Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 2): COVID-19 Extreme Social Distancing: The First Couple Weeks

As I shared in my last post, our family started staying home whenever possible on Thursday, March 12. For us, the transition is nowhere near as significant as for others. We already homeschool our children. Matt already had some flexibility to his schedule and was home some during the days.

But it is still a very different situation. We are intentional in providing opportunities for our children to learn from the world around us and interact with other people. In our normal life, all four kids swim multiple times a week. The older girls and I usually ride horses about once a week. All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3-4 mornings a month. FangFang has weekly physical therapy. We have outings to the library and the park. We attend art shows and go to the zoo. This homeschooling world in which we’re all now living is very different than actual, normal homeschooling. That said, again, I acknowledge that the transition is much less jarring for us than it is for those being thrust into homeschooling with just a few days’ notice.

Really, compared to what many families are facing right now, we have virtually the ideal scenario. The primary structure of our lives is staying mostly the same. Both Matt’s and my jobs are pretty secure, at least in the short term. Many people are far less fortunate than we are.

We spent our first couple days at home doing our regular school days and trying to better prepare ourselves for going out less. I emptied out our deep freeze entirely and re-organized it and cataloged its contents. Our oven had died, so we researched ranges and ordered a new one. I planned meals for the next two weeks, and Saturday morning I made what I planned to be my last in-store grocery shopping trip for quite a while. By this point, though, other people had also realized that this was going to be a thing. The run on toilet paper had begun. I arrived at Aldi before it opened to find a line forming outside the door! There were a few items I was not able to get at Aldi (almond milk, butter), but between Aldi and Hyvee, I was able to get everything I needed, plus add a bit to our supply of stored food downstairs.

It’s hard to know how much to buy. On the one hand, we are a fairly large family – I spend over $200 a week on groceries on an average week, so to shop for two weeks at a time is a significant undertaking. In an average week, we probably make one mid-week stop at the store for something, and obviously we’d want to limit that, too. And in this time of uncertainty and increased risk of illness, it seems wise to have some additional items on hand – cough medicine, for one thing, Gatorade, Sprite, etc. I’ve settled on trying not to go completely crazy with stocking up but also trying to be well prepared.

Mizzou was continuing to monitor the situation and update their plans for the semester. As of Thursday, March 12, they had said that all teaching was to be done remotely, but faculty and staff were still to report to campus as needed but start planning in case it became unwise to do so. On Friday, March 13, they announced that the switch to remote teaching, as opposed to holding in-person classes, would be extended through the entirety of the spring semester.

Courtney was supposed to come visit that weekend, and we canceled that. Her job is still requiring her to come in daily, and she would still be giving riding lessons for another week, and even now (with multiple cities in Missouri under stay at home orders), she is continuing to have to do appointments for potential adoptions. She is attempting to minimize her exposure – she certainly is not interested in getting the coronavirus – but there is not much she can do if her job is requiring her to interact with the public. With multiple high risk people in our house, she and I talked about it and decided it just wasn’t a good idea to risk having her come. That was one of the first big changes for our family life, in this period of staying home – not just not going to big events, but not having anyone at all come over.

Although Columbia Public Schools were still in session, most people acknowledged that we were slowly marching toward closure – not a question of “if” but “when,” and I started receiving inquiries about homeschooling advice, which prompted these two posts, as well as some e-mails and private messages.

We continued our usual school activities.

Finding ourselves with a bit more time on our hands than usual, the big kids and I have been catching up on some of their lapbook projects.

On Monday, March 16, Columbia Public Schools announced that they would close effective Wednesday. On Tuesday, March 17, Boone County recorded its first positive test result for COVID-19 (there were 16 positive cases in the state at that time), thereby confirming that it was truly here, and Mizzou announced that same day that all buildings were going to be locked, and everyone possible would need to begin working from home. Matt went into campus to get everything he thought he might need in the coming weeks and months from both the art building and his studio. On Thursday, March 19 (still just 1 positive case in Boone County – with 1 death; 28 cases statewide), Mizzou reiterated that no one was to work on campus unless specifically directed to do so by their supervisor.

With some of the big changes in our lives and schedules relating so heavily to physical activity, I’ve known that we would need to be finding time to get outside and move around as much as possible. We’ve been taking a lot of walks, though as this Snap suggests, it has been something of a strange experience.

It’s strange how quickly the intensity of the current guidance to stay distant from other people begins to feel almost normal. I find myself watching tv shows and alternately marveling at how close the characters are standing to one another and wanting to jump up and warn them that they are putting themselves at risk!

One of my current irritations is with parents who allow their children outside without supervision when those children clearly do not understand the idea of not getting within 6 feet of any other people. Obviously each parent must determine for themselves whether their children are mature enough to be outside without supervision, but that standard changes a bit during a global pandemic. In my normal life, I would love to hang out with all the children – but not right now. And if I have to tell your child to back off, then your child is clearly not mature enough to handle being outside without supervision during this time.

Other than that, though, we have been enjoying our walks and our time outside!

Yesterday we even had a picnic and did some of our school reading outside!

Of course, there are days when the weather is not so nice, and those are harder. I’ve been doing some workouts on our elliptical, and the kids and I have all been doing some body-weight exercises and exercises with some small dumbbells.

Being without an oven for several weeks – especially during this time – has been challenging for me in planning meals, but also for Miranda, our resident baker. One day she and I looked up recipes and she tried making a cake in our bread machine! The bottom got a bit burnt, but otherwise it was good, and it was a fun experience for her.

We did finally get our new range this week, for which I was very thankful. After a delivery scheduled during a generally unhelpful 12 hour window – during which the store actually failed to deliver the range – and many phone calls and much follow-up from me, it arrived on Wednesday, a day after it was supposed to come. It’s nothing special but nice to be back to having a fully functional kitchen!

Having more time at home, I’ve been trying to tackle some projects around the house.

Another thing I’ve enjoyed has been having more time to read. I have been making my way through a few different books, and the older girls are also really into reading right now. We’ve been trying to have a quiet reading time at least a few afternoons a week.

And as for the statistics, after having 16 positive test results on Tuesday, March 17, a week later, on Tuesday, March 24, Missouri had recorded 255 cases (with Boone County having 20 positive cases). Effective Wednesday morning, we are under stay at home orders from both the City of Columbia and Boone County. As of yesterday, Thursday, March 26, Missouri was reporting 502 cases (with 25 in Boone County) and 8 deaths. As of yesterday, the United States, for the first time, reports more cases than any other country in the world (with 81,321 cases and over 1,000 deaths), and also as of yesterday, the worldwide count of cases surpassed 500,000. Watching the numbers, I suspect we will pass 600,000 worldwide today.

My mom was supposed to visit us this weekend, but as the Director of Emergency Management for her county (so far 56 cases out of Wisconsin’s 755 total), she is working 14-16 hour days and will not be able to come see us.

In terms of our own personal experience during this time of the coronavirus and social distancing, I am missing the ability to see people outside of my own little family unit. I’m sad to be missing out on plans I’d made to see both Courtney and my mom, as well as other friends. My dad’s visit for next month will likely also need to be canceled.

Beyond that, it honestly feels somewhat relaxing. It’s a strange juxtaposition, being faced daily with the gravity of the situation, knowing that people are dying every day, that medical providers in our very own country are being forced to work without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and knowing that what I do may have grave consequences, both for my family and my community – but that what I am supposed to do, stay at home as much as possible, feels not like acting the part of a valiant warrior but more like having a stay-cation.

The first thing I do each morning and the last thing I do each night is check my phone for coronavirus news updates. It feels of supreme importance – and yet, actually, no matter what the websites and articles say, today will be another day of staying home. I spent the early days of our time at home posting articles on Facebook encouraging social distancing – but now, I know that those who are going to understand the gravity of the situation probably already do, and there is likely nothing I can say to those who choose to to continue to listen to President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, despite its dissonance from the opinion of every respected medical professional.

I wonder what is ahead for us all. While I obviously do not want to see the economy continue to crash, I think it is inevitable. Sending people back to work – to get sick and die – will not help. I wonder how helpful the relief bill Congress is working on will be. We can definitely use the money but are generally okay financially for now. While we are home, I’m also trying to work some extra hours to help us rebuild our emergency fund.

I hope and pray that others in my city, in my state, and in my country will stay home if they can. I hope that the PPE and ventilators our medical professionals and our hospitals – and ultimately, we – need will arrive in time. I hope we can flatten the curve. I hope we can see our friends and family again soon. I hope they’re all okay. I hope this isn’t as bad as I suspect it will be.

2018 Goals

I spent a lot of time toward the end of 2017 thinking about what I wanted my goals for 2018 to be. 2017 was a crazy intense year. I’ve told a few people recently that I felt like I had about 800 balls in the air, and I dropped almost all of them at least once, and I’m slowly trying to pick up what is important. As we – hopefully – move toward a time of less necessary intensity, I’ve been wanting to be intentional about what my priorities and goals are, and I’ve come up with a few things.

  1. I want to try to cultivate peace and joy, both in my heart and in my home. First and foremost, I think this is a spiritual battle. I want to be more intentional about spending good time in my Bible and in prayer. I’ve started getting up earlier and doing a Beth Moore Bible study – just on my own – to help me stay in a pattern of doing that. Beyond that, I need to take some practical steps to enable peace and joy to flourish (like not over-committing myself to too many things). And I need to commit myself to examining my own heart throughout the day, practicing mindfulness and prayer and self-regulation, and I need to establish more patterns of treating every member of my family with respect, not yelling or expressing myself with sarcasm, even in my most frustrated moments. I think this is key to my growth as a person and as a wife and mom this year. 
  2. I want to rebuild our emergency savings fund. We basically wiped ourselves out financially to complete FangFang’s adoption at the end of 2016, and 2017 was such a crazy year with medical and travel expenses and just not having the mental or emotional energy to buckle down and commit to spending less money, so we pretty much just held steady financially. In 2018 we’d like to get back to a place of more financial security.
  3. I’d like to read 12 non-fiction books. I’ve been doing really well with keeping up with and enjoying some good fiction books lately. I read them on the Kindle app on my phone, which allows me to spend 2 minutes here or 5 minutes there reading as I’m able, which I so enjoy. But with non-fiction, I find that I am more thoughtful about what I’m reading if I read it in a paper copy, not a Kindle book, and I want to devote time and mental energy toward really integrating what I’m reading into my mind. That means I can’t just read it anywhere and everywhere and in 2-minute increments. But I am, at heart, a student and an intellectual. Matt and I are dorky people – it’s one reason we love homeschooling so much. I find that I feel more myself when I’m engaging with ideas, when I’m growing and learning. I want to make that a priority, reading and thinking on my own, and to that end, I’m making a goal of reading approximately 1 non-fiction book per month in 2018. And oh my goodness, I cannot wait to dig into this pile of books. I’ve started the first already, and it has been such an encouragement to my soul. 
  4. I’d like to get healthier. Exercise was sporadic, at best, for me in 2017, and I think my body feels the effects of that. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that my metabolism isn’t what it used to be, and I’m needing to adjust to that. We remain committed to our pescetarian lifestyle and try to follow a fairly healthy, whole-foods, plant-based diet, but I think toward the end of the year, our meals tended more toward whole wheat carbohydrates and less toward vegetables, and I’d like to flip that around again. I’d also like to get a healthier amount of sleep – always a challenge with young kids 🙂 Overall, I’d just like to make progress toward being healthier.

Those are my top 4 personal goals for 2018. I’ll try to keep you posted here about how I’m doing in working on those, and I’d love to hear what your 2018 goals are!

China said yes!

This morning I sat down and started to write, sharing my heart and my disappointment that we had not yet received our Letter Seeking Confirmation (LSC)/Letter of Acceptance (LOA). A number of families – many of whom had submitted their dossiers after ours – received theirs on Wednesday, and to say that I was disappointed when ours was not issued at the same time was an understatement. I had been so sure it would come. Our case worker assured me that this often happens, and there’s really no discernible rhyme or reason for it. She believed that if the CCCWA had any questions about us or our dossier, they would already have asked them during the dossier review phase, and our agency had never had the CCCWA deny an LSC/LOA to a family, so she really thought it was coming and would be here soon. The wait and the not knowing were still hard, though, and I felt very discouraged this week. I tried to trust that God would lead us where we should be when we should be there, and focus on the things I actually could and should be doing – preparing freezer meals, doing school with the girls, etc.

And then today the call came – the CCCWA computer system showed this morning that our LSC/LOA has been issued!

China LOA

This is China’s official approval of us as adoptive parents of our precious baby #4, Fang Fang, as her foster home calls her. We couldn’t be happier! As I spoke with our case worker on the phone, I had to go hide in the play room, as the girls were running around screaming in their excitement, “We got our Letter of Acceptance! We got our Letter of Acceptance!”

Travel before Christmas is still by no means guaranteed, but it just got a whole lot more likely!

This news was particularly wonderful to receive today, as it follows a rather difficult week for us. First was our disappointment that we didn’t receive our Letter of Acceptance on Wednesday with so many other families. Then later that night, after the kids were in bed, Matt ran over to the art department to get some files he needed for a talk he’d be doing Thursday morning. He was gone for half an hour, then an hour, and then I texted him to make sure he was okay. No response. I knew he had his phone with him, because he’d come back inside specifically to get it before leaving. I waited 20 minutes and texted again. No response. I called and got his voicemail. I figured that the most likely scenario was that his phone had died, but I was still getting concerned. We were approaching midnight, and he was almost certainly alone in the building, so if anything was wrong, there probably wasn’t anyone there to help him. Finally I messaged one of our friends, a colleague of Matt’s, and asked if he’d mind going to check on him. He did, and actually right as he pulled up in the parking lot next to our van, Matt texted me that his phone hadn’t been working and needed to update its operating system, and he had just then gotten my messages. Phew!

So Matt came back home, but it was less than 14 hours later that he sent me a text message, “I am at hospital,” and we had the following exchange:

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That’s a picture every wife wants to get from her husband! A friend graciously came over to hang out with our kids, and I drove to the ER to be with Matt (whose colleague had, thankfully, talked him out of driving himself there). They ran a number of tests (bloodwork, head CT, x-rays, an EKG), and everything came back normal, so essentially they think he was tired (it hasn’t been a great week for sleep here at our house) and potentially dehydrated and probably fainted for a moment. They told us what symptoms to watch for but discharged him and said they expect him to be fine. He’s pretty banged up and sore today but generally feels alright.

And now, we are heading into a weekend that we hope will be filled with catch-up sleep, catch-up work, and some time for Matt to rest and heal, but also some celebration that we are officially approved to become parents of our FOURTH child! This is a great feeling, my friends 🙂

Our New Diet

In the 2 months since we’ve returned home from New York, some of the most frequent questions we’ve gotten have been about the dietary changes we’ve made. This area was really overwhelming for me at first – I wasn’t sure what changes we needed to make or how to find meals that met whatever standards we were going to follow. My first resource was the American Heart Association’s diet and lifestyle recommendations, which advocate for a low-sodium, low-cholesterol diet, featuring primarily chicken and fish, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. That sounded doable, and in fact many of the recipes we were already using met those criteria.

As we did more research, though, we began to wonder if those recommendations were really the best we could do, particularly with regards to heart health. There seems to be general agreement that consumption of red meat is harmful, but what we began to read was that even consuming a diet high in animal protein in general seemed problematic. The Lyon Heart Study demonstrated that patients following a Mediterranean-style diet (primarily plant-based foods, whole grains, limiting salt and red meat) had significantly better outcomes than patients following the standard diet prescribed for patients with cardiac issues. We watched Forks Over Knives and heard about the China Study and saw and read stories of people who had serious heart disease who had been able to reverse it by adopting a whole-foods, plant-based diet. We read about the better health outcomes, particularly regarding heart disease, that vegetarians have relative to omnivores. The arguments were compelling.

Curried Tempeh Grilled Cheese with Mango Chutney and Tomato Bisque
Curried Tempeh Grilled Cheese with Mango Chutney and Tomato Bisque

We discussed what we were finding with Matt’s doctor, who talked with us about how the American Heart Association’s recommendations are based upon collections of large-scale studies, which necessarily means that they are never going to reflect the absolute latest research. He and other doctors believe that the direction they will head in the next 10 or 15 years, though, is further away from animal-based foods and toward more plant-based foods.

And so, based on the evidence we’ve been seeing as we’ve researched healthy eating, particularly with regards to cardiovascular health, we’ve made some pretty drastic changes. We try to eat fish once or twice a week but otherwise avoid meat when reasonably possible (we’ve had about two servings of non-fish meat in the last 2 months), and we are reducing our dairy consumption (so far by about half). We’re also focusing on consuming whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, oats, and bread made with whole wheat flour. We’re making sure that vegetables – instead of being a last-minute add-on to a meat-based meal – are rather a centerpiece of what we’re eating each day.

Smoky Chili with Sweet Potatoes
Smoky Chili with Sweet Potatoes

At first it was really difficult to find meals and recipes that met these criteria. So much of what we consume in American culture is based around meat and simple, processed carbs. However, over the last couple months I’ve gotten better at finding, assessing, and sometimes slightly modifying recipes for our health and enjoyment. So that you all don’t have to suffer through some of the inedible meals we’ve tried, I’m including information here about some of the recipes we have enjoyed in recent weeks. In no particular order, these are the vegetarian meals we’ve been enjoying:

Homemade Pasta Sauce
Homemade Pasta Sauce (before its encounter with the immersion blender)

My very favorite new cookbook is Moosewood Restaurant Favorites – do yourself a favor and order it. Seriously, it’s glorious. I believe people should be compensated for their work, so I’m not going to post their recipes here, but I’d encourage you to get it. Many of the recipes we’ve most enjoyed are contained within this book, in particular the following:

  • Thai Butternut Squash Soup (p 58)
  • Thai Noodle Salad (p 100)
  • Southwestern Sweet Potato Corn Soup  (p 56)
  • Creamy Herbed Potato Soup (p 49)
  • Pasta with Asparagus and Lemon Sauce (p 224)
  • Peruvian Quinoa and Vegetable Salad (p 99)
  • Summer Vegetable Curry (p 123)

And here are some of the recipes we’ve most enjoyed for eating fish:

The same cookbook I mentioned above has also been a blessing with regards to recipes for preparing fish. So far we’ve tried and liked:

  • Spicy Caribbean Fish (p 240)
  • Creamy Fish Stew (p 247)
  • Teriyaki Fish (p 241)

Creamy Fish Stew
Creamy Fish Stew

I’d encourage you, if you’re concerned about your health and, in particular, want to enjoy a heart-healthy diet, to do your research about animal-based foods and plant-based foods. So much of what we eat and the diets we advocate in American culture are really harmful to our bodies. Not everyone is facing the same medical circumstances we’re facing, and not everyone has to make the same choices we’ve made, but I think many of us can do better than we’re doing to care for our bodies. So far Matt has lost about 20 pounds and is feeling immeasurably better than he did before, and I’m feeling good, as well.

If you’re interested in pursuing more of a plant-based pescetarian or vegetarian diet, I hope some of these recipes can be a blessing to you in your journey!

post-heart-attack – where are we now?

It seems like these last weeks have flown by, but now it’s been almost 7 weeks since Matt’s heart attack, and I’ve been reflecting on the changes and transitions contained within those weeks.

Perhaps the most obvious are the physical, tangible changes. Matt’s incorporation of regular exercise into his schedule prior to his heart attack was sporadic, at best. Sure, he got in his 10,000 steps a day, but he didn’t have time set aside purely for working out. He has now been going to cardiac rehabilitation 2-3 times per week to exercise, we try to take walks at least a couple times a week on his off days, and we’re committed to fitting exercise into his schedule regularly.

We’ve also completely changed our diet. A big part of that change has been Matt himself – I knew he didn’t make the best decisions with his lunch and snack purchases away from home, but even I wasn’t aware how bad his choices really had gotten (read: how much fast food he was eating). He’s had to stop that cold turkey and now generally takes food from home or gets salads when he’s out.

We’ve made some big changes as a family, too, though. We’ve gone from eating somewhat-but-not-entirely healthy, mostly chicken but fairly frequently also pork meals to eating almost entirely vegetarian and fish meals. We’re trying to center our eating around plant-based whole foods. That has changed virtually all the meals we eat and the way in which I grocery shop. I now need to shop closer to weekly (instead of being able to make it 2 weeks between big grocery shopping trips), I spend a lot more time in the health food section, I read the labels on practically everything, and we’ve added an additional grocery store to our regular rotation, bringing our current total to 3. Meal prep also takes longer.

These dietary changes have been something of a challenge. At first the logistics were overwhelming – I didn’t have any idea where to get good recipes, how to judge whether a meal was high or low in sodium, or any of that. Now that I’m finding my footing in those areas, I can start to address secondary logistical matters (like figuring out which meals would freeze well so I can get back to my time-saving, sanity-saving freezer meal cooking!), but I’ve also found that new emotions are surfacing. I can no longer use almost any of the recipes from what used to be my “go to” blogs for new meal ideas to try. We can’t go to just any restaurant and assume we’ll be able to order something healthy. Getting together for meals with friends is more complicated. It feels somewhat lonely – but it is absolutely worth it. Maybe if you’re 70 or 75 years old and you have a heart attack, you figure you’ve had a good run and you keep living life just as you were before? But with Matt having a heart attack at 39…we’ve really got to make some drastic changes, so that’s what we’re doing. We’d like to keep him around for another 30 or 40 – or more! – years.

I’ve had to face the reality that he really could have died there in that hotel room in New York. I’m thankful I didn’t know exactly what was happening at the time, and I’m thankful I didn’t know the statistics on cardiac arrest survival at the time. And the fact that it happened once means that it’s more likely to happen again – and that’s a scary thought.

I am scared.

But I have a choice. I can let fear control my life and my choices – or I can let love be the driving force behind all that I do. I can’t have it both ways. And thankfully, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The more I love, the more I choose to operate out of love, the less my chest tightens in fear.

We are trying to be wise and prepared for any scenario. We’re doing what we can – we’re prioritizing exercise, we’re changing our diet, and Matt is taking all of the medications his doctor has prescribed and paying attention to his body. And I’m collecting information. I’ve found out what benefits I’d be able to retain through the university if Matt died. I’m aware of what life insurance he has – and am trying not to be bitter about the fact that we were in the middle of applying for additional life insurance when this happened, and his application was obviously rejected. We’ve talked with our kids’ pediatrician about measures we need to take to keep them as healthy as possible, now that 2 of them have a family history of early heart disease. But we’re still living life – in fact, check back later this week for some exciting news about one way in which we’re pursuing that 🙂 We still want to have adventures and be committed to pursuing God and going wherever He would lead in order to love those around us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s interesting, the faith journey that has been the undercurrent throughout these last 7 weeks. I haven’t always felt close to God, I haven’t always felt the truths I know to be true – but I still know them. I know that God is in control. I know that He loves me, and I know that He is good. Not once has it even entered my mind to doubt those truths.

If it did…I think I’d wonder if the object in which I’d placed my faith was truly the self-existent God of the universe or just some fictional genie of my own creation. Either God is good even when I don’t get what I want…or He’s not God – He’s simply a super-powered version of myself, desiring exactly as I desire, willing and able to give me exactly what I want. But that’s not who the true God is.

There’s a C.S. Lewis quote that I’ve always liked – “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” That quote has become more and more real to me over these last weeks. God is not put to the test by Matt’s heart attack; God exists outside of space and time, and God is good – and Matt had a heart attack – and I interpret the latter in light of the former, not the other way around.

And we have much, much for which to be grateful – and gratitude is the overwhelming emotion I feel when I think about these recent events. Matt did survive his heart attack. We have been blessed, oh, so very blessed, by so many friends and family over these last 7 weeks. We’ve been given time to make changes that will – we hope and pray – get him healthier, and we have the means and the motivation to make those drastic changes we need to make. The God we follow is loving and good. We are blessed, and I am thankful.