On Making Use of the Pandemic

“A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” – JLB.

First, want you to know this writer is doing well. Like I said earlier, I am lucky enough to be able to work from home, so I am continuing to do that.

Lonely Writer

Second, I want to say that I know that this has been a very trying time for many, especially for those directly affected by this disease. I also know that many of you out there are still marching to hospitals and clinics every day to fight this thing head on. And that many more are providing essential services. Without you guys our civilization could not keep running. “Thank you” seems a bit trite, but know the rest of us are in your debt.

Today, I want to talk about how one person, who also happens to be a writer, is making use of the pandemic. I do not mean that in the sense that the pandemic is a good thing. It’s clearly not, but in the spirit of JLB above, I want to share with you how one person is trying to make the most use out of his time in self-isolation.

I think one of the best ways to spend your time (and this means any time) is by learning a new skill or craft. By doing something you’ve never done before and learning. I think this is one of the reasons why role-playing games are so addictive. They plug into that work/reward center in your brain. And as satisfying as that can be virtually, it’s so much more rewarding IRL, as they say.

One area where I’m trying to up-skill is gardening (cliche, I know. Maybe I should take up bread making?). I don’t have much experience with this, but I have improved a bit over the last few years as I’ve migrated to the trackless wilderness of suburbia. Right now, we grow mostly ornamental flowers, tulips, irises, that sort of thing.

But we’re transitioning to more practical (read: edible) plants like herbs, lettuces and squashes. We’re even getting a raised bed to grow veggies. Here’s a live “BEFORE” shot of the side yard which will be the focus of our heroic gardening efforts. It’s got a ways to go.

Side Yard

I won’t get into all the details, but if you’re interested you can follow further writerly ‘gardening’ updates from me on my Instagram at: dariusjoneswrit.

Thinking about nature
Sure is amazing how wildlife is bouncing back and the air is cleaning up after just a few short months. It’s amazing to me that we’re already seeing these changes. Nature is out there ready, waiting, primed to go. Coyotes, pumas, and javelinas(!) are coming out of the wood work here in the Americas. I have also seen this in our own neighborhood: We saw our first local possum not long ago and the foxes seem to be getting bolder. The birds also seem more, well, relaxed. It’s nice to see.

Just give nature a little space, a little breathing room and it comes back. And guess what? It’s almost always a win for humans, too. Less nitrogen dioxide, smog and tiny particles mean better health for asthmatics. And, by the way healthier lungs mean you’re more likely to fight off the disease associated with coronavirus. The classic win-win. After all, humans are animals too.

Something to think about. And not to take lightly.

Planning travel
I have also been dreaming and thinking about vacation. One place I would love to return to is Istanbul. Earlier, this week I dropped everything and planned an epic trip with Istanbul as the starting point. I won’t give away the final destination just yet and I haven’t made any concrete plans either. But man, is it something I would love to do someday. Just thinking about all the cool places along the route made me feel better.

Last time, I spoke about how I was trying to do zazen, the Sōtō Zen practice of “just sitting” meditation. The idea is to find a quiet spot and “just sit” without focusing on any thoughts (or is it “not latching onto” any thoughts?) for between 5-15 minutes. (This is another one of those new skills I talked about). I try to do one 12-minute session every other day or so. Last week, I did five sessions.

And you know what? It’s not as tough as it used to be. Five minutes used to seem like an eternity. Then, 10 minutes seemed really long. Now, 12 minutes feels just about right. I set the timer on my smartphone’s watch, sit back, and try to clear my mind. Sometimes, I count my breaths: up to 10, then starting back at 1.

At first, I definitely felt anxious and felt my mind clutching at thought after thought after thought. I still do, but I am calmer in the meditation now and much better at letting thoughts surface and flow away, surface and flow away. So…maybe…I’m on the right track?

At any rate, I feel refreshed when I’m done and it’s something I would like to keep doing.

Really, what haven’t I been reading? All this “time in” has let me tear through my To Be Read list. Finally! In addition to my reading list from last post, I have added a few more things:

Chuang Tzu. Musings on how to live a life of virtue (te) in accordance with the Way (Tao) of all life. It takes the poetry of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and it expands it into full stories and anecdotes. Know that story about the sage who has a dream about a butterfly and then wakes up and wonders if the butterfly is now dreaming it’s a sage? That’s from the Chuang Tzu. Recommended reading for those wanting to delve deeper into Taoism. Really cool. There are many versions, but the Penguin Random House version is the one I’m reading and seems pretty darn good.

Falnama: The Book of Omens. This is a gem. For me, it’s sort of research, sort of not. Basically, a falnama was an index appended to copies of the Quran in the medieval Muslim world, especially in India, Persia, and Turkey. It would assist in interpreting dreams or bibliomancy. (Fun fact: It’s possible to conduct bibliomancy without actually being able to read! Just drop the book when it’s attached to a string and interpret how it fell for a “yes” or “no” answer.) Anyway, some of these were lavishly illustrated and this book is chock full of great illustrations. It also has some of those vital tidbits on Islamic dream interpretation and bibliomancy that I’ve been searching for. Bingo!

The Terminal List by Jack Carr. I know, this one doesn’t fit with the others. But you know what? The dude can write. And anybody who writes well–I’m going to study them and see what tricks I can pick up. If you like thrillers written by ex-Navy SEALs, then this will be your sort of thing. Warning: it’s NOT short on graphic violence and vengeance.

Why Does E=mc²? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Last week, I vowed I would finish this book after failing last time. (It has a good amount of math, not exactly my forte). Anyway, half way through now and it’s making a lot more sense this time. (Note to self: the universal “speed limit” of light is THE KEY! Always remember that!) Did not know that Galileo had his own very version of “relativity” and that not only does time “slow” when you near the speed of light, things also grow smaller (or contract). (Of course, that is, from the point of view of travelers NOT anywhere near the speed of light.) Mind-bending insights explained very artfully by Dr. Cox and colleague. Great stuff.

Yep. Still writing. It was hard to get in the groove at first. Couldn’t go to my usual cafe and plug in. But you know what? We all have to adapt. So, I did.

This isn’t a new skill, but one I hope I keep getting better at. So, in a way, I’m still learning, perfecting the craft. And now, I’m back up to banging out over 2,000 words per writing day. Which in my book, is pretty darn good.

Taking it easy on myself
I wrote about this last time and it holds true today. But each day I keep reminding myself…

If I don’t hit my 2,000 words on my writing day, that’s OK. If the irises or the mint die in our garden, that’s OK. If I don’t finishing reading that darn book on relativity, it’s OK. If I’m really distracted during my meditation, that’s OK.

There are so many stressors in the world today. And these are very minor setbacks compared to the serious game we’re in. So Darius: Breathe in, breath out. Refocus and let it go. During times like these we all need to be easier on ourselves–and our neighbors. Everyone is going through a lot right now.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. Want to make sure I’m not wasting days during this tough time. With a good amount of hard work and a little self-discipline, I’m still cranking out the words and getting stuff done. That’s the use I’m making out of this tough time and I hope to keep doing so.

Until next time,


PS: That Wikiquote page on JLB really is excellent. The way I am thinking about him now is as the most successful example of the fusion of “literary” and “popular” fiction in the 20th century. He took detective/science/fantasy fiction and fused it with so-called literary fiction. The results were stunning.

If you for some reason haven’t read his stuff, that would be one good entryway.

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