Quarantined Stephanie Danler works in bed and wages a ‘subtle music war’ with her family
The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Stephanie Danler, author of the bestelling novel “Sweetbitter” and the forthcoming memoir, “Stray,” juggles child care, book promotion and Instagram while waging a low-grade “music war” with her husband and toddler (settling on John Prine, Will Evans and Curious George).
Wednesday, April 8
I wake up before my 16-month-old son, which rarely happens, and lie in the semi-dark to finish a galley of Melissa Febos’ “Girlhood” on my phone. It’s an essay collection examining the terrors, traumas and pleasures of girlhood, and she’s one of my favorite working writers. I’m left thinking about how I can be a better mother to my soon-to-be-born daughter. I’m 24 weeks pregnant. I get to read for about 10 minutes, which is more than I’ve gotten in the morning in the last six months.
Once my son, Julian, is awake around 6:30 we have an hour or so to ourselves while I try to let my husband, Matt, have some space. (He’s the primary caregiver, so he’s on all day.) Julian and I make juice — he’s obsessed with lemon juice. Then he starts asking for “Yo-Yo.”
Before quarantine Julian had never seen a screen. Now we beg him to sit still for 10 minutes in front of the TV. The only thing that has worked is “Mister Rogers,” mainly the episode where Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello. You think this is a joke. The joke is actually that my son has never said “Mama” in his life. He calls me (and his father) “Dada.” Matt and Julian are close, I get it, I’ll live. But the fact that my son can say Yo-Yo and not Mama is really getting to me.
Instead my husband comes out and puts on John Prine, who passed away last night. There is a subtle music war going on in my home, but I don’t engage this morning. I love John Prine, and it sounds especially elegiac today.
This morning is an email marathon, mostly regarding the release of my upcoming memoir, “Stray.” We had a large tour planned and are now pivoting, like all writers with spring releases. There’s a lot of uncertainty (and sadness), but there’s also camaraderie. Authors have been so kind and supportive with each other — an unexpected bonus. I’m emailing with Emily Gould and Rufi Thorpe, both of whom have brilliant novels coming out in the next few weeks. I never take for granted that I get to correspond with people I’ve been admiring for years.
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Part of that community and connection — it needs to be said — happens on social media. So while I email, I’m also catching up on Instagram and Twitter. I’m posting poems for National Poetry Month. Sharing poems is the best use of social media I can think of.
Julian starts banging on the door. He’s figured out that I don’t go to the office anymore. I take a break and Julian watches Carson Ellis read from her book “Home,” one of his favorites, on Instagram live. I am not sure how I feel about Instagram live. But he’s interested and quiet for about five minutes, which is great!
I decide on Lucille Clifton for today’s poem because I’ve had her “Blessing the Boats” in my head for a week now. I can’t find it, I blame the baby, then I find it. This happens frequently.
A few hours later I emerge from my bedroom/office with my back hunched over, my legs aching, and eat leftover minestrone (Marcella Hazan) and leaf through Deborah Madison’s “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” loosely meal-planning with Matt. Then back into bed for interviews, calls, and I do — at some point — try to work on an essay I owe. As soon as I try to do real writing, I start texting.
When the workday ends I realize I haven’t left our home — or that bedroom, besides meals — in three days. We drive over to Marsh Park (closed at the moment) on the L.A. River and walk along the river path. We’ve had strong rain this week and the river is full, with rapids, and there are gray herons, egrets, ducks. I feel desperate to get out and be in nature. Like everyone quarantined, I suppose.
Once home, the music war continues. When Matt and Julian are together, they listen to Lou Reed, the Talking Heads. I get that it’s “cool.” I used to be “cool” as well, I went to concerts, had musical taste. Then I became a mom and I now want to listen to Robyn (happy) and Adele (sad). I’m also really into classic folk children’s songs, and I put on a playlist of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Working on the Railroad,” etc. This music drives my husband insane, and we agree on Bill Evans soon after.
How Matt looked after Julian all day and made matzo ball soup for Passover is truly beyond me. Julian eats his first matzo ball and figures out they make a squelchy sound if you throw them. After bedtime, we join a friend’s Zoom Seder and there are people all over the United States on it. I miss people, I miss drinking, but this Zoom socializing is a miracle. Afterward, Matt tries to get me to watch something, but I have already grabbed my book. I just started “The Furies” by Janet Hobhouse. Matt is reading “Golden Gates” by Conor Dougherty and keeps wanting to talk about the housing crisis, but that feels like more of a morning topic to me.
Julian is up and while he whines in his crib, I quickly check my email, Instagram, and the New York Times, in that order. I do this most mornings, just a quick headline scan so I can know how panicked I should be about the day ahead. Besides mourning the loss of Bernie Sanders, this seems like a lightly panicked day so far. I grab Julian and it’s juice, toast and then Jack Johnson’s Curious George album — which Julian loves! I’m blaming the baby! When Matt comes out he changes it to David Bowie. (It’s literally not even 8 a.m.).
I pull down some poetry and bookmark a few poems to share on Instagram. I’m drawn into Tess Taylor’s “Rift Zone,” a collection about the violence and contradiction at the heart of California. I’ve read it through twice and it’s brilliant.
I have back-to-back interviews for “Stray” most of the day, so I unfortunately have to brush my hair and put on clothes. If I’m out of interview practice, I take a few minutes to read beforehand — usually an interview with a writer I admire. When I’m going from the baby, or meetings about television or film, I forget how to talk like a writer. I read a snippet from the spring Paris Review interview with Rachel Cusk, and I’m flooded with relief, oh yes, this is how humans talk about craft, oh yes, I did have a semi-intelligent thought once or twice related to my own book.
It’s startling how much the same our life is right now: I’m working very full, tense days, Julian is wrecking the house, Matt takes care of the groceries, we all take a walk around 5 p.m. How does this square with the reality of quarantine? There’s a glut of self-care-centric lifestyle pieces, social media friends who are knitting, gardening, baking banana bread, crafting with their kids. And then there’s the news, so full of suffering, disasters and loss. I feel stranded in the middle of this, full of frustrations both petty (when am I going to have time for banana bread?) and more serious (how am I going to release a book? Take care of my family?), but I can’t pretend that being trapped at home with Matt and Julian isn’t a staggering comfort. I’ve had Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” on repeat in my head.
I meditate for 15 minutes with the Headspace app. I’m deep into their anxiety series. Highly recommend. Afterward I grab Julian and put on the Dance Monkey pop song and I actually get Matt to dance with us.
When the baby is asleep and we’ve put the house back together, Matt asks me what I want to watch. I say that I want to read. He suggests “Never Look Away,” a German film by a director he loves. Hmmm. Sounds heavy. He suggests we finish “Parasite.” NOPE. I had to turn it off the first time. After we waste 30 minutes on this conversation, I tell the truth. I want to watch “The Office.” The American one, the one we’ve both already seen. I want to start with the pilot and I do not want to share my carton of ice cream, and I want to keep going and going until I feel better. It’s the only thing I can think of that seems bearable, and you know what? Four episodes later, I can attest: It’s excellent.
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