Life as an eccentric self-isolationist

Margaret Atwood

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As the first world war dragged on, volunteer women’s groups of all kinds formed in aid of the troops in the trenches: bandage rolling, preserved foods box packing, knitting. My grandmother joined a knitting group in rural Nova Scotia. You started on washcloths, progressed to scarves; then, if you were sufficiently adroit, you moved on to balaclavas and socks, and ultimately – the pinnacle! – to gloves. My grandmother was a terrible knitter. She never got beyond washcloths.

I’ve often wondered about these knitting groups. What were they for, really? Were they providing much-needed knitted items, or were they boosting morale by giving a bunch of otherwise very anxious civilians, whose sons and husbands were in jeopardy, something to do with their hands while waiting, waiting, endlessly waiting? I can see the socks and gloves making it to the frontlines, but the washcloths? Photographs of muddy, cramped, stinky trench life don’t show much washing going on. And my grandmother’s wonky, hole-filled washcloths in particular – were they sent to a secret depot where they were unraveled, and their wool reclaimed for something more functional?

So, in the spirit of my grandmother’s washcloths – not ultimately useful, perhaps, but let’s hope they focused the mind and gave a sense of accomplishment – I present some of my more bizarre self-isolation activities. You can do some of them at home. Though perhaps you won’t wish to.

I won’t bother with the photo sorting, the purging of old files, the delving into storage trunks, the wonderment at some of the things found there – why did I save that, and what exactly is it? – or the reading of letters from boyfriends long gone now, or bald. I expect we are all doing something like that. Or the gardening, which would have happened anyway. Or the return to baking, something I used to do at industrial volume when there were teenagers around, and have made a tentative return to. Instead, I’ll move straight to the fire starters made from dryer lint, egg cartons and candle ends. Why should these clutter up landfill sites when you can make fire starters from them instead? The method was given to me by a group of female bush pilots who took me out to breakfast in Whitehorse, the Yukon, back in the 1990s, and I’ve been making them ever since. They are popular holiday gifts among certain of my easily pleased family members.

Here’s what you do. Collect the lint from your dryer. Collect egg cartons, the cardboard variety. Collect candle ends. Stuff the lint into the pockets of the egg cartons. Melt the candle ends in a metal container kept for that purpose and set in a larger pan of boiling water. Do not melt them directly over an open flame. Pour the melted wax over the lint. When hardened, cut into cubes. To quote the bush pilots, who never took off for a flight into the trackless wilderness without some, just in case their plane went down: “Best damn fire starter you ever saw!”

To deter the squirrels, I climbed a stepladder, placed a steel bowl against the ceiling and whacked it with a big spoon

Another activity I’ve been doing lately is squirrel foiling. Hear a gnawing sound in the ceiling? These are your choices, in this part of the world: raccoons, possums, rats, squirrels, Google Earth. Probably squirrels, I thought, and so it proved to be. At first I foiled them by playing hot jazz and acid rock right under their gnawing station, but they got used to the wailing and screaming, so I climbed up a stepladder, placed a large steel bowl against the ceiling, and whacked it with a big metal serving spoon. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t have been doing that alone at night – the Younger Generation will scold when they read this – because people my age fall off ladders and break their necks, especially when not holding on because you need two hands for steel bowl banging. I won’t do it again, promise. (Until next time.)

 The hole having finally been located by the roofer – roofers can work at your house as long as they don’t come inside – I was able to climb out of a window on to a flat part of the roof and stuff the hole with hot pepper powder. (More hand-wringing by the Younger Gen, who kept saying: “Let me do it!” To which I replied: “You’re too big.” This was true – the Younger Gen tends to be taller, thanks to the postwar food glut of the 1950s – but the Younger Gen did help me get back in via a different stepladder. They have long arms.) End of squirrel gnawing. Don’t try this yourself. It’s not a recommendation. (Mad old grannies will do it anyway. I can’t stop them, and you won’t be able to either.)

Not to worry. The pest guy came, and locked the squirrels out. Pest guys too (or pest gals) can work at your house as long as they don’t go into it.

Those are my diversions. Now we’ll get down to the serious business: the remote events. These are multiplying like mice, since talks, festivals, fundraisers and shows that would once have been analogue, with real physical bodies gathered together in celebration and glee, quaffing, chattering, entertaining and applauding, have all been cancelled, and substitutes have had to be devised. Livestreams, videos, podcasts, radio interviews, FaceTime events in which you have to hold your phone at arms length from your face – all are swarming on to the internet, which has been crashing lately.

Mary Beard, the two-fisted Cambridge classicist who understands crises, debacles and pandemics, being an authority on ancient Rome, asked me to do a remote item for the BBC Front Row Late show, which usually reviews theatre but now can’t because there isn’t any. “Just a little something,” she said, “as long as it’s on plagues.” This awakened the Kraken of my deep past – a childhood of reading horror literature, not only the “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook” for proto-homemakers but also the collected work of Edgar Allan Poe. Who let that into the kiddie section of the library? Well, there isn’t any sex in it: that was probably the excuse; and children are so fond of decaying corpses, especially those with all their teeth pulled out, as in “Berenice”. So me and “The Masque of the Red Death” go way back.

Add to the mix my early career as a teenage puppeteer, and the fact that my baby sister, Ruth, and I had already watched all of the TV drama series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”, and the devil found work for idle hands to do. We decided to stage “The Masque of the Red Death” using nothing but what could be found in the house. Out came the old Christmas wrapping paper and the saved-up bows and the stainless steel tableware. Prince Prospero is played by a champagne bottle, the courtiers by wine glasses, and the fortified abbey by the knives and forks. Never mind that you can’t go to the West End – you can watch “The Masque of the Red Death” instead. It’s amateur theatre at its most … at its most amateur.

I have dug out my ancient sewing machine – we are going to sew face masks for health workers

Then there was the hastily planned launch of the author-and-book show that will now be streamed regularly by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, with Canadian authors presenting their spring-list books in one on the few locations available to them. My interlocutor was the honourable Adrienne Clarkson, a former governor general of Canada. We went to the University of Toronto at the same time in the late 50s and early 60s, though she went to Trinity, the Anglican college, and I to Victoria, founded by Methodists. They had gowns, we had moral earnestness. But Adrienne and I both studied English language and literature, and what better match for a thrown-together online hour in which we discussed a lot of books we didn’t have and hadn’t read, but felt we would like to read? If university teaches you nothing else, it’s how to rabbit on about stuff you don’t actually know anything about. At one point my wifi froze and I had to go running around the house, holding up my device and looking for a signal. Just like the old days.

On my plate now is the upcoming online bird extravaganza, a fun-packed substitute for two events we usually do in May at the height of the spring migration: SpringSong, on Pelee Island in the middle of Lake Erie, a stopover on a major flyway, and the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, the bird-banding and educational station on Pelee. We will try to recreate all the features of those two events, including the visiting authors, the Green Bird Race, and the Rubber Chicken Choir. As we’ll be streaming on Facebook Live, you can bring your own rubber chicken, wherever you are, and join in. I am the conductor.

Meanwhile, my sister and her sewing machine are hurtling down the highway towards me at the speed of light; well, not exactly, but faster than usual due to the scarcity of cars on the road. I have dug out my own ancient sewing machine, and after I’ve oiled it and figured out how to work it again, we are going to sew face masks for health workers. I’ve even found some elastic, in short supply on the ground these days: there must be a lot of face mask sewing going on. The result may be like my grandmother’s washcloths – not perfect, lopsided, but well meant. And, with hope, they will also be functional. Fingers crossed.

Margaret Atwood

The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood deals with power politics and justice in her works. In Atwood's novels "The Maid's Report" (1987) and its sequel "The Witnesses" (2019), she draws scenarios of a post-apocalyptic world in which women are incapacitated and forced out of the public sphere, interweaving real political developments on the American continent with topoi of science fiction. The serial film adaptation resulting from these novels is being viewed globally. Atwood received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2017. In 2019, she was awarded the Booker Prize together with Bernadine Evaristo.

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