Searching for ‘New Normal’

Normal (adj): conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. (google.com)

The sky, full and gray, has pushed down, threatening to touch the earth, each day this week. Everything is wet—the puddled pavement; the red, chenille strands that fall from certain trees and lay sodden and slippery on the sidewalk; the thin young robins, who run when they see me instead of flying.

It has not been the best walking week. But I think of my friend Wendy, that stalwart New England transplant, who says that weather is weather, whatever. She bought herself a waterproof case for her phone after drenching it too many times during rainy walks. She puts the cased phone in the pocket of a rain slicker and heads out anyway, water be damned.

I think of Wendy, and I walk anyway, too. Luckily, the early-early hours have offered, each morning, a sort of safe zone; if the rain doesn’t stop, it tamps way down. As long as my glasses aren’t obscured by rain, I huddle in my jacket and I walk.

And I notice the flowering trees and shrubs, which are, this year, magnificent. In our yard the rhododendrons, ancient bushes that seemed, the last few years, to be failing, have roared back into life. Maybe it was the mild winter; maybe all this rain encouraged blooms. Maybe it was Mark lopping deadwood last year.

Whatever: the bushes are loaded with beautiful magenta blooms, more blooms than ever before.

It’s not normal.

********************************

On Thursday morning, there’s a message on my phone: the books I requested online at the local library are ready to be picked up between 3 and 6 p.m. I get my schoolwork done; I eat lunch with the boyos; I vacuum and I work on this week’s shopping list. And finally, three o’clock arrives, and I head out to the library.

There’s only one other car in the south lot. Kim, one of our favorite library staff, waits, masked and gloved.

I show her my library card, bar code out, through the window.

She takes a picture and texts it to a colleague inside. Then she runs in to get my books.

While she is gone, I open the trunk, glad that the rain has tapered.

Kim comes back with five books in a sturdy plastic bag. She puts them in the trunk and backs off; I jump out and slam the lid shut. We wave and I pull out of the lot. I can’t wait to get home and sort through those books, decide which one to read first.

I haven’t been this excited about getting a library book since I was seven and could finally—finally! My local library made us wait FOREVER!—have my own library card and walk to the library myself, and make my own weekly choices.

This just isn’t normal, either.

********************************************

I look in the cupboards and the fridge and I realize I have everything I need to make a peanut butter pie, a little end of the week treat. And Jim has a request: could we have it, he asks, in a regular pie shell (a “flaky crust,” he calls it) instead of a graham cracker crust?

Why not? I say. Let’s see how it tastes. I have balls of pie dough in the freezer; I defrost one and roll it out, bake it golden brown in a small pie tin.

While it cools, I mix peanut butter and cream cheese with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. When that is smooth and well-combined, I fold in whipped topping, stirring and stirring, until the mixture is velvety, rich, and fluffy.

I take my big rubber spatula, and I push the filling into the ‘flaky crust.’ I smooth it, spreading right to the edges.

I put a matching pie tin, upside down, over the top, and I wrap the whole thing with aluminum foil. And then I put the pie in the freezer, where it must reside for, the recipe says, “…at least three hours.”

Later that night, dinner cleared away, the house quietening after a busy day, we have peanut butter pie. We drizzle Hershey’s syrup onto dessert plates and cut thick wedges of pie to place on top. We drizzle a little Hershey’s on top, too.

I take mine to the table; Mark and Jim take theirs into the TV room.

No one speaks as forks dip and scrape and lift; then, “MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM,” Jim calls.

“GOOD,” echoes Mark, agreeing.

It IS good. It’s different with regular pie crust. It tastes wonderful, even though it sure isn’t what you’d call normal.

But then, this year, what is?

*********************************

I’ve told you this, I’m sure, that back in the day, when things were chaotic (as they often were), my mother would make promises. “We’ll go,” she might say, “when things get back to normal.”

She would count a beat, like a savvy comic, then add, deadpan: “Whatever THAT means.”

*********************************************

Because really, what IS normal? A friend in the mental health community maintains that “normal ain’t nothin’ but a setting on a dryer.” I long, in these COVID days, to get ‘back to normal,’ as if it’s a place I’ll return to.

And I know, deep in my knowing, that there is no going back.

********************************************

But even in calm, healthy, unmemorable times, the days are not really normal,–not same or typical or immutable. What’s normal is that things are, always, changing. We get things lined up just the way we want them, the job, the house, the family, the clothes, the car.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…we say. Just right.

And life is good.

But then…

The industry changes.

Enrollments fluctuate.

Technology morphs and things that were once essential become anachronisms.

And the job we loved just…vaporizes.

OR: we get the degree or the certification; or the company loves us and wants us to transfer to a bigger plant, to a more important position.

*****************************

Which means we’re moving, for joyful reasons or sad ones, so the house goes on the market.

But maybe this time, we’re going with one less person, because that beloved child is 21 and in her own apartment, happy in her own job, with her own friends…in her new normal. We’ll need one less bedroom in the new place.

And we’ve been so busy we lost weight; or we’ve been stress-eating and gained weight. The clothes don’t fit.

And when did the car get so old? With all this traveling, we might be better served to buy a hybrid anyway, or to get a truck so we can transport big stuff back and forth…

*****************************

Wait. What’s normal now?

*******************************

On Thursday, Jim gets two email messages about jobs. He forwards them to his job coach, who emails back: I don’t think these are requests for interviews. I think these are job offers.

Normal for Jim has become being at home, trying to keep busy, embarking on projects, trying not to think of what happened to his job hunt in COVID days.

And now…

He is excited. He walks a little straighter.

“I’d better get a haircut,” he says, and he looks ahead to a life that could be anything but the old normal.

***************************************

I get an unexpected job offer, too; it’s a chance to work with people I admire and respect, and an opportunity to do good work in the community.

“I’m going to need some grownup clothes,” I say to Mark, as if clothes are a measure of change. Like Jim, I am excited.

Life is changing in some ways that are good, even while we try to balance on the fulcrum between personal growth and a disease-ridden world.

****************************************

A friend texts about a young man she knows who had a car detailing business, which, in the pandemic, ground to a halt.

And then he thought to morph his work into a car sanitizing business. Now he’s busier, maybe, than he was before, having quite deliberately changed his normal.

********************************************

Meat prices sky rocket; gas prices stabilize. We talk about shrinking the meat we eat and growing the side dishes, the veggies, the soups and the casseroles.

I go three weeks without needing to pump gas.

Restaurants cautiously open, but none of us have any desire to eat out.

We order groceries online and set up a pick-up time. We’ll keep getting our groceries this way; we save money and we save time.

We shop at a locally owned meat market, and we mask up and go to the farmers’ market on Saturday morning.

Some things are missing from supermarket shelves, and I order them online. I get a brick of yeast. I get a gallon jug of vanilla extract. I get a three-pound tin of baking powder.

We used to hunt and gather one way. Now another is evolving, and we won’t be going back to normal. But the way we do things now will begin to seem normal.

Until they, too, have to change.

***********************************************

And through it all, we’ll remember this: people are sick. People have died. Lives and families and communities have been irrevocably changed.

************************************************

Joan Chittister writes in The Gift of Years, “It isn’t that the changes aren’t difficult. Of course they are. It’s only that, for my own sake, difficult as they may be, I cannot allow them to become terminal. Life goes on, and I must, too—but how?”

And she talks about styles of coping.

There are those who refuse to admit that any change has happened. They become angry and remote; they lose touch with a life that swirls on by.

There are those, writes Chittister, who allow that change has happened, but they are not happy. They function, but “…they begin to punish the world around them for the situation they’re in.” Everything that’s happened is somebody’s else’s grievous fault. “Their souls,” writes Chittister, “spoil in their shells.”

Other people may seem to move forward, but wherever they land just doesn’t measure up. Nothing is as good as the old days, and these folks keep looking for, and never finding, a way to return to their lives before.

And there are those, she writes, who embrace change, who respond to difficulties with what she calls “aplomb and courage.”

“They handle pain,” writes Chittister, “by replacing it with new joys.”

**************************

I am seeing, as our world visibly changes daily, all of these responses. I see all of those responses in other people. I see all of those responses in ME.

Normal is gone; normal will never come back. I have to build New Normal to replace it.

And I have to realize that as soon as New Normal is built, it begins to change, to evolve, and to decay.

I want to be the last kind of person, acknowledging the pain of loss, but brave enough to embrace new joys. I hope that I will do that most days, because I know this: normal is gone, and change is happening.

***********************************

I go walking in the morning, and the rhododendrons are even fuller and more beautiful than they were yesterday.

There must, I think, be hope.

A Couple of Comments from the COVID Cloister

Cloister; verb: Seclude or shut up in or as if in a convent or monastery.

(From the Oxford Dictionary on-line).

I am reading the books on my shelves, and books that have come to me by magic (like the fantastic magic of a friend sending me a book), and all right, yes, books that I have ordered during this strange time when both book shop and library are shuttered. I pile about ten books on the old shelf in the dining room, and then I read them in the order they’re stacked.

I generally stack them by size, but sometimes they just happen to fall together in a kind of theme-based order. This month, for instance, I read Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman and Shameless by Nadia Bolz Weber, and now I am about halfway through In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

That’s three books about women and religion.

Feldman, who now lives in Germany, writes about growing up in, and escaping from, a strict Hasidic sect in Brooklyn. (My son, Jim, told me about a great Netflix series based on the book; the watching led to the reading.)

Bolz Weber, whom the BBC describes as “…a foul-mouthed tattoo-loving Lutheran pastor who was once a Pagan, an alcoholic and a stand-up comedian,” writes about how religion can shape…and warp…a person’s sexuality and thus, their sense of themselves.

Godden, who died in 1998 at the age of 91, is an English novelist who wrote—if my math is on target—22 novels for adults. In This House of Brede is one of those novels; it deals with Philippa, a savvy, 42-year-old, successful woman in the 1960’s. She is compelled to chuck all of her success and enter a cloistered convent. So Godden’s writing has a woman fleeing TO a house of religion, which is a dramatic switch from the first two authors’ perspectives.

I cheered Feldman on when she escaped from her repressive childhood culture.

I fist-bumped Bolz Weber (“Right on, sister!”) when she explained that some religions despise sexuality because they see it as a competitor, another doorway to the Spirit.

But the Godden book…well, that brought back memories from my very Catholic childhood.

*******************************

At St. Joseph School in 1961, we had a beautiful young nun for our first-grade teacher. I can’t remember her name, but her influence was profound. She taught us to pray for Vocations, for more boys and girls to enter Holy Orders. And many of us girls looked at Sister, regal, fragile, and dignified in her black robe, her wimple-d face glowing with a love of something bigger and greater, and we decided that, surely, we were among the called.

And that year I read a first biography of The Little Flower, St. Theresa of Lisieux. St. Theresa entered the Carmelite convent at (I think) age 14. She died before she was thirty. She created beauty from humility and sacrifice, eagerly taking on the work of infirm sisters, bearing cruelty from those who resented her selfless ways, and spending long hours in prayer for all those in need. After she died, she promised to send roses from heaven to those who prayed to her. Miracle after miracle followed.

A cloistered nun! A quiet life devoted to God and books! An influence from the Great Beyond!

I knew that the Carmelite way was the life for me. (Their name even tasted good, almost like caramels, one of my ten favorite candies.)

I wrote to the nearest Carmelite nuns I could find; I think they were in New York City. (I wonder, now, how I found their address, with no Google to type key words into. Did the nuns at my Catholic school provide it? Did I have access to a ‘Nuns of America’ reference book, where I looked under ‘C’ for Cloistered Carmelites?)

In a month or two, I got back a kind, handwritten note, telling me to pray for discernment and not to jump to any life decisions until I got a little older. But they enclosed some brochures studded with beautiful pictures of a gentle, reverent, secluded way of living.

I would be perfect at that cloistered life, I thought; I could read to my heart’s content, and no crabby person would ever say, “Get off your lard butt and GO OUTSIDE!” I had a kind of vision of a special reading nook in a brick alcove, cushioned and ample, where I would hole up with a stack of books, waving speechlessly to the other nuns as they walked, their brown gowns whispering but themselves silent, by.

I forgot that I loved being the boss of things, that I loved to eat, that I loved taking trips—on my bike across town or in the family car on rare excursions. Humility, sacrifice, seclusion…it all sounded grand.

I tucked those brochures away. I tucked the cloister dreams away with them.

In years to come, I would write to the New York Yankees, to the Beatles, to wonderful colleges, to famous authors. Often I received amazing replies. And always my dreams of what I might be When I Grew Up altered and morphed: a librarian! The first female Beatle! An actor! An editor! A person on the TV news!

Those visions moved me far, far away from my dreams of a holy cloistered community.

Many years later, having discovered a love of clothes and boys and a fast-paced life, I came across the Carmelite brochures. I sat down and I looked them through. I laughed and put them in the recycling.

A cloister? I said. I don’t think so.

********************************

And yet. Here we are, in a cloister in a kind of a way.

In Rumer Godden’s book, when the nuns just can’t stand being controlled or compelled for one minute longer, they escape, during their precious free time, outside. They walk up and down and up and down, filling their lungs with outdoor air, walking off the stress of being enclosed with the same few people, day after day.

Now, I am not saying that the people I am enclosed with are in any way annoying (those lovely boyos), but I get the magic of the walks. And we walk every day, too. I get up and take my early, long, walk, pushing the button on the coffee maker as I walk out the door, wending my way through the back roads to the Avenue, striding up to where the sidewalk ends and taking the long way ‘round, then coming home to coffee and contemplation.

Later, we all walk together at the college or the fitness trail, doing one full circuit, getting away from work at home minutiae.

A walk is such a simple thing but, as the nuns found, it brings calm and health and perspective.

*********************

Phillipa, the aging novice nun in Godden’s book, settles into the life, but she often thinks, “If only I could have a hot bath! If only I could have a cigarette!” (Those of course, were the days before we knew the connection: cigarette=lung cancer risk.)

I have my hot baths, and I no longer miss the smoky tang of a cigarette, but I understand what she means. When things are not available, they loom large.

So I’ll be doing the dishes, say, and an almost palpable image will come to me of being in Vidler’s Five and Dime, in East Aurora, New York. I’ll long to mooch through the organized jumble of that vintage store, discovering toys and kitchenware and candy and chewing gum that were everyday staples of life in the 1960’s or ‘70’s, things that are exotic oddities now. I’ll think of brushing past,with no thought to social distancing, a young mom jiggling a baby, or of smiling at an older fella waiting patiently, hat in hand, for his shopping wife.

We could, I’ll think longingly, go to that little snack bar nearby, the place where they had what might have been the best beef on ‘weck sandwiches in the whole wide world.

And then we could go to East Aurora’s Roycroft campus, where the Arts and Crafts movement thrived and grew, starting in 1895 or thereabouts.

We could explore, I think, and then I realize that exploration is not going to happen any time soon.

I’m okay with that; we need to be careful and we need to be safe, and we can learn to enjoy the nooks and the crannies and the wonders of home.

But oh, I miss our little trips. No traveling from the cloister.

****************************

And, in Phillipa’s cloister, everyday errands are plotted: the trip to the post office, the ride to the grocery store. There is no room for spontaneity in a cloistered life…not in Phillipa’s House of Brede, and not, really, in COVID’s 2020.

Now we shop for weeks at a time; we schedule our grocery pickup three days hence; we accept that what we’ve forgotten to buy will be missed until the next expedition, four weeks away.

We buy absolutely necessary things online…books and belts and batteries. We leave the boxes, when they arrive, outside to be sure they’re not infected.

Life in the COVID cloister is much more scripted than life before; we have to create little niches for spontaneity in the midst of a structured everyday life.

************************************

And there are things, at home, that have to be done. There is the outside work we do at home; there are the everyday jobs of keeping a home comfortable and livable. There are meals to plan and fix and cookies to bake.

There are common times, when the three of us gathered here gather together for food and for Netflix.

There is boredom and there is irritation, but thankfully, not so much.

I realize, now more than ever, that the cloistered life is not a natural life for me, but there’s one good thing: there’s time to read. The reading chair sits in for that bricked in alcove, and no somber sisters rustle by. I put my feet up on the ottoman and pull the fuzzy gold blanket over my toes, and I travel, vicariously, to Berlin and to Denver, Colorado, to the wild back country of England, or to a fantasy world that exists only in an imagination and a book. Feet planted, I travel, and I hope my mind expands.

It’s not a life I would choose, this COVID cloister, but it’s one that is needed and one that has its very definite benefits. It is, for now, a good life.

And somewhere, I bet, my first grade teacher is smiling a big, ironic smile.

A Walk in the Rain

I’m a walkin’ in the rain

Tears are fallin’ and I feel a pain

A wishin’ you were here with me

To end this misery

And I wonder…

—Del Shannon, “Runaway”

*********************************************

The week dawns, cool and gray, and I am determined to be more organized. I will, I decide, take my first walk of the day before I have my first cup of coffee. So, as the sky lightens, I pour fresh water into the coffee maker and put a brown paper liner in the basket. I scoop coffee into the grinder and make it hum, shaking it up between grindings.

The ground coffee (the beans come by mail from a wonderful roaster in Clintonville) smells rich and hearty. The odor wafts through the kitchen; it’s the scent of the start of day, with all the mysteries and possibilities that entails.

I pour the coffee into the filter, and I lace up my new walking shoes. I slide into a light jacket, and just before I leave, I hit ‘brew’. As I close the back door gently behind me, I hear the coffee maker gearing up with a sigh, and a pause, and a hiss.

********************

This is finals week, and I think about my classes as I push off around the block. We started off face-to-face, building the kind of momentum that meeting in a group and talking in person brings. And then there was spring break, and we returned to a different kind of environment: an online one.

This was especially hard for my gen ed students, taking a first writing class to get ready for the one that bears transferable credit. Everything was new to that small group: college expectations, college pacing, and definitely college technology.

There were hiccups as we morphed to a new kind of class delivery, but the students hunkered down and worked it through. And now, in the last week of class, most of them have found their way and their voice.

Their work has amazed me.

I round to the right, onto a larger street. Squirrels are manic this morning. I walk under a bank of shady, mature trees, and a black squirrel dithers on the sidewalk before me, maybe twenty feet away.

It sees me, freezes, then throws up its little arms.

It puts its head down and runs toward the street. Then it stops and scurries back to the sidewalk. It bounces, jittery, from side to side.

Finally, when I am less than ten feet away, it decides. It runs off into the yard and leaps into a tiny sapling, swaying the trunk as I plod on by.

Sometimes, I think, I act exactly like that, frenetically dithering.

************************

I meet my two ‘women of a certain age’ walking buddies; we stop and talk, keeping six feet between us. They hold their hands out, palms up, testing. They say they think they feel some drops.

My weather app didn’t say anything about any morning showers, I think. And they head off south while I push on.

I reach my turn-around point, waving to a hefty young guy softly jogging across the road, and I veer around an older couple in crisp cloth jackets. They are slowly walking a white-muzzled, red-haired, shaggy beast. Another jogger, sleek and intent in fitted, matching black tights and jacket, is going the way I will take up when I turn. I go an extra block or so in my turning around so we don’t have to navigate the courtesies of shared space in the outdoor COVID universe.

And as I turn around, finally, as I head back, I feel the first energetic plop of rain.

By the time I get home, my hair, missing its wonderful haircutter’s touch anyway, is a thick, wet, unruly, flattened mass.

Just because the weather app didn’t mention it, that doesn’t mean it WON’T rain.

*******************************

I spend the morning grading exam essays: it’s a good endeavor, with unique work and evidence of mastery, and I am in the happy position of awarding very high grades to almost every paper. But finally I reach a limit; my neck is aching, and I need to stand up, feed my Fitbit, and check messages.

When I grab my phone and unhook it from its charger, I see a message from the kind of friend who is almost family. Her son is a rising young professional, enthusiastic and gifted. Today, writes my friend, he has been furloughed indefinitely from a job he loves. His industry, too, falls victim to the pandemic.

I think about what it must be like to be a young person, starting a career, having done it all right—earning the degrees with great GPA’s, scooping up every chance to get the right kinds of experience, making those essential connections, landing just the right job.

And then the world is blindsided by COVID-19.

I walk to the back door and open it.

The unpredicted rain is still falling, heavy and cold.

*************************************

On Wednesday, the weather app warns of possible early showers. I get my morning walk in with no problems, though, and the little weather-app pictures under “11 a.m.” show clouds but no droplets. That’s when Mark and Jim and I head off to the college campus.

The clouds are broody gray when we park, but, hey: the app does say mostly cloudy. I help Jim untangle his ear bud cords, and he heads off to walk the front way. Mark and I decide we’ll walk through the quad and then circle around.

Mark starts to tell me something the governor said in yesterday’s briefing. He stops.

“Is that a drop?” he asks.

We keep on, though, but in ten yards or so, we have to admit there are MANY drops.

And then it is truly raining. We turn around to retrace our steps and see Jim, too, is running toward the car.

*********************************************

At home, I use the extra time to finish up grading and check student messages. I get a follow up email from a student who had written the day before. She’d said she’d been in bed for two days with a high temp, unable to eat or talk or concentrate.

I shot an email back and said, Call your doctor RIGHT NOW, even though I suspected her support system must have already insured that happened.

Today’s email says she is still very sick, and the bad news is she’s tested positive for COVID-19. She is sorry she can’t get her final exam essay in on time.

I reply, telling her we can work out an incomplete. I let her know the college has extended the incomplete period, and not to even think about it until she feels better.

I ask her if it’s okay if I pray for her.

I feel a physical thud in the floor of my gut; I push the chair away from the computer, and I step out on to the back porch.

I think about this student, very young, separated by an ocean from her family, suffering from a scary, little understood illness. I feel the dragon moving, feel the worm shift and nudge, and realize the beast is not so very far away at all. We can try, and we can follow all the rules and guidelines, we can do our best. We hope these things will help, but we none of us are guaranteed immunity.

And I watch the rain fall.

**********************************************

Thursday’s early morning walk is droplet-free; in fact, the sky is brightening like the sun might just crack through those crowds. I send off grade-posting day emails to both my classes, check averages, populate grade columns. Mark comes out of his office at about 10:45.

“Should I get my shoes on?” asks Jim, and I reflect that two months ago the boyo would not have gotten so excited about taking a daily walk. It’s a good change.

“Look how bright the sky is getting!” I say, and we agree this day is working out to be a little nicer than expected. I gather up my phone, my hanky, my keys, and join the boyos on the back porch.

They turn to me with bland faces. Someone grabbed the metallic edges of the sky-doors and pulled them open with a rusty squawk.

And, heavens opened, the rain pours down.

******************************************

So Thursday’s walk turns into a drive. As Mark pulls out of the drive, I dig my buzzing phone from my pocket. A lifelong friend has left a message. I’ll listen and call her back when we get home.

Heavy rain sluices down the windshield; James plays songs from a sixties play list. Mark pulls us out onto Route 146.

“We’re exploring,” he says before I can ask.

The rain flickers; the rain strengthens. Mark turns onto a road we’ve never taken, a meandering road that winds past a state nature preserve and opens out into other options, not all of them paved.

Wet cows stand stolidly in fields. We pass mini-mansions with broad sweeping grounds. We pass working farms. We pass bedraggled tiny homes with half a dozen rusting vehicles clogging their drives.

We crunch onto gravel, and Jim’s face clouds.

“I think I’ll listen on my headphones,” he says.

Wind gusts; rain sputters. Mark drives on, a grin tweaking the corners of his mouth. This is just the kind of exploration he enjoys.

Gravel gives way to dirt, which is quickly turning to mud. Jim pulls the ear buds out.

Annnnnnnnnd…there’s no signal,” he sighs. “We’re in a DEAD zone,” he tells his dad.

I am just about to suggest the map app when Mark sees a sign. “I know where we are!” he says triumphantly, and ten minutes later we are pulling onto a four-lane, half an hour from home.

Jim, relieved, shares some classic rock, and the rain surges and stops, surges a little less confidently, spits at us, and then takes a break.

Rain is falling when we got home, but kind of half-heartedly. A good time, we agree, for a leftovers lunch.

***************************************

Then I call my dear friend from my little study upstairs. We have a good talk, about keeping busy and active in a quarantine, about the differences between our two states’ rules and guidelines. She shares the wonderful news that her daughter is expecting. Being optimistic, she is planning a shower for summer’s end, hoping that gatherings can take place in four months’ time.

I tell her about my sick student, and she tells me about her good friend whose mother died on Sunday night.

It isn’t the first recent loss for this friend; the lady across the street passed on Easter Sunday. Unable to meet, the neighbors sowed their front windows with white fairy lights, and they turned them on at 8 p.m. on Easter Monday to honor the passed one’s memory and warm her widower with their caring. The widower’s siblings and family heard of this, and they drove to the neighborhood. They stood in the dark, six feet apart, holding candles.

And the neighbor who’d lost his wife stood in his window and soaked it all in, the glow and the warmth, the grief and the love.

My friend says the web went into action for this second loss. She got calls: Could we do this again? And so they repeated the vigil, the lights and the candles, the silent and separate ceremony. The solidarity even when they couldn’t stand together.

She says, wryly, that they seemed to have developed a COVID way of creating memorials. She hopes that few people struggle with a loved one’s death during these strange days. But, if people do, my friend says, maybe this is a way to mark that passing.

She has been my friend since high school; she has always been the one who can defuse tension with kindness, who reads the need in a person’s very posture and instinctively, compassionately, does just the right thing to make even something horrible a little bit better.

I am pretty sure the lights and the candles and the just-right way of sharing in grief in COVID days come from the caring imagination of her warm heart. But, “Ahhh, it was everyone,” she says. “Everyone together.”

*************************************************

After we talk, I tromp downstairs and post my grades. Restless, I pull on my walking shoes and my jacket and step outside. The rain has stopped, but dark clouds bank to the west. In the east, though, it looks as though the sun is still fighting to shine through.

I check the weather app on my phone. Thirty per cent chance of rain, it says. I stand uncertainly for a minute, but, really, what can I do? I step off the porch, and I start out on a walk.

Food in the Time of Quarantine

“That,” said Mark, “is very definitely the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever had.”

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The idea popped up in an email from somewhere…I think, maybe, from a favorite blogger who writes about wonderful food: Parmesan-crusted grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t note the recipe exactly, but we stole the method and applied it to grilled ham and cheese…for Mark, grilled ham and cheese and tomato.

We heated the olive oil in the skillet, buttered the bread…white for James, rye for Mark and me…and gathered everything we needed to put between the slices.

Then we dipped the buttered side of the bread in grated Parmesan, put it cheese down, sizzling, in the skillet, and built the sandwiches, sliced cheese first, meat and tomatoes cradled in the middle. We took the buttered top slices and patted them in the Parmesan, too.

The scent rose, cheesy and tantalizing, from the hot oil. The sliced cheese melted and oozed. When I flipped the sandwich, the bread was golden brown and wore a crust of almost-orange parm.

We let the bottom sides cook up and flipped them onto plates, and then we sliced them so that steam escaped and American and cheddar flowed, liquid hot, together.

In my family, when the table goes quiet, you know the food is very, very good.

This was a quiet, quiet lunch.

“We’ll do this again,” I said finally, and Jim answered, “OH, yeah.”

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I am finding that food takes on a whole new meaning in a time of quarantine.

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I say things. I make vows. And then life intervenes.

Like, here’s a vow I’ve often made:

I am going to learn to make biscuits from scratch!

We used to go to a restaurant with my friend Kim; she could walk to it from her downtown apartment. James and I and sometimes Mark, if work allowed, would meet her there.

The place was called Build A Biscuit, and it was run by a beautiful, eccentric woman who had traveled all over—she sang, she told us, with a rock band in Budapest. After we’d visited a few times, a former boyfriend from the Czech Republic arrived to help her with the restaurant. They worked together easily, laughing and telling stories…Do you remember, in Paris…?  How about that time in Istanbul????

Sometimes she would call up a favorite song on Alexa, and she would sing along to it, in a rich, deep, dreamy alto. We would put down our forks and just listen.

But not for long. Because, good as the atmosphere, the talk, and the music were, the food was so amazing that we couldn’t ignore it for long. She would bring trays of the most amazing square biscuits out, steaming, from her oven in the back. She would break their golden crusts open, showing soft, snowy centers, and ask us what we’d like on top.

Jim would get a gooey cheeseburger mixture.

Kim always got some kind of healthy, vegetarian concoction; she would eat half and take the rest home for later.

I swore, each time we went, that I would try something new, but then I couldn’t help it. I always got the chicken pot pie topping.

And I always said, as we left the warmth and the rich conversation and the tangible friendship of that place,–I always said this:

“I am going to learn how to make biscuits like these!”

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And then I would try, and I would come up with small hard flour hockey pucks again.

The restaurant closed, eventually; its good people moved on to their next adventure.

Kim left us, the cancer finally getting the upper hand.

Those days morphed into memory, but memory laced with longing: if I could make a biscuit like THAT,–well, some of that richness might come back to us.

And then life would get busy, of course, and I’d think, well, biscuits. Maybe NEXT week.

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But now, it IS next week; now we live under stay-at-home orders. Now there is no excuse.

And this week, remembering everything I have been told about biscuit making, I pulled up a recipe a wonderful cook friend had sent, and I combined those ingredients with very, very cold butter, and Joy of Cooking’s recommended process for mixing biscuits  in a food processor, and I tried one more time.

And damn: didn’t it work, just? Didn’t I get golden brown, high fluffy biscuits?

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We cracked them open for dinner, poured shredded chicken gravy over the top, and talked about what we could do NEXT time.

Instead of making round biscuits, we could cut them into squares like that beautiful singing restaurateur did. We could brush the tops with butter just as they came out of the oven. We could make chicken pot pie filling to ladle onto the tender, steaming insides of these imaginary biscuits.

We could create a time as wonderful, as memorable, as rich and full of meaning, maybe, as those lunches we spent with Kim in that little café.

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There are jokes on the Internet, jokes about a day coming, in the far distant future, when we’ll all, after wearing elastic-waists for the whole of the quarantine, have to try to buckle up our big girl pants.

And that will be hard, because we’ll have been comforting ourselves with food.

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We are trying not to let that happen. We get up in the morning; Mark showers and dresses for the kind of work he does in his home office, connecting to the real office, plugging into meetings and webinars.

I do my hair, and I put make-up on. I do NOT wear yesterday’s clothes. I iron a batch of shirts each week, and I think about what necklace to wear with today’s choice, and whether it’s a day for cologne or perfume.

We wear pants that buckle and snap,–no elastic involved.

We do our morning work, and then we go for a morning walk, trying for a different venue (the fitness trail! The college! Mission Oaks Gardens!) each day.

We are here; we are trying hard to engage mindfully in this temporarily truncated life.

But it is true, for sure: food has become very important.

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Food is important because shopping is an issue. We do not want to go out into that retail miasma any more often than necessary. After our last foray, we swore that we would not shop for another two weeks, at least.

We tried to anticipate every single need, and we figured that if we didn’t anticipate something, we probably don’t really NEED it.

Knowing that we can’t run down to Kroger to scratch a sudden yearning, we make food last. We eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. We make Pasta Rustica using the three slices of bacon we didn’t gobble down and the lonely remaining chicken breast. We use stale crusts to make croutons or bread crumbs, or we crumble them up into a breakfast bake.

We read in today’s paper that stores will now have to limit the number of people inside at any given time, and I wonder how that will work. Will you show up at door and have a guardian say, “Sorry; you’ll have to wait…”? Will we get numbers, or make appointments? Will we circle the parking lot until a person leaves the store, running to be allowed in next?

Only one family member can shop at a time, too, the regulations say.

Shopping will not be a pleasant, exploratory meander. It will be a goal-oriented mission: get the stuff and get OUT of there.

It all seems scarily complicated. So much easier not to shop, to make the food we have last.

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But in a time when staying home is what we do, the food we eat means more than just nourishment.

So my dear friend Debbi, whose husband, Randy, passed far too young from cancer, is home by herself for the duration. Debbie is a phenomenal cook, and she loves to cook for other people. Her house is a warm, wide open place where friends gather and wine flows, and the food is good, good, good.

Normally, Deb says, she doesn’t fuss just for herself, but right now she’s changed that plan.

“So far,” she writes, “I’ve made chicken and broccoli crepes, and lobster risotto [her favorite] and even homemade lemon curd…”

She’s treating herself like company. She’s celebrating her time with herself.

I love that idea.

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“I’ve been bringing out old family recipes—dishes we loved but, in the hustle and bustle, they’ve fallen by the wayside,” writes another amazing cook, Terry. She’s making lighter things, too,—fresh fruit salads, for instance, and choosing recipes that will freeze well, so leftovers can become future meals.

Terry and her husband Paul, who are known for their hospitality, their pies, their love of hosting big family gatherings, are sheltering in place together. Meals are important for them, too.

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I remember stories my parents told, Depression kids both, about foods that were treats for them growing up—my father talked about the exotic wonder of having cold cuts; my mother remembered something called Depression cookies that were made by soaking cubes of cheap white bread in condensed milk, rolling them in coconut, and baking them.

“Do you remember…?” my father would say, and Mom would build on that, enlarging and recalling; they wove a little symphony of meaning from an experience, and an era, and a deprivation, they shared.

And we will do that, too, I think; we’ll talk excitedly about food discoveries we’ve made during this compressed, at home time. We’ll brag about substitutions we made (“It’s better than the original recipe!”)  because we didn’t want to brave the store, or because the store was out of pasta, or peanut butter, or whatever that one ingredient was we needed.

God willing, if we’re all together ten years hence, enjoying the crunch as we cut into parm-crusted grilled cheese, we’ll be saying, “Do you remember when we found this recipe? Remember COVID 19, when we stayed home for six weeks?”

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We’ll remember and we’ll share, because it’s important, isn’t it—the food we eat in quarantine?

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What are you eating these at home days, my friend?