by Brenda Peterson
original published at tikkun.org
Several years ago, I landed in isolation in the hospital with pneumonia. Nurses and doctors tended me in protective gear like hazmat suits. No visitors in my room, no respite from the frighteningly high fever. Yet the quarantine brought a strange clarity and calm. I made mental lists of all I wanted to do when I was well again. Though I was hooked up to IV antibiotics and oxygen, I also listened to music—from Mozart to Motown. Audiobooks and podcasts were my companions and social life.
One midnight, my Haitian night nurse, Maureen, laid a cooling hand on my forehead as I succumbed to a dreaded and dangerous fever of 105 degrees.
“I don’t know if I’ll survive,” I whispered.
Maureen’s lovely face floated like a dark moon as she repeated the tender mantra, “Just this one night. That’s all you have to get through. Just this one night.”
Then she began singing a lullaby. I couldn’t help but hum, harmonizing. My lungs filled with air, my ribs relaxed, and by dawn, the fever finally subsided. I felt like I’d been left out in a sweet rain. Maureen smiled and pulled my drenched sheets off the hospital bed; she dressed me in a clean gown with all the politeness and modesty of a sister nun.
Just one night. Just one day. I find myself telling friends and students now as the pandemic seizes our world. “I survived that one night and many nights since. So will you.” Many of us will survive, thanks to brave nurses and doctors like Maureen.
Because I endured quarantine and pneumonia, because I had to learn sterile techniques to survive, because social distancing was once my daily reality, I find myself called upon to advise others during this pandemic. “Don’t catastrophize or tell yourself scary stories. What you dread probably won’t happen. If it does, you’ll deal with it.”
Here in Seattle, the first epicenter of the virus in the U.S., we are the model of what is to come nation and world-wide. We are the first to test the CV vaccine. We are building hospitals on soccer fields and in our football stadium, leasing hotels for those in recovery from the CV. Bill Gates offers our county free virus testing kits online. In our neighborhoods, we are walking more in the open air, practicing social distance and yet seeing our neighbors more than ever. One neighbor playfully sported a hula-hoop on his walk to keep his six-foot perimeter. On my daily walks with a friend and my Siberian husky niece, we end up in the backyard, often enjoying a take-out picnic to support our local pub.
Without our incessant trampling of urban wildlife, our polluting rush hours, we suddenly hear more birdsong, hummingbirds, fewer planes roaring overhead. No jet skis ripping through the water. Seals and dolphins swim more freely. Neighbors gather safely on curbs, offering to help, to cook, to check in. One of my friends is organizing “virtual choirs,” where we sing together every week to prepare for Seder, Easter, and meditation Zoom performances. This spring is blissfully bountiful with fragrant cherry blossoms, sunny daffodils, and perky pansies. Our animal companions enjoy more time with us—extroverted, much-walked dogs, maybe more than introverted, independent cats. We’re reaching out and finding community we’d lost touch with or forgotten.
The virus will not last forever, but lessons and insights of this time will. If we’re not sick—we have a unique chance for the next several months to redefine ourselves, our priorities, and imagine a daily life that we structure ourselves. Stay informed but tune out of endless pandemic reports. Tune in.
As a writing teacher and creative coach, I tell my students that imagination is a survival skill. Creative introverts have an advantage. Think of the time you would have spent commuting as your creative time to do only what you love. Draw upon your creative skills to help and serve others. Organizations like Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are posting videos in which authors of children’s books are reading to kids for Story Hour to help parents with these months of homeschooling. One of my nieces is leading her network to make face masks for the neighborhood and local hospital. Another neighbor is baking sweet treats and making cooking videos for those of us who are remedial in the kitchen. My goddaughter is keeping a Pandemic Photo Journal and posting on YouTube and Instagram. My nephew is sharing his hand pan original music on Sound Cloud.
“Home is not detention hall,” I assure my students. “It’s a refuge. A revelation. Mandatory spiritual study hall. We may never have this expansive gift of time again.”
The number one impediment to creativity is not lack of talent—it’s finding the seamless quality of attention to create, in what is a pandemic of distraction and busyness. We can simply slow down. We can venture into the vast territory of the examined life. As one of my Wall Street investor students said, “All my life I’ve made money. Now, I need to make meaning.”
These days, amidst all the pandemic fears, I’m tempted to quote the Biblical mantra: Be still and know. Stillness is the antidote to panic. Imagination gives us courage to face the unknown. Whatever your long-denied talent—writing, gardening, ikebana, woodworking, sculpting, painting, interior design, music, photography, you name it—summon those talents as a healthy immune defense against this pandemic.
Why not regard self-quarantine or “social distancing” as a creative and spiritual retreat, a refuge for self-reflection? My thesaurus defines “quarantine” as “solitude,” “seclude,” or “detach.” We call it Time Out for kids. If we simply take This One Night and This One Day at a time, we’ll not only survive, we’ll thrive. Why not make the most of our forced withdrawals? Retreat is not always surrender. It is a rich time for calm reflection, discovery—and healing. Finally claim those talents so long denied by the disease of busy-ness. Creativity is a smart immune defense: The muse is medicine.
Brenda Peterson is the author of over twenty books, including Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir. Her most recent books are Wolf Nation and the children’s books, Wild Orca, LOBOS, and Catastrophe by the Sea. Her work has appeared on NPR, The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Seattle Times, and Oprah magazine.