And now? - the "new normal"
Late April 2020
An editor I know in South Tyrol wrote me his theory: “In hard times good people become better, and bad ones worse; insecure ones get more desperate, and secure ones cling to the future, which is ‘now going to be completely different than before.’”
He continued, “My business is doing badly. I have 80% less turnover. We can keep going for a few more months, but then it’ll be over. Italy is promising to support us, but nothing has materialized. And what’s supposed to fall out of an empty sack, anyway?
“In addition, we now know what a totalitarian state – or even just an authoritarian, illiberal “democracy” – would look like. The police stop us incessantly. A neighbor was punished for going for a walk with his dog – at 7 a.m., alone in an orchard. He was more than 200 meters from his home, and outside of town. He had to pay EUR 200 penalty, and the cops abused him as a ‘Corona spreader.’”
I recounted the story to a friend who’d lived in Rome for a decade. She had no sympathy: “Those Italians, you have to impose high punishments – they won’t get it otherwise! They’re such rule-breakers!”
“In Malaysia where I’m from,” said a participant in a Pilates class, “lockdown means something different from here in Germany. Only one person is allowed to be in a car. That person can drive to the supermarket, but then has to carry everything to the car in the rain — alone. If there’s more than one person in the car – they fine you 200 Euros!!”
A writer in my writing group — 10 participants on a Zoom call, four hours working virtually on each others’ texts, an impressive concentration — said, “People are always complaining in Germany. But I’d rather be here than in South Africa, or than in the UK. Definitely rather here than in the US!”
My immunocompromised relative in the UK, whom the NHS text messaged to stay home for the next 12 weeks, told me: “I wanted to go out for a walk. It was early morning, and these days most families and people who’d normally drive to work are inside at that time. I opened the door, and heard the familiar sound of someone pulling a suitcase on wheels down the street. I imagined she was one of the people the UK had flown back from abroad. And I thought, ‘Where has she been? Who’s she been in contact with?’ It scared me, that thought, and I turned around and went back into my house. I’m starting to feel really stuck here!”
In Week 4 she told me: “I was doing pretty well, but this morning I read that people like me may be required to stay inside for a year! I’ve got stuff to do, like my series of dental appointments was interrupted by this thing!” She talked only about the practical frustrations of her ‘incarceration’ in order not to put its emotional consequences into words.
“Masks, they should all wear masks! I hate it when bicyclists zoom by me real close and they’re not wearing a mask!” says my friend P. The fervor with which she says it – with every logical bone in my body I don’t believe that mask-wearing can resolve anything. Instead, I think she’s clinging to the idea because it feels like the one element of her environment that she can control.
I am not anxious at all about getting sick, and I’m trying to figure out why. I don’t want a bad case of COVID-19; it looks to be uncomfortable and painful, and sometimes lethal. If in the next weeks the German government gives me the chance to test myself, and I learn that I’ve had an asymptomatic case and have come out on the other side with antibodies for at least a while, I’ll be glad of that.
I ask myself why I react so much less anxiously than so many people around me. Am I more balanced? Less in touch with my feelings?
“He’s like a bouncer,” a colleague once joked, describing my husband. Another said admiringly, “When it feels like all hell is breaking loose, his whole approach is just, ‘We’ve got this.’” Basically anyone who spends time with my husband Jens remarks on his unflappability.
And he’s no different in a ‘corona crisis’: “Look at the numbers for Berlin,” he says. “Today, April 26th, we’ve got 5,532 people infected – and 4,412 recovered. Only 113 people have died here! In this big city you’d have to work really hard to bump into one of those thousand infected people!”
It does rub off when the partner you’re spending 24 hours a day with cultivates such an attitude.
“So I have a whole routine any time I go out,” R. says, “mask, gloves, sanitizer, wiping everything down everywhere I go.” R’s a down-to-earth American who’s been living in Berlin for decades. “I’ve got diabetes. And I’m old. That’s it: I get this thing, it’s over,” she says matter-of-factly, reeling off her spiel at a different Zoom group meeting.
On a call with A. in California, who has a 5-year old daughter, I say, “It’s great that you’ve got her connected with her grandparents in Marzahn. Two hours a day they Skype now, you said?”
“That doesn’t mean she likes it though,” A. said. “Sometimes she just walks in and out of the room, leaving the iPad turned up to the ceiling. I tell her it’s rude, but she doesn’t care. And some days she just cries.” My friend L. is grandmother to a 5-year old boy living 1,500 miles away. “I was Skyping with his mom while she cooked dinner, and he came into the room and looked at the iPad. ‘Hey there, Henry!’ I said. When he saw it was me, he disconnected us.”
But there’s a reason for their anger, and for that cut-off feeling: In Die Zeit, a father and his 20-year old daughter decide they don’t want to chat by video. He writes: “I miss my daughter, and it seems to me that video chats just don’t work. You can’t be close to each other when you see a video image. It’s something different than feeling a hug, or someone breathing. I’m afraid wobbly video is all too often a poor substitute for real contact. I don’t think it helps. Distance is something that hurts and – actually – you should let that pain in.”
A violinist I play chamber music with occasionally writes: “I have my family around me, I enjoy going for walks anyway and I'm not in Berlin to rave, but I'm also feeling a bit like you, Nancy. I miss meeting friends and going into cafés and shops without it feeling really complicated or impossible or feeling observed or judged.
“I get the sense, however, that many people, other than the Blockwarts, are showing more consideration to each other in public - letting elderly people and young children get past, smiling a little more, showing more empathy.”
After publishing part one of this essay, I was touched by the concern friends expressed about my mental state. I’d just wanted what I was feeling in these weird times to resonate with others.
One of my yoga teachers, whom I wanted to show my reference to the retreat she’d run, wrote, “If I can help you, let me know. My number’s below.” My sister wrote from Seattle to reassure me: “Here’s a list of good things lately: your nephew has been learning to cook new foods and sauces. My husband built a roof extension over the BBQ. My friends and acquaintances and I build solidarity over photos of our garden flowers, baking, and trips we’ve taken.” My new writing coach wrote, “It's a hard time to focus on writing,” and sent links to articles about others having difficulties maintaining their mental health.
Yet simply stating publicly that this moment has induced aloneness was liberating, and helped me move down a healthier path. I’m feeling more centered, less freaked out. I’ve been following my own recommendations: at least an hour of online sport every day, several “socially distanced walks” with friends or my husband each week, a modicum of NYT news in the morning and TV in the evening.
The pictures that continue to make me choke up are the medical staff sleeping on the job, exhausted and washed up. Or I read about the Norwegian Prime Minister speaking directly to children. She reassures them: “It is OK to be scared when so many things happen at the same time.” Or on the news I see how old folks’ homes are enabling visitors: a window open on the ground floor, the wife outside, the husband, resident of the home, inside. “Depending on his state that day – he’s 82, and he has Parkinson’s – we talk a little. Or I play him music on my phone. After all, that’s what connects us.” Her phone shows that she’s playing him a piano sonatina by Friedrich Kuhlau. Tears immediately jump to my eyes: ah, the power of music!
“This is unprecedented,” said my Pilates teacher J., a modern dancer and relaxed, funky hippie type, said. “We’ve none of us ever been through this before. This is gonna create emotional trauma that we’ve never even thought of.” Trying to provide a counterweight to that scary thought, the other student and I listed joys that we never again want to take for granted: after work drinks, passing a beer back and forth, hanging out with friends.
My yoga teacher N. introduced her class saying that her friends and students all had one theme: “They’re complaining about the lack of contact, the lack of touch. Though it made me sad, of course, in a way it makes me happy: technology hasn’t replaced it all.”
Waving goodbye to my friend S. after a “socially distanced walk” along the river, she announced: “When this is all over, I’m going to hug my friends more. Definitely!”
On COVID-19 aloneness
March - April 2020
I have felt lonely. I have felt cut-off.
At a yoga retreat last year, I told 23 strangers I wanted to explore “connection” and “vulnerability.” I wrote in my journal: “What I mean is that I know there’s more—to be experienced, to be said—and yet I have built defenses so as not to reveal too much of myself. If I show that I’m scared, confused, alone—will people move away from me?” To remedy the onslaught of loneliness, I’ve accompanied my yoga studio’s shift to online classes. I log on to classes held by all my favorite Pilates teachers, even C.’s, who moved back to Melbourne suddenly. I’ve made appointments to call family and friends in the States, and I keep setting up dates with Berlin friends for ‘socially distanced walks.’ Unsatisfied with the dilettante advice I was getting on a big writing project, I booked time with a coach residing nine time zones away.
I have felt frustrated with my husband Jens’s irritation with the new German and Berlin regulations. At first, I thought: shouldn’t we just accept this? They mean well, don’t they?
Jens is still allowed to visit the big DIY shop Bauhaus—thank God, or he would be offloading more of his annoyance on me. He came home and told a story of an old, old man (“definitely over 90!”) pushing a walker down the aisles. A Bauhaus employee said to him, “Sir, if I were in your place I’d stay home.”
“What?” the old man, perhaps hard of hearing, said in a loud voice.
“It’s dangerous for you. We have 10,000 customers here every day!”
Can there really be anyone who has not heard about COVID-19?
I have felt surprised at a friend’s reaction to all the new rules. An upstanding member of society, still teaching piano past her 70th birthday, she says she usually doesn't believe in conspiracy theories, “but something is going on here.” She offers to send me links to certain videos about the comparative lack of reporting on the last global flu wave just two years ago. I didn’t even know she’s Internet-savvy!
I have felt worried about my immuno-compromised relative A. in the UK, who received a text message from the National Health Service: “You are high risk. Stay inside for the next 12 weeks.” Is that even possible? Will she start to feel imprisoned?
I don’t think I could handle it. She sounds okay on the phone, though.
I feel annoyed about constantly being told this is an extreme situation. And angry about how many of us are turning inwards, away from solidarity.
I feel helpless, unable to help where it matters. A neighbor hung up a sign in 10 languages (no doubt printed off the net) offering help to others in the apartment building, such as with groceries or going to the pharmacy. Six of us signed up. But then no one wrote their name in the “I need help” slot. So that means we all just congratulate ourselves on our willingness to be neighborly—and stay behind our closed doors?
I wrote a note to my therapist last week: “I have this feeling that I’ve finally really understood how valuable and necessary all kinds of human connections are for my being. And at that moment we get a command from the top: cut yourself off from others!” Spend time only with family members or those you live with under one roof! No meetings of more than two people!
When I go for a walk these days, I hate veering around people coming towards me. Will we keep doing that even after this whole thing is over?
This fear of contact is disheartening.
Some of my favorite things include introducing two people to each other who share interests; writing in the library where I feel the buzz of many minds at work; inviting friends over to dinner (Jens cooks delicious food); choosing books from my collection to loan to a book-loving friend; curating salons of musician and writer friends in our living room. ALLES VERBOTEN!
In a way, this crisis brings out the worst in both Americans and Germans.
I was dispirited to receive a forwarded email from a doctor in the States: “So, when we get home from the supermarket we wash our hands, disinfect the kitchen countertops, set up a soup pot with a gallon of water and two capfuls of vegetable wash, and set out a clean cloth towel to put the washed produce on. [He and his wife have defined 3 categories of groceries.] I spray each item of the Category 1 stuff with kitchen disinfectant that includes bleach … The Category 2 stuff gets dumped in the pot of produce wash for about 5 minutes … All the Category 3 stuff stays in the car for two days - by which time we redefine it as ‘clean’ and bring it in and store it. Whew! At the end, put all the cloth bags in the washing machine, wash hands, and congratulate each other. You deserve a drink!”
Well, that’s one way to fill the hours, looking inwards with nary a thought for those permanently stuck in Brazilian favelas and South African townships and Mumbai slums and the Gaza Strip, where this will inevitably hit next.
“There’s been a run on guns and ammo,” I read in an NYT opinion piece on how rural America is being affected: “It’s not as if we don’t have enough already, but if things really go to hell, who knows? Might as well stock up—if you have the money. Here, guns are tools. They take out varmints, and help feed us. For some reason, more guns and ammo make many of us feel safer. They also protect us—maybe from eventual toilet paper thieves.”
Or perhaps—considering the expected increase in domestic violence, more guns and ammo will enable more family members to turn them on their relatives.
What about that much-vaunted American attribute of reaching out a helping hand to those less fortunate than ourselves? Does it not apply when a virus is involved?
Here in Germany, my hairdresser—thank you, G., for that appointment three weeks ago when the rest of Berlin was already shutting down!—told of meeting a neighbor with whom she often walks their dogs together last thing of an evening, sitting at a table outside a late-night corner shop over a beer for a last moment of hanging out together. An older woman leaned out of her window and yelled aggressively, “Some people STILL haven’t understood what’s going on! Will you EVER get it?!”
Jens and I were watching TV news on the low-brow RTL station, where they held a quick survey, the results of which they broadcast at the end of the 15-minute show: “Who’s in favor of stricter measures than we have now? (Those measures were not actually specified: fines for not carrying an ID? For not wearing face masks? For sitting closer than a meter apart on a park bench?) Something like 68% of the viewers were in favor.
Is this a German thing?
My husband and I josh about some Germans’ inner Blockwart. Dictionaries suggest translating the word as “snitch, snoop, hall monitor”. Someone on Leo describes a Blockwart as “those little busybodies that can be found in every block of houses who meticulously write down everyone who parks illegally or doesn’t properly separate his trash.” But those suggestions lack the resonance of Nazi and Communist associations—a certain kind of officious meddling in other people’s business, over and above simply following the rules.
I feel glad to be here when a writer friend in Seattle, Washington writes, “I hear that Germany's a good place to be now!” Then I feel guilty for feeling glad. Yes for sure, relatively speaking, it does feel like things are pretty much under control.
I feel choked up and emotional several times a day—seeing photos of refrigerated trucks parked outside New York hospitals for the inevitable dead bodies, reading about doctors and healthcare personnel confronted with moral injury—“the trauma of violating your own conscience”—when they have to decide who to put on a ventilator.
I felt indignant as I read Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s and Putin’s assertions over the past weeks that this won't affect us Americans / Brazilians / Russians because we’re too tough to be slowed down.
Perhaps the weirdest thing is that I do feel a bit connected with family and friends and colleagues and acquaintances in California, Singapore, Oxford, Torino, Hong Kong, New York, etc. etc. But less so with my house, my street, my local community.
Yes, this pandemic is serious. Yes, there’s tragedy inherent in the fact that it is hitting older people and those with previous health issues hardest. And that it will inevitably spread to the poorest overcrowded areas. Yes, we all understand that we need to take precautions.
But these can be very lonely times!
As one of my lovely yoga teachers, N., said, after welcoming twenty of us individually on the video platform: “It’s really hard to separate from you, but I will slowly go to my mat.”
Indeed. Me too.
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