By Sandra Hutchinson
I know there’s no shortage of people ruminating on the Web about being stuck at home and the various ways they are trying to cope during the Covid-19 shutdown. I am intensely grateful that I can do my work for our business from home, I don’t often have to venture into public places, and I don’t have young children at home who need help with schoolwork! Above all, I am thankful that most of my friends and family seem to be healthy and weathering the storm.
But since we can’t physically travel, and are pretty much confined at home, I haven’t published an article on my blog since January, when I wrote about our visit to Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City. So even though I can’t share some wonderful destination, I can share what’s been happening in my house in northern New York State.
First, for those of you who don’t live in New York State, or who aren’t glued to CNN, you might not know that each day, usually between 11 am and noon, our governor, Andrew Cuomo, gives a press briefing on the status of the pandemic in New York. Of course, it’s mostly about the epicenter of the infections and hospitalizations, in New York City and the suburbs. Even though we live about 200 miles north of midtown Manhattan we are still part of the Empire State, so the restrictions that impact us, our health care, and our economy, are still affected by what goes on downstate. The governor’s daily briefings quickly became must-see TV for many of us.
I’m personally not a huge fan of many of Andrew Cuomo’s policies and actions, but frankly, it was a bit of a relief from the fear and panic to hear him acknowledge the impact of the restrictions on our mental health and to offer some counsel and discuss the importance of staying connected to family. When Governor Cuomo signed his Executive Order instituting the severe restrictions on New Yorkers beginning March 22, he termed it “Matilda’s Law,” in honor of his mother. During the early 1980s, I worked in his father’s administration in New York State government, and I once had the pleasure of meeting Matilda Cuomo, Andrew’s mother, who seemed to be quite a lovely woman.
The first few days that I was hunkered down at home, oh, when was that? — the week of March 16? — I actually kind of enjoyed the idea of forced isolation. I had so many projects to get done: organize the linen closet, the pantry, the freezer; clean and seal the grout in the shower; straighten out my books and photos; sort through my now-grown boys’ clothes in their closets. Maybe I would actually tidy up using the Marie Kondo method, picking everything up, gazing at it and asking “Does this spark joy?”
Well, during the first week of home isolation, some things did spark a bit of joy, such as when I sorted through and straightened out the mess in the pantry so I knew what I had to work with going forward. But soon thereafter, the novelty of having hours each day to do these cleaning and sorting tasks just kind of wore off.
So early on in this home isolation process, beyond these organization projects, I decided there were several things I could do each day to help myself cope, and take some care of my body and mind.
I determined to do the following each day: record something about each day in my journal; meditate using the Headspace app; play some piano; connect with at least one friend; call or reach out to someone who might be alone and need support; check in with both my sons; cook something decent; read literature or intelligent commentary; do a New York Times crossword puzzle; and exercise. Overall, I am happy and rather astonished to say, I’ve done most of these things most days. And as the writer Gretchen Rubin says, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
So please indulge me a bit, since I have learned many things through this process and I offer a bit of photo journalism, with commentary, below.
Starting with the piano.
Initially, I decided not only was I going to play the piano each day, but I was going to work my way through Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavichord. Playing Bach, along with the New York Times crossword puzzle, are the two intellectual exercises that I pursue in the hopes of warding off mental decline as I age. They are both challenging exercises and require great concentration, as well as the use of memory skills, which at times seem to be declining. I have no medical basis for my opinion; it’s just a hunch.
I was fairly successful for about a week, learning some new (to me) music, before reverting to playing various inventions that I had memorized back in my college days when I studied harpsichord and played with a string quartet. Some days the new stuff is just too hard.
When I felt like I was falling short in my technique, and needed to strengthen my finger agility, I actually pulled out this old book of Hanon’s Exercises for the Virtuoso Pianist that I was required to use while taking piano lessons as a young person. Sadly, it gave me PTSD when I tried to do some of them:
Moving on to books.
In terms of my intention to regularly read quality material — I have completed reading a pile of books, I’m happy to report, including a biography of Queen Elizabeth II by Sally Bedell Smith, entitled Elizabeth the Queen, which was published in 2011. Having now read this biography and watched all three seasons of The Crown, I feel fairly confident in saying that The Crown series is largely based on this biography. In fact, I think I discovered the book while reading about the making of the Netflix series, in a list of recommended additional readings. The biography is highly readable, long (720 pages in paperback), but fascinating. Reading it only increased my admiration for this remarkable woman.
While in “lockdown,” I’ve also read some fiction. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Della Owens, tells the story of a young girl who essentially spends much of her youth alone in a living in coastal North Carolina, her remarkable curiosity about flora and fauna and her intelligence and her embroilment in a local murder case.
In The Taster, by V. S. Alexander, the protagonist is one of fifteen women who tasted Hitler’s food at the several locations where he sequestered during World War II. The author said he wrote the novel after reading a newspaper account in 2013 about a 95-year old German woman who revealed for the first time that she had been employed in this position. But in the novel, at least, the main character is unwillingly swept into the position and is ultimately not a supporter of the Reich. (That’s kind of an understatement but I don’t want to be a spoiler.)
To try and find some levity, after The Taster, I picked up Bill Bryson‘s Notes From a Small Island, which is a humorous commentary about some of the peculiar cultural traits of the British. Entertaining but crass in places.
I also read The Stationery Shop, by Maria Kamali, set in 1953 Tehran during the Iranian uprising, about two young Iranians who are separated just before marrying, but who reunite sixty years later in the United States. Kind of a tug-at-your-heart story, but it forced me to google many aspects of the not-so-distant Iranian history, which is still at play today in our countries’ relations. I read the book on Kindle, which explains why it doesn’t appear in the photo above.
Then I dove into Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, which has been kind of the book du jour. The writer grew up in a shockingly isolated family in Idaho, where she was prevented from attending school and subjected to abuse and neglect by her parents and siblings, but managed to wrest herself away to attend college, ending up with a PhD from Oxford University and working as a teaching fellow at Harvard. It was a compelling read, and heartbreaking in parts, but I still have nagging questions about why no authorities intervened in this truly dysfunctional family.
I’m also working my way through a couple of books on the American Revolution. The first, The Men Who Lost America, was written by Andrew O’Shaughnessy, the Oxford-educated professor who led a seminar there on the history of the British and American relationship, which I attended last fall. He writes about the Revolution from the perspective of the British military and political leaders during the conflict. I’m just a bit into the book, but have already concluded that George III wasn’t quite the doofus that he is often made out to be, for example, as in the musical Hamilton. The other is The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson, which is just the first volume of a trilogy the historian is writing about the Revolution. This book covers Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. I guess I’ll have to wait for volume two to read about the pivotal Battles of Saratoga, which took place near my home, in September and October, 1777.
So something I have been doing pretty much every day is cooking.
I’ve got a drawer full of recipes that I’ve either collected from family and friends, or printed off the Internet and I’ve been trying out new recipes.
Some of my more successful efforts have been this tasty and easy chicken, leek and rice soup from The Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite cooking blogs written by Deb Perelman, from her tiny NYC kitchen.
Then there was this successful Meyer lemon olive oil cake. I’m not sure where I found the recipe, but there are many versions online. While the edges got a bit overbaked (I used a dark metal springform pan), the cake was light, moist and tasty.
This next soup is rich and delicious. It’s a take off on the Zuppa Toscano that is served at the Olive Garden restaurant chain. A friend at my church made it for a soup luncheon we had, and he told us that if you google the soup, several recipes come up. The version I made has crumbled Italian sausage, bacon, kale, potatoes and a good dose of red pepper flakes. Absolutely indulgent, with some kick, even if it added to the several pounds I’ve gained in the past month.
Then there’s the go-to easy-peasy Key Lime Pie. So simple yet so good. Sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, lime juice, and a toasted meringue top. I’ve made this for years and even though it tends to collapse when the pieces are cut (I do not add gelatin!) it is always a huge hit at my house. I used a pre-made graham cracker crust here. I still use the recipe off the front of a postcard I picked up in Key West, in the early 1980s. (Don’t fret if you don’t have key limes. Any limes will work.)
One morning, I was so ambitious, I actually made crêpes.
I also wish to share this exciting image that went viral last week — the recipe for those Swedish meatballs found at the IKEA restaurants. Oh, my heart be still.
Ok let’s talk cocktails.
One fun thing I have done is FaceTime my friend Elissa for cocktail hour (not every night, mind you). I finally learned to make a Cosmo, although during my first effort, the cute but cheap Tommy Bahama cocktail shaker with a rattan collar that I had bought at Home Goods leaked, and the cranberry juice and vodka poured down my back while shaking the container over my shoulder. I had washed the dust off the two martini glasses that were given to us nearly three years ago at the opening the Feibes & Schmitt Collection of contemporary art at our local Hyde Collection Art Museum, and poured what remained of the concoction out of the leaky shaker, into one glass. After enjoying the drink, I promptly went online and purchased a leak-proof shaker made by Oxo.
And I probably shouldn’t show you this picture, but this being a pandemic and all, early on when we thought the liquor stores might not be deemed essential, we did stock up on our favorite Irish whiskey.
Now to some of the things I haven’t been able to accomplish. But I’ve still got some time since our restrictions are still in place for at least another two weeks.
I love needlepoint pillows and seat covers and bell pulls and those sorts of things, but I’ve never done a needlepoint project myself. So last year, I purchased a small needlepoint kit from Elizabeth Bradley, which is based in the UK. It’s just a small, 6 inch by 6 inch kit of a poppy, and it’s been sitting there taunting me for months. I started it once, trying to learn the basic needlepoint stitch, but did it wrong and ended up having to pull all my stitches out of the canvas, which is conveniently printed with the image one is aiming for. That was about three months ago. (My last foray into needlecraft was when I was expecting my first son, who was born in 1992, and I began a Beatrix Potter-themed cross stitch sampler. It’s still in a plastic bag in a closet, with just a portion of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle completed.) As they say, hope springs eternal.
While we’re talking crafts, I guess I’m just not that craftsy (or is that crafty?). Here’s another project I pulled out to complete: a paper Easter wreath kit from the Paper Source company.
Well, Easter came and went, and I never made the wreath, despite its sitting in full view on my dining room table for weeks. So I put it back in its cellophane envelope, and dug out another wreath, this one with mums. Since mums are basically a fall flower in my neck of the woods, I guess I still have enough time to complete this project.
Speaking of Easter, I had already purchased a fair amount of Easter candy before the stay-at-home order, and had put together Easter baskets to send to my two sons, even though they are in their twenties. But as it became more worrisome to venture out to the UPS store to mail the baskets to them, as I have done every year since they left home, I gave myself permission to consume the jelly beans and a chocolate rabbit. I felt that the kids would understand. Sad.
Oh and then there are the online classes and meetings.
Prior to the stay-at-home order, I had registered for a few continuing education classes at our local community college. One of my classes, An Ayurvedic Guide to Healthy Living, was switched from an in-person to an online class. So I fired up Zoom and took the class one evening, although stupidly I signed in a half hour late. But I still managed to learn some basics, including some of the differences between the three basic body types, as depicted in this slide:
My only comment after being essentially house-bound for over a month, is that even if someone started out in March as Vata, they are probably Kapha by now.
I’ve also had a number of not-for-profit board meetings held variously on Zoom, GoToMeeting and some kind of conference call (audio only) program. I haven’t experienced any trolls or hackers or strangers jumping into any of my virtual meetings and making strange utterances. And you know, if you really think you aren’t presentable, as in my bangs haven’t been trimmed in seven weeks, then you can disable the video access. I’ve also learned how important it is to keep your audio on “mute” unless you are speaking. I’ve heard all kinds of animal noises in the homes of other participants in virtual meetings, including some kind of caged bird squawking.
I’ve also taken yoga classes through Zoom, which has worked better than I expected; and I’ve enrolled in some classes through Coursera, which I’ve stuck with to varying degrees of success. If I lose patience with the instructor, as I did with a class entitled The Science of Well Being, taught by someone at Yale, I quickly drop it and look for something else. I mean, the choices are almost limitless.
I have been using videos for stretching exercises with Miranda Esmonde-White, who has appeared on Public Television, with her program called Classical Stretch. I access most of her videos through a paid subscription and App called Essentrics TV. Miranda was formerly a ballet dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, and I really enjoy her classes, and they are all under 30 minutes! Here’s a link to her Web site. Many of her classes are filmed in beautiful locations like Bermuda, Mexico and Jamaica, and others, at her studio headquarters in Montreal.
Some other observations.
With all the hand washing we’re doing, I’ve been using several different types of hand lotion to help alleviate the dryness. I can unequivocally state that my favorite is Trader Joe’s Ultra Hand Cream, with coconut oil, hemp oil and shea butter, even though the image on the tube is of two people shaking hands, which is probably now a quaint practice of the past. My husband has extremely sensitive skin, and has been using Bag Balm, made in Vermont since 1899, where it was originally used on cows’ udders (it may still be so used). This is the only thing my husband can use on his dry skin without fearing a reaction, and he swears by it. It’s basically petrolatum, lanolin, something called 8-Hydroxy Quinoline Sulfate (that sounds strangely similar to the anti-malarial drug touted as a potential Covid treatment, doesn’t it?) and paraffin wax. Trust me, it’s good stuff. The L’Occitane 20% shea butter hand cream is also very rich and effective, for me. The Kiehl’s grapefruit hand cream, not so much.
Finally, our dogs are key to our mental health.
What would we do without our Zoe and Maggie? They know something’s up since we rarely spend this much time in the house, and I’m afraid they think this is just the way it will be from now on. The girls are half-sisters, soft-coated wheaten terriers, and they are normally expertly groomed monthly, which is key to keeping their unique type of coats knot and mat-free. Here they are, going for a ride, after not being groomed for about two months. I wasn’t even sure those were our girls under all that fluff!
So all in all, I don’t have much to complain about, and I am grateful to be safe at home, with the ability to work online. I applaud all the folks who are out there in the world still doing their jobs, facing such huge challenges. I am more thankful than ever for our health and I am praying, like everyone, that we soon move out of the stay-at-home restrictions, but in a measured and sensible way. I thank my blog readers for reading to the end of this post and I pray that you are all well, no matter where you are.