I was on deadline – technically, past deadline – when my state imposed a stay-at-home order in March. Suddenly, my 10-year-old daughter was home full-time instead of at school all day. It should have been a recipe for disaster.
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
Back in the 1990s, I had written seven novels in seven years while a full-time reporter at the Baltimore Sun. This meant waking at 6am and working steadily for two hours. I had calculated that if I wrote a minimum of 1,000 words daily, I could have a draft in three months, then nine months to revise. I treated my time as people are advised to handle their paychecks if they wish to save money: I paid myself first. When I arrived at my day job at 9.30am, my work on my novel had been banked, so I could throw myself whole-heartedly into whatever life at the newspaper brought me. I liked both my jobs, but when I was finally lucky enough to risk life as a full-time novelist, I realized how exhausting it had been to juggle the two. In fact, I often wondered if all that work had cost me my first marriage.
Yet there I was at my dining room table in the spring of 2020, having traveled full circle, only my day job now involved supervising my daughter’s virtual classroom, thanks to Covid. I got up at 5am and worked until my daughter rose at 8. In this way, I not only finished my novel by 1 June, I found myself awash in time. The 24 hours that had never seemed enough a few months earlier was now an interest-bearing account that kept producing unexpected dividends.
In part, I was rich with time because the pandemic forced efficiency on areas of my life where I had been wildly profligate. Take grocery shopping and meal planning. Because I live in a walkable urban neighborhood, in the before time I often went to grocery stores three, four times a week. Now I sat down on Sunday mornings, made a plan for the week, then went to a small store I chose for its superior butcher counter and cozy size. I was in and out in 30 minutes and that task, which had eaten up hours a week in my previous life, was done. Bonus: My family, which had been used to going to restaurants two or three times weekly, was eating healthier, homecooked meals and I became a better cook.
Thrown together every night – no tennis lessons for me, no art class for my daughter, no work gigs for my spouse or me – we started a family film festival. The rules were simple: we took turns picking movies and no one could veto another’s choice or even complain about it. In that way, we watched older classics, such as My Darling Clementine, and modern ones like Paddington 2. How my heart swelled when my daughter selected Some Like it Hot on her night, how joyful I was when she said at the end of the original The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, “That is a perfect movie.”
And still there was time. Tantalized by a Twitter challenge thrown out by New Yorker writer Rachel Syme, I began dressing up every day, styling my hair, putting on make-up, taking selfies and posting them to my feed, often with the stories behind the outfits. In my pre-pandemic life, I often wore workout clothes from morning to night, going from sweats to pajamas. Now I plumbed the riches of my closet and, in the most counter-intuitive move possible, reactivated my suspended Rent the Runway subscription so I could experiment with new looks. Superficial as it may sound, this attention to what I wore gave the days a much-needed variety and lifted my spirits. I loved the hour or so I spent fussing with my outfits.
And still there was time. My trainer, whom I had seen twice a week, was now doing sessions via Zoom at a lower price. So I opted for three sessions, then worked out on One of Those Bikes two days a week. (I had gone into 2020 with “purchase Peloton” on my resolution list, so please no pandemic Peloton shaming.) Once my book was done, I began using my mornings for long walks, logging at least 7,000 steps by 7 am, listening to podcasts. Already pretty fit, I found myself in the best shape of my life and bursting with endorphins.
And still there was time. I began compulsively zhuzhing and decluttering my house. “Isn’t everyone doing this?” I asked my therapist, to whom I now spoke by phone, saving me an hour because I no longer had to drive to and from her office. “No, Laura,” she said, “I think everyone’s talking about doing that.” I made small repairs, I organized closets and cupboards.
I realize all of this reeks of privilege, that this is the life of a woman who is not worrying about money or her job. Does it make it better if I admit that despite my attempts to fill my days with positive activities, I wasn’t always happy? In fact, I was often depressed, especially on my daughter’s behalf. I would give anything if I could give her the old world back. I can’t, so instead I choose Hope and Glory for family movie night, hoping she sees the parallels between the pandemic and the blitz.
Over the past six months, I have returned to a beloved book by Ruth McKenney, best known for the My Sister Eileen stories. In Love Story, she wrote about her marriage to Richard Brantsen. They were committed Communists and anti-fascists in the 1930s, appalled by world events. But they were not without joy, although the tragic end of their marriage – he committed suicide on her birthday in 1955 – suggests that McKenney left some things out of her love story.
McKenney wrote how she and her husband fussed over their first home, planting dogwoods that would not bloom for at least a decade: “War had come in Europe … Perhaps it was wrong to be happy, in 1940; ignoble to have cared about dogwoods. Yet even for intellectuals – and [my husband] and I were never dispassionate – there is a strong continuing rhythm of life. One thinks, one imagines, one suffers, one puzzles to make sense of history; and all the time there is a living to make, books to get written, delphiniums to be separated, people up for the week end [sic], the pump gone wrong again.”
I write, I shop, I cook, I work out, I walk, I watch movies, and still there is time. I find myself feeling happy, feel guilty about the happiness and scold myself, but the happiness creeps back. No delphiniums for me to separate, so I take a copy of my just published book of essays, cut up the pages, and decoupage a lampshade for the gussied-up guest room where, I promise my daughter, one day we will have guests again.