Essentials

So I’m thinking a lot about work these days. About what is essential and what is unnecessary, and how this pandemic has illuminated nothing so much as the absurdity of our economy, where the ones who do what most needs doing are the ones whose value is least acknowledged, least rewarded.

Most anonymous. Most invisible.

And I’m not the first to say so, far from it, nor the first to note that the ones calling for us to get ourselves back to work are the ones least essential of all. I would say that the current occupant of the oval office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is perhaps the least essential person who has ever settled his arse behind that Resolute desk.

Meanwhile.

My antidote to the daily news is homeopathic: I’m spending my nights re-reading Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe. Because if I’m going to dance with darkness, I’m going to turn that music up loud.

What’s on your nightstand right now? What feels essential to you?

The Long Now of Not Knowing

There are rainbows on the windows and walls of the local businesses in my little town, painted and chalked and pasted up with construction paper, a show of solidarity in a community not known for such a thing. It feels sweet and a little tentative, the town speaking with a waver in its voice, trying on new words: Us. Together.

Two of the local cafes — a sandwich shop and a Mediterranean place — have stayed open for curbside service, but traffic is thin now as we reach the end of our fourth week of stay-at-home, and I don’t see either of them sticking it out much longer. It’s hard to know what choice to make, when every option seems to put someone or something at risk.

Spring is especially lovely this year, with all the flowering trees and tulips and phlox and lilac. I go outside daily, sometimes only as far as the edge of my own yard, but from there I can see the redbud and cherry blossoms in yards up and down the street, the dogwood just now coming into bloom, azaleas waiting in the wings. We’re living — all of us everywhere, it seems — in the long now of not-knowing, but we’re also immersed in the seasonal expression of a world turning in all the familiar ways. We can look around and say, “Oh, this is where we are. We’re been here before.”

It feels like everything is different this time around, but not everything is different. The bumblebees are still hanging around my back door. The bamboo is sprouting everywhere. The birds are up at five a.m., singing.

A Billion Bits of Randomness

On a Saturday night a little over a week ago a tornado touched down about a mile from my house. It took out a small barn, a few roofs and fences. It brought down tree limbs and a couple entire trees. No one was seriously injured, but it made a mess of my neighborhood.

As tornadoes go it wasn’t particularly fierce, but all tornadoes are terrifying, and when one comes to your town the recommended place to be is in the cellar. My cellar is a scary one, I’ve written about it before, but it’s not as scary as a tornado, and we are not fools, so down we went.

We sat on the stairs, my kid and I, and the air was cool and smelled of damp red clay earth, and it was not exactly comfortable but not quite awful. And then the lights flickered once, twice, and went out, and we were left in the pitch darkness amid the sound of a billion bits of randomness hitting our house from all sides.

So that was fun. And, you know, quite the metaphor.

In other news, I’ve learned how to sew a facemask.

Speaking of a billion bits of randomness hitting the house from all sides, I’m trying to stay reasonably well-informed — how else would I know how to sew a facemask? — but nearly all of the news right now comes with a flaming dumpster full of Trump, which is so hard to abide. So I’m grateful for newsletters that show up in my inbox. I get quite a few. This one is particularly good.

Ramen

Are we cooking a little more than usual these days? This morning as I scribbled in my journal, instead of asking myself that perennial question I can never seem to answer once and for all (“What do you want to do with your one precious life?”) I asked something a little less anxiety provoking: what would feel good right now? And what a surprise when what came to mind was a sunlit kitchen with a big work table piled with vegetables and a six-burner gas range that could accommodate full-size sheet pans.

The whole thing felt so idyllic that it occurred to me I’ve finally — perhaps? — recovered from kitchen burnout.

Truth: I had a catering job lined up for May and when it got cancelled I was actually sad.

My own kitchen, while nicely sunlit, is too small for a work table — we make do with a few square feet of countertop and a rolling cart — and the six-burner range would need its own addition, but we’ve been eating well even when we’re eating ramen. Which is a nice thing to eat when you’re following stay-at-home orders, in part because it’s broth and noodles and that means comfort, and also because it’s a big mixed bowl of all the wonderful things, so you have to pay attention to it as you eat it.

We take our mindfulness where we can. What are you paying attention to right now?

 

Idle

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

~ Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing

Let’s be idle, shall we? Surely we’ve earned it. Three hundred years of capitalism has worn out the social fabric, all of us with holes in the knees of our jeans, and here you thought you were making a fashion statement, silly rabbit.

A few months ago I closed my pay-what-you-can café and went off to manage a fancy coffee bar. Now I’m on forced hiatus, like most of my fellow food-and-beverage folk, not exactly laid off but not exactly employed. Unsure of what’s ahead. Like most of us.

For the first two weeks I was seduced by productivity porn, but I’m over it. I’m even shucking off the soft-core variety that assures me it’s okay to not know what to do, okay to give myself the time I need to process — I’m done with the processing, too, done with the implication that once I’m done with all the processing I’ll be ready for more productivity. 

I want to rest. Don’t you? I want the world to rest. I want us to stop wondering when things will get back to normal (asdf: I think that ship has sailed) and why would we want to go back to that, anyway? Don’t we remember how awful it was?

I remember.

Recommended reading: Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle, because I think we could all use a refresher course. You can check it out for free from Open Library, or buy it from an indie.

What Idiots We Are

Peter Gray on the academic kindergarten:

Race to the Top; what a horrid metaphor for education. A race? Everyone is on the same track, seeing how fast they can go? Racing toward what? The top? The top of what? Education is not a race, it’s an amble. Real education only occurs when everyone is ambling along their own path. We are bringing the worst values and attitudes of our culture to bear on our image of education. What idiots we are.

And from the teachers forced to bring academic curriculum into their kindergarten classrooms:

We see many of our Kindergartners struggle with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read. … It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, “I don’t know how to read, I hate reading, I hate school, I am not good at anything.”

Read the entire article here.

Snow Day

My friends in Buffalo roll their eyes at how little it takes for us in the Ohio River Valley to call a snow day. A bit of ice on the roads, some flocking on the trees. This morning I looked out the window and said, “Oh, look how pretty.” And took a snow day.

It’s one of the perks of running your own shop: you can choose to stay home if you want. Which sounds lovely until you understand that not going to work means no income that day. So you choose with care.

I sent the usual notices by social media and email, but those don’t catch everybody, and some may arrive at my little café and find the doors locked. I’ve been telling them for months to reserve before they come. Send me a text, I say. Call me. Do they do it? Not always. Not everyone. I forgive them. Will they forgive me? ¿Quién sabe? 

Seth Godin says when we’re considering whether our work has value, the question to ask is, would anyone miss it if we stopped doing it?

A few missed me today. I’ve got their texts, their social media comments. So my work has value. Good to know. Sometimes you gotta take a day, right? As a friend used to say, how can they miss you if you never leave?

Bugs

The fleas are tenacious this year. The youngest cat in the household has an allergy to flea bites and he has been miserable with them, but no one’s having an easy time of it. Standard treatments become ineffective as generation after generation of ever-hardier bugs develop resistance to drops, collars, and oral treatments. We’re all scrubbing our floors and upholstery with Dawn dish-washing liquid and hoping for the best.

In her book Deep Creek author Pam Houston writes about the decimation of the western forests by the pine beetle in the 90’s and the spruce bark beetle in the ’00’s, leaving entire mountainsides covered with standing kindling just waiting for a bolt of lightning or an untended campfire. And just this morning I saw this article in the NY Times about antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are transforming what was once a vexing but easily treated infection into something life-threatening.

Here’s my takeaway: it won’t be fire or ice that does us in. It won’t be nukes, it won’t be an asteroid. It’s going to be the bugs.

Where Creativity Might Live

It may be the case that expensive cities are killing creativity, but I suspect the real culprit is the belief that you have to live in a certain sort of place in order to create.

If you want to have time to make your art, it helps to live somewhere that offers low overhead. Cheap rent, or — imagine it! — an affordable mortgage, in a place that’s reasonably well-tended and feels safe. Because chances are it isn’t the city that’s killing your creativity, it’s the amount of money it costs to live there and the amount of time you have to spend acquiring that money. Scarcity — insufficient time, inadequate funds — is the real creativity-killer.

Maybe going home to your “dying” hometown — or some reasonable facsimile thereof — will serve your creativity in ways you can’t imagine from where you are right now.