pandemics make poor fodder for 42: a brief history of All The Things since March 2020
When I last left this blog, I was in the middle of Atheism for Lent, bleeding my thoughts onto the digital page as I processed everything I was reading, watching, listening to. I remember feeling as though I were in a good place in life. My writing was going well; we had recently gotten our 7-year-old daughter into a better 1st grade environment by requiring the school to move her to a different classroom; I was feeling and seeing the benefits of my workout program; my heart and mind were finding expansion in all the new-to-me things I was learning and pondering.
On Wednesday, March 11, I took my daughter (CM) to school and then came home to do my AfL reading and blogging.
Before that day, Oklahoma City had seen zero cases of COVID-19. We knew it was coming; it had to be, considering how quickly the virus had bypassed borders, international waters, and state lines.
Sure enough, later that day, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID in OKC, and the Thunder-Jazz game was called. I don’t pay much attention to sports, but even I knew that this was a highly unusual and somewhat alarming turn of events.
The next day, Thursday, March 12, 2020, I dropped CM off at school. I probably went to the gym; I don’t remember. (I have notes somewhere but don’t feel like sifting through them at the moment.) Toward late morning, or maybe early afternoon, the school left messages with all parents that we should pick kids up as usual that afternoon — but not bring them back the next day. The following Monday was the start of Spring Break, so the school said they’d “see us after the break.”
That afternoon, I stood talking with Rosalie*, the mom of my daughter’s best friend. When our two girls came out, we decided to take them around to the playground so we could continue our conversation. While the girls played, Rosalie and I shared our shock at the cancellation of the NBA game and our concerns over how quickly and easily this novel coronavirus spread. We agreed that keeping the kids at home the next day was wise. We asked each other, “Do you think you’ll send her back to school after Spring Break?” Rosalie wasn’t sure, but I had already decided: “I think we’ll keep her out for two or three weeks, just to be sure.”
Privately, I wondered: Could we be giving each other the virus while we’re sitting here talking?
Two or three weeks.
As of this writing, it’s been 432 days.
“Can we see the Murrays* today?”
“No, sweet girl, not today.”
“Later this week?”
“Probably not. I’m really sorry.”
“Why? Do they have school?”
“No. Nobody has school right now, remember.”
“Oh yeah. Because of the virus?”
“But if they’re not in school, why can’t we see them?”
“Because of the virus.”
It became a sort of mantra. Why can’t we go to the splash pad? Because of the virus. Why can’t we go into Oma’s house? Because of the virus. Why does Daddy have to wear a mask to work? Because of the virus. Because of the virus. The virus the virus the virus….
Eventually, this led to outbursts of “I HATE THIS STUPID VIRUS!”
Me too, babygirl. Me too.
She understood, to certain extent. So did I — to a certain extent. What I couldn’t understand (and still cannot) were the people laughing off the situation, refusing to mask up, refusing to stay home, mocking all of us who took the CDC’s and Dr. Fauci’s warnings and recommendations seriously. What I couldn’t understand (and still cannot) were the intelligent, discerning people of my acquaintance who heard the then-POTUS say “it’ll just disappear overnight” (or something equally inane) — and they still believed he was the right person for leading the USA.
Well, if you want to lead an entire nation into a deadly pandemic lasting well over a year, he certainly was the right person for the job.
But I digress, eh?
Except, not really.
Stress and worry over the virus, its spread, its effects, its lasting effects. “Long COVID” wasn’t quite a thing yet, but it would come soon.
Stress and worry over keeping safe: Do we need to wipe down the mail before bringing it into the house? Do we need to leave our shoes outside? If Ed rides his bike to work, could there be virus clinging to his tires which he then brings into the house at the end of the day? From mid-March through at least July of 2020, Ed came home from work and went straight to the shower without touching me or CM. We sanitized every grocery item before bringing it inside.
Spring Break had come and gone, and CM’s school gave every family free resources to use “until school starts again.” CM’s package included a Nation Geographic crystal-growing kit. We made crystals. I struggled to get her to sit down for the worksheets and online educational activities the school provided. Before the semester was over, I gave up and we just went right ahead with Summer Break.
CM missed her friends. There were drive-by birthday “parties,” awkward and kinda sad, satisfying nobody. We went to my parents’ house and sat chatting with them and with Grandma (then 98) through the glass storm door. CM cried because she missed her friends and missed going into her grandparents’ house. Eventually: “I don’t even remember what their house looks like on the inside!” She cried and we held her, and I missed my friends, too.
We had lights in the lightlessness. Walking “with” neighbors from down the street: they on their side of the street, we on ours, shouting conversation across the unforgiving asphalt. Six or eight weeks into our lockdown, Ed stayed home with CM while I drove to the lake and sat and walked and breathed air by myself for the first time since the afternoon when I’d last picked up CM from school.
If I don’t get time alone, I forget who I am. If I don’t spend time with my beloveds, the people with whom I “reach” in heart and mind, I forget who I am.
#PandemicLife means losing a part of your Self.
It’s not an irretrievable loss. But when you find that Self again, she is altered from what you remember. And you are altered too, and now comes the challenge of living out the how of bringing those Selfs back together again in something at least resembling harmony.
Lights in the lightlessness: resuming CM’s horseback riding lessons, masked; sitting outside with family on my parents’ back porch, masked; FINALLY getting together outside with friends, masked. Ed bought some Hanes brand cloth masks, and I bought some fun ones with things on them like “Shaka when the walls fell” and “free hugs” from an Aliens facehugger. Eventually, I would abandon cloth masks for myself and CM and buy disposable KN95 masks off of Amazon. We stopped sanitizing the groceries, and Ed hugged us every day when he got home from work.
I hadn’t set foot in a store since March. We did our shopping online, either for delivery or for curb-side pickup. (Still do, for the most part.) I spent too much on Amazon. I bought seeds from catalogs and launched a summer-long project of amateur landscaping. My sunflowers were my pride and joy, caterpillars and snails my bane. (I love caterpillars, but not on my sunflowers. I love snails, but not on my hostas.) I had long known that gardening was excellent therapy, but this summertime project proved to be my equivalent of spending two months in in-patient care. The summer and the garden took me in and cared for me and nurtured what little spark of creativity remained me.
In May 2020, I finished the first draft of what still might end up being the best novel I’ve written thus far (Return of the Pelegrin). I wrote “The End” and set the story aside, planning to come back to it in six weeks or so for the first read-through. I puttered around on the third draft of The Priestess Murders but didn’t make much headway. I puttered around on final draft of The Flight of Elfled unBlessed but didn’t get far there, either.
We enrolled CM in a charter school which, in the Before Times, was half online, half in-person. In these, the COVID Times, the charter school went online fulltime. CM’s 2nd grade started in September 2020. I split my focus between her schoolwork and my writing. After a great start, she completed her entire 2nd grade Reading curriculum in the first semester. We celebrated, and she started 3rd grade Language Arts & Reading.
In the meantime, her rough 1st grade (another long story) was catching up to us. By mid-semester of 2nd grade, it was clear that she had missed a major foundational block of 1st grade math. With math not my strong suit, and feeling wholly inadequate to the task of helping my child, I poured what energy I had into supporting and coaching her in math. Her progress was slow, but she made progress. Online, her teacher coached her and me both in how best to proceed. I never felt as though I were handling the situation alone — but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with the inevitable frustration meltdowns of my stressed, worried, isolated child.
Her birthday was half drive-by, half-“real”: a few masking and quarantining friends and family joined us in the back yard. We set up a portable toilet in a small tent next to the garage. It splashed one of the parents. The kids thought it all an epic adventure. Masks came off for cake, went back on after, and I was thankful that Grandma hadn’t come, in case one of us infected her.
More lights in the lightlessness: Following CDC guidelines, we and the extended family decided we felt collectively safe for Ed and CM and me to come into my parents’ house masked. No more uncomfortable visits on the back porch in 100 degree heat. In November 2020, we joined them for Thanksgiving ever — on the back porch unmasked, so we could eat. By Christmas, we all felt comfortable enough to spend the day inside together, unmasking only to eat. The three of them sat on one side of the long dining room, and the three of us sat on the other side. “Merry Christmas, everyone!” from twenty feet away.
Throughout it all, I tried to Zumba and yoga my way into maintaining some semblance of fitness. The spirit was willing, but the house is too small for much exercising, and the flesh wanted chocolate and alcohol. My evening drink started being my afternoon pre-evening-drink drink. Every night after CM was asleep, I dulled everything with wine and sweets and Netflix. I talked to my therapist over the phone twice a month and let her coach me into a slightly healthier space inside my head. The chocolate stayed, but the alcohol was no longer a daily thing. I couldn’t say I felt any better for the lack. After all, the pandemic continued.
Another thing that continued was the 2020 Presidential Election. I rejoiced at voting for Elizabeth Warren. I wept when she dropped out. Intelligent, discerning, compassionate people of my acquaintance were expressing support for the POTUS who suggested fighting COVID with injections of bleach. I facepalm-headdesked and wished I were irresponsible enough to drink myself into numbness.
We lost acquaintances to COVID. We lost one of Ed’s aunts to COVID. We worried over the immunocompromised family members who insisted on going to the funeral. I imagined being the person to spread COVID to one of my elderly family members, and I shuddered.
Knowing how desperately we all needed away, Ed and I used our stimulus money to buy a used pop-up camper. We got to use it once, for a glorious two-night getaway at a sort of Airbnb for camping spots. Our spot had an air conditioned “tree house,” which CM fell in love with. Shortly thereafter, Ed was helping me dig up part of the yard for a new flowerbed. He had to stop much sooner than I did, which surprised us both. He felt weak, dizzy, exhausted. We blamed dehydration, the sun, stress, lack of sleep. When he got worse instead of better, we blamed COVID.
Three COVID tests begged to differ. He saw our doctor. Blood tests confirmed: Ed was suffering from a relapse of Rocky Mountain Spotted fever (which he’d contracted in 2018) ON TOP OF a reactivated Epstein-Barr virus, aka mononucleosis, which he can’t remember ever having. He basically spent three months in bed — in the middle of a COVID pandemic. It would be another nine months before we took ourselves on a second weekend getaway in our new-to-us pop-up camper.
I could not write.
In November 2020, I saw a call for horror short stories with a Hallmark-movie feel. I thought “Ah! Wheelhouse mine!” and set to work. And work. And work. I backspaced and deleted, I discarded draft after draft of story. Nothing clicked. The submission deadline passed and I had squat.
I reported to Twitter: “tfw when the Teach Your Kid Math session morphs *yet again* into a Counsel Your Isolated Worried Kid Through A Pandemic session. I. am. so. tired.”
I stayed up too late and got up too late. The now-8yo discovered all sorts of fun ways to use her computer for things that were not school when no one was looking. I forced myself to get up earlier. I tried to get in bed earlier but had no willpower to resist staying up late. I read about it online: “revenge bedtime procrastination,” staying up late to have the undisturbed alone time to do whatever I want. Yup, that fits.
“How’s Babadook?” asked my therapist in every call, using the shorthand we’ve developed for referring to my depression. “Restless,” I usually answered. “Wanting more attention. Wanting more food at my table. But all I have is scraps.” “Lean into it,” she told me. “Spend no more than three days doing absolutely nothing. Let yourself feel all of it, so Babadook will weaken.” I lay on my bed with the cats for an hour while CM played a computer game on my laptop next to me. It was healing, and I wanted at least those three days. I didn’t get them.
I voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by absentee ballot. As always, I took my daughter with me to vote, explaining to her what we were doing and why it’s important — especially the vote for the first Black and first Asian woman in the White House. I had never visited the County Elections Board before. We wore masks, and one of the security guards laughed and complimented me on my facehugger. Now that I have spent that past six years paying closer attention to local and national politics than ever before, I realize now that I have not voted in enough elections since I became eligible. Voting in a facehugger mask for this specific Democratic ticket during a pandemic will surely be one of the post memorable patriotic experiences of my life.
“Everything is political,” I wrote on Twitter. “Wearing a mask actually is political — and it *should* be. ‘Political’ simply designates the things we do that determine how we live in this world together. Wearing a mask shows your care & concern for the fellow humans you live with in this world. Everything. Humans. Do. Is. Political. Including all forms of art. Including creative writing. Including not talking politics. Yeah, even that IP you heart so much. And everything done or said by its creators. Everything humans do or don’t do is political, so ‘keep away from politics’ is an inherent impossibility.”
I screamed into the abyss of the empty wall before me.
“Eat at Joe’s,” the abyss screamed back — or something equally useful.
I ate at home. I ate chocolate and drank wine at home. I ate Tex-Mex takeout and picked the cheese off my pre-made salads. A new Braum’s opened up the street, and the now 8yo discovered burgers and fries. I ate too much of all of that and my gastro-intestinal system rebelled against this year of poor diet. I ate crackers and Ramen.
In November 2020, the American people expressed definitively their distaste and disgust for the Trump regime. We elected Joe Biden in a fair and square election, with reports of “voter fraud” being debunked over and over and over again. I had stocked up on canned goods. As fate would have it, we needed my stash for an ice storm instead of Civil War II. But the insurrection and coup attempt on January 6, 2021, sparked the thought: it’s not over yet. Horrified, I watched the images on tv and struggled to explain to my daughter. I couldn’t even explain to me.
Evil and foolishness, racism and white supremacy, anti-masking and anti-masking. Someone remind me why I came back to this country in 2007?
I reported #PandemicLife onTwitter: “Ahhh, the age-old eternal question…the one that keeps humans awake at night and leaves us confused, disoriented, and incapable of accomplishing anything useful on a Friday…. Is it a sinus infection? Or is it COVID?”
Concerning 2020, 8yo CM opined: “This year is full of poop and scary.”
I couldn’t agree more. My neck, shoulders, and lower back developed permanent knots in muscles. We put up the Christmas tree in November, the earliest I’ve ever had a tree up, because we needed something happy.
With painfully slow momentum, the number of vaccinated and at least half-vaccinated Americans was rising. Friends and family who are “essential workers” rejoiced to tell us they were fully vaccinated. I hoped that Ed, who had worked steadily throughout the pandemic (minus the mono-RMSF-recovery period), would be able to get vaccinated sooner than soon. I didn’t expect to qualify for the vaccine until summer 2021 at the earliest. The rollout was so agonizingly bungled, I couldn’t imagine the number of fully vaccinated people could possibly make a dent in stopping the virus.
Then Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took office on January 20, 2021.
He’s no perfect person, and he’s no perfect president. I take issue with many of his statements and policies (which is all another story to tell another time). But one thing I could and can say for certain: when he said his administration would be focusing on stopping COVID and getting the vaccine out, he was neither lying nor exaggerating. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, all the adults in my family qualified for the vaccine. My friends all qualified. I qualified. The day before my 44th birthday, I drove two hours to the small town of Marietta, Oklahoma, to get my first Moderna shot. The next day, I felt tired. Two weeks later, I felt hopeful.
Ed got his second Pfizer shot before I got my second Moderna. He felt exhausted and flu-ish for two days; I felt like death for four. I chronicled my experience on Twitter, hoping to encourage the vaccine-leery. Truth is only scary if you believe or know for sure that someone isn’t telling you all of it.
We laughed at the anecdotal evidence, gathered from friends and family, that women get Moderna and men get Pfizer. We started spending time indoors *gasp* unmasked *gasp!* with friends and family who were fully vaccinated. CM got to hug and play and tumble with her friends.
Schooling-in-place: doing math
Me: Don’t think about whether it’s easy or hard. Just think about what you have to do to get to the answer.
8yo: I have to go to the bathroom.
Modern math is weird, y’all.
By necessity, I took 8yo CM with me to Sprouts Farmers Market. With me vaccinated and both of us as well as all store patrons and workers masked, I felt comfortable enough. The store looked much bigger than I remembered. We went next door to a used bookstore, and she spent an hour happily reading on the floor of the kids section. I wandered and browsed and bought, feeling my introvert bookworm heart grow three sizes. Ed had take CM into a store two or three times, but this was the first time I had set foot in a grocery or bookstore in 14 months.
Life, the universe, and everything: that’s how my brain prefers to occupy itself consciously and intentionally. #PandemicLife sapped all energy and creativity for such mental endeavors. Delve more deeply into my old and new beliefs to see what works and what doesn’t? Leap into the lightlessness with both feet, submerge in lightlessness, come out on the other side with newfound understandings? Paint, draw, or write the thoughts and feelings and stories and whatnot that are my mainstay in all times but especially trying ones? My brain said no to all of it. No, we don’t have the energy. No, we don’t have the creativity. No, we don’t have the will. All of that is pouring into survival of Self and of child and of family and of friends. There is nothing left over for the deeper considerations of existence. I begin to understand why women of history collectively made less of an obvious mark than their male contemporaries. They didn’t have time — and frankly, my dear, they were just too damn tired.
“But brain,” said I, “we need to write something. Even if it’s just a grocery list.”
“Okay,” said brain, “let’s rewrite Gone with the Wind as a fantasy novel.”
“You’re out of your mind,” said I.
“Haaaaaa, you got jokes,” answered brain.
Not far into it, I began thinking of it as my Pandemic Project: Gone with the (Wind with) Dragons. I’ll write more about the process, the pitfalls, and the possibilities in the future. But for now: working on it at least kept some of the writing skills from rusting into oblivion. Edit, rewrite, add, delete. I wasn’t generating new story, but the alterations I was making at least challenged my “second draft” skills set. And then, one Monday, it happened.
I woke up, made breakfast, fed the kiddo, got her started on school for the day, sat down at my laptop — and wrote a 5k-word short story over the course of about ten hours.
Two days later, I started another, longer short story — and finished it in less than a week.
My sense of relief spilled out of me all over the place. Metaphorically(?) speaking, it was a glorious, glittery, rainbowy mess. It’s not gone. I still have it. It’s all still in me. Had I been questioning whether or not I would ever be able to write again? You betcha. Anxiety had convinced me that the magic had left me and I would never get it back. Turns out tt just needed some hope to let it flow outward again. It’s no coincidence that this sudden flow of easy inspiration came almost a month to the day after my second Moderna shot.
I still feel bleak. I still feel unsettled and disturbed and sorrowful. This is not done, and this post has no obvious ending. I am anxious for a vaccine for the below-12 crowd so my daughter can safely rejoin society. We are never going to back to “normal.” Death is not the only concern when it comes to COVID-19. Long COVID, the chronic illnesses that survivors develop, will affect ALL of us for generations.
And in many ways, that’s actually a good thing. But we also get to mourn the present and the future we thought we would have.
There’s a lot more to say, of course. More thoughts about things that have happened in the pandemic thus far: in my inner circle, in my family, in my city, the nation, the world. There’s more heartache and sorrow and rage and worry, more wonder and joy and curiosity. But if you’ve read this far, you know I’ve said as much as I can for now.
In the meantime, I am ready to discover what our new “normal” will be.
It just can’t happen yet.
*names changed for privacy