Wednesday, March 25, 2020

From Thy Bounty

A text just informed me that Victoria, my Instacart shopper, has begun shopping. I don’t know Victoria, but I’m grateful for her. I wonder how crowded Costco is today and whether people are maintaining social distance. I wonder if Victoria is scared and would rather stay home. Another text comes in. Victoria just substituted Colby-jack for my Havarti, okay? I reply in a direct message to Victoria: Thank you for doing my shopping. I really appreciate it. My pleasure, she replies.

Because I know Victoria’s name, I think of her as she collects my groceries. Knowing that a real person is selecting the items on my list makes me glad I resisted the temptation to overbuy. I hope Victoria has what her family needs during this time. I imagine her entering the produce walk-in and placing in my cart the carrots and broccoli and mushrooms that a hardworking Costco employee restocked overnight. I will never know the names of those who stock the shelves or unload the trucks. Are they getting enough sleep? Working double shifts to cover for colleagues who cannot or will not work? I think about provenance of my cheese and peanut butter, tracing back link by link: the truckdrivers, away from their own families; the folks who loaded those trucks; the factory workers and farm laborers—all of them working together in a long-distance relay that in the end brings food to my family. 

This morning a Facebook friend shared a video of how to sanitize groceries that might be carrying coronavirus. The doctor wasn’t suited up in protective gear—he simply sprayed household cleaner on a paper towel until saturated, then went about wiping down. Also making the rounds on social media these days is a scene from Scrubs showing how germs spread from person to person via handshakes, tissues, and touch. This pandemic is helping us comprehend the invisible—for better and for worse.

My phone buzzes. Victoria just left my Costco box on the front porch. I text back a thank you and as I hit send, I also pray for Victoria to be kept healthy and safe. When I finish writing, I will bring my grocery items in a package at a time, wiping down and putting away. And as I do so, I will consider the ease with which I did my week’s shopping: a dozen clicks, a credit card number, and the patience to wait a week for delivery because Instacart was so backed up. I will also give thanks for the many fingerprints on this bounty we have received. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Harder for a Rich Man

Today marks day eight of staying home. I take a walk nearly every day, grade papers, bake something nice, clean out a drawer, check in with family and friends. I placed my first Insta-cart order, which is a lovely option if you have a credit card and lots of patience.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash
Ten days, two weeks, three weeks ago, I didn’t panic shop. I spent my regular grocery budget on regular-sized weekly shopping trips, though I did buy an extra tub of dishwasher detergent and extra hand soap. A couple of extra cans of refried beans. I read in the news and our community Facebook group about bare shelves in the toilet paper aisle, and I had my own private tug-of-war over whether to panic buy or stay on budget. About ten days ago, the panicky me pulled out my credit card and made an early morning trip to the grocery store. I spent my regular weekly amount, but I shopped a week ahead of the coming paycheck. The next day, our governor closed the schools and the shopping locusts swarmed.

In my community page on Facebook, there are now several posts a day reporting which store does or doesn’t have toilet paper. A few days ago, an employee from one of those stores posted a request that people not announce when TP is back in stock, please, because then people rush in and buy everything in a short time. One woman rejoiced that she’d come into the store just as they were stocking the shelves and she’d scored a case of toilet paper. 

On that same community Facebook group, a young mother posted that she’d finally gotten paid and had gone to get much-needed groceries, but the shelves were bare and she wasn’t able to get much. Another woman posted that she, too, had waited for a paycheck before shopping: she’d needed formula and wipes, but there were none to be had. Replies came almost immediately with recommendations to check with this or that charity, even offers from individuals saying they had extra and could drop off or leave items out on their porch for pick up. 

That kind of community spirit initially makes you feel like we’re really rallying and helping one another. But when you think a little harder, you realize that the folks like me with the credit card and the cupboard space were essentially snatching groceries away from those who had to wait until payday. 

My daughter Ashley is a senior at University of New Mexico, living off campus and finishing the semester online. Her boyfriend of three and a half years is an ER paramedic. One of her roommates is a nurse. Their household of four is down to their last four or five rolls of toilet paper, Ashley told me last night. They usually wouldn’t think about getting more until they were down to two rolls, but she’s probably going to walk to the store on Tuesday or Wednesday in hopes of finding TP and disinfectant. They have no stockpile because they have no extra space. 

If you’re still going to the grocery store these days, please remember that there’s someone coming in behind you who just got paid. Think of the college student walking to the store for disinfectant because her boyfriend needs the car to get to and from his twelve-hour shifts at the emergency room. 
Photo by Ozgu Ozden on Unsplash

When you see the last three bottles of painkiller on the shelf and you’d intended to buy just one—do you go ahead and grab all three because there might not be more tomorrow or at least you’ll have them share when someone you know runs out? I’m speaking to myself now even as I’m speaking to you. Leave the bottles on the shelf. Buy one if you have to, but don’t buy all that remains. Leave some for the next person and trust that they, too, will take only what they need. 

All of us can shop with dignity. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Stay Home, Stay Healthy

Last night at a televised news conference here in Oregon, Governor Brown, Mayor Wheeler, and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafourey announced that they will be working through the weekend to fine-tune a “shelter in place” order for Monday. Rather than calling the order “Shelter in Place,” which is what schoolchildren are taught to do when there’s an active shooter, Governor Brown will instruct us to “Stay home, Stay healthy.” On
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Monday, non-essential businesses in Oregon that haven’t yet shut will be urged, or perhaps ordered, to do so. After nearly thirty years of refusing to give Todd a haircut at home, I’m going to have to cave. And he’s going to have to live with the results. Giving in to a home haircut is more silly than sacrifice, but still. Life has changed already. 

On yesterday morning’s walk, I passed by a man loading a painter’s ladder into the back of his truck, presumably readying himself for a day’s work. When I was right at the end of his driveway, he coughed a hearty series of coughs. He did not cough into his elbow or into a tissue, and I picked up my pace and wondered whether, on a breezy day, our social distance should be greater than six feet. I also felt the kind of irritation and slight fear rise in my heart that could, after weeks of stress and Stay home, Stay healthy, easily boil over into words of confrontation … or worse. 

Later in the day I looked out my front window and saw three teenagers out for a walk together with bandanas drawn over their mouths, Wild West style. Bandanas and scarves and homemade facemasks got a lot of play online yesterday. We learned that we can sew fabric masks at home and that hospitals are asking folks to do so. Fabric masks can be sterilized in hospital washers and reused. I saw several patterns (including one with fabric ties instead of elastic). I know from social media that many, many friends have set up their sewing machines and dug through their quilting supplies for densely woven cotton. When I folded and put away my kitchen towels this morning, I noticed my fabric napkins there in the bottom of the linen drawer. They’re high quality 100% cotton. I closed the drawer with thoughts of Maria Von Trapp and doing my bit. Not yet, but maybe soon. We can’t make nitrile gloves at home, but yes, there are things we can do to help. 

During this first week of isolation, I’ve been watching our weather forecast. We’ve had beautiful spring days, and early in the week I moved furniture out on the deck to expand the footprint of our home and give us some extra space. I’m watching the forecast because we expect rain, starting Monday. Each morning I check my little weather calendar widget, and each morning I see fewer days of sun standing between now and the coming rain. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

In a Changing World

Exactly a week ago, I called my daughter Jessica, a first-semester senior at Salem State University (for you Oregonians, that’s Salem, Massachusetts). I caught her just as she was coming out of class, so we chatted as she made her way across campus to drop her books off at the dorm, and we kept talking as she walked the mile or so to an old historic neighborhood she loves. We talked about coronavirus, of course, and about the growing sadness Jessica felt at the possibility that spring semester might not continue on campus. 

“These beautiful old houses,” my daughter Jessica said, describing the neighborhood to me. “One hundred years old at least. They saw the Spanish Flu for sure.” 

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
She asked me if I remembered the poem she’d recited for Poetry Out Loud her senior year: “September, 1918.” A poem written by Amy Lowell in another Boston area town, Brookline, who wrote of a stunning fall day when the world was at war and the future uncertain. 

I did remember—but faintly. 

“Here Mom,” Jessica said. “I still remember all of it. This afternoon was the color of water falling through sunlight / The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves When she got to the last three lines, I had to take off my glasses and swipe my eyes with my sleeve. 

Jessa is studying public history. Her senior year in high school, she wrote and directed a one-act play set in December, 1917. Five teenagers “somewhere in rural America” trudge through snowstorm to their one-room schoolhouse, only to realize their teacher isn’t coming and the storm has worsened, trapping them in the schoolhouse. They start a fire in the potbelly stove and wait out the storm. The teenagers make paper snowflakes and write letters to a former classmate who is away in the trenches. They speak of rolling bandages and whether or not to enlist the minute they turn eighteen. 

This is from the director’s note:

Imagine what it would have been like to be a teenager exactly one hundred years ago. Adolescence in itself is such an in-between time. Imagine being a kid who’s not quite a kid anymore, expected to make adult decisions in a changing world. 

Jessica Harris

On Sunday Jessa drove up to New Hampshire with her closest friends to spend the first part of Spring Break in a cabin owned by one of the kids’ relatives. Monday she called to let me know that the university was putting all classes online and clearing kids out of the dorms. She’d already sent an email asking to stay on campus since she’s from out of state. Or she could couch surf. Or stay with a friend in their parents’ basement. Or she could come home—if domestic travel remains an option.

She sounded okay, not panicked or frightened. I told her to enjoy this time with her friends—if she could. They were sad, she said, but enjoying each other. “This will probably be the last time we’re all together until fall …” her voice trailed off. If even then floated unsaid between us. 

Then, “Oh, Mom! It’s so dark here at night. Last night I saw the Milky Way!” They all lay on their backs and watched the stars until the night became too cold, and only Jessica was left. She stayed out alone, taking in the night. “So beautiful,” Jessa remembered, her voice full and steady. “I even saw a falling star.” 

They left the cabin Wednesday. The university has assigned staggered move-out times—Jessica’s is Saturday. She’s staying with a friend’s parents, not sure what’s next. The university will tell her by tonight whether her petition to stay in the dorms is approved. Flying home remains an option—a last resort, really. She’s worried that she might be a vector, that she’ll bring all her germs and everyone else’s with her. (I’m worried she might get sick, despite her youth.) Couch surfing, she observes, would spread germs from house to house—not to mention the added stress for host and guest alike. A dorm room on an empty campus seems to her the best way to isolate herself. She’ll have steady WiFi to finish her online courses. She can prepare her own simple meals. 

Jessica says her decision to remain on the East Coast feels weighty. If vulnerable family members get sick and die, if domestic travel shuts down, if this crisis stretches on and on … 

I can’t finish that sentence. I have to simply let the if hang without a corresponding then. I can’t think of the future, so I think of the past. I remember the teenager with such a passion for making history human and relatable. When she welcomed the audience to the school’s assembly hall and introduced her one-act play, Jessica asked us all to imagine what it would have been like one hundred years ago to be a kid who’s not quite a kid anymore, expected to make adult decisions in a changing world.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

March 19, 2020

Yesterday morning I slept until 8:30, far beyond my usual 4:30 or 5:00 natural rising time. And I woke with a dry cough. I really did. But once I was upright, symptoms receded to just the sore throat (which is gone today). My slight symptoms yesterday were enough to keep me six feet away from the folks I passed during my morning walk on a beautiful spring day framed by blue skies and scattered with daffodils.

There were fewer cars on the road, but plenty of dog-walkers and bikers and pedestrians to say hello to as they passed on the opposite side of the street. As I walked, I listened to a history podcast about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” epidemic, which my grandparents lived through as teenagers. My maternal grandmother, thirteen at the time, tended the ill but didn’t get sick herself. They called her a carrier my mother now tells me. Why have I never heard these stories until now? Maybe takes a pandemic to resurrect the oral history of another pandemic. Mom calls nearly every day now. She passes down her own mother’s memory of watching from the upstairs window as the dead bodies of her neighbors were carried out and loaded into wagons. 

In the spring of 1918, the first Americans who came down with the flu had only mild symptoms, and most recovered quickly. By fall the flu bug had somehow grown stronger and not only were people getting sicker—they were dying of influenza. Hospitals were filled to capacity and still the number of sick increased. Local health boards, desperate to stop the spread of the illness, outlawed public spitting and the shared drinking cups set out at public fountains. Private homes were converted into temporary hospitals. More illnesses and deaths. Health boards adopted increasingly stringent measures—some communities staggered work and shopping hours. Tents were erected to serve as emergency hospitals. Public gatherings were banned. Local authorities closed bars and theatres—then schools and churches. Some communities required anyone appearing in public to wear gauze masks and, as a last resort, citizens were confined to their homes. Historian Nancy Bristow says that where more extreme measures, such as distancing and quarantining, were adopted early in the wave of illness, the death rate was substantially lower. 

In a way, I feel like COVID-19 is drawing me closer to past generations who knew suffering and uncertainty and restriction. I think of the similarities and differences between us. I have not sent a son off to war, but I have two daughters who are seniors in college far away from us and probably staying (in Albuquerque and Boston) for the coming weeks and months, whatever may come. When my kids here at home planted spinach and lettuce seeds a few days ago, I thought of victory gardens.

After I’d been back from yesterday’s walk for about an hour, I heard my cellphone buzz. My son-in-law had texted me from downstairs where he and my eldest daughter live in what we call the “basement apartment.” Both of them have mild cold symptoms, his text said, including a headache (for her) and shortness of breath (for him). No fever for either of them. Should they quarantine?

I said yes. Email your doctors and let me know what supplies to send down. (The requested list of provisions included a frisbee, lest you worry.)

It feels like overreacting. Like we’re being silly. Then I remember what Nancy Bristow said on the podcast—that early adopters of extreme measures during the 1918 pandemic had significantly fewer dead bodies carried out of homes and carted away. 

In my afternoon research, when I wasn’t refreshing my coronavirus news feed, I read more about the 1918 influenza in Oregon. I came across an image of temporary hospital beds at the Salem fairgrounds, rows and rows of them, waiting to be placed in a tent hospital. Only this image was not from one hundred years ago. The image was taken yesterday at the Salem fairgrounds where a temporary hospital is being constructed to house 250 beds. Forty miles north of Salem, my small-town hospital has already erected a tent for triage. Like this is really happening. Like we’ve seen the lightning but haven’t yet felt the thunder’s crash.