A few months back, I bought my son and I some tickets to a concert tickets. A five-band extravaganza happening today. It had been so long since I had concerts on the books, and I was excited to be adding them again. For this particular concert, however, the ticket purchase per household was two. When I told my husband that I was planning to take Luke to the show, he felt a bit left out. I told him maybe I could find a friend or family member who could buy a ticket and transfer it to us, but he said he was fine with it. Luke and I could go.
Yesterday, though, I realized that a full day at a concert venue means venue food, most of which I cannot eat because of my dietary restrictions, which currently include no gluten, dairy, corn, soy, or sugar. Translation: no food for me for the entirety of the day. Which, if you know me, is no bueno because I get downright cranky when I am hungry. I didn’t want to be ruining Luke’s day with my poor attitude. And I didn’t want to eat prohibited foods because they would make me feel horrific. So, I told Steve he should take Luke. I assured him this was the right decision.
It wasn’t until after I’d made the decision to send Steve in my place that it dawned on me that this new arrangement would mean I would have the entire house to myself for the entire day on football Sunday. Say whaaat? It’s been a while since I’ve had alone time in our lovely home. The pandemic has made sure of that. My husband has been working from home full-time since March of last year. It’s made for some touch-and-go moments in this family. It’s not a good idea to force your introvert into a house filled with constant company for seventeen months. It’s made me sort of grumpy and sort of crazy. Okay. Okay. It’s made me sort of grumpy and completely crazy. I can admit it.
After they departed for the show around 2:30, I turned on football (minus the volume), pre-ordered an heirloom tomato salad for takeout, and sat down on the couch to enjoy some much needed alone time. It’s so quiet in the house, I can hear the clock ticking in the kitchen. It’s heavenly. And although the Bills lost (dammit), I’m glad I made this choice. It works great for Steve and Luke. They hit a taco place they love before heading to the show and they will undoubtedly enjoy the plethora of junk food available to them over the evening. And I will enjoy my tomato salad, a glass of wine, a walk with the dog, and a peaceful Sunday night at home.
My wish is that over the next couple years the pandemic might come under control and perhaps we can return to life as it was before March of 2020. While one night at home alone won’t suddenly transform me into a less cranky wife and mother, it’s a good start.
I am your garden variety, classic introvert. To be at my best, I require alone time. And, by alone time, I do not mean an hour sequestered in a room while others rattle around on the other side of a closed door. I mean ALONE, as in no one present I have to answer to, no one to request my assistance or bend my ear, and nothing on my agenda or to-do list. That is how I recharge. Alone time is what enables me to be a marginally decent human being in the company of others most of the time. Without it, well, I start to lose my shit. Not only do I become irritable, but I feel adrift. I forget myself. I forget who I am and what inspires me and what makes my life worth showing up for. When I exist only as part of my coterie, I shrivel. It’s not that I don’t love my people. I do. They are almost everything. The intersectionality of our lives makes the yearly trips around the sun fascinating, joyful, and worthwhile. As an introvert, though, I just can’t show up for them as the best version of myself when I don’t have time to unplug from the world we share and plug into my own space. Sometimes my brain needs to be powered off so it can start up again fresh.
So, imagine my chagrin when in March, Covid-19 brought my peaceful, recharging time to a screeching halt. After what had been three quarters of a school year during which I had between 7-9 hours a day completely to my own devices, suddenly there was no alone time to be found anywhere. Initially, it was sort of amazing. I reveled in it being the four of us, keeping each other and the world safer by staying home together. I staked out my claim in the master bedroom, my husband set up his office across the hall, and the boys did online classes from their basement boy cave. As we adjusted to grocery delivery, weekly take out instead of dining out, and a sudden cessation of driving and shopping and living in the outside world, there was some bonding. After six weeks, though, life got real. I mean, we really weren’t going anywhere. None of us. We were all there. All the time. Nowhere to run. And once the novelty of our new uniforms of super cozy lounge-pants wore off, well, things got dicey until it got warm enough outside to venture out.
After spending a solid three months in each other’s presence, two things became crystal clear to me. First, we know each other well and like each other. Second, if we were to continue to like each other in the future, we would need more room to spread out. Because dealing with a pandemic and widespread political division and unrest isn’t stressful enough during a year that increasingly felt like the dawn of the apocalypse, we bought a new home and moved across town because that is how we roll. I naively thought the additional space would serve as a buffer for my introvert nerves. But, at the end of the day, wherever you go, there you are. And so I found myself still anxious and disquieted, albeit from a much larger and nicer enclosure. I had upgraded my twitchy self from a small aquarium to a deluxe Habitrail with its long tubes to escape to different spaces and a larger wheel on which to occupy myself by spinning for miles while still not actually getting anywhere.
On Sunday night, I hit a breaking point. I decided I might either end up in handcuffs or in a straight jacket if I didn’t make a break for it. So, with my family’s blessing (which felt more like several feet pushing my cranky butt out the door), I reserved a cottage 46 miles from home for two nights away, no noise, no schedule, no meal prep. Just me being me, whatever that looked like in the moment. And it has been glorious. I missed me. I’ve read, taken hikes, enjoyed a bottle of wine I didn’t have to share, sat on the screened porch and observed nature. For dinner tonight I had cheese and apples. Just cheese and apples like a picky 3 year old. Earlier today I spent about 20 minutes wandering through a cemetery and I found myself tearing up. All those lives. Were they well lived? Many, it appeared, were short-lived. If I survive this pandemic (fingers crossed), what story will I tell about my time in it? Life is fleeting and it’s for the living, and I need to be doing more of that. I need to tune out political noise, turn off the television, and go on more walks, hikes, and bike rides. I need to find things that feed my soul and do them. I need to be willing to ask for space so I can recharge. We could be in this a while.
Funny thing this pandemic. As an introvert, the words “social distancing” sounded promising. Then I learned that socially distancing myself from most meant non-stop socializing with a few. I know people, myself included, have been worried about our extravert friends because they need human interaction and without office time, sporting events, dinners out, concerts, and parties, they have been sad puppies. And they have been great about sharing what they miss and need. But, I would urge you to recall on occasion those who don’t share much. Check on your introvert friends too, the ones who are trapped in their homes with people full-time. PEOPLE. ALL. THE. TIME. They might need someone to vent to or a cottage to run to or, at the very least, a phenomenal set of noise-cancelling headphones and a door that locks. We’re all just trying to survive right now, going through these new motions and figuring out as we stumble along. Keep an eye out for each other. And, make it a priority not just to stay alive but to be alive because this life is all we get.
“This is the first time in history when you can save humanity by just sitting on your couch and watching tv. Don’t f*#k it up.” ~timely Internet meme
We are spoiled Americans. As a family, we are fortunate enough to be able to afford most of what we want when we want it, within reason. I mean, we don’t drive new Jaguars or BMWs. We do not live in a huge, stately home in a golf course community. We don’t take yearly trips to Europe. But we are able to buy a movie on our Apple TV without considering if the $20 is a waste, and the four of us can dine out a few times a month at decent, sit-down restaurants without being unable to pay our other bills because of it. If our sons need new jeans, they get them. If I want to buy a $75 concert ticket, I do it without guilt or stress. I know it is a gift to be in this position. And I do realize it makes us unlike most other American families. We are the lucky ones.
A few weeks ago, when I saw the writing on the wall regarding this pandemic, I went shopping. I didn’t panic buy or hoard multiple packages of toilet paper, but I was able to purchase about two weeks’ worth of groceries in advance knowing we wouldn’t be going to the store as often once the virus began to spread widely among our population. Perishables were mostly off the table on my stock-up trip. Not a problem, I told myself as I bought some frozen fruits and vegetables. Then this morning I decided I would love an avocado for my bagel. Alas, there were none.
In my past life, I might run out to Safeway and grab a few of those bumpy-skinned babies to satisfy my craving. But, that past life was in the olden days two weeks ago. Now, I honestly have to look at a trip to the store differently than I did then. Now there are exponentially more people walking around unknowingly affected by COVID-19 than there were two weeks ago. My risk of contracting the virus is much higher, at a time when the hospitals are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. So I had to have a long talk with my fortunate self about going without. I suspect that over the coming days and weeks I will have to lecture myself many more times about the importance of remaining at home. I need to learn the delayed gratification I have been delaying learning. To that end, I made myself this flow chart, which I can refer to in the future replacing, as necessary, “avocado” with whatever thing it is I think I desperately need but really don’t.
This is our new normal. It may be our normal for eighteen plus months. I need to adapt to these temporary restrictions. They will be short-lived and my efforts could save lives, including my own and those of my husband and sons. I’ve lived a fortunate and entitled adult life, thus far, traveling freely through the world, buying grass-fed tenderloin steaks when I felt like spoiling myself. Now it’s time to do with less. In the grand scheme of history, what the times are asking of me is not a lot. It’s simply the matter of a small adjustment.
Someday the virus will run its course. Someday we will have a treatment or a vaccine. Someday we will once again be able to run to the store on a whim for that one topping we wanted but didn’t buy the first time through. When that day comes again, you best believe avocado toast will feel like the decadent treat it is and always was. We just didn’t realize that our last avocado toast would be our last avocado toast for a while. Live in the moment, my friends, and make sure to appreciate what you have today because tomorrow you might not have it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to remember and appreciate my great fortune and teach my sons to do the same. And when this is behind us, we’ll celebrate. We’ll don toilet paper togas and feed each other avocado toast just because we can. And then we’ll fold up the toilet paper and tuck it safely away for a later crisis because you just never know what tomorrow might hold.
The worst thing about our current situation for me now (as I sit at home, a *fingers crossed* healthy person with self-sufficient kids and more free time than I’ve ever had) is the feeling of helplessness and isolation it is creating. So I have been brainstorming ways to keep myself sane as the news grows exponentially worse. The only way not to feel overwhelmed is to focus on what we can do rather than what we cannot.
Here are a few things my family has decided to do while we’re stuck at home that will keep us connected and involved and yet usefully distracted.
We are going to learn about each other. Yeah. We know the basics. I know Luke is into sci-fi and Joe is fascinated with world cultures and history, but what do I know about those topics? Not enough that I can share in their joy about them. So, in this isolation period, we’ve decided to teach each other about things we care about. Every week, we each will have a 30-45 minute opportunity after dinner to share our passions with the rest. The rules we’ve laid out around this are lax. You choose your topic and how you want to present it and the rest of us have to be patient and commit to learning and understanding the topic. You can use any means you want to share your chosen topic for the week. You can read aloud from a text. You can share a video (even if that video is just your favorite episode of Friends). You can put together a slideshow presentation. You can pick a favorite game and have everyone to play along. You can run your session like a classroom experience or make it interactive. The sky is the limit. The floor is yours.
I have committed myself also to reaching outside of our house by any means possible, starting with snail mail. I have stamps that have been sitting in a drawer, so I am digging through my card stash and sending out greetings the old fashioned way. When I run out of cards, I will make more using printer paper and markers or I will write notes and stick them in the business envelopes we have in abundance and never use anymore. Stamps are easily ordered online and delivered to you if you need them too, and the USPS has dozens of fun, themed stamps available, which makes the whole endeavor even more joyful. Shop the Postal Store. We currently have stamps with dinosaurs, sharks, and military dogs. And I have stickers stashed in a box from a chore chart I used to fill in for the boys, so I will be using them to decorate those envelopes and messages like a nine year old girl passing notes. Of course, there’s always FaceTime, Skype, Whats App, and regular old phone calls and texts too, if you prefer that. Have virtual coffee with someone or, like our family, set up grog time. At 5 pm, we are going to connect via FaceTime from our separate homes with our cocktails and catch up. Separate does not have to mean alone.
Another thing I am doing is going through my house and using items I bought with the best of intentions that are gathering dust because I never followed through. Last Christmas I decided I wanted to learn to write in some cool fonts, so I received books and pens that have remained untouched because I didn’t have or make the time. I have a stack of books I meant to read that are collecting dust. I have yoga videos saved. I have books of sudoku and word search puzzles I bought for flights that haven’t been completed. There are a gazillion digital photos that I’ve been meaning to go through and pare down and back up. And as the weather warms up there are yard games, like Spikeball, I bought for us to play that we need to learn and can practice outdoors in the fresh air of our yard. Pick an hour a day, turn off the television, and focus on growing yourself in a positive way because at some point we will come out on the other side of this.
In an isolated situation, what we have been given is time, the time we have all in the recent past complained we didn’t have. Make conscious choices about how you use your time now. Don’t just distract yourself. Grow yourself. Perhaps we can come out of this scary portion of history with some positives that will assist us as we re-enter a world that has changed.
It’s 4:45 am and I have been awake for an hour and a half already. My busy mind has been debating the pros and cons of one last trip to the grocery store before sheltering in place with my family. A couple weeks ago, a planned grocery store trip would not cause this much consternation and sleeplessness. A couple weeks ago, on the heels of a CDC recommendation that we stock up, I visited Costco ahead of the rush with little concern. I didn’t hoard. I bought my usual items plus a few extra for good measure. I returned home feeling better, more secure somehow knowing I had done some preparation. Our cupboards were full. There was food in the freezer. A couple weeks ago, that seemed like enough. The unmitigated spread of this coronavirus seemed like a possibility. Now it’s reality.
It feels I have lived years since that Costco trip. I’m not a natural-born worrier, but as I watched the health crisis in Italy unfold and witnessed a locked-down Venice and an empty Piazza San Marco, I began to envision our future. And now, two weeks later, the future is here. And here I am, awake when I am normally asleep, weighing a trip to the grocery store as a risky proposition, wondering if boxes of Goldfish crackers and some eggs (if I can find any) are worth it. While at this moment there are only 131 confirmed cases of the virus in Colorado, I know from scientists that number may more likely hover around 1,300 cases, if not more. I know we need to flatten the curve, and I don’t want to do anything to work against that societal goal. Should I stay or should I go now?
Vulnerable and small sum up how I feel in this moment. The past few days have been a rollercoaster as I tried to strike a balance between being proactive and not overreacting. I acquiesced Saturday and allowed my son out for the day, knowing both that he should probably stay in and that this might be his last time to hang out with friends, his senior year likely preemptively ended. A couple times this last weekend I fell down on my self-made, silent promise to remain calm and appear brave. My sons now know I am concerned about our loved ones, about our health, about plans that should be rescheduled yet may never come to fruition, about the economy and our country and the whole world, and about the long-term changes we will face as a result of this pandemic. I’ve tipped my hand, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe they need to know that this is serious and that it’s okay and normal to feel concerned and overwhelmed. They didn’t experience 9/11, so they didn’t watch as the towers fell the way their mother grow instantly smaller like Alice in Wonderland only to grow large again in the months following. They don’t know, as I do, that this is how this works. There is fear and uncertainty and then there is a slow climb back to normalcy, whatever that new normalcy looks like.
The sun is rising now. I think I will make that last trip to the store and then work hard not to touch my face before returning home and scrubbing up like a surgeon again. Then I will stay home. I will spend weeks pulling things from the bag of tricks 18 years of motherhood have gifted me. I will create meals out of whatever is left in the fridge. I will make life in our home feel comfortable by chiding my sons to put their clothes in the hamper and turn down their vocal volume. I will listen to my youngest sing and share stories and I will watch the umpteen You Tube videos about French Canada and the Ottoman Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt my other son wants to share with me. I will beg them to take walks with me, and I will annoy them by playing the drums and setting up shop at our only table with puzzles that will leave us eating in front of the television. I will try to be patient and brave and I will fail. I will show them that you get through tough situations one minute at a time by occasionally losing your shit. But I will rise, one way or another. Maybe, like today, a bit earlier than I expected.