by Hugh Gilmore,
I promise you that this is not a downer column. But it has to start somewhere and it might as well be here, with this observation: You never know it's so quiet you could hear a pin drop until a pin drops. And likewise, you sometimes dream you're free until you notice you're looking out through bars.
So went my experience, a couple of Saturday nights ago. A delicious dinner, then a good, transporting movie. Lovely. Enjoyable. And then the movie ended, the room went quiet, the lights came up and I felt a sudden urge to cry. Out of nowhere. I felt like an orphan who suddenly felt he'd never be adopted. Through the window on the other side of the room I saw the early night sky. It's all still real out there, I thought. Maddening, frustrating, scary. Any of us could make a small mistake that might have awful consequences. Even after all this time. How long will this bad wind blow?
That's when I banged the gavel, if you will, and shut the question down. I rose to round up our empty cups and snack plates. What's next out there? is not the stuff of nighttime chats. I washed the dishes, put stray things away, straightened the throw rugs, found my half-frame reading glasses and my book and checked to see that all the doors were locked and headed up to bed. The wet heat at the back of my eyes and the lump in my throat had lasted but a second, like a pulled punch.
I flashed back to that sensation. This must be how prisoners living with an indeterminate sentence must feel, I thought. Anybody can do a day, or days, months, years even, if they know when their sentence ends. But if they don't know, have no idea, have their fate determined by the whimsy or stupidity of other people – well, their desire to moan when tricked by memory and insight is totally understandable.
My wife, Janet, asked a busy artist at a craft fair once how she was managing to raise eight children and also make so many beautiful quilts.
"I do what needs doing for them," she said, "and in between I return to task."
Great answer, I thought, but what is "the task" to be returned to during this pandemic? I've thought a lot about it and here's my answer. Our first duty, put bluntly, is to endure. Hang on, keep doing the right thing until the stupid, impatient, defiant people who have little ability to delay gratification, give up. That is to say, till they accept that sacrifice is necessary for a greater good. That means: no crowds, no crowding, no bunching up, no crowds, no crowds, no crowds. And it means putting a physical barrier between their breaths and ours while keeping a social distance. If they do that, we'll all regain our freedoms within a few months. If they don't, it means we will all have to wait a year or more for a vaccine that most of us will want. It seems unfair, doesn't it, that we're at their mercy, but they're not at ours?
But one can only control one's own behavior, so let's forget about who's at who's mercy, before we start feeling sorry for ourselves.
People's lives are so complex that, rather than giving anyone advice, I'll return to the running diary I've been keeping. I'm retired from the rat race, but still run a business buying and selling old books. Fortunately, I grew old and managed to neither die nor weaken particularly (yet). I love the old book business but do only as much of it as I want, when I want. As fascinating as it is, doing the same thing every day is soul wearying, if commerce is involved. Quite a luxury, I know, but I earned it. After experimenting a lot, and through trial and error, I have hit upon a formula for my daily life that is satisfying and gets me through the day in a good mood. I'm sharing it on the chance that some of it might be of interest to some other person who shares my lifestyle.
My guiding agenda follows: My spirit will be satisfied each day if I, (1) Do something for my household – shop, clean, laundry, e.g.; (2) Something kind or helpful to the members of my family – cook, do a courtesy, listen; (3) Do something to help my son with Asperger's catch up; (4) Fix something in my house; (5) Do something for my business – research, repair, list for sale; (5) Do something for my body – walking, stretching; (6) Learn – reading, TV documentaries, follow internet links; (7) Always trying to write something for the Local; (8) Organize something disarrayed in my computer files – like trying to caption every photo; (9) Read a good book from which I can learn.
Neither on television, nor in my reading do I like "mere" entertainment. Too much of it happens too soon and it can be soul-deadening. Believe it or not, as long as these pandemic days can be sometimes, I am never bored unless the TV is on.
There. I took a chance and told you some things about my personal life. I'd be glad to hear about how you are managing to keep yourself going. I'll even devote an article to it if a few people write and tell me.