For the past six months I’ve been living on a dirt road in a cabin in the woods in the Catskills. It’s so far off the grid that UPS can’t find us—it has to deliver to a local general store. To make a phone call, I head to the local volunteer fire department where there’s a cell tower, which recently collapsed. I’ve had Zoom calls freeze if the wind blows. Forget about watching cable news.
We rented this cabin because of COVID-19 and to be near our daughter who lives down the road. But I’m a city girl and we can go for days hardly seeing a soul. The longest conversation I can remember having was with the plumber who came late at night when the boiler gave out.
Still, when people ask me how I’m doing during lockdown, I’m hesitant to reply. The truth is I’m doing all right. I miss going to movies, a swim at the Y, book launches, leisurely dinners with friends. And those casual daily encounters that psychologists say give us a sense of well-being. I am saddened by the losses around me, including the death of my best friend’s mother who died alone in a nursing home. This past summer my daughter closed her beautiful restaurant, which was a hangout for us, and my husband lost his job. But I’m making do. At least I am trying to be existential about it. As my father used to say, if you have your health, you have everything, and thus far we have been fortunate in that regard.
But winter is upon us and daylight savings has made the days darker than they already were. And the numbers aren’t trending down. Italy, a country we travel to a lot, has just gone into another lockdown due to the spiking cases, and the same is true across much of Europe. I’ve had a freaky vision of my newborn grandson asking what an airplane was. Or a theater. Recently the U.S. surpassed the grim milestone of 100,000 cases in a single day. We can all anticipate a lot more time inside. And alone.
Yet, despite the darkness, I seem to be coping. Perhaps in part it’s because I’m a writer, so working from home is what I do. (Though at the end of the day I’d sure like to meet a friend for a glass of wine). But it’s more than that. I’ve had some practice. As my daughter likes to say, it’s not my first rodeo. I’ve more or less been under house arrest three times. For better or worse, I seem to be an old hand at it now. I’ve learned what it takes for me not only to survive, but even flourish during this time.
My first house arrest was quite literally that—in Cuba in 1993 when I was arrested for being a journalist. I was stopped by the police at the airport and had my passport confiscated. I was forced to spend the night in a freezing cold waiting area, and then be taken in the morning by authorities to a hotel where I stayed until I could be deported. I have to say that knowing my phone was tapped and that every staff member in the hotel was watching my every move was disturbing, to say the least, but I also did what I know how to do well. I took notes. And eventually wrote a novel, based on this experience, entitled House Arrest.
The second time is in part the subject of my memoir, All the Way to the Tigers. On the first day of a sabbatical in 2008, I turned to my husband and said, “Let’s go ice skating.” I had planned to spend the year traveling like a nomad. But first I wanted to go ice skating. Something I’ve done all my life. An hour later I’d shattered my ankle in seven places. My surgeon told me when I could finally walk again that a racehorse is put down for less. Instead of wandering around Morocco and biking through Vietnam, I spent the next three months on my sofa, unable to walk. Each day I cancelled my plans. A ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, a riad in Fez, that bike trip with a friend. This was not a good time for me, to say the least, and I pretty much had a long pity party. Every day I was miserable. But I also sharpened the survival skills that have helped me get through our present lockdown.
This time around I knew I needed a plan.
After the initial shock at all the things that weren’t going to be, I developed a practice that helps me get through each day. For years I’ve kept journals and just before COVID-19 began a friend gave me a huge journal (much bigger than I’d ever normally used). I decided to make that my “COVID-19” journal. I begin my mornings with a cup of coffee and my journal where I pose and answer three questions. What do I have to do today? What do I want to do today? And what can I do for someone else today?
On the “must do” list there are bills to pay, clothes to wash, a dog to walk, a family to feed. Still I try to prioritize what needs to be done and not take on too much. I’m not going to get it all done every day. Some things will be relegated to the proverbial “back burner.” That pair of shoes I need, a drawer to clean. But it does help to make a list and check things off: Flu shot, done. Con Ed, paid. Recently I read that accomplishing even small household tasks provides a serotonin release. So, make that bed and toss out those newspapers. Take a shower. I’ve been known to put on lipstick under my mask. It makes me feel like I’m dressed up with somewhere to go.
And then the things I want to do. There is my own work as a writer, such as writing this essay, that I enjoy very much. But I’ve also tried to leave room for things I’ve always wanted to do but never given myself time or perhaps permission. I paint watercolors. I try to do one every day or so. I’m not schooled. I literally don’t know what I’m doing. But it brings me pleasure. In an old Marlon Brandon film, “The Fugitive Kind,” a woman shows Brando a landscape she’s painted, and he looks at it and, in classic Brando, grunts. The woman purses her lips and says, “I know it’s not very good, but I feel better when I do them.” This is how I feel about my paintings. I try not to judge them (or myself). I just feel better when I do them.
And perhaps that’s key to what we all need to be doing right now. Does cooking a meal for your family or yourself or finding a good exercise routine make you feel better? Have you been longing to adopt a pet? Well, what better time? I have found that, along with painting, I love swimming in a freezing cold reservoir. I was supposed to spend a month in Paris this fall. Instead I ordered a wetsuit. While my surfer son-in-law laughs at my expense, I wiggle into it. It still takes me half an hour to get into the water, but once I’m in, it wakes me up. I feel bracingly alive. And apparently (who knew) studies show that cold water swimming fends off dementia. So there’s that.
It’s important at this odd moment we are living through not to be too hard on yourself. Years ago, I learned that Tahitians have no word for art. The closest thing in their language translates to “I’m doing the best I can.” It’s good to remember this. Perfection has no place in COVID (and maybe in our lives in general). What matters is the trying.
And then there is that third question I pose for myself each morning. What can I do for someone else? Is there a friend who might be lonely? Someone I’ve neglected or who I know is in need? I’ve taken to making random phone calls, checking up on friends and family. I try to be vigilant about responding to requests people make of me. I make a point of saying “thank you.” A favorite quote of mine is from the 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you utter is thank you, it shall suffice.” So, say thank you. You’ll be surprised to know how much better it makes everyone, including yourself, feel. Our interactions become more human, less transactional. So when a meal is delivered to my door, I tip more than I normally would. I like to say “keep the change.”
We are all struggling right now one way or another, but we are also all in this together. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, once said that attention is the greatest form of generosity. This is how I try to fulfill the last of my daily questions. When I was working on All the Way to the Tigers, a realization came to me.In the word “listen” lives the word “silent.” Sometimes being generous just means being quiet and listening.
And being productive matters. The great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin was en route to visit his father when cholera struck. A visit of a couple days turned into three months, and later Pushkin reflected that those were the most productive months of his life. So this time around there’s no pity party. Remember Shakespeare wrote Hamlet while quarantined for the plague. So pay your bills, call your mom, and give yourself time for what matters most to you.