27 April 2020 — The COVID Diaries: Staying Sane in a Time That’s Not

 

Dear Diary,

I was the fastest girl in the third grade at Ladera Elementary School in Thousand Oaks, California. Or, at least, I won the 50 yard dash once, and I was competitive in the other sprints on that Field Day in 1981 which was, to me, the same thing as being the fastest girl in the third grade. For a kid who otherwise considered herself uncoordinated and the opposite of athletic, it was a surprise. “I’m fast,” I thought. “I can sprint. Who knew?” Sometime around then, plus or minus three years in the way that time is murky and ethereal when we’re children, I won a swimming race, as well. Two lengths of the pool. I overheard another mom tell mine that I was fast, that she should sign me up for swim team, and, while swim team didn’t materialize — I don’t recall wanting to join or even really knowing what a swim team was — that comment on my speed was so astounding that I can sit here, nearly four decades later, at my aqua desk with its peeling paint on a soggy spring day in Oregon and recall it with the clarity of any of my most formative memories. 

I was fast. I was powerful in the short races. I knew how to harness my energy and send it to my limbs and use it all in one burst, leaving what I had on the field or in the pool, and what I didn’t know then but do know now is that that’s not just a third grade talent — it’s a personality characteristic. 

I like to do things quickly. 

I like to hit tasks hard.

I like to power through projects and crush them.

I like to do a chore once, do it thoroughly, and then never do it again. Which is probably why my table looks like this:

And my counters look like this:

I already cleaned them once this month, so I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO DO IT AGAIN.

I’m excellent at demolition and awful at methodical creation. 

I always say I’m horrible at gardening, but that’s not really true. I love to hack at wisteria vines and lop the tops off bushes that have grown outside their boundaries. I love to turn over soft, wet earth with a sharp bladed shovel. I love to sever limbs that weigh down trees. 

What I’m bad at is the planting and the weeding and the constant vigilance of maintenance. There’s no quick win there. No powerful burst of energy on my part to accomplish the tasks of growth and health and life and breath. Those things take time, and I am always impatient to cross the finish line.

I’ve been trying to find words to put to the feelings I’ve been having for the last week-ish. The sense of constant grind. The sound of an engine wearing down. The faltering gait of a sprinter trying to run a marathon with no feel for proper pacing. The panicky sensation of being trapped. 

And this is what I’ve got so far: I know this is a marathon, but I’m not prepared to run it.

I’m historically good in an emergency. I respond quickly. My brain organizes priorities in the appropriately cascading order of most important to least. I’m the person my cousin calls when he severs his thumb with a jigsaw. I’m the one barking orders to Greg in the middle of the night when our daughter chokes on the blood she’s hemorrhaging, I’m the one driving her to the hospital while assuring her she’s not going to die, and I’m the one catching her blood in a bag so the doctors can measure it to see how much she’s lost. I’m the one who tells Greg we are absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to panic when we’re new parents to our first child and the new company he’s just joined folds and we’re suddenly without income. I’m the one who invents the next steps and keeps everyone breathing, sometimes by bullying and sheer force of will.

I’m good in a crisis. I know what to do when there’s an urgent need to respond.

But this is not the emergency I planned for. 

Even though I spent a decade working in international public health and medical humanitarian response. Even though I did know a global pandemic wasn’t just possible but inevitable in our increasingly connected world. 

No, the emergency I planned for was an avalanche in terms of impact and speed. Sudden. Overwhelming. A total white-out of a crisis; one which would command our full attention. The emergency I prepared for was an illness that moved faster than this one. Or a war perpetuated by a wholly incompetent president. Or the Cascadia earthquake that’s due to hit my Pacific Northwest region sometime between this afternoon and three hundred years from now. I have water stored in my garage and camping gear in places we can easily access if our house isn’t stable enough after the shaking stops. I have a wind-up radio so we can get information when our cell phones cut out. 

I didn’t plan for an emergency where I’d be pressure washing my sidewalks. Or noticing how many hummingbirds flit through my backyard, poking their needle noses into bushes and blossoms for nectar and bugs. Or unable to show up in person to help our community because physically showing up is more harmful than helpful right now.

I didn’t plan for a slow moving but still devastating catastrophe. I didn’t plan to be a bystander. I didn’t plan to stay still for weeks. Months, probably. 

I’m a sprinter running a marathon, and I feel grossly ill-equipped.

But I’ve done this before. 

Oh, not this this. I haven’t run this course. The COVID-19 Marathon route is new to everyone. 

But I mean, I’ve run a marathon before. As a sprinter. One I didn’t see coming. One I had to train for even while I ran it.

“If I could go back fourteen years to the beginning of this Mama Gig, there are things I’d tell New Mama Me.

Things she should hear.

Things she should know.

Things I’d deliver straight to her heart, like that violent Pulp Fiction through-the-chest resuscitation shot, to help her breathe just a little in that time when new mamahood first destroyed her but before she really lived again.

Oh new mama, I would say, this beginning, it’s hard. It is. It’s hard.

Your feet are moving on a marathon that’s just begun, but you haven’t trained because there’s no way to train for this. No way to build your muscles or increase your endurance or improve your time other than to start running. And that is okay. It’s the way this thing is done. You won’t always feel this exhausted. This off-balance. This delirious. But I know that doesn’t matter right now and that you want to punch people who say, “It gets better” right in teeth. (But it gets better, mama. It does. And the secret is you get stronger…)

That IS the secret, and it’s worth remembering. 

The secret to the Unexpected Marathon is you get stronger. 

It’s exhausting but you get stronger.

It’s painful, moving forward when you’re weary and sore from the day before, but you get stronger.

It’s relentless, this run, because it’s a work of grief as we die to What Once Was and are reborn to What Is to Come. That’s normal; birth is usually arduous. And new life takes time. But we are the phoenix again and again, rising from the ashes. It’s this Burning to the Ground bit that sucks. 

This beginning, it’s hard. 

It’s hard.

And also, we can do hard things.

With love,

 

 

 

Image Credits: Woman running in snow by Mauro Paillex, Man running on road by Luke Stackpoole

ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
14 comments
  1. Me too! A sprinter running a marathon. It’s so good to be reminded I’m not the only one.

  2. Bless you Beth. Beautiful and helpful words as always.

  3. Algebra made sense when it was simple, but sometimes solving for ‘x’ is complicated. Right now, it all seems complicated.

  4. We are designed to outrun the tiger with a burst of fight/flight; we are not built to deal with months of running away from invisible tigers. We’re in an extreme version of modern life where, for most of us, our body’s responses to stress were always unhelpful to the danger we are facing. I am great in an emergency but this is just relentless. I’m in Groundhog Day without learning to ice sculpt OR play the piano.
    I cried at your words “as we die to What Once Was and are reborn to What Is to Come” because we have lost so much that we took for granted. Every challenge is magnified because we cannot handle it using our usual strategies. If we have a challenging child, we cannot just survive a bad weekend and send them off to school on Monday for a mental break for all. If we have a sick parent hundreds of miles away, we cannot just hop on the plane and visit. Right now, we are figuring out little bits of how we can live with the threat to us and, most importantly, to the vulnerable people amongst us. We have to take it a tiny step of the way instead of expecting to work out new strategies all at once.
    When “this” all started, I made a list on my phone of things I would do “after”. I now realise that, sadly, there’s not going to be a wondrous x day so a lot of these things are probably not going to be practical for many months. I have added on a few smaller items that I can do without compromising social distancing rules- a phone call without interruptions, yoga online. X day is now the day that my youngest goes to school again, not the day that everything magically returns to normal.
    Like so many people, I can’t help but see how Covid-19 has highlighted the cracks. There are the big societal issues like financial insecurity and poverty; access to healthcare; access to internet; children and adults trapped in terrible situations. There are also the cracks in our own lives – the procrastination around improving our own health, mental and physical, which reduces our own resilience in this crisis.
    One (half) day at a time… Also, hummingbirds definitely beat pigeons!

    1. Thank you for this, Jen. Wise words and truth here.

  5. Yes, in the words of Glennon Doyle, “We Can Do Hard Things.” Last week I printed that phrase out in big letters on 4 sheets of paper…with a smiley face and an exclamation point. At the table after dinner I had everyone write a few hard things that they had accomplished in the past. Learning to ride a motorcycle/ bicycle/ scooter. Practicing until they had 64 consecutive jumps on a pogo stick. Having twins. Installing a new shower.

    Then I had everyone write one or two hard things they wanted to do. Learn the electric guitar, learn to pace themselves on house work, exercise and get strong again.

    I usually like phrases like, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!” (Mae West) But it’s also good to remember, “We Can Do Hard Things.” And….that when life knocks on your door you have to answer wether the package is fun or hard. (to paraphrase Glennon Doyle in “Untamed”)

    I also keep thinking of families surviving in Syria, in refugee camps, mothers in gang dominated parts of Honduras, parents in food scarce Venezuela… As hard as our quarantine can be I’ll take that package and learn to marathon. Working on steady, present in the moment, a day at a time, an hour at a time…new skills to learn = growing pains for grown ups.

    Waving from my yard to yours 🙂

    1. Yes, completely. I keep thinking about families in refugee camps and detainment centers and separated because they’re seeking asylum. And here I am, experiencing a tiny bit of the lack of choice they experience every day. Suddenly, I can’t go wherever I want or do whatever I please. Some folks live their whole lives like this, except without the privileges I have like clean, running water, a bed to sleep in at night, and food to feed my children. It’s a small piece of perspective. ❤️

  6. Amen and amen. I was thinking about the fact eh order used to comfort me and now it feels confining, not just within the current situation, but life in general. What used to make me feel strong or comforted had worn down and I need to find other things. I, too, am great at emergencies and sprints and never have I ever thought about entering a marathon because it is not my jam. But I like the idea that I can get stronger. Thank you for that. Thank you for you. Thank you for your words and the way they are just what I need!

    1. ❤️ Love to you, Laura.

  7. Going for CT scans this morning for stepdaughter – recent cancer diagnosis.
    Baby (!!!) is packing to move out. Put a deposit down on an apartment, plans to be gone by the end of the week.

    The marathon sucks. But you keep going. Because it’s what we do. Short bursts. And a lot of walking.

    1. Love to you and your stepdaughter. I’m glad those gross cells have found a way out!!

    2. That’s a LOT to handle at once, friend. Sending you love. ❤️ The marathon sucks, but I’ll be here running with you. Or walking. Or crawling. Or sometimes just sitting on my ass. But the WITH YOU is the point.

  8. THANK YOU. I believe you just shed light on why this is so hard for me, because I want quick, visible results. I prefer laundry over vacuuming b/c I can see a result for my effort.
    Not knowing when this will “end” is driving me mad, because I’m a planner. If I know kids go back to school on x day then I can make sure they don’t go nocturnal. (but they have) I know the house will be empty for me to focus on a work project on x. I can figure out a crock pot recipe for making on x so as to free my mind.
    I don’t know what x is though. So I can’t plan. I can’t see the end line. I don’t want to believe this is the new normal so I don’t want to figure out a routine for living like this.
    However, I am drowning in uncertainty. Lack of consistency. Unknown.
    So I thank you. Even though I was never called fast, I like to Get Stuff Done and right now, I feel I’m spinning my tires in the mud. We will be stronger at the end. Whenever that is. Until then, I’ll keep waving. 🙂

    1. And I’ll keep waving back. Love to you, J.

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