In the last few months, the country has been experiencing a fourth COVID surge. Around here, I have been experiencing a fourth (or 44th?) slump.

I think I’m not alone. Everyone I know is exhausted, tired of trying to negotiate a world that keeps changing, weary of the drain on our personal and collective creative resources. We are depleted from the constant anxiety and stress and dragging towards a finish line we aren’t even sure we can reasonably hope for anymore. Our spirits sag.

In the studio, we have just finished the 8th week of lessons, the halfway point in a 16-week semester. At the end of my daily five hours of teaching, I can no longer make complete sentences or form coherent thoughts. As I told a friend recently, I have often had five-hour teaching days, but now it’s like I’m doing it at altitude with a 100-pound load on my back. And the trail is straight up the mountain.

I suspect it might be more than the fact that our edges were softened during the last 18+months, although I have quick to wonder where our stamina has gone. It feels like a mixed message that so many routines of our lives have returned, but in a somewhat handicapped and crippled fashion. School is back in session; meetings are back in person. Matt has three—three!—choir rehearsals this week, something that he could only dream wistfully about a year ago. But choirs are masked and muffled, performances few and far apart. “We have all of the busyness,” I said to Matt a few weeks ago, “and none of the bling.”

I think we underestimated the toll that trying to function in a totally masked world would have on our brains. Once I thought that if I could just get the students back every week again, we could return to normal piano progress. Wrong. Teaching masked means teaching slower, articulating more carefully and using everything I’ve got to be expressive and clear with the upper half of my face. It means I work harder to understand the mumbling 6-year-old boy who has lost half his teeth. (You know what sounds exactly the same behind a mask? D. E. G. C. B. Basically the whole musical alphabet.)

And that’s just on my end. The kids have the same chore all day long in school, negotiating both the giving and receiving ends of what can only be rather muddled communication at best. No wonder we are beyond words.

While we might have given lip service to the idea that the quieter, less frantic life we were forced to live during pandemic shut down was something worth hanging onto, how quickly we forget those good intentions. It has been all too easy to throw ourselves back recklessly into our packed schedules and bursting days, grateful for the evidence that the world still turns. It’s turning all right, even as we grab on desperately for our lives.

One Saturday morning, some years ago, Matt and I were biking the trail that runs through the Bosque, alongside the Rio Grande. These days the Rio is not so Grande. Thanks to drought conditions and too many winters with little snow, the Rio Grande really has few characteristics that would constitute calling it a river at all. Especially, water.

Nevertheless, there we were, biking through the Bosque. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We had gotten up early and decided to forsake our normal Saturday morning yoga class (me) and gym workout (Matt). Instead, a long bike ride.

And that’s when I saw it: a porcupine in a tree. At first the porcupine only looked like a knotted piece of tree bark bulging out the side of the trunk. I was a good bit past the tree when I thought, “I think there was an animal up there.” I almost didn’t go back to look, but then I wondered what this might say about my tunnel vision and ridiculously narrow and myopic focus if I wasn’t even curious enough to check out the mystery animal up in a tree.

I so turned around and cycled back. And there he was: a porcupine in a tree. His little fingers grasped the side of the branch and his head laid against the trunk in the sunshine. He was sleeping, all his prickles at rest. I watched him for a while, and then I got back on my bike and rode home.

The last couple of days I have noticed something that is possibly enlightening: the faster the world spins, the more still I become as a defense mechanism. I grow fiercely protective of our free evenings and become resentful when Matt schedules another rehearsal or meeting. I become prickly and irritable about all the little things I can normally let go: the socks left by bed, the dishwasher that wasn’t unloaded, the piles of books and papers that are growing on every horizontal surface. I become, in a word, a porcupine. This, I know, is not helpful.

Of course, I know what the underlying root of this anger is. It is fear. The world is spinning too fast and I’m afraid of being left behind, I find myself thinking in the dark nights of the soul. Please don’t leave me! I don’t know how to live without you.

But sometimes it’s hard to dance gracefully through the drastic tempo changes of our days. We want to think we can order and plan our lives, maintaining the illusion that we have some kind of control over our world. We want to take sabbaticals and vacations when we want them, not when they are thrust in our laps. We want to think we can choose when to spin wildly and then when to stop and rest. We want the assurance that the people we love will always be there and that we are not, in the end, alone.

I wonder what it would look like if we expected that a good day in a masked world means managing about 80-90% of what we used to accomplish, best case. A good piano lesson would never get through all the assignments. A good hour would be working deeper on fewer things and letting go of what doesn’t get done. We should agree to stop talking about how far behind the educational system has fallen. We should forget about what the normal rate of skill acquisition looks like in piano lessons or in algebra. We should not compare this current soccer team to that past fantasy one. Maybe if we all agreed to do less, we could catch our breath again. Especially in a masked world that limps forward one painful step at a time. Uphill. While carrying an extra 100-pounds.

Meanwhile, I make my annual trip to the nursery to buy pansies. Remembering past years when my flower eyes were big and greedy and then I spent days and days planting and potting and cursing, I am determined to practice moderation. At the checkout counter, I am brought up short by the friendly person working the cash register. “You know, it is actually cheaper if you buy more and fill the whole flat.” There it is spelled out for me in a cheerful face of a pansy: More is, in fact, cheaper. Quite literally. Our resolve tested at every turn.

After a year of wrestling with the concept of “essential,” we are now faced with the challenges of defining what is “enough.” I plant only four pots of pansies and set them out to bask in the beautiful New Mexican sunshine. Across the street, there are 14 yellow leaves (I’m sure I counted correctly) in the mulberry tree and my orange mums along the back flowerbeds are covered in blooms. The pumpkin next to my front door weighs 44 pounds. Albuquerque’s annual balloon fiesta boasted under half its normal number of balloons (500 versus 1100), and still the morning skies were full, glorious, bursting with color. This week I made my first pot of green chile stew for the season and pulled out the comforter and my down jacket from the closet. Under my desk, two cats nap at my feet. Somewhere, a porcupine sleeps in a tree, quills quieted.

It is enough.

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