I was standing in front of the stove the other night…
…cooking garbage. It was late — somewhere between 10:30 and dawn. I don’t know what time exactly, because I never really know what time it is anymore. All I know is I should have been in bed, but instead I was barefoot and itchy-eyed, staring into a pot full of water and vegetable scraps: Ginger peels, onion skins, rubbery carrots and whatever else was loitering in the crisper, waiting to be tossed.
“I’m making vegetable stock!” I called to my husband, Harry, in the bathroom. I could hear the nail clippers as he tidied up his ragged fingertips, nipping scraggly cuticles and rubbing ointment into knuckles chapped from endless hand—washing. Good, I thought. He’s keeping up with hygiene and self-care. But not really. Really, he was grabbing a few brief minutes of alone time by hiding in the bathroom. We both knew it, just as we both knew that the pot of wilted lettuce and lemon rinds on the stove was not “stock” so much as compost water. It didn’t matter. Both of us were doing the same thing: Trying to feel better.
Like everyone, we’re living in the tiny world of our apartment, while the real world is in freefall. For the first three weeks of “lockdown,” Harry was still going into his Manhattan office (he works in broadcast news — one of many designated essential services that’s hard or impossible to do remotely). I stayed home with our five-month-old baby, who just learned how to shriek. In the old days, six weeks ago, we’d just begun to figure out our new normal as parents, balancing our careers with a carefully constructed division of labor at home — something we felt was really important for our wellbeing and our daughter’s. Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed all over again, along with our definition of “really important.” Checking in on sick relatives, disinfecting door knobs, staying financially afloat — that’s important. And as for wellbeing, our only real concern is not getting sick at the same time. In the new new normal, we just don’t have the mental space or energy for much else.
Yet somehow I always have energy to stay up making terrible vegetable stock. Do we need it? No! Our fridge is already full of brackish water that tastes like cabbage lemonade. But I need it. It doesn’t make sense, but it makes me feel better. There’s something about putting food scraps in a pot that makes me feel like I have my shit together, even when I know I don’t — even when I know that nobody does.
We all have our weird little comforts — those things we do to trick ourselves into feeling a sense of control. We organize junk drawers or defrost the freezer; we scrub the toilet and feel awash in bleach-y peace. According to my Instagram feed, we bake banana bread. When my friend Jocelyn is going through a tough time, she wears lipstick every day. “It’s something my sister always told me to do when I was feeling down,” she told me. “Now, it always boosts my mood.” My friend Connie organizes her inbox: “I’m neurotic about keeping my email at zero and get incredibly soothed by that maintenance: setting up special inboxes, creating shortcuts that automatically mark certain emails as read, and unsubscribing from listservs.”
I don’t relate, but I totally get. Everyone has their drug of choice, but we all know the delicious high of Everything Is Fine. I get it from flossing my teeth, or making the bed — the gateway coping mechanism. Oh man, nothing like that made-bed feeling, right? It fills me with a (completely unjustified) sense of calm and might: Behold, I have made order in the universe. I’ll take that feeling wherever I can get it. We could all use a big hit of Everything Is Fine right now.
The fact remains though that it’s not, and while lots of us are cooped up struggling to cope with this horror, there are many out there in the thick of it. I think of that each time another ambulance screams past my window, knowing that, relatively speaking, I am more than fine. That’s why I chafe at the idea that all of us should be stressed about optimizing our quarantines: starting novels, learning German, not just maintaining normal life but living our best ones. The sick and those fighting to keep them alive — they don’t have the privilege of coping in the comfort of their homes. Nor do those essential workers keeping our own homes stocked with groceries and maintaining the gas lines that heat our ovens so we can self-soothe with banana bread. I don’t say that to be preachy — I baked a loaf myself! I’m just saying, if you’re lucky enough to be at home and fine-ish? There’s nothing you should be doing other than whatever it is you have to in order to stay that way.
For me, that means learning to work with a five-month-old officemate. It means flossing like crazy, and playing along when Harry’s been “clipping his nails” for half an hour. Tonight, we’ll put the baby down a few minutes early, then hurry over to the living room windows where we’ll clap and shout and bang pots and pans at 7 p.m., cheering along with the rest of our block. It doesn’t make sense, but it makes us feel better. That’s just what we do in the new, new normal. And when we’re done I’ll go back to the kitchen, look for some garbage to cook, and wonder what the next new normal will bring.
Do you have any weird coping mechanisms? I’d love to hear.
(Illustration by Leah Reena Goren for Cup of Jo.)