Finding Patience in a Pandemic March to the Election

Scenes from quarantine — Day 167:

Knitters call them “vanilla” socks, though they are never the plain, white, machine-made and store-bought sock that name seems to evoke. The tens or hundreds of thousands of handknit vanilla socks come a riot of colors and patterns — you won’t find two pairs of vanilla socks that look the same. Some are made from patterns, most others follow what they call a “recipe”. A little of this, a pinch of that, mix it all together and out emerges a sock (or even two, if you’re lucky!). What binds the infinitely varied socks together as “vanilla” is that they are all just ordinary socks: a toe, an instep, a heel, a cuff or put another way, a cast on, a tube, a turn, a tube, a cast off. They are unremarkable, familiar to the point of being mindless, almost a fidget spinner of string.

I finished a pair of vanilla socks, in warm autumnal hues punctuated with stripes of blue and wedged in between chores, and market runs, and family meals, and reluctant sleep, and then a heartbeat after I had woven in the last yarn tail, I immediately started another pair, grey stripes with flashes of hot pink and purple summoning a faint reminder of Valentine’s Day and silly cards and chalky candy hearts. When everything seems overwhelming, when the other choice is to stare at world swelled up too large, to tight, almost to the point of bursting, it has been easier to pick up the stub of a sock, let the yarn fall into its proper place between my fingers, and trace the familiar forms through the air with the needles, not once or twice, but dozens of times in succession. No thought except the snatches of the last song that touched my ears. No deeper meaning. One more row. One more row. One more row.

The news is a horrible roller-coaster of toxicity. Months ago I would drink up the news page greedily, allow myself to get a little punchy from the onslaught of information. Later I found myself only reading a dozen or so headlines, and maybe only reading two or three carefully chosen articles. Now, I go hours, days without looking, and when I do settle down to read, I make it through a sentence or three, then click away. I gaze through pages of embroidery kits on Etsy or cat memes on Reddit between sentences, or I grab my knitting tracing empty forms into air again and again until a sock forms between my hands. One more row.

The mindless tasks grow, shoving aside everything that demands thought. Clever, chatty postcards to friends have fallen away, replaced with stacks of postcards to swing-state voters. I trace the forms again and again. “…no matter our age, color, or gender…”, “join together to vote in the Tues, Nov. 3rd election!”. They don’t feel like words. I like the part where I put the stamp on. My stamps are stickers (I think all US stamps are stickers now and the days of the weird gummed label are behind us) and I save up a stack so that I can have the satisfaction of the muscle memory of this task, too. Lift, place, stick. Lift, place stick.

Dishes are rinsed, washed, dried, placed in the cabinet. Laundry is sorted, washed, dried, sorted, folded. The dog is walked. The pets are fed. The people are fed. The mindless tasks get done. The endless organizing and decluttering, fixing and solving, the tasks that require thought, demand a solution, those all languish in dusty corners.

Writing grows more and more difficult. Words demand thought and thought will not flow. In physics lab, I would sometimes occupy my time by sorting the drawers filled with jumbled resistors, little tubes with wires sticking out the ends each striped with several colors to indicate just how strongly they would resist the flow of current. Sorting the resistors was a mindless task too. You matched the colors of the stripes one at a time, throwing all the tubes with a red stripe first in a pile, then dividing that into smaller piles with a yellow stripe or brown stripe second and so on. It was not finding values to stick in formulas, it was not tracing the maze of the circuit. It was just a thing to do when thinking was hard. Now it feels like my mind is filled with the little striped tubes, pushing back against the flow of my thoughts. One more row.

If we look closely, we can see others slowing down too, even the cleverest of our society pushing back against too much thought, succumbing to the mindless. People who share information let the time slip a little more, run a little late, grow a little weary. Deadlines slip, emails don’t get replies. Articles on crisis fatigue show up in more and more places and are passed around, a small, mindless act we do for each other in the hopes that maybe it will help. Every article is the same, acknowledging that crisis fatigue is real, warning against becoming too complacent, reminding us to do what we can for self-care. The truth is that the pressure of a world on fire presses down on all of us unrelentingly and there is no place to go to escape it and nobody has any good solutions. Everybody has faced some trauma in their life but nobody has faced this unrelenting miasma of gloom, with no place to find a moment’s relief. One more row.

We Google “days to election” almost every day (59 today), a grownup version of the plaintive “Are we there yet?” a child asks from the back seat as the oppression of corn fields creates an endless purgatory. Are we there yet? Will we ever be there? The infinite here is crushing us. Fifty-nine is not zero and somewhere, a faceless grownup calls back “Not yet” and we scan the unrelenting horizon for some mindless thing to fill the time and fill the space. One more row.

Be patient with me. Be patient with yourself. There are some who knit as a meditation. I have never been good at clearing my mind, at finding peace within the void, but because we humans are strange and contradictory beings in our strange and contradictory world, there is a clarity that can be found when we step away from the jumble of thoughts and problems and information and news, a peace that comes from repetition and from empty forms, a mindfulness to be found in mindlessness. It’s not everything, it may not even be enough right now, but it is at least a small something. One more row.


Tanya Klowden is a parent, scientist, designer, and person in her neighborhood. As she writes she seeks to amplify the voices that have been hushed in history.