The coronavirus pandemic has much of the country and the world stuck at home, and everyone is coping the best way they know how. For me, it is a mere worry and an inconvenience, as we were supposed to leave for our next assignment in Mexico last Saturday and now our departure date is unknown. For others, it is unbelievable fear, grief, and stress. This makes me feel both grateful and ashamed for my safe place to live, job, and food security. Although I am scared for my parents in their 70s and my nana in her 90s, and I myself am at higher than average risk for contracting the virus and developing life-threatening complications if I catch it, I have taken extreme precautions to keep this from happening. This of course is afforded by the many privileges I have, not least of all the ability to telework. I cannot equate my experience in isolation with the actual danger and trauma that millions of others are experiencing. And so I won’t.
For the first few weeks of self-isolation, I checked my work email constantly and fretted trying to solve problems that I had no control over. When I wasn’t doing that, I was FaceTiming with people or watching movies. I thought it would be over soon. After a few weeks, I realized it wouldn’t be. I snapped out of my stupor one day at a time and started playing the long game, just like the main character in Groundhog Day when he realized he could make different choices even if every day felt the same. I started going for walks, I took a shower and put on a little makeup most days, I launched into my online work trainings, and started a variety of long-ignored projects.
FWIW, I don’t think that anyone needs to be productive or “thrive” during this time. Just staying safe and dealing with basic needs is certainly enough. All we want is to arrive alive on the other side of the pandemic. But being productive, at least for a good portion of the day on most days, is good for me personally. And many of the things that are occupying others’ time don’t apply to me. For example, I don’t have a child to homeschool. I don’t have a dog to walk. I don’t have a sick relative to care for and worry about. I’m not unemployed. I don’t have a small business I am trying to launch or keep running. I don’t have anxiety or mental health concerns to contend with. I don’t live in a household with domestic violence or substance abuse. I am not posted overseas and absolutely running myself ragged trying to evacuate Americans and do all the jobs. And most importantly, I am not sick.
So while yes, it sucks to not have any green or outdoor space attached to our residence, and it sucks to be in the middle of an international move with more than 80% of our household packed up a world out of reach, and it sucks to have all my trainings cancelled and no clear idea of when we will need to pick up and move on, all of those concerns are both valid and simultaneously SO minor. They are nowhere near the grave situations that others are managing, especially healthcare workers who lose patients all day and then go home terrified they will bring the virus to their families.
I would have to engage in a lot of cognitive dissonance to say that everything feels like business as usual, though. I spent just over two hours this morning sanitizing every single grocery item my husband brought home from the store. It was his *first* grocery run in *four* weeks, given the size of the last haul and how we stretched it. It was exhausting, and I was well aware of the potential consequences of half-assing the cleaning of one item and cross-contaminating the apartment.
My hands are cracking from all the hand washing. In what world is it normal for me to use Lysol wipes on plastic bags, door handles, cereal boxes? So no, things don’t feel even remotely safe or normal. But I have tried hard to roll with it, rather than spend my time feeling worried or put upon that I am told to stay home. And my natural introversion helps a lot.
For these reasons and others, I have been able to – with few distractions – seize upon something that for more than a decade has been my most precious and fleeting commodity: time.
I have been working like a maniac for so long that – with the exception of furloughs in 2013 and 2018, and surgeries in late 2018 and early 2019, I feel like I’ve hardly had a breather. I go from one job to the next, always needing to check my watch, to keep moving. When we move, even internationally, we often don’t even have one day off. The free time I have is often spent with my husband and friends or on low brain-wattage relaxing. And while I can be intentional and do lots of projects, I lose momentum with all the interruptions of life, like, say, needing to go to bed before 03:00 or the beckoning world outside. The pandemic has temporarily made all of that moot.
The idea of just being home whenever I want and being the master of my own schedule? An unheard-of luxury, even if I feel more tired than usual and my sleep and resilience are somewhat out of whack. And so I have had the sustained time to work my way through my wish list. I might as well.
For a long time, I have been meaning to scan a stack of financial documents that I have to lug in my carry-on every time we PCS. I finally did that, and I also finally shredded a giant box of stuff from grad school 15 years ago that I’d had in storage since before we left for Tashkent. It was some of the only paper I had left in my life.
One day I shaved pilling sweaters and fleeces while listening to a slew of podcasts. Another day I cleaned and reorganized jewelry (while my jewelry boxes sit in crates somewhere). I have been working on my skin, and my eyebrows, and whitening my teeth.
I have also spent a mind-numbing amount of time reorganizing several hundred GB of music files after a royal cock-up courtesy of iTunes. My laptop is nearly six years old and its replacement arrives this week, so I am refreshing backups and getting ready to make a fresh start. Once all that is done, I plan to launch into an audit of the healthcare reimbursements I submitted to my plan while in Australia and make sure I received all the money I was owed. It will be super tedious and boring to update that spreadsheet, but essential for my peace of mind.
Over the last several days, I have been doing at least one fun-for-me thing: restoring my vintage Louis Vuitton monogram handbag from 1983. I spent one day cleaning and conditioning the canvas and leather, another day with vinegar, Brasso, Q-Tips, and a disposable toothbrush removing tarnish from its hardware. I painstakingly sat for hours working on the padlock, the handles, the rivets, and the zipper, wondering what kind of life it had before me: where it went, what music was playing, what secrets it overheard. The bag is 37 years old, after all! It looks good for its age, and cared for, the rich canvas without a single crack or scuff and the patina of the vachetta leather aged to a warm honey. This bag doesn’t have so much as one double-stitch loose. It seems indestructible and beautiful at once.
I love the idea of taking something that already exists and continuing its narrative, rather than participating in the endless cycle of human consumption. This cycle that invites deforestation, overcrowding, unsustainable diets, poverty, and pandemic. It probably seems absurd that something like a clean purse gives me hope. But I imagine taking it outside the house, to a meeting or a brunch or an errand and that reminds me that someday, life will return to something recognizable.
And of course, I have been going on my night walks in the empty streets of Courthouse/Clarendon.
And enjoying my husband’s incredible cooking!
That’s all from here. My thoughts and prayers are with my fellow human beings who are suffering. For the people who are anxious and not coping, for the health care workers who are at risk and exhausted, for those caring for ill loved ones, for those struggling to be the best parent they can, for the essential workers who turn up day after day, for those grieving horrific losses, for those fighting the virus. I hope you will find peace and strength.
However you are coping with this pandemic, please be safe. If you’re inclined, find things to occupy your body and mind. But don’t feel bad if you need to cry, or do nothing, or if you snack too much, or your family is driving you nuts, or if you have realized you are a crappy teacher, or if you don’t learn to play piano, or bake all the things. There are a lot of unreasonable expectations out there and you are in good company. There isn’t a virus in human history that’s beaten us yet. We are going to come through this. Until then, hang in there.