Growing up in England, the iconic World War II slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” was embedded in the culture. It has always resonated — now I understand what it’s all about. For me, there’s an implicit call to resilience, optimism, and steadiness in the face of adversity. Keep positive, keep being kind, carry on having a laugh — and carry on being creative.
On that note, I was cheered to read in The Atlantic that when the Bubonic plague closed London theaters in 1593, Shakespeare was prolific, producing some of his most brilliant work. I then saw a tweet, noting that in 1665, when Cambridge University temporarily closed its doors — again due to the Plague — Isaac Newton had to work from home and used the time to develop calculus and the theory of gravity. (Admittedly, there were no Netflix-style distractions!) Reading about those geniuses reminded me that there are always choices in how we respond to difficulties — even difficulties on this scale, whoever we are. You don’t have to be a genius to express yourself creatively.
Right now, I want as much practical information as possible to be well informed about the coronavirus, so I am watching the news. However, I am limiting my time in front of the T.V. and opting for more uplifting choices. I am not finding that too hard, I think, because, as a family, we have already been dealing with a life-changing challenge. My husband, Stephen Beech, has brain cancer. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, he is slowly recovering but he’s in a wheelchair with slurred speech, a numb left side, and swallowing difficulties.
The courage, patience, and humor he has demonstrated while navigating the long and complicated road to recovery has set a great example. And in some ways it has prepared me for anything, while putting everything in perspective. At the same time, my family’s journey has given me greater empathy than I ever had before.
Of course, it’s crucial to be practical, following all the guidelines about handwashing and social distancing. We are taking it seriously — the main job at hand is to keep Stephen safe because of his compromised immune system. And that is something so many families are confronting. Like everyone I know, my emotions have been all over the place. I’ve felt sad, panicked, and confused. But on the whole, I’ve managed to stay open and optimistic, with regular meditation, good sleep and exercise.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far that is helping me.
Practice social distancing
Other than walks, we are only leaving the house when it’s absolutely essential — to pick up medications for Stephen, shop for groceries, or attend hospital appointments. As a gregarious extrovert, I am missing face-to-face interaction with friends. But there is comfort in the fact that we are all in this together.
Appreciate family time
Personally, I feel grateful because both our grown daughters are currently at home. Chace, 25, was already here. She moved back to L.A. from New York, to help take care of her dad and is now studying for her Masters at the University Of Southern California (U.S.C.) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Ava-Rose, a 21-year-old junior at Kenyon College, is at home, having flown back from New Zealand after her semester abroad was cut short. I’ve been joking with Stephen that ironically, I’ve got what I’ve often asked for … the whole family at home together! I didn’t mean under these circumstances, obviously. However, here we all are, arguing over who is going to clean the kitchen and what’s for dinner — there are nostalgic requests for childhood favorites, like my lemon pasta. Needless to say, I will be delighted when our daughters are leading their own lives again, but for now, I appreciate their great company.
Have a laugh
We all agree that we need to laugh, but there are disagreements about what to watch. Chace voted for “Love Is Blind” last night. “Escapism” was her rationale. Definitely not what Stephen and I would ever normally watch, but we acquiesced, happy to be together. Later, there was a consensus on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, which kept us all entertained.
Be productive and creative
It’s easy to sink into despondency and fear, far better to be productive — and active, we are finding. Ava, who is majoring in environmental studies and biology, is getting to work on a gardening project, as well as knitting. Chace is writing and taking her classes online. I’m working. We’re doing online yoga classes together. And we are all spending quality time with Stephen, helping him with speech exercises and working on mobility as his regular therapies have been canceled.
Connect with family, friends, and neighbors
While we can’t see anyone in person, I am grateful for my regular conversations with friends. I am sad that I can’t fly across the Atlantic for a comforting cup of tea with my mum in London, or my dad and stepmother in Scotland — or even get together with my friend Nancy here in Santa Monica! But until we get back to normal, there is much to be grateful for. More than ever, I am appreciating our street, how we are all supporting each other. My lovely next door neighbor, Tammy, surprised us, dropping off food this morning. Bill, who lives a few doors away, brought over toilet paper — still in short supply here, because of panic stockpiling. It’s fun waving and greeting each other (while keeping our distance) when we are out walking.
For the past two years, caring for Stephen while working has left little time for one of my favorite pastimes — reading. Now both daughters are here helping, I’m finding some time to curl up with a book. I am loving The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul, by William Sieghart and have an ambitious plan to re-read George Eliot’s wonderful classic, Middlemarch, which is 880 pages long! Others on my list are recommendations from my daughters and my mother: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and Normal People by Sally Rooney.
I can’t imagine a day without writing. It’s the way I’ve earned my living for most of my adult life. I think writing is a great release for anyone though. It reduces stress. What’s interesting for me, (going back to the inspiring article about Shakespeare), is that I’ve been noticing a sudden surge of creativity. Perhaps being holed up at home has removed distractions, increased focus and expanded the mind. Whatever the case, I don’t want to question it too much, or obsess about whether it will lead to anything remotely readable! Honestly, I’m just grateful it’s happening and I hear lots of others are experiencing something similar. My new lease of creative energy, incidentally, led me to pen this post. Next — if I summon the courage — I may return to one of the three unfinished novels filed away on this laptop — waiting patiently for my attention. Or perhaps there’s a new book waiting to be started.