Bored at Home? Try Traveling in Time

It started with a bedspread, back in December.

On Christmas Eve, we gift each other with books and chocolate and something warm and snuggly—a morphing of a childhood tradition of getting fuzzy, warm flannel jammies to wear to bed, to try to sleep in on a night when eyes won’t close.

Sometimes, now, we still get jammies, or, at least, plaid flannels with soft, knit long-sleeved shirts.

Sometimes, there may be a sumptuously cloudy blanket with satin binding.

Sometimes there are slippers so finely lined with lambs’ wool that the feet in them feel like they’re hugged and floating all at once.

This year, Mark and I got a bedspread to replace the worn green cloth one that we looked at in November and suddenly SAW. It was nubby in places, and, after several washings, much smaller than it was meant to be. The under blankets stuck out, and it tugged vainly up toward the head of the bed; it put me in mind of Abe Lincoln’s gnarled hands sticking out from his too-short sleeves.

Homespun and whimsical, I suppose, but geez.

Not very warm.

“How long have we HAD this?” Mark asked, smoothing it down one chilly morning as we put the finishing touches on changing the bed.

Film clicked and rattled in my head, and I saw that spread packed and shipped from house to house.

“I think we got it when we lived in Mayville,” I said.

That was about 25 years ago.

“Huh,” said Mark.

And that was when I thought: new comforter for Christmas.

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So I got us a good one: white and fluffy and warm warm warm.

And that was great until a couple of weeks ago when the weather got warm to match. Then I went looking for a summer bedspread to take over duties from the cold weather comforter.

I found lots of ideas online, but the one I kept coming back to was a medium blue in what a quilter would call a wedding ring pattern. It wasn’t quilted, though: the pattern was picked out in little tufts of chenille.

I called Mark over and he looked.

“Chenille?” he said, and his mouth quirked a little. He looked at the picture, silent for a moment, and then finally, “Oh, hell,” he said. “Why not?”

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The bedspread arrived about a week later; I gave it a quick run through the washer and dryer, and then I wrestled the puffy comforter, which seemed to have expanded, back into its heavy plastic zipper bag. I put fresh sheets on the bed and gently unfolded the bedspread on top.

And suddenly, the motions came back to me. It was like my fourteen-year old hands settled gently on top of my 64-year old ones. I pulled up the spread so it covered the foot of the bed but didn’t drag; I smoothed it all the way up to the pillow line.

I folded it over and stacked up the pillows, two sets, two high; chucked the bedspread underneath them; and then smoothed it over their tops.

Those were motions—that was a routine—I’d performed over and over again as a teen. The soft nubbins of chenille beneath the palms of my hands (craggy and calloused now, dewy and hopeful then) opened doors. Memory and emotion came flooding back in, hopes and joys and secrets, and scary, scary fears.

Standing there, touching that old fashioned bed covering, I felt the protective membrane grow thin. Time swirled around me; then touched now.

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Mark felt it later, too. He started talking about chenille bedspreads he’d known as a boy.

“We were always getting in trouble,” he said, “because someone would lay there in bed and systematically pull out all the chenille.”

An image of trim little twin beds,—three, or perhaps four,—grew in my head. They were neatly made with matching, boy-colored, chenille spreads. One spread grew thinner and thinner as the Chenille Picker wrought his destruction.

Then: an angry voice; a wrestling of those bed-covers to the washing machine. A placing of the balding bedspread on a different bed entirely.

A creeping denuding as another bedspread lost its fluffy tufts.

Before long, matching ravaged bedspreads, prey for a plucker’s hand.

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Chenille, I think, cries out for that in some small heads; yells, “Pick me, pick me!”

And some bright-eyed young person of mischievous intent shrugs and thinks, “Don’t mind if I do.”

Now that Mark mentions it, there was a Chenille Picker lived at our house, too.

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So that was the first instance of then and now colliding.

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Then, I was out walking on Tuesday morning—a warm, sunny morning, and an hour or two after the Garbage Dudes had crashed and clanked their way through the neighborhoods. It was early, and most people were not yet up to rescue the big plastic garbage bins flayed and sprawled across the sidewalk.

I berthed them as wide as I could; many were pungent in the morning sun. And then I walked by one that was pungent in another way.

It smelled like…melted vanilla ice cream bar with melted chocolate coating. It smelled like Dunkirk Ice Cream.

And the smell, and the time of day: just before 7 a.m., just when I would have been getting off from work, back in the summers when I was 19, 20, and 21…well, they took me back there.

I thought of friends—of Liza and Patty and Debbi, of Mary Catherine and Becky and Kathy.

I thought of how we’d start out, at midnight, pristine in our cheap white polyester, perky and energetic.

I thought of how we’d droop home, our whites stained with a rainbow of popsicle juice or fudge melt, seven hours later.

We worked so hard those summers; the demand for ice cream raged, and sometimes we’d go three weeks with no day off. But it wouldn’t stop us from partying, or from stopping, on payday, at the only place in town, a little bar in an old couple’s living room, where they’d sling us a beer and a burger and cash our miserable paychecks.

We toughened up, we innocent college girls. We learned to talk like the Lifers, the people who busted their butts all year round, except for a month in January or February, when production was down and all but a choice few got laid off. The missed month of work kept them from acquiring seniority; when they returned in March, they started out like a newbie, like a college kid, bottom of the barrel, working their ways up.

But there was something seductive about that place, about the clang and the danger of the shiny silver Vitalines churning out their products, about sneaking popsicles to the ten-year-olds who gathered at the screened back door, behind the biggest machine, on hot summer nights. They had snuck away from camp-outs in the back yard, maybe; they could get in deep trouble if they were caught, and so could we. No giving away the product! we were told.

But…

…a clandestine popsicle on a summer night when it’s too hot to sleep, slipped to you by grown-ups at the ice cream factory, and eaten sitting, oh so casual, on the banana seat of a sting-ray bicycle… Who could resist the appeal of making that happen?

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

I walked by that garbage can on a hot, sweet morning, and that hot, sweet, cloying but not exactly icky smell brought it all tumbling back.

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Maybe once the membrane has thinned and stretched to opening, it’s hard to close it back up.

“Let’s watch Superman,” suggests Jim, and he slides in the Christopher Reeves version, circa 1978. Mark and I were both fresh out of college, both growing and learning in marriages to other people.

Mark was a daddy already when Reeves first flew across the screen.

And in a different kind of time, there was a different kind of superhero, not flawed and quirkily human, but really, and nobly, super.

There is a scene in the movie where Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the fifties and sixties TV series, sits on a train with her young daughter. The girl is the only one who sees young Clark Kent running faster than the train. The child crows about the fast runner; her father tells her to stop lying, and Neill tells her to be quiet and read her book.

“I MET her,” Mark says to Jim, and tells him about a time when Ms. Neill came to speak at our college.

“NO WAY,” says Jim, impressed.

We watch the movie through 1978 lenses, tinted by all the knowledge of today.

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

And James, for some reason, plays “Winchester Cathedral,” as we’re driving in the car one night. “Oh-bodey-oh-doe,” I think automatically, and I remember.

And a vintage ad pops up online for Turkish taffy, the flavored taffy you could freeze and slap; it would crack into shareable shards. It was a longed-for treat, and not one my mother deemed worthy of purchase. I remember.

I live on the surface, marching around, all eyes and upper awareness. Now, I think, NOW is the important thing, the only thing, the building time.

And the past, of course, is past. But then the membrane stretches, and I realize the past is still right here: really, it’s all here, crowded, clunking, banging around inside of me.

All it needs is a touch, a scent, a lyric; a picture; a breeze blowing just the right way…

Then crashes into now, doors open up, and there it is, and there I am.

I step through those doors and travel a ways down that deserted road.

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

And I come back refreshed, back to a world I never could have imagined, but one that somehow, by all that’s happened and all I’ve known and all the silly, mean, half-assed, risky, difficult, kind, and glorious things I’ve done, I’ve been given the tools and the peeps and the wherewithal, to navigate at will.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Wait. What’s normal now?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Other Days

Some days, you just start out tired.

Some days, you make yourself go for the early morning walk, but it’s more of a trudge, and mean dogs snarl behind high fences, crows cackle cruelly, and other walkers cross the street to avoid you. Social distancing: you know, but still it feels cold and rude, because some days just dawn that way.

Some days you wish you had a nice bowl of granola for breakfast, but you just really don’t feel like making a batch. Maybe later, you think, disgruntled and weary. And you eat a leftover bagel, which you really don’t want, but it lets you wear your scarlet martyr patch– I am eating the leftovers so we don’t throw them away!—right there on your chest.

And you sigh, deep and heavy, because it’s just what you need to do this day.

Some days you feel like you might just fall down under the weight of technological expectations. Do I really need to manage this, you think bitterly, by MONDAY?

And where, you ponder bleakly, is your TECH support?

You send them another email, but you don’t expect an answer, not on a day like this day.

Not when the temperature has dropped twenty degrees in two hours and the clouds are the color of pulsing old dirty lead, and that heaviness is escaping them, falling to earth in straight chilling lines.

Some days the weather app says it probably won’t stop raining until after supper.

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But then, once in a while, you surprise yourself and figure out, say, how to install Zoom. And you go to your morning appointment, and, another surprise: it’s a good rich Zoom meeting. You scribble notes in your old black-speckled composition notebook, and those rusty doors in your mind open up, and you GET it, you really do.

And one of those people at the meeting proposes an easy work around to your technology issue, and it’s simple and beautiful and doable.

You sign off from the meeting with a clear picture of what needs to be done next, and you realize that what needs to be done NEXT doesn’t have to be done NOW. And you go downstairs and eat a salad, and a leftover pork chop, and a handful of Muddy Buddies, and your husband comes in and says, “Would you like a fire? Just to take the chill off?”

And, “YES,” you say, because once in a while, a fire is the best thing, and you realize this is one of those whiles. And you take your book, and you sit by the fire, and the rain falls in vertical sheets, the wind buffets, and the words take on new meaning. The fire crackles.

You turn the pages of the book and the story makes you think and makes you realize; little walls that used to mark off half-ruined, half-hearted stereotypes crumble completely, and there are clearer, broader vistas in the horizon of your mind.

Some days open doors, and some days you are ready to walk through them.

And you close your book and you drowse by the fire…not really sleeping, just resting and gathering.

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

And you remember, suddenly, a soup recipe that calls for four things you have in the refrigerator—the leftover chunky meat sauce with tomatoes, the beans, the sausage, and the spinach. Some days are soup days, and this day, with the wind barging insistently against the bay window, is surely one.

This is crazy, you think, as you wipe down the counter and lay the recipe, copied from the Internet down flat. Soup made from leftovers?

Come on.

But you heat the oil and sauté the onion and stir in the garlic; you defrost chicken broth while the red peppers flakes simmer and the tomatoes soften. You open cans and measure macaroni and stir broth and white beans into the pot.

You chop fresh spinach—locally grown, farmer’s market spinach,—into thin little ribbons, then turn them around and cut the ribbons into rectangles.

And the boyos come out; they say the mess on the stove smells GOOD, and they say, You know what? We’re going to get some crusty bread!

And they make a reservation for a curbside pick up and head off cheerfully into the rain.

Which, now you think of it, has slowed down quite a bit.

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

When the car pulls back into the driveway, you stir the spinach into the simmering soup pot, and you watch it wilt for a minute. Then you pour in parmesan and stir. And it really, really does smell wonderful.

And the boyos come in with a fresh loaf of tomato basil bread, and the soup is just right, a thick, hearty, peasant-y kind of a brew.

You mop the last juices from your bowl with a piece of good bread, and you agree with your husband: that was just the right soup for a day like this day.

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

And by the time the dishes are done, the evening sun shines, pale and hopeful, and you lace up your sneakers. And it is cool out, but also amazing…flowering bushes and trees preening in the sun, cardinals and robins swooping and darting. Squirrels leap onto tree trunks and fat bunnies find their speed and leave arrogant kitty cats behind and bereft.

And you walk in the waning sun and breathe in deep gulps of fresh, cold air and you think that some days, you need to stop careening, all crazy and thoughtless, down some steep and nondescript hill. You need to veer off the path and sit on a rock and look to see how far you’ve come.

Some days are all about action and other days are all about perspective.

And some days, you just need to rest.

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.

Mail Call

I am in deep, grading a final paper that proposes a solution to worldwide pollution, when I register a scuffling and scraping at the front door. The mail slot clanks open; paper shuffles through.

But the front door doesn’t close right away. Instead, there’s an electronic peeping…the peep that says a package has been deposited. As the outer door softly closes, I yell, in chorus with Jim, who’s in the dining room, and Mark, at his desk in what we optimistically call ‘the Florida room,’ “THANK YOU!”

The mail carrier’s response is pleasant but muffled. I force myself back to my paper. It’s a good one, a pleasure to read and respond to. I post the grade, email a message to the student, and jump up.

Time to see what’s in the mail.

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

Mark and Jim are there ahead of me. There’s a stack of ridiculous— three Medicare supplemental plan solicitations, the bane of the almost 65-year old. There are two invitations to buy life insurance: only 14 dollars a month for $25,000 (IF you qualify). Don’t leave your family stranded by debt when you pass, reads the unctuous text on the bottom of one envelope. Old people junk mail. We slide those envelopes and a stack of retail ads into the recycling basket, and sort through what’s left.

There’s a bill or two; there’s a midwestern travel magazine…a dreamer’s book, right now. There’s a pretty envelope with a handwritten address. My heart does a little dance: a letter from a friend.

Mark’s push pins, for the tattered bulletin board he covered with the back of an old tattersall plaid shirt, have arrived.

Jim cuts open packaging to find the graphic novel he ordered last week.

Good stuff, I think, feeling satisfied. We dispose of packaging; we wash our hands. Mark heads off to his office space, ready to pin up some physical, hard copy, important documents. Jim runs downstairs to fit the slim new book into its place in the series he’s collecting. I take my letter to the reading chair; when I open and read that familiar handwriting, I hear my friend’s voice so very clearly…more clearly, maybe, then when we actually talk.

The house settles in after that pleasant energy spike–after mail call in the COVID-19 quarantine.

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

The mail, the real, tangible, paper mail, has always held that sense of wonderful possibility. Most days, it’s ordinary, banal, unexciting. But every once in a while…

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

When I was a child, it was an exciting day when a letter from Aunt Annie arrived. She lived fifty miles away, in the City. Not too far by modern reckoning, but at that time, visits were rare events requiring careful planning. Aunt Annie would write about what my cousins were doing, about new clothes she had made or special treats she fixed. She asked me about schoolwork and about my brothers.

Sometimes, her envelope was tantalizingly lumpy. There might be a bookmark enclosed, or a tiny pin on a small, stiff square of cardboard, or a pretty card festooned with a jaggedy plastic flower.

I would flatten the letter on the kitchen table, and respond right away, carefully answering all my aunt’s questions on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. Sometimes I, or my younger brother, would include a drawing.

I would painstakingly address the envelope, a cheap white business class number, all by myself. My mother would yield me one stamp.

It was my first correspondence. I took it very seriously.

Writing to Aunt Annie ignited a lifelong love of letter-writing in me. There were pen-pals through Girl Scouts: what joy to come home from school and find a grubby envelope on the table, “RMA!” or “2 Young 2 Drink 4 Roses!!!” written in pencil where the flap was sealed. In high school, as exchange students came and went and friends began to travel, parchment airmail letters appeared. Inside would be fragile stacks of paper, sheets of ponderous missives inked in the crimped, fountain pen, East Coast script we all espoused. (I began, then, to cross my upper-case Z’s and my 7’s, trying to be Europeanly trendy. That’s a habit—or maybe an affectation–still.)

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

In those high school days, we had a wonderful mailman; his nickname was Yogi, because he really did resemble the iconic ball player. He kept track of us through our mail, and he wasn’t shy about asking questions or demanding explanations.

Once a boy I liked loaned me his white tennis jacket after we’d played a set or two; the sky darkened, the air cooled, and I was walking home. Gallant, he insisted; I pulled the light covering on, and I hoped people would see me wearing it.

We were pushing the season; it was before Easter, and the boy and his family were heading to Florida for two weeks in the sun. He needed the jacket back before they left.

One of my brothers dropped it at his house. I pinned a piece of paper to the right breast pocket, a note that simply said, ‘Thank you.’

The boy and his family went off south, and school let out for a two-week break. I was there when Yogi brought the mail in the morning, when he said, “Ahhhh, nothin’ much today. Just bills and junk,” and, disappointed, handed over a thick stack of boring.

One day, though, I heard his heavy boots pound up the stairs, but I didn’t hear the mailbox squawk open. I waited, and then, finally, opened the front door.

Yogi was scratching his head, flipping a postcard back and forth.

“It’s for you,” he said, “but I don’t GET it.”

One side had a picture of a pristine Florida beach. The other side just read, “You’re welcome.”

I had to explain the whole story about the jacket, assure Yogi that no, that boy wasn’t a smart ass, that he really COULD put a whole sentence together, that he really was a nice guy; he was just being funny.

Finally, Yogi was satisfied, sort of, but he did mutter that when HE wrote to a girl back in the day, he had something to say and he said it.

“I don’t GET it,” he said again, clomping back down my front steps, shaking his head.

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

When friends went off to college, we wrote.

When we graduated, when life picked us up and whirled us around, we wrote.

And always, I felt that same warmth and glowiness, coming home from work, finding a handwritten letter in the mail.

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

The mail can yield a magical missive from a much-missed person; it can offer other wonders, too. Magazines are wish books: look what I could do with my kitchen! Look at this wonderful restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri; this funky museum in Toledo, Ohio; this park in Indianapolis, Indiana: maybe, after, we could go…

Magazines offer recipes when standard fare becomes boring, they give craft ideas, they share stories of fascinating or inspiring people—the famous and the unknown alike.

I read my magazines, sometimes more than once. Sometimes I plunder them, ripping out a recipe or a book review. Sometimes I put them on the Half Price Books stack, and we take intact copies in for trade-in.

Always, the magazine imparts a little jiggle of excitement and possibility, of lives lived differently, of the chance to grow and change.

Sometimes the mail yields an unexpected check…a refund from an insurance overpayment, say. Hey, we say. Eighteen dollars and 75 cents! We could…go get frozen custard at Whits…buy a new nozzle for the hose…put the money in the travel jar…

Every once in a while, the mail serves up an exciting letter. The editors liked your essay and would like to run it in the June issue…

Thank you notes and museum newsletters, rich with glossy photos. Professional journals. Catalogs for fun goodies; catalogs for sustainable stuff.

The mail can be dull, but it always holds the potential for adventure.

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

And the people that bring it are important, like Yogi was,–known characters who handle those important arrivals with respect and responsibility. I thought our current mail carrier would be annoyed when my heavy vats of detergent arrived from Amazon—one for dishes, one for laundry. But when I went out to the front steps to wrestle those babies inside, he stopped to talked about them.

I told him I was buying bulk to save on the plastic we use, and he was really interested in that. He is interested, too, in ways to save money, and he asked me what a five-gallon tub of laundry detergent cost. He did the same when my box of eighty rolls of toilet paper arrived (temporarily unavailable during COVID days, more’s the pity. The eighty rolls come wrapped in paper and boxed in cardboard; the eighty rolls don’t require me to use even a tiny shred of plastic.)

The mail carrier tipped me off to buying shampoo in bulk, another way of downsizing plastic use. It’s cheaper, too.

There’s something about knowing the information and stuff that lands in my house are delivered by hands attached to people who are not strangers, but more like friends.

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

And there’s something, in this at-home time, about the once-a-day possibility of something wonderful falling onto the floor by the front door. Anything could happen. Any number of miraculous things could arrive.

And sometimes they do. Not always, maybe not even frequently, but enough to make mail call an adventure, a chance to scare up and entertain possibilities during days when most adventures have been hog-tied and contained in very small spaces.

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

I wish you something wonderful, something that makes you laugh or smile, in your mailbox today.

Stood in Place. Changed.

Life will be different for quite some time to come, and maybe in some ways that are permanent, but also in ways that are good.” Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, speaking about life after the stay-at-home order.

What I took with me when I left the house on Tuesday morning, March 3rd:

  • Book bag
  • Cash
  • Wallet
  • Comb and brush
  • Purse
  • Recreational reading book for lunchtime
  • Phone
  • Packed lunch bag
  • Go cup (coffee)
  • Go cup (water)
  • Keys
  • Change of shoes
  • Extra socks

What I took with me to leave the house on Tuesday morning, April 14th:

  • Phone
  • Hanky
  • Two cough drops

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

The days settle into a routine.

There’s no need to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the gym; the gym is closed. We don’t set the alarm clock. We get up when light floods the bedroom, when the birdsong is too insistent to resist.

My Fitbit, Connie, is delighted with this. Before the stay-at-home order, she would give me disapproving sleep reports. “Five hours, 11 minutes,” she would tsk. “Fair.”

Nowadays, Connie pats me on the head. “Seven hours, 28 minutes!” she crows. “Good!”

I feel better, more centered, calmer. Sleep, as a wise one once said, is good.

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

In the mornings, Mark and I both get our work done: I grade and respond to student emails, send out notices, make sure the next week’s work is out there, clearly labelled. I send follow-up emails to make sure students understand what is due when, and what’s expected of them.

Mark fields phone calls and goes to virtual meetings; he reads the latest rulings and helps interpret them. Often he has webinars, presentations on different topics, many related to understanding and working within a pandemic.

By late morning, though, it’s time to disengage from desks for a bit. Jim tugs his sneakers on, and we all head out to the car, bundled or breezily dressed as the day dictates.

Usually we drive to the college campus and walk; sometimes, to change things up, we go to the hospital’s fitness trail. Wherever we are, Jim untangles his earphones, plugs in, and marches off in one direction. Mark and I go the other way. We meet somewhere in the middle.

Most times we wave and walk on, finishing our loops, meeting at the car.

Sometimes though, Jim, a thought having occurred that he needs to talk out, takes the ear buds out and walks along with us. “Have you heard this?” he asks, and he shares a tidbit of news from the movie industry. Or, “Did you ever see this movie?” he’ll inquire, and he’ll be off, providing the background, critiquing the director.

Before the pandemic, Jim was reluctant to get outside. Now the late morning walk is a highlight for all of us.

I speculate on whether we’ll continue morning walks after the stay-at-home order lifts.

“Oh, yeah,” says Jim. He talks about how good that fresh air feels.

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

I had a little extra time last week, so I poked around in the hall closet, rearranging and organizing. There in the back, behind the vacuum and the fat bag o’ rags, I found my old carpet sweeper.

Hey, I thought, and I took it out and stood it behind a chair in the dining room. Now, instead of muttering about messy people flinging crumbs on my nice new rug, I just pull the carpet sweeper out after meals. The rug stays cleaner, and I simmer down, calmer and sated.

It’s a little thing, but it’s a change that wouldn’t have happened without the time to poke around in the depths of that closet.

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

It is hard to believe that it’s been almost three weeks since our last big grocery shopping, although we did stop and pick up bags of spring lettuces, spinach, and green onions at the farmer’s market last week. On Sunday, we’ll get groceries at the Kroger curbside pickup. We spent last weekend carefully compiling a list.

It’s a long list, and, at first, the final price tag smacked me upside the head. “Seriously?” I thought. “THAT much money for groceries?”

But we have not made our usual mad dashes to Kroger. I think of filling out the online surveys that net us 50 fuel points. How many times this month, the survey will ask, have you shopped at Kroger?

I always skip right by the ‘once or twice’ option and check off ‘five or more.’ And each of those times we entered the store, we spent 15 or 20 dollars. That’s on top of a big shopping.

When I think about it, the one lump sum for Sunday’s cache doesn’t seem bad at all. And it’s true: there is money left in the checking account that, before the stay-at-home order, in the, ‘Oh, let’s go to the store and grab something’ days, would never have been there.

As a family, we talk about this. Meals have become mini-events, pulled together times. We look at what we have and think of what we like. We experiment with rubs and marinades, sauces and gravies. We make soups and stews and quiches. We try recipes that have been buried deep in the someday pile, and we find new ideas on line. Friends send directions for things they’ve been cooking and liking during quarantine.

We talk about the changes we’ve made. We won’t go back to shopping the way we used to.

We don’t miss eating out.

The foods we’ve been eating are healthier.

These are changes we will keep.

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

There is time, now, for reading, and, when my To-Be-Read stack starts to dwindle, I shop the house or arrange touch-free book exchanges with friends. Each afternoon ends with reading time, and books are freshly good when their words are not crammed into narrow niches between obligations.

I read murder mysteries. I read about saving and releasing an irascible, intelligent blue jay. I read history books and American Dirt. I read memoirs about mental health and I read light, enjoyable novels. I read books I have had on the shelves, waiting for that day when time allows.

Time allows now; the day has come. And in the stubborn quiet of this time, words find, again, their majesty, and reach me in deep places. I haven’t enjoyed reading so much since college breaks, when the pleasure of reading something just because I wanted to was unequaled.

I’ll protect my reading times, whatever the days ahead bring.

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

These days, even doing laundry is a pleasure, and Mark and I both hustle downstairs when the dryer sings. Soft, newly folded washcloths, still warm, are a sensuous treat. I love that one of my favorite dish towels is always ready in the towel drawer. My best socks are neatly bundled together, a pair waiting for to start every day.

Folding laundry can be a joy when time isn’t breathing heavy on my neck, when the pleasure isn’t diluted by the thought of ten other things competing, waiting to be done.

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

In Ohio, there is tentative talk of tentative steps to modify the stay-at-home order. Things, our leaders (who have led us cautiously and effectively in a quest to flatten the curve) tell us, will not go back to ‘normal’—whatever ‘normal’ was. We’ll build a new normal, find new ways of being, and wait for the day to celebrate: the day when a vaccine conquers COVID-19.

And some of the change, as Dr. Amy Acton reminds us, will be good change—although, as a people, we’re surviving sickness and mourning death, we’ll emerge into new habits, new practices, new meaning.

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

Maybe the new normal starts now. Maybe now I stop reflecting on what I’m missing, on how life used to be, and I learn to celebrate what is.

Holy Week

Wednesday.

We walk, on the eve of the high holy days of the Christian church, in shirtsleeves and shorts. It is a warm, changeable day, but in the afternoon, the sun shines down, and we take the long way around the campus. It is busy with walkers and joggers and bikers, families with four and five little ones thrilled to be released and berserking, couples walking oddly matched (one big and galloot-ish, slow and ponderous; one tiny, frenetic, highly wired) dogs.

The sun is hot on my back, and the walk feels good.

At night, the wind howls, and trash cans detach themselves from the garage and throw themselves, prostrate, onto the backyard grass. Old limbs from aging trees creak and groan and fall into the dandelion-ed grass. The wind chime waves crazily; I fall asleep to piercing, haunting tones.

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Holy Thursday

Thursday can’t decide. Rain falls straight and hard and determined. The sun comes out; I check the weather app, which promises no more rain until after lunch. We head off to the fitness trail in late morning, and when we get there, we wait in the car until it stops raining again.

It is cold, and we are bundled in jackets, with knit gloves on. Jim says he’d just as soon sit in the car and listen to music on his headphones, thanks very much. Mark and I head off, buffeted by fat plops of rain. In a moment though, the sun is out again.

We take the long way ‘round, and we are rewarded on the home stretch by seeing friends march toward us. We stand eight feet apart and talk, and we realize we have been starved for just this kind of interaction.

In the car, Jim’s head bobs to 80’s rock.

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Holy Thursday, if it has a theme, must be about betrayal, right? There is Jesus with his closest friends, his heart breaking. There is Jesus eating a Passover meal with the friends who would give him up, who would not back him up, who would fall asleep when he needed them; they were friends who would, when fear clashed into loyalty, actively deny they even knew him.

I think that I should take time, after the static-laden evening teleconference meeting, to ponder betrayal, to think about the times I have been the betrayer and ask forgiveness. I could parse out those times dear ones have betrayed me, too, forgive them, let it go.

I sit with my notebook after the meeting wraps up with staccato, crisp farewells, but the betrayal theme will not emerge. A little voice tells me my pondering is awfully ponderous. My thoughts keep turning to odd indications of new life.

I think about this: at the meeting’s end, one of the board members asked the doctor among us for an update on the COVID-19 situation in the county. The doc said that all the COVID patients have been released from the hospital and are in recovery. In a hospital where they expected to house 350 cases by the peak time of the virus, there are beds waiting and ready for those afflicted. The numbers are far, far less than anticipated.

That was good news in the midst of bad, amid spiking curves of new illness and daily reports of mounting deaths.

But, the doctor added, flattening the curve means lengthening the duration. Social distancing, which is working, may go on for longer than we can foresee.

When I hang up, that is what is in my thoughts. Life has changed. This was a Lent of a different kind of fasting—a giving up of lunchtime meetings, face to face classroom interactions, coffee with friends, writers’ group richness, travel to visit dear ones and to explore.

The winds rattles the windows in my little second floor study. The furnace kicks vigorously on.

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Good Friday.

It is cold on Friday morning. Sweet gum pods scatter all over the front lawn; one trash can again threw itself out into the backyard. Broken branches litter the driveway.

We need a treat, even on this somber day of fast and abstinence. I mix up a batch of potato chip cookie dough and put a plate over the top of the bowl. I sweep the kitchen and bathroom floors, and I run downstairs to get my new mop.

While the boyos pull their coats on, lace up sneakers, and head out to the car, I quick mop all the hard floors, then pull the door closed behind me.

And we go off to walk at the college.

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We come home feeling wind-burned and vital. I turn the oven on and decide to make big cookies, rather than bite-sized ones, for a change of pace. I spoon large plops of dough, studded with butterscotch, milk, and semi-sweet chocolate chips, eight or ten to a tray.

They spread and rise and settle, golden brown, and I spatula them onto the big pizza pan to cool.

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For lunch I make a tuna sandwich. The boyos eat leftovers. Mark, who has declared that, at 65 years of age, he is exempt from any kind of fasting or abstinence, eats the last grilled Sahlen dog. Jim (who says, “I’m spiritual, not religious. And I eat meat.”) reheats a pork burrito.

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After lunch, I struggle back into my sneakers for my afternoon walk; I will walk during the time when, in olden days, we might be in church. Solitary walks free my mind, clean my lungs, are a sort of moving meditative prayer in themselves, so this feels right for a solemn day of remembrance.

But my aging hammer toe, which rubs against the roof of my otherwise very nice sneaker, rebels. It will settle down, I know, as I walk, but later, it will be red and sore.

A tiny sacrifice, I think, but then I’m derailed from starting off by a package on the steps. It holds my new hiking sandals, arrived one day early. I rip off the packaging outside, stuff it in the trash, go inside and wash my hands.

Then I take the sandals, an Easter gift to myself, from their box. They are not glamorous; they have thick sturdy soles and tough black fabric straps that secure with Velcro. They fit perfectly, and they do not rub my bent and aching toe.

I march off, a geek in sandals and thick gray socks. It is the best, most comfortable stride I have had in weeks.

I walk during the hours when, as a child, I would have knelt in church, praying in solemn, incense-soaked silence; joining the throng of pilgrims who bow to kiss the feet of the crucified Christ, held by the priest and his helper. The helper wiped the long-toed, fragile-looking feet after each kiss, and then the next supplicant bent and kissed them in turn.

I imagine that happening in a time of COVID, and I realize this pandemic has changed many, many things.

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I think about the pollution that has lifted from China, from India, from New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, as we hunker down in our isolation. Perhaps the Earth has its own way of getting humans to pay attention to its needs; perhaps we’d better listen.

I think of the fact that we have not shopped in two weeks, and that we have been just fine, thank you: not deprived at all, not even beset by junk food cravings. We’ve said, Mark and I, that we will do things differently after this: we will shop twice a month, and creatively use what we have in the meantime. We may even send our grocery order off electronically and just pick it up or have it delivered, keeping our impulse-susceptible selves away from retail enticements.

I think of the people with whom I’ve reconnected during these at-home days, and of the bonds that have deepened.

The whipping wind makes me think of that old adage: it’s an ill wind that blows no good.

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The solemn hours of the Passion pass into the vacuum, the quiet time, after the crucifixion. This—Friday night, Saturday—provides time to let the meaning settle, to acknowledge the supreme sacrifice made on behalf of humankind.

Time to think too, of the people who have died from COVID 19…the babies and the parents and the grandparents, the single and the paired, the artists and workers and the caregivers, the ordinary and extraordinary: much-needed and much-loved, every one.

I think of my oft betrayal of this Earth—my use of randomly disposed plastic, my arrogant waste of water, my willful driving to places I could easily walk. I think that the Earth is teaching me discipline and care during these pandemic days.

I think of dearly missed people lost to death, and the thought of some kind of resurrection, of reconnection, brings hope.

This is not a ‘usual’ Holy Week; my thoughts whip along with the manic wind, but now I try to settle into the waiting time.

When Sunday dawns, we three will celebrate with cinnamon rolls and hoarded Easter goodies, with a dinner of plump roast chicken, with walks, if it doesn’t rain too much, and with texts and emails  and calls that extend the web of our stay-at-home world.

We will think of new life, and we will interpret that concept with a new and unforeseen lens.

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Easter is the celebration of new life, and this pandemic sits us down, grabs our cheeks, and makes us focus. “Look on this,” it says. “Look on this, and think about what new life needs to be.”

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?

An Era of Magical Thinking

I get up at 6:30, when Mark leaves the bathroom, and I run in to shower. I wash and style my hair—already too long, already getting that billowy, blowsy look my hair gets when left untended by professional hands for too long. I put on make-up and a freshly ironed shirt and good jeans, and I go downstairs.

Jim is up, playing video games in the basement. He has been up, he says, since 5:00. Just couldn’t sleep. “Maybe,” he says, “I drank too much caffeinated iced tea yesterday.”

Maybe, I think, we are all on edge, all waiting.

In our county, we wait for the plague to descend. I go out to the get the morning paper and the headlines tell me the descent has begun. In this small rural corner of the world, we now have our first documented case of the COVID-19 virus. A 49-year old man who’d been visiting out of state…His contacts have been identified and notified…

And so it begins, I think, feeling the edges seep closer. I want to stand on tiptoe; I want to climb onto a high cabinet. I want to keep my feet dry.

I want to keep my family safe.

But I am going shopping, going to Kroger during the Old Folks and Feeble Peoples Hour. I am going to try to stock up for two weeks so that we don’t have to do any more retail running for at least that long.

I have my list. If I do this right, I think; if I get in there and get out, get everything we need…

The parking lot is fairly full. I park as far away as I can; I cozy up next to the furthest cart return station. It rained most of the night, but now the sky is blazing orchid over the river. The air is fresh, and I walk briskly on the glistening pavement into the supermarket.

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I select fresh spinach and green leaf lettuce and four big russet potatoes. I do not find a spiral ham; but spareribs are on sale; they’re buy one get one free. I cross off ‘ham,’ and write in ‘ribs.’

There are no more boneless chicken breasts in stock.  But there are plump little roasting hens. I put one of those in the cart, and cross off ‘chicken.’

I round the corner and my potatoes tumble out of their gauzy bag. I stop, shove the list in a pocket, and root around the cart, cornering errant spuds. I pack them up again, tuck them into a firm corner, and think that I ought, first, to check for eggs and toilet paper.

I get the last twelve-pack of TP; this, I think, must be a very good omen.

I get two cartons of free-range eggs, 18 per carton.

Eggs and TP: my two big worries. Lightened, I reach in my pocket for my carefully written list.

It is gone.

A blind wave of panic hits me, and I retrace my steps, ignoring nasty looks from people who obviously think I am willfully going the wrong way. I stop and search my pockets thoroughly. I explore every corner of my purse and every pocket of my wallet. I check every inch of the store that I’ve already been to.

I do not find the shopping list. This feels like the kind of foolish failure that can lead to disaster.

Slowly, avoiding any kind of human contact, I cruise the store, trying hard to remember all the things we needed. Then I check out and wheel my way to the back of the parking lot, load up the trunk, carefully put the cart in the handy rack.

I am halfway home when I remember I didn’t buy mozzarella.

If only, I think.

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Mark stayed home to help me unload and put groceries away. We find places for weeks’ worth of snacks, and he exclaims over organic chocolate milk: treats in times of terror, I think.

Then he heads off to work, maybe his last day for a while; Monday will see government employees working from home.

I sit at the desk and open my college email, download papers, respond to students.

I work diligently, but at 10:00, I rouse James, who has fallen asleep on the loveseat in the family room.

Time to walk, I say, and he sighs but lurches up and gets ready, laces up his shoes, and gathers his phone. He plays music,— Beatles, Talking Heads,— in the car. When we get to the college, he pushes his ear buds in, and we head off in opposite directions.

The college pathways are much less populated than the fitness trail’s, and the expanse is more generous. We loop around the perimeter of the campus, meeting just about halfway, and then we complete our circuits and meet up again at the car.

The fresh air, I think, coursing through our lungs…it’s got to be good.

At home, I work on grading papers for the course that finishes up this weekend, write my weekend, “What’s coming this week,” epistles for the courses that keep on going. I send some students their final grades, contact the LMS instructor to ask about an error message that keeps popping up, develop assignments for these last weeks of enforced on-line learning.

It is supposed to rain early in the afternoon, so I interrupt the course work to go for two more walks. By 1:00, I have my steps in for the day.

I am doing everything I am supposed to do.

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I take out chicken broth for tonight’s soup dinner. I throw a load of towels in the washer. I wash up the dishes in the sink, and I dutifully eat last night’s leftovers for lunch.

I take yesterday’s scraps out to the compost bin.

I grade more papers, and I change laundry over.

I work some more on the courses, and I fold towels and put them away.

Just before Mark is due home, I look up recipes for Italian Wedding Soup. We have a method—chicken broth, tiny meatballs, ditalini, chopped spinach,—but maybe, I think, there’s a little twist, a better way. I find Giada’s recipe; it is pretty much like my method, but just before the soup is done, she whisks two eggs with two tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, and then she fork-stirs that into the soup.

The eggs, she writes, solidify in tasty, cheesy strands.

Mark comes home, carrying his office essentials in a box; he drops those in his home office, and we stand together by the simmering soup, watching what happens when we stir in cheesy eggs. The broth thickens and lightens; tiny strands of eggy goodness form, and we ladle out big scoops of the steaming stuff into thick white soup bowls. Jim takes another nap on the love seat while we devour our first bowls and then split the remaining soup.

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I’ve walked; I’ve done my coursework. I’ve shopped and cooked and done laundry. I am vigilantly reading the books in my TBR stack. I go outside when the walls march too close, when life feels frustrating for a moment. I breathe deep gulps of fresh air and I force my neck to relax.

I think of childhood worries, of magical deals I made with myself—don’t step on cracks, don’t sass back, don’t be a brat—and then it will all work out: everything will be good, no one will be hurt, everyone will be happy.

Magical thinking: that anything I might do could have an impact on huge and potentially disastrous things.

And yet…

…if I do this right; if I don’t complain; if I work really hard…

Won’t that keep us safe? I wheedle.

I’m being ridiculous, I know. This is not a wave to be deterred by retaining walls built with good intentions. Neither logic nor magic are operational here.

Still, I heave myself up onto that fictional cabinet and watch the flood creep in. And I fold the hot, clean wash cloths and stack them just so, and think, “See? I’m being so careful. I’m doing it RIGHT.”

Helplessly, I invoke the protection of deeds done just so, performed perfectly well. And I cling to an expert’s prediction that the peak may have already passed.

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Be safe, my friends. Be safe.