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.
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.
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.
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.