Who are we now, in the weeks after the world shifted and buckled around us? I suppose the answer is an edgier, touchier version of who we were before. That is to say: we are still us, but more so.
I wake every day with the knowledge that something very wrong could have happened while I slept—a storm of accusations on the internet, a new executive order, a crackdown on human beings who are the wrong kind of human beings for the moment—and I lie in bed and listen to the morning radio news, waiting to hear about it. My body heavy, my mind racing to hear the impact in the stories, I feel the dread and push it aside; if I wait here, listening too long, I’ll miss the chance to kiss my older daughter goodbye before she leaves for high school.
And so, each morning, I pad down to the kitchen, where my somehow-morning-people daughters are putting yogurt in lunch boxes and ignoring sticky cereal bowls, staring at phones and tablets and absorbing a very different kind of news. One is catching up on a night full of texts from the cast of the play she’s in, and the other is elated to see a new video by her favorite You-Tube star. I peck their cheeks, check their lunchboxes for too much candy, and review the plan for after-school activities.
Then I check my phone, and the deluge of news—paused when I left my clock radio—resumes. Under a gentle murmur of sweetness from my daughters as they chat and prepare for their day, I read about what might come next. I brush the crumbs of last week’s challah—a bread I make almost every Friday for our Sabbath dinner—from the countertop with one hand and absorb the latest fear with the other, scrolling with my thumb past one news source after another.
Suddenly, there is a presence at my side. My younger daughter reaches around me with both arms, drapes herself over me, and rests her cheek against my chest. “We didn’t hug yet,” she says, reproachfully.
I breathe, hug her with one arm and then self-correct, set the phone down on the counter behind me and add my other arm, too. “You’re right,” I say. “Good morning, my sweet.”
“Twenty second hug?” she asks me, referring to the study we’d read that said a hug that lasts twenty seconds increases oxytocin levels in the blood, oxytocin being the feel-good hormone that brings down a person’s stress level. I nod and close my eyes, resting my chin on her head.
We breathe, count, hug. I remember her baby-self, so hard to settle, and my discovery that if I counted my breaths and kept them even, it took 200 breaths with her against my chest for her to settle into sleep. 200 breaths take a long time, but the result was worth it. 20 seconds is a long hug, but it, too, is worth it.
As our hug ends, my older daughter calls to me from the back foyer. She’s leaving, so I stumble back to her to kiss her soft cheeks before she’s gone for the day. She asks into my hair, “anything important in the news today?”
“Not too bad,” I tell her.
One by one, my daughters and my husband leave the house for the day, and before I leave for my office, I am alone with the news and my thoughts and my fear. I look around, and the detritus of our life together is everywhere: more crumbs, papers, laundry, a couch full of pillows where we pile ourselves to watch tv and talk on the rarer-by-the-year evenings when we all find ourselves home together. It all looks fragile, and I know for the first time in my life that, truly, someone could take it all away. I remember my ancestors and their running from pogroms, from Nazis, from the next threat, and I think: there were crumbs and papers there too, before they ran.
What’s next? A day of thinking, moving through work and school alternating with desktop and smartphone activism. I make calls to my representatives between client meetings; my high school daughter meets with a group of 2018 and 2020 voters at lunch and they, too make calls. My husband reads one newspaper, two newspapers, online analyses, and more. I imagine, in flashes, what it might be like if we really do lose our health care. Then I make more calls, read more, sign petitions, and work again. There is little breathing in the portion of my day spent without my family: just the drone of news in my head and the ping-ponging from task to task on my screen.
In the evening, though, my family reconvenes. We trickle in from work and school and rehearsals and activities, and we rebuild: bread crumbs, papers, chatter, songs. We share news, talk about what we’ve read or heard, and eat dinner over homework or the tv shows that give us the best escape from the worry we all feel. In our cocoon, we nudge each other with our feet on the couch and dissect the plot lines of Once Upon a Time. It is delicious to wade in fiction. It is like a deep, deep breath.
Soon, though, reality intervenes. My middle-school daughter says her friends from Mexico are scared. I tell her to show them as much love as she can. She nods, frowns, sighs, and asks how. I don’t know, and make something up. I am always making something up these days. This time, I tell her to just be an especially good friend to her scared classmates—to give them the benefit of the doubt, that people do strange things when they’re frightened.
That’s good advice for all of us, I realize.
What do we do now? I ask my husband each night. How do we respond to this? How do we help the immigrants, the sick, the frightened, the invisible?
How do we help ourselves?
He doesn’t know, and neither of us are getting any closer to the answers. In the meantime, while we wait and watch and call and talk and eat homemade bread and work and worry, we huddle closer. We invite other people into the huddle, too, and share our waiting, watching, calling, talking, and bread; we work and worry together. Every person we bring into the fold—and every other fold we enter into wherever we go—calls us to the peacefulness of belonging.
That’s who we are now, I realize. We are ourselves, but more so, and the best we can do for the world is become a bigger group of people seeking the answers. It’s the isolation that scares me the most. Expanding our hearths is the only way to keep them safe. Inviting more love and more community into our havens—and breathing deeply with them—is how we become more ourselves.
What’s next: I’ll bake bread this Friday, and I’ll share it. We will all try to breathe deeply.