The New Normal


April 1, 2020 by Jean

imageIt’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, I was wondering if I had overcommitted myself for spring. I was spending time each day practicing the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, for the Maine Music Society performance at the end of March. I was also scheduled to begin teaching a course on perennial gardening at the Senior College in late March; I had put the syllabus together and was hard at work on planning the first class session. In addition to teaching a Senior College class, I was also enrolled to take one, and I had signed up for half a dozen classes at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, beginning in April and extending through the summer and into fall. If all that weren’t enough, I had agreed to put together a slide show for the first meeting of my garden club in late April. I was looking at these commitments and wondering how I would fit in regular visits to my friend in the nursing home, work on getting her house ready to go on the market, and work in my garden.

And then, in a matter of hours, it all fell away. The nursing home prohibited visitors, my singing rehearsals and concert were canceled, as were courses at the Senior College. I went from trying to consolidate errands so that I could have two days a week at home to only going out two days a week. Yesterday, Maine Governor Janet Mills issued a statewide stay-at-home order for the entire month of April, so my errands are likely to dwindle to, at most, one day a week.

How am I doing with this new regime? During the first week of disrupted activities, I felt grumpy and at loose ends. Although I had many ways that I could use this found time productively, I was having difficulty settling down and focusing on any of it. During the second week, I got back in touch with my solitude-loving self and started to find the rhythm. By this, the third week, I am feeling quite comfortable with spending days at a time without any in-person human contact. My focus is on how to use my time well and how to build in enough social interaction so that solitude does not become isolation.

Happily for me, Maine is a sparsely populated state (43 people per square mile, compared with 70,000 per square mile in New York City) where spending time outdoors is considered important for health; going for a walk or hike or run or bike ride, or going fishing are classified as activities essential for health under the stay-at-home order, as long as you keep at least 6’ between you and other people. Also happily for me, it is spring. We have had early snowmelt this year, and I can get out to work in my garden. This morning, I counted up how many flower beds need spring cleanup and realized that I will need to do four per week in order to finish by the end of April. That will keep me busy at home!

I’m a homebody who normally cooks and eats my meals at home, so the closing of restaurants doesn’t make much difference in my life. What has changed is that getting food for cooking has become a little trickier. I have found it just about impossible to keep 6’ from other shoppers in supermarkets. The governor’s new order may make this easier because it puts strict limits on how many shoppers a store can allow inside at the same time. It also encourages stores to provide curbside pickup services. At this point, many stores that tried this have been overwhelmed by the number of requests; it will be a week or two before curbside pickup is readily available. At this time of year, my diet depends largely on foods harvested and preserved last summer and fall, so I have much of what I need in the house. On Monday, I went to the supermarket at mid-morning, when it wasn’t busy, and picked up supplementary ingredients and supplies to get me through 2-3 weeks. Although I couldn’t always keep other shoppers 6’ away from me during my shopping trip, I wore disposable gloves and a face mask to help protect me from those who were not being conscientious about distancing. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the early-morning shopping hour for those in high risk categories at a natural food store that I frequent. Once again, I’ll try to buy enough to last me 2-3 weeks. On the way home, I’ll stop for fresh produce at a local farm that has set up a self-service farm stand to sell the food they normally grow for restaurants. They have done an excellent job of designing safe distancing procedures, and I feel completely safe shopping there.

My biggest challenge is making sure that I don’t become socially isolated at home. I am spending a lot of time in e-mail exchanges with groups that I would normally see in person. Next week, I’ll begin taking a six week Zoom course at the Senior College, which will provide me with regular social interaction (albeit virtual rather than in person). In mid-late May, I’m going to teach a couple of classes via Zoom. I’m also planning a “virtual open house” on Zoom to see if that will work as a kind of social gathering.

I’ve decided that, for health and sanity, I need to try to arrange one socially distanced but in-person human interaction each week. Last week, I met a friend for an hour-long walk at a local bird sanctuary, on a trail wide enough that we could walk side-by-side and have a conversation while still keeping 6’ between us. Yesterday, my next door neighbor came over to visit while I was outside pruning shrubs. While I worked in the garden by my front door, she stood about 20’ away in the driveway and we got caught up with one another’s news. She is planning to get her deck furniture out this weekend so that we can sit out on her deck (in chairs placed about 12’ apart) to visit on nice days. As the weather gets warmer through April, I’ll also get back to going for walks in my neighborhood, which provides an opportunity for waving and saying hello to people as I pass their houses, providing a sense of connection.

8 thoughts on “The New Normal

  1. Sue McPhee says:

    Jean, although I don’t live alone, I can relate to much of what you are saying here. As you know, I’ve been running a five-day-a-week massage business and on March 14, it all came to a grinding halt. And I found it unnerving to go from 60 miles an hour to zero in one foul swoop. Plenty of things I COULD do, but that first week I, too, floundered about. I roamed aimlessly from room to room in my house. Took a bit longer than a week to settle down. I am doing more now to fill in the gap, including writing another book. (That, alone, could take up ALL the time. LOL)
    And I’m on the radio twice a week now instead of once a month.
    Nonetheless, I will be happy to return to work when that finally happens.
    I applaud your efforts to keep from staying socially isolated. You have come up with a great plan.
    It is, indeed, a new world. Perhaps lessons learned and new habits and ways of doing things will serve to change us all for the better.

    • Jean says:

      Sue, A new book! I applaud your ambition and focus. (I still feel too scattered for that kind of sustained effort.)

      • Sue McPhee says:

        Well, thank you for the applause but there are still days when ambition and focus wax and wane and I, too, feel scattered. A well thought-out schedule would be nice but I can’t even get THAT put together. 🙂 But self-chastisement will get me nowhere and I know that so many have it a lot worse than I. I am happy for my radio show and the opportunity to offer positivity, fun and a few laughs via the airwaves.
        You’ll be in your garden soon and I can’t wait to see pictures of it’s splendor.

  2. Diana Studer says:

    That I do miss – being allowed out to walk. But garden laps are a compromise.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, It must be hard to give up your glorious U3A hikes. Thank goodness for all that work you put in creating a garden that you can enjoy being out in. I’m looking forward to the arrival of more spring-like weather to be outside in here. This morning, I found myself thinking about the first day when it will be warm enough to open windows and the first night of being able to sleep with windows open all night.

  3. Jean R. says:

    You perfectly described I feel when you wrote, “Although I had many ways that I could use this found time productively, I was having difficulty settling down and focusing on any of it.” For me, I know I have to get back into a rhythm again but I’m not there yet. Today I’m ordering groceries online for the first time for delivery and this week I arranged for my first postal pick ups for my e-Bay sales and by the end of the week I’m committed to draw up a schedule to get me back out the funk and shock of what’s going. Week three I want to start my new normal.

    Best of luck to you!

    • Jean says:

      Jean, This may be the first time I’ve arrived at the end of the day feeling as though I accomplished all the important things on my list and didn’t fritter away big chunks of time.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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