Only a few people know the story I am about to tell.
We were in the middle of a very hard phase of life. A relatively new lawyer, David was putting in long, long hours at his firm. A relatively new stay at home mom, I was not adjusting to the role with the ease and grace I thought I would. At seven months old, Ellie still woke up three or four times a night. Exhausted doesn’t seem a strong enough word to sum things up.
On an almost-whim we decided we needed a vacation and booked a quaint Airbnb in Pacific Grove that boasted views of the ocean and two free tickets to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. David took a week off of work and I was giddy over the thought of Ellie and I having him all to ourselves for seven days in a row. We planned to go over David’s birthday and bring our dog, Delaney, along for the ride.
Our third morning there, I sat on a daybed in the corner of our room trying to squeeze in a quick pumping session before we headed out to take advantage of those free aquarium tickets. I stared out the sliding glass doors into our host’s beautiful garden, the Pacific Ocean in the background, while David played on the floor with Ellie and Delaney. A short bark from the dog and a sudden, swift movement from David caught my attention. He lifted Delaney up off the ground and said with urgency in his voice, “I need you to come pick up Ellie. Now.”
“I’m a little tied up at the moment,” I laughed back. “What even happened that was so bad? It’s not like the dog bit her.”
His pointed stare told me all I needed to know.
There was a small wound on Ellie’s cheek that we knew would heal quickly, but also deserved to be looked at by a doctor. Sea otters and the kelp forest exhibit were replaced with a 45-minute drive to the nearest Kaiser medical office.
We eventually made it to the aquarium later that week and discussed the possibility of finding our dog a new home, one without kids, as we weaved in and out of the exhibits. It was something we knew we needed, but didn’t want, to do.
On the way out I spotted the gift shop.
“I just want one small thing, I promise.”
David gave me a smile and amused eye roll as I plucked a bright, almost obnoxious red coffee mug off the shelf and handed it to the cashier.
I have this thing with mugs.
Our kitchen has an entire cabinet filled with them and David often teases me about it. It’s partially because they are my favorite souvenir to purchase, but really there is a deeper meaning. Many remind me of a specific person or time in my life, and I often decide which one to use in the morning based on how I feel or who I want to pray for that day.
In March, when the world came to a sudden halt, I found myself reaching for that Monterey Bay Aquarium mug several mornings in a row. It reminds me I can do hard things and make necessary decisions, even if those decisions make everything feel off kilter for a while.
In our house, the kitchen is adjacent to the playroom. The two spaces flow seamlessly together in a design I can only imagine was dreamed up by a mom once upon a time. From my perch at the coffee maker one spring 2020 morning, I could see pajama-clad Ellie lost in one of her imaginative games, Lauren batting at the toys hanging from her play gym, and David starting breakfast for me.
I looked around as a churning, fluttering sensation that had become all too familiar rose up within me. Taking deep breaths to soothe the butterflies, I wondered for what seemed like the 500th time how I was going to do this. In my fog, I completely tuned out the most important parts of my little world. I had become so obsessed with not being able to leave our four walls that I forgot to appreciate all they contained.
Inspired by that trusty red mug, I decided this was not how the next few months would go.
I declared we were in a season of “joyful cabin fever,” adamant each day would hold enough joy to see us through.
I was defiant.
I created a hashtag for my all of 200 Instagram followers.
I determined to will joy into existence one prayer and small moment at a time.
For many reasons, 2020 threatened to be the hardest year of my life, but it was not going to win. I simply wouldn’t let it.
When food disappeared off the grocery store shelves, creating a false sense of panic almost impossible to keep at bay, our neighbor found us eggs and Ellie’s favorite “chocolate cat cookies” at Trader Joe’s.
When drinking the news through a fire hose became too much to handle, I found Ellie and Lauren cuddled up on the floor holding hands and chose to focus on that instead.
Trips to the playground stopped, but as I sat in our backyard and watched Ellie run around, I allowed myself to remember a mere year and a half prior when we lived in a duplex with no outside space of our own and felt immense gratitude for our current home.
When the pandemic prevented me from traveling to Southern California for my mom’s mastectomy, Lauren made me laugh out loud with her lunchtime antics and Ellie and I baked the stress away.
I was very unexpectedly laid off from my job; my mom and mother-in-law both continued to struggle through their cancer related health problems; wildfire season began and smoke rolled into our city, bringing ash and hazardous air quality that lasted for weeks.
Ellie started choosing her own clothes and each day brought a new creative and off-the-wall outfit; Lauren taught herself to climb the steps out of our kitchen and could not have been more proud of her accomplishment; David hung string lights over our back patio; a dear friend I hadn’t heard from in years contacted me out of the blue, picking our friendship back up right where we left off.
When life knocked the wind out of me, this small daily discipline brought me back to myself, time and time again. Joyful cabin fever; small joys in unexpected places.
I will admit, when I started this practice, I assumed it would come with an end date.
We would stay home for a couple of months, and then I would have something I could point to. A phase in my life tied up with a neat little bow. See how I found joy when it was hard? What a helpful thing to get me through a crazy time.
Maybe it’s for the best that I don’t have my concrete ending. Life is filled with difficult stages and inevitably many future seasons will give me cabin fever, even if just in my own head.
This practice is lifelong.
The quarantine won’t always be so literal, but I plan on being delighted by small moments of joy wherever I find myself.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Unexpected Joy”.