LETTERS FROM BERLIN
★ ★ ★ ★
MY BERLIN LOCKDOWN
AYBy Annie Mark-Westfall
Before the Covid-19 lockdown, I was the spouse who loaded the dishwasher correctly.
While some people believe there is more than one right way to load a dishwasher, they are wrong. There is a correct way. Read the manual, it will tell you.
My family is doing the self-isolation thing here in Berlin. The detail of Berlin doesn’t feel particularly relevant. I take this city for granted as home now; and further, being largely stuck at home, it feels as though these four walls could be anywhere. Time and space have flattened during lockdown.
This makes me think of the final weeks of pregnancy. Particularly my first pregnancy, when I was waiting for it to end, so life could return back to normal. I remember realizing one day that, of course, there would be no return to “normal.” So too, with Covid, people love to say that life will never be the same. I find myself unable to imagine the permanent changes coming.
For now, I am trying to fit full-time parenting, full-time work, a marriage, and a sense of self into each day. Like when I continued shoving my pregnant body into my normal jeans well into the ninth month. It all fits, but only just barely. The seams are stressed but holding.
Pregnancy was the only other time in my life when I felt unable to read—or sleep. Since March, I have abandoned my stack of contemporary literature and self-development books. In bed at night, I read children’s classics on my phone, glancing at the clock as each today turns into tomorrow.
Lately, my two-year-old daughter has been mixing up the concepts of tomorrow and yesterday. “Mommy, did you wash my Skye jammies tomorrow?” Either because it’s cute or because today, tomorrow, and yesterday are all the same now, no one corrects her; even her brother, who has a decidedly German appreciation of language precision.
Actually, I am grounded by gratitude for living in Germany, a country with a sane, compassionate leader—a scientist, herself. Between Angela Merkel’s calming presence and the new national hero, virologist Christian Drosten, I trust the decisions announced by the federal and state governments. I just do as I am told. It is a relief not to have to play amateur epidemiologist, the way so many of my Facebook friends seem compelled to do.
But what does it feel like in Berlin? a Washington D.C.-based friend asks. I stare at the 15-foot ceilings of my home, and consider this capital city with affordable health care, housing, and social services.
“I don’t know. It’s just… Berlin.” The question is valid, but inexplicably irritates me, like my four-year-old’s existential questions about Paw Patrol. Why is Marshall a dog? This generalized agitation reminds me again of late pregnancy.
To me, the world’s responses to the pandemic highlight and amplify the very essence of everything right now. Crazy presidents or sane chancellors, just or broken societies are even moreso now.
I extend this thought to myself, and worry about some ugliness that stares back at me. I watch in dismay, as my four-year-old destroys his fingernails. I yell, and hate myself for it. My husband calls me a hypocrite for chastising the little nail biter. I had a big work deadline recently, and my cuticles were the blood offering. There were also tears, and, I can proudly say, sweat.
I have a new running habit. (My therapist says even something we do once a week can be called a habit; so I don’t need to feel such imposter’s syndrome.) I like wearing t-shirts that show my sports bra straps on Zoom calls after jogging. I feel like vegans must feel as I attempt casualness and insert, “Sorry for my appearance, I’ve just been for a run.”
My brain hears that this is the era of running, and races each night as my head hits the pillow. My thoughts sprint through the fog of lockdown stress, push past When Will Daycare Re-Open and head straight toward You Are Failing At Everything. I pause to catch my breath there for a minute, ticking through all the things I did not finish today.
Shit, I forgot to load the dishwasher after dinner. I trudge back to the kitchen. As I am loading the last few plates, my two-year-old calls for me. I throw in two more pans, a dishwasher tab, and jab the start button, racing to get to her before she wakes her brother.
In the morning, I am awakened by the sound of dishes rattling and loud swearing. (That’s not true. The only thing that I ever wake up to are little voices demanding bananas. But for poetry, let’s pretend that my husband’s dishwasher outrage was the first thing I heard, because for all intents and purposes (which in COVID times is just now officially “all intensive purposes”), it was.) Okay, from here, the story gets true again.
“The arm of the dishwasher came off because you can’t load giant plates randomly in the middle,” my husband greets me. I grin because he is right; which proves there is a proper way to load the dishwasher.
I am so fucking tired of talking about domesticity and stress. Yet every time I get on a Zoom call or sit down to write my column, I bring up my kitchen. Maybe this is my essence. What is my essence? What is my life like in Berlin?
I am awaiting the birth of our New Normal. Despite my exhaustion, I have a deepened appreciation for my husband, and for the kicks and movements of our growing children. As with my actual pregnancies, this eternal, temporary moment in time can feel either wondrous and fulfilling, or uncomfortable and restrictive. And the most ordinary of events feel like tiny miracles. Like getting a lecture on loading the dishwasher; or watching my son write Mom for the first time. And, did I tell you?! I have developed a running habit!
Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.