Coronavirusdiary #5: Of dirt, weeds, digging, and optimism

A year ago, as part of my goal to eventually kill most of the lawn in my backyard, I removed a section of sod and tossed it in a back corner behind a tangle of rose bushes and what becomes a stand of ginormous lilies by late summer.

(The sod got thrown back by the fence.)

It felt like a slovenly thing to do, but no one could really see it much back there, and I didn’t know what else to do with it. I figured it might break down and turn into some good dirt. Somehow. (I don’t really know how such things work.) I focused on the more pleasing parts of the yard and figured I would deal with this problem later.

I hadn’t looked at it since last fall sometime, but a few weeks ago, I noticed that my piles of sod/dirt had undergone a bit of transformation:

This was not the kind of transformation I’d hoped for. Funny how much things can grow when you’re focused on other things, isn’t it? One day it’s just a pile of grassy dirt, and then it’s a pile of fast-growing weeds.

This part of the yard looked way too much like another section looked when I moved in two years ago:

While part of me kind of loved the wild weediness of this, it made the garden beds pretty unusable and it meant that nasty, spiky thistles were propagating into other parts of the yard. I didn’t want them to take over everything. It took me two summers to finally tame it, and I did not want to relive that experience.

So at the beginning of last week, on the heels of the previous hard one, I spent a sunny afternoon transforming that weedy sod dumping ground into what will become (I hope) a vegetable garden. It felt good to pull things up and whack at clumps of dirt with a metal rake. It felt good to get dirty and sweat. It felt good to look forward.

It’s not there yet. There are still quite a few large clods of rooty dirt, and it could use some compost mixed into it (I think). But it’s going to be a nice place for me to learn how to grow vegetables. It gets a lot of southern sun, and almost every time I’ve been back in that corner of the yard lately, I end up in a conversation with my neighbor Oshra (who you can see on the other side of the fence).

I wish I already knew how to grow vegetables. I wish I were more self-sufficient, in the most fundamental of ways. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers, and I have memories of visiting the farm and raiding my great-grandmother’s vegetable garden for carrots. But I don’t know how to grow food, not really. I grew up a suburban child of the 1970’s, and most of the food I ate came from a box. I can’t tell you when I realized that orange juice could be squeezed from an orange rather than a cardboard cylinder, but it was long after I should have.

“I don’t understand why this all feels so hard,” I said to a friend near the end of week 3, about my life in this pandemic. “In any day, the truly important things in my life aren’t significantly different, and nothing in it is that hard. In some ways, it’s easier.”

I hesitated to say the words I thought next: “In some ways, I like it better.”

Without a whole lot of further reflection, I realized that what’s hard is not (for many of us, but certainly not all) how we are actually living now. What’s hard (for me, anyway) has been seeing and understanding clearly, without any buffers, why we are living the way we are.

In some piece I read somewhere last week a writer posited that the United States we once knew and believed in does not exist any more; a new one is emerging and it is going to be a different one, one in which our old norms and systems will not prevail. Anyone who has been paying any attention since at least 2016 must know this is true, but I think it’s taken this pandemic–and our current government’s response to it–to tear down any walls of denial about the truth and impact of this shifting.

And that is scary. A president promoting quackery in the face of pandemic is scary. A makeshift hospital in Central Park and mass graves in New York are scary. A political party that openly states it will suppress votes because otherwise they couldn’t win is scary. A federal government seizing medical supplies but not saying why or where they are going is scary. An economic crash and a prolonged spread of disease in such conditions is scary. It feels like a kind of breaking down that will take years, maybe decades, to recover from, and recovery is not going to be a return to what was our normal.

I am hearing, from various corners and different voices, that perhaps that is just as it should be. Normal wasn’t working for many of us–even those with some privilege, like me–and we don’t necessarily want to go back. Not to the way things had become. But what I know about transformations and the emergence of new orders is that they are hard, and prolonged, and there are always people who are crushed by them. That is scary, too, and it is fear of what might come that has been the true source of difficulty for me.

While digging in the dirt, I thought about the stock market crash of 1929, and what it meant to those who were my age when that life-changing event happened. It was followed by the Depression, and then WWII. A person who was 55 in 1929 would have been 72 by 1946, the beginning of a return to life not being lived through prolonged, world-wide crisis.

I realized then that ever since the pandemic reached our continent, I’ve been living on hold, feeling as if these days are some time outside of my real life, a time apart. But the pandemic’s effects and what they have revealed about us aren’t going to to be over in a few weeks or even months. After decades of daily, relentless erosion to the institutions and systems that, in real ways, gave me a kind of security that allowed me to live without developing life skills and dispositions that might now become essential, here we are. We are in the thick of the weeds, and I can no longer ignore them and focus on the pretty parts of the yard. I need to learn how to survive–maybe even thrive?–while living within them. Because they have grown so, so tall, and it will take a long time to eradicate them.

If a person my age at the time of that earlier crash lived “on hold” until the crises ended and things felt like some good kind of normal, they would, in important ways, miss most of the last years of their life. And I don’t want to do that. Out in the garden, I resolved to stop living through my days as if they are, somehow, lesser days than any others I’ve had. I don’t know that it will be years until we feel as if we out from under this, but I do know I don’t have enough left to me to wait for some normal to start really living again.

I resolved, through week 4, to start saying out loud, “There are things about this that I like.” I resolved to find and revel in what I’m enjoying, which is not replacing the anger and fear in my days, but is living alongside it. Things like:

I like that I am waking and sleeping at hours that are more compatible with my body.

I like working from home and being in my home more.

I like spending more time with the person and dogs I get to spend this time with.

I like having more time and energy for things like laundry and yard work and house projects.

I like spending time on frivolous creative pursuits.

I like walking more and driving less, and seeing things I can’t through a windshield.

Last week I claimed to be an optimist, and I know that might seem at odds with resigning myself to a long haul of hard times. But I don’t think that optimism means having blind faith in good outcomes, or seeing only the bright side of every situation, or denying scary truths. A friend suggested to me this week that an optimist is a person who doesn’t believe in premature closure; in other words, an optimist is someone who, in the face of a challenge, remains open to new and different possibilities emerging from it. While they may see a place as dark and hard and wrong and broken, they don’t believe that’s the end of the story about that place.

I like that definition. It could be easy for me to look at when and how I grew up and the life I’ve lived thus far and conclude that I am probably not very well-equipped for where we are and where we might be heading. In light of that, I could curl up into a ball and wait for this all to pass, hoping any fallout doesn’t land too hard on me. Or I could continue to toss all manner of things into some out-of-the-way corner of my life and resolve not to look at it. Or I could sink into a hopeless pit and spend the time I have left looking backward to some good old days (the ones of my youth that were, in many ways, pretty good for me and many others).

But I don’t want to do any of those things. It has always been true that all we really have is the day we are in. I don’t feel like giving away any that I get. I’m alive right now. There’s no pause button, no stepping away. This is how we live now, and at the risk of being terribly corny and out of character, I’m going to end this entry by quoting from a TV show about football (of all things) that characterizes how I want to enter into week 5:

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

(Can’t get much more American than that.)


America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why.
“America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades, but broad measures of the nation’s economic health conceal the unequal distribution of gains. A small portion of the population has pocketed most of the new wealth, and the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the consequences of the unequal distribution of prosperity.”

Social Distance: We Can’t Go Back to Normal
“We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.”

Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting
“Well, the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open.”

The Nordic Theory of Everything
“Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problems the system creates. Seen from a Nordic perspective, the United States is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future….And whether the United States wants to admit this to itself or not, staying stuck in the past is putting itself at an ever-increasing disadvantage in the world.”

17 thoughts on “Coronavirusdiary #5: Of dirt, weeds, digging, and optimism

  1. Hillary says:

    You continue to think about and articulate the swirling inner life of me and many others. Thank you! Your back garden bed looks great! Btw, I think you are doing an awesome job on adulting right now. Way to model it for us. Time to have a chicas zoom this week- ❤️

  2. Kate says:

    I saw that gaslighting article this week and shared it on FB. It said something I’ve been trying to articulate – I’m grateful for this time – and I hope some of the changes we’ve made – to be more frugal, thoughtful, content as a family – stick with us long after this time is over.

    I love that you’re doing something that helps you feel optimistic after your last week. Today I’m learning how to make biscuits from scratch. I’m not proud that I’ve spent my whole life eating biscuits that pop out from a blue can, but they are delicious and EASY.

    I’m also jealous of your yard!! We’re due for 8 inches of snow today and it’s been snowing ever since I got up this morning. At least no one needs to be anywhere today AND it’s pretty.

    Your most recent house is adorable. I love the pinkish bush and the brick front. Such great details.

    Stay well, Rita! Thank you for sharing your corner of the world with us this week!!
    Kate recently posted…Craft Thursday: Self PortraitMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Kate. I’m sorry for the snow! We’ve had really gorgeous spring weather the past week, and that as much as anything lifted my mood. It was while I was out walking and seeing everything in bloom and realizing it is spring, really spring, one of my favorite seasons, that strengthened my resolve to live fully right now, no matter what is going on around us. I don’t want to miss spring, you know?

      You’ll have to let me know how the biscuits turned out. 🙂 I have nothing against the blue can (have one in my fridge as I type). But homemade biscuits are kinda special, I think. And thanks for the encouragement on the house. I’m not sure about that bush; looks a little overgrown to me. And the tall tree is there only because I messed up the side of the house and had to cover a bunch of holes. It’s a nice thing to do in the evenings while watching/listening to some TV. I never really had time for that before. Or didn’t make time. This whole thing has me seriously thinking about where my time goes. Thoughts for a future post, maybe.

      Hope you are having a nice Easter with your family. Talk with you soon–

  3. Marian says:

    I feel as though we could all benefit from some digging in the garden and some growing of vegetables! Your yard is so lovely, Rita 🙂 . I had planned to get out in my garden last week, but ended up busy with other things. We’re also planning on getting rid of most of the lawn in our backyard (we tossed a bunch of sod into a corner last year too), and we’re also going to be expanding our veggie garden. One thing this pandemic has shown me is that the work of growing and preserving some food is well worth the effort. (I’m so grateful to past-me who chopped, blanched, and froze all the kale last fall.)

    As you might know, some people are calling for a WWII-like response to the climate crisis. I’ve read that despite being immersed in a really awful time, many people who lived through that period in history actually felt that it was the best part of their lives—everything they were doing was for a greater purpose, everyone was encouraged to play a role in doing things for the greater good, and they were all pretty much just living in the moment. This ties in so well with everything you’ve said in this post, so it makes complete sense to me that there is a part of you that likes some of the things that you are having to do (or getting to do) during this time.

    With regards to the gaslighting article, the author makes some great points, but there are also a few things he says that kind of blew me away (and not in a good way). This response, written in the comment section, is spot on:–responses

    I love how the embroidery is coming along, and I would really like to know what you’re doing with your fireplace!

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      Your comment reminds me that I am going to have to learn some things about preserving if I am successful in my growing. Lots of learning going on around here the past few days.

      What you share about how people felt in WWII resonates for me. I think that’s how I felt in the first two weeks, quite a bit. And then our responses (here at least) became aligned with politics, and that feeling of all being in it together began disintegrating, which discouraged me deeply. It shows how deep-seated the divide in my country is, and how difficult it will be to heal it. If we can’t agree on actions based in science, we are really in trouble. Which ties, unfortunately, into our responses to our climate crisis. I very much agree with the response you shared here. I also paused, at the same place in the original article. I don’t always agree with everything I share in the Dots offerings; they are more a record of readings from the week that have influenced the thinking in the post. I leave them for readers to ponder and draw their own conclusions about. 🙂

      The fireplace is a classic “give a mouse a cookie” endeavor. The brick was dark and stained, so I decided to whitewash it. The walls are also on the dark side–or should I say, were. Once the fireplace was lightened up, the walls didn’t look right. They are in the process of being painted a creamy white. That room has always been darker than I’d like. We cut back a whole bunch from a tree/shrub in front of its window, and between that and lightening the wall color, the room feels quite a bit brighter. Maybe I’ll have some good before/after.

      I hope you are all still doing well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, as always.

  4. TD says:

    Dear Rita,
    I must say that I have been thinking to my solitary self that I keep hearing on the various news reports and thoughts of other people that; “When is it going to be back to normal or I am ready for ‘this’ to be over.” I just wonder why people think that there would an end date, then everyone and everything would be back to the way it was as what their normal would be, as if one would be able to go back in time. My perception is that would be impossible. The only constant is change (from my world view).

    So, I say true to your statement “recovery is not going to be a return to what was our normal.”

    Also in my own personal life I do not come from experience of optimism. I have taken a lot of cruel words from other people as I see the world from a realistic perspective (many people think that a realistic perspective is pessimistic, negative, a Debbie Downer). I don’t at all. I see it as facts, not fiction. There is good; There is bad; There is white and black as well as various shades of gray.

    I also agree “Normal wasn’t working for many of us”, absolutely true.

    In the apartment complex of around 300 people, I noticed that I have seen on one other person wearing a face mask other than myself. Lots of people in this complex are not participating in social distancing. And I am the odd, freak, who is simply following our City Orders.

    I did actually close on my small cottage on Tuesday within 3 weeks during this pandemic in ways in which all of it was done in very different processes, solving issues hour by hour, brainstorming and creating new ways to achieve the goal “to process a closing” without being in physical contact and taking all precautions that I could to keep from spreading this new virus.

    I love seeing your bedroom with the dark charcoal wall and today I noticed that the shutters in my new old 1941 house has charcoal with a tent of green while I only saw my shutters as black! This Easter morning sunrise from my apartment bay front view was absolutely gorgeous. I thought about you, Rita and wondered what it was like outside your window this morning. And I was filled with joy to find photos outside your window in my in-box toady. I spent much of the day working on the cleaning of the new home. I will take time… It’s spring here as well. That’s a lot of snow, Kate!

    Living in the moment, one day at a time.

    • Rita says:

      Hi TD,
      I’m so happy to hear that you have been able to find a new home. A small cottage sounds wonderful, though I’m wondering if you’ll miss being on the water. Or are you still on the water? If so, I will be quite envious. I’m also glad that you were able to find a way to make a house buy work in the current context. I have a friend who is selling a home–because of her situation, it has to be done now–and was surprised to learn that there are ways realtors are getting around the restrictions that have to be in place. Life does go on, doesn’t it, pretty much no matter what? I, too, have noticed some who aren’t following social distancing guidelines. I just focus on myself, because that’s all I can control. But it does concern me some, too.

      Hope you are healthy and that your move goes smoothly.

      • TD says:

        Hi Rita! Oh yes, I will miss living right at the bay water’s edge with this fabulous view and all the interesting changing of movement and sightings!! But I knew this apartment was a temporary stay as I transition from the sell of the townhouse and the purchase of another permanent home property. I mentally considered this apartment to be my sea side sabbatical while I did my search, so I went for the view apartment even though the rent was much higher.

        The cottage is only a two mile drive form my apartment, though not on the water. The drive to a large beautiful city park on the bay front is only a mile away from my cottage. The cottage is adorable, but needs a good cleaning. Not because of COVID19, but more because of the previous owner lack routine maintenance and level of cleanliness that I prefer as well as the age of the property. It’s eighty years old!! I’m enjoying the process, yet it is hard and extremely challenging.

        As far as your friend being in a similar boat that I been rocking in, I can empathize!
        I know a broker in a very small town in NM that we talk every week mostly by text, but sometimes by phone and he too says their brokerage company is doing everything to facilitate their client’s needs. He has been a great support for me through this transition in my personal life change phase.

        As far as the social distancing and face mask, I too have come to the conclusion that I can only control what I choose to do just like most everything else in life.

        Wishing you well and juicy ripe tomatoes soon!

  5. Dave Bonta says:

    This post really spoke to me. I’m 54, an optimist who listens to death metal, and I too have started a vegetable garden – in my case in part because it’s something that I really used to enjoy doing when I was a teen and young man, and why should I put off resuming it until my wife and I are able to retire to her dream home in the west of England? That may or may not happen, but in the meantime, I can grow some damn tomatoes.

    Just got all the early stuff in the ground today. It felt GOOD.

    • Rita says:

      This made me smile when I first read it (when I didn’t have time to reply). I wholeheartedly endorse growing some damn tomatoes now, and not waiting until some time that might never come. I think that’s being optimistic, for whatever that’s worth.

  6. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    There is so much packed into this post and with my reading attention issues, it is hard for me to comment on posts like this (in a good way) because I feel like I missed touching on something.

    My mom was born in 1946 to my grandma who was 42 years old when she gave birth to her. My grandma was 13 when she went through the flu pandemic of 1918. Those dates and ages just sit with me so much more now because of what my grandmother, her parents, her siblings, etc., went through. It just makes me appreciate things so much more than it ever did. This new normal isn’t irritating me as much as it did even a month ago. I am a different person now, a better person. Maybe we all are.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Mrs. PierceMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kari,
      I think a lot about my grandparents and great-grandparents. My great-grandmother left her home and many friends and family when she was a teen-ager to move to a country where she didn’t know the language. (She would have been about the same age as your grandmother.) She lost her first child (I thought in the 1918 flu, but that might have been my other great-grandmother. I know both lost their first children when they were very young.) She lived through the Depression and WWII, and then in the late 40s she lost her husband and oldest son (TB) in the same year. She outlived another beloved son who died in his early 50s. She worked hard all her life, and after her husband died my mom and her family moved in with her, and my great-grandmother ran the house and did the childcare so that my grandmother could work. That’s a lot of trauma right there. I think most of us just learn how to cope with what we’re given, so I don’t want to say I couldn’t do what she did. But I sure am glad I’ve never had to, and if I’ve got hard times coming at me now, well…that’s how life is, sometimes. This has given me a chance to realize how good I’ve had it so far.

  7. Laura Millsaps says:

    Since I am a very introverty introvert, I have probably been better prepared emotionally for the isolation of quarantine than others. But I’m not ready to say I’m enjoying parts of it, yet. I have been thinking more about my grandparents, who were young children and teenagers during the Great Depression, and how I realized as I got older how much that experience marked them. In some ways badly, as the imprint of fear drove a lot of their hoarding, dietary, and spending habits. But I also seem them as resourceful and creative in ways that I had largely forgotten until this pandemic; now I am remembering things they said about mending clothes, raising food, and “making do.” It’s given me the gift of having my ancestors at my side during this weird and awful time. For that I am grateful, even if I can’t be particularly hopeful. Again, yet. I think I’ll get there. But up until now I’ve been rather overwhelmed. The time I’ve been able to spend outside in the garden has been the one thing that’s given me a better perspective.

      • Rita says:

        I can hardly take credit for them. They were planted by the previous owners, and came from the owner’s mother. I am just so grateful when I see them coming back because it means I haven’t killed them. I would hate to do that.

    • Rita says:

      For me, what’s grounding me is working in the garden and working on projects in the house. (Currently painting the living room, which will mean painting the kitchen and a long hallway, too.) I’ve been thinking a lot of my grandparents, too, who were probably about the same age as yours. I went to the grocery store last week, and I tried to buy enough for at least two weeks. I so hate shopping now–wearing masks and gloves, keeping my distance from others, trying to get items that always seem to be out, trying to figure out how much of things to buy to last for weeks. It was exhausting. I realized afterward that I have far more than I need of some items (dog food, canned soup, chocolate bars). They are things I would hate to run out of or not be able to get more of, and so I have more than I need, and the idea of running out makes me feel a wee bit panicked. It’s not rational, and I have never felt that way in my life before. When I got home I wondered if this is something that will mark me the way I remember those who lived through the Depression being marked by that experience. Will there be some things now that I always have a surplus of?

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