Did it take a global pandemic for me to actually be present as a parent?  Yes, I think it might have. 

Yesterday, in a moment of brilliance, I decided we needed a family game of box ball. On our little bluetooth speaker, we blasted a playlist that incongruously meshed Dua Lipa and John Denver and my kids and I played a box ball game in our driveway.  Shedding our coats under the bright April sun and gently ribbing each other for our bad shots, we laughed a lot, mostly at how poor a box ball player I had become since my glory days as a kid.

Strangely, I was both playing the game and having one of those out-of-body experiences where I’m looking down at myself from above.  In a surreal moment of reflection, I could hear my inner monologue which went something like this: “I rarely do this. I never make time to play and just BE with my kids.  This is new. This is strange. This is beautiful.” And then, as I was going to retrieve a ball I’d blasted far off the court and into the grass, I had the realization that it had taken my being locked up for weeks with my kids in quarantine to actually be present with them. 

Since I became a parent 17 years ago, I have set the intention year after year of being more “present” with my kids. Whether it was feeling bored when I watched them roll around on their playmats as babies or my impatience when their Lego cars took forever to build, I have yearned over and over to stop worrying during these moments about emails that need to be returned and chores that need to be finished and errands that need to be run.  But I could never match my good intentions with my behavior. I was always busy rushing away to check off the next item on my to-do list and never living in the moment, as ordinary as it was.

Well now, in quarantine, there is no rushing.  The manic energy of the first few weeks of working long hours and sourcing supplies has now been replaced with a slower, more relaxed pace. We are blessed right now to have a safe place to live, enough food to put on our table and the ability to continue working.  However, instead of the determinedly outward facing days through which we normally march, now our lives have turned inward, toward each other. And mostly, it’s not rainbows and unicorns. Our family is together for meals, all meals; sometimes they’re magical and sometimes they’re a drag.  We play soccer and football games outside, sometimes filled with laughter and triumph and often filled with arguments and recriminations. Each day seems to last a week, punctuated by the midday meals of frozen pizza and grilled cheese, joyous giggles and angry accusations.

The easy excuses for why, in normal life, I don’t play with my kids are now gone.  The emails can wait (most of the time), there are no errands to run beyond the four walls of the house, no dinner dates to get dressed for or packing to do for our now cancelled trips. There is just us and our simple meals that comfort us and sports that work with just a few people and movies that are wonderful or dumb or both.

As our lives have been put on hold in many ways, our gaze is on each other as we wait for the future to unfold around us.  We try to keep things as normal as possible, as joyful and upbeat as they can be. We set small goals, like folding laundry and cleaning toilets, and big goals, like learning to ride a bike and writing a book.  We have nowhere to go, so we have to be here together. And if we have to be here together, can we make something beautiful and magical and joyous out of this experience, at least some of the time? Can we move past our anger quickly and forgive each other’s shortcomings?  Can we appreciate new things about each other that surprise us and enrich our many hours spent together? And for me, can I succeed in being present in a way I have tried and failed for 17 years to do so? Can I use this suspended moment in time to enjoy and notice and appreciate or is it too late?

As I float down from my out-of-body experience and I am back inside myself, singing “Country Road” with my children full-throated and off-key, while getting soundly beaten at box ball, I think: Yes.  Yes, there is still hope for me — I am present today with snippets of joy and hopefully will be tomorrow and the day after that, at least some more of the time than before this all happened. The presence I have never achieved through action and yearning and intention has been achieved (at least a little) by inaction and time standing still and powers outside my control and for that, I have a pandemic to thank.

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