It’s been more than 100 days since coronavirus came to town. One hundred and six days, exactly, since Friday, March 13th, when I last stood before a classroom full of students. I remember the buzz in the air – the fear, the disbelief, the concern, the uncertainty. We thought we were going to be having classes online for only a couple of weeks. I remember washing my hands until my skin was dry and chapped that day, because, back then, we thought that contact was the primary mode of transmission.
I would have been a lot more freaked out if I knew it could float through the air on someone’s exhale – someone who didn’t appear infected.
I started counting the days at the start of ‘social distancing’ because I wanted to remind myself that this was all temporary, that this would end in the foreseeable future and that we would have our lives restored. How long could we be social-distancing? A few weeks? Maybe two months at most? I needed to count the days to keep myself sane, to keep me in the space of knowing that this was a blip in our lives.
As the weeks marched on, I’m not sure how well my sanity held up. I started documenting some of my new realities. Here are a sampling of insights I recorded in my journal over the past three months:
New reality #1: Non-human friends
This spring I watched my peas grow. Day by day, they reached up a bit higher as I showered them with water. They sent out little tendrils, looking for support. I saw two peas, reach out and begin tying together their shoots. It looked like they were holding hands. How sweet, I think, they’re helping each other out. I told them: Hang in there! A few more inches and you’ll both find the support I set up for you! I tried to direct them, but they continued to cling to each other.
Someone, help me. Garden peas are now part of my social circle.
New reality #2: Living in a bubble
All I wanted to do was go to the garden center choose my own tomato plants. I tried growing my own. But six weeks in, they were spindly and grey and no more than half an inch tall. I’m inexperienced with seedlings. I needed to visit the garden center. But the questions always come up: Do they social distance there? Do they require masks? I don’t know. This is the good ol’ USA. The rules are different everywhere we go.
It seems so simple, really. Just hop in the car and go buy some plants. But that’s not the new reality. Every decision to leave the bubble of our existence is laced with considerations. I felt like I was trying to plan a trip to Antarctica, not the garden center two miles away. Maybe I can call in an order and do curbside pickup? I didn’t want to. I just wanted to choose my own plants.
But that’s not all. I secretly wanted to roam through the greenhouse, lightly touching new leaves or brightly colored petals of all sorts of plants whose names I don’t know. In dry spring air, it would be so sweet to take in the greenery and breath humid, floral scented air (although, the mask would make that a little difficult).
But, in this circumstance, I didn’t take take the risk. I called in the order: two tomato starters – a cherry and whatever other variety you have; two basil plants; and lemon verbena, please.
New reality #3: Feeling invisible
On a morning hike in the Front Range I saw another hiker approaching from the opposite direction – an older woman, hiking alone. She saw me as well, and in a mutual show of consideration, we both pulled buffs and bandanas over nose and mouth. We couldn’t see each other’s faces as we passed. We were all cloth and glasses and shady hats. We both stepped off of our respective sides of the trail and gave a small wave. It’s too much work to say hi when your hot breath is burning your cheeks.
Some time later, a young man, running, also approached from the opposite direction. I worked quickly to raise my buff, since he was moving fast. I hopped off the trail as he raced by, keeping a steady stride on the flat trail while I tried to avoid stepping in prickly pear.
I wonder, does the cloth over my face make me invisible to some people?
(And if you’re thinking: Seriously, you wear a mask while hiking? You think you can get COVID that way? Please, don’t get me started. While I’ve been dealing with decades of politicization around the issue of climate change, never could I have imagined that wearing masks during a global health crisis would become a political act. I hate that I have to defend actions that are meant to protect others.)
New reality #4: Reading between the lines
Sometime in mid-April, I found myself just sitting in front of my computer. The camera was on and it was quiet. I was alone on Zoom. I wondered if I should pull up some other work. I remembered office hours in the time before corona. During student office hours, occasionally I’d hear the shuffle of footsteps coming down the hall toward my office. I’ve been in that office for more than 10 years. I can identify every faculty member in our department by the sound of their footsteps coming down the hall. When I would hear an unidentifiable set of footsteps – usually a bit more hesitant – I would look up and wait for the face of one of my students to appear in my doorway.
But now there are no footsteps to warn me of their arrival. Students appear suddenly – sometimes with camera on, sometimes with camera off. Either way, it’s still my job to try to read between the lines of what they say, to figure out what they need … but that’s a magic power I haven’t yet developed via Zoom.
New reality #5: Happy Birthday hauntings
I’m starting to hate the Happy Birthday song. It is always there – the earworm from hell. I’ve tried replacing it with other things, but it follows me around like a pesky fly. I find it rolling through my mind as I water the garden or ride my bike. Bits of it flit around as I brush my teeth, or pause in my writing to imagine how to finish a sentence. I try not to think about it. But the volume on the song cranks up whenever I reach for a bar of soap. Will I spend the rest of my life with the Happy Birthday song in my head?
New reality #6: Body language in a virtual world
I got off a Zoom call at one point and realized my cheeks hurt. Had I been trying to smile that whole time? Why couldn’t I just sit there, like I would in a normal meeting? I know why. It’s because I can see myself. And I only have my face to project non-verbal communication. So I smile to let people know I’m listening. My cheeks have not developed the musculature to do this all day, to do this thing where I try to over-communicate my body language through my face alone.
New reality #7: Kitchen experiments
In a show of support for local farmers, at one point I found myself with too many eggs. More than two dozen, sitting in my fridge. That’s a lot for a household of two. People joke about gaining weight while working at home in quarantine. But I’m one of those people who loses weight under stress and anxiety. I lost about 5 pounds in the first three weeks of quarantine back in March. Too much stress and no visits to the grocery store.
I learned how to make a frittata with the eggs. We’ll call it a pandemic frittata, because I would never have made one otherwise. We’ve also had pandemic potato-and-cauliflower soup, pandemic risotto, pandemic gnocchi, pandemic cinnamon rolls, and several different types of breads. I’ve become a pandemic chef. But it’s helped with the stress, and with weight maintenance.
New reality #8: Armchair travel
My mind might be playing tricks on me, but, sometimes, when I stare up at puffs of spring-white cloud drifting by, I feel like I’m somewhere else on the planet. The astringent scent of pine needles after a rain, takes me to the Canadian Rockies. The rolling course of morning birdsong lets me imagine, for an instant, that I’m in a cloud forest in Ecuador or Costa Rica. The spring sky is the same color you find on the flag of Argentina, and sage green grass on the periphery of my vision draws me to Ireland. Slushy, water-laden snow sends me to the Antarctic Peninsula. Am I still in Greeley, Colorado? I don’t normally look at the sky every day in Greeley, as I do when I’m trekking in some other part of the world. But things have changed.
New reality #9: Curbside pick-up
Who would be so lazy as to do all their grocery shopping online and sit in their car and wait in the parking lot for someone to bring out the bags? I used to have that thought every time I pulled into the parking lot of the supermarket and saw that parking spaces for curbside pickup. But now I am that person. I sat in my car and dialed the number of the garden center and let them know I was there. A girl came out the front entrance, covering her face with a buff. She walked around to the open hatch at the back of my car and positioned the tray of seedlings. Thanks! I yelled from my own hot mask as she shut the hatch.
I looked back as the tomato plants fell over. The tiny, recently sprouted basil seedlings vibrated to the tune of the road. And then I noticed that they had given me lemon thyme, not lemon verbena. Whatever. It’s lemony. Maybe this warrants some more pandemic kitchen experiments.
New reality #10: Connecting at an appropriate social distance
Near the park I saw two people walking down the street in opposite directions. They waved at each other from afar, their hands reaching up into the air, sending out tentative tendrils, seeking to connect in mutual support. But that’s as close as they got. They stood on opposite sides of the street, sharing quick stories of their lives, then walked off in opposite directions.
I think about those tendrils of support we all send each other each day – springing from across the street, or across the ethernet. These thread-thin invisible vines that we each send out – someday, maybe we’ll all find a trellis on which we can climb our way to safety. But for now, we keep sending out those tendrils. You never know who will grab them to keep from falling over.
While ‘stay-at-home’ orders (really, they were just suggestions) have ended, the fact is, we are still very much in the midst of life with COVID. One hundred days in, Colorado is one of the few states where cases have been declining – at least, for the moment (haven’t checked the news today!). We are now in some sort of ‘safer-at-home’ suggestion…But it’s not clear exactly what that means. The world is opening up. While many people have been itching for weeks to be out and about, and some people are happy to sit on restaurant patios pretending the world is normal, I’m not ready. But I am gradually dipping my feet back into some things that used to be part of normal life. Outdoor visits with friends, a trip to the Farmer’s Market, and even, a couple of excursions into grocery stores, for the thrill of choosing my own apples.
But it’s time to stop counting the days of social distancing. Maybe I’ve reached an acceptance that there is no immediate end to this pandemic. There is no return to ‘normal’ any time soon. And, at this point, it’s simply time to immerse myself in figuring out new ways to live until we have herd immunity. I will also dream about the day I can get poked in the arm with some sort of COVID vaccine – and in the meantime, keep doing my work to promote science, common sense, and mutual consideration of others, in a country where many are clearly still choosing to turn a blind eye to things that should not be ignored. That, or they are hoping for some kind of magic.