pandemic pancakes & the power of fallow periods

Back in March, when schools began closing and restaurants started shutting down, I bought an enormous bag of pancake mix at Costco.

I can’t tell you exactly why. Historically I’ve been at best a casual pancake chef, busting them out on a random Sunday afternoon once every month or two, on a day when I’m feeling particularly generous with my time and motherly attention. Even if were going to be six months before I could make it back to the store, at my usual rate of pancake production, a ten-pound bag (yes, TEN POUNDS) of mix wouldn’t even have been half-used. Besides, I know how to make pancake batter myself. There was nothing logical at all about this purchase.

And yet, as I once said to my podcast co-host Sarah, “Right now, we all get a pass to be the weirdest versions of ourselves.” And so, the mix went into my cart, along with numerous other illogical, yet somehow comforting, purchases.

For a few days after schools and restaurants closed, I fluttered around my house in a burst of chaotic energy. There was something almost exciting about the mix of fear, uncertainty, and novelty. My calendar filled with Zoom calls, my friends and colleagues all wondering what this new life would look like and seeking solace in connection. I talked with fellow entrepreneurs and content creators about the opportunities the situation might pose, and vowed to myself not to let those opportunities pass by.

Problem is, I didn’t actually know what “seizing the day” was supposed to look like in this new reality. My house was suddenly full of kids all day, big kids in whom I’d worked hard to foster independence early, and who I’d come to count on to be self-directed so I could get “my stuff” done. But now suddenly those same kids found themselves without the usual structure of school, sports, activities and social lives to give them both anchors and rudders.

Not only that, but what had once been the simplest of chores – like running out for a gallon of milk – now seemed hopelessly complicated. Wondering how the kids were going to stay occupied, if they were playing too many video games, sleeping in too late…worrying about whether I’d gotten enough eggs or effectively sanitized my steering wheel last time I went to the store…it was like I had a thousand too many processes running in the background of my brain and it was starting to overheat.

So, one day, I wandered into my kitchen and decided to make pancakes.

I was wearing pajamas. The kids were still asleep. I won’t tell you what time of day it was, because in light of those admissions, it would be embarrassing. (Hint: even calling it “brunch” may have been pushing it.)

In the end, the meal was nothing special. Run-of-the-mill pancakes-from-a-mix, bacon, scrambled eggs. But as the kids started wandering into the kitchen, I saw that they were surprised and pleased, which in turn delighted me. It reminded me of what a kick I used to get out of bringing my two oldest sons home Matchbox cars from the store when they were really little. I always felt like I was getting away with something: “Look at those smiles! Do they have any idea that these cars only cost 99 cents!?”

I realized that, to my kids, pancakes typically signal “today is special.” And during a period of time where not much special had happened at all, that mattered.

So the next day, I wandered into the kitchen (same time, same wardrobe) and made the same meal. Only this time I lingered a bit longer. Before I started, I turned on music and cleaned the sink, including the grimy areas around the base of the taps. How long had it been since I’d given those areas attention? And while I’m at it, how about organizing the disaster under the sink?

The kids were equally surprised when they woke up on day 2 to find…more pancakes! By day 4, they were less surprised – and perhaps also slightly less delighted – than they had been day 1, but the habit was set. “Pandemic pancakes” had become a part of our new routine, and I was fully committed.

“Wow, Mom,” my son Isaac – back “at home” after leaving his job and roommates in a city an hour away to ride out the stay-at-home orders with his family – remarked one day about three weeks in. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much breakfast food in my life.”

I chose to view that as a compliment, but really, by that point my daily pancake-putter was as much for me as it was the kids. I found comfort in the routine: flicking water droplets on the skillet and watching them dance to test the temperature, spooning batter onto the skillet and watching the edges bubble. Learning the tell-tale signs that it’s time to adjust the heat down a notch. I experimented with new recipes, added occasional fun drinks and different breakfast meats to the repertoire.

And over time, my puttering had expanded beyond pancakes. Not only was the kitchen a lot cleaner, but I’d started a few new projects. I started plants from seeds – something I’ve wanted to do for years, but had never seemed to find the time for – and fussed over the seedlings like they were babies, moving the grow light every hour or two, testing the soil dampness regularly throughout the day.

I hung a bird feeder on one of the kitchen windows and found myself staring at it for many minutes in a row, chuckling to myself over the antics of a greedy neighborhood squirrel or delighting in the cardinal pair that always came to the feeder together.

What I didn’t do much of in those weeks: seize the day. At least, not in the way I’d thought I might. I didn’t dream up any brand-new, COVID-19-inspired businesses, nor proactively re-shape my current business to capitalize on the coming “new normal.” As the world seemed to grind to a halt around me, I surprised myself by how much I slowed down with it.

For years I’ve counted on my kids to be cheerful, independent self-starters so that I can focus on getting “my stuff” – typically, activities related to earning money so I can maintain said kids – done. But for a while, a lot of what I considered “my stuff” just didn’t seem that important to me.

It worried me a bit. Had I lost my mojo? Should I just hang up my life as a creative entrepreneur and find a “regular” job? Would I ever get that fire in my belly again?

By June, I knew the answers to my question. No, no, and yes, absolutely.

I recognized that what those pajamas-and-pancakes fueled days had offered me was a much-needed – and valuable – break. Time to tend to my family, keep my own stress under control, and give my brain a rest so I could come back with renewed energy and drive.

For years, I’ve jokingly called less-than-productive days my “fallow” times.

In agricultural practices, “fallow” land is cultivated, but left unseeded – temporarily, for a growing season or two. Leaving land fallow helps preserve and balance soil nutrients, breaks cycles of crop pests and diseases, and can even provide a haven for wildlife. In short, it keeps the soil healthy and productive so future harvests are more abundant and nutritious.

“Going fallow” isn’t just taking a break. You don’t actually lose time or productivity. The whole point of a fallow period is that, when you embrace and lean into it, it can lead to a net win: what’s produced on the other side of a rest is often better, richer, more inspired and more energized than what would have been achieved if you’d white-knuckled it and just kept plodding along.

However, as much as I believe in rest, I admit I hadn’t really considered that a fallow period may need to last for months.

I bought another ten-pound bag of pancake mix when I was at Costco in late May, but I’ve barely put a dent in this one. After months of cranking out stacks almost daily, my pancake production eventually slowed and mental processes sped up. While the spirit of those early pandemic days lives on – I’m still spending a lot more time in the kitchen, carefully stewarding our groceries and monitoring leftovers – my pre-COVID spark has returned in spades. The website you’re looking at right now, in fact, was dreamed up during a series of silent 4-mile walks, something I wouldn’t have had, or made, time for during busier seasons of life. It’s the manifestation and fruition of the the seed of an idea I dreamed up five or six years ago, but it wasn’t until I let the field – my spirit and energy – go quiet for a while, that it became enriched enough to coax the seed into sprouting.

Nobody’s mind, body, or soul are built to function at high intensity and high production day in, and day out. Sometimes our best and most energized work requires a quiet, “unproductive” period of time before it can take its first breath. It took a global pandemic to remind me that sometimes fallow periods are uncomfortable and inconveniently long.

But next time, I hope I’ll remember to lean in on rest before the world has to shut down around me to force my hand.

Photo by Ala on Unsplash

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