What is essential?

I can hear birds for the first time since we moved into this apartment in the center of Lisbon. The rhythm of the hourly church bells, unheard under the din of marauding drunken tourists and screeching cars, seems to carry a particular poignancy. The uneasy silence that has fallen across the city has allowed the voices of nature and older times to echo through the narrow streets. As with other European cities, and now with my other home, the San Francisco Bay Area , tens of millions of people around the world are staying at home, sheltering in place and avoiding physical contact.

Over the last three weeks, the cinch has slowly gotten tighter. First, the municipal buildings and libraries closed. Then museums and tourist sites. Then schools, followed by bars and discotheques, and beaches. Voluntarily, shops and restaurants and cafes have been closing down. Tourists have slowly vacated, the wheels of their luggage clacking against the cobblestone as they head back to uncertain homes.

Praça do Comercio, Lisbon
Praça do Comércio, Lisbon, usually jammed with tourists, was empty this morning

The Outside World Constricts

Virtually overnight, a noticeable change in the mood has overcome this city. She has slumped her shoulders in resignation. “Here we go again,” she says. Lisbon, as with the rest of Portugal, suffered greatly in the global financial meltdown of 2008. You can see the recognition in the faces of those who lived here through that.

Public health and government officials have asked the public, in one of the grandest acts of global altruism, to limit their movements. Only “essential” services are to remain open. This includes grocery stores, gas stations, health care facilities, newsstands, and pharmacies. (Yes, newsstands. As in Italy and other European cities, the government wants to ensure all citizens have access to information, and many older citizens still prefer paper over screens.)

Despite the news coverage of hoarding (which, by the way, is a global phenomenon, not exclusive to the U.S., despite the self-loathing that makes Americans think so), there is another story. Many people are taking this down time at home to purge, to rid their homes of stuff they have mindlessly accumulated.

The Virtual World Expands

Even as the outside world closes in on us, the online world seems to have exploded. Online book clubs, seminars, workshops, virtual coffee dates, summits, classes, meetings, conferences, meditation and yoga groups, and church services have proliferated in the last 72 hours. A friend just sent me a message that her calendar is now more jammed than ever. We have taken our busy-ness online, mindlessly filling our calendar and our days with “stuff.”

An invitation

The invitation to purge applies not only to the accumulated papers, shoes and kitchen gadgets in our homes. It also applies to our calendars and our time in general. This is a once-in-a-lifetime (I hope) global event that gives us permission to stop, take stock, ask important questions about our priorities, about what is essential. It is an invitation to open up our time, to allow something more nurturing to manifest.

Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort suggests this is a time of “quarantine of consumption.”

The impact of the outbreak will force us into slowing down the pace, refusing to take planes, working from our homes, entertaining only amongst close friends or family, learning to become self-sufficient and mindful.


Li Edelkoort

Consumption applies not only to physical items, but also information, events, even “experiences.”

As Sister Mary Catharine Perry, a cloistered nun, suggests in this article, “these weeks are an opportunity for a quiet, simple life.”

Fiercely Protecting “Home”

Yes, work must continue. Too many people in the world are facing dire financial circumstances as businesses shutter. Many of us are privileged to be able to continue working remotely, from the safety of our ad hoc dining-tables-come-offices. However, it’s important not to allow the outside world to pierce too deeply into our homes, our places of safety, refuge, respite, and rest.

People say they want peace and quiet. Then when it is thrown in their lap, they panic. They don’t know how to be alone. They are afraid to confront their “shadow side,” the hard truths about themselves that they don’t like. They fill their lives with noise to run away from their emotions.


Sister Mary Catharine Perry

G and I joke that this will be the story we will tell our friends’ grandkids — the days the Earth stood still. What is the story you will want to tell about it, and about how you made use of it?

Push to reset the world.

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