A meditation on getting back to “normal” (or not) after the pandemic
In the back corner of the bottom shelf of my fridge, there’s a bottle of champagne I purchased in early March while stocking up for what was, then, only the potential of quarantine. I set it aside for what I imagined would naturally follow such a quarantine — a moment of elation, rushing out into the street in celebration of the end of the coronavirus pandemic!
I had no idea what was coming (and no idea what’s still to come). Even though I started stocking up on alcohol and canned goods in February — weeks before the first (known) deaths in the U.S. and a direct result of me being an anxious news junkie — I didn’t know how to prepare for this, not really. My training was limited to storm prep. Here in the northeastern U.S., for example, we stock up ahead of snow storms and ice storms. In other parts of the country, it’s tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes and fires.
As devastating as those events are, they have much clearer beginnings and ends, and so mostly our responses are quick and concentrated.
“… the grocery stores are ransacked.from “On the Ineptitude of Certain Hurricanes” by Cate Marvin
Generators battled for. Gallons of water lugged
beneath arms to car trunks. As if we might die.”
The excerpt above is from the opening poem in Cate Marvin’s Oracle, and what comes just a few lines later is this:
“Wait for it to hit. One waits, does not sleep.
As if it’s better to be struck while conscious.
Which brings us to the question of why it is
only tonight that we stay awake, …”
“Wait for it to hit.”
When was that moment, exactly? When did it hit? One of the strange things about this whole experience is that it wasn’t a single moment. It hit us slowly. There was no tsunami from which to run like hell, to link arms and stick together, to avoid looking back over our shoulders. It hit in increments. We stumbled into stores one day to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper gone. It hit quietly, just the low hiss of hand wringing. Bread, pasta and baking aisles emptied.
It hit and was just here and is here, and except for the masks and social distancing signs, it’s nearly invisible.
This is not to imply that frenzy, panic and chaos did not occur and aren’t still happening. For hospitals and ICUs, for example, and for those in food bank lines the storm made landfall and is still whipping away. However, it hit, for many of us, entirely out of view.
And it’s likely to leave with a similar lack of fanfare.
When the pandemic is actually behind us (and how will we even know really), there’ll be no single moment* that marks its end. No ribbon cutting. No fireworks, or, God no, no uncorking of champagne as we rush back onto “the scene.”
So many have died.
So many have been devastated by those deaths.
So many have lost their livelihoods.
So many have gone hungry.
And those effects, all of them, have been exacerbated by inequities rooted in race and class and, of course, by this basic truth: the American way of life is unsustainable.
I’m lucky to be surrounded by many people who understand this as the truth. However, most, including myself, go on with our lives avoiding confronting it. We simply put off facing up to the precarious — even deadly — nature of our economy, its reliance on environmental destruction and the burden it puts on the “unskilled,” I mean essential, worker.
“why it is / only tonight that we stay awake”
If you’re on Twitter, you may have seen an article in The Atlantic about Georgia re-opening hair and nail salons as it made the rounds. In it, there’s a powerful and telling photo by Elijah Nouvelage of a manicurist wearing a face mask, a clear plastic hood and plastic cape. She’s putting her life at risk to do someone’s nails because her employer and her state are requiring her to do so… for a paycheck.
There are few images that show more clearly that how we live on this planet and in this country prioritizes profit over life. In the current systems, workers are both producer and product, and those in power see them as dispensable.
That picture in The Atlantic represents the new normal. It was unsustainable before, and it’s unsustainable now. Can seeing just how vulgar it is lead us to change it?
“Everything that’s scary about this moment has existed all this time… this has always been true… It’s amplified. It’s on our doorstep… We are mortal. We don’t have control. We have to simply try our best. Keep the faith. And maybe pray to the divinity in each other and honor the divinity that is within each of us.”Cheryl Strayed talking with George Saunders in the first episode of “Sugar Calling”
The quote above is from a conversation between authors Cheryl Strayed and George Saunders, and the podcast it’s from goes on to talk about cultivating a feeling of concern for others, putting it into practice and “luring out the better parts of ourselves.” It speaks to something important to me in this meditation: I intend it to be less a call for political action and more of a personal reckoning for myself.
That said, the real changes we’re talking about here require political and economic revolution. Or we need CEOs and landlords to cultivate this level of concern on their own.
While I’m not giving up on systemic change and am willing to participate in a larger movement, I’m feeling called right now to get my own house in order.
I recently finished reading We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer. Even though I’ve already eliminated meat from my diet, the book was far from a pat on the back.
We’re in deep, deep trouble, y’all.
While Foer’s story gives factory farms some much deserved blame, it mostly dives into the very complex dynamics of personal choice and why change, even on the individual level, is so difficult. He cites a New York Times article by Roy Scranton:
“The real choice we all face is not what to buy, whether to fly or whether to have children but whether we are willing to commit to living ethically in a broken world, a world in which human beings are dependent for collective survival on a kind of ecological grace.”
“why it is / only tonight that we stay awake”
Being forced to contemplate our individual responsibility for collective survival could be one of the (ultimate) saving graces of this pandemic.
Foer writes, “Every time we say ‘crisis,’ we are also saying ‘decision.'”
I’ve been keeping a pandemic journal. In many respects, it reflects what I’m posting on Instagram — baking bread (like everyone else), drinking, exercising in my house, etc.
But what the journal is capturing that social media (mostly) doesn’t is my incredible angst about returning to the office and to normal life after this is all done, whatever “done” means.
I’ve been honest about my struggles with anxiety and the grind, and although pandemic stress (even from my current distance to it) is real, social distancing and lock down have created a kind of comfort and stability that I haven’t had in a while. A fair amount of the pressure — which can come from too few hours in a day — is off. I no longer have to commute back and forth to work. I’m no longer driving 30 minutes each way to the gym. School activities are canceled.** My frequent trips to the grocery store have been curtailed. I don’t have to maintain a wardrobe for work or social activities. I no longer eat lunch out several days a week. I am still working, but the hours in my day — even those work hours — feel more like they belong to me.
In thinking about what comes next, I can’t imagine returning to normal.*** That frenzy was poisonous to me.
And it’s poisonous to all of us. I’ll fully admit I’m a sensitive soul, but going 900 mph all day every day to support a household is terrible for nearly all of us. If we have a choice — and I’m not entirely sure we do — why would we choose it?
And how can we go back, really? If we didn’t know it before, our ability to stock up on and maintain “emergency” supplies is based on our privilege. Our ability to stay safe and social distance is also based in privilege. And whether we’re talking about preventing a contagion or limiting our carbon footprints, what will we do with that privilege after this? Will it remain a selfish force or can we stand up for collective survival?
Foer writes in We Are the Weather primarily about the impact of meat-based diets on climate change, but of course all of our choices as consumers are inextricably linked to it. He says,
“We are killing ourselves because choosing death is more convenient than choosing life. … Because short-term pleasure is more seductive than long-term survival. Because no one wants to exercise their capacity for intentional behavior until someone else does. … Because we are oblivious to the death that we pass every day. ‘We have to do something,’ we tell one another, as though reciting the line were enough. ‘We have to do something,’ we tell ourselves, and then wait for instructions that are not on the way.”
Due to what COVID-19 has shown us, we can no longer say we are oblivious to the death we pass every day. And we can’t say we’re oblivious to our responsibility to do what we can to protect one another from it. At the very least, I want to limit the damage I’m doing personally by how I participate in the world.
Like me, you’ve seen the “doom and gloom” headlines. Whether or not they’re intended to, they inspire fear. (Spoiler alert: they’re intended to.)
“Chaos and scrambling in the U.S. oil patch as prices plummet.”
“The health crisis has revealed how these plants are becoming the weakest link in the nation’s food supply chain, posing a serious challenge to meat production.“
“United Airlines says coronavirus pandemic is worst crisis in aviation history.“
“The death of the department store.“
Even if you’re anti-fossil fuel, anti-factory farm, anti-air travel and anti-national chain store, you aren’t immune to the take-home message of all that media: people are suffering and more will suffer if we don’t fix it.
But people will also suffer if we go back to normal with those things. And we will have played a part in it. Does “fixing” it mean saving oil and gas, meat factories and air travel as we knew it? What if we just allowed all that to fail?
I grew up in a Northern Maine town that was built around a paper mill that no longer exists. That economy has been devastated, and people I knew and people my dad still knows do struggle. I understand the human stories behind this kind of shift. The shift will be painful, but if we can make people whole and bring them along to something more sustainable, wouldn’t everyone be better off?
And don’t we owe that to each other?
This is the chance we have now, and I believe, unfortunately, it’s the chance we’re going to waste. As Cate Marvin described it in the poem above, dread related to human behavior and forces of nature is an
“ocean’s stomach of inevitability”
Will we turn away from collective survival because it’s too difficulty?
Instructions are not on the way.
Even though we can see right before our eyes that the health care system isn’t working, even though we can see that the food chain is broken, even though we’re watching the government bail out corporations instead of families and even though the air pollution is easing somewhat because we’re working from home and limiting travel, we are likely to disregard all of it — this once in a lifetime chance — because everyone just wants to get back to normal.
It’s heartbreaking, and I don’t feel any more capable than anyone else of addressing it in a meaningful way. I’ve taken just two small actions this whole lock down: canceled my Amazon Prime and swore off Whole Foods, based on what I finally had to admit about Jeff Bezos because I could see it right before my eyes.
It’s not much and it’s not enough. I need to examine more of my habits. I need to leverage whatever privilege I have. I need to cut out even more (all?) dairy and eggs. I need to address (eliminate?) my commute. I need to reduce how much I consume across the board and stop buying shit I don’t need. I need to continue to vote for more progressive people and policies. I need join with others and work toward collective survival.
I don’t want to go back to normal after the pandemic. Normal was dysfunctional before. Normal is not sustainable — and would be deadly — now. And normal will retain its capacity for killing people once it returns.
And yes, I’m being dramatic.
View this post on Instagram
Don’t be dramatic. How many times have you been told that? Don’t listen. Just don’t. Throw yourself to the ground. Scream. Yell. The appropriate response to all this isn’t to prove ‘you’ve got this.’ F*ck this. It hurts. It’s frightening. It’s wild. We need to dramatically change ‘civilized’ society to heal & change & THRIVE.
And now that drama has leaked out not only on social media, but here. And wow, is it ever justified! Going back to normal is a very bad idea, and I’m terrified of the compromises and sacrifices and sell-outs we’re all likely to make — me included — in getting back to normal after the pandemic.
It will likely arrive without fanfare and certainly without uncorking the champagne.
Wait for it to hit.
Foer spends a whole book detailing why/how this statis/status quo happens… and why we must, must, must figure this out:
“why it is / only tonight that we stay awake”
Why only tonight?
Can’t this be more than a fever dream?
* I am aware of NYC Mayor DeBlasio’s plans for a ticker tape parade celebrating health care workers; what I’m talking about here is a single signal to us that we beat the thing.
**Unfortunately, this has a cost of its own. I have a high school senior, for example, and we’ve had to give up “final” sports seasons, band concerts, prom and probably graduation, as well. He’ll/we’ll never be able to get that stuff back. It’s difficult.
***I’m not the only one thinking about this. As I’ve been sharing my struggles and reading about the concerns others have about “normal,” my friend Jason Crane released an episode of his podcast dedicated to why it’s a bad idea to go back normal. In fact, he launched the podcast itself based on a belief that normal was a very bad idea to begin with.