Many happy returns of the day?

We all knew that shifting from the way of life we’ve learned during the pandemic back into the world the way it was before–or at least a world closely resembling it– at some point in the future would be wonderful in some ways and difficult in others. Although the past dozen (plus) months have been incredibly challenging, exhausting, and stressful, we all can identify things that we’ve grown to appreciate about that way of life, a way of life we never would have experienced had Covid not come knocking on our proverbial doors. We’re feeling that “push me/pull you” of wanting to hold on to what we’ve enjoyed about the past year while the reptilian recesses of our consciousness yearn for “the way things were”. It’s a strange dance, one in which our past selves, present selves, and future selves are trying to find a rhythm that will be best for us as we move forward through time and space, the three iterations of ourselves maneuvering around each other on the dance floor, trying to make space for each other while finding ways to intersect. It’s like a chaotic cotillion where none of the movements make sense until that moment when they will finally fall into sync, and right now we’re on the cusp of an arrhythmic stretch of time that will make us all need to keep catching our breath.

The best analogy I can imagine is a real-life experience that a friend of mine encountered a couple of months ago. Out of the blue one day, her husband sent her a text saying that he wasn’t able to smell anything, so he was going to get a Covid test. It came back positive, so he needed to quarantine for two weeks, but here’s the thing: he had to spend that fortnight quarantined in his own home while the other five members of his family were also living in the house. The stories my friend tells about these weeks are truly incredible. She would leave him meals outside the guest room where he was holed up, and after eating he would sanitize the dishes and hold his breath while wearing an n95 mask to open the door just enough to slide the clean plates and cups out into the hallway. He would open the window, and she would go outside to talk to him from a comfortable distance just within shouting range, and otherwise they’d communicate by text or phone call despite being under the same roof. I likened them to Romeo & Juliet, two star-crossed lovers, though this pair was restricted from communion by a virus rather than a toxically political family dynamic (which isn’t really that different, actually).

They aren’t sure where he picked it up, but the most likely scenario is that it was work-related. The good news is that he wasn’t too sick and recovered well, and neither my friend nor any of her four children tested positive. What is most interesting to me is how she described the day when her husband had been cleared to leave the guest room and rejoin the family, and it feels like a microcosmic example of what we’re all trying to reconcile these days as life lists to and fro, searching for purchase on a foundation of shifting sand. When he opened the door after a full two weeks had gone by, it was so strange: he could walk through his home without a mask. He could hug his kids, sleep in the same room as his wife again, eat at the table, go to work. And it was strange for his family, too: here was this person who couldn’t be more familiar and yet had been restricted from their access, a veritable prisoner in his own home alongside them for half of a month. Science said it was safe, but the initial adjustment was suffused with oddity, and the moment when he took off his mask took some mustering.

When I consider this reunion, it calls to mind the reunion we’re all thinking about: the interface of our soon-to-be selves with a way of life that hearkens back to literally yesteryear. There will come a time when we’re going to have to come face-to-face with a reality we recognize, that we’d grown deeply accustomed to, but it’s going to feel bizarre. When will we be completely comfortable sitting next to strangers eating popcorn in a movie theater? Will there come a time when we won’t think twice about swanning into a crowded restaurant with nothing on our faces except for a touch of makeup? How long will it take for us to unlearn the sidestep we’ve adopted to provide a cushion of space between ourselves and people outside of our pod? At what point will we forget to wonder “Is this safe?” at almost every turn?

The future won’t look identical to the past, of course. There are things we’ll do differently based on how we’ve changed over the last year (it might be two years by then), an evolution accelerated by circumstantial necessity. But, despite the delight we’ll feel at the opportunity to experience many of the things (and people!) we’ve missed, the process of going back to the old ways will likely be full of growing pains. It’ll be like hugging your husband after he’s been held hostage in plain sight for fourteen days: there will be relief and comfort and gratitude, sure, and yet you’ll both realize you’re holding your breath.

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