How to Survive the Endless List of Survival

We are day five into the long game of self isolation. Or is it day ten? I’m not sure when the quarantine actually started. Was it the day they canceled classes at the colleges where I taught? Or was it when the bars and restaurants shut down? Was it when the governor warned us we had two days to prepare for a shelter in place order—

I can barely keep track of the hour in this liminal space full of never-ending mandates. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch others. Strip and shower as soon as you get home. Don’t go out unless absolutely necessary. Make sure you have enough food for two weeks or a month or until the middle of summer. Have enough so you don’t have shop when you get the virus. You probably already have the virus. Take your temperature. Wash your hands. Moisturize.

Remember, it’s not about you.

Check in with your loved ones. Check on those in need. Reach out for help. Wash your hands again. Check Twitter for the latest news. Check the news for other news Twitter missed. Check Facebook for news that neither Twitter nor the news reported. Look at yet another graph that explains exponential growth. Meet in Zoom at 5 p.m. for the meeting. Remember to wear pants.

Someone dares to ask me how I’m liking all my free time. Lots of time to write, I bet, they add. I want to ask them what is time anymore. Last week feels like last year. Tomorrow is an endlessness I can’t comprehend now that all events are canceled. I want them to tell me how to protect writing time from such timelessness.

Create a schedule and stick to it, someone says in a Facebook post. I check the weather and body count first thing in the morning. I try to recalibrate my syllabus to fit the apocalypse. Hours slip by. When I go to make coffee, I leave my mug behind. I come back to fifteen new emails. I keep trying to remember the primaries are still going on, that people have birthdays. I keep trying to remember life moves forward even while it’s being brought to a standstill.

Listen: We are living in a paradox. You are not insane for thinking nothing makes sense. We are all lost together in this nebulous space, separated by a lack of boundaries. That office or subway ride might have been the place you could momentarily forget or process your unspoken anxiety. It’s all gone now. There’s a pandemic out to wreck our loved ones, our jobs, and our healthcare system, which was already wrecked to begin with. There is no easy way to move forward through all of this other than to say move. Dance. One foot in front of the other. You cannot control more than that. You cannot control the crowds hugging and kissing each other in their willful ignorance. You cannot save the world.

But you can still believe in magic. You can believe there’s a peace that comes from working in the dead of night and knowing now that some of the world is awake with you. You have been given extraordinary permission to call people out of the blue just to say hi again. You can send care packages and cards because touch is being curtailed or extinguished at an unimaginable level. We have yet to grapple with this horror, although some of us feel it coming. Like the rising dark, we must meet it with all the magic and love we can muster. Now is not the time to give in to paralysis even as we are bombarded by conflicting messages regarding virus symptoms and testing and what the future holds.

The world where we were too busy to see friends has been erased and we might not get it back for a long, long while. This new matrix will threaten our very sanity if we do become ferociously intentional about forming community. We must create more life-giving activities to combat the manic checklists running our schedules right now. Meeting in Zoom is great, but we must have more than a screen to sustain us. I don’t know what this looks like more than the sun on my face while I walk five miles to help lift my depression. I will say hello to every dog and human I see because I no longer recognize this New York, with its quiet streets and dark windows. Those of us who have been quiet will start to use our voice for the first time. If death is coming, it must be met by a chorus of love if we are to survive it.


Nancy Hightower has a PhD in literature/creative nonfiction from the University of Denver and is the author of Elementari Rising (2013, Pink Narcissus Press), and The Acolyte (2015, Port Yonder Press). She has published work in NBC News Think, Sojourners, Entropy, Joyland, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. From 2014-2016, she was the science fiction and fantasy reviewer for The Washington Post. She is working on a memoir about growing up in the evangelical South and teaches at Hunter College.

Image: Alexander Rabb via Flickr (cc).

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