From a safe-seeming 6 feet apart, a neighbor and I waved hello.
As if on cue, we both asked: “How are you?”
And, simultaneously, we both replied: “Fine.”
White paper masks furred our words, rumpling as we nodded, grinning, glad.
This cliché mini-conversation—hi; how are you; fine—so intrinsic to human society and performed repeatedly, daily, is no longer meaningless.
Barraged these locked-down days by death tolls, dire warnings, and pictures of patients fighting for their lives, we ask each other how we are because we care.
Unprecedentedly, we care because wellness and life suddenly seem, to most of us, more fragile than before. We care because we want our friends, co-workers, relatives, and neighbors to survive. We also care because whoever isn’t “fine” during these contagious days might infect us with a cough, a laugh, an unmasked exhalation—so we need to know whom to avoid.
But when the official restrictions ebb and this pandemic ends—some say if—how long will we keep asking “How are you?” with our current-day concern? How long before we backslide into empty-gesture territory, asking without listening?
Or will we stay this way?
My neighbor went on to say that her whole family felt fine, and working from home—as a school administrator—was far better than she could have guessed. She said this newfound solitude and silence help her focus more intently and correspond more articulately than a crowded office ever did.
I thought: Some of these things we’re forced to do these days, some of these changes pressed on us against our will as a matter of life and death, might end up helping us.
Which of our pandemic-sparked lifestyle changes, attitudes, methods of work and play, and other practices might stick? Along with asking “How are you?” and meaning it, which of these four other changes should we nurture for the long haul?
Appreciating everything we ever took for granted
Deprivation hurts. Uncertainty and scarcity and chronic fear and separation are, for many millions, new realities—new forms of suffering, for sure, but also stark reminders of how precious even our old daily basics are. Paychecks and parties. Strolling unmasked into well-stocked stores. Classrooms and concerts. Making plans. Yearning now for these lost things—can we make ourselves remember what we missed about them long after we get them back? Can they retain, long-term, the higher emotional, spiritual, life-affirming value that their absence now bestows?
Appreciating what we have today
Despite the deprivation, let us give 10,000 daily thanks for what’s tiding us over now, humble as it might be: nondairy creamer, say, or freelance work or homegrown kale. The internet. Four walls, windows, a roof, someone to share these with. Jokes. Music. Soap.
With most businesses closed and shelter-in-place orders sustained, driving anywhere has become an ethical and physical quandary. What errand or destination merits unsheltering-in-place? Going out in public increases our chances of becoming infected or infecting others.
Now as ever, driving raises anxiety, dirties the air, and requires appearing presentable. Plus: Not-driving saves lives. New York City’s Department of Transportation recently reported that it had been a record-breaking 58 days since the last pedestrian fatality. Will being virtually forced not to drive now make us less dependent on it later?
Substituting, innovating, and upcycling
Craving chili but you’re out of beans and quick trips to the supermarket are no longer possible? This is the day we make chili with corn instead. Or lentils, potatoes, or chopped squash.
Vacations canceled? This is when we “tour” our own backyards, basements, or balconies, discovering and relishing their every angle, shadow, insect, bolt, or bud. Discussing them, drawing them, later researching their details. Such exercises aren't just “practice” for the “real thing,” but valid adventures. Post-pandemic, can we stay this flexible, resourceful, open, free?
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