Planning my meals has become a unique kind of pleasure during quarantine. I have gradually allowed my cravings to take precedence over obstacles that once felt oppressive–time, custom, efficiency, “healthiness.” My former meal schedule has been replaced with grazing. I’ll eat milk and cereal for dinner if I have the urge, and sometimes, popcorn for breakfast. I’ll spend half an hour painstakingly crafting the perfect sandwich for lunch, layering turkey and cheddar cheese and avocado and pesto on two slices of sourdough bread and frying it in a pan with a pat of butter until the whole thing is melted and golden. The hallmark of my consumption habits has been variety. My brain, however, has been eating the same handful of thoughts for weeks.
I never realized how much I took for granted the assumption that new things would always happen to me. That even while going about my normal routine, I would still see or hear or feel or smell something novel purely because I was out in the world, and each day would take shape a little bit differently as a result. That when someone asked me, “What’s up?” I would have an answer worthy of uttering. It’s strange for this expectation to suddenly seem like a distant privilege, and stranger still that its precise opposite–staying inside indefinitely–has become one as well.
Coronavirus has claimed the most space of anything inside my head–unavoidable, to some extent, since it has also marked off territory in every conversation, every email exchange, every non-outfit outfit I put on, every news headline, every scroll through Twitter, and every story I pitch. The pandemic is global in more aspects than simply its geographic reach; it has infected the cultural mind-scape on every level. Just as I wonder how long it will be before reaching out to shake a hand becomes second nature again, I also wonder how permanently the indentation of this experience will remain pressed, like a thumbprint, on our psyches. It has commandeered our thoughts in billions of disparate ways, but each of them ladders up to a singular, crushing sameness.
Then there is work, an area of my life I have never been more grateful for and challenged by in such equal, concentrated doses. I’ve always felt fortunate to love my job, and in this period of grave economic uncertainty, I also feel fortunate simply to have my job. However, at the same time, I’ve found that it’s easier than ever for “work” to become precariously synonymous with “me.” The satisfaction of professional fulfillment is tripped by the stumbling block of a nonexistent personal life. I’ve never needed a sense of separation more, but I’ve never fought for one less. Work is the only thing I can rely on experiencing daily right now, and therefore the only thing I can rely on to keep my brain from withering on the vine, so I open my laptop and let the blue light bequeath its photosynthesis.
Then there is a vacuum, left behind by the wedding that used to occupy it. After more than a month of hand-wringing, it became clear we would have to postpone the long-anticipated celebration to next summer. Once the email notifying our guests was sent, all the accompanying uncertainty and urgency seemed to evaporate with a whoosh, like pressurized air escaping from a wounded plane. I don’t have to think about getting married anymore–not until months and months from now, at least–but my mind circles around it out of habit. I’ve grown accustomed to talking about it every day, debating the pros and cons of trying to make it happen this year, mourning the fact that doing so would mean certain people we loved wouldn’t be able to attend, herding vendors like cats, recapping progress and setbacks. I had resented how large it started to loom, and how uselessly repetitive the conversations started to feel, but now that it’s finally gone, volleyed like a tennis ball into a future we can’t yet see, I don’t have any thoughts big or novel enough to replace it. Recognizing that is a different kind of bleakness.
I’ve tried inventing fresh mental fodder out of thin air, imaginary things to look forward to, turning to Austin as we’re falling asleep and asking if we can get engaged again this August just for fun, or if he’ll let me cut his hair sometime this week (I’ll be content with either one of these hypothetical thrills). I’ve tried rewatching Game of Thrones from the very beginning, and learning how to make broccoli taste good, and knitting, and writing the first chapters of a potential book. I’ve set up weekly donations to some of the causes I care about right now to try refocusing my mental loop on the effort of making a tiny difference. I’ve tried resisting the urge to introduce my same rotation of exhausted topics when I talk to my friends–but their heaviness continues to outweigh everything else. I think this will be the case as long as quarantine persists. And maybe all I can do is surrender to it–to the interior suggestion to sit with this paltry handful of thoughts, monotonous though they might feel, with the hope that by doing so, some sort of growth will follow.
Graphics by Lorenza Centi.