As a writer, I think I should be writing about the pandemic. But I don’t want to. Not that I haven’t written in my daily journal about my fears and questions over the last two months, but I wrestle with perspective, with what exactly exists in between the drumbeats of COVID-19 and the requisite rhythms of a sequestered life.
Whenever I awaken, I’m compelled to assess the pandemic. Eager for the news, I want to know how deadly, how long it will last, how to handle a UPS package, a bunch of broccoli, an errand in the hardware store, or a Coca-Cola from the drive through? Do I prepare to live this way indefinitely? When I awaken, I struggle to assess the reality that the virus is – deadly.
There’s no question I’m stirred by the pandemic. My primal fears reside in my clenched jaw, my inability to concentrate, and compulsive need to stock up on all things: orzo, rice, sugar, canned fruit and green beans. But all I’ve managed are the sound bites, thoughts as notes, daily entries as a simple record – this happened, that happened, I thought this, and I thought that.
In late March my daughter tells me not to go to the grocery store. My husband and I are in the high-risk category. But I do. Our local stores don’t deliver. As I wait for the traffic light at County Road 129 and Highway 40, I feel crazy thinking about the grave risk just to buy food. But once in the store, my madness eases when I find cream cheese, potatoes, kefir, the paper bags square and tidy.
Yet, when I return to my car and take off my mask and gloves, sanitize my hands and car keys, I feel the panic again and call my daughter-in-law. She’ll be coming later to buy groceries, too. I tell her, “There’s only one entrance and they’re counting the people in and out. There’s no pasta or rice, milk or toilet paper. Not everyone stays six feet apart.” I hang-up, sit back in the seat of my car and wonder, “Do I really need to buy wine?”
That afternoon I read an email from the travel agent for Unforgettable Croatia, a cruise line with whom I’d booked a trip in May with my daughter. He writes, “You missed the 90-day deadline. There’s only a relative risk to travel so you don’t qualify for a refund on your cruise.” I know I’m not out of my mind to know I risk serious illness or death if I fly to Dubrovnik. I’m 68. So, I want to know if the travel agent believes in Trump’s miracles. I want to know what he hears in the Italian body count.
In the pull of the news and shocking headlines, I search for antidotes to my fear. I want the pandemic to be a sidebar to my day, not a tyrannical or possessive eddy out of which I cannot spin. I know from reading Laurence Gonzalez’s “Deep Survival” that survivors are aware of the reality of their situation. They challenge distorted thinking. They problem solve. They stay focused on possibilities, this all to remain centered, not spinning or reeling or running.
In looking for help with this survivor’s discipline, I come across the suggestion to do four things each day. I make the list and vow to check it off – faithfully.
- Check my thinking for distorted thoughts
- Exercise – get outside
- Find something purposeful to do each day
- Call friends and family
Once I commit to the list, as a parent might instruct his or her child, I mentor myself. I declare in the most convincing voice I can find, “What’s known about the pandemic now is sufficient for the ordering of your day. You don’t need any more news. Repeat after me.” I repeat, “What’s known about the pandemic now is sufficient for the ordering of my day.” So, I go through my list: check the labyrinth of my mind, exercise, work at my desk, and call, email, or write one friend or family a day.
As I have all my life, I find exercise, particularly outside, eases my anxiety. At the lake, where I so often escape, I find the still and quiet surprising. I pause, and in that space, I feel myself separate from the primal fears that lurk beneath my day.
In the caesura, I’m moved to describe the here and now through the senses, a writer’s technique to develop an eye for the particular, the detail and taking note of it. And so, I do: branches and boughs of pine, greens, tan, rust and black bark, the whitest of snow, contours of winter’s blanket shadowed in the light, tracks of coming and going – snowshoes, skis and a snowshoe rabbit who ventured out from the wood and back again. The snow falls without agenda and lands dot, dot, dot upon my face.
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As I compose my listing, I come to life, relishing the quietude of a gray day, and the accompaniment of a light snowfall. Some say these conditions are dreary. I can’t understand why, for it proclaims in the here and now that I am alive.
Even though I struggle to write about the pandemic, I see in this brief interlude of a writer’s focus on the here and now, that perhaps taking note of detail is enough. I continue in my journal: sorted the linen closet, washed my groceries, emailed my 90-year-old aunt in isolation, ordered 12 cans of tuna, 12 boxes of pilaf, three pounds of walnuts, made curry stew, Zoomed my sister and cousin, shipped a surprise package to my grandson, lost sleep with sights and sounds of refrigerated trailers, became a birder with my granddaughter – spied the black phoebe and lazuli bunting, tracked statistics of death and spread, yet heard the promise of spring in the opening of the river, winter’s ice loosening its grip.
Mary B. Kurtz raises quarter horses, cattle, and hay with her husband on their ranch in the Elk River Valley of northwestern Colorado.
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