by Elizabeth Spencer
“We’re living history,” a friend tells me. “We should be keeping Coronavirus journals.”
The last time I tried to keep a journal was for my kids’ baby and toddler years. I’m years behind, yet I keep moving the journals around my house, reasoning that if I can find the right place, I will see them and become inspired to record a moment lived.
So, I’m not keeping a Coronavirus journal. I’m past the age of thinking I will want to do something. Now, except for the baby journals, I’ve let go of doing things that sound like a good idea but aren’t for me.
Now that we’ve been staying at home and keeping our social distances from one another for two months, I’m finding even more things to let go of. At first I thought I’d miss these artifacts from pre-pandemic life: makeup, dressy shoes, pants with zippers, driving long distances, and weekend plans.
I do miss the general concept of having plans for the weekend. Specifically, I miss seeing my friends. But I don’t miss the number of plans I used to have and the way the weekend often felt more exhausting than the week.
I experienced a sort of detox from busyness. From measuring my success as a parent by the number of activities my kids were enrolled in. From shaping my sense of self around the number of freelance articles I wrote (or didn’t) on top of my day job, social visits I lined up (or the friends who seemed less enthusiastic to hang out), and cultural or travel plans I made (or couldn’t afford to).
For the last few years I’d been worshipping at the altar of the American Productivity Cult. People who didn’t have plans were losers or anti-social. Time was meant to be divided into perfect half-hour slots of efficiency. I knew I was never getting as much done as the writers of the books and articles I read, but I kept trying.
At the beginning of my state’s stay-at-home order, I looked for a comparable time in my personal history. As an older millennial, I remember 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the day in 2008 that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. But none of those events are like now. Now is unprecedented (at least in our American lifetimes) and no one can say when it will be over, or point to the day on which living history will become, simply, history.
Eventually, I settled on the period of months I lived alone in Prague as an English teacher. Because I had no family obligations, virtually no household chores, and few friends, there were long stretches of time, especially on weekends, when I had “nothing to do.” It was lonely and uncomfortable to often have nothing to do. I didn’t have much money to spend on distractions, either. So I fixated on my daily jog, which happened in the early afternoons when I got home from my job at a preschool. When else, I asked myself, will you be able to go running everyday, in the middle of what is usually the 9-5 workday?
I was right. It’s been 12 years since I came home and very rarely have I had such freedom from the usual obligations. So I’m asking myself variations of the same question whenever I have a bad day in quarantine. When else will I be able to hold a full-time job and see my kids throughout the day? When else will my husband and I be this well-rested and free of the stress of commuting? When else will I have two windows around my workspace from which to view the flying and mating and eating and singing of birds? When else will I have nothing better to do in the evenings besides read a book or work on a jigsaw puzzle?
Of course, I recognize my privilege in this situation. That I have a home, that my husband and I have kept our jobs and can work remotely, that everyone I love is healthy. This is part of my gratitude; I know that next time I may not be as lucky. Life is a combination of free will and randomness; the best I can do is try to learn.
Whenever things are newly normal again, I hope to have learned to do less, to keep a version of my current pared-down life. In Prague, the lack of busyness helped me realize who I was and what mattered to me. I’d thought I could make myself more independent by moving around the world. I was enraptured with the idea of being wild and free in Europe, like so many of my literary heroes. In the end, I missed my family, my friends. Now I live 20 minutes from where I grew up and that fact does not seem like the failure I would have considered it to be when I was younger. Coronavirus has also re-affirmed the importance of relationships in my life. Those leopard-print shoes in my closet seem alien right now, but the faces of my family and friends, even the badly-pixelated, frequently frozen faces on Zoom, are more familiar — and dearer — than ever.