The Aptness of Advent

This is it. 2020 is the year Advent wins out against the commercial Christmas we’ve all grown up with, at least for this round. How are we going to gather to rock around the Christmas tree? Is it possible for much of anyone to sing without irony this year:

With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap- happiest season of all
.

I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams. That’s for sure and certain.

This is the December we hunker down, wipe our calendars clear of social engagements. We don’t need to dodge the December 5 Christmas party, don’t have to explain to well-meaning coworkers that it’s not Christmas yet. Instead, we have no excuse not to dive deep into what patient waiting means, in both the liturgical and communal senses.

In this way, Catholics and other liturgical Christians have an edge over non-liturgical Christians and secular people going in to this strange, strange December. We have, though we may not personally have plumbed its depths, a rich history of stillness, preparation, and patient suffering in our tradition of Advent.

Without the premature feasts of a normal December party season, can we incorporate fasting into our observance of Advent this year, directing our prayers to any one of the facets of suffering we see more clearly in the pandemic-wracked world this year? Can we use time freed from extracurriculars and commutes to adopt a new prayer practice or reading plan? Without the jangle of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” trailing us from our last Target run, can we learn the haunting strains of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”?

That doesn’t mean we have to pivot to an Advent all sackcloth and ashes, though. Instead, we can prepare with penitence, yes, but also hope, for the coming of our King. O come, o come Emmanuel. We feel captive this year for sure, trapped in our homes as cold weather and darkness and disease close in. But we must remember that rescue will come, resolving, as best we can, to make [our] house fair as you are able / trim the hearth and set the table.

How do we take the opportunity to critique our usual December flurry, while still preparing steadily for the joy of the 25th? It will take effort and look different for each household. The pensive, hopeful mood of Advent will come easily to many of us this year, but the jubilant mood of Christmastide may require effort without the usual signposts of parties and shopping mall music, family gatherings and perhaps even Mass. Christmas cards will remind those we haven’t seen for months that they are still loved. The intentional introduction of Advent reading, crafting, and baking into our busy rhythm of remote (or home-) schooling will prepare the hearts of our children. The lights we string around our homes will point to the hope in our hearts, glittering through the interminable nights. Can we look to Christians throughout time, from the early church to persecuted Christians in corners of the world today, who cling fast to the truth as the celebrate, hushed and alone, in their own humble way?

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.

Related further reading: The Homely Hours’ exhaustive collection of Advent hymns; me talking about Christmas cards and my past thoughts on Advent.

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.

ok NOW WHAT

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.

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?

The Painstaking, Sanity-Making Work of Embroidery

It was a few years ago that I asked my mom to teach me how to embroider. She obligingly unearthed her old materials from the ’70s and walked me through some basic stitches, then left me with all her old thread, kits and needles. We probably spent under a half hour on the whole endeavor.

The back of an early project

I had tried knitting once, back in graduate school, before my teacher (a very kind priest with a wicked sense of humor) washed her hands of me and cheerfully considered me a lost cause. But I wanted some skill that would help me to make beautiful things for my loved ones, and so embroidery was my second such attempt.

Since that first lesson several years ago, I’ve been embroidering on and off. From patterns, I made things for the girls, and for a friend that was moving. I made freehand projects for a couple of new babies in my life, with limited success. I eventually found that I most enjoyed embroidery work when we were on long car trips; I hate driving on the interstate and have trouble even watching J do it, but I don’t get car sick, so keeping my hands busy can help keep me sane.

Guess who this one was for.

It turned out embroidering on the interstate got my mind off my anxiety and my eyes off the road. I had to focus on the stitches and, especially in the beginning, the tangled threads, or how I’d inadvertently stitched the canvas onto my skirt, or whatever the current small crisis was. I took pleasure in each small decision, one after another: a color, a stitch, an order of attack.

Enter the pandemic, when everything so often feels as hazardous as a van hurtling at 80 mph to an uncertain destination. Embroidery has come to my rescue again, taking my volleying thoughts and forcing them into submission: first this small decision, then the next. Then the next and the next.

A friend generously donated her cast off embroidery materials and commissioned this little doofus in exchange.

I’ve cranked out projects at an unprecedented rate and my skill has grown as I’ve developed the discipline of the Next Right Thing, attacking the problem I think I can solve and leaving the overwhelming ones, one after another, until soon I’m doing the parts that worried me in the beginning.

V scared about this bee and its wings, mostly.

Through embroidery this year, I’ve mourned the loss of one friend’s babies and celebrated the impending arrival of another friend’s daughter. I’ve made something for my mom, who I haven’t been able to see for nine months, and something for my son, who needs to be reminded I love seeing him even though we’ve been daily fellow inmates for the last six months. I have embroidered dish towels and wall hangings and a battered old onesie dear to an old friend. The simple work of embroidery has been such an outlet for me, slowly stitching beauty from the chaos in which we are all tangled.

Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 2

[Catch up on Part 1 here!]

It occurs to me, too, that as I stress about when and how and if to invite people back into my home, I should be honing my hospitality skills toward the people already shored up here with me: my husband and kids.

LEGOs are giving us life

I don’t think it’s bragging to say I was very good at this quarantine with the kids the first few weeks and months. We had good systems in place already (like quiet time) and had already made choices that lent themselves well to quarantine (like homeschooling). I was (and am) sad not to be pregnant, but because my pregnancies are so….violent, it certainly made the job of caring for the kids without outside reinforcements much easier. We’ve been blessed, and family life when we are each other’s all in all has been much, much easier than I expected.

But fatigue is real, let me tell you. I’ve missed many hours of mother’s helper time, at least a handful of date nights, the several weeks of free co-op childcare I earned by teaching art all fall, and several grandparent visits. It is easy to spend days at a time constantly advocating for why I need a break, why everyone just needs to leave me alone, why I am a victim.

Sal and her socially-distanced berries

But my kids (and maybe yours, too) are really so easy. The things they delight in are usually so small. Going to socially distanced blueberry picking. Trying a new trail. Reading aloud in a quiet spot in the park. Heck, a little TV so I do get that alone time. Here, the only real difficulty is in choosing activities I can be nice about — there’s the rub. It is always better, I’ve learned very painfully and slowly, to be unambitious and kind than bent on enriching at the cost of warmth. Especially in this time of anxiety, if I can’t, say, manage that level of crowd without getting twitchy and short-tempered, it’s probably better that we do something else. In the early days, I kept thinking of that movie Life is Beautiful, in which a loving father serves as a sort of host or guide to his wife and young son, creating a lovelier world for them amongst the horrors of the Holocaust. My task is smaller; surely I can do it, if I keep focus.

All they want is gummy snack picnics tbh

What’s more, if I let it, school can be a time in which I intentionally remind these kids of mine over and over that I love them. I can cuddle Scout for her reading lesson, find fun toy boxes for Roo, stay patient and engaged in Pippin’s narrations. For the most part, the structure of our short school day has been sanity-saving, and so when we finished in early June, we took a week off and started the new year. But if I’m not careful, distractions sneak in. I go to set up Pip’s Duolingo lesson and suddenly I’m swept away on my Instagram feed. Someone’s trying to share something exciting she just learned and I’m thinking about when to fit in the laundry. Our school day is really, on paper, so short — it’s not too much to ask for me to give it my all, just as I require them to do.

When we were getting married, J’s church required us to attend premarital counseling. And one of my takeaways was this advice: At the very least, be as polite to your spouse as you’d be to a stranger.

More sweaty snuggling when I would rather not

Translation: When all else fails, be hospitable. The counselor knew what I, a 21-year-old bride-to-be did not: You will not always feel this radiant, effortless, selfless love toward your husband, and in the moments you don’t, politeness and disciplined kindness will carry you. This applies, of course, to your children, too. While I’m preoccupied with thinking through the justifications of my duty to the world in corona-times, I’ve got someone tugging on my skirt who doesn’t have the luxury of badgering her friend or teacher or neighbor instead, because she’s quarantined, too. And she needs a little kindness extended, too, a moment welcomed into my arms and my mind. She’s already, always, welcome in my heart, but my actions are what will remind her of that, over and over, for as long as this lasts and beyond.

Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 1

Earlier this month, our priest friend came over to give us the Sacrament of Confession. It was a huge grace, a great favor. It was a hot morning and J and I took turns with Father in lawn chairs beside the fire pit, catching up and then confessing. Afterwards, I left him by the raised beds while I ran in for the heads of lettuce I’d cut and bagged for him, tucked in in the fridge.

And I left him out there in the heat.

It did not feel good. I am the kind of woman who feels guilty continuing to lie down when the postpartum nurse comes into her hospital room. It felt disrespectful leaving our friend outside while we stepped into the cool of our house which, despite many half-started quarantine projects and three active stay-at-home kiddos, is about as company-ready as it ever is (which is, of course, to say, not very, but that doesn’t stop me). Still, I didn’t invite him in.

Hospitality has been a huge, intentional part of my life for years, since at least our time in Uganda, where I made a point to welcome homesick fellow expats as I haltingly learned to cook. It’s part of what we see as our family work. And now there hasn’t been another human in my house since mid-March.

So I’ve been thinking about what hospitality means when you aren’t welcoming any one into your home, and I have a few ideas.

Hospitality is about making people feel welcome, about loving on people. I think these things can be done, to an extent, from a distance. Letting people into your life, the life of your family, can be done, a bit, with Zoom calls and letters, with mailed kid art, by dropping off treats — baked goods and plants and magazines — on the porches of friends and neighbors. It can mean spending more time outside being neighborly, yelling conversation to your friend as she walks by, picking up groceries for others when you’re going to be out anyway, singing “Happy Birthday” from your car parked in a friend’s driveway. None of these are my own invention; I have been so grateful for all those thinking creatively about how to navigate these times.

The other afternoon I dropped off schoolbooks on one doorstep, and a meal for a friend who was hurting on another doorstep, where I was able to talk from a distance with her. I came home to find that some of our study abroad students had dropped off scones and goodbye presents for us and were talking on the curb with J, everyone in masks. Community and hospitality still exist — they just take some looking.

I think when you’re trying to love people well, to care for them, as one does in hospitality, it’s a dance between what they want and what you want for them, the same as when you’re deciding whether you can justify making them unhealthy food. Many of my friends, thoughtful and responsible people, are no longer socially distancing, but I still believe that the best way I can help to protect them is by continuing to stay at home myself. I like to think that they understand why I’m doing this, that I’m not snubbing them or prioritizing my health over our friendship, just as I hope they know I will try not to dwell on hurt feelings when they host gatherings I can’t, in good conscience, attend.

This ribbon of negotiation of terms, of interpretation, of good intentions, has always run through social interactions. It’s just that now, in a time of rapidly changing official advice and so much uncertainty, this back-and-forth is more explicit in the practice of hospitality. I will try to offer the good things I feel I can; you will try to accept what you feel you can. It’s a scary, awkward place to be sometimes, but I suspect it’s the way forward for now as our families all unfurl and contract on different evidence and circumstances. It turns out hospitality was always about grace, and now we’re just exercising it more consciously.

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:

Image via

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.

Image via

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.

Image via

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.

Image via

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: