My teta (“grandma” in Arabic) used to wash paper plates and Ziploc bags so she could reuse them. I would tease her and purposely throw them away when I was done with one just to make her mad. Crazy old lady, I thought. She seemed confused about what year it was.
Teta had the amazing ability of being able to use whatever food she had in the refrigerator at any given moment and turn those three ingredients into a delicious meal. And yeah, of course I liked to eat those meals, but I didn’t fully understand what a skill like that meant. It seemed as useful as knowing how to operate a washboard or churn your own butter. Something leftover from a distant life before the invention of TV– not something to care about today.
But in my youth and privilege I overlooked something about Teta’s eccentric conservation habits. Born in Palestine in the early 1930s, Teta knew poverty and political and social upheaval intimately. So intimately that after her father died when she was 40 days old– as the youngest of five children that her widowed single mother couldn’t afford– she was given to an aunt to be raised. Her entire country would change hands while she was still a teenager, and as an adult poverty for Teta meant not enough food and sometimes resorting to trapping birds for meals. Poverty also helped motivate the decision to move across the world with her husband and four children, leaving behind everything they ever knew.
As a result of that decision, here I am, lathered in privilege and circumstances that have sent my life on a much different trajectory than my ancestors.
Teta has been dead for over seven years now.
The other day I drove to Costco with my sister and we waited in a line that snaked around the perimeter of the warehouse. They let customers in one-by-one, and when it was finally our turn we went searching for staples that might last us during shelter-in-place orders, or if by some stroke of doomsday all the food in the world disappeared and we needed to be prepared.
They were out of toilet paper. Again.
I haven’t been able to find toilet paper in weeks, and suddenly I am counting the squares of paper and thinking very much about my silly old teta who would squirrel away paper products back when it wasn’t even a thing.
Save some for a rainy day, she would tell me about money. Don’t be stupid.
I have two refrigerators full of food but my mind doesn’t work like Teta’s. I grew up where the only concern was making sure my stupid brother didn’t eat all of our good cereal before we got to eat some too. The only limit to our supply was if my mom didn’t have a coupon to buy it again on sale. My mom is definitely my teta’s daughter. She’s notoriously cheap.
“We used to laugh at Mom for stockpiling whatever is on sale,” my dad recently said. “Now we know she’s kind of a genius.”
But I went the other way in rebellion. Don’t give me your on-sale-bagels. I’m gonna buy the brand I like, no matter what!
Schools are shut down– possibly for the rest of the school year.
Grocery stores are barren.
Celebrations have been postponed– maybe indefinitely.
Will I be able to get on that flight?
How long will this last?
What happens if we run out of toilet paper?
The answers remain unclear as we enter uncharted waters.
This is not the world I knew a few weeks ago.
I do not have the answers for this world.
Yet deep down in my body I carry the DNA from my ancestors who knew what it was like to do without. Deprivation. Instability. Survival. Make do with what you have, even if that means catching a pigeon for dinner.
In the midst of this hour-by-hour shifting crisis, my mom came to help with the kids because I caught a scorching case of strep throat and Peter Jack broke out in itchy, oozing, chicken pox from a second vaccine received during his kinder shots the week before.
Low odds, but we are the family of low odds.
It’s all so funny because I started this year thinking 2020 would be my best year that I would have in a long time. I was so optimistic. Lots of plans and intentions meticulously mapped out in my head and on paper.
Now I realize that even when I feel sure of something, I actually know nothing.
Still, 2020 is not my worst year ever.
When my husband died in 2016, I found every new thing that happened very alarming to internalize. Every change– big or small– contributed to an evolving, different world that he was no longer a part of. It was another painful reminder that he was gone and I was here, alone.
An election of a new president.
Businesses opened. Businesses closed.
Our oldest child graduated from kindergarten without his father there.
The second kid learned to talk sentences her father would never hear.
The baby stopped being a baby and morphed into a toddler his father would never know.
People were born.
Changes at work. A new colleague who moved into my husband’s old classroom. New students. New technology.
Each change took me further and further away from the time and space I shared with my husband. It felt overwhelming, because your instinct in the midst of grief is to want to clamp down and keep everything the same. It’s the only way you can try and stretch out what you used to have.
But it never works.
Nothing stays the same.
No matter how much you wish for it.
No matter how much you want it.
No matter how much you deserve it.
Beg and plea.
The universe keeps on existing and evolving and being. It doesn’t orbit around your existence.
You feel like you are a ship adrift at sea, bobbing in and out of choppy waters, and the universe is the riptide.
The more you fight it, the more you get pulled under.
Bertha Calloway said, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” I’ve also heard self-help about being strategic with your battlefield. Doing what you can in a situation for the best possible outcomes.
In life, our choices are important, but it sure seems like we get a disproportionate amount of wind to our choices. Sometimes the choice to adjust the sails or not adjust becomes the most pivotal one we can make.
But it is only in these moments of struggle that we become resilient and clever and strategic about the art of living. This is when we learn how to use our ropes and control the sails– precisely because of the wind.
So here we are, adjusting the sails.
Working from home.
Homeschooling our kids.
Hunting for toilet paper.
Washing our hands raw.
Finding ways to stay sane during social distancing and uncertain times.
My backyard is green, and I only know this because I had the chance to open the blinds for the first time in months now that we are home 24/7. The kids and I have been spending time in our backyard amongst the citrus trees with yellow and orange fruits, the budding persimmons tree and plum tree, and the lush green grass ready for an Easter egg hunt. The kids collect sticks and make a village out of blankets and tents and perform surgery on a lemon.
The kitchen has been turned into a makeshift classroom. I dug into a box of random craft and party supplies and tried to put together something spring-ish and cheerful. They love it. I usually spend so much time cleaning up after them and enforcing my rule of “all personal belongings stay in your own rooms,” but there is childhood joy spilling out into every room of the house and it feels good during these anxious times. No worries about making our home presentable for visitors. Tangles of tape and sticks and string and drawings are strewn about, and the wild and free abandon of childhood pulses through our home.
“This is the best time we’ve had in a while,” my oldest tells me. “We’re always so busy. We almost never get to spend time together like this.”
I agree with him, even though I am still busy and overwhelmed adjusting to this quarantine at home with three kids and a job I still have to do. And yet despite the steep learning curve and chaos of the sudden changes, I feel oddly calm all at the same time.
I don’t know why, but I feel content. Perhaps I am standing in the eye of the storm. Maybe this is the honeymoon period. I can’t say if I will still feel this way tomorrow. I have no idea if my joy will continue when the toilet paper runs out and we are forced to eat out of the cans of food stored in my garage.
I don’t know a lot of things.
But this I know:
Once all of the ugliness is over, it may uncover a beautiful truth lurking beneath the surface of our lives, something we forgot and neglected amidst the fast pace of modern life.
When I find this truth, I want to hold onto it as tightly as I can in the palm of my hands and never let it go.
The time together.
Simplicity. Less is more.
Being at home.
Mulling around in the garden.
Lingering home-cooked dinners together.
Bike rides through the neighborhood.
My parents and sister and I working like a team, strategizing how to find paper products and keeping tabs on who has what. The only thing we are missing is a secret underground tunnel connecting our houses.
Messy art at the kitchen table.
Nowhere to go.
An open calendar.
New growth inevitably finds its way to the surface like hopeful seedlings pushing through the frozen ground of winter and stretching upward toward the sun. There will be new seasons and new beginnings and this will all become a distant dream that once happened in our lives. But may we all emerge from this with new eyes from which we can examine the world, and may we all remember what is most important to us when we no longer have the gift of stillness to hear our own thoughts.