• Sarah Ratermann Beahan

COVID-19 Chronicles #4

This is my last installment of the chronicle for a while. I started this to document the shift that comes with an unprecedented global pandemic. What’s changing? What’s the same? What do you miss? What are you surprisingly happy to let go?

Today Minnesota’s safer-at-home order expired. Which means, I suppose, lots of things are going back to “normal.” In Wisconsin, which happens to be a short 8 miles from where I reside, the state Supreme Court ruled the governor’s stay home order unconstitutional, which means everything is open again. There have been photos and articles all over the internet showing people sitting shoulder to shoulder at bars, mask-less, as though nothing is different.

Maybe nothing is different.

In January, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law made plans for them to visit over Fourth of July weekend. Now the question is on the table: should they still plan the trek north? Is it safe? Is it wise?

My kneejerk reaction is reluctance. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize I’m not concerned about getting sick, or even about their safety. They are adults and they are smart, thoughtful people. They won’t take unnecessary risks. And it certainly isn’t about not wanting to see them—I do! After months of not talking to anyone but each other Brian and I are craving face to face connection with people we love.

So, what’s with the reluctance?

It’s this: I don’t want things to go back to normal. I would love to be able to belly up to the bar and order a beer with my husband like I would have four months ago. I am downright despondent about not being able to hop on an airplane to see my dearest friend’s pregnant belly or potentially miss snuggling her little guy when he makes his entrance into the world. And yet, there is so much that I am not willing to go back to.

This serves as a reminder: you don’t have to go back. There isn’t any going back, not really. And we all have some agency in this.

And so, here’s a letter to my future self about what I need to remember about this day.

Dear Sarah,

Do you remember when going to work meant getting in your car and driving somewhere, panicked because you were always behind schedule? Remember when work was about how many hours your butt was in a chair, not about how much you accomplished? Remember when you had to ask permission to be away from your chair for any length of time? You left that world long before the virus turned things upside down.

But then you worked for yourself, but you still operated like someone was watching you. If your butt wasn’t in the chair by a certain time, or if you didn’t clock the right number of hours (not too few you lazy ass, and not too many you workaholic), you felt guilty. Or worse, resentful because the work was taking you away from the things you’d rather be doing. You reminded people that “I don’t get paid vacations,” which meant you never felt like you deserved them, vacations that is.

Then there was the COVID-19 pandemic and all the resulting lockdowns. If felt like a sudden, jarring pivot. It felt like it all happened in a split second, but in reality, it had to have been a shift that was building over time. The virus, and the way you lived.

When the world locked down, all the work disappeared. Your classes were cancelled. Your retreats were cancelled. Suddenly there was a whole lot of time for you to do all those things you’d rather be doing.

You reached out to the arts center for funding. You had tons of ideas for community projects, classes and workshops that you could provide online or virtually. The grant project manager gently reminded you that they fund an artist’s work, not community projects. It took you days to get your head around that. Funding for you to write, not to serve anyone or anything else. You could just work on the things you loved without also providing a service. Just doing your work was enough.

This escorted the shift along. Your “work” took on a new life. You woke in the morning wrote with your coffee. You made plans for workshops when you walked the dogs. When you read the books that guided you at lunch and when you taught classes through the internet connection, you were working. You got in bed at night and scribbled a poem as you looked out over the water and you were still working.

What’s more, so many other things began to feel justified as work. When you planted the peas and lettuce, you were working. Those $2.49 packs of seeds were going to save you hundreds of dollars in grocery bills over the summer. When you painted your study and reorganized the books and closet, it was work. When you baked bread, it was work.

Work was redefined. Work wasn’t a thing to eschew, to suffer through, but a thing to anticipate. It was a thing that was joyful, inspiring and exhausting.

Work became anything you did to support your life: as a writer but also as a human. When work became all the things you cared about, the things that made you feel alive (physically, mentally, emotionally), you couldn’t stop working. And when working happened nearly all your waking hours, you quit feeling guilty for breaking in the middle of a Tuesday to go hiking because it was sunny and you could. Or for spending an afternoon folding bread between drafts. Or for writing all weekend long.

Does your relationship still look like this? Do you still lose track of the day of the week because it doesn’t really matter? Because weekends and weekdays are the same, in the most delightful way? Do you feel full and eager for more at the same time?

There are so many things we gave up for the virus. This is its gift.

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