God, come to my assistance.
O Lord, make haste to help me.
The Liturgy of the Hours comes to my mind often these pandemic days. Not the particulars, but the concept: structuring one’s time around periods of mindfulness and meditation. Structuring them around anything at all. Almost twenty-five years of working at home have taught me the importance of routine: getting up, getting dressed, taking the dog for a walk, doing a few quick chores before sitting down to write. Even making a cup of tea slots into its place in the morning. But now it is, for me at least, too easy to pick at the news like an itching mosquito bite, letting it ruin the flow of my days. Even though I know it isn’t healthy. Knowledge is good. Obsession is not. It has been years since I’ve sustained a steady meditative practice outside of the occasional yoga, but old habits fortunately die hard. When I grow fretful, I try to remind myself to observe the emotions and then let them drift away. There will be a vaccine or there won’t. Immunity conferred through recovery will be temporary, permanent, or non-existent. Science can’t be rushed, and there won’t be answers today or tomorrow.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t I need to remind myself to watch my irritation at failure just drift away too. So when I decide to research exactly what the liturgy looks like on Wednesday of the 5th week of Eastertide, Our Lady of Fátima, it is with dry amusement that I see the words above, so appropriate to the times for matters large and small.
5 a.m. Lauds
He so flatters himself in his mind
that he knows not his guilt.
In his mouth are mischief and deceit.
All wisdom is gone.
Even before the pandemic I was often awake at five. Now that dawn comes early I even generally enjoy it. We have a large, high trapezoidal window in the bedroom that we don’t cover so the natural light awakens us. Often I’ll lie in bed watching an oak branch stir in a light breeze, then let my gaze wander over the wall full of books opposite the bed. I don’t actually read print books very often anymore – I’ve definitely become a Kindle girl – but I still like to have them in the house.
But this morning I wake up a little angry, after a nightmare in which maskless men were marauding through a town. They mirrored what I had been reading the night before, when individuals demanding “normality” meet a business sector that wants to keep their customers safe and clashes – whether over mask-wearing or social distancing – grow violent. A pizzeria with a broken window. A park ranger shoved into a lake. A security guard with a broken arm at Target. A murdered employee at a dollar store.
For a while I contemplate the degree to which I don’t understand them, these COVID-19 deniers. Here in California their vitriol toward the governor astonishes me. They snarl of plots to take away your freedom. But when I watch Gavin Newsom’s briefings (which I don’t do very often, preferring written news to the slow unwinding of speech), he looks to me to be exhausted, his eyes red-rimmed. Those are not the eyes of a gleeful conqueror, but of someone who is working well beyond overtime to try to balance a set of very difficult and competing tensions. How to reopen the economy without killing people. Not a task that I envy.
Meanwhile opponents storm beaches and city halls, in California and elsewhere, largely eschewing masks and crowding together in tight spaces. In a bitter moment I wish them the deaths they don’t believe in. Then I flinch and try to take the thought back. But this internal dialog isn’t productive, intellectually or emotionally, so I look at the canvas-wrapped photo of a Buddha tucked into a fern-lined rock niche, taken on a visit to Big Sur some years ago, and let the negative thoughts drift away. I can’t control what is happening in Georgia, or Texas, or Huntington Beach.
6 a.m. Prime
To both man and beast you give protection.
O Lord, how precious is your love.
At 6:15 the dog slides onto her feet, shakes herself and begins to click-clack around the bedroom to tell me that she needs to go out. She is capable of being nearly silent when she walks; right now she has no desire to be. In the dim light I thread her memory foam bed in front of the bookshelf and the light plastic, carpet-lined steps that let her climb up onto our bed when she’s feeling needy or unwell, past the hammock-style bed with a thin pad on top of it that she’s favored lately.
It sounds excessive. Perhaps it is. But she’s old and suffering from kidney disease, and every time she slips to a new, slightly worse plateau we do what we can to keep her comfortable. This is for her, but also for us. We’ve discovered that she’s most likely to be distressed in the evening and at night – with the weary wryness of those who have lived with Alzheimer’s we call her a “sundowner” – and if she can sleep then we can too.
At the door I take off her washable nighttime diaper and the brightly colored surgical suit she wears to keep it in place. She had no accidents in the night, which is a good – if rare – event. I let her outside, fill her bowl with a half cup of kidney friendly food, a fish oil capsule, and a probiotic wrapped in cream cheese. This is the first of six meals, half of them accompanied by medication. For the past few weeks we’ve been struggling with her appetite, and smaller portions offered more frequently seem to mostly keep her from feeling nauseated.
We seldom travel when our dogs reach this stage of infirmity, with all of its complications and discomforts, so in this regard at least the pandemic has not particularly circumscribed our horizons. But loss looms ever closer, and some days I don’t feel like I have the emotional reserves to handle it when it inevitably comes. I take a deep breath, and let the thought drift away. For she is here, with us, in this moment.
9 a.m. Terce
My foes encircle me with deadly intent.
My early morning routine is largely fixed in stone. Feed the dog, walk the dog (a slow, short walk, repeated two or three times in the day), go up to the game room over the garage and do some kind of more vigorous exercise – cardio, core, kickboxing. I exercise to a set of Weight Watchers DVDs I found on Amazon before the pandemic (ripped and stored on our NAS box for streaming through our PS4, lest I sound like more of a Luddite than I am). It offers different intensity levels, which at my age is A Good Thing. Thanks to them and my improved diet I’ve recently gotten my BMI below the level believed to increase the odds of hospitalization from COVID-19 complications, which is A Very Good Thing.
After that I make breakfast: granola (1/2 cup), yogurt (1/4 cup), and whatever fruit came in our CSA box or from the local market. Until now it would feel like any pre-pandemic day, save that I deliver a second bowl to my husband, who is setting up for his workday in the study. The shoji door is open, so he is not currently on Zoom.
I sit down to work myself, usually curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea. But today I sit quietly for a time and look out at the yard, which is at its springtime best. The chaste tree we thought had died in an early frost last year has put out shoots and is now two feet tall. The ceanothus is becoming unruly with new growth, the pink breath of heaven resplendent with its tiny pale flowers. It looks like any other May.
Then my gaze ranges over two thyme bushes that I transplanted a few weeks ago from their root-bound pots. Before the pandemic I most likely would have thrown them in the yard waste, but now they are carefully moved to a new home. We did the same with the blackberry bushes in a horse trough that we wanted to use for tomatoes. They struggled from transplant shock, but I sprayed them for aphids, trimmed them back and watered them generously and now they are putting out abundant new shoots. Perhaps the deer will end up eating all of the blackberries. But at least the plants survived.
Why the sudden and drastic change? For the same reason I previously used Kleenex and paper towels and plastic bags with abandon, not thinking whether there was a less wasteful alternative. For the same reason that I no longer toss out beet greens and carrot tops, but make them into pesto. That I freeze the last few tablespoons of chicken broth I don’t need in an ice cube tray and make use of it later. That I darn socks instead of throwing them away and replacing them.
Because things can’t be taken for granted anymore. Not the ability to obtain goods on demand, not the safety of a casual trip to the grocery store. Because the measures I used to take for the sake of the environment, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of social justice, bending or breaking them when they became inconvenient – which happened all too often – now have the force of necessity. I’m ashamed of my cavalier behavior in the past, and resolve to do better in the future. When I feel safe moving about more freely. If I ever feel safe moving about more freely.
Our life, like a bird, has escaped
from the snare of the fowler.
The hour before lunch there are generally more chores to tend to. Today the box from Talley Farms arrives, and I unpack it, wash my hands, sort through it and store everything for maximum longevity, wash my hands again, and rummage through my cookbooks and Paprika app looking for suitable meals.
I toss the CSA’s storage instructions into the trash and visit the oracles of the Internet, who have taught me many useful things about keeping fruits and vegetables. That rot can be delayed with moist items like berries, cucumber, and lettuce by cradling them in a paper towel before putting them in a plastic bag. That the longevity of many herbs can be extended by propping them in a mason jar with a little water and covering them with a plastic bag. (This is true of scallions and asparagus too.) That many vegetables can be blanched and then vacuum sealed and frozen for later use. That alliums – onions, leeks, etc. – can be chopped, briefly pre-frozen on a baking sheet, and then vacuum sealed before freezing them the rest of the way.
Then cookbooks pile up on the counter as I knit together a waste-free menu out of what I have on hand, what I’m likely to find at the market, and what I can substitute without ruining the meal. The latter has been a hard skill for me to acquire. Abundant choice and my own natural rigidity made it difficult for me to stray far from a recipe, and since ingredients were easy to come by I didn’t need to. Now I sort my herbs into rough categories and freely switch between them, leaning far more heavily into rosemary and thyme than I used to because we have bushels of it around the yard. “Mushroom” has become a generic item – whatever the market has on hand is just fine. Fontina? Cheddar? Mozzarella? Whatever is in the fridge is good enough. My husband has always been better at improvising than I am. But I’m slowly getting the hang of it.
Before the CSA (and a quarterly box from our local butcher) meal planning during the pandemic was often stressful. I’d put together a shopping list and find half the ingredients missing for three-quarters of the things I planned to make. Now I can start from a small pile of certainty, and improvise around the edges. Under the circumstances, even that modicum of control brightens my mood.
This is a fairly representative week’s menu:
- Beet green frittata.
- Bar-style tortilla pizzas topped with bell pepper, pepperoni and ‘nduja.
- Vegetarian bibimbap with kimchi (homemade).
- Peas, ham and mint in a cream sauce on polenta.
- Roasted beet, goat cheese and spinach salad with a marcona almond vinaigrette.
- Linguini (homemade) with roasted cauliflower in a brown butter sauce.
- Vegan burger mix (homemade) with pita bread (also homemade) and tzatziki.
I always did enjoy cooking, and always planned meals, and always shopped for a week’s worth of food at a time. So in the midst of the pandemic the times of the day occupied in cooking and planning for cooking are some of the most normal, even contemplative, moments I have. In that context even cleaning the kitchen becomes a soothing meditation. In the midst of turmoil and uncertainty, some things – for now – endure.
3 p.m. None
They go out, they go out, full of tears,
carrying seed for the sowing:
they come back, they come back, full of song,
carrying their sheaves.
At some point in the afternoon I go outside to tend to the vegetable garden. We weren’t sure if we would be able to pull off having one this year, since when I drove past our local hardware store where we would ordinarily pick up plants the parking lot was packed to the gills and I had no desire to go inside. A neighbor offered us some of the bounty from her greenhouse, so after a socially distanced trip to her yard we emerged with a tomatillo, a lemon cucumber and three tomato plants. Which was lovely, but hardly enough to fill up our planters once we’d shuffled our erratically growing onions off to the garage to dry.
Then I got it in my head to buy seed packets online. They were as popular as everything else that doesn’t involve going into a store, but diligent rummaging through the site eventually netted me tomatillos, black cherry tomatoes, Fresno chile peppers, cilantro, sage, thyme, and chives.
I can’t say that I knew what I was doing. I did some reading, and was daunted. Grow lights? Petting the emerging seedlings? Setting them out for several hours a day until they’re ready for transplanting into their permanent homes? I was starting to regret embarking on what increasingly felt like a stressful project during already stressful times. But my husband and I gathered all of the small receptacles we could – empty wood chip containers, egg cartons (which were a water-sucking disaster and I don’t recommend them), old wooden Harry & David gift boxes, DVD spindle lids (from the blank DVDs we’d just thrown away while cleaning out the study to make room for a second pantry) – along with pots and small planters whose former occupants had died over the winter from either cold or squirrel predation – and set to filling them.
It was still cold outside, with the occasional chance of frost, so we covered the dining room table with plastic and a cheery yellow tablecloth and carried in our unsprouted bounty. We made some early mistakes with hydration but more quickly than I expected tiny green heads began poking up everywhere. We’re doing it! I crowed to myself.
The nascent veggies certainly grew…everything but leaves. We stared disconsolately at our low-E windows with their southeastern exposure shaded by a giant oak. There was light…but apparently not enough of it. “Maybe all that complicated advice about hardening is for places that aren’t California?” I suggested hopefully. I wasn’t sure I believed it. But we didn’t really have a choice: we bundled everything up outside and dismantled our dining room nursery.
Mistakes continued to be made, and losses suffered. Presumably I shouldn’t have put the potted herbs on a plant stand that only got morning light, since the cilantro and thyme died and the chives were thready and barely able to hold their own weight. Our attempts to transplant tomatoes met with doom and death, and a bird managed to hop in to what we thought was a sealed enclosure and take out a couple of Fresnos and a tomatillo in its thrashing about to escape. (I got him out safely with a pair of gloves and some herding into a corner, and we shored up our netting afterwards.)
But we refined our tomato technique, and have about half a dozen plants looking upright and healthy. The Fresnos are more tolerant of being moved, and we have ten of them growing away. Our tomatillo seedlings are putting out leaves, and the one gifted us by our neighbor has turned into a benevolent monster that’s already blooming and requires a trellis. I replanted the herbs and gave them more sun, and they’re just starting to sprout.
Most of the plants are still small, and there’s plenty of room for disaster or the possibility that we just started too late. But for now they’re alive, and I rejoice in that and let the thoughts of failure drift away on the afternoon breeze.
6 p.m. Vespers
I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
Typically later on the day when the CSA box arrives my husband and I make a trip to our local nonprofit market to round out our meals for the coming week. We have a definite routine worked out: he wields the phone where the grocery list resides. I leave my phone at home so I’m not tempted to touch it and pick up items as he reads them off.
The market’s owner is a slight woman with large, blue eyes above her mask. She works hard to keep the store stocked and takes weekly special requests if she doesn’t have something that you really want. She employs a chef who cooks healthy daily meals and packs them into returnable mason jars for customers who can’t face cooking themselves. Once a week or so she hosts a virtual concert for a local musician on her patio and streams it on her Facebook page, paying them in groceries and encouraging viewers to tip if they enjoy the music .
She matches all donations to a fund she has set up to aid others who might be struggling, and is careful to let you know when you donate where the money is going. At the moment she is feeding six needy families in the area, as well as delivering sandwiches weekly to a homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo and forty hot meals once a month to another in Atascadero.
The employees are all pleasant and seem very personally invested in what they do, and you can be assured that as you’re walking out with your groceries they are already wiping down the counter and the basket you used. Her market has turned what otherwise would likely have been a stressful experience into the closest possible to a pleasant one, and though all the pandemic rituals of masks and sanitizer and copious hand washing when we return home still come into play, it’s a moment’s respite to be a visitor in an environment where – yes, goods are sold, but also a sense of purpose and charity abound.
7 p.m. Compline
The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.
Evenings generally take one of two directions. Sometimes we meet online with friends to play Borderlands or World of Warcraft. Other times we finish dinner, open a bottle of wine, and sit chatting and relaxing while listening to a playlist or radio station on Spotify. More rarely we’ll make a bowl of popcorn or indulge in some ice cream and watch a show on Netflix. (Which makes me realize how dependent I am on the Internet to maintain some semblance of normality, and how much more isolated I would be if it collapsed for some unforeseen reason.)
This is also not very different from before the pandemic. But somehow it has a qualitatively changed atmosphere to it. I feel more aware, find myself thinking more often, This is a moment that I am having, enjoying the company of others. There is an immediacy of gratitude to social interaction that I didn’t feel before.
Often this is also the time of day that I will, as the old saying goes, “count my blessings.” That I have something of a monastic bent to my personality, which makes extended time in one place not particularly unpleasant to endure. That the one place has some space to move around in. That I have a husband and a dog to share it with, and though the dog can sometimes test my patience, my spouse and I have a generally low-key, low-conflict relationship.
Rather than rehearse the negatives – that I can’t have a chowder bread bowl at Splash in Pismo, or drive up to Ragged Point for fish and chips, or spend a week hibernating and writing in Cambria, or take the train down to San Diego for a lark like I’d planned for this year, or that I wish I had a fully functioning toilet in the house, I try to pay attention to the positives.
The biggest and most surprising of these is how the days have slowed down, and life opened out before me. I haven’t felt such an easy rhythm to the hours since summers when I was a teenager. But of course, in a way they have slowed down.
Even before the pandemic I generally went grocery shopping only once a week, but it was a more time-consuming affair involving both Trader Joe’s and Vons, and a freeway drive, and a good chunk of Friday mornings. Now that I’ve leaned into local deliveries and online shipping, it’s a twenty minute trip to a market down the street.
In the past I would have had other errands, or appointments, or workers coming to the house for one thing or another (like installing a new toilet). But now nothing disrupts the flow of my days, and the days have begun to have a flow again. I feel more productive, even happier in a strange way, as a result.
Which isn’t to say that they are worry free. But our worries – unlike those of so many others who due to circumstance or systemic injustice live a more precarious life – are largely worries for a future time. We had been dutifully saving for retirement, and were even eyeing the possibility of packing it in early – maybe travel, maybe undertake some serious projects around the house. But now those savings have been savaged, and it’s hard to say when they’ll recover. My husband’s company suspended 401k matching for the rest of the year, which won’t help. But he still has his job in the wake of a round of layoffs, and we have some small cash reserves after debating replacing garage windows so long that the pandemic hit in the midst of deliberations, making the decision for us. So I remain grateful for all that we continue for now (always “for now”) to have, and let thoughts of the unknowable future float away to a future time.
2 a.m. Matins
Liturgical colour: red
Red is the colour of fire and of blood. Liturgically, it is used to celebrate the fire of the Holy Spirit (for instance, at Pentecost) and the blood of the martyrs.
It is the Feast Day of St. Matthias, the apostle who was chosen by lot to take the place of Judas Iscariot after his betrayal of Jesus and then suicide. Vatican II eliminated the observance of Matins, so there are no prayers to recite. The dog is awake. She stands, shakes herself, walks to my side. With a held breath I wait to see what she will do. Some nights she begins to pace inconsolably, and that will end with me on the living room sofa with a blanket, a hand on her fur to calm her as she lies next to me. But tonight she crawls up onto our bed for a few minutes, then returns to her padded hammock and falls asleep.
If I’m awake at this hour I’m probably angry or anxious again. Tonight images of heavily armed Michigan protestors float in the darkness, a thought fully formed in my mind as I shift from sleeping to wakefulness. Don’t you glare at us contemptuously and shout, Stay home then, if you’re afraid. That thought I don’t let drift into the night. I go deeper into its meaning. And realize after half an hour or so that its meaning is this: you don’t know my feelings. You don’t own my narrative. Am I afraid? Perhaps, though after all these months that fear, such as it is, has dispersed across my life like background radiation, whether in doses that prove to be psychologically toxic or not remaining to be seen.
But what I truly am is concerned. Concerned for myself and my family, for my friends and my neighbors. For the grocery clerks, the doctors, the nurses, the meat packers, the nursing home residents and staff, the air traffic controllers (who work in invariant teams to reduce the risk of cross-infection and yet in some cases have still fallen ill)…and on and on. What I want is to reduce suffering, however that my be achieved.
You say that’s what you want too. Open the economy! you cry. The cure is worse than the disease! By shutting you away they’re coming for your freedom!
But all I hear is Fox TV soundbites and contempt, and most likely a fear that runs so deep and unexamined that you think waving guns in the air and calling the governors who are trying to protect you Nazis will assuage it. You believe that crowding into bars even though they are demonstrably proven to be a high-risk environment is…what? Thumbing your nose at the virus?
I don’t know your feelings either. I don’t own your narrative. But I do think that you’re selfish, and a danger to yourself and innocent people around you, and every time you act like a spoiled child by shouting that no one is going to make you wear a mask in defiance of health directives you prove it yet again.
I close my eyes in the darkness. I take a deep breath, then another. I try to let the anger go. I can feel it scrabble into a hole beneath a woodpile of seldom examined thoughts rather than truly dissipating, but at least it’s not occupying the forefront of my mind. On the other hand, I hold tight to the basic truths that this vitriolic, minority slice of society is trying to drown out. I have no intention of being gaslit. And so I remind myself that it’s rational – not merely fearful – to acknowledge that these times are not normal, and that they won’t be for some time (if ever). It’s socially responsible – not craven capitulation – to follow public health directives. It would be socially responsible even if the directives turned out to be wrong. Because they were issued in good faith, on the best available evidence, not by tyrants but by people who care.
Now as states begin to reopen, even the more temperate voices insist on the obviousness that widespread shelter at home policies have caused equally widespread economic hardship to businesses and unemployed individuals. And yet, as those policies are beginning to lift, questions linger [paywall] as to whether this is true. For instance, The Economist points out:
A poll by YouGov…finds that over a third of Americans think it will be “several months” before it will be safe to reopen businesses as normal—which suggests that if businesses do reopen some, at least, may stay away.
And looking to patterns of behavior in Europe, they add:
Research by Niels Johannesen of Copenhagen University and colleagues finds that aggregate-spending patterns in Sweden and Denmark over the past months look similarly reduced, even though Denmark has had a pretty strict lockdown while official Swedish provisions have been exceptionally relaxed. This suggests that personal choice, rather than government policy, is the biggest factor behind the drop. And personal choices may be harder to reverse.
I am among that one-third. I have the extreme good fortune to be able to withdraw into my house on its acre of land, with a wood-burning stove and plenty of charcoal for the barbecue, with flour and beans tucked away in the pantry and fresh vegetables delivered to my door every week. I have no compelling reason to go out and add to the possible infection vectors, and certainly no compelling desire.
If everyone acknowledged the gravity of our situation, if everyone – or even most everyone – vowed to take whatever measures were necessary to safeguard each other, even then I might not venture out more freely. I believe in the sincerity of reopening shop and restaurants’ efforts to keep everything sanitized and their customers safe. But human nature is human nature, and vigilance can always lapse: due to a moment’s inattention or distraction, to garden-variety fatigue or to the exhaustive strain of performing the same steps in a 65-page employee’s guide for working in the pandemic over and over again.
Then there are the customers, some of whom care about protecting themselves and those around them, and some of whom most decidedly…don’t. So amidst the cacophony of “it was all overblown, precautions are ridiculous,” “I need to get out, and you can’t stop me,” and “I don’t feel sick, so everything’s fine,” I’m inclined to remain in the silence of my home and abide there with my peaceful daily routines, letting their careless, callous words drift away.
But then I recall those who don’t have that luxury, and peace eludes me. As, in this case I think, it should. During these pandemic times I often feel that we as humans have come to a point of reckoning. Where we should be looking at our individual lives and our wider social systems and acknowledging that too much of the well-being of the fortunate few comes at the expense of too many others.
But instead there’s a demand for “normality.” Time will tell whether COVID-19 grants us that, or smacks us in the head and tells us to face that reckoning again. And to try harder this time.