A Simple Life

Not too long after Noisette* and I graduated from business school in the early 1990s, the news spread that one of our classmates had chosen to live in a nunnery rather than pursuing a career in business. Since most of us had just devoted two grueling years to studying such things as the Black-Scholes pricing model for options and futures with the sole goal of pursuing precisely such a career, we all got a good laugh out of this turn of events.

Why in the world would she want to live in a nunnery?

That was in 1993. Fast-forward to April 2020, and I am shocked to realize that life in a nunnery sounds incredibly alluring to me. Or rather, what I imagine life in a nunnery might look like. You know, getting up at the crack of dawn, sweeping the tile floors, weeding the garden, toiling in the kitchen, darning my habit, quiet reading, occasional walks through the village, bad hair well hidden under that veil.

I have no idea that I’d qualify, what with having engaged in sins of the flesh. And the product of those sins, our four children, are the one bright spot right now within all this mess. For the first time in years they all live at home again. They pursue their telework, their online studies, and, in the case of our lone high-schooler, a self-imposed re-reading of the Harry Potter series because no studies are taught, and each lunch and dinner we congregate and talk about each of our days, or we play trivia games, or we play with the cat – a lot!

But all the same I can sense myself longing for a much simpler life than “before.” A life devoted, every day, to the necessities of providing what’s needed for that day.

Almost overnight, my priorities seem to have shifted. Instead of rushing to the grocery store on the way home, resentful of the unpacking and eager to move on to something else, I now approach it more like an expedition that requires planning and a bit of bravery. You don your mask and you “go out” to secure the supplies your family needs. Bringing it all home is no longer a nuisance. Instead, you take care putting it all away, and you survey your treasure with satisfaction when it’s all done.

The business of acquiring and preparing food has taken over much of my waking hours, and oddly, I welcome the change.

Typical scene from my kitchen these days

Perhaps this is so because it now requires some thinking, some creativity. Challenge accepted. When chicken breast couldn’t found, I pivoted to pork. Once that becomes scarce – bound to happen after the latest Coronavirus outbreak at a Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, SD – we will have to move on to something else. Whole chickens, less labor-intensive, might soon be the best bet for meat. And if meat becomes scarce, I might finally get my family to eat more vegetables.

To that end, I planted three tomato plants my neighbor shared with me last week. Sadly, a late frost last night most likely killed them. But I’m undeterred, already looking at my yard in an entirely new way. Who wants all this grass, requiring so much pesticide and effort? Vegetables is what I want. Things we can eat. I’m mentally staking out vegetable beds and herb gardens. My thoughts revolve around stocking up on staples and how to best use them to feed so many mouths. The garage shelves have been turned into an extended pantry for flour, rice, and potatoes. There is plenty of space where the toilet paper once was – I still haven’t been able to find any, but also haven’t tried that hard.

I think back to my childhood and finally understand why we had huge wooden drawers full of potatoes and apples in our cellar. I hated when my mother sent me down there. It was dark and dank, the musty smell almost knocking you over as soon as you entered. But what a comfort that stash must have been to my mother, who, like my grandmother, could never quite shed the memory of real hunger brought on by hyperinflation and war in 1930s-1950s Germany. We never once ate any store-bought jam. Every summer, we’d pick strawberries, raspberries, and red currants from the bushes in our yard, dumping them into large, bubbling pots. Sterilizing and filling the jars to the brim was usually my job. I am only now recalling these skills I didn’t remember I had. I am giddy with the thought of all the foods you can preserve, in anticipation of harder times.

Granted, not having enough to eat is not the problem so far – quite the opposite. And yet I have this newfound urge to stock up, to squirrel away goodies. One of my best pandemic moments was finding a forgotten jar of Nutella way back in the cupboard. I had hidden it some months ago, with the sole goal of keeping it out of Noisette’s hands, who eats it by the spoonful. And then I completely forgot we had it. It’s as if I had planted it there for leaner times, and the joy I felt when holding it was entirely irrational.

My Lebanese/Greek friend group has gone from trading tips for Netflix shows to trading recipes for the best baba ganoush and tsasiki. Stock up on olive oil and pita bread, was my friend Camil’s advice. He knows, having lived through constant shelling in the 100 Day Battle of Beirut, before he came to the US in the early 1990s.

I’ve been nursing this sourdough starter, my friend Maryanne texted recently. I was immediately hooked. I watched and re-watched the video she sent, and I’m now on Day 5 of my first ever sourdough starter.  It is tangy and bubbly. Every morning I wake up excited to feed it. It should be ready for the first bread this Sunday, and I can’t wait. I already have aspirations to surprise my neighbor with a warm loaf of airy, tangy bread (although in reality my first batch is more likely to be a dense burnt mess). Even though I don’t have the right supplies, I’ve made do with what survived last year’s Project #Purge365: I refashioned the girls’ old Easter baskets into bread proving baskets, I have plenty of kitchen towels for liners, and I found a wallpaper spatula that’ll do as a dough scraper. Of course you can also buy these things in beautiful “Brotform” or “Banneton” sets on Amazon, but these days you have to wait until May or June to actually get them. I am too impatient to wait that long.

Wonderfully bubbly sourdough starter
Repurposed dough scraper
Baskets – formerly for Easter eggs, now for dough proving

My mother used to tell me of wartime sewing projects for turning curtains into winter coats, or reversing trousers so the darker, newer-looking side was turned outside. I haven’t had to resort to that (as living in pajama bottoms and sweatshirts seems totally acceptable for now), but I have never been so happy to have a sewing machine to churn out much-needed face masks. Thankfully, the need seems to have slowed down in recent days, but I did manage to turn old sheets and t-shirts into a batch of about 150 to help out one of the many mask-sewing groups that have sprung up overnight.

By necessity, I also finally learned how to adjust the tension on the bobbin.

A tidy 100 face masks ready to go
I thought it would be nice to post this picture here for comparison. It’s from the last time my sewing machine was put to industrial use as part of our school’s service project to make thousands of beanie hats for babies born in Diespsloot, one of Johannesburg’s poorest townships.

I’m sure I’m not the only one having arrived at this latest state of frantic homemaking via earlier stages of disbelief and utter panic. And, as I’ve said before, this may not be where I end up. I’m aware that my mental state is propelled along a curve just like the pandemic. No one knows where it might end. Your present might be my future. I may sound tone-deaf to those out there who are further along that curve. Who perhaps no longer have, or never did have, the means to stock up on anything. Who no longer have, or never did have, a yard to plant vegetables. Who no longer have, or never did have, a big kitchen and tools to make meals. 

With our business shuttered and no reopening date in sight, finding the right cut of chicken may soon be the least of our worries. My writings today about today’s concerns may seem idiotic a few weeks hence. This whole edifice rests on all the blessings in our life – not the least our good health so far.

But for now, this is my life, and these are my thoughts.

I’d love to hear about your life, and how your thoughts and dreams and daily routines have changed this past month!

*Read here how Noisette got his name.

8 comments

  1. Always enjoy your posts! My major concern is to stay away from everything, but of course that is not totally possible. I had food delivered to the house from our health food store two days ago with fresh produce etc. Was packed in a vegetable crate.My husband carried it it into the garage, set it down, washed his hands, and there it still sits because I won’t go near anything that has been handled by others until a couple of days later. So today I will carefully put things away, and again wash my hands. How long does the virus live on lettuce? Can I just wash it per usual, or should I not even eat it at all until it has been quarantined for a few more days in the fridge. You can make yourself crazy thinking about these things! Here in France we are slowly seeing the numbers going down, but we are still fully in lock down until May 11, and after that, who knows. I am interested in seeing how things go in both Denmark and Germany right now. Onward soldiers!

  2. Yes, that is the question. I read a good article the other day about grocery shopping: https://apple.news/AoILeYeH5T4yroJn628DKZQ. The main takeaway for me was that the virus on surfaces is not as worrisome as the virus on people. Keeping your distance from people is by far the best thing you can do. Washing hands and cleaning surfaces is of course important too. Read it for yourself and see what you think. I think you’re doing great – leaving non-perishables to decontaminate by themselves if a great solution. Yes, I also can’t wait to see what happens in Germany next week. Although you’ll have to watch about 3 weeks later to truly see the impact. Just like it might be revealing to see if any of those protesters in MI and OH who rubbed shoulders in their foolhardy rally come down with a spate of infections 3 weeks from now…

  3. Love this blog. Really took me back to my youth, early 20’s, when I wanted to be a nun! The Society of the Sacred Heart, a cloistered order, was the Order I wanted to enter. When I visited,Sister Manuel, my father’s cousin at the beautiful Grand Coteau convent, I was so happy. Beautiful grounds, beautiful oaks, and flowering bushes everywhere. This was nature where God was for me and nature remains where God is for me in my 76th year.

    I love idea of « preserving » fruit, etc. but don’t because of all the sugar required. We all know sugar isn’t good for us so I refrain from preserving. I remember my mother and grandmother preserving figs, blackberries (we went blackberry picking in the woods) and of course strawberries as well.
    I also remember turning down my mother ‘s figs because of the sugar. Would kill to have those figs
    Today…such sweet memories.

    Beautiful pie crust! Your family is very lucky to have you!

    I hope all goes well (I know it will) for you and your beautiful family.

  4. Hi Faye! It’s so nice to hear from you. So now of course I want to know: Did you end up at Grand Coteau? Or did your life take you elsewhere!

    We went blackberry picking all the time, and blueberry picking. Also mushrooms. My family never would have thought of buying those things, if they could be picked. I am flooded with all these memories now.

    I agree on the sugar in preserves. I don’t like using so much sugar either. But it does work so well, and fresh bread with butter and jam is one of the pure delights of life. Speaking of which, I am baking my sourdough bread today, so wish me luck! Slight snafu with the proving yesterday – my daughter turned on the oven to preheat for pizza, with my proving baskets inside. I am hoping those 5 minutes didn’t doom anything:).

    Thank you so much for your encouragement. I hope all goes well for you too.

  5. Hi Eva,

    I hope your bread turned out okay. Sourdough is probably my favorite. I usually get mine at The Fresh Market. I find it has the best “sourdough” taste I can find in stores. Yes, it is wonderful with butter or without. I prefer it w/o jam or honey unless I am looking to satisfy a sweet tooth! In addition, I think it has a probiotic component which is nice. Am wondering if you use a bread machine…they were so popular a while back.

    No, I did not go to the “nunnery”. I had a very patriarchal father whom I loved very much and obviously, his approval was stronger than my desire to be a nun. I don’t have regrets about that, except to say that when someone has a desire to do something, they should at least try it, as long as they are not hurting themselves or anyone else. I married, had two sons, three beautiful grandsons. I am no longer married. Interestingly, my spirituality has grown deeper and no one can change that. I delight in nature which is where I find my God.

    I became a psychotherapist and studied depth psychology à la CG Jung which is actually the interface of psychology and spirituality, as you probably know. What he did best, in addition to the interpretation of dreams and defining the individuation process, was to find the thread of connection between all the major religions and great philosophies of East and West. I eventually left the church and my spirituality deepened. I delight in the direction my life took although there were and are many painful times…which I simply call “life”.

    • Your comment “…find the thread of connection between all the major religions and great philosophies of East and West” struck a cord with me. It reminded me of being fascinated reading “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell. There was a PBS documentary with a series of his lectures about The Power of Myth, which I found mind-opening as well. Having lived in a number of very disparate countries with different religious and cultural traditions, I was open to learning more, as I was asking myself why “my” — or anyone’s — faith and religion should be “the only true one”.

      • Thanks for your comment. Yes, the idea of “our church is the one true church” irks me and has since I was a child. I think listening with one’s “third” ear pretty much tells us if something is true or not. If it reasonates, I know it is mine; if it doesn’t, I just go with my gut & move on. Growing up we live with other people’s answers but when we grow up, we must find our own answers because the old answers don’t fit anymore.

        I, too, like J. Campbell’s “Power of Myth”. You may like others in his Collected Works. I also enjoyed “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” but I think his book/lectures on the Arthurian/grail legends are my favorite. And btw, that thread of connection runs thru all of,us…imagine that! Isn’t that wonderful!

  6. So sorry I missed these comments earlier. I so agree with both of you. I have always hated that part of religion that insists that this is the only true one. I’m not nearly as well read as you are, but I like to think that I have an affinity to the religions that don’t make that claim. From what I know (again, which is little), Hinduism and Buddhism don’t claim they are the only true ones. And also the ones that, perhaps because of that, don’t send out missionaries into the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s