Sophia Zhao

A few weeks ago, my family celebrated Passover. We ate matzo ball soup, roast chicken and potatoes — familiar foods of my childhood. But small things made this night a strange one: jokes about the ritual handwashing, the obligatory mention of an 11th plague. We tried to laugh these things off, but we had run out of wine the day before, so they didn’t seem so funny. I sang the Ma Nishtana,” which translates to, “What makes this night different from all other nights?” We had been in self-isolation for weeks, so it was difficult to think of an answer. When the Zoom call ended, our Seder guests vanished. My parents and I suddenly found ourselves alone in a dark house, facing a pile of our own dishes.

Ma nishtana” is simple Hebrew, the kind I grew up speaking with my mother. It follows me in these weeks. Not for its religious connotation, but rather, for its meaning: What has changed? Every day, I look for answers. I make my own rituals: a coffee in the morning, a phone call in the afternoon, a crossword in the evening. Against all of this sameness, it becomes easier to see change when it appears. Sometimes, I imagine change will be a tidal wave on the horizon, sweeping in to take me someplace new. But change usually feels like the faint glimmer of something shining, barely visible, that makes me want to look for it again and again.

I find it in numbers — flattening curves, death rates still increasing but at a slower rate. But change also comes from the natural world, whose cycles of life are oblivious to human suffering. Earlier this week, I went for a run in the forest down the street from my house. Sprouts had begun to poke out from the dirt, and tree branches danced with pale green buds. On my way back, I saw a flash of cerulean fleeting through the brush: a blue jay, like the ones I used to see growing up in Florida. When I got home, I asked my dad if it was rare to see blue jays in Massachusetts. He said no, it was actually very common. I just hadn’t noticed them until then. Since that morning, I have seen a blue jay from my bedroom window almost every day.

I never thought I would swear by a viral YouTube yoga guru, but Adriene has changed my life. Every day, I do another video from her 30-Day Yoga Journey. “Lots of love in,” she directs, and I breathe in until my chest is bursting — “Lots of love out,” she says, and I exhale with a sigh. One day, as I sink into forward fold, Adriene tells me to “feel whatever you’re feeling right now.” On that day, this is all it takes to bring me to tears. I lay there on the floor of my childhood bedroom, staring at the ceiling. I am not ungrateful for my sadness because in that moment it feels better than feeling nothing at all. This is the kind of change I had longed for: a big salty wave, opening me up and washing me clean. For the next few days, I feel like myself again.

There were a couple of nights last week when my dad ran a low-grade fever. He was fine during the day and showed no other symptoms, but we decided to quarantine him, just in case. On those days, cooking for everybody was my job. I made a potato kugel, which was adventurous for me. While I’ve loved to cook for a while now, I tend to make things like tofu and noodles, and I’ve never made potato anything. But it was pretty good; we served it with plain yogurt and applesauce, along with garlicky blistered green beans. The next day I made an old family recipe: turkey meatballs with sweet tomato and celery sauce, which was even more unexpected — until then I had considered myself a vegetarian. More and more, I’ve been venturing away from my millennial, Bon Appétit magazine palette to a more old-fashioned sort of Jewish comfort food, flavors my grandparents would have known. This is in some ways a change, but in a greater sense, a return to the way things have always been.

Reduced to online video conferencing, certain things that used to be serious — like the business of being a student — have become laugh-out-loud absurd. I have become familiar with my classmates’ childhood bedrooms, seen their pixelated parents glide across the background like ghosts. It seems that most schoolwork is now little more than a distraction intended to keep pent-up students sane; perhaps it has always been this way. Today, my neuroscience professor interrupted a student’s presentation about the neurological basis of schizophrenia to show us his 3-year-old daughter, who had climbed onto his shoulders. When we returned to course material, it was out of respect for convention more than anything. For a while I look forward to the day that classes end; when they finally do, I begin to miss the many faces on my computer screen, many of which I will likely never see again. 

Every day at five o’clock, I video chat with my girlfriend Tereza, who is at home in Prague. She was here with my family until a few weeks ago, but ultimately decided to fly home before things got too bad. It is only after I’ve dropped her off at the airport that I fully understand how long this separation might last. Tereza says that our choosing to be apart, even when it’s difficult, reflects our strength. But sometimes, when small tasks feel impossible and all I want is to be near her, I don’t feel strong at all. Once, I tell her that I don’t understand why she left, and it is both true and not true at the same time. She tells me all of the reasons, and they make sense, but they don’t make me stop missing her. She tries to make me laugh by placing different stuffed animals on her body every day: Yesterday, a small zebra perched on her head and a lemur hung from her shoulders. The day before, a rainbow toucan and a mammoth. It’s a success.

For the first few weeks, being with my parents was difficult. My father is an optimist, sometimes at the expense of seeing reason. My mother, strained to make the difficult decisions herself, sometimes forgets that the best way to get through to him is not through reason itself, but rather, through tenderness. When my dad’s temporary quarantine made communication impossible, our house became chilly with silence. But he got better, and then so did everything else. Last night, the three of us played Schubert and Beethoven trios together, with my dad on violin, me on cello, and my mom on piano. She hasn’t practiced piano in ages, and we were all sight reading; the faster sections devolved into broken chords and laughter. My mom said that since I’ve been home, she has started to see me more as an equal — almost a sort of roommate. I’m still not sure I can act like a grown-up in the house where I have always been a child. 

It is perhaps needless to say that not every day is a good day. There are evenings spent trying to calm my mother’s sharp tongue, trying to make my father see reason. Some days, when the rainfall begins before dawn, it is all I can do to get out of bed in the morning. I could write another essay entirely, just as true as this one, about my sadness. I know that if I look for it, I’ll find it. I write instead about joy, because I want to be convinced that it’s there. 

I have learned that happiness is fickle. For days, I tried to understand why my rituals could make me happy on one day and not on another. I tried to isolate the confounding variables, to manipulate the conditions and perfect the formula. Maybe doing yoga was better than going for a run; perhaps I should work on the crossword before dinner rather than after. Eventually, I came to a simpler realization: that I am happy on days that are sunny and unhappy on days that are not. I am learning to treat happiness like a welcome but unexpected visitor — grateful when it arrives, not questioning it when it doesn’t. I like to think that this is how some religious people feel about God, or the way some farmers feel about rain, or the way anyone feels about things over which they have no control. At the same time, I am still trying to understand how to acknowledge my small burdens to be true when so many others have such greater burdens to bear. 

Perhaps the most obvious answer to my “ma nishtana”: the weather has begun to change. Not all at once — today, it is windy and gray, just like it was yesterday. But on Monday, the sun came out, quietly glorious, and in the afternoon I sat around on the porch doing absolutely nothing at all, keeping my happiness a secret because to be happy now can feel almost profane. On Tuesday, the sun showed no signs of relenting, and I dared to scoop myself a cup of ice cream to eat outside. I sat there in the sun and it was exactly the same as the day before, except with ice cream, and it was not the change this time but the sameness that made me happy all over again.