For a whole lot of nothing, quarantine has the unique capacity to disrupt our mental and emotional well-being. Recently, I found myself feeling wistful and teary-eyed watching a flock of free-range chickens bocking about and pecking at whatever they wished. Their footloose and fancy-free gathering reminded me of the days before face masks and six-foot radii, when spring meant a return to barbecues at the lake, birthday parties at the park, and church carnivals.
The disappearance of our third place, the public spaces we share outside of our homes and workplaces, is surely a minor sacrifice compared to the challenges that many people are facing. But it’s also easy to underestimate the impact that shared spaces can have on our mental health. In an effort to fill the gap, I’ve started sneaking away from my loved ones to practice a secret ritual by myself. Whether isolation has caused your emotional state to plateau into numbness only broken by the sight of chickens, or you’re prone to more dramatic swells, I suggest you consider escaping the purgatory of quarantine by going on a picnic, by yourself, right away.
There’s no need to pack a basket or a checkered blanket, and no frisbee or paddleball needed. Some view of the outdoors is recommended but not required—in fact, there’s really no need to leave your home at all. The type of picnic I’m recommending is more like a grown-up combination of time-out and snack time.
All too often we spend our meals thinking about work or scrolling through our phones. The idea here is to avoid the mental routines we fall into while eating, so ditch your devices and scope out a new location. Maybe you can find a way to get on the roof, or find a dry patch of grass. You might try a hallway windowsill or the stoop outside your apartment. If you have a car, just park somewhere special and roll down the windows. If you’re a caregiver and taking time for yourself is impossible now, you might try going into the bathroom briefly. Sit on a dry towel in the tub or beside a window, treats in tow.
The food need not be anything special. It could be a whole meal, a snack like toast or fruit, or even a simple cup of tea. Whatever is portable and easy to eat without making a mess is fair game. My first quarantine picnic involved a donut and a parking lot.
Start by looking at the food. Really consider it. Smell it, then take a bite and focus on the way it crumbles away in your mouth. If you’re unable to disconnect from other concerns, then close your eyes, slow your breathing, and allow yourself to feel the way you feel. Focus on the way you’re sitting and how gravity tethers you to your sitting surface. Now return to the food, and listen to the noises you make as you consume it. Consider its color, shape, and texture. As you eat, take in your surroundings. Feel the warmth of the sun creeping up your leg. Notice how the breeze lilting through an open window touches your skin like the ebb and flow of cool water. And if all my yoga-speak means nothing to you, then simply take a moment with the food. Eating like this can be a lovely reminder of our place within the web of living things. We are never truly alone in this life, and a quick look out the window is enough to realize it. Because food cannot come from nothing, each bite we take is a recommitment to the world.
If you enjoy this practice as much as I do, you’ll soon find yourself ferreting away picnic treats for yourself throughout the day. As you prepare picnic food, you’ll start to get excited, and eating will become an event rather like it was in the bygone days of restaurant-going.
Just because we can’t visit restaurants and cafes or plan excursions to beaches and parks doesn’t mean we can’t make space for ourselves to reconnect over food. Here’s a brief brainstorm of potential picnic locations that might work for you, though I cannot attest to the safety or sanitation of any of these locations:
- Overturned crate in the alley beside your building
- Beneath window boxes
- Fire escape
- On your child’s swing set
- The backseat of your car
- Next to your parked car
- The space between shrubs
- In the garden
- On top of a garage
- In the garage, with the garage door open
- On a tree stump
- Slumped against the base of a tree
- Way up in a tree
- On top of a stone wall
- A sunny spot next to the house plants
- Top or bottom of the stairs
- Curb out front
- Under a clothes line
- On a folding chair in your driveway
- Truck tailgate
- Treelawn, or road verge, or sidewalk strip, or parkway strip, or devil strip, or curb strip, or curb lawn, or boulevard, or whatever term signifies the grass between a sidewalk and road for you
- Next to wherever your dog is napping
Embrace the unfamiliar ones. Remember to protect the tush by sitting on a yoga mat, towel, small rug, or piece of cardboard. And then, at last, it’s time to eat.