Julia Scott

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Our Pandemic Brains Were Trained to Forget

Monday, January 15th, 2024

My Friend Meet Friend party had a secret agenda: to link my discontinuities. The past and the present, linked. Friends from different worlds I inhabit, linked.

Fernando Cobelo

“Oh, my god. How long has it been?”

I keep saying it over and over. Such a cliché, the voice in my head prods. But what else am I supposed to say to a friend I haven’t seen since the Before Times, who is now in my arms, or who is awkwardly laying a hot potluck dish on the counter so she can give me a hug? Also, I don’t know how I expect people to answer my question, because none of us can remember how long it’s been. Does that gap not bother them? I wonder. It bothers me.

I have so wanted this party to be a success, and now I am hiding my anxiety behind hostliness. My let-me-refill-those-crackers and can-I-pour-you-some wine-while-I’m-at-it energy obscures how concerned I am that these encounters will feel stilted. I am a passionate friend but almost always in the context of one-on-one connections or small-group settings. I have clusters of friends: old friends I’ve known for decades, writing friends, podcasting friends and hiking friends. Most I haven’t seen in four years or longer. When I pictured all these friends in a room, I never factored in the gaping backstories and the time we’d need to fill them all in. The years of the pandemic represent a lot of catching up to do.

That’s a big reason why I chose to throw this party not at my own apartment but on a houseboat, borrowed from my vacationing parents, in Sausalito, California. I’ve been hoping that the spectacular setting might distract my guests from the potential awkwardness of bridging that gap.

But we just don’t have that much to catch up on. Asking someone “How was your pandemic?” feels absurd and useless. It’s obvious people’s lives have changed; they show me pictures of toddlers I’ve never met and reveal they’ve switched jobs or bought a home. But overall, people are vague about their lives from 2020 onwards. They also appear to prefer talking about the present or what’s coming next.

No one asks me what I made of my pandemic, but here’s the answer: I made do. I learned celery can regrow if you replant the stalk in water. There was nothing to do but watch its progress and wait until I could taste my experiment. I started an avocado using the same method; the pit slowly grew into a seedling I named Artie. I also joined the ranks of amateur bread bakers and learned how to make a few simple loaves. I met my parents for picnics where we sat more than 6 feet apart and passed items back and forth with tongs. We all eventually got COVID-19, but we were fortunate and recovered.

If this all sounds vague to you, it’s because my pandemic memories are pitted and discontinuous. Many people I know feel the same way. One friend has a standout COVID memory of shopping each Saturday morning with his wife, wearing masks and speaking to no one, and then the two of them with their three teenagers wiping down each box, can, carton, bottle and package with spray cleaner and cloth rags. “If you ask me what I recall about that time, that ritual is the most vivid. Everything else seems to have washed out,” he says.

Another friend still can’t quite place when we are now, let alone where she was back then. “I just remember going for walks outside and how raw and pure my connection was with every animal I saw,” she says. But the rest of it? “It’s this long, never-ending expanse of nothingness. It all has such a weird, stretched quality.”

I couldn’t agree more. I can remember the feelings I associate with those years, especially the early months — fear, uncertainty, boredom, outrage, despair. But when I try to extract a narrative of events, I feel like I’m searching for the sun in a sky full of stratus clouds. It’s all flat, hazy, low-hanging.

COVID lasted a third of a decade, but we don’t have a third of a decade’s worth of memories. We’ve changed, but we don’t have the usual ways to explain how.

What has happened to us? And how should I feel about this emptiness in place of a narrative? Does it mean I wasted all that time? Or am I the victim here? Have I been cheated of memories that could make me feel whole?

No. What really happened is that we experienced a different, and completely novel, kind of time.

At first, I thought my lost memories might be a normal reaction to getting swept up in a major historical event — something bigger than me. But consider World War II, which continues to yield a torrent of narratives: small, private stories and sweeping accounts of how people survived. How they rebuilt. How the war changed their lives and the trajectory of their families’ lives forever.

We also have the universal stories our societies derived from the collective trauma of that war. Social psychologists have traced how an existential threat — living through the Holocaust, for instance — creates the need for a new group narrative of events, one that can be passed down as collective memory and be received by future generations. What arises are newly constructed stories, robust enough to prevent future existential threats.

COVID was different in nearly every way. We had no narrative to insert ourselves into. We had nothing to fight for other than survival. We had no heroic stands to take, save for those heroes who honored their obligation to go into work every day in dangerous settings. Before the vaccine came along, we had no tangible way to rally together to defeat a common foe. And even after the vaccines shipped, we still had little sense of the enemy, because it was invisible, it was everywhere, and it was constantly mutating.

The linear relationship between time and memory became deeply confused. On the one hand, the pandemic yielded an odd species of memory, one that accumulated during an event we all experienced but that happened while we were apart. On the other, COVID was the first global pandemic where people shared suffering in real time. We could track rising infections and mortalities online. We saw photos of refrigerated trailers for bodies and of cars lined up at food banks. But we weren’t all involved in those specific, recorded events. We simply became part of each other’s distance-enforced memories.

Not coincidentally, those memories now hold little between the gaps.

What about meaning? What is the universal story to derive from these events — and maybe use to spackle in those gaps? In the aftermath, as thoroughly as lawmakers investigated medical supply-chain collapses and nursing-home failures, our collective trauma did not bring about a collective search for meaning. Instead, that task fell to individuals.

Something really bad happened to all of us, but more precisely, it happened to each of us: “My pandemic.” “Your pandemic.” Meaning-making from those years has become a personal rather than communal task, with only scattershot, episodic memories to deploy in constructing it.

Finally, the pandemic made many of us feel like bystanders in our own lives. It’s hard to generate a sense of meaning from that. And the feeling of standing by, of not making things happen fast enough, does not jibe with our self-image. Perhaps it’s better to forget.

“What is time?” a friend at my houseboat party responds, eye-rollingly, when I ask for a précis of what her life has looked like since 2020. It’s a refrain I myself have repeated since the pandemic, using the same sarcastic tone. It says: How can I be bothered to account for something so absurd?

Intellectually, I understand this reaction. But at the party, it is resulting in the awkwardness I was afraid of. I’ve put out a notebook for my friends to record their pandemic memories, but the pages remain mostly blank.

Thankfully, I find a cure. I reach for a friend, take her by the arm, and say: “Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”


+

The pandemic led me to experience a different kind of time. But I also experienced a different kind of friend.

Thirty miles away, on the opposite side of the bay, my daily reality — and during lockdown, my only reality — transpired inside a 122-unit condominium building. When the pandemic hit, the transition to isolation was easier than I expected for a building with one laundry room and two elevators. Residents simply shifted from mostly steering clear of each other out of politeness to steering clear entirely out of fear.

One of the features of a building defined by a dorm-like setting is the circumspection it requires. I felt comfortable maintaining a certain distance from my neighbors. I knew the names of about half the people on my floor and was on nodding terms with the rest. When you’re surrounded in three dimensions by people living their lives a wall away, ignorance is bliss.

But something in me changed after Joel.

In April 2020, my next-door neighbor Joel was discovered dead in his apartment. Police were called in to perform a welfare check, and they found him on the floor. No one knew whether Joel, who was in his 70s, had died from COVID-19 or a potential heart attack. Because of the pandemic, his body lay where it fell for 15 days without any of us suspecting.

Joel didn’t have any friends in the building. He was aloof and could be unkind to his neighbors. Even Judy, the neighbor across the hallway who had a key to his apartment, hadn’t used it in decades. She actually forgot she had it until a police officer asked if there was a way to avoid breaking down the door.

So when we didn’t see Joel for some weeks, no one thought to ask about him. When his newspapers and packages began stacking up in the mail room, I think we all assumed he was sequestering out of town — it was lockdown, after all. So, we didn’t knock. Eventually an out-of-town relative grew concerned.

I think about Joel’s body lying on the other side of my wall for more than two weeks. What was I doing at the time? Baking bread? Feeling sad about my dwindling employment? The disconnect feels acute, and I am still ashamed I didn’t knock. In my journal, I wrote about hearing the coroner’s gurney being wheeled by my door onward to the elevators, and the snap-snap of it being folded into the truck parked in the driveway out front. I drew the blinds so I wouldn’t see the truck.

Suddenly, a studied ignorance no longer seemed blissful or even useful. Despite being wildly different people reflecting the great diversity of Oakland, my neighbors and I realized we had a lot in common. We were all facing the same predicament with the same amount of elbowroom. (Most of the units are near-identical 720-square foot spaces.)

So even as we gave each other a wide berth — waiting for a turn in the mail room and boarding elevators with masks and visible trepidation — the friction also created more conversational openings. After Joel’s death, I grew close to Judy, the neighbor across the hall, who I discovered was a pianist for silent films who practiced on her baby grand piano. I met Kim, a Malaysian grandmother recovering from knee surgery with help from her neighbors; Ernesto, my refined upstairs neighbor who shared some of his excellent homemade flan; Colleen, a tough-as-nails forensic laboratory criminalist; and Katie, the pediatric resident who spent her days treating frightened children at the hospital.

Fernando Cobelo

Our interactions went from shouting down from our balconies into the courtyard when we saw someone we knew, to standing around the rooftop of our building at a respectful social distance. Then we started bringing wine.

Rooftop happy hours started just before sunset. It was the only time of day most of us went outside during lockdown; it was also a chance to see each other’s faces without masks.

My building is perched on top of a hill. Its 11th-floor roof towers over the 100-year-old redwood trees that surround it. Looking to the west over glasses of just-OK chardonnay, we could view cars lined up to cross the Bay Bridge and feel smug and warm as we watched a chill fog envelop San Francisco’s stalagmitic skyline. To the north, the hills of Marin appeared untouched by human habitation as the sun slid behind the Golden Gate into the ocean. Twilight transformed the East Bay into a newly illumined set piece.

It’s not a nice roof. Piles of fine gravel have accumulated in corners. You have to step around skylights and smoke vents. If you want to make small talk, you have to shout a bit over the thrum of electrical enclosures and the whirs of elevator-switching, fan motors and exhaust. There’s nowhere to sit; we weren’t supposed to be up there. Without any tables, we balanced our wine bottles upon a flat metal post and retreated to give space to whoever went in for a pour.

Over months, our ties deepened. We considered the relative attributes of Pfizer versus Moderna shots in tones usually reserved for dinner-party chatter about pinots and merlots, and then transitioned to personal backstories and real talk about loneliness and depression. I realized I needed this as much as anyone.

I did my bit to strengthen those ties when I decided to make an audio documentary about some of my neighbors living under lockdown, and how we were all making do. I put a notice up in the mailroom introducing myself to the building, and I invited anyone to participate. What followed were weeks of knocking on doors, petting surprised dogs and cats, and asking people about the lives they had led before the world fell off a cliff. And I told those stories — ostensibly to public radio listeners in the Bay Area, but also to my neighbors.

Time — the “what is time” kind of time — passed. The scariest part of the pandemic ended. The cherry tomato vines on my deck and the celery and green onion experiments in my kitchen gave way to house plants. My ferocious bread output trickled down to a sometime thing. And Artie the avocado plant grew so tall that he touched the ceiling, and I had to give him away. He now lives in the backyard of friends I didn’t know before the pandemic.

As I write this now, it seems odd that a period so eventful in these myriad small ways adds up to so little in terms of concrete memories to hold. But there could be an explanation for this second sense of time — the one with just a handful of clearly-defined recollections, like leaves trapped in whorls along a hazy stream. The answer lies in what our pandemic brains were trained to forget.

We’ve known for some time that the human brain has limited capacity for our short- and long-term memories. Some ping around various parts of the brain where they are easier to call to mind. Others drop into cold storage in the hippocampus. These take serious effort to recall.

Where and how things get sorted depends on a lot of factors, some practical and some emotional. If the memory is newer and fits into an existing pattern, or helps us form a generalized picture of how to function in the day-to-day, it probably won’t be suppressed. If it hurts to remember or feels unreliable, our brains are cued to relegate it.

Based on all of this, cognitive psychologists suspect we only remember what helps us make sense of the world. But what if the world itself stops making sense? And what if the predictable patterns we rely on to situate ourselves are disrupted — say by a global plague?

Not only did we live through a cascade of extreme outlier events that didn’t fit any earlier pattern, but the tools and customs we were obliged to adopt to keep us all alive in 2020 don’t much inform our post-pandemic lives.

As we look back at an event that shattered our expectations of reality, we have less “helpful” data to file away in the brain’s shiny front office and more to shove into the spillover files kept in that dank crawlspace under the stairs.

Cognitive psychologists have a term for this process: “active forgetting.” It’s a nod to the selectively willful ways we direct our own sensemaking, whether or not we realize we’re doing it. But the person who’s come closest to describing what it felt like to live through the pandemic for me is, of all people, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He coined the term “active forgetfulness” to describe how one might escape a present trauma or the heaviness of everyday life.

To Nietzsche, faced with difficult times of his own, we instinctively adopt a temporary state where we can forget. It’s a palliative that he compares with the experience we can all remember from childhood of being wholly occupied and living in the moment — in “a blissful blindness between the hedges of past and future.”

In reading this, I remembered our rooftop happy hour. And all that baking.

Elsewhere, Nietzsche describes a strange reaction to watching cattle grazing in a field, “neither melancholy nor bored”: that of envy. “This is a hard sight for man to see,” he writes, “for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness.”

Biographers aren’t sure whether Nietzsche was speaking literally or allegorically here. It seemed like one of the weirder ideas I came across until I remembered the sharp, clear pangs of envy I had for neighborhood dogs when I saw them outside with their owners during the pandemic. More than once I watched them smell trees in the cul-de-sac next to my building and thought: “They have no idea what’s happening. Their lives are perfect.”

Somewhere in that flow of days, I think the hazy stream carried away most of the memories that would have helped me track my pandemic self, to account for my time. And I suspect I wanted it that way.

+

I reach for a friend, take her by the arm, and say: “Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I may have lost memories from my lived experience of the pandemic, but I decided to keep the best part: my new neighbor-friends.

After the pandemic, I made several copies of my apartment key and asked multiple neighbors to hold on to them. If I were missing in action, I know those people would come by and knock. Our rooftop happy hours eventually got shut down by building management, but they evolved into a sprawling group text that now functions as a de facto mutual aid posse.

Before COVID, I’d had the mistaken impression that all we shared was an address — an accident of commonality. But what we actually had in common was a desire to find commonality. That is to say, to create community.

The name I gave my houseboat party was Friend Meet Friend. The idea came to me early in 2023, at the end of the public health emergency. In a world with a clearly defined Before Time, that declaration seemed like as much of a terminus as we’d get. For me, the pandemic felt like a discontinuity, an anomalous break from the narrative of my life. My Friend Meet Friend party had a secret agenda: to link my discontinuities. The past and the present, linked. Friends from different worlds I inhabit, linked.

I conceived Friend Meet Friend as an experiment in highly intentional self-initiation, the opposite of pandemic lockdown in multiple ways. And now, on this Saturday, my friends are here, and they are strangers to each other. They’ve left kids at home, driven across at least one bridge and brought a potluck dish to share with people whom they have committed to getting to know before sunset. It’s a reunion for me, and a meet-cute for everyone else. Seagulls included.

Or, almost everyone. To my great surprise, a few guests already know each other even though they come from different “groups” in my life. When I go to introduce them, they jump into each other’s arms.

Soon enough, some claim kayaks and paddle out to explore Richardson Bay. One risks a swim in the cold waters. They share the food they’ve brought and ask for each other’s recipes. They exchange stories and relax together in the sunshine.

If the story had ended here, it would have been perfect. After all, they didn’t need to get along. But they are getting along, and as I witness this, I feel myself start to heal the breaks in my personal narrative. The time gap is being knitted over by friends who knew me then, and also then, and who know each other now.

And I realize the true goal of friendship is to play a role in someone else’s personal narrative. After years of being forced to experience something terrible in our separate worlds, here at last is a time for making common memories.

As the afternoon slides toward evening, and my guests relax on the floating dock to watch the tide flow out towards the Golden Gate, there are many beautiful sights to behold. Pelicans flap soundlessly overhead and American coots dive for leaves and snails. The sight of an occasional harbor seal drives a frisson through the group. But to me, the most beautiful thing is the sight of a pre-pandemic friend and a pandemic friend sitting next to each other and laughing. Then putting down their plates to exchange contact information.

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Can altering cancer ‘mindsets’ change physical outcomes?

Wednesday, August 30th, 2023

Longtime oncologist Lidia Schapira had always been struck by the wildly different ways her patients responded, both emotionally and psychologically, to their cancer diagnoses. She noticed something else too: The way people thought about their illness seemed to shape their experience — including their physical response to pain and side effects.

“I’ve had so many people stuck in a catastrophic way of thinking that prevented them from seeking more sources of support,” said Schapira, MD, and director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at Stanford Medicine. “But cancer can also inspire some people to come together and care for each other, to live through and even grow from, these situations.”

Schapira hadn’t had the opportunity to put her observations through scientific rigor until she met psychologist Alia Crum, associate professor of psychology. Crum runs Stanford’s Mind & Body Lab, which focuses on how mindsets affect outcomes both within and beyond the realm of medicine, and has studied how beliefs can alter experience with other physical ailments.

Together with lead author Sean Zion, former Stanford graduate student in the Mind & Body Lab, and other collaborators, Crum created the first targeted digital mindset intervention — an interactive online course — for early-stage cancer. They found early, self-reported evidence that patients who underwent the intervention saw improvements in their quality of life. Results of the study, which, Schapira admitted, exceeded her expectations, were published this month in Psycho-Oncology.

“Not only did it improve outlook, the intervention improved the experience of physical symptoms,” Schapira said of the subjects’ less-bothersome side effects and a decrease in pain levels. “If you are able to actually help your body feel it less or have it bother you less, you are doing yourself an enormous favor. As an oncologist, I can tell you that’s a big deal.”

The mind-body connection

Crum and her team had previously shown how mindset — core assumptions about the nature and meaning of illness — can dictate the body’s response to illness and treatment. For instance, they demonstrated how beliefs can alter patients’ side effects while taking a powerful course of allergy medications. Those who were told at the outset that side effects of the medication were a positive sign that the body was responding to treatment were able to adopt a mindset that ultimately desensitized them to the typical symptoms from treatment, such as rashes, hives, swelling and stomach pain – as opposed to those who were told that symptoms were merely a side effect of the medication. 

Cancer was an uncharted area for Crum and she was eager to explore that with Schapira. They worked with colleagues to design a trial that would test out a tantalizing hypothesis – that changing a patient’s mindset about their cancer could produce actual lasting improvements to quality of life amid one of the most stressful and frightening experiences of their lifetimes. 

“I’m an interventionist at heart,” Crum said. “We never really know how valuable a mindset is until you try to change it.” 

Zion had previously worked with Crum and other researchers in the Mind & Body Lab to characterize common mindsets about cancer. They theorized that adopting a mindset change about cancer from “cancer is a catastrophe” to “cancer is manageable,” or about the body (‘My body is capable ‘ vs ‘my body is an adversary’) could be transformative.

Crum and Schapira designed an interactive online course on cancer mindsets for a large group of newly diagnosed cancer patients undergoing treatment for the first time. They wanted to know whether mindsets matter in the context of cancer outcomes, whether they can be swayed and if such changes would make a measurable difference, behaviorally, socially, emotionally and physically. 

The team enrolled 361 participants, all of whom were recently diagnosed with various non-metastatic cancers who were undergoing systemic treatment. For 10 weeks, half the participants watched a series of short videos featuring experts in psychology and oncology as well as cancer survivors, who spoke about how their mindsets changed throughout and after their treatment, and the challenges they faced along the way. Participants then answered prompts. In the final phase of the intervention, they were asked to write a short letter to a recently diagnosed cancer patient, sharing what they had learned from the experience, including the role of their own mindsets. The other half received just the question prompts without the modules or other materials. A follow-up assessment showed these mindset changes persisted after the end of the intervention.

Participants who went through the modules increased their health-related quality of life, such as their emotional well being, physical health and general functioning by 10%, as measured by changes in industry-standard scales. They also found significant improvements in coping skills and patients’ self-reported physical symptom distress decreased too, indicating that overall pain level and side effects were less bothersome. Results from the intervention, which took participants only 2.5 hours to complete, were comparable to those seen after longer, more intensive treatments, such as a 12-week course of cognitive behavioral therapy.

A future cancer treatment? 

The study’s authors emphasized that there are no “correct” mindsets when it comes to a cancer diagnosis. The goal was to make participants aware that they have a mindset, and they could choose to shift it should they so choose.

The next study, already in the planning phase, will need to replicate these results with a larger and more diverse sample – the current group skewed 82% female and 85% white. Scientists will also be measuring physiological changes over time, rather than a model solely reliant on self-reporting. In the future they also aim to tailor the treatment to other conditions, including patients with metastatic cancers.

The team hopes that, with continued positive results from subsequent studies, a version of this treatment could one day be prescribed directly by physicians to cancer patients as an upstream intervention tool that can be deployed before symptoms of emotional trauma have taken root. It could serve as an adjunct to other forms of cognitive therapy. 

“If we can make the treatment phase less traumatic with fewer symptoms needing to take fewer adjunct medications, I think the path out of cancer treatment into survivorship will be easier as well,” said Schapira.

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The Enchanting Mr. Rice Guy

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Here’s the last time I remember playing with my childhood imaginary friend, Mister Rice Guy. I’m 8, and it’s my least favorite time of day: recess. I’m friendless and alone at my new school, and so I bring him with me that day — normally he stays home. We walk the perimeter of the chain-link enclosed yard behind the school as kids around us scream and play. My classmates assume I’m talking to myself, so they start mouthing my words, wreathing them with derisive laughter.

Until that day, my imaginary friend had been a source of comfort. That moment transformed him into a source of shame. Mister Rice Guy (whose name I am sure I took from misunderstanding the phrase “Mister Nice Guy”) disappeared.

Thirty-two years later, in the nadir of a global pandemic, he came back again. But more on that in a moment.

According to my parents, Mister Rice Guy first showed up when I was 5. I was an awkward only child with a need for an imaginary companion who understood me. I was very private about him. He never came to the dinner table, and I never told my parents what he looked like. He and I spent long hours locked in conversation, playing together on the floor of my green-carpeted bedroom. What did he look like? In later years, I’ve been embarrassed to admit I couldn’t quite remember. What I do know is how he made me feel. Safe and warm. Seen, heard and protected.

Maybe you had a special friend in childhood who made you feel that way. Or more than one. The experience exists on a spectrum, stretching from conversations with a favorite toy or stuffed animal to personified imaginary entities like mine.

For the most part, children know these friends are “pretend.” That’s the point. They’re not a delusion, but rather a way to access feelings and qualities that our youthful selves know to be important, but which we’re not ready to claim as part of our essential identities. They’re our emotional backpacks, apart but close at hand, there when needed to deliver a store of strength or calm.

Experts say a child’s imaginary friend can be someone to consult when making a decision. They can make us feel better about our peer relationships, giving us insights on how to handle friendships and disagreements. And they offer the capacity to imagine new outcomes to difficult situations. Feeling trapped and confused, say, in a pandemic? Your imaginary friend might help you imagine a way out.

“The kind of mind that can reason about the past and think about the future is the kind of mind that can come up with an alternative,” says Marjorie Taylor, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Oregon. Taylor has studied children’s fantasy lives for decades. I called her up recently to ask if I was crazy, because suddenly Mister Rice Guy was back.

No, she said. I was not crazy. In fact, more adults could benefit from finding new ways to play.

In the shortest, darkest days of that first fearful winter, as COVID-19 mutations circled the globe, I sat at home, hushed and frightened and uncertain. From bleary days to long, insomniac nights, a heaviness assailed me in my solar plexus. It dragged me down and made me cry, on and off, for days at a time. And then suddenly, one night, all I could think of was Mister Rice Guy. I swore I could feel his presence in my bedroom.

Was I losing my mind? I looked around in the dark and felt like a fool. Why would my old companion be back in my life? Could he even recognize this sad, 40-year-old variation on the (also kind of sad) child he had comforted at the age of 8?

The next morning, I woke up, exhausted and confused, and took a hike for the first time in months. I drove to a hilly park with fresh green grass. At the outset, I wondered if Mister Rice Guy would tag along, but still it made no sense. Why would my old companion want a friend like me? I was weepy and depressed and old. If he were there, he’d want to play.

Suddenly I knew what I needed to do. I took off my pack, climbed a medium-size hill, waited until no one else was looking — and rolled down that hill. I collapsed at the bottom, giggly and dizzy and covered in burs. You cannot be sad after you roll down a hill. And I know for a fact that I didn’t roll down that hill all by myself. I got a push from Mister Rice Guy.

After that, we spent a lot of time together. As the first pandemic winter yielded to its second spring, I left my apartment as often as I could, taking long walks where I paid special attention to bird and insect worlds. What were their days like? I imagined walking side by side with Mister Rice Guy on these explorations, which made them feel adventurous and fun. That line of ants streaming by a smeared banana — where was their nest? (We tried to follow the trail of ants for as far as we could.) How closely could we sneak up next to the hummingbirds on my street before they zoomed away? By then I’d realized, to my delight, that I hadn’t forgotten what my childhood friend looked like: He looked like no one, or like everyone who isn’t me. In an era that seems all too ready to demonize the Other, here was a presence of pure Otherness, radiating the acceptance I hadn’t been able to access on my own. 

If someone saw me talking to myself, let them wonder. I felt no shame.

I’m sure I am not alone in having invoked a childhood presence for my own comfort over the past year. More than one friend has told me they reached for their oldest, most cherished stuffed animal in recent times — rescuing them from closets or shelves, gently stroking their much-repaired coat and reconnecting with ancient feelings of safety and innocence.

I spent 32 years living without Mister Rice Guy, because I made friends and gained confidence out in the world. But I had forgotten how to play.

We’ve all observed the intense absorption of children at play. As a writer, I’m envious of their ability to invent characters, storylines and games without effort. Imagination is a form of pleasure and escape. It’s not quite like an adult daydream. To play is to live in the present, unremittingly, without distraction or self-judgment. There’s a sense of discovery and wonder.

Playfulness is a collective trait. “I can walk into any daycare anywhere in this country and see children pretending all day long,” says Taylor, who wrote the definitive book on pretend friends and has spent her career unraveling the mysteries of why we play. She believes the instinct for imaginary play is universal, and that imagination itself is fundamental to the human condition. And not just for humans. Taylor points to a handful of studies going back to the 1950s that suggest gorillas, chimpanzees and dolphins engage in imaginary play — among each other or with their human interlocutors. 

The “why” of it is less evident: Play may serve a profound evolutionary purpose that we still don’t understand. But the capacity for imagination benefits us all our lives — whether it’s to propel us to the moon or to write the occasional poem. We also all have the capacity to think about things that don’t exist, might have been or could be. Thinking about the past, imagining a future: These are the tools of fiction. And what is our daily self-talk if not the adult version of our childhood attempts to cope with these past and future notions?

Who can we be speaking to?

Imaginary friendships weren’t even thought to be good for children until the 1990s, when an efflorescence of research began to suggest otherwise. Today, having fantasies of this nature is considered not just healthy, but an important rite of passage for some. Studies by Taylor and others suggest that up to 65 percent of us had an imaginary friend, or multiple friends, in childhood or adolescence. (Other studies suggest the number is much lower, around 30 percent).

Researchers have found that the presence of an imaginary friend — whether a wholly-invented figment of a child’s imagination or a favorite object like a stuffed animal that has a personality and “converses” with the child — tends to correlate with high levels of creativity and empathy. Some of us invented entire worlds with imaginary characters and storylines, called paracosms. In doing so, we gained a whole lot more than companionship.

The benefits also accrue later in life. Several recent studies have shown the experience of having an imaginary companion likely makes adolescents and adults more independent, resilient and prone to ask for help when they need it. And, yes, adults who used to have imaginary friends do engage in more self-talk than other people.

But why might I — or any of us — seek a reunion with our pretend playmates? The answer may lie in the disorienting circumstances of our new reality. My childhood world was small and turbulent and vulnerable. Adults were the force majeure, compelling where I went and what I did. Our COVID-19 lives today are similarly proscribed, attenuated and disordered by forces outside our control. There’s a deadly pandemic on, and not even the grown-ups know what’s going to happen next. Our worlds are again defined by hard boundaries and closed doors. And just like in childhood, we survey our lives in the lonely hours of before-sleep or before-dawn, waiting for the point where we again have something to look forward to.

For me, spending time with Mister Rice Guy helped me realize how big my world truly is, no matter how small it can feel inside the daily closed loop of my pandemic bubble. The last time he and I played together when I was 8, his world was bounded by my green-carpeted bedroom and the fenced-in recess yard behind my school. When he came back to me, we enjoyed a leisurely ramble through the Sonoma County hills all day, hunted for ripe blackberries and compared the personalities of the different cows we ran into (and tried to run up to) on skinny ranchland trails.

After we took those first post-vaccination forays into the world, my fears started to ebb, and Mister Rice Guy stopped coming around. I’m OK with that — it was a reunion, after all, and this time his departure isn’t the sudden banishment of an ashamed 8-year-old girl. He’s gone away for now. But if living is coping with uncertainty, he could very well be back.

He’ll be welcome. I sleep better these days knowing I have an extra friend who requires no social distancing, who sees me clearly with his every-colored eyes. And who’ll remind me when it’s time to play.

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Under One Roof: How COVID-19 Turned My Apartment Building Into a Community

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

I live in a tall condo building with hundreds of neighbours in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Bay Area has been under lockdown for five weeks now, though many of us have already lost count.

These are long days. Sometimes I forget to eat. I sit in front of my laptop at my kitchen table — which is also my dining room table — and mark time by counting the number of delivery vans in the driveway from Amazon. Everyone in my building is ordering in and no one is venturing out.

And I’ve started to wonder: how are we all coping? How has the coronavirus changed our lives so far, and how will it change us as a building? As neighbours?

We live solitary lives behind our 119 doors. And yet we’ve never had more in common. The threat we face from outside is invisible, terrifying and real. And all of a sudden, we’ve come to depend on each other to stay healthy. One person’s COVID-19 exposure could endanger others in proximity. We all need to protect each other at the same time.

Possibly no one in the building understands the threat better than Katie Stephenson. She’s a pediatrics resident at a local hospital, and she lives on the second floor. She regularly works 12-hour shifts at the hospital, where she sees children who have been admitted because their parents are afraid they might have COVID-19.

‘I just assume that I’ve been exposed’

When she comes home from work, the first thing she does is strip off her scrubs and take a long shower with a lot of soap. “Because it’s not only just the germs, but it’s also the sweat and everything from being in the hospital and trying to sleep on the little cots there, and being exposed to all the coughing,” she says.

Katie is not just trying to stay clean. She’s trying to protect our neighbours from the coronavirus — since she thinks it’s only a matter of time before she becomes infected herself.

I just assume that I’ve been exposed, or that I’ll be exposed again. So my mission is just to keep my germs confined to my little space and not let them get out,” she shrugs.

Kate Stephenson at work at Oakland Medical Center.

The prospect of infection doesn’t scare her. But she knows she could infect our neighbour Judy Rosenberg, a woman in her 70s who lives just two doors down. Judy is an improvisational pianist who keeps a concert piano in her living room. She doesn’t find herself wanting to play that much these days, though.

“I just feel an overriding sadness, and I have felt depression in my life. The amount of deaths per day is just staggering to me,” she says. “I’m in my early 70s and nothing like this has ever happened to my generation. Even 9/11 was horrible … but it was an event; it came and it went.

“This is of a different character, and this has a quality of war to it,” she adds.

Judy’s days revolve around not getting sick; the outcome would likely be far worse for her than for Katie. She still goes out every day with a mask on for walks and groceries, but she’s shut in the rest of the day, emailing friends and reading spy novels to pass the time. She tries not to watch the news.

Katie and Judy’s lives have little in common, but it struck me that — now more than ever — what we do to protect each other makes a stark difference — maybe even between life and death.

Our land-based cruise ship

Gina Belleci and her girlfriend Jessica Holt, my neighbours on the sixth floor, made their unit into a shared office space after the lockdown. They settled into a routine, dropping food off for Gina’s mom once a week to keep her from being exposed in the grocery aisles. They also took care of their neighbours, shopping for an elderly friend on the eighth floor who really should not leave the building.

But as the news worsened and the disease’s virulence became more widely understood, they made the difficult decision to clear out of our building and go live with Gina’s mom. They were worried that living with 180 people gave them more potential exposure to COVID-19, and they feared transmitting it to Gina’s mom on those weekly visits.

“I either need to choose being with my mom, or we need to really commit to this land-based cruise ship we live on, which is so big and has so many people coming in and out. And quite frankly, I don’t know that anything’s being cleaned above and beyond,” says Gina.

“Land-based cruise ship.” I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but there is a concern here about sanitation. Our building’s maintenance man has gone home, and there is no cleaning going on. All of the building’s common touch points could now be vectors for infection. Elevator buttons. Door knobs. I’ve taken to wearing gloves just to go downstairs. When people see me inside an elevator they’re waiting for, they give a tight smile and wait for the next one. Even the mailroom has started to feel a little snug.

But a lot of nice little things have happened in my building, too. Several neighbours left notes on the bulletin board in the lobby, offering to help anyone who needs it. On

e person organized the entire seventh floor into a group text, so that when someone’s leaving for a grocery run, they can take requests and minimize the number of trips from the building.

We’re also connecting in new ways. My sixth-floor neighbour Guillaume Chartier, a fellow Montrealer, dropped off a slice of homemade lemon meringue pie after I interviewed him for this story. I had my first real conversation with my third-floor neighbour Ernesto Victoria, who has lived above me for five years but with whom I’ve mostly exchanged only pleasantries.

And after a few people started meeting on the roof to watch the sunset, it turned into a socially-distant Friday happy hour where everyone brings their own drink and stands at least two metres apart.

This pandemic has changed our world, but it has also changed our building. I’ve met more neighbours in the last week than I’ve gotten to know in the past five years. I already feel better knowing I have so many people to talk to who are facing the same situation — the same questions — as I am. We may all be behind our doors for now, but we really are in this together.

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On Being Alone

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

When I was a little girl, I never dreamed of a husband or children. I never pictured a wedding starring me as the bride with white dress and elegant bouquet. I never pictured the groom. I couldn’t see our first dance, the exotic honeymoon. No matter how hard I strained, I could not get excited about the issuance of babies with cute faces and soiled diapers.

Instead, I dreamed of a goat.

It could have been a sheep or a ram. I’m not sure I knew the difference back then, or which image may have lingered in my mind after my mother finished reading me the stories of Heidi in the Swiss Alps and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. But at a certain age — the one where people start to ask you what you want to be when you grow up — the where seemed to be a lot clearer than the what. Whenever I pictured my adult life, I pictured a hillside high above a rural town. On that hillside, a small cabin where I would live. Next to that cabin, a goat.

As I learned about the world, and even began to travel a bit to Europe in my early teens, this vision became more specific. The cabin was situated on a hillside in France, in Provence, in a remote valley a short walk from a glittering view of the Mediterranean. I would get to know my neighbors and offer them tea when they passed by my open door. We would speak French together. I would write. Occasionally I would have a male caller, just one. The details of what we would do in the cabin were hazy. The male caller could come and go, but the main thing is that he knew when to go. The goat would be my main companion, and the source of delicious and nutritious milk, just like for Heidi. I would learn to love goat milk. I would relish my solitude.

It may not surprise you to learn that I was an only child. Growing up, this made me different from most of my classmates. They fought for their parents’ attention and had to share a bedroom. I woke up alone. From early on, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Rice Guy. I wish I could tell you I remember what I imagined he looked like. But I do remember how he made me feel. Being with him was safe and gentle. I think we must have spent endless hours together in my bedroom, on my frizzy green carpet, chattering and playing. Mostly I think I chattered and he listened.

When Mr. Rice Guy wasn’t needed, I spent the bulk of my time inside books. But I also liked to do nothing at all — just look out the window at the alleyway behind my house, and daydream. I had friends over for sleepovers, which was fun because I owned all kinds of games, and you couldn’t play Candy Land or Clue without someone else. But I was always a little glad when they left and I could sink back into the quiet of my room. I didn’t have to share my stuffed animals. This was a perk, but it also meant that some of them went neglected, which I remedied by carrying a different one to bed with me on a rotating basis. I didn’t want them to feel alone, although I rarely did.

Alone. That word seems like a threat, mostly. What do we do with children who misbehave? We send them to their room, alone. Tell them they’re grounded, the punishment being to deprive them of companionship and force them to “think” about what they’ve done. These days, we take away their electronics so they can’t play games, go online or post updates on social media. The message: Time with others is a treat we earn. Being alone is a reprimand.

We find so much comfort in the presence of others, sometimes without realizing it. Even having someone in the next room is a comfort. But when the house is still and there’s nothing else to do, the self confronts. And we would do almost anything to avoid hearing what it has to say.

What lives alongside solitude? Boredom, potentially. Anxiety, often. And the concept of loneliness has an overwhelmingly negative connotation — the absence of others is plain and uninspiring.

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, we have many tools at hand to prevent us from slipping into a 3 a.m. of the soul: they’re our laptops, iPads, smartphones, books, magazines and TV remotes.

One of my favorite studies about the experience of solitude and loneliness — there is a whole subfield of social psychology devoted to it — took place in Atlanta in 2015. It surveyed 185 adults, aged 20 to 81, to determine their reactions to the experience of momentary solitude: those interstitial parts of the day when there’s downtime with nothing to engage in.

The study’s authors had the idea to analyze not just people’s stated feelings about solitude, but their physiological reactions to being alone. Specifically, they measured levels of cortisol — the “stress hormone,” activated when the body perceives a threat. Seven times a day for ten days, they had participants submit saliva samples — at random moments, when a beeper went off. Sometimes when the beeper went off they were alone, other times they were not.

Overall, cortisol levels were higher when people were alone, as opposed to being with others. Even if they said otherwise in the questionnaire, their bodies were stressed. But there were some interesting variations. People over 51 had a different response; their cortisol levels were lower. In fact, several studies have suggested that as we age, we mind our solitude less, and we may even prefer it — a neat trick as we approach a time of life where we may be facing more of it.

A review of the literature suggests that free will is the decisive factor here. Getting to choose solitude makes a big difference in how we handle it, and whether it contributes to our well-being. Yet there is a fragile line between the solitude that heals and the one that salts the wound. Many other studies have shown how involuntary solitude and isolation can prove not only anxiety-inducing, but dangerous — from a slightly higher risk of heart problems to deep-seated alienation, especially among vulnerable teens.

For me, a great deal has been lost of that little girl who knew how to be alone. Some writers (or future writers) crave a room of their own: I craved a life of my own. Served up in short, bracing doses, I discovered early on that isolation — the extreme version of solitude — can offer me the only hope I can ever have of knowing who I truly am and what I actually want, absent the “shoulds” of the world.

But as an adult, even when I have it, I’ve become used to filling the silence rather than letting it speak to me.

I fall asleep and wake up next to my smartphone. The first thing I do, before I get up to go to the bathroom, is reach for the phone. I look at Google News and let algorithms tell me what to think and care about. I bite my nails without noticing. My habits have become more pronounced amid the ongoing national perma-emergency in our politics. The daily outrage drives the double-time news cycle — confronting me, all of us, every day.

It’s not just my time that’s being nibbled away by my devices, not to mention the whole superstructure of adulthood. It’s my mind. Recently I noticed that I was having trouble generating original thoughts: problematic for a writer. I worry that, at 38, I have become a dullard. That my inner creative world has shrunk to the occasional glimpse from a car’s window while my smartphone chirps directions, always preventing me from exploring an intriguing side road or getting lost.

The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” asserted Adrienne Rich. You can silence your cell phone. But the “fertilizing” quality of silence, as she called it, won’t reach a distracted mind.

Even with all my electronics put away in a drawer, my apartment shouts at me from every corner. CLEAN ME OR YOU WON’T SLEEP WELL TONIGHT, says the carpet. READ ME, YOUR CAREER DEPENDS ON IT, screams my pile of unread magazines. Even with the sound turned off in the movie of our lives, there’s always the director’s commentary. See what happens when you glance at a bookshelf. Or notice the details of your child’s room.

When was the last time I was truly solitary? I couldn’t conjure it. I’m not talking about the default experience of solitude when we’re doing laundry, checking email or driving somewhere with the radio on. Some people harvest solitude for content (for instance, choosing to listen to a podcast) and others for insight (I include meditation here, because although it can be very helpful, it still has intentionality). None of these things are bad ideas — they’re part of everyday life, mine included. But I wanted to explore around the margins, where the instinct to fill time loses its edge. My appetite for solitude may be greater than some others’, but in its ideal form, I don’t seek to harvest it for anything.

Yet I am the first to admit that solitude — what I define as true solitude, the state of being alone without needing to do anything in particular — feels dangerous.

“So afraid one is of loneliness, of seeing to the bottom of the vessel,” wrote Virginia Woolf, who saw the bottom of the vessel more than once. An overwhelming number of writers have detailed the contributions of solitude — and even loneliness — to the creative mind.

“What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours — that is what one must arrive at,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903, offering advice to Franz Kappus, his tortured young protégé. But even Rilke struggled to enforce his own solitude with the demands of family and the necessities of travel. And that was before YouTube.

I realized that I urgently needed to turn off the narrative channel of my daily life. So this summer, I made a little experiment. I would go away on a retreat, disconnect from everything familiar. I would rent a cabin in a part of California that was strange to me, and, to the greatest extent possible, be alone. I didn’t want to go on a meditation retreat with a group of strangers. I wanted to unfurl, alone, without any fixed agenda. I wanted solitude, even if it was attended by troubling doses of boredom and loneliness. And the only way to do that was to remove myself from my “self.” Only then could I hope to access the deeper well of inner silence — true isolation — and explore what it had to offer.

The term “solitude,” though, continued to bother me because it didn’t quite describe what I was missing. A friend of mine came up with the concept of self-visitation: the active work of peeling away those aspects of life that distract one from oneself. It is conscious, methodical subtraction, without any expectation of a payoff or reward. True self-visitation contains no epiphanies; it is simply the communing familiarity of self in space and time.

But with the layers stripped away and no one to step in and tell me how to think or who to be, what version of myself would I be left with? And, whispered a voice I was ignoring, what if she doesn’t have anything interesting left to say?

Looking online, I found a one-room cabin up north in a town I’d never heard of, Forestville. It had no electricity, no Wi-Fi and no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse and an outdoor sink and shower. Meals could be wrangled on a butane burner. Trying not to think too hard, I booked it for three nights.

As I made ready to leave, I made some other decisions. My phone could come with me in case of emergencies, but would be turned off and locked in the glove compartment of my car. No laptop. No alcohol, no caffeine. No music. And no books — I would need to leave my books at home. The only companion for my mind would be a journal to write in. Not with any writing goal in mind, just to record my thoughts if I wanted to.

“But won’t your mind start to spin when you’re alone?” asked a friend. I shook my head, but I didn’t really know. I would deal with the dark night of the soul if it came to pass, at 3 a.m. if need be.

Another friend looked at me in horror when I told him I wouldn’t be bringing along any reading material. “Not even one book? Can’t you hide one under your floorboard, like a box of crackers in case of emergency?”

I waited until the last minute to pack for my retreat, cramming the morning full of work deadlines. It’s a simple hour and a half to Forestville from where I live in the Bay Area, but I arrived three and a half hours later than expected. I was still checking my phone and answering emails up to the moment I pulled up on a Monday afternoon. My host, the owner of the property, was there to greet me. To get to the cabin, he helped me carry my bags down a long wooded lane, over a soundless creek tamed by the heat. The only other house on the property belonged to him, and I couldn’t see it through the trees once I settled in.

It was even smaller than advertised — just a bed, desk and chair, a side table and a narrow armoire, stuffed with linens. The outhouse was 100 feet away, which I suspected would be interesting at night. No goat, alas.

Looking around, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s description of looking at his simple cabin, his pond, his woods and his bean field. “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself,” he wrote.

The first thing I did was to take down the heavy mirror behind the bed, which trailed a skein of absconded spiderwebs as it left the wall. I put it on the floor, facing inward. I didn’t want to witness myself witnessing myself. I carefully washed my produce — two apples and two tomatoes — in the outdoor sink that, I discovered, drained straight to the forest floor. I brought them inside and lined them up on a windowsill with my two lemons in a little pattern. There.

I fetched a pot to make hard-boiled eggs over the butane burner and it had two living spiders in it, one of which did not want to leave the pot and merely surfed the water. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting on my lower back — and immediately decided I had been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, my superparanoia. (It turned out I had no bug bite at all.) I had a brief, panicky moment when a bee buzzed past my ear and the sound made me think I had missed a text on my cell phone. Actual panic — my heart was pounding when I remembered my phone was turned off, in my car.

In brief, I was nearly insensate of the pleasures of my new home that night. I could tell it wouldn’t be a silent retreat. I could be as quiet as I wanted, but I was staying in someone’s rural backyard. I lay on my back far into the night and listened to trucks buzzing by on the main road and a demented dog barking in the distance. Absent other distractions, my mind immediately started to cannibalize what I had last fed it, devouring the finer plot points of Sherlock and replaying the opening bars of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 over and over again. Then I started to catalogue all the ways in which I had caused friends or family members to feel neglected, hurt or let down over the years.

The next morning was so bright and cloudless that when a hawk passed for a moment above where I sat with my journal and morning tea, I wondered who’d turned out the lights. I claimed a wobbly bistro table with peeling green paint on the narrow deck outside my cabin. Twice a day I brushed away the leavings from the redwoods and coast live oaks that hung over the deck. The oaks shed their leaves constantly. I could hear them ding onto the metal roof as I lay in bed.

I walked the property, then took in my private fire pit. It sat in a clearing with six brightly colored Adirondack chairs around it, clearly awaiting the company of friends. I watched some dusty salamanders sun themselves on the circle of rocks and dart across the ash, and wondered if I would make myself a fire, and whether it would be sad to sit in one of those jolly chairs and stare at the flame, alone.

What on earth would I find to fill my days with, my friends wanted to know. It seemed like a strange enough question to me as I sat at my green table, long enough to watch the transit of the sun to what must have been high noon, judging by the heat. I watched two skittering brown squirrels chase back and forth between a pair of elegant oaks on opposite sides of the laneway. The trees had grown toward each other until their branches crossed like broadswords.

In the woods, what you notice fills you to the brim. I could have sat far longer, but there always seemed to be something to do — although nothing that needed doing beyond basic survival. Of course, there was the meal prep and cleanup, the daily troubleshooting — What substitutes for a colander? — the dressing and undressing and showering. The journaling was optional. (I suppose the showering was, too, but I’m not an animal.)

I took strenuous hikes on the Sonoma coast. It transpired that there were many important things to do: to pause, overheated, every few hundred yards on an uphill climb and notice, as I tried to catch my breath, how the spines of sword ferns have a soft coating that belies the brittleness of the leaves. I paused to taste wild blackberries and savor their tartness; to meditate by a creek, and caress the moss next to my feet; to pick a clover from the mounds that grew up around the redwood fairy circles, and chew the stem to enjoy their secret lemon flavor; to observe how the sun filtered through the ferns, stenciling the roseate soil with a living photo negative.

I noticed and did things without noticing or doing things, just because I was curious and it felt good. It turned out that I liked my mind after all.

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” wrote Michel de Montaigne around 1572. When I was on forest time, the world belonged to me. I stopped feeling anxious. The most significant questions pertained to the timing of dinner and bedtime. I learned to gauge how much daylight remained by eyeing the corona of blue in the sky above my cabin clearing, rather than the crepuscular creep along the forest floor. Still I misjudged a couple of times and ended up brushing my teeth and showering after dark, with a flashlight, having a giggle at my own expense.

I wrote without effort, often at night in bed with my journal propped up on my knees, straining with a candle in one hand and a pen in the other. On my last evening, I built a fire and sat next to it, eating my meal. I looked around at the five other empty chairs and did not feel any desire to fill them. “This is as close as I come to feeling holy,” I wrote that night.

But I hadn’t thought about what would come next. Within 45 minutes of leaving Forestville the next day, I had bitten off two nails and was taking mental notes of all the things I needed to accomplish as I zoomed down Highway 101. I had a long and guilty reunion with my laptop that afternoon.

My reentry was wobbly. As easily as I had settled into my solitude, I felt myself losing the thread. I cried a lot. I had trouble sleeping, trouble working. For a time, I stayed off Google News. In the car, I forced myself to sit in silence and avoid listening to the radio. I meditated in the morning. I lit candles at night. But little by little, I felt my old condition settle in somewhere near my solar plexus: that state of dullness mixed with hypervigilance.

The world felt immense and harmonious when I spent my days hiking in vast places and sleeping in a very small one. But now, with access to everything in the world on my computer, in the Bay Area, and at the supermarket, it felt like I had fewer choices. The air in my lungs felt compressed. I didn’t experience the same sense of possibility.

I had been hoping to portage some elements of my retreat life into my ‘real’ life, but I forgot that the same person — me — is always there, struggling and striving and kicking and generally making a mockery of attempts to honor my goals and stay aligned. I should have read my Montaigne more closely: “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . . . Neither deserts, nor rocky caves, nor hair shirts, nor fastings will free us of them,” he wrote.

It took only three days of self-visitation to remind me that my internal compass still points in the direction of true north, just as it did when I was a child. But how do I keep it in my sights when I’m getting spun in circles? And, when I find it again, how can I follow it without walking out on my life, when there are so many things that deserve my attention — a project that’s due, a friend who’s in pain, this country’s civil rights, our environment?

How can I live in the world, engaged and open-hearted, while cultivating my inner silence and need to withdraw?

Montaigne thought it might be possible to do both. “Real solitude,” he wrote, “may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone.” Thoreau returned to society after two years, and when he was at Walden he had frequent visitors — he describes his small cabin filled with up to 30 people at a time. He was no hermit, but walked frequently to town along the railroad tracks and recounts his conversations with all manner of folk who knew the woods.

There is something reassuring about these questions, and the fact that they have been with thoughtful writers for such a long time — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan and hundreds more. They all sought a balance between the version of themselves they gave to the world, with its traumas and distractions, and the need to belong to themselves, cultivate their autonomy and create something original and true. They weren’t just talking about how to write, but self-visitation in the everyday.

My childhood vision has come true. I never did marry or have children, and I have yet to even cohabitate with anyone, although I have had several meaningful relationships. I don’t own a hut on a hillside, but I do have a male caller. He, like me, relishes his solitude and knows how to respect mine. I intend to take a self-visitation retreat every year. In the meantime, I will do my best to keep my door open and, after all the visitors leave, get back to the page, alone.

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Letter of Recommendation: Candle Hour

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

One of my best teenage memories starts with a natural disaster. In January 1998, my parents and I returned to our home in Montreal to find that a giant tree limb had ruptured our living room. What would soon be known as the Great Quebec Ice Storm had struck. It was the most catastrophic in modern Canadian history. Accumulations of freezing rain had cracked our maple tree nearly in half. It shattered our front window, glass fringing the tree limb like a body outline in a murder scene.

Outside, downed power lines sparked like electric snakes. More than a million Quebecers were left without power. Cars were crushed and impaled by fallen limbs. Because the ice could inflict violence at any moment, everyone retreated indoors, making for an oddly quiet state of emergency. Except for the distant beeps of electrical-crew trucks, all you could hear was the crack of trees buckling under the weight of the ice, day and night. Long after the sidewalks were cleared, we tiptoed past the eaves of tall buildings and kept our voices low, steering clear of icicles thick as baseball bats and sharp as spikes, primed to fall at any moment.

For seven days and seven nights, until the power returned, we lived by candlelight. We learned to be mindful of candles: how to stand them up, walk with them, nurture their light. At first it was maddening to cook dinner — to carefully carry a plate of candles to the cupboard, poke around for ingredients, then go off again in search of a knife, taking care not to drip wax into the cutlery drawer. I learned how to brush my teeth and bathe by candlelight; the light bounced off the mirrors, making the bathroom for once the brightest room in the house. In our bedrooms, we piled under blankets and read ourselves to sleep by the flickering flames.

Outside, our neighborhood descended into darkness at twilight, but if I stared hard enough at windows blurred with ice, I could just make out little dancing lights. Decades later, no one in my family remembers what we talked about, or ate, or how we spent our afternoons that week. But we all remember the candles.

The Montreal Ice Storm, 1998. (Archives de Montreal)

I’ve since settled in California, and last January events in the world left me with a hunger for silence. I adopted a strict information diet: no television news or social media. One evening, I didn’t even bother to flick on the lights in my apartment. I walked quietly to the window and watched the last of the day, the darkness swallowing the trees along my street. Instinctively, I went looking for a book of matches in the back of the kitchen junk drawer. Opening a closet, I felt around until I discovered the remnant of a housewarming gift: a milk-white candle. I struck a match and lit the dusty wick. I commandeered a plate from the cupboard and set it on my coffee table. I nestled in a blanket, listening to the wind in the courtyard. Eventually, for the first time in too many days, I found myself surrendering to sleep.

That was the start of a practice I’ve taken to calling Candle Hour. An hour before I go to bed, I turn off all my devices for the night. I hit the lights. I light a candle or two or three — enough to read a book by, or to just sit and stare at the flame, which, by drawing oxygen, reminds me I need to breathe, too. I surround myself with scents and objects I like — some fresh rosemary plucked from a neighbor’s bush, a jar of redwood seed pods. I have a journal ready, but I don’t pressure myself to write in it. Candle Hour doesn’t even need to last a full hour, though; sometimes it lasts far longer. I sit until I feel an uncoupling from the chaos, or until the candle burns all the way down, or sometimes both.

Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.

At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.

Tonight’s candlelight will cast the same glow on my Oakland walls as it did on my parents’ walls in Montreal in 1998. I’ll feel in my bones that the day has passed — as all days, even fearful ones, eventually do. The day’s last act is cast in flickering gold. I’ll watch the flame bob and let my mind wander, until I realize I’m sleepy. After a while, I’ll lean over and blow it out, ready now for darkness — where renewal begins.

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Julia Scott

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