Lifelines in the Time of Coronavirus

Cari with coronavirus mask Midsummer 2020

After eight months of silence here in this Journal, during which our world has been turned upside down and we are often scrambling for ways to cope, I thought, at long last, I might venture a post here to share some of my lifelines with you, just in case they might be lifelines for you too. I’m tempted to look for silver linings in rough days, being a natural optimist, but this has been a lot. A lot. Apart from the pandemic quarantine and the fires and the election and the general malaise of depression among just about everyone, not to mention (not to mention?) death all around, there is the sheer crushing dailiness of just going on, through uncertainty and fear and loss.

I have been doing all the self-care things, the time-tested ones, and some new ones. I know how to eat and sleep on the regular which keeps my blood pressure up and not in the weeds the way it sometimes goes. I know how to do isometrics in bed to keep my hips strong when I can’t get out for walks because the air is too full of smoke or contagion. I’ve refreshed and rededicated my daily qigong practice, often by the creek in my backyard, but other times inside in a quiet corner.

So my lifelines have been, in no particular order: kittens, my writing workshop, my journal, my friendships and family, reading, beauty, saying the beads. and making masks for all of my beloveds.

Lifelines -Pandemic Fabric Masks

When we began to open up in May after six solid weeks of not going out, my anxiety level went through the roof about what my dear ones were risking. So I came out of the writing studio and went back into my sewing room to make masks with my old quilting scraps. My rule was to use what I had, but I had to buy ear loop material and filters on Etsy, glad to support small businesses. So that has been my crafting pleasure. It lets me access my handmind, that wonderful phrase by Ursula K. LeGuin (about halfway down that linked page). My poetic offering to go with the photo of my mask in use was:

This mask is my smile.
This mask is not for hiding my face. It is for showing my face in the world, in these times.
This mask gives me freedom to move in the world, in these times. It does not conceal, it reveals. It says, let us all be safe and well.
This mask says, I love you.

Lifelines_WritingDeskCut+Paste

I made a writing nook for myself at the start of the lockdown in my art studio, so I would have a quiet retreat space. I am lucky that I signed up for a 12-month writing workshop that began in January of this year. I was full of doubt as to whether I should do it at all, but I had studied writing with Ellen Sussman three times last year through Stanford Continuing Studies, and was impressed with her ability to coax and coach her writers to produce and finish their work. The agreement for the yearlong class was to write a new book, so I began one about when I lived in Iran during high school. I was about halfway through it when the pandemic arrived. I went to Ellen and said, Look, everything’s changed; I have to finish this other book, because if something happens to me and it’s not done, I will never forgive myself. So she let me switch projects midstream and pick up the rewrite of the book I drafted last year. It only worked because I knew I was going to have to do a deep restructuring and write a lot of new material, essentially looking at it in a whole new way. Between the class meetings on Zoom and the weekly café writing, also on Zoom (I would never actually go to write in a real café, but from the comfort of my own studio these mornings were gold), I managed to work steadily all year on this project. Writing became my sanctuary. I learned how to not beat myself up about all of its flaws, so that it could function as the safe space it needed to be for me.

I have just about got it knocked into a new shape now, with yet another new title. When the rewrite became snarled in my mind, I reverted to my old graphic artist’s way of cutting apart all my scene synopses and literally rearranging them on my desk. Ordinarily this space is occupied by the MacBook Air I bought on closeout at the beginning of quarantine, with the refund from the lodging I had to cancel for the March workshop meeting in the North Bay. That was a very good decision, to have a dedicated writing laptop without all the peripherals of my art business (scanner, printers, big screens) and be able to take it where I need to in order to write.

I have been better about subscribing to good writing instead of always trying to get it for free. This means active subscriptions to responsible journalism, as well as The Paris Review, where I love to follow the work of Sabrina Orah Mark, whose fairy tales are scarily relevant, plus all the great interviews with writers. I also love Laurie Doctor’s blog and the LitHub digest which offers up a daily potpourri of essays, book reviews and excerpts.  Heather Cox Richardson has kept me marginally sane during this hectic election season. I especially appreciate her generous helping of American history to go with her analysis of our current predicaments, along with her optimistic take on our resiliency, formed from that long view.

I am also lucky for the fact that I can actually focus on reading books for escape. My lifelong habit of fleeing from my various woes into the pages of a book is serving me well now. This year, for the first time since college days, I have kept a list of the books I have read. I will share some recommendations in the comments, if you are interested! but this is already shaping up to be a long post, so I will refrain here.

The kittens came to live with us in January and were well established by the time we entered lockdown. They are pure pleasure, and the best entertainment, much better than TV or almost anything else I can think of. My husband and I report to each other on their daily antics. The tabby is Tabitha (natch, and the daughter of a witch besides), and the grey and white one is Tybalt, prince of cats. If you can’t tell, they are siblings and came to us at about three months of age. They are much bigger now!

I have learned all over again the true value of friendship. Even from afar, it feeds me in such important ways. We are lucky to live in a time when we can connect in so many ways that our ancestors did not have, from a card in the mail to a Zoom conversation on our screens, and everything in between. I have been especially close to my little spiritual writing group, whose other two members live in Ireland and England and who I have never met in person, and to my oldest friend in the world who I have known since I was fourteen years old. Every month or two she and I have a marathon telephone conversation. Speaking it all aloud can be overwhelming, but she listens, and then she holds it and thereby takes some of the burden, reflecting it back to me with a loving lens.

Lifelines_2020 Journal

My journal also carries me through. In the interests of focusing on writing rather than handcraft, I no longer make my own journals  (you can see plenty that I created by following the “journal” tag), but I still enjoyed making a wrapper and a leather strap so I can secure my pen with it. Sometimes I pick up my densely written pages and wonder for a moment, where is the Search button? But I do love writing by hand and nothing will truly replace that. I confess that I write this online journal as much for myself as for any readers brave enough to wade through it. I refer back to it and use it for a touchstone through the years since I began it (2008!). Best of all, I can search it.

I read the tarot faithfully on every new and full moon. This year’s favorite deck is Tarot of the Spirit, which speaks often and piercingly to my work writing an old family story. This deck uses Father, Mother, Sister and Brother for its court cards, to great effect when I read for messages from and about the ancestors. I also like to add objects to the reading to make a little altar for the message and time of year. I keep a tarot journal of these readings and also like to look back. For example, the Tower card was in the center of my Winter Solstice reading last December, and prescient it was in both personal and global ways. Above is my reading for Beltane, at the Strawberry full moon. The symbols surrounding the Magus represent the four elements.

rose quartz rosary

Then there are the beads. I have not quite known how to explain that I am doing this now, and how I came to it is a story for another time. But saying the rosary has been a lifeline for me too. I don’t know why it works, but it is something like a mantra, or a meditation, and every now and then induces something like a trance state. Not always, but often enough. I feel held and I feel heard. I talk to the Mother about all of my problems, and feel connected to Goddess in a profound way. And as I say each bead I am connecting to my lost grandmother and all the generations before who spoke these prayers.

Jacaranda Tree purple beauty

Beauty and the natural world have become more important than ever, and I drink it in like a parched pilgrim. This jacaranda tree stopped me in my tracks on a walk in my neighborhood last June. And tending my herb garden gave me delight and medicine too, all the long summer, especially this echinacea plant.

Echinacea medicine flowers beauty

And then there is joy. Love likes to bloom in the middle of despair and dire straits, surprising us all with happiness. A midsummer wedding meant stitching something old to something new, making memories out of memories with my mother’s beaded bridal headband, to bedeck my daughter all these decades later. As I sewed I felt Mom’s happy dance from beyond the veil, in a manner of speaking, and sweetness through the generations.

A midsummer wedding something old

The fires in Northern California were terrifying, and for weeks we feared to go outside for the smoke in the air. I obsessively checked the Air Quality Index, becoming familiar with wind patterns and directions and looking for moments when I could venture out, based on a monitoring station I found close to our house. I’ve learned how to make lists of what to pack if we need to evacuate, although the chances of that have receded since fire season in California might be over. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you can’t take anything for granted anymore.

September 11 2020 Bay Area AQI

As futile as it felt, I was soothed during the many weeks of fires by lighting a candle in a bowl of water, praying for containment and cease. Too many friends were evacuated from their homes, and some have lost homes altogether in the last three years. This is really the worst news of all, affecting all of us even more than the rest of the bad news. Lives have changed, and will change because of this, the effects of global warming coming home to our own doorsteps.

Fire in Water Magic

Finally, I will share one of the most stirring videos I’ve seen in a long time, and one which speaks to all of our situations: using what we have, staying home, and some deep soul prayers. I love having this tune on loop in my mind throughout the day, so be aware, this is catchy, in a good way! Thank you, Bengsons!

If you have stayed with me through all the above, thank you. I hope you will have found something useful or helpful here. I wish you, and all of us, continued good health, good company, and good times as we keep going on. And singing, singing too!

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Bee Smith 11/20/2020, 11:33 am

    Oh, the Bengsons! Bless them! That song and Spirit Bird by Xavier Rudd have buoyed my spirits through cocoon and shield. Thank you for sharing your lifelines. Sewing masks with scraps, knitting, writing, reading ( my Lockdown love is Darren McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist) and walks within our allowed zone, cookie baking all featured, and still do, in Lockdown 2.

    • Cari 11/20/2020, 12:32 pm

      Thanks for adding your lifelines here, Bee. Hope others will feel encouraged to do the same. I’m always open to a new helpful thing to add to my basket of hope and cope. There are days when I can’t remember *any* of these, so this was helpful for me to make this catalog.

  • Carol Pallesen 11/20/2020, 1:39 pm

    Hi Cari,
    So much to comment on!
    •Glad you were safe in the fires: even though it was hard to breathe, your home didn’t burn.
    •Loved “The Keep Going Song”: what wonderful voices and spirits they have!!
    •Enjoy your writing class! I too enjoy reading and escaping. Two books I’ve read recently are great (neat stories & characters and superb writing): One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow (Hawker) and The Last Bus to Wisdom (Doig).
    I didn’t see what your recommendations were.
    •What cute kitties: Tabitha and Tybalt.
    •Your piece in the ♥️ to ♥️ calendar is beautiful!
    •Take care. Stay safe. Happy (this year’s unique) Thanksgiving!
    Love, Carol

    • Cari 11/20/2020, 2:43 pm

      Hi Carol, yes, it was a lot to squeeze in, 2/3 of a year. Thanks for the nudge, I will put a few of my books in the next comment. Your books sound good too! I loved the simplicity and elegance of your calligraphy in the calendar for next year – I can always pick it out at first perusal.

  • Cari 11/20/2020, 2:56 pm

    Ok, I’ve been nudged, so here are a few of my best reads/listens in the last year (and yes, I include audiobooks):

    My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout. SO good. Listened on audiobook and then got the Kindle to follow along and make highlights (why I love ebooks, for I will never again mark up a physical book).
    Wild Game, Adrienne Brodeur. A memoir I found so impressive.
    Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I listened to this one at the suggestion of the author above (in an interview) and was enchanted by her voice and her language. Absolutely superb.
    Writing Past Dark, Bonnie Friedman. A new issue of an older writing book, about the emotional challenges of writing. Very useful and vividly written.
    Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel’s memoir. Gorgeously written and very engrossing.
    The Book of V, Anna Solomon. Three women’s voices telling the story of the biblical Esther, I enjoyed it very much and didn’t want it to end.
    The Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin. An audiobook read by Rob Inglis, just breathtakingly beautiful language.

    These are just a few of the books I read this year. Several others were straight up research for my own book, and I’m keeping a separate bibliography for those.

  • Susan Flynn 11/20/2020, 4:59 pm

    Cari, this is a lovely heartfelt post, so sweet and magical – sweet because it is full of the things you love and did to get you through this year, magical because of all the quiet things that kept you grounded and sane. I loved reading this. I am following the story of you writing and rewriting this new book, and how your writing journey has gone this year. I am still working, so I can’t write as much as I would like yet. I am keeping a journal, following this pandemic and the changes it makes around me each day. I was the recipient of lovely masks made by my sister for us, which we love wearing. I love what you say about wearing a mask, too – “I love you”. Yes. I am thinking of rosary beads, strangely enough, though I have never used them. The idea of being able to pick words and give gratitude, or worry, or whatever, to Goddess, through this, appeals now. Yours are lovely. Thank you so much for sharing this post with us all – and the list of books you read! So glad you are ok, and so very sad for all the things lost in the fires this year.

    • Cari 11/20/2020, 8:35 pm

      Susan, I am touched by your close reading of my post. The friendship I can feel toward one I have never met in person continues to amaze me, and you are one. As for writing, you know I had to put aside my art business almost entirely to devote myself seriously to writing. It really is such an immersion and is pretty much full-time for me. Keep on keeping on with your journal. Mine have been a real trove of material for me, so good on you for being faithful to it. It’s a good tool. You have expressed interest in the books I read for research, and it is a long list. The most interesting one I read this year was Dancers in the Dark, by Dorothy Speare, written in 1922. I often find out of print books like this on the Internet Archive. Half my book is set in the 1920s, so this kind of book is primary source material for me.

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