How to Spend the Time

It is better to be grateful than to pronounce yourself lucky, and other lessons from quarantine.

Hands move puzzle pieces around on a table.
Getty Images Plus

In the first phase of the coronavirus quarantines, we spent a good deal of our time fretting about how we would fill it. We had so many hours, suddenly, so we scheduled Zoom meetings and Zoom support groups and Zoom concerts by the fistful. We scheduled and we Zoomed so much that we ended up spending the next phase of the coronavirus quarantine so fully exhausted by our Zoom schedules that we longed somewhat for the relative peace and quiet of the time before. We made Zoom groups to process all the Zoom feelings. We filled our days filling our days because community is better than being alone when you’re terrified.

Now we are in the next phase, or if you aren’t, you may soon be. This is the phase in which you begin to fill your newfound time learning that someone you know has the virus, someone else you know is extremely sick with the virus, and someone you know has just died from the virus. The great thickening of friendship and community that came in the days before the virus means that these losses are thicker too. Punch in the throat, punch in the throat, punch in the throat. The frantic schedule of online concerts and quarantinis starts to recede because the days are filled with the horror of what’s been lost and what might be lost and also with taking your temperature, which can take a good deal of time, especially when you’re terrified. And the worst part is the knowledge that it’s still going to get worse.

Suddenly, you are thinking about your time in a different way. Filling the days is not the chief concern. Time is not an empty thing to load up, so much as a precious thing to be doled out. Because there are a lot of phone calls to make. All of a sudden that Marge Piercy poem is front of mind; we are dallying in the shallows as the grocery store employees and nurses and teachers and janitors and doctors and delivery people (hello Fed Ex guy, thank you) and the food preparers and elder care workers and first responders harness themselves, like oxen, to this thing that is all out of our control.

As for me, I am not a first responder, so I am thinking a lot about how to allocate my time. It’s become clear to me that zero percent of it can be directed at presidential press briefings, which seem to affirmatively make us all sicker, and zero percent can go to schadenfreude, because glorying in those who test positive that once said the virus was a “hoax” is also making us all far sicker, too. Zero percent of my time is dedicated to fighting with people on the internet (if you have ever won a fight with a person on the internet, you are a hero and should be running the CDC, but I am not that gifted). Zero percent of my time can go to scolding people who don’t take this thing as seriously as I do, and zero percent can go to scolding people who take this thing too seriously for me. We are all grieving now, and scolding is not for times of grief. Finally, zero percent of my time goes to apologizing for the fact that I am lucky, because I spent two weeks doing that and it’s not clear it helped anyone feel better. I am lucky. Many of us are lucky right now. Some of us will not be lucky later, but we won’t know that until after. Rather than apologizing for being lucky, I spend time being grateful. I spend at least 80 percent of my day being grateful, and telling people that I am grateful. It is one thing that helps.

So, this is how I spend my time now. I take care of my kids and my husband and my extended family, and I try to take care of myself. People who need tests and ventilators and respirators and doctors truly need the rest of us to eat the freaking kale. I try to care for the people around me who are grieving, or mourning, or suffering, or who are harnessed so tight to their oxen that they cannot see straight. I try to be of use. I call the people who are over 70 because imagine not being able to see your grandchildren and also being told you’re maybe pretty expendable if the market needs some quantum of dead people. I try to write if I can find words, although like time, words need to be doled out cautiously. I try to give money to things I once believed government took care of. I try not to think about Boeing or Jared Kushner.

I ask myself as I do these things I’m doing: Does doing this make you feel better or worse? Talking to worried moms usually feels OK. Community is still everything. Gathering to say kaddish with a grieving friend feels better. Laughing with my kids at cat videos feels fantastic. Telling my kids to do things, too many things, feels bad. Fighting about the Democratic primary feels like science fiction. When I start to panic about the trauma we are all in, I tell myself to model something better for my kids. Also, I think I am in a codependent relationship with a midsize black squirrel outside my window. It’s complicated. Nobody wants to be made smaller than they really are by this virus, and that requires remembering to stay tall, even when the temptation to fight people on Twitter is shimmering there like free cocaine.

I really never quite liked it when Michelle Obama reminded us that when they go low, we have to go high. I guess because I am so unutterably tired of being punched in the knees. But now is the time to learn about going as high as you can, because that is the hardest thing when you’re terrified. Today we will learn that someone else is sick and someone died, and we will want to spend time curled up in bed crying. And that is an excellent place to be. And then, as we’re seeing in this slow-roll Viktor Frankl human makeover, we will find purpose, find something to do, some cart to lash our ox to, even if we are not on the streets saving lives. I am spending my time trying to be the shadows and the echoes of the people I see spending their time with purpose and courage. And that’s all I have time for just now.