Some days, for some of us, it’s almost possible to forget the absurdity of these times. When you wake up, you might not immediately recall that you can’t go back to the office, or to Chicago or New York. Or to a public restroom, for that matter. But luckily you shouldn’t need one since you can’t really go anywhere but home.
Except perhaps in your bizarre dream, where you can’t do that either. The other night I dreamed I was leaving a friend’s house about a mile and a half from mine, but getting home turned out to be a herculean task, no matter how close I was told along the way I had gotten. The route zigged past a Pacific Ocean with giant sea creatures and zagged into an underground tunnel with predators, and bobbed up in a circus of mocking clowns. So it was a relief to wake up and get to my desk, in loungewear and flip-flops with a nice top for the Zoom meeting.
For those of us lucky enough to still have a paycheck and a roof over our heads, little may have changed from the outside. We still have food to eat and books to read and TV shows to distract us from this giant sea creature that is the pandemic. We can still turn to Alexa for the latest Swift or Chicks or Dylan releases.
But underneath, everything has changed. This may not be a war in which soldiers are sent off to battle. But front-line workers are being sent into jobs that could kill them. The lack of rules and planning, and the mishandling by those in charge, has cost too many lives and livelihoods and dragged this out too long.
Maybe you’re lucky enough to not fear exposure if you take proper precautions, while a trip to the supermarket could be the undoing of a friend in a high-risk group. Until it’s driven home to you that your age also leaves you vulnerable. So in the middle of one night, you’re driving your son and his girlfriend to the ER when she’s having a bad allergic reaction to the dog. Only when you’re about to park does your son inform you that you won’t be coming in; too risky at your age.
Some friends have found themselves alone, trapped on opposite sides of a closed border from a loved one. One friend flew in from abroad, so grateful to be around people, she even enjoyed the frisking by customs officers. “Finally!” she sighed, “some physical human contact!”
Yeah, these are absurd times.
Maybe you used to cruise the shopping malls for sport even when you didn’t have space for anything else. Now you cruise the neighborhood streets, where families are out walking — a first.
Maybe you become obsessed with doing things that never interested you, like gardening. Suddenly you’re scouring greenhouses for just the right dirt and plant food, then spending hours on your haunches turning the soil and putting the plants in. You tell your sister, who never cared about gardening either, how bonkers you’ve gone and she tells you she’s developed the same obsession.
You learn to do things you never imagined, like fix the broken toilet because you can’t risk letting someone exposed in and you can’t use the public ones. You can’t travel but you can cook, and eat and drink — maybe a bit too much — and invite a few friends for social distancing under the trees. You can’t go to movies or restaurants, but what you can do is rearrange the art on the walls. Never mind that it hung just fine before. You control what you can these days.
Some friends whose usual travel style is flying business-class abroad are now packing into RVs bound for campgrounds.
Strange days indeed.
Schools and colleges are starting up soon, but what will that look like? No one even agrees.
Some introverts tell you they welcome being left alone. Some couples tell you this much closeness in isolation can get a little old. Some days even the dog that always wanted more of you seems to hanker for more space.
Occasionally, something random illuminates how much we’ve forgotten in adapting to this new normal. Like the news release comparing Iowa’s parking availability with other states’. Parking? When you can’t even go anywhere? A small news item warns of the risk of climate change to the survival of polar bears, and you can’t remember the last time you thought about polar bears.
And maybe that’s just the point. Isn’t that what got us here — being so focused on what’s right in front of us instead of thinking ahead?
Yes, it’s stressful when life as we knew it is turned inside out by a novel coronavirus for which, as recently as Christmas, we had no name. We don’t know when things will get better. Now we’re told they’ll probably get worse first.
Maybe the dream was right. We can’t go back to the metaphorical home we knew. But if we are open to learning, maybe we’ll build a better one and improve how we live in it. We’ll heed the warnings, better align ourselves with nature and science. Maybe workplaces will become more flexible. Maybe we’ll all learn to be more Zen about what we can’t control and more resourceful about what we can.
And about all that planting, my friend Neil Hamilton once had the best take: Planting today, he wrote, is a belief in tomorrow.
Here’s to a better tomorrow.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.