“I’ve seen a lot of people posting about how Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton came up with some of their greatest ideas while quarantined under the Plague,” said late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. That’s a pretty high bar, he noted, but never fear, modern-day folks in isolation are rising to the challenge. And then he played this.
“You see,” said Jimmy Kimmel. “Times of crisis really do produce works of great art.”
Need further proof? Look at the responses to the Getty Museum’s challenge to recreate favorite paintings using stuff found around the house.
With one third of the world’s population on lockdown — or, as my California friends put it more cozily, “sheltering in place” — there’s an immense pool of talent with too much time on their hands, and the biggest, most bored global audience in history. It’s a match made in entertainment heaven. I’m sure that if John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in lockdown together they’d be producing stuff like this.
Dare I say it? Genius!
Meanwhile, Rich and I held our first Festiv(ir)us, an online party with themed costumes — in this case, attire from a favorite country. Undaunted by sparse resources (stuck in a rental condo, no stores open) Kathryn and Pete came onscreen gorgeously attired as ancient Greeks in bedsheets: flat for her, fitted for him — or as we soon dubbed them, relaxed fit and slim fit, like jeans. Rich went all out, inventing our own nation, Blogvonia, with a suitably eccentric dress code.
Festiv(ir)us is wide open to goofy ideas and wacky themes, but there is one ironclad rule: no talking about the pandemic. Because right now we all need to take mini-vacations that let us mentally disconnect from the catastrophic events raging across the globe.
The key is finding activities that are so absorbing they transport us to another state of consciousness, freeing us from everyday worries and cares. I wish I could report I’m achieving this altered state through zen meditation, but the truth is I’m mostly immersing myself in books, movies, and TV shows. Many people are testing their wits with challenges such as sudoku or the famous Nine Dots Puzzle, which back in the 1970s inspired the catchphrase “thinking outside the box.”
Another great psychological getaway, at least for me, is cooking. I have learned the hard way that if I let my mind wander to the latest harrowing headlines, it’s all too easy to leave the honey out of the Healthy, Moist Banana Bread or put the World’s Best Irish Soda Bread into an oven set on broil rather than bake. Now I take care to give kitchen tasks my complete attention. I am not about to risk botching a recipe and having to throw out precious ingredients I won’t be able to replace until the next scheduled shopping expedition.
Here in Spain, where people are taking the virus very seriously, most of us shop once a week, less often if possible. Grocery shopping day is an occasion, celebrated with a lunch of fresh fish, usually something simple such as Five-Ingredient Pesto Salmon; I prepare extra to put in a salad or Buttermilk Salmon Chowder for future meals. The next day we dine on poultry, such as my Chicken Marbella or Rich’s Foolproof Maple-Dijon Chicken Thighs. And when we’ve enjoyed every bit of the leftovers, we move on to vegetarian meals such as last night’s Cozy Autumn Wild Rice Soup. I like to think of it as Meatless Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Eating well reminds us to celebrate life’s small pleasures. It takes our minds off our anxieties for at least a few moments while we savor the first, glorious bites and utter a blissful “Mmmmm.” Let’s face it, if we’re going to hold on to whatever shreds of sanity we have left, we all need those kinds of respites, however brief. And (while we’re being totally honest) we also need respites from our quarantine companions.
“You’ve got to write something about space rules,” a harassed friend said to me during a phone call last week. “How do you negotiate them? You and Rich spend months on the road together. How do you make it work?”
I thought back to 2013 when we set out on our first three-month railway journey. We'd spent the early weeks establishing guidelines for organizing our time, occupying cramped quarters, and navigating differences. NASA astronaut Anne McClain, who knows a lot about sharing space, emphasizes that it starts with communication. “Talk so you are clearly understood,” she advises. “Actively listen, pick up on non-verbal cues…Talk about your intentions before taking action.” Sound advice.
Even without NASA training, Rich and I learned early on that we had to be absolutely clear with each other about space. Despite our undying love and eternal friendship, we each need to be alone with our thoughts and our computers for hours every day. As a writer, I find this as essential as breathing, and I respect the fact that just about everyone has an online life to pursue — preferably without constant interruptions.
Rich and I set aside specific blocks of time in the morning and afternoon for solitary pursuits. On our travels, such as our recent five-month journey, we agreed to leave each other in peace even when sitting next to each other in a tiny hotel room. In lockdown, with a whole apartment at our disposal, I retreat to my office, and Rich ensconces himself at his desk by the living room window. These are our sanctuaries, and we make it a practice to ask permission to interrupt one another if we need to pop in and check on, say, when we’re scheduled to Zoom with friends.
In addition to computer time, there’s a daily schedule for sharing my small, inexpensive stair step machine, replacing our daily hours of walking with hours of exercise in front of the TV. I’ve been watching the news and the third season of Stranger Things, and to be honest it’s not always easy to tell them apart.
Mini-vacations, space rules, and daily routines are vital, but I believe the real secret to surviving the lockdown is kindness. Like the the kids in Stranger Things, we’re all terrified of a monster that’s turned our world upside down. If there was ever a time to cut our companions some slack, it’s now.
Nobody ever said quarantine was going to be easy, and it doesn’t help that the end date keeps getting pushed back. So how can we stay motivated over the long haul?
“I'm doing this for Betty White,” commented long-term reader Shéa last week. “Because I'm not going to be the person who passes it to someone who passes it to Betty White.” We all live within six degrees of separation from one another, including the iconic 98-year-old actress. You’ll be glad to hear that as of this writing, she is safe in home quarantine and showing no symptoms of the virus. I’ve taped a picture of Betty to my bookcase as a reminder that it’s my job to keep her that way.
Stay home and stay safe, my friends! Let me know how you're surviving the challenges of quarantine. What are you cooking? Are you finding ways to exercise your body and your creativity? What can we do to take care of one another — and ourselves? Were you able to solve the Nine Dots Puzzle? Here's one solution.
You can see what they mean by "outside the box thinking"!
I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.