By Steven Petrow,
A friend and I were chatting about the pandemic (it was Day 214, but really who’s counting?) when she asked, “How do you think we’ll adjust to life when it starts up again?” I understood the disruptions she alluded to: Theaters gone dark, school kids learning remotely, gyms still closed, family Thanksgiving canceled for many. And more than 253,000U.S. deaths from covid-19. Yes, I think we’ve all wondered when we’ll be able to hit the button that says, “Resume life.”
But I surprised myself when instead of commiserating I replied pretty much like this: These weeks and months are also real life. No one really knows how long the pandemic will go on. But I don’t want to spend my days pining for a pre-covid-19 past, or biding my time for a post-pandemic future. This is the real deal. Life, today.
I learned this hard lesson through experience. Twenty years ago, I made one of my life’s biggest mistakes when I accepted a job transfer from San Francisco to New York City. I agreed to move under duress, but my boss had given me an escape key: If I were unhappy after a year I could go home. And for the next 365 days I kept my eye on the calendar, counting down to the day I could pack up and leave.
By treating the year as a “pause” between chapters of my real life, I disengaged from the life I actually had. I didn’t invest in friendships (or even the presence of my own family living nearby) and rarely took advantage of the gifts New York had to offer. Most days, I worked late into the evening, called for takeout from the taxi home, then watched an hour or two of television before crawling into bed. Museums, theaters and Central Park were just places I sped past in the cab, every tick of the meter bringing me a little closer to leaving.
That year even included my 40th birthday, which I chose not to celebrate because of my unhappiness.
My boss kept his word, and a year later, once back in the Bay Area, I hit the “resume life” button — and couldn’t have been happier. I didn’t spend much time thinking about that lost time, until about a year later when I happened to pick up a book by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, called “The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.” Of the 140-some pages, I hyper-focused on an odd passage about washing dishes. Curiously, dishwashing-as-metaphor has stayed with me all these years, and during this pandemic I’ve rediscovered Hanh’s practice.
It hardly struck me as wisdom when I first read it:
“I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”
This guy doesn’t have a clue, even if he was a famous monk, I thought to myself when I first read that. Of course dishwashing is unpleasant, not to mention a waste of time. I remember how my mother could not wait until the day we could afford a dishwasher (other than herself). As an adult I, too, have sought shortcuts to life’s tedious tasks, such as dishwashing and housecleaning. Just this summer I bought a Eufy RoboVac, one of those new robot vacuums, which promises to “turn chore time into play time!”
And even with a nice stainless steel dishwasher, I find the routine endless. Load, unload, repeat.
I can see now that I experienced those 365 days in New York much as I view washing dishes — a waste of time. I hear the same today about our pandemic interruptus. How many times in recent months has someone cited the movie “Groundhog Day” to describe the endless monotony of the current situation? Days blend together, and I find myself confused as to whether it’s Monday or Thursday — or Blursday, as someone put it.
I talk with my friends about what we’ll do as soon as we’re freed from this cycle of rinse and repeat. We will shop, travel, party, even hug. Lots of hugs. We’ll stop waiting — and start living again. Hurrah!
But I have a recurring nightmare: The pandemic ends and I wake up in 2022. (Sorry, I’m not an optimist about when covid-19 will vanish). I’m two years older. What happened? How did I use that precious time?
Well, I don’t want to make the same mistake as I did before. What did I have to show for my year in New York? Of that milestone birthday I’d skipped? I had turned 40 even if a gaggle of pals hadn’t sung “Happy Birthday” to me. The march of time had continued, regardless of what I was doing or not doing.
Reflecting on my long-ago return to San Francisco, and on Thich Nhat Hanh, I decided to try an experiment in dishwashing this past summer.
Standing over my double sink, I rinsed each plate, glass, knife and fork, then washed it carefully and rinsed it again before putting it in the drying rack. I felt the warmth of the water and the slipperiness of the suds. As I washed my grandmother’s now-worn china, my mind wandered to dinners at her apartment on those very same plates — roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and Sara Lee brownies. (Grandma often overcooked the meat, but she always got the store-bought brownies just right.)
The memories reconnected me with the past, which blends right into the present moment as I washed her dishes. I’ve tried to extend this practice to other daily activities — making the bed, driving to the store, tending to my garden — as a way to be “here” and not “there.”
I’ve even extended this approach to yoga, where I was once a “flow yoga” kind of guy, moving through pose after pose in rapid succession, building up heat, but leaving little time to experience the moment. Downward dog. High plank. Low plank. Upward dog. Then back to downward dog. And repeat.
Early in the pandemic, I joined an “alignment” yoga class on Zoom. It had no set series of poses — sometimes we start on our backs, or our knees, or in downward dog. At first, I didn’t like that our teacher made us move slowly, which he insisted on because, as he told us, “it takes time for connections to come.” I was so used to jumping between poses — between past memories and future plans — that it took awhile to appreciate the beauty in stillness.
This stillness also let me connect to my feelings about what’s happening in the world. One day I felt during class nothing but pain from the rising death toll and the isolation of self-quarantining; on another day, with a new puppy nipping at my heels, I felt unabashed joy, especially in the poses that opened our hearts toward the sky.
I thought again about my friend’s question, “How do you think we’ll adjust to life when it starts up again?” Here’s my answer: Life has not stopped. But we may need to move more slowly, with greater awareness of each moment. Maybe start with just changing how we do the dishes — even if my mother would think I’d lost my mind.
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