Not “the (only) One”

What if when it comes to love, we got it wrong?

This post is an excerpt from Shelter in Place season 2, episode 20. Listen to the full episode above.

Romantic love has a long history; Petrarch and Dante wrote about it in the 1300s, and even the Bible gets pretty steamy with the Song of Solomon. But the idea that romantic love is the great goal of life is relatively new. For much of human history, the kind of love that made John Cusack raise his boombox in Say Anything was referred to as “lovesickness,” a mixture of intense romantic attraction with elements of obsession, impulsiveness, and delusions. This view of love as a sickness isn’t totally off base. Today scientists have linked “lovesickness” to the flood of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in our brains, a chemical reaction that looks a lot like what happens when we’re on drugs.

It wasn’t until 1750, when Romanticism found its way into poetry, art, and philosophy, that romantic love began to have its day. Before that marriage was less about love and more about economics. During the industrial age, as people began making enough money to think about marriage as more than a means to procreation and financial support, Romanticism dug its claws in deeper. Individual rights and the pursuit of happiness gained importance, and with them came the idea of marrying for love.

During the 1800s as the number of publishing houses in the U.S. and Britain increased, the dark fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm made their way to the public. I remember those fairy tales, where Cinderella’s sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds, and the Little Mermaid’s tragic ending is turning to sea foam. But thanks to Walt Disney, the aftertaste that those stories leave with me is now a happy one. 

After World War 1 and the Great Depression, Walt Disney saw that people were growing weary of sad tales and wanting to escape their bleak reality. Beginning in 1937, Disney launched a golden age of movies that borrowed from the old fairy tales, but gave them happily ever after endings. It was in the prettier versions of those old stories that our cultural obsession with romantic love reached its peak.

I bring up this history because with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I think it’s worth examining our assumptions about love. I’m not just talking about the love we associate with marriage or even with dating or sex—though the conversation certainly applies to all of those places, too. I’m talking about the perceptions of love that affect us whether we are single or married or divorced or widowed. It’s a belief so common in our culture that we have to zoom out in history to realize that we’ve been indoctrinated. The idea that Romanticism has fed us—that we’ve swallowed whole—is that whether in friendship or dating or marriage, our most important quest in life is finding “the one,” that person who at last will solve all of our problems and make us whole.

The idea that Romanticism has fed us—that we’ve swallowed whole—is that whether in friendship or dating or marriage, our most important quest in life is finding “the one,” that person who at last will solve all of our problems and make us whole.

In his essay, “How Romanticism Ruined Love,” Alain de Botton says, “We can at this point state boldly: Romanticism has been a disaster for our relationships. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism. Our strongest cultural voices have—to our huge cost—set us up with the wrong expectations . . . .We’re surrounded by a culture that offers a well-meaning but fatally skewed ideal of how relationships might function. We’re trying to apply a very unhelpful script to a hugely tricky task.”

I think Alain de Botton is right. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with romantic love, but that we’ve zoomed in on it so close has blinded us to the bigger picture. Whether with a best friend or significant other, we expect it to be all snuggles and self-fulfillment, and think there’s something wrong with us if it takes work.

I’m not anti-romance. I still love a bouquet of roses and a shared bottle of wine. Our desire to be cherished is innate to our humanity, and we all deserve to be looked at with love and admiration. It’s just that when we fix our gaze on romance alone, we miss out on all of the other gifts that relationships can give us.

This post was an excerpt of an episode of Shelter in Place, season 2, episode 20. You can listen to the full episode here or read the transcript here.

Dear 2020,

We need to break up. I know you’ve probably been expecting this ever since Christmas, when I stopped returning your texts and emails. Maybe you realized I’d blocked your number. I want to explain why I haven’t reached out—and why I won’t be.

I met someone new. I was trying to describe our relationship to him, and it suddenly struck me that I was doing it all wrong, starting with the ending, forgetting everything that came before and all of the in-between that held us together, at least for a while.

Remember that New Year’s Eve party my ex threw last year? I was surprised he invited me; we’d only just broken up. He’d never mentioned that you worked together. Maybe he knew I’d lose interest in him the moment I saw you.

We danced together in that crowded living room, everyone laughing and spilling their drinks. We snuck out onto the balcony right before the ball dropped and clinked our glasses. Someone put on Auld Lang Syne, and when you kissed me, the night let out a great sigh. 

As the magic of midnight unspooled and someone broke a glass inside, I thought I felt in your quiet something ominous. I never imagined that party would be our last, or that we’d lose touch with most of those friends before we’d run our love to its inevitable end.

It’s easy to blame what happened in March for everything that would follow. At first we banded together. We chalked “hang in there” on the sidewalks and swapped our hard pants for athleisure. We started meditating, kept a gratitude journal, made color-coded homeschool schedules. I started a podcast called Shelter in Place to help me find metaphorical shelter in a time when I was stuck in my own physical place. I thought it would be a small project, that all of this would be over in a few weeks. 

And then one morning in May we woke up to a different world–or rather, it was the same world, but its shiny layer had been peeled back to reveal the decay underneath. We took to the streets, a new kind of rallying. Our protests were layered; we didn’t just want things to be different–we wanted history to be different. Some days we wished we could erase ourselves from the story. 

I had not anticipated how my daily podcast would force me to take a long hard look at myself. There was no hiding from the death and destruction all around me—or inside me. I still wrote episodes six days a week, but now I sought out other voices and stayed as quiet as I could. Some days I wanted to stop talking altogether. 

I called friends and had awkward conversations. Even the trying marked a stark division. My friends were sad and discouraged and angry–but they were not surprised. For every person in America who was finally waking up, others slumbered on, lost in dreams of a world that had never been. Meanwhile my friends kept the midnight watch; they’d been wide-eyed and overtired all their lives.

Now my nights were restless, with twitchy legs and patchwork dreams. Sometimes I’d get up in the middle of the night and do the work I hadn’t been able to finish during the day, when I was officiating kid fights and administrating Zoom schedules. It was unmanageable, but there seemed to be no other option. It was surprising how we could all go on living half-dead.

I kept writing and recording, fighting my instinct to shut down. Each day was a refrain of losing hope and finding it, losing it and finding it again. They were not sequential events, but rather parallel tracks. There was the hope and the loss, the loss and the hope, always there together. Optimism was no longer a simple thing. 

Summer came. For months I’d held a secret hope that we could get the old life back. I even thought about calling my ex. But now the kids would not be going back to school. The coming year stretched out like a long impenetrable fog. 

And then one day the fog wasn’t fog, but yellow smoke blanketing our skies. The sun turned red. The air smelled of burning plastic. Ash fell like dirty snowflakes. We formed a new faith in the apocalypse. We weren’t suicidal, just so very tired of living. 

The smoke cleared for a few hours and I sat on the back porch crying, wanting and not wanting you to find me. When you finally did, you surprised me by agreeing that we were not okay. We needed to do something drastic. For once I didn’t micromanage you. I let you take me wherever you thought we should go. We set out on a month-long road trip across the country, not stopping until we reached family on the opposite coast. We let go of our shelter, of our place that felt like home. 

It’s been four months since you took me to Massachusetts. The kids are doing better with grandma overseeing school. I’m lonely sometimes, but I’m okay. I still don’t know when we’re going home. 

I tried not to think about you on New Year’s Eve this year. There were no parties. I didn’t see midnight this time around. The kids and I sang Auld Lang Syne at 8 p.m. and I finally taught them what it means. It begins with a question: is it right to forget days gone by? 

Remember that terrible fight we had in November, when you screamed questions I couldn’t answer? 

Would I erase you from my life if I could? Some days I think yes. You broke me again and again. 

But as much as I want to hate you, I can’t. You stole so much—but you also gave me a life I hadn’t known I’d needed. You made me uncomfortable—but in the process I learned to live with less. I learned from you that it’s okay to ask for help, that relationships take work, that the best things in life usually aren’t easy. That process of crumbling all of my previous self-sufficiency and–I’ll admit it, selfishness–has revealed something quite unexpected: it’s no easy answer or silver lining; it’s insecure, and not fully-formed. It’s fragile, but solid at its core. It’s small, but it could grow. 

What you gave me, dear 2020, is hope. It’s far more expansive than I’d imagined; it doesn’t require us to agree before we can care for each other. It laments the past and casts a vision for the future. It can say I’m sorry; it can learn to forgive. It’s got joy and pain tangled around and inside it. It doesn’t mind the contradiction.

This person I’ve met is nothing like you. He says exactly what he means. His expectations are low. The kids are still getting to know him. I am, too. But for as many times as I’ve wished this year away, I won’t forget you, dear 2020, whom I have loved and hated. It’s a cup of kindness I raise to you tonight, because you taught me that, too. 

Thank you,

Laura

This post was an excerpt from an episode of Shelter in Place podcast. Listen below or visit shelterinplacepodcast.info to read the full transcript.

Welcome to the Party

This post is an excerpt from Season 2, episode 16 of Shelter in Place Podcast: Welcome to the Party.

I’ve always loved a good party. 

It’s been a long time since I went to a party, and even longer since I had a reason to throw one. 

This past week was Shelter in Place’s official launch date with Hurrdat Media, something that has been in the works for nearly eight months. After working mostly alone for most of the past year, we’re growing. We hope this partnership will expand our community. Still, it didn’t feel right to throw ourselves a party. It’s a difficult time for our nation. It’s been a hard year for many of us personally, too.

A family member recently asked me what my word was for 2021. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I couldn’t get past 2020. My word for that year was ambivalent. I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt so intensely the struggle between gratitude and despair. Some days I was full of hope and a sense of abundance; other days I moved through a fog of depression.

Shelter in Place began with the pandemic when my life was falling apart. Even on that first day I knew I had a decision to make: would I reach out or shut down? I decided to take one small step and start a daily podcast that I thought would just last a few weeks. After decades of being paralyzed by perfectionism, I’d let good enough be good enough. I had no idea that I was about to embark on the adventure of my life. 

Ten months and 116 episodes later, almost everything has changed. I thought I was doing creativity as catharsis in those early days of the pandemic, but it turns out I was rewriting life. What began as my “little project” has launched us across the country, changed my vocation as well as my husband’s, and sparked an apprenticeship program where we’re passing along what we’ve learned to seven remarkable young women. No one is more surprised than me that we are where we are now. 

This is not to say we’ve arrived. We have a long way to go before anyone would accuse us of being a financial success. Our move across the country was prompted at least in part by the very real urgency of needing a lower cost of living. There are still many days that feel very hard. Most days, we are very, very tired.

But if this past year has taught me anything, it’s that the best medicine for despair is serving and celebrating others–that when I feel isolated and lonely, I don’t have to reach far to remember that I’m not alone. When our country’s political division feels hopeless, I remember all of the incredible conversations I’ve had with people on both sides of the aisle. Those conversations have given me vision for what’s possible.

So this past week, we decided that we’d throw a party not for ourselves, but for every person who has given us something to be grateful for this past year: the more then 60 artists, activists, and thinkers who have shared their work and lives with us, the listeners who left us reviews and become patrons to help us continue, and all of the people we hope will find us this year and receive the podcast as the gift it’s designed to be.

For obvious reasons, we can’t all be together right now. We can’t congregate around a snack table, pile onto the dance floor, or clink glasses of champagne. But that’s why we created Shelter in Place in the first place–to build a virtual shelter where we can laugh, cry, commiserate, and dream; where we can better understand our differences and share the good things that are still happening; where we can create a space where we all feel at home.

We’ve opened our doors to you because you helped us build this house. Without you, I never would have had the courage to take this leap into the unknown. I certainly wouldn’t still be making episodes. We want each and every one of our listeners, supporters, guests, and friends to know just how grateful we are. We hope that as you listen, you feel celebrated and blessed. So come inside, the party has just started.

Delight

In a year where it feels like the only constant is change, I’ve thought a lot about how to not let the daily discouragements get me down. My family and I have navigated job loss, California wildfires, distance learning and parenting struggles, let go of a long-awaited sabbatical year in Mexico, and finally reached a breaking point that prompted us to leave our home and set out on a Pandemic Odyssey from one coast to another (more about that here).

It’s been a hard year.

And a year of wonder and delight.

Life in 2020 has been like that: beautiful or terrible depending on how the light catches it. Even as we grieve this temporary move from Oakland to Massachusetts, we’re grateful daily to be close to extended family, to see our kids revive under the tutelage of my mother-in-law, to finally have the support that allows us to recreate life—not in the way we’d planned, but in the way that’s available to us.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Shelter in Place, the podcast that I began on March 17 to mark a moment in history—a project I thought I’d be doing for three weeks—but that quickly grew into something bigger than the pandemic. Writing has always been the way I process life, but never before has it pushed me to go so deep—or given me such delight. 

As we approach the holidays, a time that can be delightful or devastating (and sometimes both), I’ve been thinking a lot about all of you. Some of you have been cheering me on for more than a decade. Some of you have become friends because of Shelter in Place. You’ve taken the time to read or listen. You’ve sent me encouraging messages when I needed it most. You’ve reminded me again and again that no matter how divided or discouraged our world may feel, there are still good people who won’t give up. This community of writers and artists at Karma Compass is proof of that, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.

I have a friend who gives her kids one small gift for each of the 12 days of Christmas to remind them that she delights in them. This holiday season I want to do something similar to thank all of the good people who have given me hope this year. Beginning on December 24, I’ll be sending 12 days of delight to your inboxes. These are gifts you can enjoy in a matter of seconds, gifts of laughter and levity, gifts of delight. The team at Shelter in Place has had a lot of fun creating them, and I’ve seen myself change in that process; I remember that while there are always things to feel grumpy or discouraged about, our world is more hopeful and bright when our vision is trained to delight.

If Shelter in Place has been a home for you in 2020—if these posts or our podcast episodes have made you laugh, encouraged you, or comforted you when you needed it most, we’d love to hear from you! If you’d like to enjoy our 12 Days of Delight, you can sign up here. Our first daily delight is going out tomorrow. We hope you enjoy it—and feel our delight in you!

What We Can Do

“I think frankly, our biggest enemy is giving up, saying, ‘well, this is just going to happen. There’s nothing we can do.’ I think that is the biggest threat, because the fact is there remains a lot we can do.”

-Dr. Céline Gounder
This post is an excerpt from Shelter in Place Season 2, episode 8: Trust the Messenger. Listen above or wherever you get podcasts.

When wildfires and pandemic living temporarily pushed us from our home in California, my family and I road-tripped from one side of the country to the other to be closer to extended family. Because our kids are young and we had no urgent reason to rush, we took our time, driving for three and a half weeks before we reached our destination in Massachusetts in late September.

We visited a few friends and family along the way, but we were careful to travel safely. We made the kids wear masks, and did a lot of hand washing and using hand sanitizer. We stayed only in places that implemented extra cleaning precautions, and spent most of our time outdoors, away from people. 

But there was one moment in Utah when things got tense. We stopped at the only gas station for miles around, and the sign on the door said, “wear a mask if you want to—or don’t.”

I put mine on and went inside to use the bathroom. When I came out, my husband was letting our 3-year-old wash the windows with one a squeegee, the kind next to the pump that everyone uses and I’m guessing never get cleaned. 

I lost it. I wiped her head to toe with disinfectant wipes and even made her change her clothes. Even then, I didn’t want her to touch me. 

It took miles of road behind us to realize that my overreaction in that Utah gas station was rooted in more than paranoia. Beneath the mask/no mask conversation is an uncomfortable truth: if we accept that this virus can kill us, then even the people we love most—the people who make us feel safest—are potentially dangerous. Putting physical distance or even a mask between us and our loved ones forces us to view each other through a lens of fear. 

But last month I talked to someone who says it doesn’t have to be that way. Dr. Céline Gounder is an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, and medical journalist who was recently appointed to Biden’s COVID-19 task force. People Magazine named her as one of 25 Women Changing the World. We talked a lot about COVID-19—what we know now that we didn’t back in March (some of which surprised me), why the virus hitting black and brown populations isn’t just about where they live or how much money they make, and how we can make informed decisions about the holidays. It was a great conversation, and I encourage you to check it out here. But the thing that has stuck with me most was what Dr. Gounder had to say about fear.

“I think the problem with fear is it’s very disempowering,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re helpless. I think frankly, our biggest enemy is giving up, of saying, ‘well, this is just going to happen. There’s nothing we can do.’ The fact is there remains a lot we can do. The biggest threat to people’s health right now is do they buy into that or not?” 

Dr. Gounder doesn’t believe that having a functioning economy and protecting people from the virus are mutually exclusive. Something as simple as wearing a mask can make a huge difference, and if we can shift our perspective to see mask-wearing not as a limitation, but a tangible way to take action, then we take one small step to conquer fear and helplessness. Dr. Gounder says that focusing on what she can do helps her to stay positive and hopeful even as the numbers of COVID deaths climb.

“Having that sense of purpose, feeling like I am making a difference in my small way, makes me feel empowered,” she said. “I know that we can control this. I know we can. And so knowing that gives me hope. I think what we’re seeing is the loss of hope and action. That’s why we’re losing. I think we need to have hope in order to win this. And I am hopeful that others see that, and put that into action.”

As we head into the holidays, I’m thinking a lot about Dr. Gounder’s words, and trying to figure out specific ways to take action in my own life . . . not just wearing a mask, but getting creative about how to reach out to others and encourage them in a season when it’s easy to lose hope. At Shelter in Place, we’ve dreamed up an idea that we hope will help with that: for twelve days, we’ll be sending daily delights to the inboxes of everyone who is signed up for our newsletter. Coming up with these gifts for our listeners has been the highlight of an otherwise cold and dark month. And Dr. Gounder is right. Taking action helps us to feel like we’re making a difference in some small way. It gives us a sense of purpose and makes us feel empowered. And knowing that gives us hope, even on the days when hope is in short supply. 

Hear my conversation with Dr. Céline Gounder and sign up to receive our 12 Daily Gifts of Delight here

The Breakdown

Gratitude is good. But sometimes it’s not enough .

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place season 2, episode 10: The Breakdown.

Every morning for the past couple of months, I’ve gotten up before my family, usually before the sun, not because I want to but because I’m unable to sleep past a certain point. For the first time in my life I’ve come to love the dark, those pre-dawn hours that are mine alone. No matter how tired or discouraged I am, there is undisturbed quiet, coffee with a splash of cream, a soft blanket across my lap–everyday miracles that I jot down in my notebook. This week I read studies about gratitude as a predictor of better physical health, gratitude as an antidote to anxiety. And it’s true, especially now. Gratitude helps a lot. 

But for the past few weeks, no matter how grateful I feel at the start of the day, by evening a sadness edged with despair settles over me like a low cloud. 

In this month’s Wall Street Journal magazine, Yale Professor Martin Hagglund wrote, “What is both interesting and challenging about breakthroughs is that you can’t have one without some sort of breakdown. Progress only happens because certain things start calling into question our paradigms.”

The other night as I was putting my kids to bed, my 3-year-old said, apropos of nothing, “I miss our cozy little home.”

It’s been a year of breakdowns for my family and me, that ultimately led us to abruptly leave our home in Oakland, spend a month on the road, and settle for the foreseeable future in Hamilton, Massachusetts, the town where my husband grew up and where his parents and two of his siblings still live. Though the journey here hasn’t been easy, we don’t have any doubts that it was the right call, and there isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t feel deeply grateful.

And yet each day, even as I’ve made my morning list of things to feel grateful for, that fog of sadness creeps in. It comes out in snippy conversations with my husband, or overreactions with the kids, or passive aggressive comments around my in-laws. It’s a painful reminder that no matter how grateful I am, I fall short on a regular basis of being the person I’d like to be.

The other night as I was putting my kids to bed, my 3-year-old said, apropos of nothing, “I miss our cozy little home.”

The comment surprised me. She’s been happy here, delighted to have Grammy’s daily attention, and access to baby dolls and art supplies and princess dresses.

And that’s when it hit me. This has been a year of breakthroughs, but as a family, we’re still very much in a breakdown. We’ve been trying to have a good attitude about our life now–and it is good, to be near family, to have support in a time when we desperately need it. 

My mom often told me growing up that change–even good change–is almost always perceived as loss. Being near our Massachusettts family during the pandemic is a good change. 

And I miss our cozy little home. My mom was right. Even good change still feels like loss. Gratitude helps, but still, we’re in the breakdown. I have to hope that a breakthrough is coming.

Listen to the full episode of Shelter in Place or read the full transcript here.

Standing in the Gap

This post is an excerpt of Shelter in Place Season 2, episode 5: Standing in the Gap. Listen to the episode above or wherever you get your podcats.

Everywhere you look, there’s a lot of fear about where we are now and what’s ahead. So for the past month, I’ve been gathering stories from people who are facing fear with courage–often in surprising ways. They represent a wide range of politics, but they share one very important thing: in the face of fear and a nation divided, they’re working hard to create communities that can cross that division.

Jimmy Graham has spent his life thinking about how to keep other people safe. He’s a former Navy Seal and CIA bodyguard, and the founder and CEO of the Able Shepherd program, an elite self-defense program that equips people to handle guns safely in high-stress situations like being in a building with an active shooter. When I spoke with Jimmy, we mostly sidestepped the conversation about if we should be carrying guns, and instead talked about how to make using them safer. 

“75% of people will shoot the wrong person when they’re excited or scared,” Jimmy told me. “It doesn’t matter if they’re FBI, they’re police, if they’re military.”

So he created a training system that used the reality-based scenario training he’d learned from his time with the Seals, where they wore protective equipment and used real guns that had been converted to fire training ammunition.

“I absolutely support law enforcement, but if you’re a bad apple, we need to get rid of you and sing it from the rooftops.”

Jimmy Graham

“The best way to learn how to shoot people is to shoot people,” Jimmy said. “And you do it over and over, and you create neural pathways. A lot of times the person who does the right thing isn’t the bravest or the fastest or the smartest. It’s the one that’s most familiar with it.”

Jimmy says that this is just as true of law enforcement as it is of citizens. He does a lot of work with the police to get outdated training systems up to date. But he’s also troubled by the way bad cops have given a bad rap to the entire system. 

“I absolutely support law enforcement, but if you’re a bad apple, we need to get rid of you and sing it from the rooftops. We don’t protect criminals. You belong in jail. Period. It protects the guys that are out there doing it for the right reasons.”

Jimmy’s work isn’t just about guns. He helped launch the Stand in the Gap Initiative, which seeks to bring communities together by developing what Jimmy calls “a root cellar mentality.” If the power goes out or there’s a blizzard or a hurricane, communities are prepared with food, water, a radio for offline communication, and a pre-established network of neighbors or friends who are ready to be at each other’s homes in a matter of minutes.

I used to think that the root cellar mentality was a little extreme. But then a year ago PG&E shut off our power for four days to prevent wildfires. And then COVID-19 happened and suddenly the shelves in our grocery stores were empty. I was lucky to live in a place where community already existed. When the power went out, our neighbors who had a generator invited us to come over to charge our phones and computers. They fed us dinner. But my neighborhood is unusual; Jimmy is trying to build communities where that kind of connection becomes typical. 

“It’s a good way to live,” Jimmy said. “We just got comfortable. We needed each other before. Now we don’t because of Amazon and Walmart, right? And that’s cool, but we left a good way to live. That, I think, is the answer: take care of one another in communities. That’s the way we were designed to live anyways.”

This was an excerpt from Shelter in Place, season 2, episode 5: Standing in the Gap. Hear the full story here or visit shelterinplacepodcast.info to view the full transcript.

Facing the Mob

Listen to the full story from Shelter in Place above.

I didn’t think the day could get any worse. 

In the span of 24 hours, we’d said goodbye to the friends and the home we’d never wanted to leave. We’d driven over 500 miles and two state lines before we finally escaped the wildfire smoke. A stranger had yelled in my face about what a terrible mother I was. And the kids had degenerated from griping about their Zoom calls to clobbering each other in the back seat. It felt like we’d hit rock bottom in this Pandemic Odyssey.  

But as we drove through Utah and the skies began to clear, we felt some of the grip of what was behind us loosen. We remembered that there were still people and places to look forward to. 

I’d wanted to go to Zion National Park ever since I was a teenager, when I saw pictures of the red rock formations that looked like a painter’s dream. It was magic hour as we entered the park, and even the kids took a collective gasp when they looked out the window. I pulled out my phone to take a picture.

And that’s when I noticed the explosion of texts that had just come in. While we’d been driving, our first AirBNB guests had shown up and promptly thrown a party in our back yard complete with music so loud that it rattled the walls two houses over, and thick clouds of smoke from cigarettes and weed. No one was wearing masks or social distancing. By the time I got these messages, the party had been going for hours. 

As we drove through the park, I thumbed out responses as fast as I could. And then my three bars of reception turned to two, and then one, and then zero. All of my messages bounced back. I looked out the window and tried to breathe. We were driving through tunnels of red rock and some of the prettiest scenery I’d ever laid eyes on–but there was a lump in my throat and I felt like I might throw up. 

I dropped off my family at the campsite and kept driving. It took me another half hour before I found a place in range. I braced myself for an unpleasant conversation, but when I finally reached the guest, whose name was Aidan, he was nice. He said he didn’t know that smoking wasn’t allowed or that AirBNB’s updated COVID-19 prohibited parties. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

The next day, my phone started bleeping again. One of my neighbors sent a video; another wrote, “I think your guests are using your house to film porn.” 

I spent the next three hours on the phone with AirBNB, who told me they’d ask Aidan to leave immediately. I wouldn’t lose any money; he’d clearly broken house rules and violated AirBNB’s COVID-19 policy. But Aidan and his crew stayed anyway. A week later AirBNB deducted $300 from my account and paid it to Aidan for the last two cancelled nights of his stay–nights where, just to be clear, Aidan was very much still in my home. I called AirBNB again, and the rep admitted that they’d screwed up, but there was nothing they could do to get the money back from Aidan. When I asked her to flag his profile so other hosts didn’t have to go through this experience, she said they couldn’t do that either.

There’s a saying that’s attributed to Confucius: “if you seek revenge, you should dig two graves.” I hate knowing that Aidan is out there $300 richer, but I’m not seeking revenge. What bothers me most is that the system that was supposed to protect me failed me. If I’m feeling that way about a situation that in the grand scheme of things wasn’t that bad–no one was hurt or killed, our house was not destroyed–then I think it’s fair to give space to those in our country who have been failed by our systems repeatedly. But it raises the question of how to fight injustice without letting it poison us. I’m still learning how to hold our systems accountable without digging my own grave.

This was an excerpt from Shelter in Place, season 2, episode 4: Facing the Mob. Hear the full story here or visit shelterinplacepodcast.info to view the full transcript.

In the Boat

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place season 2, episode 3. Listen to full story above.


In his essay, “The Blessing of Friends Who Weather the Storm With Us, Omid Safi writes “We learn a lot about the people who stay in our boat during the storm. Sometimes it’s exactly who you expect. Sometimes there are those whom we expect to be in our boat, and at the moment of deepest
crisis, they go missing.”

Going into this school year, there was one friend in particular who I was sure would be in my boat. Ruth lives just a few blocks away. Her kids are the same ages as our kids, and they’ve all gone to school together since they were toddlers. Ruth’s family is one of the few families in our neighborhood who share our faith. We’ve shared a lot of life, too. We’ve carpooled to school, dropped off dinner for each other weekly, shared countless meals, swapped keys to each other’s houses. We were each other’s emergency contacts. For years Ruth’s house had been the place my kids felt safest outside their own home.

But a couple of weeks before school started Ruth and I had coffee in her backyard, and she told me she’d formed a distance learning pod with another family from our school. They were going to hire a tutor, and the tutor wasn’t comfortable taking on any more kids.

I tried not to feel stung, but as I walked home from her house that day, I realized I’d taken it for granted that Ruth and I were in each other’s boat. Now I began to doubt not just that assumption, but our friendship.

A couple of days later, Ruth reached out again. She gave me the names of several parents she knew who might be interested in teaming up with me, but she also wanted to check in to make sure we were okay.

It was a watershed moment in our friendship, and it says a lot about what a good friend Ruth is that she invited that conversation. It wasn’t easy for either of us. For the first time we peeled back the layers of our friendship, revealing unspoken expectations. Ruth and I had been in each other’s lives daily for years. In the absence of family nearby, I’d thought of Ruth and her family as our substitute family. It had never occurred to me that with their own parents in the same state, Ruth and her family didn’t have the same expectations for us.

And that’s the thing about friendship. There are no written codes or contracts. Most of the time, we don’t even realize what we expect of our friends until a particular situation reveals it.

Safi says when you turn around and the friends you thought would be in your boat aren’t there, don’t assume the worst. He writes, “Maybe they were trying to survive in their own boat. It’s been said before, whenever
possible. Be kind. You never know what battles others are fighting.”

Ruth confessed her own weariness. She’s a frontline essential worker. Parenting during the pandemic had been hard. She’d often felt like she wanted to be there for me, but she was so exhausted that she didn’t have the energy.

“You do so much,” Ruth said. “Your tolerance for chaos is so high. Sometimes, I just don’t want to get swept up in the tornado.”

Later she said she regretted that comment. She worried that it came off as overly harsh. But her words rang true. I don’t want to be the tornado family–I long for us not to be–but the amount of chaos and disorder in our life during this pandemic in particular has felt torrential. Part of that was circumstantial. Our family has dealt with a massive amount of change in 2020. We’re still dealing with it.

“Most of the time, we don’t even realize what we expect of our friends until a particular situation reveals it.”

Part of it was personality. Ruth had often told me that her central need in life is to preserve harmony in her environment. I like peace. I even long for it. But if given the choice in relationships, I’ll choose intimacy over ease every single time.

When I stepped away from the emotion of the situation, the feeling that Ruth wasn’t in my boat, I could see that what I was asking of Ruth was more than any of my friends could give me, especially in a time when we were all just trying to survive and keep our own boats afloat. No one is able to be in our boat all the time. Not substitute family. Not actual family. Not the best of friends. The trick is learning to appreciate who is in your boat–even if it’s not who you thought it would be, or if their shift is brief, because they’ve got to tend to their own crew. It’s learning to be in other people’s boats, too.

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place’s season 2 episode 3: In the Boat. Read the full transcript here.

Finding Abundance in a Time of Scarcity

This is an excerpt from the episode above.

“It’s incredible how many crises we’re all living in the same time . . . I do hope that we come out of it better by rethinking how we do things like how we work, how we commute, how we live.”

Caroline Roux, PhD
Concordia University

I’ve been thinking a lot about how as terrible as 2020 has been, maybe it’s also a chance to reset. To get our priorities straight, to learn how to live better.

This isn’t just theoretical for me. In August, after months of white-knuckling pandemic life in the Bay Area with three small children and zero full-time jobs, our family launched into a very sudden, unanticipated pandemic Odyssey that took us across the country and called everything into question.

In the original Odyssey, there’s a moment when Odysseus and his men arrive on a land where the people there didn’t sleep so they could work two jobs: one shepherding sheep and one herding cattle. 

Being a working parent in this pandemic has felt a bit like that; if only we could do without sleep, we could work and be good parents–or, as the case may be, administrative assistants managing our kids’ Zoom schedules. We tried, but about the only thing we could say for our efforts was that our kids now knew how to search for Kung Fu Panda videos on YouTube, which they did whenever we weren’t hovering over them. We needed help, and there were no easy or obvious solutions. 

When our school district announced in that our kids wouldn’t be going back to school in-person, there was a lot of talk in our community about helping each other out. I spent hours on the phone with other parents, most of whom liked the idea of forming a distance learning co-op–but got stuck in the details. Our family had two school-aged kids, an added burden most one-kid families didn’t want to take on. Others were nervous about COVID exposure with our 3-year-old going back to preschool, a decision we’d made out of desperation because our house was small, and distance learning to the backdrop of shrieks and photo bombing was not a great combination. There were concerns about equity and behavioral issues and differences in parenting styles. 

We had weathered job loss and cancelled family visits and even watched our plans to take a sabbatical year slip away–all without losing hope. But the prospect of doing distance learning alone brought a creeping panic that was new. Our sense of abundance had dropped away. For the first time in the pandemic, we felt alone.

Caroline Roux and Kelly Goldsmith are some of the world’s leading experts on resource scarcity. Kelly describes their work this way: “I like to tell people I study what happens when everyday people don’t have access to everyday things.”

Like, say, when two working parents who used to send their kids to school are suddenly faced with the challenge of working and caring for their kids–and maybe even teaching them a little. But unlike the mythical men in the Odyssey, they can’t survive without sleep.

“It’s those people who have scarcity on their minds that are actually excellent at identifying and responding to these win-win opportunities when you help yourself by helping others.” 

Kelly Goldsmith, phd
Vanderbilt university

I first came across Caroline and Kelly’s research months ago, which illustrated that it’s possible to motivate people in times of scarcity to become more generous.

“That paper kind of starts off in a dark place, that scarcity increases selfishness,” Kelly said. “But then it comes back around to say, “look, it doesn’t always have to be that way.’ It’s those people who have scarcity on their minds that are actually excellent at identifying and responding to these win-win opportunities when you help yourself by helping others.” 

I wanted to see if they could help me to find my way back to a feeling of abundance–or if not abundance, at least well-tempered hope.

You can hear our conversation and the continuation of this pandemic Odyssey in episode 2: The Hidden Ship or read the transcript on our website.