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?

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.

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 »

Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear


This is not a very death-defying photo, but most of the real hijinks happen, almost by definition, out of my line of sight.

(NB: This is one I listened to as an audiobook so I couldn’t mark it up or copy down passages quickly enough. So quotations here were either hunted down online or are from excerpts and interviews that jive with the book.)

This fall as I slowly set out on running again after a long pregnancy/physical therapy hiatus, I listened avidly to Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of FearI found the book by turns mesmerizing, validating, challenging. In an NPR interview this summer, author Kim Brooks argues:

“We read, in the news or on social media, about children who have been kidnapped, raped and killed, about children forgotten for hours in broiling cars. We do not think about the statistical probabilities or compare the likelihood of such events with far more present dangers, like increasing rates of childhood diabetes or depression. Statistically speaking, according to the writer Warwick Cairns, you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger. Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point.”

Read More »

Anxiety and the Post Apocalyptic

When I list my favorite books, many follow a common theme: Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gilead, Persuasion — fairly light, fairly sweet. But there’s a thread that runs against this theme because, since I was about 12 and first read Alas, BabylonI also have a deep and abiding love for post apocalyptic  and dystopian stories.

I’ve read so many over the years, especially while I was a teen librarian and The Hunger Games reigned supreme, that my dreams are often combinations of survival scenarios and, depressingly, packing. But it’s hard to tell, chicken or egg, whether I dream of conflagration because I’ve read so much of it, or I read so many stories of utter destruction because these images have always haunted my dreams.

What I do suspect is that for me, post apocalyptic stories—the good ones—satisfy something deep inside. I am not, it’s perhaps worth noting, the kind of person with a bug-out bag and survivalist dreams — however, I am an anxious person, always worried about small impending catastrophes. For me, to read Alas, Babylon is to enter a world where my fear is confirmed, the worst occurs, and, in the books I especially love, the worst is overcome.

Because I’m not a fangirl of depths-of-despair forebodings like On the Beachwhere literally everyone dies, slowly and inexorably. The stories I find myself drawn to have their darkness, but also their hope. Sure, most of the world is obliterated by nuclear war in Alas, Babylon, but the surviving citizens of a small central Florida town rebuild a better world. Some of these novels are darker than others: salvation is sparing in The Road and The Dog Starsand life is hardscrabble in Station Eleven, though beauty and art endure. In  A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Children of Men, the margin of hope is a downright sliver.

Maybe that’s why, then, readers are flocking to George Orwell’s 1984 these days. Maybe these dystopian worlds, these after-the-disaster premises, allow us to feel safer: Sure, it’s bad now, but it could be much, much worse. Or maybe, when you’re scared, living out the worst-case scenario between the pages of a book can feel like an escape — or even preparation.


Rethinking Running

“It doesn’t have to be running,” the midwife reminded me cheerfully. “It can be any kind of exercise you like.”

But that’s the point. There is no kind of exercise I like. It turned out my resting pulse was a little high, and anyway, I’d been fighting the conviction for awhile. And so running it is.

Running, at least, has the nontrivial advantages of frugality and efficiency. I don’t have to drive anywhere or buy a membership. I just barrel out the back door, wheeze a ways, and wheeze back.

I had done this all once, maybe twice, before: once during a busy semester in college when the doctor listened to my pulse, sent me to the cardiologist, and put me on a stationery bike; once when I was working part-time before kids and trying to keep the crazy at bay. (I’m not counting the three weeks I ran in preparation for the Dales Way, newly pregnant with Pippin, until the time I threw up in my hair and gave up on exercise for the duration.)

A turning point this time was coming to grips with the idea that for me, running is not ever probably going to be “me time.” I get up while it’s still dark, when I don’t have to, and I put on clothes that are hard to put on with sleep-clumsy hands, and maybe sometimes the sun rises beautifully over reddening trees, and maybe sometimes I see a deer, and maybe sometimes I enjoy my audiobook, but mostly, I grit my teeth and do my 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back.

I was slipping into the vocal registers that are not OK, especially with my most threesome three-year-old, and I had done all the self-care measures I actually like, the carving out time for reading and getting extra sleep. I know running helps me to be less anxious, and anxiety and impatience were ruling my day, at least at high-friction times of the day like getting out the door, and the lead-up to nap time. I had apologized to my son enough, and it was time to try something else.

And so I run, and I don’t think of it as me time, or self-care, or all the other things exercise is supposed to be for women like me. I think of it as medicine. I think of it as penance. It is what I am doing to be a better mother, a better wife, a happier human. On those mornings, I am letting go of all the times I’ve failed to be those things, forgiving myself, having already asked forgiveness of those I’ve hurt. And I’m running toward a kinder, gentler future, one grudging run at a time.

At confession, recently, I shared my theory of running as penance with my confessor, who to my surprised relief didn’t immediately dismiss it. “Well, I mean, historically penance has been physical. It’s been bodily. It’s only lately that it’s all prayers.”

Huh. Fair enough. Maybe my Nikes are my hair shirt, my morning jogs a modern-day pilgrimage. A prayer with my body, for calm, for peace.




The Good Stretch

Have we talked about how I’m a little afraid of everything? I haven’t done that Pottermore test to find out my Patronus, but I suspect it would be a mouse. Or, at the very least, something small and sleepy and cautious. A mole, perhaps.

While Pippin’s been stretching this month to adjust to preschool away from Mama (i.e., HIS WORLD), I’ve been stretching to teach art at a local homeschool co-op. (We are taking this year to decide how we want to proceed, education-wise, which is why things are so bonkers around here.)

Because here is my dark not-so-secret: other people’s children make me nervous. (Even my own children make me nervous when they’re new and squishy.) I am afraid I’ll do the wrong thing, or that they can sense how awkward I feel. I’ve never wanted to handle classroom management, which is why I opted to be a librarian and not a school teacher. Also, you saw my cat/mouse. What business do I have in teaching art?

If I’m being honest, dread is my greatest motivator, and just jumping in usually helps a lot. So despite my nerves, I’ve been coming back from co-op energized and filled with new creativity. It turns out I like working with homeschool kids (not a total surprise after a stint as a teen librarian), and that classroom management isn’t as terrifying as I thought — not all that different than managing the chaos of a rousing night of laser tag at the library, in fact.

It all makes me think about the good stretch and the bad stretch, about getting a little outside your comfort zone and growing tougher and braver in the process. So, like, teaching art to eager, well-mannered kids at an age I totally get? Good stretch. Teaching, I don’t know, geometry to surly teens who don’t want to be there? Bad stretch. Too far. Good for you, not for me. (And when my friend at the co-op asked for a middle school PE teacher? Baaaaaaaaaad stretch, dear readers.)

I can’t always tell when I make the leap if the chasm is too far, but if I left the decision up to my gut, I’d be mousing around in cautious obscurity indefinitely. On the whole, I’d rather be collapsing at home on Friday afternoons, paint inexplicably crisping in my hair, damp marbled paper from a dozen eager fourth graders fanned out on every available surface. It’s chaotic and exhausting and scary, sure, but much more fun.

Work by my talented fourth graders