COVID-19: Finally, an excuse to relax

The coronavirus situation burst upon our region just before a weekend that promised to be a scheduling nightmare. Between us, my family had first three and then four conflicting events, two that were approximately 12 hours long and two overnight, out-of-town trips for work. I tackled the problem – set up rides and a sleepover, relegated the dog to the pet hotel, bowed ungracefully out of my work trip, and stared wearily at the solution for a few shining hours.

And then, LIFE happened. Not life in the sense of “a series of events Melinda has organized” but actual life – the chain of events over which we have far less control than we’d like to believe.

It’s Thursday now, the inaugural day of that wild jig-saw-scheduled weekend. Of the four events, only one remains, a board meeting my husband is attending solo.

All that coordination I did? Unnecessary.

All those conflicts? Cancelled, with prudent nods at COVID-19.

The construction and deconstruction of this weekend resembled the experience of falling backwards down stairs – bumping every step, pretending some effort of will can steer your skull away from what might fracture it.

And now?

Eventless, coordinating nothing but the order in which I’ll read my library books on Saturday, I draw a swift, sweet, breath of relief.

I call someone, and we share our relief. We count over the chores we’ll have time for now. We plan full nights of sleep for our families. We gaze at the top-heavy pile our lives have become, revealed more plainly now that it has toppled.

Our relief is complex, almost guilty. These thoughts float uneasily behind the careful calm, the prayers, the wincing curiosity for knowledge we’ll probably regret. We grieve for the suffering and the dead, and for their loved ones. If only everyone could close this virus out. If only we all could release ourselves to an afternoon of completed tasks, good books, cushions, and tea without the dark forces that make this respite possible.

COVID-19 will change us. When we return from our cloistered waiting, who will we be? Will we return, forgetful, to the habits of a lifetime? Will we never be the same again?

This afternoon in a parking lot, I overheard two students talking with a teacher about an upcoming performance. “I hope it won’t be cancelled,” the girls said. “I hope so, too,” said the teacher. “Everyone put so much effort into it.” It sounded odd, suddenly. Could the effort weigh against the risk?

Decision-making is brutal now – very hard and very simple. We’re trying to leap into our future and look back at ourselves, to make the choice now we will wish then we had made. When we arrive in that future, what will we think?

Quarantine doesn’t look much like it did in, for example, 1918. “Social distancing” might better be termed “physical distancing” when our virtual society continues unabated. We already talk to our friends more online than we do in person. Is it our social distance that is changing? Or will our last finger-hold on real life slip closer to the edge as we lose the opportunity to interact in any way but virtually?

I don’t like social media, although I see its usefulness during a contagious outbreak. But I can’t forget that sense of relief, felt and observed, as the daily grind evaporated. Sometimes, when you begin to let go, you wish to continue.

Why did it take a pandemic to stop us? What good might come out of this great evil?

The Time Value of Literature

“A classic is a book that has lasted more than 100 years.” –

Famous Person Cited by English Professor Too Long Ago to Remember

But the forgotten famous person has a point.

Today at work, I was talking with someone about a writing project she’s considering, and two books published several years ago came into the conversation. “Of course, they wouldn’t be published now,” I remarked. Times have changed, the publisher’s needs have changed, what the market is reading has changed…the list goes on.

My subconscious mind must have thought this was interesting because the topic recurred in another guise while I was scrubbing a saucepan after dinner.

It began with recollections of a picture book my mama read us often when I was a little girl. The book is called Supposings, by Johanna Johnston, Pictures by Rudy Sayers. See? That’s already something different. Picture books now say “illustrated by” on the cover. Why did that change, I wonder? Is the word “pictures” too specific, or not specific enough?

Everything about this book reminds me of my 1970s childhood. I remember it being read to us, I remember the sunlight inside the rooms of our house and that soft “nap-time-soon” quiet feeling of cuddling on the couch with wiggling siblings, staring at pictures, pointing at things at will, floating along in the sound of our mother’s voice.

The colors in the illustrations and the style of them remind me of the curtains on the landing and a wool plaid vest my mama sewed that still hangs in my closet, simply for love.

I love this book. But if Johanna and Rudy submitted it now, would it be published? Would it be hard-back? (I don’t like picture books to be paperback. Thin and flooooppppy.) Would this simple, childlike journey through an afternoon of daydreaming be considered a plot? The illustrations would be different, wouldn’t they? Even art for children follows trends. Are those trends set more by adults, or by the shifting landscape of a generation raised in front of screens?

Supposings was published by Holiday House, Inc., in New York, in 1967. There was no such thing as self-publishing in those days. That means a New York editorial staff thought this book was a good risk. Would they now?

What was the competition like back then? Were publishers swamped with submissions the way they are now? Perhaps they thought they were, but could their swamp compare with the tsunami made possible by personal computers, internet research, and the lure of social media stardom?

Years ago, my Daddy explained to me what he meant by “the time value of money.” He told me that even if I have a million dollars, if it hasn’t been paid to me yet (or it’s tied up in a trust fund or etc. etc.), then it’s value is changed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Is there a similar principle for literature? To me Supposings is a classic because it is lovingly bound to a host of childhood memories. My objective analysis of its literary worth will be quite subjective, no matter what. Love is not blind, but sometimes love is not seeing the same object that everyone else is.

Would it be easier to evaluate the lasting literary contribution of a book for adults? I’m not sure. Novels go out of style. So do self-help books. Medical advice? Goodness yes! But at some point in all this analysis, one must confront the reality that a change in criteria is not always a change for the better. Before we can finish judging a book that wouldn’t be published if it were submitted today, we can’t avoid asking whether it should be.

Things that Make Me Happy

Last night, I stood in my front yard, looking up. Through the black lace of branches, I saw stars. I traced a constellation, then another. It was a perfect thing – the earth, the tree, the deep midnight blue mystery, and the stars.

All around me are so many things that I love but don’t always notice. They’re like the colors sliding past in a kaleidoscope. Today, I’m taking a moment to focus the lens of my inward eye and see them in detail.

What makes me happy?

The textured plaster swirls on my living-room wall.

Raspberries picked from the prickly bush, still warm from afternoon sun.

The corgi mischief in my dog’s face when he glances back at me over his shoulder.

The touch of book pages on my fingers. Especially the old ones, thick and slightly stiff.

Babies.

Good lettuce. Fresh, crisp, still tasting of the garden.

The clicking sound of rapid typing.

The scent of jasmine tea.

Lilacs in bloom. I will swerve off the sidewalk and sniff the blossoms in a stranger’s yard. I love lilacs.

Shoes that fit well.

Gazing out of windows. Almost any window. House window, classroom window, car window, office window. Windows!

Daydreaming.

Writing the whole story, all the way to the end.

Walled gardens. But it must be a proper garden – full of old-fashioned flowers, old trees, a bench or two, a fountain, winding paths – an a proper wall of moss-grown stones with a path along the top that you may run along to the village, if you choose.

Reading in bed, by lamplight.

My glasses! They are miraculous, I think. Eyes for my eyes.

Baking bread. I love it all – stirring, kneading, and the wonderful warm yeasty aroma of it baking and coming fresh from the hot oven. Crusty joy.

Warm water indoors, and summer rain outdoors. I love rain – the scent of it in the air, the sound of it on the roof, the shimmer, the way it soaks away into the thirsty earth.

Going to wash the dinner dishes when your hands are cold. See above, re: warm water.

Small friendly herbivores, wild or tame. I love little creatures with bright eyes and tiny paws.

Opening the box of author copies and holding my newly published books for the first time. This is an enchantment that will never grow old. Worlds within worlds, coming from imagination into being.

What makes you happy?

 

Photo by Marian May on Unsplash

 

 

 

The “To Don’t” List

Closeup of cherry blossoms with blue sky behind them

I am a close friend of the “To Do” list. My work space is home to assorted spiral notebooks, paper scraps, and post-its, and it gives me great satisfaction to outline my tasks – all of them, as many as I can think of – and march through them, crossing them off as I complete them. Although I recognize the value of online task managers, and use them professionally, it will never be as much fun to click a check mark on a digital list as it is to carve a check mark into a paper list and then scribble-obliterate the item beside it.

But today, the sun is shining, the house is mine alone, and I am observing a pause in the domestic and creative frenzy that is my daily life. Today, it is time for the “To Don’t” List.

On such a day, my instructions to myself, in no particular order, are as follows.

  1. Don’t wake up in time for anything.
  2. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
  3. Don’t vacuum. Don’t.
  4. Don’t get a jump on Monday. If you must jump, go outside and jump in the grass.
  5. Don’t make telephone calls. Your telephone is also observing a “To Don’t” Day.
  6. Bless it.
  7. Don’t sort closets, coffee tables, kitchen drawers, desk tops, or book ideas.
  8. Don’t read a single page you can’t get through without exhorting yourself to pay attention.
  9. Don’t forget to feed the fish. [Not everything can be part of a “To Don’t” list.]
  10. Don’t read the news.
  11. Don’t enter any space, virtual or real, in which you might read the news by accident.

Of course, a “To Don’t” list is more apophatic than the human activity it’s meant to inspire. I can’t cease existing for the day, nor do I want to. It is only an exercise in removing myself from the deep ruts of habit and responsibility. I need and respect these ruts. But I also need the space outside them.

Because I exist even when I lay the ordinary aside, I replace everything I’ve removed with that “To Don’t” List. Yes, that means I am writing a “To Do” List, but as you will see, it is not the kind you’ll find on the paper pile around my desk.

  1. Sleep until you wake.
  2. Eat when you are hungry.
  3. Go outside.
  4. Write.
  5. Look out of windows.
  6. Daydream.
  7. Enjoy the deep quiet.
  8. Be present, but remember this, too, will pass.

It will pass. I am an energetic adult. I am responsible for work, and I love my work. Work is part of my meaning, and I treasure that. A “To Don’t” List can never be permanent, in the way that a “To Do” List can. If I’m responsible for painting the deck or submitting a manuscript, the tangible outcome of those accomplishments will make a mark on my world that I will see for days to come. Whereas I can only look out the window for a time. That moment will end. I will step away from the window, release the day dream, open the door to the returning voices of my household. I will stop saying “don’t” and begin again to “do” the parts of my life I took exception to for this set of hours.

But the effects of this day I’m spending in the peaceful sunshine of imagination and stillness will linger with me. I will have strength for the journey, food for the thought, creativity for the tasks that return to me, because of this day I spent away from the working world.

 

-Photo by Amy Luo on Unsplash

The Eternal Life of Objects

Book of Tennyson poems on old wooden dresser

The connection between material objects and time fascinates me. Things can transcend time. They are more eternal than people, in one sense. For example, I recently found on our shelves a 1942 edition of the “Song and Service Book for Ship and Field: Army and Navy.” It’s still here, thousands of miles from the city where it was published, transcending who knows what dangers, surrounded perhaps by death on every side. Human death. And yet, it’s still here.

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God Writing

Writing makes me think about God. Imagine writing a chapter. What’s in it – characters, plot twists, setting, subtext? Planning goes into that. Word choice. Looking at the other chapters. Thinking how you’re moving the action, developing the characters. But then, look at one day of your real life. One. What’s in it? SO many characters playing roles you know little to nothing about, and every one of them has an entire lifetime full of meanings and memories you know nothing about, and you and these other characters are interacting with each other, with yourselves, with your multi-faceted setting, with time, space, memory, love. And the collective intelligence and imagination of the human race to date has not come up with a way to predict what will happen in the next chapter.

Immensity.

-Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Question by the River

I have lived in several worlds in my life, and I don’t suffer homesickness in the ordinary way. But sometimes, in the middle of a song, in a cloud of flower scent, at a moment of child-like peace, a wave of grief will rise over me because I can no longer go back to any good thing I remember. When I reach the river that flows by the throne, that might be my question – why couldn’t I bring together all the fragments of pure beauty I have seen and felt? I hope that’s what awaits me on the other side of the river. All those lost moments, the bouquet that was too much for human hands to grasp.

-Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash