For Miles, my Siamese cat, our current existence is a dream come true: I don’t go anywhere except to run, no one visits us, and nothing happens. A Total Cat Day. I’m sure this is what he was longing for on those afternoons he paced around the foyer, meowing loudly while I put on my coat. “Don’t worry,” I used to remind him. “Tomorrow will be a Total Cat Day again.” Except on the two days I taught every week, I was as housebound as Miles and his companion, Jackson, a mellow Burmese, and I, too, did the same things every day: run, drink coffee, eat breakfast, sit around all afternoon writing or reading, spend the evening cooking, baking, knitting, reading, and watching TV. In our small co-op apartment in Washington, D.C., my cats and I were practicing social distancing long before the whole country had to do it to fight the pandemic.
Although I enjoyed seeing friends now and then, I preferred having them over so I could stay put. Once I committed to an outing, I couldn’t help counting the time backward, diminishing the day through a set of subtractions: what time should I leave my apartment, how far in advance should I call a cab, when should I be dressed, showered, finished with what I was doing? Now, with every day a Total Cat Day, there is no need to count the time, forward or backward. I can sit at my desk for as many hours as it takes to write a few pages that aren’t totally bad or, failing that, turn to my journal or read with the cats on my lap. In spite of the worries about the pandemic, there is a guilty sense of luxury.
Outside the window next to my desk, three mourning doves land on the platform feeder, a mesh-bottomed tray anchored to a flowerpot. The doves jockey for position with their wings spread, the way humans do with their elbows. House sparrows and house finches visit in flocks of six or seven, followed by a mix of little gray birds—chickadees and titmice. These birds are the chorus, a steady stream of humble talent. They scatter when the showstoppers arrive for their solo performances: a red-bellied woodpecker that clings to the side of the feeder and stretches its neck over the rim to peck at the seeds, a blue jay that drops out of the sky, screaming, and stands upright like a bowling pin, a mockingbird leaning forward, tilting its masked face like a bandit’s and flicking its long tail.
If humans got wiped out in the next pandemic (this one will not kill us all, if we can refrain from flocking together), most of these birds would survive—some might be better off—but without bird feeders, they would not be congregating hour after hour in back yards and on window ledges. Our presence organizes their movements, something I try to remember as I arrange words on the page, aiming for the same mixture of plain and showy, steady familiarity punctuated by an occasional surprise.
With no evening obligations, I can start baking bread in the middle of the day. Each bread has its own rhythm and pace: how long and how vigorously to knead the dough, how many hours and how many times the dough should rise before it’s punched down and shaped into loaves, braids, baguettes, buns, or rolls. I’ve kept alive my sourdough starter, replenished every couple of weeks, for 30 years, moving it in an Igloo cooler from Wisconsin to Massachusetts to Washington. I have a dozen plastic containers of flour, some kept in the fridge, others in the cupboard: all-purpose, bread, pastry, cake, buckwheat, whole wheat, dark rye, light rye, Italian, almond, potato, coconut, rice, high gluten, gluten-free. I knead by hand, throwing the dough around and scattering flour all over the counter. Miles likes to perch on my shoulder—a friend once took a picture of us in the kitchen and called it “Sous-Chef” meaning, I think, me—and Jackson naps on top of the oven.
Bread making requires a long stretch of time, waiting for the dough to rise and the loaf to bake, but except for measuring, mixing, kneading, and shaping, there is not that much to do. It’s a simple, concrete activity. If I’m writing at the same time, baking is the percussion and writing is all the rest: multilayered, abstract, unpredictable. Luckily, bread always turns out if I follow the directions. I put the cooled loaf in the freezer, sliced, bagged, and labeled so I can take what I need in the future when I’m hungry for toast (raisin bread, orange cranberry babka, or plain sourdough?), grilled cheese, or a peanut butter sandwich. I take pride in being able to organize and plan ahead, but the see-through containers of flour and the tidy packs of sliced bread remind me of the toys I took out and put away on rainy afternoons of my childhood when I couldn’t play outside. My mother, the 51st anniversary of whose death marked the beginning of our city’s social-distancing period last week, had taught me to bake when I was eight or nine. When I picked up baking on my own again, I knew what the recipes meant when they said I should knead until the dough looked shiny and stopped sticking to the board.
Since no one is ever out socializing, it’s easier to stay in touch with friends scattered across the country. I don’t use social media or online platforms, so my methods are old-fashioned (minimally modified by new gadgets). I chat on the phone every night with a playwright in LA who’s staying in Oceanside to take care of her elderly mother, with whom she’s trying not to argue about politics. I’ve also talked to a college classmate who lives in Milwaukee and to my ex-husband, Chuck, who recently bought and moved into the house next to the one we’d shared in the 1990s in Green Bay. Throughout the day, I exchange texts and emails with a dozen other friends from every period of my adult life. Some send me photographs of their pets or the cookies they’ve baked, links to websites for 100 recipes that use beans, live cams to the baby pandas in China, New York Times articles about the pandemic.
Although we are aided by cell phones and computers, we might as well be in high school in the 1970s: all of us experiencing pretty much the same things every day and wanting to compare our stories anyway because what we mean, really, is Hey, I’m still here. Are you okay? Now that we know that seemingly healthy people can still be “silent spreaders” for the virus, my close friends in the building and I, too, only “talk” by text, phone, or email. One of them lives two doors down the hallway but she might as well be in California, while Chuck, whom I haven’t seen in three years (we’ve been divorced for more than 20), could be next door to my current home instead of to our old one. Time and distance have been rearranged. Cats can sense sequence, relative duration, and recurring patterns in time (that’s how mine knew when the cleaning ladies were coming), but they can’t count the minutes, hours, days, or years. Maybe we’re all living in Cat Time.
I can still run every morning in Rock Creek Park and on the city streets. All around my neighborhood, the flowering trees are at their peak: magnolia, camellia, forsythia, pear, and, of course, cherry. When I cross paths with other solitary runners in the park, we nod and veer around each other, careful to keep a distance. My only other outings are to the grocery stores in our neighborhood, which haven’t experienced serious shortages. It’s oddly cheering to see people walking home with one or two bags of groceries. Maybe more of us will start cooking, baking, and talking to our friends on the phone regularly. When it’s finally safe to go out, we’ll flock to the bars, restaurants, and music venues again, thrilled to celebrate with our friends, but we’ll also have learned how to slow down and be quiet by ourselves or with our families.
I know that the virus will hurt all of us economically. Many will suffer more than I, a healthy person with a salaried teaching job. Even so, I want to spend the next weeks or months appreciating the pleasures of staying home and reconnecting with friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in years. We now have a chance to be alone—and together, too, across time and distance.
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