Daily Routine Under Lockdown
After several days of relative chaos, of pacing the floor of my (mercifully spacious) living room like a small caged bear and unable to focus on most tasks for long, I've realised that I must put a daily routine in place if I'm to survive weeks or (most likely) months of solitary confinement without losing my marbles.
I've been spending too much time on Twitter, my brain constantly bombarded with a myriad 280-character messages of alarm (NHS staff pleading to be tested for Covid-19 so as not to infect vulnerable patients, and for protective gear for frontline medical workers; photos of empty supermarket shelves as Britain proves that selfishness and every-man-for-himself attitude currently trumps the much-vaunted 'Blitz spirit'; state governors and mayors in America scrambling to protect their citizens in the absence of leadership from the White House; Italian frontline doctors warning of a massive surge in deaths in the UK and USA if strong social distancing measures aren't taken right now...). I can understand the impulse to seek out the latest news; you hope that you will find some scrap of new information to make you feel as if you're in control of the situation. On top of that, I've been stressing about my family and vulnerable friends in the UK, and have been experiencing occasional bouts of hypochondria when thinking back to my limited interactions with people over the past week or so, and being super-alert to any new twinges in my throat.
One of my favourite leisure pastimes is reading about the exploits of extreme adventurers and explorers like Roald Amundsen and Reinhold Messner. As they would tell you, whether you're trying to get to the South Pole or cross Antarctica solo, in a stressful and/or monotonous environment it's very important to structure your days - sleeping hours, working hours, mealtimes, smoking breaks, etc - in order to function and keep your mind intact. The same sentiment is echoed by my pen pals on death row (I've been corresponding with several condemned men for 15 years now and they've been locked up for a very long time - one for 27 years; two others - for more than 40); for the first time, I find myself turning to them for advice on how best to manage my current predicament.
So, without further ado, here is the daily schedule that I will roughly be sticking to from now on:
8am Yoga with Adrienne. Since I'm currently stuck indoors most of the time and unable to go for my daily 8-10km walks, I've turned to this YouTube programme that my sister swears by. My mother and my sister have both been doing yoga for many years and while they can both touch the floor with their palms, I can't even manage it with my fingertips. At the end of my confinement, I expect to be as supple as an Olympic gymnast.
9am Time for my morning coffee. Ever since I became a serious coffee drinker in late 2017 and embraced all the attendant nerdery that goes with it, coffee making in my house has become a serious endeavour. First, I gauge my stress levels*** before deciding whether to go for one of my single origin brews, for decaf, or for half-and-half.
[**Re: stress levels. I've been a tad on the anxious side all my life, but last year I experienced a panic attack for the first time. It was the day after the second Brexit deadline (April 12th), I was driving along in Jamaica, and all of a sudden, my heart started hammering madly in my chest, I felt my blood pounding in my temples, I started having trouble breathing and was overtaken by a visceral feeling of fear. I had to pull over, because I thought was going to either pass out or have a heart attack or something. Eventually, the feeling subsided, but for the rest of my Jamaica gig I was plagued by strange headaches, episodes of breathlessness, numbness in various parts of my body and random feelings of dread. In the end, I dragged myself to a doctor, who put a name to my ailment. No, I wasn't dying. Yes, panic attacks can feel frightening but they are not dangerous.
Once I knew what it was, my symptoms largely subsided. Once you know your enemy, you can face them down. I was taught deep breathing exercises to take the edge off if the panic attacks persisted, and have been able to keep things under control since, even though originally I felt deeply betrayed - that my body had let me down.
Brexit is that gift that keeps on giving: since 2016, I've been feeling increasingly rattled by the nationalist rhetoric, the pursuit of ideological goals at the expense of everything else, and - seeing the way the UK government's been treating EU citizens resident in the UK - the feeling that I no longer belonged in a country that's been my home for almost 30 years. I'd grown up thinking of myself as British, and never before related to naturalised immigrants who live with their bags mentally packed. Now, I do, and this has manifested itself in unpleasant physical symptoms. And yet, given the surging pandemic, I look back fondly on the days of Brexit, when Britain's only problem was self-created. Compared to what's happening now, Brexit was definitely the 'good old days'. I keep a photo of Theresa May's Brexit in a pink heart-shaped frame by my bed and kiss it goodnight.
As with all things, there's a silver lining. I can now gauge my stress levels by the physical symptoms: if I'm experiencing numbness and tingling in my fingers and lips, I stick strictly to decaf.**]
Back to coffee. I'm not quite as much a coffee nerd as a Nicaraguan friend of mine, who's taken me to some remarkable coffee places in Managua and who enjoys 'cupping sessions' with other coffee nerds, whereby they sit around, tasting different single origin coffees and discussing tasting notes. But he did instil in me the importance of possessing a good grinder and once I've made my selection from my extensive collection of beans, I head out onto my balcony to grind it with my little Porlex grinder that's become my indispensable travelling companion.
I then brew the coffee in my French press and settle down on my balcony to peruse The Economist and catch up on other news articles I've been saving. I also survey my surroundings, and count and monitor the various configurations of cats at the house below mine (there are usually at least two cats on the premises but sometimes as many as eight - on the roof, on the patio, on the windowsill, just outside the gate). Yesterday morning there was a flurry of considerable excitement as two of them wrestled on the patio table.
I still haven't figured out how many of them live there and how many are random visitors. There's a sign on the gate that says "Beware of the Dog" in Spanish, but it's not fooling anyone, least of all the cats.
It's time to count my blessings. The mountain village of Cómpeta is shaped like an amphitheatre, and I live at the top of the village, with splendid views of the valley all the way down to the Mediterranean. Now, more than ever, I'm incredibly glad that I've chosen to rent up here, and not down in the heart of the village where claustrophobia and lack of daylight would be adding to my current woes.
10am Settle down to work. I've still got around 4-5 weeks' worth of writing before I run out of assignments. Am more grateful than ever to my friend Celeste who introduced me to Santorini Dave in Seattle, who's given me numerous assignments for his website over the past couple of years that involve detailed profiles of boutique hotels around Europe. Before I completely run out of work in April, I intend to pitch articles ideas on a regular basis to various publications, look for editing and proofreading work and, if push comes to shove, take up some translation work again if I have to.
12pm Lunch break. Time to try out one of the recipes from Ottolenghi's Simple cookbook. (For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, Yotam Ottolenghi is a hotshot Israeli chef with several restaurants in London. Most of his recipes call for esoteric ingredients (unicorn eggs, Nigella seeds, etc), but the ones in Simple are manageable, as long as you have a lifetime's supply of za'atar and preserved lemons. (C'mon now, Yotam, not all of us live in Israel)! Cómpeta is an anomaly of a village, since about 40% of its population are expats, which means that you can find ingredients as diverse as Worcester sauce, lime pickle and Indonesian sambal oelek in the little supermarkets, but you can't get the likes of harissa paste for love nor money. No preserved lemons? No problem. I've Googled "preserved lemons" and discovered that there's an easy way to make them myself. Today's lunch is eggs with braised leeks, spinach, preserved lemon and feta.
2pm Do some more writing. Catch up on emails. Send proofreading job to an editor at Eyewitness guides.
3pm Break for some cardio. Luckily, I've previously invested in weights, kettlebells and a punchball...
...though in a sane and sensible world, I'd be going for my afternoon walk right about now...
4pm Catch up on personal correspondence. It's fortunate that out of my four remaining death row pen pals, Marvin in Florida now has limited internet access and I'm able to email him rather than send him letters via snail mail. He's a former US Navy officer, on death row for manslaughter though accused of murder (it was his word against another man's), a black man convicted by an all-white jury, a devout Christian and a cleanliness freak. The one time I visited him in person, in 2005, this 6ft 6" mountain of a man was so nervous that he washed his uniform several times before meeting me, to make a good impression. He and I have been discussing Covid-19, which is bound to sweep through prison. He's not too worried, because a lifetime of good hygiene habits and solitary confinement mean that he's better off than many. But he's also had serious health issues over the past year, including blood transfusions, so I'm worried about him.
5.30pm Call my mother. My sister and I alternate when it comes to checking up on our parents, and it's my turn. In a role reversal, its the younger generation that's yelling at the older generation for going out too much and for taking unnecessary risks. Speaking of which, Mother went to the pharmacy today, even though two people (including a friend of mine) have volunteered to help her with errands; my father is still going to the college to read the papers (rather than subscribing online) and I bet they're going to go to the supermarket in person tomorrow, even though I've told them not to. A friend of mine has commented that her mother, fed up with her children calling her every day to ask how she is, has taken to preemptively calling them in a display of 'revenge concern'.
6.30pm Warm up my chicken heart and liver curry. They know me at the local supermarket now and whenever I head for the meat counter, they preemptively reach for the offal***, because that's the only thing I ever buy.
[***Apart from my abiding love of offal, I have a goal in mind: I tried to give blood on the NHS earlier this year, as a way of thanking them for saving my life in 2017, and I was unable to do so. Low iron count, apparently. I'm doing my utmost to raise the iron count in my blood by eating iron-rich food like offal, green leafy veg, raspberries...***]
8pm The whole village pours out onto roof terraces and balconies as we applaud the healthcare workers and wave lights at each other. I'm not sure who started this trend (Italy kicked off with music flash mobs in neighbourhoods under lockdown, and I know that in France they also now have a custom of applauding healthcare workers), but it's a really lovely one.
8.15pm Time to hit the piano. I figured that since I have no idea how long this confinement is going to last, I may as well learn to play a musical instrument. One of my LP colleagues is quite keen on the idea of learning to play the saxophone, but his wife is considerably less keen. I can hear my landlords upstairs playing the piano daily. My keyboard has arrived, so as of today, they'll be able to hear me making sweet music as well.
9pm When there are big and scary things happening, most of us reach for something familiar and comforting. In my case, it's watching reruns of Frasier and Star Trek: Next Generation.
10pm I'm trying to limit my screen time before bedtime, because I'm aware that over the past two years I've been having trouble concentrating and haven't been sleeping very well, and that this coincides with greater use of smartphone, tablet and laptop in the evenings. So I finish my day by reading an actual paper book. Since I've been on the road most of the time over the past year, I've been hoping for some downtime so that I can catch up on these:
Rinse and repeat.