Coronavirusdiary #1

A teacher friend on Facebook shared an article about a history professor at the University of Virginia who suggested to his students that they keep a diary of this time. In answer to the question of why it might be important for people to write their experiences down, he said:

Our normal days in the now-suddenly-distant past may well have often dulled us into just getting through them. Our sudden lives now stop us, and lead us to wonder about our experiences and our feelings on many passing moments.

This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring? 

When I consider the distance of the days between my post last Sunday and this Sunday, it feels too much to capture. And, honestly, I don’t want to even try. This feels like an experience that needs to be recorded in something more like a poem than an essay–in telling images and moments, rather than in lengthy exposition and cataloging of official happenings. There will be voluminous documentation, I’m sure, of the macro. But I’ve always been much more interested in the micro–in how enormous events play out in the minutiae of individual lives.

Zoom happy hour, social distancing style
Bedroom painting project (still not finished)
Garage-organization project, days 1-3
Grocery shopping in an economically poor neighborhood (mine) in the time of pandemic

How are you doing? we ask each other (through text, messaging, phone calls, zoom calls).

How are we doing? It feels as if many of us had a day of reckoning this week–a day in which we understood, in a deeper way, the ramifications of what is happening. For me, it came on Wednesday. I woke sometime in the night the way I have in the direct wake of other life-altering events, forgetting for a brief moment that life was no longer as I knew it, and then suddenly remembering that my earth had slipped off its axis. The coronavirus, I thought, and then remembered that I wasn’t going to be getting up and going to school, that my daughter wasn’t returning from Sweden, that our markets are crashing, that small businesses are failing, that friends are out of work, that people are dying and going to die, that I could not go visit my parents or go see a movie or eat at my favorite restaurants or get my haircut or see my friends or or or… I felt the kind of need to ground myself in a new reality that I have felt when people died, when a marriage ended, when my children left home. Things are both exactly the same and very much not the same, and I’m off-balance, wobbly on my feet. The coronavirus, I thought, grounding myself in the reality that there is no solid ground to our reality right now.

How are you doing? I am trying to get the cognitive dissonance to settle down. All weekend after our schools close I stay home and read the news stories on my computer, the charts and graphs with curves that need to flatten, the pleas from those in Italy to do things differently than they did, and I share the stories and I tag them #stayhome, but then early in the week I get in my car to do something essential and I see the road filled with cars, the sidewalks filled with people who are not keeping their distance from one another, and the stories and charts and graphs feel unreal. Why am I not at work when all these other people are? Where are they all going? What’s really real? On my return from the dentist (essential), I impulsively run into the craft store for embroidery floss because it’s still open, because I need things to do with my hands, because I tell myself I can do it safely. I wear gloves. I feel guilty. I am guilty. Forgive me, I think. Maybe it’s OK, I think. It feels essential to me, right now. I touch nothing but the floss I put in my basket. Please let this be OK, I think. I am a hypocrite, I think, as I strip off the gloves before touching the steering wheel.

How are you doing? Tears well easily, and frequently, and always they surprise me. They come the day my mother emails to tell me that she’s accepted that she will not be able to make the trip to DC to see my daughter graduate from college, and I see she has not yet reached the obvious (but still not officially announced) conclusion that there will be no commencement ceremony. The day she calls me to say that she’s canceled both our flights and our hotel reservation. The afternoon I watch my high school friends on Facebook mourn the death of our beloved choir teacher, killed by the virus. The morning my friend whose college-student daughter can’t get out of Peru sends me a picture of her child’s smiling host family, celebrating their own young daughter’s birthday in quarantine. When she tells me that the family told her daughter, “you are our family now.” Multiple times while reading a YA novel about a Seattle girl whose life is shattered by a tragedy, and how runs across the whole country as she tries to both escape and control the trauma she can neither control nor escape. They come right now, as I type these words and remember each of these moments.

How are you doing? Early in the week I am drifting, floundering. I lose big parts of days doing…what? I’m not sure. I start projects and don’t finish them. I buy food in case I can’t later, including treats I normally wouldn’t, but right now I have little desire to eat. I watch people around me mobilize into action that looks almost manic, but maybe that’s just in comparison to me, who is floating. I lose two days to headache because it’s not that bad (I tell myself) and because I don’t take my meds because I am afraid I might run out and be unable to get more. I finally take them, and as the fog clears I can see that it was bad, worse than I’d allowed myself to acknowledge. I write. I think about what it is that most needs doing, and how it feels impossible that “nothing” might be the right answer to the question, even as it feels like it probably is. I try to pay attention–pay attention!–to the ordinary pleasures that remain, so that I might not be kicking myself in the future the way I am now about not fully noticing and appreciating the night two weekends ago we went out for dinner and a movie, even though I suspected at the time that it might be the last time we did it for awhile. I can’t even remember now where we ate. I long to remember where we ate.

Near the end of the week, we go out to take a walk through a favorite walking neighborhood. The businesses on the neighborhood’s commercial street are dark, the curbs usually lined end-to-end with cars only dotted with them. We see that a pizza place at the end of the block is still open for take-out, and it feels like a wondrous gift.

“Oh, let’s order some,” I say. “It’s Friday night, remember?” I say, as if Friday still means what it did a week ago. So we do, and it feels so good, to do something so ordinary in this extraordinary time. We tell them we’ll be there in an hour to pick up the pizza, and we walk in the day’s waning sunshine. I take photos for my house embroidery project, and we note plants and flowers in other yards we’d like to add to ours.

In front of one of the houses is a giant sequoia, and I stop to look up through its branches. I take a photo, trying to capture how the tree’s arms look like infinity, or the face of a god, or a puzzle whose pieces I could never sort. Everything feels so much bigger and older than I will ever be, all the world’s mystery and power and wonder embodied into this one thing, right here, on an ordinary sidewalk in Portland on a Friday evening in March, the end of week one of our pandemic. I snap a photo, sure it will be like all the other photos I’ve taken looking up into the limbs of trees, a disappointing mishmash of shadow and lines that don’t at all capture what I felt when I clicked the shutter.

But this time, some kind of wonderful happens when I shoot, which I discover not long after, sitting at the kitchen table and eating the pizza, which tastes better than any pizza has tasted in a long time. The photo looks almost more like a painting than a photo, and it’s there, all of it, just as I saw it. It’s like magic, the way the tree–our lives now–are half in shadow, half in light, a beautiful thickety maze that stretches up and up as far as we can see.

Your turn

I would love to hear about your week. Please share in the comments, or link to your own diary if it’s digital.

8 thoughts on “Coronavirusdiary #1

  1. Marian says:

    Hi Rita. I’m so very sorry about the loss of your choir teacher. I hope, at the very least, that he or she had lived a long, full life prior to this happening.

    I’m glad that you and Cane are getting out and walking. That’s something that we’re doing as well. My son and I are making sure to get out during the day, and then when my husband comes home from work (he’s only one of two people left working in the office; everyone else is now working from home), we try to get out again. We’re snapping a lot of photos too. Your photo of the tree does look amazingly like a painting!

    Technically, my week hasn’t looked much different than it usually does. (As a SAHM I’m used to staying home.) But it’s certainly felt a lot different. I spent an inordinate amount of time early this week composing emails to my climate action activist group. One member wanted to keep planning our Earth Day activities and was downplaying the seriousness of this virus. One of my emails was written at 5:30 a.m., with my hands shaking so badly I could barely hold my phone. (Apparently I’ve fallen off the “do not look at your phone first thing in the morning” wagon.) I went to the grocery store on Friday morning and was disheartened to see—at 8:30 a.m.—bare shelves. As I shopped, I considered how it was both a blessing and a curse that 1) I worked as a lab technician during university and am extremely well schooled in sterile technique, and 2) I am painfully aware of my extremities, and 3) I probably have OCD. Don’t touch your face? I could write the book on remembering NOT to touch your face. Funnily enough, I seriously considered going to my local yarn store to pick up a new circular knitting needle. The scrap scarf I had planned to make is not working on the needles I own. I had a discussion with my husband and son about whether knitting needles were essential, and to be honest, the only reason I didn’t go was because the scarf was a project I could easily shelve and come back to later. If I had nothing to knit, I’m pretty sure I would have gone to the store. What else…I have felt reassured by our prime minister’s daily press briefings outside his home (he’s in self-isolation as his wife has tested positive for the virus), but at the same time I know I should not be listening for these but should instead be working at something to keep busy. Cleaning always helps to clear my mind, but even though the house is in desperate need of a spring cleaning, I haven’t been able to set myself to any task. Maybe next week…

    Today’s my youngest son’s birthday, so I’m off to frost his cake 🙂 . Many thanks for this post, Rita—it’s always been lovely to see posts from you in my inbox, but they’re especially welcome these days.
    Marian recently posted…Of Storytelling and EscapingMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I love reading this account of your week. I think that’s part of what feels so strange–on the surface many things are just as they would have otherwise been, but underneath it’s so profoundly different. This week is our scheduled spring break, and when the schools closed it was initially for two weeks (hah!) and it was called “an extended spring break.” Other than not being able to eat out or go to movies, last week’s activities were much as they would have been for any other spring break. Sort of. That’s what’s creating the cognitive dissonance for me. I’m not complaining, mind you! I am so freaking grateful for everything that remains the same, and for the continued health of those I love. I don’t take any of it lightly. But it does seem to require me to remind myself frequently of what’s happening, just so I can stay grounded in reality.

      I, too, have fallen off my first-thing-in-the-morning habits with technology. When I wake up, I want to know immediately if anything has happened during the night to change things. Changes were coming so fast and furious for a few days there. I hope that as we settle into this new normal, that compulsion will leave me. Because it’s really not good for me to start my days that way.

      And, oh, what I would give for a leader more like your prime minister. I can’t get started on that, though.

      Take care, (and I’m off to read your new post! So excited to see one!)

  2. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I am so sorry about your teacher. This is so fucking scary and I know we are at just the beginning but I can’t wrap my head around it right now. I need to stay in the thick of it and not think of when it will end or if it will end. I cannot think this way or it will destroy me.

    I am keeping a note in my phone about the good stuff happening. I am trying to be an optimist in the middle of so much negativity and it is hard. But I see these glimmers of light as beacons from somewhere. The universe? God? I don’t know. But it is the only thing I have to cling to besides my family.

    How is your daughter doing? Thinking of all of you and sending you love.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Why I Hate Bruce JennerMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kari,
      To clarify–he wasn’t my teacher. But many friends were in his choir classes, and from their accounts he was a special one.

      I agree with your stance of staying in the present. I think it’s one of the silver linings of this whole thing, that that’s pretty much all we can do. The future is such an unknown right now. For me, I can’t even tell you what my days will look like next week. (Waiting to hear from my school district about what we’ll be doing after spring break ends this week.) I’m focused on what I know today: I have time to sleep, I can work on house projects I’ve long wanted to do, no one I know personally is sick right now, my kids and parents are OK. I don’t think about how I might not see my kids/parents or what might happen if any of them get sick. Just can’t go there, and really, what good is there in that? None. I have a rough plan in my head of what I will do if my parents become ill, and that’s all I need.

      Take care and keep posting funny, inane things on Facebook. I really appreciate them. Sending love right back to you.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks for letting me know. I think you’ve pretty much summed it up for me: I don’t want to forget this season, even as I hate being in it.

  3. Kate says:

    You know I love this. I especially love the tree picture. And the dark (black?) wall. I want to do that in my bedroom too, but the person I share it with isn’t on board (yet).

    I’m avoid answering the “how are you doing” question. I ask it of my friends, but when asked my answer feels so large – and so varied in any given instant – that I find myself answering WHAT I’m doing instead. And in a large part, I’m doing what I do. Cooking, cleaning, caring for children, reading, daydreaming, knitting, fretting. My life is completely different and completely the same. It’s kind of surreal. Speaking of, having the strangest case of deja vu as I type out this comment.

    Hope you and those you love are staying healthy.

    • Rita says:

      That’s the thing, isn’t it: How everything is both completely the same and completely different. I guess it isn’t for me–school is closed. But we were only a week away from spring break (which we are officially on now), and so I’ve been doing what I usually do on spring break: painting a room, mucking around in the garden, writing some. It feels much the same, especially now that the initial shock of it all has worn off. I suppose it will be different next week, when we report back for…I don’t know what we’ll be doing. Haven’t heard yet.

      Inside is a different story. There’s a whole lot of different in there. Although, maybe not even so much there. I’m seeing connections, looking for meaning, trying to make sense of it all. I feel weirdly peaceful the past few days. Trying to enjoy that while it lasts.

      Hope you and those you love are staying healthy, too. It’s nice to hear from you.

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