The new normal

By Caitlin Kelly

Constant change.

It’s exhausting.

Making plans — breaking them.

Planning a vacation — cancelling it.

Thought we were safe? No, not for a long long time.

Powerful essay on Medium about this:

What if the pandemic just never ends? What if the New Normal is not some accommodated version of the old normal, but instead is just…this? What if what we are experiencing now — this constant state of anxiety and change and daily back-and-forth and in-and-out of masks and lock-downs — is what the 21st century will be? What if the economic recovery is DOA or if it somehow only makes things worse? What if this is just the beginning of much larger and more frequent health, climate, political, and economic disasters?

Jose and I were so looking forward to attending a wedding in Memphis, Tennessee in early September. It would have been our first flight in two years and our first visit out of state. We were so excited! The women getting married, a couple we met on Twitter, demanded proof of vaccination, which we were fine with.

Then, proof of negative tests. We cancelled.

I have no objection to their request.

But the pleasure was quickly leaching out of what was to have been a relaxing break. That state now has hospitals so full there’s no room left.

We had planned a month’s driving trip out to Colorado and back in October. Cancelled.

We had already planned and cancelled Hawaii or Paris.

I’m hitting bottom right now.

I admit it — I’ve been spoiled since childhood by travel being a normal and expected source of pleasure, one easily accessible. Not in luxury, necessarily, but always owning a valid passport and a reliable vehicle and having an insatiable hunger to see more of the world.\

One of our Montreal favorites

I’ve already been to 41 countries — and there are so so many places I still want to see!

Morocco, Japan, Namibia, South Africa, Madagascar, the Baltic nations, to name only a few…

And we miss our friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia and Paris and London and Scotland…

I chose to move to the U.S. and, since Biden’s election, my pulse rate has dropped from the daily anxiety of being “governed” by a madman for four years.

But the endless divisions here, and endless fawning media coverage of people who refuse vaccinations — endangering all of us — are tedious as hell. Thanks to them, going basically anywhere is dangerous.

And — most concerning — even the vaccinated can carry a lot of this virus, unknowingly infecting others while showing no symptoms.

Like all of you, we work hard.

Like all of you, we need things to look forward to!

And, as I write this on our balcony, planes soar over our heads, as we’re on a flight path from the local airport.

SIGH.

These days, all we can anticipate is constant change — and disappointment.

A bit more of the essay:

the pandemic has put life into perspective. It has made crystal clear that love and health are what’s important in this life. The rest is what it is. We must be grateful for what we have, find joy wherever we can, and be incredibly patient with, well…everything else. In cultures that have survived war, that made it through bombings and mass killings and attacks, people turn to all that does not change for comfort and hope. As their day-to-day reality changes around them, they find solace in anything that is constant and unifying: their food, their language, their songs, their fairytales, their games, their age-old traditions.

Right now, I have to take solace in what we have and can enjoy that COVID can’t destroy:

our Hudson river view

a town we love living in

a new (woman!) governor who’s a badass

deep and abiding friendships

savings

freelance work

Manhattan, literally, on our horizon, there when we need a break from snoozy suburban life

a home we’ve made beautiful through design, renovation, art

a good hospital 15 minutes north of us

we are both vaccinated and will take boosters when and if they are offered

lovely places to walk and bike outdoors safely

books and music and card games and puzzles to amuse us

How are you holding up these days?

Feeling blah? Many of us are

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent New York Times piece summed it up well:

the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

Maybe like some of you, I’ve been a bit shocked — before reading this story — at how little I have felt the normal drive to work and work and work.

It isn’t just about income, as Grant says:

The pandemic was a big loss. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.

We are privileged to not have the burdens of massive debt or kids or grand-kids or parents to support. We have savings. A recent lucrative and easy assignment out of the blue paid enough, (rare but lovely!) I could coast for even a few months.

And so I have been.

I’ve been focused instead on some work in our apartment, with managing a sudden and unexpected arrival of my late mother’s belongings and art from British Columbia, with trying to sell a book proposal seven agents have already rejected, (and managing my battered ego as I try to decide whether to just give up or not), and with slowly healing a sprained wrist and knee from a bad fall March 12.

Plus a lot of medical tests and for now, I’m fine.

My small win?

I’ve become addicted to the NYT Spelling Bee, an online daily challenge making words using some or all of that day’s seven letters. Some days are a lot easier than others — a recent one had 66 words! Whew.

Jose and I recently joined a new gym and it’s huge and spotless and welcoming and I am re-starting my routines, with a set of quite challenging weight exercises set for me by a trainer.

BUT….Here’s a really interesting different POV from artist and author Austin Kleon, arguing we’re dormant instead:

I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova posted a lovely meditation on a passage from Olivia Laing’s essay about Derek Jarman from her book, Funny Weather:

Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.

Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…

a collection of Google Image Search results for dormant plants

It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.

Are you languishing?

Dormant?

Maybe….thriving?

The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadians have just had their Thanksgiving and Americans are already geared up for Hallowe’en and their Thanksgiving, let alone other holidays and the (large) family gatherings usually expected and anticipated.

Not us.

Jose’s parents are long gone, his nearest sister lives a four-hour drive away and my only close relative, my 91-year-old father, is in Canada, where my American husband is banned and I face a 14-day quarantine. I haven’t seen him in more than a year and haven’t crossed that border since late September 2019, when it was no big deal.

Every social gathering — let alone professional — is now so fraught with menace and fear, caution and basic human desperation for a damn hug!

This week we are joining two friends, outdoors (bringing a blanket!) for a two-person birthday celebration at a Manhattan restaurant. This weekend, we’re meeting three people, also outdoors, for lunch.

The grilling!

Who will wear a mask and when and for how long?

Who have they met with and how recently and under what circumstances?

Do we trust their friends — who we have never met?

We live in downstate New York, where daytime temperatures are still in the 60s or 70s but night-time plunging to the 40s, hardly a comfortable temperature for sitting anywhere for very long.

It’s wearying.

Our family’s first and only grandchildren are twins born in D.C. in May — and my father still hasn’t seen them. Nor have I, since my half-brother refuses all contact after a 13-year estrangement.

Millions of people have now lost loved ones to COVID and never had the chance to say good-bye.

Forget weddings and other groups….the latest NY crisis was the result of (!?) a Sweet 16 party, after a wedding in Maine had the same effect.

Our local church is now, finally, open again physically, with an indoor service (limited, it’s a small space) and outdoors at 4pm on the lawn. What I miss more than anything is belting out my favorite hymns…now a dangerous thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard and lonely to never see anyone.

Yes, it’s annoying and difficult to negotiate these times, especially with government “guidance” that shifts daily.

Needs must.

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

How has the pandemic changed you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t recall a year recently — maybe the crash of 2008, 9/11 — that has so radically and permanently changed our world, and how we experience it.

I was an adult for both of these and both affected me deeply, as it did for millions of others, even those who did not lose a loved one to 9/11. I’ve never gone down to the memorial in Manhattan. I have enough memories of it.

This terrible and relentless year has shifted so much of how we think and behave and what we expect from government and one another.

Here’s some of how it’s changed me:

I’m more fearful.

I hate that! I’ve always prided myself on being bold and up for new adventure. But when everyone around you can be an invisible vector of disease? Not so much.

I have to calculate risk every single day, not just on rare occasions.

We live in New York state, where the current infection rate is a reassuring one percent. But for how long? I have eaten inside a restaurant a few times, with tables far apart and people masked when not eating. But a recent meal, even far from the table of eight, left me worried after they sang Happy Birthday, since singing spreads virus. Now I have to hope their celebration won’t sicken me.

I’m short-tempered and tired

Who isn’t?!

We don’t even have to home school children, but we are two self-employed workers sharing an apartment with no office space. Constant mask-wearing drives me mad, even while I do it and know it’s necessary. I’m sick to death of the political incompetence and lies that has killed 200,000 Americans and the fools who worship the man who made it happen.

If you haven’t read it, this is a smart analysis of how we feel and why.

An excerpt:

It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

My social circle has shrunk

It’s minuscule. Gone are the friendly quick moments of banter in our apartment hallways and laundry room, at the grocery store or gym. I speak to a small handful of people by phone and restrict my access to others. We hosted a couple a few weeks ago for the first time in six months — on our balcony, with a breeze. When winter forces us all indoors again, I dread the isolation.

I don’t make plans for the future beyond a week or two

This is deeply unsettling. But who can?

My greatest pleasure is usually travel. Not now.

I went away for four days — planned to be six — to an inn in Pennsylvania but left early, bored and restless and alienated by Trump signs for miles.

When every encounter now carries physical risk, the reward had better be amazing! But because of COVID, so many experiences are smaller or diminished and altered in ways that are just annoying, that, for me, sap the joy and spontaneity out of the whole endeavor.

I’m even more reliant on my husband than ever.

When we’re now able to see so few people, our marriage has to be a source of daily sustenance in ways it never has. We’ve been together 20 years and really enjoy one another’s company. But it’s a lot to expect of one other tired, cranky human being!

Routines matter much more than they once did.

When the world is in such daily and mismanaged chaos — floods, fires, hurricanes, daily political malfeasance, racism, violence — even the simplest routines become deeply grounding and comforting. For me, it’s everything from two newspapers a day, in print, to Netflix binges at night or my 4:00 p.m. pot of tea. This is not a good time to feel untethered.

How has it changed you?

A COVID-19 alphabet

IMG_5878

By Caitlin Kelly

 

A is for Appalled

How can millions be infected and so many dead?

B is for Bravery

Just read some of the tweets and threads on #medtwitter and they will break your heart. Healthcare workers are exhausted, traumatized, grieving — and trying to save lives, even for the selfish fools who couldn’t be bothered being responsible. Also, every worker in a customer-facing job.

C is for Compassion

Without it, we’re all as good as dead.

D is for Death

The numbers are staggering. When will it end?

E is for Expectation

Gone. We all live in a weird timeless moment now. Whatever we might have expected of 2020 — beyond this — is gone, maybe for good.

F is for Fear

Some is healthy and protective, making us socially distance and wear masks and wash hands and too much is paralyzing. Yet who, paying attention, isn’t fearful now?

G is for Generosity

For those who have been able to donate time, energy and money to those in need. To the incredibly kind healthcare workers who have crossed the country to give of their time and skills to those hospitals already overwhelmed.

H is for Health

If you have it still, you are very very lucky.

I is for Imagination

We must keep imagining a future that is less miserable than where we are right now. Without that, we are lost.

J is for Joy

Whatever moments you have, now, savor them fully.

K is for KitKats

The morning treat savored by Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. (See, made you smile!)

L is for Love

This pandemic has laid bare who loves and why. Those who truly love others are showing it in their behavior and choices.

M is for Mothers

Heroes now, more than ever, forced into handling work and kids and home-schooling.

N is for Nonsense

The garbage being touted as “news” and “cures” and “solutions.”

O is for Optimism

Yes, we need that as well.

P is for Political Incompetence

Need I say more?

Q is for Queen Elizabeth’s address to us all

Made on April 5, 2020:

“If we remain united and resolute, we will overcome. it…Those that come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and fellow feeling still characterize this country…We will succeed and that success will belong to all of us…We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

R is for Resolve

See above.

S is for Staying Safe

Do whatever it takes. Do whatever you can. Every day. We help others by being safe.

T is for Time

At some point — when? — this will be in the past. It will be remembered as a time of massive upheaval and unemployment, of fear and contagion and political division. Until then, here we are. Tick tock. Tick tock.

U is for Unwinding

If you’re fortunate enough to be healthy and solvent, this is also, for some, a time of unwinding from the daily dramas, wearying and expensive commutes and rushrushrush of “normal life.”

V is for Vanity

Not now! Many of us have gone months without a haircut or new clothes or any form of traditional vanity. Some of us have gotten very good at home-made haircuts.

W is for Work

Without it, we are lost. Millions are facing a future without a job. Now what?

X is for Xanadu

If only we could escape…this was once the place.

Y is for Yelling

Do it! This is a time of endless stress and grief and fear and a good shout is cathartic as hell.

Z is for Zoom

Of course!

 

 

What I miss now — and what I don’t

 

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Early March,  Middleburg, VA. My last breath of freedom for a while. I miss travel!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been two months now of self-isolation, at least here in New York.

It will last at least another month, maybe two.

I only go out for walks and, maybe once or twice a week, to buy groceries or go to the hardware store or pharmacy.

It makes me feel normal, even though, of course, I’m wearing a mask.

Here’s what I miss most:

 

Leisurely, spontaneous chats, whether at the gym or on the street or in the hallway or lobby of our apartment building.

Spin class, three mornings a week. Super-fun, energizing and social. Helps with weight management.

Going to movies at my favorite local art film theater, sometimes three times a week, with popcorn.

A lazy afternoon wandering a few blocks of Manhattan, usually with a good meal or a drink.

Browsing stores. I rarely buy stuff, but I do enjoy looking.

 

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Grand Central, taken from the balcony restaurant Cipriani

 

Grand Central Terminal, the station I commute from to our suburban town. It’s truly gorgeous, a cathedral of bustling elegance.

Having friends over for a meal, setting a pretty table to welcome them.

Sunshine! We have had truly depressing, terrible weather, week after week, with rain and temperatures in the 40s.

Our gorgeous, quiet, large, sun-filled town library with its tall ceilings and windows. I love sitting at one of its long wooden tables and savoring the silence.

Dressing well — make-up and decent clothes and pretty shoes. Not much point now!

 

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Our last big trip, a week here in June 2019

 

Travel! It’s normal for us to always be planning our next trip, whether upstate to visit friends or back to Canada or overseas. I really really miss it.

A decent head of hair! Ohhhhh, I miss the hair salon.

What I don’t:

 

The New York subway, dirty and crowded.

Driving everywhere all the time. It’s not healthy for me or the environment, but also typical of suburban life with lousy public transportation and towns without sidewalks.

 

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Too many magazines — we’ve drastically cut back on our subscriptions and I feel less overwhelmed.

Constant airplane and helicopter noise. We’re on a flight path to Westchester airport and live near the Rockefeller estate, so normal life adds a daily barrage of inescapable aviation noise.

Traffic! The streets and highways are practically empty.

Stupid public relations pitches. Normally, I get probably a few dozen every day, none of them of any interest to me. I find it really annoying. Now I get many fewer. Yay!

Robo-calls. Also much diminished.

Oddly, my friends. I’ve stayed in close contact with the people I value most, by phone or email or Skype. The rest? No time or energy anyway.

 

How about you?