I run late.
I run late because I have a tendency to think I can squeeze one last thing into a day—a last call, a last detail, a stop at the post office. It’s not that I lose track of time; it’s that I overestimate its elasticity, its contingencies, the cost of inevitable things like traffic and lines. It’s also true that I use the pressure of time to sharpen my thoughts, provide a sense of urgency, clarity. I haven’t turned in a piece of writing on deadline since the late ’80s. This is not unknown amongst my friends and family and editors, nor is it universally indulged. There’s a certain conceit to think you can flex time without affecting the people around you.
It’s also true that I love what happens when something gets canceled. I love the space that opens up. A snow day, a holiday, the Internet goes out: whatever we were supposed to be doing with this time is suddenly changed, and an exciting new possibility occurs.
Which is not to say I lack an appreciation for routine. I have a near-daily yoga practice. I love the flow, the repetition of sun salutations, warrior series, balance then backbends, then folds, then corpse pose. I know what comes next, and the pattern is satisfying. In practicing the same motions every day, I get better. I find new depth in a stretch, new space always opening. So while warrior one is always the same pose, my commitment renews it. It’s a good metaphor for all the things we maintain because we have always maintained them.
It seemed okay to hold all these ideas at once until this spring. Until people started getting sick, until people lost their jobs and their access to each other, their lives in practical and actual ways. I could give and take and keep and waste time all I wanted until now.
In my house, since March, we have had a cough (allergies), chest pain (stress), a worsening rash (poison ivy), shortness of breath (ten extra pounds), headaches (wine), and one day of weird chills that amounted to nothing but a weekend of self-quarantine while we awaited the results of a negative COVID-19 test.
Do you know what happens when you give a novelist a list of symptoms and a weekend to consider what could happen next?
The idea of expectation is built into the human language, particularly the language of art. A melody is pleasing for how it repeats, how we can anticipate it, and jazz works when that expectation is broken, connected, and broken again. Rhyme is built on expectation. Abstraction is built on expectation, a shape that barely makes an image we recognize. Recognition: to return to what we already know.
There are plenty of things I want to do again when all of this is over.
I want to walk across the street at the cocktail hour and order a Manhattan from the bar at the Poinsett Hotel. It’s my favorite Manhattan in town—and not for its cocktail glass or the good Luxardo cherry, but for its bigness and booziness. You can order rye or bourbon, up or on the rocks, and your drink is blessedly made by someone else, delivered to your wingback chair accompanied by a small bowl of pistachios in the shell. I miss bars.
I miss people in my house that go home at the end of the night. There are people I want to know more and better—Kimmie loves yoga and wine, and her partner reads Viking novels they’ve ordered from the bookstore for curbside pickup; I want to have them over for dinner. Beth and Matt live in our neighborhood; she cooks like the devil, and Matt teaches English at Wade Hampton—I know we could use more of each other. I want Elizabeth and Sean to bring a stack of jazz records and teach more about what we’re beginning to love about Miles Davis and The Birth of Cool. Renewal: to restore what once was.
But does once was have a place in what we’ve got going on right now? There is no full stop like a pandemic; time has really opened up, and not like a holiday. What I miss most about before is my ability to imagine what’s next.
This spring, I have turned to my kitchen—hence the ten pounds. I have made sourdough bread and pancakes, Moravian sugar cake, strawberry jam, peanut butter cookies, Hemingway daiquiris, and dinner every night. I have purchased from my friend Christina at Naked Pasta a 55-pound bag of Italian 00 flour and perfected homemade pizza dough (overnight rise in the fridge, preheated stone in the oven). This has put a pretty good dent in the bag.
I have planted a garden with tomatoes and cucumbers, basil, dill, fennel, radishes, arugula, kale, spinach, and carrots. We’ve eaten all the radishes, arugula, and carrots—including carrot-top pesto and carrot-top chimichurri, and there’s still a bag of carrot tops in my fridge in case another whole-vegetable-eating idea comes along. I cut a new bed along the walkway to the front door, planted iris, coneflower, sedum, butterfly bush, a whole bunch of daylilies a neighbor had dug up and left on the curb—hence the poison ivy. I’ve mulched and pruned, installed a patio. Ordered and assembled new patio chairs.
I started knitting a quilt. It has 16 mitered squares; I’m not even a third of the way through. All of these things are physically developing, rising in their bowls, growing in the sun, anticipating a future I’m literally making up as I go along.
Because anticipation is integral to human nature. It’s a huge part of storytelling, imagining what happens next, and it’s based on knowing what’s happened before and hoping it happens again. The anticipation of being satisfied is 99 percent of what makes a good story great, what keeps you turning the pages, in love with the hero, believing the ugly duckling will blossom into a swan. We want to know what’s coming, but we also want to be surprised at the form it takes when it gets here.
Can a tomato take all of that on? I’m thinking now how the shape of the fruit is described by botanists: the soft, rounded part that borders the stem is the shoulder. Not the collar or the ruff, but the shoulder, like how we offer someone in need a shoulder to cry on. Like how someone with broad shoulders can carry the weight of the world.