“I want to live alone in the desert, I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe, I want to live on the Upper East Side and never go down to the street” — Warren Zevon
Earlier this week on a gray, dank afternoon, I was squishing down the road with no specific destination, maybe a vague notion of seeing a bird or two, mostly because that’s what I do. Walking has been as reliable a panacea for whatever harbinger of doom unleashes itself from either my own subconscious depths or from the world at large. Until now, the “doom” — mine, or ours collectively — was largely conjured as a metaphorical device. No more.
The acceleration of coronavirus into a full blown pandemic, in what felt like no time at all, obliterated the shelter of metaphor. Suddenly, doom became a real possibility. COVID-19 was as unprecedented as anything in our lifetimes: extremely deadly, ferociously contagious and completely nondiscriminatory. And it was inexorably on the march, heading our way — everyone’s way really — and in every manner possible.
Crafty enough to travel incognito, the virus infected symptom free for up to two weeks, enabling an under-the-radar, intercontinental expedition, by jetliner, cruise ship, bullet train or automobile, seeking human hosts in diverse, far flung locations around the globe. As the virus spread in and around Wuhan, China, the government there was slow to notify other countries of a pandemic in the making — what turned out to be a catastrophic decision, exacerbated by our own government alarmingly doing precisely the same thing — setting the wheels in motion for a tragedy of mythic proportion.
Looking back, our decision to leave Vermont in early March for an anticipated month of travel, including almost three weeks in Mexico, was cautiously optimistic at the time, however idiotic it looks now. A few short days later, we were in Florida, frantically canceling whatever reservations we had and booking a flight to Boston ASAP. Meanwhile, we’d been to moderately crowded beaches; saw a play one night and spent an evening at a packed jazz club, way more proximity to people than we wanted to think about.
So like millions of others, we’ve been home, quarantining for the last couple of weeks, but what’s different is that we’re lucky our isolation isn’t all that far removed from what a normal late March day is on a Vermont back road. Our routine between breakfast and dinner is familiar enough so that we’re not alienated, anxiety ridden or depressed. We don’t feel trapped. And our connection to the world at large, mine anyway, hasn’t been lost ... unless I lost it years ago and didn’t notice. Although we do usually try to get out to hear music a couple of times a week, we don’t really miss that either, at least not in the conventional sense, since — with venues shut down — there isn’t anything out there to miss.
Friends in more densely populated areas, metro New York, north Jersey and even down south, are feeling far more hemmed in than we are, having their groceries delivered to apartments getting smaller with each day’s confinement and relying primarily on social media to communicate with the outside world. The only way to maintain separation in a big city is to simply stay home, which is anything but simple, according to mental health professionals, who see long-term impacts of facing the fear, anxiety and being cut off from the normal, daily routines we rely on more than we realize for their predictability.
According to The American Psychological Association, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may go well beyond the fear of becoming infected and could also continue unabated long after the virus has run its course. A drop in our meaningful activities, sensory stimulation and social engagement, coupled with financial strain from being unable to work can lead to anger, frustration and irritability, particularly if there is no access to regular coping strategies — health clubs, religious services and even visits to a local cafe to argue politics with friends over a cup of coffee.
Recipes to counteract the worst emotional distress brought on by the pandemic include strategies to manage stress and remain as positive as possible: mindfulness and relaxation exercises; keeping a journal of gratitude; maintaining a healthful lifestyle including getting outdoors regularly and staying connected as best you can. Although I don’t use social media myself, it’s been a lifesaver for millions, enabling people to share their worries with others, perhaps realizing that they’re not alone. There is comfort knowing we’re in this together.
Out here, the days unspool almost hypnotically, allotted the requisite hours but somehow feeling more fleeting. This generosity of unstructured time, which we always longed for and suddenly have, becomes at times near impossible to use productively. The first day of spring comes and goes with hardly a mention. Snow piles up 10 inches one afternoon and melts the next. Our reactions to things are inconsistent — too fast or too slow. The world is either locked in or locked out, we can’t figure out which, and it doesn’t seem to matter much anyway.
Deciding to check out the daily briefing, I go to CNN one afternoon to see what’s changed. Am I hallucinating or is that the “My Pillow” guy, groveling through a senseless campaign ad while urging me to “read my Bible”?
I don’t know if my isolation is anywhere near splendid, but it’s way, way better than this ... click.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.