Emma and I went to the supermarket last night for the first time since the day our town started shutting down because of Covid-19, the novel coronavirus that is sweeping the world. We came home singing, “We did it! We did it!” from Dora the Explorer. Strange times, indeed. Dora was never our favorite.
The last time I was at the supermarket, nearly two weeks ago, it was a madhouse. No thought of social distancing then. People were just stocking up on everything they could—one woman with two carts full of cheap beer “in case they close the liquor stores.” It was the day the news came out that the area’s schools would be shutting down and everyone was being encouraged to work from home. The parking lot was nearly full – I got one of the last spaces in the far corner. There were hardly any carts available. Shelves were empty. No paper products, pasta, rice, milk. Of course, no hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol. Signs limiting how many items people could buy were taped to barren shelves. Lines were long, reaching down aisles towards the back of the store. It was the end times for sure.
Last night, we went around 45 minutes before closing in the hopes that it wouldn’t be crowded. It wasn’t. The parking lot was nearly empty. We managed to stay away from everyone except the woman who stood in the doorway looking something up on the sales circular. What is it with people needing to stand in doorways? It bothers me in normal times, but during a global pandemic it should be illegal. You are forcing people to come way too close to you. For the first time ever, I used the sanitizing wipes to wipe off the shopping cart handle. We grabbed what we needed and a bit more—two boxes of Emma’s favorite cereal instead of one. Two half gallons of milk. (One gallon will only start going bad before she finishes it; I’ve tried this.) Two bags of salt and vinegar chips (which I call crisps in my head because I found out about this flavor in the UK many years ago; it’s our favorite). A case of Lagunitas IPA instead of a sixpack.
And, what we really came for, a large box of the mixed greens we call “bunny salad,” which we give our rabbits every night. Bunny salad is our limiting factor. We could go for weeks without shopping, but the bunnies need fresh veggies every day, and they really like their salad mix. I could probably go for most of the month of April without setting foot outside but for bunny salad. Since we aren’t travelling this spring, I could grow our own in our garden boxes in the side yard. But we’re hopefully moving out of the house in a month, so it doesn’t seem worth it.
The supermarket had put down tape to help people standing in line to distance themselves from each other, part of what I call “physical distancing,” because I think we need social solidarity more than ever and “social distancing” just sounds wrong. We had a nice chat with the man at the check-out stand. (I avoid self-check-out because, well, people need jobs.) I asked him if things had calmed down a bit, and he said for the most part yes. There were still the crazed hoarders coming through, but a lot of people realized that this was what life would be like for a while and settled into it. A man tried to get in line right behind me, ignoring the tapes on the floor—proximity alert! The checker very kindly asked someone else to help him with the self-checkout, since he only had an armful of items.
I wished the checker a good night more warmly than I normally would, and I had chatted with him a bit more than I normally would have. Coronatimes remind me a bit of walking to work during snowstorms when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. People who would totally ignore each other in fine weather shared conspiratorial smiles as if to say, “We are all in this together, aren’t we? Isn’t it ridiculous to be walking to work in this snow?” Now, my neighborhood is suddenly full of people, and we wave and say hello to each other from across the street. People seem friendlier than usual.
When we’d left the house last night to go to the store, Emma said, “I feel like we’re doing something illegal, like we really shouldn’t be doing this.” I told her I’d been worrying about it for a while—how the store would be, how we would avoid getting sick. I think that’s why, when we got out of the store, after we rubbed our hands with hand sanitizer, we had a celebratory laugh, and Dora’s “We did it! We did it!” came up (though we couldn’t remember anymore what it was from; Emma had to look it up on her phone). We felt like we’d gotten away with something.
I guess the exhortations by public officials to stay home (or, as we say on social media, #StayTheFuckHome) have really sunk in. We go out to walk the dogs, which happens more often and for longer than usual, so the dogs are really benefitting from this. But since our last mad dash to the pet food store to stock up on everything, and to the library to get a pile of books for Emma to read (a day before it closed), we haven’t gone anywhere. We used to go on weekly beach walks, every Sunday morning for 90 minutes or so. But the last time we went, which I think was actually this past Sunday though it seems like ages ago (coronatime passes so differently), it was so crowded it was hard to stay away from people. It was clear people were ignoring the orders to keep their distance from others. We even saw some die-hard freedom-lovers playing beach volleyball. No public health official was going to keep them from risking their lives or the lives of others for a bit of fun.
Of course, because of people like this, the beaches have since been closed, as have the parks and the hiking trails. Emma and I have gotten better about our nightly walks around the neighborhood (we have a hilly three-mile circuit); I had slacked off during Winter Quarter (January to just last week) because I was exhausted (and working) most evenings, but now we’re going nearly every day again. We skipped it last night to make the bunny salad run, and I felt the lack of exercise, even though we’d gone on a longer than usual walk with the dogs. But aside from the nightly walks, we’d been going on our beach walks, and on some Saturdays we’d been going to Guajome County Park to get more distance in. I had been hoping to try going to a new park each weekend, but now all that is off.
Which brings me to coronagrief. A scant two months ago, I wrote about what I’d been thinking of as our “farewell tour,” the trips we would take one more time before we left California for a new life overseas. I’ve had to cancel those trips from here on out. I’m hanging on to our trip to Tahoe in June, but I have a feeling that will be cancelled to. I wrote that earlier post before it became clear just how bad Covid-19 would hit us. I mean, it should have been clear, but humans are inclined to be optimists. At that time, it was something barely in the news, another disease like SARS or MERS originating in some far-off place, something to be concerned about but which would eventually be controlled. I was going along in blissful ignorance, optimistic about our future. Now, it’s clear that everything is going to be disrupted on a massive scale. Many people have already died, and many, many more are going to be taken by this virus. It’s only a matter of time before you lose a loved one, if you haven’t already. It will touch us all.
On the surface, Emma and I are leading nearly a normal life. I would be home now anyway, since my plan was to spend these next few months clearing our house out and getting it ready to put on the market. She would still be going to school, but her school closed the day that San Diego Unified School District announced that it was going to close schools (March 13). Fortunately, her small school was able to move online quickly, thanks to the extraordinary teachers, and she was back in “school” on the sofa from 8:55 to 3:00 every weekday from Wednesday, March 18 on. The difference in our daily lives that we’ve noticed the most has been spending more time in our beautiful backyard, since we are no longer driving so much. I’m feeding the birds still, so we have a lot of activity, including several pairs of Hooded Orioles that completely delight me.
In fact, this would be an idyllic time for both of us in many ways. We are both introverts, so we don’t normally do a ton of socializing anyway. Emma is enjoying her online school, which she can attend with her dogs. She had always asked me about bringing to dogs to school, but I had always had to put her off the idea. Our dogs are rescues, and they have a lot of issues. They generally hate children, and the whole thing would have been very stressful for them. Now they can be at school with her all day, so she’s enjoying that. We also genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and we never seem to run out of things to talk about. We are both marveling at the people who are suddenly freaking out because they can’t go out like they are used to. For us, it’s a dream.
But the larger context of the dream is horror. Absolute horror. So far, I feel like we have just experienced initial minor inconveniences. The worst thing for me was cancelling our spring break trip to the Midwest to visit some old family friends in Illinois, as well as my uncle and cousins in Kentucky. I don’t know when we’ll be able to see them again now. But I just hope they stay healthy so we can. Canceling this trip was the real beginning of my coronagrief, the acknowledgement that nothing will ever be the same. The news media talk about going back to “normal” someday, but “normal” will be different. We just don’t know how. Like climate disruption, Covid-19 and future pandemics—because this won’t be the last—are changing the face of our world and our societies. The only way to find out how is to live it.
And this realization has been a source of grief for me, just as climate disruption has been. As I watch Emma calmly going through her new life, I think, “What an awful world we’ve created for our children.” Of course, “we” are not the guilty ones. The guilty ones are the powerful others, who knew what is coming and brought it on anyway so that they could continue to make money off the death of the world as we know it. (If you don’t believe me, here is a news story for you about how the American Environmental Protection Agency has suspended enforcement of environmental laws indefinitely because of Covid-19. This virus is the Republican Party’s wet dream. Or so they seem to think.) And now, when we should be rising up, we have to stay home or risk death, if not our own then others’. We need a general strike—even pop icon Britney Spears thinks so—but how can we do that now, when people are so afraid of further disruption? On the other hand, with things already disrupted, maybe now is the time. What if everyone just stayed home? (That is, those who have homes to stay in.)
It’s hard to feel optimistic about what’s coming, about how things will change and whether they can ever change “back.” There are possibilities for change in a good direction. Covid-19 is laying bare the moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism for people who still needed convincing. The American president has shown himself for the inept, unprepared, unqualified, immoral incompetent that he is, and this time people we know are going to die. The United States has entered this crisis rudderless, or perhaps with many rudders as state and local officials are having to craft their own responses without federal support. Literally and materially, in the case of New York, which received 400 ventilators when it needs 30,000. We are also seeing what a bad idea for-profit healthcare is, as people get hospital bills for tens of thousands of dollars that they can’t hope to cover. Covid-19 is bringing out all our society’s flaws.
It’s also allowing us to demonstrate how resourceful we are. As the US federal government’s response falls way short, some of us are figuring out workarounds to get things done. As Republican politicians claim that grandparents will happily sacrifice themselves on capitalism’s altar, people are starting to 3-D print critical supplies for healthcare workers, and doing it for free. As some people hoard toilet paper and food, others continue to work to provide more food, risking their lives to feed people who would rather see them dead in their home country than a productive part of the American economy. There are many lessons here for how we have been doing things wrong, and how we can do things better. How we have thought our society worked, and how it actually does. Perhaps Covid-19 has lifted the veil for more people and provided more of us with inspiration to put things right. We just need to pay attention.
I’ll write more about international responses later (including Mongolia’s; I have had a post in the works for a couple of weeks now). This is about my personal reaction to all this. Everyone is experiencing a certain amount of grief at this time, whether they are calling it that or not. Emma’s teacher wisely told her class that they are living through a historic time, and like, Anne Frank and others did during an earlier horror (her diary, coincidentally, has been on our coffee table for several weeks), they should keep journals of what they are experiencing, to keep a record for themselves and for others, because we will all forget. Maybe not the big picture, but the details of how Covid-19 is changing our lives, and what our lives were like before, too. (How many people still remember the days when we didn’t have to take our shoes off to go on an airplane?) Emma is not much for writing, though; she writes well and will happily work on specific assignments. But, as with her mother, journaling is not her thing. She prefers to draw, and she’s been doing a lot of that. But maybe it’s a good idea for all of us to record at least some of this moment.
So that’s part of my challenge to you. In the midst of all this, carve out some time to be quiet and think, and write down how this is affecting you, your family, and your society. What has it shown you about you and your life? Has it made you feel closer to your fellow humans? Or made you push them away? Has it made you hopeful? Or afraid? Chances are, it’s a bit of both, since our reactions to a complex situation like this one are going to be complex, too. And of course not all of us have the luxury of taking time to think or write about what is happening. So think about the people who have fallen through the cracks of our morally deficient economic systems, and think about ways that you can help them. And by helping them, help yourself as well. That’s the other part of this challenge. Nothing will be the same after this, but how it changes can be up to us, if we recognize this moment for what it is: a chance to transform our societies.
Coronagrief is real. Like all grief, it allows us to see what we truly value, what we really care about. For what is grief if not the experience of the loss of something treasured, something important, something that has changed us forever? We need to feel the grief, to experience the loss. But then we need to keep on living. And maybe as we move forward, we can redefine ourselves and find a better way to live together in our world. But only if we work at it.