”Go stand in the trash bin for an hour Z”
At my 4th grade school, my history teacher used to make us stand in a tall trash can when we misbehaved. I ended up there once, and it was so very exciting at first. The rusted metal bin that almost came up to my chest and smelled of tar offered a change of scenery. It was a break from my usual role as a conscientious student. As I stood there, I regaled in the attention of my classmates. “Look at me,” I said inwardly and they did. But within fifteen minutes, when my classmates’ attention drifted back to the Indo-British wars, I started to panic just a bit. I knew I didn’t belong in the trash can; I knew I was just being dumped there and it was my teacher’s way to regain control of the classroom. As I stood there, a feeling of isolation crept over me. When will I go back amongst them? Will they hug me as a victorious winner or will they shun me as a trash can junkie? I wondered.
As I look towards my two daughters stuck at home and learning remotely, I cannot help but wonder if they are feeling a little bit of the same thing I went through many years ago. Between us, we have two kids in two separate institutions. Our elder one is in UNH which thankfully still has some balance of in-class and remote ratio whereas the younger one is an 11th grader who spends roughly six hours a day watching synchronous classes on her Chromebook. She wanders, bleary-eyed into the kitchen at random times — for breakfast around 10.45 am or for a four-minute break between two classes. When she is not in a class, she is staring at her laptop balancing it on her knees as she eats some yogurt while the papers are scattered around her.
Once in a while, from my loft office, I can hear one of my girls answering or asking a question, but mostly what I hear is just unnerving silence. There is no leave-taking or homecoming, no rhythmic cycle of routine, just the soft thumping of household work happening perpetually in limbo, especially for my wife. My girls are here, but they are not here; being taught, but not necessarily learning, seeing people, but not actually interacting with the rest of humanity.
And they’re the lucky ones — with desks, Wi-Fi, and a fridge stocked with food. They know this, and I cannot thank my employer who is kind, helpful, and understanding. I know how lucky we are that we can work during these times.
I pick up Marsha as she is walking on the road one Sunday morning. She is a regular and I have seen her around this area for a couple of years now. She has two young boys and works at a local dollar store. As I drive, I ask her, curious as to why she was walking in the opposite direction from her usual workplace.
“They laid off a bunch of us a month ago. I am just heading to Dunkin Donuts to pick up a job application,” she says with obvious dismay. I try to recall all the other hiring lists that I have seen around in the area. She thanks me, but her mind is somewhere else.
“How are the kids doing,” I ask as we round a corner. She hesitates for a second but then decides to let me in on the state of her life. Her husband who was a sub-contractor at the local plumbing joint is laid off too. Their car has broken down again, the kids need laptops and internet at home, luxuries which they did not have before, and the younger one hasn’t had his asthma medication in a couple of weeks now. The expenses are just piling up and she is overwhelmed — A tired life gladiator fighting ten cannibal soldiers at the same time.
We take a detour by a local CVS on the way and pick up her son’s medication. As I swipe my credit card, I extend a hand to quickly pick up some packs of cookies and chips too. Later, as we reach Dunkin Donuts, I reach for my wallet and shove a couple of fifty-dollar bills in her hand. I am ashamed of myself, for being able to work, for having the things that she doesn’t, for not being able to do more for them, even when I actually could. What would a couple of fifties do for her? The guilt within is pushing me to do things that my rational mind would usually refuse. She looks at the money in horror — but only for a second. Her mind is calculating things at a furious pace, and money ultimately wins out.
As she is about to step out of the car, she unfolds her arms pointed in my direction almost as a sign of relief. Her eyes, behind the mask, are questioning.
“Of course”, I mumble behind mine, as I lean towards the right to give her a hug.
It has come to this — that we have to question a basic act of human interaction.
As I drive back home, I think about where we are as a human race these days. For 15 years, I have marked days and seasons by the rhythms of the middle school bus coming to pick and drop the kids by the side of our house. When the ice-cream truck pulls into the parking lot during a summer evening, it’s time for me to go to the local gym. When handprint turkeys appear in the windows, it’s time to take the warm clothes out from their bags. Now the parking lot is empty and the windows are dark. I miss the sounds of little kids playing outside and their games.
I miss looking out my bedroom window and watching my kids leave for the day: elder daughter first, her walk signifying a sense of confidence and leadership; then my younger one, trailing behind her elder sister as they walk together, their heavy backpacks almost weighing them down. I miss their swim classes, their lunch bags, and the binders they had on the sofa that I used to nag them about. Their schools, as I know it, have ended for now. I tell myself we will never take these things for granted again — the sound of the school bus engine as it rolls in, the hustle of young people going places, my front-row seat on the beautiful mess of normalcy.
I’ve learned my lesson.
It’s almost dusk and the sun has set behind the horizon. I walk back into the bedroom, put down two pillows on the floor, and sit down cross-legged for the evening meditation session. As I close my eyes, my brain is searching for the sounds of children playing in the park just outside the window. The sounds that I always considered an irritant during my meditation sessions and tried to tune them out by forcing my mind back on my breathing.
Now as I sit here in the quiet, I realize how they were a supplicant to my meditation. Our world as we know it has changed in the last few months. Spending time alone in our so-called quarantine has allowed us to see ourselves, to see what color we really are, when we have nothing to blend into.