For weeks and weeks, thanks to the pandemic, I’ve not only been staying at home, I’ve been stuck indoors. In the huge retirement community where I live, we were asked in mid-March not to leave our apartments until further notice. Whatever we needed, we were told, would be delivered to our doors. And it has been, but I’ve been in solitary ever since, unable to talk to another human being face-to-face—or even face-mask-to-face-mask.
I understand that this is for our safety. The community has about 1,400 residents, living in tall apartment buildings. Our average age is somewhere in the 80s, so we’re very much at risk. Without precautions, the coronavirus could rip right through a place like this.
While in solitary, I’ve learned a number of things. Here are 14 of them.
- A crisis can trigger memories you didn’t know you had. As the pandemic got underway, it reminded me of the beginning of World War II. I was quite young then, but I had the same sense I have now: that suddenly everything has changed and the future is unknowable.
- The pandemic also reawakened the frugality that was trained into me by a mother who had lived through the Great Depression and hated to see anything go to waste. (“Finish your dinner. Remember the starving children in Europe.”) Right now, it pains me to read that farmers are plowing crops under and pouring fresh milk away because they have no way to get their produce to market, even as families are going hungry.
Despite my mother’s hard-learned frugality, she would have found it difficult to believe that one of the things I’ve learned to be frugal with is toilet paper.
- Being trapped indoors has shown me how important it is (at least for me) to get outdoors. My parents’ generation believed that to stay healthy, you had to breathe in quite a lot of fresh air. I’ve felt uneasy, spending all my time inside, with my daily walk around our campus reduced to house walking.
- About that: I’ve learned that it’s possible to take a fairly long walk even when you’re confined to a two-bedroom apartment if you use every last foot of the space. My place is 226 steps end-to-end, provided I take all possible detours: walk in and out of the walk-in closet, circle the bed and the circular coffee table, hike repeatedly through my very small kitchen and so on. If I do that while talking on the phone to a friend, I can keep going for about 20 minutes without collapsing from boredom, and at bedtime my step-counter will come up with a daily total almost as high as it is when I can go for a walk outdoors.
- Zoom is making a huge difference in my life. I’d never heard of it, BP (Before Pandemic), but now I know I can have a glass of wine and relax with friends even if we’re not in the same room. And I get to see my adult children once a week in a family Zoom meeting. That’s a lot more often than we got together, BP.
- I’ve concluded that one thing NOT to do during a pandemic is cut my own hair. I tried it, and it looks as if something has been chewing at the sides and back. Which is more or less true because I keep spotting bits of hair that are sticking out, so I nibble away with scissors. A wig would come in handy about now.
- Though other couples in my community are undoubtedly complaining that this is too much togetherness, I’m touched to see that my cat really loves me. She has me to herself 24/7, and she’s not yet so tired of me that she’s hiding under the furniture.
- I try not to obsess about COVID-19, but I find that, every day, I learn more about it than I want to, thanks to friends and newscasts. And sometimes when I get together on Zoom for a couple of hours with those same friends, we spend the whole time talking about the pandemic. For now, that’s what our lives seem to have boiled down to.
- I’m discovering that Alexa is good company, though I still have to learn not to thank her whenever she carries out a request. She’s teaching me to be more assertive, something I’ve never been good at. Some weeks ago, I rashly asked her to remind me every day when it was time to go down to dinner in one of our community dining rooms. Then the dining rooms closed for the duration. I can’t figure out how to delete that command from Alexa’s memory, so every evening she reminds me to do what I’d love to do but can’t. The first time it happened, I was so frustrated, I yelled, “Alexa, shut up!” She did, and the sky didn’t fall, though my mother may have spun in her grave. Now at least once a day, I tell Alexa to shut up. I’m not practicing to be rude, just learning what it feels like to take a stand.
- I’ve found out the hard way that Alexa doesn’t know everything, or if she does, she’s not telling, not without money up front. The other day I asked her to play middle C for me. I was humming at the time, and I thought I remembered what middle C sounds like, but I wasn’t sure. Here’s what she said: “You can’t get middle C with Amazon Prime. You can get it with Amazon Music Unlimited. It’s only $3.99 a month. Would you like to subscribe to that?” Not when I can phone my downstairs neighbor and ask her to hit middle C on her piano. For free.
- I’ve discovered from the younger generations in my family that, at least through high school, online lessons should only be taught to small classes that allow students to interact with the teacher and with each other. I have one grandchild who has enjoyed just that, and another who now hates school because her classes are big and boring.
- The pandemic has taught me how lucky I am to be able to work from home at a time like this. Some of my friends are long retired. BP, they left our campus frequently for all kinds of activities as I worked at my computer and sometimes envied them. But while we’ve all been in isolation, they’ve had trouble structuring their time. Meanwhile, my life hasn’t changed as much, though the way I feel about it (safe but trapped) has. I don’t have to grope for ways to fill my time, and for that—and the income I’m still able to earn—I’m extremely grateful.
- These days, minor uncertainties often make me slightly anxious. It’s difficult to get groceries delivered by overworked local supermarkets, and some things are in short supply anyway. When I can actually get a delivery, I know it’s not going to have everything I ordered. It hasn’t taken me long to realize that, for me, security means having at least two 32-ounce containers of nonfat, vanilla yogurt in the refrigerator, along with 32 ounces of prunes.
But whenever I think about that, I’m reminded of how very lucky I am. For many, many other people, security means knowing they can continue to put any food at all on the table. And while I’m tucked away in as safe a place as there is right now, others are risking their lives.
- The last thing I’ve learned is how much there still is to learn, even when you’re in your 80s.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.