By Leanne Cooper Elliott

Contributing Writer

If I were to write a news broadcast, I think I would open with something like “Welcome to the greatest social human experiment ever recorded before a live studio audience.” If ever we were under the microscope of our own human condition – both the good and the bad – it is right now. 

Leanne Cooper Elliott
Photo contributed

When I read back on the earliest draft of this piece, I’m struck by the hubris in my reporting. That our fear around this is overblown. The numbers were getting bad way over there, on the other side of the world. Sure, part of China and all of Italy had shut down, but in our past experience with the other runaway viruses – SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu and EBOLA – our fear over it breeching U.S. shores in any significant way was mostly conceptual and distant. 

So, in the early days, I felt the big news was that I was turning germaphobic. This was a sincere revelation since I know a few true germaphobes and I’ve been really certain up until now that I’m not one of them. I’ve always liked things really tidy, but I’m OK with it not always entirely clean. I’m the girl that, in my very early 20s, thought nothing of arriving to Thailand, where I checked myself into the cheapest youth hostel in Bangkok, showered in the most unsanitary bathroom, and then brushed a dead cockroach off the pillow before bedding down for a deep and restorative sleep. I was alone. It was nasty. I was apparently fine with that. 

So, to my surprise, those first weeks found me compulsively disinfecting doorknobs and strategizing how not to come off as a jerk when I don’t shake hands or go in for a hug. I treated the kids more intentionally like the petri dishes they really are, especially fresh out of the goat pen. I only touched my face through my sleeve. I was having trouble touching anything in my house without wondering who touched it last, where have they been, and how long ago were they on a plane from somewhere foreign? Or maybe even just anywhere bordering New York. 

And that was in my house. Located out in the countryside of a rather wide geographic location that, at the time, had no known cases of the wicked, most stealthy collection of germs on the market today, COVID-19, aka the Novel Coronavirus. We had already affectionately named her “Rona.” She was taking over the news cycle and she was starting to take over my brain. Out in the general population, she was inciting so much immediate fear that we were stockpiling alcohol and spaghetti, and strangest of them all – rationing paper goods like it was the End of Times.

In those early days, it all seemed overly cautious and maybe even a little ridiculous … until the lights started to go out. On Monday, the first school fundraiser was canceled, and by the weekend everything was canceled, schools closed indefinitely, and by the end of the following week we were on near-total lockdown. Groceries? Yes. Post office? Maybe. A trip to the gym, dinner with a friend, a stroll through a crowded mall? Absolutely NO. 

Our new normal included maintaining 6 feet and having the forgotten canister of Clorox wipes at the ready. We learned again how to religiously wash our hands (20 seconds has never felt longer), cough into an elbow and for goodness sake JUST STAY HOME. And so home we stayed. What a strange and unsettling thing to have the normalcy and comfort of home, and simultaneously feel like a sitting duck, not sure from which direction the bullets might come flying. 

I’ll admit, that even though those first weeks had their stress and challenges, both of the adults in the house had been in need of a serious break. Like most families with young children, we were overcommitted, overbooked, overworked, over-obligated, and generally over it. We were on a relentless schedule that we kept promising to curb and slow down, but instead, we just managed to take on more and more. 

So those first weeks contained a bit of relief. While we turned bedrooms into classrooms and the dining table into an office, we were kind of high from the surplus of free time and the absence of the next pressing thing. We figured out a thing called Zoom (do we know how to unmute yet?) and had virtual cocktail hours and work meetings, and it was all kind of fun, in a way. 

But then week one turned into week two, which naturally became week threefourfiveandsix. Each week felt like a year with a similar trajectory of ups and downs. One day felt fine, like we could happily do this forever. Until the next day, when I watched too much news or forgot to step outside and breathe and the whole day felt like a massive boot pressing on my chest. I wanted to cry. I wanted to fix it. I wanted the sound of my family knocking about the house to be much less annoying. 

Spring break was the worst week of them all. I named that week “The Year of the Beached Whale.” It refused to end. There were days and days of ominous rain falling from the sky, and all those plans to backyard camp, write letters, bake – none of it really happened. Those days were the heaviest. I fought back tears and crushing sorrow. Forget distance learning and empty grocery shelves. The very real situation was that a lot of people were dying pretty much everywhere, and they were dying alone, isolated from loved ones, literally suffocating under the crush of a virus that would relent and show mercy for some, but not enough. 

That was the week we stockpiled Doritos and candy and gin. It seemed more essential than freezing bacon or buying bags of dried beans. They were luxury items that might somehow tether us to a sense of joy and normalcy. It was impossible to focus, and so all the good intentions and to-do lists gave way to this feeling that we were beached whales. Powerless immobility. Indecision. Confusion. Where are we going? Where have we just been? It was unclear as hell. 

It made me think back to the very distant world of January, just two months before, and the electricity that hung in the air. It was the beginning of a new year and also a new decade, a time to do Big Things. Maybe it was the symmetry of two-zero-two-zero that carried an auspicious pattern of possibility, but for me it felt manic and a little desperate. There was this urgency in me, and everywhere I looked, to do what needed to be done this year or bust. Big business changes. Big house remodel. Big weddings. Big trips. Big investments. Big plans. Hectic, breathless, urgent plans. 

Instead of feeling excitement, I felt unsettled and stressed. It didn’t seem sustainable, and when I get this feeling I can also hear Big Loss coming like approaching hoof beats. I mentioned this feeling to a friend on the phone one day, around the beginning of February. “Something doesn’t feel right,” I said. Well, it shouldn’t, she assured me, and then she explained that astrologically speaking 2020 is not a year to build, it’s a year to tear down. Total destruction. Burn it to the ground and start again. 

Shoot. No kidding. At the time, it sounded impossible that a year promising to launch us into the stratospheres, could potentially crash and burn. This intrigued me. And, I have to be honest, this kind of thrilled me, too. It might be the Scorpio in me, but I love the act of tearing down and rebuilding. Throw a match on it, let’s begin again. That’s totally my jam. 


I. Had. No. Idea. 


Could any of us have guessed to what extent the world would catch on fire? I held my breath in disbelief for days as it unfolded and when I finally exhaled, it contained so much sorrow and disappointment that it felt like I was being exorcised. When the demons finally loosened their grip, I knew I had to make choices. Have a two-martini lunch and sleep for three weeks? Maybe. But also, I was being pushed to reassess, strategize, get creative, feel deeply, remember how to laugh with my kids and above else, get radically quiet. 


Radically. Quiet. 


Now THAT is a terrifying state to try and manage. I’m always so busy doing, so sure that doing is the answer, that when I got quiet and un-busy it was the most disturbing kind of relief. Quiet can be uncomfortable. Quiet is a truth teller. Quiet whispers in your ear that, when this is over, we can’t really go back to the way we were before, even if we try.

Here’s my dirty little secret almost seven weeks in: I don’t want it to go back to the way it was before. 

I definitely want people to stop dying. I definitely want to stop the acceleration of ruined lives, broken families, and dire financial ruin. I would like our frontline medical professionals to be able to go home to their families at the end of the day. I would like us to be able to go to a game, eat out and earn the living we need to keep the wheels of our life turning. A lot of bad stuff is happening to a lot of good people, and that I would definitely like to stop. 

But there are a lot of things I want to keep. The world, in large part, has risen to this incredible place of generosity. If we look past the politics, there is so much goodness happening across the globe. When given the time and opportunity, the human spirit can’t help but soar to new places. Heroic and heartwarming things are happening all around us. If you’re in doubt, check out the places around the corner serving free meals and handing out produce every day. Check out the teachers who, without any warning, invented a whole new way to structure school, and showed up for our kids with smiles on. Check out the 7 p.m. Instagram videos from New York, or watch an episode of “Some Good News” with John Krasinski on YouTube, and just try, try to get through even a few minutes without welling up at the love we have for each other, even when we’re total strangers. 

And if the human stories aren’t enough, let’s celebrate the blue skies over Mumbai, the clear waters in the Venice canals, the flocking flamingos in Brazil, the rampant monkeys in Asia, the lone coyote under the Golden Gate, and countless other wild beasts around the world that are finally getting the leg-stretch they have needed and deserved for decades. Let’s look at the spring flowers, so audaciously blooming. The birds still singing, the bugs still foraging. How dare they! Nature is writing us a new rule book, if we are willing to look around and see it. 

This is the stuff that I want to mark this time in my memory. Not my own plight around what has been lost, or the number of pounds I may or may not have gained. I want to remember the softening. I want to remember the generosity. I want to remember that we have all done something heroic in even the smallest gesture towards someone else. If we have shown ourselves anything in these weeks, it’s that we are resilient, and gosh darn it, if we get quiet we might just find that there is abundance where we never thought to look. And there is hope even when we feel hopeless. And there is an opportunity here to rise up and change in ways we never thought possible. 

When life reopens and we work out our new-normal, I hope that instead of blindly charging back to the way it used to be, that I (and we) might take a beat and decide what it is we want to bring with us, and keep alive from this time. Time to group chat, time to write and read, time to cook a meal for the neighbor over the fence. Time to sit with the kids to dream and create. And above all else, time to be radically quiet. 

Of all the loss we have suffered, I hope we can remember what we have gained. I hope we can resist leaving everything about this isolation behind us and maybe find a way to pack up the best parts and bring them with us. We are going to need it in the new unknown.