Paul Theroux and his wife Sheila are sequestered in their home on Oahu’s North Shore. Outside, their four pet geese patrol the garden perimeter like avian watch dogs pecking at the grass for insects; for the geese, sheltering in place is the old normal.
Same for Theroux: “As a writer I am an authority on self-isolation. It has been my condition for my whole adult life.”
A tolerance for solitude is what’s allowed him to write more than 50 books, as well as speeches, magazine articles and essays.
Still, it is different these days when routine movement can be restricted by state and city governments. He writes in an email that he is “bummed because the beaches and beach parks are closed but I understand.”
Agreed. In my own neighborhood, it’s weird to see yellow crime tape at the Diamond Head lookouts to signal visitors to stay out (the tape quickly pulled down by a passerby), and neighborhood parks now dotted with new, blue metal “Park Closed” signs.
My email correspondence with Theroux began when I asked him and other well-known Hawaii authors for their recommendations of books that might help ease the days of self-isolation that loom ahead.
Theroux wrote, “Do look at the chapter of my anthology ‘The Tao of Travel’ called ‘Staying Home.’” It includes writers “who have made a point of not really going anywhere,” such as Thoreau in his cabin, Emily Dickinson in her house and Xavier de Maistre, who wrote “A Journey Round My Room” in 1792.
The authors are notable for their ability to find enrichment in confined spaces with only the stimulus of their thoughts, not TV or the internet.
When he was a soldier in the Austro-Russian Army in the late 1700s, author de Maistre was arrested and locked up in a house in Turin, Italy, for 42 days.
He describes his imprisonment in the single room humorously as “a new mode of traveling I introduce into the world,” moving through the room, excavating it layer by layer, object by object, even his bed and the pictures on the wall.
Theroux describes de Maistre’s book as “parody, self mockery and willfully eccentric, a deliberate attempt to stave off the boredom of confinement.”
Boredom is what many of us are likely to experience as the city’s stay-at-home order drags on to April 30 and maybe longer.
According to Theroux, the poet Emily Dickinson, who stayed at home for most of her adult life, cherished being homebound and like Henry David Thoreau “placed a high value on simplicity, austerity, even deprivation.”
Emily Dickinson’s quest for simplicity as a way of developing a more authentic self is something some of my friends say they hope for as their home confinements are stretched out week after week.
They mention seeking enrichment by ridding themselves of material possessions, reducing time on the internet and becoming newly aware of small details, such as listening to the songs of birds in their gardens at dusk.
Another helpful chapter in Theroux’s Tao, “It is Solved by Walking,” describes the value of long-distance walks as a way of seeing life more clearly and to some of the authors he mentions, akin to a sacrament.
Hawaii-based author Kathleen Norris says she has been taking breaks from confinement in her condominium to walk around her Makiki neighborhood, discovering new landmarks such as a small garden on Nehoa Street near Punahou Street, filled with flowers and ferns surrounding a small statue of Buddha that’s protected from thieves by an iron fence.
Norris says for dealing with the challenges of seclusion she recommends Psalms, which she calls “my all-time go-to book.” Also Peter Gomes’ “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.”
She says when people asked Gomes for advice when he was the chaplain at Harvard, “he would suggest the Book of Psalms and to read it until they found a psalm that matched their emotional state because it is there.”
Norris says the psalms hold a mirror to the human condition. “Some people get upset at anger that’s expressed in the Psalms … but anger is there because it is certainly part of the human condition. My favorite psalm is 27.”
Norris also thinks children’s stories such as “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland” provide “a good healthy escape right now for children and adults alike.”
She says they are comforting works because the protagonists are drawn into wild adventures from which they are able to extricate themselves to return safely to their normal lives.
Norris is a poet and the author of many New York Times bestsellers, including “The Cloister Walk,” “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography,” “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith,” and “The Virgin of Bennington.”
Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings is in self-isolation with her attorney husband and three young children in their home in Maunawili Valley.
Hemmings is the author of six books, most famously “The Descendants,” adapted by Alexander Payne into a film starring George Clooney that won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
She recommends “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner as providing “a nourishing salve for its examination of human connections to spouses and friends, and our ties to the environment.”
Hemmings says, “I don’t need anything epic or sprawling right now. I just want to be reminded that our connections to the place and the people we are with now means everything.”
Jim Dooley, former newspaper reporter and author of the non-fiction “Sunny Skies, Shady Characters” about organized crime and political corruption in Hawaii, is another writer who recommends Wallace Stegner as good reading while the stay-at-home order is in effect.
Dooley emails from San Antonio, Texas, where he now lives: “‘Angle of Repose’ by Stegner is made for quiet reading, for mining the histories of family and country.”
He says San Antonio is in the middle of what he calls “city-wide quiet time” but he is able able to go for long walks.
Hawaii-raised author Susanna Moore is in isolation at the current epicenter of the virus, New York City, and not going outside for anything because she says she has had tuberculosis and would be at extreme risk if infected with the virus.
She says restaurants offering takeout in Manhattan are so swamped that the next available slots are not until April 22. But she says she’s OK because friends leave her food and necessities at her front door.
For book recommendations, she writes: “When I am in need of consolation or even distraction, I return to the books of Elmore Leonard for their wit and humor, as well as their acute psychology and use of language.
“I particularly like the early ones in which the characters are repo men and process servers and amiable ex-cons in Detroit – ‘Unknown Man #89’ and ‘Swag’ — or ‘The Switch’ in which a man delightedly refuses to pay the ransom for his kidnapped wife, a book that is as funny as it is tough.”
Moore’s novels include “My Old Sweetheart” and “The Whiteness of Bones” and “In the Cut,” a crime novel set in New York which was made into a movie directed by Jane Campion and starring Meg Ryan.
Her memoir “Miss Aluminum,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will be released next month.
Nora Keller, author of the novels “Comfort Women” and “Fox Girl” is sheltering in place with her 85-year-old mother as well as bringing food and supplies to her younger daughter — a junior at New York University — who just returned to Honolulu from school and is self-quarantining in a friend’s basement.
Keller said she is also trying to translate her lesson plans and teaching activities to online classes for Punahou School English students. “Quite a struggle because I am not tech savvy,” she said.
Keller recommends “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery” by astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year aboard the international space station. She says, “It offers such insight into what it means to be truly isolated from family and friends and from the rhythms of daily life. And in his reflections about his isolation, he guides us to such a profound understanding of how vital it is to sustain our connections to each other and the world we share.”
Keller also recommends modern dance icon Twyla Tharp’s book “Keep it Moving,” which she says sets up a template for living a life full of momentum and grace.
She says “Reading this book is like getting advice from an auntie or grandmother, someone older and wiser who is honest and funny and loves you; someone who wants you to recognize all the good things around you.”
And, sadly, the connection with older and wiser people is missing for many families today as they protectively quarantine themselves from their medically vulnerable grandmothers and beloved elders for whom the coronavirus could be a death sentence.
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