In the beginning was The Ritual, my pre-emptive strike against pandemic isolation and fear. That first morning of e-school in March 2020, two months before my husband Marco would lose his job, I called my tween twins to the living room to share a word of the day: Al-tru-ism (noun). Next, a poem that I’d seen circulating online, followed by a mindful minute from the Insight Timer app on my phone.
We will ace this lockdown, I told myself. You will see. I was overambitious. But I had reason to believe.
Previous job losses during previous hard times plus cancer—mine, followed by Marco’s—had toughened us. We had Coping Methods. Perspective. This virus that sounded like a beer would be knocked back, subdued. I envisioned our month (ha) of lockdown as a lesson in civic education, connection, endurance and togetherness. Also, mindfulness, dammit.
Vipassana meditation had gotten me through chemo. I knew the power of a daily breathing practice when coping with uncertainty. Mindfulness would get us through.
4 separate orbits
The 10-year-olds resisted my attempt to outmuscle panic. You can’t make a kid meditate, as any meditation teacher in the history of ever will tell you. Locked in defiance, one stared at the ceiling, curled into a ball on the swing chair we call The Nest, while the other stared out the window from under a heap of blankets.
They hated Insight Timer. They thought Word of the Day was dumb. They were united in tween disdain. Despite my desire to engineer togetherness, we remained four separate orbits, circling different moons.
On Day Two, the 10-year-olds rushed through breakfast and inched towards their Chromebooks to log on early. I pulled them like magnets back to the living room, with the promise of Daddy leading us in our Mindful Morning ritual today instead. Marco is the Fun Parent in our home. Marco does funny voices, and he’d reluctantly given in to my pleas.
Marco cleared his throat.
“Gently quiet, make your mind,” he said in a slow, high-pitched Yoda-like tone, gaining their attention. The kids stopped fidgeting—for a moment. But their posture gave them away. The one in the Nest sat scrunched in a ball on his back like a bug, legs in the air; the other kept attempting to capture the cat, who desperately tried to escape.
“Close eyes, now. Deeply breathe.” Yoda continued, ignoring the young Jedis’ inattentiveness. We lacked meditation paraphernalia, so Marco pretended to be a Tibetan bowl. “Diiiingggg,” he said, then counted three breaths, then another “Diiiinggg.” At the end of the second ding, we released the kids, who jetted to “school” in the room next door, sprung from jail.
Meanwhile, I sat earnestly on my meditation cushion, taking it all too seriously, unable to focus on my breath. During cancer, breathing had anchored me when I thought I might die. Now, during the pandemic, when the act of breathing could literally kill you if you took in a gulp of the wrong air, we needed a way to stay grounded.
Some families in town had sprung into out-and-out action, volunteering at food banks and taping rainbows on the insides of their windows facing the street. Others turned inward, stockpiling not toilet paper but habits we thought would help our families survive.
We needed tools
Practicing mindfulness as a family seemed, to me, the apex of high function. Those Meditation Families I read about in those meditation books looked like they were acing life.
As someone who understood the irony of apps that made mindfulness another “to do,” I knew that going for gold in the Mindful Olympics—an ideal manufactured by the woke wellness industry and sponsored by the tyranny of self-care—demeaned the severity of our struggle. Yet I strove like a champ, nonetheless.
I’d tried to establish some kind of breathing-together practice when our kids were smaller and failed. The book Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents) sat still on my nightstand, irking me, for years.
This second time around, I couldn’t surrender so easily. We needed tools, and I was not going down without a fight. The kids, then age seven, had seen me meditating during cancer. I knew some of their elementary school teachers instituted a mini-practice with their classes, at ages eight or nine. Their opposition felt… personal.
Were they trying to differentiate themselves? “You like pink, and I used to like pink but now I like black,” my daughter liked to say to me.
On Day Three, Marco showed up as Horton from Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss. The kids sat in the Nest and under blankets, respectively, this time more passive observers than active resisters. Ding. Maybe someone breathed. Sitting high on my cushion, I cringed at what I perceived as their non-participation.
But as time went on and we pressed on with our morning attempts, the kids murmured rather than griped. They fidgeted less. They chuckled at Marco’s over-the-top performances, and their father embraced his roles.
Sometimes, the kids would roll their four eyes, but eventually, their disdain seemed feigned. I chucked my cushion and sat on the floor. We were orbiting together in a ship of our own design. I stopped caring who mindfully breathed.
The kids tired of Marco’s voices around the same time that he ran out of characters to impersonate, so we moved onto poems. We read all of Shel Silverstein morning by morning, then read poems from a little gift book collection by Francesco Marciuliano, published eight years before the pandemic, titled I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats.
We took turns reading out loud: Marco, then me, then each of the twins. Recited in quarantine, some of the cat poems seemed prescient, letters describing a locked-down future, from the perspective of the family pet:
In the world outside my house
The mice jump in your mouth
And birds serve themselves in butter
Rather than fly south
…In the world outside my house
I can never go
But as an indoor cat I know these things
Because the dog does tell me so
We laughed in recognition; we were the indoor cat.
Relax your f***in’ mind
When we’d completed I Could Pee on This, Volume Two (yes, there are two volumes), we returned to the harbour of guided breaths. When the kids got antsy to get to “school,” Marco upped the ante.
Taking inspiration from a meme, he impersonated Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove. “Relax your f***in’ mind,” he said, low pitched and straight-faced. “Breathe deep, little motherf***ers. In through your mouth, out through your ass.” We sniggered at the foul language. Swearing bonded us. During a global pandemic, you get to break all the rules.
After a year plus of lockdown, the ritual we needed was not about the breath. Or rather, maybe it was, but not in the way I imagined. That morning ritual became about waking up to the fact that we had breath, that we could breathe, that we were alive, silly and fidgety and present for a brief moment together, sending an eff-you to the virus by living and adapting to new circumstances.
I’d like to report that we’ve come through emotionally intact, grounded and sane. But that would be a lie. Few will come through unscathed. The dog is right: outside is better. Our rituals cannot save us from anguish. They can only give us stamina to help us face down whatever presents itself and whatever might come next.
Will our Mindful Morning ritual continue once the kids are no longer learning from home? Unlikely. I’m trying not to be attached.
For now, occasionally, we breathe.
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image 1 “Yoda Fountain at the Presidio, San Francisco” by sw77 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 2 Image by WikiImages from Pixabay 3 “Curb Your Enthusiasm” by Mark McLaughlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 4 photo of schedule board by author