It was when I was standing in the sale rack at JC Penny, holding a pair of trousers for my daughter’s school uniform that I started to cry. And it wasn’t the polyblend that did it.
Christ, it’s happening again. The grey.
I call it the grey. Some people call it the languishing. Some people call it motherhood. I think we can all call it surviving the aftereffects of a pandemic.
See, I’m capable. I have three kids and a dog and I’m an author and I have about 54 different things sitting on my shoulders on a daily basis. I like lists, I like writing mails to collaborators on different projects, I like reminding my friends that after moving from England back to New York, I still exist; I’m still here and are you okay (even though I don’t ask myself this). I keep telling myself that in order to prove my worth I have to Do All The Things to prove I’m okay.
I wipe my tears away and reposition my sunglasses.
I’m fine, I tell the lady holding a silk shirt in the aisle next to me.
Allergies, I tell the cashier as I pay for my daughter’s trousers. I’m just tired, I tell the neighbor when I walk my dog.
I am grieving, I admit to myself when I’m at home, sat in my room, crying in my closet. I should be happy, right? I should feel lucky. We’ve collectively told ourselves that phrase over and over again over the last 15 months as we see people dying, countries using firepower to resolve arguments, sickness walking slowly across deserted beautiful landscapes. We negate how we feel by using distraction tactics like overspending and watching old movies and making our sixth loaf of banana bread. We keep going because we have no choice most of the time, so we remind ourselves how ‘lucky’ we are and how grateful we should be, and that this is the new normal.
But it’s not any kind of new normal, or old, or even within the same category of normal. But humans do that when they grieve something: they adjust to the road that life has thrown in front of them because we’re programmed to do that. We keep going. We keep living and looking ahead and hoping that the earth won’t shift too much under our feet as we adjust. We become more spiritual, we seek out words and music that help us and distract us. My grandmother died in the middle of a pandemic, but that’s not necessarily what I was grieving. My world didn’t change overnight because of that. More accurately, my world changed slowly and then all at once. I was grieving the loss of connection; I was grieving the time I was losing with the people I loved most. I was grieving my life as a middle-aged author with three kids stuck in one room of my house trying to write myself out of it. I was grieving the feeling of knowing what the future would be like; the unknown was present, and the patterns were dead. I was running in a world that was standing still.
I think we’re all in a period where were crying in public spaces, feeling vulnerable and fragile and trying to find our strength again. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe the cashiers need to know that they’re not the only ones hiding expressionless mouths behind their masks. Maybe it’s okay that the lady holding the underwear knew that I wasn’t okay (her name was Sally and she was buying clothes for a funeral). Maybe it’s okay to let ourselves grieve without holding up a screen in front of our faces and justify how we feel and why we’re feeling it.
The middle is where the absolutes can learn from each other. The middle is where we open up and start learning. The middle can happen anywhere. Even in the middle of a rack of polyblend.