Monthly Archives: December 2020

Day #282 (at the Pandemic Day Spa)

Watch this on HBO


It’s a rainy pandemic afternoon, and I’m lying on the sofa with Little Dog. I’ve been here, honestly, most of the day, and I’m rather proud of myself. When I woke, it was rainy and cold–there would be no backyard time today. No feigned normalcy, reading under the pecan tree, pretending that I could meet a friend for lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s, then while away the afternoon at Belk and t.j Maxx. 

I have been in Belk once–for less than twenty minutes–this year. My younger daughter and I have spent the days since March 13th isolating more than most. Our shopping trips are timed strategically; we have only eaten in a (very safe) restaurant twice–the booth walls are high, and the cleaning is impressive; we are diligent mask-wearers and social distance as much as we can–though in-person teaching makes it difficult for me. COVID has killed two people I knew well, and it has sickened dozens of my family members and friends–so, most of the time, I am content to sit here on the sofa.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, my brain is yearning to do Things. Go Places. (At this point, I think it would even consider attending a three-day barbershop quartet competition.) It is so bored. And this morning, at the sight of the rain, I had to combat its petulance, reminding it that we are staying home heroically.

In the Oscar-winning documentary One Survivor Remembers, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein says that while in the concentration camps, she spent entire days imagining the parties she would attend after the war–and attempting to decide whether she should wear a red dress or a blue one. She says that if you could occupy your mind, you would survive. That imagination was essential.

Much of my life’s philosophy has been impacted by this documentary–I have shown it in my classroom at least thirty-six times, and it has seeped into my soul. Ms. Klein has helped me appreciate the magic of a quiet evening at home, the taste of strawberries, and the infinite power of imagination.

My twenty-one-year-old daughter and I have always played elaborate games–when she was a sophomore in high school, she invented a car-ride game that was insanely difficult but very simple. She’d say, “Tell me about the time you became a circus acrobat in China/saved eleven children from a burning building/played NFL football and scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.” I would authoritatively improvise my fictional memoir.

Now, we are imagining our way through the pandemic–in fact, we have now spent months pretending that we are at a day spa. 

Each day, our pandemic spa has “spativities,” some of which are mandatory–the dishes, laundry, and vacuuming–and some of them are optional–like walking the dog or writing this blog. We consult the imaginary spativity schedule on our phones throughout the day: Is manicure time before or after the afternoon Uno game? What time is the Dairy Queen field trip? Are dogs allowed to attend? 

“Announcement Pronouncements” are made throughout the day.  We make them loudly and succinctly, usually after dramatically bursting into a room. “I weeded the garden.” “Little Dog likes the new fuzzy blanket.” 

More sadly, there is The Daily Violation Report. (The spa has stringent behavioral expectations, and our seven indoor pets often miss the mark.) The forty-five-pound “teenage” puppy is the most frequent offender: yesterday, she ate a more than hundred-year-old telegram from the day my great-grandfather was born. The cats, her accomplices, are no innocents, and Violation Report often includes their escapades. (Edgar drank rainwater from the pot beneath the leaky plaster roof, then sneezed and gagged dramatically. As a Violator, he was given no sympathy.)

In addition to general violations, there are more severe Code Violations. And they are written up on Forms, sometimes by an (imaginary) enforcer named Gladys, whose very name inspires fear. 

At the spa, you can interrupt anything–including an Ivy League Zoom session–if you see a Code Violation. You just say brusquely, “Excuse me, but we have a code 73A violation.”

This is always greeted with horror: “Not a code 73A violation!?! Just yesterday, we had a code 48Q.”

“I know, I know. Gladys is writing it up on a Form 37B. She’s canceling all spativities this afternoon.”

“Well, at least she’s not using a Form 9H.”

This has been our schtick since March. Last Saturday, as we were sitting in the den intently discussing various violations and upcoming spativities, I looked at Abby and said, “Do you ever wonder what people who don’t play these elaborate games spend their time talking about?”
It is an absurd farce, silliness of the highest order. But it has been our own personal Tiger King–a little much-needed joy in these 283 long days.

Dirty Dishes: The Nine-Minute Principle

Written on Friday

One of the smartest things I did as a teenager was to build relationships with the parents of all of my friends. If I was at your house and you were in the shower, I wasn’t in your room listening to Billy Joel. I was in the kitchen bugging your mom. If the youth group had a pool party at your house, I certainly wasn’t in the center of the horseplay in the pool. I was in the kitchen with your parents talking about couponing and egg salad.

One of my better friend’s mother was a single parent. She was, and is, one of the calmest women I have ever known. I loved her placid demeanor and the matter of fact way that she lived her life. I spent at least an hour of my life simply reading her refrigerator door. It was covered with inspirational sayings and Dear Abby clippings that oozed self-acceptance and positivity, and just standing in that kitchen and reading that you could buy your own flowers encouraged me.

When she got married again, I was surprised, but she settled into her wifely role very smoothly. One day, several years ago, I went to visit her, and we talked about marriage. She said something that has stayed with me: “Once you figure out where the lines are drawn, it’s really very easy.

I had never thought about that, the fact that we, in our marriages, draw lines. We have them, really, in most of our relationships, even those with coworkers and grocery store clerks. I will be polite to you if you break in front of me at the copier but do not take my food from the refrigerator. I will make small talk with you while you scan my groceries, but please do not lick your fingers while touching my grocery bags.

In my marriage, two of the major lines were fairly clear–for me, no chit-chat in the morning, and certainly, no loud 6:00 AM Fox News. And my husband wanted the right-hand side of the sink empty. Clear always–for the filling of the water pitchers and dog bowls and, of course, for the washing of hands. (When the pandemic began, my younger daughter noted, “Now everybody gets to live like we have lived for 19 years .”) The empty sink was of utmost importance–and loading the dishes was my nightly responsibility.

I like loading them, generally. I like looking out the window, I like the warm water, I like the pets wandering into play with the soap bubbles and sneak licks from the forks in the dishwasher. I like the solitude–the dishwasher door takes up almost a third of our kitchen’s floor space, so if you are loading dishes at our house, you are guaranteed privacy.

And, honestly, I like the time to reflect at the end of the day. To stand there in the kitchen looking out at the Japanese magnolia in the twilight. To be alone after a day with 120 teenagers. To listen to Eric Church and feel the nostalgic hope that music brings.

But, sometimes, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to do dishes. Three from scratch meals a day meant there were always so many. It was late. I was tired. Sometimes, I just felt like they could wait.

When I felt that way, this is what I would do, this is what I thought: Surely, I love him nine minutes.

And, with that, I would set the stove timer. Always nine. Never more or less. Nine was both the minimum and the maximum.

Sometimes, as I worked for nine minutes, I thought contented thoughts–this kitchen will look good, he will be pleased, I am grateful that he is still alive to do dishes for. Sometimes, I was sullen and far from Christlike–as pastor Mark Rutland once remarked, “There’s nothing louder than an angry woman doing dishes.” I proved that maxim true. But always, I made it nine minutes.

Now, my younger daughter and I are living alone, trying to negotiate the switch from mother and child to roommates, a relationship neither of us ever wanted–or expected–to have. She is supposed to be at Yale, and instead, she has been on the sofa in our den for 266 days. She and her laptop have rarely left it–because Yale is still Yale. The insane workload was, no doubt, more bearable in the silent and beautiful Sterling Memorial Library. It was easier to watch a three-hour lecture in Maison Mathis with hot coffee and a fresh croissant. Midnight snacks of raw cookie dough and Nutella quesadillas in her dorm’s buttery (with actual people) were so much better than month eight with Mom.

It was easy to be away, and it is so hard to be here.

But she is here.

Today, I came home from work tired. Whatever ailment I have–fibromyalgia, hypertonia, just plain bad luck–I am in a horrible flare. For the past few days, I have screamed getting in my car.


I’ve done yoga and cried.

Hot baths with Epsom salts.

And there just hasn’t been any relief to be found. None at all. So, when I make it to Friday at 3:00, I’m so happy. So ready to come home and start the weekend.

But Friday at 3:00 at Yale is so very different from Friday at 3:00 in South Georgia. And she is at Yale.

She is helping to design experiments for the psychology department at Yale. She is working in the lab there. She is writing papers and doing important work, but it sometimes feels like she is just hanging out in our den.

I want to tell her the minutiae of the day. I want to send her to Walgreen’s, ask her to do extra chores.

Almost daily, I have to remind myself that, right now, there is an Ivy League institution meeting at my kitchen table. (Certainly, some of the lectures I have overheard have been mind-blowing. Brilliant. I’ve listened to class discussions where I have barely comprehended a sentence. She says things to these people, her peers, and I marvel at who she is when she is with them and who they are now, and who they all will be.)

Yes, there are times when I am able to say, “That might be the future President of the United States who is saying hello to my dog on Zoom.”

There are days when I can understand that she has papers due, question sets, and quizzes.

But there are other days, like today, when I don’t want to do anything and so much needs to be done.

Tonight, I wanted her to take out the trash. I wanted her to sweep. I wanted her to dump the rags, and I certainly wanted her to unload the dishes.

I didn’t want to bend. It hurt. I hurt. But my daughter had work to do on this, the last day of classes. She had lots of it–she would, I knew, see 2:00 AM again.

I thought about the nine-minute principle, about how it applied to her.. And I went into the kitchen, turned on “Holy, Holy, Holy” and began to unload the dishwasher–because, really, you can do almost anything when the music is right.

Sometimes, the people we love need big things–chunks of money and time and work that are hard to give, that require truly gutting sacrifice. Ironically, these things be easier to give than the small continual tasks that seem so very burdensome.

Letting the dog in; retrieving a forgotten towel; refilling a glass of chocolate milk; fetching a bookbag from the car–these tiny acts of grace are ultimately redemptive signals of grace, reminders of love. They are so much more than simple minutes.