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What I’ve Learned (So Far)

What I’ve Learned (So Far)

Many years ago Esquire magazine launched a series called What I’ve Learned, featuring famous people reflecting on their experiences and the lessons gained from them. In my previous job, we used that same story frame for alumni profiles in our school’s biannual magazine. I never imagined turning the tables on myself, but here we are, being quite literally homeschooled by the changes the current pandemic has brought.

Here are a few things I’ve learned since Karen and I began self-isolating nearly seven weeks ago:

I don’t need as much stuff as I thought I did. We are living more simply right now, using less of the “stuff” we’ve accumulated over the years and getting more enjoyment out of the things that we are using. This isn’t the first time we’ve learned this lesson. Twenty years ago Karen’s parents invited our whole family to join them on a trip to Papua New Guinea. After getting off the plane we drove for about an hour to our first hotel. All along the road, Papuan families were out working the fields and washing and drying clothes in the open air, while the children who weren’t helping their parents played with simple toys like sticks and hoops. Our nine-year-old son watched out the window for a long time without making a sound, until he finally piped up with an insight of piercing clarity: “They don’t need very much stuff, do they?”

Every social interaction is important. Now that most interactions are happening over video chat or the phone or email, I find myself putting conscious effort into even the smallest in-person interactions – greeting strangers across the street as we walk around our neighborhood (and stopping to talk with ones we know, from a distance), chatting through our masks with the checkers at the grocery store, thanking our UPS and FedEx and USPS delivery people, and waving to the garbage truck drivers. We are all in this together, and even the smallest gesture of empathy and connection helps make these difficult times a little bit better.

“Essential” has been redefined. We all knew first responders and health care professionals were essential workers, even if we haven’t always showed our appreciation as much as we should. (Thank you, thank you, thank you. And repeat.) What this situation has underscored is how many other workers—truck drivers, farmworkers, food packing plant staff, grocery store workers, warehouse staff, and the entire US Postal Service—are in fact essential. And underpaid, and under-benefitted, and under-protected.

Unlimited free time does not equal unlimited productivity. A lot of us, myself included, began this lockdown imagining all we could accomplish during several weeks of isolation, but it turns out that’s as unrealistic as a toddler trying to lift a car. Thousands are dying daily, the economy is in turmoil, our politics are toxic, and a simple trip to the grocery store feels like planning a military campaign. Our lives have been upended and reconfigured in a hundred different ways. We are reminded daily that this situation is inherently traumatic for all of us. Here at our house, we have a long list of projects to work on, but some days we accomplish almost nothing. That doesn’t make us lazy; it makes us human. Whatever your new routine may look like, make sure self-care is a part of it.

There’s really only one thing about our current situation that I absolutely can’t stand. We are fortunate in so many ways. I’m a natural introvert locked down in a comfortable house in a beautiful part of the world with the love of my life. Hardly a day goes by without a FaceTime call with at least one of our grown children, who are variously in San Jose, Redondo Beach, and the next town up the highway (Marina), and we connect regularly with other family and friends. Our new routines aren’t ideal, but they’re something we can grit our teeth and deal with for as long as we need to. There’s really only one aspect of the whole situation that feels, as Sean Connery says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, intolerable. Up until the first week in March, we watched our grandson and granddaughter two days a week, all day long. Played with them, fed them, changed them, read to them, held them, loved them. Listened to their voices, smelled their smells, watched them learn and grow before our eyes, day after day. The closest we’ve been to them since early March is sitting in our car in front of their house watching them ride their bikes in the street. Having them come up to the car window and talk to us and not being able to lift them up into our laps and hold them is agonizing. I just keep reminding myself that we are playing the long game here. We want to be there to see these two tiny humans who have stolen our hearts graduate from high school, and college. I want to dance at their weddings—and I don’t even like to dance.

Persistence is everything. It’s a comment a wise man once made to me, as well as a lesson I learned for myself writing books. The goal always seems impossibly daunting and far away when you start, and often still feels that way even after you’re halfway through. But if you keep going, and going, and going, eventually you’ll get there. And all of that effort will have been worth it.

Be safe, be well, be kind.

Comments (2)

  • Staci Alziebler-Perkins

    This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I am reminded of an NYC friend of mine who's mother passed suddenly from cancer while she was still reeling from the loss of several close friends in 9/11. As a tribute at her mother's funeral, we listened to "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack. I hope you dance, Jason.

  • John Sheehan

    You are performing yeoman service here my friend. In fact, essential. As potential for return to normalcy seems to slip further toward the horizon, it is helpful to be reminded just how small of a sacrifice this temporary adaptation requires. Instead of focusing on the things we are missing, Laurie and I try to focus on what we have retained or even gained. We used to look forward to snow days so we could spend the day lounging and laughing. Now, every day is a snow day. We used to cherish the few nights we could prepare extravagant Italian dinners together. Now we regularly channel our inner Giada de Laurentiis and Mario Batali. The occasional long walk around lovely PG is now our daily escape. I know we could chafe at the restrictions, but perhaps we should instead embrace the opportunity. Sooner or later this will all end, and I want to look back satisfied that we made the best of it.

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