A few things: September 2020

As others have written recently, happy six month anniversary of “2 weeks to flatten the curve.”

Still relevant, six months in: Mental health strategies for coping with the pandemic. If you don’t take good care of yourself, then you won’t be any good to anyone else.

Is it harder and harder, day by day, to take good care of mental health? Indeed. Which is all the more reason to re-commit to restorative practices, to things that renew the heart, mind, and spirit, as well as the body.

Restorative practices for me? Reading, going for walks, being creative. I have a friend who has taken to gardening, pulling out those invasive ground ivy runners with tweezer-like precision because it brings her a sense of both calm and control. These are healthy behaviors.

Also good? Cooking and connecting with friends far away.

(More on the marzipan results, in a bit.)

So, as we mark the six month anniversary of “two weeks to flatten the curve,” now harder and heavier and sadder because of EVERYTHING ELSE, perhaps you’ll consider allowing yourself to accept that things are not normal, that things will not always be as they are today, and that no one – NO ONE – is thriving in this mess. No one.

If you are struggling, you are in good company.

And if it’s still all too much, consider this simple prayer from the always-inspiring Nadia Bolz-Weber:

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Reading

Probably goes without saying, but: I read every day.

At the end of the day, most days, before I go to sleep, I read a book — an actual, physical book usually, though I also have a Kindle that I use in a pinch.

I read my books under Shakespeare’s supervision (that’s Shakespeare, or so I’m told, carved into the marble mantelpiece in my bedroom). I read until I am sleepy, and then I go to sleep.

Right now I am reading Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. (Yes, I often have two books going.) Other recent books include Maggie O’Ferrell’s Hamnet (an extraordinary book about marriage and grief), Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, and a second reading of Primed to Perform, by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor.

Over the dark weeks of late July and early August, I plowed through the entire Detective D.D. Warren series by Lisa Gardner, followed by a dip into Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. Escapist? Indeed. And totally worth it.

This habit, reading before sleep, is one of the few behaviors that was firmly established long before the pandemic. It has been my gift to myself in the years since my children outgrew hearing me read to them at night. I wouldn’t trade one minute of Goodnight, Gorilla, Gregor the Overlander, or all the books in between, but I have loved reclaiming reading for myself.

Something that’s changed, kind of dramatically, in the past six months is that I also read news for about an hour first thing every morning instead of reading bits and pieces throughout the day, the way I used to do. I start with the newsletters (Heather Cox Richardson, Bill Murphy Jr., The Hustle, The Skimm) and the daily round-ups (NYT, WSJ, The Daily Memphian, The Commercial Appeal) before looking at Facebook and Twitter to see what friends and people I follow are reading.

All of the news I read, I read on a screen.

During the day to take breaks from work and walk the dogs, While I walk the dogs, I most often listen to a podcast. My favorites are The Daily and It’s Been a Minute.

Listening, of course, on my phone.

And in between morning screen reading and intermittent podcast listening? I’m on the computer, for email, Zoom calls, website management, and writing.

All of which has given me, in the past six months, a great appreciation for paper, for stillness, and for the sound of people’s voices, disconnected from any visual.

I’ve been thinking about all of these things – what I do, what I love, what I work for – against the stark case presented by The Social Dilemma.

Maybe you, too, have been thinking about such things. Maybe you’ve already disconnected, and these words will never reach you. But perhaps you, too, are still contemplating.

In this contemplation, speaking only for myself, what’s becoming clearer and clearer in my mind, even in the cacophony of 2020, is the difference between what I enjoy and what I cherish.

I cherish my paper planner, my journals, my letter-writing.

I cherish sitting on the porch doing absolutely nothing (like, not even reading a book).

I cherish being busy with my hands, whether they are writing or knitting or drawing or kneading marzipan.

I cherish ideas, abstract and messy.

And, in a surprising turn of events, I cherish the sounds of disembodied voices on a phone, hearing laughter and pauses and changes in tone, and imagining the expressions and gestures I can’t see. I cherish this mystery.

Above all, I cherish the many strange, wonderful, complicated, interesting, problematic people I love, near and far, scattered here and there. Some of you I wouldn’t see (or in some cases even know) were it not for the magic of technology. Thus is the mixed blessing of life, is it not?

And, of course, I cherish reading, even if it’s sometimes on a screen, with AI and trackers behind the wizard’s curtain.

On that note, to bring things back to the usual monthly routine, a few other things to add to your list:

A Garden Designed to Run Wild (an artist whose inspiration for her stationery comes from her garden – WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE HERE??)

On Witness and Respair, by Jesmyn Ward (one of the best essays of the year, this one)

The Profound Heroism of Chadwick Boseman

In Memoriam: Julia Evans Reed (“Make food that tastes good,” her mother said, because Southern mothers know what’s what when it comes to feeding people.)

Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted – It’s Why You Feel Awful

Speaking of which (replenishing ‘surge capacity,’ I mean…)

Makers Gonna Make

I’ve been making these quarantine houses (that I also sometimes call pandemic houses) since the spring. The idea that we’re all home-bound, feeling out of place, often alone with our memories and thoughts… that’s what these houses are about.

Still Cooking

Are there still tomatoes where you live? Excellent; you can still make this BLT tart.

The marzipan: Almond flour and powdered sugar, in a close to 1:1 ratio but with a bit more almond flour than sugar, bound together with almond extract (about a teaspoon per cup and a half each of almond flour and sugar), an egg white (if you’re not opposed to such a thing), and water. Mix in a food processor, roll into a log, and refrigerate. If you want, add the tiniest few drops of rosewater to the dough, but be very careful because rosewater is overpowering. Shape into shapes as you wish, or simply slice and eat (because marzipan is delicious).

A lemon ricotta cheesecake? Yes. I used almond flour for the crust, and I’d do the same again, except that I’ve now used all of the almond flour for marzipan (which I’m eating at a frightening pace).

Indian Butter Chicken (which I made in a Dutch oven, not a slow cooker)

Do you have “Pizza Friday” in your house, too? Well, then, perhaps you gave a thought to this long and laborious Cheesy Pan Pizza preparation, developed and tested in the King Arthur test kitchen. Or, perhaps you read that recipe, decided it looked like way too much work, and you set it aside. (Yes, ditto.) One night, though, I decided to take the usual pizza crust (Mark Bittman’s – works every time) and use an enameled cast iron skillet, cooking the dough briefly on the stovetop (like making naan) before assembling the pizza and baking. It was delicious, and very easy. The result is a floppy, foldable slice that drips and is messy (think: New York style), so be warned.

Last but not least

The coming weeks in the U.S. will be… trying. Now scroll back up and re-read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s simple Sunday prayer. I’m going to print it, tape it on the bathroom mirror, and do my best to love.

5 thoughts on “A few things: September 2020

  1. Just posted Nadia’s prayer before I even read this — great minds! And homemade marzipan? Yes, please, though I find myself forcing more utilitarian cooking. Like, what to do with all of those chicken breasts. Must back off if I’m to last until Jan. 20. xoxo

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