Tending House

I’ve been watching Good Bones on Hulu. It is a show about two women who buy dilapidated houses, salvage as much as they can, then gut and repair everything else. Frequently they tear houses down all the way to the studs. The process is only slightly less expensive than tearing down the house and building from scratch. I enjoy watching their process. While I watch, I think improvement thoughts about my own spaces. Even more important to me is listening to how the women talk about the houses. For them each house has intrinsic value that is worth saving, even if they have to replace rotted floor joists or entire roofs. My own house is in an ongoing process of renovation. The massive emergency disruptions of last summer have subsided and this summer will feature slow but steady kitchen progress. The progress is slow in part because I’m doing almost all the work myself, but also because I have to find funds to cover the next state. Currently the next thing to be funded is a big pile of flooring.

In the past weeks, as I’ve been finishing cabinets and weeding flower beds, I’ve also been thinking about my house and the land where it sits as a place. This is the small patch of earth over which I have stewardship. The work that I do to tend my house and garden has value because the house and garden have intrinsic value. I’m not talking about resale value. The price tag on this plot of land and structure is irrelevant. What matters is the shelter it gives to bodies and souls, the memories it housed, the laughter soaked into the walls and earth. I have friends who spent their quarantine in small apartments with little access to green space. My family has a house with enough rooms in it for us to separate when we wish, and a garden of green things we can walk out into. We are fortunate.

I appreciate this perspective because I so easily get caught up in the costs of everything. Houses are victims of entropy at every turn. Daily maintenance and attention are required just to make sure that the house doesn’t fall apart. If you catch the dripping sink, you don’t end up with a flood. If you stick down the curled up corner of wallpaper, it doesn’t tear. Of course some maintenance isn’t daily or minor. Last summer a third of our house was torn apart to repair a sewer line. Every time I turned around that summer there was another break or expense. At times I felt very exasperated with my house and the cost of everything in time, money, and stress. I was frantically trying to restore life back to normal without quite recognizing that the very shape of the experience meant that normal would be permanently different.

Perhaps that is why I knew back on March 11 when everything began to be canceled that the world would be forever different. I began shifting my efforts away from efficiency and productivity into preservation and sustainability. (Not just the environmentalism version of sustainability, thought that is part of it, but making sure I set up life systems that I could keep running in the long term with the new resource landscape.) I used to spend money for convenience, preserving time as a precious commodity. Now that all the days feel so much longer, I find less need to conserve time. In fact I’m finding huge benefits in using time on maintenance tasks. Which is probably why I’m finding a big emotional connection to two women on my screen who believe that damaged things are not only worth saving, they are beautiful. You just have to be willing to strip the house down to its bones and restructure. Quarantine has stripped my life down to its bones, and I’m beginning to see new ways I can put things together.

Waffles

“Can we have waffles?” My son asked hopefully. Then he clarified that he didn’t just want waffles, he also hoped for enough waffles that there would be left overs to freeze. That way he could heat them up in the early morning hours before he heads off to work. I agreed that homemade waffles would be a good use for Sunday morning.

“Waffles!” the squeal of glee came from another of my kids who walked into the room just after I put the first cup of batter into the iron. They plunked themself at the counter to wait for the first hot-from-the-iron waffle. We discovered that we were short on the cheap corn-syrup based maple syrup, but we had plenty of the higher end real maple syrup. My kids tend to go for the cheap stuff because it is the one that has childhood nostalgia in it. I added syrup to the list for Tuesday’s grocery shopping.

The third kid in my house didn’t joyfully greet the waffles with words, however he did manage to appear in the kitchen just as one was coming out of the iron. Butter and syrup were applied. Waffles were consumed.

In the days when I had to plan meals out of self-defense (hungry children melt down in spectacular ways, so meal planning and insistence that they all eat was pure emotional survival as well as important care taking) waffles were a go-to Sunday meal. Along with quesadillas. They got tired of the quesadillas and one of my kids acquired an aversion to tortillas, but they all still enjoy the waffles. It is interesting the things which connect us to our pasts, spur us to tell each other stories about who we were, and connect us to each other. Food is survival. It is also memory and connection. Which is a lot to expect out of a goopy slurry squished between hot plates until it becomes solid enough to eat with a fork. Yet that is the magic of waffles.

Why All the Days Feel Long

All the days feel longer now than they used to. That isn’t just my perception, I’ve seen similar statements from many friends online. My way of describing it is that time comes in days now instead of being packaged into hours and minutes. Even after two months of this adjusted mode of living, the days can feel very long. Then I realized there is some science to explain it. The first piece is explicated in this article about how movies have changed from 1930 to now. There are several ways, but the most relevant to this discussion is that in 1930 the average length of a shot was 12 seconds, today the average length is just 2.5 seconds. Every time a shot changes it triggers an instinctive part of our brain that is designed to assess new situations and look for dangers. Changing scenes more often keeps triggering that portion of our brains and thus holding our attention by grabbing it over and over. Another example of his is the fact that our brains reset when we walk through doorways. This is why you can enter a room and not know why you came there, but if you go back to where you were before you remember. The passage through a doorway resets the brain so it is ready to assess and deal with a new scene which contains possible new dangers.

Life before pandemic was often split into segments. Travel time to work and back again, dropping off kids or picking them up, running to the store for a single missing ingredient, each of these things served in our minds as a scene change, a re-set. We knew the scene changes were coming, and they put time constraints on our other tasks. Hurry and finish sending the email before you have to go pick up the kid. Cook dinner now because the movie starts in an hour. That tiny rush to finish, and the tiny triumph of completion, put adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment into the day. Because completing a task had adrenaline attached, it registered in our memory. There is clear science that adrenaline can improve memory retention.

Pandemic living is different. I don’t have the appointments or the transitional time. Task completion is not being registered in my brain the same way. Also I used external structures, such as school drop offs and pick ups, to provide urgency to tasks. I used to joke “give me 10 things to do and an hour to do them, and I’ll get them all done. Give me all day to do one thing and it won’t happen.” Which was true when I was depending on urgency as my source of motivation. It turns out that when I spent long enough without those external structures, I learned that urgency isn’t the only source of motivation, nor even the best one. I feel a lot less productive because my mind isn’t registering all those just-before-the-deadline task completions. Yet if I measure actual progress on projects, things are moving along at a rate that is possibly faster than I was maintaining before.

There is a hidden cost in using interruption to create task urgency. It also disrupts focus and creative flow. If I’m having to keep my eye on the clock to do a school pick up, there is a piece of my brain that is distracted from the work I’m trying to do. Even if I use an alarm so my brain is un-distracted, there are the scene changes of getting in the car, driving, talking to the kid, and returning home. When I get back to the house I might be able to remember what I was doing, but picking up the pieces and re-focusing is not the same as not being interrupted. With pandemic living I’m flowing from task to task and back again. When I finish something it isn’t an event. I just move on to the next useful thing I can do. In fact, that is how I direct my days, by asking “what useful thing could I do with my time right now?” This question has me getting things done even in the absence of deadline pressure.

There is a lot more for me to think about here, because this is a fundamental change in how I thought it was necessary to run a creative life. It runs counter to advice I’ve given for years in my presentations on structuring life to support creativity. I had a deadline and urgency bias that I didn’t even realize was there. What else have I been biased about? I’m also wondering how my experiences with accomplishing tasks on pandemic time would be different if I had ADHD or full-fledged OCD, both of which have significant effects on how people relate to necessary tasks. There might be people for whom urgency is really the best option to motivate. For now, my approach seems to be working. I like the change in how I think about organizing my life. Even though all of the days feel so much longer than they used to. In fact there is a strange benefit in the longer-seeming days. Because my days feel longer, I’m less anxious about running out of time to do things. I find it easier to let things go because I’ll have time for them later. My brain actually believes there will be time because it has spent a lot of time thinking “wait it’s still Tuesday?”

Yes it is still Tuesday. Tuesday has a lot of time in it. All days do. And we’re gifted with that allotment every day of our lives. Pandemic hasn’t changed the allotment of time, which is why I find it so fascinating that re-arranging the use of time changes my experience of the passage of time so dramatically.

Valuing What I Have and What I Do

This week my task lists resembled what they used to look like pre-pandemic. I was focused for a significant portion of the week and I accomplished many things. Most of them were fragmentary tasks, small assignments that move a larger project forward. It was good to get some of those larger projects moving again. Between health concerns and pandemic, they’d stalled out for a while.

Then I arrived at this morning and task focus was gone again. I found myself wandering from house maintenance to cooking and back again. All my hours have been spent usefully, but not many of them went toward business projects. An interesting side effect of all the pandemic shut downs is that I’ve found myself valuing maintenance tasks differently than I used to. They used to be invisible annoyances, the things which I had to do in order to be able to get the important work done. Lately I recognize that these tasks are gifts. A morning spent weeding means that my flower beds thrive with beauty which anyone who walks past can enjoy. Doing the dishes means the kitchen is ready and available for whoever needs to use it next. Cooking food helps make sure that perishables are eaten before they go bad, or provides calories for myself and others. The time I spend on house and human maintenance is just as valuable to our family as the time I spend on business revenue generation.

The other day I was out back in my hammock, pondering what exactly it is that I want to gain in life and what I fear losing. The answer I found is that I want to be sure that I can keep and improve my house. I want my people to be safe and healthy. I’d like for my children to discover and claim their own paths forward. I’d like to be free to spend more time in the ways that I have during the full lockdown: giving myself permission to enjoy my space, bake foods I feel like eating even when it makes more economic sense to purchase pre-made versions, tend flower beds, read, write, and have a calendar that is mostly empty. I think I will get back to wanting to go places and attend conventions. Teaching fills a part of me that is laying fallow during this quarantine. I think it is good to let that rest for a time. It is good for me to ground myself in where I am with all the non essential things canceled.

I have a lot to lose, which is why I’ll be back to business tasks on Monday. Acquiring income is important. It is also why I’m staying home as much as I can to keep my loved ones as safe as possible.

Cocoon

I love that there are so many free personal enrichment offerings online. I’m glad that so many conferences are available virtually. I wish I had the emotional/mental bandwidth to take advantage of any of it. One of the things quarantine is teaching me is that saying no to good things is as important as saying no to stressful things. And there is huge value in empty space physically, temporally, and emotionally. The things I am learning right now are mostly invisible. It is a mental and emotional reconfiguration of life. It doesn’t feel like progress or learning, yet I have this vague inkling that it will be transformative in the long run. The caterpillar spinning its cocoon looks like it is just hiding.

Emotions Today

My emotions are all over the place today.

Howard got the results from his Covid 19 antibody test: negative. He has not had the current pandemic illness and has no antibodies to defend against it. This means that whatever is going on with his lungs is a separate issue and him catching Covid on top of it is dangerous. So our level of alertness has gone back up right when the rest of my communities seem ready to breathe easier.

We got a wearable oxygen tracker for Howard. We finally have visible data for why he’s constantly out of breath. This graph represents an hour of measurements. Orange is not good. Red is bad. The little triangles at the bottom represent points where Howard’s O2 levels dropped into the range where the device sounds an alarm.

This is what we expected to see, and in some ways it is validating to see. Howard isn’t malingering or making this up. Something is really happening. Interesting that while neither of us for a minute thought he was making this up, yet both of us had a relieved “something is really going on here” moment. Mine was followed by grief and fear for what this means for the future. I’m working to pull back from too much contingency planning. Right now I need to make moves that provide a solid foundation for a number of possible futures. Moves like paying down debt and being conservative about spending.

Gen Con officially canceled for 2020. I knew it was coming and mostly felt relief because if they chose to continue we would have had a tangled mess for our booth. Howard and I can’t get on a plane at any point this year. So Gen Con is canceled, our booth is rolled over into next year’s Gen Con, the hotel reservations are canceled without penalty, and further information is coming about a virtual Gen Con event and virtual Gen Con Dealer’s Hall. I do have some sadness about friends I won’t get to see this year, but I’ve already emotionally processed a lot relating to Gen Con. This only leaves us with two more events in 2020 where decisions will need to be made. In November and December we’ll start having decisions about 2021 to make.

My church just released instructions for how in-person meetings can resume. The instructions are in stages with clear instructions and diagrams. It is up to individual congregations to decide which steps they are ready to take. In the instructions is an acknowledgement that there will be some members who will need to continue holding services in their homes instead of in a congregation. That’s us. Howard’s negative antibody test and his breathing graphs mean that we won’t be sending anyone from our house to any large group meetings any time soon. I discovered that the email announcement made me sad and afraid. My parents have been good about isolating, but if in-person church resumes they’ll be tempted to go. I miss being in a congregation singing, but I’ve grown to love our family-only Sunday meetings and I would be very sad to lose them. Responsibility landing on local leaders means they have to make tough decisions and no matter what they decide someone will be angry with them. The local leaders will be under pressure both to open up and to stay closed. This is all so complicated with layers of community, social obligation, connection, loneliness, faith, fear, and a host of other factors physical, social, and emotional. I have a lot of emotion and not many answers.

For my household, we already have our status quo. We’re not opening up any further than we already have. My son who works put his hours back to normal, but I’m picking him up from work rather than having him ride public transit. My daughter and her husband can visit, but no one else (who doesn’t live here) comes into my house. Grocery shopping is limited to once per week. Shipping happens twice per week. Other than that, we stay home. This will be our normal for the next three months. August will bring a follow up doctor’s appointment for Howard and school decisions for my 17 year old. I don’t have to deal with those yet, but I know they are coming. Also coming are the decisions where people around me are comfortable meeting in person for things and I’ll have to say no. At every step I’ll wonder if we are over reacting or if I’m risking too much.

It’s probably time to find something useful to do while all these emotions settle a bit.

Semi-Connected Thoughts

Yesterday I was feeling calm and accepting. I had a whole set of thoughts about normality and creativity. Those thoughts are still true, and I’ll get to them in a moment. First I want to acknowledge that today I don’t feel calm and accepting. Today I keep bumping into ways that the world is different than I’d like. I’m mired in concerns about how my young adults can build independent adulthoods in the current social and economic climate. There are road blocks across many of the paths forward. I’m not sure if we can pursue driver’s license because the DMV may not be open for permit testing. School petered out to a close, which isn’t technically closed yet, might as well be though. The venue where one of my kids was volunteering pre-pandemic has begun to re-open. When they decide to re-launch their volunteer program we’ll have to navigate pandemic anxieties on top of the social anxieties that were already a problem. My head is full of “what if” and contingency plans. I know I need to bring myself back to today and what today needs. But that can be hard when I’m feeling the physiological effects of anxiety. Doing some physical chores helped, but I’m still feeling a bit wobbly.

The calmer thoughts start with all those memes about how great creations came out of their creators being isolated and bored. Naturally there are counter memes telling people not to feel pressured to write the next Great American Novel while they are dealing with a pandemic. Yet we might get a huge creative surge out of the pandemic social shifts. If we do, it won’t be because someone shifted their busy-ness and productivity from what they were doing before into creative work instead. It will be because the enforced pause changes the creators internal landscape and new creativity rises from that.

We have to let the changed society begin to transform us without expectation about the result. The scraping away of non-essentials, and then the return of some of them in different modes, will alter how we view our lives and what we need from them. We will emerge different. Perhaps with more creative pursuits, perhaps with less, perhaps with different ones. Trying to keep ourselves the same, clinging to who we were, is maladaptive and a source of stress. I can feel shifts in my thinking already. I’m changing how I relate to time and to tasks. I’m prioritizing differently. I can’t tell yet what the changes in me will become. It is too soon, but I’m trying to accept it rather than fight it.

In the larger world, most states are showing steady numbers of cases or a decline in cases. This is true even for states that have loosened restrictions. Even for the ones that loosened restrictions weeks ago. I think this means that most people are exercising some level of personal responsibility in not spreading disease. I also think that the warmer weather is having an effect. We may be able to breathe easier for a few months. I just hope that we remember to be careful again in the fall.

Color Coding the Re-Opening

“This is how we re-open” the headlines proclaim and all the words that follow are a reasoned and cautious plan with steps and diagrams to show how to be safe. I’ve read multiple articles and multiple plans. In my state the recommendations are color coded: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green. Toward the end of each plan is the caveat. If you’re high risk, or live with someone high risk, then you should always operate with red-level precautions even if the rest of your community is green. That is where I see that re-opening is a mirage, mere wishful thinking. Howard is high risk because of his asthma. That means that all five people at my house have to stay at red, lives maximally paused, until things are truly safe, not “new normal” safe. That’s one young adult working reduced hours, one young adult whose life is on pause, and one teen who can’t go back to a classroom even if schools re-convene. Relaxing community restrictions forces us into hard decisions. We’re far from the only ones. Almost everyone I know is connected to a vulnerable person whom they either need to be careful for or isolate themselves from. “New normal” isn’t ahead of me somewhere. I’m in it. This is my normal until there is a vaccine.

I understand the need to loosen restrictions. I know that we need life to function with supply chains and economic flow. I know that economic collapse hurts and kills people as surely as the pandemic does. There are no easy choices here for anyone. I actually think the plans are the best that they can be under the circumstances. We have to try to navigate the gap between Scylla and Charybdis, The monster pandemic on one side and the monster economic collapse on the other. It just stings a little when I see articles saying “Yay! we get to have indoor restaurant dining back!” when every article then turns to me and says “But not for your family. You stay home.”

The Mothers I Never Knew

My mother’s mother died when my mother was ten. I knew the woman who stepped into her role and finished raising her children, including my mother. She was a good woman, a good grandmother. Yet there is this other grandmother whom I never knew.

My husband’s mother died when he was eighteen. I never had the chance to meet her. Never got to have a mother-in-law. Never got to have her input into our lives. I know it wouldn’t have been all sunshine and roses, but we would have benefited from the increased complexity. I’ve been thinking of her more lately. Wishing I could talk to her and ask her questions.

My son-in-law’s mother died when he was a baby. I thought of her often as I carefully tried to find my place in her son’s life. Stepping up to be a mother for a person who wasn’t accustomed to having one, without displacing her. Standing beside her empty shoes, not stepping into them.

Three women I never knew, yet their choices and sacrifices shaped three people who I love dearly. The absence of their mother defined each of them in different ways. I would have liked a chance to know each of these women, to hear their thoughts on mothering. Mothering is such a complicated role and I so often fear I’m doing it badly. Yet sometimes it feels like these absent mothers aren’t so far away and that they’re rooting for me from where they sit. Sending me support as I try to help take care of their children. I like that thought, the one where I always have a support nearby, only a soul’s breath away. The network of mothering not interrupted by so small a problem as death.