I went into a mother-mandated quarantine when I was about 7 years old.
I still remember suffering from a nasty cough and a way-too-high fever that made me feel limp, washed out, and yearning desperately for a very large scoop of chocolate ice cream — “to break the fever” — as I explained to my mother. I even remember the doctor peering into my mouth and describing it as, “an angry little throat that’s as red as a berry.”
So Mother decided to shut everything down. With six other children, a husband and two tabby cats under the same roof, she did what she had to do. She’d done it before and she’d do it again, and she did it without apology or wasted words: Contain the contagion. Simple as that. It was not just a common-sense courtesy but a non-negotiable, rock-solid mandate of communal living. Even as a child, though, I remember being distinctly aware that I’d been so quickly isolated because I was so deeply, deeply loved.
My exile was about as excellent as any exile could be, and what made it so was Mother. I knew her goal wasn’t to banish me as much as it was to get me better.
Mother protected us with Lysol
Her patterns were precise and methodical, but oh-so-very loving: She kept a metal pail filled with bleach and bubbles just inside my bedroom door. I developed a deep and abiding respect for Lysol and fresh air. Sure, she wore bright yellow dish gloves when she entered my room, but when she took them off to check my temperature, it almost made me feel grateful to be sick, so comforting was the feel of her cool hand against my fevered little forehead.
I realize, today, as we stand toe-to-toe with this new coronavirus and face a world that has been forever altered, that Mother’s no-nonsense patterns protected not just me but every single person in our household, and these patterns repeated themselves (thankfully) in my own life as I moved into adulthood:
Decades later, working as a communications strategist in the White House, I remember coming down with a nasty bug. The moment I found out I could be contagious, I went home immediately — not just because I was pregnant and didn’t want to put my unborn baby at risk, but because I had no intention of exposing my White House colleagues and possibly even the president of the United States to my germy germs. Nothing doing. It was a matter of civility, respect and communal responsibility. Contain the contagion.
So my mother’s practical wisdom lives on, in more ways than one: The daughter with whom I was pregnant in the White House eventually became a White House staffer herself, so the wisdom has become multi-generational: Respect the lives of others. Period.
Exercises for an excellent exile
Here are a few of the exercises that made up my excellent exile, probably every bit as excellent today as they were back then:
“Inside-Your-Own-Eyes”: When it came to mental gymnastics and brain games, Mother was the gold medalist. Long before the words mindfulness or mantra came into being, she’d already opened my eyes to the magic that could happen when I closed them. “Close your eyes and create a new place, then take yourself there,” she’d say. And so we did.
We’d sit together with our eyes closed and transport ourselves to other lands, other universal spheres, or maybe we’d just settle ourselves smack-dab into the center of the color green. Or orange. Or yellow. The point is this: You can train your brain to take you where you want to go.
“Be the Fish”: For a short time, I had a goldfish named Charles. He didn’t live long, but I do remember he was alive during this exile. Mother taught me how to imagine myself swimming with him, flipping and gliding along happily inside our little glass bowl. I know I’d moved all the way inside that bowl with Charles (at least for a couple of seconds) because I remember the moment my vision changed and it felt like I was looking at my bedroom through water, from the inside out.
Consider this: Buy a goldfish. No, it doesn’t plug in, light up, disconnect, download or amplify, but it does breathe. It has eyes and fins and a tiny little heart that beats. Connecting to other forms of life is not only healthy but immensely entertaining, especially if you’re in seclusion.
“Bring a Book”: Unplug, disconnect, and reach for a book. My mother and I had a favorite, and she’d read it to me every night: Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” (which was also her nickname for me). I still have the original book close at hand. I could pull it out right now, open its pages, and be transported back to my bedroom. No, sir. Mine was not a sullen exile at all.
“Inhale, Exhale, Inhale.” During my isolation, I still remember the sight of my bedroom curtains fluttering at the window, which was kept open all the time, even at night, which felt daring and adventurous. To the extent that you can, fling open those windows and invite the fresh air in. It’s not only a great way to bring the outside in, it’s a wonderful way to remind yourself that you’re not alone. It also helped me feel like everything around me was breathing. Even my house.
And if you’re sick, sequester. Respect the greater community — whether that community is made up of family members, friends or, in my case, a person who happened to be the president of the United States. A life is a life. This is no time to lose your mind.
If anything, this might be the perfect time to actually find it.
Originally published on USA Today.
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