The quarantine has reached the point where there is nothing new to say, not to myself in the gray, filtered light, not to you. And yet I want to offer some sign of life: here I am. I am well. I have the things I need. My loved ones are safe. I am the child who feels guilty that she’s ungrateful for the doll she got. Others got nothing. Others have it much worse. And yet the disappointment sits blocky in my chest. This is wrong. I don’t like this.
Another realization that will surprise no one but me is this: I miss people. A self-styled misanthrope, a person who doesn’t feel she needs people all that much, still I find myself longing for a yard full of bustle, for the task of bringing out a fresh bottle of wine. I am romanticizing, no doubt – humans have always been a double-edged sword for me, with their capacity to wound or ignore without even knowing they’re doing it. And, no, seeing them on a weekly trip to the store doesn’t quite do it. I don’t like the version I see now, twitchy, behind masks, guarded, competing for resources. I long for a normalcy I’m not sure I’ll ever feel again. Did we really used to go to crowded malls, touch doorknobs, wash hands hurriedly, pick up books and thumb through them, with not a thought to who had touched that surface before? Will I ever be able to do it again? How will I sit on a plane? On the train to the terminal? At a restaurant? How will I ever look at an innocuous object and not wonder if death or illness lurks invisible on its surface?
I mentioned to a friend yesterday that I spend many days just feeling foggy, a condition I don’t understand. After all, I’m fed, I’m well. Why am I having a hard time holding a thought for a full page, reading a complex sentence? Today she sent me a Twitter thread she found on the very topic. Cortisol, it explained. The stress hormone, causing a suppression of the gene that codes for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. I am the kind of person who thrives on knowledge, so I scurried off to find the answers: how does one cause one’s body to make more brain-derived neurotrophic factor? The answer did not bring the joy I’d hoped for. It was the old prescription: exercise, a reduction in stress. I danced around my stairs to “Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension in an elliptical orbit to hit my step count for the day and tried not to imagine it a human-sized hamster wheel, hoping it was doing the right things to my brain chemicals.
I, probably like you, have tried a lot of things to make it through this glacially stressful experience. I’ve tried eating right. I’ve tried eating whatever the hell I want, Godiva Instant Pudding for breakfast and pancakes for dinner. I’ve tried a regimen of long walks and weight lifting. I’ve tried full days in the fetal position. I’ve tried gardening, then been washed by the sorrow of biting off more than I can chew, little piles of dried grass waiting weeks to be bagged, new grass seed going unwatered. I’ve tried taking online classes, then have despaired at the work going undone. I’ve started reading books I can’t finish. I’ve finished a lot of books. I’ve written and spent full afternoons feeling productive and unstoppable. I’ve had days in which I’ve been sure that maybe the words have flown away for good. I’ve been buoyed by FaceTime with friends and family, felt sure that bonds can be sustained across distance and time. I’ve been blanketed by a loneliness so complete nothing could peel it away. I’ve turned off the news. I’ve also meticulously kept up a spreadsheet with new cases and new deaths since March 17th, because the increase in numbers was scaring me and I wanted to see the percentage increase instead, but couldn’t find it anywhere. So I made it. Every morning for six weeks my first act of the morning has been to update the list, to watch the increase in deaths go from 18% day over day to yesterday’s 3%, and to find no solace in the knowing. I’ve researched cures, Pepcid and cystic fibrosis percussion vests, I’ve taken my oxygen saturation levels and worked out my lungs with a new volumetric exerciser, hoping to stave off the worst of the disease, should it knock on my door. I’ve spent days forgetting all about it.
It is too soon to draw the lessons we all must from this experience. The storm is still blowing over us, and all we can do is hold down the tarp against the howling winds. There will be time to review preparedness plans, to renew our efforts to hold our leaders accountable. There will be time for the reckonings that must come. But, today, there is this: some words on this page, and a small message in a bottle. I am here. I am glad you are there. However you are riding out this storm, I am glad you are. May you be well. And may we meet one day in health and happiness.