Gwen and I walk into a bar. Wait behind the taped-off area for the bartender to be free. He greets us. By that point, my mask has started to feel like I’m sucking air through a sauna and I’ve grown nervous about being out in the world again. We order drinks and then I very smartly ask:
Do you have menus?
Bartender, on his way to grab said menus: No, we’re one of those restaurants without menus where you just guess what we serve.
It is a perfect response to diffuse my nerves, the right combination of sarcasm and charm when combined with the bartender’s grin. The chef comes over and by the time he finishes describing his special of the night with the type of loving detail that constitutes food porn, I have to have it. Turns out, I didn’t need a menu after all to experience the most incredible Salmon Nicoisse in existence. After our surprisingly amazing meal, the bartender sends us home with a slice of raspberry cheesecake with a chocolate graham cracker crust. His treat to celebrate our first return to a bar in what I optimistically dub the After Times.
The first day back in the world after 14 months of intense isolation was amazing in so many ways: breakfast out while sitting at a table in a restaurant (rather than eating in the car), standing in someone else’s kitchen within a few feet of another person (both of us fully vaccinated and without masks), a shopping excursion at REI (courtesy of one of my coworker’s sending me a “thank you” gift certificate), the unexpectedly great dinner at a bar, all capped off by Gwen’s return to the world of in-person darts and my having alone time at home during non-work hours (which means complete control of the television and zero commentary on my choices).
I have been anxious about this day arriving and yet it turned out beautifully. While not 100% without difficulty (the world is LOUD, y’all), it felt like finally waking from that mired space between dreaming and waking that we collectively entered in early 2020. Not all of us returned.
Depending on which lens I place on my retrospection, the pandemic has (for me personally) run the spectrum from unexpectedly kind to on-the-edge-of-another-breakdown isolating and anxiety-inducing.
My wife and I have been fortunate on the financial front. We both have kept our full-time jobs and benefited tremendously from the moratorium on student loans and the distribution of stimulus checks. That combination of events provided the boost we needed to be able to finally afford bankruptcy (being unable to afford bankruptcy is a fuckery reserved for a different post). Without wages being garnished, we were able to finally build a safety net and emerge from this year on the most stable financial footing we’ve ever experienced. It feels odd, sometimes even shameful, to know that we have benefited from the pandemic. And yet after literally decades of deep financial hardships, what I feel most intensely is gratitude. The transition from juggling which bills to pay late while avoiding service disruptions to being in a place where our bills are on auto-pay is an unburdening that cannot be understood without having lived the experience of choosing between rent, groceries, medication, or gasoline.
Physically, we have both avoided getting COVID thus far. While Gwen has still had to go in to work at a warehouse, her company has been exceptionally diligent. For me, being isolated at home has resulted in far fewer bouts of illnesses than I typically experience. The trade-off, however, has been my daily step count plummeted to under 400 overall, causing my body aches to intensify and my back pain to reach the point of interfering with even simple tasks.
Worst of all, however, is that the isolation itself has pushed my mental health to the edge. I discovered years ago that while I love to spend as much time quietly alone as possible, it does something to the way I think. That ‘something’ isn’t always good. Sometimes, I’ll see the world as beautiful and miraculous and find myself in a bubble of perfect peace. But other times, I’ll find myself listening to a conversation only to realize I’m the only one talking and there’s no one around to respond. At my worse, I hang on to a small thread of sanity by talking myself through a 3am existential crisis with my core mantra:
This is only where you are right now.
It will shift.
Trust that it will shift.
It WILL shift. Sooner or later, “it” always does. I remind myself of this truth even when I am full of joy. In difficulty, it is the promise of some future light. In the light, it is a reminder to be present while it lasts.some
Today the joy and gratitude are brighter than the fear and loneliness. Today I shared laughter and hope with other people. Today I finally left my isolation and re-entered the world. It has been a long, long, long night and I am grateful to have made it to the dawn.