F irst, a pop loud as gunfire. Then, burning rubber. Then, margaritas, jalapeño salsa, gossip, chairs scraping far less than six feet apart.
I’ve made the mistake of trying to ride my hundred-dollar, salvaged-from-old-parts bike up a pothole-ridden Shelby Avenue. My back tire and tube have fully exploded in front of Cinco de Mayo, a local townie-vibe restaurant that’s happily shirking a few too many COVID guidelines. The obnoxious pop of my tire brings people out of their nearby houses, searching for the source. Guilt floods my throat, but I don’t dare cough.
I begin a slow walk to the nearby bike shop, my broken bike in tow. The tube’s come loose, wrapping itself around the gears and skidding the back tire to a halt, splooting right there on the pavement, unmoving. Forcing me to drag it as it bumps along and slows me down. Like dragging roadkill home to roast.
As long as I get into bed before five a.m., I’ve lied to myself every night, then it’s fine. The infinite scroll and blue light from hours of existing on my phone have been making me nauseous, but like everyone else, I can’t stop, because once I’ve stopped, I’ll be alone, awake, in my silly little brain, in my silly little room, in my silly little house, again, god forbid.
Time passes silently and then loud as gunfire. All of a sudden, October. Time froze in March but moves effortlessly through me like water carving limestone.
The predictable tides of each day get less and less so. Who cares if the sun is out? Who cares if I have a “job”? Who cares? It’s five a.m., I’ve been up all night, get off my back, I have a life to live! Leave me alone while I sit in my room in the dark, living my life.
The same thing over and over. The smallness of our sequestered little bubbles: is this it? The hubris—the guilt, the shameless arrogance—of expecting anything more than mundaneness just because the world out there is on fire. We’re lucky for that mundaneness; we should be kissing the ground for not buckling underneath our feet when we get out of bed. We’re lucky to see the sunrise, even if from the other side of the morning.
My bike sounds increasingly like a train screeching to a halt because the conductor saw someone on the tracks. It sputters and spits and whines as I drag and drag and man this thing is heavy and then come to an inevitable halt. I try and lift the back while walking, but either I’m really weak or this bike is really heavy.
The heaviness. My mind drifts to it, as always. I’ve never been so acutely aware—painfully so—of all this empty space. The space between what was and what could be. Of how fragile our future is, how unreal it all can feel…how the past can feel unpredictable even though it already happened.
We know that isolation messes with time. I had no idea it could mess with space, too. One of those things you can’t know until you try, I suppose. And like everything else in our woefully economically striated society (that our dear leaders do precious little to address), it hits the most vulnerable the hardest. Leading scientists write it in the November 2020 Lancet editorial bluntly:
People with salaried jobs are far less likely to be affected [by COVID disruptions] than those with informal, daily wage jobs, which include a substantial proportion of the workforce in lower-income countries….Years of underinvestment in mental health, especially in low-income and middle-income countries, have left us vulnerable.
As the space between economic silos widens, our mental healthcare gap continues to crush those at the bottom. And that’s just the macro. The micro is us: you and me, just individuals, just kids, really, trying to stay afloat one long isolated day at a time. It doesn’t feel real, but it feels painfully real all at once. It has to be real, right? Is trauma too aggressive a word? Too melodramatic? Calm down, I tell myself, fruitlessly. Yale Medicine psychoanalyst Steven Marans tell us this pandemic is a veritable trauma, in a way—a real threat we can’t see until it hits us, one with no end in sight. He explains:
When people feel threatened or their lives are altered in major, unwanted, and unanticipated ways, communication between the prefrontal cortex (the executive center of the brain) and the amygdala (the emotional processing center) may be disrupted. This leads to the production of stress hormones that can cause distress in the body, as well as the mind.
But you don’t need a doctor to tell you that. It’s in our bones, in our shaky hands, our heavy mind, that space behind our sinuses that leaks hot gooey air when we’re panicking. Caked in the jargon or not, it’s real. It’s real, I promise myself.
Naturally, healthcare workers are hard hit by the COVID psychological toll. A comprehensive UN policy brief from this past May indicates that a whopping 47% of Canadian healthcare workers reported a need for psychological support due to the mental toll of the pandemic. Nearly half! I’m a healthcare worker, I thought. But I’m not Canadian.
There’s space, ever-expanding space in the long present, one that has no end as long as the future is this uncertain. One that gets longer with each night I convince myself it’s fine that I stay up until five, six, seven a.m.—because we all make our own realities these days, right? Has that corner of the living room always looked so empty? Were fall afternoons always this quiet outside, always this loud inside my head?
Continuing towards the bike shop, I feel my nose running and the urge to cough from behind my sweaty surgical mask. Oh god. Oh fuck. Is this….it? Do I have COVID? Is this really it? Then the urge goes away and I roll my eyes at myself for being so damn dramatic.
These days, doing the daily stuff—ride bike, make coffee, wash sheets, whatever—it feels like doing the dishes when your kitchen’s on fire. Maybe we wake up after one p.m. every day, knowing full well that our fragile mental health is draining like lava out our ears, but pay no mind, because it happens while we’re sleeping.
“You know your depression and OCD get worse when you go to bed late and wake up late,” my therapist reminds me. Yeah, yeah. She says, “things are just going to suck sometimes.” Well why bother? “Because it’s not about measuring the moments of suckiness versus the ones of joy and making them fight,” she promises. “It’s about indulging in the latter so much that the former becomes neutral, or you learn from it, you learn to accept those moments.” I don’t know. Sounds fake.
I know she’s right. Therapy isn’t going to give me the meaning of life or anything, but my therapist can at least make me feel less alone in navigating it. Her voice holds smoke from twenty years ago and her questions sometimes hit me like a turbulent plane at lift-off: “Can you at least try to get curious? Notice your thoughts. Just notice them—”
“But I ruminate! I perseverate! I analyze! That’s all I do. All I do is think and that’s why I’m like this,” I complain. I wish my voice held decades of stories and the inner peace of all this self-work like hers, but instead it holds a few years of screaming along to emo music and exactly one Black & Mild from a party in 2011.
“Curiosity is different from obsession, Meredith.” I don’t know how she maintains composure around my whining. She continues: “Don’t force an explanation, but get curious about your thoughts. Investigate gently. That’s a start. But you can’t do it if you’re living on an upside down schedule, Meredith. You need to get a handle on your sleep.”
The downside of my “schedule,” if you can call it that, is that I get such a shamefully late start every day—I’m only going to get to the bike shop with a half hour to spare, if that. I move faster, but not totally sure if I’m heading in the right direction.
As the world “out there” devolved into chaos, we sequestered, which was necessary, undeniably vital. Simultaneously, we created insular bubbles with enough energy for two weeks that became two months that’s becoming a year, and the uncertainty seeps in. The antidote? Staying home and slowing down, while “out there” is moving blindingly fast. We watch our “leaders” fumble in the dark and reject basic science in a dizzying display of incompetence; we realize it’s truly up to us, so we want to do something, but there’s nothing we can do except stay home.
In fact, I begin to wish I were at home instead of dragging my corpse of a bicycle through East Nashville’s unforgivingly rough pavement, passing historic site after historic site scrapped for mid-rise blocky apartments made of cardboard. I feel like I’m going in circles. Maybe I really am crazy; maybe it’s all a mirage.
The Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that over half of Americans reported being negatively psychologically impacted by COVID by July—and now it’s fall. Circles and more circles. The CDC has their list of hard-and-fast mental-health-during-COVID resources, the WHO has theirs, and it may be worth casting cynicism aside for a goddamn millisecond to just take it in, I plead with my nihilism: Reach out to people. Make a routine, no matter how simple. Get sleep, not too much or too little. Find the tiniest thing that brings you joy, no matter how minuscule, and do it over and over, no matter how many circles you feel like you’re running in. It won’t cure you, or maybe it will, but it’s about staying afloat.
Maybe—maybe—it’s about accepting that the only certainty is uncertainty? Easier said than done. And when even the mundane things start to seem alien, when our little sequestered realities get more and more dissociated from the “out there” reality, sometimes you just need something to reassure you that all of it is real, as real as the Tennessee summer pavement can fry an egg.
I could have sworn the bike shop was on the corner of 19th and Shelby. But it’s not. I keep dragging. My phone is dead, whatever. I’ll find the shop eventually. I swear people are staring at me from their backyards because this broken bike is so loud.
When quarantine itself gets gentrified by the white Instagram yogis, you realize everyone around you is being “productive,” and what does that even mean when the world is ending? Why do I have to produce? You expect me to produce on top of existing? Oh no, I’m not cut out for this.
The need to be “productive,” whatever that means, used to loom over me daily. The more I’ve dissected the word, the more I’ve realized we’re victims to it rather than loyal followers—the more I’ve realized it doesn’t really mean anything at all. All bite, no teeth.
But the urge is still real. You pray if you’re the praying type, and wish you were if you’re not. (I’m not.) So you bike. You ride your damn bike, bake your damn bread, make your damn coffee, or get around to it eventually, because the hours blend together and time is flat now, or maybe it always was and we’re just now finding out.
There’s a word for this, right? Ennui? No, that’s not it. That’s too pretentious, too French. Sonder? That thing where you realize you’re just an extra in the movie of everyone else’s lives? No, not quite. Something like that though. Something we can’t put our fingers on because by the time we do it’s floated away.
Dragging my bike—the burning rubber about to set on fire, I swear—I pass a bunch of dying sunflowers in this older guy’s front yard. I used to bike past this guy’s house all the time, but I guess I changed my route. I thought those flowers would never die, and here they are, dying all along. Each one at least ten feet tall. Brilliant stalks with wilting bits of yellow on top—
“You okay?” the guy asks from his yard. I hadn’t even noticed he was there. He has this leathery smile. He’s wearing the longest khaki shorts on earth and a grey University of Michigan t-shirt so faded that you can barely make out the lettering. I think it says “Where’s the Michigan party?” and “Class of ‘78” below the logo.
“Oh, yeah! My back tire just exploded,” I reply.
“You need a tube?”
“Probably, and a new tire, and my gears are kinda shot—so don’t worry! I’m going to the shop over there now,” I explain, gesturing down the street.
“Okay then! Have a good one!”
Even if he has the gear, I don’t want to waste his time.
These days, it feels more apt to measure time in things missed. On Rosh Hashanah this year, I stayed home, not wanting to risk travel. I swear, my house that day—nearly a thousand miles away from my grandma’s—smelled a lot like her kugel. I swear I could feel the heat of the candles. I swear I could hear my dad, who suddenly gets comically religious twice a year, chanting in Hebrew like a Hasid in Williamsburg. I swear I could hear the TV playing NBC’s Dateline in the background, a staple at my grandparents’. I swear, nothing feels real these days, and I find myself questioning if any of it ever existed because the “old normal” feels so alien. Sometimes an absence is more potent than a presence.
There’s the “out there” chaos, then the buffer that is our quarantine worlds, and then the “inner chaos”—the one that thrives in isolation, in abstraction from what’s “out there.” Those two chaoses used to be more aligned, I think, when I wasn’t so abstracted from the “out there.” Now, I’m not so sure. There’s comfort in that in-between space, hominess in the buffer. Like driving on the highway towards mountains that never seem to materialize, they just keep moving, one step ahead.
God, it feels like the more steps I take towards the bike shop, the farther I get. I’m just about ready to dump this thing on the street and walk home. Maybe Michigan guy will find it, take it under his wing, plant it in his yard, nurture it better than I could, let it grow like his flowers.
I pause and actually consider this. Instead, I keep walking (dragging).
This space between the past and the future seemingly keeps growing. Meanwhile, I’m stuck on this unending road with a broken bike, the past looming back there, the future impossibly unreachable, because I’m stuck here, in the long present, the never-ending space between what was and what could be, choosing to despair in it, saying wait, so this….this everyday stuff….this is it?
Fine: maybe this is it. Or maybe…this is it, and we should revel in it, because we get the privilege of getting intimate with something ephemeral. I’d never seen slowness up close, mundaneness under a microscope. Like seeing a butterfly too close and realizing it’s just a bug. But—and bear with me here—maybe the more you look at that bug, you can find beauty in it? And if not, well, that’s fine—the bug, it just exists. And that’s enough. Maybe it’s kind of freeing, realizing that that’s enough. Step by baby step over the torn-up pavement, we truly do have the agency to decide what we make of things—isn’t that wild? No need to make something out of nothing, after all. We don’t have to be alchemists here.
Finally! The beautiful bike shop materializes around the corner. It’s on 15th, not 19th. Oh thank god, Janet is working today. She’s the sweetest. I can sense her smile from behind her mask—one of those smiles that emanate warmth and safety—and feel immediately guilty for arriving so close to the shop’s closing time.
“Janet! Hi! Thank god. Oh—sorry, are you available right now? No worries if not. But check out my back tire and tube! Completely busted. I have no idea what happened. Maybe I overfilled it,” I say, exasperated, sweating through my mask.
“Oh no! Yeah, no worries, we’re slow today, so I’ll take care of that right now,” Janet says, angel of angels, taking the raggedy pile of metal trash off my hands.
I try not to smile too big with my mask on because I hate the feeling of my lips and teeth touching the inside of my mask—that can’t be safe, right?—but just now, in this little frivolous moment inside this long, never-ending present, I can’t help it.
If you are struggling with your mental health during COVID-19, here is a comprehensive list of resources provided by the National Institute of Mental Health.