On Balance

Published on December 14th, 2020 | by Jenna B. Morgan

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Summer Vacation 2020

In March 2019, the first day back after Spring Break was also my first day back on campus after maternity leave. Before I even made it to my office, I ran into Biology professor Mark Lindsey in the hall. “Did you enjoy your vacation?” he asked jovially.


He saw the look on my face and backpedaled immediately: “Your commute! I meant your commute!”


Apparently, he and his wife Rebecca (also a Biology professor) had a running joke: whoever didn’t have to drop the kids at daycare and got to drive to campus solo was “on vacation” from point A to point B.

*


By February 2020, Mark was not at all jovial. There were no jokes when we caught each other in the hallway before our early classes. Instead, he’d rattle off the latest CDC data he was sharing with his students, his predictions for what was in store, how he and Rebecca were prepping for disaster. I’ve never had more stress-inducing conversations before 8:00 am in my life. Mark had become an augur of doom, and I told him (probably every day) that his fear-mongering was either going to make him my favorite colleague or I was never going to let him live it down.
​(Thanks to my favorite colleague, my family made a Sam’s Club run while they still had toilet paper. We also snagged a 25-pound bag of rice, AA batteries, laundry detergent, bleach, and enough tampons to last through to next year.)

In March 2020, nobody returned to campus after Spring Break. There was a mad scramble to understand what was happening and what we’d do next. I spent my days pushing my two kids on our swing set and blowing bubbles and dispensing Goldfish and vacuuming up Goldfish crumbs in an endless loop. I spent my nights lesson-planning for the apocalypse. By 10 pm every night, my kitchen looked like a conspiracy theorist’s den: the table strewn with books and papers and barely decipherable post-its and abandoned cups of half-drunk coffee and two different laptops (one streaming recorded Zoom trainings I’d missed, the other open to the syllabi that needed to be chopped up and Frankensteined back together). Every time I glanced at the clock I couldn’t help but tally the few hours until my children would be awake again, the number of cups of coffee I’d need to make it through another morning, another afternoon, another night.


Time hadn’t moved like this — fast and slow at the same time, expanding and contracting unpredictably — since I’d brought a newborn home from the hospital. On any given day, I might suffer through the slow-motion disaster of Zoom ballet for preschoolers in the morning, and then frantically field emails from my students with subject lines like “Updates on Life” and “Not Okay” in the afternoon.


The boundaries didn’t just blur; they dissolved. 24 hours a day, waking and sleeping, I was a mom and a professor (and a spouse and a writer and and and…). There were no breaks. There were certainly no vacations. Even with a partner busting his ass to make sure we had some kind of balance, I still felt like a one-man band trying to toot my harmonica and bang my drum and wheeze my accordion all together now, creating only cacophony.


And then, all across the country, protests erupted. Some of our fellow citizens stood up and shouted their pain. Others (and so many in power) asserted that Black lives didn’t matter, and backed that assertion with violence. The world was burning, somehow even more than it already had been, but we still had to get up and make bowls of Cheerios and log in for Zoom meetings. We waited for the kids to go to bed so we could turn on the news. We watched until we were numb.


And still time rolled on. I gave my daughter an only-slightly-crooked home haircut. We used up every bit of sidewalk chalk we could scrounge. My 1-year-old son gleefully trilled “bee sue!!!” when the rest of us were sick to death of goddamn bean soup.


In May, I looped the elastic of a face mask around my four year old’s ears for the first time so she could be one of the ten people allowed to mourn at my mother-in-law’s funeral.


​In June, when so many others around us were returning to business (almost) as usual, we stayed in strict isolation so my mom could see us just once in 2020 before her bone marrow transplant.

*

Because I had been slated for an office move over Spring Break, I had taken all my Spring 2020 stuff home with me. When we flipped to all online instruction back in March, everything I needed to teach my classes was already in the trunk of my minivan.


By July, I knew I’d be teaching a whole new set of fall courses remotely.


After four months, I finally had to make my first trip back to campus to get the right textbooks and lesson plan notes.


I got to go on vacation.


I traded my beach bag for a plastic tote I could Clorox wipe, my sunscreen for hand sanitizer, my sunglasses for a face mask, my bathing suit for elastic-waistband pants (we skipped sourdough and went straight for homemade scones at our house).


I spent a rushed, masked 45 minutes in my new office opening boxes and tossing their contents. I hunted for my MLA Handbook and Volume 1 of my Norton Anthology of British Literature and my post-it stash and last year’s Writing Center budget notes like they were prized seashells.


And finding them wasn’t even the good part.


​The good part was the 45 minutes there and the 45 minutes back. All that contiguous, uninterrupted time alone. Sure, I was in a red minivan strewn with granola bar crumbs and lumps of dried up Play-Doh and gnawed on board books. But it felt like a stay at a five-star resort.


I went through the Starbucks drive-through and tipped obscenely (and still felt guilty) and imagined a tiny umbrella atop my iced mocha.


​I rolled my windows down and turned the music up to at least double the allowable volume for Raffi. I scream-sang along to Gwen Stefani lyrics (“sorry I’m not home right now… leave a message and I’ll call you baaaaaaaack!”) so outdated they confirmed what my recent 35th birthday had already suggested: I had traded my youth for middle age. And I could not possibly have cared less.


​How I had missed this freedom.


How I had missed the chance, for just a little while, to step outside the never-ending torrent of my children’s minute-to-minute needs.


​How I had missed myself.


Summer vacation 2020 — an hour and a half round-trip commute — was the most cathartic vacation of my entire life.

*

​Someday, when I see Mark on campus again, I’m going to ask him: “Did you enjoy your vacation?”


​Maybe I’ll get to watch the confusion on his face veer toward outrage before he remembers the joke.

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About the Author

Jenna B. Morgan

Jenna B. Morgan’s prose has appeared in Just BE Parenting, Teach. Write., Perhappened, Menacing Hedge, Barren Magazine and elsewhere. She has an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University and currently teaches at a community college outside Nashville, Tennessee. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @byjennabmorgan.



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