Days tumbled on days, I was in my overalls, didn’t comb my hair, didn’t shave much, consorted only with dogs and cats, I was living the happy life of childhood again…I was as nutty as a fruitcake and happier. Sunday afternoon, then, I’d go to my woods with the dogs and sit and put out my hands palms up and accept handfuls of sun boiling over the palms.
– Jack Kerouac, “The Dharma Bums”
How are you spending your days these days?
I have been writing to my heart’s content. More on that in a moment.
During this COVID19 pandemic, I have found myself thinking back to the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on Sept 11th, 2001. That, too, was an extremely difficult and challenging time for many people. Fear, anger and hate were common emotions…balanced, thankfully, by a phenomenal outpouring of love, compassion and kindness.
9-11 was a pivotal time in history. So is what we are experiencing now…only this time, we are under attack of a different sort: a highly contagious virus.
The difference in my emotional and psychological response to these two global events is night and day.
When 9-11 happened, I was in an extremely fragile emotional and psychological state. It had only been a year since my husband John (a police officer) died. My reaction to 9-11 was completely fear-based…I was terrified of what the future might hold. I also worried that I was going off the deep end again because everything going on in the world seemed somehow connected to me.
Even though I had many caring people still supporting me in my grief, my personal psychological response to a global event was disconcerting…and therefore isolating. It can be both difficult and embarrassing to be thinking differently than the herd.
In hindsight, I strongly suspect that the collapse of the World Trade Centre—and the death of thousands of people, including police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders—was a trigger for me…a post-traumatic stress response whereby my mind made a connection between two completely unrelated events and my heart responded as if it was the same event.
But when a crisis hits, we can only respond the best we can with wherever we are at…emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, financially, physically. Thankfully, my mental and emotional state improved a heck of a lot faster after 9-11 than it did after John’s death.
This excerpt from my book, “A Widow’s Awakening,” took place three weeks after the Twin Towers were attacked. I was visiting New York City on my own, and found myself wandering around a rather deserted Central Park:
I head over to the Bronx Zoo and am standing in front of the bear enclosure, watching an old-timer snoozing in the sun, when an older woman comes up to me.
“He’s not too worried about world events,” she says.
The woman, a zoo volunteer, proceeds to enthusiastically tell me about the bear’s history, personality and daily habits. I’m inspired by her commitment. This is her tiny corner of the world and despite all that’s happened she still takes her job seriously.
Then I go to the New York Public Library bookstore and buy The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. I sit on the front steps and am flipping through the book when a quote catches my eye: “Organisms don’t struggle because they must evolve; they evolve because they must struggle.” Clunk. Because of my struggles this past year, I am evolving. I feel a faint stirring inside, as if that part of myself that fell alongside Sam is finally trying to get back up again.
That was a pivotal moment for me in my grieving process. That zoo volunteer taught me more about how to respond, in a constructive way, to a crisis than a hundred self-help books ever did.
If I had to sum up her message, this would be it: when things don’t go the way we had hoped, there is always one thing we do still have control over: how we respond to the situation.
During this pandemic, until we are told otherwise, we can—and must—continue to do our part to help stop the spread of the virus by staying home, staying well, staying calm, staying present, staying clear of other people and obsessively washing our hands.
But in addition to this, I also know there is a great deal of actual work I need to be accomplishing during this forced time-out. And I certainly am.
Not only have I been moving some significant writing projects forward, I have also, at long last, finally got around to starting again on unpacking the dozens of unopened boxes from moving in more than a year ago. The amount of paper—after purging files—picked up by the recycling truck outside my home the other morning was shocking.
Better out than in, yes.
But here’s an uncomfortable little nugget of truth I have had to admit about myself: if I had spent more time over the past nineteen years actually doing the work to complete the projects— instead of wasting precious time, energy, money and resources researching, thinking about, planning, printing, filing, organizing my ideas and waiting on the green light from other people before proceeding—I would be WAY further ahead today on accomplishing the projects that really matter to me.
Alas, I cannot change the past. But I can learn from it…and move forward accordingly. That’s another bonus this pandemic is giving me: time to reflect on what has not worked on the past so that I can move forward more effectively in the future.
I am extremely grateful that I am able to take full advantage of the time freed up, thanks to COVID19, to focus on my writing and other work…and not have the horrible financial worries hanging over my head about how the heck to pay my rent or mortgage next month.
Not for a moment do I forget that millions of others around the planet are not so lucky. My prayers go out to everyone who is impacted by this virus—physically, economically, emotionally and mentally. I am not an essential worker and I certainly won’t be finding the vaccine for COVID19 anytime soon. But I can stay home and make wise use of this down-time.
In fact, I feel a bit of moral obligation TO make constructive use of my time because so many others are putting their own health on the line, day in and day out, for the common good. They are doing their jobs…I shall do mine.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
– J. R. R. Tolkien
Previously Published on Pink Gazelle