Guest columnist Sarena Neyman: ‘Life suddendly feels finite’

Thursday, May 21, 2020

It’s been two months of hunkering down with the same person in a small space and I know it may be many more. It’s got me thinking about what I’m finding necessary to get through this quarantine.

Good health. I’ve always been in denial that I’m technically a senior citizen. I’m in good shape for my age and live a mostly healthy lifestyle, give or take a few vices in moderation.

But the virus doesn’t necessarily care how much I spin on my hamster wheel. It cares how many times I’ve been around the sun. It’s inevitable that we’ll have to end this quarantine sooner than it will be safe to do so. Many more people will lose their lives. It could be me.

Life suddenly feels finite. Yet time is definitely moving in spite of everything else being at a standstill. New life is emerging everywhere; the contrast feels comic were it not so sad. I recently experienced my first loss from COVID-19. A gentle candlemaker. A loving and ethical man, who lived life fully and joyously, whose gardens are now in raging bloom. I cry just writing this.

Good luck. A child of holocaust survivors, I have always known, maybe even expected, to be blindsided by life. I tend to think apocalyptically, but I’m also aware of my good fortune. Had I been born just a dozen years earlier, I wouldn’t be here today. Today I am especially grateful for my good luck.

For not having lost a loved one to the lonely and horrific suffocation of this illness. For having a job I can do at home. For having a pair of healthy lungs — for now. I work remotely and I’m an introvert by nature so my life is just not that much different than it was before. I confess there are many aspects of the pandemic I find pleasurable. I know that this may not be true for people dealing with kids or older parents or those who are plagued with worry about losing their job or their house.

Two plagues at once is more than most people should have to bear.

A sense of safety. What must it have felt like to be in hiding like Anne Frank? To live in fear that at any moment the Gestapo could knock on your door? What must it feel like for people to be captive to their abusers for weeks unending?

And isn’t it strange how we must now treat every outsider like a new sexual partner: Are you using protection? Who else have you mingled with? Have you taken precautions with them? Can I trust you?

Right now my husband Kevin and I are not letting new people — or really any people — into our home, into our lives. There’s something sad about that. On the rare occasion that I leave the house, I feel oddly close to the people I see, a camaraderie of shared surrealism. At the same time, I understand we are all potential threats to each other too. I tend to limit my eye contact as I head quickly to what I need.

Good reading material. It’s hard for me to read anything that is not virus-centered. I read the news several times a day; I know I should stop but somehow I can’t. I remember delving into a stack of backlogged New Yorkers some time after Donald Trump had been elected. The magazines were from October and September, and I had fallen woefully behind. But I could not bear to read anything that was written when we were still in our innocence. I feel the same way now when I look at my old magazines, or for that matter, anything written before March 2020.

Tasty snacks. My favorites: popcorn, ruffled potato chips, and finger-yellowing Cheetos. It feels like the food when you eat when you’re camping: everything tastes pretty good when you think about the trouble (and risk) it took to get it to me. From picker to driver to grocery store worker and finally, to husband.

Kevin has been shopping at a small local grocery store to avoid the throngs at Stop and Shop. It reminds me of stepping into the 1950s and the offerings are far more limited, but I appreciate having any choices at all. Sometimes it feels like being in the Handmaid’s Tale. “Oh look, they have oranges today.”

A snuggly pet. It’s a good time to have a dog. It’s a good time to be a dog. I love being able to pet her and she loves it too. A friend of mine told me she was worried her dog had injured his tail because he was wagging it so hard. All my people are home — all the time!

The ability to give “good phone” (or the digital equivalent). I used to love to talk on the phone. Now I rarely do and I’m not that good at it anymore. I’m not a big fan of Zoom either. I always seem to be interrupting or not being heard. And I get so distracted when I realize that the old woman with the thinning hair in the upper right corner is me. I have to admit that I somewhat enjoy leaving a meeting or ending a phone call and going back to my pandemic life.

A creative outlet. There’s no denying the intensity of our thoughts during the Big Pause. The stark clarity of the situation can’t help but provoke an existential crisis. It’s easy to understand why art thrives in times when one needs to seek meaning from the insane and the tragic. I wish more of my friends were writing and sharing their words, their art.

Till we meet again.

Sarena Neyman is a grant writer for the digital rights group Fight for the Future and other non-profits. She lives in Leverett.