Billionaires of Time

Lockdown has sharpened my awareness of something I barely noticed before: the many opportunities that my previous life provided for escape. More specifically, the almost gracious way that society was set up to allow me, and many others, to slip from one role into another and another as the day rolled by. This flow strikes me as distinctively modern. And it is gone now, temporarily. The heterogenous, compartmentalized life of before is replaced with a life where your Main Thing is now your Only Thing.

A life where your Main Thing is now your Only Thing

Minsoo Thigpen, Lawn at noon. 2014, oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.

On Easter afternoon, my household decided to indulge in a walk by the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, where we live. It was gorgeous out, one of the preternaturally clear days we’ve been enjoying since the beginning of lockdown, and it’d been weeks since we’d gone anywhere as a family. We—my husband, our 1-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, our housemate, and I—walked east from the bottom of the harbor. We passed the beach volleyball courts, then curled around by the empty marina and fancy condos. The kids fed pretzels to some ducks, and my daughter ran on ahead and looped back, excited to be wearing a new pair of shoes, making the three adults touch them to receive magical powers. We joked that she looked like a grape in the lavender dress and dark purple leggings she’d put on for Easter morning. After a while, the shoes started giving her a blister, so she took them off and went barefoot on the sidewalk.

Near the Visionary Art Museum we crossed the street and sliced diagonally up Federal Hill. It’s thick with clover and very steep. My daughter is concerned about bugs these days. She asked me why bugs live in the grass.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess it’s cool down there, and they have shelter, it keeps them safe.”

“Yeah, from creditors,” she mused. She’s been watching nature shows lately with her dad, and has learned all about predators, except how to pronounce the word.

We scaled the hill, past a couple painting watercolors, past a boy passing a soccer ball with his dad, and another couple having a crackers-and-salami picnic. At the summit, we clambered into the park, onto another sidewalk. Like the harbor promenade, Fed Hill Park had a cautiously festive vibe: less crowded than it would have been, but not-not crowded. There were people in masks and people without them. People moving awkwardly, maintaining a conspicuous though often less than six-foot distance between each other. “I guess this is how the virus is still spreading,” our housemate said.

At the northeast corner of the park we paused to take in the scene of streets and harbor below, spreading out to a more or less socially safe distance from each other—not that we needed to, being a family, but more that it felt good to get a little space in a new venue, someplace with a view. Easter marked exactly thirty days since our children’s daycare center had shut its doors, and the end wasn’t in sight. In the news, stories describing what benchmarks would have to be hit before states could begin to open up again (increased testing, larger stores of PPE, and consistently falling infection rates) ran side-by-side with stories reporting just the opposite; continued shortages of tests and masks, and a related lack of knowledge about the disease’s prevalence, ease of transmission, and actual deadliness. Reading between the lines, it seemed we’d be living this way for some time to come.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the sign of a first-rate mind is its ability to hold two opposing notions within itself at the same time. But somehow I doubt he’d have been impressed by my fundamental reaction to lockdown as a caregiver to small children: a capacity to feel greatly sorry for myself while at the same time remaining fully aware of all the ways it isn’t really so bad for me, all the ways it could be worse. In my house, parenthood is a rumpus that starts at six-fifteen every morning, and lasts till eight-thirty at night. (Sometimes it even pops in to say hello during the wee hours.) I hardly have time to feel anxious, let alone to read Tolstoy, plan cunning pantry meals, develop an indoor workout practice, or start to draft a pandemic novel. While I often plan, at least, to reach out better to family and friends, by the time kid-bedtime rolls around, my capacity for human relationship is all used up, and all I ever want to do then is sleep, numbly scroll my phone, or float away on the river of a TV show.

To be fair, there are beautiful moments, as well as a creeping sense of pride that we are able take care of our children for weeks on end, without the diversions of places to go or people to see. Yet there’s also a sense of missing out on some other, more grown-up, leisurely experience; a slow-simmering crock pot of envy toward the kind of people who are the intended audience for the recent gush of articles advising them on what to read, watch, cook, or how otherwise to while away the endless expanse of their time in quarantine.

But this brand of angst isn’t new, for parents of small children. (It was about a year ago, long before Covid, when my husband and I started to jokingly refer to people without children as billionaires of time.) Rather, the feeling is an intensification of existing tendencies, born from the rigors of the moment. Because that, it turns out, is one thing that lockdown does: it intensifies and exaggerates the realities of private lives. Whatever the brute facts of your domestic setup were before the pandemic hit, their power to determine your day-to-day reality has grown. If you lived alone, you are now physically alone all the time. If you were a caretaker, you’re caretaking constantly. If you had a partner, I hope you’re compatible, because you are now that person’s only flesh-and-blood social outlet. Whatever made your home life pleasing or challenging before is magnified, since most of the ways you created space between yourself and that life are unavailable now, or available in only an ersatz or diminished form.

Lockdown has made me aware of something I barely noticed before: the many opportunities that my old life provided for escape. More specifically, the almost gracious way that society was set up to allow me, and many others, to slip from one role into another and another as the day rolled by. This flow strikes me as distinctively modern. And it is gone now, temporarily. The heterogenous, compartmentalized life of before is replaced with a life where your Main Thing is now your Only Thing. At moments it’s fascinating to live this way, but there’s also a sting. It’s the sting of being unable to take turns carrying each other’s burdens. That’s an irony of mass quarantine. We’ve entered into lockdown together. And yet, this act of collectivism has temporarily thrown us back on ourselves, deeper than ever into our own redoubts. To help each other survive, we’ve made it impossible to give or receive so many other, more familiar kinds of help.

As we stood at the summit of Federal Hill, my son climbed up by himself onto the dark, glossy slats of a park bench. He sat there contentedly, like a much more grown-up person, and then climbed down, and up again. At the other end of the bench sat an older woman, drinking what looked like a beer from a bottle wrapped in a koozie. She had short gray-brown hair, skinny jeans, athletic shoes with a slash of neon in their soles. As I stood a few feet off, I watched my son, making sure he wasn’t getting too close to her, and I watched her watching him.

At some moment, he made a lunge toward the stranger, or, more likely, her drink, and I went to snatch him. “He never met a bottle he didn’t like,” I said. She asked me how old he was, and I answered sixteen months. “He’s big for his age,” I said, and she agreed, “Huge.” She added, “He looks like he’ll make some coach very happy someday.”

I sat down on the bench where my son had been, and let him go on the ground. He crawled across the path toward his dad and sister, who were examining a ladybug that had landed on his father’s leg. “It’s quite an adventure having them both home all day,” I said. “Quite a change.”

“Oh, I know,” she said. “At least they have each other. I have a gal who works for me, who has a five-year-old girl who’s an only child. She told me that the other day, the girl crawled up into her lap. She burst into tears and said ‘I’m so lonely.’”

At least they have each other, I agreed. Recently, my daughter had been getting harder and harder to put to bed at night. Never an especially easy job, it’d become a piece of agonizing theater, beginning at seven-thirty and often not ending till over two hours later, after fights and bargaining and threats to leave the room (mine, and hers, far more effective), and ridiculous arguments (“Close your eyes”; “I don’t know how!”) and finally agreeing to hold her hand until she fell asleep. But, just two nights before, we’d finally moved her brother’s crib into her room, and, so far, she’d been going down easy, like a kid in a movie. “Maybe she was just lonely,” one of my mom-friends had said.

The woman and I chatted about my son for a few minutes. “He looks like a boy who’d only ever go by his full name,” she said. “Like if his name was Michael, everyone would call him Michael.” I had to admit he is a boy who almost always goes by a nickname, but it gave her an opening to talk about her brother, Heath, who’d been called “Boodie” or something like that as a child, but one day insisted on “Heath” and never went back.

I was liking this woman. I was liking her androgynous style, and the feeling of talking to someone I hadn’t talked to before, not in a Zoom room but in real life, watching the light play off her face, experiencing the natural and undistorted pauses of a real, live conversation. I wanted to ask her if she had kids of her own—she seemed old enough they might be grown up and living elsewhere—and I kept thinking she would probably volunteer the information, but she took things in another direction instead.

“It’s hard for everyone. My husband had chemotherapy for brain cancer, so he isn’t quite right.” At first, for a second, I thought she was trying to say he was high-risk. “The people who usually come in to help take care of him can’t,” she said. “I come up here from time to time when I just need a break.”

The stranger finished her drink and stood up. She took a last glance at my family spread out on the hill and the harbor below, as the late afternoon sunlight fell across her face. “Well, nice talking to you,” she said. “Take care.” Then she walked off toward her lockdown, and pretty soon, we packed our things and headed back to ours.

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