But we all process stress and creative responses in different ways. And the saturating feeling of dog-paddling my way through this world-wide Covid19 crisis just didn’t trend toward memorializing any moments of growth and self-discovery as they occurred. Or even recognizing that they were happening!
But here we are, roughly three months into a world where we now use the words “quarantine” and “pandemic” and “virus” and “social distance” in hitherto unimagined sentences. And as some restrictions are easing up, the recognition of the moments and changes that passed are starting to emerge. Big ones and little ones. We are nowhere near “before” and “after” in this crisis. That may be years and deaths and a vaccine or two down the road. But just a few things come to mind…
I started hibernating—or quarantining—about a week ahead of the curve, when “coronavirus” was still a relatively new subject on the news, and the medical horrors that it wreaked on the elderly and infirm were still under the radar. I was actually more worried at that time that I might catch the seasonal flu since I hadn’t yet had my flu shot. So in an uncharacteristic abundance of caution, I decided all at once to skip my weekly “Trivia night” at a bar with friends; my twice-weekly Tai Chi classes; and occasional visits to the local YMCA to ride an exercise bike until after I got a flu shot.
I had still been looking forward to doing a monthly “Live Lit” night at a local art gallery with other writers and musicians. But then boom…a week later everything began to close like a set of dominos falling. The local library. Municipal buildings. The YMCA. Bars. Restaurants. Thrift stores (and this was particularly harsh, since perusing thrift shelves and garage sales was not only cheap mental floss, it also supplied my little on-line Etsy shop selling porcelain knickknacks and vintage books).
I didn’t panic. I had been used to solitude, both chosen and involuntary, during periods of my life. “I can do this thing,” I thought, expecting to spend it entirely in isolation with the exception of the dog and the cat. There was a basement still full of jumbled boxes and other things from my last move to work on. The third “Finnigan the Circus Cat” book to finish. A long-held goal of finally learning conversational Spanish to at least crack the book on. A bookcase full of good fiction to delve into. And to fill any remaining cracks of ennui, cat videos on Facebook to keep me laughing. As well as the guy who does the Manitowoc Minute.
In those first few weeks of “safer at home,” Facebook was still full of quarantine jokes, with the oft observation that we were only four weeks from learning everybody’s true hair color. And for some of us this is a serious thing! I’d been going to a salon for color and highlights for at least 15 years, and I would not willingly reveal my shining silver roots without a fight. And so while shopping at six in the morning on Tuesdays during Walmart’s “safe seniors” hour (another pandemic adjustment since I am not a morning person), I picked up a box of color.
I should have read the label before buying. Turns out that it was not suitable for covering a serious amount of grey, something I noticed just a few days after applying it. Undeterred, I Googled until I found another brand reputed to do a better job of coverage and tried it. It worked. I love the shade, and I love not spending the better part of a day driving to and from and sitting in a salon chair for hours. I have a new life plan for my hair color. And while I’m at it, I’ve decided to grow it out at least long enough for a ponytail. “Rapunzel Hair” is my current talking point.
Other changes in routine were not so welcome—deprived of my ability to cuddle on a sofa and read stories to my grandkids, I started making “Grandma Bedtime Story” videos for them so that whenever this nightmare ended, they’d remember that I was the one with the coveted “Grandma” title.
Only a week or two into my “I’m gonna rock this thing solo” bravado, my younger daughter moved in with me in order to safely weather the pandemic. She has a compromised immune system, and so has to be smarter than the average bear in assessing and avoiding risks to her health. And her previous, otherwise near-perfect, living situation included one “essential worker” who did not have the luxury of telecommuting or otherwise avoiding the general public up close and personal. And so my home instantly morphed into a version of Noah’s Ark for both of us. Her at-the-office job continued in a new “Zoom” reality, and I began to carve out different spatial niches for myself as we figured out how to share the small space I have called home for five years.
With my daughter once again under my roof, I started to cook again. I was no stranger to a kitchen—remember that I raised four kids as a soccer mom, and for years that made for a lot of family dinners, cookies, cakes, pot-lucks and big Sunday breakfasts. But once I was divorced and then the nest emptied, the thought of spending a minute at a stove for myself seemed just a giant waste. Left strictly to my own devices, I could exist on a combination of chocolate bars and Soylent Green. In warmer weather, Moose Tracks Frozen Yogurt has been known to stand in for at least two of my three daily meals.
But cooking for somebody else…oh there was spark and joy! My kids have never been shy about complimenting my cooking. And so activity once again sprouted in my kitchen. Instead of bringing home plastic containers of veggie salads and rotisserie chickens from the grocery store, I leafed through my recipe box and began to make things I had once cooked and others I had only thought about.
I made walnut encrusted salmon served with lemon wedges, and salmon with apricot glaze, and breaded chicken breasts rolled in butter and Dijon mustard, served with dipping sauce featuring sesame oil and soy sauce. I made mashed potatoes, and potato salad, and pan-fried potatoes. I baked banana muffins, and then made an apple pie for the first time in at least a decade. And then made another one! And for a person who has long-reasoned that a fruit is really just a vegetable by another name, I cooked steamed broccoli, and seared asparagus, and oven-crisped Brussel sprouts with olive oil and garlic.
Our dinner routine also involves settling in to comfy chairs and watching TV in the evenings. And so we watched the entire series of Harry Potter movie in sequence, as well as Kill Bill 1 & 2. She introduced me to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and we watched it breathlessly through to the cliffhanger third season end. We’re now making our way through five seasons of Ally McBeal. Having shared Casablanca and the Laurence Olivier version of Wuthering Heights with her during previous visits, at some point I will introduce her to Gilda and possibly The Maltese Falcon. Dragonwyck, with a young Vincent Price, is still a wild card.
Despite our general conviviality, my daughter and I still struggled at first to accommodate ourselves to our small shared space without our usual outlets—in the early stages of “safer at home,” there was no going to art museums to stroll or lunch in fancy surroundings; no coffee shops open for sitting and reading and surfing the web; no public flower gardens to browse; no stores open for recreational shopping or browsing. And so by necessity we expanded our understanding and exploration of the natural areas within driving distance.
We already knew and had often hiked in the cathedral-like state parks within arm’s reach that provided magnificent horizons and beaches, quiet forest paths and lush marshes ringing with the primordial calls of Sandhill Cranes. But when even those closed to the public for several weeks, we ferreted out even more windows into nature that we had not explored. Places with magical names like Pigeon River, and Willow Creek, and Black River. The deepest forest recesses of a private nature preserve that still allowed hiking access. A meandering trail along a marshy river that glittered in the morning sunlight. A sidewalk along the shore by a hotel temporarily shuttered by the coronavirus, which led to another serene beach access.
The “safer at home” restrictions have largely been loosened and removed, and once again bars are open and businesses work on just how many ways they can keep their patrons safe and healthy in the face of “mask or no mask” societal divisions and passions.
I don’t see my pandemic approach, or that of my daughter, changing much, however. I still plan to shop at six on the morning once a week, when the store smells of disinfectant and the aisles are nearly empty. I’ve given up on the idea of trying to sew my own masks, but have several that I’ve purchased and will continue to wear them when out and about with other people. While I will miss my weekly Trivia game at a crowded bar that provided a burst of sublime silliness and hysterical laughter like clockwork, I can’t imagine being comfortable sitting elbow to elbow around a crowded table and sharing a platter of nachos breathed on by a half dozen people any time soon.
But my world has still expanded in unexpected ways, and I am thankful. I like my new hair!! I can’t and won’t un-see the lovely natural areas my daughter and I have discovered and explored to maintain our respective sanities. I like the fact that I can now bake salmon with walnuts and think “hey, that was easy”! And I love the extra time that I have gotten to spend with my daughter as an unforeseen result of this global tragedy.
Do I wish that this pandemic had never visited itself upon the world? Of course. But I also know that along the way, in my own small universe, there have been moments of grace worth noting.
And for those, I am eternally grateful.