By Sharon Stello
Cooking, dishes, laundry, TV, reading, repeat. My boyfriend is an essential worker, still going into the office, so I’m at home alone until he returns. One day blurs into the next and I can’t help feeling like a housewife in the 1960s-era “Mad Men” show I finally had time to watch. Of course, during this modern-day quarantine, we have the benefit of technology, so Facebook memes, Zoom game days, streaming television and Instagram live concerts also fill my hours.
I have no children to homeschool and I’ve been furloughed from my job as a magazine editor, so there’s no work to keep me busy. But I’m not bored yet: There’s plenty I want to do—artwork, practicing my clarinet, puzzles, sudoku, watching shows and movies in my Netflix and Disney Plus queues—and I can finally catch-up on my to-do list. I now have time to organize my digital photos and upload my music collection to the year-old laptop on my desk, but this is made-up work—it helps no one but myself.
I would like to volunteer, but I have no sewing machine to make masks and no truck to deliver food pantry boxes. I’ve done some transcriptions for the Smithsonian Institution’s online archive, but during a pandemic, it doesn’t feel very impactful. I would get a job at a grocery store, but, in truth, I’m afraid of contracting the virus. I feel useless—nonessential—and guilty for sitting safely at home while others risk their lives on the frontlines: health care workers, grocery store clerks, restaurant staff and delivery drivers, all working so the rest of us can survive comfortably. I also feel guilty for mourning a lack of responsibilities while others deal with real challenges like trying to telecommute full time while also homeschooling multiple children, losing loved ones who succumb to the virus or being stuck at home with an abusive partner and no way out. This quarantine is different for every person and every situation.
During my first week of the stay-at-home order, I was getting over a cold, so I eased into the isolation, feeling as if I was just on sick leave. Did I have coronavirus? Who knows. My temperature never rose to fever levels, but I did travel to San Francisco in late February, so it’s possible. The grim news swirls around us nonstop, with images of ditches serving as mass graves in other countries and dead bodies being loaded into refrigerated trucks outside of New York hospitals—glimpses of what we hopefully have avoided in Southern California by staying home, even as the cases continue to stack up.
Like everyone else, my life came to a screeching halt: weekly community band practice and yoga class suddenly stripped from my calendar. No more trips to Disneyland as my annual pass sits on hold. No more get-togethers with friends or events to cover for work. Beaches, trails and parks closed to the public. Everything paused for good reason, but still, my life dissolved overnight, replaced with endless hours and no plans. How would I fill the sound of silence? This spring would be a strange season indeed.
Along with the change in my daily routine, I realized recently that I haven’t put on shoes in days, padding around the house in socks because I have nowhere to go. I wear flip-flops to the laundry room, mailbox, grocery store or for a walk around the block. I still take a shower and get dressed every day, but that “getting ready” time slips later and later. I worry about the future. How long will I be unemployed? Will the company I work for survive? Will my job still be there when this is all over?
With these thoughts in the back of my mind, days have turned into weeks and I have begun to find solace in life’s small joys even more than usual: The warmth of a sunny day, cheery orange flowers blooming on my patio, butterflies and hummingbirds flitting nearby, the sound of rain on the roof during a few spring storms. And I eagerly await the almost daily return of some special visitors: a pair of ducks that hang out on the lawn in front of my condo unit. They fly in and waddle around, eating wild bird food we had left over from trips to the park. Mr. and Mrs. Duck bring a smile to my face, until the local cat chases them away. Despite the danger, they keep coming back. Kind of like the doctors and nurses who keep returning, showing up day after day to do their jobs, trying to save lives despite the physical and emotional toll. I think of them and feel thankful for their efforts and sacrifices; heartened that there are still good people in the world.
Others also offer rays of hope: People selflessly helping strangers and coming together virtually to make a difference and lift each other up. Groups singing songs, harmonizing across the distance. Animal shelters emptying as families adopt dogs and cats in record numbers. Students using 3D printers to make face shields for health care workers. These news stories mix together with the stress of daily confinement and there’s a juxtaposition of emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, hope—sometimes all in the same day. This is life in quarantine.
But, through it all, there’s a silver lining: With fewer cars on the road, air pollution is clearing up. Wildlife is flourishing in national parks devoid of human visitors. The world seems to be healing. It’s like pushing a reset button for the Earth—and for our hectic, overscheduled lives. Keeping everyone at home forever, obviously, is too extreme, but some balance must be found. Maybe adopting some work-from-home days, committing more time for our families, enforcing stricter crowd limits at national parks, appreciating what we have and truly embracing this opportunity for change. My greatest fear is that we return to life as normal.