The other morning at the breakfast table, my almost-six-year-old daughter started laying out her whole life plan for me. I wound up recording about 14 minutes of it, since Sprout was really on a roll (yes, her Eggo got cold).
She had everything planned out:
- Her career
- Her spouse’s career
- Where they were going to live before and after they had kids
- How many kids she was going to have
- What pet each kid was going to have (and be personally responsible for)
- Where her brother Button would live, and how Button would take care of the kids she already had if she was giving birth to the younger ones (because she expects her spouse to stay with her in the hospital “just like you did with Mom.”)
- How they would all evacuate their house in the event of a fire
Hold Up — What was that last one?
She’s been very focused on what to do in the event of a fire.
- Who’s going to get Luna?
- What if we’re outside and can’t hear the smoke detectors?
- What if a fire starts when we’re asleep?
- Will we go to the front yard, or the back yard?
- No, really, who’s going to get our cat? We won’t have time to put Luna in her carrier.
The other day she made an emergency kit in a pile on the couch:
- Snugglies, including Fletcher (her forever favorite) and Sushi Cat.
- A coat, in case the fire happens at night when it’s cooler
- A blanket
She’s a very structured kid. She likes process and routine. It makes sense to her. So she’s drafting this all in her mind when she starts thinking about fire.
And she’s thinking about fire a lot lately. Sometimes so much that she says she can’t think of anything else.
But it’s not as if suddenly there’s been a lot of external references to fire that she’s been bombarded with. We don’t live near a fire station, nobody we know has dealt with a fire recently, and the only time we’ve ever had to call the fire department was years ago for what fortunately turned out to be a very minor issue.
So… Yeah. Where did this come from?
Buddy Holly, “Ben Hur”, space monkey, Mafia
Years ago my friends and I would riff on “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” adding new verses to this random jumble of baby boomer buzzwords. Looking back on that word salad, it feels like a proto-Twitter stream.
And I think about that because of all this around us right now. The ambient anxiety. The multi-pronged, world-on-fire assault on our attention every day.
With all that going on around her, and being a young kid, she’s processing only part of what’s going on. She understands social distancing, and she understands why she can’t play with her friends, why school closed, and why (for a long time) she couldn’t even go near her grandparents.
A fire is smaller and easier to respond to than all this.
Sometimes it comes up to the surface
Before bed time every night, Sprout and I read together. Normally I prop myself up in her bed with a few of her snugglies, but the other night she asked me not to use Nice Bear.
“Nice Bear has a fever,” she said, “And snugglies don’t have vaccines. But they do have medicine. So she’ll get better, but you shouldn’t put her in bed tonight.”
The subtext of her anxiety has always been about this pandemic, but it doesn’t always come out as directly as it did in that conversation.
Sprout is an intense extrovert who was cut off from her Young Fives Kindergarten class months ago and has spent most of that time with me, her mom, and her baby brother. Nothing about this new normal feels normal to her.
She craves the world that she’s known for most of her life and that’s kept just out of reach.
When we go out into the backyard, she makes up Star Wars themed games and tells me to do voices (My Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan has gotten pretty good over the last two months). But what do these Rebels and Imperials do every time we play?
They plan birthday parties. Or Christmas. They invite guests and think about food and games and presents.
It’s the flip side of her panic planning about fire safety.
She could have adventures in the farthest corners of the galaxy, but all she wants is to play games with some friends and share cake.
What I can and cannot do for her
I can hug her as many times a day as she’ll let me.
I can tell her she’s loved, and her mom and I will do everything we can to keep her safe, no matter what.
I can wear a mask, and can be vigilant about my own exposure when I have to venture out into the world without her (especially soon, knowing that I’m required to teach face-to-face in a classroom).
I can pretend to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader and, yes, even Luke Skywalker, if that’s what she needs.
But I cannot make sure that her school is safe for her to attend.
And I cannot convince every person to make the small concession for the health and safety of others and wear a damn mask.
And I cannot single-handedly convince the federal government to just try and do better.
I cannot step into a clean suit and stare into a microscope until I have an a-ha moment that allows me to save everyone with a simple answer nobody has thought of.
And I cannot be all the friends she misses. I cannot be a kid.
We do not have a metric for all we’re losing
We can measure the lives lost.
We can measure the number of people who were infected.
We can measure the number of people who were exposed, or at least the number of people who were able to get a test because they thought they were exposed and were able to jump through whatever hoops were required of them to get a medical opinion.
We can measure the number of people filing unemployment claims. We can measure the number of businesses closed or filing for bankruptcy. We can measure the value of the stock market and the GDP.
But we have nothing that measures how many good ideas will never be put to use from the people we’ve lost, or because the people still living haven’t been able to think about anything other than their fear or anger or exhaustion.
We can’t measure the achievements, advancements, or good deeds lost. We can’t even guarantee that some of these things have only been delayed.
We cannot know the landscape of the path we shall never travel.
And if we cannot have some kind of measure to know what we could have achieved if our nation hadn’t been forced a poisoned cocktail of unpredictable, indiscriminate disease and conscious, callous government disinterest and disinformation…
All we can do now is the same thing we could do before.
Wake up every day and try.
Force yourself out of the doomscrolling (literal and figurative) and find that small patch of goodness that you can tend.
If you don’t know where to start, make a list of the essentials. The things you need now, and any time that all this feels like too much.
And don’t forget to include snacks and snugglies.