The first time in a while for windows open all day and into the evening, for birdsong carried into the house on a breeze tinged with flower blooms and fried chicken. Shouts of children, and wild men, and women who exercise with their faraway friends through a laptop in the sunny courtyard.
The first time in a while for the first flush of tender neon leaves shouting at the sky in the forest canopy.
The first time in a while for long walks in the middle of the day, near the end of the day, getting muddied and lost in the neighborhood national park, watching the black lab throw himself into and into and into the water for the ball.
The first time in a while for strangers passing at a distance, eyes meeting, not daring to breathe, except to whisper, thank you for your kindness. Not wondering what they mean.
It’s the first time in a while for dusting down the tops of the books in the bookshelf, because it’s there to do, and the light is falling in through the window right on it. You wouldn’t usually be there to see it.
The first time in a while to catch up with that one person. It’s been nine years, can you believe it?
It might be too soon to say this, since we’re somewhere in the middle. But I’m struck by remembering that afternoon a few weeks ago when I pulled my suitcase four miles across town.
The world had changed for me in the previous 48 hours. 48 hours before, I had been willing to ride the metro, to get in a cab, to go to work, to see a friend. Now I was not.
And as I walked, I was aware that I was seeing things happening for the last time in a while. Did everyone else know?
How often is it, after all, that you know it’s the last time? Most things change so subtly, and those that change fast often do so without warning. We are living in that strange aberration now: a quick change we saw coming as it rode us down.
That afternoon was the last time, for a while, that I saw groups of kids meandering home from school in clusters on the sidewalk sharing bags of corner-store chips with unwashed hands.
Hey, do you want to be awake, though? I know it’s 2:25 am, but I thought now might be a great time for us to reconnect. It’s been…
Ahem. Hey. Have you ever thought about that one really embarrassing but also still heartbreaking thing that happened years ago?
Oh, you have? And now you’re awake? Welcome! So sorry to pull that trick, but I missed you.
Yeah, so, do you want to think for a while about that embarrassing/heartbreaking thing? We can definitely ruminate on that until about 3:30. As you know, that’s more or less my specialty.
Or, if you prefer, I could bring up your Rolodex of old grudges and we can just flip through that sucker until dawn. Ha. Do you remember Rolodexes? I do. I’m glad you do too, now. Want to think about that for a while?
Oh, you’re still stuck on that embarrassing/heartbreaking thing? Sorry about that. But if that’s what you’re into, I can definitely serve you up lots of details about all the terrible stuff that happened that somehow doesn’t seem bad at all when you think about it by daylight but at this time of night is like unimaginably awful. Cool?
And also hypotheticals! Like maybe we can think about what if everyone else is still out there thinking about that thing too? Like, what if everyone else equally remembers the thing and talks behind your back about how embarrassing and also sad that was for you!
See, I’m here to serve. Maybe we can also imagine some really cutting, elegant speeches you could give to those people who are definitely all still really focused on that thing about you, and you can completely demolish them.
Wait, what are you doing? Are you trying those relaxation techniques again? Honey, you know that doesn’t work on me. I’m still over here. Maybe I can bring up that old annoyance again? That really got you going last time. Or, ooh, maybe I can give you some really paralyzing fresh anxieties? Like what if everyone you love suddenly…
Ha! I knew the relaxation techniques couldn’t take me out.
I mean, hiiiii, you’re back! I know you hate it when I do that but baby this is just what I do. I like to spend time with you. And you are always so busy during waking times, either working or doing your projects or consuming Content, that we don’t get all that much time for me to just chat at you.
I mean, chat with you. How are you doing, by the way? I feel like I’ve just been blah blah blah, talking a blue streak, sorry! But right now I have lots of ideas I really think I ought to share with you about how you can improve that piece of writing you’ve been working on. Do you want to get your phone out and take detailed notes? No? Okay, I’ll just repeat them over and over so you’ll be sure to remember when you wake up.
Hey, I can see you’re trying a body scan, and you’ve already made it up to your knees. You must want to get rid of me pretty badly. It’s a little past three. I get it. I’ve heard you say that you don’t “like it” when you’re “exhausted.” I want to find a happy medium for us.
Say, what about this? Want to think about what it would be like to ride a dolphin while it’s porpoising? Imagine hanging on as it leaps high out of the water and splashes down into the sunlit sea. So fast and so exhilarating! Look at the sparkles on the water. Feel the swells rushing by you, and the power of the dolphin as it kicks and dips. But how would you hold on? Yeah, let’s think about that for a long time. How would you hold on?
Yeah, good idea, sugar, you probably should immediately write out that dolphin idea. And while you’re at it, I have several more I’d like you to jot down. This shouldn’t take more than two hours or so.
After waking up, the next thing that happens is work. Is this ideal? God knows. But as we established, in this time it is possible to wake up at any late hour, and it is also possible (even patriotic and good) to stay in bed and just get right on that laptop.
Night bleeds into day, and we clock in.
Here’s how it happened to me:
DAY ONE: I am bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I put on clothing, sit on a chair, and open the laptop. I look at the emails. They seem to be written in Greek, or perhaps in some forgotten abyssal tongue. I know some of these words but I have no idea of how they hook together. I don’t know how to do my job. I fake it by moving documents around and using as much jargon as I can muster. There is synergy; there is circling back; there is blue-skying; there is right-sizing. Thusly, like an octopus inking a predator and skedaddling, I buy myself some time to remember what the hell it is I did Before.
Day Two: No need to overdo it. Laptop in pajamas. I could have the TV on. There’s probably no law against that. I could do all manner of things—procrastibaking some brownies, playing a video game, reading all the news, cleaning the counters, reorganizing the closet, lying on the floor for quite a long time. I panic at 3pm and furiously work until 5:30. This reminds me, bittersweetly, of the daily post-procrastination panic back at the office Before, and I am left in a strange funk.
Day Three: It’s a new day. No more of that time-wasting. I have made myself an hour-by-hour schedule:
7-8: draft today’s post
9-10: Work Task 1
10-11: stretching, breathing exercises, staring out the window
11-12: Work Task 2
1-2: Work Task 2 (overflow)
3-5: finish work tasks, close out day
6-?: make homemade hand sanitizer like a true prepper, read a book, free time, contact everyone I know, contemplate existence, plan the next novel I write, clean the floors, etc.
Day Three is basically perfect. I’m thriving. This is living. This is balancing work with life in a sustainable, healthy, human, vibrant way. I can keep this up forever. Eureka!
Day Four: I don’t remember Day Four. Somehow I ended up covered in chip crumbs and it was dark outside.
Day Five: The same as Day Three, but I overslept. I follow the schedule, but in a random order and make sure to switch tasks every two minutes (highly recommended).
And now, somehow it is the weekend again. It feels as though it has been about twenty minutes since Monday, but also somehow, twenty years.
Exhibit A: I used to take all kinds of things from the law school cafeteria in my pockets. Tea bags, an uneaten half of a bagel, single-serving peanut butters, fruit. This was technically not allowed, but the thrill was worth the risk. My little law-school dorm room desk filled up with crumpled tea bags I kept on hand in case of any caffeine emergencies. Just to have. For later.
“Good afternoon, you have reached Embarrassment, how can I assist you today?”
“I’d like to file a claim, please.”
“Very happy to help you today,” said the grim voice grimly. “Please describe the nature of your claim.”
“Oh God, do I have to?” she cringed.
“I’m afraid I can’t assist you without details about your claim.”
“Well, God. Okay. I’m working from home, because—well, I assume you are, too? Like, we’re all…?”
The grim voice at Embarrassment neither confirmed nor denied this.
“So, anyway, I’m still getting used to calling into meetings via video chat.”
“Oh,” said Embarrassment, readying himself to win the office pool over which agent would first reach 20 claims for accidental video-call nudity. He and Susan were neck-and-neck at 19, and he could use the $20.
We’ve been told for a long time: routine is important. But now that the metaphorical heavies of fate have kicked the metaphorical scaffolding of structure away from the metaphorical buildings of our daily lives, it’s high time to make some routine for ourselves. I’ll be sharing tips from my own routine-making and -keeping process here with you, in a series that I am tearfully obligated to call:
First, waking up.
Perhaps you are, as I once was, an alarm person.
But during my long walk with pneumonia, it was more important for me to rest and heal than to wake up at my usual time. This meant no alarm. The current social-distancing situation has made no-alarm life basically permanent here.
I recommend it. There’s a thrill that money can’t buy every night when the lights go out, thinking: when will I wake up? Will it be 2 a.m.? 4? Will it be 6:30? 8? 10? We just don’t know! Maybe in the old world that wouldn’t sound too exciting, but I tell ya, at this point it is an unparalleled HOOT.
Now, upon waking, I find that I like to lie there for several minutes bargaining with reality. Perhaps eventually this will successfully result in being able to stay in bed indefinitely and a maidservant materializing to open the curtains and provide a breakfast tray (just call me Lady Mary), but so far my negotiations have been fruitless.
As soon as it feels like another minute without going to the bathroom will result in imminent death, I recommend getting up.
The next few minutes are important. Somehow one must simultaneously put on the coffee, open the shades, remove any sleeping implements (if applicable, as they are for those of us who love grinding our teeth to dust in our spare time), make breakfast, put on clothes that wouldn’t result in jail time if we accidentally activated the video option on our next video call, and log on to work.
Sometimes, in the face of these tasks, it helps to sit in the dark and do the crossword for a while.
Now, I hear that some people have different morning routines involving fifteen minutes of uninterrupted creativity before they check email, or a yoga practice before coffee, or they run a marathon or something before putting on their shoes, but you know what? I find that I just feel a lot better if I drag myself to full consciousness just in time for my post-lunch nap.
I had been describing some feeling, some anxiety, some distress of some now-forgotten variety, to my spiritual director. At the time, I’m sure I wanted her to respond with either “You’re wrong; just think about it this way and it’ll all be fine, dummy” or “You’re completely right; everything is hopeless.”
But instead, she came back with this completely puzzling question: where do you feel that in your body?
My immediate reaction was to want to say: “In my head, where my brain lives, because that’s where my synapses happen,” but I figured that might sound pretty condescending. Plus, can I really feel my synapses? I’m not sure how I’d know.
So, slightly more politely, I asked for clarification.
In this strange time of isolation and upheaval, it’s more important than ever to take good care of oneself. I’m therefore inspired to offer up some of my favorite time-tested tips for feeling one’s best.
This doesn’t have to be a big production. Even something as simple as putting on a cleansing face mask first thing in the morning can be a calming message to the frayed nerves: you are cared for. I recommend taking out that dusty tube of charcoal face mask that’s been languishing in the back of your medicine cabinet, reading the instructions, and plopping some on. It says to put it on your face and neck. Indeed: the neck—that’s nice. We all could stand to take better care of our neck skin.
See—things like this. Taking care of all of oneself. This is what will help.
Another critical part of self-care during this time is taking walks. Ideally you’d do this before you slather dark gray-black goop all over your face and neck, and ideally you’d be wearing something other than sweatpants that now are covered in charcoal handprints, but it’s okay if what we are able to achieve now doesn’t quite meet our ideals.
Plus, looking this way as we tour the neighborhood will help keep those important six feet of distance between us and our neighbors, who (speaking of self care) are suddenly walking away from us at quite a clip. Great hustle, Charlie! Keep that heart rate elevated!