Is it just me or does life right now feel like walking into oncoming traffic?
I’m beginning to lose track of how many of my conversations these last few weeks have been about anxiety: our collective fear of Delta and breakthrough cases and the unvaccinated; about kids going back to school, kids going into quarantine, schools shutting down; about seeing friends (is unmasked and inside still… okay?); about unvaccinated kids playing together; about future travel and larger gatherings.
We were all fine for a while, weren’t we? More than fine. Excited, ecstatic, making plans. Plans! Plans! What were those? Plans! To see people! We hadn’t seen! In years! Unmasked! And indoors! Touching them! Eating off their plates! L’chaim! To life!
After the shortest of all respites, my nervous system is yet again on overdrive.
For 18 months, healthcare and essential workers went out into the world, risking their health and safety, keeping food on the grocery shelves and medical care in our hospitals. I was among the lucky who could stay home and yet it was hard. We did work and school and everything else inside the walls of our homes, no contact with our friends or parents and grandparents or siblings. We stopped thinking about travel or making plans or seeing beyond our current circumstances. We limited our views in order to survive.
It is, in fact, this contraction that allowed us to survive.
I made a life out of our two-bedroom apartment with some flour and water and sugar and a piano and a bathtub and some worn-out New Balances and some really good earbuds and many friends on the other end of my phone and a whole lot of coffee. I pushed away thoughts of seeing my parents, across a continent, or of hugging my sister. I allowed my mind to contract along with my life. Who wants to fantasize about something that cannot happen?
Then, one night in mid-April, as I made my way around my local L.A. park for my daily walk, a family was playing brass music on the lawn. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, standing in a circle. It sounded like summer, like the Montreal of my childhood, humid summer nights where swarms of people took to the streets to drink and dance and walk around and sit on lawns and have our faces painted, and I realized that it sounded like something alive.
It was the sound of us coming back to life.
But now, after a few months of bliss — because, yes, isn’t that what they were? The bliss of dear friends, of going out for dinner, of hugging grandparents and letting our kids run around outside unmasked, of letting our guards down — we are, again, being asked to contract, to adjust. But to what?
Many friends have expressed fears about this fall, and I have them myself, although my own anxieties are manifesting in completely outlandish ways. I find myself scanning for what I might worry about next — “panic searching,” I call it. An outbreak at my kid’s elementary school, full of unvaccinated kids? My own hours in a university classroom with masked students? My elderly parents traveling back home on two planes after our 20-month separation? A friend likened this panicked behavior to walking on the beach with a metal detector. My mind, so terribly confined to one fear for more than a year, does not know how to deal with the prospect of being set loose in a world that is not as safe as we thought it was a month ago and not as confined as it was a year ago. The other night I dreamed about a car on fire flying over my head while I held my daughter’s hand, praying it wouldn’t land on us.
I texted a friend mid mini-panic attack: What can I do? Wine? Cake?
Yes. And breathe, she wrote, herself well-versed in anxiety. So, you’re having a panic attack. So, what? You are okay. I promise.
Many of us have learned confinement, and now we need to learn something else, something unlike what we knew before and unlike what we’ve lived these last 18 months, some in-between, some bardo. Once vaccinated, we ran out into the streets, arms outstretched; now we aren’t so sure we should be there quite yet. We’re going back inside but not staying put. We’re opening our windows and peeking our heads out to see what’s out there.
The world has changed. So have we.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She also written about marriage, motherhood and neighbors.
(Photo by Maria Manco/Stocksy.)