If we were having coffee, I’d probably oscillate between nervous laughter and tight-lipped silence. Right now, I’m a writer-in-residence at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, a field research station operated by the Iowa Regents Universities. Like many things, this was something I was chosen for last year, but was delayed due to COVID. This year, I was able to get vaccinated in time so that I can be at the facility without a mask and feel relatively safe doing so. But at times I can really feel how much the pandemic had changed me. If I had done this residency this time last year, I might have been more willing to dive into conversation. Now, though, conversation falls flat around me. The desire to escape the situation is strong.
I never did very well in crowds to begin with. I remember one year during undergrad in NYC, I went to the annual Halloween parade in the Village and ended up leaving early because I couldn’t handle the press of people. My costume could have been a masterclass in self-love—I went as a “#TBT” in that I bought clothes that matched an old childhood photo of me, and carried around a copy of the photo to show when people asked what I was going as. But in the middle of the crowd, I felt like my heart was racing a million miles per hour, and it propelled me to keep walking, walking, walking until I could get out into more open sidewalks. I left my friend group to go back to the dorms and deal with my panic in private.
So give me one-on-one conversations any day. But now, it’s like I don’t know how to be a person anymore. Right now my two modes are “oversharing” and “polite silence.” Even talking about my anxiety is a new thing, and I’m not yet sure where my boundaries are. It feels weird to probe at them out in the open like this, but then again I have been aiming more and more for transparency. I don’t want to present only the shiny stuff in public, partly because that shiny stuff is ephemeral, fleeting and draining to maintain. I have been lucky to have some successes to celebrate. Every so often something takes me down a peg, whether externally or from my own scumbag brain.
Being in residence at this research facility may have been too much, too soon. I say it might be too soon because I basically have not left my apartment for more than a few hours for the past sixteen months. The winter months I didn’t leave my apartment at all. Before a few weeks ago, after the second dose of the vaccine, I hadn’t seen another person’s uncovered face in person (aside from my partner’s) since last March. After getting vaccinated I tried to get myself out of the apartment, wearing my mask in indoor public places. Since coming to Lakeside, when so much of my time is spent outside anyway, I’ve mostly set my mask aside (though still close, almost like a comfort item). But what do I do with the lower half of my face? I’m usually a notoriously slow eater, but I find myself eating faster simply because I don’t know what else to do with my mouth.
If we were having coffee, I would probably have a hard time keeping up conversation—I would much rather be writing, though I know the whole purpose of my being here in residence is to gather as much material as I can in order to write something wonderful. There is so much to write about, after all, from the way the water reflects the sunlight, to the eerie swaying of the lake weed under the surface, to the stately posture of the bald eagle in the tree. The library has old introductory books on bird watching and North American turtles. This morning I saw a mink and a raccoon, as well as the hind legs of a frog as it leaped into the water, startled by the sound of my dragging the kayak on the dock. Sometimes I turn a corner and encounter a wild turkey. I overheard someone in the dining hall during a meal saying that wild turkeys are one of the few birds that they can truly see as descendants of dinosaurs.
But I can’t help but feel some double anxiety—that this gathering of materials is extractive somehow, and yet I’m not doing enough of it. During conversations I ask questions, try to gain some kind of information from someone else’s expertise in order to file it away for near future use. My questions, though, are few and far between, and tend to be overly benign. A generous interpretation is that I’m just warming up. More likely, though, I fear I’ve lost my ability to make more in-depth conversation about anything but the pandemic, the pandemic, the pandemic. But I might not necessarily be an exception—it’s possible that others are feeling this same anxiety. It’s possible that they are feeling the pressure to take advantage of any time spent with other people, and every awkward silence is another grain of sand slipping through the hourglass.
Part of me is comforted by this, though the various ways the pandemic has broken and remade me are yet to be reckoned with. Lately when I’ve talked about the pandemic, I mention that I regressed to old, bad habits from my teenage years. As a teen, I couldn’t get around my hometown — I didn’t have a car of my own to drive, public transit was almost nonexistent, and though my friends were willing to give me rides, our schedules lined up only occasionally. So I had to find ways to entertain myself at home when I wasn’t at school or after school programs. I got deep into the fandoms I was part of at the time (K-pop, Harry Potter, and then in college it was BBC’s Sherlock and Doctor Who). I read as much as I could get my hands on. In my senior year of high school I started journaling. During the summer after my freshman year of college I journaled incessantly. I played games on my Nintendo DS Lite. I scrolled endlessly through Tumblr. Hell, I’ve played Solitaire more often lately, which was a staple pastime for me in the summer. I do think these things have matured with me, and I’m more aware of when these coping mechanisms cross the line into unhealthy behaviors. But then again the whole pandemic situation was so difficult that I’m trying to forgive myself a few relatively harmless vices.
If we were having coffee, I might ask you how you have been coping with the pandemic, or I might try to start up some new topic of conversation. The former feels a little intimate. I have some idea of how my closest friends and family have handled the lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccinations, etc., and have had regular enough (virtual) contact to know the details. Even internet acquaintances I have some understanding of their experiences, the actions that they’ve taken, know the inside of their home offices or living rooms because of Zoom. It feels like too personal a question to ask a new stranger.
On the other hand, I’m recognizing the latter choice, to talk about something else, is my own brand of denial and avoidance. A pet peeve I’ve developed (that’s actually quite a bit stronger than a pet peeve), is when people try to force a “new normal,” with emphasis on the “normal.” It irks me whenever people say “post-pandemic,” as if significant portions of the world population aren’t still battling the spread of COVID. And anytime I try to talk about something else, anytime I feel like Cady Heron in Mean Girls, boring herself by talking too much about Regina George (for me, the pandemic is Regina), it feels like I’m ceding ground. It feels like retreating and letting the “back to normal” crowd take up all our time and attention. And that’s the last thing I want.
So if we were having coffee, I think I really would ask: What are you still learning from the pandemic?
This post was created as part of #weekendcoffeeshare. Check out more posts in the hashtag.