With the exception of 1988, I’ve lived every year since 1970 according to the rhythms of the school-year calendar.
Each summer when we go on break, I know how many weeks have passed for about three or four of them. The point at which I’d have to look at a calendar to know how many weeks it’s been is generally about the same time that the novelty of break has worn off, and “break” has become just how I live. Although the foundations of my life remain the same in the summer months, my school-year ways of being recede and feel very far away, and almost, in important ways, unreal. While my mind knows that they’ll return in September, it’s always a shock to my system when I go back, and for several weeks again I am quite aware of how many it’s been since my life abruptly changed.
That’s where I’ve been this week in our pandemic. I’ve lost track of how many weeks have passed since schools closed and we began self-isolating, and although the foundations of my pre-pandemic life are intact, many ways of being in that life feel far away and, in important ways, unreal. It’s now hard to imagine them coming back, even as I know many of them will.
Here I am, living in the same house, eating the same foods, loving the same people. I am working for the same employer, collaborating with the same colleagues. Monday I sighed upon waking, anticipating the work week facing me; Wednesday I planted fledgling seed starts in the early evening sun during the hour between work’s end and dinner’s beginning; Friday I pulled the summer furniture out of the shed and arranged it on the patio.
But also, here I am, rarely leaving that house, which has also become my workplace. Friday I ate a burrito from a taco truck, and that food that used to be convenient, commonplace sustenance tasted good in the way that only rare treats can, one I felt guilty about indulging because procuring it required leaving the house. Contact with most of my beloveds happens only through a screen.
A major project of the work week was gearing up for our library staff to create read-aloud videos for our students, something we’ve never done before. We’re working together on it via Google Meets and Google Docs. I am doing none of my usual spring tasks; I have not reconciled budgets because I cannot order books without purchase orders and there is no process right now to obtain them, and because there is no one to receive shipments and no way to be sure that in the fall students will be able to access any books we might purchase. A major project inside my head was thinking about what work I can do now that will be useful for whatever school is going to look like in the fall, knowing that we can’t know what it is going to look like.
The only thing that feels sure to me is a future that is different from the past. Not in every way–but also, in every way. If I think of my life as a set of systems–work, home, health, money, relationships–the foundations remain the same (at least for now), but each of them is also so changed that it feels as if there can be no true going back to what they once were. Can’t step into the same river twice and all that.
This is not, at this point, an original thought about the future. But it might be an important one for thinking about how to regard and live through the present.
Late last week, a friend referred to the time we’ve been living in isolation as “lost” and talked about a “return to real life.”
“No,” I said, pushing back. “This is real life. These days are our life, too. We haven’t lost them.”
In the past week I’ve felt myself resisting the idea that this is some time apart, some blip, some brief interruption to our regular programming, in part because the only thing that’s become clear to me in the past week is that our experience with this virus is going to be a long haul, and I don’t want to, in any sense, give away such a big chunk of time by thinking of it as unreal or somehow apart from the whole of my life.
But also, because the life I’m living now is beginning to feel normal.
As I sat down to begin this week’s post, I wondered: When do I stop labeling posts in my notebook with “coronavirusdiary”? When do my entries in this notebook stop being about living through the pandemic and become, instead–again–about just living? When does living through the pandemic end, anyway? When I return to my previous workplace? When restaurants and movies open? When we’ve all been tested for antibodies? When a vaccine is available? Can it ever end, now that we know one might come at any time? Will our previous ways of, say, shopping for groceries, disappear as surely as our previous ways of airline travel did after 9/11?
What is “normal life” or “real life,” anyway?
When I look back over my life, I can see that I’ve lived quite a few different ones. Meaning, I’ve lived through experiences that obliterated what had been my normal and created a new one. I’ve never done it on this scale, in the company of so many others, but at any time things can happen that rip the fabric of our days, leaving us to patch them together in new and different ways. At first, the time is marked by wild disorientation and disbelief, but none of us can sustain the heightened emotions that accompany those states, and as our feelings settle our minds come to accept that our new reality is, in fact, real. We might not like the new rhythms and conditions of our days, but they no longer feel unreal or like a time apart.
I think that’s where I am this week. Somewhere in the middle of some alternate version of my typical July, where I’ve lost track of the weeks, and September is so distant that how I’m living now is what feels real–no, what is real–and not like some bubble of other existence that I’m floating within. A July where blossoms are giving way to leaves, their clustered loveliness a stark contrast to the storm clouds so often hovering overhead, and where time is, indeed, passing–whether we want it to or not–and where September will come, in some form, as it always does, also whether we want it to or not.