On The One-Year Anniversary of the Pandemic: Six Rituals To Last a Lifetime
Bake any banana bread this past year? You’re not alone. Many of us adopted new pastimes and rituals while being (mostly) stuck inside during various stay-at-home restrictions. Some pastimes were born of necessity, others of boredom. Some will last, most won’t, especially as life returns to normal…whatever normal is.
With my children having long ago flown the coop (could someone please nominate parents of small children for a Nobel Prize?) and my work scaling back considerably, I had nothing but time on my hands when the mandatory stay-at-home order went into effect in California a year ago this month. Add to that, the pandemic had me giving up what previously filled a large chunk of my time outside of work. Accustomed to writing 1,000–1,500 words per day prior to the pandemic, my pen went dry with a bad case of existential angst. When my gym down the street closed, I adapted my workouts to the much inferior gym in my building before it too closed. Ultimately, a person can only make so many adjustments to one’s routine, and working out in my living room with my cats doing figure eights in between my legs just wasn’t cutting it for me, so I let go and let grow…my waistline.
To fill the excess hours, I took up Italian but quickly lost interest because I had no one to practice with. Next, I purchased my first video game counsel, an Xbox original off Craigslist, and became addicted to the dated Dance Dance Revolution CD it came with…until I wasn’t; I worked jigsaw puzzles, experimented with frigo soups and pastas allowing me to use up food that would otherwise go to waste, checked on isolated relatives and friends via phone and Zoom, binge-watched BBC dramas, and read more escapist literary novels than I care to count.
However, none of these activities filled the bottomless void of time. So like a (horror-movie) bride searching for just the right gown, I kept trying on new ways to pass time.
Over the course of the year, only a few of these activities ascended from temporary distractions to daily rituals. Those that did had one thing in common: each allowed me to live more in the present moment rather than in the uncertain future or who-knows-if we’ll-ever-return-to-it past.
What better way to survive a quarantine than to listen to a podcast called The Slowdown. I had heard a few episodes of the former Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith’s podcast — each one brief, and featuring an interpretation and reading of a poem — prior to the pandemic. However, the show’s title and its effect on me took on new significance once the pandemic got real. For starters, I needed to slow down for no other reason than to keep myself from pinging off the walls of my apartment. Also impactful, Smith’s analyses of the poems are deeply contemplative and they helped me with my own struggle to make sense of the craziness that had suddenly engulfed me, us.
I also found comfort in the poet James Crews’ daily “Poems of Healing and Hope” offering on Instagram. Like Smith’s, Crews’ expertly-curated selections speak to what is universal at a time when we all need to row together.
Finally, I revisited some of my favorite poets and poetry collections, including Roger Housden’s Ten Poems…series where I re-discovered the gem below that spoke to every fiber of my sorrow during the earliest, deadliest, and scariest days of the pandemic:
IF YOU KNEW
by Ellen Bass
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport,
when the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee,
kissed her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
This one I stole from my husband who took up the ancient practice of Tai Chi while recovering from hip replacement surgery in late 2019. Over the years, I have watched on in fascination while others practiced this Chinese martial art in parks, but despite being a devotee of yoga, I never thought Tai Chi was right for someone like myself who, prior to the pandemic, mostly led my life in overdrive. I imagined Tai Chi as moving through life inside a great vat of molasses. That was sooo not me. Or so I thought until I tried it. Tai Chi is a succession of slow movements based on the dynamic relationship between polarities (Yin and Yang). And what could be more polar opposite than racing around like someone with a “very important life” and then being forced to slam that life to a screeching halt and chill-ax for a year? Each night before bed, facing each other like shadowboxers, my husband and I spend 4–5 minutes focusing our minds solely on our slowed down movements and our synchronized breathing. Much to my surprise, it helps to calm my restless nature and prepares me for a night of good sleep, absent nightmares of leaving my apartment without a mask….
It’s a long story, but I’ve had this ukulele taking up space in my closet for some time. I learned to play music (mostly classical*) on the piano, but I no longer own one. I’ve always wanted to learn the cello, but I don’t own one of those either. And so one afternoon, early on in the pandemic, I picked up the uke and committed myself to playing it for a minimum 10 minutes a day for thirty days straight. I found a helpful tutorial on YouTube and before I knew it I’d learned enough chords to play, “You Are My Sunshine,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Let It Be.” Ten minutes a day became thirty and thirty straight days became one hundred. The only problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to strum properly. I could change chords while singing — the musical equivalent patting my head while rubbing my tummy—but when I tried to add a strumming pattern the whole exercise fell flat on its face. I was so frustrated at not being able to master strumming that I considered quitting altogether. You see, it is the strumming that makes ukulele memorable — unless you’re old enough to remember Tiny Tim, in which case, I’m sorry. Then, somewhere around day 90, my inability to strum changed, literally overnight. I dreamt I was strumming to my favorite song, the Louis Armstrong classic, “It’s a Wonderful World” (to which I hadn’t even learned the chords), and low and behold, when I sat down to play the next day, I could strum, not just to one song but every song in my growing repertoire. Suffice it to say, I didn’t quit. I still practice (almost) every day, and because it requires my full attention to read music, while playing chords and strumming, playing the ukulele (or any musical instrument) provides the added benefit of blocking out my worries, if only for thirty minutes at a time.
Truth be told, even though I live in sun-drenched San Diego, I’ve always been a little bit jealous of my family in the Pacific Northwest all of whom pass the rainy season playing card games (Rummy, Spit, and Spoons) and board games (Cribbage, Backgammon and Catan). The times I’ve joined in, I laughed so hard that I had to change my panty liner, but that’s another story. In any case, my husband and I have owned a backgammon board forever, the purpose of which was to keep the ukulele company. Since we’d both played a bit in our not entirely misspent youths, it didn’t take long to pick up the game again after a cursory review of the setup and rules. Each night, we pour ourselves a dram of whiskey and go head to head in friendly competition. I can’t say for sure whether the game or the excuse to drink whiskey is more appealing, but it’s a nice way to spend time — rain or shine — with my quarantine partner with whom I’m otherwise running out of interesting topics to converse about.
Birdwatching, like Tai Chi, is a pastime I would have placed under the column header Boooo-ring. Which, when I think about it, is odd because I do love being in nature, and identifying flora. Until recently, however, my interests had never crossed over from flora to fauna. Yet, there was something about staring out the window of our eighth floor apartment, like a child waiting for recess, that got me to pay closer attention to birds. Also, in the early days of the lock down, when the sounds of car and pedestrian traffic outside our building dimmed to a whisper, birdsong — once the ground — became the figure. I was in awe, those early days, of the irrepressibility of nature and took great comfort in knowing that something in the world — even though it was something I’d never paid much mind to — was going on as before. I took a free Zoom class (free and inexpensive educational classes and performances on Zoom being one of the silver linings of the pandemic) and downloaded the recommended Merlin Bird ID app, found the binoculars next to — you guessed it — the ukulele and Backgammon board, and walked one block east of our apartment to Balboa Park (another pandemic lifesaver!) Who would have guessed a 1,200 acre city park would be teeming with avian life? Apparently, not me. That is until fresh air and greenery became as precious as silver and gold, forcing me to no longer take the park for granted. Now, I easily spot Black Phoebes and Western Bluebirds, can tell the difference between a crow and a raven, finch and wren, and an Allen’s versus Anna’s Hummingbird. Lucky for my friends, we’re not supposed to entertain in person yet, otherwise I’m certain I couldn’t resist the temptation to share with them all the (truly) fascinating facts I’ve learned about birds! They’ll just have to take my word for it…for now (mwah-ha-ha).
True story: I had a bit of a breakdown about six months into the quarantine (didn’t we all in one form or another?) You can read about it here. There were a lot of red flags leading up to it, but let’s just say I was color blind. A dear friend in Iowa, who knew something of my troubles and state of mind, texted me a link to an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class (also via Zoom) she‘d’ signed up for and asked if I might be interested in attending it with her. Never mind that I wouldn’t have been able to “attend” a class with a friend from Iowa pre-pandemic, this student was ready for her teacher to appear. Every day, for eight. straight. weeks. I practiced sitting meditation for a minimum of 40 minutes; a task that sounded as daunting as scaling Mt. Everest when I first learned of the course requirements. However, by the end of the course I looked forward to my daily “sitting” that offered a break from the constant “doing” of life in favor of just being. Which is not to say mindfulness meditation is easy. Some days my recalcitrant monkey brain will not be silenced, and it can be a challenge to find the time (and the willingness) to be unproductive. But if I couldn’t take up the art of not-doing during a pandemic, then when was I ever going to learn to slow down? I stuck with it and ever so slowly began to see benefits accrue and — HALLELUJAH! (a song I can strum on my ukulele, btw)— the reactive me, who’d gotten herself in a cauldron of hot water only a few months earlier, began to quiet down. I’m not here to proselytize, but mindfulness meditation has a game changer in my life, and, strangely enough, I have the pandemic to thank for that.
Now that I’ve received my first vaccination, I hope life will soon return to some semblance of normalcy. Which means I will no longer binge watch 3-hours of Netflix every night. I’ll return to making banana bread twice a year instead of twice a week. Ditto with ordering takeout. And I’ll say ‘no thank you, I get mine at the bakery’ if anyone offers me homemade sourdough starter. And God help me if I ever need to brew a batch of homemade hand sanitizer again!
There are, however, ritualistic pleasures I will take with me into the new normal that I would have never discovered had it not been for the otherwise awful normal of the past year. For these new ways of living, I am grateful.
*If you’re searching for grace during a pandemic or otherwise, I highly recommend the book The Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day. I only discovered it recently so don’t count it as something that got me through the pandemic, however, I do know for certain it will get me through many days ahead.