What are your character strengths? How can you use these strengths in your current situation?
I’ve fortunately had plenty of time in enforced quarantine to consider this very question. (Currently on Day 25 of 35.) Over the past six weeks or so, I have named some of these qualities and attributed them to discrete characters, so that I might recognize them when they step forward, or call them forth as needed.
Meet Miss Anxiety. She is young at heart yet world-weary, very emotionally in touch, but not well regulated. She has a lot of energy that often spirals out of control into possibilities and worry and imagination and foregone conclusions that have no basis in reality. However, Miss Anxiety is creative, and when she is not skating the knife edge of worry, she is very empathic, and checks in with everyone. She wants to know everyone’s stories, how they are doing, both to provide succor as well as benchmark her own anxiety (normal) and wine intake (actually seems moderate, compared to many). Miss Anxiety needs a lot of guidance and a firm managerial hand. Left to her own devices, she fritters away the day in worry, kinetic frustration, and helplessness; however, she is quick to identify any invisible peers out here on Anxiety Island.
Now comes Farm Wife, who derives from my Inner Finn. Farm Wife demonstrates an enviable industriousness, smoothly moving through a litany of chores to keep a quarantined family afloat: laundry, dishes, meals, showers and baths, folding and putting away clothes; mending, repairing, making yeast, improvising recipes she finds online. When her chores pause, she paints with the children or makes tiny sweaters out of worn ribbed red tights for her vintage Pooh Bear. (Miss Anxiety loves these brief pauses in the chore list.) She whips up pantry crumb cakes, cast-iron skillet tarte tatin, tortillas frescas de harina, pancakes, French crepes, lentil soup.
Farm Wife loves to manage Miss Anxiety. She can put her right to work on a list of chores, and no need to provide feedback, thank you very much. This is fine as Miss Anxiety actually does not want to be a leader. She wants to be managed so she does not have to try to figure out how to do other important things, like breathe normally. When Farm Wife is in charge of the day, much gets done, everything runs smoothly, Farm Wife and Miss Anxiety fall into an easy accord of employment. Miss Anxiety is grateful for the leadership. Farm Wife likes Miss Anxiety’s energy and willingness to take direction. Perhaps Miss Anxiety’s best trait is her sense of humour, when she calms down a bit. Farm Wife’s humour tends to be earthy and abrupt; Miss Anxiety notices things that Farm Wife does not see, since her nose is always down on her list of chores for the day.
Together, Miss Anxiety and Farm Wife are a good team. Prior to the quarantine, I never would have put them together on any project, but their skills and talents are genuinely complimentary. I think they seem to like one another more too, which was not the case before the quarantine; back then, they barely spoke. But now they have to be together all the time, and they are both changing and adjusting as a result.
Do you have any characters in quarantine? Have you noticed anyone materializing in the mist to help you get through these days; conversely, any problem students who are starting to shine in adversity? I’d love to hear.
Day 22 of national quarantine, which was extended last night to April 12.
The week before the Italian government decreed a national quarantine, I lifted an unassuming book from the lounge at Gonzaga in Florence. The Merchant of Prato (1957), by Iris Origo – perhaps best-known for her non-fiction narrative War in the Val d’Orcia (1947; republished 2018) – is an archival study of the papers left by a fourteenth-century merchant and successful global business magnate, Ser Francesco di Marco Datini, who came from Prato, a town (now massive metropolitan area) just a quick hop to the north of Florence.
The author’s name is still mentioned often in Italian literary circles – indeed, when I rented a desk at the Collab of The Student Hotel in Florence, the professional translator who took the desk to my right, was working on an Italian translation of War in the Val d’Orcia. Iris was an Anglo-American aristocrat; her father, William, was born into an extremely wealthy American who married the daughter of an Irish peer in the Edwardian era. Her father so loved Italy that he traveled here often and spent significant time here, but alas, contracted tuberculosis there too, and died at 29. His widow, Sibyl, went on to marry two more times, and raised Iris in Italy, as William so beseeched her before he died. Iris was brought up in a breathtaking world of privilege, ensconced high up in the Villa Medici in Fiesole with a small army of European governesses, deftly – and deeply – educated to view Italy with a bird’s eye of both its history and landscape.
The genesis of The Merchant of Prato is remarkable. In his will, Francesco (1335-1410), who today would be described as fantastically successful and grumpy, with more than a hint of OCD, indicated that all his papers should be saved for posterity. The man was an unstoppable letter writer and recorder of his business activities, in Avignon, Prato, Florence, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Venice, and countless other ports of call, trading mostly in cloth, and eventually in every possible item of luxury known to the later Middle Ages – silk, stockings, linen, drape, spices, fine furniture, jewelry, beasts of burden, delicacies, glassware, and more. His papers were all stuffed into cloth sacks and stored in the basement of the City Hall of Prato – more than 140,000 pages of them. The volume of material was augmented by the addition of all missives and logbooks of other merchants who traded with him. Considering at the time the literacy rate, this is incredible. I imagine a sighing City Hall staffer dragging the burlap bags one by one downstairs, until they formed a small barricade of history against a brick wall. Fortunately the space was dry, because everyone forgot about those papers until 1870, when another sighing City Hall staffer dragged them all back upstairs again, to the astonishment of historians and scholars and archivists. The letters covered literally every possible aspect of life in an era gone dark for most people. The quotidian details of both his business and his home life are preserved in incredible detail. No paper was culled from the collection; they were all gathered together, and remained so for almost half a millennium.
I could not have picked a better companion across time and space for these anxious March days. Ser (Sir) Francesco knew his share anxiety and uncertainty, and among his concerns, his import business decisions and tax problems and fine dinner table, one of his primary concerns was plague and epidemic. He survived no fewer than six outbreaks of the Black Plague in his lifetime; the first, in 1348, claimed both his parents and launched his business career at fourteen out of necessity. Highlights in the collection include the bickering letters between Ser Francesco and his much younger wife, Monna (Lady) Margherita. (“Your words are as true as the Lord’s Prayer; however…”)
The narrative that Origo wove so well by examining the letters paints a vivid picture of life in Tuscany, when waves of plague routinely rolled through both town and country. People were much given to penitence and alms-giving as a way stave off the invisible, bloodthirsty predator (“Through propitiatory acts, men hoped to receive protection from the terrors and mysteries of life n this world, as well as God’s mercy in the next”). The panic and fear and loss that accompanied each epidemic were devastating. In 1383, he wrote, “the plague waxes in various places and spreads in this direction… I find the people here much afraid, and the deaths are beginning.” It broke out again in 1389 and in 1393. “It will come here too, and will dispel the tribulations of many folk who are grumbling now.” Plague was pretty much always on everyone’s minds. What it had taken the last time it struck, who and what had been lost, and the fear of when it might come again to towns and households. When it came, people lost their minds. City dwellers fled to the countryside for the fresh air and prayer; those in the country flooded into the city in search of physicks and priests. He praised his wife for her cool head in one outbreak, when they were separated, he in Florence, she in Prato, telling her “The wise may be known in times of need” praising her for acting well in a crisis – protecting neighbors, feeding the needy, tending to the animals.
The book brought to mind our bigger picture of humanity and epidemics. Since World War One, as a global people, we have lost much of our humanity, along with our sense of mortality. We’ve had widespread vaccinations and antibiotics and skillful surgery for less than a century, but their entry into our world predates the memory of most living generations.
People used to examine their conscience all the time! and tried to be better! because they were literally being chased by death – not during wartime, but by plague and infection. We have entered into a unprecedented period of global health and security, and yet few people examine their conscience anymore. People now feel such a robust safety net that extreme sports and recreational drugs are things. While certainly entertaining for many, they are pursuits that generations before us would have never dreamed of chasing. They got their adrenaline rush just by surviving the most recent outbreak, or the year, the week, the day.
The Merchant of Prato became a timely and well-written call to reconsider the counsel of our ancestors – wise, and versed in the ways of loss, fear, and anxiety. And disease, and death before eighty, which most healthy people today don’t even consider. Perhaps our ancestors perished of disease that swept away entire households and towns, babies and children and grandparents and adults of all ages in between. Fortunately for us, a baby was born in the chain that led to us, or we would not be here. Can we ask ourselves if we have, maybe, become grabby – and aggrandizing and entitled – in our demand for life, health, and certainty? (And I just have to ask, Is this what the toilet paper is all about?) We have all moved into a state of fragile communication and some distant cell memory of this precarious life, and together pick our way across this newly-plowed field.
The weekend was sunny and bright. Springing forward on Satuday night revealed some incredible afternoon light in the corridoino (little hallway) on the north side of our apartment, whose windows face south. I might have gotten mildly sunburnt yesterday afternoon sitting there. I certainly began to perspire ever so slightly. It was wonderful.
From our apartment the windows afford no exterior views, but we hear many sounds through the roof, through the back exterior wall behind our headboards, which gives directly onto Piazza D’Azeglio. Buses still shudder the building; buzzsaws trim the trees in the park below. ambulances wail in the distance. Church bells ring through deserted streets. Mourning doves coo, and songbirds we’ve never heard before trill fetchingly. I wish we could see everything too.
Jason took a walk after lunch. I haven’t really felt like it, particularly after he returned from his Sunday jaunt and informed me that carabinieri were in the piazza, reminding people through megaphones that everyone was allowed three laps only around the square. The park was taped off days ago. A stray stubborn cyclist raced through the ribbon and broke it last week. The city workers return each day to repair it, so that no one is filled with false hope that the park might be opening again.
Today I took the three bags of refuse out – organic, recycle, and undifferentiated – and made a very long circuit to drop each one in a trash island in different parts of the square. The quartiere was quiet and eerie and felt like stepping into a Giorgio De Chirico painting. On the plus side, I made about three thousand steps, which these days may as well be a half marathon.
All the dates are blending together. The original school closure was meant to end on April 3, but no one thinks that is happening now. In fact, we are all pretty much expecting the analog school year to be cancelled, and to have online assignments until then. I can’t even remember anymore what the original dates were for social distancing. March 25 was about a week ago. The initial outbreak towns went into quarantine on February 20. I think, until March 4, the rest of the country was in a “wash yer hands, and keep yer distance” mode, with much fretting about negative economic impact. Starting March 5, we moved into “schools are closed, but still wash hands and maintain distance.” You can imagine how hard it is for Italians to maintain social distance. Well, for anyone, to be fair. On March 8, the Red Zone increased in size. And on March 9, the entire country became the Red Zone. On March 13? 16? they closed the parks. There is a small and beautiful urban garden behind our palazzo but recently there have been some difficulties among the residents with respect to perceptions of equitable and safe sharing, so it is not at the moment, lamentably, a sunny patch to which we feel free to use in any given day. I am hoping a little social diplomacy might grease grumpy wheels since we have, at a minimum, three to five more weeks of this first quarantine.
Today, after repairing the armoire in the master bedroom with equal parts hobby glue and patience and holding a watercolor class for a certain little girl, Farm Wife successfully improvised a fresh stew for lunch. Her bright idea was to make use of the end of a pork roast (two slices) with some over-salted curly kale (gone awry last night), throw it all in a pot with water (due to curly kale that got soaked in the chicken broth reduction) and a diced potato. That was it! But the stew did need some salt, in the end. The fatty bit (not much) of the pork roast added body and flavor to the potato. The curly kale finally reached an edible tenderness and enjoyed a reduced salinity from the overbearing broth disaster of the night before. The pork cubes became tender after 90 minutes on low simmer. Farm Wife felt like it was a very passable caldo gallego which made her inner santiguesa very contenta indeed! Next time she will remember to toss in the white beans. But if you have any pork of any kind (even a modest amount or type), one potato, and some dark, tough green leafy thing, you can make this delicious soup for mere centesimi! File under Recommended Recipes for Quarantine.
Tomorrow, Farm Wife will create some wild yeast and report back. We must have a boule and homemade tortillas.
Eleanor (5) is dressed today in her Rapunzel costume, complete with long faux braid twined with silk flowers, blissfully unaware of the irony here on the fourth floor of our apartment. I appreciate her penchant to don fancy dress at the drop of a hat. It gives a true period feel to our palazzo storico when she zips into a satin dress, with latticework on the bodice and striped cap sleeves. Even better is her winter habit of putting on the flimsy dress over multiple layers of clothes when indoors, true to the medieval custom, made requisite by the lack of insulation and single-glaze, wooden window frames. Our apartment in a cold winter feels very vintage. Vintage as in 1350.
The world right now is ramping up to Peak Stress as country after country locks down and goes into lockdown and quarantine. For people who are still in the “let’s wear masks, wash hands, observe some version of social distancing, and using Instacart,” I would say enjoy your time, but what I really want to say is, you are still contributing to the spread of contagion in this pandemic. On a jealous and personal note, I wish I had a day like that. But I don’t, and there’s not going to be one outside in the near future. I am prepping for April April Inside, April Inside, every single one of us spending April inside….
Peak Stress. Let’s talk about that. Farm Wife has a few things to say. She’s earthy and direct. (She made smashed avocado toast for lunch, heaven!) No matter where you are, in what stage of distancing, isolation, and lock down. We’re going to compassionately mute Miss Anxiety for now.
So we’re all stressed. What happens with stress? Communication suffers. People are working with about 5% of the bandwidth they normally have. People are going to say things they don’t normally say. They are not going to be able to respond in the way they would normally respond. They are not going to be able to hear and process input because processing bandwidth is full. It’s not going to come back anytime soon, people. I estimate the return to something closer to normal at June 2021, after it rips through the planet and we have a safe vaccine.
I am sure I have said less than kind things and responded inappropriately to questions or jokes. For that I am truly sorry (and humbly repent). I am sure I have misunderstood people, and often. Stress and online communication strip out context. It takes a lot to remain calm and compassion, it takes a lot to take a breath when the whole world is going through the stones as in Outlander, or down that tunnel like in Being John Malkovich. It’s a rough ride and you come out on another side, unsure how of this new reality. You must navigate, observe. You’re going to get some of it wrong. You will misunderstand. You might spread false news reports or unverified facts. You might be talking about theories relative to 5G, the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, an oil war, Saudis and Russians, Nostradamus, that uncle at Stanford. I have had to delete racist vitriol posted on my page. I have been surprised by the responses of many, but none more than myself. I have had distant acquaintances get in touch, and I am trying to understand if they are internet rubbernecking, or not? Because if they weren’t, wouldn’t they ask how we are doing, and then stick around for one minute to hear? If not, I am going to go with internet rubberneckers, and CRTL+ALT+DELETE.
You don’t owe anyone communication. You don’t have to listen or to hear, if you don’t want, in this new landscape post-standing-stones, post alt-reality tunnel. But you do need to rustle up what compassion you can, and distribute it generously to yourself and others, if you can, whenever you can, whatever that looks like. It’s an NPI (non-pharma intervention) that we can all access (along with isolation and quarantine).
I am now crowned with my own silk flower garland, and here on the fourth floor, glued to a sunny window, I’ll take it.
My name is Monica; for those of you just joining, I live in Florence, Italy, with my husband and our two young children. We’ll all four American, but Italian at heart, and profoundly Latin in our souls, for reasons of history, passion, education, and experience. Jason and I have lived abroad, off and on, both pre- and post-couplehood, since 1993 and more times than we can count, stretching our horizons, in globally healthier times, well beyond a lone undergraduate study abroad program. We love Italy yet consider ourselves global citizens, humanitarians at heart, dedicated to humanistic pursuits, along with the distillation and literary expression of Lessons Learned, whether Dante and Boccaccio or Isak Dinesen and Rebecca West.
I am musing over a rebrand after our numbers turn, as we’ll lose our couplet. Suggestions welcome. Day 20, still not funny comes to mind.
Farm Wife is doing well. Yesterday, after seeing to daily chores of dishes, lunch, and laundry, she darned four items of clothing, taught Eleanor some more basic ironing and sewing skills, creating miniature vestments for assorted unclad stuffed animals (the masterpiece that is Pooh’s new red t-shirt should still be featured on my Instagram feed to the right, if you look.) Jason had a stretch of work and conference calls from four to eight-thirty, so I was on for dinner also. Out of our freezer emerged some suitable spinach à sauter and a pizza to customize with sliced hotdogs for the kids. We have produce from Jason’s midweek run, so out came four potatoes, scrubbed and cut into a passable French fry format. And look! a modest tagliata to grill and share! oh bliss that Jason scooped one up. I would really like some mayonnaise, I said to Jason. No, it’s too much, he countered. Save the eggs, it uses too many eggs. Initially I acquiesced, but as he disappeared into our room and shut the door for a fourth meeting, I skated around on the internet and found a mayonnaise hack that used a modest amount of ingredients. (Five egg yolks, on the other hand? are you kidding? who does that? is this hollandaise or mayo?) I confess here I am an inveterate mayo lover. I attribute this to my time in France. (But I loved Miracle Whip on cheese burgers as a child, so perhaps I was a deracinated french palate seeking its motherland. Learning about actual mayonnaise in France was parallel to my margarine versus butter epiphany at twenty or so, along with crème fraiche, mon Dieu, why did no one ever tell me about this before. It was like seeing for the first time the beauty of UW campus.) I halved the mayonnaise recipe and whipped it up (substituting a drop red wine vinegar, using mostly vegetable oil with a splash of olive oil, and dicing and tossing in a half-clove of fresh garlic), and it came out gorgeous in a minute, just like the recipe promised. The chips emerged from the oven soft on the inside, crisp at the tips. The assembled dinner of tagliata, sautéed spinach, fresh chips, and mayo, all washed down with a bottle of reliable red wine, was an incredible morale booster. I would never eat like that every day, but de temps en temps, why not return with my tastebuds to meals in France that form yet the stuff of my dreams.
And that pantry crumb cake has given us such pleasure. Please make it, if you haven’t yet, if you, like me, are always soothed by baking. It also adapts well to vegan kitchens (mashed bananas for egg and coconut oil for butter). I used blueberry jam for the fruit, and had the kids crack the rest of our Italian local pecans for the topping. Make some cake, and savor it with a cup of coffee or tea. I’ve got eight servings of it in the freezer for the next week. Next time I am going to make it with crushed peanuts and Nutella for the full-on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup effect.
So, here, on Day 19 of our humanitarian house arrest, I feel – hesitantly – that I might have hit a bit of a stride. Take care of yourself and your family first. Do what comforts you. Is it a simple meal? Fresh laundry? a card game? A short yoga class, or a bounce on a trampoline, or a dance video with that adorable Aussie? Mix up screen time with manual tasks. Busy hands, happy heart, my farm wife will tell you. I have given her a managerial promotion so that she is now directly overseeing Miss Anxiety. Farm Wife is really task oriented so Miss Anxiety does not get much of an opportunity to talk back or complain about the opportunity for promotions in this office.
I said it weeks ago, but I will repeat here: this is a long game, and managing anxiety, fear, obsession, compulsion, depression, and the rest of it is the lion’s share of the strategy. Ask your family members at the start of each day, and throughout the day, how they’re doing. Limit news and social media. Yield and permit vexatious spirits to pass.
I expect us to be under humanitarian house arrest for most, if not all, of April, and possibly into May. I will be shocked if the kids go back to school. Many schools in the U.S. are already announcing they will not return this school year. Covid-19 is going to own all of us until we have a vaccine and immunity is on the rise, but it’s going to be a slog to get there. Medical experts have said we should all plan to shelter in place perhaps multiple times this year to protect our populations, our healthcare, our hospitals, our people. Even when this initial quarantine is lifted, I fully expect another to be enacted again this year. And maybe we will look back and laugh at how easy the first quarantine was, how innocent we were. We complained so much, I imagine people saying, but it was by far the easiest of the six.
It gives me great pleasure to talk about these small things here. We all saw the numbers yesterday out of Italy and Spain and NYC. My global network is humming as friends from everywhere have been checking in, as much to ask me how we’re doing as to report how they are in China, Japan, India, throughout Europe, in Africa, all over the Americas. More than one friend told me they broke down and cried for the first time in the last twenty-four hours. Please, take care of yourselves. The majority of us will get through this, but it is going to take some strategy and strength. Be gentle. Be kind. Go easy.
If I weren’t writing these posts I would, by now, have lost all sense of time. If you are entering into a quarantine period, or have started quarantine and isolation in the last few days, start a journal, or a calendar, or something. If you have kids, start something with them that marks time. Truly by now the days we have been in confinement are more important than the calendar. I find myself wondering if this is what certain segments of Italian society felt like during the ventenne of the 1920s and 1930s, when a certain despot started the calendar over with his first year in power. I asked Jason when an event happened, swearing it was in December or January, when in fact it happened on March 6. (I looked in the listserv archives to verify.) And this morning I tore off and recycled the day-by-day calendar for today; Jason woke up before me and had already tossed Thursday, but today’s date still looked like yesterday to me, or some other past date.
I can see how Behrooz Boochani, an Iranian Kurd, wrote his award-winning novelone WhatsaApp text message at a time while detained in Tasmania. I cried when I first read about him, and was not even yet at the crest of the second wave in the global pandemic. (If you do not know his story, it’s prescient; a Profile in Courage for our times.) I started a new creative writing group on Monday courtesy of Sarah Selecky, a Canadian novelist who does fantastic artistic outreach online for writers and makers. I came across her offerings almost two years ago thanks to Instagram, and they don’t disappoint. I’ve made friends through the groups, and indeed owe the existence of my much-loved and very active international writers’ group (UK, Canada, Italy) to the platform.
I continue to shuffle the deck of my memories, searching for times that felt like this, trying to recover what lessons I might have gained. Images and fleeting feelings from the summer of 2012 floated to mind. We had arrived in Arezzo, Italy, with OU, on a one-year secondment to teach and live as faculty-in-residence for the study abroad program there, and Victor had just turned one. The Tuscan summer was sweltering in the flagstone streets; even in the shade, Victor flushed beet red as soon as we went outside. Chubby Victor then was stil a suckling babe, and teething. What a bloody mess. Literally. What this amounted to for me and Victor was a lot of time alone in the apartment (or hotel, if we had joined Jason on, for example, a jaunt with a passel of students to the even more sweltering urbs of Roma), with minimal air conditioning, and almost no fresh air, waiting for dark. Jason was often out and about, and would bring us back gelato, but Victor with the bleeding gums could not eat the gelato, and my customary state at that time, it is safe to say, was well beyond the simple repair offered by a mini coppetta of gelato. I felt anxious then, cooped up in an apartment or hotel room on my own with a baby who was, at best, demanding company, and not yet conversant. I found a few things online that we watched over and over: one, Pandit Lullaby, which Victor and I both loved and played on endless repeat. It is like yoga for your ears, calming the heart, when you can’t settle enough to meditate but would like to approach something closer to circumspection and release. Two, we watched a lot of “one year in a minute” videos (like this one). I found these calming because they emphasized the passage of time, seasons, and forces beyond oneself. There was a really good one that lasted longer which I was unable to relocate (I clear my history way too often). Finally, the excellent, well-produced videos over at The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows are a balm for the anxious soul that longs to be understood while it fumbles for words. I still sometimes hear the quiet voiceover in my daily life, a sort of Big Lebowski-meets-therapist (meets a Dostoyevsky protagonist) narrating the mundane nonsensical.
Jason and I are both proactively managing stress levels. He even joined me for a yoga video (previously unheard of). We are limiting caffeine and sugar during the day, making meals we enjoy three times a day, and pouring our red wine at night. I am still rationing my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for the 9 PM nightcap (they pair well with scotch). The delineation of various spaces in the apartment for certain functions has helped make cooped-up days a little less frustrating. I made the kids help straighten up their rooms and the adjoining TV room. Victor, who is 8 going on 15, had plenty of complaint to make, but mamma was on a tear and sick of picking her way through piles of toys, cushions, blankets. pillows, books, and general detritus.
I made two mugs of loose lemon tea (à propos no caffeine) for Jason and me this afternoon. I bought the matching cream crockery mugs, featuring a gallo di Chanti, when we first arrived here. Today, for no apparent reason and without warning, one of them hissed and cracked its length vertically when I poured the hot water over the tea ball, opening a fissure through which the lemon tea slowly leaked. Somehow it made its way into the dishwasher anyway, positioned alongside its mate. I pulled them both out to see which was the cracked one. It was first hard to tell, but then clear as day as the fault line materialized in the light. I promptly chucked it, but the metaphor made me shiver.