Perhaps “isolation” is no longer the best way to characterize the way we are living, but in some regards it still feels very true. We continue to have the tedium of sanitizing all of our groceries and mail, wearing a mask when we go out, and trying to avoid touching any surfaces unnecessarily. But we have now made an effort to go outside more, venturing a 40 minute drive away for a hike at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. Wearing masks on the busy trail and later picking up takeout instead of going to our favorite local Mexican restaurant both highlighted the oddity of the times and made us grateful that things are starting to feel different. We also recently learned the gym in our building may reopen soon, with social distancing and mask requirements.
Today marks the 87th day of staying mostly home, teleworking, not seeing friends in person, and adjusting just about every aspect of our lives to avoid getting sick from the coronavirus. Although it’s good to self-isolate to protect ourselves, it can be really lonely.
In fact, the only people I have seen in person during the last nearly three months have been in a doctor’s office, post office, grocery or drugstore, passed apologetically in the hallways of our apartment building on the way to get some air or dump the trash, or avoided by stepping off the sidewalk to maintain social distancing. Our boredom and impatience to “get back to normal” does not change the essential behavior of the virus, which seeks hosts wherever they can be found.
I do see colleagues, friends, and family on FaceTime, Zoom, Teams, and Facebook Messenger, but in real life I have only seen one friend a handful of times in passing as she walks her dog around the outside of our apartment building. We kept several feet apart, and her sweet dog kept seeking a pat from me that I couldn’t give. I missed my stepdaughter’s high school graduation, two states away. Worse, my husband missed it, having nowhere he would have been able to quarantine away from me upon returning. It is particularly painful to have so much time in the U.S. with so little to do, and be unable to travel and see family. Were I on my way to another far-flung post, it would be heartbreaking.
The other day I took my second trip to Target since the pandemic started to buy some household supplies. I trudged down an aisle, sucking air through my mask as I looked for items, my acrylic nails long since gone, my gel pedicure grown out to my tiptoes, my poor hair showing three months of regrowth. I was wearing soft clothes, as I do so much these days.
I looked around at the other shoppers. No one made eye contact, and I felt for a moment like some refugee in a future apocalyptic time. Suddenly I was almost overwhelmed with sadness. This is what we have left, I thought. Shopping with a basket I’m afraid to touch. Trying not to touch anything I don’t plan to buy. Carrying a cloth bag I can throw into the wash instead of my vintage purse that would be almost impossible to sanitize. Scrambling around to find what we can find. Avoiding other people like they’re vectors of doom.
Even though I may have looked a little pitiful, my rich, busy life reduced to a shadow of what it was three months ago, I remembered to count my blessings. Yeah, we’re down, but we’re not out. Toilet paper and cold medicine were available, finally. And I had money for what I needed. The car is running great. And all my family is healthy and safe.
It’s both sad and necessary right now to settle for the shadow of our former lives, with the hopes that our current situation doesn’t portend an even worse future to come.
We sit in our apartment, watching the death toll rise, watching American cities burn, understanding that we are in a historic moment on almost every front – politically, economically, socially. It’s time for racial justice. It’s time for a rethinking of how we work, interact, select leaders, behave as consumers. It is time for creativity, innovation, humility. The U.S. recently passed the two million case mark; it’s time for a coronavirus vaccine. It is time for new challenges.
I am almost six weeks late to Mexico. My life has narrowed down to the essentials, but I will recolor it and reimagine it with vivid things I can be grateful for.
The best news came this week when the Department issued guidance that after June 15, officers can make a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move to their next post if that post is in phase one of the Diplomacy Strong initiative, which is something similar to the phased reopenings we are seeing across the country. This reversed prior guidance that froze all PCS moves through June 30.
Unfortunately for us, the U.S. Mission to Mexico (chiefly the embassy in Mexico City and nine consulates, including ours in Ciudad Juárez) could still be weeks away from a phase one designation, but we remain hopeful that July will be the month we can hit the trail – well before northern hemisphere flu season starts.
Of course, I am still concerned that phase one is nowhere near safe enough for me as an immunocompromised person. Not only does a phase one working environment in Mexico pose a potential threat to my health, but it will take a minimum of 29 hours to drive to Post. This means we will expose ourselves to risks traveling through several states along the way related to food, accommodation, gas stations, and public bathrooms. Coming from a place where it still isn’t even safe enough to pack out, it is hard to imagine how we can do all of that safely.
We are lonely, and we want our lives back. But we are also resilient and understand that things will not go back to the way they were before for some time. We are watching a new world be born before our eyes, and trying to figure out how we will navigate it. There is no map, but day by day we solve one more problem, redefine our joy, and get a little more hopeful that we can work with what we’ve got.