Stop the world. Take people who have been leading active, engaged lives and throw them into a scary, unprecedented isolation. How many will wind up loving the limitations?
Curious about the past year’s wrenching experiment, I asked on social: What will you miss when the pandemic is finally over? Some folks spat back “Nothing.” Others gave simple, practical answers: light traffic, a cheap gas bill. One friend had not filled her car’s tank since January. “Not having to wear a bra to go to work,” a woman wrote. “Letting my face be naked and my boobs free of restraint,” was how another put it. Not spending money on clothes or haircuts, lots of people wrote. “Not worrying about clothes, shoes, makeup, jewelry.”
“Everyone getting enough sleep,” offered a parent. “Like, the thought of having to get the big kid to school by 7 a.m. ever again is wildly unappealing.” To someone else, finally getting enough sleep felt like “extra sleep,” and she sank into those bedsheets as though it were a luxury.
“I love not having to get dressed and go outside when it’s too hot, too rainy, or too cold,” someone admitted cheerfully. “I love not having to deal with DC traffic. And DC parking.” A sense of safety and coziness threaded through the posts, no doubt heightened by the sense that danger surrounded us. One professional mentioned working not just in the comfort of PJs but in “the security of my home.”
I felt that, too, and worried that I was becoming agoraphobic. What struck me hardest about the replies, though, was how many of us had been living a social life that did not bring us joy. (Why is it that when you are shy, you always assume you are the only one who feels that way?) People exulted in “the wonderful excuse to never leave the house for social occasions.” “I love not being forced to interact,” someone wrote, and a chorus followed: “I will miss having a perfect excuse to decline invitations for things I would rather not do anyway.” “Not having to make up excuses not to be around people we really don’t want to be around.” “My love hate relationship with holiday parties resolved.” “Being allowed to miss all events that normally you have to attend, and instead, just being able to stay at home! In fact, just being required to stay home. Off the hook totally!”
What took the place of all those unwanted social engagements were new, intentional social events that left people bubbling over with gratitude. Happy hours with neighbors. Zoom sessions with friends (often held more often than people ever met with those friends pre-pandemic). Phone calls with relatives that no longer felt rushed. More concern for each other, and more creativity in the social planning, because there had to be. Hot plates on porches. Bonfires. Tailgaters. Back when anything was possible, nothing sounded quite this much fun. Like art, sociability thrives with limits.
More honesty, too: One man wrote wryly, “I will miss the opportunity to see folks who removed their masks and showed who they really are. Soon, they’ll don them again and go back into hiding.”
“It made me a better neighbor,” a woman realized. “Calling to see if they needed anything while I was going to get groceries, leaving a small chocolate bunny on their doorstep on Easter, delivering a Thanksgiving card to them … just being more aware of other people’s needs in isolation.”
“We check on each other,” someone else wrote. “We have text threads going that we never had before, we grocery shop for each other and we know what the hard-to-find preferences are for each other and will grab them if we see them. I have a wonderful bread fairy friend who drops off bread to me from our local bakery:).”
Communities drew close: “The local businesses have been supportive, providing goods not usually carried by them, like groceries, baby basics, and masks. They are creative in their offerings, catered meals, bake-and-serve meals, $1 drinks while waiting to pick up orders, and free rolls of TP when you buy $25 or more. We have all been forced to think and act differently which has resulted in offerings I hope continue.”
People also relished the quiet—the chance to be outdoors, to observe nature on its own terms. Again and again, they mentioned time. “Time to think, read, and play.” “Time alone with my thoughts.” “So much time to read.” “More time to read. More time to cook and bake.” “Time to exercise.” “Time to walk in the park.” “Time to do the things I love most.” “Time to focus on what really matters.” “I feel like it was the year that time stood still.”
Above all, people savored time with each other. When they did see or talk to friends, they knew how much they cherished them. Listening to their partners work from home, they realized all over again—as I did, with a little frisson of pride—just what a smart and talented person they shared their bed with. It turned out a lot of us had been hungrier than we realized for the company of those we lived with. We even savored time with our dogs. “I will miss spending the day with my dog.” “Being with my dogs ALL the time.” “Extra time with my husband and our dog.” And no matter how many people in one’s pod, everybody missed closeness, hugs. “I want to hug my family, especially my daughter who left a twenty-year marriage this year.”
The troubling part? How many people had already caved to the inevitable, automatically assuming that we will lose this cozy intimacy as soon as “normalcy” returns. One mother wrote about having dinner with her kids every night: “It’ll be a much different world when we’re again pulled in so many different directions, and I daresay not a good one from their perspective!” Another mother was savoring time with her fifteen-year-old son: “We’ve gotten to have so much one-on-one time before he flies the nest in a few years, which is an absolute gift. I’m going for walks with my mom…. There are parts of it I’m going to miss terribly.” Someone else mentioned “daily dinner with my husband. It is a routine that fell victim of busy schedules for years and probably will again. But for now we enjoy the ritual.”
I sighed, thinking how I have savored the quiet evenings with my husband. Then I came upon a reply that caught me up short: “What would we have to give up, to miss it? One can easily continue practices that started during 2020, right?”
Could we hold on to this sense of ample time, fully enjoying those closest to us without bouncing off to some meeting or social engagement? I test it on my tongue: “Sorry, I’m quarantining with my husband this week.” People will roll their eyes, but that no longer seems relevant. Maybe this grim reaper pandemic took a moment for kindness and handed us a permanent reminder to do what matters most.
I glance back at the screen and notice a glorious photo a friend sent after he played hooky at the park. Now his work had gotten busy again, he wrote, adding wistfully, “I’ll miss that day.”
I want to shake him, tell him to keep playing hooky on gorgeous afternoons. But will I have the sense to do the same? And what does it say about me that I am not sure? If this year’s revelations are not strong enough to engineer a permanent course correction, I would hate to live through what it takes.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.