I’m back again after a long non-vacation, as what constitutes a break these days? When we get one, we’re largely in the same place, revolving in the same space we’ve been taking up for close to six months now. The college I teach at has gone remote, except for the fewest of disciplines that must meet in on campus, abet physically-distanced, masked, temperature-checked and documented for contact tracing. I get to work behind the desk that’s long spawned my source of income–and served as a jumping off point for my attempts at writing beyond my pay grade. (Hey editors — if you’re out there listening, I’m still at it.) After awhile you get to wonder whether it’s all worth it, writing in this environment. You wonder when it will all lift, and with it your mood and your inspiration.
Funny, that months ago I found myself falling into a rut. I’d get up, go to work, come home, grade grade grade (the real work of a writing teacher), attend to household things, write. In between I’d sprinkle in going out to dinner, meeting up with friends and family, shopping, movies, and occasionally, there were conferences, lectures, and club meetings, and a sprinkling of short vacations. Most were repeat events, things I’ve done in the past, but however enjoyable, there was little variation. Oh! for something exciting to happen! I’d lament, as anything out of the ordinary would be welcome to shake me out of the slog my life had become. Then–and I remember the exact day, March 13, the last day before Spring Break was to begin–I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I ought to stay home. That day was a Friday, and the day itself couldn’t be more portentous. It was more or less the day New Jersey drew into itself and suddenly the world, my world at least, shut down.
For six weeks I didn’t leave my neighborhood, the first week not going further than the end of my block. After two weeks in, my husband an I took a ride to a dairy farm a mile or two away. The early spring dampness hung chilly and dank over the fields, doing nothing for my mood, but it got me out of the house, so even the manure smelled sweet in its rankness, but at least it was outside and not in my backyard. Without anywhere to go, I read and read, binged Mad Men, Schitt’s Creek, and Outlander, kept to a rigid exercise schedule.
I never cooked so much in my life, big complicated meals full of sauces and cheeses and all kinds of veggies, via Shop Rite at Home. We got so many deliveries from Target the back of my husband’s van became filled with cardboard boxes that never did make it to the packing shop who always had taken our used boxes before (back before they believed they carried the virus). My kitchen and closed in porch filled with fresh fruits and vegetable from another local farm where you texted in your order for curbside pick-up, and because of shortages all around, our meals consisted of what we could glean. When the glean was fat I’d make cookies out of whole-wheat flour, filled with dried fruits, coconut and dark chocolate, energy food I’d tell myself. I made heavy pound cakes I’d toast and slather with butter, homemade ice cream, and soups so thick a spoon would stand up. I’d scour The New York Times cooking section for new and ever-complicated recipes, which I’d start preparing not too long after lunch. I’d make banana cake, rice pudding, home made apple and cranberry sauces. At one point I realized I’d made every bit of food we put in our mouth for two months straight, and the idea so horrified me, we planned on taking the enormous step to get take out for my birthday in May. Takeout Chicken Francese had never been so good.
Then as the weeks wore on, somehow the pressure got a bit lighter. I ventured out to the supermarket for the first time, left the state to visit my sister, took a day trip to the shore, finally got my hair cut. While the virus picked up in other parts of the country, it calmed down here in New Jersey, and life returned to a kind of new normal. We wore our masks, kept our distance, Zoomed, and washed our hands, and spent a lot of time outside. Before long I submitted one book to my agent, then made the decision to start another next. Which leaves me where I am today, thinking: How does one write in a pandemic?
I’ve discovered something odd: that as much luster as my day-to-day has lost, that no matter how many times I’ve been depressed and lonely, wondering when the perennial touchstones of my life will return, I know that retreating into a world I create will never fail to bring me joy. That losing myself in that world brings me purpose, knowing it is possible to venture into faraway places by never leaving your desk. I’ve learned that after all these years of varying success, writing is something I’d still do even if I never have any success at all. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but maybe it really is more about the journey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t argue with an eventual destination or two. Even amidst this pandemic, with all its restrictions, there are still places I’d like to go.