Life During Wartime

Empty produce section the Friday before quarantine.


I got some groceries
Some peanut butter
To last a couple of days.
— Talking Heads, Life During Wartime

On Friday, March 13, I was driving back from a lovely afternoon in the charming inland town of Benidoleig, about 45 minutes from my home. I had met my friend for a leisurely lunch at  El Temple – a delightful gastropub with an interesting take on tapas, and a substantial array of vegetarian and vegan options. Our region of Spain had been experiencing an unusually warm spring, and as I drove through the acres of orange groves, the scent of their blossoms wafted through my open windows. The mountains rose up on the horizons, hazy and grey. They and Radio 3 were good traveling companions. It was an almost perfect afternoon. Sure, the server was wearing surgical gloves, and, according to my friend, the place was unusually empty. But the sky was blue, the birds were singing, and that nagging worry that had been lurking in the back of my mind over the past couple weeks had all but disappeared. 

On the way home I stopped at a supermarket. Friends from the U.S. would be arriving that afternoon to spend the night on their way to Barcelona from Andalusia, and we wanted some Manchego cheese and olives for them. I pulled into the parking lot at 3:30, and was surprised to find it almost full. Even in our beach town’s high season, I had never seen it like that and it took me a few minutes to find an empty space. Reaching for my shopping bags, I checked my phone for the first time in hours, and was surprised to find five texts and a missed call from my sister-in-law. Apparently, while I was enjoying my brief state of blissful ignorance, Spain had declared an Estado de Alarma. As of midnight that evening, everyone was expected to quarantine themselves in their homes and not leave except for a narrow set of acceptable reasons. All non-essential businesses and offices were to close. Only supermercados, farmacias, gas stations, and a few other establishments deemed essential (including tobacco shops) would be allowed to remain open. 

Inside, the supermarket was a zoo. There were no carts or baskets left, and the produce, meat, cheese, canned goods, and toilet paper aisles were almost or completely bare. The collective energy among the shoppers was an odd mix of electric excitement I remembered from the East Coast before a big snow storm, coupled with an imperfectly contained panic. If you’ve ever read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, you know what I’m getting at. Fortunately, Tom and I had succumbed to the zeitgeist just the day before, and, at the time, laughing at ourselves for buying into fear-mongering, bought a large supply of non-perishable food and other supplies, including the last package of toilet paper left on the shelves: a brand of pink scented rolls called “Foxy Bouquet.” But I was thankful we had added that to our cart when we did; today even Foxy Bouquet was gone. 

Although restaurants and bars were under orders by the Spanish government to close at midnight (early by Spanish standards), most had begun shuttering their doors that afternoon. I realized I would have to make dinner at home for our guests. My mind went to our collection of stockpiled pasta but now, with the shelves rapidly emptying before my eyes, I had to act fast. Every second counted. Instinctively, I followed the lead of my fellow shoppers: “Grab first, think later.” The fresh cheeses had been wiped out, but I managed to score what was the last bag of pre-shredded parmesan. Miraculously, there was still garlic left in the produce section, but, aside from a sad-looking sweet potato, that was it. Trying to envision a dinner menu from the meagre offerings reminded me of an art class I had taken years ago where each student was assigned four random found objects and instructed to make something coherent from them. Impressively, the in-store bakery was hard at work, cranking out loaves of bread, and the baguette I picked up was still warm from the oven. I had to smile at my imagined conversation among store management: “There may be a pandemic on the horizon, but let’s not lose all sense of decorum!” 

The art of social distancing: Waiting in line at the supermarket.

Life as we know it is changing so rapidly that news reports are destined to read like ancient history moments after they are posted. It’s hard to fathom that just over a week ago we were living life normally. COVID-19 was worrying, but, for most of us, the extent of our suffering was limited to the luxury of sympathetic feelings for those in China and South Korea. But then, suddenly, it was Iran, and then Italy, and then really Italy. Each day or less, new developments were occurring. Rumors spread. Factions developed between those who were panicked and those who didn’t think it was a bigger deal than the flu. A week or so before, friends had started to transition from the typical Spanish dual kiss greeting to bumping elbows. But with the quarantine, it has become a moot point. 

The world has suddenly become a behavioral science laboratory for how we treat each other. For a long time now, I have chosen to believe that, especially when the chips are down, humans are basically good. And I am seeing plenty of evidence of this. We are being generous and kind: across Spain, citizens clap and cheer nightly at 8:00pm for healthcare workers risking their own lives to save others. Americans brave crowded supermarkets to buy food and supplies for children reliant on subsidized food sources that are now shuttered. Mental health professionals offer phone calls at no charge to those suffering from anxiety and depression made worse by the isolation. Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation teachers post free classes on-line. When I learned that several longtime friends of mine and my brother’s were calling my parents to check in and see if they needed anything, or that neighbors were leaving food for my in-laws outside the door to their condo, I cried.

We are keeping our sense of humor: memes and tweets circulate and multiply almost as fast as the virus itself: the inevitability of gaining “The Covid 19” — the middle-aged version of “The Freshman 15.” Wine tours mapping the rooms of one’s house as drinking destinations. Parents forced into home-schooling, falling rapidly and dramatically short of the Mary Poppins image they had expected of themselves. The jokes about toilet paper are seemingly endless: toilet paper as the new currency; how the cat doesn’t understand it is even less funny now to shred entire rolls. 

We are being creative: quarantined Italians serenade cloistered neighbors and empty streets from their balconies. Invitations are sent for virtual dinner parties. Music buffs circulate shelter-at-home playlists. Museums, symphonies, opera houses, and theater and dance companies offer their collections, lectures, and performances on-line for free. My favorite is a video from Spain: apartment residents playing Battleship by hollering coordinates to each other out their window and across the courtyard. I watch it over and over. 

Mostly, we are connecting: WhatsApp’ing neighbors to see if they need anything from a supermarket run; actually calling people with whom we normally just exchange texts or “likes” on each other’s social media posts. And through this we are realizing how inextricably connected we all are; how dependent we are on each other; how much we need to help each other, not just for their sake but also for ours. 

Keeping a sense of humor: My brother, supermarket-ready. (Photo by Altamira Perea)

And the earth itself is getting a break after trying its damnedest to function its best and to keep us alive, despite decades upon decades of continual human abuse. As my brother recently texted me, “Talk about Earth Day!” Scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists have been arguing for some time now that human-driven habitat destruction and biodiversity loss are linked to, among many other horrors, the rise of dangerous pathogens. It’s about time we woke up.

In just a matter of days, most of the world’s inhabitants have been catapulted from going about our normal lives, secure in our belief that life is predictable and controllable, into a collective and profound existential crisis. We are being forced to radically rethink the basics of human existence: health, social interaction, freedom of movement, and what really counts as essential in our day-to-day lives. Issues of individual freedom versus the collective good, wealth and privilege versus poverty and lack, access to health care, unrestrained capitalism, and our years of increasingly separating ourselves from, and denial of the natural world. For the first time in a long time, we have a problem we can’t distance ourselves from. Or as my friend puts it, Amazon Prime our way out of.

Keeping sane in dark times: planting my Victory Garden

The entire paradigm under which we have been living is literally unsustainable. Two days ago, on a sunny morning I stood on our balcony overlooking our garden. Lavender and rosemary were in full flower. Birds swooped in the sky. I even saw one of our little tufted-ear, impossibly cute squirrels running along a pine tree branch. Without cars on the road or people out and about, I could actually hear nature in progress: birds chirping, lizards scuttling along the tiles, the breeze through the palms and pines. Post-apocalyptic narratives have never been my thing. Please, enough already with the zombies! But then Auden’s poem, The Fall of Rome, sprang to mind, apt in so many ways. I think we have been warned. And maybe it is time to do something about it.

And for that, I have to say I am grateful. These are issues that needed to be addressed a long time ago, and, truthfully, I have been part of the problem; more complicit in upholding the system than I even knew. When it comes right down to it, I’m just a woman in an NPR Sustaining Member T-shirt, who is pro-composting and -choice, anti-NRA, and keeps praying that The Notorious RBG can hang on for a few more years. In spite of almost completing a PhD steeped heavily in Marxist theory, the most radical thing I’ve done in my life is double-pierce my ears. I realize now, it hasn’t been enough. Unfortunately, it took a worldwide pandemic to wake me up. 

I learned that a high school friend’s late mother carried around quotes tucked into her wallet. My friend recently found one that read “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Now that we have been handed the gift (yes, the gift!) of a vision of a future that isn’t very pretty–but that’s still far enough away that there’s time to alter the course of its progression–let’s come together and finally take action. But let’s do it as citizens of the world, as brothers and sisters with those who we don’t know, with those who seem different from us, with those whose political beliefs run counter to ours, with those who make far less or far more money than we do, with those with whom we have resisted coming together before. Especially those with whom we have resisted coming together with before. Let’s realize once and for all we are connected to and bound up with every other person on this planet, and, more than that, every other living entity: every animal, every tree, every river and stream. Let’s work together to eliminate all those socially-constructed hierarchical differences — between people, between species, between everything, really — that we have made but have fooled ourselves into believing are natural and normal. They are anything but. 

Please, let’s not let nothing change. Because then nothing will change. And where will that leave us?

The piers are pummeled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

— The Fall of Rome, W.H.Auden




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