On March 19, 2020 – just a little over a year ago – the governor of my state enacted a “shelter-in-place” order, in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic exploding out of control throughout the world. It wasn’t long before then that I’d first heard of the coronavirus, and I had no idea what shelter-in-place even meant.
Since that time, it has become a way of life for me – and for many other people worldwide. In some respects, I can’t believe an entire year has passed, yet in other ways, that March day feels like a lifetime ago. In today’s post, I reflect back upon the past year and share my feelings about life in this radically changed world.
Swept Up in a Panic
Before the pandemic, I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the news, so it took me longer than most to become swept up in the panic of the virus’s impending global threat. As a society, we’d lived through multiple previous viruses that were predicted to infect and kill masses of people, yet those diseases either didn’t rise to such heights or didn’t reach the Western world. They were indeed serious and deadly, but they didn’t impact our lives much beyond learning of their devastation and feeling sadness for those who had been afflicted. I fully expected the coronavirus to be much like those other infections. I scoffed at the people filling their grocery carts to the brim, shaking my head at how gullible they were for believing the media hysteria.
But this time, I was wrong and those who were panicking were right. This virus was indeed something to fear and guard ourselves against. The shelter-in-place order was like a bucket of ice-cold water being dumped over my head. I knew we were in trouble this time around, and I knew I needed to take things seriously and heed the warnings. My husband and I purchased extra provisions – food, water, cleaning supplies, toilet paper – and got used to staying inside our home, with the exception of evening walks and periodic grocery runs.
Suspended in Time
Soon after the shelter-in-place started, I began to feel like we were all suspended in time. Life as we knew it had been placed on hold – indefinitely. I don’t think anyone expected this alternate way of life to last longer than a few months at most, so we did what human beings do during hard times. We adapted…. It didn’t take long before we settled into a sort of quiet rhythm, and one day blurred into the next, and the next, and the next.
Early on, some aspects of the change were actually welcomed by many, as the lockdowns allowed us to slow our pace of life way down and reconnect with what was truly important to us. Last spring and summer, I remember more frequent interactions (virtual) with family and friends who had previously been too caught up in the busyness of their jobs and lives to keep in touch.
I also recall strings of days speeding by rapidly, with little to show for the passage of time. Like many other people, I thought I would accomplish more with fewer distractions from “normal life,” but instead I got far less done. I had the best of intentions, but I found myself zoning out, as my mind drifted toward existential questions for which neither I nor anyone else had the answers.
Masking and the “New Normal”
I started paying increased attention to news, both online and on television. The virus numbers kept increasing, and soon my country topped the infection and death rate charts. For the first time since 9/11, the eyes of the entire world were on the United States, as tragedy mounted and compounded. Despite having the largest economy on earth and the most sophisticated medical system, there was little we could do to stem the tide of this unstoppable force.
In an effort to reduce viral spread, mask orders were enacted across the country and we were forced to cover our faces whenever we were inside businesses or in close proximity to other people. I could appreciate the necessity of face coverings, but it took me a long time to get used to breathing with a thick layer of paper or fabric over my nose and mouth. I’ve grown accustomed to wearing a mask when I’m around others, but I doubt I’ll ever stop feeling sad about the disappearance of smiles and warm greetings. I don’t think I’ll ever not feel heartbroken that instead of loving our neighbors, we now fear them. I don’t think I’ll ever be okay with looking out into a sea of faceless individuals where I once saw the variety and texture of human expressions.
I railed against the term “new normal” for a long time. I didn’t want to accept that our previous way of life was “gone with the wind.” I didn’t want to believe that the new way of living was here to stay. It wasn’t all bad, though. There were some aspects of the changed world that I didn’t mind so much. I didn’t miss the handshakes, as I’ve always wished we would instead adopt the Japanese custom of bowing to greet our fellow citizens. I also welcomed the lessening of pressure around social gatherings. As an introvert, I often have a love-hate relationship with such occasions. On the one hand, I crave human interaction, but I also have to gear myself up for it and spend abundant time alone afterwards to replenish my energy.
At first, I didn’t miss having to figure out what to wear when leaving the house. Since all I was doing was going for walks and braving masked essential shopping, I simply wore exercise clothes every… single… day. I initially enjoyed the respite from self-consciousness around my appearance, but a few months in, I longed to get dressed up and do something “normal” again. I missed going to restaurants, coffee shops, the mall, and the movies. I also missed having errands feel mundane and stress-free.
Counting My Blessings and Feeling Both Sad and Numb
Even as I railed against the inconvenience to my life. I knew that I should count my blessings. After all, my family and friends were all still okay. I hadn’t – and still haven’t – lost a loved one to the deadly wave of Covid-19. I also didn’t have to risk my life as an “essential worker” or wear an uncomfortable and stifling mask for eight hours or more each day. I had the freedom to choose to stay at home most of the time, where I felt safe and could breathe freely.
As I saw the death toll rising exponentially, I felt a deep sadness for those who had succumbed to the virus – and for their loved ones who either didn’t get to say goodbye to them or had to settle for a phone or Zoom farewell. It was heartbreaking to even ponder the deep pain and grief these people were experiencing.
After many days of crying for the thousands of dead Americans and their loved ones, I simply went numb. I could no longer bear to experience the pain of the senseless loss and destruction, especially when there was virtually nothing I could do to help. Sure, I donated to charities as I could, but I felt so helpless to do much of anything in the midst of such tremendous agony and loss.
All most of us could do was watch and wait, as the days plodded by, sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly. We slipped into essentially a time warp, in which some days seemed interminable and others felt like they passed in the blink of an eye. And so it went, for months and months on end – and here we are, a year later.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
I haven’t seen most of my family and friends since before March 2020. I’m sure many of you can relate…. For much of the past year, I feared for the safety of my aging parents, but I was recently able to breathe a sigh of relief after they were both vaccinated. Several younger family members have also been inoculated due to their professions (teaching and medicine), but the rest of us will have to wait our turn for our “jabs,” which could still be months away here in California. It’s weird to think that at age 54, I’m actually too young for anything, but that’s currently the case with the vaccine.
Things are finally starting to open up where I live. Just two Fridays ago, the movie theaters opened their doors for the first time in over a year. I can finally see a film on the big screen again, but of course it won’t be the same as before. As is the case pretty much everywhere, masks are required, and theaters will only be filled to a quarter of their normal capacity. I haven’t decided yet if I want to continue to enjoy movies from the comfort of my own home (on a much smaller screen but with no mask) or assume some level of risk and discomfort in order to view the Oscar-nominated films and performances as they were intended to be seen.
Growing Accustomed to a New Way of Life
Against my own best efforts, I’ve become accustomed to a new way of life. Rather than feeling upset at not being able to visit certain places or do certain things, I’m now used to spending almost all of my time at home. Granted, I didn’t exactly have a rich social life before Covid and I was still at home the bulk of the time back then, but I did appreciate getting together with friends a few times each month and attending movies and visiting restaurants with my husband most weekends.
Now it feels like it will require a Herculean effort to muster the energy to do those types of activities. I also wonder if I even want to do them in a way that’s still so different from the “before times” (which sometimes feels like a thousand years ago). I can brave the dreaded mask for grocery shopping and other errands, but I’ve generally chosen not to do non-essential tasks if I have to don a face covering in order to do them. I rarely go shopping anymore because it’s just not fun and comfortable to browse clothing racks and try things on with a mask on my face, and forget about hiking or similar physical activities. I just don’t want to do it. We recently cancelled our long-on-hold gym membership after it became apparent that working out in a mask (and until recently, outdoors) would be de rigueur for the foreseeable future.
When Will This End?
How long will this go on? Now that the vaccines are here and are being rapidly distributed across the country and around the world, will we finally be free to return to our previous way of life? Or will the doomsday predictors be accurate about the need to mask up until 2022 – and beyond? Will we reach herd immunity sometime during 2021, or will the variants lead to yet another surge that will set back any progress that has recently been made?
Will the great divide that stretches across our country, in which a mask has become a political statement – or even a weapon, ever end? Sure, I don’t like the masks, but I don’t view them as a form of political oppression or a symbol of anti-Americanism, as many others seem to. I feel despair that people are so on edge and angry at each other. What happened to “we’re all in this together”? Or was that just an empty cliché?
I hope we can continue to weather the storm and soon emerge on the other side of this mess. I hope the doomsayers are wrong and 2021 will indeed be the year when the pandemic ends. I hope I won’t need to write another essay like this one six months or a year from now. I hope to instead write an uplifting post declaring my elation at the return to “normalcy” sometime before the end of this year – and perhaps even prior to my birthday in August.
Keeping Hope Alive
I do my best to remain positive, but this year has challenged that perspective more than any other in recent memory. But I’m still here…. And those who are reading this are all still here – and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for my life, I’m grateful for the vaccine, I’m grateful for hope, and I’m grateful for the triumph of the human spirit. We may be beaten down, but we will prevail.
I’ll close this essay with a few empowering quotes from historical figures who eloquently expressed the importance of hope for the future. I hope their words will provide you with some comfort, and I wish you all the best in the coming months, as we as a society – and as a world – work to defeat our collective enemy and rise like a phoenix from the pervasive sea of despair. Many blessings to you, my virtual friends.
“We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” – Nelson Mandela
“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” – Desmond Tutu