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A Dispatch from the Study

Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1868-1869 (Courtesy of Musée d’Orsay)

Quiet solitude is the natural environment for most writers. However, the grinding isolation and stress of the ongoing pandemic tests everyone’s psychological mettle. Then came the Capitol insurrection last month. The future remains, at best, unsettled. Most days, frightening.

Still, we can find solace, relief, and daresay meaning in our day-to-day routines and pursuits. Here are a few activities keeping my mind and spirit bright during this difficult winter. (I’m writing this after a major snowstorm on the East Coast.)

  1. Books (as always): I finished Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, an amazing and epic Russian novel about the Battle of Stalingrad. I dusted off a copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair’s muckracking morality play remains a potent critique of unfettered capitalism and a classic urban novel. As I’m writing a biography of author H. P. Lovecraft, I re-read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, arguably one of Lovecraft’s stronger works and one unpublished during his own lifetime.
  2. Movies & television: I re-watched North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller ignited by a case of mistaken identify and a mouth-watering film for train buffs. The remake of All Creatures Great and Small, a series about English countryside veterinarians, offers a relaxing escape from our pandemic world. The Dig, a period drama inspired by the Sutton Hoo archaeological discovery, presents a reflection on the eternal longing of culture and humanity.
  3. Puzzles: Belatedly adopting an early pandemic trend, I’ve begun working on jigsaw puzzles. Whenever I need a mental break, I wander over to my side table and spend a moment trying to piece together a fragment of the puzzle’s image.
  4. Plants: When I wrapped my fig tree for the season, I shared cuttings with several fellow gardeners. I also kept a few tiny cuttings — no more than twigs — for myself. I covered two in clear plastic to create a miniature terrarium. Now, these two cuttings are shooting forth leaves. I’m hoping they survive until spring.
  5. Beans: Inspired by the menu and social media exhortations of a favorite local bakery, I began experimenting with cooking dried beans. On New Year’s Day, my wife and I made a stew using Rancho Gordo beans. Needless to say, there’s no going to back to canned beans.

Several winter months still await us. I’m sure that I’ll be searching for other pastimes to keep isolation and anxiety at by bay. I hope that you’ll share your suggestions. In the meantime, my book pile is growing.

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