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$Monday: Home on the Battery Range

It's the last week of summer vacation in Michigan before the children plug in their Chromebooks for remote school. I'm ready to say goodbye to this heartbreaking season split between isolation and crowd madness--no, I don't mean the protests for racial justice, which we enthusiastically support--I mean, the raging road trips that Midwesterners have binged on in a tragic attempt to escape the reality of our temporary but difficult pandemic circumstance. While many of our friends and extended family have spent their summers and their stimulus checks partying "Up North" this summer--and two of my husband's loved ones died doing it--my little household and a small but strong cohort of our friends and family have committed to keep on staying home, staying safe, and taking smaller risks out of consideration for others in our communities. Not only did we opt out of all travel this summer, including road trips, we emptied our savings to reinvest in the future by upgrading our old electric car to a newer one--one that still can't go over 90 miles on a charge. This helps us avoid temptation to venture out of town before we really should.

This choice to accept reality, welcome the opportunity to handle less-than-fun emotions, cut our losses, and focus on the future has not been a popular one around here. We've felt the pressure to "lighten up" and prioritize others' immediate emotional wants over our safety and the common good, but I am proud of us, and grateful for the strength of my husband and tiny team of conscientious family and friends, for not caving. We don't care that gas prices are low or that my immediate family is not at a high risk of serious illness from coronavirus. The possibility of our asymptomatic cootie-spreading killing other people at every pit stop is a real buzzkill for us, and there's no point in taking a vacation that's more stressful than reading a book in the hammock at home. We never set out to "take advantage" of a pandemic to have extra good times at a discount. And now, grief has a way of putting all other negative feelings, like boredom or FOMO, into perspective.

As a mother, I am glad that we've made it to the end of this summer without losing control and trying to attend family reunions or trips to Michigan's feverishly hot recreational spots. I've said no to having a neighbor child over at my house, and my daughter has appreciated my care for her safety. She has had a few opportunities to see friends in outdoor, socially distanced settings like a walk, a park outing, and conversations with neighbor kids all staying a few feet back from the property lines in their own backyards. Not too many and not too often, because it's hard for kids to maintain personal space. We've regularly visited her grandparents' house a ten-minute walk down the road, but only for short and distanced meetings outside. I've let my daughter be bored sometimes, which is healthy and rare these days, and I've also let her have all the screen time she wants, much of which she uses to play games and chat with friends on Roblox. Her typing skills are fantastically improved. I have invited her to help with more household chores, which she gladly does, and transformed her bedroom into a preteen boho-princess haven of her own design, where she lounges with her cat curled up next to her on the bed. There's something to be said for having a place to endure boredom and loneliness in comfort and style. I have avoided the pressure to organize a pod or to micromanage the daylights out of my daughter's schedule, and that has worked out fine for us.

I won't say that our choices have made us happy this summer. We haven't been happy to miss out on adventures or to be excluded from the social lives of those who don't care about or believe in the pandemic. But we are proud of ourselves and fortified by the knowledge that we have successfully avoided further tragedy and heartbreak, not just for ourselves but for countless others, by withstanding temptations to throw caution to the wind in the search for fatal escapism.

Not everyone has been so fortunate. My husband is now grieving the losses of a family member and an old friend, both physically strong, young, intensely beloved people, to separate drowning accidents while on Up North road trips. We don't know many details about one of the incidents, but in the other, it involved a large group of people egging each other on to power through illness and exhaustion to drive all over the country, partying harder and harder and thinking up wilder and wilder stunts, supposedly in the interest of making this summer epically fun for the children. There were a number of astonishing decisions made leading up to the tragedy that would have been horrifying in normal times, but these are not normal times. They are crazy-making. We are losing people all over the place before the virus has even caught up with them.

The hottest trend on my social media feeds is now crowdfunding pages for funeral costs. I kind of expected that to happen by now, but I didn't realize that almost none of them would be directly due to Covid-19 itself.

And this is no time for a funeral, which only compounds the grief and loss.

Years ago, when there were not plagues or recreational area stampedes, my husband and I went on a beautiful trip to a cabin on Lake Michigan with two friends. Below is a picture I took at one of our beach bonfires. It's a cherished, happy memory, and I look forward to the time when we can make more--with anyone and everyone we love--because life and death are unpredictable. Nobody knows how much time we have left. One of the beautiful young men in this picture became ill a few years later and passed away.

Below is a picture of my daughter flying a kite with another child at the gorgeous memorial gathering for our friend. This, too, is a cherished and beautiful memory, though a sad one. It's a great comfort to see and touch and cry and talk and sing and share memories with others in mourning.

It's a different level of pain to mourn someone whose death was completely unnecessary and preventable, at a time when gathering with others at a traditional funeral is to court further tragedy.

But we're staying strong, for our daughter and all others who depend on us, because there are things more important than trying to make ourselves (and others) feel better in this moment, at all costs.

Yesterday my mom called and told me that she and my dad had been invited to share a packed cabin on the coast for a weekend of recreation with people from all over the country, including some who have recently been on a cross-country, not-socially-distanced road trip to a coronavirus hot spot for an in-person family funeral at which mourners admittedly hugged and cried sloppy face juices all over each other. (It was a death of despair, another young person felled by a preventable cause before Covid-19 could even get to the family.) From a distance, this is another striking example of how the drive to meet immediate emotional needs can spiral tragically out of control. It may sound callous of me to point this out, but it's literally a life-or-death choice to acknowledge or sugar-coat these dynamics right now.

I told my mom that she could use me as an excuse and tell her friend that I "wouldn't let them" go. My mom worried that her friend would think I was judgmental, controlling, or heartless. I told my mom, "I don't give any f***s what your friend thinks of me, so use me as an excuse if you want." She paused and then decided not to use me as an excuse because she wanted to be a person who doesn't give any f***s if her friend thinks she's lame for holding a reasonable boundary to protect herself--and her elderly mother, for whom she cares, and her children and granddaughter, who really want her to skip "living life to the fullest" at this one stupid moment so that she can actually live a long and full life. I am so proud of my mom, who is not accustomed to standing up for herself. I take heart that maybe my hard-assed attitude about survival is encouraging others to toughen up.

I have my own guiding lights who inspire me to remain in the fight together, though apart. My best girlfriend is a fun-loving social butterfly who lives alone--so holding the line has got to be harder for her than it is for me, and yet she's rocking it. I have seen her in person exactly two times since lockdown in March, outside in my front yard, more than ten feet away. Neither one of us has been perfect about following safety protocols at all times, but both of us have taken it more seriously than most other people we know. I miss her, and I wish I could hug her and laugh with her, unmasked and close, in each other's homes or out at theaters and restaurants, but I am grateful that we've both done so well, because I have less to worry about and don't feel so alone in my efforts. I know that this time is incredibly tough on her and even tougher on so many other people who aren't as lucky as we are to have safe homes and secure jobs that we can work from home. And cute kitty cats to cuddle. I long for the day that I can give my best friend of 21 years a squeeze and squish my teary cheek against hers. Meanwhile, I am looking forward to enjoying each other's company for the rest of our hopefully long and eventful lives. 

Buying a practical car that's only good for getting my family around town isn't the most fun or exciting way we could have spent our money this summer, but we feel right about it. We feel grateful for what we have. We feel responsible for shoring up our future so that our blessings don't go to waste. And we feel more than ready to face another year or two without roller-coasters, bowling balls, sticky movie theater floors, or restaurants with patrons screaming wetly at televised sportsball games. We can do this! 

We're even okay with not traveling to see out-of-town family for a while longer. We'd rather see more of them alive at the end of this pandemic, which will come around at some point. We're holding our boundaries, not because it's fun for us, but because we can, and we believe that it's worth it in the long run. We can have a lot of good times in the future if we can only make it there--to a future in which it's reasonably safe again to carpool or rent any kind of vehicle we want to drive for the weekend. Until then, it's no time to play ride or die. We can get by on internal strength and simple pleasures, and it will be so good to see each other on the other side.


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