Creating a sanctuary, wherever you are

We’re on our third week of living in San Francisco during the COVID-19 quarantine, after spending three weeks away from home when the virus first began to escalate locally.

The streets of our neighborhood are twisty and steep, criss-crossed by narrow staircases, and the park at the top of the hill is always teeming with people and dogs. On any run or walk in my neighborhood, it’s pretty much impossible to stay 6 feet away from strangers, much though I dodge into traffic to try. So the thing I’ve relied on for so many years to wrestle down my anxiety—running—often just leaves me more frazzled.

I’ve thought instead of the idea of building a sanctuary, wherever I find myself. In the past, my sanctuary has been wild mountains, with Sierra blue skies reflected off icy lakes, twisted pine trees growing out of granite. The San Francisco apartments I’ve lived in have always been rooted in pragmatism and compromise—a survivable rent and commute and neighborhood, and we’d make the best of it. Always, the sense that I’d rather be in the mountains or living in a van in New Zealand, or imagining where we could live if I didn’t have a commute.

So now I’ve set myself the intention of building a sanctuary here, where I landed. For me, that’s meant hours of cleaning: dragging knickknacks and books to the garage to donate, scrubbing down the baseboards, dragging away heavy, dark furniture. I’ve ordered a desk and chair, and I sit there everyday to work. Anton and I spent last weekend clearing junk out of the backyard, picking up broken glass and scrubbing the moss off the brick patio. When we walk in the neighborhood with masks over our faces, dodging away from people, we look at plants. This succulent, that bush. Would this grow on our slopey backyard?

And I think it’s about how whatever happens inside is also reflected on the outside. This rumbling anxiety, this inchoate fear that rises up when I read about hospitals without ventilators and the projections on how many people will die of the virus or the millions filing for unemployment every week, it’s why I’m vacuuming yet again, lighting candles, rearranging my bookshelves. I’m creating a physical place in the world that can house all those feelings, and imagining that I’m doing something similar on the inside. It doesn’t help me to try to smash those feelings down; they’ll just writhe up my back and whisper in my ear when I’m not looking. Instead, I imagine it’s like a tea house: we sit quietly, me and these huge feelings, we drink tea, we look at sunlight, the anguish comes and then like an ocean tide it also goes, and later I wash the dishes and lock the door and the whole thing feels like some kind of ritual.

This is an excerpt from a personal letter I send out to friends and fellow travelers. If you’re interested, you can sign up here. Note that I only subscribe folks who I’ve hung out with in person and who don’t work with me at EFF.



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