You know how the marooned passengers on Gilligan’s Island went on what was expected to be “a three-hour tour” and ended up living together on the island for three seasons of the television show? (I’m not sure how that translates to the passage of time in the real world.) That’s a bit how it feels to still be social distancing. We knew when we started this that we were in for at least two weeks, and probably longer, but we didn’t know at the beginning how long this would go on and that it would cause long-term changes in our society. Even as the Pittsburgh area is slated to move from the “red zone” to the “yellow zone” later this week, which will involve the gradual lifting of restrictions, we don’t know when or if life will eventually resemble what it was before.
Sometimes you buy a ticket for a short excursion, and you end up on a life-altering journey. That’s where we are now. Gilligan’s Island is a comedy, but other more serious works of fiction have explored the devastating effects of having our plans permanently uprooted, and of being taken far afield from our original itineraries. It’s deeply unsettling, and for some people, such as those in unsafe homes or relationships, it’s actually dangerous.
I keep thinking about how we are living through history, and that our children, G-d willing, in the future will tell their own children and grandchildren about what it was like to live through this time. With the benefit of the passage of time, many of the aggravations and fears will be forgotten, and by that time, they will be able to look back with clarity about how this time changed our lives, for better and for worse.
We didn’t get to choose this journey, or how it will change us, but like the good-natured folks of Gilligan’s Island, hopefully we can continue finding small amusements and every day pleasures to distract us until we are able to return to our former plans in life. And hopefully, we can continue to draw strength, hope, and humor from each other to pull ourselves through this time.
It’s only mid-May, but today I counted the number of school days left until summer break. I am not usually anxious for my kids to be done with school, and truthfully, I have come to dread the erratic summer schedules and gaps in child care. This year, however, it’s helpful to know how many more days I have to continue juggling virtual learning with my work responsibilities. (21 days if I am counting correctly.)
My kids have had wonderful teachers this year, and I am so grateful to them for the remarkable work they have done to keep their students engaged with distance learning. A big part of me is sad that they won’t have any closure for their school year, or the chance to say goodbye. Fortunately, my kids will be back in the same school when it eventually resumes, and they will be able to reconnect with their teachers. For students who are graduating, the separation from their teachers will be permanent, and that is truly a loss.
On the other hand, I will be glad to get my kids on some sort of schedule that works better with the rhythms of my work days. I am hopeful that we will be able to connect them with some kind of virtual structure for the summer (assuming day camps are not able to resume). Whatever they do over the summer, however, won’t have the intensity and importance of keeping up with school, and it will be a relief to worry a little less about what they are learning.
On the other hand, the summer is a long time to have the kids home with no regular structure. They are likely to be bored, and there will be a lot more responsibility on us, and them, to keep them amused and prevent them from becoming totally addicted to their screens. Like everything else in these crazy times, none of our options are really good ones. I keep reminding myself how fortunate we are to be healthy, to have two employed parents, and two kids who have benefitted from consistent online schooling. I know we are in the privileged minority, and I know that many others are struggling more than us right now. Still, it’s going to be a long summer.
When one of my coworkers describes one of her kids throwing a tantrum, she says he “lost his bananas.” I love that expression because it captures both the out of control emotion and the absurdity of whatever set it off.
Today, I lost my bananas. My little tantrum was set off when my husband innocuously brought in a package from the mailbox and ripped it open. The problem was that this particular package contained a skirt that I had carefully prepared to send back to the company from which it had been purchased. I had placed it in our outgoing mail just an hour before. My husband was remorseful, and I was able to patch the package back together and leave it for the postal carrier, who took it later in the day. All was not lost, but for about 5 minutes I was flaming mad.
This is the type of situation for which I would normally have the composure to take a deep breath, laugh at the absurdity, and move on. Today, however, my fuse was much shorter than I realized, and apparently I was one straw away from losing it. I apologized to my husband, and to his credit, he said my feelings were justified. It’s nice to be validated, but I would prefer to be more in control. Life goals.
The rest of my day was really quite nice. The weather was lovely. I took the kids on lunch-time walks (they now prefer to walk separately from each other, with me, for daily 10-minute jaunts, which gives me the chance to have more outdoor time and to talk to them one-on-one), and I even got an additional walk in later by myself. I was also very productive at work and made home-made pizza for dinner, which turned out great. In a lot of ways it was one of the best days we’ve had lately, except for the lost bananas, which reared their slippery peels again during the interminable avoidance techniques my children employ around their bedtimes. But let’s not dwell on that failed experiment in anger management.
So, in short, today was another day of predictable ups and downs brought to you by COVID-19. Excuse me while I indulge in something chocolatey and totally devoid of nutritious value.
On our lunch-time walk today, my daughter and I had a discussion about why it is so hard to keep track of what day it is. “Is it really Thursday?” she asked, saying it felt more like Monday. I tried to explain that it’s confusing not to have our regular routines to keep us oriented, but she pointed out that she is having school days and weekends just as she usually does, except at home. The big difference, aside from the change of locations, is the people.
Being around people in the messy environments of work and school is what keeps us grounded in reality. It helps orient us to time and place when we would otherwise become unmoored.
While this extended period of social distancing is demonstrating how much of our daily functions can be accomplished remotely, we are also seeing how much we miss by not being with each other. I’ve come to realize in recent weeks how important physical proximity is to maintaining relationships with people. We are missing the non-verbal communication, and the unrushed feeling of just being in the same place together.
While our strongest bonds to family and close friends are relatively easy to sustain through virtual contact, it’s those coworkers you see in the hall, the acquaintances at recreational activities, or the fellow parents you see at dismissal for whom it is harder to maintain bonds.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, I learned of the death of an older man in our community whom I had last seen at the grocery store several months ago. He had asked me to be in touch with him about a writing project, and I had made a mental note to do so, but never followed through. I hadn’t known he was ill, and because COVID-19 is so swift and unsparing, especially for those who are already vulnerable, he was gone within days. I was shocked to learn of his death.
But it’s not just the people we will never see again, it’s the people we will probably see, but not for months. I think of the people I often see at synagogue services, where we smile and say hello, but never really have a conversation, and of the coworkers I joke with in the office kitchen. I have a fondness for these people, and I feel a sense of disconnection from them now. While all of life’s main functions are intact for my family, those daily, pleasant interactions are missing, and we are poorer for it, in ways we probably can’t fully appreciate.
So, it’s not just that we aren’t leaving the house, it’s that all of life’s wonderful, frustrating and unpredictable interactions with our fellow travelers are so drastically depleted. Every day feels the same because our schedules are not brightened and clarified by the beautiful chaos of being in proximity to other people (with the wonderful exception of neighbors and friends we see when we are out on our walks). More than ever I appreciate how important it is to be physically close to other people. I hope I will remember this feeling when the social distancing rules are lifted.