My dining room table bears the scars of our pandemic year. There are the blond chips in its espresso finish, piebald streaks in the grain like gray hairs creeping into a middle-aged head. The surface is mottled with sparkly violet nail polish, flecks of green tempera paint that would probably wash off with that good scrubbing I never find time to give it, an ever-present smattering of glitter, and cloudy cataracts of heat stains from coffee cups that betrayed me.
My dining room table has experienced more love this year, and more abuse—so many home-cooked meals, math worksheets, water colors, the paws of hungry cats leaping up to lap chicken scraps from blue ceramic plates that don’t get loaded into the dishwasher until after I’ve gotten the kids to bed.
Sixty inches long by thirty inches deep, this six square feet contains so much of my universe now. It’s my command center as I navigate my family through uncharted water. It’s where I became a writer.
It’s where I sat on that full-moon Friday the Thirteenth in March, scribbling out a shopping list of items I didn’t realize would be sold out—powdered milk, yeast, flour—before we all wore masks to the market.
It’s where I sat with my five-year-old daughter that afternoon and established “Snail School”—a supposedly temporary experiment in home schooling. She drew the mascot, crayons scratching and clicking against the tabletop. I brought out my laptop and ordered 500 pages of recycled, kindergarten-lined paper with dreams of homemade books, stapled or sewn into volumes.
This was back when a two-week lockdown felt like an adventure—a vacation, a break from the grind, a front-row seat to history. The kids would sit and make counting beads and tea cups, a fine green film forming over the table while I posted my play dough recipe on Facebook—back when we were all trying to figure it out together from our own dining room tables, joined by words on screens.
It’s where the kids and I sat and sketched out a garden plan that felt both educational and necessary after I saw the state of the barren produce department in March. We ate the stew I cooked with the turnips I found (there were still a few root vegetables left) and envisioned tomatoes dusting our fingertips with a fine yellow powder that smelled like sunshine. It’s where I sat and researched urban chicken ordinances after weeks of pouring egg substitute from a carton.
In April I laid out a special Easter lunch on that table of linguini alfredo, a recipe I’d tweak and refine and serve again through May, June, November—with spinach and mushrooms, ham and peas. Iterate, refine, repeat. We pulled out the laptop to Zoom my husband’s family for dinner, mine for dessert.
In April I cleared away the breakfast dishes sticky with syrup and brought out my sewing machine, transforming rectangles of fabric into masks. It didn’t happen all at once, but it happened eventually: iterate, refine, repeat—sew the loops inside the pocket of right sides, more elastic, less elastic, shorter, wider. I learned to pleat at the dining room table.
In April, I decorated that table with elm leaves and branches and seed pods we gathered in an afternoon at Griffith Park that made us feel normal, except for the masks we wore. Amid this rustic meadow I tucked the felt snails I had hand-sewn because my daughter wanted snails for her birthday and nothing from Amazon would arrive on time.
In April, I thought I was winning at the pandemic, even though sometimes, when the kids wanted their tenth snack before 10am, when the right color of plate wasn’t clean, when my kindergartner ran away from Zoom lessons, I had to leave the soft morning sun filtering through the dining room window to go scream in the muffled darkness of my closet.
In May, I worked with my daughter on words. We. Go. See. The. Purple. I. Like. We wrote sight words at the table in shaving cream, fingerpaint, and sticks.
I started to discover my own words in May, too, sitting at the table under the dimmed chandelier after everyone else had gone to bed, writing birthday poems for old friends, second cousins, moms from the school drop-off. It was like turning on a tap, at least at a trickle, but something was starting to flow; something had opened. These shared poems opened doors through the glowing window of my laptop screen. They started conversations.
The mind tends to only remember what it’s been remembering. Yes, but sometimes there’s healthy churn that stirs up things long settled.
Sometimes people don’t make the logical decision that’s in their best interest, and I find myself typing “Maybe someday I’ll write a story about it.”
In June we set the laptop on the dining room table for kindergarten graduation practice. The kids learned the national anthem while I tilted the computer screen up and down, looking for the best camera angle to frame the little freckled face with bangs finally starting to grow out of her eyes, in front of the requisite swath of yellow butcher paper—a uniform backdrop across forty-eight dining room tables and living room libraries and office nooks. Forty-eight uniform squares with yellow paper and blue gowns. I moved the table back, propped the computer up until the camera found the growing girl and the yellow paper, and nothing more.
In June I sat at the table and watched the nation explode in the face of unjustifiable murder. I watched the pent-up rage and frustration ignite in the dumpster fires that burned only blocks away from our school, our friends’ houses.
In June I sat at the table and attended my sister’s online baby shower. I won the cloth diaper Price Is Right game, two glasses of champagne in. I felt a little dumpster fire smoldering inside of me as I wrote a birthday poem for the newborn niece I was waiting to meet.
July at that table was a blur of smeared manicures and art projects, scrolling through Facebook groups and text messages where no one knew what was happening in August, and Googling what it takes to homeschool, Googling infection rates and death counts as my daughters’ two separate TV shows droned in the background.
My older daughter started building terrariums, collecting rocks and moss and snails and roly polies. “What if you were trapped in a terrarium with an ex-friend?" she asked me, and something inside my brain perked up. Aren’t we all trapped in terrariums, I wondered later, looking out the dining room window at bouganvilla blowing in a breeze.
In August I hunched over my table staring into a little glass jar where two roly polies, Isobel and Roland, crept over a soft carpet of moss-covered dirt. I watched these two reconciled ex-friends crawl together up a stick. “What do you do next?” I whispered to them as I scribbled into a spiral-bound notebook.
That night I shared my first story with the world, half-hoping no one would read it. To my surprise, people read it.
In August we ate fresh tomatoes and green beans from the garden in our blue ceramic plates. We tried our four ears of corn, tough and sparse and starchy.
In September the world caught on fire again, this time driven by heat and wind. I took pictures of a bruised yellow sky out the dining room window and wrote about an apocalypse.
In October I watched the death toll rise above 200,000 and decided it was a good year to go big on Halloween costumes, precisely because of the fact there was nowhere to wear them. I pulled out the sewing machine again and Googled How to make an Air Bender cape. I thought about air as I watched the wind blow magenta bougainvillea branches from the window in the stagnant dining room.
I can never decide if it’s thrilling or uncomfortable to have the wind whip my hair in my face. I started to realize that thrilling and uncomfortable lived in close proximity.
In November, I felt thrilling and uncomfortable mingle in my stomach as I watched election results evolve each time I hit refresh on my computer browser.
In December my focus shifted. I researched espresso machines at the dining room table and ordered Christmas presents. I helped the kids write letters to Santa and decorated sugar cookies and gingerbread houses—my bag of tricks to ensure the kids didn’t mind our first Christmas as a little family of four.
In December I wrote about loneliness. People read my story and I felt less lonely.
In January, we welcomed a new year at the dining room table with a chocolate cake. New year, same routine: log in to first grade at nine, preschool at ten, play time, homework, tears, dinner, Pokemon. Iterate, refine, repeat. Write after the kids go to bed.
In February we designed a Mars Rover at the dining room table—a toilet paper tube covered in aluminum foil with a hollow compartment to collect soil samples that scientists might be able to analyze for signs of life ten years down the road if a thousand things went right. Out in the world, and out of this world 184.9 million miles away, this was actually happening. I thought about it, and the scale of it felt incongruous with my six square feet of dining room table. The scientists, I realized, were also playing a long game, collecting samples they might touch in ten years. But do the thing anyway. Plant the seeds.
Tomorrow marks one year since the day I made the shopping list and co-founded Snail School. I’m still at the dining room table, trying to process these loosely related memories into a story. Is there a story? I learned the elements of a story back in seventh grade. Can I apply them here? Three-hundred and sixty four days in, it feels urgent that I do.
There’s setting. That’s easy: the dining room table, now strewn with plates of half-eaten butter toast, a mask, a harmonica, a string of green beads—so many disparate elements in the same place. Soft morning light filters through the blinds without casting a shadow over the espresso tabletop or the honey colored wood floor strewn with coloring books and sticker sheets.
There’s character. I have my cast of them—the two girls who sat, one on each knee, playing math games on the tablet, who painted and sculpted and fought over chairs and fought over me. There’s the big daughter with gentle, golden-brown eyes, who talks to bugs but hides from classmates. There’s the little daughter, an expressive face peeking out from a mop of dark hair, who can’t wait to show her sparkly crafts and piles of toys to her preschool teacher, a steady stream of chatter filling the space between them on Zoom. There’s my husband who visits the dining room table for meals, but largely lives in his own, different story. I know these are supporting characters. In this story, I’m the main character. So how do I react to it all? (I go back, insert myself between the lines.) What happened to me this year?
That brings up plot. I’ve always felt like plot was my weak point. Did anything happen? Did the events of the pandemic teach me anything, give me a magic amulet to take back to my people? Is a hero's journey even possible inside six square feet? How do I turn a microscopic virus into a catalyst that launched me on a quest, and what was I even searching for? The next meal, a better way to teach and learn, a way to tune in and capture my own thoughts…
In his memoir, Nabakov compared his thoughts, put to words, to butterflies pinned in a display case—elusive things pinned and posed for posterity. I always liked that metaphor. I see his point. For me, the needle is the thin tip of my purple pen that fills the lines of my notebook.
Somehow, in this whole crazy process, I became a writer. But I still can’t bend this story to the rules of narrative—its arc is still all wrong. It peaks and stalls and changes. The butterflies run wild.
Maybe a theme can help me pin them. I like the needle analogy. I think of my sewing machine, its needle moving up and down, drumming a steady rhythm as it weaves a spool of thread in and out, binding raw, frayed edges of fabric rectangles into something finished, polished. That’s what I want to do with this year.
Maybe it’s too soon for that kind of perspective. I have a needle. I’m searching—through piles of paper, stacks of fabric, art projects and math worksheets, under the plates of toast that have littered my table—for the thread that binds it all together. What does it all mean? If I can answer that question, maybe my time at the dining room table will have been worth it. For now, I’m planting the seeds.