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Pickle Me This

May 14, 2020

Rereading Jackson Brodie in the Spring of 2020

“‘Life’s random,’ he said, The best you can do is pick up the pieces.'” —When Will There Be Good News?

There are several ways a reader comes to Kate Atkinson: as the award-winning author of historical novels including Life After Life and A God in Ruins; as author of the Jackson Brodie detective novels, which were made into a celebrated television series; or as the quirky literary superstar who won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1995 for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an event celebrated with news headlines referring to Atkinson as “an unknown hotel chambermaid.”

The third route was my own path to Kate Atkinson’s work, though I didn’t encounter it for another decade, reading a copy of a library book I’d borrowed from a friend, which seems like the least intimate literary encounter I’ve ever experienced, but it changed everything for me, the unforgettable first line marking Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”

I wasn’t fond of detective fiction when I picked Atkinson’s Case Histories, presumably around the same time, but it occurred to me when I did that all literary fiction is about mystery in a sense, and indeed Behind the Scenes at the Museum was, structurally at least, a work of detective fiction, except the sleuth was the reader, because it’s a puzzle of a novel with a solution I didn’t see coming.

But I read Case Histories, because Kate Atkinson was now on my list of fundamental authors, authors whose work I will buy the day of release. Even if I wasn’t as crazy about Jackson Brodie as other readers were, perhaps distrusting of genre—although these books would prove to be my gateway to detective fiction proper, and fifteen years later, I’m absolutely a devotee.

And maybe it was because these books weren’t my favourite, or maybe it was the reason why they weren’t: the plots of the novels didn’t stay with me. Except for the first book, vaguely, the story of the Land sisters and their pile-on of tragedies. When I sat down to reread Case Histories this year in March, it was remarkable that I remembered nothing at all about the story except who had dunnit.

Part of it was that I’m not sure detective fiction necessarily lends itself to rereading for the average reader (and I am also talking about the average work of detective fiction, of which the Jackson Brodie novels, I think, are not). Also because this is a series of novels that have come out over fifteen years—it’s been ten years between Started Early, Took My Dog and the latest, Big Sky. Which I read last June on my 40th birthday, and I remembered nothing of the books that came before. Which is fine—each of these novels stands up fine on their own. But to miss anything of Atkinson’s keen sense of story and detail would be thoroughly a waste, and I thought how much I’d appreciate the chance to reread the Jackson Brodie books from start to finish.

And when the world fell apart in March, and I cycled into despair along with it, finding myself unable to read, the chance appeared, and I took it. Case Histories: An absorbing novel rife with plot, perfect for escaping. But also undeniably dark, brutal, violent, in a way that resonated with the world around me. A book that was an escape, but that was not completely a disconnect either. Why do bad things happen? Why is life so unfair? How do we keep going when people die? How do people survive trauma and tragedy? What kind of life is possible after that?

I was still pretty shattered when I reread Case Histories, during that very bad week I spent unable to eat, barely sleeping, having panic attacks, and finding it exhausting to walk upstairs. But the act of reading, of finding joy and solace again in a book, which is my usual practice, helped me to find my centre again, to find my feet, and feel at home inside myself even at this very strange time.

I don’t know that I properly understand these books’ notion of justice until I read them again in 2020. Jackson Brodie as an outlaw—he used to be a policeman. But the sense that justice proper lives outside the law, which continues to benefit the powerful, which continues to undermine the safety of girls and women. Jackson’s origin story lies in the murder of his older sister, a murder that was was never solved, and it’s a need to right what happened somehow that drives Jackson in these novels, which portray a world, very similar to our own, which is a dangerous case for girls and women.

That murders go unsolved, crimes unavenged. Clues don’t add up, villains get away with it, the banality of so much of this. Reality is a different kind of narrative, is what these books are saying, and yet, somehow, within the confines of a narrative, and there is the possibility of redemption in that. For the world, I mean. The possibility of hope.

One Good Turn takes place two years after Case Histories, Jackson in Edinburgh where his girlfriend Julia has a show at the summer festival. “A Jolly Good Murder Mystery” is the novel’s subtitle, and there is a rollickingness to the novel, whose characters include a writer of middling detective fiction. One Good Turn is self-aware, possibly winking. And its many strands are slightly absurd, but their weaving is masterful, a much richer tapestry than Case Histories. The confident way it all holds together.

And then When Will There Be Good News?, which is a literary masterpiece, I think, the best book of them all, and they’re all extraordinarily good. Featuring Reggie Chase, who appears again in Big Sky—but I didn’t remember her. Unfathomable too, because she’s basically unforgettable. A teenage genius from the wrong side of the tracks, almost no one to guide her. A devastating train crash, and it’s Reggie who saves Jackson’s life, forever in his debt—and doubly, because he writes her a cheque that bounces when his wife disappears with his entire fortune. And we meet Louise Monroe again, the police inspector from the previous book, and this all is a book about trauma, and violence, everyday brutality, domestic violence—and Atkinson even makes it funny, like all the books, which still doesn’t undermine the enormity of the message. Humour is how you make it bearable, I guess, and it helps that life is so absurd.

To reread a series of books so concerned with history is interesting, and the series also shows the changes occurring during the years they were written and take place. I will never forget my first trip to the UK post 2008 economic crash, how different it was, all the holes in the streets where the Woolworths had been—and Started Early, Took My Dog is situated in the wreckage of that moment, another kind of trauma. “The world was going to hell in a handcart…” The sex workers who used to do the job because of poverty, but now it’s because of addiction. Started Early… moves between the 1970s and 2010, and it’s a strange kind of nostalgia. It wasn’t that things were better then, but they were different, that’s all. This is a novel that’s about the fraying of the social fabric, but that’s not necessarily a contemporary story, and might be classic after all. There also have always been bad guys, and some things never change, which is why Jackson Brodie knows as much as as he does—when he’s not walking headlong into disaster.

(This novel is also the way I discovered Betty‘s, and made our first visit to the one in Ilkley in 2011, on the recommendation of Jackson Brodie himself… “If Britain had been run by Betty’s, it would never have succombed to economic Armageddon.”)

And then last week I reread Big Sky, not even a year after the first time, and I knew Reggie Chase this time, now a police inspector herself. And I loved it, just like I loved all of them—its furious, unabashed politics and strong sense of justice. And I loved too the way a few strands in the book that do not quite get tied up, which could suggest that perhaps there are more Jackson Brodie novels to come. A reader can hope…

Or else it’s just that these books, while precise in their composition, are also meant to mimic reality—rough, ragged, and untidy, but sometimes so sublime.

May 8, 2020

18 Ways That Living Through A Pandemic is ALSO Just Like Having a Baby

It’s been eleven years since the first time I had a baby, and in years since then, I have found that almost nothing is truly analogous to the experience. Until 2020, that is, notable for being the year I discovered not one but two analogies that were absolutely perfect. The first was when I got a sourdough starter back at the beginning of February, and I really wasn’t being facetious when I made the comparison—thought my approach was lighthearted, of course. But if I thought I was serious then, I’m really serious now, when we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s exactly the same, and now I am going to tell you why.

  1. The universe as we know it is shattered. Farewell to the distinctions between day and night, possible and not, our worst nightmares and reality. Between each day. There is grief and loss, and letting go of plans you made, the life you recognize, and the expectation of ground beneath your feet.
  2. There are no real answers, but in lieu of a world we recognize, and because we feel so vulnerable, we cling to dogma, signal virtue, and make up rituals to feel exempt from bad things ever happening to us.
  3. These rituals and signals become performative and are insufferably dull, and yet we share them on social media because we’re desperate for human connection.
  4. …but we’re also desperate for validation, to have all our biases and points of view confirmed, because anything otherwise only reminds us that the universe is shattered and that we’re all just clinging to life as we know it by the skin of our teeth,
  5. (Shhhh!)
  6. A person might wonder how a world could shrink so small.
  7. The ordinary world is rife with dangers we’d never considered before.
  8. If you look hard enough, you can find a doctor telling you what you want to hear. You will find that online community.
  9. Other people’s rituals and signals are anxiety-inducing and only underline that nobody really knows how to do this and we’re all making it up as we go.
  10. Everybody is getting snippy in Facebook threads.
  11. Obviously, there is not a lot a whole lot going on where you are.
  12. Nobody is getting enough sleep.
  13. Is this what the rest of my life is going to look like?
  14. I don’t remember signing up for this.
  15. But there are moments of light in the darkness, of grace. We’ve never had so much food dropped off on the porch, or received so many cards in the mail. We feel cut off from the world, and yet connected.
  16. We consider how the people with real problems must be faring, as we’ve been overwhelmed with fear and anxiety while sheltering safe at home.
  17. There are some days, sometimes, that seem almost normal.
  18. But that we’re still inside the storm makes it difficult to know whether or when it will ever be over.

And a hopeful addendum from my own experience, relevant if the analogy holds: one day it was.

April 27, 2020

Where I Find the Time To Read: The Global Pandemic Edition

This is the third and perhaps the least fun installment in a series of posts about how I find the time to read. (Part one was about reading with a small baby, and you can read the post-breastfeeding edition here.)

And this post is remarkable because in the beginning of this, I couldn’t read at all. It was terrible, because the world was already upside-down, and then here I was unable to read—and if I’m not a reader, then who even am I?

Finding my way back to reading has been to find my way back into my own head again, and since I managed this, books and reading have provided the most wonderful distraction. Books have proven to be the very best way to measure out these days, and worthwhile not just as an escape, but also for the uncanny connections they’ve managed to make to what we’re going through, underlining the universality of experience even in extraordinary times, and also how amazing books really are.

Here’s how I did it.

  • Rereading: In difficult times, there is nothing like returning to a book that’s familiar, a book that’s not going to surprise you. It’s a comfort thing, but it’s also a wonderful experience to be able to read again, to encounter a book you know and then find it changed. Or perhaps you’d forgotten it altogether—last summer I read Big Sky, Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel in almost a decade, and realized that I didn’t recall much of what happened in the first four books in the series. Returning to them since has been absolutely enchanting, and also so surprisingly perfect for this moment in a way I could never have predicted, not could have Atkinson herself as she wrote the novels years ago. That they acknowledge life’s darkness, which is important right now, but they’re also brilliantly funny and an escape in themselves. Getting to read these books again has been such a gift for me.
  • Create a reading project: Don’t make this aspirational, but instead make it something you really want to do, an indulgence instead of a chore. If your project, like mine, is about rereading, all the better, because these will be books you already have at home–which is important when you’re locked down under quarantine. I have one more Jackson Brodie book to read, and then I’m going to undertake rereading everything Margaret Drabble ever wrote in chronological order. Thankfully, Margaret Drabble wrote a lot of books, and I have this secret wish that as I read through them, the world outside might become a little less terrible.
  • Finally read the books you own that you haven’t read yet: I actually HAVE read all the books on my bookshelves, because the ones I haven’t read yet I keep on a different bookshelf…and some of these have been lingering there for a really long time. Now is the time! Keeping these titles distinct from the rest helps to focus your reading, and seeing the pile diminish can be satisfying. Remember too though that now is the time to acknowledge that some of these books you’re never actually going to read, and therefore you should get rid of them, which is perfectly fine and even freeing.
  • Have a book swap with your neighbour: You get something new to read, something just a little off your beaten track, and you also get a little burst of social connection. (Just make sure they’re not just giving you the books that they’ve finally accepted they’re never going to read, because that’s probably not going to end well for you…)
  • Acknowledge the reader you are: If your plan is to transform yourself into someone you’re not, then I’m not sure you’re going to be very successful. Life is hard enough right now, and I just don’t think it’s the best time to be adding reading Karl Ove Knausgård to your struggles if you, like me, have never found the prospect very appealing. Instead, pick up only the books you’re really excited about and read like nobody’s watching—because nobody is.
  • Don’t be afraid to break up with your book: If the same book has been sitting on your beside since March 11, then it’s possible that the pandemic is not your literary problem. Perhaps that book is not even a bad book, but it’s just not the book you need at this moment, and you should have no compunction about putting it away for awhile. Forever, if need be. Try another one, and even another one, and eventually, something will take. (Here are some recommendations!)
  • Order some books from your local indie, or from Indigo if that’s what’s available to you. I’m not saying this is going to get you out of your reading slump, but waiting for things to come in the post MAKES ME SO HAPPY these days and all days, and being happy feels good.
  • Set limits for social media: The only social media app on my phone is Instagram, because I find it inspiring, as opposed to Facebook or Twitter which just raises my blood pressure and lead to endless scrolling. I don’t hate these sites, but they suck up my time in unproductive ways, so I am glad they’re not always accessible to me.
  • Put your phone away: My best time for reading is from 9-11 once my kids have gone to bed, and I get the most reading done when my phone is out of reach.
  • Ask yourself just what you’re seeking from news coverage: I’m not hiding my head in the sand, and it’s important for me to know what’s going on in the world. But during the time when I couldn’t read books and was obsessively scrolling and refreshing news sites, I was desperately looking for answers that nobody had yet. They still don’t. Acknowledging the futility of this was useful to me, and it was heartening to realize that books knew more secrets. These days, I focus my news consumption on print media (it has context and it’s FINITE!) and don’t look at online news after sunset.
  • Stop watching so much Netflix. Unless you’re loving it and don’t miss reading at all, but I really do believe that books are a better kind of escape (and they help you sleep better). Rhonda Douglas is running a A 30-Day No Netflix Challenge over at her website as an incentive for writers, and I think it’s a great challenge for readers too. Or what if you set aside one or two evenings a week for reading instead of Tiger King? You probably won’t be sorry you did.

April 13, 2020

“I’m in the dark, feeling my way…”

I don’t know where it goes from here. I’m in the dark, feeling my way… Maybe my actions…are futile, I have no way of knowing… The future, in my world, has always been obscure. I have come to appreciate its darkness. To see far ahead—to know exactly what is to happen—robs us of unexpected sparks.” —Cordelia Strube, Misconduct of the Heart

My favourite restaurant has pivoted. After a month of being closed, they’ve reopened selling groceries and meal-kits, and because they are my favourite, because their food is delicious, and because they’re probably the first place I’m going to go “once this is all over” so I want to do my part to make sure there’s still a place to go to, I made my order minutes after their new website launched, and I was struck by the automated response I received. A response I’m sorry now I didn’t write down verbatim, but it was something along the lines of, “Okay, we have no idea how all this is actually going to work. We’re still figuring everything out as we go.”

And it was so refreshing to read that, and resonated with me on all kinds of levels. It was an honesty that few other businesses/institutions/people have been willing to engage with these last few weeks, understandably enough, I guess. But it was the first time I felt like I was hearing from somebody who was actively engaging with reality. (It is not a surprise either that someone actively engaging with reality has done such a fantastic job of re-imagining a way to have their business work and serve their customers at such an unprecedented moment in time.)

Nobody knows. Such an incredible, impossible thing. Literally incredible, even, if you delve into the responses on politicians’ social media posts or read that forwarded email from your cousin about how Covid-19 is actually a biological weapon intentionally released by Saudi Arabian desert camels. Or even the outraged tweets and op-eds by pundits who seems to be confused how science happens and how knowledge works, accusing public health officials of more flip-flopping than poor John Kerry back in 2004. Who seem to think there’s a conspiracy theory about why our understanding of the virus has changed since mid-February, and are just as frustrated as the rest of us as to the lack of answers—how has this happened? Why’s it so bad? Why weren’t we prepared? When will it end? There’s not even anybody properly to blame, though that’s not stopped an awful lot of people from trying. How do you tell a story after all when there’s no certainty? No answers?

I’ve given up properly following the story. The answers aren’t there yet. After a straight week of losing my mind, refreshing Twitter over and over and desperately worrying about the fate of Tom Hanks, watching the numbers climb—I stopped. I don’t get paid enough to tune into daily press conferences and watching mounting death tolls. It serves nobody if I do, me least of all. So I stopped freaking out and returned to reading books instead, which were solid and contained. There were answers there and even lessons applicable to our current situation, uncanny signs sometimes. Of course, I read the weekend papers when they were delivered to my door, and looked at the news here and there on the news page my phone suggested for me (though the algorithm figured me out and soon it was all about sourdough bread). I paid some attention to the world outside, followed Boris Johnson’s medical journey quite closely, have myself been following public health guidelines so my ignorance puts nobody at risk, and I have read some extraordinary stories—read “Sirenland,” by Briallen Hopper. Read the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur on Bobcaygeon. There’s incredible journalism going on by now, but it’s being told by the people who are willing to accept that we don’t have answers yet and that it will be some time before we do.

“Okay, we have no idea how all this is actually going to work. We’re still figuring everything out as we go.”

It is interesting, is how I can frame it on my better days, when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, when I wake up and look forward to something ahead, even if it’s just discovering how my sourdough loaf has risen overnight. It is interesting to see so much learning happening, to see science in action, that there is no real definitive authority on what’s going on right now, that we really are—from internationally renowned health experts to the guy stocking cans in the grocery store—literally making it up as we go along. We are learning how fast things can change, how connected we all are, how essential science really is, that learning never quits and there’s always more, and the world is more amazing, unfathomable, untameable, random and strange that even the smartest of us will ever properly understand.

It’s also humbling—in a way that many of us could stand to learn a lesson from. Lessons that could change the world.

There was never certainty anyway. From the quote by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I came upon by way of my fave podcast, “You are afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control. But you never had control; all you had is anxiety.” The illusion of it all finally exposed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though it’s hard and it hurts.

April 6, 2020

We’ve Still Got Weekends

I wrote about “observing the weekend” on Instagram the other day, about the ways that doing so has helped to frame our lives in what is now the fourth week of quarantine during the time of Covid-19. Though it’s probably a good thing to do even at the best of times, and something that I didn’t do enough as I scrambled to finish my work during the brief hours my children’s school day provided and then had to fit in an extra shift or two on Sunday afternoons. And while my time to work is no more plentiful than it ever was (and now steeped in distraction, and anxieties, and I keep insisting on making elaborate lunches), the weekend has become a sacred thing.

On Friday afternoon, I turned my laptop off and didn’t turn it back on until Monday morning. All the weekday rules thrown out the window—dressed and breakfasted by 9am? Pshaw. If you’re not still in your pyjamas on Sunday, 1:30 pm, then you’re doing it wrong. All the breakfasts should be photogenic and totally delicious, and you’re only allowed to read the news if you’re reading an actual NEWSpaper, though you have to read the comics first. The last two Saturdays, we’ve ordered takeout, because a person should only have to orchestrate one photogenic meal a day. There has been a whole lot of sloth, and togetherness, and video games, and reading, which is a pleasure and a break, and makes you even want to pull yourself together once Monday morning rolls around.

Even better than observing the weekend though? Adding a little bit of weekend to the week. A few weeks back, Harriet was having a pretty tough time with our new arrangement of hiding in our house for the foreseeable future in fear of a deadly contagion (kids these days!) and decided that special breakfasts on Wednesday would add a little bit of the magic and delight that has retreated from our lives. We’ve also curled up for a family movie on Monday nights the last two weeks, which would never have happened in any other universe, and seems like a lovely kind of indulgence in this upside-down world.

April 1, 2020

There will be school again, but in the meantime…

I love the things that my children learn at school, like how to read and write their names, do long division, and the geography of the Great Lake St. Lawrence Lowlands. Back before my children went to school, I had tried to teach them things, but none of it ever took. We received a letter before my eldest started kindergarten that suggested her knowing how to write her name before September might be an academic advantage, but she was having none of it. She’d already learned to write an H, and was quite adamant that this was sufficient, and her attitude toward this had me a little bit concerned as her academic career began, but it turned out that what she’d needed was a teacher, someone trained to educate (who knew!) and she eventually learned to write her name in its entirety, and then the whole alphabet, and the last time I checked, she was writing Warriors fan fiction, so it all turned out okay in the end.

Which is not to say that I’ve taught my children nothing. I’ve taught them to separate eggs, how to blow their noses, to sing the words to “Livin’ On A Prayer” and just what circumstances necessitate us to rue the patriarchy. I’ve done my best to teach them to be kind and decent people, to clean up their own messes, to care for others, and to stand up on the side of justice. I’ve taught them the name of birds and flowers and trees (often learning myself in the process) and to love hammocks, sunshine, and digging deep holes on the beach.

It’s the non-academic stuff they’ve learned at school, though, that’s been more important than all of this, even the holes and hammocks, and definitely the long division. I send my kids to school, and deliberately to public school, so they learn that they’re part of a wider community made up of all kinds of people. Going to school teaches them to be punctual, accountable, responsible, respectful. They have teachers they love, and teachers they love…a little less, and they learn that grown-ups, just like their peers, are all kinds of people. They learn how to get along with groups, they learn how to get along with people they don’t get along with, they learn that sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t want to do, and that sometimes people are disruptive, and others are needy, and others are just totally obnoxious and will never get their comeuppance ever. They learn to return their library books, and not to forget their lunch boxes, and to do required reading, and to help out when assistance is asked of them. They learn that some kids have a little, and others have a lot, and that there is always going to be someone smarter than you are, and also people for whom things like school are a little harder. They learn to be patient. They learn to wait their turn. They learn to stand up for themselves, and for others, and when to let things go, and that there are rules, but not everybody is going to follow them, and sometimes you don’t have to either. The trick is when to know the difference.

And now school is out, for the foreseeable future, and everybody is going to have their own way of filling the gap. Some parents will relish the chance to introduce at-home learning, one’s “playing school” fantasies come to life, but with actual pupils instead of teddy bears. Others will be overwhelmed by the idea of keeping their children occupied, especially while balancing full-time work and other tasks, particularly in spaces that were not designed as daycare centres/offices. Some parents will rise to the challenge. Others will cry on the floor. And here’s my two cents: it doesn’t matter. Do whatever it takes to get you (all) through.

I am not a teacher. If I were a teacher, I’d be immediately de-certified, as attested to by the time I tried to teach my kids to ride a bike by screaming expletives at them. I learned my limits back when I tried and failed to teach my daughter how to write her name, and while my recollection is foggy, I was probably swearing then too. I am not patient. I am not nice. I am not remotely trained in how learning works and skills and knowledge are delivered. Teaching is hard. This is why I am not a teacher. If we tried to replicate the school environment right now, it would go very badly. And not just because of my character flaws even, or that I have work deadlines coming up, but also because everything in our current situation is so far from school that it’s sad, and maybe Zoom lessons have their purpose (my children are doing piano lessons via Skype that are going well so far!) but I can think of a million better ways for my children to spend their time.

Going to school is an opportunity for so much learning beyond the academic, as I’ve already noted. But so too is this moment in which school and everything has been suspended. To learn about science, and public health, and geography, and sociology, and leadership (an also its absence). To think about the different ways that this virus is affecting everybody so differently, from us who are cozy in our apartment to children who are precariously housed and who might not be safe at home. To think about community, and connection, and what it means to have to isolate ourselves from the people around us. What kind of society do we want to build when all this is over? (We had a conversation the other day about how so many things that would make the virus less dangerous—wider sidewalks, say!—would make things better for everyone.) Right now is an opportunity to cook meals together, and eat them properly at the table, and bake banana bread, and draw on the sidewalk with chalk. To read that book that’s been lingering on the shelf for years. To use all the art and science kits you’ve received for birthdays through the ages, but never had the time for. For puzzles, and YouTube karaoke, and reading comics, and having your mother tell you that “Only boring people get bored.” For observing the weather, and watching crocuses sprout in front of neighbours houses, and watching snails on the garden wall. For writing Warriors fan fiction, even, or reading poetry, or starting a blog. For building blanket forts, and Lego towers, and I’d even say learning to knit, but then I’d have to teach them, and you know how that is going to go.

For spending afternoons in the bathtub in your bathing suit (this was my husband’s idea—he called it a “bathternoon”), and planting seeds in egg carton soil, and reading random entries in the encyclopedia, and making collages out of old magazines, and drawing comics on the back of scrap paper, and learning about tarsiers (which apparently are nasty), and playing UNO, and Pokemon, and drawing city blocks on kraft paper, and watching clouds, and drawing trees, and making disappointing bath bombs from a kit. For watching movies, and TV, and riding scooters in circles on concrete pads which are far too limited for such things.

For learning about courage, and resilience, and sacrifice, and gratitude. For counting blessings, and thinking about how maybe we can distribute these more widely.

We will get through this. There will be school again. But in the meantime, there will be something different, and let’s not discount the educational value in what we’re all going through. As my perpetual fave Ann Douglas wrote the other day, “If our kids emerge from this crisis (a) feeling loved and supported by their parents; and (b) mastering some all-important coping skills, the truly important learning—the life learning—will be massive.”

March 26, 2020

What Are You Going Through?

“What are you going through?” is the question, a line from Shawna Lemay‘s Rumi and the Red Handbag (which I’ve included on a new list at 49thShelf of books in my library I want to reread). And it’s a particularly pointed question for right now, when we’re all going through it, when “we’re all in this together,” except we aren’t, of course. I’m still struck by the essay I read yesterday about a woman whose husband has been brutally ill with the Coronavirus, and this from the perspective of their teenage daughter:

“I took out the kitty litter,” CK says, “and I saw some people standing on the corner, and I was like, I want to see strangers! And then I heard them saying: ‘It’s actually been really nice. It’s been a chance to connect as a family.’ And I was like, No, actually, I don’t want to see strangers, and I came back in.”

My hardships pale. Compared to those who are ill, or caregiving, or grieving. Those who are unable to find childcare, or who are put to work in unsafe situations for minimal pay, or who struggling to put food on the table. For those whose support services have been cut, or whose lifesaving treatments have been cancelled. Compared to those workers who head into the eye of storm, while the rest of us are hiding in our houses. Even comfortably. Sheltering in place.


I had been freaking out about the Coronavirus for a while, since the end of February, waking up at night with anxiety, which seemed weird and almost laughable, but it kept happening. We’d been booked to travel to the UK last week, and I’d worried about travelling at such a heightened moment, about the coughs kids always have, and I’d been worried about us staying healthy before our flight anyway, which is a gamble at the best of times. We were applying hand sanitizer quite religiously, perhaps obsessively. On the last Monday before school ended, I had a doctor’s appointment, and friends were taking my children to their swimming lessons that night, and the anguish I was feeling at this situation was definitely out of proportion, though it didn’t help that I was sitting there in the waiting room with the 24 hour news channel screaming from a big screen.

Something wasn’t right, and I started seeing Twitter threads of devastation in Italy. We were leaving for the UK in less than a week, and cancelling our trip was just impossible. (So many things were impossible two weeks ago.) So much money on the line, and we couldn’t throw that away. (Since January, I’d been reading about people living under lockdown in China with absolutely no understanding that such things could ever been connected to me.) On Tuesday, I spent two hours on hold with the airline, only to be told that since there was no travel advisory, we weren’t eligible for a refund if we cancelled. What if we went then, I wondered, but ordered a boatload of face masks? I even looked them up on Amazon, which is anathema to me, but there was no availability anyway until early April.

By Wednesday it was clear though—things were bad. To travel to Europe would be lunacy, whether there was a travel advisory or not. I was starting to realize there was space between the lines of what public health officials were saying, that they were telling us we could go abroad…but that was not the same thing as saying we should. That there was really no one in charge here was something astounding to consider, but also that we had the power to use our own minds and make responsible choices. I did a panic shop that afternoon after picking up my kids from school, which sounds less shameful when you consider that I don’t have a car and had to carry home everything I purchased, and my children are still pretty excited about that trip to the grocery store “because you let us buy everything we wanted.” Mostly chips.

On Thursday, Harriet went to school, but we kept Iris home with a cough we would not have paid any attention to under normal circumstances. Over the course of the day, Stuart gradually stopped fighting my state of high alert and conceded that this was something. This was the day after all the sports were cancelled and Tom Hanks got diagnosed, and Sophie Trudeau the next day. I’d stayed up on Twitter late into the night, and then woke up in the middle of the night in a panic that was only abated by me going downstairs and turning my computer back on to discover that Twitter was not as terrifying as my mind was, which is really saying something.

I kept both kids out of school on Friday and Stuart worked from home, and it was here where our self-isolation began, and the idea of us ever having not cancelled our trip became hard to imagine. We were over it, though still profoundly disappointed, especially as Stuart’s dad has been very ill, and we were due to meet our baby niece, and it’s very hard to be apart from family with so much dire business going on. (This was also while the official UK policy was “Many people are going to die….”)

I could not eat. I wasn’t sleeping. I discovered that phoning friends was a lovely kind of reprieve, something I hadn’t done in years. I felt safe and comfortable at home, lucky for so many reasons, glad we’d done the panic shop early and avoided the rush. I felt overwhelmed by grief and sadness, and sorry for my children, and so much disappointment, and the idea of so much devastation still to come. The idea that nobody really understands what is happening, or how to fix it. Glimmers of hope too. Thinking of my relative comfort, and how to hold that in the same space as my fear for the future, but also awareness of the much more difficult situations that other people were going through. The nurses. The clerks at the grocery store.

I did not do very well last week. I kept calling it my roller coaster/ hamster wheel. I’d be doing a puzzle and have to go lie down because I was having a panic attack. The weight on my chest that is either anxiety or a deadly respiratory illness. I kept looking online, desperate for good news, but there was nothing, and I kept waking up at three o’clock in the morning, convulsively shaking. I was so scared, my body on high alert, and I had been right about everything, is what I was thinking. For weeks I’d been in a panic, and everything I was afraid of kept coming true.

And I keep thinking about all those people who are much more experienced at living with uncertainty than I am, how naive and silly I must sound. “Welcome to my world,” is what they’re all polite enough not to be saying out loud.

On Wednesday night, I watched Crocodile Dundee, which I can’t stop talking about, but it was such a turning point for me. I went to bed and slept all night, though waking up feeling okay in the morning made me not vigilant enough to resist indulging in behaviour I’d come to be sorry for, a whole afternoon refreshing Twitter, bad news and more bad news, and that night I went to bed and had legitimate nightmares. I started to see that feeling okay would have to be a conscious choice here, one that took more work than the submitting to the lazy river of media consumption (when will there be good news?). I’d spent too long scoffing at the idea of mindset and staying positive—what’s the use of that when everything is shit? But when everything is shit, I realized, mindset is all you’ve got, and being unable to eat or sleep, or get through the day without five panic attacks is not the way to stay healthy.

So what has helped me?

  • Music! The radio is usually a constant soundtrack in our house, but lately it’s just upsetting noise. In very 20th century problems, our CD player broke last week, but then we finally signed up for ad-free Spotify and now I have all the music in the world at my fingertips.
  • Avoiding the news: I was turning to the news for answers, but nobody has any of those (yet). Once a day or so, I will read the news online at a reputable source. I have stopped following charts and tallies. They are not helpful. Everything is bad. I know it. I don’t have to steep in it.
  • No social media after dinner: The exception is Instagram, which is just wall-to-wall sourdough bread right now. Stupid movies and TV shows are good. Books are even better. Rereading Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books is the best thin ever.
  • Counting my blessings. Even though this makes me feel guilty and I wish that blessings were more fairly distributed.
  • Little rituals: good things to eat. Watching the sunset. Hugs with my loved ones. Talking to friends and family on the phone. Making food last longer. Making somethings out of nothings. Leaving chalk drawings on friends’ sidewalks.
  • Connection! On Zoom, Skype, out the window, across the street, on the phone, etc. etc.
  • Moving! This really helps me with sleep. I have been riding my exercise bike, which (another blessing!) mercifully I never got rid of, even though it’s been sitting in my closet for four years. Taking walks when we can. We’ve also done a couple of online fitness classes, and I really loved these (especially when the instructor’s cat walks in…)
  • Feelings check-in—and sharing my feelings with my children, when appropriate. I think it’s helpful for them to know that complicated and difficult feelings are to be expected in hard times, and that sharing those feelings is normal and even helpful.
  • Everyone in Italy is not dead. I am not being flippant. The situation in Italy is terrible and we should be (and are) doing everything we can to avoid it, but also remembering that most people in Italy are perfectly well inside their homes and waiting for some semblance of life to begin again is something that keeps me going when it seems like the entire world is on fire.
  • Things in China have gotten better. My high school classmate who lives in Shanghai has written a post about how things have gotten better there—and how we know a whole lot more now than they did when things started getting bad there in January. She also has some really practical tips for getting through the weeks ahead.
  • You don’t have to fix everything. You don’t have to save all the local businesses, and carry the burden of healthcare workers, and feed the homeless, and hold the anguish if all those who are ill. (If you can, however, maybe donate to your local food bank.) You don’t have to feel terrible if you cannot do all these things. It doesn’t help anyone if you do.

I’ve been functional for almost a week now, which is not so important in the grand scheme of things, but which is hugely important if you happen to live in my head, or in my household. Staying at home and not falling to pieces honestly is the best thing I can do for our overburdened medical system at the moment, and if this is what’s required of me, then I am happy/grateful to deliver.

I hope that you’re able to take care of yourself too. xo

March 20, 2020

Crocodile Dundee

The only thing I am properly equipped for at this time (except for keeping calm and staying home, of course) is writing about Crocodile Dundee, which I watched on Netflix two nights ago, and it was so terrible, but fascinatingly so, and also short. The strangest thing about the film is that I am sure that I was taken to see it in the cinema when I was seven, and while the movie is not inappropriate exactly, it doesn’t really seem really appropriate either. Similarly, while the movie is really short with lots of action scenes, nothing much really happens in it at all. It’s just so bad, and not just because the female lead is a journalist whose boyfriend edits the paper she works for and her dad is the owner. She’s late coming back from Australia, because she’s got a lead on a terrific story, about a guy in a remote territory who was attacked by a crocodile and survived. She meets him, and it turns out that he is very greasy, skin like leather, appears to be literally coated in dirt. So naturally, she develops sexual feelings for him, or kind of. Also, she treks through the jungle without a hat or bug spray, which I just couldn’t get over. She has a bodysuit for every occasion, as you do on a jungle trek, I suppose, and her bodysuit has a thong, which we learn when she takes off her skirt to bathe in the lagoon (where she gets attacked by a crocodile and Mick Dundee saves her).

And then she decides to invite him to come back to New York with her, because wouldn’t that make a fish out of water movie! Her boyfriend greets her at the airport, and it turns out that Mick Dundee doesn’t know how to use an escalator, and later he has the same problem with a bidet, and he doesn’t even know how to use a bed. Sue has absolutely no character development and her fundamental purpose in the film is to find Crocodile Dundee adorable in a childlike way, simultaneously sending confusing sexual signals, all the while having zero chemistry. And her boyfriend is so rude and unattractive! And the parties that she takes Mick to are totally weird and boring! And he keeps grabbing people’s genitals, and it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s horrifying. Also why does Sue have no friends?

The “that’s not a knife” scene lived up to my memory of its epicness, but everything else is terrible. In the movie’s final scene, Sue and Mick meet in a crowded subway station and to get to her, he hauls himself up to the rafters and literally walks across the crowd, stepping on people’s heads, and it’s supposed to be charming. It was not. The movie was awful, and yet somehow it was exactly what I needed.

March 17, 2020

On Being New to Handwashing

As I’ve written many times, I blog to make sense of the world—but I’m not quite ready for that yet in terms of how this crisis is unfolding, as I’m cycling through all the feelings at supersonic speed, and the ground underfoot just feels ever-shifting. We are not in a place to make sense of any this yet, but in the meantime, and in response to recent judgy internet memes, I want to write a frivolous explanation for one specific instance of poor personal hygiene.

And I’m talking handwashing, which has become all the rage these last few weeks, to the point where our hands are chapped and bleeding. Whatever it takes though to protect our health and that of others—SIGN ME UP. But yes, it’s true that obsessive handwashing is kind of a new thing for me. “I washed my hands before it was cool,” so goes the judgy meme, and I did too, I guess, at all the obvious moments, but never while singing Happy Birthday.

I have never been very squeamish about germs, which is good, because I have children, and when my daughter was two, she ate part of a cheese sandwich she found under a table in Glasgow. When I’d take my children for walks in their strollers, they liked to reach out and touch the garbage cans on the sidewalk as we strolled by. They licked subway poles, and the bottoms of shoes, and I’d read that scientific study about how picking your nose and eating it builds immunity, so I just decided to let it go.

And so washing our hands just wasn’t really a thing, unless maybe your fingernails were green, or you’d just gone to the bathroom, or had been finger painting, or digging in the dirt. Definitely after handling raw chicken, and usually before. Yes, I am gross, but “better gross than neurotic” was honestly my kind of slogan.

Of course, I’ve since gone over to the other side. Now I watch TV and see people shaking hands, touching their faces, and my heart starts palpitating. Ordering takeout and fetching the mail seems fraught. I am going to have to go out grocery shopping one of these days (we’re on Day 5 of Keep Calm and Stay Home) and the ideas honestly terrifies me. Potential contagion everywhere. I am washing my hands constantly, even though I don’t leave the house, as though lather was a kind of prayer, and maybe it is.

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