While the coronavirus continues to change our lives, it does feel as if we’re lifting our heads from the crash position. It’s still scary, but less out of control and panicky. I hope this is true for you.

For me, the new normal is watching people use Zoom for the first time (”How do I mute myself?!” “Where’s the button?!” “Oh god, oh god, just wait!!”). It’s realizing that the lipstick I just put on is going to be hidden behind a mask, and debating whether it’s even worth bothering with makeup when I haven’t had a haircut in two months.

In Great Barrington, the town leaders decided to have the crosswalks painted in cheery rainbow colors (above). People seem to like it. It’s certainly better than the rainbow bridge a member of the selectboard proposed last year.

There are hopeful signs. Federal recovery funding is going to include passenger rail, and I am working to ensure that we get support for the Housatonic Line. (Read “Pittsfield Reimagined.”)

This crisis, for all its difficulties and grievous loss of life, has taught me that we can make significant lifestyle changes. Some of them are not nearly as hard as we thought. Some offer benefits we didn’t expect.

We have a chance to take stock and think afresh about where we really want to be headed. Staying put gives us a chance to experience some of the positive things about living smaller: a sense of connection with our neighbors, the comfort of knowing that in a crisis there are people who will gladly help out, and recognition that activities like baking bread and gardening can be deeply satisfying, as well as practical. I’ve had a lot of fun with sourdough and foraging for spring greens – including hosta shoots! You can read more about that here.

Of course we’re missing one vital part of living smaller: the conviviality of sitting around in a pub or at a dinner table instead of alone in our apartments or houses. I think we’ll find that being cut off from physical contact, from face-to-face conversation, will make us value it all the more. It’s great to have Google Meet and Zoom and Skype, but as you’ve no doubt discovered, real-life interaction is different, and necessary.

I had a talk today with the French Red Cross about their third places initiative. I learned about their work devoted to the pervasive, debilitating problem of loneliness. (The Red Cross doesn’t just deal with crises, but with ongoing social challenges.) Much more about this will go into the new edition of The Great Good Place. I’m stunned by how much has changed since I wrote “What is a “third place,” and do you have one?”

We need to be together, and we will be together again. Nonetheless, it’s great to see many people become more adept with online tools. We can use these tools to reduce commuting time and work more efficiently, and they let us spend more time at home. Happiness is a balancing act and so is living sustainably.

Lockdown Lessons

Lesson number one, of course, is that all our scientific knowledge and global communication hasn’t made the difference it should have in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Political leaders had other priorities, and we humans have a hard time accepting that something we can’t see is going to change our lives profoundly .

Lesson number two is that there are positive aspects of stay-at-home orders. Here’s my list:

  • It’s fun to try new things. I’m now making bread with sourdough starter I got from a neighbor, because yeast has been so hard to come by. I’ve been cutting fiddleheads and hosta shoots from my garden: I hadn’t realized that there were plenty of delicioius early spring vegetables just outside my door.
  • After years of being constantly on the move, it’s bliss to do one thing at a time, and to focus on important, but not necessarily urgent, projects. I feel like a weight’s lifted every time I complete a task that’s been lingering for years.
  • Eating locally has taken on a whole new importance. The farms and farm stores and restaurants in the Berkshires have been fantastic: thoughtful, responsive, and neighborly.  (You’ll swoon over this video from our beloved Taft Farms.) They have been here for us and I appreciate them as never before. We’re drinking Blue Hill raw milk from North Plain farm and their eggs, especially when soft-boiled, are as good as it gets.
  • The vital rural-urban relationship, which has been frayed in recent decades, is getting a makeover. We see the downsides of city density, but also the urban concentration of expertise. We see the problems of rural poverty, lack of opportunity and limited medical facilities, but also the spaciousness, clean air, and local food supplies available in rural areas. My small-town neighborhood is full of people from New York, working remotely, and I’m sure that some of them are going to stay.
  • Frugality has had a resurgence. We’re using everything – those odd packets in the pantry and jars at the back of the fridge, not to mention bread crumbs and wine dredges. We’re using less: a little less toothpaste and shampoo, and of course less toilet paper! And we’re fixing things, making do. I think of the New England Yankee saying: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Good practice right now, and good for the planet, too.
  • We’re enjoying time with loved ones we didn’t see enough of before. I know there are downsides, but a lot of parents are finding pleasure in homeschooling and just hanging out with their kids. Many of us are thrilled not to be driving to work every day. Commuting has more impact on people’s happiness than almost anything else, especially since very long commutes have become the rule and not the exception. I don’t believe that everyone is going to start commuting by car every day because they’re afraid of getting coronavirus on public transit. That just isn’t possible in already absurdly congested cities. We’re going to see transformation in the way we work, and the way we organize our working lives.
  • It’s wonderful not fly. I have friends who seemed to spend their lives flying from one international conference to another and they’ve heaved a huge sigh of relief at not having to maintain a corporate or NGO jet-set lifestyle. I was disappointed when my China trip was canceled in January, but I’ll appreciate the time in China all the more next year. And maybe I’ll stay for a month instead of a couple of weeks: one way to reduce our carbon footprint is make fewer trips but stay longer.
  • There’s time to slow down, reflect, maybe even write a letter. It’s quieter, and you can hear the birds. My friend and co-author Ray Oldenburg says he saw a bear crossing the street in Pensacola, Florida, yesterday!

And lesson number three: Don’t add to coronavirus pollution. We don’t need to turn the whole world into a hospital ward, but to practice good hygiene and appropriate social distancing. Here in Great Barrington, the laws banning one-use water bottles and plastic shopping bags have been on hold for hygiene reasons. In a reverse of policy, in fact, cloth shopping bags have been banned, which makes no sense to me when they can easily be washed, as can cloth gloves and rubber kitchen gloves. Instead of purchasing bleach “wipes,” I use a cotton rag and diluted bleach to clean door handles and items coming into my house.

We’ll always have Paris

It’s been comforting during lockdown to correspond with people all over the world (and what a twist to have them worrying about us in the USA!). More comfort has come from two Paris newsletters that let me step into another city I love. One is by David Lebovitz, a cookery writer. Here’s his May newsletter with news about France’s plans for reopening. Lebovitz has upped his game when it comes to comfort by writing about cocktails as well as the yummy desserts he’s known for. I particularly love the oddments he makes – marmalade, confit – and my lockdown favorite is definitely the radish-top soup.

Then there’s Terrance Gelenter, whose Paris INSIDER is another delight, and a reminder of overlapping friendships. Terrance is a real-life guide to Paris, and his newsletter during lockdown brings the sound of conversation, clinking glasses, and the rumble of motor bikes into my quiet Massachusetts office. I’d heard of Terrance from Deirdre Bair, whom I knew from the Women’s Writing Women’s Lives seminar in New York and whose Parisian Lives I wrote about in my December letter. After Deirdre died last month, our mutual friend in Toronto, Barry Wellman, copied me on an email to Terrance and we’ve been exchanging notes every since. He has great book and movie recommendations, too.

I was in Paris last spring for the Gourmand food and wine conference, and took this photo on my way to an evening reception. Notre Dame caught fire only weeks later, and it was on my mind when I wrote about “Religion for the Rest of Us?”

The French are doing something else that should be a model for the US and other countries: “Modal shift from plane to train has been made a condition of a state aid package which the government is offering to Air France-KLM,” with a target of reducing its CO2 emissions by 50% on 2005 levels by 2030.

This Is China

While the political relationship between the US and China seems to be worse every day, our conviction that understanding and learning about China is more important than ever. The idea that people would be viewed with suspicion for speaking Chinese or even knowing how to pronounce Chinese names astounds me. Xi Jinping, by the way, is a lot easier to say properly than you would imagine from listening to newsreaders garble it.

The sense that you have to choose a side, to be pro-China or anti-China, is even more obvious now than it was 18 months ago when I wrote about how difficult it is to publish about China. As a result, I’ve been trying to find the right path for our China-related publishing.

I’m delighted to say that Kerry Brown, who edited the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, has used some of his precious lockdown time in Kent to write a new chapter for This Is China: The First 5,000 Years. The book, first published in 2010, provides in only 128 pages an introduction to the whole of Chinese history and its key cultural concepts.

This sounds ambitious, but by that time we’d already done the history of the universe at similar length, in David Christian’s This Fleeting WorldThis Is China was widely acclaimed by scholars and teachers, and even got a plaudit from the eminent Chinese historian Jonathan Spence of Yale, to my lasting joy wrote: “It is hard to imagine that such a short book can cover such a vast span of time and space. This Is China will help teachers, students, and general readers alike, as they seek for a preliminary guide to the contexts and complexities of Chinese culture.”

The new edition will be available in a few weeks.

We’ve been receiving superb new articles for the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, as well as many revised and updated ones. I am inspired by working with such a fantastic group of authors and cannot imagine anything more uplifting to work on during a pandemic and global economic crisis. One of our contributors, Julio Davila, sent a link to the Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series produced by his unit at University College London. We’ll be sharing more Post COVID-19 projects as we develop our own publications – and, as ever, knowledge for our common future.