My recurring childhood nightmare was populated with tiny figures marching beneath giant objects as I watched on the periphery, unable to speak. Ants bringing stuff back to their colony, basically. Not scary, not when I described it in terms of what it looked like. I knew this then, at four or five or six, as I tried to explain why I’d screamed myself awake to the parent who’d appeared by my bedside. They didn’t understand why I was afraid, and didn’t need to. Like me, they were responding to a feeling, not a good reason for that feeling. The words I have now for why this dream terrified me must have come later; they’re too sophisticated for a child that young. In the dream, all was out of proportion.

Our present days of COVID-19 hoarding reminds me of my old bad dream. In every place that sells groceries, apologetic signs hang where food and medicine should be. In the absence of everyday items I took for granted, what’s left on the shelves looks bigger and more useless than it actually is.

But I’m an adult now. I have bigger words. I have more control. I know that when my eye probes the gaps in our food supply and my heart sinks, I can look around the edges of those holes and find plenty to eat. Maybe not AP flour, but cornmeal. Maybe not rice, but barley. Maybe not kale, but dandelion greens. The goods left may seem less precious because they are still there, but they too will feed my family. We still have enough to eat.

I’ve lived my life surrounded by an American version of plenty. If anything, I’ve been on guard against that plenty, against the waste of what I don’t need. Our leaders reassure us there is plenty of food, nobody panic. But bare shelves persist. Each one is evidence of how very appropriate it is, in this moment, to be afraid. To panic.

With the fear, some curiosity: I’ve given up trying to understand the toilet paper thing, but why isn’t anyone buying Cadbury eggs? The shelves of fine chocolate and cheap chocolate still burst with packaged pleasure, all of which is shelf stable and suitable for stress-eating. Where I am, there are plenty of pork butts and fancy cheese and smoked salmon, but no beefsteaks or ground meat or frozen vegetables. No whole-body chickens but plenty of boneless skinless easy-to-cook chicken breasts, which I thought would be in high demand. No wheat bread but several loaves of white. Lots of lemons, apples, and broccoli, but few potatoes and winter squashes — no butternut, no acorn. No cheap tomatoes but plenty of gourmet San Marzanos in the pop-art can I always want to buy because it is pretty, but don’t because I am thrifty. Into the cart it goes! 

Fresh vegetables and fruits remain in mostly fine supply. For the first time I’m thankful many of us don’t know how to preserve fresh food, as my neighbors seem to be loading up on everything that will last without intervention. So far, there’s plenty of greens for everyone.

Or perhaps this produce remains because people fear it’s been contaminated by unwashed hands inspecting apples for bruises and parsley for rot. Maybe more of us want food from a can, food swaddled in plastic wrap, as if no one ever touched it. If that’s the case, the healthiest food in the grocery store is now the food we’re most afraid of.

I wonder if these shortages show the particular tastes of my community, or if what I can’t find at my local supermarket, no one can find anywhere. Which missing items connect me to worried shoppers across the country, and which items available here would be snatched up in a second elsewhere? The pork butt, for example. The dandelion greens. 

We buy two of everything we can afford and leave the rest.

“How’s your supply chain?” my husband and I ask each other. My supply chain is strong, we say. My supply chain is broken, we say. My supply chain’s around your neck. My supply chain wants a Snickers. My supply chain’s in love. My supply chain fell out of my pocket and I can’t find it anywhere.

The emptiness of our grocery shelves looks like scarcity. And it is.

And it isn’t.

I’m trying to imagine an emptiness of different proportions. Maybe an emptiness that is also space. Like the space we seek when we walk into the woods, or shut the bedroom door, or take a hot bath, or play piano, or breathe deeply, or pray.

Maybe you, like me, would like to know what to do while you sit at home, considering the unknown. We should do what we can, right? We should act! But most of us have been asked to do the opposite. It’s hard to feel safe not-doing, not-knowing, while coronavirus mangles the proportions of our lives. Too much time and not enough money, too much information and not enough facts, too much bottled water and not enough toilet paper. While we eye this emptiness that’s telling us we don’t have enough, can we help each other trust that with a little imagination, we’ll get by on what’s left around the edges? 

I like how my friend, the poet Emily Kendal Frey, is handling her uncertainty by offering poem scaffolds on Instagram (@emilykendalfreypoetry) for people to complete, like

IT FEELS

It comes on, it _______________________

You look outside

______________________________is still

__________________________________

Your mom__________________________

Other people are____________________

Each tree seems to___________________

While a person you once loved is

___________________________________

Under the raggedy thing we call time

The lines are as straight and bare as the grocery store shelves of my nightmares, but these blanks are possibilities, not denials. People have been filling them in and sending their poems back to Emily, who publishes the results in her feed. I like the game of this. I like how it engages strangers with an emptiness they have the power to fill. I like the poems even more when Emily first posts them, when they’re full of room, not yet stuffed with words, a frame balanced by the space it contains, everything in proportion. Each space is a question that doesn’t need an answer, but can hold one if you want it to. Unlike the rest of our questions, the ones that plague us. Like: Will someone I love get sick? Or die? Like: When will it be safe to leave our homes?

We are collaborators in a giant effort to thwart a tiny organism. Each day in quarantine is a question no one can answer for anyone else. In the spaces we take for ourselves on behalf of others — for the sake of everyone’s health — we protect the opportunity to keep asking that question, keep playing with answers. The easiest of which, I hope, is what’s for dinner.  ♦

Kate Lebo is the author of the cookbook Pie School and the poetry chapbook Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Her first collection of nonfiction, The Book of Difficult Fruit, is forthcoming from FSG next year. In 2012, Lebo and her husband, Sam Ligon, started Pie & Whiskey — raucous literary events featuring pie, whiskey and readings about those eponymous things. Together they edited a 2017 anthology called Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze.

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