Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
–Roger Waters (from “Time” by Pink Floyd)
When we traded our plot of dirt for a floating home 12 years ago, we also opted out of the “normal” life. Until we came back to the United States from the Caribbean last July, none of our children had ever attended class in a conventional school setting, played on a sports team, or owned a cell phone. They had rarely lived in one place for more than six-to-twelve months, and they almost never missed a family dinner. We came back, in large part, to give our teenagers some of the normalcy which they had missed and to help them take steps to integrate and find independence. By the fall, we were so swamped in busy-ness that we found it difficult to sit down even one night a week with everyone in the family to have a conversation at the dinner table. I was looking around at other families and wondering how they could stand it—how could this be “normal”? When everything ground to a halt in March, one of the things I felt was relief.
This week, my friend Sadie admitted that she has loved this aspect of the COVID-19 mass-quarantine. She has experienced in the last couple of months what I feel like we’ve had for the last decade. Don’t get me wrong—homeschooling five kids on a boat, traveling, working from home, cooking everything from scratch, doing laundry, and keeping a boat running smoothly—that’s a full and busy life! But we’ve done all those things out of choice, not obligation. The schedule we set was our own—if we got overwhelmed, we could cut something out to give ourselves margin. The routines we adopted upon our return, however, seemed so much harder. Taking kids to and from school, sports, activities, and appointments, and trying to live according to the clock left me feeling rushed, anxious, and guilty (when I couldn’t keep up).
Now of course, we have plenty of time, copious amounts of unstructured hours and days and weeks, while we shelter at home waiting for whatever comes next. This is not necessarily good. Without goals and a sense of purpose, time ends up getting frittered away, and as it is a limited commodity, something we can neither buy nor save for later, we cannot afford to waste it! So I am looking for the middle ground, a productive-but-enjoyable life somewhere between frenetic and idle. I am seeking this balance in the purgatory of self-isolation while we wait for a worldwide pandemic (and the looming economic and social disaster) to run its course.
Initially, we were hopeful that this would “blow over” in a couple of months, though it was clear from watching other countries that this was just wishful thinking. Things may not get better for a long while, and they may never go back to normal (which I argue wasn’t that great, anyway). If we are entering a period of prolonged instability, we’re going to need a sustainable outlook. How we prepare for a marathon is very different than for a sprint. Until we have more information about the virus and its long-term effects, it’s hard to make an informed decision about how to proceed. In the meantime, how ought we to live day-to-day?
Everyone’s situation is different. Those who are convalescing may feel like they are stuck inside Thomas Mann’s 900-page novel, Magic Mountain. Some people (like my husband) are busier at work, and don’t feel the slow-down at all. Others have been adjusting in stages—first enjoyment of a slower pace, and creative use of the extra time, then despondency or frustration as it seems to stretch on longer and longer, confusion over mixed messages from media and leaders, and, if your state is still closed, resignation and boredom. Still others are in survival mode and beginning to feel desperate. But what we all share is a universal feeling of uncertainty, an inability to plan for the future.
As I work through these stages myself, as I journal my thoughts and emotions, I have come to realize that planning itself is a luxury and an illusion. The majority of the people on our planet live day-by-day, hand-to-mouth, without having a choice or the ability to save and plan for the future. And even in my privileged life, I never had more than today. And neither have you. We were never guaranteed a “normal life” or anything resembling consistency. Life—and death—on Earth is anything but predictable. Our lives are a fragile gift—granted largely by circumstances over which we have little control, and we have never had more than the breath we are breathing right now. We can’t see the future, and we struggle to make sense of conflicting stories about the past. All we can do is carefully spend our limited time in the present.
All we have is now.
And now is not the time for laziness, but for learning to control our emotions, sharpening our minds, strengthening our bodies, and building up our spirits. Our humanity depends on it. Hopefully, we will emerge from this crisis stronger, because it will not be the last. What are we learning about ourselves and our values that we can bring with us into a new normal? What needs to change? How can we, individually and collectively, add love and light to a world where there is so much darkness and despair? How can we invest this time so that we’ll have something to show for it?
Without a clock, calendar, or plan for the future, we can still have goals for now. Here are mine:
- To wake up every morning and say “thank you for my life.”
- To do one thing every day for my mind, for my body, and for my spirit.
- To monitor and adjust my attitudes about my daily tasks.
- To be kind to myself and the people I live with.
- To keep informed about what’s going on in the wide world without losing sight of the small world at my fingertips.
- To limit my screen time, play games with my children, pursue creative endeavors (writing, painting, music), read good books, make nourishing food, keep in touch with my neighbors, get enough rest, do what brings joy and share it when I can.
- To support those who are struggling.
- To take life one day at a time and keep my thoughts in the present.