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Dreaming of Coronavirus and Casseroles Keep Me Up At Night

Two main things keep me up at night. First and foremost, the health and safety of my family. Secondly, what to make for dinner. Also, hot flashes. So technically that’s three things that keep me tossing and turning in bed while everyone else is sleeping. Truth is, since the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home in early March, right after Purim, I have spent a lot of time overthinking, more like angsting. I worry about everything, and I also try to laugh whenever possible, so here’s my attempt at making light of a very serious time in our lives.

As an empty nester, I find myself wanting my kids near me even more to protect them even though I know I can’t.  I have a 21-year-old daughter in her second year of pharmacy school, doing her rotations this summer at a retail pharmacy in a Midwest hotspot during a contagious plague. I also have a son, 25, who is his earning his master’s degree in education while getting ready to tackle his first year as a middle school teacher in the most impoverished black neighborhood in the city of St. Louis. Whether the new school year is in person, or virtual, or both, or some hybrid version that changes sporadically, the thought of it, quite frankly, terrifies me for a multitude of reasons for both of my kids.

So to occupy my free time these days, I mostly stay home, freelance work, write, learn, help, donate, binge (on Hamilton and See’s chocolate), pray, cater to my toy poodle Beau like he’s my baby, and….cook and bake. Notice housekeeping and exercise are not on this list.

During the quarantine, my culinary habit has been a way to nourish others and practice self-care. There’s a reason chicken soup is considered Jewish penicillin. Comfort food made with love, or what I call a made up ingredient, “cachamaka,” is healing. Plus, potschking in the kitchen also prevents me from shopping for stuff on Amazon that I really don’t need, except for a new set of nonstick pots and pans that I splurged on recently. Every time I place an order, I honestly feel bad for the overworked and underpaid employees in the assembly lines at the factory.

My typical cooking routine begins with tying an apron around my waist because I like to wipe my hands on my shirt. My favorite apron is the kind my sister-in-law makes with a handy pocket and terry cloth towel attached to the waistband and also coordinates with the decorative fabric. Then I turn on CNN for background noise, or jam to Stevie Wonder, while I chop fruits and vegetables and marinate some kind of meat. On Friday afternoons that lead into Shabbat, I might crank up Hebrew music, watch the entertaining and educational hour-long “The Shabbat Show,” or tune into a beautiful musical service streamed from for my local temple that provides inspiration, calmness, connection, and a welcome transition into our Jewish tradition. My son who lives in an apartment across town usually joins us for Shabbat dinner, so I have extra incentive to set the table and make a special meal that  includes handmade savory or sweet challah and an appetizer like edamame hummus, tabbouleh salad, or baba ganoush, and, of course, a decadent dessert like pumpkin souffle with a ginger cookie crust and whipped cream.

When it comes to the corona pandemic, the eternal pot is boiling over. This mysterious novel virus has spread out of control and the fate of our country and world are at stake. We not only face an unprecedented global health care crisis, but our country is also dealing with ongoing  protests, riots, police brutality, racism, unemployment, political battles, conspiracies of all kinds, back-to-school debacles, not to mention  climate change, child sex trafficking…the last thing we needed is the fall from grace of Ellen DeGeneres. So I focus on the things that I do have control over, and right now that is is the oatmeal raisin cookies baking in the oven, even though it smells like they’re burning.

Even in my sleep, I’m thinking of the next meal. Once my head hits the pillow at night, it takes me less than five minutes to nod off. However, after a few hours I lay awake at night multi-tasking. Some of my most common nocturnal activities include plan menus, make grocery lists (I have become virtual friends with my Shipt shoppers, like Moshe who delivered the goods for the Passover seder), check the weather forecast, search the Internet for latest COVID statistics, scroll through Facebook photos of friends posing in a sunflower patch, google best short haircuts for older women, and read reviews of oximeters. As I hold the cell phone in my palm, the glare of the screen strains my eyes, triggers headaches, and overstimulates my brain cells, all counterproductive to a peaceful night’s sleep. And when my clumsy fingers accidentally tap the bright flashlight button, I’m blinded like a bank robber caught in a heist. I fumble with my phone before anyone wakes up, only for it to crash on the floor with a loud thud. That’s when my husband and dog growl at me from under the covers.

Sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, I move to a comfy lounge chair in my bedroom and type in my journal in my computer. I started this personal diary on March 14, 2020, as a way to document what life was like during the “Corona Pandemic of 2020.” Here I can express my feelings, fears, organize my thoughts (usually centering around my kids’ lives), post statistics and updates about the coronavirus, and of course, write about what I had for dinner that night (even if it’s carryout Indian food from Taj Palace; their Tandoori chicken and jasmine rice are the best). In fact, I usually end each journal entry with a paragraph titled in all caps, “WHATS COOKIN’.”

In fact, I can look back on any given day and remember the dish I concocted. For example, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, the day that the United States crossed the threshold of 150,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, just six months after the first cases were diagnosed in China, I made salmon croquettes with grilled onions, cabbage salad with roasted beets, noodle koogle, and for dessert a peach crisp alamode. The kitchen probably stunk like onions and fish for days.

Besides writing about sobering statistics and yummy food, that particular day’s journal entry also detailed when the Missouri Teachers Union threatened to strike if they were forced to go back to school in unsafe conditions; that was also the same day vaccine trials were underway around the world; and the same day my daughter gave a tetanus shot to a muscular guy who had tattoos covering his arms; and I wrote about how she felt helpless when an elderly woman  came into the store to pick up her chemo medicine only to leave empty handed because she couldn’t afford the prescription; and on that same day I documented how my son had another justifiable meltdown as he invested a lot of time and passion into his innovative lesson plans and curriculum when his principal switched him from sixth grade, to seventh, and now eighth, all with different requirements; and on that same day my workaholic husband, a small business owner, came home late again after he pulled off Herculean customer service to fulfill truckloads of orders for essential products like hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and barbecue sauce to grocery stores; and that same day my toy poodle Beau went to the groomer and got a fluffy new haircut, while I posted a blog that I wrote about the Jewish holiday of redemption, Tish B’Av. So, July 29, 2020 was just another day in my life, at least we didn’t go to bed  hungry.

Even though some days I’m satisfied with a big bowl of salted popcorn and glass of wine for dinner, I usually don’t mind fussing over a meal, even when it’s just my husband and I because, well, leftovers. Admittedly, not every recipe is a success. The Instapot vegetable soup I attempted the other day was a big flop, but I ended up disguising it inside a casserole for the rest of the week so I wouldn’t waste all that fresh produce, which would be a shanda.

While I continue to hoard sticks of unsalted butter like some people stash toilet paper in a pandemic, I’ll always look out for my family’s mental, physical, and spiritual health, whether they realize it or not. I try to be there when my kids call or text me. I carry my cell phone with me like a doctor packs a pager. I try to be a positive influence and add humor to the conversation whenever appropriate, like when I sprinkle extra cinnamon to my daughter’s favorite Snickerdoodle bread–because cinnamon (and laughter) are the spice of life.

For me, Judaism has a response to every situation in life. Every time I wash my hands, I remind myself whose hands I am in. In Hebrew, there is a saying, Gam zeh ya’avor, which means “This too shall pass.”

In the darkest of times and throughout history, we can look back on our lives and see the obstacles that we overcame, and hopefully we are stronger and wiser for the experience.

And the other Jewish saying that comes to mind during these challenging times is Hakol biday shamayim, which translates to “Let go and let God.” This phrase also derives from the Hebrew word rapha which means, “to be weak, to be still, to release.” Essentially, it means surrender and to heal.

If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is, we ultimately don’t have control over much of what happens to us, other than being socially responsible by wearing a mask, washing our hands, and social distancing, at this point. We have no control over schools, businesses, zoos, places of worships, sporting events, concerts, and more public venues closed.  Travel plans, summer vacations, holiday gatherings haulted.  Birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals downsized and virtual. We have no control over leaving our scared loved ones in hospitals alone. We have  work together at a grass roots level to reinvent how we live, work, and play. A perfect example–looks how groups of parents and teachers are joining forces to organize learning pods and other creative ways to serve the educational, emotional, and social needs of children and students at all grade levels.

We can’t fix these problems on our own, but we are obligated to make our world better in any way we can. This pandemic is an opportunity to grow our faith and trust in God, and come together as a nation to look out for each other. This is a time to be vigilant in our actions and our connection to God. And until we come to grips with this hard lesson, more lives will be lost and people will suffer.

When Abraham went before God, to sacrifice his son, Abraham answered, Hineni. Here I am.

The word Hineni is repeated throughout the Torah, signifying a turning point in one’s life. Hineni is the beginning, a commitment to be a servant of God in whatever capacity we are able to do. If we listen, we can hear our calling. When Moses stood before the burning bush and was called by name from within, he too responded, Hineni.

So, Here I am.

And when my son texts me, “What’s for dinner?” I will answer, “Come and get it.”

Easy as pie.