KJZZ's SOAPBOX: Speak your truth

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SPRING 2022: LOST
On KJZZ's SOAPBOX, we're turning over the the mic to our listeners. For our inaugural series about the pandemic's impact from March 28-31, 2022, listeners tackled the theme LOST.



PANDEMIC MOM by Valeria Fernandez

It’s a small, enclosed space, and I’m climbing, gripping … trying to keep up with my agile 2-year-old who has climbed this structure by now … thousands of times. It’s crowded with children that triple his age, and parents that barely fit. We come to a halt when one of them decides to block the entry of a tunnel to carefully choreograph a photo with five children.

It’s taking forever, and my toddler is already losing his 5 seconds of patience spam. This woman won’t move, she is oblivious to my struggle, as I try to hold my son back who wants to escape like a cat. I could feel the fumes coming from underneath my mask.

And then I had an epiphany: “I hate other parents.”

I hate being around large crowds of parents that misbehave with kids, and not the other way round.

What is this? I asked myself. I’m irritable and rude. What happened to the idealist in me that loves families and children?

OK, I don’t really hate other parents. I just hate what this pandemic has done to us. How it has robbed both our children and us of the opportunity to make new friends. And even when we have that opportunity, I still have to choose between those parents who take extra precautions and those who feel they don’t need to.

I know someone invented a calculator of the risk of catching COVID-19 in any given scenario. At a birthday party, inside, outdoors, with people vaccinated, if they are tested, if they traveled internationally, if they visited other people that were sick, etc.

I have become that calculator.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of mother I would have been, before. Is there a Montessori book for pandemic parents?

I wonder, how many more times we could have gathered with family far away in South America or close in California? How much better would I have coped with the uncertainties of being a mom again at 43? What would it have been like if I didn’t have to worry if getting a COVID-19 shot while pregnant was the right choice?

Recently, my 2-year-old reached a milestone. He agreed to wear a mask to go to the children’s museum. How cute, I thought for a second, and then, how sad that this is the world that we are giving him. I’m not against masks, I just worry about how he will grow up. How will he navigate a world filled with people who don’t care if we become the greatest risk to each other?

But my children are wiser than me. They have learned to smile back even when they can’t see me smiling beneath a mask. I sing them songs at night hoping that my love will always protect them and guide them. I hold them close in my heart, and I’m grateful to live one more day to be their mom.

I was born a mom in this time, and just like them, I know no other.

Valeria Fernandez is a mom, immigrant, pizza lover, scratch baker and freelance journalist for life.


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THE CHAT by Tricia Parker

I sat waiting as four ASU students crossed Fillmore Street, in line, like the Beatles. They were nearly identical, down to three of them wearing white Dr. Martens lace-ups. I was dropping off my daily saliva sample after work. They were headed toward Roosevelt. I smiled at the effort they'd obviously put into everything about themselves. I smiled at their boots.

It wasn't until we returned to the classroom last spring that I realized I had missed kids' shoes. I had missed kids, of course, their faces. I knew them in different ways, like where to park in their apartment complexes when I delivered big envelopes of books and copies where fillable online forms wouldn't do. But I didn't know anything about their hair color or freckles or style.

I thought I was okay teaching to a screen of black boxes. We kept it lively in the chat. And in some ways, it was easier to track their work in real time, as they typed.

And that is what I was doing when my brother called one morning to tell me our grandmother had died. We hadn't seen her in person since her 99th birthday in March, when we shared pineapple upside down cake through the front window of her group home — no visitors allowed.

I burst into tears and consoled my brother, not realizing I wasn't muted. I fumbled to click the microphone icon, then gathered my wits and explained myself in the chat.

I teach high school English learners. One of my freshmen students typed back, "I wish I could give you a hug." I had never seen her face. She took care of her little brother Cyrus while she attended our class, and I could hear him making car noises in the background.

Another message popped up in the chat.

A student wrote, "It's sad, but in my religion nothing is permanent. Our bodies are just temporary." I had only seen the very edge of his face during a video call with his mom. He had a 4-year-old sister who wouldn't leave his stuff alone. And a brand-new baby, Henry, who he wasn't allowed to hold and who cried all the time.

That was early October, and almost six months later, I finally met these two students, and more who returned to campus, while others lingered in the safety of their homes and black boxes.

The girl who wished she could hug me was a startling beauty who wore no makeup, baggy ripped jeans and clunky, spotlessly white Nike Air Force 1s.

The boy who reminded me that nothing is permanent? His sneakers were likely a pair that his dad picked up in a big box store, and he wore them without thought, or even tying them. He had thick glasses that I nagged him to wear. He carried a small gold Buddhist book and forgot most everything else.

I had barely three months with their masked faces. And then I lost both.

He didn't show up for his final exam and moved to Texas for his dad's job without saying goodbye. She vaporized during the summer, as so many students do, and I have no idea where she went or why.

This year we’re back in person, and I see kids' shoes everywhere again. I admire the new and bold ones, express astonishment at the cost, and compliment a serious pair of combat boots paired with a pink fur-trimmed skirt. I think, "Oh, she would wear those," or "Oh, his too-long laces flopped around just like that."

I wonder where these two kids are, what they're doing, what shoes they’re wearing. I wonder what they learned, what they lost.

Tricia Parker teaches English in a public high school in Phoenix.


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A LOST FANTASY by LaRiche Lamar

Curls of steam trail behind the pastel blue Crock-Pot as Mama carefully delivers it to the table. The alluring aroma of meat, cheese, peppers and tomato sauce fills the room. One sister bounces in her chair, barely able to contain her excitement. The other watches intensely, her tiny fist gripping her fork until her knuckles turn white. Mama looks like she walked out of a '90s department store advertisement with her loose pink capris and matching polo. Her voice is playful and light as she calls out, “Dinner’s ready!”

We don’t eat until father’s at the table so we anxiously wait for him to come out of his home office. He enters and begins to pass Mama but is halted by the delicious smell of her tireless efforts. He turns to her, he thanks her, he kisses her sweetly on the cheek. Then we sit down to devour the delicious embodiment of her endless love.

This is pure fantasy.

While my mama’s mostaccioli was in fact the embodiment of her endless love, there was no family. I dreamt of the perfect family time rituals because our truths were too horrendous to acknowledge. Through the decades, this vision of family fueled my pursuit of something better. I spent years sharing love through my food in hopes that I would see the same twinkle in my child’s eye and feel the undeniable admiration in my partner’s touch.

I believe it was a Saturday morning in May of 2021 when it happened.

I’d curated a traditional Pain Perdu, a perfectly cooked French omelet and a savory avocado and goat cheese mixed green salad. I’d even rummaged through my son’s excessive but essential berry stash to enhance the Top Chef plating of my morning’s masterpiece. As I sprinkled the final touches of powdered sugar, I bellowed,

“Breakfast is ready!
Come on now, hurry up!
Please people, come on!”

Moments later, my husband brushed past me, grunting something like a, “Thanks babe … good morning.” My son, seemingly unaware of how easy it is to simply climb into an empty chair, crawls over my back and neck to the smallest space between Mom and Dad.

And then I watched … I simply stared as they both devoured hours of my work in minutes and immediately retreated to their prospective corners of our tiny quarantined world.

It was at that moment, surrounded by crumbs and half eaten raspberries, that my old fantasy was lost forever. It was then that the magnificence of my not so wholesome reality truly set it; my adoring husband going to and from his, now, home office, grunting words of love and bumps of affirmation.

My 2-year-old in-house dictator aggressively cheering on my efforts in the kitchen every day … all day.

And substitute the '90s polo for a crop top and I am Mama, cooking up more love than a madame in a New York City brothel.

LaRiche Lamar is a vocalist and artistic director of Detour Company Theatre. She lives with her family in Scottsdale.


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A PREMONITION by Liz Warren

In February of 2020 I had a realization that now feels like a premonition.

It was late on a Tuesday afternoon, and several of my colleagues were jammed into my office at South Mountain Community College talking about our students, our colleagues, our projects, our plans and laughing. Laughing together as we did several times each week and had done for years. And that was when I had a flash — a jolt really. It came to me that we wouldn’t always have this. People would get other jobs; I would eventually retire; change as it always does would come to us. And in that moment, I felt grateful, and a little sad, a sort of anticipatory nostalgia.

Less than a month later all our offices and classrooms were empty, and we had settled in to conducting life from a grid of little boxes. Sometimes with faces in them, sometimes not.

I’ve worked at SMCC for 40 years, and before the pandemic, I went to the college almost every day. As I’ve gotten older, one of my biggest worries has been how I would separate from the college when it came time for me to retire. But here I was effectively separated! The worst blow came when my oldest friend at the college — he had been there two years longer than me — decided to retire in December of 2020. He was one of the first faculty members hired at the college, and we had both been part of building the college in the early 1980s. He had been my immediate supervisor and most trusted ally since 1991.

I was disoriented and untethered. Lost. Of course, I knew he deserved — had earned his retirement, but I’d never actually imagined a reality in which he wasn’t at the college. For me, he and the college were one and the same. And even though I wasn’t immediately following him, I knew his departure signaled the beginning of the end of my career at SMCC.

It’s been two years now since we emptied our offices and classrooms, and over a year since my colleague retired, and now I go to the college once a week. Or once every other week. And my dear coworkers who were crammed in my office in February of 2020? I see them and work with them regularly — sometimes in person, sometimes online. Occasionally we do find ourselves in the same office, and the laughter comes easily, an echo from another time.

But my home is now the center of my personal and my professional life and my work habits are completely transformed. I’ve taught myself how to structure my time, and I know I’m more productive than I was pre-pandemic. For the college, I manage the Storytelling Institute, and I teach online, and in hybrid online/in-person classrooms. I’ve enjoyed the process of rewriting and deepening the curricula of all my classes. And I’ve also written storytelling training for other organizations, I’ve begun working with colleagues in other colleges and universities, and I work promote storytelling wherever I can.

My husband and I have spent more time together in the past two years than we had in the previous 35. And our lives are the better for it. I still find it alarming, but I can imagine a life away from SMCC, and maybe I’m starting to create it.

Liz Warren is the faculty director of the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute in Phoenix.


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