Gratitude in the Time of Coronavirus

A lot has changed in the past two weeks. Every day I check the RIVM (Dutch version of the CDC) for current information on the alarming rise in covid-19 cases. Although they make it clear the number is an extreme underestimate, since testing is limited to at-risk people with serious symptoms, and only one per household. No, who am I kidding. I check it multiple times per hour, even though I know they only update it once a day around 3pm.

On Thursday the Dutch government limited gatherings to under 100 and told everyone to work from home if possible, but–crucially–did not close schools (or restaurants, bars, etc., which people continued to frequent in large numbers). I am connected to quite a few people who live in Italy, and they were all pleading with the rest of the world to take drastic action before it’s too late. The disconnect between the urgency I felt and the limited measures taken by the government made for a hugely stressful weekend. I signed a petition for the schools to be closed. I watched the news obsessively. Finally, just at the last moment (16:31 on Sunday afternoon, to be precise), word came that the government had finally decided to close schools, restaurants, sports clubs, cafés, and similar venues. This being the Netherlands, similar venues explicitly included coffeeshops (Dutch code for the place you go to get weed; and yes there were lines down the street as the places were closing) and sex clubs. When we absolutely must go out, we are to keep at least a 1.5 metre distance from any other human.

I’ve been letting out the breath I’d been holding ever since. Now that we’re finally all under mandatory social distancing measures, it’s like a weight I’d been carrying secretly is suddenly a shared burden. I feel an incredible sense of relief. Although I am aware there’s now another set of challenges to face.

There are people who deal with these things far better than I do. A couple of days ago my wonderful sister-in-law posted on Facebook,

‘So, amidst thousands of disappointments and uncertainties, I’d love to know, what are YOU grateful for today?’

I am embarrassed to admit that amidst my stress over the fact that our schools would still be open, I was seriously annoyed with all the people responding with how much they were going to enjoy spending more time with their families. Because as much as I wanted the schools to close, I also adore my one day a week that I’m home from school and work and everyone else is gone, and I have an entire empty house to myself. And that won’t be happening for awhile. Nor will a lot of other things.

But I guess it’s time for me to make my own gratitude list. Because really, I have a lot to be grateful for. So, in no particular order:

I’m not scared of homeschooling

Mainly because I used to do it. I did it on multiple continents, in all sorts of different conditions, including that one time when we accidentally rented a studio apartment in Florence, Italy and lived there for three months with two small children. (Every photo in this post, in fact, is a different angle of that studio apartment.) So yeah, doing it with two teenagers in a slightly less tiny Amsterdam apartment when their school is providing the curriculum? I’ve got this.

But nobody needs to be scared of homeschooling. Learning is what kids do naturally if you set them loose with practically anything. So really, don’t worry. Cook together, play together, bring out the craft supplies, read lots of books, get outside if it’s possible and safe where you are. Or check out some of these homeschooling blogs for more concrete ideas: My Little Poppies, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers, Eclectic Homeschooling: Raising Global Kids

I’ve Been Saying My Goodbyes for Awhile

One of my coping mechanisms is picturing every bad thing I hear about happening to me. So I’ve been having dread-fantasies about lockdown (ok, and death, but let’s not get too dark here) for quite awhile now. Which means I’ve been saying indefinite goodbyes to all my favourite Amsterdam things. On February 27, for instance, I went to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony at Concertgebouw, and reflected that it was probably for the last time until this was all over.

On March 4 I went to book club and wondered when we would be meeting again. Little Women was still playing so I went to FilmHallen with a friend on March 5 so we could also have a final taste of delicious but overpriced street food in FoodHallen. I spent the morning of March 7 at the Rijksmuseum seeing their new Caravaggio exhibition, and savouring every pillar and curve of that place as if for the last time. On March 10 I thought about skipping poetry night at Waterstones, but showed up against my better judgement and staved off the dark for just a little longer with Robert Frost.

On March 14, two days after the first social distancing measures had been implemented, Tony and I agonised over whether to support our favourite neighbourhood café one last time. We were their first customers when they opened a couple of years ago. They were empty on Saturday, so we went in and had one last breakfast, wished them well in the coming difficult times, and told them we would buy gift cards if they made them available online.

Little-by-Little Panic Buying

Since I was well ahead of the curve when it came to freaking out, I had the luxury of panic buying little-by-little with my normal shopping over the past several weeks. So when toilet paper, pasta, dried beans, and yes, hand sanitiser disappeared from the shelves, at least I didn’t have to panic again. After this is over Tony may even stop hassling me about filling the cupboards a little too much when stuff goes on sale.

But the thing I’m really grateful for is being lucky enough to be able to use some of those extra things to help out a couple of people who really needed stuff when it counted. Grocery store shelves should be back to normal soon, but let’s all keep making sure the vulnerable people around us can safely get supplies.

Online Everything

Tony works for a startup, and it’s not uncommon for them to work from home anyway, so he has been doing that for a week or so already. My university is still working to get things online, but grad school in history has to be one of the easiest transitions to working from home. Basically, I’ll just keep reading and writing and checking things out of the university’s vast online collection of books and articles. Now that the school is finally (hallelujah!) closed, they will help the kids set up their online learning environment tomorrow so that they can resume classes on Wednesday. And since my kids’ preferred state of being is staring at a screen, they are in no way disturbed at any of this.

One of my preferred ways of keeping in touch with people is over social media and WhatsApp anyway, so that hasn’t changed much either. I’ve actually been calling my mom a lot more often over the past few weeks. It’s been nice. I admit it is a little nerve-wracking to be on the other side of the world at a time like this (and my dad is a doctor! and my mom has asthma! and they’re both in their sixties!) but at least we can keep in touch. I’m really grateful for that.

We Are All In This Together

And speaking of keeping in touch, that might be my favourite thing about this whole epic disaster. We can be so close to each other virtually even while we keep our distance physically. There’s a camaraderie that comes from facing something scary together. Parents all over the world are trying to figure out how to effectively work from home while helping their kids do online school. We’re all dusting off those old yoga and home gym routines. People are taking out old recipes for cooking from scratch, dedicating time to creative projects, spending more time with the people who matter most.

In fact, I’d say that I’ve been feeling weirdly close to the human race lately. This virus demonstrates in a graphically uncomfortable way how connected we all are to each other, and how even small choices we make (washing your hands, anyone?) can literally save the lives not only of our neighbours, but of people across the world. We’ve certainly seen some of the worst of human nature coming out: hoarding, xenophobia, disregard for quarantine rules, etc. But we’ve also seen some of the best: people stepping up to shop for the vulnerable, health workers putting in heroic hours and efforts, and all those Italians out on their balconies serenading each other and the world.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What will we do with the time that is given us? Let’s hold our loved ones a little closer (physically or virtually). Let’s take extra care for the vulnerable groups in our communities. Let’s give ourselves and each other grace when we fall hopelessly short at work or parenting or relationships (which we surely all will in the coming days). Let’s be scrupulous about keeping the rules that will get us through this crisis. And let’s get through it all together.

P.S. A short list of the open-ended educational toys pictured:

P.P.S. For more photos of what we did in our studio apartment in Florence, you can take a look at our family website. It was a very difficult and stressful time, but looking back I can’t help but feel nostalgic. I hope we all make some wonderful memories during this time too.

What do you think?