Memoir Writing

Quarantine Coping Skills: When the Apocalypse Looks A Lot Like Homemaking

I try to laugh when I realize the apocalypse looks like homemaking. Who would’ve thought quarantine coping skills would entail so much housework? But, as far as world-altering scenarios go this one has been like a quiet unfolding. Covid-19 seems to signal the end of life as we knew it, but it whispers and niggles at us through creeping numbers, irregular responses, and strange debates between optimistic news and pessimistic realities. Last week, I saw questions like, “Who even knows someone with Coronavirus?” This week, I see those same friends sharing articles explaining how lungs fill with fluid to trigger drowning.

Coping with quarantine is a wild variable: pajammed vacations, a shift to work from home without less to do: busy, yet isolating. Not everyone is at home. Once-straightforward roles like retail and delivery now come with an increasingly high level of life-threatening risk. Today in the grocery store, I saw a man and woman loudly fight in front of their kids about what to buy to keep the kids quiet for another week. Tempers and tension, invisible loneliness and aerosol bacteria. We live in strange times.*

At home, our dog often looks puzzled. She mopes from room to room, checking on us in our separate rooms: my husband and I each in our offices as we work from home, our son as he games and (sometimes) does school from home. I think she and the cat are confused as to why we never leave now. We pat her head and she moves onto the next room and at dinner, when we are all together, she sits beneath our chairs and sighs.

There’s been a lot of sighing from all of us in recent weeks.

Is this a good time?

I’ve been wondering about the writers. I’ve been watching as Reece Witherspoon’s Binc campaign for Indie booksellers kicks off and as authors like Glennon Doyle launch books in the midst of quarantine, tours canceled. I’ve sat on my manuscript and wondered at the timing. Is this the worst time to query? Are publishers taking on authors right now? Or, is the best time to query, as agents work from home, perhaps with more time to read emails?

When this started––or at least started for us in Florida––I marveled at the quiet skies, at the calming, decelerating vibrations of the world around me. Then, a heavy sadness set in. I have kids across the country and in the military; they feel farther away than ever and will assuredly be in more danger than this mama could imagine. The worries on quarantine are real, tangible, and vivid. Young people do get sick. People do die alone. All of the usual things are still present, especially in hospitals: strokes and heart attacks and car accidents.

Grace came to me in the form of green onions. I held the stalk in my hands on the fourth day of self-quarantine and looked at the thick hair-like roots of the onion while I stood by the sink. What would happen if I planted it? Would it grow? What else could I grow? And as soon as I asked myself that question, my quarantine coping mechanism became projects. The green onions were a pivot point into action.

Old skills came back to life. I wrote about homemaking in a pandemic and remembered I knew how to do things. I knew how to get by in times of scarcity because I’d lived through a strange season in my years as an evangelical fundamentalist that combined poverty with self-sustaining homemaking skills. Poverty is romanticized in that community because it provides a way to demonstrate you know how to do for yourself. You don’t need a second income. You don’t need the government to provide assistance. Good wives learned how to make a dollar stretch so they could stay home with their children.

I’d honestly loved that because staying home with my babies had been my dream. Poverty or not, I’m not sorry for those years. My kids grew up in creativity and resilience and those experiences are serving them now. I did, however, think I forgot how to do things, once I didn’t need a garden or toilet paper alternatives or to substitute ingredients due to scarcity. There hasn’t been any scarcity in my modern American suburban life for a very long time.

Projects as Quarantine Coping Skills:

The green onions triggered a request for raised garden beds, which my husband built the same day I asked because, it turns out, projects are good quarantine coping mechanisms for him too. Within two days we had three beds built and filled with dirt, compost, plants, and seeds.

We ordered chicks and he started learning about backyard chicken tractors. I showed him pictures from the crude one I’d built on my own in Tennessee.

I learned how to make my own kombucha and knock-off Perfect Bars, in case I couldn’t get them from the store.

I found a no-knead bread recipe that keeps in the fridge for up to two weeks. It’s so easy it almost makes itself.

I ordered peri bottles and flannel wipes to use instead of toilet paper, as I’d done back when I was cloth diapering my babies. This is ridiculously easy and much cleaner than paper. I still don’t understand the quarantine run on toilet paper but it does good to remember that most cultures aren’t bulk-buying massive packs of TP to wipe their butts. Can you imagine that happening in the desert?

I inventoried my canning supplies and bought freezer bags.

I stopped wasting food.

A friend suggested that projects like mine were helpful because they’re future-minded. “A garden is Hope,” she said.

My son said, “I like it when Mom bakes. It makes me feel safe.”

Tearfully hearing that, I tried to stop beating myself up for not getting all of his sudden-homeschooling figured out. What he needs now was to feel safe. We all do.

The backyard chicken tractor I built myself back when my kids were small.

Covid-19 is not just like the flu. But…what about that flu?

I keep sensing this could last a long time. The suggestion of 18 months doesn’t seem unreasonable in light of history and the way viruses spread and mutate. What does that mean for the future? For fun things football season? For schools? For travel and family get-togethers? What does a long pandemic season look like for our careers, calling, and purpose? What does it mean for my kids? For my son’s college education? For my book?

I often read from Willa Cather’s letters before my meditation. Today, with those questions weighing on my mind, I wondered again at how life was during the Spanish Flu, which she lived through and which lasted two years. What was life like for mothers, writers, artists? I sat down asking that and reached for the book of her letters. It opened to 1916-1922: the years her career took off. The Spanish Flu pandemic lasted from 1918-1920.

Willa kept busy with travel, visiting family and friends, and her work. Peppered stories with incidental notes of people dying cause me to wonder if they knew at the time that they were in the midst of a pandemic? Or is that a container built in hindsight? The world kept turning. People were doing their work; she wrote stories that were published and sold. Day to day, not much changed. She, and those around her, remained present in their moment. They knew what they had before them in a day.

I know my purpose too. I know the work I have ahead of me in a day. I know how I’m supposed to spend my hours and what my job is here. What I don’t know is how that work will be received. I have no say in how it’s consumed–be it book or loaf of bread.

Willa’s connections, her networks––a pueblo in Taos, trips to Red Cloud, trains back to New Hampshire––these are all parts of the life she lived during the years of the pandemic. She wrote Song of the Lark and My Antonia and so many short stories during those years. She spent time with family, and doted on nieces she called East and West Virginia. If her letters are any reflection of what life was like in that age, they show people and characters getting up, doing their work, maintaining connections over the distances because that was living their life in contrast to the long list each of them had of those who no longer could.

Where would we be without connections? Why would we be? We are more than just related to one another; we’re interdependent. The writer and the reader, the nourisher and the hungry, the provider and the consumer, the sick and the healer, the child and the parent. None of us makes sense without the other. That’s why there’s love in our work, whatever it is. Our projects aren’t just coping mechanisms and skills to use in quarantine; our projects and work are how we love each other. They’re how we live in a time when so many others are dying.

I wonder how many prayers were breathed into hand-scrubbed laundry in 1918, prayers set free as sheets billowed on clotheslines in the summer breeze. How many remembrances have been kneaded into loaves of bread? How much rage at what was out of control went into a hammer-driven nail. How much devotion does it take to tell stories that entertain when all of humanity is frightened and craves distraction? I wonder if the store clerk knows I appreciate her smile as she scans groceries I touched today.

The news reminds me to Beware and I hear it as BE AWARE.

Be aware. Proceed but do it with caution. Live, but live in awareness. Don’t’ stop. Don’t sulk. Keep going, but watch and notice as you do. Wake up now. Be aware.

Be aware of the dragonfly as it skims across the morning water.

Be aware of the finches and blackbirds conversing in the trees. The fish are jumping. Your son seems to have grown another half-inch in the night. That conversation begs to linger. Be aware.

Be aware of the touch, touch, touch of so many hands on the items you bought from the store. Wash and be aware of every second out of twenty. Feel the burning tingle of pollen in your lungs and put your hands on your inhaler. Tell your family where to find it if you are constricted and can not tell them where it is. Be aware today.

Hug someone with a gaze. Succumb to the slowness now that no one needs to be in a hurry. Feed the dog and thank her for her vigilant watch, for her awareness. Notice the crunch of the cat’s kibble between his tiny, sharp teeth. Marvel, there’s no looming cargo plane overhead to drown the sound. Begin a loaf of bread now you won’t eat until hours from now because you are both living in the moment and looking ahead.

History decided the narrative of the pandemic we call the Spanish Flu. We see death counts and rooms crammed full of beds. But to the milkman, the builders, the mothers, the artists, the teachers, the farmers…those years were life. Their days were spent living life, doing their work, a day and a task at a time.

This apocalypse does look like homemaking…like finding ways to cope with scarcity and looking inside of ourselves to see what we’re made of so we can find ways for life to go on. History tells us it will––but it also shows us how.

Life goes on because we go on. We do our work today and we do it again tomorrow, and we don’t wait for things to get better or be over. We’re aware of our lives and what’s happening and we move on.

*This post is dedicated to the memory of my daughter, Clara Irene, on what would have been her twenty-first birthday.

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