Friday morning, both our children reported having had bad dreams. My husband had to go to our younger son’s room in the wee hours to comfort him. We don’t have the news on and we try to keep our worry from them, but our kids are always listening and as most children are, they’re sensitive to the moods of their grown-ups. However much we try to project calm, we are tense, distracted, and exhausted from filtering the stream of news, trying to work, keeping ourselves fed, and so on.
After one full week of self-isolating, my thoughts turn to Leo Lionni’s wonderful children’s story, Frederick. (If you don’t know it, please buy it from a local bookstore now.) A “chatty family of field mice” is working hard to gather provisions for the winter, except for Frederick who sits by himself on a rock. Asked “why don’t you work?” he responds, “I do work. . . . I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” Skeptical, his family asks again “reproachfully,” “Are you dreaming, Frederick?” he says, “Oh no, I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.” When winter comes, at first the family of mice spends their time happily: “there was lots to eat, and the mice told stories of foolish foxes and silly cats.” Then, when their food supplies dwindle and their mood begins to sour, the other mice turn to Frederick and ask, “What about your supplies, Frederick?” He tells them to close their eyes and helps them imagine the colors of spring and summer, warming them with his words. “But Frederick, they said, you are a poet!”
You can imagine why I, an English major and lover of the arts, would be drawn to this little fable. As we prepare for an extended pandemic winter, we are of course worried about stocking up on enough food, medicine, and yes, toilet paper. But there is also the question of how we will feed our minds and spirits as the news gets increasingly grim and the social distancing gets hard.
One of the beautiful things I’m witnessing both in my local community and in the wider online world is the creativity and humor being shared. My favorite cartoon so far is “Sisyphus works from home.” And as both an introvert and GenX’er, I enjoyed all the tweets and memes about how those of us in these demographics were born ready for this moment. In one Facebook group, a prompt – “Your quarantine nickname is how you feel right now + last thing you ate out of the cupboard” — produced such gems as “deflated Cheetos,” “scared burrito,” “manic pistachios,” and on and on, over 300 responses. Then there’s this delightful video of “my pet sock eating cars.” And Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive, coronavirus version for teachers going online.”
Writers and artists offering free readings and drawing lessons online; musicians streaming their concerts and performances; virtual field trips offered by museums, zoos, national parks remind us of the essential social work that all forms of culture perform. If you’re lucky, you have ready access to books, movies, recorded music. Or the means to make your own.
Some of the things people are sharing are poignant to the point of tears: Footage of an empty Italian street with neighbors singing together from their open windows and balconies is inspiring other sing-a-longs in other towns. And yesterday, I got choked up listening to the Chino Valley Unified School District high school choir singing together in gorgeous harmony.
Frederick reminds us that soul sustenance is as important to our survival as food and drink. I worry about my mother, alone in the Berkshires without wifi or smartphone. We can’t video chat with her and all her routines – reading the newspaper at the local college library, attending concerts, going to museums, going to church – are suspended. But she is also an artist, stacks of canvases filling her dining room; she journals and listens to the local classical music station all day. Nature is a constant inspiration to her. I’m hoping these supplies carry her through.
I don’t have too many practical skills to pass on to my children, but I think we can use this time to cultivate their inner resources. I want them to witness and be part of all the creative forces that can counter the destructive ones. Making something to feed yourself and others can take so many different forms.