For the past six months I’ve been living on a dirt road in a cabin in the woods of the Catskills. It’s so far from the grid that UPS can’t find us – it has to deliver to a local general store. To make a call, I walk to the local volunteer fire department where there is a cell phone tower, which recently collapsed. I have had frozen Zoom calls if the wind is blowing. Forget to watch the cable news.
We rented this cabin because of COVID-19 and to be near our daughter who lives down the street. But I am a city dweller and we can barely spend days seeing a soul. The longest conversation I can remember was with the plumber who arrived late at night when the boiler broke.
Yet when people ask me how I’m doing during the lockdown, I hesitate to respond. The truth is, I’m fine. I miss going to the movies, a swim at the Y, book launches, quiet dinners with friends. And those occasional daily encounters that psychologists say give us a feeling of well-being. I am saddened by the losses around me, including the death of my best friend’s mother who died alone in a nursing home. Last summer my daughter closed her wonderful restaurant, which was a hangout for us, and my husband lost his job. But I get by. At least I’m trying to be existential about it. As my father used to say, if you have your health you have everything, and so far we have been lucky in that regard.
But winter is upon us, and summer time has made the days darker than they already were. And the numbers are not going down. Italy, a country we travel to a lot, has just suffered another lockdown due to peak cases, and the same is true across much of Europe. I had a bizarre vision of my newborn grandson asking what an airplane was. Or a theater. Recently, the United States passed the grim milestone of 100,000 cases in a single day. We can all anticipate a lot more time indoors. And alone.
Yet despite the darkness, I seem to be doing it. Part of it might be because I’m a writer, so working from home is what I do. (Although at the end of the day I would surely like to meet a friend for a glass of wine). But it’s more than that. I had a little practice. As my daughter likes to say, this is not my first rodeo. I was more or less under house arrest three times. For better or for worse, I seem to be a veteran in this field now. I learned what it takes for me not only to survive, but even to thrive during this time.
My first house arrest was literally this – in Cuba in 1993, when I was arrested for being a journalist. I was stopped by the police at the airport and my passport was confiscated. I was forced to spend the night in a freezing waiting room, and then to be taken in the morning by the authorities to a hotel where I stayed until I could be deported. I have to say knowing that my phone was bugged and every member of the hotel staff watching my every move was disturbing to say the least, but I also did what I know do well. I took notes. And eventually wrote a novel, based on that experience, called House Arrest.
The second time is partly the subject of my memoir, All the Way to the Tigers. On the first day of a sabbatical in 2008, I turned to my husband and said, “Let’s go ice skating.” I had planned to spend the year traveling like a nomad. But first I wanted to go ice skating. Something I have done all my life. An hour later, I had broken my ankle in seven places. My surgeon told me that when I can finally walk again, a racehorse is brought down for less. Instead of wandering around Morocco and cycling in Vietnam, I spent the next three months on my couch, unable to walk. Every day I canceled my plans. A ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, a riad in Fez, this cycling trip with a friend. It wasn’t a good time for me, to say the least, and I had a long pity party. Every day I was miserable. But I also honed survival skills that have helped me through our current lockdown.
This time I knew I needed a plan.
After the initial shock at all the things that weren’t going to be, I developed a practice that helps me get through each day. For years I kept journals and just before COVID-19 started a friend gave me a huge journal (much bigger than I had ever used normally). I decided to make it my “COVID-19” journal. I start my morning with a cup of coffee and my journal where I ask and answer three questions. What should I do today? What do I want to do today? And what can I do for someone else today?
“I have been known to put lipstick under my mask. It makes me feel like I’m dressed with a place to go.“
On the “to do” list, there are bills to pay, clothes to wash, a dog to walk, a family to feed. I always try to prioritize what needs to be done and not take too much. I’m not going to do everything every day. Some things will be relegated to the proverbial “back burner”. This pair of shoes I need, a drawer to clean. But it helps to make a list and check things off: flu shot, done. Con Ed, paid. Recently I read that even doing small chores can release serotonin. So make that bed and throw those newspapers away. Take a shower. I have been known to put lipstick under my mask. It makes me feel like I’m dressed with a place to go.
And then the things I want to do. There is my own work as a writer, like writing this essay, which I really appreciate. But I also tried to make room for things that I always wanted to do but never gave myself the time or maybe the permission. I paint watercolors. I try to do one every day or so. I am not in school. I literally don’t know what I’m doing. But that makes me happy. In an old Marlon Brandon movie, “The Fugitive Kind,” a woman shows Brando a landscape she painted, and he looks at it and, in classic Brando, growls. The woman pursues her lips and says, “I know it’s not very good, but I feel better when I do them.” This is how I feel about my paintings. I try not to judge them (nor myself). I just feel better when I do them.
And that may be the key to what we all need to do now. Does cooking a meal for your family or yourself or finding a good exercise routine make you feel better? Have you wanted to adopt a pet? Well, what better time? I discovered that with painting, I love swimming in a freezing tank. I was supposed to spend a month in Paris this fall. Instead, I ordered a jumpsuit. While my surfer-in-law laughs at my expense, I squirm in it. It takes me another half an hour to get in the water, but once I’m there, it wakes me up. I feel alive. And apparently (who knew) studies show that swimming in cold water repels dementia. So this is it.
It is important at this strange time that we are living not to be too hard on yourself. Years ago, I learned that Tahitians don’t have a word for art. The closest thing in their language is “I’m doing my best.” It is good to remember this. Perfection has no place in COVID (and maybe in our lives in general). What matters is to try.
“this time there is no pity party. Remember Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” while in quarantine for the plague.“
And then there is this third question that I ask myself every morning. What can I do for someone else? Is there a friend who could be alone? Someone I’ve overlooked or know needs it? I got into the habit of making random phone calls, checking on friends and family. I try to be vigilant in responding to requests that people make of me. I want to say “thank you”. One of my favorite quotes is from thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you say is thank you, that will suffice.” So say thank you. You will be surprised how much better it makes everyone, including yourself, feel better. Our interactions are becoming more human, less transactional. So when a meal is delivered to my door, I give more than usual. I like to say “keep the change”.
We’re all struggling in one way or another right now, but we’re also all in the same boat. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, once said that attention is the greatest form of generosity. This is how I try to answer the last of my daily questions. When I was working on Up to the tigers, an awareness came to me. In the word “listen” lives the word “silent”. Sometimes being generous just means being quiet and listening.
And being productive matters. The great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin was on his way to visit his father when cholera struck. A visit of a few days turned into three months, and Pushkin later indicated that these were the most productive months of his life. So this time around, there is no pity party. Remember Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in quarantine for the plague. So pay your bills, call your mom, and give yourself time for what matters most to you.
#lockdown #Ive #working #cope