Issue #14: Virus

Comfort for the Apocalypse, March 2020

Breathless

In my yard, we are building a new guest-shed for the days when we are allowed to have visitors again. We conceived this project in Fall 2019 which seems like a thousand years ago now, but we are pressing ahead with it in anticipation of a future that involves social contact.

Every day, the two men we hired to do the work show up mid-morning and plug in the tools. I can’t see them from my home office, the construction taking place at an angle blocked by the house, on the other side of the garden. Every once and awhile one of them comes around to the side-yard by my studio and I catch the movement out of the corner of the window. I’ve become highly attuned to the activity of other people in the last few days, mostly individuals walking on the road past our fence and peering over to catch a glimpse of the work taking place. My neighbours have become a lot more inquisitive in the last couple of weeks. I suspect that’s a function of being cooped up at home most of the time.

One of the workers we hired is a friend, and he has brought someone else on the job who is easy to talk to, though we do it at a fair distance. Each of us stands six feet apart from the other, talking about the height and roofing options, the need to bring beach stones up for landscaping and a new fire pit. I keep cash on hand and groceries to take away in case they are needed. None of us are sick, nor has had much of a chance for exposure, and still we are careful with each other, standing on either side of the shed while looking up at it. We know there may be a point soon when this no longer feels safe. Is it tomorrow or next week? I feel myself holding my breath when in proximity to any other person these days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about waking up on the morning of September 11, 2001 to the voice of an anxious newscaster on CBC narrating the scene as the plane hit the South Tower at 6:00 am Pacific Standard Time. The clock radio had woken me from a deep sleep and the report didn’t make much sense, but as the live scene at the towers cut to another news report announcing all airports in the US closed, I pulled myself out of bed and went downstairs to turn on the TV. As you probably remember, the initial footage was raw, unedited. There were bodies, there was fire, there were people running in the streets covered in ash and dust. The story of who and why was emerging even as people ran from the falling debris, the morning of catastrophe and state intelligence crystallizing into a single story we would all learn by heart by the close of that week.

That morning, sitting on the futon couch in my apartment above Commercial Drive, I turned to my then-boyfriend and said, “nothing is going to be the same after this”. And then I got my things, went down to the bus stop in front of our place, and rode to my downtown workplace where our picket lines had been pulled down in response to the unfolding emergency. Instead of marching for better wages that day, we went upstairs and joined each other in boardrooms watching the footage over and over again.

We all had a moment like that, though each of us experienced the months that followed in differing ways. I became obsessed with 24-hour news channels for the first two months and found my mental health degrading as a result. It was such a great relief when I finally connected my depression to my cable subscription and called Rogers to disconnect the service for good. Once I got out of the manufactured present, away from the fear and relentless imagery of terror and war, I connected to my deeper feelings—of grief, of longing, of a desire to return to the time just before the planes hit the towers. It wasn’t because the time before was some kind of paradise, it was simply recognizable against a backdrop of a world coalescing around the “war on terror”.

It is said that a crisis exposes the structural reality of a culture or nation-state, and what we saw in the months after 9-11 was a combination of racism and war-mongering from the industrial powers lead by the US, Canada and Britain. The curtain parted, exposing the great wizard of tolerance and equality as fragile, subject to the whims of human ego and fear. Even without the onslaught of televised news, those years were an ugly time as friends of Muslim faith and Middle-Eastern descent described the openly hostile world that had opened up in front of every interaction. In the US and Canada I marched against the war, worked with people subject to illegal detainment, watched the great expansion of surveillance capitalism (just now finding its full fruition with the suggestion cell phones and social media be used to track those who do not adhere to public health orders) and knew that this new world was much less friendly than the one we had come from.

Which brings me back to the present, and the question of who we are through this time of the virus. Because we cannot so easily spot the “enemy”, each of us a potential vector of deadly disease, we have gone into our homes and shut the doors (and our borders) in a much more total way than ever before. There are neighbours helping each other, yes, but I’ve noticed even in those interactions a wariness, a judgement leaking through in questions about contact and hand washing practice. Gone are casual conversations in the grocery store, at the farm up the road I purchase our meat from. We do our business quickly, and we don’t use cash. We shuffle past each other when we are in shared public space, and don’t even make eye contact as we do.

I am already nostalgic for the time before now, the time when I laughed out loud in public and spoke without turning my head to the side. This disease isn’t airborne, and yet I find myself breathless in front of others, afraid of their judgement should I accidentally spit when I talk even from six feet away. All I know right now is that we are in this, and the only way out is through. I just hope when it comes time to relax our vigilance, when we can once more exhale in a room together, that we will be able to set these rules aside and welcome each other into a new world that is better, not worse, than the one we came from.

A basket of stones

Our neighbour Nancy died of heart-complications likely related to a long flu and pneumonia she had at the start of 2020. We gave her a send-off last weekend, with appropriate social distancing, and wrote our wishes for her and ourselves on stones that I later scattered on the beach.

March Recipe: Pressure Canning Black or Pinto Beans

I've shown off my pantry here before and though you probably noticed the shelves lined with colourful glass jars, you might not have seen the white buckets that line the floor. Those contain staple foods such as flour, sugar, legumes, oats, rice, and quinoa. I purchase these items in eleven kilogram bags, which enough to fill a 5-gallon bucket. When it comes to the beans and grains, that's enough to last two or more years at regular consumption rates (barring an emergency). I'm just now finishing up a bag of barley we purchased five years ago.

I buy in these quantities for three reasons: economy (much cheaper per kilo), food security (no panic-buying here), and environment (less shipping). But there is no doubt that a bucket of dried beans is not nearly so convenient as a tin one can take off the shelf and make a quick dinner from.

Given the recent gift of time we have all received, I am using some of that to re-stock my pantry with protein staples in the form of cooked and seasoned legumes. Pinto beans are the traditional "refried bean" that you find in the supermarket, but I find that both pinto and black beans make an excellent meal paired with rice and some fresh-chopped tomato and avocado.

You will need a pressure canner to follow along with this recipe as legumes and other low-acid foods cannot be preserved otherwise.

Yield: 10 pint jars

Ingredients

6 cups dried black or pinto beans
Water
Black bean flavouring: 10 cloves of garlic, 1 jalapeno pepper, cumin, non-iodized salt
Pinto bean flavouring: 1 large yellow onion, chipotle pepper flakes, non-iodized salt

Method

  1. Cover beans in cold water and soak 8 hours or overnight.

  2. Wash jars and lids in warm soapy water and let stand on the counter to dry.

  3. After soaking the beans, rinse them and cover in water again. Bring to a boil on the stove and boil for one minute. Turn off stove.

  4. While water and beans are boiling, prepare jars as follows:

    • In each jar put 1/2 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp of flavouring spice (chipotle or cumin)

    • In jar for black beans add 1/2 tsp finely diced jalapeno and one clove of garlic

    • In jar for pinto beans add 2 tablespoons finely diced onion

  5. Drain water off beans and reserve.

  6. Fill each jar with one and a half cups of beans, ensuring that there is an inch and a half left at the top of the jar (beans will expand in the canning process).

  7. Top jars with reserved cooking water or boiling water from the kettle and put the seals and rings on, fingertip tight.

  8. Process in the pressure canner for 75 minutes at ten pounds of pressure.

In the studio


Right before this whole crisis bust onto the scene I was plotting to sew some pretty spring skirts and t-shirts to go with, and I still plan to do so. As a longtime teleworker, I find it beneficial to my productivity to have nice and comfortable clothing to wear to work. Even though few people see me, it's good for my own morale. In the last two weeks I've nailed the t-shirt pattern I plan to make, and also finished a new pair of pants.


Three things

  • This is Not the End of the World and You Are Not a Prepper by Mark O'Connell in the New York Times struck a chord with me last week. It's also an illustration of why I don't subscribe to "prepper" culture as I've discussed previously in this mailing. While we may be "bugging in" at the moment, I see no lack of attempts to connect, reach out, and support each other. Our response to crisis is still to turn towards our friends and neighbours and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

  • If you, like me, are looking for diversions right now, my cello-playing neighbour Corbin Keep has made a little video exhorting us to "party like it's 1349" which is amusing and also musically rich with eighteen tracks of layered cello.

  • And third in my virus-related round-up, I found this article by Richard Heinberg something worth considering: Like Previous Pandemics Covid-19 Will Shape the Fates of Nations. If only this unfolding of events would seal the fate of Trump and American empire without taking Canada down with it.


And finally

Some of you noticed this newsletter has been intermittent the last few months; I didn't put out a newsletter in either December or February, and I was privately asking myself if I should continue given my struggles with finding time to write and a busy spring schedule. A lot has changed over the month of March, and I find myself with more time as well as a greater inclination to keep reaching out in this format. I've also been writing a lot more at http://red-cedar.ca.

Besides work, the things keeping me grounded right now are writing, sewing, cooking, and working out (we have created a makeshift weight room in our garage since the gym shut down) and so I will resume my regular monthly mailing schedule.

Please share this mailing with anyone you think would like it. I am still running a subscriber contest and will do a draw for a handwoven tea towel and a copy of Paul Kingsnorth's book Savage Gods when I reach 250 subscribers.