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grieving our lives as they once were
All of this is hard. It’s hard for people who are parenting in isolation. It’s hard for people whose income is jeopardized. It’s hard for people who have to keep going out in to the world everyday, even if they or someone they live with is high risk, because there simply is no other option. It’s hard, as you’re sacrificing and struggling, to watch other people make reckless decisions that feel like they’re negating everyone else’s efforts. And it’s especially hard for anyone who’s sick right now — with coronavirus or just generally — or who’s close to someone who is.
I spent the week working on this piece about what parents in full or partial isolation are going through — and how other people, parents or not, could help. I’m not a parent, so I wasn’t doing this out of some desire for others to know my experience. I did it because what I’m trying to work towards every day is vast, adaptive empathy for what others are going through right now, the sort that doesn’t eclipse the weird mindfuck I’m going through, just makes me feel less alone in it.
All of the work I’ve done on burnout has been helpful, I think, when it comes to cultivating this posture: acknowledging the extent and contours of someone else’s burnout does not negate your own. It puts it in context, but it also creates solidarity, and underlines that individual action — altering your attitude and lifestyle and behavior — is helpful but ultimately insufficient.
In the United States, so many of us are still operating under a blue sky as a storm gathers in the distance. It feels weird to isolate when that storm still feels days off, but it’s all anyone can talk about. We’re getting very clear messages from Italy, telling us very explicitly that what we’re doing is not enough, but most people just aren’t scared enough, even now. They’re going to the beach on Spring Break. They’re flooding National Parks. They’re stir-crazy and going to the park to look at the cherry blossoms and standing far too close to each other. They’re clinging to the story that it’s not going to get bad outside of the city. And that’s the thing: people tell themselves all sorts of stories in order to do what they want to do.
Here in Montana, we have 31 cases, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but we also only have about one million people, and one of the “grayest” (as in, oldest) populations in the United States. Our governor has been ahead of the curve, and all restaurants and bars are shut down save take-out and delivery. But most people in this largely liberal town are still congregating, albeit in slightly smaller groups, as usual: playing pick-up basketball games, running into each other on the trail and chatting, going on their scheduled Spring Break camping trips with friends from out-of-state. A friend of mine who’s been in strict isolation with her husband and two elementary-age children texted me yesterday and said she’s feels increasingly as if she’s overreacting: other friends are still having playdates, still going to Costco.
I passed this story along to another friend in Montana, who’s also in strict isolation because of a compromised immune system. And you know what she said? Tell her thank you, from me. Overreacting is just reacting as if someone you care about could suffer if you didn’t. Maybe that’s what all of us need: one high risk person, whether a family member or a medical professional, to think of each time we consider taking an unnecessary risk. Think of that person now, and then think of them not just sick, but intubated. Think of the worst case scenario so that we can hold that sliver of hope that it will not happen.
Imagine being this doctor, in Yakima, Washington, anticipating the date in April when his hospital will run out of ventilators, and looking outside everyday and seeing large gatherings of people, not out because they have to be, but out because they want to be. What a deep and grievous insult to the sacrifice of every worker, from the custodial staff to the nursing aides, at that hospital.
It’s so hard to think of the your kids crawling up the wall, the claustrophobic, compulsive doomscrolling on your phone, the risk that accompanies going out to your essential job, the abject fear of the economic and societal future, and group all of that under “this is what is required of us.” (Doomscrolling is not required of us, of course, but a symptom of what is required of us).
It’s even harder to realize that this is what’s going to be required of us for some time. There are small and large things we can do for each other, money we can spread around our community, but all of that is piecemeal — and no substitute for decisive and expansive governmental action and aid. We can figure out how to keep doing what is required of us. But that is what is required of our elected leaders.
Like a lot of people, my body has been rebelling. My face has broken out. I’m sleeping poorly. Every day I wake up and have a few seconds before I realize how fucked everything is, and the day starts spinning on its different axis. My partner and I are in complete isolation, which is lonely but ultimately just fine: we have enough of everything, including space to roam outside with the dogs. Everyone I know is manically texting, trying to weave something like safety out of near-constant communication. I spend a lot of time oscillating between fear and anxiety, between anger and organizational determination.
We are all grieving our lives as they once were. It’s already clear that those lives will not return as they once were: there will be no all-clear signal, no magical reversion to 2019 day-to-day-life. What happens over the next few months will affect how we think of work, and domestic division of labor, friendship, and intimacy. Like all calamities, it has the potential to force us to reprioritize, well, everything: what are needs and what are wants, what is actually necessary and what is performative, whose work we undervalue and whose leadership is actually bluster.
I hope we start thinking now about what we want that world on the other side to look like — what sort of protections, and safety nets, and leadership you want in place — and let every day of anger and frustration and fear bolster that resolve for change. It didn’t have to happen this way: not epidemiologically, not economically, not societally. So how can we avoid the amnesia that so typifies our current moment, and try and agitate for the conditions so that it doesn’t happen this way again?
Things I Wrote This Week:
Teens talking with great wisdom about the experience of self-isolation
A whole lot of ways you can help parents during partial or total isolation
My profile of Celeste Ng, and the well-intentioned white ladies watching Little Fires Everywhere
The Best of the Literal Billion Coronavirus Articles I Read This Week:
My partner interviewed these rafters who emerged from a three week internet-less trip in the Grand Canyon to, well, all of this
I love our copy desk: “It’s an attempt to politicize language about an illness that is a global crisis, to place blame when lifesaving action is what’s needed.”
If you’re a person who feels better when you can understand things, this, from one of my favorite science journalists, is such a lucid explanation of how the Coronavirus “works”
How Coronavirus is impacting domestic violence shelters
A really sad story of what happens when you refuse to believe something’s real, or important, until it directly affects someone you know or love
This excellent podcast interview with the man who handled Ebola under the Obama Administration
Coronavirus clarifies so much, like just how precarious rural health care has become, particularly in states that have refused to expand Medicare
The most thorough and at once calming and compassionate Q&A I’ve read on best practices in isolation
Very Small Things That Have Been Helping Distract or Calm Me:
It looks like Westworld (Season 3 just premiered) is good again?
I spent $20 (which is what two movie tickets would’ve cost) to watch the new Emma and it fucking ruled
The Indigo Girls did a live Instagram concert which I found deeply soothing; so many artists are doing something similar
New War on Drugs !!!!!!!
Spike Lee talking about his most prized possession on his birthday
The Peloton App is free for 90 days; I’m obsessed with Ross Rayburn’s Sleep Meditations
January Jones, my isolation queen
And finally, this week’s non-Corona-related just trust me.
If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find a shareable version of this) here. Posting your mundane daily activities on Instagram is a social service right now, and my account is filled with even more Peggy and Steve than usual. My Twitter is as bleak as everyone else’s. Please ignore any typos or weird sentences; relative inattention to detail is what allows me to get this thing out in the world every week for free.