My husband came into the kitchen while I was making pancake batter. I hugged him tightly and wouldn’t let go. “You need to stay off the internet today,” he said.
These days, I vacillate wildly between a stern determination to stay calm and a desperate clinging fear for people I love, friends and acquaintances, and people I won’t ever know. So, pretty much everyone.
Yesterday, at our small, local grocery store with its (now concerningly) narrow aisles, neighbors spoke across a designated 6-foot buffer about a whole new work-life paradigm with makeshift home offices, sketchy wifi and stir crazy kids underfoot—All. Day. Long. Some shoppers wore gloves, some wore neck gaiters—ordinarily used for skiing—over their nose and mouth. All the while, the shelf stockers and cashiers carried on, stoically accepting many expressions of thanks for being there, keeping the rest of us supplied with cleaning products, pasta, and (thank goodness) coffee. They didn’t ask to be anyone’s “hero.”
It was heartening to see a good supply of milk, eggs, and even flour after warnings of shortages. When I found myself suddenly choked up, it wasn’t because of the bare toilet paper shelves; it was the empty bin where the lemons should have been. And actually, it wasn’t the lemons at all. It was the lingering, horrifying thought of health workers—some of them friends—making impossible choices every day and saving lives without essential protections.
I am putting all this in a box for now. There is plenty of time in the day to come back and sit with the grief and anger and worry. For the moment, I’m thinking about a walk I took with my husband and daughter the other day in the chilly March sunshine.
My daughter had brought along an old digital SLR camera that our friends had given her in exchange for babysitting their 8-year-old son (services she currently provides via video chat to allow his parents a little focused work time). New to the art of photography, she was interested in learning technique. This led to a discussion about macro and micro perspectives: the snow-frosted mountain landscape in the distance contrasted with a tiny green shoot in the soil marking our spring garlic’s debut.
I’ve been thinking about how our lives in social isolation reflect a similar shift in focus. Before we retreated to our homestead, our attention was outward and sprawling. Where could our frequent flyer miles take us this summer? Would we celebrate my father’s birthday in person? When do the farmer’s markets begin again? Now, we think about how to structure our day, parceling out time for work and schoolwork, fresh air and recreation, cooking and cleaning, talking and alone time. We rake the flowerbeds to make way for the daffodils’ arrival. We undertake new, complicated baking projects to keep our hands busy and feed our cravings for sweetness. We sing 20-second songs as we wash our hands. Wash our hands. Wash our hands.
Our world—the range of our perspective—has shrunk to the contents of our home. Every snack, every meal is prepared and consumed right here, not out in the world at a coffee shop or pub. Channeling my grandmothers who stretched their larders during the Depression, I’ve inventoried everything in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Now that we’re limiting our trips to the grocery store, forgotten shelf items get new life and purpose. A half-bag of chickpeas is made into hummus. Leftover ricotta goes into that pancake batter. Roasted chicken bones and wilted vegetables are slow-boiled into stock and frozen for future recipes.
Minus a healthy dose of Netflixing, my husband, daughter, and I are each other’s entertainment, which I know totally sucks for a 13-year-old. We’re playing Settlers of Catan (ruthlessly), making music together (uninhibitedly), getting out for walks and neighborhood bike rides (eagerly). Our small radius is defined by where our legs can take us.
While our focus is simply on what is in front of us, we notice things we might not have otherwise. A tiny wooly bear curled into a tight C in the dirt at our feet. A missing shingle on the roof of the shed. The funny digestion-like sounds of our refrigerator.
And if our everyday view has narrowed, then technology has become our wide-angle lens, bringing the vast world back into our sights for short periods of time. From social media, we’ve spied on penguins exploring their empty aquarium, been serenaded from balconies in Italy, enrolled in online art classes and watched livestream sessions from musicians who’ve never performed before, as well as those who’ve played massive stadiums.
For my husband, a 4th grade teacher whose pride has always been the community he creates in the classroom, video meetings and email are the only way to connect with his students who will finish the school year at home. From the other room, in their virtual morning meeting, I hear him, sounding like the lady on Romper Room, “I see Brianne and Jeffrey. And Halima and Dominic. I see Lily…”
“Together” has a new, COVID-19 dimension to it where extended families and high school friends have video happy hours and online game nights they never would have imagined before. We’ve taught my 80+ year-old-parents and aunt and uncle to Zoom. Despite the learning-curve hurdles, it’s been reassuring to see their faces, all Brady Bunch-boxed together, talking over each other and asking why they “can’t see everyone”. It’s fun and funny and sad and scary all at once.
Right now, in it, we’re too close to process this dark and darkly beautiful upheaval. I know we will be changed. I hope we will be changed for the better, paying attention to the things that are, literally, within our hands’ reach even as we turn our attention outward to the big world again.
In the meantime, our orbits must remain small. This evening, after the dishes are done and I’ve disconnected from all things digital, I’ll climb the stairs and look at my bed and think, “You again?” But in a kind, affectionate way. Because I have so much renewed love for this life that is truly stitched together by the small, quiet things that are just in front of me.