By Christine Gunderson
Our topic this month is fall, and getting back into a routine, going back to ‘normal life.’
I’m still not living anything resembling a normal life and you probably aren’t either. I have a reoccurring dream where I’m standing in the middle of a shopping mall surrounded by people and suddenly realize I’m not wearing a mask.
This is the 2020 equivalent of the dream where you suddenly realize you aren’t wearing clothes, or the dream where you show up to take a test, the test you need to graduate, and realize that not only did you fail to attend a single class, but that you didn’t even know you were in the class.
When August rolled around this year, it came without its usual accoutrements. No annual trip to Target with the school supply list. No expedition to Costco for pretzels and Goldfish for the lunch boxes. No first day of school picture in front of the iconic red brick building. Instead, we logged into Zoom.
We could choose between a full-time in-person option and a full-time virtual option. We chose virtual. This means I have regressed backward down the professional ladder and I am now an intern, for my children.
I make photocopies and fetch documents from the printer. I provide tech support when people are inexplicably kicked off Zoom. I’m the lunch lady, heating up the frozen pizza at noon and the janitor, emptying the pencil sharpeners at night.
This is not the career path I outlined for myself when I left college, but here I am. The rhythm of a thousand Septembers has been interrupted, and we’ve entered the academic Twilight Zone, going to school in our bedrooms and sleeping in our classrooms.
But guess what? There are compensations. There’s a grey-ish, faintly metallic lining to our September Covid cloud.
First, my kids have three different lunch breaks. They come down to the cafeteria/kitchen and then we have actual conversations, one-on-one. I hear about world history or creative writing or the horrors of cursive. When they’ve decimated the pantry with locust-like efficiency, they go back upstairs to ‘school.’ We all get a break from each other, but we’re still here together. It’s nice. Really nice, actually.
Second, I no longer live in my car. When my children were in school in person, I had to be in the carpool line every day, come hell, high water, or traffic accidents on the Beltway. Now I don’t have to be anywhere in person. I’m amazed at how relaxed I feel without this daily deadline hanging over my head.
Third, I can do things I never had time to do before. I’ve always wanted to try painting. I guess it’s another way to fulfill my writerly need to get all the pictures inside my head down on paper. It was too daunting to attempt a class before, because of kid activities, driving and finding parking. But last night I did my first Zoom watercolor painting class. It was relaxing to do something with my hands and use a different part of my brain. I sat in my house with my supplies and learned to be creative in a whole new way.
The same silver lining applies to writing workshops. My local RWA chapter used to meet in person in what I’m pretty sure was the single, most inconvenient location in the DC metro area. Now we’re having workshops and meetings on Zoom and they’re fantastic. I can participate again, because I no longer have to be there in person.
Finally, because we are able to do more at home and less in person, we see our activities as things we get to do, instead of things we have to do. My son’s high school is hybrid. In the Before Times he had to go to school in person five days a week. Now he gets to go to school in person three days a week. The very few safe activities we still have are now privileges instead of obligations.
I recognize that I can see a silver lining because we are fortunate enough to be healthy and employed when so many others are not. But the loss of a normal school year and a normal fall routine is hard for everyone, especially for our teachers who bear the burden of making it all work, and for kids and their parents.
In addition to my job as an intern and creating very bad watercolor paintings, I’ve been doing re-search for a book set during World War II. Every document I read is a powerful reminder that even the very worst of times eventually ends.
Our epoch of suffering will pass into history too, and when it does, I hope I’ll remember these faint streaks of silver etched across it.
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher.