These are unprecedented times. I don’t think there’s any question that none of us could have expected a few short months ago that our everyday existence, our livelihoods, our political, financial, and economic systems, and our humanity in general would be pushed to such extreme limits by the existence and spread of Covid19. In fact, when I think back to everything at the beginning of March, I almost can’t recognize myself and my own thinking compared to what it’s like now. How was I not washing my hands and sanitizing a dozen times a day? How is it that I didn’t know the difference between an N95, N100 and a disposable blue mask? What would the term “social distancing” mean to me before it had made a rapid and permanent entry into our everyday lexicon?
Life with a spinal cord injury is difficult enough. Add a pandemic on top of that and it’s quite a combo. For example, washing and sanitizing hands is important for everyone, but for me, even freshly washed hands can get exposed to the potential of Covid as soon as I touch the rims on the wheelchair in order to move. So not only do I have to keep my hands clean, I’m constantly wiping down the rims, handles, brakes and any other part of the chair that’s being exposed and touched frequently.
Another added challenge is that because of the nature of my cervical injury, my lungs and diaphragm aren’t innervated like normal. That means that when I need to cough, it’s much more difficult to do so. Clearing my throat or chest with a simple cough for a healthy body can translate to ten consecutive minutes of coughing for me just to get enough strength to clear out the obstruction. So… yeah, avoiding a virus that attacks your lungs and respiratory system is all the more important.
I’m keenly aware of my share of struggles with all that’s going on, but I want to write this post about some of the things I have been doing during this time, and how they have helped me weather not only the usual challenges of life with a spinal cord injury, but the added layers that have come with Covid.
I’ve cooked for my entire life and and have always been one of those rare people that actually enjoys preparing food everyday. But Covid has presented unique challenges – and opportunities – to my food game. Irregular grocery shopping trips and the inability to get fresh produce all the time has resulted in some truly creative plates of food coming out of the kitchen. And because Brita and I are 95% plant-based these days, and since each meal I cook always lasts for at least 1-2 rounds of leftovers, making vegetable-driven food day in and day out has never been so satisfying, in more ways than one.
While I always make use of every part of an ingredient (stemming from my days cooking on a tiny budget as a student), even this effort has somehow improved. In the past, I might peek in the fridge and think that I have little to work with and come up with an excuse to go shopping or go an entirely different route. Nowadays, I might see a carrot, half of a zucchini, a few cilantro leaves and some frozen peas that are usually reserved for my 19-month-old daughter, and realize – Fried Rice! Boom! Or I might have a loose plan to make something (e.g. a South Indian Curry) and come across ingredients that I wouldn’t think could “go” with that dish. I’ll make a rash decision to just throw those things in and hope for the best, and this has yielded delicious results. I’ve learned that a small tweak (i.e. roast the broccoli in the oven and add it to the curry at the end, so it develops texture and doesn’t get soggy) or mixing ingredients from different cuisines (incorporating bok choy into a pasta toss as the bitterness is a natural component in regional Italian cooking) can allow me to stretch more out of what I have available.
Having lots of time on my hands has also resulted in me enjoying the slow and steady process of making something more time consuming that I ordinarily would avoid. For me, that means something like making my own wontons since I’m a huge fan of ANY kind of dumpling. The process of filling each individual wonton, delicately folding it, and sealing it closed with a dip of water, is not only relaxing, but also a great finger dexterity exercise – something I can always use more of.
A few very unprofessionally staged photos of my recent concoctions:
Mental Health and Exercise
Staying at home has also forced?/allowed? me to take extra time to do things for my mental clarity and health. I usually try to meditate everyday, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t always happen. Even though it’s not a massive time commitment, it’s something that is easy to keep putting off throughout the day, until hours go by and I realize I missed my chance. Not so during pandemic times! Why rush or skip a meditation when an entire day at home is what awaits me?! I can confidently say that not only have I increased the amount of time of my meditations, but I’ve rarely skipped a day in the last four months. Most importantly, for the first time, I can really appreciate the results. I notice that I have an extra layer of calm or gratitude or perspective as I go through the day, even if I’m encountering something stressful or reading about the devolving state of the world.
Something else that has kept me sane is a different writing practice that came out of nowhere. Very early in the lockdown, I knew I needed an additional creative outlet. Cooking is great, but there’s only so much food to make for two adults and a toddler. And being unable to do any of my regular exercise or physical activities left me with additional time and a greater need to do something intellectually productive. So one day, when my daughter was napping, I realized that several years from now, I would be explaining this truly surreal and crazy time to her.
I know that for me, hearing stories of my own migration around the world and my early childhood was impactful and informative. And so I decided that since these were such unprecedented times that we will all look back on with curiosity and amazement – to say the least – I would want to capture much of it to share with Yara when she’s old enough to understand. I also knew that while history would capture many of the primary happenings, it would be those little details or stories that might be the most memorable or interesting.
So I started writing a letter to Yara and adding to it everyday. Sometimes I would rant. Sometimes I would simply describe how we were passing the time. Sometimes I would recount the daily occurrences and the news. And sometimes, when I had writer’s block, I would simply look out my apartment window and jot down my observations of the urban landscape outside, or witness what people were doing in their apartments in the adjacent building. It’s all in one document, and I don’t plan to revise it or share it with anyone, but simply keep it as is. Maybe it’s nothing more than mental diarrhea and rantings of one goofy person’s thoughts, and maybe my daughter will think it’s boring, but I don’t care. It’s satisfying and fulfilling.
Joy in the Simple Things
As challenging as this time has been, I’ve greatly appreciated finding tremendous joy in things that I might ordinarily take for granted.
Before Covid, I’ve gone for a walk with Tortilla in my neighborhood dozens of times. But now, because that walk has been one of the only occasions for me to leave the house, I’ve savored everything about it. I’m lucky enough to live by a marina (albeit on the other side of a loud train track and a busy freeway) and my daily stroll down by the water, alongside the succulents and tall grasses, has truly kept me sane. An experience that would ordinarily mean little to me, was now the highlight of my day. And every little detail that might get overlooked (i.e. a cool house I’ve gone by and never noticed, a neighbor’s bountiful garden, the angle of the trees swaying in the ocean breeze) has now become a source of consistency and intrigue.
The same goes for family trips to the parks around us. Having a VERY energetic toddler has meant that getting outside and finding space for her to run around is essential. And while we’ve been to all the same parks and outdoor spaces before the pandemic, I’ve found a new and greater appreciation for these places. I’ve realized how fortunate we are to be in a climate that allows us to be outdoors all year around, and in a place where most people we encounter are respectful and adhering to the advice of public health officials, so that we genuinely feel like we’re all in this together.
These are surreal times. I want to acknowledge how much hurt and suffering people are enduring right now. My heart goes out to all the families who have had to deal with the horrors of this virus. The thought of people dying alone in hospital beds, unable to see their loved ones as they take their last breath, is nothing short of horrifying.
I know that my own challenges with my injury, my body, and my persistent everyday challenges have taken on a new perspective as a result of everything that has happened. I’m trying to focus on those things that I do still have control of, even with a body that doesn’t respond to me the way I want it to. I’m trying to embrace swimming in the frigid ocean as my only means of exercise. I’m reminding myself to be grateful for my home, even though I sometimes want to smash through the walls and travel to the furthest reaches of the globe. I’m doing all I can to keep myself sane, calm, and mentally strong – all while surrendering to the reality of all the opposite emotions. And I’m doing my best to embrace it all.
Maybe the best highlight of the last few months was going back to Lake Tahoe, to the exact place where I stood up and proposed to Brita, this time with my larger family. So I’ll leave it there as I continue to navigate through this strange, strange world we’re living in…