While I was away in sunny Florida, the COVID-19 virus picked up steam in its inexorable manifestation across the country. I had some trepidation about taking my trip. Because I was in what I’ve referred to as the “death group,” people over the age of sixty, the prospect of being on both a bus and an airplane, along with the requisite time in the airport, seemed a little risky. I supplied myself with hand sanitizer, some surface wipes, and decided to take a gamble. I took off on a plane seating 174 passengers, full to capacity. The day after I arrived, I rested from my long travel slog. Then I spent a low-key week and a half relaxing with old friends.
But amidst the relaxation, we watched a lot of news. And every day, it became more clear that the virus was spreading rapidly, bringing with it new warnings, event cancellations and the growing sense that life as we’d known it was changing very quickly. Our trips to grocery and drug stores uncovered an escalating decline in pantry staples as well as products used for personal sanitizing. I started worrying about whether I’d be able to buy any toilet paper back home.
When I’d planned my trip I was mindful of my budget – I had one more finance-stretching adventure planned for May and two trips in a year is not a common expenditure for me. So my return flight was a redeye, which made my ticket price cheap. I was glad because I hoped that given the increase in worries about COVID-19, there might be fewer people near me on my journey home. When I boarded my plane for the 5:40 am flight, there were only 57 passengers on the same plane that had carried 174 just days earlier. As I flew into sunrise I was pondering how life in my midwest college community would look when I got back.
The number of changes that had already transpired was dizzying. The Austin, Texas South by Southwest conference, the big annual music and media gathering which my husband had attended for many years when he owned a music store, was cancelled. That was followed by the voiding of many sporting events, at the professional level as well as those of colleges and most secondary schools. Every hour it seemed like some other event that drew large crowds was going to bumped off the calendar and indeed, that’s what happened. Meetings and concerts were disappearing. That was just the beginning.
I made a quick trip to the grocery store the day after I returned and was able to grab enough supplies for the “social distancing” being recommended. Or the voluntary quarantine, depending on how you look at it. There’d been a run on hand sanitizers. Fortunately I still had a stash left over from the days of hyper vigilance during my husband’s five year cancer experience. I didn’t go to see my daughter and her family, nor did they come to see me. I left the Florida salt water taffy I’d brought them on my porch a few days after my return – my son-in-law retrieved it.
Within a few days of my return, both of my children called off trips that they’d had planned for many months. As of today, they couldn’t have gone even if they’d defied the medical recommendations, as their destinations no longer have open borders. School has been cancelled for both my grandchildren while my son-in-law is preparing to implement online teaching for his university students. Museums are closed. So are movie theaters. And Broadway plays. Amusement parks. I watched an episode of the Stephen Colbert show when he had no audience which was really strange. All the late night shows will be absent their fans. Religion will take place at home. On and on come the changes.
Everything is so strange. I’ve lived through swine flu, Ebola and MRSA and SARS. There have been plenty of scary warnings in my life. But I’ve never seen such a wholesale shutdown of the institutions of daily life. As Colbert announced, “America is Closed.” And so are lots of other countries. I know that there are countless people who think this is an overblown reaction. Our government’s handling of this pandemic has been subpar at best, including the attempt to paint this illness as a hoax. Because of the strong political divisions in this country, there will be responses from the public which highlight the chasms that separate us. For me, I’m trying to listen to the medical professionals, the scientists who are￼ emphasizing the importance of staying isolated to slow the spread of disease. So that’s what I’m going to do, for myself, for my family and my community at large. No more gathering in large groups for me. I don’t know how long this will last but I’m paying attention.
I just cancelled my trip of a lifetime to Vancouver, Alaska and Denali National Park. A cruise was part of the deal and it’s first on the list of what’s not recommended for people in my age group. Maybe I’ll get another opportunity. Who knows? It seems pretty insignificant compared to the greater issue. That’s another thing about this crisis that’s on my mind – the somewhat arrogant attitude I’ve seen in a number of dismissive articles which pit the understanding of this pandemic by millennials against that of boomers. A friend forwarded one to me with this heading: “Hello, Boomer? It’s Millennials. We need to talk about coronavirus.”
I find it annoying to be treated as if I’m not capable of understanding the seriousness of this issue because of my age. Why the compulsion to sling insults right now? Maybe it’s reflective of the ugliness in our culture right now. That seems pervasive to me and counterproductive. In the midst of everything, we need to add ageism to our problems? But I digress….
So there will be a time when normal life, such as it is with its wide ranging variations for millions of us, is suspended. I headed outside to my garden, the place which is safe from congregations of people and always a respite for me. I note that it’s sprouting with spring perennials, some right on time and others a bit early. I’m remembering last year’s brutal polar vortex and the empty spaces that showed up after some of my reliable bloomers simply disappeared. I look forward to coping with some of the anxiety associated with this challenging time by digging in the dirt. While I do it, I’ll be trying to understand how the economic manifestations of this global challenge will play out. I’m worried about poor people. I have no idea, nor does anyone else, how long this enforced cancellation of normalcy will go on. And I’m going to stew about that. I’m going to hope that the scientists will deconstruct the virus to the point where they will have treatments and/or vaccines. I’ll do that thinking as I dig.
I’m going to read books. I’m in the middle of a few right now. One is for my book club but I have no idea whether we’ll be meeting this month. I’m going to finish it anyway. I know I’ll never catch up with the long list that I add to every time I see an article about new releases or receive an email from some place or other with lots of suggestions. But that’s alright. I’m just going to work my way along, with no pressure.
I’m going to go for walks and be grateful that I had both my knees done so I can do it without pain. My beloved pool is closed. I’ll miss swimming and the daily contact I have with my swimming cohort but I’ll have to adjust. I’m the person who’s always walking around saying things like “adapt or die.” I mean it￼, especially for myself.
I’m going to try to not get too scared by the news. I tend to read and watch news obsessively. After a time, it starts to drive me a little crazy. When you start imagining all the worst possibilities, it’s break time. I’m lucky enough to have streaming entertainment services and I’m taking advantage of them to watch distracting films, television series and documentaries. I’ve missed a lot over the years so I’m going to fill those gaps. And to bolster my spirits I’m going to re-watch some shows that make me feel good￼. For that I’m currently in Season 2 of The West Wing which is an antidote to the present administration occupying that place in the White House.
I’m also going to listen to lots of music. I’m going to self-soothe with guitar players like William Ackerman and Leo Kottke. I’m going to play The Band and Van Morrison. And Pete Yorn. Taj Mahal. Stevie Wonder. Beck. The Allman Brothers. Reggae. Jazz Masters. Classical. And of course, the Beatles.
I’m going to be mindful of the fact that there are people I know who are sick or having difficult times for other reasons. A dear old friend of mine died last week after spending months in hospice. Aside from our current overwhelming issue folks have all kinds of other situations running concurrently with this one. Somehow, even with social distancing, I want to be present for them. Friendship matters.
I’m glad I’ve gotten good at living by myself. It’s an important skill in these unexpected times. I have internal strength which I guess I’ve grown over the decades. I’m still surprised sometimes about how resourceful I can be. My daughter has called me a cockroach which makes me laugh, and which I take as a compliment. I know she means that she’s watched me continue to survive despite lots of hard times that have come my way. I do miss my husband every day. My impulse to share my thoughts with him remains a powerful force that for some inexplicable reason keeps me buoyant. I put together the pictures of his eyes looking at me, one shot from the first year we met and the other from over 40 years later. I love the expressions in them. The photo is off to my right side in my living room. When I sit here, working, thinking, relaxing, I look over at him and feel his presence. I hope what I call ” essence of Michael” helps me navigate the uncertain times ahead.