Who Else Is Tired of Improvising?
I love words the way some people love shoes. A well-crafted sentence is like a flawless wardrobe ensemble. But I’ll tell you this: if I were cleaning out my 2020 vocabulary closet, the word “improvise” would land in the Goodwill pile. I would not study the word “improvise” and question if I might want to use it one more time once the weather changes. I have gotten my money’s worth out of the threadbare “improvise.” Thanks to COVID-19, all we have done lately is improvise, and it’s zapping what little brain power I have left. “Pivot,” “uncertain times,” and “patience.” All tossed, along with “improvise.”
The fancy word “improvise” really means hastily cobbling together a last-minute plan of action before praying like heck it works. Improvising can take many forms: an unscripted comedy sketch, assembling a tasty dinner from a random collection of leftovers, or, as today’s overburdened and bedraggled educators and parents would agree: “school.”
As parents, we’ve had to improvise from the moment we realized “offspring” was a misnomer. Our children have no “Off” switch. A little bit of improvising here and there is fine. But never has anyone had to improvise on such a grand scale as 2020. Like Maurice Sendak’s obstinate “Pierre,” renowned for his continual “I don’t care,” I now respond with “I don’t know” more times than I can count. It’s unnerving because we mothers usually have an answer for everything.
This all got me thinking about the Six Types of Literary Conflict. Although I glossed right over this concept in sophomore English, it revisited me recently — the chatty, uninvited guest at 3 a.m. Talk about your checklist that’s funny but not really funny. Usually an author will choose one conflict and explore. Yet in 2020, most of us experience six out of six on any given day:
Human vs. Self. Check
Human vs. Human. Check
Human vs. Nature. Check
Human vs. Supernatural. Check
Human vs. Technology. Double Check.
Human vs. Society. Sadly, Check.
Human vs. PG&E. (I made that up.)
By the way, if you’re currently homeschooling, I vote reading this portion of “Everyday Orinda” aloud to your student counts as today’s English instruction. Class dismissed.
All this improvising has made me realize how often I relied on tradition, repetition and familiarity to guide me. Ah, sweet predictability! If anything, COVID-19 has forced me to live more fully in the present moment. While technically it’s smart and healthy to live in the present, I miss anticipating.
This subtle shifting has changed me. Last week we moved our youngest daughter into her dormitory at Cal Poly. Mind you, only two days prior did we finally receive the green light that move-in would actually happen. Typically, I’m an annoying shipwreck of tears, mucus and pitiful, clingy hugs. But this time, my eyes were dry and my composure impeccable, although, apparently, I was still annoying. But something was different. I didn’t feel that crushing panic of impending separation.
It’s not that I don’t miss her. I still listen for her to stir at the crack of noon, or complain if we’re having fish for dinner. But my last daughter weathered through senior year during a pandemic. She deserved a brand-new chapter. To clarify, I’m not throwing a pity party here. We are the first to admit that while, yes, it stunk to have the final third of senior year upended, it’s far worse for the families heading into a new senior year, or any grade school year, filled with reductions, restrictions and way too much improvising.
Typically, I feel a longing to pinpoint the next time I will see my college kid. But not this time. It’s not that I wasn’t missing her before we even said goodbye. It’s not that I wasn’t stunned, yet again, that 18 years had passed so quickly. But as a result of watching her cope with commencement evaporating, a senior trip disintegrating, her final summer of rec swim and her employment disappearing, her college future wavering on whether it would happen in person or not – I was just so ready for something positive and stimulating to happen in her life, that I stopped thinking about myself. Temporarily.
I’m not altruistic. I just wanted a plan actually to unfold the way we had both counted on. College — part of the plan. Leaving home — part of the plan. Living in a dorm — part of the plan. Thanks to some careful improvising, dorm living looks a little different — freshmen have no roommates at Cal Poly. Her dorm room was designed for three students, and as a result, she has more storage space than she does at home. Despite this, her room will still be a mess. She will not heed my warnings that no girl wants to loan her cute clothes to a slob. Hers will be a happy, collegiate mess, and I will not have to look at it. Students at several other universities had their on-campus housing opportunities revoked at the eleventh hour. The fear of that happening was greater than our fear of the virus. I questioned if that made me a bad mother.
And as for the longing, the counting of days until I can see her again? In COVID-19 times, there is always the looming threat the dorms will be closed down and the students sent right back home again in a couple of weeks. As much as I would love to see her physically, I would rather see her have, at least an improvised version, of a college campus experience.
With a heavy sigh, I’m heading over to retrieve “improvise” from the Goodwill pile. I just realized I’m still going to need it a little while longer.