In early to mid-March, I was aware of coronavirus, but I was still living large, a life that now seems wildly unbounded.
My daughter flew in from college for spring break on a Thursday night. She and I had planned a trip to New Mexico the following week to celebrate her birthday. We looked forward to museums, good meals, hikes, a massage. Still, we were washing our hands and staying in with one overarching goal: my oldest stepson and his wife are expecting their first child soon and we wanted health all around.
By Saturday, driving 400 miles away felt too risky so we recalculated and planned to go to Boulder, half an hour from our Golden home, and hike and eat someplace great for her birthday. By Sunday, we decided to forgo Boulder for a nearby hike and eat at a favorite local restaurant. By Monday, the restaurants were closed, and her university emailed to say they were going online. Whatever was happening was happening fast. In the end, our trip to New Mexico became half an hour at a local dog park and a meal at home.
Everything had changed within five days; it felt like everything was disappearing. It began to dawn on us that it would unsafe for us to meet our future grandchild for weeks or even longer. We would not visit our other children on the east and west coasts or attend a birthday for an elderly relative.
Our daughter returned to her university to get her car and things, her graduation canceled. I couldn’t absorb what was happening, not in such a short time frame. The mind loves order; it seeks refuge in its ruts, its known paths. The mind wants to reassure itself by telling the same stories again and again. Especially if, like me, you’re a control freak. My calculus had been something like stay close to home but the truth—no place was safe—hit hard. It forced changes.
Over the next few days, my husband and I began preparing for the stay-in-place order we anticipated. We cooked, emptying our pantry of its beans and flour and our freezer of its grass-fed beef. We were determined to shop less and use up what we had.
That week, we ate three dozen cornbread muffins made from flour past its use-by date. Our mostly plant-based diet had gone out the window. When I found oranges at King Soopers, they felt like a gift. We joked that we were living in the past, eating like a frontier family.
What we were actually doing was living within constraints. The notion of constraint, or restraint, in art is a longtime interest of mine. As a writer, I’m interested in the forms that writers choose and the way that compressing what you want to say within defined limits often increases the impact of the work.
I’m thinking of Lydia Davis’s adaptations of form for her essay-like stories (and story-like essays), Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow,” which begins at the end and ends at the beginning, and the auto-fiction of Rachel Cusk’s recent “Trilogy” series, although my shelves sag with many more examples.
What happens when artists work within limits is something akin to mindfulness practices: both rely on constraint, which often results in a sense of expansion. I know when I write within formal constraints, I come away with a different understanding of my material.
Some years ago, I wrote about a neighbor of mine who was murdered by a sometime sexual partner. By putting the essay in the form of a Colorado real estate contract, with its constraints about expectations, disagreements, and remedies, I realized that the real story was about trust.
Back then, I was buying a house with the man who is now my husband and the commitment scared me. When I work with constraints, I often have to let go of the story I thought I had to discover the real one—one that perhaps I don’t want to see.
In the swirl of sadness and fear that surrounds all of us, my newly constrained life requires that I re-focus my attention. I had intended to travel for some writing projects; instead, I have only a weekly grocery shop, daily meditation, and endless walks and hikes for writing material.
I have to mine the ruts of my life for material. Fenton Johnson in “At The Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life” writes that the work of artist Paul Cezanne “teaches the power of restraint,” noting that “our age, which like Cezanne’s Belle Epoque, idolizes self-indulgence and self-expression.”
“The painter’s task—the writer’s task—the composer’s task—the gardener’s task—the cook’s task—the teacher’s task—the meditator’s task—the solitary’s task is to get out of the way, to dissolve and efface the self into the work at hand so as to permit its subject’s essence to shine forth. Cezanne wrote, “You don’t paint souls. You paint bodies; and when the bodies are well-painted, dammit, the soul—if they have one—the soul shines through all over the place.”’
I thought of Johnson on a recent hike. As my dog and I wandered, I saw how spring and winter coexisted as grape bloomed in the sunny spots while on north-facing hillsides, there was still deep snow among the trees.
I remembered telling my children, when they were young, how if nothing else worked, time itself often helped solve a problem, if only because things change and life goes on. Johnson writes, “Art of any kind…is an effort at reenactment of the original creative gesture, […]the creative impulse is essentially religious or, if you prefer, spiritual. We seek the center of beauty.”
Even an agnostic like me sees the truth in this, that art is about birth, or perhaps rebirth. As I followed the wending path up, down, across the hillsides, I wondered what will come of these corona-caused constraints, these aching times. What beauty will come from these particular sorrows?
Emily Sinclair is an essayist living in Golden. Her essays and stories have been recognized by Best American Essays and nominated for Best of the Net. She teaches for Lighthouse Writers.