• katherine halligan

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

For our 21st wedding anniversary, which is traditionally celebrated with a gift of nickel, I bought my husband and myself matching keychains. Hanging alongside the actual nickel there is a medallion made of nickel, which is engraved — along with our initials and wedding date — with the words “21 down, forever to go”. This made me laugh, because it sounded as if it were a prison sentence — and humour is a large part of how we’ve made it this far.

Half a year after I first fell in love with my husband and we became inseparable, I turned to him as we were celebrating that milestone and said, wonderingly, “Six months, and I’m not bored yet!” He has never let me live it down, and it has become the thing we say to each other every anniversary. And, after 23 years together (21 of which formally hitched), I can still say — truthfully — that I’m not bored yet… and I doubt I ever will be, even if we lived a thousand years. So the idea of forever works just fine for me, because our marriage is many things, but it is never boring.

This is in part because he is an unending source of amusing anecdotes about his own life and about the world. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear some new tale from the three decades of his life before we met, or the things that happen to him when he hops onto his motorbike and heads off into the unknown. (The tales may not always actually be new, but we might just be getting to the point where I’m starting to forget things I heard twenty years ago, so the old news is cycling around to become new again.) Not a day goes by that he doesn’t share some tale about the wider world, which he soaks up voraciously by reading at least three periodicals daily (Irish, British and American) and then retains with an extraordinary recall that means I will never be able to recycle my own stories.

Our children have inherited both his incredible ability to absorb and retain information — a trait that is especially noticeable in our older daughter — and his astonishing capacity in his early years to get into mischief — a trait that is especially and almost exclusively noticeable in our younger daughter.

As I have shared in many a prior post, my parenting during this pandemic has become rather sloppy. As I’ve slid from an attentive, thoughtful, involved, details-oriented mother (indeed, what my older daughter would argue inclined towards the helicopter variety) toward the sort of mother who… well… isn’t, I’ve noticed a change in my children (of course). And I try to assuage the guilt about the sloppiness with the knowledge that perhaps they’re benefitting from having less than 100% of my attention.

They’re at an age where naturally they want and need more independence, but because we’re all in the same space almost all of the time these days, it’s so much harder to come by. They don’t get to disappear off to school all day, five days a week, where goodness only knows what happens (though I have an inkling — for, as I often remind them to their unending surprise, I was once a kid too). They don’t get to go on playdates at other people’s houses without me; instead the mothers chat on the patio or park bench, while the children play outdoors, not necessarily overheard but certainly always watched. So, more often than they ever have before, they usually just play in their rooms, alone.

I do, too. One of my favourite ways of carving out time and space for myself these days is a newly revitalised ritual. Early on, after reading a few stories with them following lunch, I would announce that it was Quiet Time. We all needed it, to recover from the morning’s tech-induced tantrums (both mine and theirs) and to gather ourselves for whatever the afternoon had in store — usually a concerted effort on my part to make things more interesting, which has become ever more exhausting as the pandemic drags on. So each afternoon I lie down for Quiet Time for half an hour, something I haven’t done regularly since my younger child napped and my non-napping older child would watch TV very quietly next to me, and I would drift off to the jolly sounds of The Octonauts. Then, it was sanity-saving bliss to succumb to the sheer exhaustion of parenting tiny children and allow myself twenty minutes of restorative rest. These days — despite being exhausted — I don’t manage to sleep, because many of my senses remain keenly attuned to what might be going on in the next room. For it is in these brief moments that utter mayhem unfolds.

I cannot allow the quiet to lull me into a false sense of security and thus to sleep for, in fact, the quieter the noise levels, the greater the ensuing chaos, and the less relaxing my own quiet time becomes. Eventually, if I’m not dragged from my bed to resolve the shrieking sibling squabbles that have become a regular occurrence in our house since we’ve all been forced to spend far too much time in it, I am forced out by my worry that whatever silence is reigning is an ominous one. And, unless I’ve allowed them yet more screen time, it almost always is.

It’s my own fault, really, for leaving my children to entertain themselves in the midst of a time during which true entertainment is at a seriously low ebb. Although 2020 has been anything but boring in the sheer scale and scope of its drama, it’s also been the year in which, paradoxically, we have plumbed the depths of a profound boredom we have never before experienced. As our springtime energy and positivity dwindled, while the news became ever more shocking and dire, we lived in a bizarre state of extreme mental weariness, which only got worse once school ended for the summer. Locked down and locked in, all our days began to look and feel the same: Sunday was scarcely any different than Tuesday or Friday. Despite my superhuman efforts to the contrary, our days were one flat, prairie-like expanse of… not much at all. I had never really heard my children whine those iconic words, “I’m bored!”, until this eternal summer, when it became an almost constant cry.

Initially, boredom had a novelty value all its own. None of us had ever really, truly experienced it before, normally being people of the adventure-seeking sort. It was actually kind of fun to have nothing to do, so we embraced it wholeheartedly, as we do all new things. We watched a TON of TV because we could! We played video games because we could! We lazed around because we could! But the lustre wore off quickly, of course, and we became restless. As the boredom got worse, so too did my ability to invent fun activities to counter it. But, in my own defense, this new sensation of boredom, hitherto unknown in our home, was punctuated by many moments of joy and wonder. What my children seem to remember, however, is the boredom.

What I shall remember are their attempts to entertain themselves.

My children have always been extremely good at inventing their own fun, a skill set which has stood them in excellent stead during these lonely, locked-down times.

With only each other for company most days, they held tea parties, played games, cooked meals, rediscovered old toys. They wrote stories, made jewelry, held talent shows, rearranged their rooms, prepared picnics. They set up spa days — complete with hot stones — and gave us all makeovers. They dyed their hair, and mine. They poured an entire bottle of bubblebath into the tub — and then turned on the jets, all in the name of science. From remaking Freaky Friday with a sister pair swapping places (filming stopped due to creative differences), to fashion shows, dance competitions and art projects, much of what they did was clever and creative.

Much of what they did was also to make pure, old-fashioned mischief, which is after all simply a different kind of creativity. Our seven-year-old has a particular knack for creatively entertaining herself. Early on in the quarantine, when we were all on full lockdown, only venturing out of our house for walks in our empty park, she ran away. Of course she did. Any sensible person would attempt to escape their prison, especially one in which they’d been incarcerated so unfairly: she’d done nothing wrong, so why was she being locked up? She carefully packed her little pink suitcase, sensibly filling it with books, a fully equipped first-aid kit (our children are exceptionally good at injuring themselves, so she was able to include splints, slings and removable casts), toothbrushes (three of them), toothpaste (two tubes of), and her baby dolls (all seven). Luckily her suitcase was so heavy it slowed her down, and after steaming along for a couple of blocks — her sister and I following a safe distance behind her — she began to regret her course of action, and in the end was mightily relieved that I was there to help her get that suitcase — and her small self — back home.

Like Mr. Frumbee the zookeeper in Hilary Knight’s brilliant classic Where’s Wallace?, I deliberately left the cage door open with a wry and knowing smile. I let her go, because she needed to go, just as I have turned a semi-blind eye to her other lockdown capers, because she has needed to express her anger and frustration and sadness, all of which have been in abundance of late. For all of us.

Once she began to resign herself to her confinement, she took it upon herself to make her prison cell a jollier, more colourful place. Not content to draw on paper or her body — though this happened almost daily as well (and so I can tell you that even washable markers are surprisingly difficult to wash off of flesh)— she drew on furniture, carpets and walls, little treasures I am still discovering in odd, hidden places around the house. She experimented with makeup daily (mine of course; most of it is now reduced to multi-coloured dust). She painted her nails (and ruined my favourite towels in the process). She fashioned a swing out of a scarf and hung it on the bedroom door, creating a whole evening of entertainment for herself and her sister. After a lecture from her father about what might happen if she pulled the door off its frame and onto her small personage, she tried the same thing with a (smaller, safer) cabinet door, which was a less successful venture — especially for the cabinet.

When she ran out of road (and wall space), she discovered how much fun she could have with scissors. First, she cut holes in her clothes, and mine. Then, she cut her doll's hair, leaving little clumps of synthetic black hair everywhere. Not content with that result, she cut her own hair, leaving larger clumps of beautiful brown hair everywhere. She has so much hair to spare, though, I didn’t even notice she was missing any until I started discovering those clumps in the bin, under her bed, in my closet. Undeterred, she cut herself bangs. Only a cute seven-year-old can really pull off the “I’ve been attacked by a hedge trimmer look” — and pull it off she did, with her usual flair — but then after a few days she decided she wasn’t thrilled with the results.

And so, dear reader, she cut her bangs OFF.

“Silly woman!” I hear you say. “Hide the scissors!” But we had. She found them. Again and again. All of them. We hid them higher, further, better, until eventually she gave up. Like a river overflowing its dam, her need to create mayhem overflowed the banks, so without the scissors to entertain herself, she turned her creative attentions elsewhere and, finally — finally! — began settling down enough to create art and stories and to play her imaginary games once more. Once expressed, the river of her grief and anger settled back into its banks, and she flowed more easily again.

For, like the running away, the hair cutting is, apparently, a sign of grief in children.

And she had much to grieve for. This year the walls have closed in even as all the boundaries of her former life dissolved. She lost all that was familiar, bar her home and her family, whom she has come to resent for our over-familiarity and our omnipresence. Without her older sister’s more sophisticated understanding of time, she cannot imagine an end to this (and sometimes neither can we). Without her sister’s ability to type and communicate with her friends virtually, she has been unspeakably lonely (and sometimes so have we). I have tried hard to play like a seven-year-old, but despite getting down on the floor and throwing myself into it wholeheartedly, I just wasn’t quite fun enough.

So just as I let her run away, I have also let her push boundaries. I’ve let her plumb the depths of her boredom to see where it would lead. Because it’s been well established by people who know far more about this than I that boredom is good for children’s imaginations. Naturally creative, their minds slowly fill with new ideas when they are allowed to quiet and settle. Our former lives had so much busyness and noise and go that there wasn't much room for our children to come up with their own thoughts. Of course they played alone in their rooms, because they each love their imaginary games. And as they would work through their experiences, both bad and good, they processed their days and their emotions. But when nothing much happened, there was less to process, and fewer sources for their imaginations to tap into and spin into play. Toward the end of the summer, as they became engulfed by their boredom, their play became decidedly less playful, which was truly heartbreaking, for a child who doesn’t play or laugh is but a shadow of themselves.

Before the pandemic drove us into a near-perpetual state of ennui, we lived in a near-perpetual state of externally propelled fun and entertainment, so we felt the limitations of lockdown even more profoundly. Living right here in America’s playground for the last three years, where world-famous amusement parks are almost literally on our doorstep, where beaches and zoos and hiking trails and entertainment of every possible kind abound, I had become a bit lazy about providing fun for them. We needed only to walk out the door and drive between six and twenty-six minutes in any direction, and we could surrender ourselves to those pay-to-play sources of fun, for hours on end. That quieter, more internal source of fun on which we’d relied in rainy old England — where we’d been forced to play indoors nearly daily — was lost as we let the professional Imagineers steer us around all sorts of happy places. Our own imaginations dried up a bit, as our creative juices stopped flowing so readily.

Our failure of imagination was more temporary and far less serious than the one we are suffering as a society on a national level (and possibly a global one). The isolation we are experiencing individually is more easily remedied than the isolationism espoused by the current U.S. administration. Our lack of creativity and problem-solving at home has been reversed in recent weeks, just as I hope our societal one will be reversed in the coming months and years.

So just as we need a national (and possibly global) reckoning, we have also undergone a personal one. Coming back indoors, quieting down, and taking time to reflect was good for us in may ways: we needed to slow down in order to remember how to make our own fun again. But neither can anyone be truly creative in a vacuum, and that’s where we’ve all been living for too long to count now. We need other humans, and our interactions with them, to fuel the fires of our inner worlds. We need things to happen — not the daily horror show that is unfolding on a national level, but real, vital things that connect us to the world around us.

It was with this in mind that we decided to allow our children to return to school, rather than place them in the far safer “virtual academy” that over 2,000 families in our district have chosen. They crave concrete social stimulation that we just can’t give them, because however young at heart we may be, we aren’t seven or ten. They need to learn from a real teacher, not some two-dimensional face on a screen. School is fun, in its traditional, bricks-and-mortar form; online stuff — from TV to games to chatting with friends — is fun. But school + online does not equal fun, for the school-ness plus the online-ness cancels out the fun-ness, and instead it all simply becomes the most boring TV show you’ve ever seen.

So, two mornings a week, I send them off to be less bored. And, as we venture out into the world and begin to reconnect with our imaginations and our creative juices begin to flow again, I can see the wheels of my children’s imaginations, their own internal sense of playfulness and fun, begin to turn once more. They are playing in their rooms, rather than sitting bored in front of screens. They are processing their days, however brief and limited they are. They are seeing themselves as part of a broader world and finding their place in it, rather than feeling lost in the tiny world of our home. On the days they are limited to home learning, while we tentatively reopen in our hybrid model, I can see their creativity taking shape in a healthier, less destructive direction. Our younger daughter transforms the less exciting elements of online school by pretending she is teaching her lessons to younger children, by working upside down, by singing as she reads, by using silly accents. Our older daughter is writing poetry and seeking it out to read, and dancing around the house like a butterfly.

Their wings are unfurled once more. Their lights are back on. They are happy again.

However long this reopening lasts — because winter is coming — they will have had a brief respite from their boredom. I, in turn, am enjoying this respite from their creativity, which has been devastating in its breadth and scope. Our house looks like a hurricane has hit it — the one natural disaster we have been spared thus far, in this time of fire and plague — but this tells us, at least, that they are having adventures again (albeit of the quieter, indoor variety), and so we accept the extra mess and chaos as part of our new normal.

Because at least they aren’t bored anymore. And I see that, thanks to them, I was never really allowed to become bored.

So it remains true that I’m really not bored yet.

And as the mother of these two daughters, and the wife of this husband, I don’t think I ever will be.

  • katherine halligan

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

This morning I went running — now there’s a euphemism if ever there was one — for the first time since 2009. Luckily, the intervening years were spent almost constantly dashing after small people — sometimes quite quickly, depending on the magnitude of the danger into which they were flinging themselves with gay abandon — so it was surprisingly less painful than I had imagined it might be. I loped along, delighted with myself and ready to conquer the world… for the first 90 seconds.

As it got increasingly difficult, as I could feel my face flush, and my knees protest, and my lungs burn, and I began to imagine all the various parts of my unfit body that would make themselves excruciatingly loudly known to me tomorrow, I was struck by some of the well-worn metaphors and cliches that athletes and sports writers have at their disposal. Each tiny rise and fall in the ground made my journey harder, but it also made it better: the prettiest part of the park is at the top of a small slope, so my efforts up that (baby) hill were rewarded by the loveliest view. For, after all, there are few rewards without pain. I felt the fear and did it anyway. I just… did it.

I actually did it on something of a whim — so in fact I did just do it — but it’s also been a long time coming. Since lockdown began over six months ago, although I have managed to provide my children with ample opportunity for exercise, my own fitness has gone from fair-to-middling to downright terrible, not least because now instead of running to stop a child from whatever mischief or danger they are engaged in, I just shout across the room. And the longer the restrictions continue, the more the mischief, so the more the shouting. (Yesterday it was my older child, wielding a box cutter and unwittingly threatening to dismember more than just the package she was attempting to open.) No one likes the shouting, least of all me, but sometimes it just has to be done.

I feel the same way about intense exercise in general and running in particular: it’s a necessary evil. Just like politics.

Which thought leads to me to where I’ve been chugging (and puffing) all along: I must confess to the tiniest moment of schadenfreude this morning on learning the news that the universe might be attempting to teach a certain someone a certain lesson. My epicaricacy (for that is the rather obscure English equivalent of schadenfreude, and it is just as appropriately fun to say) lasted just the teensiest, weensiest micro-second… and then I slapped myself briskly back into my usual compassionate mode, and it was over. (But first, my friends, it was there.)

In literature, villains are often offered a moment of redemption, when they see the errors of their ways before it is too late; other times, they simply get their comeuppance. Based on the evidence of other right-leaning villains who might have learnt a lesson after their COVID-induced brushes with mortality but didn’t — BoJo in Britain, Bolsonaro in Brazil (the alliteration is also rather conveniently literary) — there isn’t frankly much hope that this particularly vile villain will come out the other side more aware, more sympathetic, or more humbled by this experience. (But hope springs eternal, and I do hope he sees the error of his ways.) We shall see which way things go for our antagonist in the latest chapter of this horror story that is being written. (I often imagine a rather satisfying epilogue, in which he takes up residency in another big house, also sponsored by the government, wearing a snazzy one-piece suit whose shade nicely matches his makeup and hair.) But maybe, just maybe, this morning’s news will make even just a few of his followers begin to question their own refusal to put on a mask and slow the spread, and that would be a victory indeed.

Let me be clear: I do not feel any joy at anyone’s suffering, because no one — however awful their behaviour — deserves to suffer. I feel despair at anyone and everyone’s suffering, which means that these days I am exhausted; I have such a bleeding heart that there are days lately when it feels like it’s hanging in tattered shreds. So I hope I’m not a completely bad person for thinking, “They told you so.”

Nice guys — we must fervently hope — do not always finish last. Good things come to those who wait (and goodness knows, Joe’s waited). And speaking of waiting, I waited over ten years to re-immerse myself in running (no, let’s call it what it is: jogging/ stumbling/ shuffling), but I am glad I did it. I ran (jogged/ stumbled/ shuffled) over a mile today, and it felt very, very good. My efforts this morning were rewarded not just by a smug sense of superiority (a dose of which I’m also hoping for at dawn on November 4), but by my smallest running partner — for we did it, as we do most things these days, en famille — presenting me with a beautiful bouquet of morning glories, resplendent in shades of deep purple and the richest blue (is that a prophetic blue? Again, we must fervently hope), and saying, “Good job, Mommy”.

And I thought about how that little bouquet of joy was also a bouquet of hope: hope for my restored fitness and for a restored country, hope that what seems impossible is actually within reach, that after this deep valley the view from the mountaintop will be so much more glorious. That the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

  • katherine halligan

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

This morning I dropped off my children at school — at actual, real, physical school — and so I am now sitting at my desk (MY desk! MINE!), for the second time since the eleventh of March. That’s approximately six months and 17 days since I last sat here (not that I’m counting) and was truly productive in any meaningful way.

Let’s be very clear: I am not now being productive in any meaningful way. I am sitting here, writing this post. But I am not delving into the piles of desk work and filing that have been ignored for eons. I am not dealing with the screamingly urgent life-min that lurks in my inbox. I am not doing anything remotely constructive in a professional capacity. But I am here, and that feels exceedingly good.

The first time I had sat at this desk since March 11 was last week. My husband finally cracked and went out for an actual coffee meeting with actual humans, before walking through an actual door and into an actual building, to sit at an actual desk. I was delighted because it was not my desk where he was sitting, and he was delighted because he was OUT. In the real world.

But that moment of happiness at being reunited with the workspace I had so painstakingly carved out for myself — only to have to relinquish it to my husband at a moment’s notice on March 12 (he brings home the bacon, after all, so it was fair enough) — was brief. For approximately six minutes after I sat down, I was required to leap back up again to help my seven-year-old log back into her Google classroom and then again every three to nine minutes thereafter to help her rescue herself from her accidental logouts, to quell her confusion over which breakout group to join, to show her (again) how to make a text box in her Google slide, and to calm her uncertainty about the real purpose of ten-frames and whether they actually make math easier (I agree with her: it does get harder before it gets easier, as with so much in life).

Meanwhile, my ten-year-old was busy learning at her new desk in her bedroom-that-is-also-her-classroom. But she was not learning from her brilliant teacher about American history, prime factorization, dangling participles or any of the other things she is actually supposed to be doing, but instead from the two boys who’d been assigned to her breakout room about — wait for it — Garbage Pail Kids, which are apparently having a major comeback. As I eavesdropped on their conversation — my curiosity piqued by her squeals of “Ewww, that’s disgusting!” — I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

And thanks to the beauty of the world wide web, in which we all find ourselves hopelessly tangled — now more than ever — there is no escaping any of this: the dashing up and down the stairs to help our children in their alternating (and sometimes simultaneous) IT-induced crises, the incursion of very loud (and often slightly yucky) ten-year-old boys into one’s home via the magic of the virtual classroom, the competing sounds of three different Zoom calls happening all at once. But unless you wish to crawl under an actual rock or at the very least your duvet, which has been seriously tempting of late, you are stuck riding those waves which we are now forced to surf through the ether.

Ironically, we currently live in Surf City, USA, and although I grew up in a town fetishised in a Beach Boys song, none of us actually surf on a board in the ocean. Instead we find ourselves almost constantly surfing the world wide web. As we all know all too well by now, it promises us a bigger, better, faster life, and in fact just leaves us enmeshed, ensnared, and trapped. It offers us information, but not knowledge. It offers us falsehoods masquerading as facts. It exposes our children to dangers we never knew as children, and so we are constantly on the defensive, worrying and wondering where we’ve left a breach in the wall that we cannot see or even imagine; we — and especially they — are more vulnerable than ever before. It offers us freedom, and yet captures our minds and our personal data and leaves us feeling empty and hollow and not a little bit stressed.

Just the other week, as I was up to my ears in all of the technical and emotional chaos that virtual learning entails, one of those data breaches allowed a particularly blood-thirsty spider out there in that web to ensnare me in its sticky silk, steal my identity (again), and endanger all that I hold dear — or at least my money and my good name. That vicious arachnid (and I don’t mean to impugn our eight-legged friends — Charlotte imprinted herself on my heart at a young age so I never, ever deliberately hurt a spider — but I’m just going with this spider metaphor here) robbed me not just of yet more of my personal data, but also of my peace of mind. My entire week was hijacked, as I dealt with banks, credit card companies and credit bureaux. So instead of enjoying the fact that my children were now occupied with something other than TV and video games, I was deeply stressed: there was no yoga, there was no fun, there was none of the mental quiet I’ve worked so hard to create and maintain during these exhausting and uncertain times. The whole experience made me want to erase my digital footprint entirely, stuff my money under my mattress (attention, all you would-be burglars: I didn’t actually do that), and fashion a hat out of aluminium foil so they can’t intercept my brainwaves.

This is not the first time a burglar has ransacked my carefully constructed digital home, and it’s unlikely to be the last; it could have been the same someone, or the first thieves might have sold me on to an even larger and more aggressive cyber crime ring. I thought I had protected myself better after the last time, and I will now spend hours and days grudgingly increasing the fortress around myself, bracing myself for the next onslaught. But I will also make myself smaller and harder to find: less online shopping, more in-person experiences, fewer passwords, more real conversation. Things will take longer, and I’m just fine with that. I have deleted the apps that are supposed to make things easier, and will pick up the phone. I will use paper and pen. Our landline is being reinstalled shortly. As we’ve discovered during our COVID-induced paralysis, the world won’t actually stop turning if we all slow down a little bit.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a digital purge and lived to tell the tale. I have always had a love-hate relationship with IT. (Actually, it’s really a hate-hate relationship, but I am working on being less cynical and angry these days, so I’m trying to feel just a tiny bit of love here. Waiting… Nope. Nothing. Still hate it.) So for Luddites like me the realities of being completely and utterly dependent on it for everything — from grocery shopping to chats with friends to banking — has been especially excruciating. My husband tries — rather foolishly, on the evidence — to point out that no matter how much I shout at a computer when it doesn’t do what I want, it’s not going to start suddenly doing (or not doing) what it’s been persistently doing in a clearly concerted effort to compromise my sanity: it’s a machine. His kindness towards inanimate objects of the computorial variety is admirable, just as my impatience towards them is ludicrous. But Einstein perhaps foresaw the misery we would create for ourselves with our over-dependence on smart-but-dumb devices: “insanity,” he reminded us, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Which captures my IT experiences to, well, a T. That T and I just don’t get along. So, yes, I hate IT. (Ahhh, it feels good to own my loathing).

I am not alone in my mistrust of and frustration with IT. My grandfather, who lived a storied, expansive, and truly extraordinary life, sent an email in the late 1990s, his first. It was entitled “Help, I have a computer”. Having not typed since law school in the 1930s — after that he had secretaries to do it for him — the act of typing and simultaneously jumping feet first into cyberspace was both brilliant and brave. I remember him every time I have to do something I don’t want to do in the digital world — which is basically daily — and I press ahead, thanks to his wonderful example of feeling-the-fear-and-doing-it-anyway.

The more astute among you will have noticed that you are, in fact, reading this blog on my WEBsite. This does not make me a hypocrite, but rather all the more proud of myself for setting up this site all on my own, with no external help whatsoever from anyone at all. Yes, I made my career making physical books made out of actual paper with actual pages that you have to turn with your actual fingers, but I didn’t have a long and generally successful time in publishing without occasionally using digital technology to create those physical objects. Current tirade aside, I accept, of course, that in order to live in this time and this place we must interact at least somewhat with the wonders of the world wide web.

But my fifteen-year delay in getting onto social media ended only because a global pandemic started. I joined Facebook only to help my children connect with their friends (and frankly, we haven’t quite sorted that out yet because — of course — it won’t let me configure their profiles on eight out of the nine devices we own, thereby proving my belief that IT causes more problems than it solves). I got onto Instagram when I realised that might be the only way of seeing what my friends and family were doing, since my noble-but-unrealistic belief that I would actually establish a proper email correspondence with each one of them (not a letter delivered by carrier pigeon; I’m not that hopeless) was creating burdens for my time-hungry loved ones and meant that I was falling further out of touch with my friends and family who are all over this planet.

So here I am, communicating with you, dear reader, through the wonder of the web. Because while spider webs can be sticky and irritating and downright lethal (if you’re a fly), they can also be beautiful, spangled with dew on an autumn morning, magical and mysterious and awe-inspiring. That web I have disparaged for the last several paragraphs also binds us together when we are far apart, it ties us to our loved ones whom we cannot see during these difficult times, it strengthens our bonds across the miles. Its powers of binding and sticking and tying are a wonderful thing, at which we should marvel and for which I am — despite all the ranting — deeply grateful. And spiders offer us an example from which we might all learn: nimble and graceful, they never get tangled up in their own web, but deftly go about their business with a focus and a purpose that I envy now more than ever.

So the internet can be a glorious thing, but like the spiders who weave those webs, we must approach cautiously, for we do not always know whether it be friend or foe. It is — alarmingly often — wildly inaccurate and full of baffling errors. For example, if you google me (I did it once after setting up my website to see if it showed up; it did not, of course), you will discover that I am a musical artist. Now, for those of you who know me anything more than moderately well, this will come as something of a hilarious shock. I am no more a musical artist than my car is, no more a singer or maker of music than any other ordinary household object. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that pretty much anything in my home or yours is more musical than me: sunglasses, a lamp, a pair of scissors. But there, for all eternity are the words that have confused the many lovely librarians and teachers who have invited me to share my book with children, hoping I would show up like Julie Andrews with my guitar slung over my shoulder… and having to compromise for a mere music-free reading instead.

So I share this story as a cautionary tale for my children, along with one of my favorites about a certain wildly popular — nay, ubiquitous — online presence that purports to be an encyclopedia: as a journalist from a highly respected British newspaper noted, its article about that same newspaper contained no less than seven factual errors. Online, as in life, there is little you can trust. Which of course deeply saddens me: our children are on ever shakier ground, whichever realm they inhabit. They are taught about cyberbullying as well as how to deal with physical bullies; they are taught that stranger danger is real both online and in life. But as the lines between what’s virtual and what’s real begin to blur — nowhere more than in our new hybrid model of learning — confusion lurks. They must grapple with a layer of information (too much of it), of danger, of complication that their parents and grandparents did not face until adulthood. They are forced to grow up faster than ever, as they are promised too much choice and too much knowledge, without the understanding to discern what is right and wrong about it all. So even as they were supposedly staying safer at home, I wonder what all of that screen time — hours and hours of it — has done to their eyesight, their minds, and their souls.

As I look back at the spring, when we were all scrambling to adjust to our new reality, and our teachers delivered an impressively cohesive curriculum after just two weeks of turnaround time, I remember particular moments of achievement and connection which were so alien and new: instead of awards for being a good citizen and student, instead of field trips and performances and parties, their world narrowed so sharply and quickly that their tiny triumphs were heartbreaking to see.

“Wow!” said my first grader. “This is the best day of my life!” Previously those words would have been uttered upon receiving an award or performing in the talent show for which she’d been practicing for weeks and which was cancelled the week before it was due to take place. But in our new normal, the cause of her elation was that in her new level in their online math program, the software shifted to offering narrower percentage bands per question, so she could now achieve a 91% on her progress towards her goal, instead of jumping from 73% to 100%. We had no idea know why this is so thrilling — after all it meant she was simply answering more questions per level — but she broke out beat-boxing and squealing with happiness. The day before she had crowed with joy that her piece of paper printed out just like it looked online — by no means a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, on her side of the dining room table, my older daughter sat in her headphones, listening to her math lessons and reading sessions over and over, just to hear her teacher’s voice. It was both touching and pitiful to watch her grinning at the screen.

But at least I got to watch and witness it all, as we sat together around our dining table, each on a separate device. At least we were together in our solitude. At least we were all present in our absence. Now, they are gone. The house is empty and quiet and lonely. It misses them almost as much as I do. And even when they’re home, they’re not here with me: we are now all occupying separate spaces. As we polished up our act for round two of distance learning, we bought our fifth grader a desk, to help her feel independent and more grown up (her idea, not ours), and of course we then had to come up with a similarly “grown up” work space for our second grader, still near enough to me that she could ask her constant questions, but with a door to close for quiet and a sense of going to school all by herself, like a big girl should.

By day 13 of Distance Learning: The Reboot, I had eaten my body weight in roasted cashew nuts (that’s what I get for using edible manipulatives to help my second grader understand ten frames), and was contemplating stabbing myself in the eyeball with a very sharp pencil, just to see what would happen. The initial excitement — of having a focus and a purpose and (for the parents, at least) of knowing that their screen time was at least a tiny bit edifying — had worn off quickly, as we looked ahead at what may well be an entire academic year of being stuck in front of screens, in different rooms, struggling with frustration and confusion and sadness all alone, all over again.

Because while it’s a pleasant change from the crowded dining table, and the annoying headphones that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and the dangerous tangle of cords that more than one of us tripped over more than once, our new setup is also lonelier and more separate, which is not necessarily good in a time of loneliness and separation. They wanted to feel less watched over, and yet they are more vulnerable to isolation and screen fatigue than ever, as the online curriculum has expanded to fill an entire school day.

So it was with great excitement that we all headed off today on our first morning school run since March. My children were overjoyed at the prospect of being surrounded by friends and classmates, of learning from a teacher, using pencils and paper, of being in familiar spaces they missed more than they ever imagined possible. They are free from me, and I am free from dealing with their IT aggro and their near-constant bickering. I am — for three hours, twice a week, for as long as our county can keep its act together — freed from having to be the emotional sponge for three people trying to renegotiate their relationship with school and work. I am no longer on tap twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as I have been for half of the longest, hardest year of our lives. Parts of me that have felt neglected and dead may even start to regenerate. My brain might start to work once more; I can actually feel the gears grinding again today. My joy at seeing emails from two of my publishers and from my agent mirrors the joy my husband and children are feeling today: I have work, I have purpose, I have a place in the wider world again.

But I also wept when I dropped them off, because of course I had a purpose for the past six months. I’ve been momming hard, harder than I ever have before, if not necessarily well. Our house became our whole world, so my job was to become the human dishcloth, sopping up their fears and worries and anger and frustration and sadness every time they spilled out, which was often. I felt perpetually unfit for the job in front of me — and I don’t know any parent who did much more than keep them safe and fed and content if not happy — but I did my job because I had to, under more pressure than I’ve ever done a job before. I did not always perform with grace under that pressure, but I got the job done.

So as we return to some semblance of normalcy today, and a return to my actual job of writing becomes possible, I am sad not to have my children here with me and I am worried for their safety despite all the precautions. For their part, I imagine there was very little sadness or worry, and that’s just how it should be; they’ve had far too much of both for far too long now. I miss our tangled web of cords in our home classroom, but they won’t miss me watching them all the time, their every move scrutinised and often corrected. They will have the freedom to make their own mistakes, to make their own choices, to have other adults participate in a real and meaningful way in shaping who they become.

And before I disentangle myself from what may be the longest post I’ve written to date (those three minute intervals I previously snatched to write over the spring and summer helped promote brevity, if nothing else), I will take a moment to thank our teachers, once more. They are teaching both in person and online, which is essentially two full-time jobs, to two different groups of students, knowing that neither one is getting all of the attention they would like to give them. But it is their enormous effort, and that of the amazing administrators and boards who have worked so hard to craft this system which is slightly dizzying in its complexity, that is permitting us all to recapture a small portion of our former lives, even if only for a few hours a week. Even as they risk their personal health and well being, these teachers are also still coping with the insanity of teaching online, where children cut their siblings’ hair during class and live chickens run around bedrooms (true story). So their virtual classrooms are surreal but safe, and their physical classrooms are dear but dangerous, and our teachers heroically take it all in their graceful stride.

Distance learning has been far more about the distance — from normality, from other humans — than about the learning. But as I try to remind my children and myself, we are learning other things too, including a flexibility that we never knew we had. After the elation of two days in the classroom, my children and I will all pivot (I hate that word almost as much as I hate IT) back to the distance model for the rest of the week. Poorly qualified to teach, and not at all qualified to troubleshoot IT glitches, I will be stepping back into both those pairs of shoes.

These days I have lots of pairs of shoes, because also mom and also wife, and — oh look!— those four pairs of shoes mean that I actually have eight legs.

Just like a spider.

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