Like so many people, my mind is working overtime trying to absorb the rapid changes we’re facing as COVID-19 continues to spread at a rate that frightens me. What started as a problem elsewhere (China) has suddenly dramatically changed many lives globally at a speed that incurs emotional whiplash.
About 10 days ago, I was digging into airline change policies in order to deal with the spring break trip we are no longer taking, before I knew for sure we wouldn’t go, but already feeling in my gut this was big. And I came across references to the impact the 2001 9/11 attacks had on the airline industry (which wasn’t profitable again until 2006), and suddenly I was flashing back to that time. That time when the world, at least for Americans, was suddenly upended and I felt that same whiplash. I sat transfixed and crying in front of the TV for three or four days, trying to absorb it, traumatized by the photos and videos and stories, but unable to look away. I went to work, then as a massage therapist for a convention hotel, and worked on stranded guests who couldn’t get flights home. One gentlemen told me two of his clients had been on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. The world suddenly felt simultaneously too big and too small, and impossibly vulnerable.
And in the days and weeks that followed, my ex and I answered the phone again and again to calls canceling all of the work we had booked – we were both self-employed then and dependent on the San Diego convention industry, and suddenly no one was flying and there would be no work for us. And we had some reserves, but they were not plentiful, and I wondered, feeling selfish to think of it when others were dealing with unfathomable trauma and loss, how we would possibly survive it, how we would continue to have a house and to eat.
Somehow we did. I’m good at being frugal, and I picked up some bar-tending shifts (nobody stopped drinking then), and he found some small construction projects, and then a big group of Quickstar folks (Amway) kept their November conference date once planes were flying again and kept me busy for 3 weeks doing 30+ massages a week and tipping me heavily, and then it was the holiday season and there were holiday parties to work, and things were lean but we made it, and life began to right itself again.
But it wasn’t the same as it had been before. A “new normal” emerged, one in which we felt so much more vulnerable, knowing that the rug could be pulled out from under us so easily, where we could be attacked on our own soil and not see it coming.
Over the past week as, I’ve continued recalling all of this,d I’ve had this distinct feeling that we are amidst another life defining and changing time. I felt this before the numbers started climbing so dramatically – I’ve been watching the numbers on the Johns Hopkins site since Friday, March 13, again both traumatized and transfixed. On Friday morning, the death toll was just over 5000, and as of this writing, this morning, Wednesday, March 19, the number is 8241. It was 7905 when I went to bed last night.
I’m listening to our governor’s new conferences and feeling the waves of rapid changes wash over me as schools and businesses close and people are told to stay distant and stay home as much as possible. I’m watching many people work as hard as possible to comply while others are crowding beaches and bars and pie shops (pi day!?) in ignorance or denial.
5 or so years ago I left an employer I’d been with for almost 7 years for a new position that turned out to be a really good move for me. But I was leaving something familiar and in some ways comfortable, even though I knew I had outgrown it. And at the time, I described the feeling as weightless. An un-tethered feeling of floating between the familiar and the unknown. But that time I chose the change.
This current period of intense change is not of anyone’s choosing, I think it’s human nature for us to look for constants, for the people and circumstances we feel we can count on that feel solid and secure. The nature of life is consistent change, but it’s not often that it happens so quickly and dramatically for so many of us all at once. And we’re all searching in our own, weightless way now, to find some solid ground, in whatever ways we can.
I saw this as I went grocery shopping last Thursday. I left work a little early, feeling behind the 8-ball with getting food and supplies. I was already hearing of shortages throughout the week, but hadn’t had time to do any shopping until then. And I got to Wegmans and it was controlled chaos. More crowded than the day before Thanksgiving and many shelves nearly bare. I needed basics, my regular items were low, let alone any extra. I was able to get most of what I wanted and didn’t try to stock up much (no toilet paper), and as I made my way through I saw the same stunned, determined looks on everyone’s faces. The need to just get things to feel prepared, the need to hold onto that feeling, that feeling of, at least I can be prepared for I don’t know what.
I saw this again yesterday when I went back for some fresh items, but this time people seemed calmer and more weary. And kinder. The shelves are largely empty, there’s no toilet paper, no peanut butter, almost no meat. My little one was hungry and melting down as we made our way through (our schedules are off kilter, like everything), and a college student stopped to tell her everything would be okay. We know that no one really knows this, but the message was sweet and clear, “I see you, I’m scared too. We’re all in this together.” We received kind glances from almost everyone we passed. No one looked at my cranky child with impatience that day, everyone seemed to get that we’re all at loose ends. Instead we’re looking for some solidity in each other’s eyes.
These are the times when heroes rise (and some villains too) I’m seeing such goodness, in so many people. The ugliness too, the hoarding of necessities to resell at a profit, etc. But the goodness is real. I see people reaching out make sure our neighbors are fed, that they have necessities if they can’t get them themselves. I see people reaching out to those that might be the most lonely to at least connect through phone or text. I see some politicians really rising to the occasion and taking steps to minimize the impact on the vulnerable as much as possible, and doing so with decency and humanity. I see employers scrambling to make sure their employees are safe, and wherever possible, can still work. I see fear and panic, but I also see a lot of people rising up and showing up.
I don’t know for sure where we’re headed from here, but I do know that things will be different when we come out the other side of this. I hope that the one big thing many of us can take from this is the solid realization that we Are in this together, we really are connected, whether we would rather acknowledge it or not. The choices I make today can literally have life or death consequences tomorrow for the people around me. This is always true, but we don’t usually have such a concrete example.
I believe we’re in a collective experience of weightless now, as our familiar routines and situations and comforts are yanked from us and we’re left to craft our own parachutes on the way down. And as with 9/11, life will be different when this is over. My hope is that it can be better. We are all being forced to slow and, and we have the opportunity to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. We will all endure losses through this, some will be more painful and more tangible than others. My hope is that, through this, we will emerge with more capacity to see and hold each other, and lift each other up. I hope we will have more desire and willingness to do this for everyone, whether we know them or not. I hope this crisis plants more seeds of love and compassion for humanity than anything else. I hope the stability and constancy we find is in our trust and faith in one another. We need that, and I believe we have the capacity for it.