For the last few weeks I end my day Face-timing with my daughter, Carrie. We’re both in bed, in a Groundhog Day type situation, propped up on a pillow, each repeat wearing one of three ancient comfy night shirts.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” I ask.
“Please hold,” she responds, pretending to pull up her calendar on her computer.
In the good old days she’d run down a list of calls and video conferences, lunches, pitch meetings and dinners with friends. I’d silently admire her success and boundless energy for having created such a balanced, colorful work life.
Now she answers the same way each night as she peers over her make believe schedule, “Mmmm, tomorrow is Tuesday? No events.” Then we both, a bit manically, start to laugh.
For the last few weeks I’ve seen time transform. Hours s-t-r-e-t-c-h out, (Is it only 1:30?) and weeks evaporate. Days and dates have no meaning. Neither do pants with zippers, shoes with leather soles and make up remover. Neither do my carefully curated list upon list of chores and movies and TV series and books. I look at what I wrote on March 11th, how I figured I’d fill the time productively. Detailed plans to daily meditate and alternately ride the stationery bike and lift weights. A chance to compile research for summer travel plans. I look at that sane handwriting. So naïve in its belief I could bake and clean and binge watch my way through, with boredom being my biggest obstacle.
All it takes is a once-in-a-lifetime ravaging pandemic to reveal why denial is number one on the top defense mechanisms I employ. My abiding concerns about our melting planet and rampant shootings are now replaced by a continuous stream of fear that trickles through my brain, exhausting me far more than any “normal” day ever did.
I try to protect myself from what someone called “headline stress disorder” by limiting my news consumption to first thing in the morning, Governor Cuomo’s midday press conferences and the first 15 minutes of the evening news. A glimpse of that creepy red spore depicting the virus in PSAs swallows whole any semblance of my peace of mind. These weeks have taught me watching hours of Schitt’s Creek is way more soul enhancing than being hyper informed.
Once easily fixed situations ratchet up my anxiety. Distracted, I took a shower wearing my hearing aides and prayed for the next hour they weren’t destroyed. I sat on my glasses and now wear them jammed lopsided into my nose. I broke a nail and feverishly spent 10 minutes rummaging through the junk drawer for Crazy Glue I knew I didn’t have.
I think how we choose to best get through this nightmare is imprinted in our DNA. You can’t make anyone adhere to your template of tolerance. I heard someone say, “You do you. And let others do them.” That’s difficult for the nurturing control freaks among us. One friend strips naked in her garage and puts her clothes and shoes in the washing machine after a trip to the supermarket. One daughter spends an hour sanitizing every item that comes from Instacart. The other gives her sweet dog Rufus what she calls a “Silkwood wipe down” when they return from a walk. Another friend’s son parked his car in his father’s driveway, preventing him from continuing to go to work. Uniquely we try to regain a measure of control over the persistent unknown.
I don’t think this time in our lives will easily melt into memory. The ongoing unnerving Russian roulette aspect of it all has forever changed us, no matter how close to home the darkness comes. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” That’s my goal each day…to stay present and not ruminate about catastrophes that haven’t happened yet. Especially in these times where it feels like the other shoe is about to drop, knowledge has to win the tug of war over imagination. Every anxious thought is not a fact. Indefinite and excruciatingly uncertain as this time feels, it will end. And when it does, I believe we will all be proud of our emotional survival skills.
I still find myself falling short of obeying at least two of the precautions my children insist I take before and after my rare trips out of the house. (Who knew liquor stores were an essential business?) I charge my phone three times a day cause it’s exhausted too. There are post-its all over with new suggestions I continue to cull…and continue to ignore… for how to better fill my days. “Free” time is a misnomer. Nothing seems free about how these hours feel.
I walk outside and watch the gardeners begin their season. I inhale slowly to the count of four, then exhale to the count of four, ten times. It’s a technique I use whenever there’s turbulence on a plane. Then, even as my stomach zooms and plummets on the slow roller coaster ride up the curve, I allow in the breathtaking selflessness, compassion and courage of all those who continue to serve. The thought centers me. Ignites my gratitude. Fuels my hope.
Stay put. Stay safe. See you on the other side.