Photo by Joe Caey Moreno
7:58 a.m.: “Wake up buddy, it’s time to go to school.”
8:00 a.m.: Phoenix, a local 5 year old, sleepily yet expertly, navigates a trackpad on his personal school-provided Chromebook to a green button that says, “Join Now.” His hair is disheveled, pajama shirt still warm, he’s ready for another five hours of virtual kindergarten. There will be five to six scheduled zoom meetings throughout the morning of various sizes, groups and subjects. He will begrudgingly make his way through all of them like he does and will every day of this, we-don’t-know-when-it-will-end, Coronavirus school closure.
Phoenix, or Pj to his friends, is a sweet, sometimes shy, sometimes boisterous little fellow. His brown fine hair has plunged to its longest length yet with his “pandemic no-cut.” It often covers up his curious brown eyes while a mask covers up the rest of his face on trips outside. He is kind and sensitive with a mini-version of his dad’s anger issues. His bedroom is strewn with bits of LEGO, dinosaurs and hot wheels. He is self-taught and deft in the martial arts of the Power Rangers variety. He hopes to be a space traveler or paleontologist when he’s taller.
As the author of this profile and father of the subject, I have exactly one reference in my memory of life in quarantine. If you were a kid in the 1980s, you may know about Chicken Pox parties. My mom drove me to a friend’s house on a sunny morning to find him sitting on his bed, sores from head to toe, looking sad, embarrassed and scared. We were told to sit next to each other and to hug and to “make sure to rub our cheeks and arms together.” Then we left. There was no explanation. It was weird. A few days later the sores appeared all over my body and I was sentenced to a week in quarantine. A week off of school with a sweet old woman from church in charge. I was excited until my mom was out the door to work and the sweet church lady tuned the T.V. to her “stories.” The stories were soap operas and I was firmly told not to interrupt them. They lasted exactly all day, from the time my mom left, until she returned in the late afternoon. I kept quiet, the church lady kept her hands busy knitting finger puppets for me. Once or twice a day, she’d call me over during a commercial break, a new finger puppet was finished. By the end of the week I loved finger puppets and hated soap operas. I don’t really remember the chicken pox. This only now, seems like a valuable lesson.
Being a parent in 2020 is different. Thoughts of trauma prevention cannot be avoided when trauma is seemingly low fruit hanging everywhere for the taking. The pandemic, the politics, the division, the fires and hurricanes, unemployment, insecurities of all sorts. The 24/7 news cycle and the internet compound the fear. Seemingly contradicting information served up on an all- you-can-eat-buffet all day every day. How’s my 5 year old doing? What’s going on in his world? What can I as a parent hope to do to have him feel safe and know that everything is ok (when everything is not ok)?
After a few interviews with Phoenix I start to realize we have a completely different worldview.
As we drove to a nature preserve, navigating the twisting back roads I asked him if life is pretty good right now.
“Yeah pretty good right now. It would be better if we could like do anything possible and everything not possible,” he said. “Like going inside a volcano, like inside the lava. That’s…not
Is school any different this year? “Umm, well we’re…some of it, yes, is different. Some of it, not so different. Actually there’s nothing different.”
One of the most interesting parts of being a parent is witnessing the life journey from the very beginning. From its first breath. When Phoenix entered the world, his face looked like a boxer following a 12 round fight. Crooked nose, abrasions, a look of despair. His first tale of survival happened when he was seconds old, the doctor working the noose that his umbilical cord had become from around his neck. By his second birthday, his parents had separated and he was living the lifestyle of two homes with two single parents trying to figure it out. Life has been one of constant change and adaptation and he has traveled this road brimming with pure acceptance and courage.
In writer Emily Sohn piece in The New York Times titled “Worried About Your Kids’ Social Skills Post-Lockdown,” a pediatrician and early-childhood development expert at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child Dr. Jack Shonkoff, M.D. said: “Even though this is unusual, most kids will come out of this fine because we’re biologically wired to adapt. If we weren’t, we would have gone extinct like the dinosaurs. We wouldn’t be able to survive because the environment is always changing.”
In the same piece, Dr. Seth Pollak a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said, “In fact, having parents who worry excessively about what their kids are missing out on is likely more damaging than missing out on experiences.”
As we walked through the forest, the cool September breeze kissed our cheeks. After explaining what “silver linings” meant, I asked Phoenix, “is there a silver lining to this pandemic?”
“You know what’s even better than silver lines? Green lines.” He went on to explain, “Green line means, like, you’re going for the good thing, which going for the good thing is good because that means like not only one good thing will happen, like a bunch of good things will happen.”
While the experience of every parent, child and family throughout the tumultuous waters of 2020 looks vastly different, they’ve likely universally been impacted with school closures and job insecurity proliferating. Phoenix’s situation is unique like everyone else’s. His mother lives and works full time in Chicago. He gets to enjoy many adventures with his mom in the big bright city. He spends his school days and some weekends in Woodstock with the writer of this piece, his dad, who has been unemployed since March due to a pandemic-related school closure and lack of childcare availability.
While it is challenging to find the joy when there is so much pain and suffering upon our world, that seems to be the work of the day. Phoenix and I spend much more time together now. A silver lining? Or even better, a green one, with “a bunch of good things.” We camp out in the backyard. We go on nature walks. We learn how to grow lettuce and flowers. We build fires and roast marshmallows. We laugh and dance and practice our stick sword fighting skills. We wrestle and play, chase butterflies and spot Blue Jays and Cardinals. We collect Cicada shells and fly kites, have picnics and learn how to ride bikes. We make art and messes and disassemble broken electronic components. We also get on each others’ nerves and watch Netflix and eat junk food.
“Social interactions are like training wheels that teach children how to negotiate social situations for the rest of their lives,” Pollak said, “and it’s valuable for children to see that people — even parents — have moods, opinions, unique styles of play and a need to take breaks.”
I can appreciate what Dr. Pollak says here as I continue to learn balance and try to maintain sanity in a seemingly insane time.
Humans beings are incredible. Our specialty is adaptation. If we can keep our most verdant fears at bay and trust the process of life, we may come out the other side on a beautiful strange new path. We can be stronger and braver with more gifts than we ever imagined, any 5 year old could teach you that.
As we walked through the forest, father and son, passing a giant old tree scorched by lightning and barely hanging on. Phoenix took over the interview and posed and answered his own question. One that made me feel like everything is going to be ok for him. That he understands the gifts of life and the challenges that come with it. That it is worth it.
“Dad…getting struck by lightning or being dead? Which one would you like better?” He paused, then answered, “I think I’ll take being struck by lightning.”