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A Hard Thing and a Happy Thing

Today I’m tired. Not sleepy, though I have been short on sleep due to anxiety, my heart is tired. My brain is tired. I have this creeping desire to abandon all these new habits because they are hard and retreat back into old familiar habits. I can’t of course. The world around me has shifted in ways that no longer allow my familiar habits. I have to deal with the tired until the new ways of being become my new set of familiar habits.

Yesterday was the official beginning of distance learning for my one kid who is still in high school. It didn’t go well. Rather it didn’t go at all because the kid looked at all the emails and had an overwhelming feeling of “there is no point to all of this.” Then he closed the emails and did none of the work. Him not doing assignment work is par for the course, it is what we’ve been struggling with for years. When he was in the classroom, he absorbed learning just by being there even though he was failing the classes by not doing the homework. Now it is all homework all the time. I’ve no idea how to teach a 17 year old to care about homework. Prior to this month he could have dropped out and gotten a job, but now we’re quarantined and all the jobs he was qualified for (fast food) have been canceled. So that is my hard thing for today. I’ve no idea how to map a road to self-sufficient adulthood for my young adult children. All the old maps are canceled.

My happy thing for today is food. I’m really liking the ways that Howard and I are banding together to manage our food resources so that I only go to a grocery store once per week. We’re paying attention to what we have in the fridge. We’re cooking from scratch. We’re eating left overs before they go bad. Howard has performed several instances of kitchen hedge wizardry where he grabs left overs and random ingredients and then through alchemical magic created the best foods ever. We had amazing pulled pork enchiladas last night and amazing beef stew on Sunday. This food management and cooking piece is lovely and I want to keep it even if other things go back to “normal.”

And Now Earthquakes

Because this past week hasn’t been unsettling enough, Utah had an earthquake this morning. I think the first quake woke me, but I didn’t realize it. I felt the aftershocks though. I’m pleased that my California upbringing had me correctly identify that the aftershock I felt was around 3.5 and nearby. The bigger quake was 5.7 and all the earthquakes were centered in Magna, Utah which is about 40 miles away. I actually find these small-ish earthquakes comforting. Small quakes release pressure in the fault and mean that a big quake is less likely to happen.

Funny how ingrained earthquake identification is in my brain, and how it doesn’t really panic me. The rest of my house slept through it except one of the cats who was wandering around looking puzzled when I got up to confirm earthquake.

Newsletter

This is the newsletter I sent out to my readers today. I wanted to post it here as well. If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter so it arrives in your inbox, you can do that by clicking here.

Dear Readers,

This morning my alarm went off and I rolled out of bed. It is never easy to roll out of the warmth of my blankets and my sleep, but morning called. Or beeped. Whichever. I was three steps toward the bathroom when I remembered that the world is changed. I no longer have to wake my son and feed him breakfast before taking him to school. That was last week. This week everything is canceled, and teachers are scrambling to figure out how to teach children who aren’t allowed to come to the school building. This morning the alarm was to remind me to put the garbage cans by the curb. The task had popped into my head as I climbed in bed and I’d set an alarm to remind me to do it before the first truck arrived. We have no patterns yet in this newly changed world. No habits to remind me to take cans to the curb. It is not so simple as applying our summer habits, though many of those will be adapted and put to use. I sat with my son before bedtime last night as he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” I looked at him and answered that none of us do. The whole world is off the map, swimming in uncertainty.

The sound of my rolling garbage cans was loud in the crisp morning air. My cul de sac had none of its usual morning activity. No one leaving for work, no kids off to school, just me adding my cans to the line of cans. A strange mix of normal garbage day and extra ordinary quarantine. On the way back to my house I saw a blue jay feather. There was no mass of feathers to testify of a feline attack, just a single blue feather laying perfectly centered on my doormat like a gift that had been left there on purpose. I carried it with me into the house and carefully taped it into my journal. Gifts should be acknowledged and honored even when it is the accidental gift of a dropped feather.

Among the hundreds (thousands?) of things I’ve seen written about living in various states of quarantine, the one that spoke most to me was a poem by Lynn Ungar titled Pandemic. In it she asks us to treat quarantine as the most sacred of times, a time to draw inward and connect more deeply with those closest to us rather than scattering ourselves thinly across the world. Her words are more beautiful than my summary of them. You should go read them when you’re done with this letter. I first read Ungar’s words on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week. I know it was during the first flurry of cancellations, back when I was agonizing whether to inconvenience a group of 50 writers by requesting to give my presentation via Skype rather than boarding a plane to California to teach them in person. That decision seemed so hard to make six days ago. Now the entire San Francisco Bay Area, including my parent’s house where I would have stayed, are under orders to shelter in place. I thought about Ungar’s poem on Sunday when those members of my household who still do church gathered together for prayer and sacrament. We fumbled around trying to figure out how we wanted to arrange it. The result was an intimate spiritual experience that I look forward to repeating next week. A gift dropped into our lives like a bright blue feather on the doorstep.

Today the poem reminds me to step away from the endless cycle of updates both personal and governmental, and to think of the accidental gifts this new life bestows. I have a unique opportunity to focus on the people in my house. We get to find ways to tend to each other while all the activities which were helping mental health and growth are canceled. We will find new ways to be healthy, new ways to engage with the world and with each other. We invent reasons to get up in the morning rather than sleeping until afternoon and seek ways to engage with our new existence. It begins with making lists of tasks that are still available to us. Then from those lists we will craft a flexible schedule that sits comfortably on our lives and doesn’t require a lot of will power to maintain. The schedule will fall apart of course. First drafts always require revision. From the pieces of that first schedule we will make a new one. The process will repeat until we have new habits and new rhythms of being.

Our house is fortunate in that our income is not disrupted yet. Howard and I already worked from home. We have enough resources both financial and physical to carry us through the coming months. So while the world is extra ordinary around us, we go about our regular tasks of telling stories. Howard draws comics, we both work on the next Schlock book, and I write my newsletter. I hope that you also have a place of relative security in this newly uncertain world. I also hope that you find gifts within it, either smaller ones like my blue jay feather, or larger ones like special times with those closest to you.
Wishing you wellness and joy,
Sandra

If you’d like to put a gift or two you’ve found into the comments, I’d love to read about them.

Grocery Shopping

The list I took to the grocery store was longer than usual. I made it with the goal of not needing to go to a grocery store again for eight days. The store was busy, but no busier than a Saturday afternoon, and everyone was polite. It was interesting to see how some aisles were fully stocked and others were completely stripped bare. Things that were on my list which weren’t available:
Canned Chili (most canned goods were gone)
Baking powder
Cocoa
Flour
Pork for making pulled pork (more expensive pork cuts were available)
boneless skinless chicken (Skin-on chicken was available, but only a small supply)
Ground beef
Frozen pizzas
Toilet Paper
Paper towels
Everything else on my list I was able to get, but not in my usual brands or sizes. I could get 1% milk, but only in half gallons. I could get eggs, but they were a more expensive organic brand. Basically, stores have been stripped clean of things which are inexpensive per calorie and store well. A second grocery store did have ground beef and some frozen pizzas, so I acquired those as well.

Last Friday’s trip to a store was unsettling because food was vanishing and not yet replaced. Today’s was reassuring, because I can see how much food is still available as long as my family is willing to eat different things than we usually do. Yet almost every aisle I was faced with the stark reality that life is different for everyone. Many of the rules have changed. All our behaviors are altered either subtly or dramatically. And we all need to maintain those alterations for long enough that, by the time the pandemic has passed, we will all have new habits. New patterns.

Our house is using this impetus to cook more at home and to cook more group meals instead of solo meals. We’re being more conscious about resource management in relation to our food supplies. These are good habits for us to have. I welcome them.

On the other hand, the whole situation feels simultaneously imminent and ominous while also feeling completely made up. I take all the right social distancing actions, but I don’t actually know anyone who is sick. I trust the experts who are so urgent that we all change our habits right now, but the reported numbers of cases seems small when compared to populations. I see the stories from Italy, and the terrible choices they are having to make, but outside the sun is shining and people are going for walks. So I’m just going to embrace the contradictions. I will live inside the new social rules and quarantine as much as I can, but I will also try to spend my time as normally and as happily as I can.

The Mouse in the Couch

Several days ago my cats were watching the stove very intently. Sure enough, after two days of attentive watching, Milo caught the mouse. He immediately ran with it downstairs where he let it go so he could catch it again. It ran underneath the couch and got away. We moved the couch and attempted to find/catch it, but it was gone.

Today Milo was very interested in a corner of the couch cushions. My daughter went to see what he was looking at and discovered mouse droppings on the couch cushions. We realized to our dismay that the escaped mouse, instead of finding its way back to where it was caught, just took up residence in our couch living off the crumbs of food dropped in the couch cracks. Thus began the careful dismantling of the couch and adventures in mouse catching. It went from under couch cushions to under couch to across the room under a different section of couch to across the room behind a garbage can to under the door of the laundry room to under the dryer to hide inside a section of dryer vent that was laying on the floor. As we chased it from each location, we tried to get cats to catch it for us. In the end we stuffed rags into either end of the vent pipe and relocated the mouse to outside.

Then we had a cleaning and mopping project which included removal of crumbs, sanitation of all surfaces with disinfectants and washing all the cushion covers. In the end we’ll have a couch that is much cleaner than it was, but it wasn’t our intended use for an hour of our Sunday afternoon.

Living in Interesting Times

Such a strange feeling to stand upon the precipice of everything being different, while knowing that sometimes taking a step forward will reveal a chasm and other times it will reveal a slight down slope in the hike. So many things are canceled because of the Covid-19 virus, some (like church) were part of the regular patterns of my life. I read notes from a Biohub panel at UCSF from infectious disease researchers that it could be a year before things fully settle out. I do believe that life will return to normal, but I also believe that normal will be either subtly or drastically different than what it was before. Passing through this will change all of us.

Today I sent my teenager to school and wondered if that was the right choice. We’ve worked so hard to get him back to being at school all day every day. We’d finally reached a place where that was working for him and there was the possibility of school personnel helping him re-engage with education. Monday and Tuesday the school district is having short days so that all the teachers can be trained in how to take school online if classes need to be canceled. We might be headed for home school again. Everyone is scrambling and no one knows if their cancellations are a smart move or an over reaction. All public announcements of cancellations cling to the phrase “an abundance of caution” as a life raft, a thing to cling to while they make choices that have real financial and emotional impacts for people.

In my house, we’re washing hands more. We’re cleaning more. We’re very aware that Howard’s health history relating to respiratory issues means he’s likely to require hospitalization if he catches this illness. Or when he catches it. Because there is a possibility that catching it can’t be avoided. (A possibility of inevitability, such a strange conjunction of words.) So we follow health instructions and local health guidance. We try to maintain business as usual as much as we can, because even while we’re trying to flatten the curve and slow down transmission, we also need to maintain society functioning.

Interesting times.

Watching a Pandemic

I have occasionally played a game called Plague Inc. During that game the player is an infectious illness with the goal of infecting the world and killing off humanity. Of course humanity responds, and across the top of the screen little headlines scroll saying things like “Japan closes borders to all flights” or “Brazil Olympic games proceed as scheduled creating new infections.” I did not realize that playing the game would make watching a real pandemic unfold feel so surreal. I keep watching the news and thinking how I’ve played this game. My minds eye can visualize how one red dot in a country can multiply until the entire country is red. I also really understand why this particular illness has been so able to spread with it’s long infectious period extending both before symptoms manifest and after symptoms have ceased.

Ultimately this Covid-19 pandemic is very survivable, but it will have significant hits both financially and possibly personally. Because Howard has been struggling with respiratory troubles since mid-January, we believe he is a high risk for landing in the hospital if he catches Covid-19. He’s likely to survive so long as the medical infrastructure is not overwhelmed. Which is why I am so glad to see large events being canceled and Flattening the Curve graphics being shared. Unfortunately if the preventative efforts succeed and the medical system is not overwhelmed, then people will be angry about the “unnecessary” hits they took financially and emotionally through missing events.

Personally, we’re in a fairly solid position. We have resources enough to weather the disruptions of the next few months. We have a large network of friends and family who can aid if full quarantine becomes necessary. (We’re already low-level self-quarantining.) Yet the constant pounding news cycle has raised my anxiety and my mind reviews all those games of Plague Inc. that I played, visualizing all the ways that pandemic scenarios played out. It is both fascinating and frightening.

Belonging

I sat down in the church class and the chalkboard had the question “Where do you feel you belong?” This began a discussion which included how God loves everyone and how we can help each other feel welcome in our communities. The thing is, I don’t fully belong anywhere. When I’m in my science fiction writerly communities, the part of me that thrives on religious communion rests. When I’m at home being mom, the part of me that is a young girl who likes to go dancing isn’t being given expression. When I’m at church there are portions of my thoughts which would only bewilder some of the people I’m sharing that community with. I (like most people) am exceedingly complex and can’t be fully expressed in one context or relationship. At times in my life this has caused me to feel that I don’t belong anywhere. Then I realized that the not-belonging-anywhere feeling happened when I focused on the parts of me that didn’t fit in. When I instead focus on the things that connect me to my current context or to the person I’m next to, I find belonging everywhere.

I’m much happier now that I realize belonging is mine to create rather than something bestowed by others.

Measuring Courage

Courage isn’t measured by the size of the obstacle, it is measured by the size of the fear that is overcome.

Today one of my kids walked into a new school with all new students and teachers he’s never met before. We’re giving high school one last try at the alternative school.

Later today I’ll be dropping off a different kid for their first volunteer shift at the local aquarium.

Over and over again I watch my anxious kids do things that most people consider easy, but which are huge triumphs for them. Every time I admire how brave they are. They don’t feel brave. All they can see is that they are struggling with something that comes easily to others. They berate themselves for being weak, when I see exactly the opposite.

Appreciating Carnations

As a child I was very interested in birth stones, birth flowers, and any other things which were assigned to people by month. However I sometimes lamented that the stone and flower assigned to me were not as pretty as I wanted. My flower was the carnation, and carnations were boring. They were everywhere. Added to many bouquets as filler flowers between the flashier blooms. In my 40s I’ve come to appreciate carnations for almost exactly the reasons I thought they were boring as a child. Carnations are used as filler flowers because they come in a vast array of colors naturally and are easily dyed to be all sorts of non-natural colors. This means that carnations are versatile and adaptable. They make themselves useful no matter where they are. Carnations are also sturdy. They can be grown with long stems, cut, shipped, and still arrive a the sales point ready to be beautiful for almost two weeks. When I buy cut carnations, they continue to be beautiful for far longer than the flashier blooms they’re packaged beside. I’ve also discovered that many of the flashier blooms have little to no fragrance (or have far too much fragrance) while many carnations have a gentle fragrance that is detectable up close, but doesn’t fill the whole room.

I supposed I could draw these thoughts into larger considerations about how our tastes change from youth to middle age, or perhaps that I’ve become pedestrian enough to finally match my birth flower. But mostly, I just wanted to appreciate carnations out loud, because sometimes the basic, versatile, reliable things in our lives don’t get as much appreciation as they should.