When our tenant sent a text inquiring about a place to care for her small pets while she was out of town for a couple of weeks, I didn’t have any suggestions but thought maybe the kids would enjoy the experience of petsitting, particularly because we would only have to cross the yard and scale a flight of stairs to check in on them once a day. On our first trip to the apartment to care for the three rats, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the kids excitedly told our neighbor about them as we left the apartment. The neighbor mentioned that his only experience with rats was feeding them to a snake he used to own, and I replied, “Well, you know what they say: one man’s pet is another man’s pet food.” He laughed at that and said, “You know what’s really cool? Right before the pandemic, we got a lemon tree and found an anole living on it. This past year I’ve spent way too much time watching him and feeding him mealworms and things. I’ve actually gotten pretty invested in keeping him alive and observing his behavior. I swear he’s what got me through Covid.”
Those words just rang so true. Throughout the many months of pandemic life, we all had our own coping mechanisms, our own conduits through which we channeled so much energy and attention as a way to occupy our minds and bodies while we adjusted to and experienced such a different way of life, one that was constantly being oppressed by worry and distress and uncertainty and grief and sometimes desperation. It happened in phases as time passed and the pandemic dynamics progressed and shifted, but we all had our version of the lizard in a lemon tree.
All of these lemon tree lizards looked different, of course. Early on, lots of people adopted puppies. There were many job, even career, changes. I know several people who became newly interested in gardening, and several others who took up an exercise routine. Hobbyists were born by the million, I’d bet. My friend Morgan funneled her focus into the many house projects she’d had on hold. My mom filled her home with cockatiels and parakeets who fly around the house and syndicate the space with cheerful chirping. My friend Ellen invested in a beautiful mountain property and went about beautifying and readying it as a rental to welcome guests. My friend Becca experimented with different media in her impressive artworks. My pet-averse brother somehow ended up with a snake named Chandler living in his apartment. My friend Nate doubled down on his lacrosse stick-stringing skills and upped the ante with a hot glue and Rit dye resist technique to produce some serious masterpieces of sportsware. My grandmother added pigs and chickens to her farm and spent hours in the kitchen on creative projects like making gallons of kiwi purée from her bumper crop last fall. I made wild yeast from golden raisins, flour, and water, which I fed twice daily and used to make sourdough bread until the project had run its course after about ten months. I know a married couple in their late thirties who’d chosen to remain childless, but a few months into quarantine they decided to let nature make the decision. Their baby is due in November.
Would these things have happened anyway, in due course of time? Maybe. There’s no way to really know. But when my neighbor told us about his investment in the livelihood of the anole that had involuntarily taken up residence inside his home at the beginning of Covid, I knew how he felt. I imagined my neighbor, who’s a pretty intense dude as it is, peering into the lemon tree a few times every day, making sure the little guy was thriving, researching what to feed him and ordering insects online, worrying that he wasn’t getting enough water, wondering at the life he had led before, wondering at his welfare in his current state of life, wondering what the world has in store for his future. We’re all my neighbor, cultivating one devotion or another, practicing the survival strategies that propel us through each avenue dimly-lit by sconces of hope, one mealworm or cross-stitch or brushstroke or birdsong or tablespoon at a time, gathering grace from the process like an armful of fortune.