When I was a young child, my mom sometimes called me “her loner.” It’s not that I didn’t enjoy other humans, but I reveled in the rural, natural surroundings in which I grew up and enjoyed spending lots of time using my imagination to find pictures in the clouds, looking for wild flowers in the summer or colorful leaves to press in the fall, walking in the forest with my dog or just reading silently.
Now at age 60, my basic proclivities remain. I’m not one to revel in large parties and I enjoy nature walks and evenings at home. So when the coronavirus pandemic hit, I thought being isolated for a time wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, the shutdown at first was a relief. As news of the virus spread had ramped up in February and March, I had grown increasingly nervous about being in crowded places or even in my classroom at the University of Connecticut. College Being around sneezing, coughing people had become terrifying and I didn’t mind the prospect of having a break from my hour-long work commute.
In mid-March, as the state was shutting down, UCONN faculty were told to work from home. All classes went online.
What seemed a welcome safety measure at first soon turned into something altogether unexpected. Many students checked out completely as they dealt with their own health, family, financial and work challenges. Days became a constant barrage of learning new technology, new teaching techniques and trying to communicate with students in numerous ways - an effort that sometimes felt futile. What I could say in five minutes in the classroom seemed to take hours as it was communicated via video, email and online announcements.
As a journalist and journalism instructor used to paying regular attention to the news, I also was persistently pulled to a myriad of news sites as the pandemic unfolded. I was obsessed with news of rising virus numbers, overwhelmed hospitals, CDC announcements and pretty much anything I could read on emerging knowledge about the virus and how to protect against it.
What seemed most difficult at first was jibing the reality of being home and safe while an invisible, deadly threat lurked. I took regular daily walks through my neighborhood along the Thames River and watching each little emergence of spring was rejuvenating and helped keep my anxiety at bay. Our neighborhood organized a nightly gathering in which neighbors met at one of the main intersections to bang on pots and pans, blow kazoos, play the trumpet, ring bells or just make noise in whatever way we could to demonstrate solidarity with frontline workers and support for one another. The two-minute sessions soon became a highlight of our days.
But the emotional blows kept coming. Our planned trip to Israel was the first major casualty for us. Any other possible spring and summer travel also was soon abandoned. Shortly after Spring Break, we got the news we would not return to in-person classes at all in the spring. Easter would not mean a gathering of family in the house. Our daughter’s wedding was postponed - by a whole year. We couldn’t travel to our vacation cabin in Vermont due to cross-state quarantines. Doctors appointments, haircut appointments, dental appointments, all were canceled. We couldn’t visit friends or meet them at restaurants. My sister who lives in Florida couldn’t travel north. Our neighbor from Florida wouldn’t return to Connecticut for the summer, either.
My second book was released around the first day of spring. But I was left with boxes of books and a calendar of cancelled book events. I struggled to promote the book on social media at a time when it just didn’t seem all that relevant given that many were struggling with a deadly illness.
Then there were the bizarre trips to the grocery store, one of the few places we went outside our home. Getting up and out the door at 6 a.m., standing in line in the dark until the store doors were unlocked. Rushing up and down the aisles in an effort to spend the least amount of time as was possible inside. Being confronted by aisle after aisle of empty shelves: no toilet paper, no cleaning supplies, no disinfectants, no hand sanitizer. No pancake syrup. Very little meat. No eggs. No cereal.
The arrival of summer allowed somewhat more socializing as some restaurants opened. Beaches and parks offered outdoor respite. Meeting friends and family became possible in the warm weather as long as there was social distancing. Outdoor socializing was optimal.
Now it’s September. We’ve been living fairly isolated for nearly six months. A new semester has begun at UCONN, but the campus is noticeably emptier. The usually jammed parking lots now are nearly empty. Many students chose to study online. The tiny in-person classes are socially distanced and everyone wears masks. Faculty keep doors closed when we are in our offices. We needed COVID tests before we could return to campus. I get regular emails from students who are in quarantine, awaiting COVID test results or worried about exposure to others who may be infected.
The unknown of winter looms. A recent headline warned Thanksgiving would be via Zoom for many families. Easter via Zoom was enough to bring me to tears. I can’t contemplate a virtual Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I try to stay positive. After all, while I have known people who’ve gotten the virus and even died from it, none of my closest friends or family members have fallen ill. But facing the unknown is tough. When will it end? When will stepping inside a restaurant, going to The Garde or being in a large indoor gathering seem safe again? When will I not worry about whether people are wearing masks or whether I’m standing too close to someone?
And if a canceled trip to Israel in March was almost a relief, facing month after month without feeling free to plan a trip, to step onto a train, or a plane feels like agony. I can only look into the unknown and hope a safe vaccine will allow a return to normal routines at last.
Submission by Gail. 9/7/2020