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It’s so hard to know what to do these days, isn’t it?

Watch the news, or turn it off?  Cook like a rampaging mother of six, or support your local cafe with takeout, at the curbside, of course?  Undertake a new hobby?  (Spare me.  Only the ultra-privileged would utter such nonsense.)  Here’s one for writers: Can you list all the words you hope to never hear again, when this is finally behind us?  (Hint:  Mine starts with “unprecedented.”)

Who has the right advice? The most Zen approach for navigating?  The most authentic social conscience?  WHO KNOWS?

Through it all, one thread runs true and bright:  We can’t control what is happening.  Could that be the hardest part of all, for many of us?  We destiny-slaying, choice-savoring, independent-at-all-costs souls, we can’t self-direct or self-actualize or self-whatever-the-hell-our way out of this one.

So, what CAN we do?  What matters, at a time like this?

Pondering this question in the mirror the other morning, I found my gaze zooming in on an interesting dose of reality.  The mirror was filthy. ICK!  I barked out loud to the only nearby listener, the ever-vigilant Dachshund who shelters in place with me.  This is GROSS!  Have I been spitting toothpaste as a subconscious act of defiance? What sort of uncivilized pig lives in this house?

Dropping the gaze lower, I realized the sink was worse.  Encrusted with, with, things that, ugh, things that should have passed through labyrinths of pipe and into another sub terrain eons ago.  We’re in the middle of a pandemic, for God’s sake!  How was I not seeing the surface of this sink?

Suddenly, I was mad with motivation.  Seizing the Windex, the Lysol, and the paper towels–and grateful to have any–I went at it like a trained operative on Seal Team Six.  And a surprise awaited.

I liked it.  I, who hate housecleaning like the proverbial plague, so to speak, liked it.

The euphoria of accomplishment was instantaneous and intoxicating. Restoring the shine to that glass, the smooth squeak to the counter surface, so clean it reflected back at me. Rubbing madly away, I thought feverishly, this MUST be done. THIS I can do.  I can’t go out and save lives on the front line; I can’t protect my mother inside that senior facility; I have no jobs to offer those without work, no solace to offer for the fear around me or the desperate grief, shock, and confusion.  There are still no answers for the questions that never end. But THIS moment, today, this inch forward, this tiny, microscopic accomplishment, too minuscule to even be visible to anyone else, THIS blow I can strike.  This right here, this I CAN do.

Time is a blur these days, but it still seems that our relationship was in its tender, early stages when suddenly, with the onset of a national emergency, we became captives together.

Maybe not captives exactly, but we are tethered here by a togetherness that is unrelenting, with no end in sight.  In this unprecedented time, “sheltering in place” as ordered, we are compliant and thus far safe, we fervently hope, at home.  Day after day, with every strange flip of the calendar, I am here, he is here, sometimes not even six feet away.  No matter where I go in the house, here we still are.

And he worries.  He can’t help himself.  A tad anxious by nature, he is even more antsy in these unfamiliar days that struggle to find a rhythm he can recognize.  If I get up from the work table for coffee, he watches carefully, his furrowed brow telegraphing a preference that I would stay still, where I can be regularly monitored.  Sometimes he follows, wondering if he might be needed, just making sure that, with hot coffee in hand, I will return as promised.  At first, I tried reassurance:  Don’t get up, I’d say patiently, I’ll get it, there’s nothing for you to do, relax.  Then I gave up, realizing that like many stubborn males with protective instincts who I have been fortunate to adore, he wouldn’t listen.  After the first couple of weeks, occasionally he would stay put, thinking perhaps he could trust me to come back, weary of the burden of fretting every second, turning his attention to matters of his own concern.

The odd dynamic of shared confinement is not just emotional.  I am embarrassed about my hair; I need my roots done and can’t remember when I last showered.  He needs a bath and most certainly a haircut.

If he wasn’t such a thoroughly charming little dog, he’d be driving me nuts.

Gus came to join my little household early last fall, very soon after my beloved hound dog died of cancer after 13 hilarious years.  It was too soon, really, to get another dog, thinking back on it now, if such decisions of the heart were measured strictly by traditional guidelines for grief recovery. Too soon for me to accept him for who he is, such a different little brain and spirit than she was; too soon to accept the love he offered so readily, after being abandoned following the death of his previous owner.  Too soon to care much that he had different taste in treats, a different pace on a walk, and a solid instinctive obligation to stand guard and warn me against the hazards of all unknown comers.  My deep grief over her passing and the suffering she endured at the very end did not dissipate, and while I was glad to keep Gus safe and well-fed, on some days I looked at him from a distance, almost as though he was someone else’s dog.

This is probably why there are so many divorces among people who remarry too quickly, I thought idly, then immediately feared I had a different problem, thinking that way about a dog. A few months trundled past and slowly, I began to adjust.  He is the first of so many things, I reminded myself, trying to achieve the grace of patience—my first boy dog in 25 years, my first with a long coat and its riotous tufts spiking every which-a-way, my first Dachshund, with their renowned sensitivity and (only occasionally amusing) stubbornness.  I had no idea what hygiene might be required around what the vet called “his little PoPo,” no idea why saying No about 46 times didn’t appear to make a dent.  Do long-backed dogs automatically have the cleanest colons of the canine kingdom?  I can’t fathom why this dog poops at least three times a day, sometimes four.

When the pandemic slammed the nation shut in early spring, Gus had been here almost seven months.  Weeks now into our shared isolation, he’s getting pretty smelly and stoutly declines to wrestle with the restless cat upon demand. Yet with time to observe him more fully, I am amazed to watch how he does his nervous, short-legged best to adapt.  This week, I noticed I could go to the bathroom alone.  He waited quietly, without protest, for his morning potty relief when I overslept one day this week.  I denied a request to go out late one afternoon, citing an important conference call about to launch, and watched him return patiently to his bed in my home office, though not without giving me the eye.

The other day I dropped onto the couch in a low moment, staring out the window in despair.  I miss my daughter, my grandchildren, all my family, my friends, my co-workers, like we all do, of course.  And I realized how fully my heart had finally relented toward this funny little dog when he jumped up next to me, and I encircled him in a crushing hug.  I’m SO glad you are here, I told him.  I don’t know what I would do, if you weren’t. I’m glad you let people hug you.  Your predecessor, rest in peace, would never have tolerated such.

He turned when I released the hug and looked me straight in the eye, bestowing a gentle, tiny, tentative kiss on the side of my cheek.

And then he burped.

I guess little boys will be little boys, in the face of whatever the universe brings.

 

The accomplished hostess knows this fundamental truth of entertaining:  Good parties tend to grow.

A little gathering at my place on a recent weekend morning started with just two guests, with my granddaughter Sis as hostess and me hovering in attendance nearby as kitchen staff.

“Evie, can we get out the tea set?” she had asked, beaming a little jolt of joy into my weary heart that morning.  The tea set is a relic from my parents’ time at the American naval base in the Philippine Islands in the 1950s, an acquisition on a side trip to Hong Kong in those very different post-war times.

My granddaughter was a newborn when my mother downsized to smaller quarters and so many treasures went on to new destinations.  I took the lovely teapot with its enchanting curved spout and the wafer-thin, gold-flowered cups and plates and stuck them in a drawer, wondering if they might appeal to her on some future lazy afternoon.  On a recent day when we needed, shall we say, to redirect her focus, I had unwrapped them and conveyed them as hers, to remain for now in my care. “We’ll get them out soon and have a real tea party,” I offered, unsure if she even knew what that was.

That day was here.

As I reached for the location at the no-kids elevation where I stored the 60-year-old china, she installed the first two guests in their places at the coffee table, on a little bench and in a child’s rocker.  The long, slender stuffed monkey displayed manners questionable for a tea party, his long arms flung behind him wildly as if on a bender, but I let it go.  The raggedy, worn lop-eared bunny who faced him across the table displayed a rather detached expression for a party guest, but I let that go, too.

Shall I make some real tea? I offered, having saved a caffeine-free variety with a hint of cocoa in it for the children, and she answered, “Oh, yes, everyone wants tea.”  I snapped to it in the kitchen, digging out a few of my grandmother’s shiny sterling teaspoons to add to the place settings.  As I worked, more guests arrived. Next came a blue Kentucky Wildcat beanbag, who was never constructed for sitting up, a dark brown squirrel who held his ground rather nicely, another bear, and finally, a striped fish relic of a long-ago Disney movie.  Fish needed an extra pillow to swim level with his teacup.  Meanwhile, the real dog patrolled the perimeter nervously, certain this unauthorized activity required careful monitoring and watching me for instructions.

I held my breath as Sis, at her request, carefully poured the hot brew for each guest into the tiny cups. Not a drop spilled, reminding me again how trust fosters growth.  With more focus on the spirit of the occasion than prudent nutritional practices for six-year-olds, I inquired if the guests preferred honey or sugar for their tea.  What a rookie mistake; Sis is never one to pass up promising options.  “They might want both,” she answered. I paused briefly over my error, then decided, why stop now?

Older Brother Buddy disdained this little charade at first, but as tea was poured and the gathering grew, he could not bear the sidelines.  He came forward with a tiny rubber creature of undetermined species (possibly a video game character?) that was liberated from its small plastic case in time to claim a seat at the table.  “He’s too small to drink from a cup,” Buddy worried about his little pal, about 1.5 inches long.  Could he drink from a spoon? I asked.  This was satisfactory, and soon the miniature creature was perched on a placemat in front of a silver spoon containing just a few drops of the amber liquid. The hostess and her brother sipped over-sweetened tea from different cups and spoons on their guests’ behalf, chatted sociably, and soon the little event wound to a conclusion.

My 89-year-old mother loves knowing when others enjoy her vintage things, so it was fun to tell her the tea-party story soon after.  I shared photos showing the table set with her china, amusing her great-grandchildren more than half a century after she first acquired the tiny, gold-trimmed little pieces. She shook her head, amazed.  “I didn’t know little girls still cared about those things,” she said, a bit wistfully.  Within a few short days, there would be no immediate chances to reminisce with Mom over family photos, as her residence was closed indefinitely to visitors while pandemic rages on.

With such abrupt swiftness, our world has spun into a dark and unpredictable alternative reality in recent weeks.  Everyone seems frightened and unbearably stressed.  With each new dawn, the news continues to worsen, and on some days, hope may elude us.

And yet we press on.  In her brilliant essay collection Late Migrations, author Margaret Renkl explores the intimacies of acute grief, but says that human beings are creatures who are built for joy. We look around, and we see that in defiance of global tragedy, spring still came, and the cherry trees have gracefully bowed down under the weight of their opalescent pink offerings.  Golden daffodils stand forth in triumph to herald the coming of Easter.  Musicians pour out their gifts before cameras instead of crowds, because deep in their marrow they know how music transcends, never more than in the hardest of times.  Birds are boisterously caroling their mating and nesting plans, driving indoor cats mad with frustration through windows everywhere.  From balconies across the ancient cities of Europe, strangers sing opera to the open air and applaud the heroism of healthcare workers who, if they are among the fortunate, they will never encounter.

And little kids still like tea parties.