The Corona virus presents new challenges. Stuck at home, and with more of us sleeping, eating and working here, and a dirtier house, I was finally going to have to figure out how to use my new vacuum cleaner. Ordered a year ago, it mostly sat in its box while I made do with sweeping and a little hand-held vacuum I'd bought for $19.99. At one point, I'd figured out the basics, how to plug it in and how to get the cord to fly back into its hard, sturdy self. But that was six months ago, and being of an age where I'd be triaged out if I had Covid-19 in Italy, I no longer remembered any of it. After coffee, I re-figured out how to plug it in and turn it on, but what about all these attachments? For some reason, the company had sent us additional accessories. No one in this house would ever be thorough enough to use them, I knew, and they only confused me.
"What do you suppose you use this for?" I asked my husband, waving a plastic wand with tentacles.
"I don't know," he said, looking up from his crossword puzzle (he, too, was working at home). "Try it."
After hours of Googling and YouTubes (men are the best at explaining household gadgets, I'd discovered, after Dad Cooks Dinner helped me figure out how to use an Instant Pot), I was actually vacuuming.
Frankly, it was fun. Having struggled as a writer for many years, I felt here was a task at which I was actually accomplishing something. Guided in between cushions, my Dyson sucked up dust, crumbs, two quarters, and an embarrassing number of discarded flossing pics. When later that night, my husband and I sat on the couch for our usual numbing out in front of Netflix, I felt cleaner, brighter, empowered. I was sitting on a clean cushion on a clean couch on a clean floor that I had vacuumed. I wasn't just a victim of my fears, at least not my fears of new gadgets.
Earlier that day, I pondered how the virus was affecting the rest of my loved ones. My first thought was the saddest. Aged 91 and 96, my parents are well cared for, but deprived of weekly visits from any of their three children or six grandchildren, and who knows for how long? And what will become of the brisket my mother already made (and froze) for this year's Seder, which now will not happen. Without trips to their many doctors, the days are long, and with television news their only source of entertainment, frightening. "Where is everyone?" my mother called to ask me one afternoon. "What is it you aren't telling me?"
Then there is my adult son in Manhattan, and his girlfriend, both informed that people they had seen recently tested positive. And although I communicate with my son more than usual, I feel his absence more keenly now that I can no longer hop on a train to see him. I want him with us, but that’s impossible.
I tried to think of positive aspects of this plague as well. If you were among the very fortunate, as I was, you could accomplish things. Time slowed. As when camping, even routine chores consumed more time, and concentration. All the hand washing, the sanitizing, having to open packages from Amazon as if they contained a nuclear bomb. Wasn't this what mindfulness was all about? Paying attention to even the little things? And I had company. All my life, I'd worked at home alone, but here we were, my husband, my daughter and myself, snug in our own little We Work universe. Instead of rushing off to the gym, I took lengthy walks with my husband, who gave a cheerful 'hello', especially to the child who darted away from his apologetic mother, or the distracted runner who strayed within the inviolate six feet. "I don't want to add to the fear," my husband said. We called and received calls from friends we hadn't seen in a while or friends we knew lived alone. Trying to reduce our trips to anywhere, we made do with what provisions we had, including food my daughter brought home with her from Boston after her university shut down. Having endured a life of 'healthy' salt free, sugar free peanut butter, I looked forward to using her Skippy.
There loomed, of course, a larger fear. When I was a child, I'd read about Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. He knew that although he could not control the horrors around him, he could retain his humanity. He could be brave, kind and generous. Would I exhibit those qualities? Will I?
In the meantime, I vacuum. Like meditating, it calms me. In a month, the house will be clean. Then what will I do?
BIO: Fran Schumer's poetry, fiction, personal essays and articles have appeared in various sections of The New York Times, including Op Ed, Book Review and Sunday Magazine; and in Vogue, The Nation, The North American Review, The New Verse News and other publications. She is the winner of a Goodman Loan Grant Award for Fiction from the City University of New York. She is the author of Powerplay (Simon and Schuster; NYT bestseller) and Most Likely to Succeed (Random House). She lives and teaches in New Jersey and Massachusetts.