Calm, Cool, and Creative

Pandemic. Social distancing. Restaurants and bars shuttered. Cultural institutions and libraries closed. Economic crisis. Political dysfunction. Sickness and death. Uncertainty. Shelter in place. Isolation. Time. Oh my god, it is bonkers, and there are hours and hours of extra time to allow my anxiety to overwhelm me and surrender my spirit to despair and loneliness. And Netflix. And biting my cuticles bloody and freaking the fuck out.

Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out through the mouth.

I refuse to give myself over to loneliness in this time of quarantine, because I am finally starting to crack the code for living alone in peace. Besides, I am not alone. I have my dogs, the internet, and a cell phone with unlimited usage. I’ve already had countless text conversations with my mom, sister, and several friends. I’ve enjoyed lengthy telephone calls with my daughter Savannah in Chicago and my friend Sandra in Springfield. I had a scheduled video chat with my friend Bridgett in Olney, who doubles as my writing coach. All of these “social distance” interactions with beloved people in my life brought laughter, wisdom, and brilliant inspiration.

Deep Sigh regarding Netflix, though, because it is tempting to settle down in front of it and binge watch for days and days. I will not waste time watching Netflix. I refuse to give myself over to Netflix. Ok, so here’s my plan: I will allow Netflix to provide limited, curated therapy. Because if I’m honest, all the news about infection rates and death tolls, economic losses and news about people who are losing their livelihoods, and the daily buffoonage from the White House will make me crazy. The kind of crazy that yoga or meditation or contemplative walking cannot soothe, let alone undo. That’s the kind of crazy that requires me to get out of my own head. That’s the kind of crazy I usually combat by hanging out with friends in a cozy, noisy pub or cheering for a team during a televised sporting event. Netflix will have to step up and be the pub or the basketball game. Periodic episodes of Schitt$ Creek will lighten my mood on rainy days when I cannot work in my yard or go for a long walk. Father Brown’s singular concern for the souls of murderers will make me believe, at least for an hour, that all humans can be cast in their own tales of redemption. And when I think the entire world is going to hell in a hand-basket, I’ll watch a few episodes of the Great British Baking Show and remind myself that healthy competition is, indeed, possible, and you do not have to kill everyone around you or step on people to win at cake, politics, or life.

I am lucky. I am grateful. I have worked from home as a scholarly editor for eight years, so I don’t have to figure it out or patch it together like so many people now are scrambling to do. My job relies on NEH funding, which makes me nervous. But for now, it is secure, my paychecks are coming, and I do not have to worry about food or shelter or paying my bills. My daily life will not change all that much, and I will continue to do work that challenges my mind and makes my heart sing. I am going to continue my yoga and meditation routine, and I intend to be restful and calm during this isolation. Instead of seeing this predicament as forced isolation, let’s say we are hibernating. We are bears, cute and cuddly and warm in our homes, resting up for all the living we will do when humanity finally kicks this pandemic’s ass.

With a little help from my human, furry, and television friends, I will be calm and keep my cool. In the space of that quiet solitude, that beautiful serenity in my lovely new home, I vow not only to stay calm and keep my cool but to also make the most of my time. To cook. To draw and to color. To freestyle my yoga practice. To read half a dozen books and make a worthy effort to catch up on the New Yorker. But most importantly to write. Hours and hours and hours of extra writing. I will keep writing in my daily journal as well as blog and work on the revisions of my memoir. I am going to spend so much glorious time at my computer writing that my aging knuckles will get sticky.

Last week in the Washington Post I read an interesting story about Isaac Newton. During the Bubonic Plague of the 1660s, Newton’s college closed, forcing him home to his family’s estate. While at home, he wrote a paper about some math he was working on (math that became calculus); and he sat under that famous apple tree. I will do nothing so important as inventing calculus or defining gravity in my isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. None of the trees in my yard produce anything big enough to knock brilliance into my head. However, like Newton I’m going to be creatively productive in my isolation. I’m going to engage my brain. I’m going to see all this extra me-time as a gift and do my amateur best to make the most of it.

I’ve already made scones and homemade granola and expended a lot of nervous energy doing “art.” Living well, especially under duress, is about the process and the journey. I’m not a chef or an artist, but I enjoy cooking; and drawing, I very recently learned, is a scary challenge that makes me smile like a fearless six-year-old on the monkeybars.

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Meaning in Molasses

There is a meditative peacefulness in observing the rich and lovely darkness of molasses, meandering across the lip of a glass bottle and flowing in a quiet cascade of sugary goodness into a measuring cup. The pouring of the syrup and the anticipation of its luscious sweetness offers a philosophical opportunity for the baker, which the mindless, crude scooping of white granulated sugar could never provide. The very viscosity of molasses, stretching slowly through space, settles the mind upon the simple beauty of a humble ingredient. Such present-minded pouring not only joyfully stimulates the taste buds, but the patience it requires also alights the deliciousness of gratitude upon the heart.

One does not wake up on a Saturday morning determined to find meaning in molasses. Philosophers and poets may naturally see the value in the ordinary, but for flawed, grieving, self-pitying mortals like me, it requires effort. I am deliberately determined to be more present in the daily routine of my life, but my effort is a practice, and it is oh so very far from perfect. Sometimes, however, almost like magic, I reap the sweet benefit of mindfulness and find quiet beauty, simple joy, and meaning in the mundane. It was just such a magical moment for me a couple of Saturdays ago, when feeling brave and ambitious, I washed and made tidy my kitchen pantry.

Cleaning out a kitchen pantry is an unpleasant chore, offering me nothing but a fleeting sense of satisfaction in exquisite organization destined for almost immediate destruction. For this reason, it is a chore I procrastinate; and because it is a chore I procrastinate, it is always a chore which sorely tests the limits of my extremely weak stomach. This particular cleaning required the chiseling away of encrusted residue of marshmallow cream and the wiping clean of two sticky pools of unidentifiable substances, creeping like monsters born in primordial ooze. Not only did the task of cleaning the pantry make me nauseous, but expired specialty items, like three cans of sweetened condensed milk, purchased for recipes long forgotten, stared at me like abandoned puppy dogs. As well, novelty ingredients such as a tin of anchovies packed in oil and a petite pot of peri-peri spice, purchased in the name of broadened cooking horizons, mocked my good intentions.

After washing my hands and calming my sick stomach, I gazed upon my trash bin and two paper grocery bags heaping full of wasted food and good money thrown away, and I withered. In the sight of so many casualties, a breathtaking first-world carnage, the only assessment was my exquisite failure. In that mood, I could not smile at an orderly cabinet, now glistening with washed glass bottles of cooking oils and vinegars and sanitized canisters and cans, lined up like ready soldiers. But then I remembered why I had tackled my long-neglected disaster of the pantry in the first place.

The Friday evening before, I had a telephone conversation with a friend, and we briefly talked about my intentions to halt all conspicuous consumption and to focus on spending good time instead of good money. She said that when she was on her year-long sabbatical in 2017, she conserved money by pulling out forgotten products from the backs of cabinets. She said, “you wouldn’t believe how much perfectly good stuff I had that I had completely lost track of and yet had continually been replacing.” As we talked, I stood in the kitchen and inspected my pantry, brimming full of items I had forgotten. Our conversation inspired the great pantry purge the following day.

When the pantry cleaning was complete and I had remembered the intended purpose of the task, I looked past the wasted items in the trash bin. I focused my attention instead on the beautifully organized pantry. My pantry may have been a mess of forgotten stuff before, but now it was a pantry full of perfectly good stuff I now knew I had. And among the perfectly good stuff was some perfectly wonderful stuff, too, like a tall jar of long forgotten, but unexpired molasses. “Duh,” Mack whispered in my head. “Sugar never expires.”

Molasses is an ingredient I always enjoyed incorporating into holiday baking with my girls, who loved gingerbread and gooey molasses cookies sharp with ginger. I decided to celebrate my clean pantry and the memories of happy Christmases past that the found molasses had spurred within me. I spent the next half hour or so reading recipes and examining other ingredients I had, looking for a recipe that would not require the purchase of anything new. I settled on a cake. In my pantry-purge cake, the molasses would be the star in tasty concert with a half-cup of golden raisins and three pink-lady apples just starting to soften and wrinkle in the back of my refrigerator’s fruit bin. The cake would be an homage to taking better stock of what I have, a ginger-strong nod to happy memories, and an ode to simple pleasures like molasses.

From the moment I poured the molasses into the measuring cup, I let the delicious syrup work its meditative magic. Never before had I employed such a satisfying and deliberate mindfulness in the making of a cake. When I pushed the cake tin full of the brown spicy batter into the oven, I could account for every minute I had spent in preparation. It is weird to realize how much daily life goes by for which we can make no accounting whatever. But it is also delightful to learn that you are capable of spending precious time living fully in a moment, even if what you are doing is baking a simple molasses cake.

My mindfulness that Saturday afternoon produced a cheerful glow in my attitude and a philosophical curiosity about how and why the hell I was finding meaning in molasses. The cake was pretty good, too. It was moist and warm with spice, and the light dusting of powdered sugar elevated the caramel depths of the molasses in no need of the cloying cream-cheese frosting I astutely edited from the recipe.

Busy and frustrated people might employ the old-fashioned phrase “slow as molasses in January” to express annoyance that another person in their way is going about some task with an insufficient amount of haste. But I think the expression merits a different meaning. To be “slow as molasses in January” is to be patient, to let life come to you at its own pace, and to be present for even the most humble of life’s experiences. It means that to full-stop it, to live in the moment, is to see value in the humble and beauty in the mundane.

Molasses might not be the metaphor for mindfulness, but on one Saturday in January it was mine. Letting this mindfulness in molasses happen was a victory. Because in my bumbling and stumbling journey forward through life, my human legs have often been running far faster than mindfulness allows, and I have missed far too much of the experience. If I slow it down like molasses in January, I know I will see much more of life’s interesting and beautiful terrain.

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