thrill and exhilaration of these new slivers of freedom, nonexistent in the old days. Being done with one thing back then just meant moving onto the next. But on quarantine in the spring, the boys and I would hop on our bikes and head to the nearby disc golf course, where they’d play two rounds, alleviating some of the scritchiness of sitting around doing online school all day. I would sit in a shady spot in the grass and do the day’s New York Times crossword and ponder: What should I feed the family for dinner?
There was finally time; time to dig into my freezer for the things I never remembered to defrost before returning home at 7:30 p.m. pre-quarantine. On lockdown, I could lay out ingredients, sharpen knives, assess the many delicious applications for rice flour and hot sauce, marvel at the magic of good olive oil, and— oh, what the heck—give over to the pasta and bread with butter I’d tried to limit so my favorite outfits would fit. We made “real” breakfasts several times a week, instead of just on the weekends: oatmeal with berries and brown sugar; French toast or waffles or pancakes on a Wednesday; bacon.
I was pleased when the boys remarked, “Wow! You’re such a good cook, Mom.” Over one particularly successful and tasty dinner of slow-roasted chicken and garlic mashed potatoes on a Tuesday night, even my stoic husband admitted, “This is awesome.”
Aside from the bike rides, I wasn’t doing much of anything active. I was on trend in my stretchy joggers and yoga pants, but I was not doing one lick of jogging or yoga, choosing instead to scroll endlessly through social media and news feeds, reading, consuming, commenting, posting ad nauseum.
And then the police killed George Floyd.
I couldn’t stop thinking and reading about the murder; but I also couldn’t bring myself to watch the video. A small, hard kernel of fear started to develop in my thinking and perspective. Protests were breaking out across the nation, across the state, and right in our own town. Every night for weeks, there were screaming police sirens, mysterious far-off booms and thuds, even nights with mandatory curfews. Unhoused people were sheltering in place outside the shuttered elementary school behind our house, as well as all along the bike path to the grocery store a half-mile away.
As the fear grew, food for me changed from idyllic, post-worthy procrasti-baking goalz and “effortless,” Ina Garten-esque, home-cooked family dinners to something with a thick, furtive layer of chaos and desperation: beers by myself late at night to wash down handfuls of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos devoured during soothing episodes of A Chef’s Table after my husband and the boys had fallen asleep; extra strong martinis mixed for the glitchy spotlight of Zoom “happy hours” that ended those weeks when the boys and I had gone from, “I love you” to “I’m sick of you” and back, over and over again; dark chocolate bars I nonchalantly tossed into the grocery cart only to gobble them up later like a fiend during dinner prep to stop myself from thinking of my husband’s ever-possible COVID exposure at work, or of my half-Samoan sons ever being pulled over by the police, or of what exactly that unhoused man out back was screaming, and to whom.
The new anarchy around food started a kind of avalanche inside me, cracking and crumbling my most basic daily routines. I started falling asleep in front of the TV, skipping my usual bedtime tasks. When I did drag myself to bed, I would brush my teeth, but bag on washing my face and flossing. I stopped prepping the coffee the night before, waiting instead until morning and crowding my husband as he rushed around getting ready for actual work out in the world. I avoided my button-and-zipper pants.
I ate whatever I wanted whenever the hell I felt like it, because the world was locked down, and panic, boredom, uncertainty all felt like hunger. But I never did feel full.
I finally stepped onto a scale after almost five months at home: up fifteen pounds.
I could feel every one of them—attached to my haunches and rear end; wrapped around my waist and hips and back; clinging along my cheeks and jawline; wobbling a little from under my arms and chin.
I thought of the TV show Naked and Afraid, in which two survivalists are partnered and pitted against an inhospitable environment, literally stripped of all clothing and accessories, and left with only a map, two survival items of their choice, and each other to try and survive twenty-one days out in the open.
Some contestants arrive already lean, muscular, sinewy, ready to use grit and brute, physical strength to survive the extreme elements, threatening predators, and sometimes days and days with no food and little water. They hustle about, constantly on the hunt for anything to eat.
Other contestants arrive more plump and padded. It wasn’t until a behind-the-scenes episode that I learned this is a strategy—bulking up so the body has stores to survive on during the twenty-one-day challenge. These contestants often find shade and keep still in the sweltering heat; they are sometimes seen as lazy by their partners. But they survive.
I started to wonder if that was what my body and I were up to when pandemic went from fun-ish to surreal; if I wasn't feeding myself in anticipation of danger, until all those fifteen pounds had me wrapped in a chubby, Armageddon-ready cocoon of safety.
I would not be gristly or quick at first in the apocalypse, but I would have energy stores to gather my family, wait and hide, and to strategize for what to do and how to move when my stores ran out.
I venture my heavy self into reopening for a rescheduled dental exam and cleaning. My teeth are fine and strong, but my gums are an unusually tender mess.
As for the rest of me, my knees and hips ache; I worry and wonder often if my hands and feet are swollen; my complexion is sallow and dry some days. It’s Phase 1 reopening, and people want to see me in person. I am gripped with self-consciousness and embarrassment. Tops that seemed loose and forgiving last summer hug the slight, bisected bulge at the waist of my pants. My favorite belt barely fits at the first hole. I cave and buy a half-dozen inexpensive things for summer, all a size up from a year ago.
I never develop a sourdough starter, but we live almost all the other quarantine clichés, including adding a dog to the family: a German Shepherd named Thor, seventy-five pounds and smart as a whip. He is the perfect third point to triangulate the boys out of their quarantine hostage situation with each other.
They are wonderful with him; just the right age to self-manage the walking, feeding, brushing, and loving-on of a dog-brother. They even manage poop patrol with little complaint.
In his previous situation, the dog spent long stretches of time home alone and had little routine socializing. While sweet and friendly in general, he is reactive in new situations, especially ones where there are other dogs on-leash while he’s walking on-leash, and that reaction presents as barking and pulling, hackles raised and ready to defend. It appears quite vicious.
In his first weeks with us, the boys feel so uncertain about this behavior, they avoid walk times when they know other dogs will be out. They stay on high alert for dogs a block away and turn away from any possible run-ins.
I remember these tactics with another big dog my husband and I had before the boys were born. I hid him out and avoided socialization, and it turned into a very canine-solitary life for that sweet beast. I regret it to this day.
I tell the boys, we can teach ourselves some strategies to help the dog be more successful on these outings. But we must not avoid contact, or he will never learn how to feel safe and be with other dogs. We have to set the dog up for success.
All of this is to say that I already knew it was a terrible idea to hide my heavy self away, to just stay in and keep feeding my fear and loneliness. I knew that part of getting up and out of it was to be in the real world, to be in contact.
So, in that spirit of contact, I agreed to a meet-up with friends for a hike. I was so, so out of shape, I didn’t know why I agreed to it, except that I really love these friends and the prospect of seeing people in person was thrilling.
The kids tore ahead. I worried that I’d be the slowest one, that I’d hold the other moms back, that I’d spend the whole time sucking wind and needing breaks.
I was right.
But one of the moms said she had to stop all drinking for thirty days, that she put eight pounds on her own tiny frame in a very short stretch of time. And the other mom said she didn’t want to have to give up drinking for a month.
I felt such relief wash over me as I continued panting my way up the mountain.
That hike and getting my teeth cleaned finally gave me a foothold. I steadied myself, downloaded a habit-tracking app, and set the following goals for a month-long stretch:
- Floss every night before brushing.
- Prep the coffee the night before.
- Weigh in three times a week.
- Fall asleep in the bedroom, not in the living room.
The goals were just enough accountability and necessary self-care to snap me up and out of the catastrophizing. I lugged myself around gently as I could, trying to remember that, for me, discipline in small changes of habit always accumulates and eventually petrifies into something steely, something strong.
I still didn’t feel nearly strong enough when a million acres of Oregon caught fire, and warm winds whipped sparks up and over the mountains to the coast, where my in-laws were evacuated at 4:00 a.m. the Tuesday after Labor Day. Those fires clouded the skies in orangey, apocalyptic dread during teachers’ back-to-school preparations. Sitting in a Zoom training at home, trying not to breathe in the smoke seeping sneakily through the tiny gaps around door jambs and windowsills, I thought, Is there really any point to building Canvas modules when it feels like all hell is literally breaking loose?
But I do what I can and brace myself. I just keep trying to feed myself a little bit of lifeline every day, something with which to pull myself up out of this small rut of dreck and chaos. I feed my soul with poems. I feed my heart, knowing how lucky I am to have these days at home with my sons. I draw. I feed my intellect with crosswords and jigsaw puzzles and hard copy book-reading, not just scrolling. I text and call my family and friends, even when—especially when—I just want to sit in front of the TV. I feed my health with granny water aerobics in a swimming pool under these clear, still-sunshiny autumn skies. I move every part of my body and feel free. I feed my ego with selfies when I feel like the light makes me beautiful. I feed my family delicious meals that I take my time making. I mentally close the kitchen every night and try to know that all of this is fullness, satiety, a stable spot from which to figure out next moves. I try not to let fear sharpen my hunger.
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