SEATTLE — “Hello from the future.”
It’s how I’ve begun many a text or phone call here in Seattle to friends in other parts of the country these past few weeks since COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, took root back in January — a lifetime ago. Since then, Washington state has become America’s pandemic epicenter, with more than 60 deaths and 1,100 confirmed infections.
At first, I used the phrase to add some levity to comments that probably seemed overly fretful to anyone not living here, watching “normal” life gradually shift with each passing week, then day, then hour into something unrecognizable.
“Hello from the future! Have you had any cases yet? You might want to snag some hand sanitizer next time you’re out. You can’t find it anywhere here.”
As the rate of infection soared and the death count grew, as companies evacuated offices and schools held emergency meetings to decide if, then how, then when to close, it has taken on more urgency.
Here in the future, we’ve been inadvertent guinea pigs for our nation’s response to this virus. As other regions begin to wrap their heads around concepts like social distancing and weeks of potential school closures, we’ve been swapping tips on which ER seems the least crowded and where to score toilet paper.
Here in the future, people are hitting the liquor store to make their own hand sanitizer. I’ve called my mom for reminders of how she could make one grocery trip to a military commissary stretch for a month, in case we get sick and can’t shop or grocery delivery gets canceled. Our first aid kit is fully stocked for the first time this millennium. Gardens around town are being planted with extra vegetables and salad greens. I’m attending my first virtual dinner party Friday night.
Each day brings new e-mails and phone calls and news alerts from the world outside our house. At first, events were delayed or up in the air. Now, it’s all closures or indefinite suspensions: Emerald City Comic Con, the library, our local movie theater, nail salons, Little League.
But the hiking trails are still open in our foothills and parks, and they are packed — with cityfolk heading for the woods in a vain attempt to keep their distance. That’s another equation you’ll soon get used to: how to size up someone walking toward you on the trail, on the sidewalk with their dog, in the grocery aisle. Are they coughing hard? Do their kids look sick? Should you cross the street? One tip I’ve read: assume you have the virus and act accordingly to protect them.
And therein lies the toughest challenge for the (presumed) healthy during this pandemic thus far: social isolation. In the San Francisco Bay Area, that literally means staying in your house unless you are sick or need to get groceries. We’re not there yet in Seattle, but it inches closer each hour. Already, our restaurants and bars have shifted to take-out or delivery only. No more lingering over a glass of wine or an ice-cold Corona. Now, even a drive-thru Happy Meal calls for a Google search: Can the virus cling to cardboard?
In place of dining out, I see picnics happening, indoors and out. I see screengrabs of online happy hours where the only rule is to discuss anything but COVID-19. The families who seem the most sane have little rituals: bothering to get dressed, bothering to greet one another, bothering to still savor dessert or a drink after dinner, bothering to reach out to a different set of friends or family by phone or letter or video each day.
My husband and I are lucky enough to be able to work from home, and we’ve been doing so together since March 2. Even if you’re an introvert, you will have challenging days. Claim your nook at home now. Think of where you will go to have important phone conversations while the dog barks or the kids scream — in your closet? Beneath a comforter? Much like on a camping trip or a group vacation, talk through each day so you know who is free when you have to tackle the unexpected. One piece of wisdom from an elder that has served my own 10-year marriage well: Make sure to ask, “How can I make your day easier?”
Wednesday morning, my preschooler clapped and beamed through songs as his teachers held circle time for a dozen kids and their siblings via videoconference. His big brother’s first class video visit descended into chaos when everyone simultaneously chattered and squealed with pent-up glee. Learn where your mute buttons are and show your kids, too. They’ll be conference call pros when this is over, and also better able to carry on an actual conversation with grandma.
Doing the classwork school sent home is another story. We made a colorful schedule like you’ll see all over Instagram and Pinterest. Some days, it works. Some days, we throw it all out the window due to work demands. But we keep trying, and we’re going to get the hang of it.
Here’s what I need you to know most of all: It’s time, more than ever, to reach out to those you love and hold on tight (virtually, of course). Old friends, new friends, school friends, family. I call my 82-year-old mother every day now. She lives less than an hour from me, now that there are few cars on the road and the ferries are close to empty. Yet, we must not see one another lest she pick up the virus from me or from the adorable little vectors otherwise known as my children. I asked whether she needs groceries (she didn’t: my mom has survived war and deprivation. Being prepared is second nature). I could leave them on your porch, I told her, and we could wave at each other through the window. Other people are doing this, I told her.
How could I see my daughter outside and not hug you, she demanded to know. I don’t have an answer. I just want to be able to take her to a Mariners game, if and when Opening Day arrives.
You will soon look at every space with fresh eyes. You will feel moved to protect the places you love, whether through donations or Facebook posts or telling friends to get takeout from there. You will marvel at crows flying blithely by, carrying twigs in their beaks to build their nests: unlike you, their schedule remains right on time.
You will lose someone or something dear to you: your job, your partner’s income, your retirement fund, a favorite restaurant or barbershop or bar or bakery unable to weather the financial hit of a long closure. Hopefully not the life of someone in your orbit.
You will have a moment where the shock of all the change you’re enduring takes your breath away. Let yourself grieve. Then remember those who are worse off than you. Do something to help them.
My mother says the most important thing to prioritize in times of great change is sleep and a routine. Here in the future, I can assure you she’s right. After shifting from shock to grief to acceptance of our current reality, after allowing our minds to flex and absorb each new twist, we can already see our kids settle into the strongest version of themselves. The future is not normal, but it’s normal for now. As my family members serving in the military say: improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Hello from the future. Hold on tight. Take one day at a time.
Karen Gaudette Brewer is a Seattle-based author, journalist, and editor.