In praise of interdependence

Bright morning. I hear a helicopter overhead. It’s deafening. The house shakes a little. Maybe a train is also going by on the tracks south of us. A house sparrow chirps. The sun reflects off residual rain on dark shed roofs.

Monday was unsettled. I was unsettled and restless. Stormy weather, menstrual cramps, that sense of being about to burst in some way. The things that are missing are lifting their heads, looking at me, calling for my attention. The other day, I tried a loving-kindness meditation, and started crying, imagining going for a walk with my mother and talking to her in person. Today, I tried on a cloth mask my mother had sent me in the mail for grocery shopping, and felt panicky and claustrophobic until I reminded myself that I would be wearing it for other people more than for myself. Until I gave myself permission to hate it but practice wearing it nonetheless. I try to keep some emotional armour on, even soft armour. Not armour, but boundaries against fear and grief. But they leak sometimes. Then the future feels blank, and the past like a dream.

I miss my friends. I miss hugging people outside my immediate family. All those people outside my household who I love. At night I dream about conversations with friends.

On Monday, I contemplated making crackers. It was on my long list of things to do. I looked at the recipe I found, I looked at my kitchen, and all I felt was irritation. Our counter is tiny. The recipe involved rolling out the dough paper thin. And, although I make pizza dough, I roll only a little and then lift and stretch by hand. We don’t have a wooded board to roll on like I grew up with, and anyway, where would we put it? The recipe was simple, but I imagined cleaning everything off the counter first and then scrubbing the counter afterwards. Contemplating it, I felt furious. I didn’t want to make crackers. I wanted to make art. Completely impractical art. I wanted to make collages and intricate drawings of plants. I wanted to write poetry and publish it in obscure literary journals. I wanted to not make crackers and bread, but walk to the store and buy them so that I could spend my time doing something else.

Tuesday evening, we watched Jane Eyre performed at the National Theatre in London, part of their current weekly free online pandemic series. Even on the tiny screen of my husband’s laptop, it blew my mind – the performances, the visuals, the music, the metaphor of it. Theatre is nothing like film. Watching it, I added “see a live play, or several” after “buy lots of crackers at the store” to my mental list of things to do the moment they are possible again.

Remembering the few times I’ve seen live theatre in London, my next dream was of travelling. Even out of my neighbourhood, out of my city. I wouldn’t want to be hunkered down anywhere else right now. I am grateful to be exactly where I am, where every day I can take a different route on my daily bike ride, where I have wide streets to walk on, and tall trees all around my neighbourhood, and neighbours who I can easily talk to over the fence. But on Monday I looked at the counter, cursed the cracker recipe, and longed for more freedom of movement. Yesterday, I watched a play on a tiny screen and dreamed of theatre and of travel.

On the scale of comparative suffering, I’ve lost very little. And as an introvert who loves solitary activities and extended periods of time with my immediate family, in some ways I’m thriving. Most of the work I hope to keep doing in the future is from home. There are days when I question how I will fare with re-entry into a world with wider expectations and commitments, with tighter schedules. There are days when I want to hold my growing children close forever. When I guiltily recognize that there are now many things I worry about less than is my norm. That the strange anticipatory weight of dread I was feeling all through January has melted away. That in some ways it’s easier to channel anxiety into purpose – into shared concern and shared suffering and shared planning – when there is something huge and specific to be anxious about.

But in the moments when I feel stuck and restless, I long for things I’ve never seen before, never done before, experiences that will stretch my assumptions and my expectations. I want to go to the theatre, to a museum, to a library, damn it. I want people to write books, dance, put on plays, to do the things that make their souls sing. I want people to teach, to build, to heal, to do research full-time, to tell stories, to advocate for themselves and others. I want people other than me to interact with my children. I want schools to reopen. I want people to keep having choices. I say this after nine years of homeschooling and close to fifteen years of almost full-time caregiving. It takes a community. All of it does. The truth is, the thought of a world where everyone homesteads to the exclusion of everything else that humans do and create does not fill me with delight. I want a world where people can dedicate their lives to things other than subsistence.

So clearly, as I contemplate what will come out at the end of this all – inasmuch as I have a say in any it – I’m not interested in throwing out all of civilization. And, as I often do, I’m arguing against straw-men in my head, and random opinions from people on the internet. I’m happy enough that there are almost no planes in the sky right now. I’m even happier that there are fewer cars on the road. If I had a pandemic agenda, it would be to close off more streets to cars – as some cities are currently doing – to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists. And then keep it that way.

I’ve added a second small garden bed in my small backyard, and have planted some seeds and ordered more. I’ve mended some clothes, as I often do anyway. And yet, this past month has not convinced me that I want to grow all my own food, sew all my own clothes, go back to homeschooling full-time, and never travel again. If anything, the opposite. If anything, I am amazed and awed and grateful for the ways humans do things together, do things for each other, follow their own skills and passions and curiosity, make space for others to do so. I am amazed and awed and grateful for interdependence. I am wildly grateful that I don’t have do all the things by myself.

I don’t need to farm all my own food, but I can recommit to supporting local farms and local food systems. I can recommit to supporting active transportation and local transportation networks. I can share tools with my neighbours. I can support local businesses. I can support politics that prioritize people over profits. Does that change anything for me personally? In truth, I’ve been on this train for years. Now, seeing the renewed push for well-funded health care infrastructures, seeing direct government support of people who have lost income, seeing advocacy for fair wages for the jobs we now know to be essential, seeing the conversations about what matters most and what kind of future we want, I can say to my kids: “This. This is what we need to keep working for.”

I made the crackers yesterday. The recipe was easy, and there was no mess. I planted some kale in my garden. And I ordered more seeds, but, for better or for worse, most of them were flowers seeds.

Word prompt: stories.

Right here, right now (Covid edition).

Each day we walk in various configurations, me giving my sons dire warnings to stay more than six feet away from all other humans. I cycle in the mornings to get my heart pounding, grateful for fewer cars on the roads, grateful that the long-encoded solution of moving fast in the face of anxiety is still available to me.

At our grocery store, the well-spaced line outdoors stretches down the block – memories of a childhood in Poland in the 1970s, but here, there is way more food on the shelves. I want to yell this to everyone who complains about the few shortages. I also want to yell at the oblivious people who stand texting in the middle of the narrow sidewalk, at the young man who walks straight towards me and my older son – who I need to summon to help with the carrying – as we lug what we hope is two weeks of groceries home on foot, forcing us out onto the road.  But I don’t. These are exceptions. The rest of us do the keep-away dance as if we’ve done it all our lives, but now there are smiles and nods in passing that would have been rare before.

There are should-have-knows: why are our wills still unwitnessed and unsigned? How can we get anyone to witness them now? Why haven’t we yet renovated our backyard shed into an office where one of us could work? But now we are learning to move from room to room in the house, taking turns at privacy. Two hours writing alone in a room with the door closed does wonders for my focus and my mood. Why did we remove our lilac bush to my parents’ garden so far in advance of our long-anticipated backyard renovation? I imagine the lost consolation of sitting on the back steps this spring watching the blooms open, taking in the sweet scent.

There is also unexpected thanks. For our small and open backyard with its inadequate and ugly fences, where we can still easily chat with neighbours one and even two houses over, in exactly the same way we have done for years. Gratitude for the four of us being so used to each other’s company after years of homeschooling. Gratitude for the habits I’ve built up over the past few years of regular at-home yoga and meditation, and for the introversion I only recently learned to celebrate and cherish which makes me not particularly crave more company than I have. Gratitude for work that can be done from home. Gratitude too for new windows that finally open fully after fifteen years of poor airflow, which I keep flinging wide no matter what the weather, feeling immediately happier and more hopeful.

My mother has become obsessed with masks. She sent me a pattern in the mail, which I haven’t yet used. In response to my silence, she has written that she is sending me one of her homemade masks, small and light enough to slide into a letter-sized envelope. I know she’s right, but I am putting off the inevitable. I can’t imagine how I will keep myself from touching the mask, how I will figure out how to breathe through the fabric. When I go out, I tie my now too-long hair back into a bun, so that it doesn’t get in my eyes and mouth, so that I am not tempted to fiddle with anything on my face. When my eyes water cycling into the wind, I restrain myself from wiping the tears away. I wash my hands dozens of times each day. Somehow there is lots more laundry than before.

I am reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and note every time pestilence or infection is mentioned, every time the wealthy avoid crowds to avoid contagion, every sudden and brutal or long and lingering death. I have become fascinated with plagues past, with the human struggle with microbes, with how much of a risk and challenge life has always been, with how little we are now prepared to acknowledge this. What might at first have made me anxious – investigating the devastating pandemics of the past – now helps me shift my perspective to a wider view. I am amazed at human ingenuity and resilience, at how quickly people move from panic to mobilization.

I pivot from fear to a measure of normalcy, with occasional sidelines into grief. Grief mostly at what my kids are missing, all the interactions and relationships they thrive in. And a little for the people dear to me who I may not see for a long time. But I think about my parents being separated for six months when my father came to Canada ahead of the rest of us. I think about the decades when my parents could only communicate with their own parents by overseas mail, with rare visits. I think about my grandmother’s family disappearing during the war, when she was only a teen, about the years she waited before she saw them again. I think about all the people who are displaced, separated from family, without a home, crowded into refugee camps, bearing the burden of all the world’s many other infectious diseases, well-acquainted with mortality. I think about all of the people whose lives have frantically sped up as the rest of us retreat into our homes.

As for me, right now I am okay. Everyone I love is still okay. In the day-to-day, my life is not that different than it was. I have a home and food, clean running water, my husband and children with me. I watch every small sign of spring as it arrives, breathe in the air from my wide-open windows. I am adjusting to this this new normal, finding room in it for creativity, capability, joy. As long as I don’t think too much about what could have been instead. As long as I don’t think too much about the future. As long as I stay right here, right now.

Still writing with my email group to writing prompts, as we’ve done on and off for several years, sometimes daily, usually however often we can manage. Once again it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. Perhaps I decided at some point that blogs were dead. But this feels like a time for recording. And perhaps a time for resurrection. Word prompts: pivot/lilac/mirror.