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  • katherine halligan

Spoonful of Sugar

Mary Poppins had so much right. When life has you feeling trapped and miserable and wholly out of touch with your inner child, go fly a kite. When you’re feeling low and unsure of what to do, laugh so much you float up to the ceiling. When the world is grey and raining down on you (again), step through a chalk painting into another world.

It is also true that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And with that in mind, and frankly bored with the lazy old misery guts I was fast becoming, I promised myself last week that I would do something fun with my children every day that this awful pandemic lasts, knowing full well that those days could be interminable. Their lovely little lives have been upended, derailed, and otherwise pinioned and curtailed in almost every possible way. They look up at me, their sweet faces full of hope and fear and ask me if it will be like this for the rest of their lives. And I don’t know what to tell them.

Because of course we all desperately wish it to go away, but we also know that it may not, because that’s how coronaviruses operate. And so because no one knows when or where this will end, and because it matters now more than ever to live each day to its fullest, I took a silent pledge to make every day better, even if only for a few moments. I had been doing this unofficially all spring, but then we had our summer lull, the biggest one yet of those dizzying dips on the coronacoaster which we can’t always see past, when it feels like the only way to go is down.

July was truly tough. Perhaps it was the heady freedom of our spine-tingling trip to the edge of one of the wonders of the world, which then made our four walls seem even more confining when we returned. Perhaps it was the sheer number of days that we have now spent suspended, stuck, saddened and serious. Perhaps it was the empty echoes of a celebration of independence none of us now truly have.

Perhaps it was the fact that we celebrated my beloved great aunt’s 104th birthday without her, having lost her this spring to the cruel ravages of COVID-19, and then the very next day we celebrated my daughter’s tenth birthday in masks and gloves, waving at her friends from our driveway, trying not to think about that strange, gaping hole at the center of her day where there should have been a party.

Perhaps it was the fact that we had dragged ourselves through the miserably lonely months of spring looking forward to the vague promise that summer would be better, when it could only ever pale — nay, blanch to an utterly colorless nothing — in comparison to summers past, and that fact made itself painfully obvious as the month that should have been the heart of summer became such an empty void. Whatever the reason, July was long and lonely and sad, despite time with loved ones and best efforts to make it better. And it’s hard to know where to look because the road behind us is strewn with chaos and loss — and the road ahead could be worse.

Today is the 150th day since California first locked down. So in honor of that rather grim milestone, I share with you a list of the things we have done in the last 150 days to make them lighter and more lovely. I am in no way comparing myself to Mary Poppins; perhaps when my children were smaller and I was younger and sweeter and less exhausted, I achieved those lofty heights on occasion. But these days — these days!— I can often manage simply the one spoonful (and frankly even that can be a struggle). But that is often all it takes to transform a day, to lift my children’s spirits… and mine — because, to quote another favorite, sometimes you just have to whistle a happy tune and you fool yourself as well.

In no particular order (because order no longer seems to matter, and because I can’t remember, which probably also no longer matters), here are some of our favorite things that we’ve done to brighten our darkish days. It is important to know that I have participated in every single thing listed here. Which is possibly why it works so well and why I know the best thing I could do for all of us is to keep my promise to leave no day unbrightened by silliness and magic, as we march forward into the unknown.

We have:

Poured half a bottle of bubbles into the jacuzzi tub — then turned on the jets (the towers of bubbles were so huge they were over my head and took two days to disappear entirely)

Gone boogie boarding

Made sandcastles

Watched dolphins playing in the ocean

Shot foam rockets into the sky

Learned how to ride a bike without training wheels (okay, I already had that one down, but I taught them and my heart soared when they took off, feeling like I was flying along with them)

Played tennis in the park

Played volleyball in the park

Played soccer in the park

Practiced cartwheels and backbends (in the park, of course; it is large and grassy and lovely and usually empty and we are so lucky to have it)

Practiced ballet at the barre

Practiced yoga, with the children taking it in turns to lead us

Designed our dream homes

Made tipis out of twigs and brown paper bags

Made Aboriginal-inspired art out of brown paper bags

Made hats out of brown paper bags

Staged fashion shows

Given each other makeovers

Painted our toenails

Dyed our hair purple and blue

Had dance parties, complete with flashing colored lights and a disco ball

Had mother-daughter sleepovers (just the three of us) in my younger daughter’s bedroom

Had mother-daughter sleepovers in my older daughter’s bedroom

Piled into our bed with a stack of books, every day this spring

Piled into our bed to watch movies

Piled into our bed to play board games

Had tea parties with lovies

Had tea parties with each other

Had hot cocoa on a hot day while reading stacks of books

Had ice cream on a chilly day while reading stacks of books

Made our own sushi

Made a giant rainbow unicorn birthday cake

Made food from eleven different countries (and counting)

Camped in our backyard

Camped in the great outdoors

Dyed our hair purple and blue

Looked at three different planets (and a few moons) through a telescope

Learned how to identify constellations

Searched for comets

Counted the stars

I started this list to remind myself that I am not perhaps the terrible parent I so often feel that I am these days, to remind myself that I have some agency and some small degree of control over the direction in which our lives are headed, to remind myself that I have the power to change things for the better and to pass that power on to my children. I started this list because in a time when we are all exhausted by uncertainty and by interminably bad news, setting out to accomplish even one small thing (sending a text, opening the mail, feeding one’s children) feels like a Sisyphean task. I started this list to try to regain some of the perspective which is so easy to lose when nearly all our external forms of validation have vanished, as we have lost the usual rhythms of our lives which bind us to a sense of ourselves and tether us to what is familiar and known and good.

And all the while we wonder what irreparable harm this time is doing to our children, to us all. Am I locking down too hard and cutting my children off from any semblance of normalcy? Am I letting them out too much and taking too many risks? Am I too strict? Am I too lax? Am I forgetting to teach them about what really matters? Can their brains actually shrink from watching too much tv? Will they ever love reading and school as much as they once did? Will they remember all the times I have yelled at them during lockdown, or will they remember the times I have lifted them up and made them feel loved? Am I crushing their spirits or teaching them to function like regular humans? Will they thank me for all the careful attention I give them or will they remember only the times I have failed them during these dark days?

Assailed by doubts, I do what I can to assuage them before they pull me under (the doubts, not the children — though there are days I feel that in my attempts to rescue them from drowning I start to sink like a stone).

So I turn once more to the wisdom of Mary Poppins. If you’ve never read the books, please do: they are full of many more examples of that delightful juxtaposition of her prim, proper exterior and her magical ability to make absolutely everything far more fun than it could ever have been without her. They are also weirder and more wonderful, and more than a little darker, than the unsurprisingly sugary Disney version. But really, I am democratic in my tastes: I don’t truly differentiate between Julie Andrews’ slightly saccharine but satisfyingly sassy version, or Emily Blunt’s perhaps more faithful interpretation, or PL Travers’ far firmer and fantastically formidable original. I’ll take whatever sugar or hard-won wisdom I can glean; it’s all to the good, however far from practically perfect we may find ourselves these days.

And so we have had our tea parties and we have laughed (though we have yet to float up to the ceiling).

We have made sidewalk chalk drawings (though we have yet to work out how to jump through them into another world).

And of course — of course — we have flown a kite.

And that has made all the difference.

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