Notes from a Non-Essential Life

Our family has been in “quarantine” for approximately five weeks, leaving only for grocery pickup, and medical emergencies. Work, school, meetings, and music lessons have all been conducted online. We wash our groceries. Door knobs are cleaned regularly. I still touch my face constantly.

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When all this began, I was filled with ambition. I was going to write blog posts a couple times a week, maybe run a contest, and get reconnected with other bloggers. Our house was going to be cleaned from top to bottom. I’d get my garden seedlings ready. We’d finish our deck and teach our daughter to drive. Maybe I’d get my curse of a novel edited and revised. I’d get on a regular exercise plan, maybe knock off some extra weight.

canstockphoto11545997Instead, I play “spin-the-bad-news-wheel” rolling from one news source to another. I’m rage-reading Twitter. A good day is one in which I shower and make one family meal. These days, I think about the repetitive pacing of animals in the zoo. Early in the morning, I walk my neighborhood – nearly the same route every day, in order to avoid other humans. The days all run together to the point that I’ve taken to writing the day and date on my whiteboard.

And yet, we’re safe (a relative term). We are able to get by financially. We have access to food and water and electricity. We have solid internet. Our home is a comforting sanctuary. We are among the fortunate.

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Between my daughter’s medical emergencies and the overwhelming news outside our front door, there are days though, when I feel the undercurrent of anxiety. Some nights I wake up, thinking that I hear someone crying out. I toss and turn and the following day is a blur.

canstockphoto8969152I return to the toolbox – meditation, exercise, gardening, writing. Halfhearted attempts at best. I even tried to add a little ritual here and there. During meditation, I decided to try some old incense. Buddhists do it. They seem serene. If serene means filling your house with acrid smoke that smells like an ashtray on fire, then I’m zen itself.

New tools. A Nintendo Switch video game that we gave to our daughter for her 16th birthday. Now our entire family spends time each day building a rapacious island dynasty in Animal Crossing. There is something quite calming about traveling to a remote island, stripping it of all its resources and running away. Virtual colonialism. My family of origin is British, so perhaps there is a genetic component.

As I express my concern about the lessons the game teaches, my daughter rolls her eyes. Mom ruins everything. I don’t want to brag, but I’m good at taking perfectly benign entertainment and deconstructing in such a way that you can’t help but feel guilt. I think it really adds another layer to the game.

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I didn’t think I could do it – writing at home with other human beings in the house. For years, I regarded solitude as necessary to writing. I’m a well-trained caregiver. Any noise or movement and I’m immediately alerted to potential need. I’m being forced to unlearn this mentality. In fact, my family would damn well appreciate it if I would stop checking in with them every hour.

My study has two doors, which creates a shortcut to the kitchen. I’ve had to learn to shut both doors. We all now use door knob signs to indicate “Video Call” or “Writing: Please do not disturb”. I also need NO – I do not know if we have any parmesan left or I know you are bored, but I’m not going to entertain you. They think I am writing a lot.

canstockphoto15046720The upside to the pandemic is (and I say that, acutely aware of my privilege at the moment) that the Gotham Writers Workshop is offering some of their classes via Zoom. These are classes in NYC that I would have never been able to attend. I’m taking a fiction writing course focusing on short stories and a course to complete the first draft of a novel. It’s been an interesting experience, but more importantly, connected me with other writers and feedback on my work.

I’m feeling very writerly these days. This week, I listened to my short story be critiqued six ways to Sunday, shortly after I received two short story rejections. One of those rejections was a kind note from the publication editor. I have surprised myself by being able to handle both critique and rejection well. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was younger. You know, last year.

*****

To admit to any moments of joy or happiness feels wrong. I know there is suffering and grieving and injustice in the world. I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug. This was the way before the pandemic and will likely be the way after. Like most crises, we see revealed before us that the “gaps” are canyons, that imagination is desperately needed everywhere – education, government, employment, public spaces, media, and relationships.

I want to think about the world differently. I want, after all of this is over, for the world canstockphoto8183571to be different. Maturing, evolving, kinder, with a sense that we truly are all in this together. I don’t fool myself, though. I knew after the 2012 Sandy Hook murders of school children and staff when nothing changed, that my country was its own worst enemy. And here we are, forced to watch as our government, led by cynical ignorance, fumbles about with our lives.

What I want for and of this world is of no account. I am a non-essential citizen. I started this post writing about perspective. As a nonbeliever in gods, I’ve arrived at a point just past nihilism: if nothing matters, then everything can matter or, to be more precise, I get to decide what matters to me. Kindness, curiosity, and learning still matter to me. I’m not particularly adept at any of those things, but that’s the path I am trying to trod. Same as it ever was.

18 Comments on “Notes from a Non-Essential Life

  1. I, too, had all kinds of plans to keep myself busy and take care of everything I’ve been procrastinating about. I’m still procrastinating. I am angry at myself for not taking this time to write. Just not motivated. But I am reading a lot, watching good movies and documentaries, cooking a lot (who isn’t, but thankfully I enjoy it) and spending a lot of time on the phone with friends. I am still hopeful that I will get to my closets, drawers and the dust that is accumulating under my furniture.

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    • I think uncertainty and anxiety can really drain one’s impetus. But the things you are doing sound great – I think this is also a good time to be gentle with ourselves. There is value in slowing down and relaxing. For all my handwringing, this last year really prepared our family for quarantine. We know how to be in small spaces, like a hospital room, without killing each other and being at home is even nicer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you, we do have to be kind to ourselves — always actually, but especially right now. I think being a freelance writer, working from home for the last 11 years has helped me tremendously to cope with quarantine. Stay safe and well Michelle. It sounds like you are also doing the right things for yourself and your family.

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  2. Your comment about Sandy Hook struck home. In fact, it’s about 1/2 hour from where I live. I agree with you that if that did not drive change, nothing will, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of the things that have happened in this country in my lifetime, that event, when my own child was an elementary student, remains forever a part of my psyche. I thought it would drive change. I watched with disbelief as our lawmakers did nothing but partisan squabbling. Good organizations and activists arose from the murders, but the fact that we have a culture that fetishizes violence and weaponry over the lives of children is unforgivable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s funny how we are never content with what we choose to do. I don’t really watch TV or movies or the news, I’ve been reading and writing on my blog but wishing I was writing my memoir, it’s like we all default to the ‘less then ideal’ version of what we would like to see ourselves doing, when really we are just surviving and getting through this in whatever way we can. Well done you I say.

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  4. I’ve had some “survivor’s guilt” for having a good time during quarantine too. But I also think it’s good for as many people as possible to turn this into a good time–we need some positives to counteract the bad.

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  5. Nothing matters precisely because everything matters, or so I think. If I open my heart to everything, nothing can be excluded. I think you are doing great, most my own blogs have disintigrated into a photo and a poem, often someone else’s.
    With form in Buddhism ( seats, bows, chants, smoke, etc) l remind myself that this is only form, not what I seek. It may prove useful, but it is important to let go of form when the usefulness is past; it is the moon I am looking at, not the finger that points to the moon.🙂

    Be kind to you! Looking forward to your next gifts.

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  6. So good to see and read your writing again. You seem to be in a better place even with all that is going on in the world. But, then you are a TAC (Tough Army Chick) chaos is our specialty. Managing and providing a calm place while others are in shock about what is happening in the world around them.
    As I finished your last two statements I have to agree that we all hope that something good comes from all of this, that there is a wake up call for change and more equality within our World population. Let’s hope true leaders arise from the ashes to help our prodigy forward.

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  7. I’m playing Animal Crossing, also. I’m finding it difficult getting on with my usual writing, and even housework. However, I have come to realise that the playing of the game is as important as anything else I could be doing now. It is a virtual life – I bring my own concerns to it. The other residents do nothing at all to help, except to give you an occasional gift. Now, Tom Nook wants to expand the population of the island so that KK whoever he is – who I don’t personally like, will come to the island and give a concert. The residents are pleased at the idea of it. I’ve tried doing nothing to help the Nook enterprise, but that feels like the end of the game.
    Someone I know is also playing it. By telephone conversations, I am learning different ways I could approach the game – but it’s not just that – I put myself into the game – how do I manage this, or that? I tell you – it’s important.
    Ha! The trick is – get rid of feelings of guilt.

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  8. I loved reading this. I am managing to write more than I expected and yet not quite as much as I’d like. Words to express thoughts on the pandemic however are harder to come by. You seem to have captured the balance between joy and guilt perfectly in this post. Many of these things have been on my mind at this time. Thank you for sharing.

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  9. This: ‘I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug.’ Exactly this.
    Which is to say: Me too, and feeling it more acutely than ever. K

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  10. I, too, worry that this will be another Sandy Hook moment. But I try hard to use my toolbox to stay productive, just as you are doing, and please don’t feel guilty for moments of joy or satisfaction. Your suffering in sympathy won’t lessen anyone else’s! Be well.

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  11. Good to hear you’re managing to write in a crowded house, as it were. I too wonder why I’m not doing more – although you seem to be doing quite a bit – and have concluded that I’m adjusting to new parameters. Opportunities are there, if one can learn to recognise them … all the best to you and yours, Michelle!

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