I’ve been plinking away at this pandemic essay since April, in and around routines and the occasional upheaval that, if it wasn’t a proximate cause, Covid-19 always seemed to complicate. Tending an expanded vegetable garden. The weekly CSA/FSA/butcher box jigsaw puzzle of meal planning, with the added wrinkle of our own produce often ripening at inconvenient times or in onerous quantities. The long illness and sooner than hoped for death of our old, beloved boxer mutt Guinness and the rescue adoption of our young, beloved German Shepherd Rowdy. Nurturing jogging from a “check me out, I just ran for three minutes straight!” mandate from my doctor to improve my health to a ten to fourteen miles a week passion. Individually these changes were a little time here, a little time there, but collectively they represented a seismic shift in my lifestyle. If I had a resolution for the new year, it would probably be to find a way to claw back more hours for writing.
Over the months since April the reported name of the virus has mutated in the news from COVID-19 to Covid-19 or just Covid. Reflecting a sense of fatigue? Acknowledging the disease’s increasingly likely evolution from pandemic to endemic, a phenomenon that is going to weave itself into the fabric of life? (Kind of like Xerox/xerox or Popsicle/popsicle settling from brand name into genericicity due to their ubiquity.) Or just growing tired of caps lock?
When I began this, I was in a hopeful mood. We were newly vaccinated. Surely others would follow suit, and we could begin to get out from under Covid-19’s literal and figurative miasma. It didn’t, of course, play out that way. And so the expected denouement was merely a new movement in the dreary symphony, replete with dangerous viral variants and waning vaccine efficacy.
But one adjusts. One adapts. One, in a sentiment that seems to be popping up all over the news and social media in this winter of pandemic fatigue, calibrates one’s risk tolerance. In the end, whatever my initial intention, this has turned into a chronicle of my calibration process, and an unexpected lesson learned along the way.
A week after the Covid-19 vaccine became available to my age group, a balmy April Fool’s Day afternoon found me in my oak pollen-dusted Subaru Forester, turning left onto Cuesta College campus in San Luis Obispo and slowing at a clinic checkpoint.
I won’t say that I wasn’t suffering from a mild degree of vaccine hesitancy at the time, and I was so heartily sick of the phrase “shots in arms” being bandied about in the media and by politicians that I could have skipped vaccination out of perverse linguistic protest. But my husband’s elderly parents were fully vaccinated and, after more than a year apart, were growing restless about not seeing their son. And Rowdy had been utterly untrained when we adopted him and I worried about his socialization with both people and animals if we didn’t get out in slightly more crowded settings than our semi-rural neighborhood.
So there I was, waiting at the back of a long line of vehicles turning left across the highway and onto the campus, expecting signs directing me to the clinic. Instead I was met with a line of masked women standing on the right side of the road, wielding clipboards and waving drivers toward them. I grabbed my mask from the center console, fumbled with the ties (elastic, I’ve discovered to my chagrin, won’t stay put over my apparently tiny ears and people are understandably unhappy with your mask flying off your face when you laugh), but managed to have it in place by the time I reached a volunteer.
She was good at smiling with her eyes. She looked pleased when she saw the county medical paperwork lying filled out on the passenger seat. She handed me a flyer with information on the Pfizer vaccine (in case the two emails I’d already received on the subject weren’t adequate), and told me where to park. I pulled away from the curb and experienced a momentary panic as the meticulously filled out county medical paperwork almost went flying out the window I’d forgotten to put back up.
The day was warm, so when I saw a parking space in the shade of a big oak I nabbed it. Then I foolishly spent those extra five minutes reading yet again about the Pfizer vaccine. The page helpfully reminded me that there are no FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccines, that it and all the others had been granted emergency authorization, and oh, here are a bunch of unpleasant side effects, and you’ll be asked to wait for fifteen minutes of observation before leaving the vaccination site in case you go into anaphylactic shock and you should call your doctor immediately if any of these other terrible symptoms manifest and…
I tossed the paper facedown on the passenger seat, emerged from my car and joined the loose flock of masked penitents converging on their hope of salvation: the Harold J. Miossi Art Center, now converted to a county vaccination clinic.
Students in gym clothes – also masked – ran drills on a nearby athletic field as I passed, and for a moment I felt a wrenching sense of dislocation. Thirty years ago – no forty, I corrected myself – that would have been me, backpack full of books slung over my shoulder, striding across campus on my way to class or a study session, head full of metaphors and themes, or proofs and logical fallacies, or algorithms and data structures, excited about the present and all the possibilities of the future.
That girl could never have imagined this fifty-eight year old woman, limping slightly from a nagging hip injury and wearing a white-trimmed indigo cloth face mask with a disposable PM 2.5 filter tucked into a narrow pocket as she followed arrows taped to the pavement in search of respite from an invisible enemy that had over the past year morphed from an idle worry in a distant city in China to an omnipresent threat tearing a massive rift in the fabric of everyday existence. That girl had felt optimistic about life. Gross economic disparities, systemic racism, resurgent white supremacy, climate change…pandemics…none of these were on her radar. In spite of contrary blips around the world, humanity always trended toward the better. Didn’t it?
But I didn’t have time to contemplate my naïveté, or the ways in which the world had yawed around me. The taped arrows on the ground bred like rabbits as I approached the building, soon joined by red Xs spaced – I guessed from casual inspection and their ubiquity anywhere else I’d gone over the past year – six feet apart. I wished I’d brought a folio to tuck everything into as paperwork and my driver’s license flapped like disoriented sparrows in the wind currents under the breezeway. And then it turned out – though the instructions had said otherwise – that this particular volunteer didn’t want to see my license.That was the next line. She scribbled something on my medical paperwork and sent me on my way.
After another checkpoint, whose staffer also didn’t want to see my paperwork, I moved slowly but steadily toward the art center. The middle-aged man in front of me lagged behind the red Xs, blithely creating a modicum of chaos behind him as the rest of us either tried to guess at six feet or slavishly stuck to the tape. I navigated a long table behind which sat half a dozen volunteers shouting, “Next! Next! Next!” There I was relieved of my paperwork and granted permission to put my driver’s license away. I turned right into a maze of arrows and Xs so complicated that there were additional volunteers instructing us on where to stand. The entrance to the art center yawned dark and threatening. I suppressed one last urge to flee this unknown technology and then I was inside.
Before the pandemic, paintings and sculptures occupied this space, concrete manifestations of the human desire to create, lovingly curated and lighted to best effect for an admiring audience. Now the room was all heavy black poly sheeting, cheap plastic tables and chairs, another sea of arrows and Xs. And yet, I thought as I watched masked men and women shuttle vaccine to numbered stations and carry away used needles, no less an exercise in human creativity, even if one that lived considerably further down Maslow’s hierarchy.
A volunteer motioned me toward a table staffed by a cheerful, heavy-set nurse with gold glitter eyeshadow and astonishingly long lashes. As I approached she waved a Band-Aid festooned with bright flowers. “Pretty!” she exclaimed.
I was glad I was wearing a mask, as my initial response was irritation. I wasn’t a four-year-old, and I didn’t need to be coaxed or bribed into taking my medicine. But as I glanced around the space I could see all manner of reactions to that final, no-turning-back moment before the vaccine surged through the needle and into the bloodstream. Some people plunked themselves resolutely into their chair. Others wavered, talking to nurses whose faces settled into patient reassurance even as they eyed the long line in the doorway. I hadn’t seen what this woman had. So I laughed and said, “Yes, it is!”
She promised it wouldn’t hurt. It did, but so what? When someone sticks a pointy object in my arm, I consider it a bonus if it doesn’t hurt. Another stop at another volunteer to receive my vaccination card – date, location, Pfizer – and then I was outside where a final volunteer scribbled a time on a slip of paper, handed it to me, and waved toward a large white tent with plastic chairs set up both inside and outside.
Fog was moving in and the afternoon had acquired a sudden chill, but I sat outside anyway. An old-style white clock with black hands, the kind displayed on innumerable classroom walls over the years, hung prominently from a pole. I could hear its rhythmic ticking in my mind, even though I was too far away. As soon as the number on the piece of paper – which almost blew away in the wind – matched the hands on the clock, I could go home. I had to suppress a giggle. Everything about the process, in fact, had thrown me back to elementary school. The lines. The regimentation. The school nurse. The hall pass. The clock.
Then I realized the giggle felt a little manic. I looked at the morro rising over the parking lot. Was it…swaying? Was I having…a side effect? I closed my eyes for a moment, then reopened them. The hillside had stopped moving. You read about this yesterday, I scolded myself. Every case of dizziness had been investigated and discovered to be people having panic attacks. I slouched in my chair and took slow breaths. The volunteer monitor’s roving gaze paused on my face, but I stared back straightforwardly and her eyes moved on.
Fifteen minutes later I hobbled back to my car. My arm started hurting in the evening and ached for a couple of days, but aside from that I suffered no ill effects.
Three weeks passed and I did it all again. By then the Cuesta site had added an additional vaccine into the mix, so there were even more arrows. Pink for Moderna, blue for Pfizer, matching the bands wrapped around our wrists at the second volunteer station. If I hadn’t been familiar with the layout from before I would have been hopelessly confused.
But mostly the experience was second verse, same as the first, this time with a folio to keep my paperwork from flopping around. One middle-aged volunteer laughed at the Aftershokz bone conduction headset that I’d brought to practice Spanish on my phone during the fifteen minutes of downtime then said, “Oh, I see! I thought you had sewn cat ears onto your mask!”
I laughed. “Seriously?”
“I’ve seen stranger things here,” he grinned. I tried to imagine but couldn’t, and the moving line left my curiosity unsatisfied.
Since I’d done this all once before and was considerably more relaxed, the morro stayed put. My arm hurt a little earlier, a little more than before. But if that was the worst of it, I was in good shape. Two more weeks of caution while the vaccine fully primed my system against Covid-19, and then out in the world again!
A sore arm, it turned out, was not quite the worst of it. The next morning, feeling confident that I could do my scheduled run, I threw on my workout clothes. Since my husband was running hill repeats that day and Rowdy tends to be a bored, immovable obstacle during that particular exercise, I hooked him up to my bungee leash and headed out.
My bicep wasn’t overly fond of the repetitive swinging, but other than that I was smugly fine for the mile and a half out and about a mile back. Then exhaustion hit. Not, Oh maybe I’ll take it a little easier the rest of the way home but more like, How eccentric would it look if I just curled up on the side of the road like a dead skunk for a while? Feel free to put a drink cup with a straw between my paws.
My husband was certainly still out, so I couldn’t call him to pick me up. Rowdy turned around and looked at me with concern. I closed my eyes – a mistake, since it was a monumental effort to open them again. Then I sighed. “I’m good, boy. Let’s crawl home.” I wasn’t, and he looked rightfully dubious, but kindly slowed his pace for the interminable creep back.
I fell into bed, sweaty and still in my shoes. Half an hour later I roused myself enough to feed the dog and take a shower, which exhausted all of my strength again. And so the day went, tiny kernels of energy intermittently forcing their way through obdurate shells of fatigue. But for all that, I didn’t feel bad. Usually when I’m that tired there’s some other issue keeping me from just happily going to sleep – a sore throat, congestion, an upset stomach. But throughout the day exhaustion came sweetly, then receded again, like the gentlest of tides. By the next morning I was better.
Three weeks later, after my husband was also in the clear on his shots, we prepared to meet the world again. For the past year I had been going grocery shopping, and to pharmacies, and vet visits held in the parking lot, and that was it. So we took Rowdy on a drive up to Ragged Point near Big Sur, had an outdoor breakfast, went for a romp at Fiscalini Ranch in Cambria. The next weekend we walked the Bob Jones trail in Avila Beach, punctuated halfway by another outdoor breakfast at a cute local deli. No masks. No worries. And a euphoria far out of proportion for what had been commonplace experiences in 2019.
We drove to the Bay Area for Mother’s Day, up and back seven hours on the road. The vaccine was great but it was of course not perfect, so we weren’t comfortable with staying in a hotel. My sister-in-law required that everyone attending be vaccinated, and held the event outdoors. Still it was fourteen people, some of whom I knew were disdainful of masks and social distancing, and after a year of mostly solitude it turned out that I wasn’t really ready for hugs and people standing too close to me. Talking to my other sister-in-law, who tended to intrude a bit more than I’d like into my personal space even in the best of circumstances, in the time of Covid-19 turned into a bad comedy of me circling backwards around the patio while she pressed ever closer.
When we came home I continued treating life as mostly back to normal. I made long delayed visits to the dentist and the hair salon. I dropped off my car at the mechanic and walked a few blocks to Starbucks for a cup of coffee (though I drank it outside). I went grocery shopping without a mask, and to the hardware store for plants and household items. We signed Rowdy up for an obedience training course. Several of my husband’s co-workers, from current or former employment, dropped by for leisurely summer evening dinners. One of them spent the night and hung out to work on the patio the next day. I felt a little exposed, but the CDC guidelines were the CDC guidelines. Enjoy yourself! We’re rounding the corner!
What we didn’t know – couldn’t have known at the time – was that the delta variant was lurking just around that corner, waiting with a sledgehammer. In the initial phases of the pandemic the actual impacts of Covid-19 fell far from my husband and I. Mostly statistics, with the occasional friend of a friend who died, or an acquaintance who lived in a mandate resistant place like Orange County getting sick and slowly recovering. But now for the first time, it began swirling around us, close to home.
We were taking Rowdy to a second obedience course to work out a few kinks in his behavior. This one was indoors, but we were rounding the corner, right? At first only one woman wore a mask to class. As delta slipped into the county a second one joined her. Then my husband and I started wearing ours again. The fourth week we drove past a big party the staff was having for a coworker – everyone crowded together sharing cake and laughs, no one masked. I shook my head. “I don’t think I’m comfortable here anymore.”
We stopped going. I worried that I was being paranoid, until two weeks from the day of the party, right on Covid time, I received an email from the school informing me that a staff member had contracted the virus.
Then our next door neighbor’s entire family fell ill. One of their daughters, in her mid-twenties with a young child, had to be airlifted to Stanford Medical Center or she would have died.
Our gardener showed up one week, coughing and insisting that I keep away from him. Several weeks later, he was dead.
My husband’s company decided to hold a “very safe” conference in Utah. Using the invaluable risk calculator provided by the MicroCOVID project (https://www.microcovid.org/), we watched the case counts in Wasatch County climb alarmingly over the month before the gathering, until the website’s assessment suggested that the only thing more dangerous than attending a multi-day group event there would be hanging out in a room with someone you actually knew had Covid. Several employees, including my husband, bowed out and the event was canceled. Two people that would have attended became ill the following weekend; as it turned out everyone who attended would have been in a room with someone who actually had Covid. One of them, considerably younger than either of us, took weeks to fully recover. And he had been vaccinated.
In the wider world, hospitals around the country began buckling under virus caseloads again. Public health officials urged people not to gather indoors in large groups, even vaccinated, as breakthrough infections hinted at a one-two punch of delta’s increased virulence meeting waning vaccine efficacy six months after the second dose.
So we pulled our horns back in and our masks back on. The local hardware store patrons and employees alike sneered at mask-wearers so I shifted my shopping to Home Depot, a store I had formerly snubbed as too corporate but now embraced for their strict adherence to Covid protocols. The mid-sized organic market where I buy groceries (sadly, the little Santa Margarita store that saw us through the early pandemic pivoted so sharply to a deli that it was impossible to do weekly shopping) didn’t require masks but wasn’t contemptuous of them either, and as delta’s grip in the county strengthened more and more of the employees went masked themselves.
And now omicron has arrived, and it’s obvious that the pandemic is not in its waning months. It is nothing like done with humanity.
Fear and Loathing
But if the news and a number of people around me are to be believed, humanity is done with the pandemic. “You have to live your life,” has become an increasingly common refrain, even as exhausted ICU doctors and nurses are suffering PTSD from months upon months of overtime tending to the casualties of that philosophy, their lives put on indefinite hold for the sake of someone else’s refusal to acknowledge that this is real, this is happening.
And in my own experience I can’t help but sense a note of defensiveness in that melody, as the accusation, “You are living in fear,” has been lobbed at me personally by a handful of people. But here’s the thing. I remember what it was like to be afraid of COVID-19, back when it was still all caps. I remember how I felt when the governor issued a shelter at home order. I remember the days before the virus was reasonably well understood. Should we wear masks? Should we disinfect packages? Am I doing the larger community a favor using Shipt or just being a coward – afraid – and shifting my burden of risk onto someone less fortunate, who can’t afford not to take those risks? In those early days of confusion, of toilet paper shortages, of fretting about how to get food now that I was uncomfortable with crowded supermarkets, I was often stressed out and – yes – afraid.
I don’t feel that way now. I read CDC recommendations and follow them. I continue to use the MicroCOVID Project website to gauge risk. For now I still avoid gatherings of more than a few people, especially indoors and especially with the delta and omicron variants out in the wild.
“Fear” is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” It’s a raw fact that Covid-19 continues to be dangerous. But because we have good science at this point, because we have all the tools we need to reduce risk as much as possible, for me emotion has decoupled from that danger. Covid is a threat. But I don’t spend a lot of psychological energy “feeling threatened” by it. I don’t need to. I have knowledge, and an action plan. That doesn’t mean I can’t get sick. But I can know if that happens that I took every reasonable precaution.
I also know that this isolation isn’t particularly difficult for me: by temperament, by lifestyle, and yes, by privilege. I live on an acre and a quarter in a semi-rural area. I enjoy reading, running, cooking and other solitary hobbies. I have an equally inward-looking spouse, and we have a dog to keep us physically and emotionally engaged. Neither my husband nor I need to be out in the world, and in fact aside from eight years taking care of my parents I had been largely out of it for over two decades before Covid-19 hit, and not unhappy about it. I also don’t need to contend with the socialization and emotional needs of children, which is a severe stressor.
I can absolutely understand why someone might be overwhelmed and fatigued, chafing at the restrictions imposed on their lifestyle by Covid. Maybe even to the breaking point, where they throw up their hands and quit, go back to their pre-Covid routines and hope that it’ll be okay, that they won’t be exposed and if they are the vaccines will hold the line and keep them from the hospital or worse. But if I’m not overwhelmed, not fatigued, not particularly chafing, that doesn’t make me fearful.
That was perhaps the biggest takeaway from this pandemic year. Once I’d figured out what to pare back materially and experientially, once I’d leaned back into the lessons I’d learned from Buddhism and Taoism in college about equilibrium and suffering and samsara, for myself, in my own life, I felt a surprising contentment.
Certainly I want the pandemic to be over. I want the suffering and the death to end. And even if there’s a lot about this lifestyle I would choose to keep, I wouldn’t mind it feeling like a choice instead of navigating as well as I can a constraining, constricting situation. But if it magically all ended tomorrow, I wouldn’t want to return whole cloth to the life I had before. Not because I’m afraid. But because in the process of calibrating Covid-19 risks I ended up also calibrating my relationship to the world around me, and it was a surprise to find in the midst of such chaos a pathway to a kind of peace.