As we enter week six of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the sun rises on a new day of sameness – Richard Rhor’s words of wisdom, the sound of my fingers on my keyboard, the plan for a morning run, the writing of tomorrow’s lesson plan, the prep for a virtual talk at the end of the week, the blessing of a walk with a friend (six feet apart), virtual meetings with colleagues.
Outside of Zoom meetings and the planned walk in the Indiana Dunes National Park, all other events are on my own time – open options for how to spend the hours as long as the papers are graded, the lesson objectives are met, and a few minor tasks are accomplished (or put off until tomorrow).
Gone are the days of having every minute count, of cognitive awareness of the value of the next fifteen minutes – what can I do right now to best use this time? I look back at when the kids were young. On Sunday mornings, as Tim helped the kids get in the van to go to church, I switched the load from the washing machine to the dryer. Each week, we entered St. Paul’s at the end of the entrance hymn . . . because of me. If the kids were engrossed in building a Lego city, I could feed the baby, clean the kitchen and maybe wash some windows – anything not to attack the stacks of papers to grade on the dining room table. Little piles of five essays – forever waiting for my Zen flow when I would plow through them while taking periodic breaks to empty the dishwasher or sort some laundry.
Now our kids are grown and live across the country – Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Brooklyn. We don’t schedule FaceTime or House Party – all virtual gatherings are spontaneous when it comes to the family. Last week had an exception. My granddaughter Eileen and I booked a Zoom date for a Silly Hair Snacktime Story Hour. Eileen’s pigtails bobbed in unison with mine, and for a few minutes, I felt like I was five instead of fifty-seven. The pure one-on-one focus lit up my world as I tried to explain the word “invisible” in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Children’s stories have such an incredibly relevant level of complexity, and Eileen got it. Later, she told her mom all about the king who strutted the streets in his underwear out of fear of being called “simpleminded,” another tough word to define. Who writes these stories?
Another big highlight of last week was a Zoom happy hour with my childhood friends from Chicago. It was great to see their faces in the seven squares on the screen, a new version of Romper Room. The turn taking and question and answer lacked the chaos of our normal gatherings, yet their strong personalities, quirkiness, and wit prevails. All but two of us still live in “the neighborhood,’ meaning St. Cajetan and the adjoining southside parishes. I was transported back to the days on Maplewood as they told stories of celebrating a 92-year-old’s birthday with a walking parade complete with posters and balloons on the sidewalk in front of his house.
These days, when I do get a time sensitive request, adrenaline soars through my system. Yes! Someone needs me! Tim might send an e-mail to me – from the other room – and ask that I review his firm’s correspondence for clarity. Woosh! I get a flush of affirmation. Someone thinks I have something to offer. And that feels good.
But I don’t need that woosh. Or I shouldn’t need it. Where is the balance between wanting to contribute to the world and being content with simply being? Friends have said to me, “You have to do something.” And I always agree. Yes. I think of Gandhi – “Be the difference you want to see in the world.” I want to see compassion, caring, Arbinger’s Outward Mindset. What can I do that exemplifies love?
Once a week, I call my mom who cannot have visitors in her nursing home. On Saturday, she asked me, “What’s new?” Hmm, daffodils got a covering in snow yesterday. My hair is getting really, really long. The schools are closed for the rest of the academic year. Senior citizens at a neighboring nursing home facility to yours are dying of COVID-19. (I did not tell her that, but I did tell her that some had been diagnosed with the virus.) I’ve learned that the weather is always new – and safe.
I FaceTime with my grandchildren and send them Melissa and Doug artsy crafts and puzzles to fuel their creativity during this time of no school. I think I am enhancing their small motor skills by sending a package labeled Fun with Scissors. Who names a children’s product Fun with a Sharp Object? I click “purchase” online and get a sense of there, I’ve done something good.
I lend a David Sadaris book to our friend next door who lives alone. I send birthday cards to my dear friends Kathy and Teresa. I send sympathy cards every week. What is happening to my friends’ parents? When did we get to be this age? We should be playing Trivia Pursuit at each other’s kitchen tables. I attend a funeral of a beloved art professor and stand six-feet apart outside, bells tolling as the family and hearse enter St. Patrick’s Church.
I do little things. And I need nothing. I buy toothpaste on Amazon and look at the Deal of the Day. I scroll and nothing looks good. I identify this mindlessness as a waste of time. Ironically, there feels like there’s a lot of time to waste. There is no rush. And I hate it when I see that I have accomplished very little. What is that? The results of some underlying Puritanical culture? You can’t tell me that there wasn’t a lot of hanging around in Ireland. I see it in photos. But maybe the photos were the one time the people stopped working the fields to look up.I imagine they had to work all day to put a meal on the table and keep their shelter warm. They didn’t just turn up the thermostat and open the frig to gather leftovers from last night.
I have not been to the store in over four weeks. I thought I needed a mask, and my sister Eileen gave me a beauty that she made from a muted flowered maternity dress. Her youngest is eighteen, so she’s hung on to that fabric for years just for this special occasion. I keep the mask in my car just in case I get the guts to go to the store. I have not been inside a building other than my house since March 14 and today is April 20.
On Friday, I planned to go to the post office to send Katie a book, but I chickened out. Instead, I put twelve stamps on a big brown envelope, rolled the dice, and stuck it in our mailbox with the flag up.
I stay home except for walks and runs outside. When COVID-19 first hit, I thought it would be okay to get it – no big deal – get it over with. That was the me who sometimes thinks she’s eighteen talking. The one whose prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. She surfaces once in a while – usually after too much wine. I stay put because I have a funky little auto-immune disorder that might stick me on a respirator if I get this virus. I’m no gambler, and I’m not shooting craps. And I’m not going to use a hospital bed that someone else needs more than me just because I want to pick out my own bananas.
Be the difference you want to see in the world. Ghandhi had it right. I want to see the researchers and doctors figure out how to control this terrible virus, and I don’t want to do anything to get in the way of that. I stay put.