By Teddy Robertson
Ed. Note: Here is the first of an East Village Magazine’s new feature, the Coronavirus Diaries — personal accounts and commentary from our writers to attempt to capture some of what we’ve all been going through and reflecting on what it means.
Sunday has become my day to write to friends. It’s a new routine for me in this viral time. The problem is that I’ve already talked to them—been with them in the middle of the night, in fact, often around 3 a.m., the time that folklore calls the witching hour.
Wakeful folk in the middle ages supposed that demon apparitions wandered when the clergy snoozed, there being no canonical prayers at 3 a.m., or at least the schedule somewhat confused until dawn. We, their enlightened children, now know that 3 a.m. is peak melatonin time in the body.
I always thought it was just about the time that the carbs from my last glass of dinner wine were exploding into sugar inside my brain.
Whatever. My nightly parleys are mostly with the living, though the dead wander in and out. We laugh, we go off on strange adventures, we join up with others I once knew.
The middle of the night, that’s the time when we’re together again.
…I kick my locker door shut with a Spaulding foot. Hike up my plaid uniform skirt (its waistband rolled to get the highest hemline the nuns allowed). Nancy, the class daredevil, waltzes down the corridor late as usual; her skirt is the shortest of all.
…Dry grasses beat against my bare legs, I’m pushing my bike up a California hillside, a short cut to meet Kathy, my grade school best friend. It must have taken nearly an hour to get to Kathy’s house, but I never had a watch. We’ll ride our bikes some more or look for a horse in a vacant field for Kathy to ride.
…Bent over a desk in the graduate library, I must be napping when my friend Joel, a linguistics whiz, taps me—he’s come to tutor me so I don’t fail the course.
Years slip between the scenes, my mind adrift—six decades of life in a cinematic dissolve. Friends from distant eras, how are you managing now? When I sit down to write late Sunday morning, it feels like our conversations have happened already.
Email is my medium, of course, less elegant than the letters that have preserved the history of events—the Civil War, Spanish flu, two World Wars, the Holocaust. How much we know about people and their lives in the past from the handwritten word. Emotion still seeps through the curves of their graceful script, death and terror again pierces the social proprieties of the time.
I’d planned to write several emails. I manage one.
Relief comes Monday morning, a yoga class on Zoom. The sessions began at the end of March and though we met three days a week—now, after two weeks, it’s barely routine. Hardly a schedule at all when I compare it to my life at the end of February.
Regular meetings, deadlines, reminders, significant dates have all been “wiped,” as we now say. My refrigerator calendar, still marked weeks in advance, looks as dead as cuneiform.
So I welcome this new, not-yet-comfortable event, the readiness and the concentration, even before the exercise. I log in early. A half hour before time to begin, I am on my mat. Ready.
The gift of routine emerges.
I grew up in a family that valued routine and a Catholic school system rooted in it as the organizing principle of life, with only a glancing nod to religion. As an emerging teenager, one of the most ridiculed things I could say was, “I don’t feel like it.” Of course you don’t “feel like it”—that’s what routine was for, feelings got you nowhere. Once a distant cousin from New York City came for an extended visit. Some days she’d have a smoke in bed and get up later— when she felt like it. Fire hazard and health aside, it was her lack of morning routine that stunned our household.
The thesaurus offers perfectly respectable synonyms for routine, like “workaday,” regular,” or “accustomed,” plus the faintly pathological “chronic.” But when I came of age in the ‘60s, the word went full-blown political. “Routine” bore a derogatory load, connotations of social critique amplified by adjectives like “mindless routine” or “deadening routine.” In short, the life of my generation’s middle-class parents as we saw it.
But later on, when I left an unhappy marriage, raised a kid, and finished grad school, I knew that routine was my ally. I learned the term “quotidian,” beloved of the French social historians who study the daily life of people in the past who lived through famine, fire, and flood.
When the morning yoga class ended this Friday, I lay in savasana. Through the cobwebs of my basement ceiling, an idea floated down, a new gambit for this Sunday email writing. Maybe I will start to make some notes on Saturday night before I go to sleep, list some of the things we’ve said and done, my friends and I, during our 3 a.m. colloquies of these first viral weeks.
After that, I will know what I want to say.
How happy I am to know them, that I hope that they are well and healthy.
That some life-bracing routine is emerging now.
That the younger ones will have jobs to return to, that they can cobble their careers back together and their children will flourish.
That the older ones, some older than I am, not feel abandoned, not live in fear of a category called “not worth saving.”
That when they sleep other good friends, ones I did not know, will come to be together with them.
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.