Dispatches From a Pandemic: Small Bites

The down time of the pandemic has me doing everything in small bites: write a paragraph here, clean the kitchen. Edit half an essay, walk the dogs. Meditate on my purple yoga mat, write haiku. Balance my mother’s checkbook, read a chapter in another dystopian end-times novel.

I have found immediate gratification editing in small bites. The recipe goes something like this: Combine all elements of the first draft, let simmer for a while. Assemble the pieces in the right flow. Leave out to rise, the sourdough starter of a story. Punch down. Revise. Print, read, revise.

As writers, we already tiptoe along the emotional tightrope between self-doubt and the manic euphoria of inspiration. It’s summer. It’s a weird time in our lives. Let’s embrace our short attention spans. Let’s lose the “shoulds” and accept what is.

Dispatches From A Pandemic: The Old Normal

It begins with a question: “How are you?”

The question that makes me cringe as much as the phrase “new normal.

It’s the third time I’ve been asked how I am today, between phone calls and hastily-yelled conversations across the post office parking lot.

Each time, I answer: “Great!” And, for the first time in months, I actually mean it.

I’ve just returned from paddling the kayak around three neighboring islands. Sitting on the deck of my 200-year-old childhood farmhouse, John Cole’s “In Maine” essay collection in my lap, iced tea by my side. Across the street, high tide slowly fills the cove.

Thinking: It’s all so damn normal here.

Here, on this small Maine island with its one case of Covid. Here, with the three-room schoolhouse I attended for six years. Here, where even fifty years later, nothing much has changed. Here, you don’t have to return to normalcy, because normal never really left.

Later, as I head out for groceries, I’m stuck in the typical string of cars waiting as the old swing drawbridge that connects island to mainland opens to let a sailboat through. This occurs every summer on the half hour. This summer is no different.

During the ride into town, I pass kids fishing, sunlight glinting off their aluminum dinghy. Two shirtless guys building a deck, on a smoke break. The thump of tennis balls on the public courts. The Yacht Club regatta drifting by, with their puffy cotton ball sails. In town, tourists have tentatively returned, reverently masked, strolling along the wharf. The air thick with onion rings and fried clams.

I nibble a few fresh-picked strawberries from the farm stand on the way home, their sweetness evoking teary memories of the shortbread my mother once baked before dementia stole her ability to follow a recipe.

I am here; I am home, overwhelmed with gratitude for this pinprick of normalcy in an otherwise crazy universe. Grateful for the rhythms of island life. A doe and two fawns at dawn under the apple trees in my backyard. The seal chasing pogies two feet from my kayak. Time measured by the flow of the tide and passing of the seasons, not by levels of antibacterial soap and rolls of toilet paper.

Life is not easy on an island, self-isolated by design. But Mainers are a resilient folk, their lives spent coping with extreme everything: weather, job shortages, poverty, aging. Through centuries and generations, they have learned to adapt to conditions. To coexist rather than to control.

The pandemic may be the most extreme challenge any of us will ever endure. And each day we’re faced with a choice: either evolve or disappear.

Dispatches From A Pandemic: Am I Right?

Like pandemic life, controversy is uncomfortable for me. So how do I write about a moral compass without sounding righteous? How do I navigate the fine line between being right and doing the right thing?

It wasn’t always like this.

From the first two glasses of warm Chablis at age eleven, my life became a study in doing the wrong thing. Busted for smoking a joint in the school locker room. Losing my driver’s license for a year for drunk driving before I was of legal drinking age. By thirty I was a two-time divorcee.

I spent a chunk of my life largely unconcerned by anyone or anything other than myself and booze. “I have no morals,” I’d proclaim, in moments of warped pride.

After the drinking experiment failed, my moral compass and I embarked on a gradual course correction. I had learned the importance of doing the right thing early on from my mother the ultimate rule follower, she who highlighted the Ten Commandments in her bible, she who never saw the inside of her high school principal’s office.

In sobriety, I learned it again. Do the next right thing, they’d tell me, and like everything else in this new 12-step program, I was confused. How do I know if it’s right? I’d ask, and they’d say, more will be revealed. You’ll know if it feels wrong.

As a recent caregiver to a mother with dementia, I learned it again. Being responsible for others even if you don’t want to be, is the right thing.

And throughout this pandemic, its flashpoints great and terrible, I continue to learn. I will be traveling east soon, to see my parents, each of whom have been quarantined for four months in their respective care homes. I’m not sure they have a lot of time left.

Honestly, I’m not sure any of us has a lot of time left.

I am entering a state that has done the right thing when it comes to slowing the viral spread, proceeding with extreme caution in re-opening and requiring a 14-day self quarantine. I will do this because it is the right thing to do for the residents of the state, and for the residents of my parents’ care homes, and for my parents and for me.

And still the little voice I often heard in early sobriety haunts me: Who will know? Who will know if I sneak a drink? Who will know f I don’t self quarantine?

The answer’s on me: I will know. I will carry the secret, thick and heavy as the air before a summer thunderstorm. I will know, and others could die and that’s a weight too heavy to bear.

The recalibration of my moral compass is complete. Humility. Respect. Compassion. Empathy. Courage. Faith. Equality. Service. These replace those long-ago compass points of self-absorption, judgement, dishonesty and blame.

There is no app for this. It’s found within your heart and soul.