The Queen, Cassandra Austen, and Me

In the hubbub surrounding the recent passing of the queen, the word I keep encountering in all kinds of places is duty.

It’s a concept I was already mulling over as I finished the excellent Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. The novel, wreathed in calm shot through with an old loneliness, extrapolates from a famous but mysterious incident in the Austen family—that after Jane’s early death, her sister Cassandra was known to destroy correspondence written by her famous sister.

After all, “Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy.” Our protagonist is defined by this sense of obligation. Wearily in old age, Cassandra observes to herself, “A single woman should never outlive her usefulness.” Later, she remarks, “It is as if Nature can only throw up one capable person to support each generation. In my family that has always been me. […] Our fortune is to have families who need us. It is our duty, our pleasure. Our very worth!”

Throughout the novel, then, Hornby works to valorize this humble dedication to duty, illustrating the unflashy devotion Cassandra shows her sister, Jane, and their family, even when it requires self-denial. In this way, Cassandra resembles the quieter heroines her sister dreams up: the Elinors, the Fannys, the Annes. This duty is no pitiful delusion, either, for as Cassandra declares silently, “Look at me, Isabella! I have known happiness. Without man or marriage, I found a happiness, true and sublime!” (And this, the cautious reader should note, is not revealed to be a secret anachronistic fling, either, rest assured.)

Struck by tragedy while still a young woman, Cassy resolves, “From the moment the news had been broken to her—badly, insensitively, not as she would have liked or deserved, but no matter—Cassandra had identified that as the occasion to which she must rise.”

By Doyles of London, via Wikipedia

While we can and maybe elsewhere should argue whether the late queen’s duty was one worth always following, even when it pitted her against ex-subjects in the developing world or her own family, certainly we can recognize that in her day to day life, in both its splendor and tedium, Elizabeth unstintingly gave her life to her perceived duty.

And maybe that’s what fascinated so many of us, whether we were avid consumers of royal gossip or simply casual viewers of The Crown: her duty was both like and unlike our own. In her decades of service were jewels and rich brocade, private jets and dignitaries, far from our own sometimes dull-as-dishwater domestic duties. And yet there is something recognizable, something lacking in the lives of so many public figures, who seem committed only to a life of ambition or pleasure. This may be part of Elizabeth’s enduring appeal for many, that, like the costume dramas to which so many of us kinda religious, kinda stay-at-homey ladies find ourselves drawn, in Queen Elizabeth we recognized a woman like ourselves, trying (though sometimes failing) to discern what was right and to do it — rather than just what would make her happy.

We have, of course, the purer, undiluted example of the saints. But for so many of these, the example is often a fierce and alien flame: a blazing martyrdom, a heroic triumph. That’s why we gravitate to the small and attentive dutifulness of figures like St Thérèse of Lisieux, I think, toiling away in their mundane, quiet corners, but find the writ-large duties of the royal materfamilias so fascinating.

Cassandra’s reward for a lifetime of service comes in perusing a last letter of Jane’s, in which Jane deems her the “dearest, tender, watchful sister,” and, with a rare straight-faced earnestness, proclaims, “As to what I owe her, I can only cry over it and pray God to bless her more and yet more.”

It’s all any of us can work for then—a little gratitude, a little recognition, the prayers of those around us, whether we end up as the longest reigning monarch of England or the sister in the shadows. I hope that ultimately Queen Elizabeth found those things for herself—and that I might, too.

Interdependence and the Single-Car Family

The road to Kasese

In the upper-middle class suburban sprawl where J and I grew up, most of the kids at least had access to a car through high school. J and I entered marriage with two cars, but pretty immediately we spent six months in an impoverished corner of Uganda with no car at all, so when we got home and J’s dad talked about how much he’d enjoyed driving J’s little Echo, we sold it to him. (I recognize how privileged this is from a global perspective, but then again, our position was hardly unique.)

Boda boda life in Uganda

In over a decade since that initial decision, we’ve kept just one car, even as we upgraded from my gramps’s Accord to a hatchback, from the hatchback to a minivan. When we went to buy our first home, we intentionally chose one in town, close to campus, allowing J to easily walk or ride his bike to work, and with a park out back so we had plenty of at-home entertainment.

Still, here and there over the years the only way we’ve been able to attend certain things is through the generosity of friends who do own two cars. We would have missed parties and out-of-town events without these other people being willing to give one or the other of us a lift. At least once I would have missed work if a neighbor friend hadn’t loaned me back the Accord we’d sold him. I used to feel guilty because our choice means we rely on others, but then I decided that might actually be a strength.

Four wheels and freedom (from others)

There have been seasons, when we were low income in grad school, or when I was laid low by pregnancy, when we relied more heavily on others. Sharing a van now helps us maintain that reliance. Just because the system would be much less tenable if everyone we knew dropped down to one vehicle doesn’t mean it’s foolish (or worse, arrogant) of us to do.

Instead, we who are in the rare situation not to have so much vulnerability thrust upon us should look for opportunities to trust. Maybe your exercise in interdependence, in trusting in God’s Providence, is waiting to borrow kid snow gear from friends instead of just buying it, or trusting you can borrow camping supplies from your neighbor. Maybe you do something that terrifies me, like cohousing, or leaving your doors unlocked as a matter of principle, like friends of ours in New England. Maybe it’s as small as building your weekly menu off a farm share or the close out grocery instead of controlling every aspect and getting huffy when the big box store doesn’t carry that one ingredient, in or out of season.

Of course in twelve years of single cardom we’ve quarreled about whose need for the vehicle trumps the other’s. I have no idea if we’ve saved much money than keeping an old second beater, as we’ve spent comfortable spending more on our house location, really good soles for J’s shoes, and (too) many bikes. Certainly we’ve spent more time in the car together so we can drop someone off. (Probably not the worst thing, actually.) Quite possibly we’ve annoyed a person we’ve asked for a ride by our importunate request.

Inter-reliance runs those risks. The fortresses we build ourselves to protect against ever appearing mendicant prevent those risks, but introduce others: loneliness, a lack of resilience and flexibility when disaster and need do inevitably strike. We can pretend toward independence when everything is going well and never ask for any help, believing we never will need it. Or we can take baby steps toward trusting others with our needs, one rideshare at a time.

What I Learned Wearing the Same Dress 100 Days in a Row

I was having a jeans problem. This is my longest stretch in a decade where I haven’t been pregnant or nursing, and it’s also been a long stretch where brick-and-mortar shopping hasn’t been practical. Add that limbo to my long-standing and probably bizarre love of wool and my next sartorial move was obvious. In November, I used birthday money to get myself one of Wool&’s merino dresses, and in December, I started their 100 Day Dress Challenge. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • No one notices if you wear the same thing everyday. No one is paying attention to you, seriously.
  • I had suspended accessorizing during the baby era. Wearing the same dress everyday reminded me I could actually safely wear a necklace without someone wrenching it off, a scarf without suffocating my nursling. I’ve spent quite a lot of the last eight years partially undressing several times a day, but I don’t have to do that right now, and that spells freedom.
  • Tying the bottom of a loose shirt is my favorite way to create a waist on a baggy dress—not belts. Maybe it would be different if there were little loops on the Rowena to hold the belt in place on the dress, but inevitably my belts, even elastic ones, would shift and annoy me, or I’d find myself slouching to try to hold them on, and I definitely don’t need another reason to slouch. (On a related fabric-tying note, wadding up the dress into a little bun so I could wear it with jeans was easier than trying to tuck it in and fluff it up, even though the Internet says you can do this with dresses.)
  • I actually really like a baggy dress, though. I had never worn a shapeless dress before because I’m a pretty scrawny person and always felt lost without some tailored curves, but it really is incredibly comfortable to just hang out in a sack, and if it’s a pretty sack, what’s the big deal? People still know I have a waist even if it’s obscured in merino.
  • You can do anything in a dress. Granted, I wore leggings underneath nearly always, or else (wool) tights or jeans, but in my 100 days I biked and hiked, baked and cooked, taught and kept house, gardened and attended Mass. Many of these are activities that would ordinarily have had me changing out of the Dress either to protect the wool, or for more range of movement, or to keep me warmer, but I was able to work around it, and mostly enjoyed the challenge.
  • My girls are camera junkies. Endless photobombs, plus a lot of odd shots taken by my willing camerawomen.
  • I, on the other hand, am not. I used to be fairly comfortable in front of the camera in college when we were all just figuring out digital cameras and racking up tons of shots, but during this challenge, it was hard not to be embarrassed, especially on whole body photos, not because I’m self-conscious about the way my body looks but because I don’t know how to hold myself at all. (Also our house is really cluttered, I have found!) I’m hoping we’ll like looking back on all these ridiculous photos later, though, and remembering what I was like at 35.
  • There are things I can do to feel more comfortable in front of a camera. And with many of us still doing most of our socializing via Zoom and FaceTime, those things are worth thinking about. I can wear lipstick if I’m not about to don a mask. I can try to embrace my long hair, the legacy of the pandemic. I can replace my janky, cracking glasses. I can bleach my teeth, for heaven’s sake!

I don’t think you have to go the Wool& route to enjoy some of the benefits of simplifying your wardrobe and/or putting more thought into how you present yourself, but it was truly a fun project this long, dull, hard winter. And after 100 days wearing the Rowena dress? I’m not ready to trash it or burn it, and I think that’s a testament to its quality and versatility.

(This is a reflection, not a paid promotion. For interested parties, the dress did spring one tiny hole around Day 75. I washed it about once a week on gentle with Woolite and air dried overnight — I couldn’t do the recommended smell test for obvious reasons.)

The Best Gift I’ve Given My Kids This Entire Pandemic

I mean, the baby Yoda winter hat was a real winner and I’m pretty unerring with my book picks, but the absolute best thing I’ve gotten my kids during this pandemic, the one thing that has helped to pass time wholesomely and been a bright spot in our lives is —

the dog I adopted in 2009.

It’s a pretty common story: Bonnie was our baby, and then we had a baby, and then she became this thing that lives with us.

Since 2012, my attitude toward Bonnie has fluctuated between apathy and active antipathy, spiking when Scout was a baby and occasionally since we’ve lived in this house, where her border collie wiles periodically liberate her from the fenced backyard and allow her a truly infuriating neighborhood meet-and-greet.

She also, and I cannot overstate this, sheds appallingly.

Pippin, meanwhile, has gradually progressed from a furrowed-brow toddler pronouncing DOG HAIR IN MOUF to exhibiting a growing affection born of too many repetitions of the Henry and Ribsy series on audiobook. But the real turning point was this winter when we made the world-reordering discovery that now, finally, Pip is big enough to just about control her on the leash.

Game changer, friends.

Now the kids are Bonnie’s inseparable and barely tolerated entourage. They stroke her and follow her around the house and lure her upstairs to their bedroom with a purloined bag of treats. They take a very lively interest in her well-being and fight over who feeds her, or lets her out, or, crowning honor above all others, doles out her old-lady joint supplement.

And they want to walk her everyday.

Without the lure of friends to keep the kids playing outside in cold temperatures, it’s been hard this winter to convince the kids to get fresh air and exercise, but they never, ever say no to walking Bonnie, even though she is The Absolute Worst™ on leash, lunging at other dogs and gurgling luridly, then dragging you to an abrupt and poorly placed poop stop. She has pulled out of Pippin’s grasp once so far (bless you, stranger you caught her trailing leash), not counting the other time that he outsmarted her by clipping her to his belt loop, only for Bonnie to then rip the belt loop right off. But she and Pippin dart up and down the hill near our house, the girls trailing behind, and it’s unclear who’s exercising who, but it’s clear who’s saving our afternoon.

I have had this dog for a dozen years, and I have often regretted the expense and responsibility, but during this long, dark winter, I find myself inordinately grateful that she’s still here with us, after all these years and moves and babies. When I spotted her at a Petsmart adoption event, I was 23 and desperate for something small and cute to love me, still scared silly by babies. I couldn’t have imagined the life she and I live now, my three, poor stir-crazy children writing her valentines as we pass another long, pandemic winter day. I count down to vaccines, to warmer temperatures, and I count my lucky stars for this exhausting, enduring stray of ours.

Packing and Preparedness

Very glamorous silicone laundry line in our London flat

I don’t think it would be an overstatement (though it could be an embarrassment) to say that one of my greatest accomplishments of 2019 was packing for six weeks abroad as a family of five in just two checked bags. But it’s true! I researched, and tested out scenarios on a week-long spring break trip to Alabama, and revised. We ended up with tiny wardrobes that saw us happily through London, Kendal, Edinburgh, York, and London again, with only occasional muttered profanity when the complicated luggage arrangements we hauled toppled over while we wrangled three kids in crowded public transportation.

I’m just going to be honest here; this stroller is amazing but we overloaded it enough that it tipped over with a child inside it more than once.

I have always been a methodical packer. As a newlywed, I spent a whole summer putting things into and out of suitcases ahead of our trip to Uganda; J packed his share during a single conference call. I spend so much time thinking about packing that I’ve written a post about it before. My whole adult life, packing has seeped into many of my most boring and stressful dreams. (Whatever, I’m a cool mom.)

Brilliant packing move: one coloring book per kid, even in our very minimalist luggage. Pictured here rolling along en route to Oxford.

In 2019, we spent a full quarter of the year traveling. In 2020, we, like many of you, went exactly nowhere. We arrived back from our annual tour of the South on New Year’s Eve. The next day I found out I was pregnant. I canceled our plans, waited to start puking, then miscarried. By the time I’d scraped myself up off the floor, the world immediately fell apart. So yeah. I was in my very own bed every night of 2020, excepting the one I slept in a tent in the backyard with the kids.

Between the miscarriage and stay-at-home orders, almost half the year passed before I had to pack more than a diaper bag. But when we finally started to venture out on day trips again, I realized that none of my previous packing experience was all that relevant.

The rules had changed. Now we needed hand sanitizer and masks — and should we bring some disposable gloves just in case? We needed a plan for the bathroom, because now, when it was least convenient, everyone was finally potty trained. (I mean, mostly.)

The water fountains are turned off and the bathrooms are closed. PLAN ACCORDINGLY AND BRING A MASK.

What was worse, we had changed. We were rusty, accustomed to never having the things we needed — the extra layer, the change of pants, the spare snack — out of reach, having spent months on end confined to our immediate neighborhood. We’d lost the make-do attitude we’d cultivated traveling so much the previous year, and at the same time we’d lost the freedom to easily run into a store for a replacement if a forgotten item proved essential.

Most of all, we’d lost the confidence that the future is knowable, something that can be planned for. (Given the average weather of London in May and Edinburgh in June, it follows you should pack the lightweight merino leggings and the sundress.) Instead we were faced with the uncertainty that had always been there: maybe you pack all the right things, but it doesn’t end up mattering, because the unpredicted occurs. You can plan for what you might need on that trail, given hungry little bellies and a boy who will wade regardless of the temperature, but you can’t game out what you’ll need if that trail is too people-y and you have to go someplace else, if your kid needs to pee and it’s still densely populated and you don’t want to set foot in the sketchy gas station bathroom in the middle of a pandemic.

Packing has become a lot more like those monotonous dreams that plague me at night — a shifting and uncertain task, without any real guarantee that hard work and forethought will pay off. It’s also probably socked me with some violent grace, though, reminding me that perfection isn’t achievable, that we have always lived at the mercy of outside forces and that the perfectly packed picnic is no guarantor of a pleasant outing. We travel through life, trying to hang on to the things we think we need, but in the end, so little of it is about our own striving.

Still, it never hurts to pack an extra snack.

Melting her brain with Frozen on the way back to the States

Obscure Advent Recommendation #3: Family Man

Watch The Family Man | Prime Video

This one is for my dad, who loves to watch this movie each year on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Family Man is a sweet and under-appreciated movie from 2000 starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. You can watch the trailer, but the basic premise is: Jack is a highly successful businessman, basically decent if superficial, living the high life until an unthinking moment of heroism on Christmas Eve launches him into a “glimpse” — a vision of what life might have been if he had passed up a career opportunity as a young man to marry his first love. Waking up as a family man in the New Jersey suburbs that Christmas morning, Jack initially panics and tries to escape the glimpse, but gradually settles into the alternate world. But, given the choice, would he choose to stay? And can he?

If it sounds a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life, good for you, you’ve clearly had a much more cultured childhood, because I didn’t watch that until just last year. But it’s a cozy Christmas movie that celebrates the life of quiet sanctification of a man who lays down his life for his wife, his children, his community of friends, setting aside the path where talent and ambition might have led. It’s the life my dad chose, the life I struggle each day to choose for myself.

That said, our family is the only people I know who have seen/liked this movie. By and large the internet has forgotten and/or actively hates it — the New York Times called it “a piece of moldy wax fruit,” which is a charming but perplexing insult. This 2019 piece argues the movie is making a comeback, but offers absolutely no evidence except that the author likes it.

Family-friendly? We haven’t let our kids see it. There’s a suggestion of an affair, some mild bedroom talk, some obscured nudity, etc.

Where to get it: Rent from Amazon for $3.99

Obscurity level: 8/10 — I guess they made another movie with the name Family Man in 2016 and that makes finding this particular Family Man even harder.

30 After 30 at 35

I’m trying to make my motto for this hard time Flannery O’Connor’s, as she struggled with lupus:

“I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.”

So, that being said, I’m trying to look at my thirty-fourth year as a time of growth and blessing, even with the losses it brought. (To see my original list, click here.)

Not a fashion blogger, but: the Rowena Wool Dress from Wool&, belt: vintage; glasses: my unfortunate $10 backup pair

Work on refining my signature style. I used ThredUp during the spring to buy a half dozen cotton, knee-length, washable dresses to get me through the summer, embracing the size I am and not holding off in the hope that I’d be immediately pregnant. (ThredUp sharing code here — $20 for each of us) For my birthday, I’ve ordered a merino wool dress and I’m thinking of trying the 100 Day Challenge.

Learn how to cook at least five cuts of red meat well. We got another 1/8 of a cow, in addition to about 40 pounds of chicken breasts through a farmer friend.

Making an Advent wreath with the help of Baby Yoda

Celebrate one liturgical event a month. I haven’t kept track, but we have done weekly readings of saint biographies and some baked goods to celebrate — and we said a prayer for the dead every time we ate a piece of Halloween candy in November LIKE WEIRDOS. (I loved it.)

Find a church ministry I can be a part of. I led a book club for our parish chapter of Blessed Is She, reading In This House of Brede, The Color of Compromise, and The Awakening of Miss Prim.

Fit in long walks at every opportunity. Hey, thanks, pandemic!!

Discover new shared interests with J. We’ve done a lot of hiking this year, and for awhile we were baking a lot of Great British Baking Show-inspired desserts.

Grow my own herbs each year. Thyme, sage, basil, peppermint and rosemary, but also tomatillos, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkin this year.

Start treating myself to fresh flowers each week, even if it’s the bargain bouquet. I still am not great about buying them for myself (especially when I’m not in the store), but between nursing along sympathy bouquets through February, my own blooms from March through November, and now birthday arrangements, I’ve done pretty well.

Hey, that mask really brings out the silver in your hair!!

Keep going gray. Me and everybody in 2020, am I right? My sister trimmed my hair in October, but otherwise it’s just been doing its own (aggravating) thing since the day in January I last had a real haircut, when I was pregnant but not sick and starting to get worried.

Try to get back up to the book a week reading average that’s been my adult standard. Voracious reading post-miscarriage, the inability to concentrate on anything for several weeks as the pandemic unspooled, and then back to my weekly average or so.

Make time to write well. So many letters and emails and journal entries this year, even when I was feeling less sure about what I wanted published for all the world — though I did get published in Dappled Things and Pray Tell.

Give myself and the people around me a little more grace. Mixed progress. I’ve definitely been more tense during parts of this year, but I think I’ve done a good job keeping in touch with friends without taking their lack of communication personally. We all have so much to deal with, we get a free pass to be a little erratic.

Hard Work, More Work

Recently, through the slow machinations of delayed dentist appointments and referrals with wait times, I made it into a physical therapist to talk about the migraines I’ve been battling this pandemic. He obligingly sympathized with how tense the right side of my body has gotten (why????) and got a feel for what’s gone wrong with my jaw and started to help me unclench some of my months’ worth of tensing. But then — then he gave me exercises, warned me it would probably get worse before it got better, and sent me back out to the hard work.

The whole thing reminded me very much of the birth of my firstborn, in which, after an unexpectedly miserable pregnancy, I worked calmly and obediently through early labor only to be clobbered with a very hard time pushing. Finally, after four hours of pushing, I got the thing done, basked in the exultation and hormones and warm blanket that immediately follow childbirth and then — well, then the midwife handed me my baby and left me to take care of him after doing something very, very hard.


Before the actual experience of labor, I had thought this “rooming in” business was a very good idea. Bonding! Breastfeeding on demand! But when it finally happened, after I had done a very hard thing for a very long time and was very tired, I felt alarmed and betrayed to be immediately handed something else hard to do in the form of this new, soupy son I’d never met before.

Both of these experiences strike me as the way things will probably go for us as a culture when the pandemic has mostly died out. There will be no spontaneous bonfires and dancing in the streets, dreams I’d abandoned in late spring, but now I realize there also won’t immediately be an alleviation of all we’ve suffered. All of us will be licking our wounds, so who will there be unscathed to hand out medals for patience endurance and chocolate to keep our spirits up? Even those of us, like me, who have suffered only in the most indirect ways, will not feel a sudden melting away of the tension we’ve built up over these long months.

Instead, it will be the time for all of us to get down to the real work, the hard work, beyond the simple stepping aside that is the best that many of us have had to offer. We’ll be stretching new muscles we haven’t used in awhile, learning new skills and to care in new ways. It’s mostly not going to be fun, but it’s the only way through to the new world, the world after, the world where we’ll be strong enough not hurt in the same ways again — although of course we’ll find new ones.

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to treat my own battered body gently, repairing the damage life and I have wrought on this little, aging body of mine. I’ll be reading the good books and having the great conversations that will equip me. And someday, soon, I hope, I’ll step dazedly out into the new work prepared for me.

An Unusual Christmas, Some Unusual Christmas Cards

I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. It seems wrong to approach this year with the sort of tongue-in-cheek family report I’ve written in previous years — I believe last year’s card involved news of Roo stuffing a bead up her nose. Luckily, stationery companies are here to fill the need! Let one stationery devotee walk you through some approaches, since I’m going to be obsessing over them anyway:

Approach 1: Wishing the Year Away

Pictured: from Minted, 100 for $130

This variety of cards kind of upset me. They’re funny, but I don’t want to completely dismiss the year, as hard as it’s been. (Similar sentiments also available at Shutterfly and Pinhole Press.) I mean, yes, it wasn’t great, but you’re alive and buying Christmas cards, so it could be worse. “We thought 2020 would never end” (link) strikes me as an improvement, as does “In hindsight 2020 was the longest year ever!” (link). And “2020—we got through” (link) seems more a rally of solidarity than a complaint.

Approach 2: Peace & Hope

Pictured: Peartree, 104 for $165.36 [why 104? I don’t know.]

This seems like a universally palatable wish in 2020 — not ostentatiously religious but encouraging. The one pictured is very much my favorite take of the bunch. (Similar cards at Paper Culture; these “hope always” ones are also good, especially if you don’t want a photo)

Approach 3: (Extra) Family Togetherness

Pictured: Simply to Impress, 100 for $94

In very large part I send Christmas cards each year so people who want a photo of my kids can have a photo of my kids. But I am still (probably too?) cautious about being braggy about my family. It’s true 2020 has taught us what’s really important so that if we have small kids at home we are probably extra grateful for them (when we aren’t contemplating strangulation), but it’s also important to me not to slip into a sort of #blessed mentality, especially because inevitably I’ll be sending cards to people not blessed in the same ways. The above one strikes a good balance, though, as does “Love was extra patient this year” (link) — and similarly, “Together more than ever—and we still love each other!” (link).

Approach 4: The Shared 2020 Experience

Pictured: Paper Culture, 100 for $128.80

“We laughed, we cried, we Zoomed, we made it” (link) and “Quarantine bingo” (link) also do a good job highlighting the unique, nearly universal experiences of this year — so does “Happy holidays, from our porch to yours” (link). But let’s all agree not to send each other toilet paper themed Christmas cards, ok? This feels like the holiday card equivalent of a Monica Lewinsky Halloween costume — entirely too topical and kind of crass.

How are you tackling Christmas cards this year? Are you more or less inclined to send them in 2020?

Scrabbling for Ways to Think About the Pandemic

I recently read (and loved!) Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, which, among many, many other things, chronicles the British World War II experience. At one point the protagonist, Ursula, reflects, “It was the enormity of war…it sent you scrabbling for ways to think about it.” The passage struck me, because I realize I’ve spent the last six months trying to frame the pandemic in the same way, trying out different puzzle pieces, standing back and looking critically, grasping to understand my role in all of this. So here are a few of the analogies with which I’ve been scrabbling:

The Different Paths of the Saints

In this season of tumult and danger, you may find your family called to keep close to home, to sacrifice the pleasures of a life in the world for the safety of a life confined to home. We can look to our faith for a guide — for every St. Teresa of Calcutta, out in the streets effecting change, there is a St. Thérèse of Lisieux, changing hearts from within her enclosure. I am willing to accept that as the body of Christ, we have different roles to play. Priests have sacraments to administer, trained medical workers have healing to offer, but I’m not convinced people in every situation have much to offer in-person that offsets the complications their mingling entails. In this situation, sometimes the best you can contribute to the heroism of others is to get out of the way.

The Longing for a United Front

Early in the pandemic, I found the London Blitz a really compelling and inspiring analogy, with its rich mood of pitching in, planting gardens, volunteering and keeping each other safe — the sort of public spiritedness that fueled us through the spring and early summer. Now, I find the comparison less helpful, because for those of us still mostly at home, the work is so invisible, that it can seem like you’re all alone, because your path is by default a quiet one. You see the friends posting splashy pictures of their adventurous outings, but you rarely see when someone is still quietly plugging away at home. But we are out here — or rather, not out there, but still mostly shuttered up at home.

The Risk Budget

I came across this analogy first articulated in a New York Times opinion piece I can’t find now (of course!), but the Washington Post has a similar introduction to the concept. While the term was new, the idea was familiar to me because I’ve been operating under the idea of Pregnancy Danger Points for some time now. The concept of a risk budget, when applied to pregnancy, goes something like this: maybe a pregnant woman chooses an epidural or anti-nausea medication or SSRIs or lots of air travel or an occasional glass of wine or sushi or lunch meat or…, but probably she doesn’t choose all of them in large quantities because each one is another risk she’s assuming. And while it’s not like at the midwife you’re doled out, say, 37 Pregnancy Danger Points to use before your next appointment, there is some sense that each risk you choose should make each other risk a little harder to justify.

So, it’s similar with coronavirus. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, as in, my kids are in the classroom now so WHO EVEN CARES we should just live our lives normally because it’s easier not to seriously entertain the idea that our choices put us and others in danger. But it is a proposition where each family may determine a different sized risk budget, based on things like whether they have an immunocompromised family member. And in determining that risk budget, each family will certainly make different decisions on how to spend theirs. For instance: to me, organized sports right now are just an unbelievably dumb risk. But guess what! I am sports-illiterate at the best of times, so obviously that wouldn’t be a priority for me. On the other hand, because my husband is working from home this semester and my kids are already homeschooled, I may be comfortable with our kids seeing grandparents after an appropriate quarantine, while this may be too big a risk for you, if you must spend much of your risk budget on exposures for education or career.

Being the Coronavirus Designated Driver

Staying home increasingly feels like being the designated driver at the party as everyone else gets hilariously drunk and you grow both worried and impatient. It’s not a fun place to be, in high school or now, to feel cast in the role of disapproving stick-in-the-mud, raining on everyone’s parade. There are no breathalyzers for this pandemic, no hard and fast way to determine what is safe behavior and what is sheer recklessness. If you choose a different, more cautious line than your friends — well, like the friends you still talk to from high school, they’re going to still be your friends on the other side of this even if they are comfortable with a bit more risk. Wherever you fall on the risk spectrum, it is certain we all need to offer each other even more grace than usual as we navigate these unusual times.

And here’s the thing about being a designated driver. Even if I’m the only one (and I’m not, of course, by a long shot), even if none of the drinkers are impressed or grateful about me sitting this one out — or even if the the drinkers really aren’t dangerously drunk after all — I’m still helping. Maybe you’re still helping, too. You’re one fewer person who might infect my granny, one fewer person who might need a hospital bed right when that essential worker falls too ill to recover at home. It’s true — maybe we’ll all look back and laugh at people like me, and maybe my kids will be bitter about that year of missed co-op and I’ll carry my Quarantimes jaw pain flareup straight into our recovered world, all for nothing. But it’s important to me to be able to look back on this strange, hard time and know I was trying my very best — just as I’m sure it is for you, too.

What analogies have you found most helpful for understanding the pandemic?