Reflecting and regrouping during the pandemic

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From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page, May 24, 2020

Way back in January, I decided this was going to be my best year ever. Resolving to be more deliberate about how and with whom I spent my time and resources, I set goals and made a plan.

Then the coronavirus arrived like a cyclone, claiming lives and upending our way of life. Suddenly, that plan felt indulgent and irrelevant.

The first few weeks of life as a shut-in were slow, surreal, and dark. It was as if loss and anxiety swept in, resurrecting old feelings of grief and paralyzing me in place. I was reminded that life is temporary, that some things are within our control and some are outside it.

Coronavirus has wrought grief on many levels. People are sharing in the COVID-19 experience in communities large and small, urban and remote. But our experiences are as individual as our DNA.

While folks on the front lines are dressed in masks and scrubs, those of us whose job is to stay at home are wearing yoga pants and slippers. We’re Zooming, walking, doing our spring cleaning, and planting.

And we’re waiting.

It’s springtime, but instead of box scores, we’re reading death counts in the newspaper.

We’re inundated with in-the-trenches stories illuminating how professionals are fighting this disease and patients are surviving or succumbing to it.

With COVID-19 news 24/7, I’ve fought the COVID blues more than once, for though it’s kept its distance from my loved ones and me, every reported death reminds us a family is grieving.

The death count is broadening as businesses also become casualties of the virus and resulting shutdown. When owners report they’ve done everything they could, but they couldn’t resuscitate their family restaurant, we grieve their loss and the loss of life as we knew it.

It’s been a humbling journey, these past few months that feel more like a year.

When I first wrote about coronavirus in March, I was numb, ignorant, and optimistic. Anticipating the shutdown would be short-lived, I wrote about how we could rise to the pandemic’s evolving challenges.

In April, with reality setting in, I speculated about how we would approach re-entry when the Stay at Home order was lifted.

“Will we pop champagne and race into the streets, or will we slowly re-emerge from our homes, like scuba divers trying to avoid the bends?”

With both people and businesses gasping for air, the answer is revealing itself. Just as trees have flowered, light is creeping over the horizon.

We’ll mark Memorial Day without fanfare or public celebrations. Small gatherings will be allowed but BYOM (bring your own mask).

When we first sheltered in place, Minnesotans embraced social distancing directives. But over time, there’s been a shift. Like a deflating balloon, the initial “we can do this” resolve has sputtered as days blurred into weeks and months.

I’ve stretched to reconcile evolving and arguably arbitrary rules governing our behavior, while continuing to follow them.

I’m not alone.

With higher temperatures and lower-than-projected deaths, a groundswell of anger and anxiety is percolating.

Businesses that closed on a dime are slowly re-opening. They’re trying to resurrect their operations on a limited basis with measured steps. Formerly robust businesses may appear as if they were dieting as the rest of us were packing on our COVID 50.

Soon we’ll regain the right to choose — to get a haircut, eat at a different dining table, or continue to stay home.

While I’m weary and wary, frustrated and impatient, my New Year’s resolve to be deliberate suddenly feels relevant.

I’m begrudgingly accepting that to survive in a pandemic that continues to confound us, I must continue to surrender a bit of control over aspects of my life.

Just as we made adjustments after 9/11, we’ll make accommodations in the way we go about life until we have effective treatments or a vaccine.

As we move forward, each of us will balance perceived risks against desired outcomes. We’ll make different decisions because we hold varying belief systems and risks from exposure to the virus.

We’ll do well to be mindful that as we exercise our free will, we might impact others through our choices and behavior.

Being deliberate in a COVID-19 world is not what I anticipated when I wrote my 2020 goals. But it’s helping me to create my own roadmap for moving forward with less anxiety.

There’s power in the “how.” Addressing how I’m going to live with an invisible killer in our midst gives me an unexpected purpose and a renewed sense of optimism.

I’m crafting a framework for intentionally shifting to living with an unwelcome intruder.

I’m making hard choices about when, where, and how I will travel.

I’m thinking about who will be in my close circle and who will stay a couple of arms’ lengths away.

I’m evaluating wants versus needs.

I’m thinking about how to optimize my time and talents.

I’m making difficult decisions about how to best protect loved ones who have unique vulnerabilities.

At the core of the analysis lies one question. How will I weigh the various risks to live my best life in a COVID-19 world?

~~~If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more of Caryn’s work, you can sign up to receive her columns by email. You can also purchase a signed copy of her award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page,” filled with inspiration and insight on living the “better” choice, here. Need an inspirational speaker who offers actionable steps to living the “better” choice? Please reach out.