How Time Abroad Teaches Resilience

A view of the banana trees and terraced fields of the Rwenzori mountains bordering the DRC

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know that right after we graduated college and got married, J and I spent six months in rural Uganda from 2008-2009. Until the last couple of weeks, our time in Uganda had faded into a footnote in our lives, a fun piece of trivia, the explanation for our batik cloth napkins. I’d only receive occasional striking reminders of our time there — filling out a TB exposure questionnaire when pregnant with Pip and noting that, hey, actually I lived on a hospital compound that treated TB, for instance. Mostly I’m just a Target-shopping mom now.

But so many of the lessons we learned in Uganda have been flooding back, recently. Living in dread of infectious diseases is something we did a lot while residing on an equatorial hospital compound: malaria and hemorrhagic fever, then rabies after a patient died from it later in our stay. In Uganda, we couldn’t see most of the people we loved. (And with shaky internet, they were much harder to contact than they are in this coronavirus crisis.) In our rural village, there wasn’t a third place for us to hang out beside work and home, just like now. (Except the office is also out now, too, actually.) Just like now, we couldn’t go shopping very often for most of the things we’d normally buy, and I remember spending hours carefully drafting in my journal a shopping list for when we’d finally visit the capital city and its mzungu shopping mall. And I learned to cook very flexibly with my severely limited kitchen tools and circumscribed ingredients.

A local woman working in the communal hospital kitchen to prepare a meal for herself and a hospitalized family member.

This long-ago experience has made the last few bewildering weeks a little less unsettling for us, because they’re somewhat familiar. But I believe international experience of any kind helps to build up this kind of resilience for a person. My children have only visited the UK on our study abroad adventure last summer, but along the way, they (and we) got more comfortable with scrambled schedules, flexible eating habits, and separation from friends and extended family. Travel has made all of us more flexible, adventurous people. One of the scariest thoughts I’m dealing with right now is that this kind of travel could be a long way off for our world right now.

Watching practice for the Queen’s birthday in London last summer, jet lagged as all get out.

What experiences do you believe have helped equip you for coronavirus? Homeschooling? Camping? Watching entirely too many end-of-the-world movies?

A Round-Up of Encouragements

Have you been reading too much news? Me, too, and I find myself gravitating often to the most gruesome things I can find, like they can somehow confirm and thus alleviate my dread. But it doesn’t work, of course. Here are some antidotes to all the darkest prognostications, glimmers of light in this weird, weird time:

1. Over at the Big White Farmhouse, Ashley has this passage of C.S. Lewis that’s just terrific. I’ve read a lot of Lewis, but if I had read this before, I had forgotten:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

2. Christine Keegan, new to me, has a lovely piece called “We Are Okay, We Are Not Okay,” written after 40 days of quarantine with her family in China, in which she writes:

I think too, that it is possible we are not as fragile as we might think. We modern people talk about our breaking points, we joke about them even. But I think about people like Corrie Ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or a myriad of others before me and I think, maybe our breaking points should be a little further down the road than they are. We are broken, yes. I know we are broken. I know we don’t have it all together and that we have nothing to boast about in ourselves. I know it’s good to be real about our broken, messy lives and not to put up a false front or pretend that everything is okay when it’s not. And I am happy to say I am not okay. This family is not okay. Every day there are about fifty moments of not-okay-ness. But we are also okay.

Christine Keegan

3. “The Beautiful World Beside the Broken One” over at the New York Times is a lyrical reflective look at the world coming alive as we all retreat:

I can scroll and worry indoors, or I can step outside and remember how it feels to be part of something larger, something timeless, a world that reaches beyond me and includes me too. The spring ephemerals have only the smallest window for blooming, and so they bloom when the sunlight reaches them. Once the forest becomes enveloped in green and the sunlight closes off again, they will wait for another year. Sunlight always returns the next year.

Margaret Renkl

4. Here’s a thoughtful piece on gardening during quarantine and reflecting on a visit to the cloistered gardens of Thomas Merton’s monastery — I’ve been thinking about the cloistered life a lot during this time, especially having just read The Time Before You Die and Julian of Norwich.

5. Some gentle words on mothering under quarantine over at Learning As We Go — the later ones are especially good. My favorite, much-needed one? “Be generous with praise. Our kids are anxious. They may be reading the news, or just reading our moods, but they can tell things are not right. When we draw their attention (and our own) to what’s going well, the more of that we’ll get.”

6. Leah Libresco Sargeant beat me to the punch revisiting Kristin Lavransdatter in light of the current crisis — remembering Kristin’s death has kind of haunted me the last couple of weeks (along with the other books and movies I now highly regret). She reminds us that the quiet life demanded by quarantine is in keeping with the call of many Christians throughout history:

But it’s no surprise to Christians that we should value the invisible economy of grace over more worldly signs of effort and accomplishment. We are a people who believe that cloistered sisters, praying privately, have a powerful effect on the world. We are a people who believe that prayer, fasting, and humiliation are as much a part of our response to a pandemic as work on antivirals.

Discernment in Plague-Times

7. Finally, I’ll close with a link to the Wendell Berry poem, The Peace of Wild Things, which Dappled Things reminded me about.

What are you reading these days? What’s bringing you comfort?

I’m linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum again for Seven Quick Takes! Check out some other speedy posts.

Books and Movies I Now Highly Regret

A Vulture piece on Emily St. John Mandel (her book Station Eleven discussed below) observes, “But there can be something reassuring about taking in a fictional disaster in the midst of a real one. You can flirt with the experience of collapse. You can long for the world you live in right now.” I can sort of get it, as an anxious person who’s always found end-of-the-world books weirdly comforting, but now that things are actually tough, I, for one, will be inhaling LM Montgomery, The Secret Garden and other comfort reads like it’s my job.

Still, I thought I’d take a 7QT romp through some of the eeriest post-apocalyptic things I’ve read and seen that populate my brain with a lot of now-unwelcome imagery:

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1. How I Live Now (book and film) for vividly depicting borders abruptly closing and lack of information. Bonus points for the chillingly understated title. How are any of us living now? Pretty differently.

2. World War Z (book, not movie) for prophecies about an illness breaking out in China and the quick and prudent quarantine in Israel. Very much regretting reading this one earlier this year.

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3. Children of Men (book and movie, but especially movie, which I rewatched last Advent) for life going on mostly as normal while things quietly, mundanely fall apart.

4. The Girl Who Owned a City (book) for a world of only children after a pandemic decimates the adult population. I read this a long time ago, when I was a kid myself and found it thrilling. Will not be reading it again anytime soon.

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5. Tomorrow When the War Began (mostly book, but some movie): people go out on a wilderness trip, return to find the world utterly unrecognizable — a thing that happened this month, thanks to coronavirus and an ill-timed rafting trip.

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6. Shaun of the Dead (movie): Why the everloving heck did J convince me to watch this movie earlier this very month?! (He’s always loved it, but I don’t handle violence in movies particularly well.) Anyway, kudos to the Shaun guys for forecasting the sort of apathy and self-absorption that still plagues our culture even when things are falling apart. And further applause for the duo teaming up to create this Shaun-update PSA for the time of coronavirus.

7. Station Eleven (our gold star winner) for picking a highly infectious disease that breaks down human connectedness as its agent of destruction.

If you find you want to read one of these (you weirdo) and your library is closed, maybe try ordering from The Bookshelf or another small bookseller? They could really use our help.

Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

(Linking up with friends over at This Ain’t the Lyceum!)

So many folks are now thinking about meals in a way they never really have before. Maybe you went grocery shopping every evening on the way home from work, or leaned hard on restaurants. Now is a chance to carry out resolutions — whether financial or healthy — that, whatever ends up happening the coming weeks, will put you in a better position when we come out the other side.

1. First, two pieces I really loved from others. Katie at Hearts Content Homestead outlines all kinds of ways to prepare for difficult times through household decisions and skills in How to prepare for hard times. And The Kitchn has been collecting a lot of its content to demonstrate how to cook using pantry staples, most of it linked in this moving letter from the editor about how we can serve our communities and the world through our kitchens.

So, without further ado, here is a brain dump of various thoughts, from me and others, about Food in the Time of Coronavirus.

2. Some categories to consider when you’re shopping:

  • Here is an exhaustive list from the NYTimes (which I’m hoping is not under paywall) to get you thinking about foods to consider.
  • Comforting food — things that might excite the rest of your family if you pull them out on a dull day. For us, that’s things like marshmallows for roasting one evening; a couple secret bags of barbecue chips; some random kimchi mayonnaise I’m betting my husband will love, etc.
  • Nourishing food that will last awhile (ideas: frozen vegetables that can be roasted or hidden in soups; dried or frozen fruit that can go into yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, etc.)
  • Vitamins to try to keep everyone strong and healthy

3. ALSO VITAL: Caffeine in large quantities if you’re addicted — my husband has always supported a local coffee shop and would never normally deign to freeze his beans, but since he’d go through actual withdrawal without coffee, we bought and froze a few bags in advance.

4. How to think about making meals without shopping:

I first learned to cook while we were living for six months in rural Uganda with very few ingredients available. That mindset is a helpful one to try to adopt now, instead of roaming the packed grocery store thinking of all the meals you might want later this week, or month, and trying to remember all the ingredients involved for each.

Learning to cook with intermittent electricity and the world’s slowest internet connection
  • Think about how to string together meals to use up each ingredient.
  • Now is the time to dive deep into something you’ve always wanted to learn how to fix. Choose something you’ve always bought pre-made and attempt it yourself. Learn how to make sourdough (but not from me — I’m little haphazard about the whole enterprise, with mixed results). Bake with your kids.
  • Think in terms of staples: easy things you can stockpile a bit and use as the building blocks for a variety of meals. The structure of constraints will also help you feel less adrift and overwhelmed.

5. Freezing: I’m shooting for a combination of:

  • preassembled meals (especially important if my husband or I get sick and can’t cook, but also to preserve fresh ingredients that won’t keep several weeks in the fridge); and
  • bulk ingredients (butter, frozen berries and vegetables, the meat we have from our beef and pork share, a batch of caramelized onions, ICE CREAM OF COURSE, etc.).
  • Plus: News to me! Note that milk, unshelled eggs, yogurt and shredded cheese can all be frozen but there’ll be a noticeable change in texture — use them only where you can hide them in recipes.

6. This is just anecdotal, but an ER physician friend is recommending that store pickup, if available, is probably safer. We had been leaning towards selecting all our groceries on the shelves ourselves on infrequent trips going forward, but the friend thinks probably grocery workers will be wearing gloves at this point. There’s more advice from Consumer Reports and NPR reports many stores are encouraging online pickup as a way to prevent the spread.

7. Also, pretty much unrelated but worth a shout out if you’ve suddenly got kids unexpectedly at home with you:

The Lent You Didn’t Choose

With a mix of embarrassment and defiance, I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of days explaining my family’s response to Covid-19. For starters, let’s all agree right now that it’s foolish and dangerous to dismiss this as “just like the flu.” A video by Nassim Taleb, a statistician who studies probability and randomness, points out that it’s wise to prepare and take serious steps now (he even uses the term “panic”) than to wait until the spread becomes overwhelming. The death rate isn’t static — if the disease moves rapidly while we maintain an illusory “business as usual” stance, those who are made seriously ill by the outbreak will overwhelm the medical infrastructure, resulting in unnecessary deaths.

So it doesn’t matter if you, like me and my household, are unlikely to be made severely ill by coronavirus. As I explained to my children, the worst case scenario for our immediate family is just a couple rocky weeks while Mama and Papa have flu symptoms and the kids watch a lot of TV. If we were the only part of this equation, we’d still be bopping about living our normal lives. But, as John Donne’s reminder rings over the centuries, no man is an island, and if we proceed as usual, we will be five more people potentially shedding contagion and risking infecting those around us who can’t handle the disease as well.

A February 27 piece in the Scientific American urges,

“Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus, now dubbed COVID-19, is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind. We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.”

God does not always give us the Lent we chose. (I’ve spent two of them cripplingly morning sick, and one increasingly homesick to end my stint in Uganda. I’m sure you’ve had ones, too, where your plans flew out the window for whatever reason.) He may be calling many of us to offer up things we’d never considered: play dates and church socials, vacations and library runs. Over at Under Thy Roof, Kirby gives us a quick walkthrough of the social distancing measures that led to the canceling of Mass in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, as well as during the Ebola outbreak in west Africa several years ago, lest all the US ends up having to go the way of Italy and now Seattle and Kentucky.

Review the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. (I’ll wait.) Could your Lent this year, like ours, involve dropping off a meal for quarantined families? (Visiting the sick, feeding the hungry) Could you call or FaceTime your aging family members? (Comfort the afflicted) Can you give up the entertainment of going to concerts, movie theaters, restaurants and sporting events and donate the money you save to a relief effort? (Shelter the homeless) The Atlantic piece cited above urges, “[A]nyone in a position of power or authority, instead of downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus, should ask people to stay away from public places, cancel big gatherings, and restrict most forms of nonessential travel” — a currently unpopular stance that could give us ample opportunity to bear patiently those who wrong us. And surely, surely we all must double down on our efforts to pray for the living and the dead.

Because my husband’s teaching at the local college has been moved online for the next several weeks and I homeschool, we are prime candidates for taking a step back from society. Our outings are mostly wants, not needs, unlike so many whose work still demands them leave the house. And so we can sacrifice those outings for the safety of others and take what we’re calling a “prolonged snow day approach”: walks and gardening, lots of books and snuggles inside, more than usual TV, but a comforting adherence to our basic schedule. We can treat grocery shopping as a game of musical chairs — trying to keep our pantries and fridge at around 90% in preparation for when the music stops and staying entirely at home becomes absolutely essential for nearly everyone.

Because I think the music will stop, and soon, for a little while. (Epidemiologists suspect eight weeks might be required to contain the pandemic.) And when the music starts back up and we assess the damages, I don’t want to suspect I took unnecessary risks and endangered the people I love. To the best of my very limited powers, I’m going to try to ensure that this Easter is an especially Eastery Easter, when we can give thanks for rebirth and reunite with those we love. And the only way to get there is to embrace the sacrifice of Lent.

A Quiet Place, Parenting and Anxiety

If, like me, you’re getting excited for the premiere of A Quiet Place Part II next month, I wrote a little reflection on its predecessor after watching it for the first time this fall.

Look, you probably saw this forever ago, but I finally sat down to A Quiet Place last week after several friends urging that a.) I’d like it and b.) I would probably sleep again, eventually, despite my deep hatred of scary movies. I was, as they’d predicted, blown away, and now you’re going to hear about it. The movie’s premise? Vaguely mantis-like monsters with extreme powers of hearing have killed just about everyone, and one family, now anxiously — and silently — awaiting the birth of a new baby, must figure out a way to survive. [spoilers below]Read More »

Miscarriage, Lent, and Being Still

It has been a month since we lost our baby. And over these weeks, I’ve watched myself with a sort of odd, detached interest: What does the patient do in grief?

I am 34 years old, and, until this point, I have been mostly untouched by real loss that belongs to me primarily. Does that make sense? I’ve grieved, of course, but mostly by proxy, for the people I love who have lost people they’ve loved, in miscarriage and in life. So I find myself, rather late in life, new to this grief business.Read More »

Seven More Tiny Book Reviews

I’m linking up with This Ain’t The Lyceum to take a tiny tiptoe back into blogging after our loss last month. January was a deeply strange month, and my reading reflects that.

  1. The Time Before You Die: A Novel of the ReformationI…am not sure what I thought about this. The most beautiful passages were when nothing was happening, but I got lost or bogged down or made to feel stupid in some of the theological reflections. I also often didn’t understand why the main character did the things he did. But I was made to imagine in much greater detail just how terrible the Reformation years must have been in England, with all that flipping back and forth, adding emotional heft to the framework I gleaned from Alan Jacobs’s Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Bonus: it was especially interesting to read after visiting York and its amazing Bar Convent last summer.)
  2. 10 Blind DatesThis was very silly. I liked the big, roly-poly Louisianan family, but I couldn’t keep track of the family members themselves and a lot of it was just kind of zany without the delightful cringiness of Waiting for Tom HanksIt wasn’t awful enough to stop but never improved like I hoped.
  3. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Warthrust upon me by friends whose opinion I trust very much. Parts of it I really loved — especially the parts about reconstruction, as I’m always a sucker for a whole Rebuilding of Society motif (see my thoughts on Alas, Babylon,etc. here), but parts were just too gory or coarse for me, and I got lost in technological or geopolitical stuff sometimes, where I don’t have a strong enough background to differentiate the tweaks from the the reality. Some images were so striking, sad or ironic or beautiful, but a lot of it was just gross. I read it lying around with a cold and loved how fast it moved, but it’s not a world I feel like I’ll ever want to revisit — afterwards I had a nightmare about having to mercy kill Roo after she became infected.
  4. The BFG: I had read this as a kid but not in probably 25 years. The kids had watched part of the movie on a hotel TV in Kendal this summer, so we gave it a go as a read aloud, and it’s the only chapter book that’s ever held a toddler of mine in raptures. I think it was the BFG’s topsy-turvy way of speaking (I used a terrible Yorkshire accent) paired with Quentin Blake’s delightfully weird illustrations, but definitely a win for our family.
  5. 84, Charing Cross RoadI had bought this for a friend a couple years back, and when she moved, she gifted me a copy of its sequel (reviewed below). It is just the most charming, effervescent little book, a bit of You’ve Got Mail paired with something more determinedly refined in its literary tastes. Plus, epistolary!! I do love a story told in letters, though aside from C.S. Lewis’s correspondence, I can’t think of anyone else’s real-life letters I’ve read.
  6. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street: Using Google Maps, I was able to work out that Helene Hanff stayed at a London hotel only a couple blocks from our haunts last summer abroad. It added a poignancy to her journals of her dream trip to England, even if I occasionally confused the many bright characters she encountered.
  7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThis is a favorite of a dear friend, but my reading was completely overshadowed by IRL happenings, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake the association. But it kept me eagerly turning pages when I didn’t want to think about my own life, and it was just what I needed then.

Having a Miscarriage Plan

(An important caveat: I did the Bradley birth thing for my first three kids. I am a planner and I like to research the heck out of things. I read books set in the place I’ll visit before a trip, and I read birth stories when I’m pregnant, and pestered friends and strangers alike about their homeschooling decisions before starting that particular adventure. It is just how I feel most comfortable. If you don’t find yourself nodding in agreement, this post probably isn’t for you.)Read More »