I’m writing this six weeks into staying at home. You’ve likely read another essay(s) about quarantine — God knows I’ve already written a few — about what the pandemic is doing to us; this ultimately, and literally, universal thing that’s really the only thing right now.
It won’t last forever. But as weeks turn into months, here we are, still in our homes and on our screens, trying to make sense of it.
I’m used to sorting out the floating feelings in my head by writing and backspacing and writing some more till there’s a beginning and an end; till I can close my computer and carry on. But we don’t know where we are in this story. We could still be in the prologue, or the second scene, or the climax, although that seems unlikely. Where am I supposed to land in my quarantine character development — am I too hopeful, too cynical, too careless or careful? I don’t know. I’ve said that a lot lately: I just don’t know.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write this piece. There’s a thousand other articles by a thousand other writers, squirrelling away the serious and absurd and everything in between about social distancing. I’m one amongst the masses, rolling my eyes at anything without an elastic waistband and teaching my almost-two year old how to find Star Wars on the Disney+ app himself. I’m unsure about turning this shared experience into something with my byline. What’s mine is also probably yours. So what can I offer up on our communal table of staying at home and coping mechanisms?
I could write about the Zoom meetings. What hilarious hijinks we’ve gotten ourselves into now that the office is a Zoom room — oh how far we’ve come. We were so young and naive when the Zooms were novel. “What’s your Zoom personality?” quizzes. The silly backgrounds — look at that! Karen is flying the Millenium Falcon and presenting a half-assed PowerPoint. Video conferencing etiquette. How to look alive over Zoom. How to not be too obvious when trying to see the inside of your coworkers’ homes.
Or I could write about the saga of my sourdough starter. I, like everyone else in my demographic, wanted to have some starter for sourdough. It was going perfectly well until I realized that making the actual bread is an intensive process with more steps than building an Ikea dresser. I spent two days reading recipes and watching tutorials, and got so overwhelmed, I realized I didn’t have the capacity to become a sourdough savant at a time like this. I let my starter die, and I did feel some relief that I didn’t have to take care of and feed one more little thing.
I could write about the things I didn’t think I would be doing during quarantine. Like leaving Sephora online carts full of products I have no business buying. In the before times, I wore makeup maybe twice per month, and now I’m researching self-tanning drops and expensive shampoos? I’m panic-buying outdoor toys for my kids as we stare down the barrel of a summer of closed parks and pools. I’m following Instagram accounts with online product reviews, egging me on to buy the “pandemic pants.” I have increased my quiver of loungewear, which might be the only thing actually worth buying.
People keep asking me what shows I’ve been binging. I could write about that. “Binging” implies the ability to devote more than an hour or two to one thing, which is nearly impossible with my Venn diagram of responsibilities collapsed into one amorphous blob that demands 12 PB&Js a day and the brain power to execute adult work things and also parent things at the same time. It likes to yell at me, “Mama mama,” and then slap an email signature on the end: “Please send me a calendar invite at your convenience. Best, your three adoring children.” Or maybe that was a client?
I could write about my experience with homeschooling, which is probably like your experience with homeschooling. My strengths as a mother are reading to my kids and acting like a fool to earn their belly laughs, but crafting crafty crafts and enforcing workbook time are not. Most of the time, homeschool is my four year old adamantly reminding us, “I will not do school.” But there are other moments when we’re really doing it — we’re learning and staying safe and we're happy.
Those moments are precious because they’re fleeting. My baby has already changed so much since we’ve been at home — he’s saying more words and so am I — we all have a new vocabulary. Fauci, contact testing, social distancing, flattening the curve, the difference between an Andrew and a Chris Cuomo.
What else can I say? Just look at us — sweatpantsed and messy-haired and crooked-necked from our screens. You know what my husband and I got into an argument about the other day? The ergonomics of my laptop usage. That’s what it’s come to. The least sexy fight in the history of marital fights. But sometimes I want to lie in bed and work horizontally until I take on my final gargoyle shape — give me that one thing. Sure, “working” can mean hiding from my family and taking a nap, but other times, I simply prefer the casual nature of a laptop. It’s a LAPtop, duh.
Of course, I’m fortunate that I get to work from home. That I get to work at all. That I have a home to work in. I’m the definition of a non-essential worker, and here I am, with a job of all things. I get to sit like a bozo on my computer typing boop-boop-beep-bop for a LIVING. I’ve become allergic to the internet-popular “quarantine silver linings” schtick. There’s a lot to be said for positivity, but there’s also something to having the social capital and privilege to find a silver lining at all. And yet perspective doesn’t take away all the complications of this strange time.
The reopening of states feels abrupt and unsanctimonious. Like what about all the masks we’ve been making — crude and ugly, handmade and holy? What about the car parades and the Zoom happy hours? What about still not being able to buy toilet paper? What about the caretakers who will lose their jobs when businesses reopen and schools don’t? Remember?
I’ve found comfort in the communal aspect of the quarantine. It’s felt like a communion when I see neighbors talking from six feet away, or as folks pull on their masks ceremoniously outside the grocery store like they’re heading into war. It’s scary, but it’s heartening to see us trying our best.
Unprecedented is the word people keep using. It’s unprecedented because we’ve never experienced such an extended and damaging disruption. But at what point do we use another word? Yes, it’s unprecedented, but it also just is — consuming, prolonged, overwhelming, and I refuse to say “new normal” because it’s not normal, but I know why people are searching for ways to describe what we’re in.
Anyone who’s written anything — from a book to an Instagram caption — knows the ending is the hardest part to write. It’s particularly sweaty when trying to write an ending about “the end” when I just don’t know. I thought I’d become more accustomed to uncertain endings, to unanswered questions and lingering doubt, but I have vertigo from not knowing so many things at once.
Where’s the narrative arc? Maybe that’s the part that makes the indefinite nature hard to describe — where’s the end from the beginning?
So what do I say that’s different than what anybody else has said? There’s part of me that can sit with being at a loss — not knowing together. It means I’m as tepid and disoriented as you. It means we’re trying to find meaning and closure. It means we’re making it through. I guess that’s as good an ending as any.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)