Surreal is the only way to describe how our daily lives have changed in a matter of weeks. Seven weeks ago, I was in the hospital giving birth to my second child. My concerns then related to how my 2 ½- year old daughter would react to her new brother, or how my husband and I would juggle the responsibilities of our new family of four during the sleepless weeks to come.
That period seems like a lifetime ago. Now my worries are simultaneously more existential and more mundane as I ponder the world my son was born into while navigating the daily struggles of a life of isolation with two small children. As much as possible, I’m trying to take a day-to-day focus; looking too far into the future provokes stress and anxiety. Asking, “How will I entertain my toddler for the next hour?” is easier to tackle than, “What will we do if school is closed for the rest of the year?”
And yet I realize that my family is more fortunate than many Americans navigating this new normal. As a tourism hub, New Orleans, in particular, is feeling the impact of this unprecedented event. Nearly a quarter of the city’s workers are employed by industries most vulnerable to the recession we are about to face. Many of those working in these sectors have lost their jobs or face layoffs soon while companies close or see their business significantly decline. Local businesses are getting creative in trying new ways to stay afloat, or help their staffs. I never thought I’d see the day when I could get haute culinary take-out from any of the Donald Link restaurants, like Peche or Cochon.
So we are coping the best we can, by skewing to the mundane, rather than the existential.
My new normal includes daily Zoom conferences with family members and friends, as well as regular group texts on a myriad of topics — from the latest on the virus to tips on how to stay sane while trapped at home with small children (and your spouse) to the Saints’ latest moves in free agency (we have to hold onto hope that there WILL be an NFL season, right?). All eight members of my book club met and discussed Disappearing Earth over the usual glass of wine last week. Except each of us sat alone in her living room, in front of a laptop.
Screen time is way up as we use technology to stay connected in this world of social isolation. Yet, too much technology and access to information can increase anxiety in these uncertain times. I waver between information overload and avoiding all news updates as the information only gets grimmer by the day. “It’s a delicate balance between ostriching and constantly refreshing Twitter,” as one friend so accurately put it recently.
Despite the virtual connections, it’s easy to still feel lonely and hopeless. This is a crisis without an end in sight and, as New Orleanians, social interaction is part of our DNA. This disaster is the inverse of Hurricane Katrina: With that one, we came together to repair the destruction wrought by nature. With this one, our physical world remains intact, but we must stay apart to repair the destruction.
When Katrina hit, my family lost their house, and I lost all of my belongings to the flood, but as a community, we could meet and tangibly interact with family and friends to rebuild both home and hope. The loss of that ability to pull drywall together, or raise a glass of wine together, is tangible to us in New Orleans. We are far more used to calling for community action than enforcing community inaction.
So I am trying to hold onto the fact that we are not alone. This pandemic is an event that the entire world is facing together. For every frightening article laden with sobering statistics, there are moments of joy and hope. I wade into the raging flood of deadly information online, and cling to a small, steadying branch here and there: Italians flooding their balconies to sing with little musical harmony, but so much human harmony. A penguin wandering the empty corridors of the Chicago Aquarium and pausing in wonder to watch the fish. A new online tool that computes how long your toilet paper will last.
Here in New Orleans we know how to live in the moment. To savor whatever immediate thing brings a laugh or a smile or an appreciation of who we are and what we have.
So please excuse me while I go watch Frozen 2 for the 145th time with my 2-year-old. Hopefully, in a few weeks or months or years’ time – as with Katrina – these small moments of connection will be what we recall.