We all are. I’d love to be the calming, Marcus Welby voice of medical reason, but everything I know about this pandemic tells me that our fears are completely justified. I don’t know what the world will look like on the other side of this, but it will change—and so will we. Some of that change is beyond our control. Some of it is not.
I took a walk yesterday in my neighborhood. It was a gorgeous spring day. The sky was clear and blue, the magnolias and dogwoods were blooming, the air smelled of clematis and sun-warmed earth—and the streets were empty. The usual distant roar of traffic on the I-90 bridge was replaced by birdsong. A few people walked in pairs or alone, crossing the street and waving politely as we passed, speeding up a little to re-establish our safety zones. I paused outside a house where street-hockey equipment and a soccer ball lay unused in the yard, and the sound of “Twinkle Twinkle” played haltingly on piano filtered through the closed windows. That’s when I realized that I’m not just scared — I’m sad.
Right now, I’m separated from Jess and Pippa. They’re down in Berkeley, both healthy (thank goodness), and sheltering at home. Our nightly video chats and dinners are lovely, but when they’re over, my house feels twice as empty as before.
Most of you have the opposite problem. You’re sheltering at home with a household stuffed to the rafters with people, pets, noise, boredom, anxiety and uncertainty. So much uncertainty. People can bear almost anything when they can see its end. We don’t have that luxury right now.
Here are a few thoughts on how we all might get through this, not only intact, but maybe even a little better than before.
Reconnect. Remember all those times you thought about making family dinners more of a ritual? Or having family meetings? Or starting a regular game night? Somebody’s work or soccer game or school project always got in the way. Guess what? You now have a captive audience. Sit down with everyone and brainstorm some ideas. And if no one is all that enthusiastic, go for it anyway. If it’s the only game in town, they just might give it a try.
Recharge. At the same time that you’re fostering togetherness, make some room for apartness. Particularly if there are introverts in your family, people need some time and space to themselves that may be hard to come by. Institute an official quiet hour. Order some headphones and some good books. Encourage people to go for a walk.
Go outside. Nature lowers our blood pressure, reduces our stress hormones, alleviates our anxiety and strengthens our immune systems. Raise your hand if you’re interested in that. While you’re out there, exercise—so your body doesn’t turn into a giant jelly donut. Exercise strengthens all the positive effects of nature. Just do it. Doctor’s orders.
Make some rules. When people are overly crowded, the social fabric begins to fray at the seams. Structure keeps us from unravelling. Sit down with everyone and solve conflicts before they occur. TV and screen rules. Personal space rules. Noise rules. Food rules. Household chores. Communication norms. Run it like the Tokyo subways, not The Lord of the Flies.
Reach out. If the walls of your home start to close in on you, dig a tunnel into someone else’s. Or just use the tunnel that’s already there—the internet. We have to stop thinking of Zoom meetings and Skype and Google Hangouts as things you can only do with your colleague in Chicago or your great aunt in New Zealand. It works just as well with your friends down the block and across town. Use them for dinner parties, movie night, AA meetings and “Stitch’n’Bitch” sessions. Use it just to say “Hi—I miss you.” If there’s one silver lining about this whole crisis it’s that we may end up appreciating each other in ways we never have before.
Be curious. A funny thing happens when you spend a lot of time around people—you learn about them. You see new things and share new thoughts. Not necessarily big, important ones (though those happen, too), but small, unexpected ones. Sit back, be patient, and be observant. Listen really well. Pay attention to your own reactions, and how you affect those around you. Think of yourself as an anthropologist in a strange, new land.
Forgive. When people are scared and nerves are raw, we do and say things that we later regret. Let’s cut each other some slack. Forgive the people around you. Forgive yourself. Be thankful that in these terrifying times, we have such imperfect, annoying, precious, miraculous people to love us and to receive our love.
Stay safe, stay home, be kind. We’ll get through this somehow — apart, but together.
Jeff Lee still remembers Marcus Welby, in Seattle, WA