Out-Social Distancing the Rest

The past few months have been… interesting. For everyone. For once we are not entirely alone; we are entirely together being alone, isolated, scared and confused. How scary.

In February, against my better judgement, I drove the Westfalia out to North Fork, California, on the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada, to serve another 10-day silent (Vipassana) meditation retreat. We were all aware by then (well, at least the thinking amongst us, or the medically-trained) that a pandemic was possible. On my way I stopped at the hardware store. N95 masks were still on the shelf at a reasonable price, and I was surprised. I felt like a wingnut for believing this could be serious.

Meditation practice generally went well for me, though I struggled to be equanimous through each cough in the small-gym-sized room crowded with over 100 people. For ten days I fought through cravings for the former kitchen management, which was effective and efficient, though somehow wanting enough to be replaced with folks who clearly had no business running a kitchen. To boot, they chose a volunteer who not only had no kitchen management experience, but who shirked the responsibility with repeated shoulder shrugs. I struggled to be equanimous with the flagrant waste of energy and food by under-supervised volunteers. I was made to feel more than a little weird for trying to enforce gender separation for myself in the kitchen, even though this rule comes straight down from Grand Poobah Goenka. I only wanted it for my practice (since the last time I was in that kitchen myself and several other females suffered disgusting advances and sexist comments from male volunteers), but they treated me like I wanted it just to be self-righteous. Needless to say, when I picked up a fever and a dry cough on day 10, I was happy enough to be escorted off the property.

Moment by moment practice of equanimity, otherwise known as the lofty, superhuman goal of being emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and philosophically at ease with difficulties that will arise. Moment by moment practice of equanimity is difficult for me for more reasons than usual lately. Ya dig?

We are now full bore in the middle of a global pandemic. Who knew? My former registered nurse self (summa cum laude from OHSU, “the Johns Hopkins of the West”, 8 years trauma 1 bedside without a single code, burned out) silent screams. My current self is both glad I’m no longer working in hospitals, and feeling guilty that I’m not helping. My blithe co-meditators might say, “Anicca,” meaning “everything changes,” or in addiction-world speak (the world of cravings), “This too shall pass.” I tried to remain equanimous when I went to the meditation center staff with various concerns about easily-remedied infection vectors, and was shot down. And near that flashpoint you have the crux of my difficulty with Vipassana, which though an excellent technique, also fosters cultish groupthink, crumbly heirarchies based on who has the best yogic swagger, and potentially consequential detachment. I like to say that Vipassana 201 (vs. Vipassana 101, or Intro to Vipassana) would talk more about when it is okay to feel passionate about something and work for remediation. I will not live quietly in a world surrounded by folks who let injustices and dangers slip by under their watch in the name of Anicca, especially when we all know how many millions of leagues we are from Nirvana anyway. Come on, get real.

Me: “But, Anicca, self!”

Also me: “Oh, shut up.”

This is not a refutation or refusal of Goenka’s process for enlightenment, taken liberally from the Buddha tree. It is lovely, golden. I do call bullshit on people’s convenient interpretations of how it should work, and probably won’t be returning to North Fork again. I can meditate at home and cook in my own kitchen, thank you very much.

Retreat from the Retreat

So I headed back to the Eastern Sierra, achy and feverish. I’m not sure I had anything more than exhaustion from volunteering, but in hindsight it sure does sound like Covid-19. I was very low energy and haven’t really been right since, including a very strange rash and shortness of breath on any exertion. Who knows? Luckily the Owens Valley has had very few cases, and I wouldn’t necessarily take blame because I pretty much naturally self-isolate anyway. I’ve also been ruthless about standard precautions around the house, training and re-training my boyfriend about hand-washing and mask-wearing, etc. Poor guy.

Knowing things are just going to get wackier, I couldn’t get far enough away. Since I am lucky enough to have that option, I got really fucking far away. In early March I loaded up my van and moved onto private acreage several miles outside a ghost town outside a ghost town outside Dyer, Nevada (which some might call a ghost town). Things are pretty rustic here at 7500 feet, surrounded by pinyon juniper forests and volcanic rock.

Westfalia with icycles and tire chains
It wasn’t easy, but we made it up the big hill!
If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie
View from the outhouse, mid-April.

I work online for a living, so first order of business was to call HughesNet for satellite internet hookup. Despite their promises, it might be the worst bandwidth I’ve had since the dial-up days, but with worse customer service. I just remind myself it’s pretty good for being in the middle of nowhere (while trying to forget it’s satellite), and Hughes reminds me that everyone and their dog has nothing to do during Lockdown 2020 but sit at the computer and waste bandwidth. I was charging my computer off a 12 volt battery, charged with a 50w solar panel. With a push and despite our not knowing much about off-grid electricity, we wired up an inverter and charge controller, crossed our fingers, flipped a switch and had solar hooked to a 7.4kWh lithium ion battery, some cable lights installed, and outlets for my laptop. Amazing. I bought my first home appliance, a kitchen range that lights with spark from a 9 volt battery. I bought a bathroom sink and faucet, even though we still don’t have pipes connected to the house from roof runoff collection (about 3500 gallons worth). The past couple weeks has seen a huge push in the garden, with a couple potato plots, a mini (4x4x8′) greenhouse, and two raised bed all being built from wood laying about. I’ve torn my rhomboid muscle, which makes all this moving and shaking even more “pleasant.”

Meanwhile, I sewed nearly 100 surgical scrub caps for the local hospital and have begun making face masks. My sewing background lends well to this, as I’m able to crank them out well, faster than most; however, our finicky, cheap sewing machine sees me behaving less than equanimously fairly often. Our latest fix with a dab of epoxy seems to have turned the “Pinto” into more of a “Civic,” and so now I’m working on honing The Olson face mask pattern I most recently made into something better-fitting which uses less fabric. I like that mask pattern because it has a pocket allowing one to add another layer of protection (e.g. a piece of coffee filter or vacuum cleaner bag) and has a channel where pipe cleaner or twist tie can be added in to form around the bridge of the nose. For people who wear glasses and who might be active while wearing a mask, this is a big deal.

As an aside, for people advocating against wearing masks and who complain about being dizzy etc. while wearing them, I say in an equanimous way, “GET REAL.” As a RN, I wore masks and gowns to take care of Tuberculosis and plague and Legionnaires patients in disgustingly hot rooms and suffered it repeatedly so that YOU COULD STAY HEALTHY. I never made a Tik Tok video complaining about it, because it just is what is done. How would you like it if everyone in hospitals decided to just not wear protection, and allowed these diseases to spread out of the hospitals — to you? If you were headed to surgery, would you allow a surgeon who believes surgical masks “violate his rights” to operate on you? Wear the mask, keep from getting sick (symptomatic or not) and spreading it. If you don’t wear the mask, keep it to yourself. The rest of us have assets to protect.

Sorry, I digress. While sewing scrub caps and masks, I had to keep pulling myself out of that Twilight Zone, the one we’ve all had where we ask ourselves, “Is this really happening?” The fact that I’m sewing masks in earnest, and have no idea when it might be appropriate to stop sewing them, shows me how real it is. Sewing masks thus becomes a meditative practice. Gardening for food becomes a meditative practice. Learning to make bread, speak Spanish, and helping build a house are meditative. Basically, focusing on what must be done in a time like this, and doing it carefully and well, and avoiding panic and politics, is meditative.

I don’t have much to complain about. I have it better than most. Because of that I have volunteered to sew and have donated >5% of my income the past two months to the local food bank. I can both be aware of what is happening in the world (future not so bright) and look out the windows here, where there are spectacular views of 13k’ tall, snow-capped mountains (future brighter). And I can try to repeatedly reassure myself that if I keep making my best effort to do the right work despite anxiety and heartache, I have made my best effort.

Goodbye Social Media

Regarding the title of this post, it’s probably pretty clear that I am social distancing and self-isolating quite a bit more remotely than most people in the USA. Beyond that, I have very little cell phone signal. It can take days for a text to come through, and I have to climb to the top of the hill nearby to get them sent. I haven’t had a Facebook account since 2013, but I have had Instagram. I left Instagram late last year and moved the content over to this website. I have checked in a few times, but especially since Covid-19 hit above-the-fold, it felt even more “virtual,” less than a phone call, email, or letter (things I still do). I love my friends on Instagram, but it is not how I want to communicate right now, and it isn’t necessarily what I want communicated at me, either. And so, here I am in a vast social desert, because most people DO like to use Facebook and Instagram to manage their friends. At least it makes it so that when I get a text or email out of the blue, it’s that much more special. I got one yesterday from a friend who says her 5 year-old played with a bicycle toy I gave him while reciting a bedtime story about how I had bicycled 50,008 miles from Magic Mountain to friend’s home to friend’s home, all while doing flips and wheelies. Does it get better than that?

Strange to say, it’s almost like I’ve been taken back 30 years in the past, when people had more manageable friend networks and more time to get things done. Excellent. It is the perfect time to have more time to get things done, after all.

The Count of Monte Cristo

One more thing. In the wee hours of May 15, a 6.5 Richter earthquake struck within 30 miles of us. Having been schooled in the art of Acute Fear of Earthquakes as a child in Anchorage, Alaska, you bet I was out the door in a fraction of a second, woke from my usual profound sleep. It was eery to feel the ground ROLLING under my feet, and look up to see the Milky Way about as bright as I’ve seen it in a long time. It was definitely something to talk about, even as significant aftershocks continued to roll in. But now that over 600 2.5+ earthquakes have happened within 30 miles of us in 9 days (>2000 aftershocks total so far), there’s strangely nobody listening any longer. But I want to know, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH THE MONTE CRISTO RANGE? I go full wingnut when I jokingly propose to my boyfriend that it has something to do with all the bombing going on at the Hawthorne Army base just to the North. Is a new volcano being formed? Is it Namazu, or Thunderbird, or A┬┤yahos or? I dunno, because when we were on the Mountain above it just to the west in early March, it didn’t look like much.

But it feels like a lot. And with everything as tenuous as it seems to be, the ground shaking underneath is almost just too much to bear. But I do appreciate how Nature has reared up with a giant bitch-slap for humans in 2020. Ultimately, I’m rooting for nature. Go, nature!

Shake it up!