Time itself becomes unsettling and unfamiliar, an amorphous blur that is also fragmented in new, staccato ways: pockets of time when I squeeze in work, the minutes before the sun is up when the park feels empty enough to run in.
Is today a home day? my four-year-old asks. He’s still fuzzy on what days constitute the weekend, so this is the term of art we’ve adopted in our house to explain whether or not he has to rush to school.
It’s not, I explain, except we will be staying at home, like we have for the past several days, and will do for some time to come. He looks at me like I’m confused. Surely this cannot be the case, his squinting eyes say.
The advice that has been circulating on the internet is right: A schedule is essential. We cling to it—that lone sheet of paper that sits on our dining room table like a talisman from the land of offices in skyscrapers, corporate cafeterias, and laser printers. They have nowhere to go, nothing to do. And yet I hustle us through breakfast. We’re running late, I say as the clock approaches 8:30, and the children, retaining the mad metabolism of the normal work week or just reflecting back my frazzled energy, scramble. It’s important, I feel, to keep on track, though the stakes—what will happen if we derail this schedule—feel both paramount and inconsequential.
I’ve turned the TV room into my “office” and when I pass off childcare duties, I retreat and tell the kids that they’re not allowed to enter. It doesn’t work, of course. They sidle in, sneak into the periphery of my Zoom meetings, or sit in my lap and stare blankly at the Brady Bunch-like grid of faces assembled in our virtual conference room.
My husband does his calls in the car.
In the afternoon, when the sun hits the west side of the house, I crawl out the window to sit on the roof, where I can see the signs of life that are persisting in the city: a masked runner keeping pace with his kid as he rides his bike; a man who swabs down the garbage can outside the bodega with a mop—a sight I have never before seen; buses rattling over the potholes on Brooklyn’s Church Avenue. A cardinal and blue jay seem to hang out in the tree that shelters the roof, and this, too, is a new sight to me. A tow truck drives by, pulling a car behind it, and I think—despite the news, despite the overwhelming nature of everything—about Auden’s poem, “Musee de Beaux Arts”:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
Each night after the kids are in bed, I sit down with their workbooks and books of mazes. Dear kids, I write in block-letter print so they can try to read, Can you do three mazes, three math worksheets, and trace your hand for me? Love, Mom. I think that they ignore these notes, but it comforts me to write them. The dining room table has become their school—I try to get them to call it their “super cool school,” but they’re not having it. They may not know how to tie their shoes, but they suffer no fools.
Inexplicably—except, I know how it happened; they are voracious!—we are out of peanut butter and pasta.
When it rains, I give the kids crafts to do from a pile of appropriately aged projects that I’ve panic bought from Amazon. By the end of the week, we have made soap, beaded keychains, a cape decorated with press-on stickers, and three wooden cars. The kids ask if they can bring their creations to bed with them.
At the end of one overcast day, we put on our jackets and boots and shuffle around the block, keeping a safe distance from anyone we encounter. This grim march under the stony skies is clearly not what any of us want to be doing, but I feel the need for fresh air and whatever tiny shafts of vitamin D we can absorb. The two-year-old looks up at me with his wise little eyes, discerning my mood, and asks, You okay mama?
I’m not sure how to answer him.