It happened at the Punjab burrito place in a nearby village. I was so delighted to see it had finally reopened that I didn’t stop to consider whether, after a year of homecooked food, I was ready for the onslaught of their trademark Indian-Mexican spices. Yowser! Zowie! Boing! When I could speak again, I groaned to Rich, “Yogurt, must have…” I staggered inside and begged for dairy to cool the pain, and it was only as the cook placed two small containers of plain yogurt in my palms that I realized I had failed to put my face mask back on.
If I had stepped out of an airlock into deep space without my helmet, I could hardly have been more horrified.
I stammered an apology and fled. But then a curious thing happened. I realized it probably didn’t matter. For 14 months I’d assumed the slightest slip up — scratching my nose with unsanitized hands, leaning in to chat with a neighbor, letting my mask slide downwards — could result in hideous illness and gruesome death. But the stakes have changed. Here in Marin County, CA, 68% of us over the age of 15 are fully vaxxed, and 85% have received the first dose. The odds of surviving a 20-second exchange with a cook in an otherwise deserted restaurant? Pretty damn good. But I still felt terrible about forgetting my mask.
Navigating the shifting social taboos is more complicated than I ever expected. When all this started, I vaguely anticipated that someday there would be a joyful moment when we were declared officially safe and could emerge from isolation into rip-roaring celebration. This week, a friend sent me this ad, which captures the zany thrill of my fantasy.
That fantasy seems as far off now as it did a year ago. Even those of us who are lucky enough to be in areas stumbling toward herd immunity find ourselves in as much chaos and confusion as ever. Every friend, neighbor, and health official seems to hold strong yet differing opinions on safety protocols. For instance, around here, most people are still wearing masks outside, even though the CDC says we no longer have to in most circumstances, whether or not we're vaccinated.
A few days ago, seeing a masked woman approaching on the sidewalk in front of my house, I put on my mask as a courtesy. She said “Thank you,” in a clipped tone that suggested it was the very least I could do, and why wasn’t I wearing it as I walked out my door? There wasn’t time to pull up the CDC guidelines on my phone as she zipped past, or to show her the NY Times report that said, "There is not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table."
Misunderstandings abound whenever society shifts gears, leading to endless muddle and mayhem. According to author William Bridges, transitions occur in three phases: ending, the neutral zone, and beginning. “We cannot move forward until we have let go of who we have been, and what has been, in the past,” wrote Danya Ruttenburg in the Washington Post. “Only after we spend some time in the neutral zone does the beginning of our new selves, our new way of being in the world, emerge in earnest. The neutral zone is a time of unknowns. A time when you’ve left one thing and don’t know what will happen next. A time of terror, of possibility, of creativity, of openness, of uncertainty … That’s terrifying. But it can also be so potent, so powerful. Ripe. No doors have been closed. We are not quite at the end of this pandemic. But we’re starting to see what the neutral zone might look like.”
It seems to me something called the neutral zone really ought to be a little less terrifying, but OK, I’ll try to embrace it. “Stories are emerging, as the world begins to reopen,” wrote the AP’s Kelli Kennedy, “people secretly dreading each milestone toward normalcy, envisioning instead anxiety-inducing crowds and awkward catch-up conversations. Even small tasks outside the home — a trip to the grocery store, or returning to the office — can feel overwhelming. Psychologists call it re-entry fear, and they're finding it more common as headlines herald the imminent return to post-pandemic life.”
In a pandemic that's already exceeded our most paranoid fantasies, how are we supposed to cope with yet another period of uncertainty?
One woman suggests “voodoo effect” cooking. “Sometimes, busting through your stress is as simple as reasserting your dominance at the top of the food chain,” wrote Tucker Cummings in Lifehack. “Maybe it’s a little dark, but chopping veggies and butchering chickens can really take the edge off of even the most stressful days. Have a big fight with your boss? Pretend that carrot is his car and go to town on it. By using your ingredients like voodoo dolls, you’ll find that cutting through a couple of pounds of food has really calmed you down.” Yikes! That does sound a little dark. But potentially very therapeutic. Just don’t get carried away when you’re handling sharp knives. If you find yourself enjoying it too much, put down your weapons and step away from the cutting board.
Give yourself time to transition, advises Miami psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Bregman, who calls fear of emerging from lockdown “cave syndrome.” After the 1918 influenza, he notes, 40% of the population had what we’d now call PTSD. “It took 10 years for the people to get out of this.”
Ten years? I’m hoping for a slightly quicker fix than that. And Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society has one. They recently surveyed 6000 people and learned daily gardening improves wellbeing scores by 6.6% and reduces stress levels by 4.2%. Those with health issues reported gardening eased episodes of depression (13%), boosted their energy (12%), and reduced stressed-out feelings (16%). As the Good News Network put it, “It certainly sounds like it’s time to get your Vitamin ‘G’ on.” Since Rich refers to gin by that nickname, I immediately pictured him with a trowel in one hand and a G&T in the other, and yes, he did look pretty zippity-do-dah!
Whatever therapies you find most helpful, the first step is accepting that emerging from the pandemic — whenever it finally happens — isn’t going to be as easy or quick as we’d hoped. In fact, it’s going to be another tricky, messy, tumultuous time, and there will be days when the only thing that makes sense is hacking up defenseless tomatoes until your kitchen looks like the lair of a serial killer in a particularly noir thriller. But if we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that we can survive disruption, uncertainty, and extraordinary challenges. Yes, we can. We already have.
I recently had coffee with friends Ang and Ryan, who run a location-independent t-shirt business and are now creating stickers, posters, and murals. They're giving away lots for free, partly as a marketing strategy and partly, Ang explained, because they're about things that need to be said — and heard — right now.
“Like what?” I asked. Ang handed me this one.
I look at it every day and feel grateful, because I know it's true.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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