It’s been nearly three months since our daily lives were altered by COVID-19. Some days I can’t believe it’s been that long; other days, it seems that we’ve been living in a world of closures, social distancing and relative isolation far longer. What do I miss? The ordinary life I had…walking without being so conscious of staying six feet apart from others, face masked, knowing I’m one of those in a” higher risk” category, and our world largely confined to our neighborhood and the Toronto apartment where my husband and I now live. Normally an early riser, I have begun to sleep a little longer in the mornings, the dull rhythm of a question, “What am I going to do today?” playing in my head like a broken record. But old habits re-exert themselves, I grow restless and rise to begin, again, another day.
What keeps me going in this strange time? It’s the familiar, the habits and structure in small, daily tasks: making the morning’s coffee, walking the dog, sweeping the floors, making the bed, writing—even as the pages are often filled with the increasingly mundane meanderings of a mind dulled by repetition—planning and preparing the evening meal, a pre-dinner glass of sherry with my husband, a good novel on hand, nightly reruns of Agatha Christie mysteries and other old British dramas, then lights out sometime around 11 p.m.. And in the morning, my routine begins again.
The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.
The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.
Touching the pocket for wallet,
before closing the door.
How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?
(“Habit,” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)
In a 2014 “Writing Through Cancer” blog post, I had explored what it meant to be “in remission,” told that one has “no evidence of cancer at this time,” words that signaled a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, and weeks of treatment regimens to a return to “normal life.” It didn’t mean a return to the life one had before as many survivors discovered. And I’m all to aware now, that after we finally see an end to the COVID lockdowns, whatever was normal before the pandemic will not be the same afterward.
When one survives cancer and is given the diagnosis of “in remission,” you still live with the knowledge that “survivor” does not guarantee a permanent state of grace. You may have many years left to live or perhaps less. There is one certainty, however: you never take anything for granted again. You might even feel a little guilty, especially when you have come to know many others, cancer patients as you once were, whose prognoses are less favorable and may well die from their illness. You’re relieved, yes, but it can also seem unfair. Why have you survived while others will not?
“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former group member said. “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive… I believed that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something, but,” she confessed, “I don’t find that drive in me now.” Now, as the economy worsens and so many people are feeling the other effects of the pandemic: job loss, retirement incomes diminishing, loss of family members or loved ones, what, I wonder, will the “drive to accomplish something” be like? What will “normal life” look like after COVID? And what will have changed for each of us. Perhaps if we are to learn anything from the state of being “in remission” or once this pandemic is truly ended, it may be about living differently that we did before and truly cherishing life in ways, perhaps, that we have been too busy to notice.
A friend and cancer survivor wrote me several months after she had officially been diagnosed as “in remission.” The likelihood of her cancer returning is still greater than she would like, but she discovered things about life and living that have become truly important to her after cancer. In a letter to me, said wrote: I love the things I do day by day. I hike with a beloved friend. I spend time in the wonderful garden of another. I meet friends for coffee, talking with each other with pleasure and leaving them with joy and a benefit to my mind and spirit… It frees me from having to make every moment count. It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”
Like many survivors, she was discovering comfort and meaning in accepting the natural ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship and nature. She was grateful for Life, for what, as poet Ellen Lerman so wonderfully expressed, the simple joy and fulfillment in what life gives us:
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee…
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?…
Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time…
My friend’s words still resonate with me, because it took me more than one life crisis to cement my resolve to live differently. The achievement ethic drilled into me early in life, good intentions would give way to slippage into old habits of being, of accomplishment, and the rush, busyness and stress of a life style that was not, I sometimes allowed myself to admit, good for me. It would take a few more years, an emergency ride to the hospital, three days in observation and a diagnosis of heart failure before I paid attention to truly changing how I wanted to live. The real task of living required a mindfulness, a time to be fully present and pay attention to little moments, the gifts of beauty, joy, and laughter. Gradually, I developed daily routines that continue to give my life a healthier structure and meaning: the morning walk with my dog—at her pace, not mine—the creativity and mindfulness of preparing an evening meal and taking the time to enjoy it with my husband, to have the sacred space to write each day, because doing so keeps me attentive, grateful, and remembering how lucky I’ve been in life—no matter the hardships I’ve suffered from time to time. Now, in this time of isolation and social distancing, I am again reminded of how one find can pleasure and something new in each day, despite its seeming predictability or, in a time of uncertainty, because of it. These are the simple gifts to be found in the ordinary and commonplace.
I turn to the poetry and wisdom of A., diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, and part of the Stanford Cancer Center group I led for several years. She lived with the knowledge of her certain and impending death, choosing, for the final year and a half of her life, to live alone in a small cabin in the California redwoods, a source of inspiration and peace for her. She wrote prolifically and daily, creating poetry, several of her poems published, out of her experience and reverence for the life and beauty she found in the most ordinary moments of each day of her life. In 2012, cancer took her life; a few weeks later, three of her poems were published in the American Poetry Review—testimony to her extraordinary gifts. In the poem, “Directive,” she reminds us to remember the abundance of gifts to be found in what we consider commonplace—if only we stop to pay attention:
Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…
Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…
Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.
(From “Directive,” by A.E.)
I am grateful for the gifts of poetry I received from A. and remembering her words in this unusual time that it is in the commonplace, the ordinary and everyday routines that give some shape to the days and are reminding me, again, to appreciate the life I have, the small gifts present in each day. I don’t know what life after COVID will be like—but I know it will not be the same. I only hope the lessons of this time will have some lasting impact—and not just for me, but for the world. For now, I am grateful for Life…the commonplace, everyday, routine of living.
This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland…
(From “Starfish,” in Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)
- “Borrow” a line from any of the poetry in this post. Let it be the first line you write on your page…then, let it take you wherever it wants to go.
- What, in the ordinary routines of your life, matters most to you? What small habits or practices? Why?
- Write about this “time of COVID” and how it’s changed your life—possibly for good.
- What lessons do you hope come from this pandemic experience?
- Has your experience with living with a serious or life-threatening condition help or hinder how you’ve dealt with life in lockdown? What wisdom might you share?