COVID-19 Chronicles #1
I can’t take the dog’s infernal whining any longer, so I get out of bed and trudge down the stairs. I dump food in their bowls and brew coffee. The cat shouts to be let out of his basement lair, so I acquiesce, threatening him with the spray bottle when he lunges toward the kitchen counters.
I curl up in my kitchen window seat with my coffee and open my journal. My menagerie knows this routine and find their spots—cat in lap, dog to my left and the other at my feet. I write three lines about the quality of my sleep and then stop midsentence to stare out the window for an indeterminate amount of time. The writing has dried up. As I do most mornings these days, I write the following “What am I responsible for today,” underline it and then list three items.
I reach for my phone and let the news wash over me, pulling at my limbs like deadweight. I’ve developed some immunity to the gloom of the headlines in the last four weeks. Early in the crisis I’d listen to the commentators and feel my chest constrict. I’d read the updates from my Facebook feed and feel tears claw at my throat. Now, there is an undercurrent of doom as I scan the New York Times Morning Briefing, but mostly, I’m numb.
Today, though, I read an article from The Washington Post exploring a possible correlation between COVID-19 and the incidence of stroke in otherwise healthy patients in their 30’s and 40’s. People previously thought to be well positioned to recover from the virus with relative ease. People like me and my husband.
I feel the familiar constriction of my throat and wonder. Why is this article igniting a flare of emotion? Is it more personal today? Is it because as we approach four weeks of shelter-in-place, I’m irrationally hoping for some return to normal? Or is it the constant barrage of the unknown, and the daily reminder that everything we think we know can be crushed beneath the boot of an invisible foe.
It’s as if this virus is doing its damndest to remind us that we are all vulnerable. Humans are looking in the mirror and realizing that we are not as infallible as we think. Our hubris is showing.
When I’ve exhausted the headlines, I leash the dogs and we walk. It is finally spring in Minnesota. Brian and I moved to a quaint rural hamlet nestled between two huge lakes last fall, just when nature went into hibernation mode. Winter is when Minnesota shines. The hillsides soften under the weight of snow, the lakes freeze and turn into ice-road shortcuts for animal and human alike. Minnesotans lean into their winter sanctuary, proudly not letting the temperatures or precipitation confine them to the indoors.
My dogs and I spent hours navigating the drifts, exploring paths across the frozen water, paths that have now melted away. So now we meander the neighborhoods. I talk to the dogs who bark to us behind fences. We notice new shoots of green poking through the leaves. I watch the white pelicans migrate north and Eddie, my bald eagle friend, float above the water, patrolling for dinner.
This wandering gives me a chance to see the world like Eddie does, from above. I contemplate other pieces I’ve read that suggest that humanity is collectively shedding what no longer serves. Perhaps this virus is like a giant light illuminating the cracks in the structures we live with, both as a society and personally. Perhaps this is our chance to do better, to take better care. What can I do better? What lessons do I want to keep?
I ponder a quote from a specialist in one of the million articles I’ve read, one that’s stuck with me like a toothache. “When people ask when we get to go back to normal they are asking the wrong question. The right question is ‘what can we do to continue?’”
What am I doing to keep going?
Emmett, my old dog, sat at the door of my study at 9:00AM as if to remind me that I was late for work. I’ve spent my morning at my desk, pecking away on class plans and emails. This is not unusual. I have worked from home for years, and while that work was also peppered with meetings and classes to be taught out in the world, this habit of nestling into my little study with sloping ceilings for hours is normal.
Today, however, I have an afternoon date with the grocery store. I’m driving thirty minutes in to the larger town nearby to go to the Co-op. Typically I’ve been ordering my groceries online and picking them up, rather than shopping inside. But there are a few items I’m picky about (coffee, cheese, meat) and so I’ve decided to make the pilgrimage to my favorite little co-op to snag what I need.
I love grocery shopping the way some people love shoe shopping. I relish meandering the aisles, marveling at the brightly colored produce. I love stumbling upon a particularly beautiful bunch of kale and thinking about what recipe I could concoct with it. I like deciding what roast of coffee to drink this week and treating myself to a beeswax candle or a pint of sorbet.
These visits are fraught with tension now. I check my bank balance in the car. We have enough, but I’m haunted by the question of whether we will have enough in June or August or November. I have to talk myself off the ledge: you have to feed yourself now, and you’ll deal with June in June, I say. I put my mask on and as soon as I find myself in the produce aisle, something is tickling my nose and instinctively, I scratch. Then I recall that rubbing my mask is just like rubbing my filthy, germ infested face and I dig the hand sanitizer out of my purse. The masked grocery worker watches me and says nothing. I worry for her.
The aisles are full of pallets of food to restock empty shelves. Still no flour. Brian’s been asking for frozen fruit pops for weeks and I still can’t find any. I reach to squeeze an avocado to check for ripeness and then stop, fruit in hand, remembering that I shouldn’t put back what I’ve already touched. I wonder what else I’ve accidentally touched.
I leave. As I’m driving up the river road toward home I am overcome with exhaustion. My eyes droop and I jerk the steering wheel. I consider pulling over at the roadside park and napping in the sun for a few minutes. How can this be? I’ve done so little today, nothing that would beget a nap. What’s more, I never nap.
This is not normal, I think, puzzled. I just keep saying it in my head soothed by the rhythm.
This is not normal, this is not normal.
This project is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a COVID-19 Emergency Response grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.