Life in a Time of Pandemic: What is Normal?

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Before I get started, the usual caveat.  This post will be talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.  If that’s not something you are interested in thinking or reading about at the moment, please leave with my blessing.  I want my readers to take care of their mental health first and foremost.

I’m based in the US, where vaccines are fairly plentiful, and demand is fairly high to get them.  Yes, there are pockets of people who are suspicious, scared, or confused, who are choosing not to get vaccinated, but most people I know are doing so.  My entire family (whoa are old enough) have gotten the vaccine.  I’ve had my two doses, survived the side effects, and am now considered fully protected.  I even have a positive antibody test thanks to a recent blood donation, so I can attest to that part of the vaccine I got actually working.

I’m looking forward to being able to spend time with friends and family who are also vaccinated.  I’m looking forward to feeling safe going to the grocery store or doing other errands.  I’m even looking forward to going back to working in a physical office even though it means having a commute time again.

What I’m not looking forward to is the uncertainty, and the urge to go back to “normal” when that wasn’t a very great way for things to be.  I take public transit to work, so going back to the office means getting back on a public bus.  I’m more worried about that than I am any other part of returning to work.  I take an express regional route, so it’s mostly other commuters like me, who I expect are the kind of people who got vaccinated as soon as humanely possible.  But there are also students and other community members on the bus.  I don’t know if all of the other people on the bus with me will be vaccinated, which means I need to assume they aren’t.  That means masks will remain an important thing for my commute.  While the science so far indicates that I’m at a very low risk of catching or spreading the virus since I’m vaccinated, that chance isn’t zero.

This likely means that my normal is going to look a bit different from before.  I’m going to be taking a later bus into the office and a later bus home.  I’ll be working slightly outside the normal 8am-5pm business hours of my university staff job.  I’ll be eating dinner at the office those days.  The good news is that my boss is willing to be flexible, and knows about my concerns with the public transit and that I can’t afford to park on campus.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to because sitting in the car aggravates my back issue more than sitting on the bus does.  (I’m not sure how much I’ve talked about this on the blog, but I have a chronic back issue that causes numbness, tingling, or pain in various places down my leg when a nerve is pinches between my vertebrae.  Sitting is one of the worst things I can do for it.)

So work isn’t going back to normal for me.  My boss is planning for us all to start having some amount of work from home time regularly.  Something like one day a week.  I think that part is going to be quite nice.  Having one day a week (hopefully a regular day that I could then move around if I wanted) when I can not have meetings scheduled, and not have to commute, and be able to focus in on my projects and my own work and focus less on everyone else.

Thinking through the return to the office, and what that means for the routines and good habits I’ve developed over the past year, has me asking, once again, what normal is.

Normal is what we’re used to.  It’s seen as “average,” and it’s seen as desirable by most people (at least for their definition of normal).

Normal is not standard across all people, all cultures, all races, all economic strata, or any number of other demographics or group designations.

Normal is a human construct.

Normal isn’t what’s right, or just, or desirable for everyone.

Normal is what feels routine, familiar, and in many cases comfortable.

Even with all of that, I’m not entirely sure what normal means.  I know what normal used to be for me.  I know what normal is for me now.  I don’t know what normal is going to look like in a few more weeks, months, or even years.

Everyone is talking about getting back to normal, but I don’t want to go back to the normal we had before.  I want wearing a mask outside your house when you are sick to become normal and stay normal.  I want staying home when you are sick (and being paid to do so to encourage that) to be normal.  I want the flexibility and understanding that physical and mental health come first to be normal.

Normal right now looks so different from someone with a front-line essential job that can’t be done remotely.  Normal meant a year of risk, and frustration, and fear.  Normal meant a year of having to try to enforce the local guidelines to keep everyone safe when customers, coworkers, your boss, or any number of others weren’t following the guidelines and were being unsafe.

Normal for me, meant not going outside much, not seeing friends in person, spending a lot of time on Zoom calls for work and for socializing and fun.  Normal meant spending a lot more than 40 hours a week at my desk at home looking at computer screens.  Only 40 hours of it was work, but a lot of my outside of work things also happen on my computer, so there has been a lot of time at my desk, and I’ve had to work very hard to make mental distinctions between work time and not work time.

When restrictions about movement and travel have been lifted, and we figure out what normal looks like again, I hope it comes with clear lines between work and the rest of my time.  I hope I’ll continue to see my friends regularly.  I hope I’ll be able to find new ways to revive old things that I miss but can’t have back in quite the same way as they were before.

So much has changed internally for me over the past year, that I don’t want to go back to the exact same external reality we left when restrictions started in March 2020.  I want my society and culture to have learned from all this.  I want things to be better.

While I might only be able to control a very small amount of what my new normal looks like.  If I do everything I can to make it what I’m hoping for, then maybe I can get close.

Life in a Time of Pandemic: One Year Anniversary

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As with all posts that start with “Life in a Time of Pandemic,” this is going to be talking about my life, thoughts, and reflections on the current pandemic conditions and crisis, so if you aren’t in a space to want to read that, please leave with my blessing.  I don’t want these posts to be a stress on anyone else.

Writing and reflection go hand and hand for me, so as we have recently crossed the one-year mark with pandemic conditions, I wanted to take some time to think about where I’ve been and what the past year has been like.

It varied quite a bit when pandemic conditions started.  For my little corner of the world (North Carolina, USA) and specifically for the university I work for, pandemic conditions started in mid-March 2020.  We were all instructed to work from home if we could, spring break was extended for a week so faculty could redesign the second half of their courses to be delivered remotely, and masks and social distancing began to be encouraged and then mandated.

It’s now the end of March 2021.  So for more than a year, I’ve been wearing a mask whenever I’m out of my apartment and within six feet of other humans.  If I was going for a walk outside, I’d always bring a mask, but I usually didn’t put it on unless I was passing someone within six feet.  This should, in theory, mean that I’m at low risk of passing the virus to anyone or getting it passed to me.  Or so say those with epidemiology and fluid dynamics experience.  (For the purposes of physics, air is a fluid, if you weren’t aware.)

This meant a lot of changes in my life.  No more Sunday afternoons at my favorite café with my writing friends.  No more evenings at a friend’s place for D&D.  No more visits to family without serious planning for before and after.

Thankfully, there were a lot of online tools available for me to make adaptations to my usual routines.  My Sunday afternoon write-in moved from a café to my NaNo region’s discord server.  Roll20.net gave our D&D group an online space to play.  My work access to a paid Zoom account gave me the ability to host a weekly meet up of friends to replace the once-every-couple-months party another friend used to host.  For a lot of things, this works alright.  I’m still able to see and laugh with my friends on Friday nights.  I’m still able to get my Sunday writing in with those who join me on discord.  I’ve recently started having an hour long Zoom call with my parents every Wednesday.

For some things, not so much.  I was able to enjoy playing in and running some sessions of our D&D pseudo-campaign over the course of April through September.  Most of the group does NaNoWriMo, so we took a hiatus for October through December.  We started back up in January, and I realized that I could DM with about the same level of enjoyment, but that I struggled more to engage as a player.  I’m currently on a semi-hiatus from the group so that I don’t ruin anyone else’s fun.

Similarly, the online write-in doesn’t work for everyone.  A few of my favorite regulars from the in-person meet up don’t get the same things out of an online meet up, so they haven’t been coming and I miss them.  I totally get that it doesn’t work for everyone though.  I just hope we can get back to in person eventually and I can see them regularly again.  As an added future sadness, the café we used to meet at was one of three locations of a local café chain, and they’ve (possibly permanently) closed the two secondary locations, one of which was ours, so even when all this is over, we likely can’t go back to our favorite spot.

Seeing family became a logistical nightmare.  Things didn’t seem too bad for travel that summer, so after everyone quarantined at home for two weeks, my husband and I traveled to his parent’s house to spend a little over a week relaxing and hanging out with his family.  His sister was already there (as emergency help for training two poodle puppies) and her husband joined us a few days later.  It was really great to see family, especially since we hadn’t seen sister- and brother-in-law since the previous summer.  It was a chance to decompress and not worry about work and have a little time with the people we cared about.  Husband and I also quarantined for two weeks after that just to make sure if we picked something up in transit we didn’t spread it any further.  We’re all lucky and no one in the family has had any exposure due to that trip or since.

By the time the winter holidays came around, cases were on the rise and all the Thanksgiving travel spreading was becoming obvious, so we decided not to travel for the holidays.  We leveraged online tools again.  We spent a couple hours on Zoom calls with my mother’s side of the family on Christmas Eve, with my parents, sister, and niece the morning of Christmas, and with my husband’s family for nearly four hours later that day.  It was a reasonably good solution.  I’ve never seen that many of my relatives in so short a time before.  With an aunt in Washington state, an uncle in New York state, and the grandmother on that side in Florida, it’s rare to have that entire side of the family together all at once for any reason.  Similarly, my husband’s family is spread across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, so we usually only get together once or twice a year.  It wasn’t the most ideal holiday option, but with the risk of picking something up in transit, it was the safest option we had.

All that said, I’m still doing pretty well meeting my social needs.  I have a few friends who started Twitch Streaming recently, so that’s one way that I get in a little social time.  I’m also a member of several discord servers, some for in-real-life acquaintances and some for online-only communities.  These have given me a place to chat and talk and interact with others when I need it.  Between that, my weekly Friday Zoom with friends, Zoom meetings at work, and actually living with another human, I’m doing alright.  I don’t want this to be forever, but I can probably last another year without any significant issues with my ability to meet my social needs.

The pandemic has also led to some routine changes that have been beneficial.  I’ve realized having a consistent bedtime and wake up time all seven days of the week does amazing things for my quality of sleep and my general wellbeing.  So the habit of setting my work wake up alarm for every single day regardless of whether I’m working is going to follow me forever.  I sleep so much better, I get to sleep faster, and I wake up more reliably on-time.  It’s pretty amazing.  It also means my weekend days feel longer.  I’m not sleeping until noon and going to bed at midnight.  I’m waking up before six and going to bed around ten.  That’s consistently four additional hours of awake time, which means four more hours to read, game, craft, or get stuff done.  It’s been really great.

Being stuck at home with very few outside dining or entertainment expenses has also meant saving a bit of money in pandemic conditions.  We’re being more thoughtful and frugal with our grocery purchases as well.  Between that and consolidating out debt at the end of 2020 it’s put us in a better financial position going into 2021 than we’ve been in for five or ten years.  It feels really great, and with any luck that trend will continue past the end of the pandemic too.

I feel incredibly lucky that I’m doing so well in pandemic conditions.  I know the isolation can be depressing for many, the stress of working remotely grates on others, and the overall stress about the world as a whole can be downright oppressive.  I’m able to insolate myself from a lot of this and rely on my partner to filter the general news and world happenings into times and places when I can deal with it, and I don’t find the isolation of working from home and social distances as stressful or depressing as some do.

As we sit here at the one-year mark with vaccines on the market and plans for distributing them as quickly as can be managed, I’m hopeful.  I know the distribution plans aren’t necessarily going as well as planned everywhere and different places are doing better or worse than others, but the vaccines exist, and they are getting to people.  My state is actually doing pretty well.  They keep opening the next phase early because they’re filling appointments and getting vaccines out fast.  It means that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  There will be a time after, and we’ll be able to redefine what normal is (because it’s not going to ever be quite like it was before), and we’ll be able to move forward again.

But for now, we just have to keep going and keep our spirits up as we wait in the interminable time between before and after.  I hope that we can use the time to improve and to be better and to think about ways that the After Times can be better than the Before Times.  Being able to redefine what normal means is an opportunity to make normal better for everyone.

December Goals

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NaNoWriMo has officially come to a close.  I now have to remember what normal life is supposed to look like.  (I use the term normal very loosely here.)

Step One:

Continue writing every day.  I only missed one day in October, and I didn’t miss any days in November, so I’m going to write every day of December too and I’m joining an accountability buddies group for writing every day of 2021 in addition to signing up for GYWO again.  I’m looking forward to prioritizing my writing again in a more intentional way.

Step Two:

Get back into my normal routine.  Work during work hours on weekdays, goof off in the evenings, and change up the routine a bit on weekends.  Sunday write-ins will continue to be a thing in my life even if they have been virtual since March.  I’ll add some additional writing time Sunday nights with a writing Twitch stream my friend does.  I might try to set up a regular night for gaming with friends in whatever form that takes.

Step Three:

Goals.

I’d like to try to get enough of the story I’m working on strung together into something with a plot to move forward with the idea as a whole.  There are romance plots, intrigue plots, social tension plots, and maybe an overarching revolution of class structure in society plot, but I need to make sure enough scenes pull on the threads of a given plot to make it work developing.  That’s the part I want to spend time on in December that’s not just about drafting.  I need to do some reorganization and flagging of sections by character and timeline details.  The thing stretches across at least four years now and that’s a bit unwieldy.

I’d also like to work on a few other projects.  I have two sewing projects I’d like to at least start.  One is a pattern I cut out last December that I’d like to finish before the end of the year just so it doesn’t go into a second year.  I also have a project for my mother that’s years late that I should be working on.  Not necessarily in time for Christmas but I need to start working on the silver cloth covers for her various silver things.

I have the family’s collection of slides (the photo kind) and a scanner capable of very nice scans from slides, so I’m working on that and want to at least get the chunk with my sister’s first Christmas done before Christmas.  It’s been fun seeing all the pictures so far, so I’d like to continue chipping away at this project until it’s done (maybe by next Christmas).

What are your December goals?  Any writing, crafting, or productivity you plan to work on this month?

Life in a Time of Pandemic: The First Few Weeks

Grilled cheese on homemade bread.
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If you’ve heard more than enough about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus and need a break, please stop here and go find something else to enjoy.  I know that hearing too much about it all can get overwhelming, and I’m not in the least offended if people need to take that break.  If you see a similarly titled post in the future, you can feel welcome to not even click through, because it will also be a virus related post and I want all my readers to take care of themselves mentally and physically during this crisis.

That said, one of my personal coping mechanisms is to write.  Whether that’s a fictional version of myself getting out of a crap situation, a happy story to make me feel better, or working out my thoughts “on paper.”  Writing is how I manage a lot of things in my life, from planning to my emotional and mental wellbeing.  So today, I wanted to share a little of the writing I’ve been doing to think through and process the situation we all find ourselves in. Continue reading

Life is a Balancing Act: Self-Reflection

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Last week I talked about time, and this week I wanted to spend a bit of that time on some self-reflection and what that means for me and for balance in my life.

So what do I do with that last 10 hours that’s my truly free, unscheduled, not normally filled time?

I’d like to say that I spend it sewing or making jewelry or doing more writing.  In reality, it probably ends up being additional TV time a lot, at least lately.  I checked my Get Your Words Out habit tracking spreadsheet, and I’m actually averaging a little over 21 hours a month on various writing projects, be that novels, fanfic, editing, blog posts, or what have you.  So That’s a solid 1-4 hours a month that I’m spending on writing above and beyond the 17 I did this past month for Camp NaNoWriMo.  That’s almost half my free hours on average, but there are still other things I want to do, other priorities I want to set in my life. Continue reading

Life is a Balancing Act: Time

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I balance things in my life and it seems like everything in life can be boiled down to a balancing act.

You hear a lot about work life balance these days, which I think is misnamed.  It’s important to strike a balance between your work life and the rest of the things you want and need to do, but work is still part of your life.  A big part.  And there are a lot of other parts too.  Time with family and friends, time doing things you love, time alone, time taking care of yourself, pets, and others.  There’s a lot to balance.  So I wanted to take some time to look at how I balance things in my life right now. Continue reading

Continual Discovery

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own identity and how I’m always discovering new things about myself.  When you’re in high school and college, it seems to be expected that you will be making these kinds of discoveries all the time and constantly learning and growing as a person.  I think it’s quite sad that our society doesn’t really acknowledge that this process never ends.

I haven’t been very intentional about my personal discovery since finished graduate school.  I had it in my head that I knew who I was and that’s who I was going to be.  Not so much.

Over the past few years I’ve discovered a lot about myself.  None of this is earth shattering.  None of this really changed how I live, but it’s given me some insight into who I am and why I am the way I am. Continue reading

The Importance of Breaks

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It’s been a very busy time at work for me lately, and that leads to an internal pressure to keep up with everything and not let myself get behind or have to ask for support to complete my work.  This is problematic in itself, that I am driven to appear perfect and able to keep up even when I can’t.  That’s something I’m working on.  And one way I’m doing that involves breaks.

I am fortunate in that I work at a university with a culture that generally supports work/life balance.  I also work in a department full of amazing people that’s housed under a department run by an amazing dean who really cares about how we’re doing.  This means that I’m discouraged from working late, working through lunch, or generally over-working myself.  They want me to have time to rest and recharge.

I’ve been either skipping my lunch break or taking a much shorter one the past couple weeks as I try to stay on top of everything during my busiest time of year.  Yes, it’s weird for a university employee to be busiest over the summer, but my role is a bit backward that way.  I have been eating lunch, my body wouldn’t let me get away with skipping meals, but I haven’t been taking that time to step away from work and think about something else for a while like I usually do.

Breaks are important for your brain.  And not just long ones like your lunch break or not thinking about work overnight.  There’s science to support that small breaks, like watching a funny cat video or taking a short walk, are good for your brain.  A lot of the advice I get as a writer about how to get past a block involves a short break like a snack or a walk. Continue reading

Keeping the Faith

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It’s been a very troubling time for the US, and for the world really, this past year or so.  Not that the world and the country didn’t have plenty of problems before then, but for me, and for many others, things feel as if they have gotten much worse in recent months.

So today I wanted to talk a little bit about how I’ve been keeping the faith and what I mean by that.  Keeping the faith doesn’t have anything to do with religion the way I’m using it today.  Keeping the faith can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so I want to lay out what I mean before I get into how I’m doing it right now.

I have faith in a lot of things in my life.  I have faith that electricity will keep flowing through the power grid.  I have faith that I’ll make it through the day.  I have faith in the institutions that I rely on every day.  I have faith that my husband, my family, and my friends will still be around and still care for me.  I have faith in my country.  So when I say, keeping the faith, I mean retaining that faith that the world will keep turning, things will keep happening, and that life will go on (mostly) uninterrupted.

It may be a little idealistic and simplistic, but I believe that the world is going to continue to get better, and when it looks like that isn’t how things are going, it can shake my faith in not just this belief, but a lot of other things as well, and that means I’m not doing so well at keeping the faith.

Here is how I combat that: Continue reading

2016: Year in Review

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2016 has felt like an incredibly long year.  In its defense, I’ve done a lot this year.  However, not all of 2016 was good things, so today I just wanted to take some time to review my year and think about how far I’ve come (or not) in different areas.

We’ll start with a few work things that really colored my year. Continue reading