Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, though the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
March 21: A number of people I follow have posted about the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-19. I saw someone ask why it didn’t have the sort of cultural impact one might expect given its massive death toll. Why there aren’t as many novels, scholarly works, and poems about it as one sees about wars that kill far fewer. Why there aren’t many memorials and things.
I don’t have a ready answer for that. I suppose we simply notice battlefields, destroyed cities, fallen governments, and collapsed office towers in ways we don’t notice millions dying anonymously at home, in hospitals or in trenches.
One of the odd things about me — inherited from my mother — is that I truly love cemeteries. I like to look at headstones, particularly older ones. It’s not some goth thing or some fascination with the supernatural or the occult. I do not believe in ghosts and I don’t go in for horror movies. I don’t even believe in an afterlife. I simply find graveyards peaceful. They lend themselves to reflection. Not just about death but about life. I have no desire whatsoever to be buried — donate my body to science or throw it on one of those body farms, cremate whatever is left afterward and scatter me where you think I might’ve liked — but If I could live in a house in the middle of a cemetery I would. Dead people don’t crank the bass on their home theater system and don’t forget to bring in their trash cans after the truck comes.
I take long walks pretty often. Six, seven and ten mile walks at times, depending on what kind of shape I’m in. More often than not I’ll route myself through one of the cemeteries around here. There’s a modern, still-in-active use cemetery not too far from me. I tend not to care as much for those. Their sleek, shiny, laser-etched headstones seem a bit much. They’re too elaborate. They try to do too much. Rather than simply mark the resting place of the dead they almost feel like they’re trying to deny death. To animate the body of the person lying underneath them via a photorealistic image of their face, a list of their traits and accomplishments, and a pithy or ambitious quote or what have you. If that’s your thing that’s fine — I’m even less-inclined to tell you how to die than I am to tell you how to live — but something about all that leaves me cold. It puts me in mind of Ozymandias. The dead should live on in the memories of those who loved them. They should not feel the need to get the last word in, which seems like such a petty, mortal concern.
There are a couple of old pioneer cemeteries not much farther away and I like to check them out when my legs allow it. They’re more my style. A simple name and a couple of dates. Maybe a “Father” or “Mother” on the gravestone but that’s about it. The methods and materials they used to carve those things didn’t allow them to hold up to a century or more of weather, so they tend to crumble or fade. Which is fine. I said that the dead should live on in the memories of those who loved them, but the fact is, after a little while, there will be no one left who personally remembered you, let alone loved you. That’s probably an upsetting idea for a lot of people, but it comforts me to know that the world is bigger than the little things which seem so important to us while we live our short lives. Our troubles blow away with the wind and the passage of years. If memory of any one of us does too, that’s OK.
The old headstones don’t all become unreadable, of course. Some are better taken care of than others. Those which faced away from the worst of the weather hold up better. You can still learn a lot about people by looking at them even if they don’t list their job and favorite song lyric. For example, one thing you notice pretty quickly when you walk though those older cemeteries is how many headstones say “Died: 1918” or “Died: 1919” on them. There are oh so many of those.
My wife owns a horse named Bettlejuice — we just call him Juice — and boards him at a barn 15 miles out in the country from here. The barn sits on 100 acres or so and there are woods and trails and creeks and, rare for Ohio, some hills (“the glacier was kind to us,” Jen, the barn’s owner, told me once). Allison pays a monthly board fee and the people at the barn feed Juice, muck his stall, maintain the property and all of that stuff. She is responsible for the vet and the farrier and any special supplements and things. It’s a pretty standard arrangement for non-rich horse people.
Shelter in place orders or not, you can’t just close a barn. It’s the horses’ house. They still have to eat and drink and they still shit all over the place and if there aren’t people there to take care of it all things would get pretty ugly pretty quickly. Since there is no public-facing part of this barn — you can’t just go up and ask to go for a ride or take lessons or whatever — the barn has remained open. Jen has asked that boarders not come to the barn at a certain time each morning when the small crew of barn workers who feed and muck will be there, but beyond that you can go ride your horse if you want. Or groom him. Or clean your saddle and bridle and stirrups and all of the things you do when you have a horse.
Owning a horse can be a pretty social thing. A lot of women go out to the barn to hang out with their friends, ride together, take a group lesson, drink some wine in the tack room if it’s cold or, on nice evenings, outside. Almost all of Allison’s local friends are people she’s met through riding so she does a good bit of that. Last Labor Day I took my smoker out there and made chicken and ribs for a few dozen people. I go out there and hike on the trails while she rides Juice and afterwards have a beer with one of the other horse husbands, as we’re called. All of that stuff is, quite obviously, out of the question during the pandemic.
Owning a horse can, however, be a pretty solitary pursuit if you want it to be. And while Allison enjoys meeting up with her friends out there she’s pretty introverted by nature. A great deal of her barn time is alone time, by design. She’ll groom Juice, clean tack, and enjoy a couple of hours of not having to answer phones or deal with people. She’s a confident rider, so unlike some horse owners, she’s not afraid to go out on the trails by herself. I think she enjoys that time more than almost anything she does.
It’s cold today, but Allison went out to the barn anyway. She, like everyone else in the country, needs some time out of the house right about now. She wasn’t the only one who had that idea, though, and a couple of her friends showed up too. Oh no! What do you do when you’re not supposed to be hanging out with friends?
Social distancing, equestrian-style. That’s Juice in the foreground. Hi, Juice.
I need my own time too. An my own space.
I have, one actually, but no one has ever seen it. It’s a fantasy space to which I often retreat in my mind. An imaginary physical space in which I picture myself actually inhabiting when I’m trying to solve a problem, work through some piece I’m writing or simply trying to think. It’s a house or an apartment, a pretty small one, that is minimalistically furnished. Impossibly so, in fact. No one could ever live in it if, for no other reason, than I’ve never seen its bathroom or kitchen, even if they are suggested in the periphery. My space has a chair — the style changes — a side table, a book shelf and that’s about it. There’s natural light coming in. I cannot impress upon you how literally I actually inhabit that space when I withdraw into my mind for whatever reason.
I enter and exit my other home pretty seamlessly most of the time, because most of the time I’m alone. Suddenly having someone else working here plus the kids being here all day, however, has made me realize how often I do it and how difficult it can be to reach me when I’m in there. In not wanting to seem distant, I’ve found myself going in and out of there more often, for shorter periods. Maybe just standing in the entryway rather than sitting down in the chair. I don’t know if, in doing so, I’m serving either of my homes particularly well, but it’s been a bit better as the week has gone on.
The other home is not just someplace I can be alone, though. Its minimalism is important to me. My state of mind is tied pretty closely — probably too closely — to how neat and orderly my environment is, and even in my real home I tend to do better, think better, and I’m more happy when things are neat, clean and in their place. It’s not an obsessive thing — I can function fine amid a mess if need be — but my brain just functions better and my mind is calmer when the house is clean.
There was a time a few years ago when my need for solitude, order and cleanliness was far worse. I let it interfere with my life far more than I should have and it created a great deal of issues for me. I was seeing a therapist about other issues at the time, and this all came up, though I didn’t reveal the existence of that second home, even to her. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever revealed it to anyone, my wife included. Congratulations, you’re the first to know about it.
My therapist said that my issues with order and neatness were an understandable reaction to having experienced a couple of things in life that took me by surprise or were out of my control. Probably a more healthy reaction than they might’ve been given that the only thing I’m doing with this is trying to control my own mental state as opposed to larger circumstances or, even worse, other people. She found it a bit paradoxical, and actually found it somewhat amusing that, as it relates to the greater world, I’m someone who believes that the universe is a big, uncontrollable and unpredictable place and that you have to generally roll with the punches. We never talked about death, but the whole bit above about me embracing the idea of mortality and finding comfort in the world forgetting us relatively quickly would probably have made her howl.
She did, however, tell me that I need to learn to live with messes, physical and mental ones, from time to time. That it was OK to leave an unresolved thought for later and to wait until the next morning to do the dishes. Especially when other people are around and I need to be mentally present. I still struggle with that at times, but as I said, I’m better. When I struggle with it I’m at least aware of it.
Still, when Allison went to the barn today I took the opportunity. I cleaned and straightened and organized my real house. And then I sat down on the couch, put my computer on my lap and materialized in my other house. A few hours later and everything was in its right place. In both places.