Taking Our Social Lives Outdoors for the Summer.


At 2:58 am this morning, a child let out a muffled scream, then another — the kind of mumble-warble that might wrestle to be let out of your mouth in the match between dreaming and waking in the dead of night.

It happens to all of us sometimes, in some form. Something in the dreamworld demands so much of our attention that it breaks the sleep bubble and we wake in a cold sweat, feeling disturbed or upset before eventually settling down again.

Only this child still screaming at 3:00 am did not settle down. After those muted screams, full-on guttural, throat-ravaging screaming began… and continued. Over and over. “No, no, no. No, don’t. No, don’t…” The sound moved about from one area to another, but the intensity remained.

Even on a warm Saturday night in summer at this time, the only sounds you typically hear is the far-off oscillating of the train horn as it makes its way into town, and the occasional drunk pushing a shopping cart down the street, rustling through the recycling bins for cans to return to the machine outside the grocery store.

We used to be able to hear the hum of cars on the freeway too, but that was before the pandemic when people had places to go at night.

When my firstborn was just three months old, we took him for his first flight from one coast to the other for an annual family vacation. The night before our return trip, at 2:58 am, he began screaming, and for the life of us new parents, we could not figure out what was upsetting him. We were terribly self-conscious about him waking the other occupants of the apartment building where we were staying.

This was the inauspicious start of a cross-country odyssey that included an emergency landing of our first flight. To say that was stressful would be an understatement. Did you know that flight attendants will ask you to remove your eyeglasses before an emergency landing so you won’t be further injured by them upon impact? I didn’t either, until that flight.

After that incident and two more flights, and just shy of 24 hours later, we were on our last leg home when our darling son began screaming the same way he did the night before in the apartment, only this time we were in a tin can hurtling across the sky.

Let me tell you, you’ve never felt daggers in the back of your head more than when your baby is screaming uncontrollably and relentlessly on a flight. Even the stewardess, who is likely to have heard this 1000 times, was visibly flustered as she hovered around us repeatedly.

When the child began screaming in the dark last night, my mama-heart cracked wide open for these parents, unexpectedly rustling around in the pitch black, trying to comfort their child, but perhaps even more so, trying to quell the ear-shattering screams that were piercing the night, waking people they don’t even know, like me.

These days we are hearing a lot of things that aren’t meant for others’ ears because we are all home, all the time.

Last summer, had this child been visiting my neighbors like he was, he might have been in a pile of pillows and kids and dogs in the basement of the house where they watched movies until way past their bedtimes.

Instead, he’s sleeping in a tent in the backyard with his father because no one outside my neighbor’s immediate family bubble is welcome to come inside, let alone sleep in a puppy pile in the basement. Then, only the occupants of the house would have heard him waking from his nightmare. We probably would have been out of town on some adventure anyway.

Taking our social lives outdoors for the summer has meant that intimate moments are being shared with others that were previously uninvited.

This week I learned about a photographer in New York who secretly takes photos of people’s phone screens as they are texting on the subway. He shares the photos of those private conversations on his website.

In my neighborhood where the yards are small and each one connected to the other, I feel like I am living my own version of experiencing these things that aren’t meant to be shared with others… and others are experiencing mine.

Last week I heard the tearful reunion of a stepdaughter and stepfather who carried on from a tall deck into the night. She broke down repeatedly, laying bare all manner of transgressions and how those childhood traumas have made a mark lingering long into adulthood.

I saw a neighbor’s friend pull his pants down on the front porch of the house in a moment of raucous hilarity that was not likely to be recalled the following morning and certainly wasn’t meant to be witnessed by me.

I’ve heard a woman having an orgasm from an open window, a brother and sister repeatedly arguing over the same issue, and a grandmother recalling a story from her youth overseas for her grandchildren.

Last week my daughter had a group of friends over in our yard, ostensibly for a safe socially distanced gathering which turned out to be anything but. The kids gathered around a table elbow-to-elbow, laughing and singing along to music that was playing too loud. It was the kind of normal teen moment that isn’t permissible any longer. For a moment, it was so very lovely.

I’d been missing those peals of laughter more than I knew.

There was regret as we put the kibosh on it, regret that we were taking away this exuberant moment of normalcy during a time that is anything but. We shut it down because it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t what we’d agreed upon, but perhaps even more so because the optics among our neighbors as the house where the quarantine rules have gone out the window was not one we could bear to shoulder.

A lot of cities are experimenting this summer with opening drive-in movie theaters for live music or hosting concerts in open fields where you park your car. The problem with these scenarios is that the precautions look good on paper, but once you put a group of people together with some live music and some alcohol, the pandemic is pushed conveniently out of mind.

How could one possibly be infected with something so awful while having such a good time?

It seems to me that there’s a fine line between escaping from the overbearing nature of the pandemic, the cracking open of our systemic racism, the looming election and all the other elements of this unprecedented time and preserving our mental health and some sense of normalcy — before fall comes down the pike and we’re supposed to be supporting our kids with online schooling while working, or looking for work, from home.

So when the boy cries out in the night, or the stepdaughter wails, or the teens gather elbow-to-elbow, welcome them all — because when we’re all inside again, the ache for these unintentional invitations into each other’s worlds will be palpable.


Julie van Amerongen lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Every.Single.Day.: Unstoppable Lessons from a Year of Running and I Can Do Hard Things: How Small Steps Equal Big Impact, both on Post Hill Press.


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