I don’t know about you, but my mind is slipping like a stretched-out bicycle chain. There were so many great topics I planned to write about this week. I had a long chat with Heather Thompson about health privilege, and I was researching another audience-relevant topic, the coming second-wave health crisis when many of us crash because we aren’t getting the care or medications we need for our chronic conditions. I have a personal-axe-to-grind piece that I’m working on too. I had my work cut out for me, so what went wrong this week?
The answer hit me when a writer friend started a Facebook post in which he asked what we all were reading during our “down time.” My first thought was, “What down time? I’m busier than I’ve been in a year.” Still, I’m always reading at least one book—usually a fiction and nonfiction book concurrently. I started a book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series in February, and I’m only 31 chapters in. (If you’re familiar with this series, the books are around 600 pages each, and have an average of 130 chapters.) Normally it would take about 3 weeks to finish the book. I realized I’m not reading because I’m in that same head space I’m in when I’m grieving.
You know the one—the normal world seems ridiculously irrelevant, and you have the attention span of a goldfish. You can’t finish anything but the most mindless and tedious tasks, which you suddenly have a tolerance for, and you almost welcome the mindless activity. Your to-do list seems manageable, but you can’t finish a thing on it and you feel like you’re always running way behind. This is the normal head space for the time after a huge loss.
I did some searching online and found that this phenomenon is widespread right now. Even if you don’t know anyone who has had the virus yet, or haven’t lost anyone to it, the horror of the scenes on the news is enough. I have 3 friends recovering from the virus now, and a significant death toll in my community. As if all that weren’t more than enough, people are grieving the World That Was. We don’t know how long it’s going to be like this, and when it’s safe again, we don’t know how things will be permanently changed.
I plan to get back to bicycle touring again as fast as possible, but what is that going to look like now? I always enjoyed staying in hostels for a quarter the cost of a motel room, lodging communally and making friends from all over the world. It’s hard to imagine that common kitchen spaces where you hand wash your dishes, dorm rooms with dozens of bunk beds, and shared bathrooms, will continue to be an option.
Yesterday I went to the UPS Store to get my mail—something I only do once a week now—and an ordinary-looking young man stood at a respectful distance and asked if I had anything to eat. Not spare change, he asked for food. There are so many newly food-insecure people right now, people who were living paycheck to paycheck, and suddenly there’s no paycheck. Those people don’t have time to wait for bills to be passed and “stimulus” money to be distributed.
As so often happens with encounters like these, I wasn’t prepared and simply said no, I didn’t have any food on me. After I grabbed my mail, I rode my bike around looking for the man. I’d have been happy to give him some money to buy food, but I couldn’t find him. It’s not like I have much to spare, but I do feel some guilt over being one of the few to maintain my regular income without having to risk my life on the viral front lines. I can help a hungry brother out.
I know a man who lives in a public care facility run by the local Mission. He used to be my neighbor before he needed too much care to continue living on his own. He visits us now and then, and I’ve always invited him into my house to warm up and made him something to eat. He came by last week with the same expectation. There was just no way I could let him in my tiny house—not even my quarantining neighbors come in now—and I felt my privilege like a heavy stone in my heart as I turned him away. I went outside and sat a proper distance away from him in the spring chill, but inside I mourned the gap between us. Living in 200 square feet, I don’t often feel conspicuously wealthy, but the line between haves and have-nots shifted for the pandemic.
It was my mom’s birthday yesterday. My sisters were all over it, sending flowers, gifts and delivered meals. I felt the day creep up on me with a fatalistic sense of failure. I slid farther behind in my work, never allowing myself a break to figure out something nice to do for my mom. My brain just wasn’t working that way. I ended up cobbling together a photo collage birthday card.
As if last week’s trigger incident wasn’t enough to alert me to the fact that these are not normal times, it just keeps piling on. No wonder I’m not reading. And even though I’m in ever-worsening pain from the lack of pain control treatments and my full range of exercise, I still have it better than most people during this time. I have a place to myself, a huge yard with woods to play in, a bike to ride, and my bills are still getting paid on time. I’m now in the pandemic elite. If it’s this hard for me, what is it like for people who can’t get their medication, whose cancer treatments are on hold, who have no paychecks coming in? I’m too empathic not to hold them in my heart.
Trauma psychologists are jamming social media with messages about how feeling unable to function is normal, how we as a society are experiencing a collective trauma. They urge us to ignore the messages online about how to make the most of this time. Productivity isn’t a realistic goal. If you find something you can do, by all means, do it. But don’t berate yourself if you’re not crushing quarantine. It just means you’re responding normally to what’s happening.
There are moments of astonishing beauty as some humans rise to their best. There is art blooming all over the place, as ordinary people produce hilarious videos like “Family Lockdown Boogie.” My friend who makes washable menstrual pads has temporarily shifted her business to making masks to sell at a price that barely covers her materials cost, and what personal protective equipment she can make for her local hospital. When her supplier’s representative found out what she was doing, he upgraded her materials at no additional charge. In my own little community garden hosted by my neighbor, he built me a raised garden box at his own expense, to make it easier for me to grow a safe, steady food supply (and when his wife saw it, he had to build her one too). Let us hope this is the birth of a kinder, gentler, fairer society.
Have you seen a moment of grace? Please share the story in the comments. We need these stories more now than we ever have.