Missives from The Green Study in Quarantine

This is the 11th draft blog post I’ve written that may never be published. What do you write when every person you know is some combo of depressed/okay/depressed/not okay?

I went for an early walk this morning. I’ve been having a bad couple of days mentally, while stalking news on the internet, Twittering angrily, otherwise feeling paralyzed and despondent. Our family had been getting a lot of good news recently, the cupboards were stocked, and I’d been doing some writing work about which I was mildly pleased. Still, I found myself just turning over and over in my head the idea that things would continue to decline in this country, that the boiling point would just keep boiling. That there was a reckoning ahead for even the most mild-mannered and conscientious among us.

The only way to step off of this incapacitating ride is to shut the information off and do one concrete thing. Something tactile, something with a start and a finish, something mundane and ordinary. One thing at a time, doing it only for the purpose of doing it. I found this difficult. My mind was bouncing from one subject to another, all with a sense of alarming urgency. I brought my mind back to the dishes. I thought: I am doing the dishes. This is what I’m doing, I’m washing this thing, then the next. It was a relentless battle to pull my thoughts back into the moment.

I did that one thing and then I sat down and wrote a thank-you note to my daughter’s oncologist. She’s been doing well, scans are coming back clean, and she will go off the chemo drug in a couple of months. A year ago, the tumors had come back with a vengeance. Two months later, she was in surgery again. Right now, she’s a high school junior taking full online college courses. She passed her driving test. She got accepted into a university orchestra. She looks well and healthy and happy. I had to send gratitude to someone for that.

For the last few months, I’ve been on Twitter. I’ve opened, closed, and reactivated my account numerous times. It really is quite the shithole. As an unknown writer, social media is a must in terms of marketing and finding markets. I’m not adept or prolific enough for it to have much worth right now. On occasion I’ll come across another writer, a cause worth helping, or something that makes me laugh. I haven’t yet learned to avert my eyes from politics, which is the most ugly, polarized conversation one could ever see. I don’t think I wanted to know this much about the country or its citizens. But you can’t unsee it. Many of us are really quite stupid creatures.

I’m reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. Much like reading about the 1918 pandemic in Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, I’ve learned there is an incredibly steep learning curve for humanity. Even crows manage to pass on generational lessons. Humans? We make a good show of it, but as soon as we get scared, we revert to unevolved amoebas. Don’t argue with me, biologists – I do know there are better analogies.

So perhaps that is the crux of the problem – the focus on human foibles and flaws. The nihilist in me has gleefully shouted see, nothing matters!  This is where religion might have proven of some use to me, but once you stop believing, you’re no longer going to leave cookies out for Santa Claus. I’ve tried to explain this to my handful of religious friends. There is no mechanism in my brain that will allow me to believe in a grand puppeteer. I’d have to pretend and that seems like a lot of wasted energy.

Yesterday I read an excellent article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong titled “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral” talking about conceptual errors in our thinking. Really worth the read and bizarrely reassuring to me that what I’d been feeling and experiencing was common. I finally stopped washing my groceries after reading Derek Thompson’s “Hygiene Theater is a Huge Waste of Time“. We still don’t go into retail stores. We use Shipt for Target and pick up our groceries already shopped for us from the local grocery store. No one outside the vet who put our cat to sleep in May has been in our house. Even then, she was in the garage.

Today I showered in the 15 minutes between my husband’s work calls (the bathroom is next to his office). I vacuumed upstairs on my daughter’s break between classes. I haunt the space between her bed/classroom and his basement office. Some days, I work in the garden, but the joy of that usually dies in late July with the emergence of bugs and heat. Some mornings I drive out to a regional park and take pictures of birds, quickly putting on a mask when surprised by a hiker rounding the path.

I participated in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Competition and did fairly well on the first challenge. Waiting to hear back on the second in October. I am pitching a novel at a writer’s conference in October, doing NaNoWriMo in November, rejoined an old writing group, am working with a fantastic writing partner, and generally getting my writing groove on – between or through bouts of self-doubt, artistic pretension, and self-loathing. Feels about right.

I’m finding it hard to get into the blogging groove. Every well-formed thought is mired in sludge. I keep moving forward  – so slowly as to be undetectable to the human eye. But I’m here, you’re here. Let’s make the best of it.

Make some new blogging friends for starters. Check out Stephe Thornton at Manuscript. Head. Drawer. Snack on some enjoyable book reviews at Bookmunch. Enjoy historical bits and bobs by writer Victoria Blake. And lastly, drop the link to one of your favorite blogs in the comments to help make more connections.

The Art of Napping in a Pandemic and Other Disorganized Thoughts

As my family and I enter our 4th month of quarantine, I have to say we’re doing well. When I say well, I mean that we’re all relatively healthy and we have not murdered each other in our sleep. It’s a small house, but each person has their office/hangout/project space clearly demarcated. We check in with one another briefly throughout the day and then we go back to talking to our friends, work, teachers. The last few weeks have been the longest period of stability our family has had in a great while. No medical emergencies, no dying pets, no late nights dealing with chemo drug side effects, no urgency whatsoever.

2020MrsCardinalI’ve been letting myself unravel. The house is messier and I’ve don’t flip out when two minutes after doing all the dishes, dirty dishes mysteriously appear on the counter tops. Projects lay undisturbed for days. I’ve built myself a fortress of books, all carefully piled off-screen. I’ve spent hours in the yard taking 4,523 pictures of plants and birds and bugs. I’ve taken to manically humming King George’s “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton when I work. Da da da dat daaaaa dat da da da da ya da.

Writing is a desert. Tumbleweeds blow through where my creative urges used to roam. A swarm of anxieties have stripped the bones clean.

Oddities spring up. I gave myself a buzz cut for the hell of it. I’ve always wanted to try it. I look like a lumpy, silver cantaloupe. It’s unflattering, but feels wonderful.

2020RobinFrenchI’ve gotten back to working out regularly. I have a lot of workout equipment from my taekwondo days. Last week, I dragged out the heavy bag and hung it in the garage. I wrapped my hands, put on gloves, and went to town on the bag. My anxiety levels are much lower this week.

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In the middle of all this, unexpected joys lighten the day. My local library finally opened for curbside pickup of requested books. I always have long list of hold requests and due to the pandemic, many of the books requested were from the early part of the year.

I was notified that my first hold had come in: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney. Argh. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read one more damned thing about pandemics. The book has been oddly reassuring. All this nuttiness, with the politicization of even the most basic public health measures has happened before.

2020ToadIn 1918, there was a revolt about vaccines, people ignored social distancing, refused to wear masks. It didn’t turn out particularly well for many of them. I feel like somewhere down the line, in the history books that follow, the present day yahoos will be immortalized as idiots and gaslighters. And that is my bittersweet pill to anticipate.

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A sense of time has been lost. Days and weeks go by, barely acknowledged. I am reminded of a TV sci-fi episode where the crew is stuck in a time dilation field in space or Groundhog Day with Bill Murray – every day is the same, with only slight variations as we gradually learn to expand our world in this bubble.

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2020RedRose2One of my anxieties was that my daughter would be going back to school in the fall. While she is not immunocompromised, she is definitely immuno-curious. With a chemo drug used for rare tumors, there are a lot of unknown factors and she’s picked up two viruses in the last six months. She attends a public high school with 1600 students. Fortunately, she was accepted into a state university program for her junior year and all of the fall courses will be online. I can breathe a little easier.

It is this kind of thing that alternately makes me feel happy and guilty. I know that this pandemic is having an unequal effect on people. I know that the choices we’ve been able to make for our family are not choices that everyone is able to make. I also know that risk assessment is different for everyone. This is, of course, the problem. This pandemic will last longer, the economic impact will be greater, and the enmity we have towards each other will be exacerbated, because it seems like we’re working towards diametrically opposed ends.

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2020Coreopsis2I’ve taken to napping in the early afternoon. I lower the shades in the study, put on an audiobook or podcast, lean back in my chair, prop up my feet, and snort myself awake 20 minutes later. It’s lovely. I always said I wasn’t a napper. Now I’m a fully committed one. On my way to these siestas, I listen to David Sedaris read Calypso or the podcast The Stacks (if you’re a book lover, this podcast is fantastic). It amazes me how little it takes to feel those moments of joy. It’s as if you’ve told the world, have yourself a seat, I’ll get back to you in 20. It seems to make life just a little more manageable.

What are you doing during the pandemic?

What helps you deal with anxiety?

What has given you joy?

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.

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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.