Tips for Surviving Social Isolation and Cramped Quarters
a section of my pantry—better organized than my clothes closet!
I can still remember the difficulties of the transition I made voluntarily that has now been forced abruptly on so many. I was living among New York’s seething masses with every form of entertainment and service available within walking or subway distance. I now live where a car is helpful to get milk unless you have 1.5 hours to walk to and from the general store. Now, even that is closed. In the winter, I might not see anyone except my spouse all day. My work (writing fiction and career transition consulting) must be done in isolation or on the phone. A trip to the in-town grocery store can constitute my whole social life. Now, even that is denied to me and all my acquaintances who, like me, depend on small-town encounters to stay connected and share the all-important gossip.
Somehow gossiping on line isn’t quite as satisfying, if more efficient.
In case it’s helpful to any of you out there who are spending more time within your four walls than you thought possible, or advisable, here are a few of the things I’ve learned in the last 20 years of living by choice the way we are all living now. These "tips" are mostly common sense, but these days it seems that sense isn't commonplace. So here goes. Warning, much of this is food-centric because food is “home” to me and I think it can sustain and comfort us at all times, but especially now.
- Clean up after yourself. Even when I’m not trying to zap invisible germs, keeping a small place reasonably tidy is essential to my mental health, and untidiness a sure sign that my grip is becoming tenuous. High and messy piles signal that it’s time to have a dinner party—or pretend I’m having one—so I can reacquaint myself with the dining table top, which is also my desk. Don’t just move the piles. Important things get lost that way. Sort, file, toss, be ruthless. Do this regularly, daily if you can. Everything seems more possible if you’re starting with a clear surface.
- Keep your “work” in one or only a few places. If you spread it all over your space, it’ll be in your view all the time and you’ll never get away from its tug. If you have the luxury of a home office or work area, keep your work materials there, or return them there when you’re not using them. Sure, in these days of wired homes we can take work to the sofa or bed, but don’t leave it there. Me, I can lose stuff in a tiny house and spend precious minutes (many of them) trying to find it. Imagine if your spreadsheet is in the upstairs bedroom when you take a call in the kitchen. Unnecessary stress.
- Make your bed. I know, I know, but it works. Since I can’t put that rumpled mess out of sight behind a closed door, I can’t start my work without making the bed. The tucked bed then becomes the largest surface in my house for other things, like folding laundry. Or laying out what I need to pack. That is, when it was possible to travel anywhere.
- Cook at home. These days you may have little choice. Even for the novice cook, there are excellent recipes on line that use pantry ingredients and many include step by step videos. Some of my favorite on-line sources are www.americastestkitchen.com , www.epicurious.com , https://leitesculinaria.com/, and https://food52.com/. Having to cook most or all of your meals for weeks on end is a great time to try new things and be adventurous. Even if you’re the only audience, cook with love for yourself. What you get is more than healthier, cheaper food and delicious leftovers. The act of preparing a meal for someone you love (or for your lovely self alone) is for me a kind of meditation—the planning, the chopping, evaluating the aromas and tastes to decide what needs a spritz of lemon, a dash of spice. Cooking—even a grilled cheese sandwich—engages all the senses. It makes you slow down and is a good transition from “work” to “not work.” I’ve not had the luxury of ordering in or taking out since moving here—nobody delivers this far and takeout would be stone cold on arrival. Trust me, get used to cooking more at home and you might keep it up out of preference once other choices return.
- Take real meal breaks. If you live with others, do this together. Put down the screens and talk to each other. If you’re alone, sit down, read something that isn’t work, do the crossword puzzle. Just give your mind and spirit a break from work. You’ll be sharper when you return.
- Take exercise breaks. Look away from the screen every 20 minutes. Get up and walk around. Do a few stretches or core exercises. Walk laps around the house while on the phone if you’re not ZOOM-ing. Go outside for a real walk once a day. I call these my “think walks.” You’d be amazed what solutions fall into your brain while your feet are shuffling along.
- Quit at a reasonable hour and don’t go back to it, except maybe to check messages before you shut down for the day so there are fewer morning surprises. Make dinner, do something non-work in the evening, and go to sleep at a sane hour. From serving clients as far-flung as Zurich and Hong Kong, I know it’s not always possible to stay in your own time zone, but try to set, and keep, some boundaries between work and life. WFH shouldn’t be synonymous with 24/7.
- Beware of procrastibaking. Don’t know what I’m talking about? If you’re cooped up at home for too long, you’ll discover a trap of which we writers are all too aware. It’s not new: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/dining/procrastination-baking.html Having to go gluten-free about 10 years ago put a temporary crimp in my passion for baking and really put the brakes on my consumption of chocolate chip cookies, but now that I’ve adapted many favorite recipes, I can not only bake, I can eat the results. Danger. First, baking what you don’t need is a time sink. I’ll leave the concept of “need” up to you, along with how much “joy” you need to justify keeping an old possession. Second, unless you have people to help eat your baked goodies (and these days plates of homemade cookies may not be welcome at other homes for fear of the contagion they might bring), you’re asking for a prolonged sugar slam, or maybe an intense and short one, until it’s all gone. I speak from experience here.
- Keep a running shopping list. My supremely organized mother of five had two strategies for keeping her sanity while providing three squares a day for seven, plus the constant flow of cousins and friends who happened by at mealtime. First, she had a walk-in pantry. OK, she had a teeny touch of hoarder’s instinct, perhaps from living through the Great Depression, but she never ran out of essential shelf-stable ingredients. Because, second, she trained all of us to write down items on her shopping list as soon as we removed them from her larder. I follow her example to this day, even when I’m not making ninja trips to the grocery store wearing protective armor. My larder is arguably larger than my clothes closet, not to mention far better arranged. But then, if you live in the sticks, what you eat is much more important than what you wear.
- Plan meals for several days ahead. This helps eliminate that “what are we going to eat for dinner” craziness when you’re exhausted and hangry. Even before we were told to stay home, I tried to make only a few trips to town a week to save time and gas. I sketch out meals (at least dinners) for at least 3 days and check recipes against my larder to make my shopping list. Sure, my great plan falls apart or I shift up the order of the meals, or make something entirely different out of the ingredients I bought, but at least I know what I CAN make, if I still feel like it when the time comes. Oh, and on my current “to make” list is chocolate chip cookies. We’re twelve days into our 14-day self-quarantine, but now it looks like sheltering in place will be extended for at least the month of April. I can feel the need mounting.
- Love your leftovers. On my shopping list, I also have a “to use” list of leftovers and stuff in the fridge with a short remaining life span. And, I’ve learned from disgusting experience never to put a container into my fridge without a date. Besides planning new meals around items with a ticking clock, I make periodic “clean the fridge” dishes. That spinach will be great in a frittata. That half cup of tomato sauce can go into this stew. Make soup, that forgiving concoction in which you can repurpose any number of wilted bits. (Note: it's fine to start with canned and amend it with whatever you want to use up)
- Don’t hoard. If you bought a year’s supply of toilet paper, you might consider its barter value sooner rather than later. At some point, soon I hope, your stash will no longer be barter gold. It’ll just be toilet paper. This week I bartered some homemade soup for toilet paper because some people (you know who you are) bought up ALL the toilet paper on my entire island. Just sayin….
I did a two-week shopping on Saturday, part at a farm stand and part at the grocery store. It took as long to sanitize and store my purchases as it did to buy them. For tips on how to deal with items entering your safe, clean home, whether from deliveries or from your foraging efforts, this might be helpful:
May you and all your loved ones stay healthy, become closer, and emerge from your days of isolation inspired by whatever you learned to live happier, more balanced, and kinder lives and to make that possible for others.