I’m reluctant to describe the coronavirus as having a silver lining. But I am finding time to get chores done that I doubted I’d accomplish in this or several subsequent lifetimes. They present such a plethora of opportunities that I’m not sure where one starts; perhaps by listing them. I’m thinking of them as indoor and outdoor – those that can be accomplished when it’s bright and sunny and those that can wait until rain or cold drive you inside your home.
While, like everyone else, I hope this thing is over sooner rather than later my hunch is that there will be more than enough time to get both types accomplished this spring and summer.
Chores also double as a form of therapy. The human mind is programmed to collect, organize and categorize, to make sense of a seemingly random, chaotic and sometimes hostile universe by wrestling it into a certain amount of order.
Some people are admittedly more comfortable living in disorganization than others. Including certain members of my own family. Not saying who. Now’s not the time for finger pointing. We all need to get along, especially if we’re going to be living under the same roof.
Others, myself included, derive pleasure that borders on the compulsive for putting things in boxes – psychological, philosophical, and actual boxes. Those large plastic Tupperware bins. As well as shoe boxes. File folders. Cans. Drawers. Or hanging from hooks.
I have an unproven and perhaps unproveable theory that one day scientists will discover a gene that can predict whether you’re a collector or not, whether putting photos in albums, gathering all the books of a particular author on a single shelf, even locating all your grandmother’s hatpins – all enterprises I’ve engaged in – gives you untoward satisfaction or doesn’t.
There are physical ways to beat this disease that we all know about – washing your hands and disinfecting surfaces frequently, maintaining a safe distance from others, venturing out only when your survival or sanity depends on it. But when it doesn’t, working or playing at home.
My mother passed away around this time last year. It was sad but also fortuitous because I’d hate to have had her succumb in the midst of this crisis. But she also left behind a veritable Mount Everest of things to organize. Letters and photographs, for starters. And when I’m finished with them there are sixty additional boxes awaiting in a local storage locker.
One might wonder why or for whom I’m organizing all this stuff? That question’s occurred to me, too. My hunch is that my children won’t find the same fascination I do in a great-grandfather’s birth certificate or a passport from the 1920’s. And my mother’s life, for all her eccentricities and generosity of spirit, didn’t lend itself to the trailblazing accomplishments that would prompt some esteemed university to pay top dollar for her archives.
But perhaps that’s not the point at the moment. The point is to keep yourself amused, productive and out of harm’s way. And maybe also to see your own life as part of a continuum that stretches from your ancestors to descendants yet unborn.
One thing that going through a trove of family documents accomplishes is to lend you a perspective that you might not have gotten, or gotten as profoundly otherwise. References in my mother’s and father’s correspondence to births, deaths and gossip; the weather; parties; Broadway shows they attended; business and political developments – tend to fade in the way a parade does as it passes from sight and the sounds of its marching bands grow ever fainter. One day the story of this crisis will join them.
While my mind tends to apocalyptic scenarios – I blame that less on current events than a father that frequently tried to impress us that anything that can go wrong will go wrong – I like think of the attention I’ll shortly turn to responsibilities such as our neglected garden as an antidote, a mental health exercise.
Turning over our planting beds and supplying them with seedlings and fertilizer come May is also an extension of the quasi-constructive activities that have kept me occupied indoors for weeks as well as an opportunity to participate in the grand scheme of things without ever leaving our yard.
That’s another reason to use this time to take stock and to see it in some ways as a blessing rather than a curse. It’s an opportunity to employ the perfectly timed poetry of William Blake. You already know the words: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand. A heaven in a wildflower. Infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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