Badges—a Re-entry Story.
(This piece was originally written at the end of May. I stepped away from my blog at that time and am now coming back and found this piece to be worth sharing. Amazing how much the landscape has shifted, evolved and re-acclimated in just under two months.)
1. The Badges.
Opal’s Girl Scout badges dropped from her vest one at a time like scales from a sick gecko. I followed low behind her, doing my best to duck out of other peoples' photos, and pocketed them as they fell, until my back pockets were lumpy and odd.
We had gathered at a local park for Opal's Girls Scout troop's “bridging ceremony,” where the troop would make its transition to from "juniors" to "cadettes." Girl Scouts was one of the few blessed activities that kept going without a hitch all through COVID, thanks to ZOOM technology and the hard work of their two beloved troop leaders. Only in hindsight can I truly recognize the few rare threads that stayed the course through pandemic thick-and-thin.
During the months and months where it was not safe to meet in person, the troop leaders delivered supplies and patches to each of the girls’ front doors. Ever grateful for their efforts and yet distracted and disorganized for the better part of the year, I stashed away those patches like a squirrel’s nuts long before winter and utterly forgot where I put them. I remember thinking how far-off a world that included an in-person Girl Scout vest seemed. And using the badges as an example, it was apparent that there were large swatches of time that were far more invested in daily survival than planning for the future.
So, the night before Opal’s ceremony, our household participated in a rousing game of Find-The-Patches. I discovered quite a few, all in the sorts of places one puts things until further instruction: nestled in the kitchen catch-all drawer between a lone birthday candle and four paper clips and a battery charger, on the window sill in the craft area that works as a gathering shelf for wayward items, and so on. And when my idea of stapling them was rejected, I set to hot-gluing the badges, while Opal repeated,“Really, Mom, it’s no big deal.” Bless that child.
The other Girl Scouts’ patches seemed to be sewn on with precision and accuracy. In one glance, I surmised that the other MOGS (moms of girl scouts) had been able to maintain some semblance of management and coordination throughout COVID. Accurate or not, (likely not—) I could feel the vintage tendencies of self-judgment and comparison bubble up in my throat like so much acid reflux after a grand meal of foods my system was out of practice eating.
(My mom was visiting from Ohio and my mother-in-law also joined the festivities. How sweet it was to see them relaxing in the shade on a picnic bench, mask-free and genially chatting with other parents. I wanted to squeeze between them and say, remind me how to do this.)
Then I spotted another girl in Opal’s troop whose patches were taped on to her vest with clear packing tape. No attempt to hide it or make it look skillful, just stripes of glossy adhesive to hold the patches in place.
The love I felt for the mom of that little girl was keen, acute—love in its purest form. And as I glanced at her profile in the distance, a soft handful of thoughts began to coagulate, but were not in full, translatable form until much later.
They went something like this: we have so many relationships in this lifetime, some with roots fertilized by precious time and cultivation. But there is another brand of connection—one that comes in a flash, often without words, and goes. At times, a moment like that can far-surpass a slow-build culmination. Recognition is at its core. It also occurred to me that relationships are often based less on precise exchanges and experiences, and more on how comfortable someone is in their own skin, and the permission that offers the other party to just fucking relax.
2. Re-learning the Language.
Conversation with the other adults—some masked and some not, we were right at the precipice of the lifting of the mask mandate—felt a little like, years ago, when I was just learning Spanish and I asked the waitress at a local Mexican restaurant if I could practice on her. She rolled her eyes (she actually rolled her eyes! who does that?) and said, “I guess, but not if the place gets busy.” The place was empty.
Being social was something that, pre-COVID was so deeply woven into the tapestry of my identity; I could work multiple threads of thought and conversation like a master working her loom. I had never had the opportunity to realize this was something that, like any skill, required practice. Now, I could hear my own sentences veer off without proper closure, the noiseless noise of my insides eclipsing any chance at spontaneous thought.
I often have headaches. But they always, eventually, dissipate. And when they do, I commonly have the thought, “Shit—people with chronic pain feel like this all the time.” The same notion passed through me while in mid-conversation, that this must be how people with social anxiety feel all the time.
As I was talking to one mom about Ohio travels, my words felt heavy and forced, like muck in the plumbing that needs to clear to make way for the good stuff, the flow, the ease. But the ease wasn’t happening. I dealt with this by being short with my family then overcompensating with niceties.
Up until a few days earlier, for Opal's fifth-grade graduation, it had been over a year since I had been in any sort of crowd that was not a small smattering of family and friends in the yard. The muscles required to hold up a fresh conversation were flaccid, amnesiatic. Clunky and bullet-pointed: first greet, then listen, then ask a question, then share a personal anecdote, rinse, repeat.
Suddenly, Opal ran up, red-faced and panting, “I need you!”
After the Girl Scout ceremony and gifts and photos and cupcakes, the troop went to play on the adjacent playground and Opal invited Ruth along. They were all close in proximity, but not easy to see from where the grown-ups did their best to mingle.
I excused myself, secretly thankful for a renewed sense of direction, and fast-walked with Opal toward Ruth.
What’s up? I asked Opal. (From behind my stupid mask.)
She just won’t listen! (From behind hers, the material going concave into her mouth with each vacuum-ous inhale.)
This was Opal’s blanket complaint that covers the entirety of Ruth’s existence, so it didn’t give me much by way of detail.
Ruth was in a sandbox with two other kids and a dad. My brain snapped to a litany of questions: How long had Ruth been sitting there with these kids and a dad without Opal close by? How had she been behaving in the absence of any supervision? Did the dad assume that I was one of those nondescript moms who were benched-up along the periphery behind their tiny screens while their kids run amuck?
3. Brief Author's Note About Parents on Phones.
(I have always judged those mothers who are glued to their phones while at the park. Get off your fucking phone. But this was a day where I wanted to curl up with my own phone like a woobie. I saw how that sophisticated little piece of technology had the potential to sooth raw nerves, to quell social anxiety. Just a minute to check Zulily was all I needed to close off the periphery, like shutters to an attic when the sun got too hot. It could be a tool to section off reality into bite-sized measures.
I suddenly considered that perhaps these phone-obsessed parents were not so much negligent as they were socially anxious. Little eyes popping through a portal to reality, then withdrawing again—the phone an essential part of the dance, a little black box to step in and out of. The way cigarettes used to be a ticket for people to take breaks throughout the day. Joyful, social, mini day-breaks that you had to destroy your lungs in order to justify to the world.)
4. But Back to Ruth in the Sandbox.
Ruth was pissed for no obvious reason. My zippy mom-assessment: Opal told Ruth she needed to stay close to her and her GS troop and Ruth replied with FUCK OFF to which Opal read as she doesn’t listen!!
Even a light check-in infuriated Ruth and she threw sand at the little girl next to her. I firmly took her hand and led her away, saying to the father, “Sorry, we are all out of practice at this.” Totally my bad to send her out into the sea of social beings, supervised by a well-meaning but highly distracted big sister.
Once again aligned with the familiar purpose of keeping my child alive and from throwing sand in anyone else’s eyes— I can do that!—I was able to re-see the blue sky, the kids frolicking like pups, the gorgeous bare-faced humans that were peppered about. I couldn’t quite absorb the details but, like water sprayed on the sliding glass door, at least I could see it.
After a moment, I allowed Ruth to play in the squirty splash pad with a smattering of other kids, this time with me watching. Conversation with other parents came much more fluid and easy when we were facing our children, rather than each other.
5. Aligning With Surrogates.
5. Aligning With Surrogates.
I noticed our neighbor in the distance, his two-year-old son running in circles around the splash pad and screaming like an emergency broadcast systems test. It was hard to decipher the particular emotion he was feeling as he yelled, it was kind-of a catch-all holler that was mixed into the scene of kids like just another monkey in the jungle, though he certainly stood out. His dad didn’t attempt to try and corral him or calm him, just let him go, saying “hey buddy” every time his trajectory led him past his dad’s knees.
Each time the splash pad paused, there was a momentary silence like a mute button, a breather, and anticipation built anew. Then the fountain restarted, shooting water into the air and raising the roof with ear shattering kid-screams—a soup of glee, excitement, nervousness, water-fear, titillation.
In an instant, I recalled the thrill of live music concerts before COVID, before kids. Concerts of a beloved artist, where every song is familiar on a cellular level and, similarly, the artist would pause for a riff, for a moment of conversation, for the audience to catch their breath. And then, we'd hear a note, a chord, a word that clued us into the next song and we all went wild like one grand communal explosion, no separation.
Abruptly, my tension melted away. The pandemonium worked as sort of a surrogate, it mirrored the frequency that hummed from behind my ribcage, a thing I was having such a hard time getting at.
It was wordless recognition, feeling felt. It's the way a red-zone bout of rage that is met by a good old fashioned thunderstorm is much more likely to move cleanly through than if it were met by a well-meaning friend who is trying to say the right thing.