As planned, I took a two-week break from blogging to focus on the holiday of Pesach. While I continued to do some work for my job, the majority of my efforts were devoted to cleaning, cooking, shopping when necessary, and celebrating the holiday with my husband and kids. (Last year I blogged about Pesach cleaning, and this year a version of my post was published in Nashim Magazine. I submitted the piece before the spread of COVID-19, and worried that it would seem tone deaf in these changed times, but in the end, I think the ideas still held up.)
While Pesach involves tremendous exertion and can be exhausting, it is also typically an invigorating and hopeful time. I love the traditional holiday foods and enjoy having a break from regular routines during what is usually a particularly beautiful time of spring.
This year, my family had most of the usual holiday foods, and the flowers outdoors were indeed blooming. However, the background knowledge of the pandemic was constantly on our minds. I was deeply grateful for an opportunity to disconnect from the news, and found this break to be restorative physically and emotionally. However, the holiday was missing a lot of its usual joy, and when it ended, instead of feeling buoyed and energetic, I felt deflated.
I know that the feelings I am having now are not just because I am Jewish. In our sixth week of social distancing, as we continue to hear about spreading infection and death tolls, this is a point at which we wonder if life can ever get back to normal. Almost more upsetting than the illness itself is the devastating economic toll this is taking on those who have lost jobs. I am grateful to work for an organization that is helping our community to weather these difficulties, but the amount of need created by this disease in our country and globally is absolutely staggering.
Over the last few weeks, I have been repeating to myself that we are in the worst part of this disease cycle, with infection rates peaking or plateauing in many places, with hopes that they will soon begin to drop off. There is a lot of reason to hope, but there continues to be great uncertainty about how we will move forward.
Even in these dark times, there continue to be sources of inspiration and optimism. There are people donating blood or plasma to help those in need; our medical workers show up day after day with incredible energy and devotion to help those who are suffering and dying; and low paid grocery workers continue showing up, day after day, to ensure that people have food to buy.
Looking at my closest circles of friends, I was encouraged to see friends on social media cheerfully preparing for and celebrating Pesach even though most were unable to be with extended family, and some had to unexpectedly engage in the arduous preparations for the holiday when their plans to go to fancy resorts were canceled. I hope they found this richly symbolic holiday to be even more meaningful than it would have otherwise been and I hope that some of them, despite the tremendous work involved, will decide in future years that they can forgo the fancy resorts in favor of the simplicity and beauty of celebrating Pesach at home.
For me, Pesach has always been a holiday of simplicity. We are restricted from eating many foods, and learn to do without others that are permitted but not really necessary or worth the hassle. Like a lot of things in western culture, even Pesach has been affected by the trappings of consumerism and aspirations of luxury. However, just as so much of our lives have been stripped down to basics by COVID-19, I think for a lot of people this year, Pesach was an opportunity to return to a basic, unadorned celebration. It was still a time of festivity, but a more muted one, recognizing the times we live in.
When we first began social distancing, I must admit that a big part of me hoped this would all end by the time Pesach was over. I tried not to pin my hopes on that, knowing that I could be setting myself for deep disappointment. I felt a big sense of let down as the holiday ended and there is still no clear sense of when this will end. So, now I am focusing on redirecting my thoughts in a different way.
I remembered that when we first knew that we would be distancing for at least two weeks, I felt overwhelmed and wondered how it was possible we would get through it. Now that we are a few weeks past the two week time marker, we have seen that we can do two weeks, four weeks, and soon six weeks. We can’t do this forever, but we’ve already done more than many of us ever imagined. Rather than focusing on the big unknowns, we can tell ourselves that we’ve done this for X days so far, and we know we can do at least one more, and then one more, and then one after that. We’ll keep social distancing, and looking for silver linings, and eventually things will get better.
You know when you are a kid and you watch a movie about someone overcoming something really difficult, and you think to yourself, “That’s really cool. I would totally do the same thing if I were in that situation”? As a kid, you look at people doing heroic things and allow yourself to believe that you have the same heroic capacity. The thing is, they’re called heroes for a reason.
Even though I was a good science and math student growing up, I never considered a career in health care. I knew that I couldn’t do it because I don’t have the stamina to work long and unpredictable hours, tend to be germ phobic, recoil at unpleasant odors, and am not great at dealing with other people’s problems. I probably would have done reasonably well in the academic science classes and failed miserably with any practical applications of medicine. The world is a better and safer place without me providing health services.
This is my way of saying that I have great admiration for doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, nurse’s aides, dentists, dental hygienists, and all manner of therapists (physical, occupational, speech, psychological, and anyone else I’m leaving out). Even in the best of times, I couldn’t do the work they do, and in times like these I would be a disaster.
It’s important to know yourself, and troubled times tend to bring out people’s true natures. So I know now that, unlike the heroes who rush into danger and save others from disaster, if I were in those hero flicks of my youth, I would probably be frozen in terror or running the other direction. Because that is how most of us are, and that should give us a deeper appreciation of the greatness of those who are putting their lives at risk now to protect the rest of us.
While I have found out that I am not made of hero stuff, I have also realized, again, like most people, that I am more resilient than I thought I would be. There have been so many times that I have felt “I can’t do this,” and then I find that I can. Most of us can, and if we know of someone who is experiencing real psychological danger in these times, there are resources available to help them. It is OK to not be OK, because, again, the heroes are out there to help people get through this, and the rest of us have the responsibility of keeping our eyes out for those who are suffering, and pointing them in the direction of the services they need.
One of the most encouraging messages of the social distancing era is that the passive act of staying home is saving lives. It really is, and when you think about it, that’s really cool. A meme I saw said that “Your mother told you that you’d never amount to anything just sitting on the couch, and here you are saving the world.”
So, while I’m not out there with my sleeves rolled up to treat people who are dangerously ill, I am calling any day a success in which I am managing to function in a capacity that somehow mimics normalcy and in which I am able to fulfill basic human responsibilities. I allow myself to periodically freak out or take a break to sit in a catatonic state when I feel overwhelmed. I know I’m not alone in this. I know I am so much more fortunate than many people going through this. I know this will not last forever, but while it does, I’ll do what I can to passively support the heroes in the thick of things, and to continue flattening the curve.
I continue to frequently feel caught off guard by my own feelings. Today, a minor disappointment made me cry. I let the tears flow, knowing I needed a release, and knowing that my reaction wasn’t just about the little thing that went awry, but more about all the concentrated emotion underneath it.
Times are tough, and one of the toughest things is that we don’t know when or how they will get better. And, in the meantime, we keep hearing bad news. The magnitude of loss of human life right now is mind-boggling, and what is more astounding is that even with close to 200,000 global deaths, the toll still pales in comparison to many man-made conflicts. Yesterday was Yom Hashoa, which commemorates the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews.
With all of this sadness, I have found it helpful to acknowledge that we are all grieving. The New York Times offered this helpful piece today : https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/esther-perel-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.
And, then, I read this helpful essay from my friend, Dorit Sasson: https://www.kveller.com/that-anxious-middle-of-the-night-feeling-its-grief/
When it comes to grief, the only way out is through. We have to feel the sadness, and grapple with it, so that we can get through it. And we will. It’s just a matter of time.
I have realized in the last few days that I am starting to feel more normal. In the first few weeks of this crisis, I couldn’t eat much, and I felt as though I were doing a lot of things mechanically. I was fearful and trying to keep myself from panicking. I still feel that way from time to time (including some whole days at a time), but my appetite is more or less back to normal, and, quite the opposite of feeling an artificial removal from things, my feelings are hitting me with particular force.
I think this is a natural way of working through this difficult situation. And, while there continue to be a lot of very ominous unknowns about this pandemic, we are now well into the period of not just anticipating what will happen, but reckoning with all of the illness and loss.
I am also gradually coming to grips with the fact that my hopeful ideas of this virus being contained quickly were misguided. All along I have heeded the guidance to stay home, but I kept hoping that the restrictions were more stringent than absolutely necessary. Now I see that I was mistaken, and it is difficult to truly grapple with the enormity of what we are experiencing. It’s not gone, and it’s not going away quickly, and the responsible thing is not to rush back to the way things used to be, but to proceed cautiously and slowly toward gradual restoration, knowing that some of the things we miss about our former lives will take a very long time to return and others will be permanently altered.